Blog | Mike O'Toole 08.21.17

Taking on Taboos: How Allstate, Amazon, and Corning Succeed by NOT Playing it Safe

There have always been taboos in marketing. When the Scott Paper Company invented toilet paper in 1890, they didn’t even want to market such an unmentionable under their own name. But Taboos aren’t just an old-timey problem. Every industry has its conventional wisdom, and it’s not-supposed-tos. Great marketers find and upend industry conventions because the point of marketing is to get noticed, not to play it safe. In this second installment in our “Marketing Gaps” series, Mike O’Toole and Hugh Kennedy talk about taboos—both out in the market and inside our own companies—that hold us back. We tell the stories of marketers who successfully question the norms in their industries, and share a little advice about how you can turn the tables on taboos in your category.

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Mike O'Toole:

[00:00:30]
The Scott Paper Company invented perforated toilet paper in 1890. Now, this is just when indoor plumbing was taking off, so great timing. The problem is, you couldn't exactly talk publicly about such a product at the time. The Scott brothers had this idea, they would private label their invention to hotels and other companies so you had toilet paper from a Waldorf, and The Ritz, and 2,000 other companies. Scott brothers just didn't want to be associated with something like toilet paper. Even when they decided to market under the Scott's name in early 1900's, it was marketed more as a medicinal product.

[00:01:00]
Now, taboos aren't just an old timey problem. Every industry has its conventional wisdom, and it's not supposed to's. Great marketers find and take on this conventional wisdom because the point of marketing is to get noticed, not to mitigate risk. Great marketing opportunities exist at the intersection of gaps, which are really unmet needs in the market. And assets, which are the things you're great at, that your competitors aren't.


I'm Mike O'Toole, president of PJA. I'm here with Hugh Kennedy who heads a planning fee agency. Today we're taking on taboos.

[00:01:30]
At PJA we find new gaps for our clients by breaking it down into ruts, taboos, and blind spots. You can check out our episode on ruts on our website, and we'll take on blind spots next. Now, taboos aren't just for toilet paper and other bodily functions. Take insurance advertising. Protecting against risk is a sobering business. For a long time the conventional wisdom was that insurance advertising should play it straight. The not supposed to's were that ads shouldn't talk about things actually going wrong, like people misbehaving, or misfortune, or acts of God. Nevermind that these are exactly why we buy insurance.


[00:02:00]
Geico and their CMO Ted Ward questioned that, and he gave us some of our most memorable advertising characters including the caveman, and the gecko. Geico went from a fringe discounter to a major presence in the market, in part based on those campaigns. Lots of other companies followed suit, including the Tier One underwriters. Allstate's Mayhem is a great example of that kind of campaign.

Speaker 2:

[00:02:30]
I'm your tailgate grill. Your buddy was in such a rush to get into the game, he didn't quite put me out. I see you bought the industrial size bottle of lighter fluid. Get an Allstate Agent and be better protected by Mayhem.

Mike O'Toole:
These are memorable campaigns because they're based in truths.

Speaker 2:
Like me.

Mike O'Toole:
I mean we're human, we're all going to be foolish, and suffer misfortune, and we can all use a little hedge against this, which is why we buy insurance. That's insurance, and Hugh, give us taboos out there in the world that companies ought to be taking on.

Hugh Kennedy:

[00:03:00]
I think a big one Mike, is around banking. I think it turned a lot of heads, and surprised a lot of people that a 2016 federal bank reserve study found that nearly half of American's said that if they were hit with an unexpected $400 expense, they would either have to sell something, or borrow the money.

Mike O'Toole:
Yeah, it's incredible.

Hugh Kennedy:

[00:03:30]
That's a big shock, and it's something that banks just are not dealing with. It's a taboo to even suggest that people might be living from paycheck to paycheck. It's a big missed opportunity, and I think one of the things that came out of this whole financial crisis in 2008 that was most interesting to me was a book called, "The Unbanking of America." Where a university professor named Lisa Servon went to work as a teller at a check cashing business. She worked at a Payday Lender in Oakland California. She looked at informal lending clubs, and what she found is that a lot of entrepreneurial companies were rushing into fill this unbanking vacuum. And that banks used to be essential pillars of our lives.

[00:04:00]
We can't really count on them anymore a lot of the times to do right by us. That's an example I think of a taboo that has worked out not so well for the banks, but it's still something that shows a gap that I think any bank in the market could fill.

Mike O'Toole:
Especially when they have charters, community banks have charters to meet the broader financial needs of their communities.

Hugh Kennedy:
Yeah, that's right.

Mike O'Toole:


[00:04:30]
By the way I was interested to see how Amazon Prime, totally different categories, addressing this same truth. They're offering discounter Prime memberships to people who are on government assistance. You're on government assistance, you can get Prime for 5.99 a month versus 10.99 for the rest of us. I think they're recognizing that same gap and taboo.

Hugh Kennedy:
Yep, super smart.

Mike O'Toole:
So there's a whole other category of taboos that are self imposed, and think about these as internal taboos. They're born out of things like branding guidelines. Hugh, remember we worked on that software company. I won't name the name, who was an innovator in open source. They told us at one point that they were forbidding the use of open in their marketing.

Hugh Kennedy:
Right.

[00:05:00]
Mike O'Toole:

Nevermind that research showed that open was the primary thing that market associated them with.

Hugh Kennedy:


[00:05:30]
Right, and that brings to mind another former client in the data storage space that was trying to put together a program to hit midsize companies. They were doing everything possible to avoid using the word, "Midsize," because they thought it was condescending, they thought it was trying to put these midsize companies in a corner, and it was all kind of brand police craziness. In the mean time you've got IBM coming out with a program called, "Midsize Insider," which becomes for a time, their greatest revenue generator. They got beyond that taboo to their benefit.

Mike O'Toole:
Yeah, and I think people like plain speech, right? You don't have to use euphemisms. We know what small, and we know what medium sized means.

Hugh Kennedy:

[00:06:00]
Yep. I think another interesting taboo is this point about humor, and it extends not only to insurance, but also to life science advertising. That's something that I've been involved in for a long time here, and it really is interesting to watch the way that people avoid humor. They're just painful utilitarian in the way they talk about their technology. They aren't funny when they're talking to scientists, or they do it in a way that shows they just don't understand the audience.


[00:06:30]

[00:07:00]
But if you get beyond that taboo and create something humorous that speaks to them from their world, marketing to scientists in this way can be hugely successful. Two quick examples. One is the Buyer Ed PCR Song Video, which is about something as arcane as a technology to multiply your DNA into millions of copies very quickly. To spoof on the, "We are the World" video, with a full kind of studio production, and it's had nearly two million views online. (Singing).

Mike O'Toole:
That was a great example.

Hugh Kennedy:

[00:07:30]
Yep, and closer to home, our own client Corning Life Sciences, we did a campaign that was based on the fact that we knew what was going on in scientists heads because we talked to them. It was about all the crazy superstitious things that they do when trying to grow cells. Some of which were truly funny, and we've never shown that reel, part of that reel to any of our prospects and not gotten a lot of laugh out louds. It's just true to life.

Mike O'Toole:


[00:08:00]
Well, and I think that's a really important point. You could generalize and say, "Marketers and B to B generally are hesitant to use emotion." They think the decisions are serious, and fact based, and people like scientists or engineers are serious people. But B to B buying is very personal. This is quantified in that corporate executive board study called, "From Promotion to Emotion." That I really love to reference.

Hugh Kennedy:
Yep.

Mike O'Toole:

[00:08:30]
When you look at the level of emotional connection to brands, and this is something they studied. It's heavily skewed towards B to B. 60 to 70% of customers say they are emotionally connected to brands like Cisco, or Accenture, or Oracle. If you look at McDonald's, and Target, and some other consumer brands, it's more like 10 to 20%. Now, this may seem counterintuitive but it makes a lot of sense when you think about stakes. The stakes, the sense of personal risk is very high with big B to B purchases. That makes sense that the emotional connection to the brand would also be high.

Hugh Kennedy:
Yep.

[00:09:00]
Mike O'Toole:


[00:09:30]

The point of marketing is to stand out. If you find that your market is talking about something, and companies in your category aren't addressing it, there's some taboo around it, jump in the fray. I promise you, you'll stand out. Now, one other point I'll make about taboos and other category conventions, is that they're most often taken on by challengers. Let's face it, most of us are challengers. If you market based on the term set by the leader, which is the way it happens in so many categories, like the reason that everyone in technology wanted a blue logo for such a long time is that IBM has one. If you do this you'll end up spending your money to promote the category leader.


Hugh, what other advice do you have?

Hugh Kennedy:

[00:10:00]


[00:10:30]
Well, in the same way that blind spots, and ruts are gaps in the market that you can use to your advantage, taboos are as well. Ask yourself a couple of questions. Are there any norms, or are there shared assumptions that are found in marketing and the kind of conversation, your category, that you could get beyond? Are there things you've always wanted to say in your marketing, but you feel like your legal department won't let you? And. Are there change agent buyers you really want to reach who could really become advocates for you and your products who would love to hear a certain argument, a certain kind of approach from a brand in your category, but think they probably never will? I mean that's exactly where you need to be going, and need to be thinking in order to break out.

Mike O'Toole:
That's taboos. We're going to talk about blind spots next time. I'm Mike O'Toole.

Hugh Kennedy:
I'm Hugh Kennedy.

Mike O'Toole:
Thanks for listening. (Singing).

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