Lateral Thinking In Brand Marketing

In the UK, there are several price comparison sites for services such as car or house insurance. How can they differentiate themselves? Brand marketing offers tremendous scope for lateral thinking.

One of the most well known brands is The entirety of its branding, messaging and advertising is posited on one ridiculously obscure piece of lateral thinking – that customers might confuse the words ‘market’ and ‘meerkat’ and so search for All of the marketing messages contain annoyingly squeaky meerkat characters. The company has registered the domain, and sure enough it gets many visitors.

Lateral thinking involves approaching problems from fresh directions. Instead of doing the routine, logical thing, you come at the problem from the side – which is what lateral means. Some of the key elements of lateral thinking are:

  • Challenging all the assumptions that surround a situation
  • Asking very basic questions
  • Deliberately adopting a different point of view
  • The use of random inputs to displace your thinking

Essential components of any brand strategy are the brand message, the target audience and the media for communicating the message and reaching the customer. For each of these components, the marketing professional makes assumptions, and these assumptions must constantly be challenged.

Ask the very basic questions. Who buys our product and why do they buy it? The most obvious answers may no longer be true. Wonderbra in their internal communication to staff say this, ‘We do not sell underwear. We do not sell lingerie. What we sell is self-confidence for women.’ Of course why customers buy your products and services may be different for different customers at different times. You have to discover the real reasons why people do or do not buy your product in order to envisage new opportunities and threats.

Lateral thinking can help you turn a product weakness into a strength, by emphasising a different point of view. A pint of Guinness takes longer to pour than most beers, and while this might seem like a weakness, Guinness’ advertising focused on this slow pouring and the anticipation of the drink with their ‘great things come to those who wait’ slogan. Similarly, Heinz employed a campaign that implied runny ketchup was lower quality, as their own ketchup is more viscous and slower to pour than others.

Zappos had a problem with long wait times on their customer service help lines. So they employed jovial hosts and creative introductions. For example on Halloween you hear: ‘Trick or treat, smell my feet, Zappos Customer Service can’t be beat. Hi, my name is Amber I’ll be hosting today’s daily greeting on this spooky October 31st.” Plus, every call ends with, “Press 4 to hear Zappos Joke of the Day” and their employees tell you a joke. Zappos turned the traditional problem of the helpline queue into a word of mouth marketing success.

We live in a society where people are quick to take offense, so we naturally attempt to be polite and inoffensive. But sometimes being lateral and provocative is the best way to gain attention for your creative idea.

In 1729, the Reverend Jonathan Swift, an eminent Irish author and satirist best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, published a short book entitled ‘A Modest Proposal.’ In this book, he suggested that poor people should sell their children to be eaten by rich people, writing: ‘A young healthy child is a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.’ On hearing the idea, many people were deeply offended – though some took it seriously. It was only later in his book, that it became apparent Swift was being intentionally provocative. He then laid out his proposed reforms to improve the plight of the poor and starving in society. Rod Judkins argues that Swift’s outrageous provocation was justified, saying: “Swift’s book had a profound impact. A sober and conventional proposal of reforms could have gone unnoticed. Swift wanted something to happen. He wanted to change things quickly. He took a chance. He walked along the edge of a precipice. It could have backfired badly – but it did not.”

The New South Wales Road Traffic Authority in Australia ran a highly controversial and highly successful campaign against speeding. Previous campaigns that featured accidents and explained the dangers of speeding had had little effect. Their new campaign (below) showed women shaking their little finger – a gesture symbolising a small penis – as speeding male motorists race past. The gesture caught on, and this edgy campaign has won many awards. The ads attracted complaints of sexism, but they were very effective – about 60% of young men said the campaign had made them ponder their driving habits. When conventional approaches fail it is time to try something radical and lateral – like challenging the masculinity of young speeding drivers.

Another low-cost, high-risk lateral approach in marketing is what I call topical mischief – It can be highly effective. The news that unauthorised horsemeat was discovered in various sectors of the European meat trade in early 2013 caused a major scandal. Consumers and regulators were up in arms. Irish online gambling company Paddy Power, seized the moment and issued a 36-page cookbook of horsemeat recipes with their annual results. It gained them significant publicity. Ken Robertson, Paddy Power’s “Head of Mischief”, says: “We wanted to reflect our brand persona as a mischief-maker.”

Topical and cheeky marketing does not have to cost much, but it does take creativity, courage, and speed. It can then yield widespread coverage and sends the message that you are bold and agile. Burger King garnered much goodwill and publicity with the April 1st release of their new ‘Left-handed Hamburger.’ Would you ever consider an April Fool’s hoax?

Do you risk upsetting some clients with this kind of lateral marketing? The answer should be yes. Bland marketing upsets no-one and no-one remembers it. Being edgy might annoy some people, but it will be memorable. If you never receive a complaint about your marketing, then perhaps it is too bland. If your marketing budget is stretched and your message is not getting through, then try a dose of lateral thinking. It is a great way to innovate.