Thinkerbell co-founder Adam Ferrier has said that if consumer insights were used during the creation of Vegemite, the spread wouldn’t even exist, which is why sometimes putting the consumer at the heart of the business isn’t the right choice.
“What you want to put at the heart, at the very core of your business, is your brand and building a brand that consumers then want, understanding what your brand stands for and putting that before anything else,” Ferrier said.
“If we did consumer insights today with Vegemite and did some focus groups and some sensory testing, [I] guarantee you, Vegemite wouldn’t exist. I don’t think Vegemite would pass sensory testing and focus groups today. “
Speaking on a strategy panel at the 2019 Inform News Media Summit, Ferrier said Vegemite’s ‘Tastes Like Australia’ campaign wasn’t created using consumer insights, and that listening too much to feedback can result in the “sacrifice” of the brand.
“The brand gets sacrificed as the consumer insight becomes increasingly important. The Vegemite stuff came from us trying to understand taste and how a whole country could like the taste of Vegemite, so we went to speak to a cultural taste expert at Melbourne University and this person started talking about taste being a cultural construction, and therefore Australians have created the taste of Vegemite and that’s where the tagline came from,” said Ferrier.
Tribal’s new head of strategy Caitlin Lloyd disagreed with Ferrier, saying that she felt the most recent Vegemite work – its battle with Marmite at The Ashes – seemed to be born from a place of consumer insight. She said in her work teaching university students, Vegemite is one of the brands whose work they respond well to.
“[University students] love the campaign because it feels like there is consumer insight behind it, which is why I was so interested when Adam said it’s about building a brand, not necessarily finding that consumer insight,” said Lloyd.
Lloyd’s concern is that too many brands are scared of offending people and are therefore playing it too safe with their advertising. Referencing Marmite’s 2013 ad campaign to ‘End Marmite Neglect’, she said good advertising should make people feel something. She also referenced the controversial ‘Boat People’ Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) campaign, which fellow panellist Mark Green of The Monkeys worked on.
“Both of those campaigns sparked an interest [in the students] that I don’t think I can get from them by showing them many of the other campaigns that are currently live. I think there has been such a fear of upsetting people that we are really operating a lot of the time in the safe middle ground and that doesn’t fit with what people are looking at outside of advertising. I think we’re really guilty in our industry of putting one ad next to another and comparing them and actually that’s not how the consumers view adverts at all. They view it in between looking at pretty extreme content on Twitter, on Facebook. An ad that’s quite nice is not going to cut through,” said Lloyd.
Green said the controversial MLA campaigns wouldn’t be stopping in the near future, and that each one is carefully crafted with “a few easter eggs to set off the left and right-wing militants to generate a bit of conversation on both sides of the fence”.
It isn’t about being brave, said Ferrier, it’s about being informed enough to make decisions that might seem risky to others.
“I think if you’re trying to be brave you’re probably just not as informed as you could be. If you’re informed, then it’s not about being brave, it’s about doing what’s right for your brand,” he said.
Lloyd called out the ‘echo-chambers’ created by a lack of diversity in the industry. This results in campaigns running which someone in the business could easily have pointed out the flaws with. Primarily, she pointed to Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner campaign which sees the model play the role of peace bringer in a protest.
“I think there’s just such an echo-chamber effect and we have become really bad at seeking out discordant views, and that comes from a lack of diversity in our existing companies, and I think we feel to get different ideas which is why things like the Gillette ad happened, the Pepsi ad happened, because you don’t have enough people actually stress testing and saying ‘No this is not going to work, you’ve gone too safe’,” said Lloyd.
“The junior people in those organisations who could have said to you ‘[It] really doesn’t look great to have Kendall Jenner doing this civil rights white saviour thing’, aren’t allowed into those board rooms and aren’t the ones having the conversations.”
The problem with the industry, the panellists agreed, is that consumers don’t care about brands, they care about categories. Advertising that doesn’t cut through the noise won’t encourage a consumer to change their habits, when it wouldn’t actually be that hard to encourage them to change if you could get their attention.
“I don’t think we’re seeing enough [good advertising] in Australia and I think that’s really worrying in a place where Woolies and Coles are going to be eclipsed by Aldi soon, you can’t rely on having been a big brand in the past, you have to act differently,” concluded Lloyd.