Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is Topical Marketing Worth The Risk?

 Earlier this year, the Nando’s Australia restaurant chain ended its eight-year relationship with creative company The Sphere Agency.

The break is significant because The Sphere Agency orchestrated a series of Nando’s most successful topical-marketing campaigns driven at proving the company’s hip cred. The most famous involved a fake Bruno appearing at the premiere of the movie with the same name, essentially pranking Sacha Baron Cohen in the same way he’s pranked dozens of others.

Nando’s, based in South Africa, serves Portuguese-style peri-peri chicken in hip Noodles and Co.-style restaurants, It operates in 30 countries, including the U.S., and was lauded by Ad Age in 2010 as one of the world’s 30 hottest marketing brands.

That’s in part because they seem to have developed a coherent topical-marketing strategy over the past three years. This in a world where Groupon’s Super Bowl campaign failed to do the same.

Nachos were dropped and beers were spilled when Groupon, now in the process of launching an IPO bid, debuted their Super Bowl ad featuring actor Timothy Hutton who explained of Tibet: “Their very culture is in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry.”

Other ads in the Crispin Porter + Bogusky-made series for Groupon featured actor Cuba Gooding Jr. bemoaning the scarcity of whales before hopping on a cruise liner and Elizabeth Hurley juxtaposing Amazonian deforestation and bikini waxes. Many lambasted the series as offensive and tasteless. Groupon and CP+B have also ended their relationship.

The style in which Nando’s brand has been conveyed, in part developed by The Sphere Agency, is similar, but the targets of their campaigns have been disgraced public officials and scandal-burdened celebrities. Example: South African crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli was arrested in late March, after he was accused of murder in a twelve-year-old love triangle case. Shortly thereafter, Nando’s ran an ad that read:
“Lt. Gen. Mdluli, can we get you a serviette [napkin]? Sorry Richard, you’ve got a little something smeared… over there… on your reputation. Oh gosh, you’re getting it everywhere. You should have chosen our peri-peri chicken that’s trimmed of excess fat and flame-grilled, not fried in oil. It’s far less messy. And so much tastier.”

And last spring, when Australian populist firebrand Pauline Hanson said that she would not sell her house to Asians or Muslims, Nando’s ran this ad: 

Before reaching this point, though, Nando’s, keen on establishing a powerful brand, ran a series of checkered campaigns that didn’t pan out.

A 2007 Australian Nando’s ad depicted a topless mother pole-dancing before sitting down to a Nando’s dinner with her family. The ad drew more than 350 complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau.
Why were the Bruno, Hanson and Mdluli efforts so successful, while the pole-dancing mother and the Groupon ads flopped?

In all cases, the tone is essentially the same: crass, sardonic and aloof, kind of like a Judd Apatow character sharing an anecdote about an ex-girlfriend. The target markets are also essentially the same: semi-cool twenty-somethings who probably enjoy Apatow movies. What differs from case to case is the apparent target of the campaign.

CP+B must be credited with displaying a keen insight into humanity – if also with producing a failed campaign. The Groupon ads revealed our uncanny ability to ignore the world’s problems as we search for the cheapest way to enjoy diminishing resources. But unlike a deodorant commercial, these ads offered viewers no solution. Instead, we were encouraged to live blissfully after crashing moments of poignancy – a near impossible task as we cleaned the nachos off our pants. These ads were topical, but they offended us. We were told to look at ourselves, and all we wanted to do was laugh at others.

The stripping mother ad had no hidden layers of subtlety, but was simply uncomfortable to watch. To say it wasn’t topical is an understatement. It was irrelevant and offensive without purpose.

Nando’s brand evolution since that stumble has been meteoric, as Ad Age suggests, but is in no way brave. They targeted Vodacom, South Africa’s cellular phone carrier, which ran an absurdly expensive campaign declaring that Vodacom’s color was no longer blue, but was now red, after its majority shares went to the UK’s Vodafone. And they targeted Julius Malema, the loud, clumsy leader of the ruling party’s youth league. Their audiences were laughing at these targets already, and Nando’s picked up on that.

The key takeaway here seems to be that choosing the targets of topical humor should be done carefully, with a special consideration for how consumers see these statements reflecting on themselves.

Nando’s parting with The Sphere Agency was apparently amicable – but may indicate that critical acclaim doesn’t translate into tangible dollars. And God and Groupon both know that the strategy didn’t work for them. The Sphere Agency/Nando’s split should leave companies wondering whether walking the topical tightrope is worth the risk. There are safer ways to be edgy.

-- Caleb Melby, Undergraduate Northwestern IMC
Follow me on Twitter @CalebMelby
Republished from my Forbes blog

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