5 Key Traits of Courageous Brands
by Doug Sutherland

Real quick, let’s make a clear distinction off the top. This article is going to be about the traits existent in courageous brands as they pertain to the brands' marketing efforts. Philanthropy, worker compensation, making investments that are socially and/or environmentally conscious, all those things are certainly courageous, but that stuff should be a no brainer. So let’s mosey on past those tenets and talk about what courageous brands do in terms of marketing. Cool? Cool.  

1. They take calculated stances.

You hear about what Nike did? It slipped under the radar, so you may need to do some digging. Anyway, Nike’s not in the business of waxing political for any reason other than making money. Their decision of leaning on Colin Kaepernick was the result of their hypothesis that any negative sales, PR and lost customers would pale in comparison to the increased exposure, praise and sales from a more lucrative target, resulting in more brand success. And lookie there: They were right. Way right.  

Juxtapose that with brands that have approached potentially divisive issues but tried to communicate to everyone through watered down examples. Lesson here is: If you’re going to take a stand, take it. If you want to take a stand without angering anyone, then don’t because you’ll anger everyone.  

2. They address a PR issue or controversy head on.

When a brand makes a mistake or needs to make a big change to change public opinion, its true makeup comes to the surface. And unfortunately, examples of brand mistakes, data breaches or outrageous behaviors from prominent employees are pretty easy to come by. And just like the at-risk teens on "Beyond Scared Straight," you can tell when the following communication reflects genuine remorse or is another attempt to appease the public without much substance behind it at all. In short: If that brand’s going out of their way to not admit fault, they’re going to get a whole lot more of it.  

3. They talk to their customers, instead of sucking up to them.

If the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer from Saturday Night Live decided to go into advertising in 1992, then got refrozen, and then got re-unfrozen in 2018, things would be completely different for him — again (poor guy can’t catch a break). In a world where some dude named Carter got the most popular tweet of all time based on a brand’s dare, and customer reviews are being put against a colorful background and rolled out as spots, the customer-brand relationship has never been able to become so personal. And that’s a good thing, as long as a conversation is the result, and not shallow platitudes the customer can see coming from a mile away. Now that brands can do better, they have no excuse not to.  

4. They acknowledge the competition’s marketing and steal their limelight.

Admittedly, this one is kind of like adding cinnamon to a savory dish: just enough makes the food so much better. But even a little more than that ruins the whole damn thing. The key here is subtlety, and backed by an insight or common observation that steals the competition’s microphone, and then drops it. Naturally, social media is perfect for this passive-aggressive tactic because of its quick-twitch nature. While everyone loves a solid burn, it’s another great way to humanize the brand’s tone and playfulness. On the other hand, scripted-sounding banter between brands on social media is not cool, not human, and feels like when teachers performed skits during school assemblies.  

5. They venture into unknown territory.

It’s important here to make a distinction between courageous and stupid. The courageous explore the unknown, but prepare themselves for possible scenarios based on preliminary measurements, insights or progress made by others. The stupid run into the forest and get eaten by whatever thing the other characters will kill by the end of the movie.  

It’s possible to be prepared for something that has never been done before, and having the right partner takes the odds from possible to downright probable. Was that self-promotion?

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