Mischievous marketing: why we must dare to be different

Mischievous marketing: why we must dare to be different

27 September 2022

Ellie AtkinsonStrategist


What would happen if we made marketing a bit more, well, mischievous?

Our team recently attended the Contagious ‘Mavericks and Mischief Makers’ conference, and in the interest of sharing knowledge, sparking curiosity and igniting inspiration we thought we’d share our top five takeaways for what it means to think differently in today’s landscape.

Breaking convention is more than an act of rebellion – it is in fact a vital tactic to drive effectiveness and must be harnessed to avoid falling into the background noise.

But it lends the questions: What does it mean to be a maverick? And how much fun should marketing really be?

Fame still sells

Reaching for fame without a well-thought-through strategy is an expensive way to yield little result. However, with the right strategy in place, fame can be the single most important way to drive brand effectiveness. This was quantified by Binet and Field in their Media in Focus paper for the IPA, [i] where they noted that earned media – a major beneficiary of “fame” campaigns – boosts effectiveness by 26%.

The key to brand fame is perhaps best summed up in the words of Paul Feldwick, former global brand planning director at DDB Worldwide:

“Fame is never automatic – you must start with a good-enough performance, something that appeals to people, but it also must reach mass audiences. It must be fluently distinctive, and it must succeed in getting the public to actively engage with it in as many ways as possible.” Paul Feldwick, interview with Contagious (2022) [ii]

While fame is largely synonymous with simply being well known, there is a critical ingredient: it must be “fluently distinctive”. Humans are hardwired to notice what’s different, and when this difference is accessible and engageable, fame will only grow. After all, as Seth Godin – best-selling author and serial entrepreneur – said: “ideas that spread, win”. [iii]

But being different doesn’t mean being opposite

“When the world zigs, zag”. A line famously used by Levi’s in their 1982 black jeans campaign and that underpins decades of marketing principles around discovering difference.


But what Becca Peel, Senior Strategist at Contagious reminds us, is that we are not playing with binaries. Difference doesn’t have to mean direct opposition – as Jessica Vredenberg defines it, [v] “optimal incongruence” is in fact the greatest way to drive effectiveness through difference. When incongruence exists as “the state or condition of not being in agreement, accordance, or harmony, or the degree to which things are in this state”, [vi] Jessica’s theory suggests there is an ideal dose of incongruence that actually serves to strengthen outcomes.

This theory is one that is perhaps more playfully described by Twitter Next Director, Emily Ross, as being “just evil enough”. [vii] Ultimately, they both speak to the same idea: it is not about being different for different’s sake, but adding the perfect amount of mischief to maximise effectiveness.

And yes, for some, this will mean an extreme departure from category convention – just take Liquid Death’s fearless disruption of the commercial water market as an example of a brand who were unafraid to flip conventions on their head.


And there’s no example more fitting than XBOX’s Survival of the Grittiest Billboard to promote their Rise of the Tomb Raider game. [ix] Tweaking the characteristically static placement, they invited human participants to stand as part of the billboard and endure a series of extreme weather conditions determined by viewers watching via Twitch for a “last fan standing” prize. Winning 18 Cannes Lions, it just goes to show what a little bit of evil can do.

Humour can be a seriously effective strategy

“Don’t sing your sales message”, David Ogilvy wrote in his 1985 book ‘Confessions of an Advertising Man’. “Selling is a serious business”.

Andy Nairn disagrees. As the strategist behind campaigns such as Yorkshire Tea’s “Social Distancing Teapot” [x] and “Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank” [xi] for Hostelworld, Andy believes the marketing world is taking itself far too seriously.

Nairn shared how humour can be an effective technique to drive brand fame, likeability, convey purpose, lighten the mood in tough times, defuse difficult issues, and ultimately, sell. In fact, earlier this year Kantar reported that humour is the most powerful creative enhancer of receptivity, being more expressive, more involving, and more distinct. [xii]

But what about brands where humour just isn’t appropriate? Whilst humour should never be used without due consideration, it is in fact often in the most unexpected places that humour becomes most powerful. It was with this mindset that we approached a campaign for hearing loss charity RNID – a campaign that single-handedly won three awards at the DMA Awards, UK Social Media Awards and UK Content Awards this year. [xiii]

To promote their free 3-minute hearing check tool, we humorously illustrated commonly misheard phrases to increase accessibility to their service. The campaign hinged on what most comedians see as gospel: the best jokes are based in lived experience and relatability. In the example of RNID, the best part was that our audience not only loved it – leading to over 50,000 checks across the UK – but they also began sharing their own mishearings:

“I’ve misheard many things and it can be a source of amusement, ‘where’s the chicken?’ instead of ‘where’s the check in’ 😒 😆”

All jokes aside: to disregard humour is to disregard one of the most relevant and powerful advertising tools out there.

The status quo has traditionally existed as the comfort zone

Comfort zones are cosy. They’re the places where we know how it works, we know what to expect, and there is less chance of something going horribly wrong. But, as Adam Sheridan, Global Head of Products and Analytics at Ipsos Creative Excellence, said, “if you don’t feel uncomfortable, that is the biggest risk you can take”.

Breaking norms sparks truly great ideas. In our work for Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society, we were faced with the challenge of engaging runners and raising funds for the charities who had come together to become the official charity of the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon. Competing in an increasingly crowded charity sector at the highest profile fundraising event of the year, we knew we had to do something truly and authentically different to cut through.

That’s why we created the Dementia Revolution: a bold, punk-inspired call to arms designed to rally the masses to overthrow current, outdated attitudes towards dementia being an inevitable part of ageing and inspire action against the debilitating disease. [xiv]

Through the campaign, we helped raise a huge £4 million for the charities – making it the most successful London Marathon charity partnership ever. Looking at things differently helps great ideas come to the surface.

Heresy becomes orthodoxy – we need to keep on moving

Of course, the world never stands still. Over time, what was once heresy becomes orthodoxy, and we are continually faced with new norms that have to be subverted to consistently drive effectiveness.

But it is only through adding a little mischief that we will continue to be seen in an ever-changing world. Here are some quick wins that will help you insert mischief into your marketing:

  1. Keep asking “what if?”. What if we could only advertise in space? What if we could only use the colour pink? Lateral thinking sparks original ideas.
  2. Don’t cut ideas too soon – interrogating “wrong” ideas may uncover interesting solutions. Counterintuition can be powerful.
  3. Look to other categories for new ways in. What if someone in a totally different market to ours were to advertise in our sector? (there’s those “what ifs" again...)
  4. Remind yourself of the power of fun and humour – seek out the funniest ads of the last 10 years. Go to a comedy show. Watch some improv. Read Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes please’. [xv]



[i] Les Binet and Peter Field, Media in Focus: Marketing effectiveness in the digital era (2016)

[ii] Contagious, Paul Feldwick explains why brands need fame (2022)

[iii] Seth Godin, Ideas That Spread, Win (2012)

[iv] Levi’s, When the world zigs… zag (1982)

[v] Jessica Vredenberg, Brands Taking a Stand: Authentic Brand Activism or Woke Washing? (2020)

[vi] Dictionary.com, Incongruence (2022)

[vii] Emily Ross and Alistair Croll, Just Evil Enough (2022)

[viii] Liquid Death, Hey Kids, Murder Your Thirst (2019)

[ix] Microsoft Xbox, Survival of the Grittiest Billboard (2015)

[x] Yorkshire Tea, Social Distancing Teapot (2020)

[xi] Hostelworld, Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank (2015)

[xii] Kantar, Who’s laughing now? Let’s stop the decline of humour in advertising (2022)

[xiii] psLondon, RNID: Checking the nation’s hearing (2021)

[xiv] psLondon, Alzheimer’s Research UK and Alzheimer’s Society (2019)

[xv] Amy Poehler, Yes Please (2014)

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