Why brands need to defy category conventions

by Nigel Hollis | October 10, 2018

A few years ago, I made regular trips to Shanghai. Part of my routine was to walk down Nanjing Road from my hotel to the Kantar Millward Brown office and along the way I would be exposed to outdoor ads of a genre I call “lonely person with watch”. When all ads in a category obey the same conventions, they become totally unremarkable.


In 2011, in the course of a twenty-minute walk down Nanjing Road, one could pass at least 20 billboards for different brands of watch and I am convinced that all of them adhered to the same convention. A single person stares meaningfully (or to my mind, mournfully) out of at the people passing by. The image would be accompanied by a word or brief phrase. Here are a few examples,

Romantic moment (really, just you and your faithful watch)

Shaping moments for life (plural moments must be better)

Elegance is an attitude (actually, I think it is a quality)

Anyway, sarcasm aside; the point is that all these ads, big or small, followed the same formula. Which is why none of them stood out. The only reason I remember what these ads showed or said was because I was so intrigued by their consistency that I took photos of some. As it was, I never did anything with those photos until now, when I was reminded of their existence by a recent article in The Drum.

Alistair Beattie, co – CEO of DDB & Tribal Amsterdam, wrote a nice piece titled, ‘Advertising Against a Sea of Indifference’. It is a plea for advertisers to embrace humanity’s complexity and stand out from the crowd. He writes,

“A great brand is a point of meaningful difference from the generic alternatives. It's not a competition to see who can blend in. Rule breakers and risk takers drive the category by creating their own standards.”

In a world drowning in content, brands need to find a way to earn attention and they will not do it by adopting the same conventions as their competitors.

When I had car companies as clients, they would often decry ads the stereotypical ad that showed the car driving along a wet and winding country road or navigating a crowded city. Yet the same conventions are alive and well in many videos today. As a result, when a car company is brave enough to put dogs behind the wheel of its cars, the resulting campaign stands out from ones that just focus on how good the metal looks in action.

The Link pre-test database shows time after time that ads that are seen to be distinctive are more likely to be noticed, online or off, so why do so many brands fall foul of category conventions? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. terry atkins, October 12, 2018


    Thats a very pertinent point for me to learn to be empathetic with meaningful content!

    Thank you

    Terry Atkins @ta506kbs

  2. Martin Guo, October 12, 2018
    So sad that Kantar Millward Brown office is no longer along Nanjing Road. We are now in (old) Shanghai Railway Station area where no watch ad can be found - purely because not many people here can afford a Rolex or Chopard, including those working at the WPP Campus.
  3. Guy Powell, October 11, 2018

    Hi Nigel,

    Great points.  Although at some point even distinctiveness becomes undistinct.

    For example, it used to be that technology was constantly changing.  Every other week, there would be a new version of software, a new piece of hardware.  In that world, change was the constant.  So now, if everyone has distinct ads, they too will become the norm and therefore not be as interesting.

    Anyway, many interesting challenges ahead as we all vie for attention.

    Thanks for the great post.


  4. Rathin, October 11, 2018

    There might be many ways to break category conventions, not all of them succeed. Certain pool of brand curators don't break free, simply because they fear failure, which is seldom appreciated in the corporate rat race. In this sense, it's the very system that restricts disruption.

    Vast majority of them are not creative enough to think about alternatives, or worse unaware about the need. After all, we are genetically designed to adapt and nurture the proven past. Million years of hard wiring is the barrier here.

  5. Feroz Masthan, October 11, 2018
    This is true not only for communications, but for the product/service offered.
  6. Dijana, October 11, 2018
    Completely agree! My friend recently started an Instagram blog on mans fashion, style etc and I hate ti say it, but his posts are very generic and do not stand out at all (ie he puts blue jacket on and ads comment ‘Colour your life’)... Even though he is a dear friend, I can not hit ‘like’ for such post. It shows exactly what you talk about - a single person stares meaningfully. It doesnt speak to me, it doesnt bring any special emotion..it’s otdated.
  7. Ed C, October 11, 2018
    Brilliant. This should be Step 1 in the creation of all advertising and brand development.

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