Cheat Code: Unfashionable yet super effective strategies that get challenger brands noticed

Tried and true marketing strategies may not feel sexy or exciting. However, methods that made a motza in the past may just hold the key to unlocking success today, says Dan Monheit, CEO of Hardhat.

If I had to boil down behavioural science to one central tenet, it would be that humans are nowhere near the rational decision-makers we believe we are. Rather than choosing what’s objectively ‘best’, we tend to make decisions based on emotions, biases and the contexts within which those decisions are made.

While marketers have been quick to embrace this thinking as it relates to their customers, many bristle at the idea that it applies equally to them. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the irrational way our industry spends. Despite us attempting (or at least feigning an attempt) to tie spend to effectiveness, the two might as well be strangers in the night.

First, we don’t yet have a consensus on what effectiveness actually means. When do we decide that an ad has ‘worked’ or ‘not worked’? If I run a campaign today, do I stop calculating the ROI tomorrow, next week, next month, in a year, a decade, or never?

And don’t even get me started on attribution modelling. The first time I ever noticed a Rolex watch was on the wrist of a friend’s father in 1992. He was an architect who only wore black and was effortlessly cooler than any other dad I’d met. I didn’t know how much a Rolex cost or the significance of the brand, but I knew it was cool, and I’d love to own one one day.

Thirty-two years and no Rolex later, I must have seen thousands of Rolex ads, spotted hundreds of people wearing them, clocked their logo at many an international sporting event, read scores of articles about how Rolex’s are made, listened to podcasts on the brand’s origin story and even visited a boutique or two. How should the sale be attributed if I eventually buy one one day? You’d have an easier time working out which beer got you drunk last night (spoiler alert: all the beers).

That’s not to say it’s all rubbish and we shouldn’t try. Yet when devising our marketing plans, we should stop pretending that we’re working with an exact science and instead acknowledge that much like our customers, we’re influenced by what’s trendy, Even if doing what’s trendy makes little objective sense.

I’ve ridden this wave more times than I can count. In the agency’s early days, I remember working tirelessly with clients to help them secure their first 100,000 Facebook fans. We would even send them cakes to celebrate the milestone. We built mobile apps for brands of pasta sauce and canned tuna. We created Flash games for accounting firms and SAP consultancies. I even remember writing a detailed Google Plus strategy for an obscure government department. Why? Because they all seemed like cool things to do, and they were exactly what our clients were asking for.

‘Irrational but cool’ is not just the domain of newfangled tech. We may hate to admit it, but the same can be said for commissioning that epic TVC targeting audiences who rarely watch free-to-air or buying out the giant billboard in the heart of the CBD when the target market is deep in the suburbs. It’s great for the marketer’s CV, the agency’s showreel, and everyone’s ego. Yet, it’s not so great for the business funding it.

So what about techniques that are ‘rational but uncool’? After all, when it comes to influencing human decision-making, ‘what works’ moves much slower than ‘what’s hot’. Chances are, if something were effective in decades gone by, some version of it would still be effective today – possibly even more so because nobody else is doing it. The question is, can you bring yourself to try?

Lube Mobile, we’ll come to you

Thirteen, thirty, thirty-two. That’s right. You got there before I did. If the mere thought of jingles in 2024 makes you cringe, I implore you to stay with me because audio is already making a huge comeback.

The first golden age of audio played out across the 1950s and 1960s. Radio was the dominant media at the time, and as a result, radio advertising became hugely influential. As the medium matured, so too did the advertising. Live reads and clunky segment sponsorships gave way to standardised formats, higher production values, and, of course, jingles.

Not only did jingles work, but they became an almost surefire path to success. In fact, they were so powerful that they ‘crossed the channel’ and became a mainstay of TV advertising through the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. Jingles really were an art form: Decore’s ‘D-D-D-Decore-eh-eh’; Meadow Lea’s ‘You oughta be congratulated’; Cadbury Roses’ ‘Thank you very much’; Tip Top’s ‘Good on you, Mum’; and Cottees’ ‘My Dad Picks the Fruit’ became a part of the national consciousness.

Then suddenly, they vanished. In 1998, the American Association of Advertising Agencies identified that jingles were used in one in eight ads. Today, it’s one in one hundred.

As uncool as they may be, there’s no denying that a well-written jingle is memorable, even decades after it’s stopped airing. Combine that earworm with a distinctive visual style, and you might just be cooking up the next Chicken Tonight.

Indeed, behavioural science tells us that a cheap ad with a good jingle will be far more memorable than a beautifully filmed ad without one. This is due to a process in the brain known as ‘dual coding’. Our cognition is divided into two processing systems: visual and verbal. When a jingle accompanies an ad, your brain records it as an audio and a visual experience in two parts of your brain, making it far easier to recall than a purely visual experience. And there’s never been a better time to do it.

With the explosion of podcasts, digital radio, and TikTok (predominantly viewed with sound on), we are entering the second golden age of audio, creating an opportunity for challenger brands that hasn’t existed for decades.

Behavioural shifts in the way people watch TV add further fuel to the jingle fire. As we can all attest, the second a TV show cuts to the ads, our heads drop, and our eyes become fixed on the tiny glowing screens in our hands. But our ears stay open, making sound an ever-more-important ingredient in any TVC.

If done well, audio is a game changer. More than a jingle, Menulog’s ‘Did Somebody Say’ is a certified jam that ensconced the brand onto the cultural map. Before Menulog’s earworm of a jingle, Uber Eats dominated the Australian food delivery space, holding a 60 percent market share. Deliveroo was second with 20 percent, while Menulog was a distant third with 12 percent. Yet when the first ‘Did Somebody Say’ earworm lodged itself in our brains in 2019, something miraculous happened; orders exploded, and the brand more than doubled its market share to 34 percent.

The campaign has gone from strength to strength, with the recruitment of superstars including Snoop Dogg, Katy Perry and Christina Aguilera powering the already proven campaign to otherworldly heights.

Make Tony the Tiger Grrrrreat Again

Another space ripe for reinvention is brand mascots. Besides making the brand stand out, brands with mascots are more easily recalled by your brain. This is because we’re better at interpreting, understanding, and remembering concrete concepts compared to abstract ones.

Take, for example, the concept of a big black sheep. Not only did you hear the words in your mind as you read it, but you probably also visualised a big black sheep without any conscious thought. ‘Big black sheep’ can be filed by your brain as a sound but also as an image, making it easier to retrieve down the track. Compare this with abstract concepts like ‘integrity’, ‘courage’ or even a brand name like ‘Freeletics’, which all seem to pass through unchecked.

Thankfully, characters need not be naff. Language-learning app Duolingo has become synonymous with its quirky, frequently obnoxious green owl Duo, which gives passive-aggressive reminders for users to keep learning on the app. Serving lead character energy, Duo has more than 12 million of its own followers on TikTok.

The company has skillfully used Duo to grow its brand recognition and attract younger audiences, who, in turn, share Duo-themed streak parties on social media and dress up as the character for Halloween.

@duolingo sad g(owl) hours #duoplushie #duolingo #languagelearning #emo ♬ Rio romeo – .𝖒𝖊𝖓’🎧★

Characters can be human as well. You’re probably familiar with the friendly lady (shall we call her Amy?) from AAMI Insurance. After years of investing in a single person, the brand has now made the white shirt, red scarf (or pants) and headset the mascot, opening the door for many ‘Amys’, from different backgrounds to step into the role. Other modern-day brand mascot notables include Compare The Market’s Russian meerkat Aleksandr Orlov and his family and friends, Purple M&M, and the ever-enduring Duracell Bunny.

You’ve Got Mail

Perhaps you’re old enough to remember when email marketing was the hottest new thing. Twenty-something years, billions of spam messages and Google’s ‘split inbox’ later, it’s not quite what it used to be. Yet marketers have remained invested due to its low unit pricing, even if most messages end up in our junk (or ‘promotional’) folders, where they sit unread until they’re eventually purged. On a good day, 20 percent of promotional emails get opened. On an average day, 80-90% of direct physical mail does.

Despite all the changes in the world, people still live in homes and those homes still have mailboxes. While the mail we personally send and receive may have dramatically fallen off a cliff, it hasn’t stopped us from regularly checking our mailboxes. This creates a rare opportunity for challenger brands, as the novelty of receiving something extraordinary in the mail is higher than ever.

Postcards are the most effective type of direct mail. They’re relatively cheap, don’t require the recipient to take any action to access the content and have an average response rate of 5.7 percent. Obviously, creativity is key.

Green Belgian celebrated World Water Day in Belgium by sending out a card that only revealed its content once held underwater to highlight the importance of H20. Even better was Kit Kat’s ‘Chunky Mail’ direct mail campaign, which looked like the postcard you receive when your parcel is too big for your mailbox. It then directed homeowners to go to their local newsagent and claim their free chunky KitKat. Genius!

Direct mail also offers the opportunity for precise, laser-focused targeting. Porsche targeted affluent residents of Toronto with a campaign called ‘It’s Closer Than You Think’ by shooting a sexy white Porsche 911 in their driveways. Then, while sitting in a van out front, they used a desktop printer to create a slightly stalkerish piece of custom direct mail and left it in the homeowners’ mailbox. A massive 32 percent of those who received it booked a test drive online.

A retail client we work with has become adept at overlaying publicly available census data with their store locations to determine which products would be most interested in each of their 100+ locations. Next, they develop small-scale, high-impact direct mail campaigns, which cost far less from the individual stores’ perspective and generate far more than the national TVCs.

Our industry fundamentally believes that bravery is rewarded. Are you the kind of marketer brave enough to do what the cool kids aren’t doing and instead try your hand at something unfashionable yet effective?

A good first approach is to think about how your product or service would have been sold in the decades gone by. Is there a version of that that would work today to achieve differentiation and separation from the pack? After all, marketing science tells us that running the category playbook is a fast track to disaster if you’re anyone but the market leader.

Instead, try embracing the unfashionable — it might just become the next big thing.

Dan Monheit is CEO at Hardhat.


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