Too many brands are playing it safe right now, believes the chief creative officer at Landor & Fitch. He explains why that's a bad thing and what they should do instead.
Do you ever get the feeling that brands are playing it safe in 2023? Can you remember the last time you saw a big brand truly take a risk and do something game-changing?
If your answers to those questions are 'yes' and 'no', then you're not alone.
In today's increasingly polarised and risk-averse climate, it seems brands are increasingly playing it safe with their branding and campaigns. This is due to a number of factors, including the rise of social media, the increasing power of consumer activism, and the economic uncertainty of the times.
But Teemu Suviala, chief creative officer at Landor & Fitch, feels that erring on the side of caution is a dangerous game to play. And he feels brands need to start taking a bold step forward… or they may suffer long-term or even become extinct.
In our exclusive interview, Teemu shares his views on the reasons behind this trend and why taking risks is crucial for brands in the current landscape.
World in crisis
First, Teemu explains that the trend towards blandness hasn't come out of nowhere. "We've been in public crisis mode for years," he points out. "There's the climate crisis. There's economic turmoil of all kinds across the globe. We have geopolitical challenges, we have war. We have people fearing for the future of their jobs thanks to new technologies, especially AI."
And with all this constant change and all kinds of upheaval in the world, he's not surprised our mindsets have been drastically pushed into a place of chronic uncertainty.
"A lot of people – including brands – are afraid of showing their real character and not taking risks because no one knows where things are going," he reasons. "Brands want to show that they are stable and keeping up the appearance of stability with everything they do. And at the same time, there's a bit of a fear of appearing imperfect."
So, in this situation, where do brands go? Teemu believes that to avoid the challenges of the present, they're increasingly either retreating into the past via nostalgia or projecting into the future.
"We see this in politics; we see this in fashion," he says. "Suddenly, all the past decades are in trend at the same time. You just pick your decade, and you just fit it in." Similarly, the future is this safe, comfortable place where we imagine all of our big problems have been solved, usually through clever technology that hasn't been invented yet. We see this focus in everything from advertising to tech conferences, where brands are increasingly 'unveiling' devices that don't yet exist, even if in prototype form: they're just CG renders.
"Many people and brands are living in this future mindset," says Teemu, "rather than addressing the challenges in the now. That's led to this place where they may appear to be taking risks… but they're not real because a lot of them are speculative."
Teemu can understand this instinct but believes that going down these roads is ultimately empty and pointless. "The present is hard and messy to cope with," he says. "But it's the only thing that matters."
Globalisation and fear of offence
Another fact that's played a role in the homogenisation of brands is the rise of globalisation. Financial pressures encourage brands to make one-size-fits-all content for every market. This leads to things like generic TV ads, which can easily be overdubbed into multiple versions. The rise of AI technologies, which make it easy for people's mouth movements to be re-jigged to fit other languages, will only accelerate this phenomenon.
More broadly, globalisation can be looked at from two points of view, says Teemu. "One is the point of view of creatives. The global access to everything is eating up so much. If you look at visual, aesthetic and cultural trends, and even what people are thinking about, everything's available and shared simultaneously with the global community. And we, as people, including creatives, tend to want to fit in. We might think that we are rebels and we're doing our own thing. But we want to belong to something, belong to a tribe. Right now, though, this tribe is pretty massive. It's one big global tribe. So this is the creative challenge we have."
You can also see globalisation from a brand's point of view, he adds. "We need to scale everyone's work in a very automated and simple way. So, we tend to have that one direction for our campaign or brand and then push it through our systems. Maybe the language changes, but visually, it ends up being the same. And it's hard for brands to create something scalable that also takes the nuances of different cultures into consideration."
The case for change
So the obvious answer is: why should brands become less bland? Why not just keep everything as it is?
Teemu's answer is that even if things are working right now, in the long term, being bland is a road to nowhere. "There's always gonna be someone who sees, 'Okay, here's an opportunity to be different and create growth through differentiation,'" he explains. And when that happens, your tried-and-trusted brand may very well sink into a hole of irrelevance."
He points to the recent redesign of Burberry with approval and explains that it was necessary because the British fashion brand had started to look very similar to everything else. "And that means you become invisible. But you can't be invisible if you have messaging and if you are standing up for something.
That's essentially something you have to keep working at forever, he emphasises. "Because at some point, there will be a bland moment," he explains. "For instance, if you're defining a category, there will be others that follow. So, differentiation on its own is not enough. It's about continuous differentiation and being agile. And looking at how to lead the culture, rather than follow the culture."
Making a difference
Right now, many brands are trying to "lead the culture" by taking a stand on social, cultural and political issues. But because so many are taking this approach, that's becoming bland too, especially when it's obvious that brands are jumping on the bandwagon or "greenwashing" rather than being truly committed to a cause.
Teemu offers an example of how to do it right. In a campaign that was a highlight at this year's Cannes Lions, Microsoft has been working to preserve the language of the Fulani people of West Africa by evolving its digital alphabet for use across Microsoft platforms. "This was a really interesting campaign, celebrating social change, cultural revival and restoration of cultures," says Teemu.
The Fulani tribe has their own language of 40 million speakers and people, but for most of its history, it never had an alphabet, and so could not be used in things like business dealings or official documents. Thirty years ago, two brothers developed one, which is called ADLaM. Recently, Microsoft and McCann New York teamed up with them to help digitise the alphabet and make it easier to use on a daily basis.
"This project is a great example of solving something meaty and messy and building something good for the world," notes Teemu. "This allows the brand to live in the moment and deliver in the moment, with something unique and unseen, something that no one else has done. And Microsoft, of course, like with the scale they can provide, they can really help that group of 40 million people in the everyday. So that was really impactful."
Vulnerability and authenticity
Another way that brands can break out from a cycle of blandness believes Teemu, is by showing their vulnerability and authenticity.
"A lot of bands have been trying to be authentic and real, but it's been getting lost because it's more about fear of missing out from an important topic rather than really standing for it," he argues. "So it's really about showing your vulnerability and what you really stand for; exposing your full self to all the audiences."
He also suggests that brands need to have more fun. "We have research that shows that people are looking for more optimism in their lives," he points out. "That's why we're seeing more saturated colours on the catwalks, for example. And I think there's an opportunity for brands to be brave in the space of having fun. And even being ridiculous. David Ogilvy, the founder of Ogilvy & Mather, has talked about the idea that the best ideas come as jokes. I know it's risky, especially when things are very daunting and challenging. But that's part of being in the moment. I've learned so much from just watching stand-up comedians; how they are able to interact with audiences right from the word go."
Goosebumps from Barbie
If you're looking for an example of risk-taking branding that sums up all these ideas in one, Teemu points to Barbie, this year's most popular movie worldwide.
If you haven't seen it yet, we won't spoil it by telling you too much. But once you have, you'll appreciate exactly why this was a huge risk for Mattel.
"I'm getting goosebumps just like us talking about it," smiles Teemu. "In this groundbreaking movie, Mattel is really able to show themselves as vulnerable: what are the things that have been challenging for them, where have they gone wrong? It showcases that brand in its full 360: this is the good, and this is the bad.
"So that's a good example of a brand that could really nail risk-taking. And I'm pretty sure we'll see more of a similar kind of openness and transparency at the core of the brands as we move forward. It will be interesting over the next 24 months to see what comes out."