Cult CEO: Playing it safe is the riskiest move for marketers

Chris Kneeland on why risk-aversion may be limiting growth for brands

Cult Collective CEO Chris Kneeland told The Gathering conference attendees in Banff earlier this month that too many marketers are playing scared, and it’s hurting their brand.

“We are scared of potentially bad consequences rather than being motivated, by experiencing or doing or trying something that could be potentially awesome,” he said.

Though he wasn’t suggesting marketers throw all caution to the wind or make reckless risks for “an adrenaline rush,” he did recommend everyone in the room ask themselves this question: “Are you fearful or do you aspire to be more fearless?”

“I know too many people who pride themselves on the aversion to risk,” he said. “They think they’re helping themselves, helping their career or helping their company by playing it safe.”

And it’s a lack of fear, he said, that can separate the good brands from the great ones. “I hope that one of the reasons you’ve come to The Gathering is because you want to learn what makes great brands great,” he said. “

The Gathering is an annual three-day conference where some of the world’s leading “cult” brands come together to share the secrets to their marketing success. Presenters at this year’s event included marketing brass from Molson Canadian, Lululemon, Airbnb and Converse.

“We are not here like other marketing conferences to award people that had an amazing campaign in 2015,” said Kneeland. “This is more the equivalent a lifetime achievement award, where we recognize these iconic brands and brand stewards for doing something truly remarkable.”

Kneeland said the aforementioned brands, and the presenting brands from previous years, have three things in common:

  • The ability to sell product, while also convincing consumers to join the brand’s cause or movement.
  • A below-average interest in mass advertising — “Too many brands are better at advertising than they are creating propositions that people actually care about,” he said. “Advertising should not be your competitive strength.”
  • Admirable levels of courage.

Too many brands are playing defense and trying to mitigate risks, he said. “They will tell you to your face that they know the kiss of death is trying to be everything to everybody, yet they will steer completely clear of anything that will offend anyone.”

According to a 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review titled “The Future and How to Survive It,” brands need to be paranoid and radically self-disrupt in order to compete in today’s market.

Kneeland pointed to a client he worked with, Home Depot, as an example. The home improvement retailer broke off its senior leaders into teams to come up with ways to put themselves out of business. “It’s a fascinating exercise I encourage you to take,” he said.

Cult brands create advocates, not ads. When Harley Davidson presented at The Gathering a few years ago, Kneeland said the CMO told attendees that only 15% of his marketing budget is spent on traditional advertising.

“I think most of us can admit that Harley Davidson is an iconic brand,” he said. “Unfortunately, most of us are too gun shy to do the kinds of marketing Harley does.”

“What would you do with the other 85% [of the marketing budget]?” Kneeland asked the crowd. “Would you invest in CRM or event marketing or new service creation or making your products better? The playbook gets much bigger when we stop this fixation with advertising.”

Another example of a brand that skews traditional marketing is Lululemon – “a billion dollar retail success story build on the backs of brand ambassadors and community outreach has off the charts customer devotion while charging a premium price point and rarely going on sale,” said Kneeland.

To try and replicate this level of success, Kneeland said you need to ask yourself: “Do I have the courage to redeploy media dollars and start making impressions instead of buying them?” because that’s what it’s going to take.

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