We all know that business involves risk. We try to calculate and control those risks as much as we can, plan contingencies in case things go wrong, and have a plan B if all else fails… but accepting a degree of risk in business is inevitable, and even good.

And risk is especially good in marketing. Playing it safe in marketing is a sure-fire way to be ignored.

What does ‘safe’ mean in marketing? It means it’s been done before.

It means it’s expected, unremarkable, tried-and-tested. Put all that together and it means that your advertising will blend in with the ‘noise’ of all the other ads in the world and disappear from view.

In advertising, safe = failure.

But that doesn’t mean that taking a risk automatically = success!!! Let’s be clear about that!

Risks in advertising need to be carefully considered, just like every other kind of risk in business. You need to bring all your experience, all your wisdom, all your creativity and all your focus onto the task at hand to minimise the likelihood of your risk going wrong… but after all that careful thought and planning, you need to step out and take a risk. If you don’t, you’re never going to be noticed by your target market.

The reason it’s so hard to get noticed is that there is just so much advertising, and we’re being hit with it from all angles, all day long. We’re so overwhelmed by advertising that we’ve actually tuned it out! Our bodies are designed to do that. We stop seeing the things that are ‘normal’, ‘irrelevant’ (to us), ‘expected’, and ‘safe’. Our mind filters and ignores stuff that it knows doesn’t matter, in order to prioritise things that are ‘weird’, ‘relevant’ (or personal), ‘unexpected’, ‘dangerous’.

In other words, the human mind will work against your advertising if you play it safe and look like everyone else, and with your advertising if you take a risk and stand out from the pack.

There are certain things which instantly activate the human mind. Things which grab our attention whether we like it or not. These include:

  • Beauty. There’s a reason why people in ads are (almost) always good looking…
  • Connection. Most humans desire connection to others, and many of us wish we had more connectedness than we do. Offering a human connection is a powerful way to grab people.
  • Humour. For all our modern science, we’re still struggling to explain exactly what ‘humour’ is, or why it’s so powerful, but if you make someone laugh or smile you’ll leave them with a feeling they will remember.
  • Curiosity. Humans are curious creatures and we are instinctively interested in the ‘new’. If you can activate someone’s curiosity then you can keep their attention.

There are more, of course, but those are the main ones. Every successful advertising campaign in history has used some combination of the above to grab and hold their audience and deliver their message.

The key is to balance the above elements in the right way for your brand. Some brands are better suited to humour, others to beauty, others to personal connection, and still others to suspense and curiosity. A truly sophisticated advertising campaign will understand the target market and what will activate them most effectively, and then tailor a multi-layered campaign which uses multiple of the above elements to grab and hold the attention of that target market.

This is why ‘taking a risk’ isn’t automatically a good thing… if you take the wrong risk for your brand then you could end up doing more damage than good! If you have a sophisticated brand built on connection and beauty, taking a risk on a humour based campaign will be a bad idea even if the campaign is wildly popular! But then again, if you take no risk then your campaign is condemned to being worthless before you’ve even launched it… and that’s the balance that needs to be struck.

If your advertising isn’t getting the ROI it should, then you need to take a risk, but you need to make sure it’s the right risk for you. Know your brand and your audience, understand what will ‘activate’ them, and then find a way to give it to them which will be new, and interesting, and stand out from the crowd.