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Embracing the Shadows: How Brands Explore the Darker Side of Brand Identity

by Elizabeth Freeman on 04/27/2016 | 9 Minute Read

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Brands are starting to explore the darker, more uncomfortable side of their personalities in order to be more distinctive and believable to consumers. Ed Silk, Bulletproof’s strategy director, explains:

Over the last 35 years, the branding world has undergone a revolution. The once false, perma-smile perfection of beautiful people beaming at us from a fabricated place where the sun always shines and everyone is happy has been trumped by a darker, realistic, if more uncomfortable, truth. This truth is manifested in all corners of our culture – from the products we use to the docudramas we watch.

Brands are now toying with and exploring the darker side of their identity in order to be more distinctive, relevant and believable. Traditional notions of beauty have been subverted, imperfections are being celebrated, the taboo is becoming permissible. What was once deemed ugly, undesirable and unacceptable is now being used as a means of unlocking emotion and empathy in a way that consumers may truly relate.  

These ‘shadows’ are qualities that might elicit negative feelings. In essence, they are the problems, associations, and contradictions that every brand faces. Brands that win in the shadows and embrace them are brands that resolve these contradictions and thus create much stronger relationships with their consumers. 

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Over the years, great brands have become adept at resolving these contradictions, in turn driving conversation and engaging a wider, if polarizing, audience. Dove bravely initiated the trend when it repudiated traditional notions of beauty by celebrating the diversity of the female form in their iconic ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’, which sought for women around the world to accept and embrace their individual looks and love their natural shape, rather than strive for an unrealistic ideal. Since then, many brands – big and small – have followed suit, manifesting their own interpretation of a darker truth via both advertising campaigns and product packaging.      

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This clear and increasing trend to ‘embrace the shadows’, where brands are pushing and challenging our perceptions using campaigns with real shock factor and punch, could be attributed to the global recession. For it was at this point that the advent of a more risqué, grimier and even sordid type of aesthetic came to the fore, infiltrating every corner of our modern culture through advertising, TV, film, book and visual art. Consumers became more primed to accept the colder, harsher realities of life – from death and dirt to graphic sex and violence. 

So what is the recipe for brands successfully embracing their dark side? How can brands ditch the glossy, ‘chocolate-box’ fail-safe ideal and re-engage with consumers using a franker and more uncomfortable truth?

Brands must be honest with themselves and their consumers and then welcome and embrace negativity. Nature is governed by opposites, and to accept and appreciate the good we must also acknowledge the bad. 

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Cottonelle challenged real people to place enough trust in the efficacy of its ClearRipple toilet tissue to ‘Go Commando’ as part of its advertising campaign. Ladies and gentlemen are seen confidently pulling down a little part of their waistband to reveal the absence of underwear. For a toilet tissue brand, the approach was a risky one; prior campaigns about such products traditionally focused on absorbency and softness – but never cleanliness. To associate toilet tissue with its primary purpose is to draw attention to the crude reality of its use - putting the ‘poo’ in ‘taboo’ if you will. But to then underscore the cleanliness message by going unabashedly underwear-free was perceived by some as just a step too far. The genius of the ‘Go Commando’ campaign however lay in Cottonelle’s enlistment of 90s boy band sensation New Kids On The Block – long suffering victims of hapless panty-throwing (one of the hazards that come with the job). Thanks to ClearRipple, the heartthrobs can now perform on stage, safe in the knowledge that the undergarments thrown at them are loaded with love – and nothing more! To amplify the campaign further and drive trial of its product, Cottonelle designed a personalizable Go Commando kit; the pack design was dominated by dramatically magnified images of the ClearRipple grooves to highlight the product’s unique offering and promise of confident cleanliness with its teasing challenge: ‘Do you dare to go commando?’ 

Of course Cottonelle’s advertising offensive - which executed its brand message with a hearty dose of toilet humor - was naturally going to be divisive. But by dramatizing the unspoken yet primary function of toilet tissue, the brand was able to mobilize a campaign that is both engaging and memorable on many levels while bringing it back to the product itself. 

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From the household goods aisle to store cupboards essentials, Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi is an exemplar of our often unspoken love/hate relationship with that other woman we inherited as family when we married our beloved. While Korean food is becoming increasingly popular, kimchi is still a befuddling food entity to mainstream America. As part of the process of popularizing the pickle and making it more accessible to the masses, the brand named its product after what many a TV sitcom and stand-up would call ‘your worst nightmare’ – your mother-in-law. Yes she’s annoying, tactless and blunt, and yes she knows exactly what to say to get your back up, but there’s no denying that she makes damn fine food. And it’s this very essence that manifests in the brand identity and on the final product pack design of Mother-In-Law’s Kimchi – bold black typography on a white background gives a brutal, unfiltered, say-it-how-it-is simplicity, just like your mother-in-law when she shows disapproval of your style of dress.   

These are just two of many examples of brands which ‘embrace the shadows’, but the consensus is this: controversial and risqué campaigns resonate, live on and, by virtue of their controversy, almost achieve iconic status. While this contrary approach is mired by risks that threaten to damage a brand’s credibility, achieving a delicate balance of ‘wrong’ can be an effective way of driving engagement that repudiates ideals and perfections and speaks to consumers on a level that’s much more about real life. In this process of embracing the dark side, brands must ‘flip’ the unexpected. 

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Roberta’s is a strong example of a trendy - if slightly ‘rough-around-the-edges’ - pizzeria in the hipster New York district of Bushwich, Brooklyn that has extended its popular wood-fired wares to the supermarket. Yet the brand has gone against what other brands within the frozen pizza category have done by rejecting sumptuous, mouth-watering food photography on packaging boxes in favour of a completely transparent warts-and-all pack. Often, whenever a normal pizza is taken out of a beautiful box, anticipation is tempered by anti-climax as we work out how this pallid interpretation of a pizza will ever resemble the photo on the packaging. Roberta’s subverts this by presenting its product in a way that we know will taste as good as it looks when it comes out of the oven. Raw, unadulterated ingredients drizzled with slick, messy olive oil drops on a rustic pizza base with a mottled burnt crust – all of this is confidently on show and in fact forms the major ‘design’ of the pack. But the frank nudity works; it indicates that this is an unapologetically dirty, voluptuously mouth-watering, ditch-the-diet type of food that celebrates quality and honesty of ingredients in equal measures. It seems to give the ‘up yours’ to the fabricated, misleading food porn images that have long dominated the packaging of pizza, showing that going au natural and naked is best.  

In order for brands to win in the shadows, they must not be afraid of the dark side of their identity. Impactful campaigns take common perceptions, subvert them and then present them in a way that portrays a different truth. 

Bleach and detergent brand Clorex’s ‘Bleachable Moments’ offensive, for example, explored the underbelly of life’s realities; those OMG awkward moments we’ve all experienced and subsequently wished we could erase from time and memory. A series of short commercials dramatizing cringeworthy instances – from the gaffe-prone friend who pretends to accidently spill red wine over her white shirt to detract from the fact that she mistook her slightly chubby friend for being pregnant, to a mother finding her boys undertaking a ‘distance contest’ while having a pee. This hugely successful integrated campaign explored life’s uncomfortable and unsavoury moments with a healthy dose of humor in much the same way as Cottonelle did with its Go Commando campaign, going as far as to encourage people to purge and share their own ‘Bleachable Moments’ and ‘Bleach It Away’. Whether by accident or design, the act of purging these moments – dishing the dirt as it were – becomes almost akin to religiously motivated confessions of sin as we renounce our dark moments in return for a squeaky clean slate; powered by Clorox, of course. 

The ‘Bleach It Away’ strapline itself was designed like an official stamp or seal, as if imploring an official call-to-action. This is sanctioned by the phrase ‘powered by Clorox’ delineated in red and using the brand mark to align the strapline with the brand identity and resonate with the physical pack design. In fact, there seems to be a visual strength and presence that backs the ‘Bleach It Away – Powered By Clorox’ command, which is very fitting for this rather utilitarian, does-what-it-says-on-the-bottle product. Even the logo, with its red and blue Superman-like palette and caps font, seems to resonate Clorox as somewhat of a superhero breed of cleaning product; an essential savior of those wanting to clean away those dirty, shameful moments.

These are just a handful of examples, but this trend is manifesting across all kinds of brands - from food and lavatory roll right through to cleaning and feminine hygiene products. Whether it’s the use of brutal honesty or the acceptance of a darker more twisted sensibility, using darkness to your advantage is an effective way to stand out from the crowd and, conversely, will actually allow your brand to step into the light.

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Written by Ed Silk

Ed Silk is Strategy Director at global brand and packaging design agency Bulletproof