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Leverage Your Inner Lemon

Use 'Brand Judo' to flip negative perceptions into memorable campaigns.

One of the all-time greatest examples of a brand turning lemons into lemonade may also be one of the first. Advertising aficionados will remember the 1960s Volkswagen Beetle campaign. As competing automakers built ever bigger cars for growing, post-World War II families, Volkswagen's Beetle was seen as too small, too ugly and too German. The now-legendary campaign played up the small and ugly perceptions with headlines touting its status as a "lemon" and clever copy that then drove home the benefits of driving a small, German (rebranded as "well-made") automobile.

For entrepreneurs and their communications staffs, this concept can apply to the management of their company's brand. "Brand Judo" can be described as the practice of turning negative brand perceptions into positive ones. The practice of Brand Judo can help undermine your opponents' marketing campaigns and insulate your brand from ongoing or potential attacks.

Campaigns rooted in the practice of Brand Judo have the potential to be compelling, differentiating, fun and, best of all, sticky; they can help your message cut through the din. What's more, in this age of transparency, you can't afford to try to hide what's real--big or small, warts and all--so don't even try.

What to do? Make the most of your inner lemon before someone else does.

Deflecting Potential Attacks
AMC's "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner used the Volkswagon Beetle campaign's unique approach to create a compelling moment during an episode from the show's first season. While looking at the ad, art director Sal (portrayed by Bryan Batt) remarks, "No chrome, no horsepower, foreign, ugly. I guess they went with their strengths." In a way, that's exactly what they did. The Beetle, of course, went on to become an iconic automobile and a ubiquitous symbol of the counter-culture revolution just around the corner.

Look at last summer's Nike Driven campaign featuring Lance Armstrong. The spot portrays cancer victims undergoing a variety of treatments intercut with close-ups of Armstrong biking--hard. Through a voiceover, Armstrong is heard saying: "The critics say I'm arrogant. A doper. Washed up. A fraud. That I couldn't let it go. They can say whatever they want. I'm not back on my bike for them." Whether you're a fan of Armstrong's or not, you'll likely admit that this is a clever spot, the way it redirects potential attacks. Armstrong aligns himself with a just cause while putting his negative brand perceptions out on the table for all to see. He's almost daring critics to take a shot at him.

These two examples of Brand Judo are of the critic-proofing variety. By bringing perceived weaknesses out into the open, either to make light of them in the case of Volkswagen or to address them head-on like Armstrong, two major brands were able to deflect, or at least lessen, the impact of potential attacks, and create compelling and memorable brand-focused campaigns in the process.

Brand Judo For the Fun of It
The other side of Brand Judo is more fun. The practice can sometimes provide the right spark for unexpected and completely out-of-the-ordinary campaigns.

One of my favorite examples of the inherent fun of Brand Judo is ESPN's "Is It Monday Yet?" campaign. I'll never forget the dreary Monday morning commute a couple of years ago when I first saw a Boston MBTA bus zoom buy with a huge placard on the side exclaiming, "Thank God it's Monday." Amusing? Yes. Out of the ordinary? Yes. Effective? You bet. With slogans like "Is it Monday yet?" and "Monday can't come soon enough," ESPN latched onto perhaps the one negative association NFL fans have with the four-decade institution of Monday Night Football--the fact that it takes place on Monday--and created one of the more engaging and unique brand campaigns in recent memory.

Lastly, look at Hulu. We all know television rots ours brains and we should all get out and smell the roses a bit more. Why on Earth do we need more ways to watch TV "anytime, for free"? The answer is the company is "an evil plot to destroy the world" hatched by aliens who are going to eat our liquefied brains. Comical for sure, but it's another example of Brand Judo in action as Hulu turns a negative association into a fun and memorable brand story.

Get Your Brand Judo On
In branding, whether it's Listerine making the most of its burn, Altoids marketing mints as "curiously strong," ESPN making you wish for Monday, Lance Armstrong airing his own dirty laundry, Volkswagen's "lemon," or Hulu's alien plot, perceived weaknesses and negative brand associations can often be turned on their ear.

How do you begin? Look inward, and don't shy away from what's real. The best campaigns are always brand-focused, so think long and hard about all aspects of your brand, including those aspects you know are either weaknesses or have otherwise ignored because you think they're a little unsightly.

Perhaps what you or others perceive to be a weakness could actually be the spark of something fun and differentiating. Make light of your realities--it just might undermine an opponent's attack and provide the basis for something memorable.

Now, go find your inner lemon and squeeze.

Brandon Walsh is Strategy Manager at Sametz Blackstone Associates, a brand-focused strategic communications consultancy in Boston that helps mission-driven companies and organizations to better navigate change. He can be reached at brandon@sametz.com.

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