Q&A: How positive dissatisfaction can be a brand’s ally

Kristen Cavallo, global CEO of MullenLowe, explains why brands must adopt a challenger mindset and embrace change to keep the attention of modern consumers
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Standing out from the crowd and capturing the hearts and minds of new customers is an increasingly difficult challenge for brands in a segmented world awash with competitors. 

Customers are more informed and vocal about a plethora of cultural, political and environmental beliefs, and engage with brands across a broad spectrum of platforms – and not always to endorse their products. The result is a crowded and often volatile market- place, with brands fighting to be heard and cut through the noise generated by likes, retweets and reels during a time of diminishing attention spans. 

It’s a challenge Kristen Cavallo relishes. As the global CEO of MullenLowe, she helps brands adopt a pacesetter mindset. She says the key to success in 2023 is for brands to recognise the opportunity and responsibility to innovate because brands that do grow faster.

Q: What is a brand enemy?

A: An enemy isn’t a competitor; it’s normally a point of view and what you stand against as a brand. When Reed Hastings [Netflix co-founder] was asked about competitors, he said his enemy wasn’t a rival brand, it was sleep. 

An enemy isn’t a competitor; it’s normally a point of view and what you stand against as a brand

We’ve taken that kind of thinking into the way we position brands. Maybe their worst enemy is stagnation or comfort, so we push against that. And we do so armed with research by Accenture which found that brands with strong innovation cultures hugely outperformed those lacking them between 2018 and 2020. On average, these innovation pacesetters grew their revenues 6.5 times faster than stagnant brands over that period. Plus they were 4.2 times more cost-efficient and 2.2 times more profitable.

Q: Why is this approach important right now? 

A: Certain brands, such as challenger brands, can and should take a stand on something. They don’t want to win in a game of inches. 

I educate my clients on the value of not settling into their comfort zone and the ROI of being in a constant state of push. It’s not enough to be keeping the pace, they need to be setting the pace.

Q: If brand enemies are so important, is purpose overrated?

A: Purpose isn’t overrated, it just isn’t enough to make a brand interesting. The purpose may be a company’s sustainability goals. That works for Patagonia, but it may not be enough to make another clothing brand interesting to consumers because the number of competitors in their category has proliferated. This means they need to define their enemy. Take Snickers. For years, it stood for satisfaction. When the business plateaued, it redefined its enemy as hunger and the business was rejuvenated. When a brand has both a purpose and an enemy, it can decide which one takes priority, or switch back and forth.

When a brand has both a purpose and an enemy, it can decide which one takes priority, or switch back and forth

Q: Are some brands fearful of taking risks? 

A: On social media, people feel like they have the right and the obligation to comment on everything you’re doing and sometimes it seems like they only want you to stand for their values. But I’m not convinced – and the data doesn’t seem to show it either – that these voices are the majority. We have to give clients the courage to take risks, because a few critical voices on social media don’t represent an entire audience. In fact, being debated is often a good thing, talk translates into sales. I like clients that have the stomach to be debated.

Q: How do you recognise a great chief marketing officer? 

A: I look beyond their words to their past work. Have they ever made anything that I think is interesting and good? Did they protect it from the gauntlet of their own company or process to ensure that the idea was still interesting when it was produced and arrived in the world? They also need to understand how brands grow. Businesses need to select CMOs that have an interest in creativity and consumer behaviour or psychology. The good ones do, and they also have an ability to articulate a point of view and sell it consistently to their own company, their agency or the press. A good CMO is a storyteller, armed with creativity, data and a point of view.

For more information, please visit mullenloweglobal.com