Let’s face it, most people don’t care about your product or brand. They already have too much going on in their lives to consider something new and are already inundated with marketing messages, new shows to watch on Netflix and the distractions of Instagram. You can buy attention by blitzing consumers with digital takeovers but that’s expensive and it still is no guarantee of getting results given how easy it is to tune out and switch off. So how do you stand out and get people to care as much about what you’re selling as you do?
In 2006 I was working with non-profit ad agency Public Interest. Yes I know, most ad agencies make don’t make profits so what’s the big deal. But Public Interest, founded by photographer and commercials director Mike Franzini and incubated by production company @radicalmedia, was an officially recognized 501(c)(3) that created ad campaigns for causes. It was a great little company that took on work for a range on foundations and charities. Clients included among others the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MTV, The Center for American Progress, the Broad Foundation and Wounded Warrior.

My strategy for our campaign for the Gill Foundation was tap into the empathy people feel towards animals to help them appreciate and care about what being ‘born different’ is like for people. The premise of this was that gay people don’t choose to become gay, they are born that way. This in itself is a controversial idea and as part of our campaign we went out onto the streets of Colorado Springs with microphones to ask people when they had decided to be straight. When they inevitably said they didn’t choose they were born that way, the interviewers asked them if they thought the same was true for gay people. We used the interviews as radio ads to tease the Born Different campaign and launch a website about the issue.

One campaign called ‘Born Different’ we had created for the Gill Foundation got a lot of media attention. The Gill Foundation wanted to engage the conservative community of Colorado Springs in a conversation about gay marriage ahead of a vote in Colorado to decide whether to authorize domestic partnerships for same sex couples under state law. Colorado Springs was chosen because it was home to conservative organization Focus on the Family, staunch opposers of gay marriage rights, with the idea that it was the perfect place to stir up conversation and maybe a little controversy. Research showed that the vast majority of people simply didn’t care about gay marriage rights. Conservatives were opposed and gay people were for it, but the middle ground didn’t have an opinion and it’s these people we needed to appeal to. The Punk Branding challenge was: How do make people care about something they currently have no interest in?
I came up with what I called the ‘Dumbo Strategy’, named not after the hip area of Brooklyn, but the elephant in the Disney movie with the oversized ears. I remember crying at the movie when I first saw it aged seven. Luckily no-one saw. What that movie did was to make us the audience care about and root for an animal because he was born different from the other elephants. He was mocked and outcast but eventually it was his difference that made him special and he saved the day (but putting out a fire on the circus train).

Next in the campaign came the birth of Norman, the dog that moos. Over a series of five TV commercials, written by creative team Mark Johnson and Dion Hughes and shot by commercials director Brett Froomer, the cute beagle puppy Norman is rejected by his litter and his owners because he’s born different and eventually is taken in by a new owner who loves him for who he is. Images of Norman mooing became the came icon and were posted in print, on bus sides and as lawn signs all around town.

Focus on the Family were not amused. NPR ran a radio story about Norman and the rival dog Sherman, the dog that barks like every other dog, that Focus on the Family had launched in response. “Focus on the Family has dubbed Sherman’s counter-campaign No Moo Lies. It was launched with a full-page newspaper ad and a Web site that rebuts the message that people are born gay.” The Norman campaign was working, getting reactions and engaging people in a conversation they otherwise would never have been interested in. Other media outlets picked up the story of Norman. There were editorials in the LA Times and The UK’s The Independent.

Los Angeles TimesThe IndependentThe story even spread as far as New Zealand. It took a while longer for gay marriage to be legalized in Colorado - the state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage was struck down in the state district court and by the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in 2014 - but the Norman campaign stirred up a debate in that made people more aware of and interested in the issue. Punk Branding is about creating strategies that help your product, brand or cause stand out in a sea of indifference. Most people just don’t have the time to think about your brand so it’s vital to find a way to a new way connect with them on an emotional level.