Am I bovvered? Can irreverence help build an audience?


Irreverence. Cheek. Flippancy. Rebellion.

Whatever you like to call it, challenger brands are hot for this we-don’t-care-if-you-like-us style of marketing.

And there are lots of examples of it about. Think Oatly, Brewdog, Surreal Cereal, Tango and Paddy Power to name just a few.

But does it work? And what makes this approach the right one for your brand?

“Irreverence is like a nuclear fuel.
Managed well it provides almost endless energy.
Mishandled and it can become radioactive.”

If you’re ready to challenge the status quo, to stand for something, or rock the boat, irreverence could be a great tool in your arsenal to build up a loyal following.

After all, who doesn’t love the charming and cheeky underdog? Using irreverence to poke a little fun, without insult, could attract more admiration than just being ‘nice’. But you need to make sure your target market are on the journey with you. Go too far and it all seems a bit ‘try hard’, lacking ‘depth’ or at its worst ‘annoying’.

Oatly are a great example of a brand pushing irreverence to its limits. Their outdoor marketing commonly shows a packshot of their product with a headline like, “You actually read this? Success”, or “Another ad for our oat drink providing no reason at all why you should try it”.

This anti-marketing approach works for them because Oat milk isn’t sexy or glamorous. Yet by pushing the boundaries of marketing, the same way they’ve push the boundaries of milk, Oatly have been able to attract a loyal following of similarly rebellious non-dairy drinkers.

When this irreverent style matches the tone and values you’ve already built or are building up, the likelihood is, you’re onto a winner. Like crisp brand Tyrrells who launched a unique on-pack campaign offering customers’ prizes like, “having Des as a middle name”, an “uncomfortable long handshake” and a “tattoo of your boss”. This fun, if a little bizarre, tone of voice was what we’ve come to expect of Tyrells – and it reminded us why we love them.

So, what about established brands?

While challenger brands can find success with irreverence, it doesn’t often work so well for established brands – who, by using it, can often come across as defensive or reactive.

Say there’s a new competitor on the market, when the established brand starts using irreverence it makes them seem like they’re a little bit worried, which can in turn give customers more of a reason to see what the fuss is about. It can also feel like a big brand is attacking the domain they helped to create. And loyal customers may not like this new tone or feel criticised by it.

So, it’s quite clear that irreverence isn’t everything!

Talk your audience’s language

The most important thing to consider when creating any marketing communications is that what you say is true to your brand. That the tone fits with who you are and what you stand for, but also the people you’re talking to.

Take Slack for instance. As a brand they’re targeting businesses – busy people with more on their mind than marketing. That’s why Slack’s main focus is clarity. They want their customers to know what they need to know without distracting them from what they’re doing. Everything is simple, concise, with a touch of humanity. And their users thank them for it.

When they changed their logo, they issued a short message to let people know, “We’ll not bore you with the design thinking and the meaning of every angle and curve of the new logo – you’re busy people, and our main intention for this post was to let you know about the change, so you won’t be too surprised when the icons on your phone/laptop/tablet look a little different.”

They gave users just enough information and personality to feel noticed and taken seriously, without impeding on their work. Perfect.

Similarly, TSB’s introduction of Tiny the Elephant (the not so scary financial elephant in the room) helped to add a little softness to the hard financial sector. It created a rapport with the audience and reinforced the idea of their Money Confidence Experts. It wasn’t irreverent, but it was light-hearted. Being irreverent about financial matters would have been seen as a bit irresponsible – especially in the current cost-of-living crisis. So, their soft approach worked wonders in connecting with the audience and making an impact.

But say your brand is a bit different and you think irreverence fits with your personality. What are some of the rules we can apply to help avoid using irreverence in the wrong way?

  1. Be irreverent but intelligent. Don’t be afraid to challenge fads, habits, or behaviours, but do it a clever way. Make sure you keep your finger on the pulse to remain relatable.
  2. Be sensitive to your market. If you’re a brand that deals with saving lives or serious issues, irreverence may trivialise the struggles and lead to an understandable backlash. Best avoid it.
  3. Be charming not bullying. The important theme here is only use irreverence to challenge things, not people. Talk about behaviours, but don’t use irreverence against cultures or specific individuals. Keep things positive.
  4. Be powerfully simple. The best irreverence communicates something meaningful with a sprinkle of humour.
  5. Be authentic. Taking on this type of tone is not a short-term strategy. You can’t be irreverent one minute and vanilla the next – not only will that confuse your audience, but it’ll also make them doubt who you really are. And while you don’t have to be as brash or bold as you were at the start, irreverence needs to be part of your DNA for this approach to really work.

 So, there you have it. If you’d like to get a new perspective irreverence or on your marketing in general, don’t hesitate to get in touch.