Turning a negative into your biggest positive

By Simon Derungs, 9 February 2023 | 4 mins read

I had a bit of an epiphany recently as I lay on my physiotherapist’s bench. Frustrated by my poor injured knees, thanks to years of long distance running, I moaned to Nuno (he’s Portuguese) that I hate having “old man’s knees”.

“Don’t be ridiculous”, said Nuno, “you have runner’s knees”.

Do you see what he did there? Same painful knees, and yet I somehow felt much better about them. He’d reframed my problem and turned my failing knees into absolute legends.

Nuno’s no amateur, his practice is very successful, so this was brand marketing of the highest order. Put simply, providing a fresh and positive perspective to a perceived or real negative can reposition a brand in people’s minds.

It’s not easy. As the marketing gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout said, “The single most wasteful thing you can do in marketing is try to change a mind.” I suspect many advertisers forget this simple truth and spend much time, effort and money in trying to convince a brand detractor that they should find that brand attractive, when in truth they should be reframing the conversation, just like Nuno did.

Remember when VW wanted to sell ugly little cars to Americans in the late 50s? And not just ugly, the car was created by the Nazis! “Think small” was the perfect reframing in a sector where bigger was better. As was “Lemon” and all the other wonderful, self-deprecating Beetle ads that treated their audience as intelligent grown-ups. Indeed, Dave Trott says that “this is where modern advertising began”.

Who’d have thought that a food product would proudly boast that people hate it!  “I hate Marmite” reflected a brand that was no longer in denial. The simple truth is that Marmite polarises, and by embracing the fact that many absolutely hate it, the brand was able to truly mobilise the Marmite lovers in a way that “the growing up spread” never could.

There was a time when Volvo had a reputation for being boxy cars driven by old people like me. The truth was that Volvo has been brutally single-minded in its positioning around driver safety for the last 80 years. They invented the three-point seat belt, widely considered to have saved over 1m lives! The clever trick that Volvo achieved was to turn ‘safety’ from old and boring, to dynamic and empowering through years of brilliant advertising.

Lucozade was originally launched as Glucozade in 1927 and became firmly positioned as a product for sick kids. Fast forward to the 80s, and the brand sought to take advantage of a fast growing adult energy drinks market. From “Lucozade aids recovery” to “Lucozade replaces lost energy”, along with Daly Thompson for good measure. Same product, same benefit, completely different framing. It was hugely effective, with sales tripling in just 5 years.

Why does a Skoda have a heated rear windscreen? To keep your hands warm while you push it. It was the car that launched a thousand jokes, yet after it was bought by VW group in 2001, the quality of its cars improved remarkably. But research found that although many people believed Skodas were now better quality, most would not actually buy one. Rationally, yes. Emotionally, no. So Skoda sought to poke fun at itself and sceptical car buyers (“It’s a Skoda, honest!”) and has reframed the brand in people’s minds (to be fair, it took 20 years). It was recently described as “one of the most respected car makers out there” by Top Gear.

And let’s never forget the remarkable transformation of Old Spice, from its ‘old man’ image that’d make you smell like your grandpa (and not in a good way), to the swagger of a ‘real’ man. Most brilliantly, they recognised that its most important audience was not men at all, so “The Man Your Man Can Smell Like” campaign targeted women. The turnaround of the Old Spice brand was nothing short of remarkable. The campaign won the 2010 Cannes Lions Film Grand Prix and sales increased by 125%.

In all these cases, the simple fact is that the product never changed. Marketers simply found a way to reframe the brand in the audience’s minds, turning a negative into a positive, and achieving a truly transformative impact.

And whilst my running days may be over, I still feel irrationally better about my ailing knees thanks to Nuno who helped me see that they are trophies to be proud of. Need to re-frame your brand? We’d love to have a chat about it.