The most rockin’ of rock stars know rules are made to be broken. Or are they? Gareth May finds out whether the best way to get your brand over the line is not to cross it.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The classic habits of any rock band are not always the best bedfellows for musical success (especially when core members of a band end up dead). Sometimes, you have to find cleverer ways to rebel. Think Johnny Cash playing live at San Quentin State Prison, Beth Ditto posing nude for NME, or even Radiohead releasing their album, In Rainbows, for pay-what-you-want.

Each note of smart alec discord won these artists loyal followers and a reputation for playfully flashing the middle finger to what’s expected, while still keeping their noses clean (in public, at any rate). The same is true in today’s marketing landscape, where in the face of increasing rules and regulations, the winners are finding ever more creative ways to break the mold, without breaking the law.

Selling Sex

When the UK’s leading online sex toy retailer Lovehoney tapped into the British love for innuendo, the resulting TV spot was an instant hit, garnering pick of the week by both Campaign and The Drum. The commercial, which ran after 9pm and featured bonking rabbits and blow-up balloons, did a rare thing: it promoted a range of erotic products without showing a single sex toy.

“Many categories and products have marketing and advertising regulations so, in that respect, it’s about adhering to those as a responsible advertiser and brand,” says Helen Balmer, Lovehoney’s brand and marketing director, explaining that marketing adult toys has extra restrictions, outside the standard advertising and consumer regulations. “Mainstream PR media do not show realistic products in their content, for understandable reasons, and we cannot – and would not want to – show products before the watershed, so that children do not see them whilst watching TV.”

As such, Balmer says, the internal creative team at LoveHoney works hard to create clever ways to stay within the limitations of advertising and as the first sex toy company to advertise on TV, they’ve worked closely with regulatory bodies to make sure the ads they make are compliant with regulations. They’ve had their fingers burned though. The company’s 2011 commercial featuring a couple having a fully-clothed, if raunchy, embrace was pulled from its 10.15am ITV2 spot, despite clearance from regulators and a wellbeing brand repositioning, with a strapline that read: ‘the sexual happiness people’.

“In the face of increasing rules and regulations, the winners are finding ever more creative ways to break the mold, without breaking the law.”

It hasn’t stopped them prodding the line. Lovehoney want to create conversations about sex toys. “The brief [for the 2016 ad] included all our advertising regulations. We could show product packaging between 9am and 11pm, and show some product after 11pm, but why faff about with different ad versions?” Balmer says. “The legislation is appropriate for our category but this ad is bold, visually impactful, and entertaining [because] we don’t shy away from what we do.”

Sexual culture

The online adult industry is big business. It’s worth nearly $100 billion and makes up for over 70% of pay-per-view content. It’s not, however, easy to promote. Google and Facebook, two giants of digital marketing, have zero tolerance for adult content. Still, getting your product column inches in the face of promotional lock down is something the online porn industry does well. Sites such as Pornhub have made an art form of getting Safe For Work (SFW) exposure for their Not Safe For Work brand (NSFW). 

The adult emporium’s SFW sister-site, Pornhub Insights, uses data-driven content (infographics of popular searches during Ireland’s Storm Emma and evidence of drops in traffic during Apple’s iPhone X launch event, for instance) to bypass ad-blocks and reach mainstream audiences via pop culture publications like Mashable and The Metro. Sure, there are still playful PR stunts by adult ‘tube’ channels, including everything from launching a beer, to donating to a sperm whale charity, and attempting to sponsor the subway. But the successful marketers in this sector are thinking more strategically about how to play by the rules and get attention, creating more engaging and authentic content instead.

“The industry has its marketing challenges,” says Lee Roy Myers, one of the creators of WoodRocket, whose parodic pornographic productions, such as Game of Bones and Fap to the Future, are ripe for media exposure. “Our company is built on shooting and releasing content quickly, trying to surprise our audience,” he says, admitting that some days there are too many sex-themed stories and the media only embrace one at a time. This market saturation is a direct result of the funnelling effect of advertorial restrictions, Myers says, and the only answer is to be agile. “We are never afraid to change the way we make content,” he says.

WoodRocket’s own popular SFW series, ‘Ask A Porn Star’ started as a behind-the-scenes segment only found on the extras of DVDs, with responses, Myers admits, that were “typically porny”. When Myers noticed communication on Twitter between fans and their favourite adult stars, he repackaged the segments as candid question and answer shorts, tapping into a younger, liberal audience (a generation where the connection between porn and pop culture goes far beyond knowing references to Debbie Does Dallas) using an on-point form of social media marketing. Coverage skyrocketed, with VICE and Buzzfeed picking up the videos.

Like Pornhub, Myers has learned that simply creating a popular product isn’t enough; providing valuable, share-able, and honest content that your audience wants is what really cuts through promotionally. Especially in such a heavily restricted and hugely competitive digital landscape.

The dutchie? Pass

For some industries, however, it’s not just the restrictions that present a challenge in terms of reaching the right audiences effectively. Now legal for recreational use in nine US states (and 29 states for medicinal use), the business of cannabis is booming. Olivia Mannix is the co-founder of marketing agency Cannabrand, which has worked with over 100 cannabis companies, including dispensaries and cultivators. She explains that marketing cannabis in the US adheres to similar restrictions as alcohol: no advertising to anyone under 21, no cartoons that may be appealing to children, no claims that products are safe, and no outdoor advertising or TV spots (in fact, the first television ad for marijuana produced by Cannabrand was pulled from a Colorado station back in 2015).

“Our mission has been to rebrand cannabis and the industry overall. We think outside the box 24/7.”

Olivia Mannix. Co-founder, Cannabrand.

For Mannix, the biggest difficulty presents itself in changing cannabis’ public image to something more akin to the reality of the product she is trying to promote – and doing so under the scrutiny of eagle-eyed regulators. She is not coy about the company’s drive: “Our mission has been to rebrand cannabis and the industry overall,” and she’s thorough in her approach. Cannabrand never use slang (pot, weed, dope) in their messaging and they avoid stoner culture altogether (any references to ‘getting high’ for example) instead opting to feature hikers and outdoorsy activities in all their promotional content.

Crucially, they also inform and educate, promoting the medicinal element of cannabis. “We think outside the box 24/7. Facebook and Instagram make it very hard to market and have shut down cannabis related accounts, so having events and social media influencers is a great way for us to reach consumers,” she says.

Fundamentally, she adds, it can’t all be about cannabis, especially as its image comes hand in hand with a century’s worth of stigma (‘reefer madness’ posters anyone?). Each brand she works with must have a solid plan beyond the product. That’s why Mannix helps her clients with operations, brokerage, and investor relations, as well as branding. “Having a brand which is internally owned as well as externally portrayed is so important to the future of your business,” she says. “Every cannabis company should have education and advocacy associated with them, so they can continue to grow the industry in an open and honest way.” Clean cut drugs. Now that really does break all the rules.

Access redefined

So how are the troubles of marketers working on sex toys, porn and cannabis relevant to you, you might wonder? Your products and services don’t have to deal with such rigorous policing. Well they do now. As it becomes universally acknowledged that data is more valuable than oil, the way you access and store the details of the customers you’re reaching has never been more closely scrutinised.

The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an example of legislation that affects everyone. And finding ways to maintain your contacts list isn’t about subverting the law (without expecting a whopping 4% of revenue fine landing on your doorstep should a data breach be identified), but rather being the smartest, savviest, and most engaging in the way you adhere to its implementation, so everyone benefits. From Manchester United’s Stay United campaign, which saw the team’s top players extolling the virtues of opting in, to charity Cool Earth’s refreshing approach to newsletter rebuilding, Rainforest Revolution (think puppetry, provocation and a sardonic voiceover), there have been some great examples of inventive opt-in marketing – blending the necessity to comply with strong insight and forthright honesty, capturing hearts, minds, and data in the process.

“There are people who really love our brands and the company behind them and the GDPR is helping us be more focused and efficient by communicating just with these people.”

Jeremy Mitchell. Marketing director, St Austell Brewery.

Away from creative campaigns, many marketers are embracing the opportunity GDPR presents to streamline their contacts, willingly adopting the ‘if your name’s not down, you’re not coming in policy.’ For St Austell Brewery, a leading independent beer maker, GDPR presented challenges that required some smart thinking. With a large database built up over many years – from guests who stay in pub bedrooms and people who dine at restaurants, to the thousands of fans their beer brands garner – they had a lot of personal data to make compliant. But they’ve faced that challenge head-on and worked out what GDPR can do for them, rather than the other way round.

“We were quite ruthless with deleting the records of anyone who had not opened an email or bought from us in the last 12 months,” says marketing director Jeremy Mitchell. “We then emailed people on the remaining database asking for their consent to stay in touch.” It may have resulted in a 70% drop off, but Mitchell isn’t fazed. “There are people who really love our brands and the company behind them and GDPR is helping us be more focused and efficient by communicating just with these people.”

The moral of this story? Be more Johnny Cash than Kid Rock. Embracing restrictions in your category and finding opportunities through creativity is really the best way to outdo rule makers – be that with watershed prodding ads, valuable and honest content, a complete industry rebrand, or distilling a hardcore fan base. At the end of the day, they are all methods that prove you have to play the game, in order to beat the system.

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