In today's consumer environment, marketers must take risks. The landscape is just too crowded, and consumers are too distracted. So doing the same old thing and expecting a different result; that isn't just the definition of insanity, it's also a recipe for getting lost in the clutter and risking brand irrelevance.

Success, however, lies in understanding the difference between taking risks—and being risky. The former can expand your audience, awareness, and brand perception; the latter will detract from your ability to do so.

The Super Bowl earlier this year was a microcosm of taking risk vs. being risky, with brands straddling the line between the two while pushing the boundaries of a platform once reserved for beer, scantily clad women, and cheap laughs. If you were one of the 100+ million who watched the game, you were exposed to social issues and messages that once were taboo from advertisers—from taking stands on equal pay for women and immigration to FOX's patriotic messaging and Lady Gaga's halftime performance nods to the NFL's "Inside These Lines" unity advertisements.

But those messages and the reactions they generated certainly raise questions:

  • How do you push boundaries without exceeding them?
  • How do you take chances while remaining true to your brand?
  • How do you engage your audience without offending them?
  • And, most important, is there a way to know the answer before your campaign ever hits the market?

One of the keys is having a deeper-level understanding of your consumer—which is where neuroscience plays an important role. Neuroscience has shown that more than half our brain processing occurs below conscious awareness, and that conscious responses (to surveys, dial tests, etc.) only reveal a portion of what affects consumer behavior.

By fully understanding your consumer, you can understand the limits of risk—before it becomes risky.

Through years of research, we've identified four key areas in which brands might take risks with the appropriate level of riskiness for the brand.

1. Social Activism

Historically, brands largely have sidestepped social and political issues. Aligning with one cause may be desirable to some, but off-putting to others: As brand prophet Michael Jordan once said, "Republicans buy sneakers, too."

Perhaps the marketing climate is changing. During Super Bowl LI, brands took on polarizing subject matter—from gender pay to immigration. Spots generally received critical acclaim and generated a lot of buzz on social and other media outlets, but also faced challenges—primarily in the form of negative comments.

It's critical for brands to understand their consumers well enough to make this leap in messaging and positioning. Because success depends not just on taking a stand or supporting an issue but also on sticking to it and ensuring that it is part of your brand values. Having to walk backwards is far more dangerous than never having taken a stand to begin with.

As consumers increasingly seek authenticity and transparency in the brands they support, you must understand where your consumer falls in that scenario. If a brand is going to engage in social activism or social issues, to succeed it must remain consistent with how the brand acts every day.

2. New Content and Formats

Your brand may not change, but you can change how you present it. For instance, during Super Bowl L, Mountain Dew debuted "Puppy Monkey Baby," an eye-catching creature that combined three "cute" commercial staples. The creature was a little strange, but it was in line with the brand message: three awesome things (Dew, juice, and caffeine) in one drink.

It was also one of the top-Tweeted ads during the game, which reinforced our neuroscience research that top-tweeted ads are generally easier to process, that they trigger strong memory activation during the final branding moments, and that they generate more smiles than ads that generate very few Tweets. This atypical type of content was also seen in Old Spice's "The Man" campaign, which incorporated the brand and product while talking to an entirely new audience—women who buy for men.

If advertisers come to market with atypical content too early, the ad can come off as disingenuous. However, arrive too late, and you lose the benefit of novelty and risk being viewed as a copycat. For example, Dairy Queen debuted ad content similar to Old Spice's, but it did not receive the same praise.

It's important to ensure that new content and new formats tie directly to your brand.

3. Humor and Seriousness

Humor can be a highly effective advertising technique. But brands must understand that different things are funny to different people. And how far you push humor in your advertising can increase that divide, especially with sensitive topics and products that require more thoughtful consideration.

How far you push the boundaries of your brand proposition requires a complete understanding of your audience: You want to strike the right balance, delivering something that's funny, memorable, and on-brand.

Too often, however, brands don't understand their consumers well enough and end up pushing them beyond proper boundaries, watering down their messages too much, and effectively nullifying the original intent.

4. New Directions

When is the right time to change directions—whether it's a new brand image, a fresh ad campaign, a new tagline, a different spokesperson, or a revised package?

Brands often struggle when having to decide whether they should continue doing what they've been doing—or change course. Will the new direction enhance engagement, or will it anger and annoy faithful consumers?

There is no blanket answer. It truly depends on the brand and the industry or category. But the key is understanding how consumers feel about your current direction. Is the attachment so high —to current campaigns, to individual components—that a new direction will be met with revolt? Or does your research show that there is wear-out in your current approach and your consumers are open and ready for change?

* * *

Marketers never want to be impulsive, and the landscape is only going to get more challenging as brands scramble to break through the clutter of the modern media landscape. And technology is only going to bring more connectedness—likely in ways we cannot yet conceive.

Brands must adapt—and continue to evolve. And that means taking risks without being risky. The smart brands are those that will take risk in a calculated manner. They'll understand the risk, including how far that risk takes them, and apply best-practices and good research.

With the modern tools of neuroscience as part of a well-constructed research platform, CMOs and agencies can push boundaries across communication channels in a measured way.

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image of Carl Marci

Dr. Carl Marci is chief neuroscientist of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.

LinkedIn: Carl D. Marci, MD

Twitter: @CMBiometrics