Brands are so afraid of turning any potential buyers off, they are increasingly making work that fails to turn anyone on. John Harrison, Managing Partner at BBH London, suggests 4 things we could do in order to create work that cuts through this morass of averageness.

There was a restaurant in Kingston upon Thames that I used to regularly walk past on my way to see a client. It had a board out the front announcing “Specialist in Italian, Greek, Thai and Chinese cuisine”. I never ate there.

It’s been said before that by trying to appeal to everyone, brands are in danger of appealing to no-one. As Nigel Bogle puts it, “If you want to speak to everyone, speak to someone”. However, I worry that brands have forgotten this important principle. As well as the vast amount of instantly forgettable communications, there are now so many examples of brands explicitly communicating that they are for ‘one and all’, that they are becoming bland wallpaper, ripe for parody.

I suspect that there are 3 related trends that are driving this malaise –

1. The wholesale adoption of the Byron Sharp “all growth comes from appealing to as many potential buyers as possible” dogma. This is frequently misinterpreted as “make sure you don’t turn anyone off”.

2. The focus on Millennials and their shared ‘inclusive’ attitude. This frequently results in brands attempting to curry favour by holding a mirror up to this belief.

3. The focus on mean average scores across most pre-testing methodologies. This can ignore strength of feeling as it places equal value on 10 people scoring an ad 5 out of 10 as it does if 5 people scored it 0 and 5 scored it 10.

Rather than just moan that things “aren’t as good as they used to be”, here are 4 things we could do to help us create work that stands out.

1. Define who you don’t want to be

Franklin D Roosevelt said “I ask you to judge me by my enemies”. I really like the confrontational stance that this demands. You are forced to accept up front that you aren’t going to appeal to everyone. For a children’s charity I used to work with we defined our target audience as “people who hate the Daily Mail and everything it stands for”. That’s so much more provocative than calling them “Guardian readers”. It sets up an expectation that we know some people are going to hate what we do – but conversely, that some people will love it.

2. Find a different start point

Given I work for an agency whose logo is a black sheep, then this suggestion probably isn’t going to come as a great surprise. But if we genuinely want to make work that cuts through, then looking at what everyone else is doing, and then starting somewhere different is not a bad rule of thumb. Being different isn’t easy. As the salesmen for IBM used to tell their customers “no-one ever got fired for buying IBM”. The belief now seems to have become “no-one ever got fired for saying that Millennials are cool with diversity in all its guises”. The truth is that people will get fired for making work that merges into a sea of sameness.

3. Speak to real people, not aggregates

I was born on 26th March, so that makes me an Aries. Apparently, along with all the other 500 million or so Arians in the world, I’m stubborn, courageous, incisive and spontaneous. This is clearly nonsense (OK, maybe not the ‘stubborn’ part). Yet this practice of morphing entire cohorts into universal attitudes is something the industry is all too willing to readily accept. I’m regularly told that Millennials in the UK are open-minded, inclusive and want to give back to society. I’m sure lots of them do. But to base communications on the amalgamated average of 16 million individuals is missing the richness and nuance that will enable work to cut-through these glib headlines.

It’s how the Planner on Hagen Dazs found out it was “the ice-cream I hide from my kids so that me and my husband can eat it when they’ve gone to bed, sharing the spoon”.

How the Planner on Robinsons found out “when I’m a dad playing board games with my son then I’m still the dad, but when we’re just running around getting knackered, then I become his friend”.

How the Planner on KFC found out that, whilst there was a mass cultural trend towards clean eating, there was a growing backlash against its inherent joylessness.

This belief, that speaking directly to real people is a fantastic way to understand them, is one reason why BBH pay for all their Strategists to do their own ethnographic research.

4. Embrace the extremes

A few years ago, an ad that I’d led the strategy on came back from pre-testing with ambers for every measure – except engagement, where it had an off the scale green. When digging into the figures it transpired that this ad was one of the most polarising executions that the research company had ever tested. 45% of respondents absolutely adored it; 40% absolutely hated it with a passion. The recommendation from the research agency was to never run the ad again – as they put it “average isn’t good enough”. Fortunately, we had an astute client whose response was “My current brand penetration is 18%. If I can get even a fraction of the 45% who love the ad into the brand, then frankly I’ll take that”.

So, four suggestions designed to stop us trying to speak to everyone, and instead speak to someone. I’ve recently heard about a restaurant in New York that only sells Mac n Cheese. I can’t wait to try it out.