Many years ago I bumped into someone wearing a grey T-shirt with the word ‘dyke’ above a traditional Nike swoosh. Intrigued, I asked the wearer about her arresting clothing and she told me she bought it at Gay Pride a year earlier

I came across a few more of these shirts – ‘Fag’n Dike’ and ‘Dikea’ among them – and set about getting a research grant from the American university I was teaching at to try and trace the original creators of these alternative logos and then use ethnography to understand the motivations behind them.

What happened next is another column for another day. But I got the money and attended Gay Pride marches around the world. I discovered many interesting things on my journey. And I talked to half a dozen people who had actually designed and sold these shirts, which, with typical university aplomb, I was now referring to as ‘brand bricolage’.

The insights from each of the creators I tracked down was remarkably similar. Members of the LGBTQ community had grown tired of buying brands that refused to acknowledge their existence.

The creation of these alternative branded shirts was a way to make something part of their culture and a simultaneous ‘fuck you’ to a corporate culture that prized the ‘pink pound’ but could never be seen courting it for fear of scaring off the straight folks. It took me 25 nonsensical academic pages to explain this back in 1995, but you get the idea.

I’d have presented my list of distinctive assets and broken the heart and will to live of the creative team, and made them incorporate them more.

A quarter of a century later, my, how things have changed. The new ad from Renault that premiered last week is a testament to marketers that are not only now acknowledging LGBTQ consumers but using them to sell cars to mainstream consumers. The new two-minute ad for the Clio features the story of a lesbian couple whose love affair blossoms and then plays out over a dramatic, 30-year story arc.

Girl meets girl. Girl falls in love with girl. Girl marries bloke. Girl leaves bloke to return to girl. Happy ending. Shot of car in driveway.

Renault Clio should be applauded for its powerful same-sex love story

The ad itself is beautifully executed by Publicis Poke. It made me think back to many of the eloquent, angry young men and women I spoke to all those years ago. Only they can tell me if we are living in a more advanced, egalitarian world. But it looks like the story of two girls falling in love not only allows young gay people to see themselves represented in advertising these days, it also works for a mass audience too.

“We wanted to humanise and celebrate, not just 30 years of progress of the Renault Clio, but also the progress made within culture, society and life in that time,” says Renault’s UK marketing director Adam Wood. “The Renault Clio is as in-tune with the times today as it always has been.”

It’s a terrific sentiment and early indications suggest that, aside from the usual arse-hats, the British public seems to have accepted the campaign. Embraced it even. Social media is very positive and the image of the two women from the ad engaged in a passionate clinch is everywhere.

The main complaint seems to dwell on the fact that Renault has, once again, failed to make a sporty enough Clio for the top end of the market. And if that is the worst blow-back for this campaign then maybe, just maybe, we are living in more tolerant and accepting times after all.

Lacking distinctiveness

Which is lovely. But it does not in any way mean the ad itself is a success. Far from it.

The issue isn’t diversity, it’s distinctiveness. Marketers are mid-way through a growing disciplinary revelation in which involved, subtle, system two approaches to brand building are being replaced by more immediate, obvious, system one methods instead.

Where once we thought it was essential to differentiate “or die” we have become more ambivalent about the degree to which brand A truly needs to be perceived differently from brands B, C and D to succeed. Instead of being different from the others, marketers focus more on making their brand look like itself as much as possible.

That sounds, to inexperienced ears, like an obvious thing. But if it were obvious we would not see crappy linkage scores in which some consumers vaguely remember an ad but very few remember the brand it was actually for. The current best estimate says a day after exposure more than 80% of ads that were served to a customer fail this test. That low bar is not the consumer’s fault, it’s marketers who should be blamed.

Mark Ritson: Distinctiveness is marketers’ main challenge

Marketers who focus too much on image and not on the brand claiming the image.

Marketers who mistake their own total commitment to the brand that employs them for the abject apathy of the consumers whom they target.

Marketers who want to tell stories and are less concerned about whether the hero of the story – the brand – is heavily featured or not.

Marketers who have forgotten that the nine months they spent making their ad is very different from the four-and-a-half seconds of half-pissed attention it garnered from the wrong side of the couch.

Marketers who have missed the golden rule of all commercial communication: first they must know it is me. Because when the consumer does not know the brand behind the ad, all marketing bets are immediately off.

Changing marketing priorities

When we lived in an age of differentiation we loved the 90-second spot. Our agency could build a mysterious story with all kinds of flourishes and nuance that belied the creative team’s ultimate ambition to work in movies.

There would be twists and turns and drama and then, only in the final two seconds, would this beautiful little film tip its hat to its commercial sponsors and the logo would appear. The hypothetical audience would sigh in realisation as the plot, the images and the whole marvellous little movie coalesced in a titanic moment of brand-building that changed their perception of the brand forever.

That was the intention. Maybe 5% of the time these iconic ads became works of popular culture that built a brand for the ages. The young lad pushing t’bike up t’hill. Surfers riding monochrome horses. Punks running down the street to save a man from falling masonry. Young Elton running downstairs in his pyjamas on Christmas morning.

If I had written this whole article and replaced the word Renault with Citroën how many readers would have noticed?

But for the other 95% of the time the audience tuned out. Or got bored. Or stopped noticing two seconds into the ad. And did what most audiences do when they experience advertising. Something else.

And that would be my worry for the wonderfully progressive, worryingly indistinct Renault ad. It’s certainly a fantastic story beautifully told. It’s incredibly brave to target a mainstream market with an authentic lesbian love story. But is it Renault enough?

Clearly this new ad will not harm Renault or the Clio. But the money and time and focus invested in it could have gone in a myriad of different directions. Is this one the best for the brand?

I appreciate there is a Renault occasionally sitting on the edge of the establishing shot in the ad. But if I were Renault I’d have wanted more than the car. I’d have presented the agency with my list of the four or five distinctive assets and I’d have broken the heart and will to live of the creative team and made them incorporate them more. Much more.

A young brand manager recently asked me how you codify a 90-second ad and I was left impressed with his question and floundering for an answer. The Renault ad is, perhaps, a superb two-minute ad but also evidence that such indulgences sit uneasily in the age of distinctiveness we now inhabit. Would eight 15-second ads codified to the hilt have served the brand better?

It’s great that the ad has been so well received on social media. But most of the images floating around the internet are of two women kissing. Not of a car. Certainly not a Clio. If I had written this whole article and replaced the word Renault with Citroën how many readers would have noticed? Cared?

The ad is beautiful, progressive, impactful, it’s just not Renault enough. It wins on diversity but loses on distinctiveness. The good news for Renault and Publicis Poke is that the marketing community is way more concerned about the former than the latter. They will win awards and receive gallons of marketing praise for this ad irrespective of whether it works or not.

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