A red and yellow sign reading Please Stay on the Path
A red and yellow sign reading Please Stay on the Path

Knowing When to Break Marketing Rules for Success

Paul Kiernan

However, as with any set of rules, there are times when it's not only acceptable but advantageous to break them.

Let’s start this with a little reality check. We often use the old rule of thumb method when working, but do you know what the rule of thumb actually is? It is derived from the old English law that says a man may beat his wife as logn as he used a rod no thicker than his thumb. Isn’t that ridiculous?

Yes, yes, it is, and also, it’s not true. The rule of thumb most likely comes from builders using the thumb to estimate measurements. It’s inexact, and also, that other definition seems eternally tied to the saying, so it’s a little off-putting.

The point is that a rule of thumb is a guess, an estimation, and not a hard and fast rule you can never break. So, when it comes to marketing, and you find yourself adhering to rules of thumb or best practices, those are not hard and fast, carved in stone, or make or break; they are suggestions.

A suggestion is an offer, not a rule. I am offering you this suggestion, which is based on experience. That’s great. However, things get wonky when the suggestion is mistaken for a you must do it this way, or the entire world of marketing will explode, and you will be to blame.

Intelligent marketers know when to follow the rules and when the rules aren’t going to be helpful. However, breaking the rules isn’t easy, as marketing, like so many other professions, often falls prey to the ‘this is how we’ve always done it’ mindset. That mindset is dangerous and can leave your business far behind the rest.

Knowing when and how to break the rules can help you stand out in an overcrowded field and get noticed. So when do you break the rules? This blog will examine that. Shall we jump in? Yes, we shall.

The Advice

In the ever-evolving marketing landscape, there's a plethora of best practices, guidelines, and rules to follow. From crafting compelling copy to designing eye-catching visuals, marketers are often inundated with advice on how to navigate the intricacies of their field. However, as with any set of rules, there are times when it's not only acceptable but advantageous to break them. This blog post will delve into the art and science of knowing when to break marketing rules for success.

The Nature of Marketing Rules

Before we explore when to break them, let's understand the nature of marketing rules. These rules are not arbitrary dictates but rather distilled wisdom accumulated through years of trial and error, backed by consumer psychology, market research, and industry experience. They serve as guardrails, guiding marketers toward strategies and tactics that are statistically proven to yield favorable results.

For instance, the rule of thumb in email marketing suggests avoiding spammy subject lines to prevent emails from being flagged or ignored. Similarly, the "rule of seven" in advertising suggests that consumers must see or hear a marketing message at least seven times before taking action. These rules aren't ironclad laws but offer valuable insights into consumer behavior and effective communication strategies.

A brick wall behind a wooden bench with LOVERULES written on the wall

The Case for Rule-Breaking

So, if these rules are so valuable, why break them at all? The answer lies in the dynamic nature of marketing and the diverse needs of target audiences. What works perfectly in one scenario may fall flat in another. Here are several scenarios where breaking the rules can lead to marketing success:

1. Differentiation

In crowded markets, adhering strictly to conventional marketing rules can result in blending in with the competition. Sometimes, breaking away from the norm is necessary to stand out and capture the audience's attention. Consider Dollar Shave Club, which disrupted the shaving industry with humorous and irreverent marketing campaigns. By breaking away from the polished, serious tone typical of razor ads, they differentiated themselves and garnered widespread attention.

2. Target Audience Understanding

While marketing rules offer general guidelines, they may not always align with the preferences and behaviors of a specific target audience. In such cases, breaking the rules can be a means of better resonating with the intended demographic. For instance, if a brand's target audience consists primarily of millennials who value authenticity and transparency, breaking away from overly polished and corporate messaging in favor of a more casual and genuine approach might yield better results.

3. Creativity and Innovation

Rules can sometimes stifle creativity and innovation. To break new ground and push boundaries, marketers need the freedom to experiment and take calculated risks. This might involve unconventional storytelling techniques, out-of-the-box campaign ideas, or bold design choices that defy traditional norms. By embracing creativity and allowing room for experimentation, brands can surprise and captivate their audience in ways that conventional rule-following strategies cannot.

4. Cultural Relevance

Marketing rules are often rooted in a specific cultural context, which may not always be applicable or relevant to every market or audience. Breaking these rules can be a way to adapt to cultural nuances and sensitivities, ensuring that marketing messages resonate authentically with local audiences. What works in one culture may not translate well to another, and savvy marketers understand the importance of cultural sensitivity and adaptability.

5. Seizing Opportunistic Moments

In fast-paced environments where trends come and go rapidly, adhering too strictly to established marketing rules can mean missing out on timely opportunities. Breaking the rules to capitalize on emerging trends, viral moments, or cultural phenomena can sometimes yield significant returns. This requires agility, a keen understanding of the zeitgeist, and a willingness to act swiftly to leverage fleeting opportunities.

"Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!"
Gold Hat, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

While breaking marketing rules can be a powerful strategy, it's not a license for recklessness. Successful rule-breaking requires a delicate balance of intuition, data-driven decision-making, and strategic thinking. Here are some principles to keep in mind:

1. Know the Rules Before Breaking Them

Before breaking any marketing rule, it's essential to understand the reasoning behind it. What problem does the rule address? What consumer behavior or psychological principle does it leverage? By understanding the underlying principles, marketers can make informed decisions about when and how to deviate from them effectively.

2. Test and Iterate

Rule-breaking should not be a haphazard endeavor but rather a methodical process informed by experimentation and analysis. Before fully committing to a rule-breaking strategy, conduct A/B tests or pilot campaigns to gauge its effectiveness. Collect data, analyze results, and iterate based on insights gained from real-world performance.

3. Calculate Risks and Rewards

Breaking marketing rules inherently involves risk, and not all risks are worth taking. Before deviating from established norms, weigh the potential rewards against the potential consequences. Consider the impact on brand reputation, audience perception, and long-term goals. Calculated risks are far more likely to yield positive outcomes than impulsive ones.

4. Stay Authentic

Regardless of whether you're following the rules or breaking them, authenticity should always be a guiding principle. Marketing messages that feel forced or inauthentic are unlikely to resonate with audiences. Even when breaking the rules, maintain a genuine connection with your audience and stay true to your brand's values and identity.

5. Be Ready to Adapt

Finally, recognize that the marketing landscape is constantly evolving, and what works today may not work tomorrow. Stay vigilant, monitor market trends, and be prepared to pivot your strategy if necessary. Flexibility and adaptability are key attributes of successful marketers who are unafraid to challenge the status quo.

A waterfront with blue boats and several men fishing near a sign with the image of a guy fishing with a line through it.

Summing Up

In marketing, rules serve as valuable guidelines for navigating the complex terrain of consumer behavior, communication strategies, and market dynamics. However, blindly adhering to these rules can limit innovation, creativity, and adaptability. Knowing when to break marketing rules requires a nuanced understanding of audience needs, market dynamics, and strategic objectives.

By embracing creativity, seizing opportune moments, and staying true to brand authenticity, marketers can strategically deviate from established norms to achieve breakthrough success. Rule-breaking isn't about defiance for its own sake but rather a calculated and strategic approach to standing out, resonating with audiences, and achieving marketing objectives in an ever-changing landscape.

You Should Know

ThoughtLab has a history of breaking the rules. We know the rules, and we know they are not universal and don’t apply to every situation. ThoughtLab is excited to push the boundaries and break some rules so your brand or business stands out and gets seen.

Breaking the rules isn’t about going against the flow just to be different; you have to think and be clear about when and how you’re breaking the rules regarding marketing. Break the wrong rules, and you’re dead in the water. When it comes to digital marketing, partnering with a knowledgeable rule breaker can help you elevate your brand. Talk to ThoughtLab and break some rules. It feels good.