Almost a century after work halted, the cathedral of Florence was still without roof or viable solution in sight to span its extensive shape. As a competition was launched to settle the problem once and for all, a local architect named Filippo Brunelleschi stunned the judges by proposing an ingenious solution, yet refused to share how this would be achieved.

Unsure whether to appoint him or not, the judges were taken by surprise when Filippo proposed a simple challenge: the architect who could stand an egg upright on a piece of marble should get the job. As each competitor stepped up to the stone to try their luck, each failed. Finally, Filippo grabbed the egg, smashed one end on the stone and instantly stood it perfectly upright. The room erupted: his competitors furiously argued had they known this they would have done the same. Despite accepting this, Filippo countered the same would apply to his proposed dome, explaining his reluctance to give away its secret. The commission went to him, and the rest is history.

Filippo’s cunning ability to do the unexpected and provocative to differentiate his offer was crucial in winning him the job, an approach of increasing value for brands striving for attention as market complexities rise and attention spans fall.

Being different — differently

Those looking to follow Filippo and stand out have increasingly fewer opportunities open to them in a rapidly accelerating and connected world. As a result, brands are more and more going beyond what’s expected to reach their audiences and convey their stories. And some a little further: Holy Crap Cereals, Fat Bastard Burrito Co, Thug Kitchen, FCUK and Vinomofo spring to mind, using a hint of Tourette’s to fight for attention and relevance versus more conventional competitors.


However, there are those who have chosen a different path. Using intelligent provocation and smart questioning (‘What else can robots do rather than steal our jobs?’) instead of shock and awe, they prompt audiences to engage, reflect, and consider new angles suggesting that an engagement with their business could provide suitable answers. Cleverly linking to current events, they probe prevailing views in new, thought-provoking ways, creating impact in a range of different contexts.

Lifestyle brands like Nike, or more business focused brands (The Economist, Bloomberg Businessweek) have long set benchmarks for witty copy. Relying on simple yet provocative language to cut through and get under people’s skin, they convey both information and their brand in a way that connects and collides with people’s emotions, beliefs and views of the world.


Consumer brands such as Virgin Atlantic, THINX or Oatly have reinforced their distinctive brand ethos in similar ways, visibly demonstrating that they are willing to do things differently to more conventional established competitors.

Understanding the value of and knowing how to intelligently challenge and exploit status quos has helped these brands establish an effective position and reach audiences looking for something different in new ways.

What the future?

A recent brand we worked on we knew cried out for something of this sort: Imperial’s Business School was aware their innovative approach to business was distinctive in the increasingly saturated and mostly uniform world of leading business schools.

Centred around ‘the best people for the future of your business don’t currently work in any business, they are at Imperial’, we decided to take a bold approach to cut through the noise which certainly raised a few eyebrows. Subverting the popular social media shorthand of #WTF into ‘What the future’ created a powerful hook enabling us to tell a range of stories about the school and its unique offer. The #WTF hashtag allowed the campaign to be easily and confidently used across Social Media, with plenty of opportunity to take on a life of its own as new stories around business, innovation and the school emerge.


Bold, copy-led adverts deliver thought-provoking questions which highlight an interesting juxtaposition between business challenges and Imperial’s innovative mindset. A simple, type-only style positions the copy line as the hero, enabling maximum impact and flexibility across channels.

The results impressed: increased brand awareness by more than 100%, promotion to the ‘premiere league’ of business schools alongside Judge (Cambridge) and Saïd (Oxford), a significant increase in the number of bluechip companies interested in closer relationships, 41% more press mentions, and crucially 20% more applications for all and 119% for MBA courses. All testament to a successful first year, leading the School to expand the campaign for a second year.

So, what’s your point?

Challenging people’s beliefs and prompting reflection will always see messages go much further than simply boasting qualities. Shock for its own sake is superficial and short-lived. But staying close to your audiences and understanding what makes or breaks their worlds creates real engagement.

Be bold and brave, irreverent yet intelligent, and don’t underestimate the element of surprise. As Fillippo found in Florence, good things can happen if you do the unexpected.

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