The Rise of Clickbait Brands

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Imagine the modern customer: he slips into “the most comfortable socks in the history of feet” (Bombas) before putting on “the perfect sneaker” (Cariuma). He spends a moment deciding between “the most versatile pant ever” (Rhone), “the most comfortable pant ever” (Swet Tailor), and “the most comfortable men’s jeans ever made” (Mugsy). He buttons up “the best damn dress shirt yet” (Mizzen+Main), pulls on “the greatest hoodie ever made” (American Giant), zips into “the world’s most versatile travel jacket” (BauBax), and grabs “the most functional backpack ever” (Nomatic) before he wheels out with the “best carry-on luggage ever” (Away). After a long day of travel, he gets into the “world’s most comfortable slipper” (Mahabis), unwinds on a bean bag that relieves depression (Moon Pod), before tucking in for the “best sleep of his life” on “the world’s finest mattress” (DreamCloud).

The notion of sensational language in advertising is nothing new, but it seems our digital lives are crowded with what might be called “clickbait brands.” Products with a headline so good you can’t help but click through.

It makes sense. In a world of endless options, these superlatives call out with reassuring finality. Rest easy, you don’t have to read any more reviews—you’ve found the best, ever. Not to mention, appealing to extremes gets results.  An analysis of online news headlines found that more extreme text got more clicks. For an ad to catch your attention in this sensational age, it may need to flow with the tonal tides and speak in hyperbole.

But what does this mean for marketing more broadly? Rather than dismissing the trend as nothing more than QVC 2.0, we think there are a few things all marketers can learn from the rise of clickbait brands.

First, a lesson in simplicity. Love them or loathe them, these messages are simple enough to retell, and might even engender a bit of pride in the retelling (“I’ve found the most comfortable socks!”) Functional messaging like this is often looked down on by sophisticated marketing professionals, but, for some categories, would we benefit from a return to the straightforward practice of professing product superiority in language that consumers instantly connect to?

Second, a lesson in capturing attention. Consumers don’t really believe that a black t-shirt “WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU TRAVEL FOREVER,” but we’re curious enough to click. And in the insanely saturated context of our digital lives, sometimes it takes a double dose of enthusiasm to gain consideration. Of course, we have to be able to fulfill the promise on the other side of the click, and nothing tarnishes a trusted brand more quickly than a customer feeling duped, but we can still learn a simple lesson from the messages dominating this medium: Don’t sound boring. And, when customers do engage, brands should engage back with an authentic brand voice that’s distinctive and uniquely compelling.

And finally, a lesson in consumer confidence. There is an emotional payoff that drives customers to click. They might feel smart, gain a sense of superiority, appreciate the reassuring simplicity of full confidence that they’re getting the best. In a skeptical age, this momentary swagger can feel pretty nice. So how can we be sure our bigger brands—with product portfolios more diverse than hyper-focused direct-to-consumer t-shirt makers—provide that same confidence, that same rush of dopamine that customers get while anticipating perfection?

In the end, you can probably sell a product with an exaggerated promise, but you can’t build a brand without an authentic purpose. Brands that stand the test of time create meaningful connections that elevate the customer relationship above functional claims of comfort, versatility, durability, and the like. But we marketers should not ignore the simple, instantaneous appeal of feeling like you’ve got the best. Can we build brands that last, but also make customers feel great in the moment? Because there’s real psychology that makes clickbait so appealing. It simplifies a complex world. It promises instant benefits. It cuts through the chaos with provocative appeals. It speaks directly to the customer with confident promises, and it translates a company purpose into an irresistible catchphrase. We might find the tactics exhausting and the messaging overblown, but lessons for all of us lie behind the clicks.

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