Nothing dumb about “Dumb Ways to Die”

Chloe Alsop, marketing manager at Metro Trains in Melbourne, Australia, flew to Manila this week to receive another award – this time as the Chief Marketing Communications Officer of the Year at the Tambuli Awards.

It’s another feather on the brand’s cap – and it has been peppering its crown with lots since November 2012 when “Dumb Ways to Die” was launched. At the end of 2013, the Gunn Report revealed that the campaign was the most-awarded work in the world.

“It’s funny that because it’s so cute that there is this misconception that the thinking behind it is also cute and dumb. There’s actually a lot of thinking behind it,” she said.

Alsop shares with Marketing how the campaign started, their initial reaction with the singing colored beans and dumb ways to ruin a campaign?

What were your initial ideas when you approached McCann Melbourne for the campaign?

From a brand perspective, it was about showing customers that we care about them and try to change their behavior and remind them to be safe around trains but not to be intrusive or yell at them or make it sort of a tactical enforcement because there has been a lot of that already. Like in airports or train stations, there are so many signs telling you what to do and not what to do. To people still look at that? I am not sure they do, especially younger people. It’s hard to do that without sound like blaming because you definitely can’t blame your customers for safety issues.

What was your reaction when McCann thought of making a jingle sung by colored beans in gory situations?

The day I saw this concept, Adrian Mills rang me and did a little pre-sell and asked “still off the meeting? We’re gonna do a song” and I said “I am hanging up.” I thought it will be having this tacky little jingle but they came and presented it with the concept of the animation. They read the lyrics word for word and they didn’t change it much from concept to market and it felt right. We got it.

Do you have any reservations on the campaign being too cute for a fairly serious subject matter?

Starting with the basic truth that came from the mouths of our station staff that deal with people and see that every day and after rounds with creatives to get to that point, it honestly didn’t feel too cute. It felt like it was right and I usually go with my instincts quite a lot. I am not saying it in an arrogant way knowing that it will be a roaring global success, but for me and seeing the brief, I knew it was right.

Did you expect that it will be this successful?

I admit this felt magical. When we recorded the final song, it was a bit of a moment of silence in the room. No words were spoken but it was on each other’s faces that it was pretty good. But to that we knew it will go where it did, I think we can never say that. If I sat here and said, “Yah, we knew that we’ll have 18 million people to pledge to be safe around trains globally, definitely not that.

Your thoughts on why it was a success.

A good team of intelligent people that work in partnership together. McCann didn’t roll the dice and try something else that agencies can do, pushing something out that maybe is a hit or miss. There’s a lot of advertising around safety about fear, telling people that they’ll will die and showing that in an accident scene or something terrible. Well I didn’t know when we briefed on what I wanted but knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want a negative visual next to my brand and I don’t want something that has been already done. If you give creatives enough scope, they’ll come back something good tied with the brief.

While it was an awards magnet, Dumb Ways to Die also attracted its fair share of critics, some doubting the campaign results while others were very concerned that it may actually promote suicide. What’s your comment on that?

The positives definitely outweigh the negatives. When something is successful and different, there will be people that will find drawbacks to it. To me, that keeps the conversation on train safety going. This returns to the original purpose of the campaign that is to make sure people know that we care about their safety. People can have an opinion on the creative.

I think we made the right steps forward and we can accept differences of opinion. The campaign was never to do with suicide. Metro has a lot of work around the topic that concerns that topic and we didn’t approach it with marketing because it is so sensitive.

What are dumb ways to ruin a campaign?

Copying stuff, being boring and I think even written briefs. It’s all about talking and verbalizing what you want to do and fleshing it out with your team and having a good partnership. Having a bad relationship with your agency is a good way to get a bad campaign. As a marketer, you can tell if the agency is not into your work and you have to just stop if you have that.

Good account management that’s smart and doesn’t just follow rules and processes also makes a big difference because they interpret your thoughts and ideas of what you want to get. Also, I don’t think producing content is the answer to everything so don’t just jump on the buzz. Someone told me once that it’s not about the big thing but the next big one. You need to trust your instincts and take risks otherwise you’ll end up doing work and just going home.

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