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FutureNow Article
Monday, Dec. 8, 2008

Branding Through Reverse Camouflage

By Jeff Sexton
December 8th, 2008

Do you have the courage to say what you’re not?

Most people don’t want to draw that sharp line of distinction, and it’s why their marketing efforts blend into the clutter.

Discernible edges and silhouettes allow us to visually “grip” an object and separate figure from ground.  Eliminate those edges and you’ll effectively camouflage yourself.

In the picture above, notice how the legs present a solid silhouette and are easily identified, while the man’s upper body camouflage breaks up his silhouette and blurs his edges into the background of trees and snow.  As a result, it’s much harder to make out his his torso and arms.

Like our eyes, our minds also depend on edges and silhouettes.  We define by giving parameters, mentally grasping a concept by its boundaries.  Without the “edges” of contrasting reference points, a concept or term remains ambiguous at best.

That’s why grabbing after an “infinite” market and seeking to be all things to all people ends up camouflaging one’s brand and messaging; without contrast it all just blurs into the background.

Want to stand out?  Sharply define the edges between you and your competitors.

The better you do this, the more strongly you’ll turn-off some customers.  But wouldn’t you rather powerfully persuade some of your market than be overlooked by all of it?

Just follow the example of this doctor:

I found this ad in my local newspaper and was immediately struck by the bold headline:

“You don’t want me to be your family doctor.”

Pretty ballsy headline for a doctor, huh?  Wouldn’t you feel compelled to read more about this doctor with the courage to so brazenly declare what he wasn’t?

Having gained the reader’s attention, the body copy further explains: “Neurosurgery is one of the few medical specialties for which I am well-suited.  I am not warm and fuzzy.  I could never be successful as a pediatrician or in a family practice – no one would come back a second time.  But I am very good at what I do.”

Dr. Goodman then substantiates his claimed expertise with a list of very impressive professional qualifications and accomplishments, rounded off with some examples of his extreme commitment to surgical excellence and his patients’ well-being.

While his professional qualifications are truly outstanding, most readers would never have read them without Dr. Goodman’s use of reverse camouflage in his headline.  Saying what he wasn’t allowed him to stand out amidst the clutter.

So here’s 3 sure-fire ways to reverse-camouflage your messaging.

1.    Get yourself an enemy and/or reject a reasonable alternative position
Nothing fires the blood quite so much as declaring what (or who) you stand against.  But you get no points for tearing down straw men; rejecting a reasonable alternative position puts teeth into your message.

2.    Present a tightly focused perspective
Once you’ve narrowed the group of customers that you’re most interested in attracting, focus your messaging to speak most directly to their felt needs, desires, and frustrations.  People who don’t share those experiences will feel excluded, but your core audience will feel an instant connection.  Both will instantly recognize you.  Tim Miles offers a brilliant example of this on his “About Us” page.

3.    Explain what costs you’re willing to bare and admit the downside to your offer/product.
This one is more about credibility than definition, but amidst a background of ad-speak, solid credibility acts as its own form of reverse camouflage.  Plus, you don’t just want to be seen, right?  You want to be believed as well.

Finally, if all else fails, you can always use your new-found knowledge of camouflage to escape weekend chores (just ditch the boots in favor of camo socks)

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Comments (29)

  1. Some really nice points. Especially for start-ups and independent consultants, I think we’re terrified to limit ourselves – you don’t want to turn away any prospect or dollar. Unfortunately, we go out with such a vague message that, by trying to please everyone, no one can connect to us.

    I found that, when I really started to refine my message and narrow my focus, people finally started to understand my relevance as a service provider. Ironically, even though it means some people are turned away, the end result is more traction and sales.

  2. Great comments, Dr. Pete – especially the part covering the subjective experience of narrowing your message and then seeing the extra traction.

    I always enjoy checking out he blogs and platforms of commenters, and was thrilled with your “2 Levers of E-commerce” post. Way cool stuff:

    - Jeff

  3. [...] ran across a real thought-provoking blog this morning from Jeff Sexton at FutureNow. He pointed out how effective campaigns that clearly [...]

  4. Thanks, Jeff. My other marketing realization in 2008 (beyond narrowing my scope) was that I’ve been spending too much time preaching to the choir. You guys do a great job of talking to the business audience, and not just other industry folks. The conversion message definitely needs to get out to the people, especially in this tough economy where every marketing dollar counts.

    Sorry – didn’t mean to turn your comments into a mutual back-patting session :)

  5. Interesting point, well made. Create a USP by talking about what you DON’T represent. Cool beans.

  6. [...] a piece on the topic that appears online in FutureNow the idea of reverse camouflage is applied to [...]

  7. Jeff S.

    You SO need to write a copywriting book.

    (Yes, I’m going to keep pestering you until you finally do it)

  8. Tim is hardly brilliant, but you do indeed SO need to write a copywriting book.

    (Yes, I’m going to keep pestering Tim to keep pestering Holly to keep pestering you until you finally do it.)

  9. Now my wife is bugging me to bug you to write a copy writing book (using two words makes it clearer than one, imntbho). Git-r-done, Jeff. :)

  10. One of the problems is that it’s counter intuitive that you might actually make more money with less, but more focused traffic. It’s also a great way to cut back on the amount of effort expended on customer service complaints.

  11. Early,

    Great point. If you don’t already follow him, Sean D’Souza has some great in-depth articles on exactly this seeming paradox – well worth signing up for his newsletter at

    - Jeff

  12. [...] a piece on the topic that appears online in FutureNow the idea of reverse camouflage is applied to [...]

  13. I think escaping the weekend honey-do list is the benefit I’ve obtained here. =)

  14. [...] a product, service or even him/herself.  Jeff Sexton wrote an article on what he calls “Reverse Camouflage“: Want to stand out?  Sharply define the edges between you and your [...]

  15. Absolutely true. The “camouflage” is the effective way for branding.

  16. I don’t know how you do it Jeff! As always, fascinating.

  17. Wow, fascinating technique, advertising is such a diverse field.

  18. Amazing… that’s the only word that comes to my find after reading this post.. Reverse Camouflage would probably be one of the best marketing tactics.. But I’ve a question.. will it be that effective online also?

  19. Very interesting read Jeff, I liked the Neurosurgery advert.

  20. Your images emphasize your points nicely. Reverse camouflage is definitely a marketing technique that I would use for our own ad campaigns. I am already excited about starting this ever important campaign.

  21. [...] Are you too inclusive to say who your product isn’t for with the kind of clarity that risks offense? [...]

  22. But I’ve a question Ironically, even though people finally started to understand technique that I would use for our own ad campaigns. I am already my relevance as a service provider. my find after reading this post.. Reverse Camouflage would probably be one of the best marketing tactics..

  23. This is a very interesting concept and is the first time im hearing of this technique, thanks for releasing it to the public.

  24. That is a great analogy for this message. The concept of “reverse camouflage” is a clever way to not only be noticed in your field, but to also lure in those that are seeking your specialty services.

  25. Analogy for messages isnt the only important thing. Concepts even for the camo is important and also to notice your fields. But I guess I agree with DaySpaG

  26. my answer – no!

    practice shows that negative advertisement can and will harm your business… there are too many samples about this practice and some companies have gone even bancrupt because of incompetent marketing firms.

  27. This reverse-camouflage example, is in fact, positioning with negative ads.

  28. “Humankind is playing many games these days, and not all of them are funny. However, the hard power is giving more way to the soft power, and smart people are employing good design to that respect, while branding remains primarily a community-building, happiness-searching tool” ~ Brandient

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Jeff is a Persuasion Architect, Web copywriter, blogger, and instructor of FutureNow's Persuasive Online Copywriting workshop. Follow Jeff Sexton on twitter

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