News article

The law of unintended consequences ft. Marvin the Moth

So I’m rolling around on a stranger’s shower floor, holding my head and screaming. My wife is panicked and is hosing me down with ice-cold water. She is also screaming.

Let’s back up a bit, shall we?

So, I went on holiday last month to a remote lakeside cabin. Nobody was around for miles, and there was barely any phone signal. Off the grid didn’t do it justice – if I needed to fake my own death again, I know exactly where I’d go.

The aim was to disconnect, run barefoot and free around the lake, and not look at a screen for a whole week. It was so dark at night that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. Paradise.

Well, not quite.

On day one, my wife switched the light off as we turned in for the night. Suddenly, I felt something grab my ear. My head then started vibrating, which is not what it should do.

Something had flown deep into my ear and was trying to claw its way out.

I like to think I’m a rational human that performs well in an emergency.

Can’t say I’m convinced this is true now.

Cue me doing the opposite of the right thing. Now, when a creepy-crawly climbs into your head, you are supposed to:

  • Remain calm
  • Turn your ear towards a light source
  • Keep that calmness going
  • Gently pour a few drops of water into your ear until the bug escapes

I did none of the above. Instead, I:

  • Panicked
  • Started jabbing my ears with cotton buds and tweezers
  • Panicked some more
  • Slapped my ears a few times and shouted, “who’s there?!”
  • Ran into the bathroom and tried to drown it out using an unfamiliar shower

Eventually, the creature in question (a worryingly large moth called Marvin) plodded out of my ear and flew home.

What a relaxing start to my holiday.

Anyway, moth tangent aside, my desire for a remote escape had the unintended consequences of:

  1. Inviting every nearby critter in with the only light source for miles around
  2. Not being able to Google what to do because the phone signal was so bad

Stay with me, folks; this will be about marketing. Just.

The world is full of unintended consequences

No good deed goes unpunished.

Take the classic example on this subject – the “cobra effect”. In India during British rule, there were cobras all over the shop. You couldn’t move for them. So, the British government offered a bounty for every dead cobra handed in.

It was an effective solution. The number of cobras dipped because everyone was running about catching them. Until some clever Trevors decided to start breeding them so they could get even more reward money. This was all fun and games until the government cottoned on and scrapped the scheme. The real kicker? There was now no money in cobra breeding, so the snakes were all released, meaning India ended up with more of the wriggly little fellas than they started with!

I’ve noticed a few things like this that live on the fringes of the marketing world (see – I told you there was a point to this). Some are small things, like the new popularity metric on Shutterstock.

Seeing that an asset is widely used might lead us towards alternatives, which may be more unique but less suitable. Or it might prevent people from using unpopular items – is there a reason nobody has used them yet?

Another unintended consequence you may have spotted is that time in 2020 when Leeds United allowed fans to submit a photograph of themselves to be used as life-size cutouts in the stand. The pandemic prevented crowds from attending, so the perfect solution was to populate the stadium with the smiling faces of the supporters.


In a perfect case of “this is why we can’t have nice things”, all sorts of mischief occurred, with the highlight (or lowlight) being the smiling face of Osama Bin Laden peeking out from the crowd.

Now, we all want to thrive like spoiled houseplants. We often fail, so let’s look at a few examples of unintended consequences biting us in the bum and see what we can learn.

“It needs to be different from anything out there.”

Picture the scenario. Your business needs a new logo. Whether it’s a rebrand or a new start-up, you want the visual identity to flip everyone’s pancake.

You want to stand out from the crowd and blow people’s minds so hard they’ll think Marvin the Moth has crawled back inside their ears.

I understand this, and I agree. Maybe not the bit about Marvin; I’m still tender.

Every once in a while, we get a brief that begins with the explicit instruction that we need to create something totally different from anybody else in that space.

Uniqueness is a vital logo trait, but nothing exists in a vacuum. Being too far away from what people expect to see can alienate your audience. Different for the sake of different is easy – start with what represents you and is relevant to your audience.

Once those are in place, we can ensure we’re not accidentally treading on another brand’s toes.

“We’ve received feedback…”

E.T taught me six things about feedback last year. You can read that whole piece here if you must.

The gist is that getting feedback is easy. Helpful feedback, not so much.

Let us paint a picture. A very dear thing of yours has been redesigned. For argument’s sake, it’s your logo. You’ve been on a journey with a designer, and a few options sit on your shortlist that fit the brief and will work well for your target audience.

Before you finalise a design, you send it to a few people to get their opinions. “Be brutally honest”, you whisper, and in return, you hear:

“I hate the green you’ve used.”

“The colour is perfect.”

“The font reminds me of something; I can’t think what it is.”

“It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, truly unique.”

“The ‘S’ makes me think of a bevel-nosed boa constrictor, and I’ve got a phobia of snakes.” (this one actually happened).

You cannot please everybody. And trying to do so often dilutes a concept or lands you squarely in Victor Frankenstein’s front room.

Never ignore feedback, but remember the journey that you’ve taken, and know what to filter out.

“Let’s make social media links prominent.”

I play Phil’s glamorous assistant in the many Yardstick webinars we host. While there, I read out questions and make sure nothing catches fire. I also notice the things Phil says more than once, for example:

“Be extremely careful when sending people away from your website”.

Think social media. It can be tempting to stick social icons in a prominent place on the website so people will visit your website, see them and decide to go and engage with you.

Except it doesn’t happen like that. They click a link, see that they’ve got 11 notifications and soon forget you. It’s nothing personal; they design it that way. Besides, their neighbour Egbert has just posted some holiday pics, and they want to see how he got on at Shrekfest (which is a real thing in Milwaukee and looks terrifying).

The same applies to directories like VouchedFor and Unbiased. You’ve collected a pile of great reviews; why not put a link to the directory so people can read them?

Well, for one, your competitors are also sitting there, ready to steal attention. You’ve worked so hard to get somebody onto your website in the first place, don’t open the door and coax them back into the wilderness.

A much better way is to use tools like the popup VouchedFor widget that can show testimonials without leaving your website.

Think a few steps ahead

Is this always possible? Absolutely not. But approach things with this style of thinking. How can somebody misinterpret or misuse the thing you have created? How can somebody spoil it for the rest of us? And what should you do if something bigger than Marvin climbs into your ear?

If you need help staying ahead of those pesky consequences (or hoovering a chinchilla out of your nostrils), get in touch. You can email or call 0115 8965 300.

P.S. Shrekfest is exactly what it sounds like. Everybody dresses up as characters from Shrek; there’s an onion-eating contest and all sorts.

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