The Art of Adjacency: Don’t Just Look Up, Look Sideways

In the splendid film noir, In a Lonely Place, Humphrey Bogart stars as Dix Steele, a troubled Hollywood scriptwriter who falls for Laurel, his next-door neighbour, played by Gloria Grahame. At one point Laurel compliments Dix on a romantic scene he has just written.

Laurel: ‘I love the love scene – it’s very good.’

Dix: ‘Well, that’s because they’re not always telling each other how much in love they are. A good love scene should be about something else besides love. For instance, this one: me mixing grapefruit, you sitting over there, dopey, half asleep. Anyone could tell we’re in love.’

Good advice. Perhaps sometimes in the world of commercial creativity we are too direct. If we want to suggest affection, we show an emotional embrace. If we want to communicate anger, we have people ranting and raving. If we want to convey disappointment, we cut to tears.

Dix Steele encourages us to look at adjacent events, ancillary actions. The empty seat on a bus leaving town, the expectant eyes of a faithful hound, the lipstick traces on a cigarette. These incidental asides can be more telling, more memorable, more poignant. Because in real life emotional truth is more often inferred than declared; it is more often implicit than explicit.

The art of adjacency does not just apply to creative execution. It’s also relevant to strategy. For some years now the first instinct of the strategist when invited to promote a brand has been to focus on its essence, to ladder up to some higher order benefit, to find some unifying social purpose. But occasionally it pays not to look up, but to look sideways.

Magners convinced people to engage with hitherto unfashionable cider, not by celebrating the brand’s provenance or product, but by encouraging the over-ice serve. Tate Modern attracted young people to hitherto inaccessible contemporary art, not through the art itself, but through the contemporary music its target enjoyed. Lurpak suggested that it’s not just the butter, but what you do with the butter, that counts.

Sometimes the answers to a brand’s problems reside at the margins, not at the core. Sometimes they can be found in the neighbouring category, in the incidental asides, in the associated interests. Marketing history is filled with case studies of businesses that didn’t just celebrate the essence of their brand, but sought imaginatively to reframe how that brand was perceived.

Betty Crocker decided that it was not about the cake mix, but the added egg. Gillette determined that it was not about the razor, but the blade. Esso proposed that it was not about the forecourt, but the toilets. Instagram resolved that it was not about the words, but the pictures. The V & A suggested it was not about the gallery, but the café.

So perhaps the answer for tyres resides, not in the their relationship with the road, but their relationship with the drive. Perhaps the answer for mattresses resides not in their impact when you’re asleep, but when you’re awake. Perhaps the answer for banking can be found not in money, but in time.  Maybe opera should be looking at ballet, tea at coffee.

I could go on…

The message is a simple one. Before we rush to distillation and elevation, we should consider strategic and creative adjacency. We should look sideways at what we could learn from neighbouring sectors, analogous brands, incidental behaviour. There we may find the catalysts and fresh perspectives that will enable us to reframe and rethink our own brand. The risk is that if we’re always looking at the sky, we may not see the roses.


No. 101