Subtlety in marketing


In defining marketing, we say to our clients that marketing is any type of communication; any part of their business that communicates with the outside world is marketing. From email signatures, to business cards, fee structures or a website, all of these elements of your business communicate some type of message.

Some may say that marketing is blatantly obvious; I would say that the best marketing is done subtly. So what is subtle marketing and who does it the best?

I was on a Qantas flight this week and while waiting for the 747 to back away from the terminal, I noticed a faint tune over the cabin sound system. What was the noise? Qantas was playing their latest soundtrack Atlas. The song was composed specifically for Qantas and their communication by ex Silverchair front man Daniel Johns and appears in their latest ‘You’re the reason we fly’ campaign.

Daniel Johns said in a recent article for, he wanted the song to be big, something special…and not just a jingle. Getting comfortable in my seat before take off, I felt like I was being serenaded by Qantas; all passengers were being hypnotized by Qantas as the music was being played ever so softly throughout the aircraft. This is very clever of Qantas, creating an affiliation with the brand its campaign.

Being in marketing, I tend to block out any advertising, so the fact that I remembered the tune and linked it back to Qantas was testament to the fact that Qantas achieved their intended desire.

Another campaign that got me thinking about subtlety in marketing is the Coffee Club campaign ‘where will I meet you?’  The waiter staff in the stores all wear apparel that says and if you visit the site it actually redirects you to the Coffee Club website.

Now I don’t know if the website is subtle but the apparel is very effective for a marketing campaign because it grabs the consumers attention and plants the seed of curiosity. So if you are sitting in the Coffee Club with a mobile you most probably will do a quick Internet search of this or search it at home when an ad sparks your memory.

Even the Commonwealth bank ad that just had ‘Can’t’ was effective as it sparked curiosity in a very subtle way as the Commonwealth Bank logo or slogan was not present. It may have been a little confusing in terms of branding but it got people talking before and even after knowing whom the ad was coming from.

Subtlety versus unique

Richards and Richards is a men’s suit and shirt store in Brisbane that has created a very unique marketing opportunity.

Richards and Richards has created within the apparel store a R & R Café Bar that is open even when the store itself is closed. This is unique because it is not common to see a café or bar within an apparel store. In terms of subtlety, they have great opportunities to incorporate their men’s suit and shirt side of the store in creative and subtle ways. Through promotion, quirky meal idea and much more, Richards and Richards can bring both aspects of the store together.



Is subtle always effective?

If a message can be converted in the way a business, product or service wants without it being misinterpreted or misconstrued, subtlety is exactly what you want.

It is fair to say people don’t like the idea of being bombarded with messages from various businesses trying to promote a product or service, therefore creating the thought that marketing efforts should be a little less obvious in the way they communicate them.

On the flip side, something to consider is people admire and liken to honestly and upfront communication. Australia’s campaign to eat more lamb or pork campaigns were both as straight as they get. The campaign themselves had humor but there was no hidden message just straight to the point that Australians should eat more lamb/pork.


The art of subtlety

The art of mastering subtlety is creating powerful messages in a cool yet confident way. If your marketing communication isn’t pushy or needy, consumers are more likely to respond positively to your message.

Strong brands now create relationships with their clients by creating stories within their campaigns. Many perfume and cosmetic brands do this to entice their target market into a fantasy as opposed to simply trying to persuade them into buying their product. This is a very subtle way because people aren’t fixed on the product but the development of the story. Obviously the last second or two promotes the product but consumers need to sit through the first thirty seconds of a story.

Take bloggers for example, they have an audience but need to entice them to continuously keep them coming back. Titles of blogs, the content and even images is what draws them back, so the more interesting and less sales driven the blogs are the more receptive to what you are selling they will be.

Overall, the message is clear that subtlety in marketing is key. The more subtle your communication efforts are the more powerful they can be. Consumers don’t want to be told what they should buy but they still like to buy so the key is the entice them to want to buy your product or service.

As any part of a business that communicates with the outside world is marketing it is vital to take control of the content going out and make it work for you and your business. 

Michael Kava

Director at Little Marketing

In the last 13 years I have worked in various roles within the marketing industry, from in-house marketing to leading a team within agencies both in Australia and the United Kingdom. I am the founder and Director of Little Marketing, providing leading marketing advice for small business. My team and I provide consulting, result driven marketing, marketing strategies, workshops and guest speaker seminars to help small business define their point of difference and stand out from the crowd.

Comments (2)
Wendy Huang

Wendy Huang, Full Time Blogger and YouTuber at A Custom Blog in 4 Minutes

Lovely article Michael, all very great points and I totally agree with it. Growing up with advertising, theres nothing that turns me off more than a garrish buy sell message. Even people that try and sell to me too soon turn me off. I enjoy buying from companies that take that time to create the story as well. I think a great follow up article would be, how this could be applied to networking situations - I'm hanging out to hear what you write next :)!

Michelle Nichols

Michelle Nichols, Owner & Virtual Executive Assistant at

Thanks Michael, it is a great article. I saw a video recently and it was a mum rapping in a video. As I was watching it I was thinking, has this mum just made the video? The video was well done, and was funny so maybe she did and maybe she didn't. Get to the end and it was a Fiat commercial. Very subtle! Agree with Wendy, how to apply to networking situations. I hate blatantly promoting my business and would love tips about being subtle.