Getting real with consumers: The view from 30,000 feet

[January 7, 2011]

[This post reflects the state of the site discussed at the time. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of digital messaging strategy in the US.]

Who I’m talking to

• What’s their problem
• How do they see my brand in relation to that problem

The minimum they want to know

• How my brand solves their problem

The minimum they want to accomplish

• What to do
• How to do it

The first step

• What I want them to do now

How this communication will be staged

• What creative platform
• What media
• Over what initial time period
• Within what lifespan

Over the course of a marketing campaign, the items on the list above usually get addressed—one way or another. I supposed the list could serve as a skeletal model for a creative brief, with one reservation. A creative brief is already a working document, one step removed from the 30,000-foot view we need to maintain. 

Otherwise, our work becomes a haphazard assemblage of the trendy, the safe and the prescribed. In fact, it’s this very ideological hodgepodge that drives clients to focus on communication media instead of communication.

“We want a mobile campaign, a website, and a social app,” says the brand manager with an underutilized budget. And right away, a cash-starved agency is only too eager to adopt a manufacturing model and “get them out the door.”

Not that there wasn’t, at some point, a group hug in a conference room over the agreed-upon annual marketing strategy. Trouble is, the themes of that strategy are usually forgotten by the time the deli sandwiches and pasta salad are half way to their eternal reward.

Within hours, the focus has shifted from selling a brand message to manufacturing a series of branded objects. In the short term, this scattershot approach initiates a vicious cycle of brand burnout. 

When one badly conceived ad-object doesn’t yield results, we lob another and another, retelling the story in the same way each time, in a misguided stab at integration. Yet, the long term impact of this kind of thinking runs deeper still.

Where the ploys are.
In the rush to show tangible results, we often forget our top priority: to actually solve a real person’s real problem. The results of that lapse can be seen everywhere. JennyCraig.com is a case in point.

On the surface, you might think I have no case. There’s lots of stuff to click on, and it’s all about weight loss.

Except, it’s too much of a mediocre thing. Now, I’d never dial up such a site if I didn’t think I had a weight problem. But given the choice of confronting that dense wall of promotional messages or eating more celery, I know what my choice is. 

Ironically, in the face of reasonably convincing evidence the program might work for me, I’m completely turned off. The site has nothing to do with me. It’s about “LEARN MORE NOW” and “METABOLIC MAX.” Despite the promise of a program “Tailored to Your Needs and Lifestyle,” I still feel left out. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been to a tailor since the 80s and the phrase is lost on me.

But ultimately, it’s about all that shouting. Can we have a quiet talk about my growing embarrassment about my growing belly? Can we skip over the micro-branded product names and talk about nutrition? Yes, I know I can “Speak to a Jenny Craig consultant today—FREE!” but that’s not going to happen; Jenny Craig has turned my personal problem into a commodity.

Now, the thought has crossed my mind that I’m not in Jenny Craig’s target audience, even if Jason Alexander is.

My question is, why not? It’s a weight loss program and I want to lose weight. But far from solving my problem, this feature- and benefit-driven site, replete with Strong Calls to Action, succeeds only in creating the one experience more unappealing than looking in the mirror. Though the site fairly oozes sales messages, it fails to sell me on the one thing that matters: the feeling I’ve come to the right place.

A smiling face, a warm embrace…
or a codependent relationship?
So I return where I started: A great message strategy grows out of an honest desire to talk to real people about their real problems as a real person. That is, not as a saccharine, yet ghoulishly parasitic brand persona, whose existence depends on forming a co-dependant relationship with your customer’s anxieties. 

OK, not to worry: Jenny Craig is doing fine with this approach. Between 600 centers in the US, a profitable food line and the $600M buyout from Nestle, you can insert your own joke about fat wallets when ready. My concern is not whether brands make money this way, but that this hyperactive marketing strategy is toxic, both to consumers and our industry.

Looked at from 30,000 feet, this kind of predatory advertising erodes people’s trust in branded communication. Brands who take this route are following the path laid out by the food industry. For now, food companies load their products with fat, sugar and salt and sales are up. But so is public awareness. 

Just as the day is coming when the food industry will have to adjust to meet consumer demand, advertising is already feeling the pressure to shed a few thousand pounds of cynical manipulation.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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