Archive for the 'Advertising' Category

24
Apr
16

Brand Essence? Essentially Redundant.

In a common agency scenario, advertising creatives huddle with strategists and account directors with an intimate understanding of the client’s POV—to craft a presentation spelling out the Essence of a brand.

My qualms with this process begin with its redundancy. A brand has always been a summary of the values espoused and the promise made by a company. It’s only recently, when the term “branding” has also been applied to logos, fonts and color swatches—that the cry goes up for a brand to cleave to its essence.

No one who understands what a brand is would allow that to happen. A brand is a distillation of attributes a company, its products and services already exhibits in the real world—not a slogan crafted by committee. It’s an idea, a thought-process, a way of life for the company that owns it. As such, it can’t be made: It must be earned.

Marketers who don’t grasp that embark on periodic quests for the kind of unifying phrase that previous generations would have recognized as a campaign headline—one possible surface manifestation of a brand.

Is it any wonder that this tail-wagging-the-dog effort fails so magnificently?

Senseless…but darn concise.
Compounding the problem is the contradictory intent to be all-inclusive and inoffensive—yet still say something specific, unique and “ownable.” It’s here that the creative torture begins, as anxious marketers attempt to substitute a thesaurus for real creative thought. The search is on for a string of words that say something memorable without deviating into sense.

Yet, once the process is finished, the resulting Essence statement contributes nothing to branded communications. Filtered through its gelatinous mass, even simple phrases abandon all hope of Meaning.

How else explain “The Joy of Pepsi” or statements like:

We are Farmers (Farmers Insurance)
Go Further (Ford)
Get a powerhouse of productivity in your pocket (Windows Phones)

The last example, aside from being socially tone-deaf, conjures up the absurd image of firing up a power plant in your pants.

The others, and there are many others, are merely blank. For instance, while I might experience joy with my family at Thanksgiving, the last thing I’m liable to remember about the holiday is how great the Pepsi tasted. Regarding Ford, no matter how I interpret the phrase “go further,” it rings false.

Because unless I’m a NASCAR driver, my relative success in life won’t be determined by the car I drive. At the same time, this slogan is linked to a PR campaign revolving around the theme of empowerment. But as much as Ford deserves credit for even entering this arena, this campaign needs to be utterly separate from the idea of buying Ford cars.

Not least because, as with nearly every multinational corporation, the disparity between Ford’s C-level compensation and pay for the rank and file is a major contributor to dis-empowerment.

Again, because a brand is a promise, the credibility of that promise is an essential component of any branding exercise. Go further? Only if you’re a member of the 1%.

As such, Ford’s latest branding blunder is another triumph of marketing/PR ideology over common sense. Somebody sold the car maker on mounting a “purpose-centered” campaign, because such campaigns are very chic right now. They just forgot to check if their high-flying rhetoric actually had wings.

The committee-process ate my thought-process.
If the taglines above appear to make sense, it’s only because they’ve been cast in the form of a brand essence statement. Now, I know how such shallow phrases are produced. It’s a painstaking process, involving many late nights, hundreds of pounds of ugly wrap sandwiches and a headache-inducing stream of jargon-encrusted e-mail.

And in that horribly attenuated process, a kind of groupthink evolves. Trouble is, the final result is a phrase or phrases with countless unspoken associations that, unfortunately, “you had to be there,” to understand.

Paradoxically, the current obsession with Big Data, and its presumption of reality-based messaging, has been accompanied by a withdrawal from the real world. If the only requirement to attaining joy were buying Pepsi, don’t you agree life would be a tad simpler? Yet many other brands also think nothing of expecting consumers to associate their products with life’s greatest achievements, its loftiest feelings.

Want to speak to the essence of your brand? Keep your messaging in bounds. Pepsi as a universal metaphor for life’s great moments? Ford cars as a conduit for self-fulfillment? Please. Once and for all, dump the data, burn the research and just get real with your audience.

31
Jan
16

Pharma Advertising and the Talisman of Doom

Despite years of experience in the real world of stringent regulations, many pharma brand managers still believe their mission is to push the boundary of the permissible in an effort to promote a doubtful claim. So begins an exhausting round of creation and revision in which language is tortured and communication is reduced to a string of factoids.

As any rational person could foresee, it’s all for naught. The medical, legal and regulatory departments of even the tiniest pharmaceutical companies know their mandate: to ensure the FDA doesn’t send them a warning letter. The result is overreaction, leading to the stiff, stilted and stagnant prose we now accept as the norm in pharma advertising.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If marketing, medical, regulatory and legal teams met with their advertising agency on at least a quarterly basis, it would take nothing more than honest work to find a viable solution to any marketing problem.

A marketer who feels market share is slipping could discuss ways to cast their brand in the most favorable light. Trouble is, this would mean moving away from the “pre-approved copy,” brand managers cling to like a mystical talisman. Like such a talisman, this pre-approved copy is incomprehensible to its supplicants. It is simply understood to work. The result is a process that values consistency over contextual sense, and demands that every single communication contain exactly the same magic words—regardless of its intended purpose.

But the first step in making pharma advertising actually motivate its many audiences is to kick this addiction to all types of mechanical thinking.

Breaking the obsessive cycle.
The antidote to this toxic behavior is a multistep process. It begins with a frank discussion of the problems implicit in marketing to consumers or the healthcare community. Instead of charging ahead with a bold statement that will never get past the lawyers, brand managers must build a consensus with medical, legal, regulatory and agency creatives about what can and can’t be said about the product in different contexts for different purposes.

This is important, because a creative team can only motivate an audience to action if it works within a coherent messaging strategy. In the absence of such a strategy, it’s common practice for an agency to create a stab-in-the-dark positioning, only to have it arbitrarily eroded over a period of months—until it becomes meaningless.

That’s how we end up with headlines that promote “stepping in the right direction,” accompanied by the image of a pair of sneakers—not for a drug, mind you, that treats topographical disorientation. Somewhere, buried beneath this landslide of silliness is the thought that there are steps one can take to control the condition in question.

As if every other conceivable medication for every other conceivable condition doesn’t start from the premise that it exists to take your health in the right direction.

Clear, declarative and actually true.
But the dreary process leading to ineffective messaging is completely unnecessary. Instead of winnowing down unsupported claims until you settle on something that’s inoffensive, why not start with a powerful affirmation of what you can say under the law?

As I see it, the origin of the status quo lies in the misapprehension that marketing and advertising are fundamentally about coming up with something “poppy,” “strong,” or “catchy.” The memorable ads from the deep past that had those attributes succeeded for only one reason: They were grounded in an underlying thought process that changed the way people thought about the entire product category.

Now, I’m the first to say this is stacking the deck. By law, the FDA cannot allow pharmaceutical companies to communicate the way Volkswagen used to. But the underlying idea—i.e., of having an underlying idea—is something pharmaceutical brand managers can emulate. Not by puffing up their product with not-so-subtle innuendo, but by translating the concrete concerns of their audiences into clear, declarative statements.

Changing this tried and true process requires a radical shift—away from anxiety and authoritarianism toward a collaborative approach that acknowledges and respects the expertise of others. I’ve seen for myself the miraculous change that comes over a “stubborn” regulator once someone bothers to hear them out. The change was so pronounced, I can only equate it to a religious conversion in which everyone in the room who was blind was finally able to see. To see, that is, that great advertising in any field arises from a balance of multiple points of view.

15
Dec
15

Can’t Say No? Say What You Know.

Look into the mission statement of many an ad agency, and you’ll find some kind of happy talk about “serving our clients.” In many instances, this boils down to demoting your business model from Consultant to Vendor. Now, maybe you see this as a non-issue. I’ve heard more than one agency head conclude that if a client wants to spend three times as much for work a design studio can do, that’s their problem.

To which I say, “hogwash.”

For one thing, doing so amounts to fraud. By demoting yourself to Vendor while charging Consultant fees, you’re participating in the fiction that your clients get full value for their money. But at the end of the year, when the shop-worn nonsense you agreed to fails to move the needle, someone on the client side is bound to notice. Are you planning to say, “Don’t blame us, we’re just the Vendor”?

This phenomenon explains why many high-value accounts bounce from agency to agency like a basketball on steroids. Ironically, it often happens that the creatives from the latest agency bounce with the account to the next. That’s because in today’s literal-minded environment, who’s better qualified to work on an account than the person who last participated in its demise?

And that, mind you, is despite the insistent drum-beat of agencies seeking new hires with “fresh thinking.”

Business model 1: Self-abasement
Now, I’ve heard the counter argument many times. It’s about needing a particular client in the portfolio to attract similar clients. Or it may be about having a complete roster of product categories covered because, again, in today’s literal-minded environment, a cookie brand will never hire an agency with only cracker experience.

But I’ve also heard near-death exhaustion in the voices of entire agency teams, when they’re driven to the edge of insanity by abusive clients who are:

• Obsessive-compulsive
• Money-grubbing
• Lacking in visual imagination
• Willfully ignorant of the limits of language

…and possessed, shall we say, of colossal egos.

Yet, even clients with a more humane attitude can drag your work down out of gross incompetence. As long as I live, I’ll never understand why the study of marketing effectively includes no meaningful introduction to the principles of visual and verbal communication.

After 22 years, I can count on the joints of one pinkie the number of “experienced brand managers” who didn’t need to be reminded, at each presentation, that water is wet, the stove is hot, and a Web site is not an a-dimensional repository of novel-length marketing blurbage.

Of course, by now, I hear someone in the back of the room shouting, “That’s fine, but we have to deal with what is, if we want to stay in business!”

Business model 2: Collaboration.
Right. And there’s always room for compromise in any collaboration. But the first step to preventing Abusive Client Syndrome is establishing that collaborative relationship from the start and insisting on it all the way down the line.

Even when your client is a classic Type-A personality, there are things every agency must do if we have any hope of reversing the industry-wide trend toward ground-eating serfdom.

Above all else, refuse to be silenced. You can’t win every point, but never refrain from laying out the truth. Over time, I’ve seen the phrase “pick your battles” morph from a savvy management strategy into a cowardly avoidance strategy. Try attracting top talent with an attitude like that.

A commitment to standards.
Of course, client management begins with actually retaining clients. But even if you feel you can’t say No to your more difficult clients, you can say What You Know and make it concrete with tangible examples. You may not achieve all your goals, but you’ll establish a basis of respect for your expertise.

And that can be tough—partly because the more persuasive you are, the more irritation you’re liable to cause. But it’s the only thing that will keep your agency from losing its creative edge. Because the mandate to say “yes” at all costs is the very death of creative thinking.

If that seems too difficult to pull off, you may have fallen victim to the language of acquiescence. “We don’t want to spin our wheels,” I hear, or “we don’t want to dilute our efforts,” or a thousand other platitudes that exist solely to make the spine-extraction process less painful. But as it stands, your only prayer of working with the clients you deserve is to say What You Know at every turn.

31
Oct
15

Creativity Training. Exercises in Futility.

Dig into business journalism and you’ll find a celebration of creativity that’s always in full swing. But as you’ll discover, corporate America’s idea of creativity is a grotesque piece of ideological taxidermy.

Instead of the real thing, you’ll find a lifeless homunculus, stuffed with mantras that mistake terseness for truth. Predictably, these mantras, as delivered by WebEx gurus, offer a showy variation on the brainstorming session—that hilariously misnamed ritual at which the brain always fails to appear.

The problem lies in the assumption that a topic as complex as human creativity can be reduced to bullet points. Sure, get together and encourage each other to follow your creative instincts. Just don’t expect to find them on an inspirational Web page promising 10 steps to boost your creativity.

Where the value might lie.
That’s not to say a seminar couldn’t offer a useful service, if only it helped your staff recognize the roadblocks they install to real creativity. Each session of such a seminar would start with a heartfelt Pledge of Non-obstruction

I believe the value of my input is delimited
by my talent, expertise and experience

I honor the difference between personal preference
and objective evaluation

I affirm and avow the crucial distinction between
a tactic, a strategy and a creative concept

And before the altar of my own conscience,

I promise never to invoke rigid, ideology-derived models
in defense of politically expedient solutions

Stop chasing unicorns.
In the real world, however, creativity seminars offer an array of techniques under the mistaken assumption that creativity is as simple as “breaking out into groups” with a handful of Flair pens and a stack of multi-colored post-it notes. I don’t know where this philosophy of unrealistic over-empowerment comes from, but it’s as delusional as the quest for a magical horse.

For example, there’s no way to find creative solutions to something you know nothing about. In my case, when it comes to repairing a leaky faucet, I could brainstorm and walk away from negative thinking all I want. But if I dared to take a monkey wrench to the pipes, the only thing I’d create would be a flooded apartment.

That’s because creativity only exists at the crossroads of training, expertise, experience and innate ability. It can’t be coaxed, jump-started, trained, or motivated. Instead, it arises spontaneously in the minds of people who have worked hard to earn it—through the constant application of skill and talent to the knottiest problems.

In that sense, American corporations would save oceans of time and money if they A.) improved hiring practices so they ensured that only people with creative abilities end up on the payroll, B.) fostered a corporate culture that encouraged calculated risk-taking and C.) worked actively with local and regional communities to revitalize our education system.

Take positive action.
Can’t find employees with a grasp of the creative process? Take a look at the stilted, budget-starved curriculum your kids are stuck with. Yes, even if they do have iPads in every classroom, the chances are, your state hasn’t spent a dime on real arts education in 50 years. Trust me, the annual staging of Oklahoma or Cats doesn’t count.

But if that level of social responsibility is too rich for your blood, there’s still a better use for your tiny staff development budget than investing in a New Age pseudo-psychologist. Far better you should pay for art, creative writing, music or dance classes for your staff—and make them mandatory.

These experiences, repeated regularly, will put your people in direct contact with the confluence of abstract thinking, instinct, intuition and the restraints of the medium that are the essence of the creative process. The goal is not to turn the head of the Accounts Receivable team into Georgia O’Keefe, Phillip Roth, Steve Reich or Twyla Tharp.

Instead, the long-term payoff will be an increased sensitivity to nuance and the real version of “critical thinking” that our overwhelmed public schools have no idea how to teach. And before anyone asks, upgrading their iPads won’t help.

In other words, if you want to foster creative thinking, there’s no substitute for involvement in real creative work. Yes, the vast majority of your staff-members’ endeavors will never reach the walls of the Met or the main stage at Carnegie Hall. What they will do is turn on the lights in a few dozen tired brains, most of which have been switched off by the dull routine of our meeting-drenched, inbred-political, hurry-up-and-wait corporate culture.

23
Aug
15

“Killer Copy”: Drowning in a Cardboard Sea

Stick with copywriting long enough and eventually someone will ask you to “refresh” an existing block of copy—whether it’s a one-page promo or an entire Web site.

At first, and I have to say I get fooled every time, it sounds like your client really wants to revitalize the tried and true. They’re looking, you delude yourself, for a more clearly defined brand voice. Or maybe just something less boring.

If you’re dealing with a consumer product, it’s even easier to get snookered, as your imagination goes into overdrive to create a distinctive persona for the…whatever. And sadly, that’s where all the frowning starts.

In the first place, you rarely get the full story from your Account team, for the simple reason that an MBA doesn’t include any meaningful training in critical thinking. All that talk about “fresher?” It all boils down to “shorter.” Turns out some market researcher discovered a roomful of lie-abouts only wanted to look at pictures.

So you’re enjoined to write something “catchy, fast” or my personal favorite, “smart.” Smart copy for people the average marketer believes are too dumb to read more than 50 words at a time? I don’t think so.

Who are you talking to?
If your goal is more effective communication, you need to start with a clear picture of your core audience. Not, mind you, some marketing-conference abstraction like “Fixers and Forgetters” or, say, “Dipsomaniacal Nincompoops,” but real people who actually have a snowball’s chance of buying your product.

And that has to be your most important demographic profile. Yet most marketing is done without the slightest acknowledgement of how many options consumers have, including the option to live without the product. Leaving aside the 50 gazillion people who rush out to buy the latest i-gadget, you’ll need a whole lot more than a bunch of Reasons to Believe to make your brand top of mind for any consumer.

Your marketing approach has to grow directly out of the personality of that select group of customers who think you’re swell. And depending on what you’re offering, snappy headlines, catchy lead-ins—like the ones on Yahoo that someone is perpetually telling me to emulate—may not be the ticket to higher market share.

You might, instead, have to tell the truth.

Because that’s what effective copy is about. Getting the truth out in a way that’s memorable, precisely because it lets the product speak for itself. To do that, you have to unlearn everything you’ve either picked up by osmosis from today’s degenerate advertising culture, or from those ridiculously terse maxims that revolve around letters of the alphabet. As if real communication were ever a formula!

Speak up, in a clear voice.
That’s it, forget about the 4Ps, the 8Ms, the 6 tips “every copywriter should know“—and just speak, person to person. Sure, you might need to create a persona for yourself to write through, but that’s a standard part of the creative tool kit. If all you’ve got up your sleeve is a list of best practices, do us a favor and write a textbook on marketing communications instead. We all need a good thick book to prop up that wobbly bookcase in the den.

Anyway, once you’ve found your voice, get to the core message right away. Remember, you’re asking someone to turn off Game of Thrones to read about your client’s…whatchmacallit. As I see it, your best shot is to engage your targets as real human beings, not prey on their fears about missing the deal of a lifetime. If, and I mean if, the product has something to offer, its benefits don’t need all that hype. For instance, any phone company leading with the phrase:

“Pricing Plans You Might Actually Understand”

…would immediately get my attention.

But that’s where we come full circle. Because the desperate cry for someone to punch up the copy always comes from clients who know their product is weaker than weakness itself.

Freshen the copy? That’s putting the tablet before the ISP—unless you’ve actually put in the time and imagination to develop a meaningful product and now have the courage to sell it.

And to everyone who’s worried about alienating an audience by being too definitive, let me point out that nothing on this Earth is more alienating than the sugar-coated oatmeal that generally passes for “killer copy.” You’d do better going door-to-door, than drowning your pitch in a cardboard sea of punchy phrases.

06
Jul
15

Hotel Web Sites: Too Checked Out for Branded Messaging.

As travellers know, hotel Web sites are among the most functional e-commerce sites around. Yes, most of them feature the ubiquitous marquee, but that’s as close to any kind of high-level messaging you’re liable to see. And that messaging is itself ultimately offer-driven.

Can anyone tell the difference between Sheraton and Ramada? Not online. Between the input boxes and those tidy little retouched jpegs of the rooms, the only thing you have to go on is the logo. Yes, they use different color schemes and, yes, different fonts. But this ladies and gentlemen, is not branding.

A brand, after all, is a promise. Yet the only contract any of the hospitality giants makes with consumers is:

“We’re a hotel. With rooms. Which you can stay in. For a fee. Pick a date and enter your credit card number. Don’t keep us waiting.”

Keeping in mind that many business travelers stay at hotels prescribed by their companies, some differentiated attributes ought to be selling these hotels to whomever’s in charge of hotel bookings at XYZ Corp. And, of course, you might reasonably expect that leisure travellers would like to feel they’ve chosen a hotel chain for a reason.

Especially, that is, if they’re planning a stay in a major US city where the options are all over the map in terms of price, features, location, etc., etc. But by remaining so blank, these Web sites are not only tarnishing their brand’s image, they’re damaging the image of the entire industry.

“Who cares where I stay?” is the question anyone would be tempted to ask after visiting these sites. “All hotels are the same. Same disappointing “Continental Breakfast,” same stodgy furniture, same prohibitive minibar. Same iffy cable service.

Offline, on it. Online, off it.
Ironically, one of the few travel-related brands to have an advertising concept is hotels.com. Yet, as memorable as the Captain Obvious campaign is, it has nothing to do with the service the Web site provides. Even if I stretch my imagination and conclude that the message is, “Hotels.com is the obvious choice for travel reservations,” the concept spoils itself by simultaneously making the obvious look ridiculous.

Booking.com, at least in TV spots, is much more convincing, even if their Amy Schumerish play on their name’s phonetic similarity to an indelicate word is a bit limiting. More successful is their other play on their name, “Booking.Yeah,” which effectively uses something approaching millennial diction to hippify a boring topic.

Offline, these two brands have done something to transmit a message, a promise, a statement of purpose. But there’s no trace of that messaging on the Booking.com Web site, which might as well be a site for Orbitz or Travelocity for all anyone would notice—logos aside.

Where, I can’t stop wondering, did anyone get the idea that “Buy Now” is a brand identity? On the other hand, you may wonder why I find this so irritating.

Schlock and loaded with clichés.
Despite having survived for over a century in one form or another, through many ups and downs, advertising and marketing are fragile things, whose immortality you cannot take for granted. Mail boxes, airwaves and screens crammed edge-to-edge with schlock are as deadly to the psychological ecosystem of sales as CO2 is to the lungs. Every year that we crank out crap is another year we erode our audience.

Meanwhile, gloom and doom analysts continue to have a field day at the supposed demise of the traditional :30 TV spot. But the real reason people click away is that TV spots and all of traditional advertising went into an accelerating decline after the ’60s. A TV spot today is, with few exceptions, a dreary landscape of tedious clichés. No wonder people reach for the zapper.

Let no one think, however, that digital advertising is “inherently” better. Sites like these from the travel industry, which are only the tip of the iceberg in the schlockification of the Web, will inevitably have the same effect on digital space.

The issue is not the medium, but every bit the message. Remember: the bad work you post today is the baseline you’ll struggle to rise above tomorrow. Because if this trend continues, the much-vaunted “impact of digital media” will be the fond memory of a few archeologists, only a couple of dozen years from now.

03
May
15

Why Put a Bullet Through Your Sales?

Somewhere toward the end of virtually every new branding project, a subtle shift occurs. The discussion that, until then, had been about lofty things like “branded messaging strategy,” “brand voice and tone” or “brand narrative,” becomes brutally blinkered.

Suddenly, everybody’s yammering about best practice and the need to be “short and sweet.” And within 36 hours, the only thing left of those heady theoretical sessions is a shiny logo, a stubby tagline and a list of “benny bullets” you’d better get in the right order (TBD) or no one will even think of opening their wallets.

The result? A category-level promotion that sells the brand as “one of those.” By launch time, the un-differentiation campaign has gone so far, your audience would be hard pressed to say whether the product is a toaster or a thermonuclear reactor.

That’s because, lacking expertise, many a brand manager quakes at taking anything but a “monkey-see” approach. Create a distinctive brand voice, look and feel, and you’re more likely to terrify your clients than satisfy them.

“No one else is using red highlights!” you’ll hear, or something equally inane.

And when it comes to copy, at this point all a copywriter can do is shrug, sigh, and import “the changes” which usually amount to a complete, top-to-bottom rewrite of every word, with no hit of an underlying rationale. Most often, this rewrite is an orgy of safe, cut-and-paste marketing speak that tries to say everything, but fails to communicate anything at all.

If I thought it would help, I’d stand on a mountain top with a bullhorn and say:

A block of bulletted copy can’t
sell matches to an arsonist.

At a minimum, you must address the psychological needs of your customers. Even if, excuse me, your product is as sexless as a locking mechanism for hospital doors, you have to appeal to more than the factoid center of the human brain.

Who talks like that?
Imagine if you will, a man asking a woman out on a date with the spoken equivalent of this drab, empty kind of communication:

“Tired of eating alone? Jimmy Jones Dinner Companions® has everything you need for the perfect restaurant experience:

• Fashionable attire
• Tasteful wristwear
• A full array of conversational options:

–Light banter
–Celebrity gossip
–Generic political ideology (New! Independent Option)

• Seductive cologne
• Your choice of Nikes, cowboy kicks or ‘Richy Rich’ wingtips”

Am I alone in thinking that, unless Jimmy is an utterly different kind of marketer, such an approach would leave its target audience speechless?

I think not. And yet, year in and out, marketers persist in thinking that real, live human beings make their purchasing decisions based on lists. Sadly, this mistaken approach is itself based on the one tiny kernel of insight from market research that most brand managers ever seem to retain:

“People are busy!”

Yeah, I get that. You don’t want to tie up your harried consumer’s time with too much content.

Stop marketing to abstractions.
But what if the issue were that people don’t want to tie up their time unnecessarily. In that scenario, all the best practice theory in the world is of no avail. Faced with an emotionless list, only slightly different from your competitor’s emotionless list—no matter how many times you say “Exclusive!”— the harried consumer will decide based on price.

In the absence of emotional and psychological appeal, even impulse buyers will turn away, at the sound of a foot-tapping spouse with an eye on the checkbook. Because if you think your only job is convincing your carefully mapped out target, think again. The more expensive your product and the less clear its actual usefulness, the more you also have to appeal to the non-target person your target has to face at the breakfast table.

All of this is evidence that the creative team’s original impulse—to sell a product or service from one person to another, instead of from Us to Them—was correct. Why is this impulse so often suppressed? Because the number one goal of all marketing theory is to protect marketing professionals from believing that they, too, are human beings with needs. “The Consumer” wants this, we hear, “The Consumer” doesn’t like that—with never a thought to the one person everyone knows best: themselves.

As I see it, it all comes down to a simple question: Would you buy a used car from yourself? If the answer is “no,” your theory of advertising is totally out of whack.

31
Jan
15

Writing the Big Bold Blah

No matter what branch of advertising a creative settles into, at various times the call will go out for a “big campaign theme.”

Always ready to oblige! For what creative doesn’t relish a real challenge, as opposed, say, to the unending iterative stream of “corrections” they receive from clients who A.) have no idea what they want and B.) have no idea what advertising can and cannot achieve.

Trouble is, in most instances, the basic ingredients for baking up that big theme are missing. That is, the creative team is faced with a brand or product line that:

• Has no unique attributes
• Delivers only highly qualified benefits
• Is heavily burdened by legal or regulatory requirements

And yet, in the back of most brand managers’ minds is the model of the iconic, freewheeling, fun-loving campaigns of the early 1960s. Not that any of them has the courage to get behind a message like “We’re No. 2, so we have to try harder.” Even something as generic as “Frosted Flakes are Grrreat” is way too audacious for our litigious times. And it’s easy to see why. Use a line like that and you’d actually be asserting that your brand consistently delivered a measurable result.

Naturally, a classic line like “Come up. Come all the way up to Kool,” would evoke such a flurry of air quotes, you’d have half the advertising strategists in the country in the ER with advanced carpal tunnel syndrome within five minutes of proposing it.

Of course, the real secret behind the success of the classic campaigns that a typical client likes to shame us with, is that they had nothing to do with taglines, photographic styles or celebrity endorsements. On the contrary, they succeeded because the brand delivered something of value—directly, effortlessly and with none of those niggling qualifications that are the buzz-kill of today’s marketing.

Real reasons to believe
More to the point, they got people to believe, simply because their products “kept it real” as we say now, in an era when so little is what it’s cut out to be. The Avis people, initially, not only claimed to try harder, they actually brought a new level of service to car-rental—that is, until the bean-counting revolution of the 80s ensured the only thing an American corporation would ever deliver was money to its shareholders.

Customer value? Quality? They survive only as mechanical claims or, just as bad, as the exclusive purview of brands charging outrageously inflated prices for services that used to be taken for granted.
Now to get the kind of service everyone used to get from the travel industry, for example, you have to be a Super Black Onyx Titanium Elite Plus Member with annual billings in the seven figures. Everyone else gets wait-listed for the cattle car.

And it’s within this environment of decidedly lowered expectations that a creative team is routinely asked to conceive a Big Idea campaign that will open the flood gates and storm the barricades. Sometimes they even succeed—and sometimes, with unexpected consequences.

As long as I live, I’ll never forget the day a brand manager for a major national brand told me he couldn’t use the campaign idea we’d come up with because it would be too successful and they wouldn’t be able to handle the call volume.

Pause for a moment and let that sink in.

Auto-mat marketing
The fact that we were asked to go back and deliver something less effective is beside the point, as poignantly absurd as it sounds. For my purposes, what it illustrates is the futility of so much best-practice saber-rattling, including that infinite series of top ten lists purporting to guarantee success.

For in a marketing/advertising environment governed by ignorance, anxiety and petty whims, why should anyone attempt to raise the bar, move the needle, push the envelope or use any other quaint metaphor for creative achievement? My message to clients? If you want a great campaign, become a great company. Then we’ll have something to say that grows naturally out of real brand attributes. If not, there’s a wealth of automated headline-generating software available online for a reasonable fee.

You just plug in your brand attributes and in a few moments, your campaign theme is ready. No squelchy conference call phones, no pesky creative presentations, and no perky account people asking about your personal life. Best of all, you’ll have the campaign you deserve, which is all any brand can ask for.

06
Dec
14

What is Copywriting?

I wish I could say this was a trivial question. But the more you ask around, the less likely you are to find a unified opinion about what the task entails. Over time, you’ll discover that, like snowflakes, no two definitions of the term are quite the same. As I see it, this diversity of opinion grows out of a single misperception:

The absurd idea that copywriting is fundamentally about words.

That this misperception persists despite the untold aggravation it causes on every project just shows how deep a delusion it is.

In reality, copywriting is about ideas. It’s the development of a message platform and a structure for delivering it—around which, eventually, words will flow to give it shape and establish an appropriate brand voice.

In real reality, however, all a copywriter hears about, day in and day out, is “the approved copy,” to be adhered to at all costs. Never mind that said copy fits nowhere into a larger brand architecture. Never mind that it’s often two or three steps removed from the current visual vocabulary, itself imported from who-knows-what external source.

“Just pick it up,” one hears.
But this phrase is loaded. It actually means that, as long as the sacrosanct text is in the copywriter’s hands, it cannot be altered. After all these years, I’m just grateful no one has come up with a shock collar to ensure I don’t deviate. On the other hand, the sacrosanct text is open to editing by everyone else involved in the project, from the junior AE to the client’s spouse who “used to be a copywriter.”

Needless to say, at this point in the creative process (or should I say the cut-and-paste process) the copywriter’s role is so far out of whack, there’s pretty much no more reason for him or her to show up for work. Seriously. You can get a typist to handle this kind of thing.

Unless you’re looking for someone to step back from the whirlwind of opinions (and, where writing is concerned, everybody has one), and advise the team about the effectiveness of the copy, its likelihood to get results, you don’t need a copywriter at all.

Strategy-by-numbers.
Making matters worse in this regard, is the introduction of mid-level strategists to agency life over the last 20 years or so. With few exceptions, the role of the average advertising strategist is to scan raw data from market research and demand it be inserted at every juncture—unaltered, verbatim, inviolate. Not the sense of the market research results, mind you, but the literal text.

“[Word or Phrase X] didn’t test well,” goes the obsessive mantra, or its complement “[Word or Phrase X] tested really well.”

So, no matter how uncomfortably said word or phrase squeezes itself into the rest of the piece you’re developing, it’s inescapable. The problem gets doubly compounded in digital work, where an SEO specialist will demand the brand name appear in every single sentence, preferably right at the beginning.
That’s on top of occurring in every navigation tab, every text link and every page header.

The result is the current state of advertising copy: Blunt, ugly, overwrought, cluttered and soulless. These, amigo, are the wages of the fundamentalist ideology that has taken over every aspect of the business. The idea that, as a company made up of human beings, a brand might want to communicate in human language to its customers is now, I’m astonished to report, a radical idea.

Going hand in hand with the mechanical nature of today’s copy is the belief, held exclusively by marketers, that the average consumer is an illiterate moron. Sit in a conference room as a reasonable person and you’ll find it difficult to concentrate on the comments you receive. You’ll be too distracted by keeping your eyes in their sockets at the repeated claim that a simple, declarative sentence is “confusing,” or that everyday words known to eight-year-olds have acquired connotations powerful enough to dissuade buyers or even offend them.

In the midst of this word-wrangling something vital is lost: The contribution copywriters can and should make to every project, no matter how small. It’s the watchful eye of someone experienced enough to evaluate the total takeaway your Web site, brochure, print ad, mailer, banner, etc. delivers to consumers. No, not the tagline: the sum total of each particular communication, expressed not in words, but in ideas.

Can’t trust your copywriter to do that? You’ve hired the wrong person. But you knew that. Because, in the end, the most the average ad agency or brand manager wants from a copywriter is the ability to type.

25
Aug
14

Market Research: Railroading Their Train of Thought

Consider the following imaginary train of thought from an fictionalized character in an, as yet, unpublished novel about the advertising industry. The scene is a candle-lit table at a middle-brow bar in a major city:

The standard line about the value of market research? It’s been repeated so many times that…what’s that saying? Oh yeah, “it attains the status of truth.” And let me tell you, that’s in spite  of the fuzzy logic and waffley “results.” You ask me, any market research finding that can be found to be true can be teased out by common sense without spending thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, any finding that’s later proven wrong? Those guys will blame anything except their own so-called methodology. Trust me, they’ll blame the moderator, the media, the weather or, more often than not the “obvious” flaws in the creative. And this from a bunch of nerds who can’t write a headline to save their lives!

Now, surely, the previous two paragraphs sum up an outrageously distorted POV about the profession of market research, as dished out by a curmudgeonly personality who perhaps exhibits the classic symptoms of Oppositional Defianct Disorder. I’m told the character comes to a bad end in Chapter 27.

And yet, as I listen to the literal way market research data are often interpreted, I can’t help wondering if that same urge to generalize at all costs—just for the sake of achieving a tidy assessment—is the sole provenance of cranky nut cases with an axe to grind about scientific marketing methods. Hang out in the more data-driven agencies and you’ll hear some variation of the follow phrase at least once a week:

“This [headline, message, photo, illustration style] tested very well in research.”

…dripping with the unstated assumption that, of course, the element in question should appear word-for-word or pixel-for-pixel in each and every audience outreach from here on out. That is, of course, until the next round of market research yields a different response.

Definitions gone wild.
The problem with such a literal approach to interpreting market research data? Let’s start with the unexamined premise that information collected in a focus group meets the definition of “data” used by, say chemists, astrophysicists or even the current generation of science-savvy chefs. The data of hard science is numerical, measurable, repeatable.

By contrast, the survey responses and focus group voting we’re pleased to call data in market research is subjective—not only at a fundamental level, but also because we have no basis for knowing whether respondents are sharing their true feelings, or merely spitting out an answer that supports a cherished self-image. Market research methodology, we’re told, works around this issue by asking the same question from different angles and then checking for discrepancies.

Trouble is, people just aren’t so stupid that they can’t see this coming. Nor can we be scientifically certain that a question asked in a different way isn’t, essentially a different question, the answer to which has no relation to any quantifiable norm.

Truth, like fire. Heartwarming, handle with care.
No matter how you slice it, market research data is therefore interpreted for you, before you receive it—once by the participants and once by the researchers.

All the more reason not to treat it literally, but to continue the process of interpretation within the scope of your own discipline. Much as I value learning that consumers value products and services that give them a balance of freedom and control, I would never recommend a headline dominated by the words “Freedom” and “Control”—as I was required to produce early in my career— for two reasons.

First, the words themselves are generic, capable of almost universal application and, as such, brand neutral. Second, doing so ignores an important aspect about human nature: the need to save face. There are, in fact, many things about ourselves we know to be true, many of them are not things we’re ready to acknowledge out in the open. Instead, we need a buffer zone which, in the case of advertising, or PR or, dare I say, guerrilla marketing, means an approach that evokes our self-knowledge rather than slaps us in the face with it.

Contrary to the cowboy marketer’s mandate to put “the point” on stilts and showcase it in the most lurid colors available, my own unscientific research tells me thousands of people are turned off by unrelenting sales pressure. All the more so by unrelenting sales pressure that so obviously seeks to manipulate them by dragging their innermost thoughts into the spotlight.

Rather like the phrase “you know you want to” in a very different context, this kind of literal use of even the most spot-on observational analysis is doomed to failure.




Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY

m.laporta@verizon.net
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