Posts Tagged ‘messaging strategy


Marketing to Data Ghosts

Today, many a creative brief is a direct outgrowth of market research. Clients amass largely anecdotal data, out of which they construct a generic audience model. With a gracious nod to reality, that model most often describes a range of “personas,” each with a different relationship to the product.

I’ve met these mannequinized stand-ins many times. Whether it’s Priscilla Proactive, Inez Informed or Ned Nervous, I’m resigned to sharing an agency’s post-modern decor with a gang of data ghosts. I shudder to think what agency life will be like when, inevitably, Google or IBM develops data-driven persona-androids to oversee every project.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Priscilla will tell the copywriters — joining the throng of intelligences brimming with advice. Nor will the art directors have it any easier.

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that car,” Inez will insist. “89.2% of me drive a Volvo.”

But in the paradigm to come, account execs will likely have the easiest adjustment. Not only have they been data-driven for decades but, like Ned, they’re used to worrying about everything.

“What if I don’t understand the concept?” Ned will ask. “Let’s put all the benefit bullets in the headline.”

Talk about preaching to the choir.

Data-driven drivel
Kidding aside, what I object to is this: The tacit assumption that anecdotal data, quoted verbatim, should dictate messaging strategy. It makes me wonder if a temporal-lobe suppressant has been mixed into the Kool-Aid of modern marketing theory. That’s the only way I can imagine that so many clients and agency-types fail to realize how unfounded that assumption is.

As an illustration, consider the following from Samsung:

The Infinity Display has an incredible end-to-end screen that spills over the phone’s sides, forming a completely smooth, continuous surface with no bumps or angles. It’s pure, pristine, uninterrupted glass. And it takes up the entire front of the phone, flowing seamlessly into the aluminum shell. The result is a beautifully curved, perfectly symmetrical, singular object.

The what, now? If the display is “incredible,” why should I believe you? But, OK, I guess you’re telling me the screen is smooth. So there’s no reason to mention its lack of bumps — as if any smooth screen could also be bumpy. Next, you assert that the screen’s smoothness is also evident in its lack of angles.

Now, in what branch of Geometry do angles intersect with smoothness? I’ll have to bleep over that, too, and assume the Samsung Galaxy 8 has a flat, smooth screen. Except now, you also assert that the screen glass is “pure, pristine, uninterrupted.” First off, “uninterrupted” is exactly what I expect from a smooth, flat screen. Second, there isn’t too much about “purity” that isn’t included in “pristine.” But the fact is, glass isn’t pristine. As most people know:

Glass is a combination of sand and other minerals that are melted together at very high temperatures.

You realize I understand English, right?

Mistaken-identity messaging
Maybe you think I’m an idiot, with no grasp of the cultural context that generated your message. Is the glass “flowing seamlessly [smoothly?] into the aluminum frame,” because it’s molten? Are you saying I’ll burn my fingers on your phone? Or is your target named Norman No-critical-thinking-skills?

I suspect there are two sources for this inflated sales pitch. First, is the conviction that flowery language confers an aura of Quality to any product. I half-expected to see the phrase “impeccable craftsmanship,” that turns up in luxury car spots — even though, as every former autoworker knows, today’s cars are cranked out by mindless robots.

The second source is Market Research, the false friend of lonely ideologues. No doubt “pure,” “pristine,” “seamless,” “incredible,” “end-to-end,” and “spills over” all tested well inside a qualitative research facility. The result? A hapless copywriter, enjoined to work each of those words into a product blurb. It’s a laughable exercise that reminds me of those Vocabulary Builder assignments I used to get in 5th Grade.

And that’s how Samsung ends up with 56 words, dedicated to telling me the phone has a smooth, wrap- around screen that I might enjoy if I had any reason to care about such things. Too bad no reason is given. Instead, Samsung wants me to know its phone is “singular.” Right. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is singular. There’s nothing like it in the world, and there hasn’t been for over 500 years.

The Samsung Galaxy 8? It’s only singular to a data ghost, just brought to life by a research associate on Acetazolamide.


False Efficiency: The Legacy Copy Pick-up Shtick

One of the most time-consuming aspects of copywriting, especially on the digital end of the spectrum, is dealing with legacy copy.

That’s because digital marketing has been around just long enough to have a graveyard of abominably bad text “practice.” Unfortunately, many of the residents of that graveyard have a nasty habit of popping up when your agency acquires a new client.

No, not a client you’d actually want to boast about in an interview. I’m talking about the kind whose Web presence would do better in the acute care ward of the Hospital for Special Surgery than an ad agency. At its root, the problem with such copy is that it results from a process of random accretion—and the older the site, the deeper and thicker the layers of accretion go. You’ll find copy from:

• Print ads crammed border to border with mind-numbing detail
• Sales kits picked up almost verbatim
• Failed thought-leader essays “from the desk of…” a sainted company founder

…and that’s just the beginning. If your client offers a range of technology products, you’re sure to encounter a Who’s Who of clichéd marketing speak: All the greatest hits from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, including such memorable moments as

• Best in Class
• Best of Breed
• Top of the Line
• At Your Fingertips
• Innovative
• …in minutes
• …in seconds
• At the Flip of a Switch
• Scalable Solutions
• Customized
• Tailored
• Custom Tailored

And rest assured, this is the technology product you need to meet your technology product needs.

The value of words.
Tied inevitably to the creative misery this kind of copy imposes is the general lack of understanding of what’s required to overhaul it. All those who speak blithely of “picking it up with a few tweaks” are either completely misinformed or cynically indifferent to inherent realities.

Because the simple truth is that the vast majority of those huge catalog sites contain copy that is utterly unusable online. Writing, for example:

This innovative, best of breed solution is easily scalable to keep pace with your growing business

…tells me absolutely nothing and gives me no reason to add your product to MyCart.

Innovation? You can count the number of true innovations on your fingers and toes. The wheel comes to mind, as does the light bulb or the telephone. Even the combustion engine was merely an evolution out of existing tech.

But OK, let’s include that too—on the condition that when we reach the level of, say, the tumblers in a combination lock, or the plastic on the outside of a tablet computer, we recognize that they hardly count as innovation in a global sense.

More to the point, misusing a word lessens its value. Why does that matter? Because advertising with words means having respect for the value of words. It’s respect that involves refusing to casually exaggerate your brand’s attributes. Does your wireless translation tower do a pretty good job of keeping the signal constant? That’s great—but once you assert it towers above the competition, you’ve degraded your credibility.

After all, are you seriously claiming your competition doesn’t buy its circuit boards, chips, dials and readouts from the same technology vendors you do? If not, you might have the beginnings of a valid brand narrative.

The wages of acquiescence.
Regardless, creating good copy starts with realizing that it has nothing to do with selecting the right words. It is, rather, the reflection of a coherent train of thought. It’s not how many times you say “innovative” but how cogently you demonstrate that this innovation benefits your audience.

Now, I have no doubt I’m not the first person to deliver some version of this advice to brand managers. But the persistence of pointlessly verbose sales copy tells me it hasn’t been said often enough. More inexcusable is the willingness of ad agency denizens to “find efficiencies” by using legacy copy—without asking the Creative team to evaluate it for viability.

Because the laws of the advertising universe are singularly perverse in this regard. From the moment you agree to pick up the client’s copy, it becomes yours—subject to criticism and ripe for multiple rounds of scope-creep revisions.

“I don’t think the copy’s customer focused enough,” you’ll hear, from the very person who insisted you use it. Far better to reject that legacy copy and start from scratch. Because by the time your client is finished demanding changes, your “found efficiencies” won’t have saved one dime. Far more likely, the retrofitting process will result in cost overruns, and guess who’ll be expected to pay for them? Worse still, that eaten cost will only serve to undermine the brand.


The Message Your Message Sends

The funny thing about communication is how important it is, relative to how little we understand it. And certainly, ever since communication went digital, the Babel of communication theories has grown to a deafening roar.

Consensus? You must be joking. Yet, in relative terms, we can successfully divide what separates us in that arena into two general categories: Those who favor on-the-nose communication that “speaks for itself” and those who believe your best shot at reaching consumers, is to let your audience draw its own conclusions from the memorable cues you provide.

That’s right, it’s the explicit/implicit divide in communication theory, which two recent TV spots for similar products demonstrate in vivid detail. The first, for ADT home security systems, begins with a typical TV “man and wife,” trying to enjoy a night on the town, but beset by anxiety about whether they forgot to lock the back door.

OK, that’s a plausible premise and, predictably, resolving the protagonists’ anxiety involves nothing more than the flick of a finger on a smartphone app. But along the way, a deeper Marketing Anxiety spoils the impact. Watch the spot and you’ll see Boyfriend’s emotion reflected in an explicit montage of leering burglars zeroing in on his home.

By contrast, the spot produced for AT&T Digital Life grows seamlessly out of direct observation of the human condition. Here, wiser heads know a 20-something’s assurance of responsible behavior is as ephemeral as the will-o’-the-wisp. While the resolution is the same—again, a flick of a thumb across a touch screen—the AT&T spot gets its message across implicitly and more memorably, by integrating the product’s value into our everyday experience of American society.

Hurry! While your attention span lasts!
The same principles apply to digital marketing. In fact, the contrast between explicit and implicit messaging is nowhere more stark. Take for example, the differing approaches taken by two furniture retailers, Raymour & Flanigan, on one hand, and ABC Carpet on the other.

Now, I can already hear someone in the back of the room complaining that I’ve stacked the deck—by comparing a  mainstream site to a niche site. I don’t buy that, not least because it suggests that “mainstream” audiences need to be hit over the head with price in order to be motivated.

Sure, as evidenced by the 2:00-am-TV tactics that continue to sell knifes, polishing cloths and hair removal systems, price can be a powerful motivator. Especially, that is, when linked to an impending sense of loss (“Hurry, while supplies last!”). The question is, whether that’s any way to build a lasting, loyal customer base.

As I see it, the answer is no. Establish a relationship with consumers based on “deals” and your brand is only as good as your latest Limited Time Offer. Worse, you’re effectively training consumers to jump from brand to brand as necessary to get the best discount. It’s the very behavior that has bedeviled credit card companies since the Dawn of Plastic.

 “Transfer your balance now and get 0% APR for the first X months.”

…goes the refrain of desperate competitors who never stop to think that the most enduring customer relationships begin and end with fair, transparent dealings. I mean, if all you have to offer is an APR shell game leading to 19% finance charges in less than a year, I fail to see the enduring value you deliver.

Connection vs contempt.
So, along with this particularly explicit approach goes an entire mindset about your relationship with your consumers. It extends far beyond the competence of your messaging strategy—then snaps back to sap its effectiveness. For at a global messaging level, if you go that route, you’ve seriously eroded your brand. Doesn’t matter whether you’re a credit card company, furniture wholesaler or a cellphone service, your only message to me will be:

“I want your money right now….What do you mean what do I sell? Give me a minute…Phones, that’s it, phones. Can I have your credit card number?”

That’s very explicit, to be sure, but so is this: The first American cellphone service to offer a coherent, comprehensible and consistent fee-for-service structure that delivers real value—as opposed to deceptive promotions—will have the largest and most loyal customer base the industry has ever seen.

That’s because, even in “the mainstream,” what consumers want more than anything from American business is respect for their status as fellow human beings. No one denies a business the need to earn an honest living. But know this: That same implicit honesty is the one and only voice capable of motivating your audience to come back for more.


Button Pushing on the Road to Shangri-La

The practice of making everyday people the focal point of an advertisement is based on a simple premise: Consumers are more likely to buy a product if it seems to be valued by people “like them.”

Trouble is, with the broad-spectrum approach used by general advertising, the images that stand in for average Americans evoke an idealized world too generic to have meaningful emotional impact. They’re the visual equivalent of “munchkin” donuts; they’re sweet to ingest but, let’s face it, they leave you feeling nauseated.

After a lifetime to watching a happy family with 2.3 children pile into some incarnation of what used to be called a “station wagon,” I’m here to attest to the deadening effect this has had on my psyche. Whether you go for humor or play it straight, I’m  completely indifferent to any sales pitch based on heartwarming schlock.

All the same, my response to such footage isn’t only about burnout or boredom. It’s about the complete disconnect between the imaginary life of a TV family and the reality I live, and into which you’re asking me to introduce your product.

Tokens of a separate reality.
And then there’s the element of the pure manipulation that seeps into such ads, accidentally on purpose.

Now, I’m the last person to say brands shouldn’t help consumers grasp how a product can improve their lives. But I do believe we’d make a more lasting impression if we stopped Disneyfying our depiction of everyday people. 

Of course, it’s a matter of striking the right balance but, as I see it, brands routinely opt for bland, emotionally-neutral imagery. Seen the one with the toddler perched on Daddy’s neck, the one with Mom baking a cake with Sis, or the one with the cute Senior couple out on their bikes?

Sure you have—applied to many different, unrelated brands. And considering the wide-spread use of these air-brushed visuals, I doubt the people who approved them have any idea what life is like for their customers.

I mean, it’s almost as if  highly compensated American CEOs lived in a world of effortless personal fulfillment—in which their every need is anticipated and no dark clouds ever loom on their horizons.

Oh, yeah, that’s right, they do.

No wonder  they think nothing of marketing their products with icons reflective of a separate reality.

Taking the car out for a phony spin.
In a different category of manipulation is the phony anthemic voiceover, in which an actor, welling up with faux-folksy wisdom, sermonizes about “the road to greatness” in the hope we’ll make the leap to believing “a great car is no accident.” The blatant association of a mass-produced machine with the greatest achievements of human history would be insulting if it weren’t so abjectly ludicrous.

“I’m Leonardo Da Vinci,” proclaims the top dog at Chrysler, “not to mention Gandhi, Charlie Parker and Joe DiMaggio. But really, I’m just like you…”

Trouble is, by resorting to manipulation, brands both dilute and pollute the communication stream with consumers. Not only are such ads offensive but, even if proffered ironically, they instill a festering cynicism in people’s minds.

That’s because, when trafficking in absurdly unrealistic expectations, all you’re selling is disappointment, once the car apparently designed to make you Super Mom rings with the latest argument about homework, cello lessons and how-come-you-never-call-when-you’re-working-late.

What you need to show instead is a product that weathers the full range of experience: a car that gets you to the church on time, but also gets you a moment of peace when life’s contradictions make living in your own skin kind of itchy.

Naturally a :60 spot featuring screaming kids or a stormy breakup isn’t anybody’s idea of a motivating narrative. In this sense, a tiny drop of reality goes a long way. But just acknowledging that a branded product exists in a world consumers can truly identify with helps keep expectations realistic. Better yet, it can help your customers retain your product’s real benefits.

Unless, of course, that’s the reason you’re depicting your brand as the gateway to Shangri-la—that it offers no discernible benefit. In that case, you’re guilty of pollution on a much grander scale, by selling us products that might actually undermine our faith in American business.


Bullets Under Branding

“Just the facts, ma’am…”

If you’re a fan of classic American TV, you recognize this quotation as one of a handful of signature catch phrases from Dragnet. Sgt. Friday’s no-nonsense attitude to crime investigation left no room for emotion, inference or induction. He was objective, y’all.

But if you’re not a fan of classic TV, you probably still recognize the quotation as something else: The subtext for a vast quantity of marketing/advertising speak. Surely, the fact that, in either scenario, a lot of your attention would be taken up with “bullets,” is just kismet. At least I hope so.

After all, I’d hate to think the real reason behind the ubiquitous use of bulleted copy in advertising is to beat the consumer into submission. I mean, it would be like saying:

“Get in line, I’ve got bullets here.”

If you think I’m over the top with this analogy, I’m willing to bet you will agree there’s something kind of controlling about a bulleted list. Such a list leaves consumers little room to do the one thing that might make them engage with your brand.  That is, come to their own conclusions about the benefits of your product or service.

Now, I get the bit about brevity. In fact,

  • I
  • understand
  • completely

It’s just that the other thing bullet points do is break up the natural flow human communication, by turning language into signage. Worse, their main purpose is to make a brand’s desperate recitation of product benefits more palatable to its customers.

As such, they’re a solution whose chief function is to mask a deeper problem. If you actually believe your value to consumers is a set of features, rather than a measurable uptick in quality of life, you’ve gone beyond selling the wrong way.

You’re selling the wrong thing.

What matters to Jill42.
At issue is not how to communicate more briefly but how to craft a global message succinct enough to be expressed in a few words. These days, especially, when consumer behavior is heavily influenced by online peer reviews, they’re more likely to see product features as a point of entry rather than a point of sale. Their inner dialogue runs:

“Hmm. 39-inch LED TV. Name brand. HDMI ports. What are my friends saying?”

Far better than chopping your prose into meaningless nuggets, is making an emotional connection—by telling your audience how your product will improve their lives, match their self-image and fit into their personal narrative. Not to mention crucial considerations like “Will my mom like it?”

Keep in mind, however: there are no shortcuts to making those emotional connections. Once you gain a useful consumer insight, it’s no good peppering your ad with bullets like:

“Great for moms!”


“Your mom will love it!”

That’s because, in 2013, when a typical American’s every nerve ending is already tingling with marketing messages, you have to communicate the old fashioned way, with believable anecdotal evidence. In this world, sticking to “the facts” won’t cut it.

Instead, you need a message so clear, so memorable and so tickly that consumers will wonder what Jack24 said to Jill42 about “what it is with your mom liking that TV or whatever on Facebook.”

Knowing the essence of essential.
How do you create such a message? Start by realizing what most people learn in middle school (or, in some cases, 40 years later). Want a response from someone whose attention you desire? Don’t be desperate, and let your innate good qualities speak for themselves. If you’ve no good qualities, you’re simply not ready for market—and should focus on “product development.”

On the other hand, the metaphor continues, maybe your problem is a failure to recognize where your true qualities lie. If anyone, at this point, thinks Apple could boost unit sales of iPad Air by listing more technical details, they’re mistaken. Visit and see for yourself: the message is “Lightness.” Even the site’s technical drilldown simply lists more reasons the product is light.

Every “bullet point” in other words, is a restatement of one bullet point, a message you can’t forget even if all you remember is the product name.

And lest anyone miss the obvious, there’s very little more essential to human life than “air.” With messaging like this—that radiates out from core product attributes—Apple’s product leaves the world of facts far behind and enters the consumer narrative whether we want it to or not.

That, amigo, is branding. Anything else is just words, pictures—and tears-on-the-pillow desperation.

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY



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