Posts filed under ‘advertising’

Advertising after messaging

Alex Steer writes: Chances are, if you work anywhere in marketing or media, you’ll have read something like this at some point over the last two years.

The advent of social media has changed the communications landscape forever. The old rules of advertising – in which brands pushed marketing messages out to consumers – no longer apply. Consumers, empowered by social media, are savvier and more demanding, looking for authentic brand experiences, not just messaging. To thrive in the age of social commerce, you need to provide dynamic opportunities for consumers to connect and co-create with your brand.

OK, I made this example up, but could easily have been pasted together from scores of white papers, blog posts and conference presentations. It’s the kind of rhetoric that makes us feel we can see the future, and that the future is nothing like the past.

Just one problem. It’s wrong.

Like a lot of wrong ideas, it’s a patchwork of truths. I’d like to pull out three of those truths here, then throw in one more obvious truth, to show that they create a different future environment for advertising from the received wisdom above.

The first truth is that good advertising is inductive. It presents a join-the-dots of images and information, but it leaves you to draw the conclusion, and make your own lasting association between product, advertisement and brand. That inductive spark is what draws people into good advertising – it’s why ‘Just do it’ (do what?) is a better slogan than ‘Nike products improve your sports performance’; why Apple chose ‘Think Different’ (about what?) rather than ‘Computers with an unusual operating system’. Good marketing involved engagement and co-creation long before it could be interactive.

The second truth is that digital media channels are taking the burden off advertising. It’s easy now to raise an eyebrow at old ads, crammed with product information and claims. But digital channels provide opportunities to connect with people at more points in the purchase cycle, from early consideration (websites, apps) to after-sales support (Twitter, instant messaging). In a ‘just-in-time’ information environment, less shouting is required.

The third truth, as Andrew Curry noted in his piece on the future of advertising, is that consumers are better interpreters of media messaging now. But this is a long-term product of the old media, not just the new. Sheer volume of exposure makes us both less attentive to individual messages, and more critical of them when we do notice them. Some long-term shifts in social values and attitudes to power and authority are also driving this.

I promised the fourth truth would be obvious, and it is. We may all know that markets are conversations, but this is often quoted as if all it said was ‘markets are not diatribes’. But conversations are purposeful as well as interactive. So the fourth truth is that, in a media environment with more noise and fragmented attention, it is more important for marketers to get to the point.

This fourth truth casts doubt on the idea that advertising’s role now is just to represent a brand’s values entertainingly in an ongoing dialogue with consumers. It suggests, instead, a future in which advertising messages need to be more surgical and more rewarding of attention – delivering that engaging, inductive payload to the right people, in the right channels, and just in time.

This is a moment of change. The power of media participation is in the hands of a public impatient with propaganda and noise. But the alternative to noise can be signal as well as silence. Advertising needs to step up, not give up.


The picture at the top is courtesy of Coker College, and is used with thanks.

12 July 2011 at 9:19 am 4 comments

A future of advertising

Andrew Curry writes: I have been meaning to post this for a while, but better late than never. The Wire, which is the in-house magazine of WPP, our parent company, had a feature in its last issue on how advertising would change over the next ten years. 16 contributors, 150 words each, you know the kind of thing. The editor warned us off social media as being too obvious, and I stayed away from data analytics because others in the group know far more about that than I do.

Sadly, the whole piece is behind a firewall, unless you happen to work for a WPP company, although it would seem like a good opportunity to showcase thinking within the group. But here’s my contribution:

Advertising is being squeezed from two sides. The generation of millennials now cresting into adulthood, brought up with screens surrounding them, can de-construct an advertisement quicker than you can say “Roland Barthes“. There’s no trick you can play without them noticing it, storing it, and tagging it for the next time. Governments meanwhile, squeezed for budgets, have noticed that the public purse tends to pick up quite a lot of the costs of private consumption, and are increasingly willing to regulate advertising in an increasing range of categories, darkening markets or persuading companies to darken their markets themselves. Sao Paolo passed its ‘clean city’ legislation which banned outdoor advertising four years ago, and it has huge support from its citizens. Other places have followed suit, if on a smaller scale, an early sign that Adbusters’ Mental Environment Movement is just starting to gain traction. Advertisers will be able to say less and less about less and less. End of message.

The picture of Sao Paulo is from the blog Out of Home Media, and is used with thanks.

8 June 2011 at 10:30 am 2 comments

From fear to pleasure

Alex Oliver writes:

Looking for better sex? Interested in ways to save money and lose weight? Want to be a better parent and live a long and happy life?

If these questions got your attention, they certainly grabbed mine at the recent Global Social Marketing Conference held in sunny Dublin last week, where Josh Hunt and I spent an intense couple of days presenting our recent behavioural insight work, chatting to academics and practitioners from across the globe, and attending seminars on the latest thinking in social marketing theory.

The conference covered a range of social policy challenges from contraception in African sex workers to breast feeding amongst Texan minority ethnic groups, to reducing extreme racist behaviour in deprived inner city London councils, and a whole bunch of interesting subjects in between.  But in amongst the many theoretical debates, one basic but hitherto understated insight was repeatedly reinforced for me.  That traditional social marketing theory has relied far too heavily on fear as the lever to challenge behaviour, rather than using pleasure or happiness as a motivator to drive change.

Academic research does show that fear can be a highly effective lever in motivating behaviour change. When it comes to men and drink driving, for example, the more that risk of death is highlighted, and the more grisly the description of death, the more likely the subjects are to report a change in attitudes.  And it’s not difficult to think of any number of government campaigns across the globe that have applied the same principle – the famous AIDS campaign of the 1980s, the motorcycle campaign (which I still can’t watch – my husband being the owner of a BMW 850R), and the ‘Heroin Screws You Up’ campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. (The posters for these became fashion statements, opening up the idea of ‘heroin chic’.)

But it’s possible that over-exposure to these many frightening messages over time has de-sensitised us, or worse, made us angry and caused us to reject the moralising messenger? This was the compelling case argued at the conference by Professor Nadine Henley from Edith Cowan University Western Australia.

She proposed an alternative: that social marketers should make their subjects the heroes of the campaigns rather than the villains or victims.  So, instead of scaring people with the consequences of diabetes and heart disease, we might celebrate weight loss through game shows like The Biggest Loser. Or we accept that teenagers will have sex and tell them what types of contraception fit best with their lifestyle, however debauched it may be.

In practice, good social marketing campaigns will always use a range of levers and messages. But whether supported by academic research or not, intuitively it makes sense that we need to feel good about ourselves and the world we live in – a lesson that commercial marketers have certainly learnt, but governments perhaps need to think a bit more about.

18 April 2011 at 9:13 am 1 comment

If you’re not paying, you’re being sold

Andy Stubbings writes:

One trend we’ve been monitoring for a while, as readers of this blog will know, is the rising level of concerns over data privacy and security to do with social networking.

We recently came across this chart (and shown above: it’s US data) which suggest  astonishingly low levels of trust in the ability of social networks to look after personal data. They are trusted less on this than banks, credit agencies, or government departments.

This is consistent with other data we’ve seen on the topic, such as this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, which also finds that technology is the most trusted industry, and media the least trusted. It would seem from this that, although social networks such as Facebook occupy a blurry position in consumers’ minds, we are probably more likely to think of them as media rather than technology brands.

As it turns out that makes a big difference. There is a saying in media that “if you’re not paying for content, you’re the product being sold”. I think consumers know this viscerally, and therefore expect that social media sites which are free to use are going to play fast and loose with their personal data, particularly those that are thought more of as corporations rather than associations or amateur networks. It is difficult to position yourself as a tech company and benefit from the associated halo of trust if you are actually in the business of selling your audience.

14 February 2011 at 9:08 am 1 comment

Chrysler at the Superbowl

Leslie Koster writes:

In his ‘winners and sinners‘ post yesterday, Alex Steer mentioned that Chrysler’s Superbowl ad split opinions in our US offices. It’s worth pulling some of those different views – which have been circulating on email – out of the mix.

On the upside, Chrysler’s 2-minute spot for its new 200 sedan tugs at heartstrings. Its film-like quality captivates—as it started we sat up and took notice, and when it ended we wanted more. The piece oozed authenticity, mixing up older aesthetics and symbols (Diego Rivera mural, Joe Louis, and even the American flag that stands alone in the park that the great Tiger Stadium once stood) with the modern, luxury-oriented aesthetic.

It was made with Detroiters in mind, not just Americans, using phrasing like “That’s who we are”, “That’s our story” mixed with imagery and tone that is recognizable only to Detroit natives. It is poetic, using clever casting to mirror Detroit’s fall and hoped-for rise with Eminem’s recovery from near ruin.

But the ad triggered negative feelings too. Chrysler’s survival as a business is mainly down to taxpayer dollars, so is it irresponsible to use nearly $9 million to produce and air the longest Superbowl ad in history? Its CEO, Sergio Marchionne, is negotiating with the government for more loans, on better terms, which might make the ad simply an expensive sales presentation. Taxpayers could be forgiven for thinking, “Our money saved a car company from bankruptcy and all we got was this lousy Superbowl commercial.”

On top of that, there was a set of questions about whether the ad was better at promoting Detroit than Chrysler – which might make Ford and GM the beneficiaries of Chrysler’s investment merely by accident of geography.

Finally, there were strong feelings about the story the ad told in romanticizing Detroit and its history. Of course ads aren’t documentaries, but when they get too detached from the world the cracks start to show. Detroit fell because it refused to change, holding steadfast as it got passed by, feeling entitled to a way of life that was clearly being eroded. It built its economy and workforce on newspapers and automobiles but failed to innovate, tied up in hierarchy and tradition, as other companies lapped them by being nimble. These days, Detroit is a poster child for urban farming rather than the emblematic Motor City. It makes you wonder if Chrysler is  prepared for the future, or living in the past. Comments are open; your call.

Thanks to Sean Kernick and Chris Hloros.

8 February 2011 at 12:50 pm Leave a comment

Winners and sinners in the Superbowl ads

Alex Steer writes:

I’ve been in the US a few months now, and still know nothing about American football. So when I watched the Superbowl last night, I watched the advertising. I was looking for ads that showed some insight into how consumers here are thinking and feeling in the recovery. There were some clear hits and some obvious mis-steps. Here’s my (personal) take on the most expensive 30-second slots in the advertising year.

Some winners

Everybody was talking about Volkswagen’s Passat commercial before the game, and with good reason. On the surface this endearing spot about a small child in a Darth Vader costume does no more than use some human interest to sell a minor product feature (remote engine start), it tapped into an insight about our desire for technology to fit around our lives in subtle, even ‘magical’ ways. Its gentle tone hit a sweet spot for consumers who are seeking more humanity in the marketplace.

The insight behind Best Buy’s ‘Buy Back’ offer was really smart. They recognized that if consumers are no longer in recessionary lock-down, they’re weighing up their spending (especially on big-ticket items) much more carefully. Best Buy is helping its consumers feel more futureproof, and that matters. The ad, with Ozzy Osbourne and Justin Bieber, was one of the most catchphrase-worthy of the night. (‘How many bloody Gs are there?’)

Verizon kicked off its ad with an almost-too-close parody of an iPhone 4 commercial – ultra close-up, heroing the product, a little overblown – before getting to the point: ‘Does your network work?’ Demand for utility is really strong in the US marketplace at the moment, and Verizon deftly exploited a gap between consumers’ opinions of the iPhone and the AT&T network, often criticized for poor call quality.

The real winner for me in terms of insight was Chrysler, with its ‘Imported from Detroit’ ad. It wasn’t the only car marque to run with a ‘made in the US’ message, but it was the only one to explore what that means in the United States now. More an ad about Detroit than Chrysler, it was one of the few spots of the night that showed foresight as well as insight, using Detroit (and the car) as shorthand for a recovering nation’s sense of injury, self-reliance and determination. There’s a lot of discussion – and divided opinions – about this ad in our US offices today.

Some sinners

We’re a bit divided, too, over the Motorola Xoom piece, which tried to do to Apple exactly what Apple did to Microsoft in its famous ‘1984’ ad. I don’t think it reflects a genuine insight into how people think about the iPad. For that reason it’s less strong than Windows Phone’s amazing ‘Season of the Witch’ and ‘Really’, which tapped into exactly how a lot of us feel about smartphones.

Like the VW spot, Chevy’s ‘Status’ commercial was a fairly human take on a minor product feature, but it the feature was baffling. A voice that reads your Facebook status updates as you drive feels like an awkward attempt by a car to borrow the brand halo of a social network, but just when enthusiasm for ‘always on, always sharing’ feels like it’s waning.

My worst offender, by far, was Groupon, whose campaign idea, ‘Save the Money’, is based on the idea of treating money like it’s a precious resource. The insight’s not bad, but their three ads badly misjudged US consumers. By making light of the threats to whales, Tibet and forestation, they seemed shallow and self-obsessed, and worse, prompted an immediate backlash online. Even if consumers find environmental concerns slipping down their list of immediate priorities, it doesn’t mean they want to mock them.

In all, it feels like the most-loved ads were those which had a powerful and durable insight behind them. The Superbowl’s the one night of the year when we pay real attention to the ads, but we expect those ads to be paying attention to us, too.

7 February 2011 at 9:26 pm 1 comment

The brand and the digital conversation

Andrew Curry writes:

I was invited to Munich earlier this week by the insurance group Allianz to talk to its Brand Council about the brand in the age of the digital conversation. The company’s just launched its ‘One’ campaign, which promotes engagement with consumers through sharing. The emphasis is on real people in authentic situations giving or sharing useful advice or a valuable experience. Digital and social media are a central part of the process.

There are two things that companies seem most concerned about when they jump into social media. The first is that they are merely opening up a new channel for criticism and complaint, and they will be overwhelmed by this. But these conversations happen online whether or not the company decided to be involved, as BP discovered, spectacularly, with the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The second concern is that consumers are interested only in price when they engage with companies online. It’s certainly true that the internet has created a whole new category of intermediaries whose only story is about discounting, and that the insurance industry (selling low involvement, abstract, commoditisable products) is particularly vulnerable to them.

But despite the recession, our Global MONITOR research shows that people are more willing to buy branded goods provided they are persuaded that they are getting value from them. And they need to be convinced of those benefits, in authentic everyday language, without being confronted by corporate-speak. Get it right, and you create a virtuous circle, as in the diagram at the top of this post. Get it wrong, and you get punished for it.

Elsewhere in the financial sector, Nat West has attempted to regain trust with its ‘Customer Charter‘, which has provoked as much scepticism as admiration. But in the digital age, markets and brands are conversations, and conversation is missing from the Nat West model. Their campaign could have run any time in the last 30 years.

In contrast, some of the early Allianz campaign executions involve their customers talking, in branch, unscripted, about what’s important to them. There are risks here, but at least it feels like a company stepping into the 21st century.

A version of this post first appeared on the blog of the advertising and marketing portal WARC, with which The  Futures Company has a strategic relationship.

12 November 2010 at 9:32 am Leave a comment

Older Posts

The Futures Company blog

The Futures Company was created through the merger of Henley Centre HeadlightVision and Yankelovich in 2008. This is the blog of the new company - but the former posts from the former Henley Centre Headlightvision blog still can be found here.

WPP? Leaders in Advertising,Branding,Marketing