January 27, 2009

How Advertising Works - Part 5: The Final Principle

In parts one and two of this series I observed that most ad people and most agencies do not have unifying principles for how and why they create advertising. In parts three and four I discussed the first and second principles of what I call Performance-Based Advertising (PBA). Today, I'll talk about the third and final principle.

Principle #3: We don’t get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand. We get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.

Principle #3 is the heart and soul of PBA. It is a different view of advertising and branding. It is different because it takes contemporary advertising thought and flips cause and effect.

What this principle is saying is that the best way to build a brand is through product advertising, not brand advertising.

Let’s define our terms.

In general, what people mean when they differentiate between “product” and “brand” advertising is that product ads are about features and benefits, and brand ads are about imagery and lifestyle.

(This, by the way, is nonsense. All advertising is brand advertising. All advertising either enhances or diminishes a person’s net impression of your brand, whether you intend it to be brand advertising or not. Nonetheless, the idea that brand advertising is something different is so ingrained in the system that we have to deal with the idea whether we like it or not.)

I believe that “brand” advertising – advertising focused on imagery or lifestyle -- is least effective against your most desirable customers. It may be effective against light users or non-users in your category, but it tends to be ineffective against heavy users.

For better or worse, the heavy-using customer in your category is probably already an expert on your brand. By definition, she participates in the category frequently. She is more likely to be interested in the category and knowledgeable about it. When you want to learn about your standing vis-à-vis your competitors, what do you do? You ask her. You conduct research and invite her in to tell you how you’re doing. It would not be hyperbolical to say that in some ways she knows your brand as well as you do.

Her knowledge and experience in the category have far greater influence on her opinion of your brand than advertising does. Please reread that last sentence.

Because she knows her stuff, her attitudes are hard to change. That’s why Principle #3 stresses the importance of product advertising. Give her a solid reason to give you a try. She will quickly recognize meaningful product differentiation, innovations, new product benefits, a good deal, a compelling offer, a service enhancement, or evidence of emotional enrichment.

She is far more likely to recalibrate her opinion of your brand by experiencing your product than by experiencing your advertising. Getting the customer to experience your product doesn’t just create sales—it’s what builds brands.

(One thing I need to say here. There are some categories in which imagery and lifestyle advertising are often highly effective e.g, cigarets, booze, soda, fashion. These are categories in which there is minimal product differentiation and, in fact, advertising often serves as the differentiator. Like I said in Part 2 of this series, PBA principles do not apply in all cases and in all categories)

Let’s take a look at Southwest Airlines. Here we have an airline that offers perhaps the worst flying experience in the nation. But they don’t waste their money on “branding” ads (until recently.) Instead, they wisely try to sell us something. They give us specific, concrete reasons to fly with them: lower fares, more flights, more convenient destinations. As a result, they have actually built a meaningful brand — a brand that stands for something concrete and discernible—while United and American, with all their “brand” advertising, have not. Someone please tell me what United stands for?

As Southwest demonstrates, the best way to build a brand is with persuasive product advertising.

Does this mean that the image components of advertising are irrelevant or unimportant? Of course not. You always want to look good and there is no excuse for doing ugly, annoying ads. But first things first. The first order of business is to sell someone something.

You want to build a strong brand? Forget all the ethnography, sociology, sidewalk psychology, and brand babble. Make sure your advertising gives people a damn good, convincing reason to try your product.

You think that’s too simplistic? It’s the hardest thing an advertiser has to do.

Who Loves Ya, Baby?
For those of you who want access to this series and don't want to go rummaging through 400 posts to find it, I have put all five parts together here, along with another series, "The Crisis of Advertising."

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