A Baker’s Dozen Truths About Brands and Brand Advertising

Brand has become the marketing religion of our time and takes on outsized importance in every decision. And that leads to a bunch of lists – each claiming to reveal “the” absolutes of brand building.

The following makes no claim about summarizing absolutes. But the more lists I see, the more I love the far more humble and practical sense of brands found among this bakers dozen. And, the more I think they reveal important things that enthusiastic brand enthusiasts seem to have forgotten:
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Read Headlines about New Media Research with Skepticism

Just saw a headline telling me there’s this great study showing change in TV viewing habits! Wow. They did a great job alerting the media! (Here’s the article about the study.)

We need to be more skeptical about articles reporting research – especially about media change. Let’s start with whether the company sponsoring the research has skin in the game. Read more of this post

More Confirmation of Traditional TV’s Advertising Strength

The “radicals” who envision an internet take-over of the entire advertising world have been telling us for years that TV was dying. But not only won’t it die — it just keeps getting better.

The radicals loved the idea of TiVo killing off all TV advertising. So we heard about it – endlessly. As a result, advertising agencies exerted tremendous angst re-structuring their lives without TV. And then, after more than a decade, it turns out TiVo has made TV advertising even more effective. (Link here.) Read more of this post

Larry King. A TV Endorsement Sell Out?

Watching TV last week, my family was surprised to see an ad come up with Larry King in what looks like an interview format with an 800# underneath. Surprise turned to gasps of horror as it became clear he was hawking BreathGemz. Sadly neither King nor BreathGemz come out winners.

The problem for Larry isn’t that he took money to endorse a product – there’s a thousand ways he could succeed in a endorsement that would leverage his credibility without hurting it – even in direct response television (DRTV). But here he sold his credibility in a hack execution of the spot – complete with microphone so we don’t forget who he is and his young wife sitting limply beside him. (I only identified his wife later because it wasn’t the least bit clear in a real world experience watching the spot.) Read more of this post

My 100th Blog Post. Feeding The Beast & The Dark Side of Content Marketing

WordPress tells me this is my 100th post (the celebration commences immediately). So is there a more fitting topic than content based marketing’s need to “feed the beast”?

Want a higher Klout score (thinking it actually means something)? Then work, work, work. Read more, comment more, pass along more, write more. And connect with people you don’t know, but who have higher scores. (By the way, don’t ignore all that other work you have to do – or your family.) Read more of this post

The Good and Bad of Steve Jobs’ Market Research Legacy

Have you heard the “Jobs Excuse”? When someone introduces a bad idea with “well Steve Jobs says” or “…just like Apple…”. It’s an old name dropping game that hopes to make even horrid ideas sound good.

In the world of market research, we hear it most often through one popular quote from Mr. Jobs:

“It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” (BusinessWeek, May 1998)

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Salesmanship and The Myth of the New Consumer

Salesmanship is, and always has been, a critical skill needed to drive advertising success. Sadly, it’s a skill that doesn’t come out of J-school or portfolio school. Perhaps that’s why a meme has developed telling us that “sales is dead” (so consumers must somehow osmose products into their lives).

The basis of this ridiculous claims seems to be that the internet puts consumers in control (and I’m sure that’s how they feel in this miserable economy). Even worse, we’re told that consumers flee to territory uncontaminated by commercial interests if anyone attempts to sell something to them. (For more on the mythology of the New Consumer check this link.) Read more of this post

When Brands Claim to “Engage” Online, Do They Really Engage Consumers?

Through the late 1990’s, the idea of “engaging” consumers became one holy grail of advertising. What agencies were seeking were ways to communicate with consumers as they “leaned forward” as opposed to “laying back” (e.g as couch potatoes).

And then, social media arrived. And the gentle idea of better engaging consumers with our advertising transformed into a movement seeking passionate consumer love affairs – and the emergence of Social Media’s claim to enable those affairs.

Is Online Brand Engagement a Myth? Read more of this post

Mediocrity: The Biggest Danger to Advertising Research

A recent AdAge article quotes Bernbach as saying “The more you research, the more you play it safe, and the more you waste money. Research inevitably leads to conformity.” (Link here.)

It’s sad that the creative community all too often comes to this conclusion – only to use the idea of non-conformity to justify all types of advertising sins.

Yet I understand what might lead Bernbach to take this position: too much research is born in mediocrity. Truth is that a great deal of advertising research is a bureaucratic ploy – designed to deliver bureaucratically controllable success.

This research becomes no longer about finding the keys to exceptional success. It’s cautionary research to help people keep their jobs and help executives develop “plausible deniability” for failures.

This research is no longer about weeding out bad ideas in order to put money to more productive use. It’s about killing ideas that might threaten the status quo. Or it’s about killing any fresh new understanding that might challenge the organization’s carefully crafted (but inadequate) theory about the consumer. (It’s my experience that every organization can discover new insight about consumers with exceptional research.)

Bureaucratic research is born in mediocrity & hides behind statistics. What’s most destructive about this research is it looks just fine and has all the bells & whistles. Beautiful reports are generated from (expensive) blue chip research firms. Statistical analysis claims to show exact margins of error and large staffs execute a bureaucratically perfect job.

But while statistical margins of error are extraordinarily important they mean very little. Hugely more important than margins of error is whether the survey participant answered the question we thought we asked. Because if they answered the wrong question, the research is 100% wrong – even if it claims a +/-3% margin of error.

This type of research may be needed within a corporation. But it leads to…nothing productive. It doesn’t find unexpected profitability. And it kills many good ideas just to find a few bad ones (that were probably already obviously bad). And it leads companies to eventually fail because it allows companies to stay within their safe zone.

YET, Creative Teams Err When They Echo Bernbach’s Quote. I seriously doubt if this quote reflects the depth of Bernbach’s true opinion – he’s much too savvy to have minimized research across the board. Still, I have heard exactly this thought parroted by creative teams across the world.

Partly, some creatives suffer a kind of research trauma – having heard consumers questioned closely about things like the colors in the ad. (First rule of good research: Consumers are NOT creatives. Don’t ask them to critique creative choices.)

But that’s no justification to avoid research. I find that most often creative teams don’t really want to learn – they might find their work isn’t influencing consumers the way they thought it was.

Exceptional research is quite threatening and challenging – it reveals the unexpected. Embrace that truth and we find amazing power. But, its much more common for creative teams to circle up in the safety of non-conformity and write off all research.

Exceptional research is about learning. Research cannot, and will never, deliver the laser-like accuracy that too many executives hope for. But that doesn’t mean it’s a “failure”. Rather, research is about learning. Because if any creative team tells you they know all the answers you should fire them on the spot.

Let me try an analogy for research from my reading of history in the American west.

Suppose it’s 1850 and you’re in Oregon wanting to go to Sacramento. There are no roads and there aren’t even established trails.

The successful strategy is to do research. Read everything you can on the territory and search out all the maps. Then talk to anybody who’s been over even part of the territory – guides, pioneers, Native Americans, and farmers. And then, build a strategy – a plan – based on everything you’ve learned – complete with alternative courses in case the plan has flaws. Then continue to re-investigate your plan as you proceed. And be brave, but savvy.

Unfortunately, agencies too often just pick up a compass and head south only to starve in the wilderness, be killed by outlaws or be killed after encroaching on Native American lands.

And the most safety seeking corporations would prefer to sit and wait for 130 years hoping someone develops a camera to get a satellite image of the territory.

Marketing success takes the courage to look the truth in the eyes. Over the course of my career I’ve become more and more convinced that marketing courage is critical to success. But as any soldier will tell you, the courageous train and prepare themselves for action. And when the time comes, they act with little concern for their safety – because that’s what it takes to achieve their goal.

Unfortunately, I find the creative call to “non-conformity” is all too often the call to safety. What takes far more courage is sitting still and listening to consumers so you communicate with them in ways that get their attention better and lead to more action.

Do you use research courageously? If not, you’re leaving tremendous profit for your clients untapped.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved.

Does Web Targeting Live Up to the Hype?

Since the late 1990’s we’ve been promised an amazing jump in advertising effectiveness from targeting only possible online. Initially, it was the claim to “know who the individuals are”. Today, it’s become “we track them and know everything about them”.

Truth is, online targeting hasn’t delivered, but the idea remains prominent. Part of the reason was summarized today in an excellent post by Byron Sharp discussing a recent HBR “advertorial” for McKinsey. (Link here.) Sharp criticized them, in part, because “there is an in-built assumption that hitting someone at the moment when they are thinking about the brand/category is the only advertising that works.”

Seems like such a smart idea. Except, let’s add reality. Any salesman knows that if we wait for the “best point” to ask for the order, we won’t sell much. At the same time if we always ask for the order at the worst time, we will never make money. In a way, traditional media planning walks this middle line focusing a reasonable amount, but casting a wide enough net to get the surprise purchasers.

The Digerati Code. But the Digerati ignore this reality and wholly embrace the assumption, leading to the following hypothesis:

Given a specific product or brand…

1. We CAN use digital tracking to determine points in time when consumers are most receptive to receiving ads about that product or brand.
2. Once we detect when they are most receptive, we CAN present ads that hit them at that most receptive time.
3. When ads are presented in this way their effectiveness is dramatically higher than using traditional methods.

If any of these three are wrong, we’ll never locate the Holy Graal of digital marketing.

What Does Experience Show? There has been no general increase in marketing dollar effectiveness as a result of digital efforts. And digital response rates (CTR’s) are pathetic while online CPM’s remain a fraction of what traditional media is able to demand.

There seem to be two realities:

There are times when online targeting pays out exceptionally – usually for highly targeted direct response campaigns. My guess is that constant low cost testing helps them figure out, of the target criteria available, which ones are connected to response. But brand campaigns don’t have this luxury.

So broader brand efforts haven’t seen a dramatic increase in ad dollar effectiveness. In fact, many campaigns curtail their online spending because there are simply too few places to spend money that achieve acceptable results. (For example, Pepsi and Best Buy have both recently redirected media funds away from digital and back to traditional. Apple has always succeeded with heavy traditional spending and minimal digital spending.)

Is Targeting Fundamentally Flawed? My sense today is that there’s a big problem matching market to online variables in a way that generates impact. Because online variable must be limited.

Assume Criteria List A tells us what makes a good target consumer. Unfortunately, if you have defined your audience well, nobody’s tracking what’s important in your list.

Because, in truth, Criteria List B is what is actually tracked.

But hoping to cross this gap, some digerati take “B” and expand it to Criteria List C using database correlation.

SO, this leads to three questions:
1. Can we effectively reach our audience “A” when we only have “B”? Not really.
2. How accurate are the projections in “C”? Probably not very accurate.
3. So can we reach “A” when we add the projections “C”? Probably not.

So, it turns out that online buying is pretty much just like buying TV with Nielsen rating data – just with some additional criteria. But “more” criteria doesn’t mean “the important” criteria. What we’d really like to know is predisposition to absorb some of what we say and have that cause action in the future.

There’s nothing wrong with this situation – TV has succeeded for years with Nielsen’s. But what happened to the consumer targeting nirvana we were promised?

Watch Out for VC Hype. VC’s know this theory is a clever way to try to increase value for their ventures. Also, this theory is one of the few really unique things the digerati can claim.

Even worse, ad agencies are suckers for this theory – probably due to a common agency disease I’ll call “Nielsen frustration”. (This is the tendency to blame weaknesses in Nielsen audience measurements for the fact your ads didn’t work. “If only the RIGHT consumers had seen our rats dumpster diving for sandwiches people would have bought the sandwiches in droves…”.)

That’s all nice. But online behavioral targeting hasn’t shown huge results in practice. Even worse, the theory has hung around for a decade without dramatically changing results. How much longer should we wait?

Until proof arrives, it seems best to conclude that online targeting is nice, but no magic pill.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved