6 November 2015

The Brand is the Result: In Defense of Image-Only Advertising

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Loves Strong Brands…

I couldn’t resist the bait.

A direct marketing guy on LinkedIn posed the following question:

“Why don’t most advertising agencies pay as much attention to results as they do to their creative and the awards that they can achieve?… Don’t get me wrong, I believe that branding is important to a company, but feel like you can do both at once and achieve much more. … Respectfully, please help me in understanding why clever creative, especially on the Internet, is the basis of awards instead of client results.”

Now, I’ll be the first to say that results matter.

Over time, marketing must generate sales or the marketer is toast. I make my students explain how they’ll measure the success of their ad campaigns — and I never accept “general sales results” as an answer.

We all know products with great sales but bad ads (go Toyota Camry!). Sales can stem from luck (e.g., Kim Kardashian tweets about you, or your main competitor gets eaten by rabid gerbils), referrals based on product quality, or distribution to all the right outlets.

Another challenge: If your marketing campaign contains multiple forms of media (traditional + digital + PR), how will general sales tell you which was most effective?

So a measuring we go.

We conduct customer surveys and other forms of research. We put unique web addresses, phone numbers, coupons, and discount codes in each type of ad. We track clickthroughs and conversions online. We conduct geographical testing and track longitudinal data (sales before, during, and after the campaign). And we read ad reviews and news in industry publications. All this feedback helps us create more effective advertising.

Indeed, I criticized Blue Moon Brewing Company (aka Coors) for not putting a web address in their expensive ad in Wired magazine.

So how can I now defend ads strictly for branding only — particularly when companies desperately need sales?

Because sometimes your brand is a long-term investment.

BMW's The HireAn image-only campaign might not deliver short-term results, but over the long haul, it creates a stronger brand that commands higher prices and greater customer loyalty.

For example, BMW‘s groundbreaking 2001 film series “The Hire” might not have generated immediate sales, but it helped enforce BMW’s brand as edgy and aspirational. Featuring celebrities and A-list directors, these short Internet films were viewed over 100 million times in four years, won numerous awards, and established mind share in consumers (primarily young males) who could not afford a BMW at the time, but might be able to later. Lexus might arguably make a better car, but to this day BMW generates more passion — and commands a higher price — among automotive aficionados.

Apple used strong image campaigns to promote the iPod + iTunes. What kind of immediate, direct results can a marketer trace to dancing silhouettes? In the long term, Apple leveraged the popularity of the iPod to regain share in the coveted youth/education computer market. Apple’s stock price soared, and the brand now commands over 90% of the premium computer market. Dell, the master of direct marketing and all things measurable, saw their sales and stock price plummet over the same period.

There’s a reason Coca-Cola spends millions on image-only Super Bowl ads: they create awareness and a positive feeling toward the brand, while crushing the hell out of smaller competitors. (RC who?) Tertiary and lower brands have to resort to steep discounting to generate sales.

True, these ads could include a unique web address to abet measurement — I almost always encourage it — but sometimes an integrated sales message is a turnoff that should be saved for another day and another medium.

And about them awards…

Award shows are often rife with error. (“Titanic” was a “best picture”? Are you kidding me?) That doesn’t mean awards have no value. They encourage creatives to use their imaginations instead of resorting to dull, dry recitations of prices and benefits that constitute most sales-oriented ads. Dull advertising hurts the entire industry because it teaches consumers to skip past commercials. You can put all the tracking mechanisms in the world in your ad, but if no one notices it, it won’t make a sound.

When should you go image only?

Three conditions should be in place before you decide to go full commando creative:

  1. Your target market cares about the image of the product. I love great branding, but couldn’t care less about how hip and stylish cat litter is — it just needs to work. Really. Big time. The litter could be in the ugliest packaging in the universe with ads that would put a 3-year-old on Jolt Cola to sleep, but if it keeps the feline WMD’s under control, I’m a happy cat owner. The same is true of price-oriented customers: if all they want is the best deal (for, say, gasoline), the celebrity endorsement probably isn’t worth the money or the ego hassle.
  2. You can afford it. Building a strong brand can take time and a lot of investment, with the results felt years later. If you need sales right here right now, no time to flirt or preen: focus on direct-response marketing with a strong call to action reinforced with some incentives.
  3. You can pull it off — and your competitor can be outbranded. Microsoft can throw all the money it wants to at advertising, but it’s wasting time and dinero trying to outbrand Apple with ads showing women puking.

Ideally, you want your ad to promote three results: a strong brand, a media buzz, and positive consumer behavior. But even a direct marketing guy can’t frown upon an image-only ad that just hits home emotionally — kinda like how I felt when I first saw this classic commercial:

After that, I could no longer be a corporate drone — thankfully.

Does purely creative advertising work? Oh yeah.


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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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