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  • Bob Hoffman


Those of us who create advertising or make advertising decisions need to start from a position of reality. What can advertising realistically achieve and how can we best achieve it?

Advertising is a small part of marketing. We don’t control the product. We don’t control the pricing. We don’t control the distribution or the customer service or the marketing strategy. The only thing we control is one aspect of communication.

Which leads to a big question. What is the one capability of advertising that has the greatest likelihood of resulting in success? Is it differentiation? Is it positioning? Is it creativity? Is it precision targeting? Is it empathy? Is it brand purpose? Is it salience (whatever that means.) Or is it something else?

The correct answer is, it’s something else. But until we know what that something else is, our objective is not clear and our task is not well-defined.

Before launching a new campaign, marketers, branding experts, and advertising practitioners often spend months trying to define what a brand should stand for. We are very fond of the concept of “brand meaning.”

This is driven by the belief that consumers impute specific attributes to brands and exercise their buying prerogatives based on the meaning they assign to the brand, and how well that meaning aligns with their personal needs or values.

Marketers also believe that consumers want to have "relationships" with brands, and be part of a brand's "tribe" or “community” and "co-create" with brands and, of course, respect and trust their "brand purpose.” I think this is largely horseshit.

The idea that the brands we use are intensely important to us and that we spend time and energy sussing out their meaning and trustworthiness is a deeply ingrained marketing fantasy. For most people, their relationship with most of the brands they buy is shallow, transactional, and contingent. Brands are not nearly as important or meaningful as we marketers would like them to be.

Are there some brands we’re attached to? Sure. We each have a handful. But consumers are faced with thousands of brands. The likelihood of yours being one of the handful they are strongly attached to is absurdly small.

Whenever I argue that brands are not as important to consumers as we marketers think they are, I get the same response from traditional marketers: "Oh, yeah, well how about Apple and Nike...?" I call this arguing from the extreme. They take the most extreme version of something and pretend it's the norm. Of course, there are a handful of brands - like Apple - that have very loyal customers to whom the brand may be very meaningful. These handful of brands are two or three standard deviations from normal and, I'm sorry, but your brand ain't one of them.

Consumers are annoyingly impervious to understanding the finer points of product positioning, differentiation, and brand meaning. Don’t agree? Stop someone on the street today and ask them what the difference is between BMW and Mercedes-Benz? Ask them for the difference between Coke and Pepsi? Ask them how Nike is different from Adidas? I will bet you very large sums of money that their responses will have little to no correlation to the strategic documents floating around those brands' headquarters. And these are some of the most successful brands in the world.

Each of these brands has spent tens of millions of dollars over the years concocting delusions of “differentiation.” They believe their brands are successful because of their unique “brand meaning.” They're wrong.

The main advertising influence on their success is fame. As you'll see, I believe the most probable driver of brand success -- and the central principle of communication that we advertisers can control -- is fame. Not brand meaning, or relationship building, or brand purpose or any of the other fantasies that the advertising and marketing industry has concocted.

Here are some questions for you:

- Why do some actors get million dollar fees for appearing in movies while other equally good actors get nothing?

- Why do some people get the best tables at fancy restaurants while nicer people can't even get in?

- Why do some people become President of the United States while there are millions who are smarter and more decent?

Right, because they're famous. Fame is a massive advantage in business and in life.

Simple ideas like “fame” are anathema to the marketing industry. We advertising and marketing professionals make our living by convincing business people that marketing communication is a deeply specialized practice that requires particular knowledge and acumen. So we do our best to complicate the shit out of it.

That’s one of the reasons why “brand meaning” is such a popular idea. The more mysterious we can make brand building, the more brands need people like us to interpret consumer psychology. Brand meaning fits the bill very nicely.

But if consumer buying behavior is more reliably traceable to brand familiarity than to brand meaning, who needs all the relentless, expensive busywork we throw at developing brand meaning? How much value does all our research, ethnography, anthropology, strategy and planning have if actual consumer behavior is more directly aligned to simple familiarity than to the meaning of the brand? Or its position? Or its purpose?

The people who promote the importance of brand meaning are promulgating a self-serving theory that puts them at the center of marketing activity by placing the interpretation of consumer behavior in their hands.

Ironically, the brand meaning crowd tend to be further removed from the behavior of actual consumers than they’d have us believe. They claim to understand the consumer, but do they really? It has been demonstrated time and again that marketing and advertising people live in a world that has little relation to the world of most of the people they are trying to influence. If you doubt this, I will be happy to accompany you to the DMV and show you what your customers actually look like.

Marketers' "understanding" of consumers is usually not based on actual first-hand experience, but on the reports of people who brief them — researchers, strategists, and planners. The researchers, strategists, and planners tend to share the same brand delusions that the marketing people have. They tend to interpret the behavior of consumers through the same lens and language of differentiation, positioning, and "meaning" as the marketers. When you’re looking for brand meaning, it’s very rare not to find it.

Try this. Read the documents that your researchers, strategists, and planners have written about the meaning of your brand. Then get out in the street and ask a few people what comes to mind about your brand. I promise, you’ll be appalled.

While most brands do not have deep meaning to most of us, and while our discernment of brand positioning and differentiation may not be all it’s cracked up to be, at some point when we’re buying we do have to make a decision.

It is not that positioning and differentiation are irrelevant. It's that a) they are not advertising's primary contribution to brand success and b) they are not as compelling to real people as most marketers think they are.

Nonetheless, when we are creating advertising, it has to be about something. Positioning and differentiation are better than non-positioning and non-differentiation. So go ahead and position and differentiate away. Just don't fool yourself into believing that they are advertising's central goal.

Oh yeah, and don't ever let some half-assed marketer's idea of purpose, empathy, empowerment -- or whatever happens to be the brand babbler cliché of the month -- get in the way of a great idea. In an environment like advertising, where strategic insight is usually a cruel joke, a great creative idea is usually the best advertising strategy.

While we're on the subject of marketing knowledge, let's take a little side trip. While I believe that positioning is a useful concept in advertising, I wonder why I believe it? (I'm using "positioning" as an example here. The following is also true for several other widely accepted marketing dogmas.)

Do I believe it because I've seen hard evidence? Or do I believe it because "experts" have told me so? As someone who claims to be skeptical of the opinions of marketing experts, I have to admit that I may well be the type of idiot I'm always railing against -- because I don't have the slightest bit of scientific evidence for believing that positioning is predictably effectual.

In order to prove to my logical lobe that positioning in advertising is essential, I would have to see research on a requisite sample of ad campaigns -- many hundreds -- in which products that were determined to be "well-positioned" outperformed products that were not "well-positioned." I would also have to confirm that other factors like creativity and media weight have been controlled for.

I have never seen such a study. I have seen dozens of anecdotes and case histories (just a fancier term for anecdotes) and thousands of assertions about the efficacy of positioning, but nothing even resembling a scientific study with a random, reliable sample and well-controlled-for variables.

In believing in the efficacy of positioning, I am trusting that 1) my general "sense" of how marketing works is reliable, 2) conventional marketing people know what they're talking about, and 3) consumers are reliably sensitive to the distinctions we call "positioning."

I have very little reason to believe any of that.

If I may continue down this road... at one time I was a science teacher. I also spent a year as special assistant to the executive director of the California Academy of Science. By no means am I a trained scientist. But by hanging around for a while in science-world I picked up a few pointers on the difference between a fact and an opinion.

Many marketing practitioners assume that concepts like positioning, differentiation, purpose, empathy, etc are important in the success of advertising because "everybody knows they are." Well, I don't know they are and until someone can prove it to me I will remain skeptical.

Widely held beliefs based on questionable assumptions can be very dangerous and costly. It has been my experience that the existing science in support of these marketing shibboleths is not terribly convincing.

Contemporary advertising thinking would also have us believe that a clear path to brand success is built on personalization and precision targeting (thanks in large part to the influence of the online media industry and its supplicants.) I would like to suggest the opposite.

I would like to suggest that the main power of advertising is not in precision targeting, it is in mass targeting. The real power in advertising is in having large numbers of people familiar with and comfortable with your brand. A realistic view of the world’s most successful brands gives us a very clear and unambiguous picture — spreading the word is far more likely to create success than concentrating it.

Most marketers are famously inept at creating a consequential differentiation for their brand. That's why god created advertising. A poorly differentiated brand that everybody's heard of has a lot better chance of success than a well-differentiated brand that nobody's heard of.

In the long run, getting a lot of people familiar with your brand and comfortable with it has a much higher probability of building your business than any other theory of marketing communication. Familiarity and comfort with a brand come in a variety of ways, including...

…the brand my mom used

…the brand my neighbor uses and likes

…the brand that works satisfactorily for me

…the brand I see everywhere

The questionable brand “differentiators” dreamed up in conference rooms and codified in briefing documents are largely lost on consumers and play secondary roles in most actual purchasing behavior. And yet developing these so-called brand differentiators — through research, ethnography, strategy and planning exercises — occupy an enormous amount of time, energy, and money. If you've had a look at advertising lately, I doubt I have to tell you how infrequently they result in anything very compelling.

On the other hand, brands that are well-known and distinctive (both a cause and an effect of fame) in their categories are the ones that tend to have the most marketing success and tend to be category leaders.

Is this always the case? No. Is it the most probable case? Yes. Nothing in marketing is absolute, all we have are likelihoods and probabilities.

Marketers have the naive but apparently fact-resistant belief that customers care deeply about what they buy, and buy according to a logical or emotional comparison of what they want and what the brand says it’s “about.” Sometimes they do. But mostly they don’t. I am officially skeptical that consumers exercise as much conscious assessment of alternatives when they make a purchase as we marketers believe.

Before I get an avalanche of abuse from the people who are betting their company’s money on traditional marketing assumptions, let me explain…

- Do people recognize the differences between brands? Not as much as we'd like to believe.

- Do people have brand preferences? In most cases, yes.

- Does a strong brand have value to a marketer? Without question, tremendous value.

Q: Wait a second. You say a strong brand has tremendous value, but consumers aren't that interested in brands. WTF?

A: Exactly. Most consumer choices are done without deep thought. People don't have the time, energy, or inclination to assess the ramifications of every brand decision before they buy. The fact that people are not as sensitive to brand variance as we think makes strong brands more powerful, not less.

Ironically, the less energy people spend analyzing brand meaning, the more important top-of-mind awareness (or as Prof. Sharp might call it, "mental availability") becomes.

One more time...the less patience and appetite people have for analyzing brand variables, the more important brand familiarity and comfort become.

But let's get back on track. What we are talking about today is not the value of a strong brand, it is the most probable way of creating a strong brand.

Any scientific, non-ideological interpretation of consumer behavior can lead to only one conclusion: Most people buy most brands in most categories because they are familiar and comfortable with them. Not because they are the most deeply understood or the most personally meaningful. The leading brands in virtually every category tend to be the most familiar, regardless of what the brand babblers say about their meaning.

Let’s make this even simpler. People are mostly too busy, too lazy, or too indifferent to give 2/5ths of a flying shit about the “meaning” of the stuff they buy. Mostly, they buy on auto-pilot from familiar brands they feel comfortable with. The easier you make it for people to choose your brand the more likely you are to be successful. From the standpoint of advertising, the best way to make the choice easier is to be famous and let probability do its work.

This is true even for brands that are already famous. Like the man said, when you get the plane to 35,000 feet you don't turn off the engines. This is why outstanding creative work is such an unmatched advertising asset. It creates a lot more fame per dollar.

Does this mean that positioning, differentiation et al are not at all important? No. As previously stated, when you create advertising it has to be about something. So you might as well make it about something useful like positioning and differentiation. But these elements of advertising are not the central goal. The central goal is to achieve fame. A brand that is famous has enormous advantages over its rival brands that are not famous.

This does not mean that fame is a guarantee of success. Fame cannot save a stupid idea or a stupid product. Fame is strong. But stupid is stronger.

There are several ways for brands to achieve fame. Some do it by being clearly superior and generating exceptional word of mouth. This is obviously the best way to become famous.

Some get lucky. They’re good copy. The media love to cover them, follow them everywhere, and provide them with zillions in free exposure. Others become famous through imaginative PR initiatives, clever stunts, the charismatic personalities of their leaders, or a combination of these things. There are many ways to achieve fame, and they're all good.

The most expensive way to become famous is through advertising. It is the most expensive, but also the most reliable. It is the only avenue to fame that you can buy your way into.

If I was the ceo of your company -- or if I was your client -- I’d call you into my office and give you a three-word brief: Make us famous.

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