Sunday, August 25, 2013

Is It Time To Retire The Proposition?

If you're anything like me, the first bit of the brief you look at is the 'proposition box.'

And the second question anyone asks you after "what are you working on?" is "what's the proposition?"

Meanwhile, within the agency, everyone endlessly debates 'what the proposition should be' and whether a certain proposition is "interesting" or "crap."

But recently I've started to wonder if the proposition is an out-of-date concept, that might be holding us back.

The proposition derives from Rosser Reeves' USP, which he developed in the 1940s. It tends to lead to what I call 'benefit amplification' communications...e.g. 'light' products that float in the air, 'easy to use' products that allow the consumer to relax in a deck-chair, or 'great value' products that allow the consumer to buy lots of other things with the money they've saved.

Frankly, I think it's old hat. And I bet consumers are getting tired of it too.

The worst sin of the proposition is that it's static, and the second-worst sin is that it's hard to get it to lead to modern, interactive communications.

Nowadays I'm trying to think more in terms of 'brand purpose', aka 'brand philosophy' or 'mission' (if you have a useful distinction or preference between these terms, let me know).

A brand purpose, as defined by Jim Stengel (former chief marketing honcho of P&G) is “the brand’s inspirational reason for being. It explains why the brand exists and the impact it seeks to make in the world."

Examples: Method expresses its purpose as "People against dirty." Google's mission is "To organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

The advantage of a brand purpose - in my eyes - is that it's far more active than a proposition. It's more interesting, and it has inherent momentum. And you can get consumers to interact with it. Who wants to interact with 'value' or 'time-saving'? So basically, I believe it is more likely to lead to better, more modern work.

Also, it's probably a more powerful selling tool too. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” as Simon Sinek famously said.

The latest Nike TV ad - the best commercial I've seen in the last 3 months - is a great example of a purpose ad. Nike's always had a purpose. It's not a brand built on a proposition such as speed, strength or endurance. It's a brand built on a mission, to inspire athletes.

So that's where I'm at. Propositions are out. Purposes are in. What do you reckon? Who's with me?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Do Analogies Still Work?


This ad about 'Marmite Neglect' is great, but it's copped a lot of flak (over 400 complaints so far) because some people apparently think it's disrespectful.  

I find that quite sad. The subject obviously isn't animal neglect at all, it's just an analogy.

But analogies seem to have a bad rap at the moment.

The current mega-trend is 'reality advertising', and analogy-based ads get called addy or contrived.

In fact I think there may be a broader cultural rejection of analogies going on.

If so, the slide began with Swiss Toni. For anyone not familiar, Swiss Toni was a car salesman character in sketch series The Fast Show, who compared every experience in life - whether it was selling a car or preparing a cup of coffee - to "making love to a beautiful woman". Yes, the sketch was primarily skewering a certain type of sleazy middle-aged man. But I feel it also satirised the very concept of analogies.

I don't know if it's just my imagination - but I get the feeling that analogies are no longer considered an impressive form of argument. I'm sure it used to be possible to win an argument - or at least score a big point - with a witty or clever analogy. But I'm finding they don't work that well any more.

Some people think that if they can find an inconsequential aspect of your analogy that doesn't resemble the situation at hand, then they've won - forgetting that 95% of the analogy is still valid, and an argument that is 95% valid (in the 100% non-scientific world of advertising) is actually a pretty good one.

And there are even people who don't seem to accept that analogies create a valid argument at all. For example, I was once arguing that even though the product we were advertising was inherently appealing, we needed to do more than just show the product, we needed to make the ad itself appealing, and I used the analogy that even though dogs find bones inherently appealing, the dog-owner still waves the bone in the air to attract the dog's attention before handing it over. The response I got was "but our product isn't a bone, and the consumer isn't a dog." 

I'm considering dropping analogies from my life entirely. Like someone you got on well with at school, but don't want to be seen with at university.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Will The Next Person To Use The Word 'Storytelling' Please Report For Their Slap

What we do is increasingly being called 'storytelling' but actually I think that definition is completely wrong, and it's really starting to annoy me.

Yes, ads do often have a narrative. This brilliant spot that came out last week, for Devondale Dairy Soft butter, uses many common narrative techniques - it has an 'inciting incident', comedic misunderstanding, and even a twist. Not bad for a film that's only 30 seconds long and also sells a product. But it's still not a story.

A story - lest we forget - has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Ads very rarely conform to this definition. The only one I can think of, off the top of my head, is Chipotle's Back To The Start. (Interestingly, it was also produced by the Hollywood agents CAA rather than an ad agency...)

But I would argue it may actually be a bad thing for an ad to tell a proper story. Reason being that a proper story has a definitive ending. E.g. at the end of Titanic, Jack dies. (Apologies if you're a teenage girl who unaccountably hasn't seen it yet). This is why sequels are nearly always worse than the original - the original story has finished. But brands don't want their story to end. They want it to go on and on.

Another important difference is that a story is about a character (or occasionally a group or community) that undergoes significant change. E.g. at the beginning of The Lion King, Simba is a naive young cub. He then goes through a period of adolescent irresponsibility ("Hakuna matata") before finishing up as the wise and mature leader of his tribe.

So although a brand 'has a character' e.g. it might be fun-loving or stylish, we don't want that character to change, we actually want it to stand for something fixed, so that people know exactly the role it can play in their lives. 

Brands often have an 'origin story' (example - Innocent smoothies "we made smoothies at a festival and put up a sign saying 'should we quit our jobs to make smoothies instead?' and had two big bins marked 'yes' and 'no' for people to vote with their empty bottles"). But this is normally better told through PR rather than advertising. Innocent should stand for naturalness, not entrepreneurialism.

Please note I'm not arguing against interactivity, or what is today being called 'letting consumers be part of the story.' Interactivity is great, but what consumers should be interacting with is not 'a story' but 'a quality of the brand' or 'the brand's point of view'. 

For example, IKEA's fantastic Facebook Showroom app, which allowed people to tag an IKEA item online with their name if they befriended the store's manager, was not about letting consumers be part of a story but rather enabling them to experience a quality of IKEA ('quirky good value').

Yes, the use of the word 'storytelling' is probably just a language issue, and advertising has long been the victim of a succession of stupid buzzwords, but I do worry that incorrect language can lead to a proliferation of wrong behaviour. In our case, a bunch of charlatans jumping out of the woodwork claiming that we all ought to be 'storytellers'.

Or am I getting upset about nothing?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

The Onion Unfairly Maligns Us

So The Onion wrote an entertaining story about last week's Omnicom/Publicis deal, headlined 'Merger Of Advertising Giants Brings Together Largest Collection Of People With No Discernible Skills.'

"These two ad behemoths will have the industry’s largest and most formidable talent pool of people called ‘creatives’ who have never created a single thing in their lives," the piece went on.
And we were all amused, in a crying-on-the-inside kinda way. 

But I think they got it wrong.
Granted, most of The Onion is funnier than nearly all ads are. And there's hardly an ad ever made that deserves a spot on the same stage as the best movies, books, paintings, or TV shows. Though a few surely do.

But the fact is we are playing a game that's of a higher order of difficulty to the game played by comedy writers, novelists or film-makers.

Because not only are we attempting to make our work funny, dramatic, or beautiful... but we must also make it a compelling sales message for a brand.

I'd like to see the folks at The Onion try that. Ain't as easy as it looks, fellas.

I mean, just imagine how terrible certain well-known movies would be if they were also ads for brands.

Actually, no need for you to boot up your imagination. Behold once again my amateur Photoshop skills:

First up, a classic tear-jerker if it also had to act as an ad for Philip Morris products.

Brad Pitt in 90-minute commercial for Spanish fashion chain:

Hey Pixar: let's see your guys write a story that's equally engaging as your normal ones, but you only get 30 seconds, and it has to make people want to visit a particular supermarket chain.

In conclusion, we are not worse than the people in other creative industries. If our product often is, that's because we just have a harder job, do we not?