If you don’t ask, you’ll never know: the powerful inspiration for brand communications that marketing ignores

I’ve been reading ‘Creative Mischief’ by Dave Trott, a collection of observations, recollections and anecdotes that’s a treasure trove of basic truths about advertising and the creative process.  It’s insightful, inspiring and entertaining in equal measure.

I was fortunate enough to work with ‘Trottie’ at GGT between 1984 and 1987, the heyday of an agency that was to the 1980s what Mother was to the Noughties – scary but HOT.  I learnt so much about advertising there, not directly from Dave – as an Oxford educated account man, I was given pretty short shrift – but indirectly from the culture he engendered and the principles that informed all the work we were given to ‘sell’.  Dave and I had many run-ins but, even though he made my life difficult, in retrospect I can see it was for the right reasons.

One amusing aspect of reading the book is coming across anecdotes about events of which I was a part. There is one story about a TV ad for Mazda’s (then) Ford Escort competitor, the 323.  Set in a warehouse, the ad showed large hollow cubes being lifted to reveal consecutively smaller ones (Russian dolls style) to demonstrate that, while a Rolls Royce was much bigger than a Mazda 323 on the outside, it was smaller on the inside.  This was a classic GGT creative idea: a direct visual analogy that unambiguously communicated a single-minded proposition in an impactful and memorable way.

I was the account man on the Mazda business.  When Nick Wray came up with the idea, Trottie gave me the job of checking that the claim was supportable.  We had all the data on the Mazda, so we could calculate external and internal volumes… well, it wasn’t quite that easy, I found a clever man at Imperial College to do the maths.  I then got hold of a brochure to find the same figures for the Rolls but, while it showed external dimensions, there were no measurements for the interior.  So, I took myself off to H R Owen in Kensington with a tape measure in my pocket and blagged the salesman that I was interested in buying a Roller.  After being shown all the finer points of the Rolls Royce Corniche, I told the salesman I wanted some time to myself to get a feel for the interior.  While his back was turned, I measured up all the interior dimensions and scribbled them in my notebook.  Once my pet professor at Imperial had worked his magic on the numbers, we had the proof that the Rolls was bigger than the Mazda on the outside but smaller on the inside.  Job done.

I tell this story because it strikes me as a fine example of following Robin Wight’s legendary advice about how to find a proposition around which to build your advertising:

“Interrogate the product until it confesses its strengths”

 It’s a maxim that sounds rather quaint in the world of modern marketing.  Brand managers appear to have accepted that they operate in commoditised categories where there is no hope of finding differentiation in how their product works, how it was developed, how it’s made, its provenance, etc.  I’ve sometimes found that, when I’ve asked members of the brand team basic questions about their product, they simply did not know the answers.  I’ve talked to brand managers who have never done the factory visit and marketing directors who couldn’t tell me about the brand’s founder or how it works.  They didn’t know the answers because they had been brought up in a marketing culture that told them there was no point in asking the questions.

The growth of ‘consumer insight’ as the default basis for communications propositions owes much to this accepted wisdom.  Faced with a perceived absence of differentiation in the product, the aim is to find in the ‘consumer’ something about the way they think, feel or behave to which you can wed your brand.  The flaw in this notion is that ‘consumer insights’ are by definition generic: if it’s a genuine insight, it’s there for any of your competitors to find too.  For the insight to appear ‘differentiating’, you either have to appropriate it before anyone else, so that your brand can ‘own’ it, or think about the insight in a very smart and creative way.

Hence, ‘consumer insight’ is no more intrinsically differentiated than ‘product insight’; the real differentiation lies in the way you think about it.  For example, using analogy or metaphor, dramatising it in a novel way, or re-framing the context.  That said, you are more likely to find something you can ‘own’ in the product than in the ‘consumer’, because at least it’s your product.  Even if you what you find is not strongly differentiated, it may still have potential, if you think about it the right way.  When people say their product is not differentiated, very often it’s their thinking that’s not differentiated.

What Dave Trott showed is that you can take a something small about your product – sometimes even something generic – and, if you think about it cleverly enough, make it a big thing that can connect powerfully with people.  When the brand people at Mazda had boffed on about the interior space of their car, they had mentioned that it was more spacious than most cars in the class above.  Which got Dave thinking.  He re-framed the proposition, taking a familiar ‘space’ message and presenting it in a surprising and provocative way, by comparing the Mazda not with its ‘competition’, nor even with cars the next class up, but with the finest car in the world.

Dave pulled a similar trick on another of my accounts.  Sekonda made decent watches, but there was no good reason to buy one over a Timex or a Pulsar.  They all had similar ranges, similar pricing and similar performance – all were equally accurate.  But, on closer interrogation, we discovered that a Sekonda wasn’t only as accurate as a Pulsar; it was as accurate as handmade Swiss watches costing £1000s.  That was all Trottie needed: what if we made an ad that dramatically demonstrated how our cheap Sekonda was just as good as one of the world’s most expensive watches at doing what watches are supposed to do: accurately telling the time?

Great idea – but was the claim true?  It fell to me to find out.  Off I went to Watches of Switzerland to find a prestige watch that looked similar to our £20 Sekonda.  It was a £2,000 Patek Phillipe.  So, I bought it (BIG expenses claim) and arranged to meet my Imperial College prof so he could put the watches through their paces.  In a series of tests that subjected both watches to varying levels of pressure, extremes of temperature and, finally, submerged them in water, the Sekonda kept time as accurately as the Patek Philippe.  We had interrogated our product – indeed, we had water-boarded it – and the Sekonda had confessed its strengths.

We had our evidence, so now we could make our ad.  But Dave had one last trick up his sleeve.  At the end of the commercial, there was a final demonstration of how the Sekonda was a match for the Patek Philippe: we dropped a 1,000lb steel weight on them both to show that the Sekonda would smash to pieces just as well as a watch that cost 100 times as much!

I am not, of course, saying that ‘consumer insight’ is a waste of time.  I am merely suggesting that the first step in defining a communications proposition should be to interrogate the product. 

Any brand manager worth their salt should know everything there is to know about their product and every planner should be determined to find it out.  You only need a tiny piece of grit around which to build your pearl of a communications idea and, if you can find an original creative angle on it, something born out of your product may be much easier to ‘own’ than something that comes from everyone’s consumer.

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4 Responses to If you don’t ask, you’ll never know: the powerful inspiration for brand communications that marketing ignores

  1. Nice post. Interesting that in both examples the process was not to interrogate the product for an insight that leads to an idea but the other way around. Start with a hunch and go out and prove it.

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    • gthebash says:

      Fair point, Phil. Almost. I think the process was essentially one of the creatives taking a bland proposition and seeing the opportunity to make it more potent by a making a small, creative, strategic leap. Hence, ‘The Mazda 323 has excellent interior space’ became ‘The Mazda 323 has more interior space than a Rolls Royce’; ‘Sekonda watches are very accurate’ became ‘A Sekonda watch is as accurate as a watch that costs 100 times as much’. The best creatives are instinctive strategists, great strategy being intrinsically creative. Hence my feeling that planners are well advised to mull over potential proposition options with some smart creatives before they write the creative brief.

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  2. Nice read! Like the phrase ‘Interrogate the product until it confesses its strengths!’.

    And yes, challenging the products and being an instinctive strategist is what it takes most. Also in our modern times. I would even say that the product as such nowadays even can have more of a chance to connect with the (potentiel) users in a far more intimate and deeper way. This also because legends and artificially developped images do not count as much anymore as they did when the brands were created from a Mount Olympus position to bless a client base who could be easier matipulated.
    To my opinion whether starting with a product or an idea is less important than e.g. the real motives as such. Crap products and shallow concepts that cannot hold their promise are generally out and can be quickly kicked out of the competition. And breathing some meaning into an empty Nothing just does not work anymore. Best not to bother with trying!
    Personal authenticity and actions driven by real insights and real conviction help as much as stepping out of self fulfilling think boxes with models that promise standard recipes to reach business targets.
    Also, now more than ever we are challenged by an extremely witty group of potentiel clients from younger generations, many of whom consider themselves to be creatives in one way or another. The follow quite diverse patterns in their choices and one needs to make great efforts to connect with them. Hitting the sweet spot, sort to speak! However, the real connecting should come rather effortless when the core quality concept and product is solid.

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    • gthebash says:

      Hi Elke, thank you for your comment. Glad you liked the piece. I agree that time is running out for brands and products that have no substance. However, they will be with us for a while yet, and we will all find ourselves working on them in the meantime!

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