What makes a great communications proposition?


However unfashionable it may be, I am inclined still to think of the ‘proposition’ as being the heart and soul of any communications brief: the single thought that, if absorbed by our ‘target consumer’, will engender the response we seek.

The proposition has to inspire your creative team to produce a relevant, engaging and distinctive communications idea. Your chances of getting a great idea are hugely increased if your brief has an inspiring proposition; without one, you will be relying on good luck.

Writing a great proposition is not easy. It requires the imagination and clarity of thought to be able to sift through innumerable facts and observations about the brand, the user and market and process them in a lateral or insightful way to make leaps and connections that create an inspiring thought.

A great proposition is communications gold. How do we find one?

An inspiring proposition is often found at the intersection of a ‘Human Truth’ or ‘Insight’ and a ‘Brand Truth’ or ‘Product Truth’, ie: what your brand can deliver within the context of human attitudes and behaviour. Each of the following propositions, all drawn from creative briefs I have seen, aim to do this.

  • ‘Everyday indulgence’
  • ‘Modern classic’
  • ‘So healthy… yet so tasty!’

You could argue that each operates at this intersection: identifying a ‘human truth’ (that consumers do not expect to find two specified attributes co-existing within the same product) and challenging it through a ‘brand truth’ (these two ‘contradictions’ have been successfully reconciled within one product).

Are these propositions communications gold? Or are they something altogether less shiny and rather more smelly?

There is an easy test here: what would the target consumer think if they consciously absorbed the communication?

“‘Bloggo Crème: everyday indulgence’. Well, how about that? I’ve always thought that the things that taste most gorgeous are really expensive, so I only buy them on special occasions. But Bloggo Crème has shown me that this doesn’t have to be the case, by being both incredibly delicious and affordable enough to eat daily. Wow, I want to buy some without delay!”

It’s not going to happen, is it?

The problem is, we’ve heard these ‘reconciled contradictions’ a thousand times before – so many times, that they are no longer contradictions, they are the norm. We know that the affordable things that we eat often can be really tasty too; and that healthy things don’t have to taste like rabbit food; and that many brands want us to think they have a design quality that transcends fashion, in contradiction to the received wisdom that the modern world is characterised by the transient and the disposable. So there is no more reason we should believe it for this brand than for any other, and no reason why we should link this proposition to this brand than to any other.

You have to try harder. You might be quite chuffed at finding a proposition that lies at the intersection of a ‘human truth’ and a ‘brand truth’. But, don’t accept the first answer. Push on to see if you can find something better: sharper, more distinctive, more inspiring. Think laterally.

Here are a couple of examples from Mars to illustrate the point. The core proposition for Mars Bar is ‘energy’. This is somewhat bald and generic, however, so one could search at the intersection of a ‘human truth’ and a ‘brand truth’ to find something a little more original and ownable, for example:

Mars proposition diagram

Mmmm. That still feels a bit average, don’t you think? It may be true, but it’s also rather predictable, even a bit worthy, perhaps. Can you see an original, distinctive and entertaining creative idea being inspired by this?

So, why not look at the same thing from a different perspective? What if we thought about how Mars ‘giving you energy to take on the day’ might appear to onlookers, rather than how it affects the person eating it – from the spectator’s perspective rather than the protagonist’s?

Or, what if we thought about the consequences of Mars ‘giving you energy to take on the day’?

Then you might get to a proposition like:

  • If people see you eating a Mars, they will expect much more from you’.

Yes, it’s hyperbole, but hyperbole has long been one of the key levers in the toolbox of engaging, relevant and distinctive advertising.

So, which would you prefer as a brief:

  • ‘Mars gives you the energy to take on the day’


  • If people see you eating a Mars, they will expect much more from you’

Which is more likely to inspire fresh, engaging advertising? When you look at the brilliant ‘Runaway Train’, the advertising Clemenger BBDO Melbourne was inspired to create by the latter proposition, the answer is clear.

The same could be said for Snickers in the UK. The core proposition is ‘Satisfies hunger’. OK, but lots of things ‘satisfy hunger’. How do we make this distinctive and ownable?

What if we think about the consequences of not satisfying hunger. Then you might get to ‘Being hungry can turn the nicest people into grumps’, from which springs the brilliant ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ campaign.

So, where does this leave us?

The first brilliant proposition you write probably isn’t! Does the prospect of having to write a campaign from your proposition excite you? Do you feel you’ve seen communications ideas from other brands that could have been written to this proposition? If you successfully communicated this, how would your ‘target consumer’ respond?

Push on. Take your proposition as just the starting point. Think laterally about its implications. For starters, try these 3 provocations:

  1. What could be the consequences of using the brand?
  2. How would this look to people who aren’t using the brand.*
  3. What would be the consequences of not using the brand?

There are many more ways than these of cutting your proposition cake. But these are a start and, once you push yourself, the ideas will start coming.

Communications propositions should be as creative as the creative ideas they inspire. Don’t settle for less.

* This new Adidas ad appeared just after this post was originally published, and is a good example of pushing the proposition through provocation 2: How would this look to people who aren’t using the brand.

Posted in Advertising, Brand positioning, Brand strategy, Marketing | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

If you can only research your ad idea once before you make it, what research should you do?


A TV advertising idea is rarely so brilliant that no-one feels the need to run some research before they commit the production money. But it is not uncommon that, by the time you get to a script you’re comfortable with, there’s almost no time for research before you have to start production. Or, if you do have time, you may not have the budget. Either way, if you only do one stage of research before deciding to progress, what should it be: quant or qual?

In my view, it absolutely has to be qualitative development research rather than quantitative pre-testing.

As Mandy Rice Davies famously remarked, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”. ‘He’ has, after all, spent most of his 30-plus years in marketing plying his trade as a qualitative researcher.

But it’s true, nonetheless.  Most people in this predicament will run a quantitative pre-test, classically IPSOS Next or a Millward Brown Link Test.  However, it surely makes no sense to run a one-off test from which you will learn nothing about how to develop the ad to maximise its effectiveness.  At best, the ad will receive a good ‘score’, but you still won’t know what to do to make it even better.  If the test gives the ad an ‘OK’ score, you are none the wiser about how to make it better.  And, if it scores poorly, you don’t know whether it’s the strategy, the idea or the execution that needs changing.

The whole purpose of qual is to help us understand how the idea works and give us a clear sense of how it could be improved.  Why would one not want to do this?

If you don’t buy this argument, here are four more reasons why you have to commission qualitative research rather than a quantitative pre-test.

1          You need to research the idea, not the stimulus

Typically, quantitative pre-tests are run using animatics.  Many animatics are just terrible.  Some ideas are almost impossible to represent effectively in animatic form.  You end up testing the animatic, not the idea.

The notion that testing an animatic gets the ‘consumer’ closer to what the final commercial will look like is, in most cases, completely spurious.  More often, it does just the opposite, giving an misleading sense of ‘looking like’ the finished ad, when a respondent is more likely to create a realistic sense of the finished ad in their own mind in response to a vividly written narrative.

I have seen poor results from Link that made no sense to me until I saw the animatic.   The original ad in what became the long running and hugely successful ‘Adam’ campaign for BT is a case in point. The idea showed great potential when I researched it in script form, being found original, engaging and relevant.  But it did not Link Test well, with engagement dropping off quickly over the opening 10 seconds. Mystified at this result, I asked the client to send me the animatic. As soon as I watched it, I could see the problem. The opening section of the commercial consisted of the internal dialogue in Adam’s mind as he sat contemplating his options.  In the script I had researched, this was vividly described, so that my respondents could imagine the subtly changing expressions and body language that would help express Adam’s thoughts and make the opening sequence very watchable. But, in the animatic, the camera slowly zoomed in on a static image of a bloke sat on a chair – no movement, no emotion, no expression. In short, the opening scene of the animatic had none of the things that were clearly essential to engagement, but which would unquestionably be there in the finished film. Once you saw the animatic, it was blindingly obvious why the score was poor: what was being researched was a terrible animatic for a good idea, and people were judging the stimulus, not the idea.

I pointed this out to the client and asked them if they thought the finished film was likely to be like the first 10 seconds of the animatic, or like the first 10 seconds as they had imagined it from the description in the script. The film got made in spite of its poor Link Test scores, and the rest is history.

2          You need to allow the advertising to be processed in its own way, not within a straightjacket

Regardless of the big players’ protestations to the contrary, pre-testing evaluates all ads against essentially the same criteria, as if all ads work in a similar way.  They don’t.  The questions are also highly prescriptive, forcing every ad into a framework that may well be entirely inappropriate for how the specific piece of copy will work.  Much of the time, quant pre-testing measures things because they can be measured, rather than because they are relevant.  To quote my favourite qualitative research guru, Albert Einstein: ‘Not everything you can count counts; and not everything that counts can be counted’.

Qualitative research, owing to the open-ended and responsive way in which ideas are explored, allows for a more natural response that is driven by the way the specific idea works.  In a sense, the ad creates its own agenda, just as communications do in the ‘real world’, rather than having one imposed upon it by a set question protocol.

3          You need to assess the ad against its own objectives, not ‘norms’

Many clients find the ability to score their ideas against ‘norms’ reassuring.  ‘Norms’ are dangerous nonsense.  Even if you compare your ad’s score to other ads in the market, or relative to other ‘fair’ comparison points, this is completely spurious.  Every ad must be assessed in its own terms.  Only if there was another ad for this brand, trying to achieve the same thing at the same point in time against the same target, would a comparison be meaningful.

For example, a pre-testing agency will have a ’norm’ for ‘carbonated drinks’ advertising. Why on earth would it be meaningful to compare the scores for a new Coke ad with ’norms’ derived from advertising for other CSDs such as Pepsi and Rubicon? They’re ads for different brands with different objectives that are intended to work in different ways. What would such comparisons mean?  Not a lot.

The only meaningful way to appraise an advertising idea is against the objectives set for that specific idea.  The ad must always be assessed against the brief, and the brief is unique to the specific ad.  Quant pre-testing does not do this, qual research can.

4          You need to use people who understand their own ‘data’

In my experience, most ‘researchers’ presenting findings from quant pre-testing don’t understand their own data.  For example, I recall the ‘researcher’ in a Link Test debrief giving us a ‘Comprehension’ score that was derived from a question asking respondents how easy they thought the ad was to understand.  This is not the same thing at all: 100% of your respondents could think the ad is easy to understand, when in fact they have completely misunderstood it, and vice versa. When I pointed this out to the guy presenting the slides, he just couldn’t see the difference. His Comprehension score was clearly zero.

I would prefer to use a researcher who has worked with advertising for over 30 years, researching upwards of 1500 scripts, and is trusted by agencies and clients alike for his ability to discern idea from execution and give great clarity about how best to develop the finished advertising.  Can you think of anyone… ?

I realise my entreaties to use qual rather than defaulting to quant may fall on deaf ears. I am all too aware of the pressure in organisations for ‘numbers’ to back decisions. I know that, in many companies, an ad won’t get made unless it passes the threshold test score in Next or Link. I know it’s a brave marketing person who sticks their neck out for understanding rather than percentages. I would simply urge you to screw your courage to the sticking place and let the finished ad’s performance prove that, when you had your back to the wall, your choice of qualitative development research was the right one.

Posted in Advertising, Communications, Market research, Qualitative research | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Social media monitoring and customer service: the answer, or part of the problem?


In an earlier post, ‘5 features of successful social sharing’, I enthused about social media monitoring and how assiduous and intelligent ‘listening’ to people’s behaviour and attitudes around brands and market sectors could inspire effective marketing initiatives.

This is only one of the many ways in which social media monitoring can benefit business. Another powerful way in which it is being used is as a customer service tool, enabling businesses to pick up early on customer criticism and ‘nip it in the bud’, with a public or a personal response.

It is now well understood how effective ‘service recovery’ can leave an initially pissed-off customer feeling more positive about a brand than they did before the problem occurred. So, being able to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion to negative Tweets is critically important.

There are some great examples where companies have screwed this up but, when it is done well, a company stands to win friends and influence people: the customer feels better about the business as a consequence of the fast, personal attention they have received, and the company can gain considerable social kudos that enhances its reputation. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Or is it?

Increasingly, companies are using social media monitoring as a key component in their customer service provision. However, I believe that such an approach carries with it dangers that pose a significant reputational threat to the businesses that employ it. My evidence is anecdotal, but a couple of examples should illustrate the point.


On Christmas Eve 2013, heavy rainfall flooded an electricity sub-station at Gatwick Airport, forcing the cancellation of most of the day’s flights. There was anarchy in Departures, as thousands of passengers, already stressed out by endless delays, were left literally and metaphorically in the dark as they tried to find out what they should do, now that they would not be able to leave on their holidays or travel to see their relatives for Christmas Day.

There was no information on the display boards; airline and airport staff were nowhere to be found, having locked themselves into back room offices to avoid confronting a sea of angry passengers. Fights broke out and the police had to intervene several times to keep the peace.

I was caught up in this melee, along with my wife and 4 children. Our BA flight had been cancelled and we had no way of finding out what to do. Having searched unsuccessfully for a couple of hours to find any information that might help, in desperation I angrily Tweeted BA. Within 5 minutes, BA had Tweeted a response and a brief exchange led to me re-booking for Boxing Day and knowing the course of action to pursue for my insurance claim and to obtain our checked-in baggage.

So, BA had saved the day. However, it may have won the battle, but it hadn’t won the war. While I was relieved at having solved the problem, and quite chuffed at my ‘resourcefulness’ in pressuring BA to respond via Twitter, I didn’t feel better about BA. BA’s rapid answer to my Tweet sat in the context of its complete failure to be proactive in dealing with a crisis that was ruining Christmas for thousands of its customers. Its on-site staff hid and battened down the hatches; there was no information on its website; despite having the email addresses of, I would guess, the vast majority of its customers, it did nothing to update them on the situation or give them the information they needed to address the issue. An isolated customer service ‘success’ with me was a diamond in the tar pit of a massive customer service failure for the bulk of its customers.


Armed with this experience, I knew what to do when BT completely screwed up the installation of business broadband when I moved offices last year. After several fruitless telephone interactions with BT had left me losing the will to live, I pursued the Angry Tweet Option once more. And, again within 5 minutes, I had a named individual who took personal responsibility for solving the problem. Stuart did an excellent job, calling me regularly to update me and energetically pursuing the case to its satisfactory conclusion.

Did such personal, attentive and effective customer service leave me feeling better about BT? Actually, no. And for similar reasons as for the BA example. BT had catastrophically cocked up my order. And Stuart, for all his proactive attentiveness and ultimate effectiveness, could not compensate for the fact that BT’s standard issue ‘customer service’ operatives had eaten up hours of my time being utterly ineffectual. The system was fundamentally unfit for purpose.

My fear is this. Because social media monitoring is such an effective way of picking up customer complaints early and, critically, because it mops up issues that, because they are in the public domain and readily sharable, could quickly escalate if not dealt with urgently, it is swiftly becoming the focus of many business’s customer service provision. But reactive service recovery is not customer service.

I am not, of course, saying that organisations shouldn’t provide highly responsive customer service through Twitter. But what I am saying is that, while social media monitoring is tricky and demanding, it’s actually easier than providing brilliant, proactive customer service in the first place. Reactive social media-driven customer service is just sticking plaster. Admittedly, it’s sometimes sticking plaster with a pretty design that you can show off. But it remains sticking plaster, nonetheless. The fundamental structural, managerial and training issues that gave rise to the problem in the first place still exist.

In fact, it’s worse than that. When a business emphasises reactive social media-driven customer service over the real thing, it runs the risk of engendering greater cynicism and distrust on the part of customers than did the initial service failure. It encourages the perception that the business only ‘cares’ about customer issues when they become public; that, as long as the customer is suffering on their own and social networks don’t know about it, the problem can be relegated; ultimately, that a customer’s problem is only a problem if it goes social.

So, rather than looking smart, modern, efficient and caring, the business, step by tiny step, begins to look a little more cynical, manipulative and insincere.

You can argue that, in a brave new digital world, populated by sophisticated customers who all understand and accept that modern businesses-customer relationships are inevitably framed in a social media context, none of this matters. Sure, some older people who aren’t digitally savvy or au fait with the new order will get left behind, but everyone else will be on board, marching happily into a wittier, more personalised future.

Don’t bet on it. The important stuff is often the hardest. And making brilliant customer service intrinsic to the business, experienced by customers spontaneously at every touch point, is difficult. It’s always tempting to go for the quick solution, to paper over the cracks. But it won’t pay in the long run.

As social media-driven ‘customer service’ becomes the norm, which are the businesses that will stand out? Perhaps it will be those that haven’t forgotten what they are there for: to provide brilliant customer service proactively, as a given, without it having to be demanded by the public, in public.

I for one would rather run a business that was able to trumpet customer Tweets saying “Unbelievable #customerservice from #Movement: @gthebash sorted out a problem I didn’t even know about and gave me a free project. Love ‘em.”, than a Twitter conversation starting “What does it take to get you #bastards at #Movement to sort out my research problem?”

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Why would a market researcher tell you not to commission market research?


We all know Lord Leverhulme’s pronouncement that ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the problem is I do not know which half’.  You might expect me to suggest that the good Lord would have known ‘which half’ if he’d commissioned more market research.  However, not only do I think that unlikely, I think he could have gone on to say ‘and the problem with market research is that more than half of all the money I spend  is wasted.’

There are many good reasons for not doing market research and it quite literally pays to be aware of them.  However, in this post I’m not even going to touch on some of the bigger reasons (such as the fact that most quantitative pre-testing is measuring the wrong things in the wrong way).  Instead, I’ll just pick three that I have encountered in the last 12 months of my work was a qualitative researcher.

In each case, my clients could have spent a pot of money commissioning original research, but instead they applied some good thinking to get the answers they needed at a fraction of the cost. So, here are 3 good reasons not to commission research.

REASON 1:  You already know the answer… 

… it’s just that you don’t know you know.  As Donald Rumsfeld nearly said, this is about the ‘unknown knowns’.  In a marketing and communications world where the average time executives spend working for any one company is less than three years, it is unsurprising that few have any idea about most of the ad hoc market research that has been commissioned by their organisation.  I suspect that the vast majority of research debriefs, particularly qualitative ones, enjoy just a few days in the sun before they are put out to grass in the backwaters of an insight manager’s hard drive.

Yet many of the questions about which brand teams commission research will already have been answered in previous projects.  Most businesses conduct brand equity or market studies periodically and, in most markets, not much will have changed in the space of 3 or 4 years.

But it’s not just such ‘state of the nation’ pieces from a few years back that still have value.  Strategic development projects looking at new positioning concepts provide contextual learnings about consumer attitudes, behaviour and motivations that transcend the specific study to remain highly relevant in the years that follow.

Even creative development projects, which one might think are only of value in relation to the specific ideas researched, almost invariably contain insights and observations that go beyond the creative work and are applicable more broadly to brands, consumers and communications.

In most organisations, all this valuable learning just sits there, forgotten and neglected.  It is remarkable how few businesses have have an efficiently searchable database of ‘historic’ (ie: anything from last week backwards) research that can be mined for insights of value today.  It’s also notable that few have any form of protocol to ensure that a search of the findings from previous projects is the default first step before anyone is allowed to write a research brief.

There is, however, one person who often does have a long-standing relationship with the brand and its research, and who has remained a constant presence as brand and insight managers have come and gone: the researcher.

I have a couple of clients with whom I have worked for 15 years, starting at a time when not one of the present brand or insight team, marketing director included, was a twinkle in the company’s eye.  A researcher with that amount of experience of working on a brand not only knows of previous projects containing learning that could be useful in the present situation, they also have a very good feel for how brands and consumers operate in the market in general – sometimes better than anyone in marketing or insight.

It’s a resource that is rarely tapped.  However, a couple of my long-standing clients have leapt at my suggestion that we put together a document consolidating all the learning from their projects and drawing together some overarching strategic conclusions and recommendations.  In one case, where we consolidated the learning from 19 Movement projects over 6 years, the Head of Insight told me 5 years later that they still referred to the document when debating strategy.  A couple of years ago, I created another bespoke consolidation document for a client to use as a key part of the briefing for their advertising pitch, and I have just heard that this was used last week as a key briefing document for the new marketing director.

And there’s something else.  Not only will your friendly neighbourhood quallie probably know more about some of his clients’ brands than some of his clients, he’ll definitely know a whole lot more about many markets than someone who’s new to them.  A researcher with over over 25 years’ experience of talking to consumers about brands, advertising, packaging, websites and so on will have handled easily over 750 projects in almost every market and with all demographics.  I’ve talked to teenagers about condoms, students about phone packages, mums about diet foods and small business owners about apprenticeships.

Having spent intense periods exploring and thinking about consumer behaviour in specific markets, in real depth, many times, experienced researchers become an extraordinary repository of knowledge and insights just waiting to be tapped.  They won’t give away any trade secrets, of course, but their unusual depth and breadth of knowledge can, for example, give a planner pitching for new business a massive head start in developing a winning strategy. So: plunder your archives before you write a research brief and tap the knowledge resource that is your researcher.

REASON 2:  Your answer is better than the consumer’s 

I’ve written before about the need for more judgment in marketing.  Not prejudice, negativity, or blind optimism, but the intelligent application of experience, knowledge, collateral evidence and anticipation in order to inform decisions, without the need for consumer input.

I had an example of this last year, with a client torn about which sound track to use for their new, finished TV commercial.  The agency had put forward two alternatives and was lobbying hard for one of them, but the client favoured the other.  One track was on-trend, upbeat and hummable; the alternative was more wordy, less polished and slightly left-field. The client decided to resolve the argument by putting the two options into research, to let the consumer decide.  I was uneasy with this, since I don’t see it as the consumer’s role to decide something that, in my view, is a matter of executional judgment.  However, we designed and ran a small online quant test, showing two matched samples the same film but with different soundtracks, in order to establish not just preference but also the different mood and values the two tracks evoked.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – the jury was hung.  There were no consistent or significant differences between the consumer response to the two tracks.  So we were back to square one. How could we make a choice?  This brand was attempting to build its contemporary relevance and sense of conviviality.  Surely, the more upbeat, hummable song would therefore be the better choice?

But that somehow didn’t feel right to me.  So, I did some homework, and found out that the artist in question, still in his teens, had a great back story, was releasing his first single the next month and was booked into several of the summer’s best festivals.  So, did the brand want to be ‘where it’s at’, or where it’s going? When I put the issue to my client in those terms, he finally felt able to back his judgment and go with his preference rather than the agency’s recommendation.

So, the ad ran with the less hummable, more quirky track. It performed beyond expectations and within months the brand looked super smart in foreseeing the potential of a young new artist who was now on everyone’s lips.

So… if your judgement is based on asking yourself the right questions, you may not need research.

REASON 3: You don’t yet know the question 

Twice in the last year I’ve been to the briefing meeting for a project and found myself advising my client against proceeding with the research.

In one case, it became clear that answering the objectives would only brush the surface of the much more profound issue that the brand faced.  The research could not provide the guidance sought by the client until some much deeper strategic thought had been applied to the fundamental issue and some concepts created that genuinely addressed the real challenge the brand faced.

In the briefing for the other project, the discussion with the agency and client revealed that they were not even aligned on the key strategic objectives for the new campaign – whether it was to drive loyalty or encourage trial.  Basic strategic questions had not been answered and, as a consequence, nobody was even sure whether the creative I was supposed to be researching had been written to the right brief.  There was lot more work to be done before we could even consider talking to our target consumers – whoever they might turn out to be!

These were not easy conversations to have: the implication that people hadn’t been thinking hard enough about what they were trying to achieve hung heavy in the air.  But nobody would have thanked me for going ahead with the research and delivering findings that failed to move the business forward.  However awkward, I really had no choice, even if it meant sacrificing a commission.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried.  Not only have these clients commissioned other projects since, the relationship has in fact strengthened, as a consequence of the trust that was built through recommending against research.  In the case of one of the aborted projects, I even got paid for the time I had spent debating the issues around the project.

So there we have it.  Before commissioning any ad hoc research, it’s worth considering:

  • Do we already have research that could give us the answer, or perhaps a long-term research partner who could point us in the right direction?
  • Is this really a question the consumer should be answering, or could we find the answer by asking ourselves the right questions?
  • Have we identified the issues clearly enough to be sure we are asking the right questions of the research?

Does advocating that these questions be asked make me a turkey voting for Christmas?  Will the phone stop ringing and the briefs stop arriving? Well, if it means that all the projects I handle are asking the right questions to address the right issues, I’m fine with that.  And if it means that insight managers, planners and brand teams begin to tap into the enormous reserve of strategic knowledge and experience possessed by their research partners, it will be to everyone’s benefit.

Posted in Advertising, Brand positioning, Brand strategy, Business management, Communications, Consumer insight, Market research, Marketing, Qualitative research | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Let’s talk about growth

Agencies talk about using creativity to drive business, but are mostly passive servants of their clients’ cost-cutting agenda.  Does it have to be that way?


I’m no economist, but I guess I’m not wrong in understanding that a business has two basic ways in which it can grow profits: cut costs or increase income.  Much of the time – and not just in a recession – the focus is on cutting costs.  It is seen as the simpler, quicker and more achievable of the two options.  It keeps the shareholders happy (too often the misguided motivation for many CEOs), satisfies the bean-counter instincts of the big boss (60% of FTSE 100 companies are run by trained accountants), and is the obsession of management consultants.

Even as a humble researcher, you can see the impact of the cost-cutting imperative within clients’ businesses.  When your client contacts aren’t being ‘realigned’ out of a job, you mainly see it in the lack of investment in brand-building, as if this is a luxury for the ‘good times’ and that there is no cost in dispensing with it to focus on sales and promotions.  And there is, of course, a great deal more cost-cutting going on out of sight, all an expression of the short-term perspective that puts profits today ahead of long-term growth.  But once the costs are cut, what do you do then?

Most creative businesses working with marketing departments are sadly the passive servants of this process.  Which is a shame, since they often possess the vision, energy and, yes, creativity, to see paths for growth, not merely serve the cost-focused agenda of their clients.  Part of the problem is that they rarely have the ear of the chief exec.  And the businesses that do, management consultants, are typically also run by bean-counters with a focus on cost management and reduction.

OK, I know management consultants are our favourite whipping boys, but their bad rep is given some credence in my mind by witnessing the ‘strategic’ recommendations given by one of the biggest and most famous to a major newspaper client of mine.  These were built on an objective analysis of robust data… and were completely meaningless if you knew anything at all about how newspaper readers behave and what drives their patterns of purchase.

Last week I came across a consultancy with a rather different approach.  Set up and staffed by former ad agency people, you might call Bow & Arrow a ‘growth consultancy’.  Its focus is firmly on understanding a company’s assets in terms of its brands and capabilities, and blending this with an understanding of consumer behaviour and needs to identify opportunities for new revenue streams.

Management consultancies have long been trying to bolt brand and consumer specialists onto their offer, but it’s never worked because a focus on financials is written into their DNA and they don’t really get people.  Interestingly, the strategic heart of Bow & Arrow is driven by former ad agency planners, applying their strategic skills to defining opportunities for business growth, something for which many planners are very well equipped, but also something that they will never have the chance to do within the conventional agency environment.

In case you wonder, I’ve not become Bow & Arrow’s PR consultant.  I just think it’s a fresh and relevant application of classic planning skills that feels to me very much like an exciting model for the future.

I also think  this focus has interesting implications for marketing.  So much of marketing is about incremental gains, be it through a new bottle closure, line extension or trade marketing initiative.  This stuff will never go away, of course, but shouldn’t marketing be the real driver of substantive business growth?  Along with those Insight johnnies, these are the guys who know the brand and the consumer and have a handle on the latent power that lies within these assets.  An explicit reorientation of marketing towards identifying, planning and implementing the growth opportunities that lie within its brands, markets and consumers would give marketing a much more powerful role within the business and maybe get the Marketing Director that long-coveted place on the board.  Marketing needs to be integrated into business at the highest levels, as it becomes ever clearer that the business is the brand, not just in the service sector but for any business that sells to the ‘consumer’.

Maybe the ‘Marketing Department’ needs to become the ‘Growth Department’.  But then who’s going to be responsible for the ‘2 for 1’ promotion?

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I’m a celebrity (in an ad), get me out of here

Jenson Button

Why do we love some ads featuring celebrities and hate others?  Is resorting to celebrity endorsement the lowest form of advertising, a substitute for a real idea, or can using a celebrity make an idea and a brand come alive?  And if so, what’s the secret to getting it right?

I don’t presume to know all the answers, but I recently had cause to ponder upon the subject.  An idea I had researched had received a lukewarm reception, partly owing to the choice of celebrity.  So, here are some thoughts about what can make or break the use of a celebrity in ads, mostly drawn from experience, having looked at many advertising ideas using celebrities over the last 20+ years, but also just a bit of musing.

I would suggest the perceived suitability of celebrities for brand advertising depends on several factors.  The following may be most of them.

1   Do they have a high profile?

Is the celebrity really a celebrity?  Do we see them a lot in the media – or have we in the recent past?  Do they appear on the front of newspapers and magazines, on chat shows and game shows?  Are they someone mates talk about in the pub or women gossip about over coffee?  Do they transcend their field of endeavour, with their fame extending into the broader public realm – are they in some way a part of the cultural fabric?  At the most basic level, do we recognise them if we see them, are they familiar to us?

Brilliant actor as he is, Daniel Day Lewis would probably fail on this test.  Being an intelligent man who is happy in his own skin and has a life, he doesn’t court publicity and is very happy out of the public eye.  Many people probably wouldn’t even recognise him.  The contrast with Jordan is obvious: she may be severely emotionally damaged but she’s about as high profile as you can get.  In sport, a similar contrast would exist between Jenson Button and Wayne Rooney.  Interestingly, though, the celebrity’s profile doesn’t even have to be current to work.  Neither Michael Schumacher nor Eric Cantona currently has a high profile, but they have in the past.  They were widely known, even to those who nothing about F1 or football.  They are both iconic, almost legendary figures; while a distinctive appearance and accent help recognition.

2   How much they are liked?

This is a key consideration, but is itself informed by many factors, amongst which are:

– whether they are respected and admired

– whether they have a clearly understood, strong personality

– whether they are seen as charismatic

– whether they are seen as an interesting person per se – would they be entertaining company down the pub or at a dinner party.

To take the example of Jenson Button again, it’s difficult to know whether to like him, because people have no sense of his personality, rarely if ever seeing him speak outside of a Grand Prix weekend.  So people think he’s probably a  bit dull, lacking in charisma. While ‘sports personality’ is often a contradiction in terms, racing drivers are particularly tricky.  It’s a very male sport, is fantastically dull unless (like me) you’re a dweeb, and most of the drivers really are dull. The days of James Hunt are long gone.

However, a celebrity doesn’t have to be liked to work.  In the right ad, a widely reviled public figure could work.  I doubt John Prescott has many fans, yet he worked in the Money Supermarket ad.  Doubtless there are many ads where unpopular celebs have been effective, much of which has to do with the following points.

3   Are they playing to their perceived personality?

Personalities are often chosen for ads because their perceived personality fits with the brand or the creative idea; they just don’t work if they are playing against type.  Unless, of course, THAT is the creative idea!

4   Are they well integrated into the creative idea?

I suspect celebs work less well when they are “bolted on”, where their presence is a gratuitous tactic to gain attention and their personality has no fit with the brand or the creative idea.  However, while using someone famous for no reason other than their fame is of course the lowest form of celebrity endorsement, I guess is some cases it can “work” in terms of how the advertiser defines effectiveness.  Kerry Katona for Asda comes to mind.  But, maybe the target audience did like her, in spite of themselves.  So, I guess she would have scored on ‘profile’ at the least, and maybe on likeability too.

Very often, when consumers criticise one aspect of an ad, such as the choice of celeb, it’s symptomatic of a problem with the underlying idea – and that this one element actually could have worked fine if the creative idea worked.

5   Is the celeb doing something that feels credible?

This is a tricky area.  Often celebs don’t work when they are endorsing a product that consumers have no belief they actually use – they are seen as “just doing it for the money”.  However, the same celeb might work if they were being used to advertise the product in a different role, as brand spokesperson or simply as a character within the narrative, for example, rather than pretending to use it.  It strikes me that the formerly great chef Marco Pierre White is a prime example of where it went horribly wrong: Knorr was bad enough, but Bernard Matthews?!!  Did anyone really believe he ever used these products?

6   How good is their performance?

Few celebs are great actors and a stilted performance can destroy the credibility of their role in the ad.  I give you, once again: Jenson Button –  nice chap, great driver, shit actor.

It strikes me that Jamie for Sainsbury’s hit the sweet spot on just about every one of the above points.  He had a huge profile, almost everyone loved him, he has a great personality, he was totally integrated into the creative idea ‘Try something new today’, and he was doing what he does best: bringing cooking to the people.  And I would guess Cheryl Cole is a great choice for L’Oreal.  The convicted assault and batterer has massive profile, is the nation’s darling and, since her looks count for more than her ‘talent’, talking about her hair has credibility.

However, like any ‘rules’ in the world of advertising, those above exist only to be broken.  Coming soon: Bashar al-Assad endorses Amnesty International.

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