Posts tagged “Advertising”
That’s what it takes for movies to work.
Without our granting movie-makers “suspension of disbelief,” we could hardly enjoy the moment when it seems that the bad guy has gotten away alone on a plane, but suddenly hears some ticking and searches for the source of the sound. He finds the bomb that the hero has planted on the plane, looks somewhat surprised, then … cut to the hero and his pals on the ground looking into the sky as the plane with the bad guy on board explodes in a very satisfying ball of flames, sparks and smoke.
We never ask, “What about the camera crew that filmed the bad guy in his last few seconds? Or the director and lighting people? Weren’t they on the plane when it blew up?”
We don’t ask because we want the story-teller to tell us a story. Because we enjoy being entertained. So we agree to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the entertainment. And we do it most often for movies since they are the most popular contemporary medium for story-telling. (If you loved the movie, read the book.)
Of course, we do it with books, too. Melville’s Moby Dick starts off as a first-person narrative – ”Call me Ishmael.” – but as soon as our narrator is aboard the Pequod, he melts into the background. The first-person narrative becomes an omniscient voice, invisible, yet all-seeing, even reporting what’s inside other characters’ heads. Suspension of disbelief at work.
We’ve been doing it since long before Samuel Taylor Coleridge formally named the phenomenon of our willingness to suspend belief in 1817. It has been thus since our earliest ancestors sat around campfires, wearing animal skins, being enchanted by stories of particularly good hunts by someone who was particularly good at telling those kinds of stories – the primordial story-teller.
Not so in marketing.
In our business, we face the most cynical critics and doubters. Advertising may be story-telling, but it’s not always entertainment. (That’s the best kind of advertising, by the way, the entertaining kind, since we’ll all pay attention if it’s fun.)
Just like stories, ads have a beginning, a middle and an end. Except in ads it’s typically the setup (the problem), the solution (how a product or service solves the problem) and the close (the call to action.)
How is it that everyone approaches our stories with such skepticism while swallowing movie story lines hook, line and sinker? Yep, the answer is simple: entertainment. We happily set aside skepticism to enjoy a good movie.
No doubt if aliens landed and we offered to take them to the movies, they’d be somewhat stunned by our ability to accept all the cuts, dissolves, jumps in action and melodramatic, manipulative sound tracks. They’d likely view us with pity, consider us “children,” and wonder how on earth (so to speak) we could possibly run an entire planet.
We want to be entertained.
Is it some mass psychosis? Or simply an agreement en masse to accept the premise of a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen?
The smarter ad folk made the leap some time ago to applying story-telling methods to commercials. The great ones, that ones that broke new ground, stick in our minds: “Time to make the donuts.” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “Where’s the beef?” “Bud Weis Er.” “Volkswagen: the Force“ ”¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”
We remember them, and we talk about them. Almost as much as movies. [Interesting side-note: Alka-Seltzer's "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" TV campaign was one of the highest-scoring in advertising history, yet sales plummeted. What happened? Chronic users thought they were being made fun of.]
Are entertaining ads and commercials sugar-coating the pill … or effective marketing? In the final analysis, our objective is to be memorable – or, to be more precise, to make our client’s product or service be the one that the target audience remembers. David Ogilvy and others called this “placing a burr in the consumer’s mind” and warned against creating ads that left people “remembering the burr, but not the sales proposition.” [e.g., Alka-Seltzer]
Tricky, isn’t it. We need to entertain to be memorable, but we also need to make sure that what’s remembered is our client’s brand. (It really is something that only professionals can do.)
Super Bowl commercials, like “Volkswagen: the Force,” are the exception to the rule. Those commercials are as much about people remembering the commercial as they are about creating broader awareness for the brand. And in fact competition is so fierce for inclusion in that most coveted of TV placements that it’s not enough to have the dough, you have to have the goods in your ad as well. After all, lots of people tune in just to watch those commercials. Imagine that.
What we learn in meetings.
Relatively early in my advertising career I was in a meeting with a client, an art director and an account executive. (No, that’s not a set up for a bar joke.) The art director and I presented the creative work for a year-long campaign, and then the account executive presented the total costs.
“Five hundred thousand dollars?” the client wailed. “I could hire ten sales people for that!”
The account executive shot right back, “Yes, you could. But how many prospects could each of those ten sales people get in front of in a whole year? One hundred? Two hundred?” I was listening as intently as the client. “This campaign will be seen by at least ten thousand people from day one and that number will grow exponentially with each exposure in your media plan.”
I was very impressed. No defensiveness about justifying the costs of advertising. No back-pedaling on what we’d presented. No offers of scaling things back. Just the facts. And the facts were enough. I’d learned a big lesson: how advertising can be more effective than feet on the street. (And, by the way, the bigger the budget the less resistance we usually encountered. Million-dollar TV buys were treated like “just another day at the office” by the big boys.)
I had learned the concepts of advertising: why ads we need to be attention-getting; why we write intriguing headlines that pull readers through the copy; why we need a pay-off at the end. But I hadn’t been exposed to the gritty facts of how to sell a campaign, or how clients sometimes look at marketing as a choice between spending money on ads versus sales people and trade shows until I started going to presentations.
I also learned, along the way, that advertising sets the stage for the sales team. If a member of the target audience saw an ad and then asked for a sales call, you had a very warm lead as opposed to an ice cube.
What we learn from each other.
These were not lessons I’d been taught along the way to becoming a copywriter. I learned them in meetings, the same way the clients learned what a good ad agency could bring to the table. Every meeting taught me something new about the client’s perspective and the purpose of advertising, as well as the smarts of the people I worked with. (People in ad agencies are some of the smartest I’ve ever met.)
I also learned how account executives could be crucial to the creative process – from making sure the creative team had all the input it needed to making sure the media plan fit the overall objectives. In some agencies, there was a cold war between creative departments and their account teams. The account teams in those agencies were treated like messengers and order takers. In the agencies where I worked account executives were as crucial to the process of achieving clients’ objectives as copy and art were. We’d even invite account executives into our offices to show them rough concepts and get feedback.
The job of creative teams is to “blue sky” ideas. We get the creative brief and the marketing strategy, then we take off. We look at what the competition is saying then we push the envelope as far as possible. It’s the job of the account team to bring us back down to earth – if necessary. As long as our work was on strategy and achieved the marketing goal, they were fine. But if the work was off-target in any way, they pointed that out. It was often incredibly helpful.
What we learn from clients.
I was part of an agency team that was invited by a client – a computer networking products wholesaler – to meet with one of his primary manufacturers. The very large, northern California maker of hubs, routers and switches (one of the top three) had set up all-day presentations of upcoming products for our mutual client. At the end of each presentation, the client asked the engineers one or both of these questions: “How will this work with the current products in the field?” or “How will this work with the last new product we were shown?” To a man, each engineer answered, “Not really sure. That’s not our department.”
The client, who rarely showed what he was thinking, finally erupted at the end of that day: “How the heck are we supposed to sell this stuff if you can’t explain to us how all the pieces work together?”
That was another incredibly valuable lesson: the client’s pre-advertising perspective. Typically, the client would present us with the products we’d be promoting and he would tell us a cohesive story about how those products made specific improvements in network performance or reliability. Clearly, our client didn’t merely invent those benefit stories – they came from the manufacturers of the products he was wholesaling. If the manufacturer hadn’t figured out how to tell a cohesive product story, our client’s sales people wouldn’t have one … and neither would we.
What we learn along the way.
Good clients ask good questions. Good ad agencies have good answers. Really good ad agencies truthfully say when they don’t have an answer and promise the client they’ll research it and come back with answers. Seeing that in action taught me that the popular truism that “all ads are b.s.” was not, in fact, based in fact. Good clients provide real benefit stories to their agencies. If they don’t know how to do that, good ad agencies know how to draw out those benefit stories in order to differentiate the client’s product or service. That was often my job, as copywriter. (It takes good input to have good output.)
As we move up the ladder in ad agencies, we become the people who answer client questions. What we learn along the way prepares us to have real answers based in fact. Because it’s our turn in the hot seat when the client asks, “Why will this work better than that?” we have to be ready with answers. That’s another critical thing we learn along the way: you don’t just prepare creative work for clients, you prepare to be challenged on the work you present.
And when we move on to becoming independents, then we have to have all the answers to all the questions. “What’s the best media for us?” “Why is an ad better than a brochure?” “Why isn’t our current brochure good enough?” “Why do we have to run ads more than once?”
I was taught quite a bit along the way. That’s why I have most of the answers to most of my clients’ questions.
The marketing automat.
With the introduction of the Mac (January 24, 1984), art direction and design changed forever. This was as big a change to civilization as the introduction of firearms. Suddenly, anyone with a Mac had a slew of tools for creating marketing and promotional materials that used to be the exclusive domain of designers and art directors.
But, to the trained eye, their work was always obvious. They were locked into a grid system, and it showed. (You can see evidence of that in this Web site, too.) The computer could only do its work within specific parameters. A blank page wasn’t really blank – it had to have defined column widths, borders and other elements that gave everything the computers produced a certain sameness.
Then something else happened. Anyone with a Mac (and not long after, anyone with a PC and the right software) could claim to be “a designer.” The automat had come to marketing and advertising. When Web sites entered the landscape – bringing design full-circle, from being created on computers to being delivered on computers – developers, coders and programmers were saying, “hey, I can do this, too.”
But they all quickly learned that technology and software could only take them so far. To be “creative” means to create something out of nothing, something captivating, fascinating, compelling. At multiple points in the creative process, one’s judgement is the critical element, not CSS (cascading style sheets), plugins, widgets or themes – those are merely the tools in the toolbox.
Our brains are the sexy thing. And our creative judgement is what sets us (writers, art directors and designers) apart from everyone else.
“Hey, I can do that.”
We are indeed in a brave new world where “design” has morphed into “build,” and “build” means software rather than the trained and educated aesthetics of true architecture.
My background is advertising. I’m a writer – not a designer or developer. But 80-90% of the business I get these days is Web sites. I need to work with designers to create those Web sites, because design is a critical element when creating a Web site. Anything “creative” needs a concept and a concept is something quite apart from “a build,” it’s a marriage of design and copy – images and words blended in such a way that a particular feeling is conveyed.
Let me say that again: a concept is a marriage of art and copy – graphics and words – to deliver a message. That goes for movies, brochures, ads, billboards … and Web sites.
The Web is strewn with ill-conceived bastard children of techies who have no clue about “design.”
(There, I’ve said it. And, yes, I feel better.)
What’s the point of all this “creative” work that we do if not to pass on a message? The message is not only key, it’s critical. It’s the reason we’re paid to do what we do. It’s why clients and corporations want marketing materials and Web sites. They want to get the message out.
So, what happens when bad or entirely missing creative judgement comes into play? The message is obscured, or perhaps buried. People – especially the target audience – may miss the message entirely. Then what? Why was the work done? Why was the money spent?
Let the buyer beware.
Sadly, this is where things get tricky. How do clients know they’ve chosen the right creative team? They often don’t until the work is done. This is no different than discovering we’ve chosen the wrong doctor. In both cases one might go through considerable physical pain and even agony before realizing that the person one has chosen has neither the skills nor the know-how to truly help us.
The best advice I can offer is: “look at the work produced by the people you’re considering and ask for references.” That’s the same approach we’d use when selecting an attorney – have they done the kind of work we need done? What’s their track record? What do their previous clients say? And creative services professionals are consultants, just like lawyers and physicians. The same rules apply, in how you choose them and pay them.
Even though technology seems to have made ”amateurism” the new “creative,” don’t be fooled. Just because someone produced a YouTube video doesn’t mean they’re a film-maker. And just because someone may have produced a Web site it doesn’t mean that they’re a designer, a real designer. Our instantaneous, ubiquitous displays of amateurism have engendered the “heck, I can do this stuff” attitude. So it comes down, again, to the centuries-old caveat emptor warning – let the buyer beware.
All of this comes back to our media-centric existence. The Mac, back in 1984, led inevitably to smart-phones that have also contributed to the absurd belief that anyone can be a photographer or movie-maker. Somehow we’ve gone from a society that dreaded being invited to someone’s home to view vacation slides and films to a society that can’t get enough of watching other people’s boorish attempts at movie-making.
What it all says is that we are in an age of rampant amateurism. And I have no idea when it will change or get better. The Web is growing exponentially along with the tools we use to create messaging. Everything is in flux. It’s up to brand and marketing managers to protect their marketing by choosing true professionals. And I fervently hope that they do.
Marketing dollars predict the economy.
Few economic barometers are more accurate than marketing expenditures. During every downturn, ad agencies and independent creative consultants suffer the most. That’s because marketing and advertising budgets are the first to get cut when profits are down.
And that, in the long-run, is the worst thing that any business can do. If your competition has pulled the plug on advertising, wouldn’t that be the best time to promote and establish your brand? You can’t get bigger bang for your buck than when the competition has left the field.
But back to the topic. Nothing is as sensitive to economic conditions as marketing dollars. As soon as there’s any kind of downturn, marketing budgets are cut. It happens so often because so many companies wrongly view marketing as an optional, rather than an on-going, business expense.
Politics undermine marketing dollars.
Marketing and advertising are the life-blood of a capitalist economy. They’re how companies survive and thrive. They’re how jobs are created and how we make money flow. But they stop when the economy stops the flow of money.
During various Republican administrations, dating back dozens of years, “trickle-down economics” was the big catch phrase. It never worked. Because the wealthy seemed to believe that it would mean watching their wealth trickling away. (So short-sighted.)
The second President Bush gutted the incredibly healthy economy he inherited from President Clinton and the economy still hasn’t recovered. (Don’t get pissy – it’s a historical fact. Biggest surplus in history turned into the biggest deficit … and, no, that surplus was not thanks to Republicans. Not.)
Ever since President Obama took office in 2008, Republicans have blocked everything they possibly could that might have turned things around … and then had the gall to blame Democrats for a sluggish economy. All one has to do is look at voting records and filibusters to see who’s helping and who’s obstructing. It’s right there.
Our current state of affairs can actually be traced to California’s first actor-turned-governor. According to the Congressional Budget Office, from the time Ronald Reagan became president through 2007, income at the top 1% (adjusted for inflation) increased by 281%. Compare that to the paltry 25% increase for the middle 20% of Americans during the same 26-year period.
As mentioned above, when President Bush took office in 2001, he was handed a huge surplus by President Clinton. Bush claimed he was giving that surplus back to the American people. But guess who it actually went to … that top 1%, not to the country as a whole. Bush (Texas’ gift to the world) added more than $3 trillion to the national debt over the last decade. The result? The wealthy continue to count their money while average Americans continue to hope for some. That’s politics.
How we got into this mess.
The Reagan administration (those wonderful folks who brought us “Reaganomics”) is most closely associated with “trickle-down economics” even though the concept was around for decades before. Paul Krugman,* the Nobel prize-winning economist, wrote in The New York Times (during the second Bush years) about the runaway inequality that began under Reagan and continued under George W. Bush: “When the structure of the U.S. economy had to compete worldwide without policies respecting workers is where one should look to understand what’s wrong with today’s economy. That began under Reagan and Reagan alone. And Bush has driven that point of view to the limit and mortgaged the future for the benefit of a few in the process.”
Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the U.S. tax system has never been the same. So-called “supply side economics” – the promise that if we drastically cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans they will create jobs – simply didn’t work. It may have looked good on paper, but it never made it into reality. Another Republican, the first President Bush, George H. W. Bush, perceptively called supply side economics “voodoo economics” and talked about its weaknesses.
Here’s what supply side economics ultimately achieved: the wealthy took their tax cuts, but instead of creating jobs in the U.S. they took advantage of weak trade policies and created jobs in other countries – China, India and Pakistan. Why? To make even more profits. For every union worker in the U.S. looking for $20 dollars per hour there were people in other countries willing to do the same work for $1.
Those Americans who owned stock in those off-shoring companies were thrilled. Profits were higher than ever before. They simply never looked down to see that they had shot themselves in both feet.
What Reagan’s own say.
David Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, wrote in a 2010 article titled Four Deformations of the Apocalypse: “The day of national reckoning has arrived. We will not have a conventional business recovery now, but rather a long hangover of debt liquidation and downsizing. Under these circumstances, it’s a pity that the modern Republican Party offers the American people an irrelevant platform of recycled Keynesianism when the old approach – balanced budgets, sound money and financial discipline – is needed more than ever.”
Currently, while U.S. companies continue to pay criminally low wages in developing countries, seeking obscene profits by avoiding paying American workers, bonuses at those companies for C-level staff are reaching record highs. It’s so obvious what would happen if those jobs were brought back to the U.S.: workers would invest their pay back into our economy. Those short-sighted, profit-centric companies not only benefit from cheap labor while hurting the U.S. economy, they also use Republican-written tax codes to add even more profits. And they actually receive tax cuts for creating jobs in other countries. (See comment above re: shooting oneself in both feet.)
Too bad it’s turned into “us” vs. “them.”
President Obama has stated he wants to end tax cuts for companies that ship jobs overseas and instead give those tax breaks to companies that create jobs in America. (The Republicans are howling. Can you hear it?)
After President Bush took office in 2001 and handed more than $3 trillion in tax cuts to his buddies, he also took us to war in two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. The U.S. spent trillions of dollars in Iraq (which, of course, had nothing to do with 9/11) while private companies such as Halliburton reaped profits. In addition to thousands of American and Iraqi lives lost, the U.S. taxpayer had to pay the cost of both wars. That’s you and me. While jobs were scarce, the economy sucked and marketing dollars were scarcer and scarcer.
President Obama is on-track with his campaign promises to bring home troops. But if a Republican takes over the White House in the near future, they’ve made it clear that they will happily go to war with Iran. As of now, the majority of American people have spoken and made it clear that we don’t want to start another war, because the cost in both dollars and human life is just too great.
Tax breaks for the wealthy made us broke.
During the Reagan administration, the wealthy saw their tax rates drop from 70% to 28% within eight years and union workers found themselves without jobs. When the ill-advised Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 was signed into law, banks found it far easier to do business … and hurt the American people in the process. Allowing big banks to merge and set their own interest rates was a rare gift. The banks and Wall Street found it far easier to make money while we, the American people, struggled.
With tax cuts and deregulation on the move, Reagan tripled the national debt, raiding the Social Security trust fund in an attempt to cover up the massive loses. As the years went on, Wall Street reform was never seriously on the table. When the economy started to pick up again in the 1990s, President Clinton raised taxes on the most wealthy, bringing in the revenue needed for the government to function. Then, in November of 1999, with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, President Clinton buckled and agreed to repeal the Glass-Steagall act that had helped keep big banks from overtaking the markets.
Less than a decade later the economy collapsed. Too much power had been left in the hands of too few. In 2010, President Obama signed the ”Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act” into law. It helped consumers and began putting financial responsibility back on the big banks. The bank bail-out of 2008 angered the American people. The Wall Street reform bill put an end to future tax-payer bailouts of big banks. The passage of that bill was a start, but we need to do much more to get back to where we need to be.
Me, me, me? Or, us, us, us?
Do you like well-maintained roads kept in drivable condition? How about being able to dial 9-1-1 for police and fire protection, or an ambulance? Good public schools? Decent hospitals? Rapid emergency services? A postal service? Those are just some of the services supported by taxes. There’s a reason we pay them – taxes keep society running. Taxes keep us safe and on an even keel. (In more enlightened societies, taxes also mean no worrying about healthcare of any kind, or education, or retirement … wish I spoke Danish.)
If the Republicans have their way, they’ll cut all taxes and then blame the bankrupt government for not providing basic services … even though they know full well that it’s their greed and selfishness that’s the root cause. All those southern states crying for secession? Guess what would happen to them when they suddenly have no federal funds of any kind for any of the basic services they now take for granted.
Getting an economic balance back is the only way the economy can get back on track. Making everything about taxes is about as wrong-headed as one could be. The issue isn’t taxes, it’s people. It’s about the country. It’s about our ability to function and do the things we’re good at. It’s about having marketing dollars to spend again so that capitalism can do what it does best: provide healthy competition among competitive offerings and let the best product or service win.
(*Krugman also won the Prince of Asturias Awards, the John Bates Clark Medal, and the H. C. Recktenwald Prize in Economics.)
Tag lines tell us who you are.
Thought I’d start the first post of 2013 with one of the first principles of truly good advertising campaigns: truly good tag lines.
Lots of people think of them as an after-thought. Not me. I’m always thinking about tag lines from the first moment I start thinking about a campaign or Web site.
Headlines come and go. Tag lines hang in there through campaigns and often for years after. Headlines are a flash in the pan. Tag lines have to sum up who you are, what you offer and how you think … sometimes in as little as two words.
For example, “Think different.” (TBWA\Chiat\Day, 1997-2002.) Even though it’s been one of the most enduring tag lines of the past two decades, I’ve always been bothered by its flagrant abuse of grammar. (see Grammar matters.) Despite that intentional flaw, one has to admit that those two words (in combination with the Apple logo) have truly defined Apple since the 90s. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Even though they moved on from that tag line way back in 2002.
Copywriters, not clients.
Tag lines are also one of the most important things ad agencies bring to the party. Take military recruitment ads – perhaps the most tag line-dependent campaigns in existence. All those ultra-inspiring, “sign me up” tag lines (“Be all that you can be.” “It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” “We’re looking for a few good men.”) were written by (ta-da!) copywriters, not the Army, Navy or Marines.
The same is, of course, true for every attention-getting and easy to remember tag.
What happens when clients come up with their own tag lines? Take a look at Mezzetta, a California company that makes our favorite stuffed olives, jalapeños, dill pickles, etc. Their tag line? “Don’t Forgetta Mezzetta.” (Are you reminded of the Marx Brothers? I’m reminded of the Marx Brothers.)
A tag line defines the brand.
Brand names tell us the rudimentary facts about a company or corporation: we know that Melitta makes stuff for making coffee; we know that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks, and we know that McDonald’s sells fast food. Those are the simple facts.
Add a tagline and you add an emotional message that makes those brands stand out and stick in our memories. Tag lines take the brand up a notch. (Did they cover this in Mad Men? I can’t remember.)
When Chevrolet wanted to convince people that they built really tough, reliable trucks, they did it with a tag line: “Like a rock.” (Campbell-Ewald, 1992-2004.)
When Avis wanted to take on Hertz, the number one car rental company, they did it with a tag line: “We try harder.” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962-2012.)
When FedEx wanted to put its name on the map as an overnight delivery service (a breakthrough concept at the time) they did with a tag line: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Ally & Gargano, 1978-1983.)
When AT&T wanted to humanize the monolithic communications company that was euphemistically called Ma Bell (since they owned and controlled everything in U.S. telecom) they did it with a tag line: “Reach out and touch someone.” (N.W. Ayer, 1979-1983.)
When GE wanted to humanize its massive research, electronics and appliance manufacturing company, that did it with a tag line: “We bring good things to life.” (BBDO, 1979-2003.)
In my opinion, none of those companies would have become what they are without those tag lines. That’s why I call them crucial. Think about this: each of those tag lines accompanied hundreds of headlines through the years. Who remembers the headlines?
Great tag lines through time.
Many of these tag lines are classics, not even used any more. But we remember them. People even borrow them to use for our own purposes. Because they’re so often so pithy and convey so much, folks find they can’t help themselves. (“Betcha can’t eat just one.” – Young & Rubicam, 1963.)
Naturally, you know that none of those companies came up with those classic tag lines. It was their brilliant ad agencies … or to be fully precise, the brilliant creative department folk at their ad agencies.
Here’s a Wikiquote list of “slogans” and a Web site that lists the results of a survey trying to list the 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948. (FYI, can’t stand the term “slogan.” Only folks who haven’t worked in ad agencies would use that term. Almost as bad as “jingle.”)
That list of 100 includes tag lines chosen from a field of 400 candidates. Not a list I would have put together. For example, I can’t believe the UPS “What can Brown do for you?” was actually nominated in place of their short-lived and far superior (IMHO) previous tag: “Moving at the speed of business.” (Ammirati Puris Lintas, 1995-2002)
But that’s show biz.
Can grammar affect sales?
I think so. Easy example: if that short sentence above had been written “Can grammar effect sales?” you, being the intelligent sort, would likely have lost interest in whatever followed. Why should you read something by someone who can’t write?
Same goes for food. Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?
This could go on forever, alas. (Just Google “signs with bad grammar.”) Seen in a church: “No Confessions To-Day.” (Ummm ….) Seen in a car dealership: “Certified Pre-Owned Nissan’s.” (Uh-oh.) Seen in a restaurant: “Please Seat Your Self” (Noooo …)
Too many business owners don’t realize the critical importance of correct grammar and professionalism in marketing and messaging of every kind … even menues. Every printed message tells people who we are, what we’re about and how much or how little we know about grammar.
The fact that you might have been bored in school and have some trouble remembering the difference between “to” and “too” or how to use apostrophes doesn’t have to stop you from presenting a professional, polished image to the public. Just hire writing help. That’s all it takes.
The problem with ‘no problem.’
A non-print example of crumbling language use is the now ubiquitous “no problem” restaurant server response. It always leaves us shaking our heads. Why, you ask? This imaginary exchange posted by Graham Guest in a LinkedIn group may help explain:
“I’d like the steak with fries, please.”
“I wasn’t anticipating one! And a beer please.”
“I’m very pleased for you.”
Some establishments are attempting to train the “no problem” problem out of people by educating them as to what they’re really saying with that bland expression – how it bears no relationship to “my pleasure,” or “you’re welcome,” and is an entirely inappropriate response to “thank you” in a service situation.
Surprisingly, when I posted about this in some LinkedIn grammar and writing groups, a lot of people responded that they don’t see the problem with “no problem.” They “understand” what the server means. Bad sign. To us, “no problem” means “I don’t mind that you troubled me for a glass of water,” or “I don’t mind that I had to bring you the food you ordered.” It in no way indicates gratitude for one’s business, or even one’s saying “thank you.”
When we hear it (more and more each day) we know two things: a. you aren’t actually thinking about what you’re saying, let alone understanding the meaning of words; b. you weren’t trained at all by management. And that makes us wonder, “what else is lacking here?”
(Maybe it’s an Americanization of the down-under “no worries?“ It might also have arisen out of the Spanish de nada, although no server in any decent Spanish restaurant would ever dare say de nada to a customer. That would be recognized as outright rudeness.)
Commas change everything.
The importance of commas can’t be overstated. Their role in assuring clarity of communication is vital. Equally, their over-use and misplaced use can cause endless confusion. When I’m editing client copy, I often find commas stuck in odd places that could only indicate a pause when speaking. But written text is not spoken text. So it’s most often a mistake – and grammatically incorrect.
Commas are actually quite simple: they separate parenthetical thoughts, and they separate a series. They are not intended to indicate a pause when reading.
How critical is a comma? Take the recently photoshopped cover of Tails, a pet magazine, that made the rounds of the Web with Rachel Ray on the cover and this doctored (series) quote: ”Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Someone had removed a single comma after “cooking,” which made all the difference.
Commas matter. Properly used commas matter most. The person who perpetrated the joke understood that, even though he or she is a dunce.
Proper proof-reading protects your reputation. Without proof-reading, we look unsophisticated at best and ignorant at worst. We all need proof-readers. There are some simple, basic mistakes that our eyes simply miss. When glancing rapidly at text, we’ll skip right over things like “the the.” (I do.) And spell-check can often make things far, far worse.
Here’s a doozy from The Washington Post that would have made it past spell-check: ”After the iconic and illusive Apple chief executive died last year, Wired magazine submitted information requests to the Pentagon and FBI for copies of Jobs’s secret records. Top Secret, actually.”
The first comment posted after the article sums things up nicely: “Jobs was ‘illusive’? It seems any hack can get a job with the Washington Post these days, as writer or copy editor. Where can I submit my resume? I would never let a bonehead error like that get by me.”
It’s shocking how often I spot typos in the digital versions of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other once-honorable pubs. They’re clearly using kids for the e-mail alerts that go out each day with headlines, and they’ve cut proof-readers. It shows. And it’s embarrassing.
Blame it on spell-check? Stupidity? Hard to know. What’s clear is that proof-readers are worth their weight in Au.
Oldie but goodie: NY Times on typos
The L.A. I grew up in is gone. Los Angeles gave me my start in P.R. and marketing. From working in the record business at Capitol and RCA Records, to pursuing a new advertising career with UCLA extension classes in marketing, my career was formed there.
While at the record companies, I worked with the major movie studios whenever movie soundtracks required it. I got to know Hollywood pretty well. And, in many ways, Hollywood defined L.A.
I just returned from a short trip to L.A., visiting some friends I grew up with, and little was the same. First, the number of cars on the road was daunting, making it extremely difficult to get anywhere at all times. It’s certainly logical that it would be that bad since the state of California has more people living in it than the entire population of Canada … and that’s only using the official census.
More than 40 million people now live in California. And around 17 million of them are in Los Angeles. That’s one factor that has changed the character of the city. Another that’s related is the Phoenix effect: L.A. now has high humidity. When that many people are living and working in a place, running air conditioners, watering lawns, filling pools, etc., the environment has to change. The formerly dry desert environment now feels like San Francisco when the fog rolls in. Damp.
I left L.A. about 30 years ago. It’s shocking how different it has become … and how much like some of the sci-fi visions of a future Los Angeles. It’s not full-tilt Blade Runner yet, but clearly minorities and immigrants are everywhere, so the city’s accent has changed.
As a result, I’d have a hard time advising someone in Los Angeles how to manage a marketing campaign. Target marketing requires having a clear picture of audience demographics. That’s a tough call in L.A. And one of the friends I met with (who left for England when I left for New York City) said that there’s now clearly a separation between “the haves and have-nots.”
New York City has always been a melting pot. That, in many ways, has been what defined New York. Now I have to wonder if Los Angeles is heading the same way. When I left L.A., there were clear target markets: glitzy Hollywood style, upscale (or conspicuous consumption) Beverly Hills style, coastal living style, and “the valley.” Those distinctions seem to have melded and reformed while possibly being displaced by “inner city.”
According to the 2010 census, New York City has just over eight million people living there. That number swells every day with commuters, but they leave at the end of the day. Compare that to the 17 million in Los Angeles – and that’s only the official tally. That could mean 20 million or more people are there. And they never leave.
So I can only guess that marketing in L.A. is a process of “self-elimination.” You put out the message for your product or service and let the right people for your target audience find you. But even so, the level of “noise” and “clutter” that marketing has to break through seemed overwhelming.
I used to think I missed L.A. What I missed was the memories of an L.A. that is no more. What’s there now is a marketing nightmare.
Are we what we buy?
I find myself more and more frequently coming back to the remarkable visions of Philip K Dick, a science fiction author who transcended his genre. He died in 1982 at 53, long before the release of the eight major motion pictures based on his fiction. In both Blade Runner (based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and, even more so, The Minority Report, highly personalized and targeted marketing plays a significant and sinister role.
Dick foresaw a future – nearly our present – where incessant messaging became a prominent aspect of “modern” life. Now it seems his visions, like those of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, are becoming fact. A recent NY Times article describes the use of analytics to do “predictive marketing.” [NY Times February 16, 2012, "How Companies Learn Your Secrets."]
Based on tracking our online purchases, posts and comments (and, yes, that information is available to those who want it) companies like Target can now “target” specific life events and send marketing materials to us based on those analytics. The in-depth NY Times article focuses on “the holy grail of marketing: new parents.” The concept is that when life-changing events occur – such as having a baby – shopping habits can suddenly change and consumers (us) are up for grabs.
Haven’t I seen you here before?
Apparently we (the generalized, averaged “we”) shop habitually – according to set habits that are hard to break. But during busy, disorienting times in our lives we apparently don’t care anymore where we buy certain things, just that we can get them as easily as possible. Target, and other mega-stores, hope that by tapping into our consciousness at those times, we’ll decide that we can keep on going back for other things we might not habitually buy there.
This is not merely theoretical: it’s now a proven fact. However, it is a tad insidious, and Target doesn’t want us to know they’re doing it. Once they got the gist of the NY Times writer’s intentions and subject matter, they shut down communications and prevented him from visiting their offices.
That’s because, according to the article, what they’re doing will only work if they don’t alert expectant moms and their families that they are doing it. If that happens, the fecal matter hits the air rotation device.
The article mentions one very pissed off dad storming into his local Target, demanding to see the manager, then thrusting coupons for Pampers, etc., into the poor, confused person’s hands. The man angrily said his daughter, the recipient of said coupons, was still in high school and was not pregnant. However, when the distraught manager (who had no clue about the corporate program) phoned the man a few days later to apologize again, the father sheepishly said he owed the manager an apology – he had recently learned that his young daughter was indeed pregnant.
Yes, we are being watched.
So, how did Target know when the girl’s own dad didn’t? Online postings and patterns. We are – as Philip K. Dick predicted we would be – being watched. And the people watching are looking for specific patterns and indicators in order to sell us stuff.
I don’t know about you but I’m mostly casual and often incautious when posting online. I assume I’m among friends. When we’re on forums and online groups, we respond in the moment and move on. I don’t usually think about those tweets or forum posts for any longer than it takes to type them. And I’ll bet it’s the same for you.
So are we really only what those rapid-fire posts and updates say about use? Obviously, no, we’re not, any more than Chief John Anderton was what his fellow cops thought he was when he was set up. But it seems it’s enough for desperate marketing departments.
There are, of course, more standard ways to slice and dice audiences, such as motor vehicle registration. It’s reasonably possible to predict who a person is, down to gender and age, based on the vehicle that’s registered. For example, the owner of a Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle (euphemistically called a rice burner or a crotch rocket) can reliably be predicted to be a male, between 17 and 24. Certain Buicks and Toyotas can reliably predict age groups, and with the addition of car color, possibly gender. But then there’s the name on the registration. That helps.
Another method is magazine subscriptions. If you want to find a certain audience, traditional methods have been fairly reliable for a number of years. But things are changing, rapidly – both how marketing is being done as well as to whom.
Is marketing evolving or devolving?
This is a bigger deal than it may sound like. It’s not just about Target and it’s not just about selling us stuff. We may not end up running for our lives like the characters in Philip K. Dick stories, but a whole lot more about us will be available to way more people than we ever thought possible, thanks to this tracking trend.
It’s one thing to have broad-based demographics for magazines and TV shows that tell us where to place marketing dollars based on the media content, and quite another to send coupons and offers that are just a little too close for comfort, just a little too personal.
Demographics are based on the population at large, not specific individuals. And they’re typically made up of generalized data. Tracking, on the other hand, is all about us, up close and personal. Do we really want that?
The newly developed practice of “predictive analytics” (… yep, The Minority Report, again) isn’t just about understanding consumers’ shopping habits – it’s about figuring out what’s going on in our lives, and our personal habits, in order to more efficiently market to us, specifically, individually.
As stated in the New York Times article, predictive analytics is “the science of habit formation … a major field of research in neurology and psychology departments at hundreds of major medical centers and universities, as well as inside extremely well financed corporate labs.”
Feeling manipulated, yet? Feeling invaded? It will only get worse. Statisticians, scientists and mathematicians have been increasingly in demand at places like Target, Walmart and Amazon.
It’s déjà vu all over again.
There apparently are positive applications of predictive analytics and the studies of habit formation, such as turning around sports teams, improving safety records at manufacturing plants and the ability to diet effectively. But there are also those nasty, “marketing from the dark side” applications.
Am I over-reacting? Well, is this really only about selling us paper towels and laundry soap? I don’t know. We’ve come a long way in limiting the intrusiveness of advertising, perhaps too far. So “they” are fighting back. They’re having a much harder time reaching us via television and radio, or a near-impossible time. And our online reading has been eroding print media at an alarming rate.
It’s been a symbiotic relationship for nearly ten decades. Commercial magazines and newspapers, as well as radio and TV shows, still are unable to exist without advertising dollars. That’s always been the case. But our ability to zap commercials, listen to anything but radio and selectively read what we want online has precipitated tectonic changes in target marketing. Many companies are grasping at the straws of SEO and social media, but find those still-developing alternatives fall far short.
So, they’re constantly working on new tools to achieve sales quotas. As technology advances, so do marketing techniques. We can now be tracked merely by having cell phones, and GPS devices in our cars. Potential employers can see everything we’ve posted online, should they choose to. Do we really want everything we do, say and buy, as well as everywhere we go tracked at all times in the name of marketing?
Sadly, our new lifestyles based on interacting with an online world means that we may lose the great journalists for whom doing in-depth, investigative reporting paid off. Not only is the pay for providing content on Web sites abysmally bad (see my posts about content mills), the newspapers that they wrote for are disappearing.
Of course, everyone knows that television journalism has already been replaced with infotainment. It’s all about ratings, just like sitcoms, not informing the public or the journalistic integrity of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Ever since the O. J. Simpson televised car chase, news has become a spectator sport.
Privacy is less and less so every day.
Our private lives used to be private. Period. No hazy edges to it. We apparently have given that up for the freedom, ease and flexibility of the Internet. As soon as we began spending so much of our time online, privacy stopped being black and white. We have to proactively tell the sites we visit and the search engines we use to not hold onto our data.
The newly developing practice of “predictive analytics” couldn’t achieve anything if it had no data to analyze. Everything we do is being tracked to create that data. GPS. Credit card purchases. Online ordering. And forums. We provide the data.
Will all this tracking become merely white noise to us? Will we simply stop noticing and carry on as if it doesn’t matter?
As of this writing, Google’s privacy policies are making a lot of news. Their purpose in tracking where we go online, which videos we watch, which businesses we visit, and even just plain searches, is not as invasive as it might sound. For the time being, they aggregate data rather than drill down to specific individuals the way Target and others are doing. Their objective is to have data to sell, not our actual e-mail addresses or other personal information. But who knows what the future holds?
Data mining is the gold rush of this era. In a way, we haven’t left “them” any choice. We’ve circumvented the standard marketing options of television, radio and print ads. Pretty much all that’s left of the classic media buy era is outdoor board. And we’ve all learned to not even notice those.
So what’s seemingly free – all that stuff we do online – does have a cost, which we pretty much suspected all along. What they want us from us in exchange for our time online is to know where we go, how long we stay there, what we buy, how often we buy it … and whether or not we’re their target market. So far it’s about selling stuff. Someday soon, though, as Dick foresaw, it could become about a whole lot more.
Notice that headline didn’t say “you should get what you want?” The difference is not as subtle as it may seem. If I give you what you want even when I know it’s not what you need, I’m simply laying down and letting you roll over me. That’s not helpful, and it’s not professional.
When it comes to marketing, the client is not always right. Sometimes the client needs significant guidance to avoid major marketing mis-steps. This topic is often discussed among professional marketers: do you give clients what they want, or what they need?
It’s your business. But it’s our job.
No one knows your business better than you do, certainly not us marketing folk. So you wouldn’t and shouldn’t accept it if we started telling you how to do what you do. You probably feel that way about nearly every other profession and professional – they know more about their business than others. Let them do their job.
So what happens to clients when they start spending marketing dollars? Why does it sometimes turn into “it’s my money, give me what I want”?
If you think people who fold and do your marketing exactly the way you want are treating you properly, you may be stepping into a trap. They’re not doing you any favors when they don’t stand up to you if your ideas are off the mark. You’d be far better off with designers, writers and agency folk who have the gumption to say, “we can try it your way, but we’d like to also show you how we’d rather do it, and here are the reasons why …”
To spend your marketing dollars wisely, you need wise marketers.
People who are experienced, knowledgeable and self-confident will tell clients when something they want is not a good idea from a positioning, identity or branding point of view. It’s important to listen to them. They know what so many clients don’t: you don’t create marketing for yourself. Whether you like something is hardly as beneficial as whether your target audience likes it.
Business is business. And that means it’s about profitability. Running an ad campaign or building a Web site that pleases you but does nothing for your target audience is not a good marketing approach. Marketing is both an art and a science, and its ultimate goal is to produce results. To do that, marketers slice and dice the target audience by asking tough questions: How does your product or offering solve a specific need for your target audience? How do your benefits and claims set you apart from the competition? Is your marketing message relevant to your audience’s concerns? What moves the needle for your target audience? How do you know when your marketing is working?
Sometimes the client is right.
I had a marketing professor who liked to say, “a good idea doesn’t care where it comes from.” He meant, get your ego out of the way and solve the challenge with whatever works. Sometimes clients do have good solutions for their marketing challenges. And a true professional will see that and acknowledge it. If your ideas are better than mine when it comes to your marketing, then it would be very wrong to ignore them just because they came from you. That’s tough for some people to do because they’re convinced that if all the ideas don’t come from them, they’re not “adding value.”
But there is no hard and fast rule that only the marketing folk you hire can come up with the best marketing ideas. If you have good ones, they should be used. So here’s where things get fuzzy. How do you know whether your idea is really a good one or whether your marketers are merely rolling over? That comes down to your relationship. If you know each other and trust each other, it’s not going to be a problem. I’ve often had clients improve on my ideas. And I’m happy when they do, because the end product is better for both us. It’s a better piece of marketing for them, and it’s a better sample for me.
Ultimately, we’re a team. We’re all trying to achieve a common goal. If your ideas are a mistake, it’s my duty to say so, and hopefully you’ll understand why. If your ideas are an improvement, then it’s my duty to use them … even if you are the client.
The title of this article is from Abe WalkingBear Sanchez, who posted this on LinkedIn: “Words are magic. The very idea that by making sounds we can paint pictures in the minds of others, is magic. We choose whether we practice white or black magic.” – Jack Brightnose, Cree Medicineman.
That post really made me sit up and take notice. A writer’s life is all about communication, yet how often is it about the magic? WalkingBear’s teacher knew a great deal more about what was to become my life’s occupation than I did. I’m sure I had some teachers along the way who understood what Jack Brightnose taught. But what I remember most was their individual preferences for certain authors and certain kinds of phrasing. Not the reverence for the pure power of words shown by Jack Brightnose.
The dark side is always there.
Everything we do in marketing is about communication. But everything we do often becomes so habitual that we forget about the magic of words. In the world of marketing, the ultimate objective of communication is to influence, and perhaps sell something. In many cases, such as tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals, that’s leaning toward black magic – designed for profit, not for the good of the public. And I’m not making judgments about tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals – I’m talking about how they’re sold, how the words and images are used.
This is the dark side – the black magic – from which we professionals avert our eyes when asked to write copy for things that we might never ourselves purchase, or allow anyone in our family to use. It’s always there, in the background. And it’s hard to avoid when you enter the world of business. After all, that’s why agencies are hired, to help sell stuff. And as soon as anyone is trying to sell us something, motives become questionable.
Clearly free will was taught by Native Americans. Our choices define us. If we choose to profit by using words to convince people to buy our stuff, stuff we know can harm people, we have chosen black magic. But somehow that has been completely forgotten. The idea of profit as justification has wedged itself between white and black magic like some form of religious indulgence. In modern society, the profit motive excuses the intentional use of black magic.
Communication makes us human… sometimes.
What struck me when I read what Jack Brightnose had taught WalkingBear was how little respect is left for the magic that is communication. It’s virtually the only thing that sets us apart from the world of beasts. Sure, we have clothing and automobiles and iWhatevers, but would we have any of those things without the ability to form and understand words? Clearly not. We’d still be among the beasts, with bodies covered in hair, as we foraged and hunted for food and shelter.
Words lifted us out of that prehistoric life. Words gave us the lives we have today. It’s a little disheartening, though, to think that in only a few thousand years we went from “In the beginning was the word …” to sitcoms. No doubt that particular road to hell was paved with a loss of respect for the magical power of words. Instead, the shine of silver and gold became the lure, and the use of words to get the booty became the meaning of the words, not the magic inherent in communication.
So choices had to be made and we made them. Landing and keeping jobs became the new hunting and gathering. And we’re often asked to make tough choices as a result. The words used to force us into those choices are definitely not white magic. If only it were easier simply to walk away.
Can’t forget why we communicate.
Am I undergoing some sort of religious awakening? Nah. I’ve simply been reawakened to why I first fell in love with words when I was a boy. WalkingBear’s post reminded me of that. I’m sure the magic was what attracted anyone who chose to live as a writer. But being reminded that there’s always a choice between white and black magic is the real awakening.
In an almost indefinable way, I think that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets its mojo from calling people on their misuse of communication. He calls out liars and connivers and deceivers. He pulls back the curtain to reveal that The Great Oz is in fact a fake. And we all instantly recognize the truth of the revelations. We laugh, but recognize that what we laugh at is tragic. His show reminds us that we’ve learned to ignore the deceptions, because they’ve become standard operating procedure. We don’t pay attention, until our attention is drawn to the deceptions.
The Internet has both exponentially increased communication and brought it down in ways we could never have imagined. Not long after the explosion of the Web onto our psyches, it became obvious that sites (early on given the ludicrous euphemism “portals”) were only of value if they provided relevant information. Content (could there be a more demeaning term for writing and communication?) became critical. Site owners became desperate. So “content writers” were born, largely manipulators of existing content into mash-ups. Most of them are rank amateurs, often linguistically challenged, who are apparently happy to make a few dollars per day.
Here’s another fascinating quote that goes beyond marketing: “All poetry begins as self-expression. But if I only write for myself, who’s going to want to read what I’ve written except me? I tell my students that, at some point, writing stops being self-expression and starts being communication, or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.” – David Kirby [Kirby’s “Thirteen Things I Hate About Poetry,” in Lit from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art & Craft of Writing].
That was from a post by Erika Dreifus who has a blog and newsletter titled “Practicing Writing.” And it’s about the other side of what Jack Brightnose taught: in order for words to be magical, we have to remember that we’re not using them for ourselves alone – we’re using them to communicate, to paint pictures in the minds of others.
One of my jobs is teaching effective story-telling to businesses.
Stand in my shoes for a few minutes and here’s what you’d see when a copywriter meets with new clients for the first time. We’re warmly greeted, offered coffee or water, then told in great detail about the product or service this new client wants to market. They’re truly excited about their offering and believe all we have to do is tell the world it exists and sales will tumble like the falls at Niagara.
But frequently they’ve missed a critical step: placing themselves in the minds of their target audience.
The effective use of narrative means, most of all, knowing (a) who your audience is and (b) knowing what they want to hear. This is a tough hurdle for many clients. This is the moment when they’re faced with a hard fact: we are not running ads for them. In fact, anyone who does an ad strictly based on pleasing the client is wasting the client’s money. (Dear Client, you run ads for your target audience, not for yourself.)
For example, a headline that pleases your client may bore the pants off your true target audience. Just because they think ‘thermal wrapping cloth’ is better than a moon landing doesn’t mean the people who actually need it will be as excited by it. You have to find out why it will interest them.
So here’s where the science and methodology of copywriting comes in. You have to understand both who will be most interested in what you’re writing about, and why. You have to become familiar with the specific marketplace and understand what the competition is saying and selling. You have to do a lot of homework before you even start writing.
If you are selling a product or service that’s custom-made for college-educated women between the ages of 24 and 54, you have to know what they read, what they watch, what they listen to, and – most of all – what matters to them. By understanding the kinds of books, magazines, newspapers and broadcast media they care about, you can target both your media buys and your messaging to grab their attention. And that is ultimately the objective of all marketing.
Think about it this way: you know you won’t get the same audiences reading Car & Driver and Vogue. Use the right medium to reach the right audience with the right story.
Crafting the story: the real work in writing.
Many professional copywriters have had the experience of telling someone what we do only to have that person say, “oh, you write jingles?”
No, we don’t write jingles. (The days of jingles are long gone.) We craft stories. We make new cars sound impossibly enticing. We help you believe that new watch is something you can’t live without. We convince you that this new beverage will change your life. Etc. Are we lying? No, we’re doing our jobs through the effective use of narrative to promote products and services for our clients to the most appropriate target audience.
For narrative in marketing to be truly effective, it can seldom be just about the product or service. It must also be about a very specific target audience. E.g., if we happen to be writing about a high-end Mercedes-Benz, we have to understand the mindset of the people who could afford one and might want one. We have to know something of what their lives are like. And we have to do the very same thing for everything we write about. We have to understand the specific demographic for each specific product or service.
Take high-tech. The typical audience for high-tech products, such as computer networks and data centers, are people who are highly knowledgeable about their industry and profession. So you aren’t going to win points writing for them as if you’re describing a vacation in the Bahamas. Telling them their life will be “a walk on the beach” with this super-duper new wireless router will sound, to them, like someone’s trying to sell them the Brooklyn bridge.
Believability is key to effective narrative. And to be believable, you have to be knowledgeable about both your product and its true target audience. In the case of the high-tech example, the story you tell has to sound like a day in the life of an IT manager, or CTO. And that’s never a walk on the beach.
Everything is part of the narrative.
Every part of every marketing effort – down to the way ads, marketing materials and Web sites are designed – should be there to support the narrative. And a key part of that narrative should be a call to action. It can be a soft sell or a hard sell, but it ought to be included as part of the story.
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being paired with designers who thought that how something looks is far more important than the lowly message. Fortunately, I’ve also had the experience of working with true professionals who understand that everything we do is about communication. We’re telling a story in words and pictures.
A key aspect of any design is where your eye is led. Really good designers understand that. They know that when you open a magazine to your client’s ad your eye should be led through it to the ultimate objective, whether that’s branding or a bold call to action. And when you open your client’s Web site it should be easy to follow how its constructed and how to get where you most want to get within that site.
When the opposite is true, when an ad or Web page is a jumbled mess of graphics that simply confuse the eye, the narrative falls apart. There is no story when there’s merely confusion. Lots of “off the shelf” Web sites create an impression of cohesiveness, but that will quickly dissipate if you’re left scratching your head, wondering, “what exactly are they trying to say here?”
The narrative must grab a viewer or visitor, it must pull you through, and it must leave you with a better understanding of the product or service as a result. That’s the job of story-telling in marketing. Now that you know, you’ll start to see when it works … and when it doesn’t. And you, too, will know the importance of story-telling in marketing.
I know, I know. Sounds like a “duh?” question but, really and truly, it’s not. While everyone will immediately tell you they’re selling their product or service in their ads, my question is “how?”
If your ad is all about price, then you’re selling on cost. That’s kind of like the burger wars. You know, when McDonald’s does their $1 menus? Do you really want to go there against your competition? Selling on price means you have to be willing to duke it out to the end.
Sometimes that can mean undercutting your profit … all your profit. I managed a record store long ago and far away in Santa Monica. It was a single retail location, but the owner wanted to draw people in with a loss-leader. So he’d run a full-page newspaper ad for the latest Stones, or Bowie or whoever album at cost … his cost. The problem was, Tower Records paid a much lower cost for their total volume so they always undercut my old boss. That was a battle he couldn’t win. (And a lesson I never forgot.)
If your ad is all about a limited time offer, that’s kind of like a price ad, but with a limited lifetime. Not good. That’s a sign of a desperate retailer or service provider trying to convince folks that “now’s the time to shop at Crazy Crandall’s.” Now, not only are you trying to woo folks from your competitors with some price incentive, you’re telling them that they only have to care for the next week, or month, or whatever. That message usually goes directly to the delete file.
If your ad is about longevity, how long you’ve been in business, you’re getting warmer, but you’re still not delivering the goods. A message that tells people how long you’ve been in business is a feel-good message, especially for the business, but it doesn’t necessarily convince your true target audience why they should come to you. How you’ve stayed in business for that long is closer to what matters. Have you done it by being better than anyone else? Have you done it because yours is the only business of its kind in your area? Have you done it because you always treat people better? As in fairer and as in no-hassle returns? If that’s the case, that’s starting to look like the real deal.
Sell on benefits and you’re selling for the longterm.
An endless number of businesses have learned the hard way that conveying the benefits of doing business with you is the only way to get and hold onto new customers. Price is not a benefit – it’s too temporary and fraught with sand-traps. If the price is too good to believe, most folks don’t believe it. Meaning they don’t think they’re really getting quality goods or services when it’s “that cheap.”
Short-time promotions also only excite a certain kind of audience – the kind that’s only ever looking for bargains. Do you really want them on your mailing list? They’ll only come in when you’re having a super sale, so you’ll start thinking you always have to have them.
Selling on benefits is the only to have both loyal customers and customers who help you sell by convincing others that yours is the business to go to. Sell on quality, reliability, trustworthiness and fairness and then you can charge enough to make some profit and still grow your target audience.
Quality. Reliability. Trustworthiness. Fairness.
Those are not promises, they’re benefits. If you focus your advertising budget and message on those benefits, you’ll develop a loyal following of repeat customers.
Some years ago the packaged goods companies dug their own sand-traps: they started doing promotions. What happened as a result was not the simple blip in sales they’d hoped for. Instead, they had created a new kind of consumer: the kind that only bought their particular soap, or soup, or frozen goody when it went on sale. The “stocking-up while it’s on sale” approach to shopping changed everything, and the packaged goods companies were never able to go back to “the way things were.”
The “big box” stores were the natural evolution of that approach to shopping. They took the promotion from an occasional event to an all-year deal. And the packaged goods companies will never able to go back to “the way things were.”
The message here is simple: sell on benefits and deliver on the benefits. In today’s excessively price-conscious marketplace, it’s the only way to make your advertising dollars pay off – both now and in the future.
The digital age has changed everything.
If you read the biography of John Adams by David McCullough, you know that that wonderful book was based entirely on letters from the lifetime of one of our country’s most important founders. Think about this: if John Adams were living today, how much of his correspondence would survive?
Being part of the digital age means that we are required to do more than merely write – we must know how our particular computer works. That knowledge is now part and parcel to knowing how to use that digital tool to write. We don’t sit down to draft a letter; we create a “doc,” assign a sub-folder, give it a title, and then we save the doc and fiddle with it multiple times before actually using it.
When we e-mail, do we know if our messages are saved? I certainly don’t save every single e-mail I receive. Why? I’m thinking about my computer’s e-mail program more than the messages. I’m thinking that it’s overwhelming to see 4,000+ messages in my in-box. So, every few months, starting from the bottom, I highlight and delete. And that would seem to be common practice for pretty much everyone.
Imagine what that means for our written history.
While a digitized data world means that now we can store an entire basement’s worth of files on a tiny hard drive, managing that trove has proven overwhelming. And it’s become a problem for corporations of every size since data retention is now a legal requirement for many business and government sectors.
Our society is now our data.
The modern world could not function without information. We cultivate and harvest information the way our agrarian ancestors worked the land. We no longer work directly to produce what sustains us – instead we produce goods and services that are proffered and supported with communication, from marketing to manuals.
We also no longer identify ourselves, when challenged, as the son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew of so-and-so, but instead must produce documentation that defines and validates us.
This information is also not limited to the kind referred to as “data.” While data is a product of the “Information Age,” the kind of information that forms the core of our society is significantly more far-reaching. Birth certificates, school records, social security statistics, building plans, mortgages, aircraft records and nuclear facility specifications make up the kind of information that’s vital to our continuity. It just happens to be a fact that much of it is now digitized.
Too often, the importance of this information isn’t recognized until it’s urgently needed. Personal lawsuits, corporate litigation and disasters can impact the need for information that was once considered not worth saving. And not being able to access this much-needed information can change the course of lives.
Old, paper-based filing systems had the advantage of transparent logic. Ever try to find a doc on someone else’s computer system? I have and it can prove an impossible task.
The way we save data keeps changing.
Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, stated that digital technology would be virtually re-invented every two years. (Specifically, he was talking about the number of transistors in a CPU doubling every two years.) That statement became “Moore’s law,” which defined how rapidly our data management systems would change. Today, that time period can be as short as six months.
In the face of such continual technological change, it’s not surprising that we’re all faced with increasingly rapid computer obsolescence. And every time we replace a computer or data device, we may be losing more of our written history.
The author of a New York Times article titled The Virtual Attic describes some of the changes through the years that have meant replacing the computers on which work was done and writing was saved. The first computer I bought around 1986 (an IBM PC) had two 5 1/4″ floppy drives and no hard drive. (It also had a “green” screen – no color, no graphics, just green, glowing text – and cost $3400.) Do you remember loading programs that meant swapping out a dozen or more of those floppies?
I was living in a Manhattan co-op apartment when I’d bought that computer and when I put the apartment on the market Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith, came to look at it. But they were far more intrigued by the monster computer on my desk. “Doesn’t it give you migraines?” Smith asked. They were both writers who had not yet begun working with computers, and I found myself spending more time describing what that was like than the renovations of the West 67th Street one-bedroom.
What will be left of your story?
Eventually I migrated what I felt needed saving onto the “newer” 3 1/2″ floppies, then onto CDs, and now anything that seemed important over the years has been backed-up onto hard drives. But what was lost? What was left behind? While I may have been using computers since the mid-to-late 1980s to write, I certainly don’t have any of the e-mails from that far back. Do you?
What will people know of us when we’re gone and all that’s left is a hard drive or e-mails account that’s very likely password-protected? Will people scour our e-mail to see what kinds of thoughts we put down to good friends and life partners as David McCullough did with letters for his book on Adams? Will our personal history evaporate when our computers are donated or recycled?
I find it fascinating and mind-boggling that the letters of people who wrote with quill dip pens may ultimately be more durable than anything from this digital age.
What are you talking about when you talk about branding?
Branding has been the marketing buzzword du jour since the 1990s. However, a great many people use it without understanding its true meaning.
In most cases, when people use the term branding, they’re really talking about USP – the Unique Selling Proposition. That concept was first presented to the advertising and ad agency client world in the 1940s by Rosser Reeves who worked at Ted Bates & Company, one of the biggest ad agencies in the world. It changed how ad agencies approached the business of advertising, as well as how ads themselves were created from then on.
The USP (which every agency claimed to create in their own version) was about finding and focusing on the unique benefit of the product or service that one was advertising. You couldn’t just say, “XYZ is the better detergent,” you had to say “why XYZ is the better detergent.”
The big bang.
USP was the real big bang in advertising. It changed everything and even helped ad agencies develop their reason for being. Clients often couldn’t come up with a USP on their own. Agencies, through diligence and in-depth research, could. The whole idea was to get to the point of differentiation that could be perceived as a benefit by consumers and customers.
One famous example was the initial positioning for Chivas Regal in the U.S. It was, ultimately, just another blended, 12-year-old whiskey from Scotland. The story goes that the agency of record at the time had trouble creating a true USP, so they finally asked, “what does the most expensive blended whiskey cost?” The client responded, “$12.98.” So the agency replied, “Fine, we’ll price it at $12.99 and use ‘it costs more but it’s worth it’ as the basis of our campaign – luxury, indulgence, prestige. Bang. There’s your USP.”
That’s my understanding of how 12-year-old Chivas came to be perceived as “a really fine whiskey” – it was positioning based on a pricing strategy. Similarly, Volvo became “the safe car” even though it was never the safest. (That distinction could likely have gone to Saab or Mercedes.) It was a self-fulfilling prophecy since Scali, McCabe, Sloves’ positioning it as “the safe car” (an extension of their “durability” campaign) meant that people who drove safely preferred buying Volvos, so insurance companies noticed that Volvos had better accident records … which was really not about the car but about how its owners drove.
The branding differentiation.
Branding is not something completely new and different, as many folks believe. It builds on and expands the concept of USP. What branding has added to that proposition is that you must “consistently say the same thing to all people all the time.” What does that mean? It means that a company or organization must recognize that they have an internal as well as external audience. Whatever the USP is, it must be stated first to the internal audience (your entire staff) so that everyone is passing on the very same message to the external audience (your target audience).
It may not sound like a big deal when you break it down, but it has value. I have seen more than one company roll out an advertising campaign or promotion without letting the troops know it was coming. What do you get when that happens? People answering the phones saying, “huh?” Not good.
The consistency dictum.
Branding also dictates that everything – from business cards to stationery to signs to ads – be identical. And that raises the game somewhat that was started with USP. Every message (according to branding gurus) that comes out of an organization, in any way, needs to look the same and sound the same. That, in a nutshell, is branding. The really good agencies have always done that instinctively – now it’s a rule.
I’ve always though that “branding” was created by someone who decided they needed a new tool to compete with ad agencies. There are certainly some smart and sensible ideas behind the branding concept, but it’s not enough – on its own – to build the kinds of great campaigns that USP has consistently brought us. Think Volkswagen, Absolut, Nike. Those were all based on the concept of USP.
Bottom line: branding is the cart, not the horse. You have to start with a USP in order to end up with truly effective branding.
Branding baby steps.
The idea of “branding” may sound formidable to many companies. A daunting new task for marketing to add to its plate. I can make it simple for you. A company’s brand is ultimately defined by three things:
- Competencies – what you do
- Standards – how you do it
- Style – how you relate to your marketplace
These are things that need to be both defined and agreed upon before any creative work starts.
Once they are agreed upon, they need to be maintained with consistency across every form of communication – from e-mails to business cards, and from one-on-one conversations to a major marketing campaign. Without that consistency, there can be no brand.
To put it into simple steps, you need to determine: your message, your target audience, how your product or service benefits them, what the competition is saying, and how you’re better or different. And that, folks, is what branding is all about.
Tag lines rule.
This may raise a few hackles: to me, a tag line is the heart of any brand. Headlines come and go. Vision and mission statements are useful when you can’t fall asleep. But to know what an enterprise’s brand is really about, look at their tag line.
One of my favorite, short-lived tag lines of all time was from UPS: ”Moving at the speed of business.” When that came out, I thought, “boy, now they’re going to give FedEx a run for their money.” But what did they do a year or two later? Changed it to: ”Trust brown. ” Trust brown? Their rationale (if there is one) was that they didn’t want to frighten off their non-business clientèle. Umm, no matter what you’re shipping, or to whom, wouldn’t you want it moving as fast as possible? ”At the speed of business” sounds pretty darn fast, doesn’t it? Alas. (Imagine a FedEx did me-too … that might be “Pick Purple.” Ugh.)
And only a tag line can consistently appear in ads, commercials, on stationery, at trade shows … heck, you can even answer the phone saying your tag. (Although I don’t recommend that since those scripted greeting are long enough already …) The bottom line – in my experience – is that tag lines are the hook for everything you do that’s marketing. Choose one carefully because you don’t want to be changing your tag every six months.
There are many “super-brands” in our marketplace today – Coke, Kleenex, Xerox, FedEx, etc. They are super-brands not just because of how they define their product or service, but also because they define their category. That means, in part, that we refer to Coke when we mean most any soda, or Kleenex when we mean any tissue, and Xerox when we mean any kind of photocopying. (It’s good to be a super-brand.)
While UPS is a huge company with a well-established brand, it still needs to distinguish itself from FedEx, even though they are in the same category. We, the people, have given FedEx a significant branding edge by making it common to say “FedEx it,” regardless of how we’re actually going to overnight a package. “UPS it” just doesn’t have the same catchy feel.
I’ll bet dollars to doughnuts that the only people who say “UPS it” are the ones who mean just that and only that, while “FedEx it” has become ubiquitous, no matter which company we ultimately use to overnight something. We’ve done the same with Kleenex for years, which was why some years ago they changed their actual product name to “Kleenex brand facial tissues” in order to protect their brand. (Thank goodness for lawyers.)
Branding is not new.
While some “marketing folk” may try to beguile you with their branding acumen, know this: branding is a repackaging of “USP” – Unique Selling Proposition. USP was invented by Rosser Reeves in the 1940s at Ted Bates & Company.
USP became the standard by which all advertising and marketing agencies would judge themselves and their work: ”Are you selling the benefits? Are you making empty claims? Why should people care?” Little things like that. Every agency came up with its own nomenclature for the USP process, but it was all thanks to Rosser Reeves.
The key differentiation that branding brings to the table is the concept of companies having internal and external audiences. To put it simply, you have to market to your own troops before you market to the world at large. This means creating an awareness of your branding and an esprit de corps within your firm while pushing the message out.
Some will go so far as to encourage companies to “live the brand.” I draw the line there, recalling what my European father always said, even after moving to America: ”we work to live, we don’t live to work.”
Now you know enough to cause some serious damage. Go forth and brand.
“An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Box? What box?
Everyone in marketing communications earns their bread by being “creative.” We are measured by the level of “creativity” that we bring to the table. It’s a constant challenge. But one develops a habit of not being linear; of “thinking outside the box.”
And yet it’s enormously challenging to explain to non-marketing people exactly what we do and how we do it. There’s a story that keeps circulating among us on Web boards about a writer who was hired to do an ad. He did it and he brought it to the client along with a bill. The client said, “That’s not very long. How long did it take you to write it?” The writer responded, “About 25 years.”
We develop our craft over time.
I can write far more quickly today than when I first began. A lot of that is the result of an evolving ability to make better and better judgement calls – we learn to more quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t the more we practice our craft. We also know how to jump-start our thinking to put things in motion.
Many people think that “creativity” is some kind of voo-doo. That we’re selling snake oil. Alas, there are far more who misunderstand us than those who recognize and appreciate what a good copywriter can do.
“Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.” – Jules Renard
Sometimes creativity is genius.
J. S. Bach wrote The Brandenburg Concertos as a kind of job application – a job he never got, and the concertos remained in some drawer for a couple of hundred years before anyone even played them. To me, he’s still the pinnacle of human creativity, and yet I can’t help thinking that in his own mind he always saw himself as a church organist (orgelmeister) who had to write a new cantata every week to support himself and his very large family.
And wasn’t Einstein exceptionally creative? The mere ability to think of light bending in space means that one’s mind is not bound by existing knowledge – one “creates” new ideas as one comes to a kind of enlightenment.
Then there’s creativity that borders on magic in all the technology we see coming into being on a daily basis, such as more and more functional flat-screen applications.
I will leave you with two quotes on this subject:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“The real technology – behind all our other technologies – is language. It actually creates the world our consciousness lives in.” – Andrei Codrescu
There are no copywriting courses.
While it’s possible to be trained as an art director or designer, it’s not really possible to be trained as a copywriter. The aesthetics of good design can easily be taught in theoretical courses, but copywriting is a craft, like cabinet-making. You can be shown examples of good copywriting, the tools you might use, but to learn how to produce your own copywriting you have to work at it and learn the craft through experience. And, like cabinet-making, the more you practice, the more you learn how to do it better and better.
I’ve been writing since I was about 12, and my first professional writing career was in public relations. After three years of that (in the music business in Hollywood), I knew I couldn’t keep doing it – it seemed incredibly dishonest to me since one had to continually say “I think this is the greatest (artist) (performer) (band) since the invention of sliced bread.”
Someone said, “why not try advertising?”
Someone I knew was a copywriter and suggested trying it. I found out fairly quickly that I’d need a portfolio, which I didn’t have. So I proceeded to work on building one – fictional ads for real products and companies. The more I interviewed for jobs, the more feedback I got (and requested).
Finally, someone said, “Your stuff is really good, but L.A. is kind of small (late 70s) so you should go to New York.” Eventually I made the move, got some interviews and was told, “Your stuff may be good enough for L.A., but not for New York …”
Back to work on the portfolio, begging for interviews for feedback, and a few months later I got my first job. The more I did it, the more I learned. But what struck me the most was that copywriting is a craft unlike any other. It’s the most powerful self-editing method I’ve ever encountered.
It makes capitalism work.
I initially recoiled at the thought of writing ads … after all, we all hate them, right? But I came to realize something: advertising is an essential element in our economic system. The American economy was built on competition. It’s pretty hard to compete if you haven’t got any awareness for your product or service. That’s where we come in.
Advertising is also far more honest than P.R. or “promotional” marketing. You aren’t telling anyone you personally love something. You’re creating a stand-alone message that says, “this is an ad for something; you know it’s an ad; we just want to introduce you to this (product) (service) and let you decide.”
The rest is up to the product or service. We don’t actually sell anyone anything. We simply create awareness of and interest in the products or services of our clients.