Starting Higher

I wasn’t that impressed by this year’s crop of Superbowl Ads overall. Although the US undoubtedly produces some excellent advertising, there’s something about the tone of voice in many of their Ads that makes me want to smash the screen.

Recently I was discussing the differences between American and UK approaches in advertising with a colleague. He felt that for all their flaws, you have to admire the US tendency to sell unashamedly. They’re upfront about what they want you to buy and why. Their advertising will feature the brand early, so there’s no mistaking what they’re here to do. The UK approach is almost apologetic by comparison, teasing out a subtle story, refusing to sully it with the crass sell, slipping the brand in apologetically at the end.

There’s a point of view that says – you know what, let’s just be honest here. The purpose of advertising is to sell things. We know this. The buying public knows this. Why not be a little more direct. You can still be funny and charming, but at the end of the day, this is an advertisement – it’s not art.

This point of view relies partly on the premise however, that the unique selling point or piece of product information, is the most persuasive part. With the humour or aesthetics just there to buy your attention. And for some products, this might be true. Apple advertising is the poster child for this. Advertisements for the iPad merely have to demonstrate the product and that’s exciting enough. For most products however, functional benefits are not very persuasive.  And information is not the most motivational part of the advertisement, it’s just a tool for post-rationalisation.

Being indirect, wrapping up your product in sounds and images and feelings that emotionally connect with people, is a far more effective way of converting customers.

Recently, I went through an exercise of taking it all higher. Regardless of what you are selling, can you find a way to connect it to people’s deepest desires – love, status, sex, power. Can you find a way for an egg to facilitate belonging? How can this plain white t-shirt deliver psychological wellbeing?

If you’re rolling your eyes now, I understand. It could get a bit ridiculous. But that’s the point.

If you always start with the product, that’s your focal point, and no wonder you never manage to land anywhere more interesting than the product proposition. You’re starting functional and trying to work your way up to emotion. If you start higher, at the upper end of human needs and desires, your perspective on the product is completely different.

If you start high, you can always bring it right back down to reality later. And the beauty is, that you just might hit something interesting on your way down. A brand mission. A brand philosophy. A wonderful intersection of what people want, and what your brand can deliver.

  1. I’m always interested in psychological aspects of modern life and the way good advertising/branding feeds into our conscious and unconscious needs is certainly part of that. Thanks for a good read.

    Leaving methodological issues behind Maslow’s Hierarchy aside (it is based on a high-achieving subset, the results from which may not necessarily be transferable across demographic groups/countries, though I beleive there’s a lot of overlap), the differences between UK and US advertising/branding strategies can be related to the psychological differences between the two audiences’ cultures. This is just an extension of the need to target a message to a demographic.

    The overused common example of cold & flu remedies (US ads often suggesting dramatic health improvement in the form of supermom getting back to life/work; UK ones more often showing mum sipping her lemsip on the couch, looking happier but not yet well) to illustrate this echoes your noting that the US is not afraid to hard-sell whereas the UK is more reticent. But using the US method may not necessarily resonate with the UK population.

    It strikes me that the most effective long-term branding in any country revolves around fulfilling an emotional need, with the product being the conduit for that fulfilment. In that sense, I very much agree with keeping concepts like Maslow’s Hierarchy in mind.

    Thanks again for an interesting read.

      • Neasa Cunniffe
      • February 23rd, 2011

      Thanks for your feedback. It’s a fair point about Maslow’s Hierarchy, and it’s certainly not a linear needs process. Though I still find it one of the more useful props for illustrating human needs.

      The Cold & Flu example is a really interesting case study in how cultural differences can affect the credibility of product benefits. Maybe UK audiences (and myself) are just more cyncial which is why our advertising needs to be more self-aware or tongue in cheek.

    • Quentin
    • March 23rd, 2011

    Interesting post here!
    I do agree with you on most of your points:
    – emotional vs functional,
    – Maslow’s hierarchy as a good starting point or maybe as an interesting model to check your strategy and ideas against
    – Even if arguable (it’s another story) that advertising isn’t art, and as I like to describe it, what we’re doing is “commercial creativity”.

    However I would add some thoughts to this:
    1. I think time has come to stop gazing at our navel (US vs UK vs Europe…) and start to really encompass the whole emerging world in the way we’re building brands. For I’ve seen an increasingly high number of awesome work coming out of Brazil + brands are to become either hyper local or hyper global.

    2.”Being indirect, wrapping up your product in sounds and images and feelings that emotionally connect with people, is a far more effective way of converting customers.”
    And that’s what good advertising agencies have been doing for at least 10 maybe 20 years (Absolut, Apple, Nike…). Creating aspirational brands instead of functional ones. But I think we’re from now on in an entirely new era where aspirational won’t be sufficient enough to sell. Aspirational brands were indeed the answer in a highly industrialized world full of commoditized goods, where people wanted to stand out. But a long story made short: the internet revolution has resulted in a change in values where people don’t only want to stand out, but also to participate. They want to feel they’re embracing something bigger than themselves, that they are positively impacting the world they live in and whose they increasingly got the knowledge of through the information gold mine that the internet is.
    So my take on the way forward for advertising to keep selling stuff is to build meaningful brands. Brands with a purpose. The question we should ask ourselves is how do my client positively contributes to the overall society well-being?

    Thanks for the good read.

      • Neasa Cunniffe
      • March 24th, 2011

      Thanks Quentin!

      Very good point on taking a wider international perspective, with South America being a very good case in point. It’ll be especially interesting to see how their approaches to brands develop seen as many of the countries are at different point in development economically to the US and Europe, yet still have access to all the global media and social media that the western world have, so it’s a very different context to the industrialized world that brands like Coke or Persil came up in.

      I totally agree with your point on brands with purpose, brands with values and brands who contribute to the world in a meaningful way.

      It’s definitely part of the point I was trying to make with this post – style and aspiration probably only taps into the middle of Maslow’s needs for example. Increasingly we’re seeing brands trying to talk about things much further up the funnel.

      I’ve been a big proponent of brands trying to genuinely contribute to society’s happiness for example:

      And also think the more successful brands are connecting with people by adopting a world view or even an active campaign in support of that world view.

      Especially with the recent banking meltdown, I think now more than ever people are questioning what the purpose of a business is. Because businesses should exist for the benefit of society not the other way around. And brands are an extension of that.

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