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Andy Palmer on why big brands have forgotten advertising is about "selling"

Published:  18 July, 2014

There is a prevailing school of thought in the advertising business that to change consumer behaviour you first need to change consumer attitudes [and by consumer behaviour we mean getting people to buy stuff].

This is baloney.

In reality, it is actual usage and consumption that is the thing that ultimately drives and shapes somebody's attitude to a brand.

Consumers know much more about brands that they buy and use more frequently. Hence, attitudes and brand beliefs tend to reflect behavioural loyalty and purchasing patterns rather than operating as the things that stimulate them.

It's a classic case of confusing cause with effect. t's not "I buy it because I like the brand".  More "I like the brand because I buy it"

Unlike the chicken and egg, we know what came first. And it wasn't a change in attitudes.

And it's this mistake that's leading agencies to produce a certain kind of advertising that treats consumers as feelgood-chasing, mouth-breathing morons who are bereft of any logic and reason when it comes to making choices about brands.

That can't be a good thing, can it? The belief that you must create an emotional bond with an audience to get them to love your brand and connect with them before they can consider buying seems to be treated like gospel.

The obsession that you need to reposition an audience's mind before you can move them closer to buying a product seems to be treated like some kind of immutable law. Why is this?

Well, for one thing, this kind of advertising is in fashion right now and is the only kind of advertising that most agencies want to make.

They cherry-pick whatever findings they want to from the world of behavioural science and cognitive psychology to justify their approach to creativity.

This usually ends up with fluffy, happy-clappy advertising desperate to own some kind of emotional territory.

This kind of advertising comes from their over-riding obsession with focusing exclusively on generating brand love to create a connection with an audience, rather than any overt focus on why the product might actually be of help, use or benefit.

And therein lies the problem.

Most agencies have forgotten what the point of advertising is. Selling is now a dirty word in Adland.

If you're not using advertising to give more people a reason to buy your product more often, then you're not using advertising properly. Despite this seeming like incontestable and uncontroversial common sense, this point of view is regarded as heresy by many.

The insanity loop continues as agencies continue to exclusively focus on what can they say about a brand to get people to like it rather than asking what can they say about a product to get people to buy it.

And so out come the kittens to supposedly manipulate the emotions of an audience lacking the intelligence and free will to make any kind of purchasing decision based on reasoning or logic.

Breaking "the deal" with consumers

There used to be a deal with consumers. We knew we were using advertising to sell something. They knew we were using advertising to sell something.

They were prepared to give us their precious time and attention, and maybe would even consider to be persuaded to buy that thing, if we entertained them with our message.

We would feature the product at the heart of this message and show in some way how it might help them or how they might benefit from having that in their life in some small way.

There was honesty, truth, integrity and transparency in this deal. Everyone knew where they stood. Nobody was hiding anything.

Nowadays, it seems that that this deal no longer stands. It's de riguer to not even bother featuring a client's product in a commercial. A logo bolted on to the end of some disingenuous, generic piece of film that could be for anything will suffice, thank you very much.

The post-rationalisation going on from Kahneman's System Thinking that mistakenly assumes there is no place for rational or conscious decision-making has turned advertising into an industry of confidence tricksters.

Despite the proclamations of companies being organised to be completely customer-centric, nobody seems to be asking what the customer might actually want from advertising or how it might actually help them.

It seems that it is acceptable business to even disguise what is being advertised by not just plonking a logo at the end of an ad. It's hardly surprising that we find ourselves in a situation where trust is eroded between clients and agencies [as well as between advertisers and consumers].

The tenure of the average relationship has shrunk to just under three years. Is it really any wonder when agencies steadfastly refuse to embrace the fact that they are actually in the business of selling?

Agencies are now a safe haven for pseudo-scientists, cod psychologists and wannabe sociologists all seduced by the intellectual stimulus provided by trying to get people to think something rather than trying to get people to do something.

It's also much, much easier to get swept along by the allure of producing the kind of advertising that springs from the objective of changing attitudes and owning emotions. It's also much, much easier to produce than a compelling piece of advertising that is actually true to the product.

Advertising an attitude. It's the "just add water" method of creative development. Get yourself a Thesaurus, scour the zeigeist for a cultural trend, stroke your chin and think deep about some inner-directed values that your audience would aspire to and bingo you'll have a list of meaningless adjectives to write ads about.

Integrity, depth of character, free-spirited, adventure, playfulness, happiness, fulfillment, freedom, escape. The list goes on and on.

Can brands have an "attitude"?

Agencies will claim that advertising an attitude or an emotion that your brand can own is essential to help differentiation. All products are the same, we live in a parity world, so the argument goes.

Their party line is that it's the emotional battleground is where brands fight it all out. It's what people feel that's all-important, not what they think.

We live in an age where companies spend millions of pounds just broadcasting brand positionings in the vain hope that their target audience will identify and connect with them. Agencies are brainwashing clients that there is no need to impart any relevant or useful information about the product as people just aren't creatures of reason.

This obsession with chasing some kind of brand love is rarely reciprocated from a consumer perspective. They just don't care about brands anywhere near as much as people who work in advertising agencies and marketing departments. And anyway, it's bloody difficult for anyone to love a brand they haven't actually consumed [also, isn't it a pretty big degradation of the word love?].

It's also eminently possible to buy a product without actually liking the brand. I'm an o2 customer. I've got a tariff that seems fair enough.  Price-wise and service-wise, I think they're OK. I do not, however, want to "Be More Dog".


Guinness Made of More campaign

I like a nice pint of Guinness. Especially from establishments where I know it's going to be poured well in a proper glass and left to settle properly. When I'm drinking it I do not consider it to signal to surrounding pub clientele that I am in fact "Made of More".

I have never wanted any kind of emotional relationship with my bank and never will. So, my money is safe with my existing provider and I refused to be swayed by Santander's charms and their claim that they are "A Bank For Your Ideas".

In Byron Sharp's book How Brands Grow, he demonstrates that most brand attitudes are very weak and rarely recalled. From extensive research he concludes that the influence of attitudes on behaviour is astonishingly weak while the influence of behaviour on attitude is very strong.  Sharp found that when asking regular brand buyers about their feelings towards a brand only 10% see it as different or unique. So, even people who purchase and use a brand regularly struggle to see it as being truly different.

Most buying decisions are made from what is a relatively narrow consideration set for any category. In Sharp's view, the real battle of brands is not differentiation, it is to get into this consideration set by making advertising that is distinctive and consistent.

Respecting the consumer

This leads to a very different model of advertising.

A model that recognises that consumers are not as controlled and dominated by their emotions as agencies like to think.  A model that credits consumers with intelligence and recognises that they are capable of making rational decisions, much more than they're given credit for.

Brand associations are important but they should be based on characteristics that are important and relevant to the category and product.

However, there's a current line of fashionable thinking permeating Adland that seems to misinterpret Sharp's work and the findings of neuroscience to blanketly and blindly dismiss any kind of role for the product in helping to build memory structures that relate to decision-making.

People often tend to make out that featuring the product at the heart of the advertising idea makes you Rosser Reeves incarnate. That's just lazy thinking because it doesn't automatically mean you have to have rational USP based communication if your advertising makes the product the star of the show.

It's not as black and white as product = bad, emotions = good. Great advertising should do both.

It is possible to put the product at the heart of an advertising idea and generate important emotional associations at the same time.

Changing consumer behaviour without first changing attitudes isn't some kind of rare event. By and large, it's how the world works.

Showing a product in a great light can make a difference. Advertising can work ?that is, to stimulate sales?by presenting motivating news or associations about a product.

It's very dangerous to assume that there are any laws of advertising. But it's an even more dangerous assumption that advertising should work to change attitudes first rather than work to change behaviour.

Pursue that assumption at your peril.

* Andy Palmer is managing partner at Sell! Sell! - what claims to be a very different type of advertising agency.