When Brand Advertising Goes Bad

Catching up on some football this weekend, a TV ad provoked such ire in me, that I had to share.

Before I reveal it, let me defend why I have such strong feelings. Marketing and branding has rceived such a bad rap over the years as litle more than “pretty pictures” and wasted budget. OK, this might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’ve never not had to fight and claw my way through an expenditure justification meeting with a CFO. And I get it, I really do. There has been such misguided marketing shoveled out over the years (and I admit, I shoveled my share of it, too). And you can’t just spend money with no ROI – you need to be able to track and manage ROI on any investment you make. That’s just sound business, and while I might be in marketing, I did earn a business degree so I understand that the name of the game, at the end of the day, is revenue.

So I have spent my career learning to be a diligent “measurer.” Whether that’s tracking website visits, leads, conversion rates, unaided recall, PR hits, focus groups, etc. the Type A in me has always enjoyed the challenge of proving that marketing – when it’s done right – should affect the bottom line and is not all fun and games. It takes a lot of skill to tap into people’s needs and prompt them to act. Yes, sometimes it still all falls down because of product quality, a flawed business model or some sales reps who can’t seem to close the deal – but you can only control what you can control, right?

And then, I see advdertising like I did this past weekend. And I want to slap somebody. Hard.

Pacific Life is running a TV ad that I’m sure cost a pretty penny. It’s an ad showing dolphins jumping up out of the ocean, set to an epic soundtrack. Then, the Pacific Life product categories (annuities, etc.) flash across the screen for about a second and the commercial ends. Someone feels so smug about this ad, they actually have it on the home page of their website, titled Dancing Whales.

What the…..?!

Yes, the logo has a whale on it. Yes, whales are cute and I like watching them. Yes, I believe that not all ads should be dry, feature-function-benefit informercials, but can showcase a lifestyle or an attitude. But whose idea was it to say, “Hey, our logo has a whale! Let’s spend money on a 30-second spot with jumping whales and that will definitely show people a) why we’re different from every other financial services company out there; b) will help people get to know our values; and c) entice them to contact their Pacific Life rep today!”

This is indeed what happens when people that think marketing and advertising are easy make decisions. OK, maybe I’m being harsh for comedic effect, but truly: how does this ad in any way help them differentiate, tell their story, show me what value I get from being their customer, or all of the above?

I call this the “Perfume ad conundrum” You know how some perfume ads have gone so far down the lifestyle branding path that their abstract ads are now mocked for being pretentious and nonsensical? That’s a result of someone saying, “Consumers are dumb, If we just put 30 seconds of (enter adjective here) up onthe screen, will associate us with (insert same adjective) and we will be ‘branded’.”

Uh uh. Not how it works. A good branding campaign does not forget the fundamentals of communication and marketing: value propositions (even if you just focus on 1 per ad, as Apple doesso well), differentiation (how can only this company provide what they are promising?), and clear mssaging (can I understand exactly what they are telling me?)

Ok, you could argure that I remembered this ad and am ranting about it, so didn’t it work? Um, not all talk is good talk that makes people buy your stuff. Many “water cooler” ads are ones in which the gossipers can’t remember which company they were even for, so how does that help people spend their money on you?

So, yes, I get a little out of joint when I see millions of dollars being spent by big companies that should have experienced marketing professionals who know better. Otherwise, it just makes it that much harder for those of us who value the depth and discipline of marketing to get our budgets approved. It’s bad enough that brand marketing is cited as pretty fluff (when execs are being kind) and a money sinkhole (when they are not) – can’t those of you blessed to get your budgets approved practice it at a more worthy level that positively impacts the bottom line?

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