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Can "Hipness" Hurt Sales?

  |  August 2, 2010   |  Comments

Flashy ads are great when you're buying deodorant, but when making a serious purchase, like a car, you just want the facts.

What is “edgy”? Does edgy matter when it comes to driving sales and brand loyalty? What about “brand experience”? Is it possible to be too cool? Can “hipness” hurt sales?

While it might seem like an unlikely source to answer these kinds of questions, a new study conducted by J.D. Power & Associates looking at automobile manufacturer websites uncovered some pretty interesting information about the effects of “edgy.” After testing the gamut of car manufacturer sites, what they found was that edgy, brand-centric, high-design sites performed the worst in the opinions of the over 10,000 new vehicle shoppers surveyed. They identified features such as streaming music, non-standard navigation elements, and “fun” features such as being able to change the background of the site as distracting and as impediments to their desire to purchase a car.

The worst ranked site was Cadillac’s, a Flash-based extravaganza that invites the user to “experience Cadillac” by clicking through a Mondrian-like grid of car pictures. There’s little to read, precious little information on what you’re looking at, and lots and lots of spinning Cadillac logos. I suppose it’s supposed to be fun.

But isn’t this what consumer advertising is supposed to be about? Isn’t it about lifestyle and experience? Why would consumers rank this site as the worst?

Perhaps because when you’re shopping for a car, lifestyle and experience might be important factors that influence your decision, but when it comes down to choosing between, say, a Cadillac (lowest ranked site) and an Infiniti (one of the highest ranked sites), you’ve moved beyond lifestyle and experience and focused on actually buying a car. And in order to buy a car (unless you’re so loaded price doesn’t matter), you need to know minor details like the price, the performance specs, gas mileage, and how expensive it’s going to be to maintain. You know. The little stuff…little stuff that’s pretty dang hard to find on that Cadillac site.

Interestingly, at about the time that this J.D. Power study came out, Nielsen released numbers showing that sales of P&G’s Old Spice were up around 55 percent for the past three months and 107 percent (yup…107!) in the last month (June 2010). They credit the Wieden+Kennedy created “Old Spice Guy” campaign that spread virally on the Web for the boost in sales.

What does deodorant have to do with cars? A lot, especially when comparing how to sell things to people online (and in the real world, too). Bottom line? Cars are not deodorant.

Cadillac fails because of a fundamental misunderstanding about what its consumers need when it comes to its website as part of the considered purchase process. Flashy features sported by the Cadillac site (and other low-performing sites in the J.D. Powers study) were created by well-meaning advertisers who unfortunately have mistaken the Web for TV. They’re about “Experience” with a capital “E,” about attempting to stir brand-driven emotions in the potential customers that come to the site. Instead, all they do is get in the way of what these consumers are trying to do: if they’re at your site looking at your cars, it’s because they want to learn more about them, not be “entertained” or “immersed” in “brand experiences.” This site (and others like it) fail because they fundamentally don’t understand the needs of their customers.

On the other hand, the Old Spice campaign began with an obvious deep understanding of its target market. The star of the spots, the astoundingly hunky Isaiah Mustafa appeals to both men (who want to look like him) and women (who want him…or at least want their men to look like him). In the spots, Old Spice guy Mustafa speaks directly to women, urging them to buy Old Spice for their men. At the same time as his sultry voice hypnotizes the ladies in the room into buying new body wash, his amazing combo of near sub-zero coolness and everyman approachability as he moves through the ads’ wacky situations and campy sets makes the guys in the room laugh (and secretly wish they could be the same way). It’s a brilliant creative strategy that’s simultaneously hip in its self-referential take on deodorant commercials and sexy in its execution in a way that appeals to both sexes…a rare feat.

Once the spots started spreading across the Web, P&G could have gotten lazy and just let them go. But they didn’t. Instead, again showing an understanding of its customer base, it branched off into social media, creating a wonderful series of short “ads” where the Old Spice guy spoke directly to fans. People loved it, and people felt connected. And Old Spice sales shot up.

When thinking about how you want to market online, it’s instructive to look at these two different types of communications. One worked incredibly well. One failed. Why? Because the Old Spice campaign did two things incredibly well: understood what it was selling and understood its audience.

Face it: deodorant/body wash is a commodity. Purchase choices for the most part aren’t made on specifications, price, or testing. Nope, people buy cosmetic commodities because they associate with the brand. It’s all about subjective factors, not objective research. None but the most nerdy among us are going to rush out and buy Consumer Reports the next time we need to keep our pits fresh.

Cars, on the other hand, are a totally different story. They’re considered purchases, driven by information such as price , warranty, etc. But don’t get me wrong: the brand definitely matters. Everything about what cars we buy relates to our identity and how we see ourselves in the world.

But that just narrows the playing field. When it comes to the actual purchasing of a car, information really matters. By the time that someone gets to a car manufacturer website, they’re on their way past the lifestyle/brand stuff and into the hard information, objective stuff. Anything that stands in the way of that is going to be perceived as bad by the consumer.

It’s pretty obvious that cars aren’t cosmetics. What people need in order to be persuaded to buy a low-priced commodity is different than what is going to influence people to buy something that they’re going to be paying on for the next five years. Understanding that difference and understanding what consumers want from your communications is core to marketing online and core to forming those kinds of relationships that we want to have. Cadillac’s site stands in the way of those relationships. Old Spice Guy invites us into his bathroom.

Oh, and a quick post script: while researching this column I came across this piece from a few years ago that looked at the results of the super-edgy Burger King campaign created by Crispin Porter Bogusky and hailed as one of the best campaigns ever by the ad press. The reality is that while the Subservient Chicken and the weirdly plastic (and incredibly creepy) King made waves among creatives, BK sales and market share declined during the course of the campaign. Surprise!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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