The Search for Relevant Messaging, Online and Off-

A drive through downtown Manhattan places you in a dense stew of outdoor advertising. Whenever I drive downtown with my staff, we play a game: we grade the relevance of each billboard we pass.

A few weeks ago, we saw this outdoor disaster: “Martinis Shaken and Stirred you are not. Continental Airlines.” Another, for dog food, featured an adorable canine. But I had to take notes to recall the billboard was for Pedigree.

The other 32-plus billboards we graded didn’t fare much better. Getting out at the parking garage, we were shaking our noggins in disappointment.

“Where’s the beef?” we asked. Where’s the relevance?

No company plans to spend huge dough on a bad billboard, Web site, TV spot, or online banner ad. So why is it so hard to find relevant messages? Where are the ad campaigns and Web sites that speak to the customer’s heart? Where are the memorable campaigns that move people to take a buying action?

A recent Harvard Business Online article states some sorry numbers. A survey of 500 businesses shows an average ROI (define) of 4 percent. Ouch! Another cited study shows doubling ad spend resulted in an average 1 to 2 percent sales increase. According to the article: “Marketers aren’t unhappy because they can’t measure marketing performance. They’re unhappy because they now can — and they don’t like what they see. They need to go beyond metrics and take a hard look at why the numbers are so bad.”

Most of these companies hire smart ad people whose every intention is to craft an effective campaign. Yet something is lost in translation. On- and offline marketing suffer the same problem: relevance is elusive and just out of reach.

Our experience suggests the absence of relevance is a result of some common mindsets. Do you recognize any of these in your company?

Being All Things to All People

As our mentor Roy Williams frequently points out, “You’re not a 100 dollar bill. Not everyone is going to like you.” Trying to write a mass-appeal message in today’s fragmented world is a recipe for irrelevance.

Many ad campaigns start with a very strong, relevant message. But as that message is funneled through a corporation, it’s edited and altered so as not to leave out or offend someone. We suspect the Continental billboard actually started as a great, inspired message that was successfully gutted, leaving only the corpse of relevance.

Calling It “Creative”

I cringe when I hear a marketing effort’s message (and artwork) referred to as “the creative.” “Creative” is the wrong word. Creative is great for art, not sales.

To maintain a culture of customer relevance, think “persuasion” rather than “creative.” Then, every piece of copy, artwork, or site redesign is judged by its ability to persuade, not by its creativity.

We refer to any customer touch point as a persuasion entity. Each has a clearly planned, defined role in the buying process. Even messages on company business cards should be accounted for to ensure relevance.

Relevant But Disconnected From Sales Goals

Anyone dog lover has to love Pedigree’s “We’re for Dogs” effort. Dogs are relevant, especially cute ones. A great billboard in downtown Manhattan of a cute puppy gets a lot of attention. But the brand gets lost somewhere in the background. It’s easy to ignore a little blue logo. Pedigree is selling a lot more dogs than dog food, just as the “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” spot sold plenty of Chihuahuas.

It’s great to speak to the customer’s heart, but don’t forget your sales goals.

Pedigree hasn’t. Last night, I saw the ad for the new Pedigree Jumbone. Seems the brand is trying to cash in on all the doggie fuzziness it’s fostered. Though the “we’re for dogs” spot probably does better in focus groups, it’s this spot and this one that have people reaching for their wallets.

Wewe Addiction

Wewe copy drones, preaches, and shouts all the reasons why you should buy the company’s stuff, never stopping even once to consider what the consumer wants. Such copy is littered with we do this, we do that. Rarely, if ever, are you acknowledged.

Writing wewe copy is like taking drugs. You know it’s bad, but you keep doing it. It lacks imagination, empathy, often effort. Writers resort to wewe, chest-thumping copy for one reason: they know the bosses will like it.

What high-ranking corporate officer doesn’t like to be reminded of how great her company is? But it’s much easier to sell the CEO on chest-thumping creative than it is to sell a customer. Customer are much more demanding, and there are a lot more of them to please.

Write copy for the customer, not the CEO. When sales jump, the CEO will be much happier with you.

Targeting Stereotypes Instead of Persuading People

In marketing, you hear a lot of lingo like: “This creative is targeted at the young, 25-34 male working urban professional.” We assume consumers are somehow clones of one another. They all dress the same, act the same, eat the same, like the same shows, and so on. So the creative includes lots of pictures of attractive, suit-wearing, Blackberry-talkin’ dudes. This isn’t relevance, it’s stereotyping.

Think about what demographic you fall into. Think of someone you know who shares your demographic. How different are your motivations, needs, and tastes? If you want to target, there’s a simple way to do it without sacrificing relevance: target motivations, not demographics.

Answer the following question about your product or service: What are all the possible motivations customers could have to buy this product? What are the benefits? (Remember to keep the list on motivations and benefits, not needs. Sometimes they’re different.) Then, create a campaign and messages that speak directly to this motivation using benefits as the substantiation.

Keep Relevance Alive

These are just a few tools that can keep relevance alive. There are many, many others. Where is relevance being strangled in your company? Let me know. Maybe together, we can devise a way to save it.

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