Turning Negative Space Into a Positive One

I remember well the theory of negative space from my college art classes. The idea is that blank space, the space around an object, can be used to create something as meaningful as the object itself. In artistic composition, negative space can produce a powerful image. It can reflect, on its own, what the artist is trying to achieve.

I saw something that reminded me of this on a recent trip to Montréal. As part of its marketing strategy, Canadian telecommunications company Telus had wrapped one of the city’s busiest Métro stations with its trademark ads: brightly colored fish and animals suspended in a stark white background.

As I walked through the station, I commented on the waste of ad dollars. The company had paid to cover turnstiles, walls, and portions of the floor in plain white paper. The fact was, however, that white space is as much a part of the Telus brand as its logo and animal imagery. Telus was simply using negative space to its full advantage — to further emphasize the associated objects that were of real importance.

This concept applies to media buying as well, albeit in a less tangible fashion. It might seem convoluted, but where a brand doesn’t advertise can actually say as much about it as where it does.

From a consumer’s perspective, having a keen eye for advertising can translate into more informed purchases and cost savings. People will tell you that they rarely notice ads for cars or flat-screen TVs until they’re actually in the market for one. At that point, a brand’s advertising plays a huge part in the decision-making process, right down to where ads are placed. If every brand imaginable is making its presence known on a consumer electronics review site save one, the lack of that one brand could very well cost it a sale. When negative space is applied to online advertising, “WYSIWYG” can take on an entirely new meaning.

These types of observations are also essential to competitive analysis, particularly in the aggressive online space. We all keep our eyes open for competitors’ ads, whether they appear adjacent to ours or on sites we haven’t yet considered buying from. We have a general idea of their marketing strategies and a sense of what their media plans look like from month to month. If a rival’s ads suddenly show up on a new site, that’s obviously worth noting. So is the sudden lack of presence on a property we know it’s partnered with in the past.

Say you know your largest electronics industry competitor consistently buys up the home page and “Tech & Business” inventory on a political and pop culture site. Given its audience of savvy businesspeople, many with home offices or corporate decision-making powers, the site is a no-brainer for both of your brands.

But for two consecutive months, you notice a distinct lack of competing ads on the site. Your first reaction might be to feel as though you’ve won the war. No more fighting over inventory; you’ve got an exclusive presence at last. However, you should step back and consider what else this disappearing act might mean.

Maybe your competitor was forced to cut his ad budget and could no longer afford the prominent placements. Perhaps he reassessed his advertising strategy and determined it was no longer fruitful to continue targeting this consumer audience. It could be that the placement no longer proved effective.

Regardless of the motive, the negative space the brand left behind can become crucial to your competitive strategy. It could provide you with a heads-up that the site might soon fail to perform for you as well. If lack of budget is the suspected culprit, it might provide the opportunity you’ve been waiting for to surge ahead and claim the site’s audience for yourself.

As you compose your interactive marketing strategy, look at the canvas from all possible angles. Consider the negative space as well as the self-evident objects and what the media buyers behind them are trying to achieve. As in art, you can discover something positive you didn’t realize existed before.

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