Thursday, August 28, 2014

red stitching turn-ups

Younger readers may find this hard to imagine, but there was a time not so long ago when simply buying a pair of straight leg Levis jeans was something of a task.

More specifically, for the early-teen punky-mod me in 1979 in provincial Aberdeen obtaining a pair of shrink-to-fit 501XX's was even more arduous, and often required a 3 hour bus trip to Glasgow or engaging an obliging relative in London to secure.

The correct Levi's, however, were important items to own.

Because the distinctive 501XX red stitching visible when the jeans were turned up was one of the key signals of one's status among the rest of the group.

A slightly more discerning in-group within the broader mod in-group if you like.

One simple glance at another young mod's turn-ups was all one needed to do in order to make a judgement of their perspicacity.

To this day I'm as picky, however about different things.

In the case of a unified theory of advertising I'm less likely to satisfice.

But I'm happy enough with Gap jeans these days in case you are wondering.

Although, of course, the distinctive red stitching of original 501's is now standard issue with any form of 'selvedge' denim, available for 50 bucks in just about any retailer that sells jeans.

(Signals have a shelf life, at some point what they signal, changes and they may end up signalling something else entirely.)

And so fast forward to 2014 and we are in a workshop session at a marketing conference.
The delegates are broken into groups of six or so and the facilitator announces a task that the groups are required to solve.

We are asked to quickly, and just for fun, come up with some ideas around 'how to get people TO CONSUME MORE' of a particular product (and using certain tactics/techniques we have been learning about).

As you can imagine, I reverted to type and immediately found a problem with the task.

Surely, we were being asked the wrong question?

Is not the single most important task for marketing and advertising to achieve about growing market penetration?

So therefore the correct question should be 'how do we get MORE PEOPLE TO CONSUME product X'.

As I began scribbling an approximation of an NBD type distribution curve the fella sat next to immediately spotted what I was doing.

The rest of the group were oblivious however the first merest hint of the Dirichlet and the pair of us were in complete understanding of each other's point of view.

Like a nerdy marketing science equivalent of teenage mods noticing each other's turn-ups.

The truth is, in advertising today there seems to be nothing that polarises opinion quite as much as the 'How Brands Grow' effect. You are either in or out, there's very little middle ground.

I recall on one occasion meeting with another Planning Director at an agency I was courting and tentatively dropped a couple of thinly veiled EB-esqe phrases into our conversation.

He noticed my 'red stitching' immediately and kindly offered that I need not be coy, he was also a subscriber. Ha.

However the principle objection to scientific marketing ideas seems to come from creative quarters.

'I warn you against believing that advertising is a science.'

So said Bill Bernbach.

Bernbach, as we all know, was one of the key players in the so-named 'creative revolution' within advertising in the early 60's - one that was, in many ways, a revolution against the prevailing ideas of the likes of Rosser Reeves.

Whereas the Reeves approach was 'claim based'- he is the inventor of the USP, after all - and could be described as somewhat formulaic, the Bernbach approach was the antithesis, all out creativity.

It was this more 'functional' Reeves approach that Bernbach was describing as 'science'.
Not actual science.

[Fair play to old Rosser. you know you've made it when you get a logical fallacy named after you.]

My sense is that if Bill were around today he would be embracing the emerging field of marketing science for the space it creates for free creativity.

There is a final passage in the famous paper entitled 'Brand Advertising as Creative Publicity' by Helen Bloom, Rachel Kennedy, Andrew Ehrenberg and Neil Barnard; and published in the Journal of Advertising Research in 2002, that may have tickled Bernbach.

The authors propose that brand advertising seems to work best by simply creatively publicising a brand (salience), and not by trying to persuade people that the brand differs from other brands, or is even better or best.

'Some people fear that this 'mere publicity' stance is unhelpful to creatives. But we suggest that the exact opposite is the case.

Advertising a better mousetrap is fairly easy if it is in fact a bit better. One can, for instance, just say so. But having to center your advertising on adding year after year some indiscernible 'Whiter and Brighter' product-boon can restrict the kind of creativity that aims at memorable impacts for the brand.

In contrast, publicizing a brand gives ample scope for imaginative insights and for disciplined marketing communication skills.

This can stimulate creativity, that is, making distinctive and memorable publicity for the brand out of next to nothing. This seems the hallmark of good advertising as we know it. We think still that advertising a competitive brand means just 'Telling a brand story well', without there being just one solution.

There is huge scope-the campaign need not be hemmed in by the brand's 'selling proposition.'

In a recent post we mentioned renowned German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer's 'recognition heuristic'.

'Firms that spend their money on buying space in your recognition memory know this. Similarly politicians advertising their names and faces rather than their policies, and colleges, wannabe celebrities, and even small nations operate on the principle that if we do not recognise them, we will not favor them.

Taken to the extreme, being recognised becomes the goal in itself'.

Another way of describing salience and creative publicity.

[Indeed, Gigerenzer even offers a specific smart recognition heuristic for buying hi-fi equipment with minimum effort.

'Choose a brand you recognize and the second least expensive model'.]

For creative types this scientific approach should be liberating. To be free from dealing with message comprehension, USPs, positioning and differentiation and instead inhabit a world where the principle requirement is using unreasonable creativity to get branded ideas noticed and remembered.

And as Professor Sharp says in 'How Brands Grow'.

'...the primary task of advertising agencies is to generate ideas that viewers will notice and and will be willing to process over and over. This process must be brand-centric; it must refresh the memory structures that relate to the brand. This is a difficult task, which is why most advertising fails.”

Difficult? Yes.
Impossible? No.

To paraphrase Rory Sutherland; this appliance of science frees us from a 'world where creativity is heavily policed but where shallow rationality is a allowed to run rampant.'

What better  creative challenge than to be able to battle on a level playing field with everything else in the culture that competes for bits of our attention?

So as we started this article talking about Levi's, it seems fair to end it with their latest campaign. I'll leave it to you to decide whether this new direction is likely to do much for recognition or memory structures.

However as clue to the feelings here at Boat Global HQ, in spite of the disfluency and general unfathomable-ness of the tagline, it is the irony of that line is perhaps the most salient thing on view.

Just Don't Bore Them?

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