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Business Journal
Is Advertising Dead? (Part 2)
Business Journal

Is Advertising Dead? (Part 2)

It could be, unless marketers radically change their assumptions about where, when, and why advertising works and how to hold it accountable

by William J. McEwen

As we discussed in last month's column, marketing gurus Al and Laura Ries and Sergio Zyman have been taking advertising to task. All three have been questioning the ability of advertising and ad agencies to step up to today's brand-building challenges. The father-and-daughter Ries team asserts that a fundamental requirement for message impact is credibility. They are absolutely correct. As researchers at The Gallup Organization have demonstrated, the foundation of any customer relationship is "Confidence": a high degree of consumer trust in the promises made by a company and its ongoing capability and commitment to keep them.

Al and Laura Ries argue that public relations is the preferred vehicle for delivering a credible brand message: "You can't build a brand with advertising, which has as much credibility as a message inside a fortune cookie." But the real source of the problem is not necessarily the vehicle itself, but the credibility of the message and its content. It's just as important for an advertising message from McDonald's or United Airlines to be credible as it is for a news message from Peter Jennings or the Wall Street Journal. Without a foundation of Confidence, no message can hope to achieve its intended effect.

Ries and Ries present numerous cases in support of their claim that public relations and word-of-mouth are what build great brands today. Brands such as Ben & Jerry's, eBay, Palm, Krispy Kreme, and Dell have all been built slowly but powerfully through publicity and the enthusiastic endorsement of evangelistic customers.

Yet these cases don't suggest that advertising can't work. They do, however, highlight a vitally important element that somehow seems to have escaped a good many companies and their ad agencies. Great brands are built through differentiated brand promises. In order for messages to be deemed newsworthy by the media, they must include relevant content that the audience will see as being new and different. Likewise, companies that want customers to find their marketing messages compelling -- and want them to share those messages with their friends -- must clearly differentiate their core brand promise from all the competitive promises that exist in the marketplace. And as Gallup researchers have also noted, a differentiated brand promise alone doesn't create enthusiastic customer endorsement. Once a company makes a promise, it must keep it -- and always keep it, at every point of customer contact.

Sergio Zyman's criticisms of advertising are also correct. As I've remarked in other GMJ columns, the purpose of advertising is not to win creative awards or industry plaudits. If advertising is to be of any value to a company, it must perform as a sales tool with a sales objective, just as it was originally envisioned and intended. Advertising must be looked at as "salesmanship in print" (or in any other medium), as ad pioneer Albert Lasker noted some 80 years ago. And it must perform in accord with its selling goal.

A get-well program

Companies or agencies that lose sight of advertising's foundational requirements (a credible message and a differentiated promise) or its true objective (profitable sales and business growth) will end up with ads that are neither believable nor successful. As a result, more and more companies will shift their money away from advertising into volume-building promotions or intriguing product-placement opportunities in movies and TV shows. Ad spending budgets may even be funneled away from marketing and into relationship management activities or process and product development initiatives that can demonstrate real business impact.

Furthermore, if advertisers ignore these base requirements, advertising will fail to be recognized or valued as a key contributor to the brand-building challenge. And that spells continued gloom -- and perhaps even doom -- for advertising and for ad agencies, regardless of how robust this year's upfront TV market might be or how much more it will cost to air a 30-second commercial during the 2003 Super Bowl.

Is there a cure for what ails advertising? Perhaps, but it will require some major shifts in how agencies create advertising campaigns and how companies spend their precious brand-building resources.

First, ad agencies must truly commit to building their clients' businesses. They must totally dedicate their agency resources to helping companies cultivate stronger brands and stronger brand relationships -- not merely to creating moments of engaging entertainment or works of irrelevant but impressive art. The agency's real passion cannot be winning the applause of industry insiders, movie directors, and art critics. It must be to forge and enhance the connections that emotionally bond customers to companies and that turn those connections into enduring customer relationships.

Second, advertising agencies must embrace the concept of multiple points of contact, recognizing that TV advertising is just one tool for conveying the brand promise. Publicity, sponsorships, Web sites, call centers, store design, product placement, product packaging, and even "people" packaging -- all may contribute measurably to building a brand. As Ries and Ries have claimed, and as Gallup research has shown, traditional TV advertising may not be a company's most important communications tool. The ad agency's focus simply cannot be on attempting to command ever-larger shares of the company's communications and marketing budgets.

Third, agencies must recognize that advertising is neither the outcome nor the objective. Advertising's job is to set the stage for an actual customer experience. Then, the company's performance, the quality and consistency of its products, and its human brand ambassadors will determine the company's sustainable growth and enduring success. There is absolutely no value in making a brand promise, however memorable it might be, if a company cannot or will not keep it.

If ad agencies want to regain their position as valued contributors to a company's success, then they must also help their clients focus on promise delivery. If agencies only care about making the promise and not about helping ensure that the promise will be kept, then they are shirking their brand-building job. It is, after all, the synergy between promise and performance that represents ultimate success -- and that's true for the agency and the client.

Simple? Hardly. Achievable? Maybe. Essential? Indubitably.

William J. McEwen, Ph.D., is the author of Married to the Brand.

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