This tip has been on my mind for a couple weeks now. I started thinking about it after I received the second of three similar calls over a two-week period. For some reason things happen in threes and apparently so does ineffective advertising, who knew?

In each case the problem the brand or market research manager called to discuss were pretty similar. They each had been qualitatively testing some new ad concepts, but the responses they were getting from customers were poor. Not just “not great”, I mean really poor. No real connection, nothing differentiating, they weren’t getting the central idea the team were hoping the ads conveyed, they were basically missing on all the core measurements you look for in traditional ad concept research.

The intention of this PositioningTip is not to discuss qualitative research techniques and which measures should be used to determine the impact of a new ad concept. Instead, the purpose of this Tip is to discuss what happened a step or two earlier in the process. This is just a brief look at a one of two examples where ad concepts were missing the mark and a couple things for you to keep in mind if you’re faced with a similar problem.

In both of these cases the issue that seemed to be taking the concepts off track centered on how the positioning was interpreted and used to develop the creative brief. In both cases there were specific, fundamental problems within the brand positioning strategy that sent the ad concepts off course. Let’s take a look at just one of these here.

In this example, the brand is being studied for additional uses that will be available in the next few years. In order to gain a competitive advantage they wish to start setting the stage for these extended uses and begin shifting customer perceptions now in preparation.

Strategically the goal makes sense, yet after more than 5 rounds of creative concept development and 2 qualitative research starts, they are still unable to develop creative concepts that communicate the message they wish to get across or that engage the customer as fully as they’d like. It was at this point a team member felt they may be too close to the problem and asked me if I could take a look and give them an outsiders perspective.

After discussing the problem they were having, I wanted to see if there was anything in the guiding documents that may have been steering them in the wrong direction and that could be cleared up pretty easily. I asked for and reviewed the brand positioning strategy and the creative brief for the ad development to see if there was anything that may be getting them hung up. What I found were a couple issues, things that I’ve seen before and think many brands suffer from unwittingly.

First off, and probably the most problematic issue, was that both the positioning statement for the brand and the creative brief for this stage of execution were defining the problem to be resolved as an internal problem. The “need” as it was being defined was the problem the brand was having, but it was written in a way that made it feel like a customer problem. In my first read through it was easy to miss because the problem was described in a way that read and felt like a customer problem, but in scrutinizing it further, it became clear that it was really a definition of the problem the brand faced and not a customer “need” at all.

Obviously, this was a huge part of the problem they were having. If your customers don’t recognize a need or desire they have and are looking to resolve (a true need they have, not one we wish they had), your product will have no relevance to them. If it has no relevance it will create no interest and have zero opportunity to influence the perception those customers hold.

The second problem was associated with what we, as marketers, can expect from an ad. Ads are tactics, they are communication vehicles, and in the best case an ad communicates a single idea extremely well. An ad can shift the thinking of the reader and advance the brand’s strategic case. Like we discussed above, an ad can do neither of these things if it isn’t relevant to the customer and connected to a need or desire they have. Don’t get me wrong, an interesting image or a provocative headline may slow the reader down, but they quickly determine if the subject is relevant to them. If it’s not, they’re gone.

In this case, the objective of the ad was to resolve a problem and communicate the state of the brand that will not exist for several years. Not only is it a condition that isn’t identified by the target customer as being relevant, it is so far into the future that the customer cannot see the issue the brand is attempting to resolve even when it is explained to them.

Put another way, the perceptual change the ad is intending to effect is so steep and the idea so irrelevant to the customer at this time that it is all but impossible for the ad to be successful. Basically, the objective for the ad concepts was more than likely unachievable. In the best-case scenario, with a positioning strategy and creative brief that do not reflect the customer, the brand team may stumble upon a creative idea that nudges the customer toward their goal at the cost of significant advertising dollars. In the worst-case they will spend a huge amount of money and time in round after round of creative development and never achieve the result they’re looking for, wasting dollars that could be put toward other, more effective, tactics.

Keep these things in mind the next time you find yourself developing tactics that seem to be missing the mark. Ask yourself if what you’re attempting to achieve is clear and realistic? As I said earlier, this is not an isolated incident. If you are struggling to get customers engaged and get the right message across, step back a little and reassess the foundational strategies and documents guiding you forward, you’ll often find that the problem starts there.

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