Action! What Action?

One of the most perplexing developments in B2B communications over the past several decades concerns something we refer to as the “call to action.” The perplexing development is that most ads today don’t have one.

In devising the call to action, you ask yourself, “what do we want the reader (or viewer) to do as a result of seeing our ad?” When I started in this business, it was the first thing you considered. Today, it scarcely receives a moment’s notice.

Our advertising forefathers must be spinning in their graves. One of the earliest books on our profession, titled “Scientific Advertising” by famed copywriter Claude Hopkins (published in 1923), was primarily about ways to optimize results from ad placements. Hopkins’ view was that advertising practitioners were like scientists, changing formulas to create the ultimate best result. A pinch more of this, a touch less of that, and voilà – the recipe for success is created.

Of course, the media options were pretty simple in 1923, but Hopkins advocated some fairly sophisticated techniques, such as split runs with optional headlines and visuals exposed to different segments of a publication’s circulation.

Another famous ad pioneer, David Ogilvy, started his career in research and was fascinated to observe which approaches worked better as he tried to figure out why. Marion Harper, former chairman of McCann-Erickson who created the first large ad agency network, Interpublic, rose to fame through that agency’s research department. Harper earned his spurs by creating metrics and defining characteristics for successful ads versus less successful ones.

The point of this is that early ads actually had a point. They were designed to achieve a specific result, and the better they were at doing that, the more successful they were judged to be. Today, it seems like running the ad is the point, and “log on to our website” is the only suggested action the reader is required to take.

Many years ago, I was privileged to speak at a Direct Marketing Association annual conference and take part in several of their seminars. You learn very quickly about the importance of “the offer” in direct marketing. They prioritize it. They maximize it. They obsess over it. Of all the possible enticements you could dangle in front of prospective buyers, what is the most likely to produce the desired result? That’s what direct marketers want to hit you with, right between the eyes. Nothing left to chance.

Think how much better B2B advertising would be if we did that, too. Instead of just saying “we’re the best,” we could present compelling reasons why prospects should truly believe that. What a concept!

No more ads that show the “full product line” without mention of why your line might have something extra to offer. No more borrowed interest headlines and visuals that imply you’re faster (race cars) or more reliable (sleep better tonight), or more multi-purpose (swiss army knives), or more innovative (light bulbs).

Instead of all that, we’d have to write a specific statement about why we think you should select us, and then come up with a visual concept to stop you from turning the page or scrolling down too quickly.

In my opinion, effective advertising should start with the end result in mind. Decide what action you’d like your prospective buyers to take, and then work back from there. The ad you end up with will probably be a lot different than the one you thought you were going to create.

Creating focused expectations

I’ve been thinking about brand personalities lately, especially ones for b-to-b companies. It’s really the essence of branding, because personalities lead to expectations and expectations lead to preference (or, in the case of a negative expectation, lack of preference). We have the opportunity to build a focused expectation with every ad we place, every web page we design and every tradeshow display we erect.

Unfortunately, many b-to-b companies have yet to pick up on this.

With most b-to-b advertisers, creative responsibility is pushed as far down in the company as possible, although marketing and sales managers still enjoy dabbling in the process. It’s like an exciting hobby, except they get paid to do it. The result is that advertising for Division A rarely conveys the same look and feel as ads for Division B or C. Because of this, customers fail to receive a focused impression of the company’s image. And that’s a serious mistake.

Caterpillar’s “One Voice” program is a great example of how to overcome this problem. You won’t find any dainty Caterpillar ads because daintiness doesn’t fit the Caterpillar voice. You won’t find any funny ones either, nor will you see eye-popping computer effects.

It’s not that Caterpillar doesn’t have a sense of humor or that their graphic designers don’t like special computer effects, but that they make conscious decisions not to use these techniques because they feel building a consistent personality for their brand is more important. Each ad reminds customers and prospective customers what they can expect from Caterpillar: strong, reliable products backed by serious, competent people.

IBM used to stand for business machines – boxes with complex computer stuff inside. But just about the time that personal computers started looking pretty much alike to computer buyers, IBM changed its image to that of a company that could help us do more with our boxes — like hook them up in huge networks, integrate enterprise software solutions and mine data for better decision-making. Our expectations of IBM have changed as a result.

I’m old enough to remember drilling for oil with truck-mounted drilling rigs that were essentially designed for shallow-depth water wells. You can’t do that anymore. Now you go down more than a mile just to get to the ocean floor and you drill several more miles before you reach pay dirt, assuming your geophysical information is correct.

That’s why Schlumberger, a leader in seismic and geophysical data services based in Houston, makes each and every one of its ads in oil-industry publications convey a serious, technologically advanced image. Its body copy is full of high-tech phrases like “microresistivity imaging” and “deep-water cementing for zonal isolation.” Layouts are always similar with the Schlumberger logo in white on a reflex blue background (which gives magazine production managers the heebie-jeebies, I’m told).

Schlumberger’s customers risk hundreds of millions of dollars on these subsea projects and the asset managers they’re trying to reach are not likely to settle for second-best. So in their world, either you look like the one-and-only right choice, or you’re no choice at all.

Having a deadly serious brand personality isn’t always the way to go, of course. New Pig Corp. based in Tipton, PA has built a $100 million business in spill-containment products by taking just the opposite approach. When you call the toll-free number (800-HOT-HOGS) or get ready to select something from their “Pigalog” of more than 5,000 leak and spill control products, you’re probably already smiling. New Pig has happily built a loyal, predictable customer base that shares a messy, disgusting problem: industrial seepage. And they’re smiling all the way to the bank.

So you see there are many ways to skin this cat, and there’s not any one right way to do it. .

If you’re going to spend the time and money to develop a brand image program, make sure you consider the personality aspects of it. Because your brand personality tells people what they can expect from you, and if they expect something good, you’re on the way to making a sale.

From Brand Hate to Brand Love

I just finished reading an article in FAST COMPANY about Ticketmaster, the World’s Most Hated Brand (July/August, 2011). And while that distinction is debatable, CEO Nathan Hubbard didn’t disagree with it very much. It seems that years of slow service and inflexible systems have generated strong consumer dislike for Ticketmaster.

“If Ticketmaster were a person,” one person tweeted, “I’d kick it in the f**king face.” And other stuff like that.

When you think about it, there are many hated brands out there. Who doesn’t have a horror story about the cable company or your wireless provider?

Banks are a popular subject of hatred these days, thanks to our multi-trillion dollar stimulus program that made them healthy and able to pay themselves huge bonuses again – while they turn their backs on small business owners who desperately need investment funds to expand and create jobs. I’m amused by Ally Bank’s ad campaign parodying abusive bank practices while they pretend to be different. Efforts like that usually only remind viewers how all banks are abhorrent.

Some brand hatred scenarios are temporary or limited to small segments of the population. I was recently surprised how many well-educated, financially successful people in my inner-city neighborhood rose as one to register their hatred for Wal-Mart when the retailing giant announced plans to locate a store not too far away.

And it’s easy for an otherwise respected company to become the subject of passionate, vitriolic loud and ugly protest when it makes an environmental false step. You don’t want to get the tree-huggers riled up.

So what should you do when you find your brand love turning into brand hate? Here are a few suggestions to help steer the ship back into safe harbor.

1. Quantify the problem

Do some basic research to find out how widespread the problems are, and hopefully identify the key issues. Don’t assume from anecdotal information that you know how deeply rooted the consumer issues are. Look for underlying causes and segment your study so you can determine if the problems are widespread or limited to certain groups.

If there are multiple problems, prioritize them and determine which ones need attention first.

2. Develop solutions

In some cases the solutions are obvious. You make a slow process faster. You give the buyer more options before they buy. You provide “insurance” if the buyer decides to back out.

For bigger issues, like those related to the environment, you provide facts that help people understand the whole picture. You make sure they know about things you are doing to minimize the impact or improve the quality of life for those affected.

Wal-Mart is dealing with their urban penetration problem with some creative new strategies involving smaller footprint stores with more attractive facades. From the 195,000 square foot Super Center behemoth, to the 42,000 SF Neighborhood Markets and the newer 15,000 SF “Marketside” concept stores emphasizing fresh foods, Wal-Mart is attempting to serve inner-city customers with smaller stores that stand out less obtrusively.

In other cases where the issues are more complex and solutions less obvious, you invite interested parties to participate in the discussion. You establish forums for open debate and sharing of ideas. You become transparent.

3. Spread the word

Once you’ve identified the problems and started the process of developing solutions, you get the word out that changes are underway. Everyone knew that’s what BP was doing after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but there’s no denying their television commercials helped soften the blow of negative opinion along the Gulf coast.

Social media has given millions of Twitter and Facebook users a platform to vent their unhappiness, but it also offers the opportunity to spread the news about service and facility improvements.

The worst thing a brand owner can do when faced with mounting negative attitudes is ignore the complaints. The old saying, “Their perception is your reality” applies more now than ever. If customers think you have a problem, you do. And the sooner you start fixing it, the better.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

When Claude Hopkins wrote his classic book, Scientific Advertising, in 1923, he was of the opinion that advertising was no longer a gamble. Because he had studied the cause and effect relationships of variables like copy, headlines, illustrations and typefaces, he felt the risk of advertising had been reduced so that it was “one of the safest of business ventures.”

Wouldn’t it be great if we felt that way today? Most businessmen these days are scared to death of advertising: it costs a lot of money and they’re not sure what they get in return.

Certainly there are infinitely more variables to worry about now than when Claude Hopkins plied his trade. Still, the primary point of his book is lost on today’s practitioner: learn from every effort so your next one is better.

Claude Hopkins was an incessant tinkerer, an advertising scientist of the first order. He wasn’t afraid to treat words, visual elements and even delivery vehicles as a chemist would treat variables in a lab. He played with them until he was convinced he knew the best combination for maximum results.

That’s exactly what we advertising and marketing communications professionals should be doing today. Several years ago, I wrote a column for Marketing News entitled, “Accountability is the name of the game.” It’s truer now than the day I wrote it.

Advertisers are demanding accountability. They want to know what they get for their money, and why they should be expected to budget large sums for future advertising programs. It’s up to us to tell them and, in general, we’re doing a lousy job.

It’s not entirely our fault, however. The advertiser has to help the agency in its quest for knowledge.

A few years ago, I had a client who was having a difficult time achieving breakeven for a product that should have been selling like pancakes. We couldn’t put our finger on the problem. Perhaps it was price point. We initially priced it at $15.00, but had reduced it below $10.00 without much improvement.

We wondered if the product, a disposable bacteria test kit, should be packaged individually, several to a package, or in bulk with all like components bagged together in an economy pack.

We had tried several introductory offers, like discounts, limited time offers, even one promising a free gift with every trial purchase. Nothing worked too well. The client’s top management was getting ready to pull the plug and we knew it. Patience was wearing thin, and we had to come up with the winning combination or all was lost.

We recommended a direct mail program to a data base of several thousand interested prospects that had been compiled from previous promotional efforts. We would vary the offer, even the way the product was packaged, in each “cell” and determine which one pulled best. Then we would use the winning combination to follow up with the other prospects to see if we could produce a steady, upward sales trend.

Unfortunately, the product manager wasn’t as concerned with finding the winning combination as we were. Despite the fact that our direct mail test would be very inexpensive (personalized letters and 2-color product flyers with business reply mail response cards), he had become infatuated with Swiss Army Knives, and wanted to offer one to all of his prospects.

We groaned, and proceeded to carry out the product’s death sentence. Six months later, the product manager was working in a fast food restaurant in Montana and we were minus one very promising account.

It doesn’t have to be like that, though. Direct response people know about experimentation. I’ve always admired and respected their discipline. Many years ago, I agreed to lead a workshop on creativity at the Direct Marketing Association’s annual conference thinking that direct marketers wouldn’t be all that interested in the subject. Imagine my surprise at the standing room only crowd. They soaked it up.

I came away from that experience convinced that direct marketers are looking at “creative” as the final ingredient in their recipe for success. They already know how to maximize the other variables.

But what about other media? Is it possible to experiment with trade publication advertising, for example?

Absolutely! And since trade publication advertising generally involves large chunks of an advertiser’s budget, it’s precisely the area in which you should concentrate first.

I spoke with John Emery and Gordon Hughes, past presidents of the American Business Press, in gathering information for this essay. Both pointed to the day when magazine publishing will collide with the information superhighway, creating all sorts of advertising experimentation possibilities. That day has now arrived.

For many years, publishers have been willing to work with large advertisers to run separate, “split run” ads in different geographic or demographic editions of their books. Computerization makes this much easier now, and for much finer circulation splits. Why emphasize “processing speed” to financial managers when “reducing costs” is what they’re interested in? Tell that to the engineers or plant managers.

What if you’re considering the appeal of several possible calls to action? Use split runs to test the pulling power of a product sample versus a packet of case histories versus a specialty item with your logo on it. One suggestion Emery made was to test various ad appeals with a sampling of a publication’s total audience by producing color laser prints of your ad with the three different appeals, then mailing them along with a cover letter asking readers to help you decide.

Tinker. Why be happy with one approach when you can test several? This is the chance you’ve been waiting for to test that stupid idea your boss keeps bringing up against your brilliant one.

And if the stupid one wins, look at it this way: at least the boss will be highly motivated to expand the program next year.

Ad management tips for the newly annointed

More and more companies these days are putting managers in charge of the advertising function who have little or no experience in that area. If you are one of these people, here are several important tips to guide your efforts.

1. You can’t save your way to success.

Because advertising is an expensive and sometimes frightening prospect for the uninitiated, many managers react by cutting back the level of activity. If times are really hard (like now, for example), they cut the program out altogether.

This is a simple fix, but not a proper one. Chances are, your competitors are experiencing difficulty, too. If everyone cuts back on promotional activities, it’s much easier for you to gain market share and maximize bottom-line results if you maintain an aggressive program.

And if competitors are not cutting back, you’ll get left in a cloud of dust. The goal is to use the marcom funds your company has allocated to best advantage. They’re of no help to people in the trenches if the funds are still a line item on your operating budget sheet.

2. Planning is good.

If you’re concerned about doing the wrong thing, an in-depth planning session can be just what the doctor ordered. Too many managers these days are inclined to look at planning as an unnecessary expense. They want to skip the planning step and get started right away on specific projects.

Spending a few dollars on planning makes all the other dollars go further. And it will alleviate your anxiety about investing large sums in things you don’t fully understand. The understanding will come with each program you undertake, but it does make it considerably more enjoyable if the first ones are targeted at the right market opportunities.

3. The agency is your partner.

Some first-time managers take a vendor/buyer or (even worse) adversarial posture with the advertising agency. I guess the thinking is you’ll get more out of them if they’re scared or reacting in a defensive manner.

Think about how you react to people who keep you at arm’s length, doling out limited information while making you think if this project falls short of their vaguely defined objectives, there probably won’t be another one.

Most agency people I know would work harder for someone who treats them like a partner, someone who shares confidential information, sets high expectations and gives them lots of encouragement along the way.

And it really is okay to tell the agency people they’re doing a good job, too. They’re not going to raise their rates.

4. The best price is generally not the low price.

Anytime I encounter a client who has received a very enticing low bid from another agency or supplier, I tell them I can do the job for less. Because I can. It’s easy in this business to cut corners and trim costs out of projects.

We can work with less expensive people, spend less time in each phase, rule out more expensive creative options, even skip steps altogether. You may not be totally thrilled with the results, but that’s what happens when we’re constrained by the prospects of losing money on a job.

You may be thinking, “but what about competitors who have different cost structures and are willing to put in more effort for the reduced budget?” And in some isolated cases, there are talented people who charge less for their time than the market will bear.

Eventually, however, most people who are good know it, and want to be paid accordingly. In no other occupation is the saying, “you get what you pay for” more true.

5. Remember the T.M.D. Rule.

There are three primary things that impact an agency’s ability to do good work in advertising and marketing communications: Time, Money and Direction. Lack of effort or attention in any of these three areas can doom a program before it begins.

Instead of demanding that a project be completed in an unreasonable timeframe, ask for a range from most expedient to normal to relaxed. If you really need the shortest time schedule, help them understand why, because they’ll have to justify pushing aside other projects in order to accommodate your deadline request.

Setting budgets is particularly difficult for managers who have no experience in this area. The agency probably has historical records of project costs, and can furnish these on request for projects similar to the ones you have in mind.

The way to get more for your money is to set a reasonable budget, and then demand that the agency “knock your socks off” with creative concepts that will make your program stand out.

And don’t forget to provide proper direction. The closer your agency partners are to the nitty-gritty of “how” and “why” your product or service is good, the better their efforts are going to be. They’re visual people, so it really does pay dividends to paint them pictures: provide diagrams, photos, take them on lab or plant tours, even let them ride with salespeople or attend marketing sessions where selling strategy is being discussed.

You never know where or when a truly breakthrough idea is going to pop up. And the agency’s different perspective can find one that’s hiding amidst a forest of mundane points, invisible to those of you who wander through the trees every day.

6. Continuity is important.

Many new managers think they have to throw out everything that’s been done in the past, and put their stamp on a totally new program. And this may be the right decision in some cases.

In many others, however, it’s better to fine-tune the ongoing programs because their messages are only just beginning to sink in with customers and prospects. You can add value by re-focusing the program objectives and pressing for better execution in most cases.

These suggestions are not a panacea, but they will help you get your feet on the ground quicker and off to a better start with less anxiety. Advertising is the single most powerful tool at your disposal if you learn to use it properly.