Why Advertisers Still Don't Get It

It's time to remember that advertising needs brands more than the brands need advertising. A good product creates its own relationships

In the last month or so, the branding world has been buzzing about the merger of two wireless companies with different cultures, the resurrection of a dead man's body to sell popcorn, and the launch of a mobile phone by a company whose brand is known by the color white.

These stories about AT&T (T), Cingular, Orville Redenbacher, and Apple (AAPL) provide interesting and contrary cases of survival, all based on those brands' ability to build consumer relationships in an emotional way.

Take the case of the merging wireless brands. Wall Street and the financial community are truly excited—imagine the fees! In speaking to the business press, meanwhile, Cingular and AT&T executives focus on the financial impact the merger will have on the new company. They talk about "industry leadership," "great plans," and "investors' enthusiasm." In the same breath, they emphasize the biggest growth opportunity: the additional revenues generated by mobile advertising crammed into every corner of the consumer interaction.

Dominating Data

Where's the customer in all this? What about our privacy and our choice not to be hounded by brands we don't care about? Where's our benefit, beyond potentially lower costs? (And will that really filter through to the end user, anyhow?) The brand promise in this mega-merger is mostly opaque, and there's room to wonder what kind of benefit to consumers will be delivered by the management of those two generic stars. The missed opportunity is to use the media coverage of the merger to talk about consumer benefits.

People are the reason those companies exist and the key to their future success. Yet financial data dominate the dialogue, when the right brand message would increase loyalty and attract more users. AT&T and Cingular should focus less on the bottom line. The hysterical conversation about dropping the name Cingular is unnecessary, the focus should be on providing an inspiring future for people.

Inspiration is also missing from another recent campaign, this one from hot Miami ad agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky. No stranger to controversy, CPB has built its reputation on making advertising work in new media. It was one of the first companies to understand that people were spending more time in front of their computer screens than they were fast-forwarding through—let alone watching—commercials on TV.

Resurrecting Redenbacher

Remember the subservient chicken that reached millions of hamburger enthusiasts—as well as plain-folk looking for a good time online? Now, bizarrely, Crispin is stretching its famous formula for buzz to prop up Orville Redenbacher popcorn. The "chock full of popcorn" campaign revives quirky company-founder Orville Redenbacher, who died no less than 11 years ago. But here he is, in 2007, hawking his wares again.

The thinking behind the dramatic idea for this plain supermarket product was to create new appeal for the brand—and thus revive sales. It's a neat demonstration of how frustrated marketers are with the slow growth of their brands and how far they will go in their belief that advertising will solve the problem.

But for all the campaign buzz and blog-talk, nobody seems to care about Redenbacher's revival. One might even wonder if, by becoming the reborn star of his commercial, Orville might attract too much attention to himself and none to his product. The hype surrounding the communication might fail to draw new enthusiasm for the product itself. I wonder if this commercial isn't a sort of subconscious metaphor for how we keep propping up the lifeless tool of advertising, which is no longer the insipration it used to be.

Emotional Disconnect

Then, in the midst of all this brouhaha, Steve Jobs shows up. In his jeans and black turtleneck, he holds the MacWorld audience rapt with pure drama. Standing before his admirers he raises his hands, in his palm the product that within minutes will shake the world.

That presentation, better than any commercial and with a much leaner investment, shook an industry and sent people into the future. The product and the design were the message that brought the audience to a frenzy. The iPhone reached all corners of the world in a nanosecond. Of course, Cingular, Apple's partner at the launch, was barely present at the party.

When will we stop building brands that somehow provoke a sense of contempt for consumers? When will we stop trying to build brand-trust using desperate old tricks repackaged to fit a new format? It seems that the more emotionally disconnected brands are from their consumers, the more they feel they need to spend on advertising.

The combined ad budget for AT&T/Cingular is over $2 billion, a lot of cash for generic brands that can't buy even a sliver of Apple's irresistible connection to its audience. Apple's marketing budget for 2006, according to TNS Intelligence, was $155 million—a fraction of what companies spend without achieving the same result.

It's the Product, Stupid

Understanding what the consumers want and bringing solutions that will inspire them is the most powerful way to support any business strategy. Putting consumers and the product at the center of the equation is fundamental to a brand's success. Design then becomes the message and the advertising, as it's proof of a company's commitment to people and to innovation.

A relevant and well-designed product will make its way into the world, will be spun across the blogosphere, will be sought after and endorsed in the most emotional fashion as a reward. Indeed, advertising needs brands more than the brands need advertising. When the commercial becomes more popular than the product, you really have a problem—not least that it doesn't serve your brand long-term.

In Apple's strategy, the product is the message and the only topic of the conversation. Similarly, the new Target drug packaging is the most talked about idea in the retail world at the moment, while Absolut Vodka is its own super-model. You buy a BMW because it's a great experience. You wear Crocs because they make your feet happy, and you relish the culturally colorful American Apparel brand—the approach is valid for small and big companies.

Focus on the Experience

In an emotional economy, success is judged by a profound and indelible connection with people through sensory experiences. The challenge for CEOs, CMOs, and clients the world over is to remember what's at the soul of their brand: the credibility of a well-respected product and the passion of the culture behind it. Design is the expression of that culture and the link that will cause people to be irresistibly drawn to the brand. If your brand doesn't connect emotionally, you will have to rely on media or advertising hype, a short-term and risky proposition.

By forgetting to focus on the way your product will be experienced, and failing to respond to people's need to be stimulated, you fail their expectations. No amount of money can buy the media to fix a boring product, no PR message will work once you lose that trust. The best brands of all jam with their consumers to invent and imagine ideas designed for the future—ideas designed to revive the advertising impact and exponentially maximize your communication dollars.

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