The Seinfeld Principle for Advertising

For a successful campaign, commit to unfolding the identity of your brand over time and don't ask any one ad to do too much

On July 5, 1989, a seminal event in TV took place—without anybody knowing it. That was the evening that a new program called The Seinfeld Chronicles premiered on NBC. The audience response? Tepid, at best.

NBC wasn't quite sure what to do with Seinfeld, and it waffled. The program was then offered to Fox, which took a pass. Seinfeld would have died prematurely, but for one senior executive at NBC who believed in it enough to fight for the funding to develop the next four episodes. The network gave the new installments a chance—and Seinfeld went on to win 10 Emmy Awards and become, according to a 2002 TV Guide poll, the No. 1 TV series of all time.

What does a TV sitcom have to do with advertising? More than you might think. Like great advertising, Seinfeld was successful because it was different. It wasn't built around the TV family cliché. It didn't have a multi-generational cast. It was—famously—about nothing. Seinfeld simply made people laugh about ordinary life.

Late Bloomers

But because Seinfeld was so different, it took time to take root in people's minds. They didn't get it at first. The show was a rare breakthrough of creativity that was given the time it needed to develop (Seinfeld didn't even crack the top 30 in the Neilsen ratings until its fourth season).

Anything truly creative is, by definition, new. And new things are often different. Advertisers must be careful not to draw conclusions too soon after they launch their fledgling campaigns. If they expect their advertising to perform like a blockbuster movie, generating box office records on opening weekend, they are likely to be disappointed. Sure, some creative efforts break out immediately, but others take time to develop. And those that develop more slowly can have a great impact at a fraction of the cost (think Napoleon Dynamite and My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

In the past two decades Burger King (BK) has had eight different advertising agencies and at least as many campaigns. Think of the incredible inefficiencies they absorb as they roll out an all-new nationwide campaign every two years or so. Or consider CareerBuilder, the leading Internet job search engine.

Out of the Box

CareerBuilder recently announced it was looking for a new advertising agency despite the tremendous success they've enjoyed for the past three years with their current firm, Cramer-Krasselt. C-K created the famous "I work with a bunch of monkeys" campaign which, according to agency Chief Executive Officer Peter Krivkovich, helped increase the company's annual revenues sevenfold and make it No. 1 in its field in market share.

The agency's mistake? Taking a creative risk. During the Super Bowl, Cramer-Krasselt launched an evolution of the CareerBuilder campaign that maintained its slapstick sense of humor, but added some complexity and nuance (you can't get much less nuanced than monkeys).

Unfortunately, the new commercials didn't crack the top 10 in USA Today's Ad Meter, a poll of 238 people conducted after the Super Bowl. The next thing the agency knew, CareerBuilder was inviting other firms to pitch. It was a sudden, and stunning, decision. As Advertising Age's Bob Garfield put it, this is something like shutting down Butterball because someone in Indiana said the Thanksgiving turkey was dry.

Patience Can Pay Off

The Thanksgiving metaphor is a propos. Good advertising, like good food, can take time to cook. A few years ago, my company conducted a study among growing companies that revealed some insights about advertising consistency. We found that the average age of advertising campaigns was 2.3 years. Companies that were struggling had campaigns with shorter tenures.

In fact, 60% of companies who reported slowed or stalled growth had a campaign in the marketplace for less than two years, and nearly half had a campaign that hadn't yet reached its first birthday. The implication? Struggling companies struggle because, among other things, they change their advertising too quickly based on unrealistic expectations.

A lot of advertising concepts are tested in focus groups. It's not uncommon for people in these groups to say something like "I like the ad, but it doesn't make me want to go out and buy the product." Of course it doesn't. Think about how you respond to advertising as a consumer. Do you ever feel compelled to rush out and buy something simply because you saw it advertised? Sure, infomercials work for Hits of the '70s and exercise videos, but most advertisers recognize the downside to a strategy of immediate gratification through emotional arm-twisting.

Be True to Your Brand

It can take a while for an advertising idea to sink it. People have to be exposed to the message over time, and they have to come to a point where their awareness of the product and trust in the brand align with their needs and natural purchase cycle. And that happens on their schedule, not ours. Smart advertisers know that success over time is a marathon, not a sprint.

As long as it's true to your brand, advertising that's creative (and therefore different) should be given the chance to develop. It helps if you think of each ad not as 30 seconds of airtime, a quarter page in a magazine, or a banner on a Web site, but as an episode of a TV series. Each execution develops an element of your story in a continuing saga that builds identification and affection over time. If you change direction too rapidly, it won't reflect well on your brand. And it will get very, very expensive.

Some Seinfeld episodes were better than others. Some of your ads will be better than others—as measured by ad polls, Web site traffic, or other short-term metrics. But if you've done your homework and believe in your campaign, let it breathe a little. Let it sink in. Let it grow up and find its voice. You'll be much more likely to build brand equity over time by making slow, deliberate improvements to your advertising rather than herky-jerky changes.

Not even a hit series is a hit every night. Commit to unfolding the story of your brand over time, and don't ask any one ad to do too much. You still may hit on an occasional blockbuster, but you will also be more likely to develop a storyline that will keep people tuned in.

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