When Your Ad Tactics Don't Fit Your Brand

It's a common mistake advertisers makefalling in love with a novel idea and force-fitting it (or not) to the overall strategy for their brand

In 2004, Oprah Winfrey made a big splash when she gave away a new car to every member of her studio audience. You probably have some memory of that event and the nearly 300 deliriously happy audience members. The giveaway was yet another feather in Oprah's cap (BusinessWeek.com, 12/23/04) and proved to be a brilliant brand builder for her. But do you recall the car company that was behind the promotion?

Probably not. If you said Pontiac, that's a good thing for GM (GM). And even if you didn't, the monster publicity the stunt received at the time may indeed have justified GM's investment. Still, I can't help thinking it didn't do much to build the long-term value of the Pontiac brand. It's a classic case of what I call a tactic in search of a strategy.

I'm talking about the times an idea appears so cool or daring that it just cries out to be implemented. The times a company just wants to be on the cutting edge or jump into new waters. And the times when a salesperson comes along with the deal of the century and convinces you you'd be crazy to pass it up. In all of these cases, the temptation to rationalize can be powerful. But if the tactic doesn't enable you to make a differentiated and relevant point about your brand, it won't do you much good.

Ads That Make Children Cry

No marketer is immune to this syndrome. In 2002, Vodafone (VOD) sponsored two streakers who interrupted a rugby match in Sydney. Did the stunt get a lot of attention? You bet. (It also brought a big fine and a great deal of negative publicity.) Did it build the Vodafone brand? I'm not sure how.

Quizno's became infamous for a short time a few years back when it introduced a series of TV commercials starring singing "Spongmonkeys." The spots were certainly attention-getting, but the association of what appeared to be rodents and sub sandwiches is not what I would call smart strategy. One local newspaper in Denver, where Quizno's is based, cited a store manager who said her business dropped 20% to 30% while the spots were airing. She said one woman even stopped her in a store and told her the ads made her grandchildren cry.

So why did Quizno's hitch its brand to the Spongmonkeys' wagon? Apparently the commercials tested well in focus groups—that was their first mistake: See Beware the Advertising Pretest (BusinessWeek.com, 12/7/07). But the idea originated out of a cult following that a London artist had developed for his cute little creatures. Somebody fell in love with this "tactic" and force-fit it to Quizno's. One person on YouTube summed it up best, "As much as I love this commercial (which I do…it's hilarious!), I don't ever want to eat at Quizno's. Eew."

Marketing isn't just about creating impressions or getting attention. To be truly effective, the visibility your brand generates should be relevant within the surrounding context. Wonder Bread's (IBC) product placement in Will Ferrell's Talladega Nights movie makes sense; Perrier's (NSRGY), not so much.

When you're faced with a new tactical opportunity, no matter how exciting it appears, you should run it through the filter of your overall brand strategy. If it's consistent, it may be a good opportunity to generate additional, relevant exposure. If not, you can find better uses for your money.

Generating attention is one thing. Generating relevant attention is what really matters. As Hans Straberg, chief executive of Electrolux (ELUZF), put it, "It's very difficult to win people over just because your products are known." Put strategy first, and make sure every tactic you pursue serves the bigger picture. You may disappoint some aggressive salespeople, but your brand will love you for it.

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