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Learning To Sell The Sizzle And The Sell

by Alf Nucifora

A night in front of the television set will confirm the fact that there's a lot of advertising out there that creates brand imagery and does a good job entertaining the viewer. Unfortunately, much of it does very little in the way of persuading the consumer to buy. Quite the opposite happens when one opens the mail and confronts the inevitable tsunami of direct mail cards, catalogs and direct response letters each screaming offers too important to be missed or discounts too big to be ignored. While these messages serve their purpose of provoking the reader to clip out the coupon, pick up the phone, go online or get in the car to visit the store, they rarely go out of their way to aggressively communicate a supportive brand message. It seems that direct response and traditional brand advertising dwell in parallel universes, tenants in the same apartment building, rarely acknowledging each other, with the exception of an occasional nod when meeting in the lobby or at the mailbox.

The reasons for this disconnect are somewhat obvious. Direct marketers, as a breed, are driven by the numbers, e.g., coupon redemption rates, web site hits, etc. There's little cognizance on their part of the need to develop the brand, an essentially immeasurable process in a playing field where measurability is everything. The opposite applies in the world of the mainstream advertising where accountability is acknowledged but handed off as the responsibility of others, the argument being that if the brand development job is done the right way, and given time to work its magic, sales will inevitably follow. It's the old "hearts and minds" mantra applied to the world of brand commerce.

The observations are affirmed by Larry Rowen, a principal in the firm of RowenWarren, a full-service marketing and creative agency that positions itself as "combining the art of branding with the science of direct response". Says Rowen, a highly-experienced direct marketer who has worked on successful direct response campaigns for People, ESPN and Sports Illustrated, "The truth is, what makes it so hard to combine the two disciplines is that they're appealing to completely opposite sides of the brain: the brander seeks a passive, non-critical response that lingers in the subconscious mind, while the direct response marketer seeks a critically-evaluative, active response that leads to immediate action."

While Rowen understandably points with pride to direct response campaigns gestated by his own agency for clients such as Chivas Regal and Time Warner, the reality is that few marketers are able to straddle the fence with much success. American Express appears to be an exception to the rule, successful at creating a lasting brand impression with traditional television and print support, while at the same time mounting an impressive direct response assault that is unremitting in its goal of putting an American Express credit card in the wallets and purses of every American, as long as he/she possesses the requisite good credit standing.

What's an adperson to do?

For traditional ad practitioners the writing is on the wall. The marketing marketplace is demanding ROI on marketing dollars and applying pressure to marketing managers to deliver the numbers and the goods. The challenge starts with the board, which hands it over to the CEO, who passes it to the line manager, who delivers it to the head of marketing. Plainly there is now a growing demand for the marketing function to justify its budget, or else! As Dr. Peter Sealey, Adjunct Professor of Marketing at the Haas Business School at University of Claifornia-Berkeley notes, "I was sitting with the CEO of a large automotive company and he said to me, 'My manufacturing people come to me and say 'our competitor makes an automatic transmission for $800 and we can make one for $700'. I say, 'fantastic, great job!' My advertising people come in two minutes later and say 'our competitor is spending $800 per car on advertising and we're spending $700we need to increase our advertising to $800.' What's wrong with the construct? What's wrong is that advertising is not accountable".

The growing choice of media now available to consumers, much of it internet-driven, has also added fuel to accountability fire. Quantifiable web activity, Google search word measurement and other "rich" media vehicles have now become narcotics for the advertiser, who up to now, had to rely upon estimates, and the soothing reassurance of their ad advisors when committing to advertising spending. With "people meters" about to provide a more honest and accurate measurement of television viewing habits, and IPTV, which will provide internet addressability on the family television screen, just around the corner, advertising and marketing accountability will become the mandate that drive every advertising strategy and action.

In Rowen's view, the brand is the emotional construct that drives all else, including the lowly direct mail post card as well as the expensive Super Bowl television spot. From a technology viewpoint, whether it's a web site ad banner or as will soon be the case, a viewable cell phone ad message, he exhorts marketers to find out how to capitalize on the technology to deliver the brand psyche. Notes Rowen, "The brand can be a user experience, as in music or video on a cell phone. It doesn't just have to be pretty pictures".

As one would expect from a direct marketer, Rowen stresses that it is important to get measurable results from every ad message. But he also acknowledges that there should never be a neutral contact between the customer and the brand. "At every touch point", says Rowen, "brand imagery must be reinforced". That means that interaction, transaction and communication between brand and consumer must project and deliver excitement, emotional appeal and consistency of brand imagery. And that includes the most mundane and ritualistic of communications, the hard-working direct mail appeal.

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