A new book by marketing guru Al Ries and his daughter, Laura, advances the perplexing premise that advertising lacks credibility and is no longer effective as a brandbuilding tactic. The book is titled The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR and it's packed with several real-world examples and thought-provoking suppositions.
According to Ries and Ries, marketers who wish to launch new brands now need to employ public relations strategies and leverage the inherent newsworthiness of new products and services in order to be successful. If your new brand doesn't have any apparent news value, you should either dig deeper or seriously reconsider whether it's needed in the marketplace.
One of their core messages is that advertising has lost its functional value as a marketing tool and is now largely an art form – which explains all those TV commercials that make you laugh or say, "Wow, that was really neat," but five minutes later you can't remember the ad sponsors.
In the b-to-b world, I've been railing for years against the use of sophomoric humor, lame headlines and visuals, and abstract computer effects vis-a-vis strong selling propositions. Even worse are ads done by amateurs who would rather play with new layout software than do the marketing or sales jobs they were hired to do.
Like the book's authors, I doubt many ad agency creatives have ever had to actually sell anything in real life. These young turks have turned the word "creativity" into a test of impact generation, entertainment holding power and award-winning ability.
Benton & Bowles used to have the slogan, "It's not creative unless it sells." Now the saying should be, "It's not creative unless it wins a Gold Lion at Cannes."
This kind of advertising is referred to in the book as fishing without a hook: Prospects pick up the bait but never get hooked on the brand. The Rieses cite numerous famous advertising campaigns that generated awareness and won recognition for the advertiser but failed to help increase sales (Eveready's Bunny, Taco Bell's Chihuahua, Chevy's Heartbeat of America, Alka-Seltzer's "Mamma Mia").
Public relations, on the other hand, is more effective because it is "news." Whereas advertising is generally regarded as propaganda, stories written by third-party editors and reporters are viewed by readers as helpful and real. We're naturally skeptical of ads, and we tend to tune them out. News items, however, are scrutinized carefully and often clipped and sent to friends.
Our frame of mind when reading a review of some new product or service is totally different, because we know if the reviewer encountered problems, the article would reflect that. When we read an ad, we suspect we're only getting part of the story and therefore, we take it with a grain of salt.
The Rieses remind us of the Aesop's fable in which the Sun and the Wind were arguing over who was strongest. They decided to settle the issue by seeing who could cause a traveler to remove his coat first. The harder the Wind blew, the more the traveler wrapped his coat around him. But when the Sun began to shine, the traveler felt its warmth and quickly removed his coat.
The moral of this fable is you can't force your way into a prospect's mind. Advertising is intrusive and unwelcome. The more we bombard people with advertising, the harder they resist. Essentially, PR is the Sun: If the subject is of interest to us, we open up and welcome it in.
The one bright spot for advertising people in the Rieses' book is that brands eventually run out of publicity potential. When brands are new, exciting and different, editors want to write about them. As brands mature, however, they become old, boring and similar to other brands.
That's when advertising can step in and help remind customers why the brand was desirable in the first place. But the ad agency should be careful not to tamper with the brand personality that has been created through publicity. This is not a time for totally new approaches, but it doesn't have to be dull and boring either. "Reminder advertising can be," the authors say, "clever, interesting, provocative, entertaining, exciting, dramatic, well-- written, well-acted and well-produced. In short, everything you could want in an advertising message, except creativity" (the hookless variety).
By using PR first to build the brand, and then shifting to media advertising as the brand matures, marketers can save a lot of money, too. The traditional argument in favor of line extensions (it costs too much to introduce a new brand name) becomes moot.
Besides, as Ries has suggested in many of his previous books, line extensions weaken and confuse the brand image. You know what to expect with Kodak film; you're not sure what to expect with Kodak digital cameras. Marketers who are considering putting an established brand name on a new product should think not only about what that does to customer expectations, but also what it does to the PR potential of the new product. If an editor or producer fails to see the newsworthy angle, you've done yourself a huge disservice.
One interesting postscript in the Rieses' book is their comment about whether or not PR people are ready to accept the brandbuilding challenge. Many PR professionals (and their associations) still see public relations as a discipline that focuses on issues, public opinion and social trends. They see branding as something the marketing department does.
This, coupled with the fact that nine of the 10 largest U.S. PR firms are owned by advertising conglomerates, means that advertising people are not going to concede their brand image role easily. It shapes up to be a classic struggle for supremacy.