Newspaper Advertising: A search for simplicity

Ed Morris, the executive creative director at Lowe, trawls through a month's supply of newspapers and gives his verdict on the standard of brand advertising on exhibition.

Flicking through my diary of notes made during October 2006, a few thoughts stand out.

It's all small, tactical and generally very similar. The tabloids are a daily battleground for price and discount, which is one reason I don't read them. Sofa, tyre, holiday and insurance companies all contribute to an ignorable hum. However big your starburst, it'll never pull the eye from a pair of knockers or a pop star's crotch. It's a tough battle. Even in the broadsheets, brand advertising is almost non-existent.

Generally, there are a lot of requirements being fulfilled, but there's very little sense of purpose. There are many brands advertising out there, yet there is very little brand advertising.

Looking through October's national newspapers for examples to demonstrate "best practise for brand advertising in the press" isn't an easy job. Which, in itself, says a lot. There are some exceptions. But generally, what looks good, does so for a lack of anything that really leads the way.

A campaign for Virgin Trains was fairly consistent throughout the month and stood out just because it was all red, fairly uncluttered and carried the line: "Valuable thinking time." Several executions built on this thought over the weeks. A theme that builds was rare enough in itself.

Perhaps a better brand campaign might have been based upon the slightly underplayed line beneath its logo: "Love every second." This less logical and broader thought could help me view the brand from a bit more of an emotive perspective. My overall perception of Virgin as a brand and an advertiser is a good one, though. I like them and I feel I understand what they are all about without having to think too hard.

I think that "brand" is the publicly owned emotional encapsulation of the DNA of a company. A bit of a mouthful, but there you go.

I also believe that "brand" is a generalisation. It's a bitesize chunk of information that helps consumers to differentiate and make choices at a broad level. Brand advertising should communicate on a broad level. That doesn't mean sticking it on TV; it means giving some scale to the thinking. Scale in thinking can be communicated well across any media. Looking through this press work, I've noticed how those thinking small and communicating small things in the press are usually the same ones doing it on TV, too. There must be some kind of think-big phobia among clients and agencies. Whoever has the guts to do it and run with it will surely stand out.

Sorry to bang on, but there is just very little pure brand advertising in the press today. When I think of great brand ads brought to life in any media other than TV over the years, I think of The Economist work. I think of Volkswagen's old "if only everything was as reliable as a Volkswagen" campaign, brought to life brilliantly in the press. I think of Abbott Mead's wonderful press work for Volvo before it mainly advertised on TV. There was a real scale to the thinking and the writing in these campaigns that you see very little of these days.

October's broadsheets included ads for Marks & Spencer, Gucci, Chrysler, SEAT and Volvo. All big brands that should really be saying bigger things. Instead, I get told about a new scent, a new braking system, etc.

Brand advertising should be a game of personality, fame and, ultimately, love. An overriding mandatory on every brief for any brand might be "love me". Whether it's love me for my allure, intrigue, innovation, power, cheek, simplicity, wit or whatever - it's always "love me". When I look at an ad, I ask myself, does it make me love the brand more? To be loved, you've got to do more than communicate information. You've got to be charming, witty, warm, inspiring. There are a lot of requirements being fulfilled, but very little sense of purpose. I don't know who these brands are as personalities - I don't know what they stand for.

Vauxhall is advertising the new Astra VXR and BMW the new X3. Is it model or brand advertising? There's ITV1 announcing the new series with Trinny and Susannah, and easyJet telling me I can fly to Geneva from £22.99. Is this brand or announcement advertising? I know TV channels define the brand through the programming, but that doesn't make for great advertising. They could do it with a bit more personality; a bit more flair.

O2 tells me about free calls on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. Pretty good stuff, but is this brand advertising? I'm not knocking it, or saying there should be brand-only messages. These tactical ads, model launches and programme announcements obviously have their place. Certainly in the case of O2, there is a strong consistency with the TV when it comes to the look.

My issue is that in too many cases, there isn't enough of the brand in the ad. It's all a little too short term. I think you can tick both boxes in an execution. A strong tone of voice helps. Congruent brand behaviour is also a plus. Telling me your premium on TV, then offering me half-price discounts in the tabloids is confusing and waters down the brand.

There were some Dyson ads that looked every bit as distinctive as the machines themselves - that's great branding on one level. I don't even have to read the ad to get a strong peripheral message. I think peripheral impact is an under-used phenomenon, especially in today's clutter, when people are so reticent and generally too tired to focus.

Some ads from Barclays tell me of three different rates on their Barclaycard, but it doesn't seem to have any synergy with the TV work. It has no scale of its own, and it fails to feed off the big stuff when it comes to branding. I'm struggling to love it. The Muller work is clear and quite distinctive. "Lead a Muller life" is a good brand line. At least it has some scale and is broad enough to sit under a range of different product offerings. Even if I'm flicking through, "Lead a Muller life" is a bitesize message that in itself helps the brand.

Renault takes a double-page spread in The Daily Telegraph to tell me that it puts back into the road what it achieves on the track. Is this brand advertising or is this just a brand telling me about itself? I'm already too bored with it to even consider the argument.

Walt Disney said his mission was to entertain in the hope that he educates, as opposed to the other way around (which doesn't work, unless you punish people for not paying attention, like they did at school).

I think entertaining in the hope that you educate should apply to advertising. In fact, it should apply to anyone trying to impart any information. I certainly share the political views of more comedians than I do politicians. Too many brands and too much of the advertising I have seen in the papers over the past month is overly concerned with what it wants to tell the punter. It should be more concerned with what the punter's prepared to listen to.

I don't think you can create a brand by saying what you like. You can only hope to stimulate or manipulate response. Brands are created in the hearts of the consumer by the consumer. They own you.

Tesco's work still stands out for its uncluttered simplicity and the brand's strong tone of voice (Bernbach grown up in Godalming) that breathes through even the smallest tactical press work. However tactical or temporary, the message makes me grin and rewards me in some small way.

I trust Tesco for this, and it helps me believe in them as a brand. Which brings me to another point. I think a brand is a good brand and helping its branding to the full when what it thinks, says and does are the same thing. Two brands that do this are Apple and Nike. In a small-space ad, there is a joint message; a line under a pack shot reads: "Tune your run." It manages to stay simple.

After looking at many ads over the past month, that's the one piece of advice that takes the lead. Keep it simple. A cluttered ad just challenges the reader in a way that's far too demanding given today's barrage of messages.

I know it's advice we've all heard before, but we should keep reminding ourselves. However big or great your brand, and however clever your thinking or fascinating or relevant your message, being simple enough to invite the eye and uncluttered enough to be able to read has to be, above all, the one thing to remember.

Well, that's October's press for you. By the time you read this article, you'll no doubt feel like you've been dragged head-first through the barrage of noise and clutter the world around us delivers in the build-up to Christmas. Put it all behind you. I'm putting my port away and opening up an innocent smoothie. I'm going back to work inspired to write some real brand ads.