• Audi


  • JD


  • Red Bull

    Red Bull

  • Durex



A view from Alex Smith

Why it's time for less argument and more service in advertising

Constantly thinking up smart ways to try to convince people your product is great is exhausting for brands, agencies and also consumers. But there is another way, says Alex Smith, planning director at marketing agency Sense.

Hard to believe sometimes, but advertising is actually a service.

That sounds hopelessly quaint, doesn’t it? In between agencies’ fantasies of working in the entertainment industry, and brands’ desire for ever higher profits, we sometimes forget the silent partner at the table – the humble consumer.

For them, advertising is not where they turn for whimsy and ‘engagement’ (believe it or not, there’s actually a whole media industry out there devoted to just that, and which doesn’t have to flog products while they do so), and they also couldn’t give a hoot how healthy ‘x’ company’s bank balance is. Their needs are more simple: "Inform me of the things out there that will enrich my life."

Creating ‘service’ ads that achieve this – ads that people find useful – is quite tricky to deliver, however, for the simple reason that by definition they require a product that people actually need or want.

Take, for example, a concert or festival poster:

Kylie’s provocative sprawl notwithstanding, these ads aren’t really trying to sell you their products, they’re just informing you that they exist. If you’re interested then great, you can now buy tickets, but if you’re not interested that’s OK too, we’re not going to try to convince you. These are ‘informative ads’ – here’s the product, take it or leave it.

Sadly, however, most products we deal with don’t sell themselves. You can’t advertise a new chocolate bar, say, by just putting pictures of it about the place and expecting people to buy it. Why would they? There are plenty of other chocolate bars to choose from.

In these cases, ads need to do more than inform. They need to argue. They need to expend resources and creativity convincing you to buy something that you wouldn’t have bought otherwise.

For instance:

Create something people want that is separate to your product, advertise it, and have your brand reap the dividends by association

Audi and Jack Daniels (see ads above) are two great products. But even so, they don’t sell themselves, they still need great creative advertising to win in the market, and so that’s what they have. It’s just a shame, from a consumer’s point of view, that so much of our life is taken up by being argued at by advertising, rather than simply being served by it.

But there is a third way.

Today, the inspired brands are realising that you can make informative, service-driven advertising even for generic products. Even if you’re just selling yet another chocolate bar, you can deliver information to people that they’ll be excited and grateful to receive, and that is through using a combination of the two approaches: create something people want that is separate to your product, advertise it, and have your brand reap the dividends by association.

Red Bull, for example, uses this approach almost exclusively:

Rather than advertising its (generic) core product, the brand creates inherently desirable properties and pushes them instead. In this way consumers are always being delivered something exciting and fresh (a service), while the brand is quietly building equity in the background.

Red Bull Starflight

You may be familiar with the idealistic industry mantra ‘make things people want, rather than making people want things’. Fuzzy as that may seem at first glance, it is actually highly practical advice, as brands like Red Bull constantly remind us.

Another example was Durex’s Earth Hour:

Durex condoms – in raw essence another unremarkable generic product, at least from the punter’s point of view – created something that people would want to hear about, and let that be the focus of their advertising, rather than their core brand. In doing so they made their ads useful, and by proxy built great warmth for the wider company.

Durex Earth hour

Asking the simple question: "Is this ad an informative service, or an arbitrary argument," is a great litmus test for relevance in the modern media landscape. If you’ve got an amazing product, or a killer USP, then great, you’ll have no problems. But as the Red Bulls and Durexes have shown, absence of these factors is no excuse. You can still make people excited about what you’ve got to tell them… even if you have to take the long way round and build something new.