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Monday, November 5, 2012



It seems there is always a tendency to divide the world into pairs: states are either red or blue; people are either pro-life or pro-choice; market research says there are two types of moms—alpha and beta; the glass is either half-full or half-empty. Of course, we know that such simple divisions are typically over-simplifications. They hide many gradations of people, places, and things.


So the title of this week’s DISPATCHES runs the risk of yet another over-simplification. And yet, stepping back and taking a very broad view of the world of advertising, it’s sometimes hard not to conclude that, in general, there really are two kinds out there: the kind that focuses on the product (and its performance), and the kind that focuses on the intended user (and his or her connection with the brand). Sometimes, you’ll hear experienced agency people speak of these two kinds more succinctly: “This advertising is all about the product; that advertising is all about the target.”  It’s a safe bet that the former represents the earliest kind of advertising—when it was essential and sufficient to merely tell would-be prospects what the product did and why its performance was better than others. It’s harder to say when, precisely, the second kind of advertising got going.


From the early 1900’s well into the 1960’s, the majority of ad campaigns were product-driven: for example, “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”  Even early cigarette advertising focused mainly on product promises: “20,679 Physicians Say Luckies Are Less Irritating,” and “Not One Single Case of Throat Irritation Due to Smoking Camels.” But somewhere along the way brands began experimenting with a migration away from extolling only what the product does to celebrating what kind of person uses it. 


We know that the legendary “Marlboro Man” campaign promised a product with great flavor—“Come to where the flavor is.” But it was also, from the very beginning, even more about what kind of man (or woman) smoked Marlboro.   Even Bill Bernbach’s famous VW Beetle work evolved from being all about the product (“Think Small”) to campaigns that consciously understated the product in favor of the driver. The “Drivers Wanted” campaign, while continuing to visualize the iconic Beetle design, was purposefully geared to attract a unique target. In Design Secrets: Advertising, edited by Lisa Hickey, this is how some of the original creative team describe the “Drivers Wanted” idea: “We realized there was a secret tribe of people who knew about Volkswagen; they had an educated, liberal arts orientation and were into individual sports such as skiing and biking. They were the Patagonia crowd…(VW Beetle) drivers were a club for people who didn’t join clubs.”


But, enough advertising history. Why the interest now in advertising that focuses more on the user, on the target, than it does on the product? We think there are a number of conditions or trends that have been underway for some time now, all of which make moving towards advertising that is more about the user a more promising option than advertising that is more (or all) about the product:


1. Disappearing Differentiation—If we’re really honest about the performances of most of today’s leading-brand or “evoked set” products, we’ll admit that they deliver pretty much equally well on their functional promise. In some cases, they may have a design feature or differentiated ingredient (temporarily) within them, but ultimately most end up being neutralized by competition. In other words, having and sustaining a meaningfully differentiated Benefit or Reason Why has become harder and harder to do. 


That’s why it makes more sense than ever to differentiate the brand’s Target, as in consciously selecting a market target-segment or two that (a) the brand can appeal to better than most competition, and/or (b) competition has overlooked, neglected to appeal to in any meaningful way. As we have discussed in these Dispatches many times, this is exactly what the MasterCard Brand and its agency did back in the mid-1990’s when, knowing there was no meaningful differentiation in the card itself, they consciously decided to make the brand’s advertising about the (enormous) credit card user segment that both Visa and American Express had forsaken: the “Credit Card Pragmatist.”


And let’s not forget that other more recent but highly successful campaign for Apple’s Mac: The PC & Mac Guys. While it’s true that each execution in this campaign typically promotes a differentiated Mac benefit or feature, there is no doubt that the most differentiating thrust of the communication is all about the dramatic difference between cool Mac users and nerdy PC ones.


2. Speaking Honestly—Despite, or more likely because of, the fact that almost no politician speaks plainly or truthfully these days, there has been a powerful trend emerging in some product categories: celebrating the call on BS. More specifically, for certain target-segments—like teenagers—who are constantly and mercilessly ridiculing the “phonies” out there, brands that realistically play back these same attitudes seem to connect in a stunning way…regardless of having no performance differentiation in their respective products. What better example is there than the U by Kotex Brand, especially via its on-line videos and advertising? While all other brands within san-pro continued their four-decades-old approach of white bathing suits and blue liquid demos, U by Kotex made their advertising all about the 13-17 year-old girl who has no time for such tired and dated BS. 


3. People-Engaging Media—One of the obvious side effects of all the media-sourcing devices and choices everyone has today is simply this: more and more interest in and time spent on people! Aren’t Facebook and twitter nothing more than people stories that continuously “loop”? The truth is that all of us, whether we’re sending photos of our kids or giving minute-by-minute updates on what we’re doing, are fostering an ever-expanding interest in people. It may be true that one can learn all about the Mini-Cooper’s performance and fashion accessories on the net, but nothing is more interesting these days than the people who love and drive it. Said another way, our new media world is daily pushing us to care more about who advocates a particular product than about all the reasons why they advocate it.




If you and your advertising agency team haven’t had the conversation in awhile, set aside some time to discuss the pro’s and con’s of target-focused advertising for the brand (i.e., advertising that’s “about the user”). We’ll bet that your agency already has some clients who are pursuing it, so there should be some ready models available to assess.


1. Get with your Marketing Intelligence/Market Research teammates and reassess what target segmentation data and learning the brand has…and how fresh it is. Even take the next step and ask, “How might we discover—the way McCann-Erickson and MasterCard did—an attractive segment of users that we could differentiate the brand effectively against?”


2.  At the very least, when you next begin creative development work with your agency, make sure they include some Campaign Idea approaches that center around the loyal (or potentially loyal) brand user.

Richard Czerniawski & Mike Maloney


Richard Czerniawski

430 Abbotsford Road

Kenilworth, Illinois 60043

tel 847.256.8820 fax 847.256.8847

reply to Richard: or



Mike Maloney

1506 West 13th

Austin, Texas 78703

tel 512.236.0971 fax 512.236.0972

reply to Mike: or

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