Advertising Campaigns Are Dead: Brand Story Is The New Big Idea

When working as a creative in the advertising business we were obsessed with finding the Big Idea. We wanted that great campaign with the clever tagline that everyone would talk about, hand awards to, and of course make the cash register ring. This catch phrase was even turned into the CNBC talk show The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch.

The big idea was about running 6 month or annual advertising campaigns with three print ads, a radio spot, some banner ads and a couple billboards, etc. Soon enough the ad agency or brand manager or CEO would grow tired of the campaign and we would step up to bat and try to hit another one out of the park. Big ideas were tidy mini stories told in a series of well crafted and finely controlled media executions. And stories in advertising are powerful as my recent research on Super Bowl ads has proven.

We were creating integrated campaigns with digital and social media, but social wasn’t as mainstream as it is today. As of September 2013, 73% of online adults use social networking sites. Fully 40% of cell phone owners use a social networking site on their phone.

Because social media is so big today I think the big idea has to be different. In social media there are so many individual executions being created daily, by brands and their consumers, we need a brand story that doesn’t start or end, but evolves and is co-created over time through interaction with customers.

But to do this you need to know what that core story is first and have a solid social media policy in place, because you will have more than one brand story teller versus the traditional advertising copywriter and art director. Now we engage our customers in conversation. John Miller hit upon this in a recent Inc. article.

What do you think? Is the traditional advertising campaign idea dead? Don’t get me wrong, you still need a big idea and creativity. It’s just not such a tidy process. In a way, your ideas must be even bigger and more flexible to include trends and consumer comments and content.

In terms of social media and story telling, brands need to get out of the campaign mindset and start living out a bigger story on a daily basis.

Failed Test? Try An Ethnographic Study

Most marketers run various tests to before making decisions on new products, packaging, media mix, media levels, creative messaging, etc. Testing is good, but we must also remember that you can’t test everything. How many great product ideas have been stripped of originality by testing or have come out years too late to take advantage of the marketplace? New product development can take three years at large corporations. We must also be cautious about the types of research we use and its limitations.

Ingrid Fetell from Landor says that too often marketers treat focus groups as a quick-and-dirty solution to every knowledge they need. But focus groups have their limitations. After all 80% of new products fail within six months, but almost all pass through focus groups on their way to market. The Seinfeld pilot failed in the eyes of focus groups that said it needed a stronger supporting cast. Focus groups have also rejected the Sony Walkman, Baileys Irish Cream, and the ATM, which was considered “too impersonal.” But some scholars like Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman see ethnographic techniques as having a more accurate ability to gauge consumer opinion given the unconscious nature of the decision-making.

What’s a real life example? Cambridge SoundWorks’ used ethnographic research to determine why sales of its new speakers were slow despite enthusiasm from male prospects. The retailer sent researchers out with video cameras to follow prospective customers for two weeks and they discovered the “spousal acceptance factor.” Men were being talked out of their purchase by girlfriends and wives who thought the speakers were ugly – an insight men didn’t offer up in a traditional focus group. They offered a new range of sneakers with a new look and they became the best-selling product line in the company’s history.

Are you using focus groups because they are quicker and cheaper than quantitative studies? Maybe its time you try an ethnographic study.