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May 8, 2013
Mom: The Ultimate Brand Strategist
I hear it now, in my head, like it was yesterday. An insightful piece of brand wisdom emanating from somewhere between the toaster and the silverware drawer, precisely at the moment I am opening the front door to go out with my friends: “You are defined by the company you keep,” my mom would wail, with high-pitched loving-kindness breaking through the clutter of canned laughter blaring from the TV. She knew, without digital analytics to lean on, if I were hanging out with the “bad” kids I would get that label as well. And it would be hard to shake that brand off, once its been burned on, by a blue-collar neighborhood without many personal fences. She was protecting my brand. As all good mothers are programmed to do.
And she knew how to sell a product to a skeptical audience as well. One such product: the holidays at our uncle Jay’s house. Meaning a three-hour car ride, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, listening to talk radio, which my dad loved for the relentless insults. Oh, but she managed to sell it. Every year she’d start her campaign with an emotional tug at our heartstrings by telling stories of how family is important and then promising to make our favorite food and bring it to the dinner. This strategy, of course, always worked. She knew that selling to our hearts, not to mention our stomachs, was more effective than our heads.
As Tony Gomes, ECD at Publicis, (tonygomes.net) puts it: "People buy on emotion even when they think they are buying based on an intellectual connection. Take one of the most famous ads of all time, David Ogilvy’s ad for Rolls Royce, with a headline that reads, 'At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock.' People didn’t buy that car because it was quiet. They bought it because that tiny detail said something larger about the supreme craftsmanship of the vehicle and because of their desire to associate themselves with the world’s most luxurious and sought after automobile. They realized this purchase would say something about them. So in the end, all purchase decisions are based on an emotional connection, not rational decision making."
At Scarlet Heifer, we want to know if the work will move the audience emotionally. Will it expose an unnoticed truth? A successful selling idea has to touch something deep inside a prospect in order to change a perception or motivate a purchase. Of course, to do that, the message must be relevant, so knowing your audience is key to talking to them and persuading them.
As the post modernist advertising rule breaker Howard Gossage put it, “advertising should be a conversation with an audience.” He did this with his work in the 1960s, mostly in print, but this is of course easier, now, in the age of digital. Targeting the appropriate audience is now more precise than ever. In fact, we know exactly where they spend their time and how and why. We get that info from Google analytics, software tools, and other web-based metrics, along with personal and professional info provided by the users themselves. Heck, we even know what people are saying about brands and products to each other on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, with tools like General Sentiment, which scours online conversations through artificial intelligence algorithms, then parses the positive or negative sentiment, so a brand can create messages that talk directly to unfettered consumer beliefs.
So, by knowing their profile, and easily reaching them, it should be easier to motivate a sale or influence a perception, correct? Well, it should be. Except for the fact that the brand story is now more difficult to express.
Yet another painful paradox in advertising?
The digital age created innumerable challenges to the art of storytelling that we are only learning to understand. But, with those challenges comes tremendous opportunity. With digital communication, there’s a click. A conversion. Or not. We know how many clicks and how many conversions there are, therefore we know what’s working and what’s not working. But, we really don’t know why. And we won’t know, even when we fiddle with the copy or the image, or layout, actually. Even though we can discover what works better.
That’s because we are not measuring the power of the emotional response. We are too busy analyzing the data from the hits and conversions. In fact, we are all clamoring to know how many followers we are getting on Twitter and how many likes on Facebook so loudly that the message is now second fiddle to the reach.
Now, don’t get me wrong; hits, likes, followers, and social sharing are all key things for brands to attain, but we have to find ways to make the emotional messages work harder to really nail it.
And how do we do that when the top viral YouTube video is a dog simulating a sexual act with a befuddled chicken?
What copywriter can top that?
Well, some are coming close, actually. According to Ad Age, Samsung’s “The Next Big Thing Is Already Here” and “Lebron’s Day” had 724,489,026 total campaign views. And the work helped make the Samsung SIII and Galaxy Note viable alternatives to Apple’s iPhone.
So the question is whether the brand story is suffering because the desire to find the right audience and how to reach them is now the priority. Well, some brands, like Samsung, are succeeding. But most are not. I believe more clients are going head over heels looking for ways to reach more people and to get them to see their brand than are worrying about the content their prospects will be seeing. Again, the message is seen as secondary to the number of hits it gets. Does “trending” mean “selling”?
Let’s ask mom: If my mom were still with us, she’d laugh at the very question. You see, my mom was tougher than that. She would consider a “trend” a good thing, but a failure. Only a sale, a conversion, would do. And its persuasive content and brilliant strategy that lead to sales, not views.
As a brand evangelist, she would remind us how to get results. She’d offer words of wisdom like: “Be nice to others, and they’ll be nice to you.” I bet Howard Schultz, and the folks at Starbucks would agree with that mom-penned brand strategy nugget. They have built an empire on fomenting love, within their employee pool, for their customers, and through the numerous charitable funds they support. They are now getting the same treatment they dole out…hand over fist.
And, Mom would poke: “When you talk, look in the eyes.” Avoiding eye contact, to her, meant you were shifty. We see this today with many corporate web sites, where the company refuses to say too much about themselves. Coca-Cola was one of them, until recently, when they re-launched their corporate site with content that proudly tells the history of the company from the perspective of various employees. According to the NY Times, Ashley Callahan, Coke’s digital and social media manager, said, “This helps us highlight the great work we’re doing and the people doing it.” Coke is looking us straight in the eye. They are confidently portraying themselves as a thought leader. 
And, more than once, my underpaid consultant advised me to “Always be honest, and you never have to worry about getting caught in a lie.” Tribal DDB, in Toronto, created a brilliant campaign based on brand transparency for McDonald’s by showing skeptical customers that a McDonald’s burger is made with the same ingredients in their restaurants as they are in their ads, even though they look so much better in the ads. The brand director, Hope Bagozzi, took viewers behind the scenes of a photo shoot in a viral video that generated 15 million views. She honestly depicted how they make the burgers look better for the ads with Photoshop retouching techniques, but proved the ingredients are the same as the ones you can buy in their stores. Blunt honesty, mixed with persuasive reasoning, moves you emotionally.
So, this Mother’s Day, as you honor Mom for all that she does, listen carefully to the words of wisdom she naturally and casually offers. She is articulating many of the same principles that highly paid designer-suit-wearing MBA hipsters are presenting on slideshows in glass-enclosed conference rooms all over the world.
Which is why, to me, she’ll always be the ultimate brand strategist.
Give her a hug for me. 

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Steve Biegel develops transformative ideas through persuasive communications programs to help change consumer behavior, and has done so throughout his career. Steve is a battle-tested thinker with a broad perspective on the industry who can infuse others with creative energy while applying it to the details of the craft. Steve helped hatch some of the most effective campaigns for brands of all sizes and shapes. His ambidextrous approach to creative problem solving through digital, social, and traditional mediums is built on provocative ideation that surprises, informs, and rewards audiences. Steve is co-founder and Creative Director at Scarlet Heifer, a NYC digital communications boutique. Contact him here
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