Is it tougher to do great work for less-loved clients?
(THE SCENE: Charlie Babbitt takes his Autistic brother Raymond to the train station to meet Dr. Bruner, who will take Raymond back to Cincinnati)
DR. BRUNER: “Hello Raymond! Wouldn’t you feel a little more relaxed in your favorite Kmart
CHARLIE: “Tell ‘em, Ray.”
RAYMOND: “Kmart sucks.”
When I first saw “Rain Man” in the theater, the audience applauded wildly at that scene. And I knew Kmart was in trouble. A billion-dollar retailer had been reduced to a pop culture punch line.
Why? One simple reason: Kmart wasn’t cool anymore.
These days, I’m watching a former client of mine lurch toward bankruptcy. The mere mention of its name to non-advertising people evokes sympathy: “It’s a shame what’s happened to them…” In spite of all the company’s past missteps, it still enjoys billion-dollar sales, but one thing stands out: Their brand isn’t cool anymore, not like it once was. And the pile-on in the press and among the public is hard to overcome.
What do you do when your client, and their brand, simply isn’t cool?
Some brands have a cool factor and some don’t. Industry speakers and business publications play favorites when citing great brands: Target, not Walmart. Google, not AOL. Nike, not New Balance. JetBlue, not Continental (and like everything else, this is subjective. Your mileage may vary.) If your client isn’t perceived as cool, you have to work harder because the resistance can be higher.
Most of us spend time working on brands that aren’t cool (assuming the word “cool” is still cool.) There can be all sorts of reasons why they’re not cool: They’re in a product category that seems dull, and no one’s ever transcended that. Their product or service is just a me-too and everyone, including their marketing department, knows it. Or maybe the current company is the bastard child of a dozen mergers and is now saddled with a pseudo-futuristic, meaningless name and empty brand.
For all the emphasis we’re now placing on storytelling as a key to marketing, many brands chiefly focus on selling product in the here and now. Nothing really wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for a compelling brand. It’s why so many advertisers use a variation of “save time, save money” as a key part of their sales pitch (oh, excuse me, their “value proposition.”)
Dullness in product marketing isn’t anything new. The advertising industry learned to adapt. Along the way, ad agencies realized there was richer territory in working to understand the audience’s mindset rather than see if a client’s product fit in their lives. It wasn’t about making the product seem cool; rather, it became about making the users of the product seem cool — or at least feel accepted.
But that’s essentially the business we’re in: the cool business. Make the product or service look attractive. If we can’t do it visually, we need to do it verbally. Plus, our industry always gushes over whatever’s new — new technology, new media tactics, new production techniques, new slang. We strive to be on the edge of culture and nudge our clients along with us.
Pushing coolness, however, isn’t an easy task. If we advertising people think something is cool, many folks in middle America don’t. And vice versa. I once worked on a tourism account that’s quite popular in the Southeast. But outside that region, it’s practically unheard of. I’ve spent years explaining to outsiders how popular it is, to little acknowledgment or appreciation.
Plenty of brand categories can get away with not being cool. Toilet paper. Canned fruit. Health insurance. Tires. Legions of B2B services. As consumers, sometimes we simply need a product or service, and the advertising helps keep it top-of-mind. When we need to speak with someone at that company, we can. A constant conversation isn’t necessary.
But for advertising professionals, the struggle occurs because we know even mundane brands are capable of better, deeper, more meaningful work. We’re capable of creating it. We look at Chrysler or Old Spice and believe, when all the stars are properly aligned, we can put a new face on an old brand. Occasionally, a brand like PBR can become cool again without a managed effort, but most companies don’t leave such things to chance.
So how do you pump new life into a brand to make it cool? Everyone from the CEO down needs to buy in. And every piece of communication, external and internal, produced for that company has to reflect a new tone and spirit. That’s just for starters, and no guarantee of success. Plenty of ad campaigns have attempted a major makeover of a brand, only to feel inauthentic. Both the ad industry and the general public are pretty dismissive of any brand trying to be something it’s not.
But even the most mundane products or B2B services, in the right hands and with the right support, can be interesting, exciting, or cool.
Then again, if everything or everyone were “cool,” then nothing really would be. Maybe that challenge is what makes this business so cool to work in.
Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small.
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