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May 26, 2004
The Fall of Advertising

If you’re keeping up with your reading, you know that advertising is a profession with no future. Sergio Zyman, the former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola, recently published a book titled The End of Advertising as We Know It. Perhaps you remember the name Al Ries. With his partner Jack Trout, he co-wrote one of the epochal branding books called Positioning. His new book is The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR.

In building a case against advertising, many critics link the industry’s fate to that of commercial television. They point out that the networks are losing their ability to reach the masses efficiently.

Consumers are also rebelling against the pervasiveness of commercial clutter by tuning out. This creates a ready market for digital recording devices, like TiVo. Adios, talking oven mitt.

There’s also a high level of cynicism toward big business expressed by people. Think Enron. Martha Stewart. Tyco. People distrust companies. So by association perhaps there’s less confidence in the advertised message.

So what will replace advertising? Many people suggest that PR will generate the buzz. Then, embedding products in programming will replace commercials and maintain the awareness. Advertising gets squeezed out.

If that wasn’t bad enough, advertising professionals are no longer the gatekeepers to a brand’s essence. From MBA management consultants to identity specialists, everyone’s becoming a brand expert. Advertising executives are losing their seat at the table to broad array of suits.

Out of curiosity I did a Google search to see if brandwagon has become a term because so many people have decided to jump aboard. It has.

Recessions exaggerate the reliance on numbers in making business decisions. So what happens to things you can’t measure? Like advertising? Let me watch your brand for two years and I’ll come back with an answer. Oh, you don’t have two years? How about a sales promotion event? Business is a numbers game and we should never forget it.

A Mitsubishi and a BMW both weigh about 4,000 pounds. The BMW costs twice as much. Those are numbers. How many people get MBAs in order to be able to afford a Mitsubishi?

Branding is not a numbers game and we shouldn’t forget that, either.

You can buy a whole can of Folgers for the price of a Starbucks venti Latte. So, who’s got the tougher job, the MBA working on Folgers, or the coffee geek innovating for Starbucks?

As Winston Churchill once said, “People will give you a lot of good reasons why they do something, then there’s the real reason.” Branding is about finding and appealing to the real reason.

TiVo may allow us to record programming and watch it advertising free at a later time, but are we really going to sit out the last episode of the Friends or tonight’s news in order to zap the commercials?

At one point in history, people predicted that radio would make newspapers obsolete. Why read something that’s a day old. Then TV came along. That was going to replace radio, newspapers and movie theaters. Blockbuster was going to replace movie theaters too. So was cable. In fact, cable was going to replace Blockbuster. Am I worried about Tivo? No.

I’m optimistic about the future of advertising, because I think the media, by fragmenting away from mass audiences, will become more affordable to more brands rather than the reverse. A small motorcycle company can advertise nationally on the Speed Channel. A tent maker can use the Outdoor channel. Little spice companies can reach the culinary crowd on the Food channel. We’ve never had such great opportunities to build brands. The Internet, with faster downloads and wireless technology on the horizon, will only add to those opportunities.

Branding is about discovery. Which is where public relations and advertising complement one another beautifully.

Both PR and advertising can initiate the discovery process. PR’s great advantage is that it’s a third person endorsing the brand. But advertising adds equity to the brand in an even more profound way. It defines and speaks in the brand’s own voice. Without advertising, Oscar Mayer is just baloney.

Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman said it best, “Advertising is all about storytelling.”

Whether the 30-second commercial lasts or not, advertising tells a story in ways other marketing activities simply can’t. I’ve never seen Altoids advertised on TV, yet I get a story of a “curiously strong mint” told in simple images in print and outdoor.

Successful brands sell to the heart not to the head. They succeed in immeasurable ways. How do you measure the cool factor that makes iPod a success and the less expensive MP3 players out there also rans?

If you’re curious about the future, I would suggest it’s going to look a lot like the past. Only the 30-seconds could be 30 minutes. The network might be yourbrandhere.com instead of NBC.

I would suggest to any CEO who wants to see his or her numbers moving in the right direction to “look for the story in your brand.” Then, if you want to sell it, use advertising to tell it.

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Founder of Laughlin/Constable, Steve Laughlin is developing the agency into a national creative player. With offices in Chicago and Milwaukee, Laughlin/Constable is being recognized for outstanding work on clients such as Miller Brewing, OshKosh B'Gosh, Alka-Seltzer, Fruit of the Loom, Harley-Davidson's Buell Motorcycle Company, and more. slaughlin@laughlin.com

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