The Awareness Religion vs. Persuasion

If Chevrolet doubled their media spending, how many Hyundai owners would buy Malibus?

Not nearly enough, says our crystal ball, to offset the gushing red ink that would flow ankle-deep across the whole state of Michigan. And if this theoretical exercise in overkill seems a bit fanciful, consider there are whole platoons of marketers who believe so strongly in the Awareness religion that they are awash in red ink, too.

Since awareness does not equal persuasion, you can theoretically spend yourself into oblivion creating tons of awareness for unpersuasive messages. (There is no President Romney.)

On his deathbed, a famous actor was asked if dying was difficult. “Dying is easy,” he said before he perished. “Comedy is difficult.” In a similar (jugular) vein, Awareness is easy, but persuading a consumer to switch brands? That can be a very high hurdle indeed. (Side note: We used to credit the “famous actor” here by name, but that quote is attributed on the Internet to six different people, and we got tired of answering “gotcha” emails from people certain we had named the wrong guy.) But we digress.

Awareness has a big fan club.

It’s easy to measure, easy to change. Open up your checkbook, and you can create awareness. Open it wider, and create more. Stay with the same campaign for twenty years, and the numbers will probably grow. Throw in some humor, or outrage, a celebrity spokesperson, or any of a dozen other Hawthorne-effect changes, and your chances of moving the awareness needle improve.

Here’s the catch. You can employ some, most, or all of those tactics, lift awareness x% beyond plan, and still not sell one extra case, box, barrel, or can. Not gain one more vote. Not bring more traffic to the store. This happens all the time, especially in categories like beer or candy where customers are emotionally invested in brand choices they reaffirm frequently.

How did we get into this budget-killing mess? A lot of this has to do with how quantifiable Awareness is. How measurable. How comforting on a spreadsheet. How rational. How easy to believe in. Contrast this with the voodoo of Persuasiveness, that slippery little qualitative devil located in the realm of Creativity, in the suburbs of Emotional Connection, near the intersection of Delight and Surprise. It’s enough to make accountants run screaming from the room.

Persuasion is downright irrational. Illogical. Disgustingly emotional, almost unpredictable. You know … like every consumer purchase decision in the real world.

How do we dig ourselves out of this hole? First of all, we have to let go of the old-time religion: top-of-mind awareness, as easy as it is to measure and manipulate, is only one result of reach and frequency, and r&f is only one brand asset, quite separate from ad content and overall brand personality. Yes, it’s a comforting religion, this fondness for measuring aided and unaided recall scores. But … let’s let go. (Deep breath. Now exhale.) There are lots of other brand assets that come into play, that add up to a Brand Personality.

Awareness does not equal persuasion.

Second, demand — absolutely demand — the unexpected from all your communications. If an ad execution “reminds” you of something else, then odds are, the idea’s weak. (Agency creatives sitting around struggling with a new campaign often start from “Say, did you see ______ ?” The blank is filled in with that season’s movies’ trendiest visual style. Once it was Blade Runner, then Jurassic Park, Rush Hour, Magnolia, Kill Bill, Crash, Hurt Locker, ad nauseam.) The result is usually mixed: the client’s sales don’t change, but the agency wins awards. Why settle for a technique in search of an idea? When confronted with a parody of this year’s hot Saturday Night Live sketch, run away.

Third, measure your advertising against larger criteria than awareness only. Measure intention to purchase, or focus on real-world tests of isolated markets where a cash register becomes your best research tool. Or use an alternative to focus groups for a faster, lower-cost vehicle – one that will uncover meaningful metrics.

Fourth, trust your instincts. If a campaign seems lame, run away from it. If it seems fresh and new, go for it. (We say this with just a pinch or two of self-interest: our work is always competing against work from agencies 20 times our size, and we have to overcome the gee-they’re-bigger-they-must-be-better syndrome. The FUD factor.*) If an upstart bunch of bomb-throwing anarchists** maps out a breakthrough creative strategy for you, trust your gut instincts: don’t give extra points to dinosaur agencies just because they’re big, safe, top-heavy, or familiar.

When was the last time you were excited about conceptual work an agency presented? Genuinely excited? Overwhelmed? Or, how often have you signed off with a ho-hum “Well, this seems to be on target”?

Last, make yourself part of the creative process. Don’t just wait with fingers crossed until an execution comes back from some black box out there … put your experience and knowledge into the works so that there’s no surprise when the strategy comes back … even when (with any luck) there’s surprise and delight on the tactical level. Find yourself an agency where key members of your team bring you experience, creativity, and persuasive power, combined with a willingness to listen.***

*Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt… the FUD factor kept IBM and AT&T alive in the face of technologically superior competition. But, hey, nobody ever got fired for recommending Killian Branding, either.

**We shake up the status quo for a living. Whether it’s finding an unexpected medium or finding an unexpected way to bring a strategy to life, our clients have come to expect no less.

***Want to tell us about where you need a breakthrough strategy to pull away from those competitors? We’ll shut up and listen. Contact Bob Killian at 312-836-0050.