Archive for October, 2010

Advice to Candidates: Stick with the Negative Ads

October 29, 2010

Things are getting rather nasty in the political world.  As we approach Election Day in the United States, candidates are spending incredible amounts of money, much of it on negative advertising.

One of my favorite examples is from Illinois senatorial candidate Alexi Giannoulias.  He is airing a spot this week that calls his opponent Mark Kirk  a dishonest liar.  The ad features voters attacking Kirk: “His whole political career is probably a lie” and “I would not trust him with my left shoe.”

You can watch the commercial here:

This is unpleasant business.  Many of the negative ads are distortions; the ads twist statements and make unsupported and sometimes totally false accusations.

So should a candidate run negative ads?  Or should they stick with more a positive and upbeat message?

My advice is clear: stick with the negative ads, for two reasons. 

First, in an election, a candidate needs 51% of the vote.  One way to get votes is to put forth compelling policies and ideas.  The other way is to make your opponent seem like a more unappealing choice.  People are skeptical of politicians, so positive messages often fall flat.  Negative messages can connect since they reinforce a natural skepticism.

Second, the best way to respond to a negative campaign is with a negative campaign.  In an election, if your opponent calls you a crook, your only hope is to call them a crook.  This negates the message; all the candidates are now crooks.   Defending your reputation, “I am not a crook” only reinforces the accusation.

There is a limit, of course.  I don’t support false ads and distortions.  I also don’t support personal attacks on someone’s character or family.  I think Alexi’s ad is over the line.

But candidates have to fight for votes during an election, and later they will have to fight to get anything done.  Negative advertising can be a powerful marketing tool in a campaign.

Microsoft Windows Phone 7, Insights and Benefits

October 20, 2010

Microsoft is currently running a teaser spot for its new mobile software, Windows Phone 7.  The ad is charming; the folks at Microsoft have clearly found an insight that will resonate with people.  The big question, of course, is whether Microsoft can turn the insight into a meaningful product benefit.

In the new spot, Microsoft highlights a basic problem with smart phones; they are simply too engaging.  People with smart phones have a tendency to tune out the people around them.  This can be incredibly frustrating.  Almost everyone has had the experience of talking with someone only to have them look down in the middle of the conversation to check the phone.   This is a rather deflating moment.  The clear message:  my phone is far more interesting than this conversation.  The feeling is captured beautifully in the spot: “Really?” 

This happens to me in class fairly often.  I’ll be doing my best to be engaging and witty and informative, and I’ll look up to find someone totally focused on their phone.  So I become even more animated.  I tell my best jokes and pull out my most interesting examples.  And they are still focused on the phone.  It seems totally hopeless; I just can’t compete with a smart phone.  When a student is absorbed in a phone in the middle of class I can relate to the Microsoft commercial.  I’m tempted to embrace the campaign idea: “Really?”

There is a difference, of course, between an insight and a benefit.  An insight is a bit of knowledge about how people think and act.  A benefit is a reason to use a product or service.

The big question now is whether Microsoft can use the insight to deliver a benefit.  I think this will be hard.  How do you get people to stop focusing on their phones?  I suppose you could produce a phone that doesn’t work very well, or is so frustrating to use that it isn’t worth the time.  You could also create a phone that simply shuts off, perhaps after you’ve used it for more than seven hours in a day.  It looks like Microsoft will promote the product by saying it is so easy and quick to use that you can check it and then focus on other things.  I’m just not sure this is how the world works.  There is always something else to check, or a new app to use, or a new website to visit.

Of course, this is all speculation.  We will learn more when the product actually appears and people use it.  Microsoft has an insight.  Now the challenge is to turn it into a benefit that matters and they can own.

Observations on the Gap Logo Debacle

October 14, 2010

This week Gap introduced and then promptly pulled a new visual identity. 

The new logo was a rather dramatic change and consumers quickly expressed their unhappiness with the new look.  Gap reversed course in just three days.  The company announced the decision on its Facebook page:  “Ok. We’ve heard loud and clear that you don’t like the new logo. We’ve learned a lot from the feedback. We only want what’s best for the brand and our customers. So instead of crowd sourcing, we’re bringing back the Blue Box tonight.”



Observation #1:  People care about brands.

The most astonishing thing about this story is that people actually care about the Gap enough to get upset when the logo changes.  There are a lot of issues in the world today: wars, hunger, injustice and inequality.  The fact that thousands of people take action to protest a change in the Gap logo is remarkable.

People care about brands.  A brand isn’t just a bit of packaging.  It is a set of associations.  Brands are emotional and personal.  Brands really matter.

Observation #2:  Changing a well established brand is a risk.

Any time you change a well-known brand there is a risk you will do more harm than good, so be very careful.

In general, small changes to a brand are low risk.  Companies make small changes all the time.  Indeed, consumers often don’t even notice the change at all.  Big changes, however, cause disruption, and disruption is often a bad thing.

Observation #3:  Consumer opinions matter.

In the good old days, companies could make decisions and roll them out to the market with a certain amount of confidence.  The initiative might not work as hoped but there was little reason to think people would start protesting. 

That certainly isn’t the case now.  People can easily broadcast their opinions and they are very willing to do so.   This makes things more difficult.

Leaders have to do very good market research and then listen to consumer feedback.

Observation #4:  Speed counts.

The marketing executives at Gap deserve credit for moving quickly.  Within just a couple of days, they decided to reverse course.  This was a smart decision.  Sometimes things don’t work out.  Recognizing this and then changing is difficult but certainly the best approach.

Marketing Review: Kleenex

October 5, 2010

In my marketing strategy course at Kellogg I periodically ask students to review different marketing initiatives.  The goal is to evaluate each initiative from a strategic point of view.  Will it build the brand and build the business?

After showing an initiative to the class, I ask students to grade it: A, B, C, D or F.

This isn’t a perfect science.  The students don’t know all the dynamics of the business, so I’m certain there are times when they will criticize an initiative that makes perfect sense given a particular competitive situation in a category.  Or applaud an initiative that is off track.  In general, though, I think the ratings are on the mark.

I’ll post my thoughts after the class discussion.  Sometimes I agree with the class rating, and sometimes I have a different opinion.  Feel free to jump with your opinions, too.


Kleenex recently ran a coupon in the Chicago Tribune. 

The ratings….

Students:  B                      Me:  B+

The Kleenex coupon is not going to change the world.  There isn’t any big news, the offer is modest and the creative is fairly predictable.

But the coupon is an example of good, solid marketing.  The branding is quite strong.  There is a clear attribute: soft.  This attribute is supported by a claim.  There is also a higher-order benefit, with a mom caring for her child.  And there is an incentive to buy, which will drive sales.  The incentive is quite modest, 50 cents off of three packs.  But for a well-known brand like Kleenex this makes sense; there is no need to escalate incentives.

The coupon isn’t flashy and it isn’t glamorous.  But it will, in a modest way, build the business and build the brand.


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