Consumers Buy Products, Not Brands: How This Should Change Your Advertising

“Whenever you can, make the product itself the hero of your advertising.”
– David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising

We live in a grand age of “brand advertising” – where most ad agencies believe that their role is to build brand by directly advertising the brand. Except they’re wrong at so many levels. But their error starts by ignoring a critical truth:

There are far more advertising options for building a brand than so-called “brand advertising”.

Quite often, these options end up building stronger brand, faster and at less cost.

Sadly, clients are rarely given other options. Agencies have generally responded to “I want to build my brand” with “Great, let’s advertise your brand completely disembodied from the product”. (It’s a bit ironic that agencies tend to think this way since one fundamental creative truth is that a linear approach to subtle things like building brand are often the least effective.)

After All…Consumers Buy Products – Not Brands. There’s a wide range of loose language used in advertising books and press to imply that consumers “buy the brand”. But they don’t.

What does a consumer walk out of the store with? A product. What does a consumer purchase from a service company? Services that end with a result. What drives the biggest part of consumer choice? Consumer urgency, commitment and willingness to pay for the product or service. (From this point I’m going to use the term “product” to include all range of products – physical ones, software, apps, services, retail stores, catalogs, political candidates – whatever you’re trying to sell.)

In smart marketing, products have brands. And depending on the situation, those brands are of greater or lesser importance in a purchase. But the brand is not the prime driver of the purchase. A lot of other factors have a bigger impact on the consumer than brand – like immediate consumer need/desire, the product specifics, how the consumer is reminded about the product, access to the product (channels, etc.) and more.

As a result, attitude toward a brand doesn’t come primarily from “I like their ads”. The most powerful attitudes about a brand come from things like “I do/do not like their product”.

And, this suggests that to have the most powerful communication about your brand, your advertising needs to work within the entire consumer situation. But most importantly, your advertising needs to include far more product value than brand advertising does today.

Advertising Focused on the Product Can Build a Stronger Brand. At my agency we specialize in product-based advertising to build brands. It’s an outstanding approach when you are building a new brand or trying to rebuild an old brand. That’s because your advertising gets added brand power by focusing on the product(s) you deliver.

Product-based advertising is also outstanding when you have exceptional products (like Apple) that build brand strength. We can look at Apple’s advertising while Steve Jobs was alive to see advertising that featured products and the value they deliver to consumers. These ads also used smart creative approaches that re-enforced brand through the product. Throughout Apple’s amazing growth this type of advertising took their already strong brand and drove it to astounding levels.

On the other hand, the smartest path for building demand for consumables is quite often what’s traditionally known as brand advertising. But not always. I’ve felt for the past few years that Snickers was missing a piece of effectiveness by focusing only on the energy value of their bars without reminding consumers of the powerful emotional reality of tasting a Snickers bar. (What’s more powerful than jokes about Betty White? The taste of a Snickers.) I think Snickers could get across both in the same ads and would see better economic results.

It should also be said that a combination of product-based advertising and traditional brand advertising can be a smart choice (if your budget allows). The brand advertising plays a role helping synthesize the product/brand messages into an even more powerful consumer truth. My experience in situations like this is that you’ll get the most strength by making the brand spend a minority of your budget – with over half the budget reserved for product-based brand building.

Product Reality Rests on Powerful Truth about People. Simplifying what Byron Sharp suggests about brands; advertising drives brand success by causing the brand to remain in the consumer’s consciousness, and come to mind at the appropriate time. For example, having Snickers come to mind as you enter 7-Eleven. Or having Kobalt Tools come to mind when confronted with a new home project.

For product-based advertising to do this it should point the consumer — showing them the way your brand attributes are revealed in your products. This creates far more important brand connections than disembodied claims about brand, or merely showing happy lifestyle people that supposedly represent the consumer.

If you do your product-based advertising well, the cognitive impact of product experience will set your brand up for powerful recall characteristics. Without this advertising, the product experience may be powerful but consumers aren’t likely to generalize the experience to your brand. Or if you use only traditional brand advertising, the weak product connections aren’t likely to lead to the same powerful level of brand recall.

It’s worth noting that getting product into consumer hands quickly has extra power in building a brand – more power than spending millions on brand advertising. This is one reason good brand direct response advertising can be important. Good brand response shows broad brand values in such a way that it leads to immediate sales while building brand connections. And these sales aren’t just the direct ones.

Our experience with omni-channel impact from DR is that it drives sales at retail faster than traditional advertising — as long as the advertising is crafted with the right DR/retail savvy.

In the right situation product-based advertising delivers brand faster and with more economic power than brand advertising. Perhaps not too surprisingly, we’ve also found it to deliver better long term brand recall characteristics at a far lower cost.

Copyright 2014 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved


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