If you’re serious about creating great ads, you’ve undoubtedly seen and studied them.
Legendary ads created by the giants of the industry. Ads created by the likes of Ogilvy, Bernbach, Burnett, Lois, Ally, Riney, Clow. Ads that can be referenced by name alone.
They’re supposed to be teaching aids. Unfortunately, most copywriters look at those ads and decide to copy the superficial: the style of the ad, the layout, or the exact phrasing of the headline.
What they don’t copy is how the ad solved a communication challenge — the strategic approach that the advertising team took to make a point more credible, or emotionally resonant.
Here’s an example of one of those classic ads I mentioned. The “Lemon” ad from Bernbach’s VW campaign:
Now, there are two major takeaways from this ad, in my opinion:
- The (at that time) shocking idea of putting a derogatory word or title next to a picture of the product
- Showing off quality by spotlighting a manufacturers willingness to discard items that fail to meet exacting standards
Now, if you’re a schmuck, you’ll copy the “Lemon” headline exactly as is (and justify it as an homage), rather than copying the strategy. And maybe it’ll work OK-ish for you so long as you include the second takeaway in your body copy.
But if you’re smart, you’ll figure out how to get the juice from the strategy without ripping off the exact headline. Instead of copying the exact phrasing, you’ll copy the strategy and make it your own.
In other words, you’ll do something like this:
Now, the headline isn’t quite as punchy as “Lemon.” And, no, the ad ain’t perfect.
But whoever wrote this captured the “throw out anything that doesn’t meet exacting standards” strategy perfectly. And the ad works.
In fact, I was just browsing the magazine it came from at an airport when the ad leaped of the page and smacked me upside the face. I ended up buying the entire magazine just to be able to scan the ad.
And that’s how you steal an ad idea: look for the underlying persuasive strategy, copy it, then make it your own.
P.S. If you’ve never read the book Steal Like An Artist, it’s got lots more advice on how to steel ideas and make them your own. And it comes highly recommended by yours truly.
Ironically enough, it IS an intriguing headline:
But the point the author purports to make is a dangerous one.
Now, to be fair, the author, Sean Bestor, says at the outset that article headlines do better when they’re creative and ought to be creative.
But he claims that headlines for pop-ups (i.e., call-outs and offers) shouldn’t be “creative.”
And to that I can only call bullsh*t.
First, understand that Sean equates “creative” with “designed to create curiosity” (at least for the purposes of his article). And this is the crux of his problem.
Because there are 5 freakin’ letters in AIDAS* and for whatever unfathomable reason, Sean has decided not to read past the initial AI.
Generating curiosity through creative headlines works awesome when it comes to grabbing ATTENTION and generating INTEREST. That’s why Sean (rightly) says that you should continue to create and use creative headlines for content marketing. Because that’s essentially the job of the headline for an article or a print ad — to grab the reader’s attention and create enough interest in the material to get the rest of the ad looked at/read.
But once you actually have the visitor’s attention and interest, it’s now time to create DESIRE and ACTION.
In other words, you have to (eventually) make an offer which your visitor will find relevant (i.e., desirable) and credible (i.e., worth taking action on).
In Sean’s cited examples, the “straightforward” headlines win because they do just that: they provide clarity around what’s actually being offered and substantiate the value of the offered download.
In contrast, the “creative” headlines didn’t do any of that mainly because they were not designed to. They were written generate curiosity, not instill desire, so the headlines kept the offer vague and provided no substantiation of value. The visitor, in turn, now left in the dark about what was actually on offer, opted out. A confused prospect never buys, as they say.
But don’t take my word on it; take a look at one of Sean’s examples for yourself:
Frankly, I don’t believe there is anything inherently less creative about “Every Tactic, Ranked (With The Tools And Conversion Rates)” than there is about “Are You Collecting Emails Wrong?”
In fact, I’d say the use of the word “Every” and the inclusion of the parenthetical remark in the so-called straightforward headline actually show a great deal of creativity. It’s just that the creativity was aimed at — you guessed it — generating desire and action rather than attention and interest.
Think about it, at this point App Sumo was essentially offering the visitor a toolbox. So how would a copywriter make that toolbox more appealing?
- They’d talk about how complete the toolbox was (enter use of the word “every”), and
- They’d talk about the included tools’ proven effectiveness at doing this or that job (with tools and conversion rates).
In fact, I’d dare say that more persuasive thought went into the so-called “straightforward” headline than went into the so-called creative headline.
Sure, the creative headline leverages the question technique and the “accuse them of doing something wrong” technique to generate curiosity, but does that really make it more creative or any more finely wordsmithed than the other headline?
The point is that creative copywriting — including the crafting of headlines — can be aimed at any number of goals beyond generating curiosity. Goals like inspiring greater desire for an offered item, substantiating one’s claims, or creating urgency to act now.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about creative vs. straightforward headlines. This is about knowing where and how to aim your creativity based on where the prospect is within the AIDAS persuasion model.
If you already have the readers attention and interest, it’s time to inspire desire and get them to take action. So aim your creativity there.
*AIDAS is a marketing acronym that stands for Attention-Interest-Desire-Action-Satisfaction, although most marketers leave off the final S.
First, if all you want are the two slogans, you’ll either have to wait to the end, or scroll to the bottom.
Second, this is sort of an anti-reason-why advertising screed. So if you love, love, love Unique Selling Propositions, here’s fair warning that this post might piss you off.
And let me confess: I like reason-why advertising. I really do.
There’s a part of me that believes nothing beats a straightforward offer of benefit that can’t be matched by the competition.
15 minutes could save you 15% on car insurance? Solid!
As ad man and copywriter, I can’t deny two obvious truths:
- It is vanishingly rare for a local business to have an un-contestable reason why
- Even when they DO have one, it’s usually not sufficient to persuade people to buy
The reasons for this are multiple.
- The nature of competition dictates that a key selling feature that really wins sales will very quickly become adopted by the competition. In 1984 Dodge introduced the modern minivan and it sold like hotcakes; in ’85 Chevy released their own minivan, and by 87 everyone had one. And how long did it really take before every airline and every credit card had an air miles program?
- When a local company’s product or service IS superior, it’s usually due to scores or hundreds of smaller improvements, rather than some silver bullet feature that can be easily pitched or demonstrated in an ad
- Just because something is true, that doesn’t mean the public is required to believe it, let alone to act on it.
So it boils down to this: if you want to write advertising that works, you’re going to have to do it even when you don’t have a reason-why appeal.
Even more importantly, you’re going to have to accept that all of the reasons-why you do have can only serve as a support for your main appeal — reasons why can never be the main appeal by themselves.
What should you use instead of reasons why?
Let’s start by looking at:
Satisficing & The Positively Good
For the vast majority of purchases, customers aren’t driven to get the very best, most optimal product or service at the lowest possible price.
Optimizing a purchase demands more time, energy, and attention than anyone can spare for 99% of purchases.
Instead, people simply want their needs filled and hoped-for benefits granted at a reasonably fair price.
In other words, people practice what economist Herbert Simon calls “satisficing.” A good enough solution that requires little thought or energy is, well, good enough — it’s the one that wins.
This isn’t just kind of important, it’s crucial. So let me spell out the implications:
- Most customers are willing to pay more to be sure; it’s most important for them to be sure they bought the right thing and will get the benefit they are after with only one purchase and attempt at use; saving money or getting an extra few percent of performance from a purchase are significantly less important.
- A good enough solution that comes to mind first and is easy to arrange will get the sale before a better solution that requires research and effort.
- Most customers will pay for convenience and the elimination of risk and hassles; they have more money than time
- As long as your price is “fair,” it is low enough, and what’s fair for the sure thing is significantly more than what’s fair for a bargain of questionable quality.
So the goal is not necessarily to convince prospective customers that your company is the absolutest bestest thing that ever was; the goal is to convince the customer that your product or service is, in the words of David Ogilvy, “positively good.”
Allow me to quote from Ogilvy on Advertising:
“My partner Joel Raphaelson has articulated a feeling which has been growing in my mind for some time:
‘In the past, just about every advertiser has assumed that in order to sell his products, he had to convince consumers that his product is superior to his competitor’s.
This may not be necessary. It may be sufficient to convince consumers that your product is positively good. If the consumer feels certain that your product is good, and is uncertain about your competitor’s, he will buy yours.
If you and your competitors all make excellent products, don’t try to imply that your product is better. Just say what’s good about your product — and do a clearer, more honest, more informative job of saying it.
If this theory is right, sales will swing to the marketer who does the best job of creating confidence that his product is positively good.‘
This approach to advertising parity products doesn’t insult the intelligence of consumers. Who can blame you for putting your best foot forward?”
When your advertising focuses on making you the positively good, you reassure prospective customers that they really will get the benefit they’re after — so long as they buy from you.
You help to eliminate the risk of buying the wrong thing or being disappointed with a purchase. And people truly are willing to pay more to eliminate those risks.
Even better, you get the chance to show people how you represent “the honest goods.”
As I’ve said before “Even a vicious criminal wants his gun manufactured by a virtuous man,” which is to say that demonstrating and dramatizing virtue on the part of the product, manufacturer, or service provider is often enough to move the needle.
And this brings us to Bonding & Identity
Bonding & Identity As The Real Reason-Why People Buy
When you claim your product or service represents “the honest goods” and that you are, in turn, a virtuous business, you aren’t just helping to establish your offer as more of a sure-thing, you are also making an appeal to values and identity.
Customers that identify themselves as honest people want to own honest products and do business with honest companies, simple as that.
And if “honest” or “virtuous” seem preachy, you can always substitute “authentic” if you want. Or most any value, for that matter.
Because while needs may dictate much of WHAT we buy, identity determines which TYPES of things (aka which brands) we buy:
- You need new jeans, so you buy a pair. But you’re not paying 4X the price of a pair of Levi’s 501s for fancy-schmancy selvedge denim because of need; you do it because of values and identity — how those jeans make you feel and what they say about you to the world.
- You may need a large family hauler, but you don’t buy an SUV over a minivan, or a Mercedes over a Chevy because of need, you do it because of identity.
- You may need a new smartphone, but chances are the brand you buy will likely have more to do with the way you see yourself than with the particular features and pricing on the phone.
So it makes sense to advertise in a way that helps people understand and identify with your values, rather than trying to hammer home some kind of reason-why Unique Selling Proposition.
As my marketing mentor says: “We buy what we buy to remind ourselves – and tell the world around us – who we are.”
The Marlboro Man doesn’t tell you why Marlboros are so much better than other cigarettes, his ads just quietly imply that he’s the kind of guy who smokes Marlboros, and if you’re also that kind of guy (or want to be that kind of guy), you should smoke them too.
This Entire Article Summed Up In Two Slogans
My two all-time favorite slogans are:
- Ronseal’s “Does exactly what it says on the tin“
- Heckler & Koch’s “In a world of compromise, some don’t“
Think of Ronseal’s slogan as the perfect embodiment of “The Positively Good.” They’re not trying to tell you that their wood stain is the bestest most-awesomest wood stain ever. They’re promising you that their stain will do what you want it to do, no questions asked, so you can be sure of what you’re getting.
And think of H&K’s slogan as pure Identity. If you’re a no-compromise kind of guy, you should be buying H&K’s guns, because they’re a no-compromise kind of company that makes no-compromise firearms.
In my opinion, the majority of local businesses could simply re-imagine and re-word these slogans and come up with a more powerful branding campaign than whatever BS, over-hyped reason-why advertising they are currently running.
P.S. If you have solid reasons-why, you don’t have to ignore or hide them. Just make sure they work to support your primary claims of Identity and being “Positively Good.” Make them the proof elements for your persuasion, rather than trying to force them to do the entire job all by themselves.
Genuine expertise always leaves clues.
And in the ad business, the very best tell-tale sign is:
A professionally-honed understanding of what advertising CAN’T do
In contrast, the Brand-babblers and unicorn-and-rainbows Social Media “experts” always believe their brand of magic pixie dust marketing can accomplish anything. They have no sense of the hard realities involved in business competition and genuinely persuasive advertising.
Likewise, creativity worshippers tend to feel that while nothing works for sure, anything might work, so long as it’s rilly, rilly “creative” and the lightning strikes in their favor. These fraudsters also have no appreciation for the limits that separate the can-do from the no-can-do.
Only marketing professionals paid on the performance of their ads are keenly aware of what doesn’t freaking work and what advertising simply can’t do.
What Advertising Can’t Do
Starting from the top, the most important No-Can-Do is this:
Advertising Can’t Make People Care About Anything They Don’t Already Care About
This one covers a multitude of sins. So much so that both the Direct Marketing and the branding worlds have scorched it onto their psyches.
In the Direct-Marketing world, they embody this understanding in two important principles and maxims:
- What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) All DM copywriters know they have to appeal to the prospect’s already existing, primal, and top-of-mind self-interests (or at least their self-identities). We’re talking stuff like the prospect’s looks, energy levels, wealth, libido, ability to forestall an early death, etc. If you can’t appeal to self-interest, you’re dead in the water because you can’t make people care about what they don’t already care about.
- “The Money Is In The List” Every Direct Marketer knows the most brilliant sales letter will fail if it’s sent to the wrong list. I don’t care how great your Hi-Fi stereo equipment sales letter is, it’ll still stink worse than a fart in church if it’s sent to a list of Amish farmers. If the people on your list don’t already care about the stuff you’re selling, you can’t make them care, let alone buy.
In the branding world, this principle is best explained with my marketing mentor‘s maxim of “Speak to the dog, in the language of the dog, about what’s in the heart of the dog.”
When Pavlov did his whole trick with the bell and the salivating dog, he got it to work by starting with the taste of meat — by starting with something the dog already cared about.
If Pavlov had rung his bell every time he lit up a cigarette, they’d have been no drooling, no associative memory, and no Nobel prize — just an annoyed dog and a lot of annoying bell ringing.
You have to start with meat, which means you must associate your brand with a promise of things that are already “in the customers heart.”
The other way this influences branding is due to the nature of mass media.
Since mass media generally can’t be targeted by direct interest, the vast majority of people hearing or seeing most any ad aren’t currently in the market for the advertised product or service.
Most people aren’t currently in the market for a new car, for HVAC repair, engagement rings, or carpet cleaning, or a lawyer, gym membership, etc. Meaning that 90% of the audience doesn’t care about your ad. Or in the words of Steven Pressfield, “No one wants to read your shit.”
In place of immediate self-interest your ad has to offer entertainment. People don’t care about your shitty little ad, they do care to be amused, intrigued, and entertained. Thus Howard Gossage’s immortal line: “People don’t read ads. They read what interests them and sometimes that’s an ad.”
So entertainment is crucial. But there’s a catch: the entertainment has to be organic to the sales message, so your prospects can at least half-consciously absorb the desired branding and then involuntarily recall it when it’s time to buy.
When payday comes, you need people to think of your brand first and feel the best about you. And none of that will happen unless your ads captured their attention and implanted themselves in their long term memories, associated with something the listener already cares about.
Advertising Can’t Grow Your Market
Yes, in the simpler days of yester-year, a few companies with unimaginable ad budgets and access to societal levers of power were able to create or grow markets.
Think of De Beers’ ability to create the tradition of the diamond engagement ring, or Edward Bernays’ ability to convince Americans to start eating bacon and eggs for breakfast or to convince American Women to smoke in public by lighting up “torches of freedom.”
But — and this is a BIG but — if you’re reading this, then you are NOT the “Illuminati.”
You don’t have that kind of ad budget, that kind of influence with the media, or that kind of access to the levers of power to effect that kind of market growth. At best you might be lucky enough to catch a rising trend and benefit from a growth in your category. But as a small or medium sized business, you’re never going to create growth in your category.
So if the total size of whatever market you’re in, in whatever locations you have is fixed, then the only way to increase your top line sales is to steal them from your competitors.
That’s a hard truth that any genuine advertising professional will be happy to tell you, and that no posing fraudster will ever willingly confront.
If you want your cash register to ring more often, you need to convince more people to spend their money with you instead of someone else. Which means your advertising HAS to take into account your competitive landscape if you’re going to successfully steal market share.
But it gets even stickier than that.
Because, as we established, your brand has to be attached to some value or promise the customer already cares about.
And within any category, there are only so many relevant brand values that the customer does care about. So there’s a very strong chance your branding strategy will have to be based on theft and warfare.
Unless you’re the first to plant your flag on that hill, you’re going to have to take that hill by force or by guile.
When Duracell owned the brand promise of “long-lasting” in the minds of customers, Energizer had two choices: settle for “reliability” or fight Duracell for the long-lasting crown. Enter the Energizer Bunny which kept fighting and fighting and fighting until it conquered mount Long Lasting.
And now that Energizer owns long lasting, Duracell has claimed the smaller territory of reliability. Why?
Because marketing can’t get people to care about things that people don’t already care about.
When it comes to batteries, people really only care about long lasting and reliable. That’s it. And because Duracell can’t hope to grow the market for batteries bigger than it already is, they’re forced to work within the limits of what works in advertising.
In other words, Duracell is confined by what advertising can and can’t do. It can pound home a message about reliability. It can’t make people care about something they don’t already care about, or to buy batteries when they don’t need batteries.
How These Limits Should Effect Your Advertising
First, ask yourself the following questions:
- What values do customers already care about in your industry?
- Which brands already own those values in your industry, within your town?
- How do you plan on positioning yourself against them and stealing their market share?
If you can’t answer those questions on your own — especially the last one — then you should get an advertising professional to help you with them.
Second, make sure you work with an ad pro who understands what advertising can do, and most especially, what it CAN’T do.
“Nobody counts the number of ads you run; they just remember the impression you make.” -William Bernbach
“Before you can have a share of market, you must have a share of mind.” – Leo Burnett
Share of Voice: How much of the advertising done within your industry and in your market is yours?
Share of Mind: When people think of your product or service, which brands or companies spring to mind? Are any of them yours? Are you the first company they think of or the last? And how do they feel about you when your brand does come to mind?
But forget the definitions of these terms. Here’s how ad legend Dave Trott taught me to understand the powerful difference between Share of Voice and Share of Mind:
Let’s say that 19 ads for competitors are already gaining “exposure” to your prospect. And now your ad is going to enter the mix. That looks something like this:
Now, here’s the important part:
WHAT KIND OF AD DO YOU BROADCAST?
Because if all those other ads are represented by bland, white circles to signify their bland, boring messaging and production, and if you broadcast yet one more smooth, “professional sounding,” blandishment of an ad, then you’ll end up with a 5% Share of Voice.
But what if you don’t do that?
What if you broadcast a flaming red, unignorable ad that hits people between the eyes?
Well, then it would look like this:
Now, technically, at least, you’ll still only have a 5% share of voice.
But will that be how the audience sees, hears, and remembers it?
Will they remember your ad as one of twenty, or will they remember it as the only ad that won their attention and sparked their imagination?
Will they group all the other ads together as so much blah, blah, blah, and single out your ad as the exception to the blah, blah?
Well, general life experience and gestalt grouping principles indicate that, yeah, they will.
For instance, do you see the following picture as 36 dots?
Or did your mind automatically group the similarly colored dots together to form six lines of dots, with three lines of white dots alternating with three lines of black ones?
Once you understand that bit of magic, it’s easy to see that — with the use of a red-hot ad — your Share of Mind chart would really looks like this:
Because while you’re still only 1 of 20 ads, yielding a 5% Share of Voice, that’s not how the audience hears and remembers it.
In the mind of the audience, your ad is now 1 out of 2 groupings:
- Group 1 is your ad that stands out, and
- Group 2 consists of all the other ads that blend together.
That equates to a 50% share of mind.
That’s a 10X increase in effectiveness — from 5 to 50 percent!
Simply by moving from a mediocre to a great ad.
Of course, this example is simplified quite a bit. It doesn’t account for past advertising and reputation and already established Top of Mind Awareness, and so on.
Nor does it account for whether your red-hot messaging has much relevance.
Nor whether both your ad and your brand are recalled, or just the ad. Nor whether the recall and associations are positive. And so on.
This advertising business is a bit trickier than most people think!
But the insight remains the same, doesn’t it?
Because, really, that 10X increase IS the most important thing you need to know about Share of Voice and Share of Mind.
Most style guides are useless.
And, no, I’m not talking about visual style guides that specify fonts and logos and CMYK codes for brand colors.
I’m talking about style guides focused on Brand Voice — Copy Bibles, if you will. I’ve seen a few scores of them over the years, and 95% have been utterly worthless.
Because they mainly consist of Brand Voice descriptions along the lines of:
- “Widget Incorporated’s Brand Voice is mainly professional with a hint of humor.” Or
- “Our voice is human and quirky.” Or
- “ACME Corp is always respectful and honest in their communications.”
In other words, these documents are often nothing but an adjective word cloud put into guideline format.
There are no hard and fast rules (or even rules of thumb) in these so-called guidelines. Nor are there any practical directions around how the brand’s “humanity” (or whatever) will be communicated in a commercial, e-mail, or Web page.
And, no, grammar guidelines don’t count. Cutting and pasting various bromides from The Elements of Style into a Copy Bible won’t auto-magically produce a recognizable voice.
None of this stuff will let a professional copywriter (let alone your average employee) create copy that sounds “professional but quirky.” Or that has any kind of distinctive personality whatsoever.
The Road Runner’s Style Guide
Want to see a style guide done right? Here’s Chuck Jone’s style guide for The Road Runner Cartoons:
What’s great about this style guide?
- Notice that these aren’t guidelines; they’re freaking rules. Rules with words like “Never” and “Always” and “All” and “No.”
- Notice also that these rules are all astoundingly specfic.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these rules are aimed at establishing the internal logic of the Road Runner’s world.
Internal Logic, baby!
Because world building is what real writers worry about. And world building is all about establishing the internal logic, the limitations, and yes, the rules of a given world.
THIS is the stuff that creates a distinct voice and personality. This is the stuff that separates Star Trek from Star Wars from Dune. Different worlds, different internal logic, different ideas about what the characters can and can not do.
It’s why J.K. Rowling spent 5 years establishing the rules for Harry Potter before ever publishing the first book:
“The five years I spent on HP and the Philosopher’s Stone were spent constructing The Rules. I had to lay down all my parameters. The most important thing to decide when you’re creating a fantasy world is what the characters CAN’T do. . .you can tell with The Simpsons. It’s a work of genius. You can tell that they’ve structured it in such a way that they’re never at a loss for what their characters can and can’t do. That’s why they’re so believable – even though they’re little yellow people.”
If your Brand Voice guide or Style Guide doesn’t fit this profile — if it doesn’t build a world with internal logic and hard and fast rules — then you probably need to get yourself a new style guide, if not a new ad consultant altogether.
P.S. Hat tip to Suzanne Pope’s Ad Teachings blog for the image of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner rules.
P.P.S. After a bit more research, I found out that there were two more rules for The Road Runner:
- Rule 10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
- Rule 11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.