What ‘Bad Jews’ can teach us about good communication

“It is my sincere belief that by being incredibly specific, one taps into something which is universal”.

Casually perusing the theatre reviews page in the Evening Standard last week I came across this great quote from playwright Joshua Harmon, taken from the programme notes for his new play, Bad Jews.

Whilst patently true, Harmon’s maxim rarely seems to be followed, particularly in the world of marketing communication.  Too much mass marketing takes a ‘one size fits none’ approach – attempting to appeal to everyone, whilst actually appealing to nobody.

Maybe it’s the desire not to offend, or the fact that too many ads are designed by committee, all the interesting rough edges having been smoothed away in endless rounds of research, but however it happens a large proportion of the work that finally sees the light of day ends up being bland, uninteresting, and – the cardinal sin for advertising – unmemorable.

Every brand wants to have a genuine dialogue with its customers, and ‘be part of the conversation’.  But most of them are too scared to talk to people on a human level, in the language ‘real’ people actually use in day-to-day conversation.

Some people (such as self-styled Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman) take this as a sign that people don’t want to have any form of relationship with brands.  And for the most part this is undoubtedly true.  But it isn’t necessarily so.

Mischief-making bookmaker Paddy Power is one clear exception.  It’s not for everyone, but Paddy Power always provokes a reaction, and that makes it a brand that many people want to have a conversation with, and about.

Because it is one of few brands out there that genuinely has character.  It is edgy and provocative.  Sometimes (often!) they go too far and get it wrong.

But by talking and acting like a real sports fan in the pub, they appeal to laddish young (and not so young) men who comprise a large proportion of the betting audience.  This is an amazing success story in such a commoditised and highly crowded market.

Going back a few years, the Yorkie ‘Not for Girls’ campaign was equally distinctive and controversial.  Byron Sharp uses this campaign in How Brands Grow as an example of focusing on too niche an audience, because ultimately more women ended up buying Yorkies than men.

I see Yorkie more as a triumph for distinctive brand positioning than bad targeting.  Nestle made sure to use mass media that would expose the campaign to men and women equally.  In doing so they deliberately created a strong emotional reaction amongst women, forcing them to actively appraise whether or not Yorkie was for them.

Of course the increasing ability to use data to deliver personalised behavioural marketing should theoretically put an end to this issue of irrelevant and uninteresting advertising.  We know so much about who people are, where they go and what they do that we have the ability to always be incredibly specific with our marketing communication.

The problem is that for the most part creativity doesn’t seem to have kept pace with technology where personalised marketing is concerned.

‘Hey, look at this really cool ad that’s obviously been created just for me’, said nobody, ever.

‘How do they know which websites I’ve been on, and why do they now keep bombarding me with ads for things I looked at once but didn’t want to buy?’ say lots of people every day.

Having lots of data at our disposal is a wonderful gift.  But with great data comes great responsibility.

Obviously we have a duty to our clients to drive cost-efficient sales in the short term, if that is the task at hand.

But we also have a duty to the consumer, to ensure we use what we know about them to deliver interesting, relevant and timely communication in a way they will genuinely value.  And we haven’t cracked that part yet.

For the billions of marketing dollars that are spent every year, most people wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands ceased to exist.

Unfortunately it seems we know everything about everyone, except how to make them care about us.

We’re smart people.  We can change this.  But only if we make data and content work hand in hand, rather than seeing them as discrete choices.

What you see is all there is

How much do you know about the country you live in?

For all the rhetoric about immigration that currently dominates the news agenda, do you know how many immigrants there really are in the country?

Russell Brand is running around urging us all not to vote, but do you know what proportion of the electorate actually voted in the last general election?

These and other questions like them were included in a fascinating study conducted last year by IPSOS-MORI in an effort to understand how closely people’s perceptions match reality.

Before you look at the results why not take the quiz yourself, by clicking on this link.

How well did you do?  Don’t worry if your estimates were way off, the study’s title ‘Perils of Perception’ should give you a clue as to how well most people fared.

What I find fascinating though isn’t that most people have a distorted view of the key issues, but that when confronted with the truth they still refuse to believe it.

On immigration, for example, when told the actual figure is actually much lower than they first thought, respondents either flatly refuted the official figure or defended their answer based on the evidence of their own eyes:

IPSOS-MORI Immigration

Coming to incorrect conclusions based on limited evidence is of course a common problem.  As far as our intuitive mind is concerned perception is indeed reality –  ‘What You See Is All There Is’, as Daniel Kahneman explains in his behavioural economics bestseller Thinking, Fast & Slow.

This perception bias is equally true of people who work in advertising as it is of everybody else.

As Thinkbox found in 2013, most people’s estimates of UK media consumption are wide of the mark, but people who work in advertising are in most cases even further out than “normal people” on what is supposed to be their specialist subject!

Why are advertising professionals getting it so wrong?

Is it because they spend such a high proportion of their time looking at new media opportunities that they assume they carry greater weight with the wider population than they really do?

Or is it simply that advertising folk – most of whom live and work in London – just aren’t representative of the UK population?

Would it improve the ad industry if more ad agencies upped sticks to other parts of the country?

Certainly it might persuade more cash-strapped young grads to join the industry.  And spending more time outside London might help planners understand the ‘real world’ better.

However, proximity doesn’t necessarily lead to empathy.

For example, advancements in the use of technology in ethnographic research mean that geography shouldn’t be a barrier to understanding different types of people.

We can’t change the way our brains work, but we can make a conscious effort to overcome these instinctive biases in order to produce more impactful and effective work.

Firstly we must find a balance between constantly innovating and testing new opportunities that might give clients a competitive advantage over their peers, whilst ensuring we don’t neglect the reality of what works in the here and now.

Secondly it’s not about where we’re based geographically, it’s about remembering that other people’s reality may differ from our own, and constantly seeking to understand and empathise with the way people think and act.