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.

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