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SAS campaign adds new faces

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Is the fat lady getting ready to sing for the thin blonde woman in the SAS Institute ads?

In the business intelligence software company’s latest print campaign, the woman, a SAS employee named Sterlina, plays a reduced role. In the new campaign’s first four ads, which began running in August in publications such as BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes, she appears in two. The other ads feature Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos and SAS President-CEO Jim Goodnight.

Sterlina has generated some controversy since beginning to appear in ads about 18 months ago, after the Cary, N.C.-based company severed ties with its advertising agency, Howard, Merrell & Partners. Canadian Business reported that some SAS Institute employees derided Sterlina’s presence in the ads and worried about what off-color headlines the ads might inspire, such as "a nice piece of SAS."

SAS said research indicates the previous Sterlina ads—the company calls them the "bold color" ads, because of their reliance on bright colors—got noticed. However, the company believes its current advertising can deliver its message to top management more effectively.

"Those [earlier] ads worked to a degree," said Mike Tindal, senior VP-corporate communications at SAS. "Those ads were successful at stopping readers and grabbing hold of them, but we believe there are ways to improve our advertising further than that."

SAS plans to measure the effectiveness of the ads currently running in the U.S. and a different set of ads in the U.K. (which don’t feature any people). After assessing the results of this research, SAS plans to launch a revamped global campaign in early 2004. Whether Sterlina will make the cut remains to be seen.

Targeting top execs

Three years ago, SAS began seeking to move beyond its core technology audience to address the C-suite, where business software decisions were increasingly being made. That’s when the company began running branding ads prepared by Howard, Merrell & Partners.

In June 2000, SAS launched a branding campaign that featured headlines that were projected onto people’s foreheads. For example, one headline read: "The future of your e-business is being decided right here." The body copy asked, "Do you really know what goes on in the minds of your e-customers?"

The ads were intended to convey the message that SAS software could help businesses discover customers’ needs. To get this point across, SAS spent $31.8 million on media during 2000 and $28.3 million in 2001, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.

In late 2001, after it was clear the tech bubble had popped, SAS brought its advertising back in-house. The company has a staff of 170 people devoted to marketing communications in one form or another, ranging from advertising to collateral and from public relations to the Web, Tindal said. In 2002, SAS scaled back its media spending to $19.2 million.

Sterlina strategy unclear

The SAS in-house staff created the Sterlina campaign. The strategy behind using her is unclear to many observers.

"I don’t get her role," said John Hagerty, VP at AMR Research.

"She is an employee, and throughout the campaign she is intended to be the face of SAS," Tindal explained.

But she is not identified as an SAS employee in the ads. In the eyes of some agency executives, the executions seem to violate a basic tenet of advertising: that the visual, headline and body copy work together.

"I read the copy and looked at the image, and they didn’t make sense," said Mike Ganey, senior VP at Howard, Merrell. "Some model shot in a high-fashion style alongside copy talking about business intelligence software. The visual didn’t speak to any particular need I’m aware of."

From readership studies to focus groups to awareness studies, the research showed, however, that the target audience recalled the ads, Tindal said. AMR’s Hagerty agreed that the ads were noticed. He said analysts at AMR were aware of "the ads with the woman in the blue suit."

The current SAS campaign departs from the previous Sterlina strategy by adding Bezos (a third-party endorsement) and Goodnight (identifying the CEO with the company) to the mix. Analysts said the ads with Bezos and Goodnight appeared to be more likely to resonate with top management. Of the ad with Bezos, AMR’s Hagerty said, "That’s a good endorsement right there."

Brand less well known

Analysts agreed that top management is, indeed, the audience SAS needs to reach. As IT spending becomes more central to a company’s success, decisions on software and other tech purchases have moved into the C-suite. While SAS is recognized among IT professionals, the company’s brand doesn’t have the power of Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP and others that compete with it, analysts pointed out.

"You need to be known as solving business problems; you need to be known for solutions not just as a technology company," said AMR’s Hagerty.

Hagerty doesn’t expect Sterlina to be in the next iteration of the campaign, speculating that her image has been retained in the current ads only to ease the transition.

Tindal, however, said he expected Sterlina to continue being featured in SAS advertising.

"I like the idea of a campaign that uses testimonials for a certain message, uses our CEO as a very credible spokesman, particularly in certain markets, and continues to build on a familiar face, albeit with a different creative approach," he said.

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