I was brought up to think that advertising should implant one fundamental idea in people's minds (Volvo represents safety; BMW represents performance). But now some advertisers are saying different things to different buying segments, with no overall unifying theme.
I was also raised to believe advertising's main job was to move the merchandise, but these days many advertisers seem to use it to maintain or achieve premium pricing.
Larry Light, the former marketing chief at McDonald's, startled the ad world a couple of years ago when he endorsed a "brand chronicle" concept that seeks to tell as many different stories in as many ways as it takes to reach McDonald's close to 50 million customers. "A brand is multidimensional. No one communication, no one message can tell a whole brand story," Mr. Light told our AdWatch conference in 2004. The "I'm lovin' it" theme is just a device that shows up at the end to identify the commercial as coming from McDonald's and isn't meant to be a statement about the brand.
I had to travel to Dubai to hear a very articulate rationale for advertising's role in premium pricing. Mike Simon, senior VP-corporate communications at Emirates Group, said advertising for the airline plays a big role in profitability "because we believe that brand building is about sustaining price premiums. Sales volume is less a yardstick of advertising performance-our experience is that advertising influences price more than sales. And yield improvement goes straight to the bottom line."
It's one thing for a high-priced airline to use ads to shore up prices and hence profits, but when high-volume brands like Coca-Cola start preaching from the same hymnal, maybe there's a trend. Coke's Chairman-CEO Neville Isdell told The Wall Street Journal that the company's game plan is to re-energize and modernize Coca-Cola by bringing out brands like Coke Blak that are high-revenue "but not necessarily high-volume. That is a different mind-set than where we have been before."
Volkswagen, in its new series of commercials, seems to be emulating the McDonald's strategy of appealing to different buyers with different, unrelated, messages. Whether VW will ever get back to a unifying theme, like "Drivers Wanted," I don't know, but I've been told it has lots of new models coming and ads will plug the new badges.
The danger is that VW's disparate ads (or McDonald's, for that matter) could conflict with one another or turn off buyers who the ads weren't aimed at.
A former VW exec is worried that the car company is spending big bucks to promote the GTI, which sells only about 20,000 units a year. (Maybe VW believes, like Emirates, that advertising influences price more than sales.)
Volkswagen's first GTI ad was titled "Make friends with your fast," and Bob Garfield contended that the spot's emphasis on speed was not responsible. VW's latest, for Jetta, shows in very graphic terms what happens when the Jetta is hit by another car. "Safe happens" is the slogan. The point is that Jetta has the highest government impact rating.
But couldn't some viewers conclude that the Jetta was hit by the same guy who has made friends with fast in his new GTI? Doesn't the promotion of speed and the promotion of safety send a mixed message?
I don't think this is what Larry Light envisioned when he talked about brand chronicles. I believe he expected all the messages to at least be on the same page.