Kevin Roberts and I Debate Whether the Days of Product as Hero Are Over

Why Today's Consumer Might Not Buy Into the Saatchi Chief's Strategy of Imbuing Brands With a 'Human Purpose'

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Rance Crain
Rance Crain

Kevin Roberts of Saatchi & Saatchi takes issue with what he characterizes as my sounding the "retreat," in a recent column, to simpler times when the product was the hero.

In the column I asked why ad practitioners were so intent on "recasting their jobs as noble missions unattached to the grubby job of selling something to somebody," and I cited Kevin's "Lovemarks" and Tom Bernardin and Mark Tutsel's "Humankind" strategies as examples of such nobility.

Kevin says that "marketing has moved on" from the days when the product was the main focus, "and indeed Ad Age has assiduously mapped the shift from transactions to relationships in an era of consumers empowered by digital technologies and connections.

"A real power shift started in the mid-'90s with the advent of the web, and the industry was left stranded without a story," Kevin asserted.

Having previously worked on the client side for 30 years, responsible for sales results at such companies as Gillette, Pepsi and Procter & Gamble, he "felt that traditional methods of brand management needed to be reinvented. Incremental evolution of marketing practice was going to be just too slow for the tsunami of change that was coming."

One key question was "what comes after brands?" -- and Kevin said I was correct in that he wanted client briefs to give our agency "lots of running room."

"I came into advertising seeing creatives, planners and managers being suffocated by rationality and process. ... Reframing the challenge with language was the solution. I felt from three decades of selling that emotion was an unexplored arena. I do believe in the idea of a higher purpose, as do clients."

P&G, Kevin noted, doubled its revenue under the "Consumer is boss" mantra and is continuing to make "extraordinary" sales as a "purpose-inspired" organization. Kevin, "being still in the fray," doesn't dismiss the role of product benefits and attributes in communications, but he nevertheless states flatly that the days of "product as hero" are gone. "Commodification rules here! 'Person as hero' is the genre, and my friends at Leo Burnett got the language right with 'Humankind.'"

I am sympathetic to Kevin's dilemma. Faced with the job of promoting mostly parity products, can you fault him and other agencies for talking about the people who buy the products rather than the products themselves?

In the overall scheme of things, it's probably cheaper for a company to rely on its advertising to provide a perceived product difference than to spend the money on R&D to come up with an actual (and actionable) product difference.

And, in the process, the marketing function is being marginalized. Its charge is to find a difference where there is none. Agencies are taking the only route open to them: Make the consumer the hero, as Kevin says, and bestow her with the higher purpose to buy products of higher purpose. That's the thinking behind the Pepsi Refresh project that , by the way, enabled Diet Coke to push Pepsi-Cola to third place in the cola wars.

Kevin says that when he was at P&G he was taught that his job was to make his brand irreplaceable. "Nowadays, in today's fast-paced world, nothing is irreplaceable -- all dandruff shampoos get rid of dandruff, all detergents get clothes clean, and all MP3 players deliver good sound.

"Today my job is not to make brands irreplaceable but to make them irresistible.

"To do this, a rational product story is not enough. You must deliver priceless value, not just price, not just value. You must connect emotionally by adding mystery, sensuality and intimacy to performance -- it is the audience as hero today, not the product."

Apple iPad: Not an empowered consumer in sight

Tell that to Steve Jobs. Apple advertising is focused unrelentingly on the product. There is not an empowered consumer in sight, except by implication. For the iPad2, the ads stay tightly focused on the product: "Now we can watch a newspaper. Listen to a magazine. Curl up with a movie. And see a phone call." Sure, other companies have their own tablets, but Apple shows off the iPad2 in such a compelling way that nobody else matters. As our BtoB magazine states: "The spot elegantly demonstrates how the tablet is changing the media landscape -- with a nagging subtext that shouts that you and your business are going to get left behind without one of these devices."

The point is that we've always had parity products. Back in the old days Puffed Wheat and Puffed Rice distinguished themselves from other cereals by saying they were "shot from guns" (even though other cereal companies also used this cooking process).

Maybe imbuing brands with a "human purpose" and engendering a capacity to love products beyond reason works when people have lots of money to spend to make them feel good about themselves and their higher calling. But today we live in a different world. "The old consumer economy is gone and it's not coming back," wrote David Leonhardt in The New York Times.

For many consumers their human purpose is to survive until their next paycheck. And the products they buy are their heroes when they can afford them and they do their jobs a little better than the next guy's.

Meanwhile, back on the agency frontlines, Kevin Roberts remains undeterred. The refrain of Alec Baldwin's character in "Glengarry Glen Ross" is "always closing," Kevin says. "I won't forget that , and if I sound evangelical about the role of emotion in today's business of sales, it's because this is what I believe."

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