WHEN ADS DON'T PRODUCE SALES, WATCH THE (PHONY) EXCUSES FLY

By Published on .

Advertising's failure to produce results is reaching crisis proportions.

Consider: Campbell Soup Co., blaming unusually mild weather, announced profits would fall short of expectations in its current quarter; Coca-Cola Co., blaming lower consumer spending and purchasing power, said its volume grew at a slower rate than expected; and Peter Jacobi, longtime Levi Strauss executive, retired as president and CEO, blaming himself.

In all three cases, the companies counted on advertising to bail them out of a deepening hole and in all three cases advertising let them down. The moral of the story is advertising can't be counted on to deliver upward sales momentum when it's most needed.

There are plenty of excuses. Campbell executives over-promised and under-delivered; Coke ran into reluctant customers; and Levi got outflanked by changing buying trends.

Baloney. Consumers are always altering their buying decisions and preferences in some way, but marketers in the past seemed more adept at reaching them with fresh sales approaches that appealed to their new expectations. Now companies seem stuck for new ideas.

Most analysts weren't buying Campbell's excuse that the warmest weather "since 1200, when Empress Irene blinded her son Constantine and vowed to marry Charlemagne," hurt soup sales.

"To blame the majority of this issue on warm weather is a little too optimistic," one stock analyst told The Wall Street Journal. "The fact is that condensed soup is used primarily for cooking, and Campbell is discovering that, no matter how much it spends on marketing, it can't get people to cook more. It's a lifestyle issue."

But it's always a lifestyle issue. That's what marketers deal with. Procter & Gamble has had to cope with changing patterns of washing clothes as more women joined the workforce, and it had to adjust its ad message to reflect the realities of the marketplace.

What it boils down to is Campbell's advertising for condensed soup just hasn't cut it.

You can blame the problem at Levi's on the fact it missed out on the latest teenage fashion trend, but in the old days Levi's set the trends through its great advertising. That's what great advertising does: It plays the tune rather than just dancing to the tune.

I'm getting tired of marketers blaming their bad fortunes on circumstances beyond their control. The truth is there have always been, and there always will be, pretty abrupt changes in the way consumers buy products. It's marketing's job to anticipate, even help shape, new patterns of buying behavior.

And that brings us to Coca-Cola. What a gigantic cop-out to say Coke's problems are caused by reduced consumer purchasing power. Maybe Coke's problems are caused by the fact consumers now have a wide array of refreshment choices, from bottled water to fruit juices to fancy coffees. When Coke was "it," simple reminder advertising was all that was needed to spur sales.

But perhaps consumers now need a good reason to buy Coke over the alternative choices, and the company's current crop of disparate commercials, with no theme except the red Coca-Cola oval, aren't enough to move the sales needle.

Maybe Coke should start running ads that actually suggest some good reasons to buy it. I've really never quite understood why polar bears quaffing Coca-Cola is convincing; I'd have thought they'd prefer hot chocolate.

I don't think it's too much of a burden to expect advertising to provide substantial reasons to buy a product that fits into consumers' lifestyles -- changed though they may be.

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