Advertising must be true to the brand experience

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Advertising's job, at its most basic, is to capture the brand experience. Not enhance it, nor embellish it, but to reflect the interaction between the product or service being bought and the consumer buying it.

The idea is for marketers to touch the consumer all the way along their experience with the brand. For some companies the experience is more involving than others. For fast-food marketers the experience is everything; from the distinctive logo on the restaurant, the shape and color of the building, the decor and cleanliness (or lack thereof) when you enter, the friendliness and speed of service, and, of course, the quality of the food.

Consumers don't plunk down their money for a hamburger at McDonald's; they pay for the whole brand experience. If they enjoy the process, they'll come back and be willing to pay a few cents more than what Burger King charges. (If you only care about the quality of the food, you'll probably go to Wendy's.)

Most marketers don't have as many different encounters with the consumer along the path to buying their products. If you buy a can of peas, your experience with the product is pretty uncomplicated and you will pay for the can and the peas and that's about it. You won't pay more or less based on your experience in the supermarket-if you have to wait a long time in the checkout line or worry if the produce section is messy. That's not the fault of the canned-pea marketer.

In other words, it's not just the product that makes it a commodity, worth what other similar products are worth; it's the entire process of buying the product. You can't charge more for something if you don't have any control over the chain of events leading to the purchase.

Unless, of course, the payoff occurs after you buy the product. Maybe you don't get a whole lot of satisfaction about eating peas (after all, corn or brussels sprouts would taste just as good), but for products like Coca-Cola, it's more than just taste, it's the experience of drinking that is the payoff.

Coca-Cola's greatest tagline was "the pause that refreshes." Note that the slogan refers to the time you take to drink a Coke, not the drinking itself. Thus, how a product is used and consumed should determine the thrust of its advertising, and any other image detracts from and confuses the real-life brand experience.

Coke's current ads show how the product is consumed in realistic settings, and they're almost like product placements within a 30-second slice of life. One of the latest shows actress Salma Hayek in a restaurant kitchen eating tacos with a Coke bottle in view. She takes a long swig, then joins people at a table. When her meal comes she says, "Oh no, I'm watching my figure."

Each person takes away his or her own experience with a brand and advertising often has a difficult time mirroring that experience. That's why Starbucks doesn't often use traditional ads and when it does it actually has a negative influence.

The goal of traditional advertising is to replicate, as closely as possible, the universal brand experience. But if consumers aren't enjoying the experience with your product, no amount of media advertising will change their minds. Your other advertising-rude service, long lines-will have spoken far more eloquently.

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