McD's Light, 'positionistas' differ on multiple messages

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A couple of years ago, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Partnership for a Drug Free America got into a wrangle over the role of integrated marketing in the anti-drug campaign.

The White House Office wanted to change behavior by appealing to different groups with multiple themes and strategies. The Partnership was concerned that the message was being watered down by having too many strategies and not enough media weight.

Allen Rosenshine, vice chairman of the Partnership and former CEO of BBDO Worldwide, testified at a congressional hearing that while the anti-drug campaign originated with "an elegantly simple vision, today it attempts to adhere to an unwieldy theoretical construct of a fully-integrated social marketing campaign." He added that similar integrated efforts by corporations "have proved ineffective and wasteful."

As soon as Mr. Rosenshine retired as CEO of BBDO earlier this year, new management installed leadership that embraced the idea that clients want to reach consumers in many and varied ways beyond the 30-second spot. Now, McDonald's Global Chief Marketing Officer Larry Light has taken the integrated idea one step further: Any marketer who sticks to one theme is hopelessly outdated.

Striking out against the "positionistas" who maintain brands must have one single identity, Mr. Light declared that "a brand is multidimensional. No one communication, no one message can tell a whole brand story," he told our AdWatch conference.

After his prepared remarks, I asked Larry if the positioning concept had ever worked. He said that a unique selling proposition was an effective way to sell your brand in the 1950s. "Most brands were new, and needed to find a position in consumers' minds. We had a growing population, a growing economy, and brands needed to find a way to stand out."

But today, he added, "we don't have that growth engine. The population and economy are not growing at the same explosive rate. Now we are seeing the consolidation of brands. In that environment, the USP fails. It was right for its time. It's wrong for today."

Al Ries and Jack Trout, ever since they wrote a series of articles outlining the principles of positioning in our publication in the early `70s, remain the embodiment of the "positionistas" to this day. It's Al's position that Larry is turning back the clock, not winding it forward. "Apparently Larry is taking McDonald's backwards," Al said. "In the good old days, every brand tried to appeal to everybody." (One of the basic ideas in the positioning series was called the "everybody trap.")

"Even if everything Larry Light says about McDonald's is correct, I would hate to see other companies that have strong competitors adopt similar strategies," he said. "Companies that appeal to everybody wind up appealing to nobody."

The crux of the matter is whether McDonald's-or the Partnership, for that matter-is a different kind of animal. Because the fast-feeder provides a different brand experience to its various constituencies-kids, young adults, adults, its employees--multiple messages may indeed be appropriate. But if other marketers employed the same tactics, would they become ensnared in the "everybody trap"?

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