Business caught in speed trap that destroys ad consistency

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The forces of consistency -- a crucial ingredient of effective advertising -- are diametrically opposed to the forces of sudden and rapid change -- a crucial ingredient of today's business environment.

Is it any wonder, with the rest of business changing at warp speed, that advertising gets dragged into the undertow? The result is that ad campaigns lurch from one theme to another, often at just the time their message was beginning to infiltrate the consumer's mind.

What's more, other media influences compete against advertising with intense ferocity. Movies explode into the firmament over the weekend, only to be gone the next. Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame has been compressed into 15 seconds, and still we can't wait for the next new thing, to borrow a phrase from business writer Michael Lewis.

"Future Shock" author Alvin Toffler, interviewed in Business 2.0, went so far as to say brand loyalty is a thing of the past. "We're having shorter and shorter relationships with ideas, because ideas become obsolete more and more frequently. Information becomes perishable. So you're constantly processing more and more, and you've got more and more temporary images and models in your head . . . so as relationships in general become more temporary, loyalty to brand is also undercut."

But, it seems to me, good advertising should be an oasis in the shifting sands of business. Let everything else change at a frenetic pace, but you should be able to rely on the time-tested appeal of a consistent advertising message. Coca-Cola, to me, will always be "The pause that refreshes." In a fast-moving world, that slogan has special resonance. Same with McDonald's and "You deserve a break today."

There's growing sentiment that the pell-mell pace of business isn't very conducive to clear thinking. Quickness, says Editor in Chief James Daly of Business 2.0, "comes at the expense of properly understanding the complexities of a situation. Sure, the fire hose of information that's made available by the networked society allows us to gather data quickly, but does it really speed up our ability to make better decisions? How do you balance the need for speed with a commitment to sharp thinking?"

Show me a company that changes its advertising strategy often and I'll show you a company that hasn't thought through other problems. If you can't get your ad strategy right, chances are your overall business strategy is also off the mark. Advertising is a very public view of the soundness of the thinking inside the company -- and too often the thinking isn't very sound.

The latest pathetic example is Diageo's Burger King. It's been floundering around, like a salmon swimming upstream, trying to find an ad theme that will sell hamburgers. It shuttles in marketing personnel from London, who immediately reverse the decisions made by the previous regime.

Even when, by chance, they come up with a campaign that begins to push the needle (such as the one that featured appetizing close-ups of Burger King food and classic pop songs, highly identifiable advertising that, ironically, would have worked great during the current Screen Actors Guild strike), they canned it for something highly forgettable. Add to that unholy babble other diversions -- the unhappiness of Burger King's franchisees over the chain's transient management and Diageo's efforts to spin it off as a separate company -- and you've got a recipe for certain failure.

Too bad the top brass can't take a deep breath and slow things down, but I guess they're afraid they'll get swept aside by other companies who don't know where they're going -- but who have got to get there fast.

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