Commentary by Al Ries


They Assume the Primary Function of Ads Is to Communicate

By Published on .

A recent five-page magazine advertisement foldout opened up with the following 39 attributes spread out over two pages: Renegade, fearless, unexpected, bold, true, spontaneous, curious, intriguing, unwavering, rare, brash, provocative, intuitive, genuine, daring, uncommon,
The Infiniti FX45.
irreverent, brazen, absolute, unusual, visionary, idyllic, proud, maverick, wild, undaunted, resolute, poetic, dynamic, soulful, unconventional, strong, romantic, authentic, brave, unorthodox, deft, radical, dreamer.

What brand could possibly combine all these wonderful attributes? Turn the page and get the answer: The new 315-hp FX45. And who makes the renegade, fearless, unexpected, bold, true, etc., etc. FX45?

There in small type at the bottom of the next page is the answer. Infiniti, accelerating the future.

What's wrong?
What's wrong with this advertisement and thousands more just like it? It assumes that the primary function of advertising is to communicate. "Tell more, sell more" was the old advertising adage.

The idea that advertising is a form of communications is deeply embedded in the corporate psyche. Many Advertising Departments are now calling themselves the Marketing Communications Department, or "Marcom" for short. Too bad. The name encourages advertising people to go in exactly the wrong direction.

Advertising is not communications; advertising is positioning. The best advertising communicates precious little about the product or service. What the best advertising does, however, is to establish and reinforce a position in the prospect's mind.

What's an Infiniti? I don't know, do you? What I do know is that an Infiniti is not

a renegade, fearless, unexpected, etc., etc. automobile.

Rolex as example
You don't have to communicate much of anything to build a powerful brand. Take Rolex watches. What do you know about Rolex except that it's an expensive Swiss watch? The "best" expensive Swiss watch.

Do you know where Rolexes are made? How they are made? What makes them different from less-expensive Swiss watches? As a matter of fact, do you know anything about Rolex except that it's the best expensive Swiss watch?

Probably not. Nor do you need to know anything more than that. That's the Rolex position. The best expensive Swiss watch.

A mind is much too small a container to hold all the marketing messages that companies are trying to stuff into it. Trying to communicate more information than is necessary is self-defeating. It can actually reduce the effectiveness of a marketing program. Furthermore, it can also reduce the mystique of the brand.

Position the brand
The primary function of a marketing organization is to position the brand. That's the goal that should always be kept in mind.

It can be shocking to learn how little information the average prospect holds in his or her mind. Take Peter Drucker, for example. What do you know about Peter Drucker?

To most management people, Peter Drucker is a management guru. The "best" management guru. But what do you know about his principles. What does he have to say about managing a business?

"Aaaah ... he's a guru," the average manager might say. And what else does that person need to know to hold Peter Drucker in an exalted position in the mind? Nothing.

Actually, knowing too much about a person's beliefs hurts the positioning process. Politicians have learned that principle well. If a politician took a position on every issue in an election, he or she would be

'Better ingredients, better pizza' at Papa John's.
bound to offend everybody in the process. And possibly lose everybody's vote.

Brilliant positioning
"Better ingredients, better pizza," says Papa John's. As a result of this brilliant positioning, Papa John's has become the third-largest pizza chain in America and one of the fastest growing.

Do you know what the better ingredients are? Do you know that Papa John's uses fresh crushed tomatoes, real mozzarella cheese and distilled water in the preparation of its pizzas? Most people don't. Does it matter? Probably not. Better ingredients, better pizza is enough to position Papa John's a step above Pizza Hut and Domino's.

Look at your marketing materials. Are you trying to communicate or are you trying to position? There is a difference.

Look at the automobile communications problem, not from the point of view of the communicator, but from the point of view of the communicatee.

There are hundreds of car models. (The April 2003 issue of Consumer Reports reviews 210 different car models.) Is the prospect going to associate one of those car models (the 315-hp Infiniti FX45) with 39 different attributes. Obviously not.

Car model vs. brand
As a matter of fact, can you even position a car model? For the most part, the answer is no. There are just too many to conveniently fit into the mind.

The best you can do is to position a car brand. And only a handful of car brands have done so. Volvo owns the "safety" position. BMW owns "driving." And Mercedes-Benz owns "prestige." And Infiniti owns? Well, what do they own? Or what do they want to own? Or what can they own?

These are the questions that every marketing department should be asking itself.

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Al Ries is the author or co-author of 11 books on marketing, the most recent of which is The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. He and his daughter Laura run the Atlanta-based marketing strategy firm Ries & Ries.

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