Marketers keep it real

It's not an advertising tactic that could resurrect the reputation of Enron but for Wal-Mart, Tim Hortons, and Buckley's, the use of real people or employees in their communications has helped reinforce their brand character over the years.
New campaigns starring employees have recently been launched by Canadian Tire, The Standard Life Assurance Company and, from Domtar, the paper company, a B2B effort.

It’s not an advertising tactic that could resurrect the reputation of Enron but for Wal-Mart, Tim Hortons, and Buckley’s, the use of real people or employees in their communications has helped reinforce their brand character over the years.

New campaigns starring employees have recently been launched by Canadian Tire, The Standard Life Assurance Company and, from Domtar, the paper company, a B2B effort.

The technique is as old as advertising itself but fresh takes keep popping up as advertisers attempt to put a trusted, more human face on their companies and their brands. Rick Wolfe, president of Poststone Corporation, a Toronto research and strategic planning consultancy, says this tactic can in part be interpreted as a defensive move to counter corporate mistrust following various scandals, but that’s not all of it.

In today’s competitive economy, Wolfe says it’s hard to sustain the advantage of a distinctive product because competitors can copy what is distinctive very quickly. The advantages are coming from running efficient and effective organizations – and those companies that are doing that should talk about or feature their employees in their advertising.

‘When it comes to marketing communications, you have to position your product in the minds of consumers but a two-dimensional positioning is inadequate,’ he explains. ‘There needs to be character to the story and what more powerful way could there be than to include your employees – particularly if you’ve done all the hard work of empowering your employees by aligning your mission, vision and values.

‘If you’ve done all that work to get thousands of employees working hard and effectively and with genuine motivation, then I think it makes sense to tell that story to the consumer.’

Wolfe cautions that companies using this approach must be absolutely confident they can follow through on the promise or it will be a wasted effort. Putting a ‘human face’ to a company in a campaign does not buy instant believability. Like all advertising, whether it features customers, employees or actors, the company and brand have to live up to the messages inherent in a campaign.

Shows solid values

Jackie Moore, manager, corporate branding for Standard Life, says she decided to use employees following extensive research, indicating that the major differentiator between Standard and its competitors is its employees’ commitment to its customers. The purpose of the campaign was to show the solid, traditional values of transparency, honesty and integrity that are the foundation of Standard Life as a company.

‘Different creative concepts were developed and tested. The one that evoked the best response from both intermediaries and end users was this concept using real employees. A side benefit is that our people feel good about and proud of the campaign.

‘The theme line is ‘Keeping our word is standard.’ The message is that, ‘thanks to the dedication, commitment and reliability of the people of Standard Life, you can trust and rely on the company.”

Moore says that theme will be ongoing through 2003 with TV as the primary vehicle and print support in both consumer and trade publications.

While employees can convey sincerity, honesty and believability, there are performance challenges simply because they are not actors, says Linda Perez, VP, managing director of Standard’s agency Academie Ogilvy in Montreal.

Perez says, ‘The first and obvious (risk) is that there is a real danger that the employees selected for the commercial will look and act stilted or unnatural.

‘Secondly, there is the organizational challenge – no mean feat when there are offices across Canada and over 2,000 employees to consider. Third, once an employee has been selected to participate in a shoot, the decision not to include him or her in the final cut is very delicate. Fortunately we were not faced with [that].’

The human side

In its ‘A Different Feel’ business-to-business print campaign from BBDO, Domtar is showing its human side by using its employees interacting with paper items such as a table cover and a book. The advertising is directed to four targets: commercial printers, publishers, graphic designers, and key business decision makers.

Scott Townsend, Domtar’s director of advertising, promotions and branding, says the company became one of the largest paper companies in North America last year when it bought four mills in the U.S. The new campaign is meant to show that the company may be bigger but it hasn’t forgotten its roots and how it got there – through its employees.

Townsend says that when huge changes happen, it’s important to step back and take a look at what the company is today, what customers are looking for and what you can highlight within the company that is important to customers.

What he found was that customers liked Domtar’s human touch, as reflected in its corporate tagline, ‘Paper would be boring without people.’

‘It really talks about the customer experience and how we’re slightly different from everyone else in how we do business. We’re a little warmer. We go that extra mile,’ says Townsend. ‘It just made sense to use employees because human interaction is so important to us.’

Need valid brand reason

There doesn’t seem to be one particular category that works best with a ‘real people’ strategy but it is imperative that there is a valid brand reason for using this technique, says Alan Gee, chair and chief CD of Gee Jeffery & Partners, Toronto.

Gee says sometimes these types of campaigns work in the boardrooms of corporations but flop in the living rooms of the consumers who watch them. He points to some of the ads using basketball great Michael Jordan as examples of campaigns that work and don’t work. Gee believes there is synchronicity with the brand when Jordan appears in Nike advertising but when he’s flogging Rayovac batteries, using Jordan just because he’s a big name isn’t relevant or effective.

‘When it comes to using real people in advertising, if it’s relevant and enhances the idea or strategy being presented then it works really well,’ he says.

His agency’s new work for Atlas Wines’ Ancient Coast brand uses, not employees, but real climatologists and geologists to explain why Ontario’s Niagara region produces such fine wine. It also explains the brand name Ancient Coast, a reference to the fact that the region’s rich soil partly comes from the fact that it was once part of an ancient sea.

The climatologists and geologists provide this education in four 60-second radio executions. The radio is supported by in-store material as well as two magazine executions. For instance, one illustrates how the warm sun, gentle breezes, and gentle rain of the region – plus its protection from the harsher elements by the Niagara Escarpment – promote the growing of superior wine grapes. All ads are tagged with the line, ‘Ancient Coast. Wines worth discovering.’

Gee says the tactic was used to break through the competitive clutter of vintner, vineyard and bottle executions with radio and print advertising that comes at consumers ‘sideways’ and therefore grabs their attention.

This strategy is all about brand character, personality and attributes, says Gee, and the engaging, unabashed simplicity that comes from using the right ‘real’ people or employees.

Gee points to Buckley’s cough syrup’s employee campaign last year as one that used this technique very successfully to show the human face of the brand and that they were ‘fastidiously dedicated to the product.’

Bruce Philp, managing partner of the agency behind the Buckley’s advertising, Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering in Toronto, says the transition from using only Frank Buckley as the face of the brand came about mainly because the company was expanding its cough and cold product lineup.

‘If it was possible to positively impute the character of that brand to the whole organization rather than to just one man that would be good for everyone, including Frank Buckley. If we could demonstrate some plurality in the company it might help us credibly claim plurality in our product line as well.’

The employee campaign ran last season and the results were ‘unbelievable’ says Philp. The research showed that while Frank Buckley was the company’s most famous and persuasive spokesperson, consumers didn’t confuse him with the product or the company and were open to employee spokespeople as well. With cold season around the corner, Philp is close-mouthed about what we’ll see from Buckley’s this year.

Philp says the common motive to use employees and non-actors in commercials is to convey sincerity and, that while the execution may be less impressive executionally, it will seem more truthful because real people are saying it. But advertising alone can’t humanize a company. It has to be a reflection of corporate reality, he says, or consumers will know it.

‘Tim Hortons, I would say, is a case where the employees are a very big part of the product. That’s acknowledged and understood by their customers so there’s a kind of invitation on the part of the consumer to have the brand talk to them this way. You get reassurance that the brand is still the brand you know and love. It sort of gives it authenticity.’

Tim Hortons has been using employees and real devotees of its products for several years. (Although, currently a recruiting campaign, using actors as staff, highlights the advantages of being an employee at Tim’s – from the ability to work shift work to wearing your uniform with pride on public transit.)

Cathy Whelan Molloy, Tim Hortons VP brand advertising and merchandising, says when real people are used in an ad, it is based upon real experiences people have imparted about the brand. Rather than using actors to convey that sense of community or loyalty to the brand, she says real people are much more effective.

‘We think there’s no better endorsement than a real customer talking about their relationship to the product or their loyalty to the product and what it means to them.’