Whassup with all the blandvertising?

Queen's prof Ken Wong and indie agency topper Tony Chapman continue to tackle the thorny marketing challenges and offer Renegade CMO solutions. This month, they ponder servicing the mega account.

Ken’s query:

Frank and Gordon seem destined for retirement, people are questioning whether Galen Weston Jr. should continue as spokesman for Loblaw and I can’t recall the last truly memorable ad for RBC, a brand with one of the highest financial evaluations around. These are huge brands and huge accounts: I cannot think that agencies aren’t giving these firms their best talent. So what gives? Why can’t these brands get it right?

If you accept that the talent on these brands is among the best in the business, it either means the research behind them is flawed or the client is making some really bad choices. Tony, you’re the head of an agency – what’s so hard about servicing the mega brand’s mega account?

Tony’s theory:

Many of the CMOs running mega brands earned their titles because they are very good at mass advertising. They empowered their teams to uncover killer insight and craft the stellar brief, they collaborated with the best thinkers in their mass agency, they had a sharp eye for creative and they shouted loudly with their mass media buy. The problem is that much of what they know and do has been rendered obsolete due to the forces of change in the marketplace.

The consumer is no longer captive, and has moved on from mass to ‘my.’ My brands, my media, my main street and, most importantly, my needs. Consumers are either trading up and paying a premium for the brands, stores and social networks that serve their specific needs, or trading down to any number of mass brands or retailers that they view as commodities due to their reliance on pricing and deals to drive volume. The middle ground where many brands compete is disappearing, making mass pitches irrelevant to the consumer.

We might just have to wait for the next generation of marketers to move the agenda and investment from shouting to conversation, from impressions to meaningful interactions and from mass to my.

Ken: I agree with everything you say, Tony, but we had these problems long before the latest turn of the social and technological wheel.

As you suggest, the broad but shallow positioning needed for category leadership often leads category-leading spending on a very bland message. Maybe that’s why private labels continue to erode the shares of branded products: bland creative is not enough to justify a premium price and so consumers legitimately complain that prices reflect ‘marketing’ (and I mean that in the worst way).

I don’t think any marketer really believes they can sell to everyone, but I think that the desire to craft a campaign that no one dislikes leads to the same outcome.

Tony: There are three primary reasons for blandness. The first is the consolidation of strategy and creative at global head office, the result being one-size-fits-all advertising. The second is the growing power of interest groups. No one wants their CEO to have to apologize to the Rat Lovers society for casting rats in a disparaging fashion. And the third is market position, which most market leaders aren’t willing to risk by leading the consumer to a new space. That’s why entrepreneurs and private labels, not multinationals, are creating much of the true innovation for consumers.

Ken: Interesting point. The truly iconic brands stake out turf and don’t compromise it in the interest of mass appeal. Those who do compromise it end up with a fundamentally bland brand proposition which either leads to bland creative or advertising that has to be ‘out there’ or ‘on the edge’ to be noticed. Sure the client gets seen – but not heeded.

Ken Wong is a career academic at Queen’s School of Business who wedges consulting between classes and speaking gigs. Tony Chapman is an entrepreneur/career brand guru and founder of Toronto-based agency Capital C. Both are legendary (according to the Marketing Hall of Legends).