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The Servant of Two Masters

Posted on November 1, 2011 and read 3,608 times

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nick smile The Servant of Two MastersNick Bailey
ECD
AKQA Amsterdam

It’s been said that you never see your homeland in its true light until you’ve lived away from it. The truth of this is re-affirmed for me each August, when I soak up the spectacle of the UK political party conference season with the comforting barrier of the North Sea between the principle actors and me. Free from the obscuring lens of self-interest, I can enjoy the show as an exercise in cultural anthropology – and an instructive lesson for anyone in the persuasion business.

For those unfamiliar with the format, the conferences are a kind of cross between a company AGM and a university debating competition; in short, about as far from the slick razzmatazz of a typical political rally as it’s possible to get.

Instead of camera-friendly loyalists, the audience is made up of earnest party members and disgruntled activists, many of them nursing year-long grudges and impatient for their moment in the sun – unconscious or unheeding of their potential to wreak havoc in front of the unblinking eye of the media.

These annual airings of dirty laundry reach their glorious climax with the leaders’ speeches, whose impossible job it is to unite the party and seduce the electorate – and who never fail to deliver an object lesson in the perils of trying simultaneously to appeal to two audiences.

On the one hand, there is the party: their supporters, their detractors, their rivals – as riven with jealousy, self-interest, rivalry and short-termism as any commercial organization.

On the other hand, there is the electorate: their traditional supporters, whom they fear to alienate, the waverers, whom they hope to persuade, vested interests, big business, and (more rapacious and influential than in almost any other country on earth) the press.

This year was particularly exquisite, as neither party could blame the other for the debt-fuelled boom and financial crash, since both were complicit. They consequently tied themselves in knots: the Labour leader Ed Miliband with nuanced allusions (but no detail) around penalizing ‘bad’ business while supporting wealth-creation, while the Conservative leader David Cameron oozed platitudes about optimism and ‘leading to unleash your leadership’ – succeeding, to the derision of the press and confusion of the electorate, in talking for 45 minutes while saying nothing at all.

In a nutshell: ‘we’ll do the same things, with the same outcome, but with a different intent’.

Like all narcissists, (and you have to be a little in love with yourself to believe you alone can make a difference where all others have failed), they end up telling us a great deal more about themselves than they intend. By trying so transparently to paint a picture to please two masters, they end up pleasing neither: all their insecurities, imperfections and weaknesses are placed wretchedly on show. Their tragedy is that their anxiety to please has so powerful an unintended opposing effect.

All this is instructive when considering two other great institutions, also British in origin, also represented by red and blue, which have recently been engaged in a similar exercise in naval-gazing.

BA and Virgin Atlantic, in the latest installment in their two-decade long tiff, have unleashed brand campaigns, which – although grander in scale and slicker in execution – share their political contemporaries’ ambition of creating a unifying expression to please the organization, and a persuasive message to seduce consumers.

The now-grounded Concorde features prominently in BA’s rousing romp down memory lane. No doubt its skyward-thrusting phallocentricity ‘skimming the edge of space’ is designed to take wistful BA execs back to the golden days of the 1980s, when BA was the World’s Favourite Airline, and Concorde turned a brief profit as a supersonic ego-capsule catapulting British TV glitterati to Manhattan lunch-dates. According to BA, the new line ‘To Fly, To Serve’ is not a line at all, rather: ‘it’s what we do’. Which I suppose is inarguable, from a literal point of view.

In contrast to all those thrusting young chaps, with Virgin it’s all about the girls (or Bond girls to be precise). Bond girls in red power heels, crushing businessmen underfoot; Bond girls on red carpets; Bond girls in martini glasses; Bond girl usherettes dissolving in front of silver screens. Apparently, your airline ‘has either got it or it hasn’t': ‘it’ being, presumably, the hedonistic paradise that is the cabin of a Virgin Atlantic plane. No prizes for guessing which competitor is top of their ‘not having it’ list.

It seems that we’re being invited to make a choice about which airline we fly, not on the basis of what they offer us, but on the basis of how they see themselves. The same things, with the same outcome, but with a different intent.

This is not a criticism of the work itself. RKCR/Y&R and BBH, the production companies, the directors, the post-production houses have all done a wonderful job creating a perfectly rendered expression of the Brand. Their near-impossible task, like the red and blue party leaders, was to please two masters. To flatter the organisation, confirm its belief in its own superiority and specialness – while simultaneously seducing consumers.

Brand advertising in general usually succeeds spectacularly with the former, and indifferently with the latter. Why? Because the agency spends a lot of time listening to the client and very little listening to real consumers. Inevitably, the applause and heckles of the conference hall are more compelling and more influential than the distant murmur of the invisible audience outside.

No doubt, BA and Virgin will be able to demonstrate the success of these efforts through brand awareness or perception metrics. Paid media will always have an impact. But what makes me practically weep is the gross inefficiency of it all. If only all that effort, all that talent, all that money was devoted to actually making a positive difference to what the brands actually offer.

If your product or service is not better than the competition, change the offer, not the story. Innovate. Improve. Re-invent the category through product, as Nike did with Nike+ and running, or Apple with pretty much everything. If you can’t change the product, add value around it, like Red Bull with Air Race and Flugtag. If you can’t change your service or infrastructure, amplify what you already have, like Best Buy with Twelpforce or Starbucks with MyStarbucksidea. By all means talk – but only when you have something to say.

Branding in products or services as in politics is useful and necessary only as long as it signifies something real: an offer; an opportunity; a reward; a difference. Once it becomes merely a symbol of a symbol – a surface you scratch to reveal more surface, it’s like being hit-on by someone who only talks about themselves: at best, mildly entertaining, at worst, excruciating. After all, as experience proves, the most effective pick-up line in relationships, branding or politics has always been: ‘let me tell you something about you’.

Like the difference between real policy and political spin, brands that capture consumers’ imaginations and succeed do so because they deliver something tangible, because they tell us something about ourselves we didn’t know before, because they give us something we didn’t know we wanted.

After all, if the general public can’t bring itself to take an interest in the people with genuine power over their lives, their healthcare and the education of their children, they’re unlikely to care about what their airline sees when it looks in the mirror.







  • Mike Bayfield

    Excellent article . All summed up by ‘only talk when you have something to say.’

    I’m often left cold by ads like these. They’ve been beautifully shot and lovingly crafted, with the best CGI that huge ad budgets can buy, but seem somehow empty, lacking in a real human truth.

    Call me old-fashioned, but the ones that work for me are the simple ones, with a simple story, that contain a real insight into the mind/life of the target audience, like the recent Darth Vader ad for VW. Brilliant.

    Probably my favourite ad of all time was for Canadian Donut chain Tim Hortons, in 2001. It was for Timbits, the ‘holes’ from the donuts, sold separately in boxes.

    I can’t find it anywhere, but basically it goes something like this:

    A  middle-aged guy in his car picks up a box of Timbits on the way home from the office.

    He looks guiltily at box, flips the lid and pops one in his mouth.

    An old rock song from his youth comes on the radio.

    He cranks it up and starts singing along, pumping the air and popping Timbits in his mouth. He’s back there, in the zone.

    He pulls up in his driveway and looks down in the box and is immediately wrenched back to reality.

    There are only a handful of Timbits left as his two young daughters run over to the car, shouting ‘Daddy.’

    His wife sees the almost empty box and shakes her head in admonishment.
    ____________________________________________________________

    I wish I’d written that. It wasn’t me at the time (it is now) but I was there too. So was half of Canada. That summer everybody was talking about it.

    I wasn’t even working in advertising then, but in the house I was sharing, if it came on the TV we’d all shout to the others who’d come rushing to see it again.

    Maybe that’s why I got into the business in the first place.

    Anyway, better get back to that corporate banking ad…

    Cheers

    Mike

  • Mike Bayfield

    I really enjoyed the analogy with political parties, which I think illustrates a common problem with both politics and advertising, communicating to people what you really stand for and what it means for them.

    Maybe now I can see the reason why.

    With politics (here in the UK at least) we’re bombarded too much with empty soundbites, which seem to have little real substance or underlying conviction. There’s no connection with the everyday lives of the people they’re trying to reach.

    Same with a lot of big brand advertising.

    It’s all beautifully shot and lovingly crafted, using thebest post-production and CGI big ad budgets can buy, but often leaves you feeling rather cold and unmoved.

    Well it does me at least.

    It seems to lack some inner truth that makes you want to engage with the brand itself.

    Something that makes you stop and think.
    Something that makes you smile.
    Something that maybe even makes you cry.
    Something that makes you say, “yeah, that’s me.”

    It doesn’t have to change your life, but it should change your day.

    Call me old-fashioned, but the ads that do this tend to be the painfully simple ones. The ones that tell a little story, in a stylish way, with a real hook at the end. That demonstrate they know me better than I probably
    know myself. And at the same time, clearly communicate how the product will benefit me, the consumer, not merely how cool the brand is.

    One of my all-time favourite ads was a 2001 TV spot for ‘Timbits’ from Tim Horton’s, a Canadian donut chain. Timbits are the ‘holes’ from the donuts, in all different flavours.

    I can’t find it anywhere online, but it went something like this:

    A middle-aged guy stops off in his car to buy some Timbits, on the way home from the office.

    The box is beside him on the passenger seat as he drives. He flips the lid and pops one in his mouth, like ‘nobody will notice just one.’

    Then, an old rock song from his youth comes on the radio. Alright!! His face lights up and he cranks the dial and starts to sing along.

    He’s back there, transported in time.

    He pumps the air as he drives and pops more Timbits into his mouth.

    CUT TO: Pulling into his driveway.

    Two little girls run up to the car shouting “Daddy!”.

    He glances down at the Timbits and a look of horror crosses his face. They’re nearly all gone.

    His daughters don’t seem to realise, as he sheepishly hands them
    the box. But his wife does.
     
    All she says is, “one day they’ll know.”

    I probably wasn’t the target audience at the time (though I am now) but that ad really got me. It also seemed to get half of Canada, as everybody I knew at the time there was talking about it.

    In the house I was sharing, we’d shout each other every time it came on the TV. I wasn’t even working in advertising – neither were any of my friends – but it was ads like this that made we want to. It had soul.

    It communicated beautifully the irresistibility, the self-indulgent pleasure the product brings – a kind of lovely guilty secret. The reasons why a box never makes it home fully intact.

    Just like big political parties, there’ll always be a place for big brand ads – like the BA and Virgin ones – but wouldn’t it by nice if more of them had a little soul too? We can’t have sold it all to the Devil.

    Anyway, back to the corporate banking ad I’ve got to deliver in the morning.

    PS. If anybody can track the Timbits ad down online, please let me know.

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