Joel Kelly's Blog

Joel Kelly's updates about his latest writing, his process, and his life as a Halifax-based author and marketer.

Don't just illustrate the brief: Making a better car ad.

In advertising, campaigns usually start with a "brief." Typically, it's written by an account manager — or a "planner" — who attempts to provide key facts for the creative team to use when making the ad. It usually contains information like:

  • Audience (who is the ad for?)
  • Main message (what's the one thing we want to communicate?)
  • Key insight (an irrelevant fact cherry-picked from research)
  • Background information (why this ad, and why now?)
  • Mandatories (stuff the client is making us include even though it doesn't make sense)

A good brief tells the creative team what they need to know. A bad brief tells the creative team what to create.

And a bad creative team (and accounts team), make an ad that's essentially just an illustration of the brief.

Here's an example I saw the other day of an ad that's an illustration of the brief:

Yes, I took this photo in a bar restroom.

Yes, I took this photo in a bar restroom.

You can imagine what the "insight" was: Buying a car is a key moment in a person's life. Millennials aren't buying many cars, though, these days. So let's tell them to buy a car before they get married or have kids.

Do you see the problem(s)? It's not an ad for this car. It's an ad for cars in general, sort of. Unless you're the only car maker (or this car is far and away the top car in the category), this doesn't help you. If this ad does anything, it will only be to make someone think about buying a car. Not this car.

But, of course, it won't even do that.

But it's easy to pick on this ad, and I'm sure the creative team were hamstrung in some way or another. But what about a world where they're not? If that's the "insight" we're stuck with, and we have to write an ad based on it, what would be a better concept?

Well, let's give it a shot. Let's apply a few rules of marketing we know:

  1. Unless you are the leader in your category by far, advertise your product, not the category
  2. If you are a competitor brand, position yourself in opposition to your competitors or the prevailing thought
  3. Make an impact (90% of advertising is ignored or not recalled)
  4. Communicate a single, key point
  5. Advertise to your most likely customers, not the longshots

We know that millennials are buying cars, but they are spending a lot less on them.

So our ad should:

  1. Explain why this car is better than other affordable cars
  2. Advertise longterm value, not price
  3. Have a catchy headline, and look different than other car ads
  4. Tell us something about this particular car
  5. Go after millennials that are buying cars, but affordable, practical cars
  6. Finally, understand that millennials don't have the same connection to cars that older generations do. A car doesn't mean "freedom" anymore. It's another thing you feel you have to do (like get married and have kids). Appeal to that.

The Civic Coupe is heavy on features, including their "Honda Sensing" technology. Some of the features, including its rear camera, are meant to help avoid hitting pedestrians.

So a better direction for the ad would be the below. This obviously wouldn't be final copy, but it's a direction and position worth exploring:

Not everything about our cars are exciting. But they are important. Our Honda Sensing technology is built to keep the people around your car as safe as the people in your car. The all new 2016 Civic Coupe. Built for people.

Isn't that better? Now, this has the potential to turn off people who do hate pedestrians — you don't want to end up like "Your Father's Oldsmobile." So that's a risk that would need to be considered. But it might be better to start positioning yourself for the world's next car buyers, especially if your car is gas-powered.

Anyway, that was my little creative exercise for the day. I hope you enjoyed it.

And remember: Don't just illustrate the brief!

Note: The "Pedestrian" headline seems so obvious to me I'm not convinced it hasn't been done before, but I can't track down an example.


Consumers are rational

It’s often suggested that consumers aren’t “rational." They don’t necessarily buy the product with the best features at the lowest price. Instead, they’ll buy the product that looks the nicest, or the one their friend bought. Or the most expensive one.

And this is considered irrational.

But only if you don't think about how society itself works. Each of those things has a perfectly — dare I say — rational explanation.

  • Buying the nicest looking thing: Status is a fundamental part of society!
  • Buying the one their friend bought: Shared experiences are a fundamental part of society!
  • Buying the most expensive one: Veblen goods are a symbol of status, and see above about that!

In fact, good marketers who understand human behavior think all these things are pretty rational. Because people are people. People are part of a larger society. And society has a lot of rules that might be unspoken, but are just as real as any other rule. Even the ones we all consider “rational."

The problem isn't "irrational consumers."

The problem is bad marketers.

Creativity is not the product of compromise

Adam Morgan said advertising "is like a knife-fight in a phonebox."

You don't compromise in a knife fight. You fight to win.

Creativity doesn't come from compromise, from taking one idea and mashing it with another. It comes from ruthlessness. Killing one's darlings.

We compromise when we're afraid. When we don't want to step on toes. When we fear going too far, so instead we don't go far enough.

Bill Bernbach said, "If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you.”

Creativity means standing for something, acknowledging that you might rub people the wrong way. Because if you stand for nothing, no one will stand with you.

Not your customers. Not your clients. Not your coworkers. No one.

What if you mess up? "Failure shows us the way – by showing us what isn’t the way," says Ryan Holiday.

Be ruthless. Don't compromise. And learn from your mistakes.

That's the path to creativity.

Creativity is all or nothing.

Creative marketing is all or nothing.

You either go all in with the Big Idea, or you go home.

Have you seen a Red Bull ad in Canada? After the "Red Bull gives you wings" tag, it finishes with, "Red Bull doesn't actually give you wings..."

I'm serious.

Can you imagine that? They spend 25 seconds selling you on a product that will pick you up and make your day better and then rip it all away in the final five.

Of course, they added that line because of lawsuits, I'm sure. But if you can't go all in with your campaign because of a rule you can't break, change the campaign.

As marketers, you can often be in a room with a client pitching an idea and hear, "I like the direction, but I'm not sure we should say it like that." Or, "what if we added another line?" Or "Can we also tell people about our other products?"

The answer should usually be, "No."

Why? Because you have a second, a fraction of a second, even, to make people feel something. Any cruft you add or allow to build reduces the power of your ad from something to nothing.

Creative marketing isn't incremental, like direct marketing. With direct marketing, you might put a dollar in and get two dollars back. And it can scale that way pretty far. A thousand dollars in, two thousand back. Maybe even three.

But with a creative advertisement, it's "one big idea in, one success back." Whatever that might cost. If you make it "one big idea in, then changed, then compromised," you get nothing back.

Something is either good or it isn't.