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The Real "Truth in Advertising"

By Burkey Belser and Richard S. Levick, Esq.
September 6, 2002
The Real

There's a wonderful scene with Tim Allen in the comedy Galaxy Quest when Allen talks with some friendly aliens. They know about Earth only from watching television, which they believe to be a continuous historical record.


"You can't really believe in Gilligan's Island?" exclaims Allen.


"Oh those poor people," laments the alien in reply.


We laugh at anyone who takes Gilligan's Island seriously. Yet we expect Lysol to eradicate 99.9% of all odors, Whisk to liberate us from "dirty rings," and P.F. Flyers to propel us faster and higher. For all our sophistication, we allow products and services that we believe in into our homes—and we assign them permanent space on our shelves and in our consciousness.


In taste tests prior to release, Coca-Cola found New Coke preferred by 83.3% of its testing population. A sure winner? Actually, New Coke is considered one of the immense marketing blunders of the past half-century. How could such a great corporation take such a giant misstep?


The answer: Coca-Cola forgot what it was selling. It doesn't sell thirst-quenching. It sells a relationship. Anyone can sell sugar, water, and food coloring. Even though testers liked New Coke, consumers felt betrayed. The product with which they had a long, loyal relationship had disappeared.


Coca-Cola reversed course and, one hopes, will never again try to replace its venerable beverage. None of us really sell soap, sneakers, or tires. Nor do accountants sell tax returns or lawyers, briefs. We sell the promise that we will identify your problem and solve it. Thirsty? Tired? Broke? We have the product or service for you.


On a daily basis, consumers are subjected to five-dozen new product rollouts! In addition, we are assaulted with an increasingly aggressive professional services corps trying to distinguish themselves as better doctors, lawyers, and accountants.


In the face of all that clutter, how does my product and service get noticed? How do I become believable? How do I create the Coca-Cola relationship with my buyers? How do I use advertising and related marketing to get my message believed?


It's easy to imagine a broad mix of tactics that include advertising and public relations. It is more difficult to develop an effective strategy and appropriate budget to drive those tactics. There will always be too few dollars and too many marketing opportunities.


There are lots of differences between how products and services get sold. We expect the tennis shoe manufacturer to talk to us differently than the hospital or the accounting firm. But there are also vital rules that apply to both sectors—common ground rules predicated on buyer-seller relationships—that work whether you're a garden product distributor or an accountant...

Nothing Stays Sold:


Marketing creates an expectation among buyers that must be sustained after any product or service is purchased. If it is not, no amount of marketing will generate profitability. The "It takes a licking and keeps on ticking" campaign made Timex the best selling watch in America in less than ten years. Forty years later, it is still the number one watch in America for the simple reason that, four decades later, it continues to take a licking and keep on ticking.


Quick change artists are caught by consumers and disappear. Fly-by-night products or services are identified and fail. In one survey of law firm brands, a general counsel said that a law firm was known as the "You don't return my calls brand." Create expectations, then deliver.

Fill an Emotional Need:

Buyers pay $45,000 for a Lexus when a Neon will get you there just as quickly, but the $35,000 difference is paid for prestige. Legal buyers will pay the law firm Skadden Arps three times the cost to do the deal that another law firm may be able to do just as well, but the difference is paid for certainty.


Purchasing decisions are predominantly emotional decisions, not rational ones. Far and away, the most difficult marketing challenge for firms and companies is to identify—and focus on—the emotional need they fill. Yet it is the only thing for which buyers will pay a premium. (Notwithstanding Wal-Mart's current success, no business that positions itself on price has survived.)

To Speak Loudly, Carry a Big Wallet:

All things are possible in marketing, but budgets and expectations must be compatible. Nike expects to spend hundreds of millions of dollars. Big expectations need big budgets—or brilliant strategy, good luck, and timing. The law firm Howrey Simon shocked the legal marketplace a decade ago with the first print advertising campaign for an American law firm. The budget was small but the strategy was brilliant, the timing was right, and the impact historic. Today, the legal marketplace is far too cluttered for such a modest investment to create a stir.


In 2001, another law firm, Brobeck, budgeted around $7 million on marketing, which included ground-breaking television advertisements. This effort created a buzz that still persists, so that the ongoing public relations value has been multiplied far beyond the media budget. The lesson is clear: If you want to talk big, spend big.

Communicate a Single Message Powerfully:


In 1998, in a one-second commercial, a bullet pierced but could not break open a Master Lock. The message had been delivered, unequivocally. Companies that want to entertain their consumers in their advertisements may get noticed, but they may not be remembered. Worse, firms that insist on pushing out a pile of information about themselves overwhelm readers and likely will not be noticed at all.


Womble Carlyle, a southeastern regional law firm with offices in Washington, DC, is represented by a bulldog playing Twister in one of its ads. There's never any copy save the headline. Yet awareness of the firm in cities where they advertise spikes high.


Advertising permits only enough time to get across a single idea. Make that idea the distinguishing characteristic that separates you from the competition and you will get noticed. Do it powerfully, and you will be remembered.

Speak Directly to Your Buyers:


When your company speaks, do people listen? Bartles & Jaymes, the Gallo wine cooler product that revolutionized wine sales with a new product (which, for half a decade, represented an extraordinary 10% of all US wine sales), spoke directly to its audience — Yuppies — in their advertisements. The ads even mentioned Yuppies by name and poked good-natured fun at them.


Advertising and other marketing tactics have a greater likelihood of piercing buyer consciousness if the buyers believe that what you have to say is meant for their ears. If it's meant for them, it may be important to them.

Familiarity Breeds Profits:


Buyers assume familiar products are good enough to try simply because they are familiar. In the sale of professional services, familiarity also plays an influential role. Buyers are more likely to allow the lawyers or accountants whom they've heard of to get to the next selling stage—a face-to-face meeting. Buyers will remember, "I've heard good things about them" when, in truth, they've only "heard about them."


If buyers are familiar with the name, your chances of appearing on their short list increase and, ultimately, so do your chances of getting hired. Research shows that "familiarity" is consistently linked to "favorability."

Use Multiple Channels:


With both products and services—particularly well-considered purchases like cars and houses—buyers seldom read a single article or see one advertisement, and declare, "I'm sold!" Buyers collect information from multiple channels (Consumer Reports, advertising, referrals, articles, etc.) to assemble a list. If the buyer has never heard of you, you'll never make their list—or the sale!


Brochures and sponsored events are marketing channels. Advertising is an important channel for reaching wide audiences but, to be effective, it must be narrowly-defined, briefly articulated, creatively and consistently delivered. Public relations provides third-party credibility and wide reach, delivering audiences that other channels cannot easily persuade.

Save for a Rainy Day:


One of the reasons firms market is to leave buyers and clients with a good impression. If something bad happens to the firm — a scandal, a noticeable decline in profitability, the closing of an office — there is a reservoir of good will sufficient to neutralize the new, negative news.


Arthur Andersen may seem like the exception that proves the rule. Andersen reportedly spent $100 million on marketing the year before the Enron scandal, but could not ensure its ultimate survival. But did Andersen forget what it was selling? Far and away, the hardest loss to recover in a relationship—even business-to-business relationships—is trust. When trust is what you sell, then its loss can be fatal. That does not, however, belie the value of prophylaxis. No marketing guarantees success or even survival in worst-case crisis scenarios — but effective marketing does give firms something to build on.


Everyone can expect rainy weather at some point. Not marketing in advance is like calling a relative only when you need help. Marketing (including media relations) builds the support network in advance and banks your credibility for when you'll really need it.

Your Ultimate Goal? Be Top-of-Mind:


What product do you think about when you're parched for a cola? Does a solvent come to mind when someone spills coffee on your new white carpet? What are the leading brands of toothpaste? Who are the Big Five—or, as we like to say, the Final Four?


The first goal of marketing is to achieve top-of-mind awareness. According to Al Ries, author of Positioning, the top three brands in any category account for 90of sales. First, get called to the table. Then, differentiate your company or firm from the rest on the list.


It's simple, really.


Richard S. Levick, Esq. is president of Levick Strategic Communications and can be reached at rlevick@levick.com. They have handled the media for more than 150 professional service firms worldwide. Burkey Belser (bbelser@gbltd.com) is president and creative director of Greenfield/Belser, a brand design firm that has developed strategic marketing communications for firms nationwide.