The Anderson Tapes, a 1971 crime thriller, foresaw the impact of a surveillance society, and in the introduction to our protagonist thief Duke Anderson, he exclaims, “What is advertising but a legalized con game?” With the myriad of tools now in the hands of anyone working in marketing, abuse of advertising appears to be on the rise.
Modern advertising is frustrating in several ways.
1. Vague claims. “New and improved” has been replaced by, “Improved performance.” Precise quantification of such claims is often hard to nail down. Working with industrial technologies it is common for more common materials which are sold between businesses to have very vague claims associated with them. There are times early in the life of a new product where it is difficult to quantify performance, however, continuing to make vague claims should be considered an indicator that the product has not matured and that the maker of the good is itself uncertain of the value that customers place on their product.
2. It increases the price of things I’m already planning to purchase. Expensive advertising campaigns add to the cost of goods; removing that cost could instead be passed on to customers to lower their cost of ownership. (I’ve talked about this in financial services here.) If a customer is searching on line for new shoes, advertising which clearly helps alert them to technical differences between products is valuable; a 5 minute branding campaign is much less so. Look to examples like Costco, who know that the 2% savings they can pass on to customers by minimizing advertising add up over the long term.
3. Clutter. Ads, be they billboards, posters about town, videos on Youtube or elaborate online campaigns don’t go away. Digital clutter is clearly easier to avoid, but it confuses search results and makes it difficult to understand the status of a current product. Even looking at Amazon, which is extremely well organized, for a product as simple as a shoe demonstrates this problem. Even with a very specific search older products are thrown back in the result pool. Anyone who has spent time in developing countries is familiar with the difficulty of interpreting which businesses are at a physical location; the hundreds of old signs covering a business can make it difficult to tell what is being sold, even if the owners are inside.
4. Branding often gets in the way of technical clarity. In its early days Salesforce.com made a push by encouraging customers to make use of the ‘blowfish effect.’ Small customers could use online services, like professional logo design, hosted email, CRM tools, and outsourced receptionists to look bigger than they were. Flashy branding costs much less to develop than quantifiable benefits and technical bench-marking to competitive products.
For now, companies are able to get away with simply pushing their materials in front of customers and ignoring the troubles caused by these points. It’s okay to simply distract and attract, rather than creating quantifiable reasons for a customer to switch to your product. That trend won’t continue.
Over the coming years the increases in computing power and an increasingly savvy public will make it possible to sell quantifiable value to the public. The methods won’t always be perfect, and many charlatans will abuse the new tools, but the days of “New and Improved” are behind us.