Modesty blazes

Straight ads with plain claims are often the most successful with consumers disappointed by product quality and pushy marketing, says David Bernstein

1944. The AEF band under Glenn Miller was playing at the Corn Exchange Bedford and broadcast live on the BBC. I got there early. I waited an hour.

Miller got out of his car to rush up the steps. I interposed my autograph book. ‘After the show, son.’ Another two hours, the first at the invitation of his sergeant driver seated in his car listening to the live broadcast.

A crowd formed by the steps. I was in front. At last Miller came down shepherded by a British major. I went forward. The major brushed me aside. Miller said, ‘I promised the kid’. The kid still has the autograph, a souvenir of a promise kept.

The Ronseal campaign – ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ – has won plaudits, including one in this column. However, such adulation is indirectly an indictment of contemporary marketing and advertising. Ronseal stands out by being perceived as the exception to a rule. Its claim rings a bell with a public frequently disappointed with product performance.

Surely every product should do what it says on the tin, pack, ad or whatever – that is keep its promise. Isn’t that what advertising is about? Doctor Johnson clearly thought so, proclaiming two and a half centuries ago that ‘the soul of an advertisement is promise, large promise’. But the making and keeping of promises seem two separate activities. It’s as if the advertising manager is saying, ‘I’m responsible for creating promises; keeping them is the job of the production department’.

Of course, just stating what the product will deliver is not enough. It is a basic requirement, what Americans call table stakes – they get you into the game. Any functional attribute will be matched by the competition. The how is at least as important as the what. The how turns the product into a brand. Still, an advertiser should never forget to reassure the consumer of the brand’s ability to satisfy their prime need. Beyond the imagery and emotional values does the brand provide a functional benefit?

Critics of the Conservative leader demand substance to reinforce the style. American political adversaries ask more crisply, ‘Where’s the beef?’. Ronseal’s advertising is single-minded and coherent. It knows and reveals its consumer profile – practical, down-to-earth, no nonsense, someone with little time for frippery and none for irrelevance. The foregoing, of course, could be a statement of the brand personality. In which case, brand and consumer are on the same wavelength. But try deciphering the profile of the target consumer from the advertising of some brands (cars, for example) and you may wonder what sort of person would be attracted by whatever promise is being made. Conversely, if you can discern a distinct consumer profile you will also – and this is my point – find a relevant promise. The Nationwide target consumer is discernible, as is its promise of honest, straightforward banking communicated by humourous expressions of the opposite.

Indeed, Nationwide and Ronseal, though approaching their ends in different ways, respectively indirectly and directly, are making almost identical points.

When judging an ad you could do worse than begin by asking yourself ‘who are they talking to?’ and ‘what is being promised?’. If you can answer the first you’ll answer the second. And that’s a promise.

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