The axiom that my convictions are built on is this: nothing about advertising is absolute. All we have are likelihoods and probabilities.
No ad we make is guaranteed to work. No strategy we concoct is guaranteed to be successful. Some are more likely to work than others, and that’s the best we can do. Believing we have certainty about our advertising activities is foolish and delusional.
If you agree with this, then the rest of what I’m about to assert should sound reasonable.
If it is true that all we have are likelihoods and probabilities, we should ask ourselves what the single outcome of advertising is that is most likely to result in business success? I believe the answer is obvious. Fame.
All of the world’s hugely successful brands have one common characteristic. They are famous. A brand that is famous has enormous advantages over its competitors that are not famous.
Traditional marketers and advertisers will often assert that differentiation or positioning or “brand meaning” are the key advertising drivers of brand success. I’ve heard them say that fame without “a reason” is empty and worthless. They say that positioning or differentiation are the first job of advertising because they give substance to fame. In other words, positioning and differentiation are the factors that make fame productive.
I think this is wrong. In fact, I think it’s exactly the opposite. I think that fame, by itself, inherently creates the strongest type of positioning and differentiation.
The most powerful differentiator for any brand is being the most famous in its category. The most powerful position for any brand is being the most famous in its category.
Fame has many positive but not necessarily logical associations. These include trust, social acceptance, and credibility. Any brand can try to differentiate or position itself by claiming to engender “trust, acceptance, and credibility.” But only fame has the unique ability to communicate these attributes without having to say them.
What do most category leaders have in common? They are usually the most famous.
A famous brand that is poorly differentiated and poorly positioned will always outperform a wonderfully differentiated and beautifully positioned brand that no one has heard of.
Does this mean that fame is a guarantee of success? Certainly not. Success in business is related to several factors that have nothing to do with advertising. But fame is the most likely contribution to success that advertising can affect.
This begs an obvious question: How does a brand achieve fame? Some do it by being clearly superior and generating exceptional word of mouth. This is the best way to become famous. At its beginning, this is how Google became famous.
Some get lucky. They’re good copy. The media love to cover them, follow them everywhere, and provide them with zillions in free exposure. This is how Facebook and Tesla became famous.
Others become famous through imaginative PR initiatives, clever stunts, the charismatic personalities of their leaders, or a combination of these things. There are many ways to achieve fame, and they’re all good.
The most expensive way to become famous is through advertising. It is the most expensive, but also the most reliable. It is the only avenue to fame that you can buy your way into.
The most compelling advertising objective for any brand that aspires to be highly successful is to become famous. The most compelling advertising objective for any brand that is already famous is to remain famous. There is nothing else in advertising’s bag of tricks that can reliably provide fame’s contribution to business success.
Precision targeted marketing won’t make brands famous
One of the current obsessions of the advertising industry is “precision one-to-one” targeting. If you agree that fame is advertising’s most powerful contribution, then it should be obvious that “precision one-to-one” targeting is antithetical to this.
Precision one-to-one targeting may be effective for immediate sales, but is not the route for businesses whose objective is to create category leading brands.
Talking to people one at a time does not make you famous. If you accept that fame is an essential part of being a category leading brand, you can see the problem with one-to-one media strategy.
Advertising was invented for the very reason that trying to convince people one at a time was highly inefficient. But today, we are determined to go backward. If you want to sell one vacuum cleaner, sure, go door-to-door. But if you want to sell a million, you better find some way to make your vacuum cleaner famous.
McDonald’s in Times Square, New York City
Why do marketers strive to locate their stores in high traffic areas? Why is there a McDonald’s in Times Square. Why is there an Apple store in Trafalgar Square? Why not in Mayberry? Because the more people that are exposed to a business, the higher the probability of sales.
Why is it that marketers can’t see that the reason you want to physically locate in high-visibility areas is the same reason you want to advertise in high-visibility media?
For some reason, when it comes to advertising, marketers have been convinced by the enduringly confused that they should place their ads in low traffic environments. In fact, the most efficient environment for advertising, they have been told, is the lowest-possible traffic environment – one-to-one.
Precision targeted one-to-one advertising is essentially private advertising. Mass targeted advertising is public advertising. Nobody ever got famous in private.
One more thing. There are two ways advertising makes you famous: spend a lot of money or make great ads.
Bob Hoffman is the author of several best-selling books about advertising, a popular international speaker on advertising and marketing, and the creator of ‘The Ad Contrarian’ newsletter, where this first appeared, and blog. Earlier in his career he was CEO of two independent agencies and the US operation of an international agency.