Testing Tales: Using Testing to ensure the delivery of vacuous, uninspired mediocrity in brand communications

September 30, 2007 at 2:27 pm 2 comments

I have been quite frantic recently, so I apologize for not providing endless tirades on the future of advertising as usual. However, the good news is, I do have a tirade that has grown like a bacterial infection in my strategic tummy and it needs a good antibiotic rant.

My question these days is:
What is this whole obsession with communications testing??

Not a day goes by, it seems, without unique campaigns being shot down because a panel of a few consumers chose the one “they liked most.” Or to put it another way: bland, mediocre and sterile campaigns do get chosen because they were the ones with the least potential to upset anyone.

Now, I am not saying there are no good big ideas with effective campaigns out there anymore. Also, I am not saying that testing is a bad idea. However, there may be a trend that more and more marketing decision makers resort to testing as a way to make a decision instead of using it to improve the execution of an idea. And really, comms testing can just help you improve the execution of an idea, not serve as a tool to make a decision on whether your brand idea is a good one or not. So if you shoot down a campaign after communications testing, you really shoot it down because of its execution, not because of its idea. Why? Because recruits can’t tell the difference. They will rarely go: “Oh, well, I really liked the idea behind this one, but I think the execution is way to urban and sophisticated for me, so if you’d adjust the tone-of-voice to be a bit more down-to-earth on this one, I would definitely go for it.” If they did, you’d have to fire your recruiting agency for letting agency hacks get through the screening process.

Alas, people see and judge the execution first, then they intuitively understand the idea (often much later, when they had a true brand experience with the product in question instead of being subjected to a test being stared at through a one-way mirror). It’s friggin common sense and should be obvious without going into a segue about the Heisenbergian Uncertainty Principle.

But wait, that’s not all! Within this already zany approach, what is being tested is often just one type of brand communications: mass media communications. This essentially means: we will test a TV spot to make a decision on which brand idea will work the best (mistake #1) without bothering to test brand interactions in other channels (mistake #2). Now why would you test a brand idea through a piece of uni-directional communication with a medium with the least amount of brand interaction? I am too tired to hazard a guess.

Now where did this come from? Why don’t some markters believe in their brand/product ideas anymore, why is communications testing misused for something it can’t really deliver, and why is there a surge of this kind of activity? There are probably a couple of reasons, such as blindly following marketing processes made for yesteryear, or inefficient hierarchies and budget structures, but how about this: maybe it’s the fault of them dang Internet people.

“Huh?” you might proclaim. Well, we all now how hyped up the whole web thing is, and how marketers and agencies (traditional ones, especially) are struggling to understand it, use it, sell it, scrambling to “upgrade their website to web2.0,” generating a plethora of buzzwords like “participative brands” “viral marketing” “user generated content” “behavioral targeting” etc.

You can definitely say that digital technologies have re-written the rules of how people consume and discover, and that the interplay between human behavior and receptivity to marketing has been significantly altered.

Because of this, and because everyone is trying to figure out what to do with the changed media and communications landscape before you, your CMO sends you to a congress on digital marketing and you learn that the “consumer” and traditional advertising” is dead, and that in the brave new world of the Internet, the customer is an active participant, not a passive recipient of branding. So, you (or your digital agency du jour) start coming up with community ideas, widgets, social networking tools and a Second Life Presence for your Brand, with little brand or business strategy behind it. And, this is my point: you even let recruits decide which brand idea you should go with.

Bad idea. How can you be a strong brand if you let them decide what your brand idea is supposed to be?

Just to be clear: by all means let consumers participate in how you can improve brand experiences in all stages of the customer lifecycle from store layout, orientation, information architecture of your digital offering, additive services, hotlines and customer service. Also let them help you improve your product through product testing and observe their true behavior when they interact with your offering at all touchpoints.

However, it is foolish to believe that customer-centricity means allowing people to chose what you need to say in the first place. Customer-centricity and the lore of the empowered consumer cannot be a chicken-hearted way-out of Brand Management, just because we live in a time where the consumer has the last word. Because, so what? You still need to make sure your brand has the first word. People need strong brands to make decisions, not brands that ask them what to be.

Just imagine this: How would you like to go to your doctor and hear this after he examined you: “Well, it looks like you have cancer. Would you like to have your leg amputated or would you like chemo with a lower chance of success?” No matter what you would answer, you’d be tormented by the choice and wonder: “Why didn’t he just propose the best course of action, he’s the doctor!”

Now, this may be a bit drastic as an example, but still: if you ask people what your brand is supposed to say, you are losing the function it has: Guidance and room for identification in a sea of options and choices.

So, all in all, hardly a good way to proceed, I think.

What you really need to come up with effective communications for your brand idea is is brave belief in the idea itself because you believe in the product, your engineers, your employees and your company and because you know it serves your brand strategy and business objectives, and because you have a good idea how it will resonate with consumers in real life. Then you test whether or not you can improve the execution to make sure that the message gets through. This has always been true and is still true whether or not digital technologies have changed consumer behavior. In fact, it’s even more important today to have a strong stance on what a brand is.

Therefore, I believe it’s time for brand balls, because balls is what has been missing.

  1. Today, authenticity and brand intimacy is not created through single-minded propositions, it is built through brand interaction, so observe human behavior instead of starting with the brand itself, the category or a marketing toolkit.
  2. Being a marketer or agency professional following a marketing process can become quite abstract. Don’t forget you are a consumer yourself and use common sense. It works.
  3. The only difference today to 15 years ago is that markets are conversations. Enable your brands to be listeners, but make sure you have a statement with which you can join a market conversation. You don’t want to be a moderator of market conversation, you want to be the driver.

Entry filed under: advertising, agencies, Brand, companies, Consumer, effectiveness, Insight, madness, marketers, Marketing, worst practice.

Duh 2.0 A few creative men

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Kathy Beymer  |  October 2, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Love the integration of brand positioning and user experience. Let’s hope that planning and user experience can get our sh*t together …and then quickly pass our newly-found, hand-holding confidence onto our *clients* who out of lack of confidence can tend to fall back on ‘focus group voting’ to feel like they have put some weight — abeit sketchy weight — behind their brand decisions.

  • […] school. As more and more people say that asking consumers to critique ads is, like, so yesterday (which I mostly agree with), Moshe comes out and puts his Ph.D. and scientific research to use for the Advertising folks. In […]


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