Put some meat in your marketing messages.

by John Furgurson on June 25, 2008

Every year, millions of dollars are wasted on advertising that is well-produced, but not very well thought-out. Kind of like a supermodel… nice to look at, but there’s just no substance there.

I was talking with a restauranteur the other day about this very subject. No, not the models. He had retained an ad agency to help promote his launch, but after our hour-long conversation, he had talked himself into never going back.

The agency in question produced a website, some print ads and a slogan without having a single, meaningful conversation with him about his business. If they had, they would have known that this particular business owner didn’t understand his own brand.

He has a beautiful restaurant with an impressive interior and outstanding cuisine, but he has no story to tell. No clear idea of what his core message ought to be.

Instead of an ad agency, he should have hired someone to help him figure it out… Before he paid for a slogan and a campaign that “doesn’t really fit this place.” Before he paid a top-name architect to design the interiors. Before he ever trained his servers or developed the menu, he should have known what his establishment was “all about.”

Easier said than done!

He and I did more quality thinking over one cup of coffee than he had ever done with his agency. And he’s not alone. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review shows that the majority of VP and C-level execs don’t know their company’s strategy. Or at least they can’t verbalize it without launching into a long-winded spiel about “value-based planning and linkage for a strategy of diversification of the company’s differentiated asset portfolio.”


Little Ceasar’s is a far better example. Their strategy is simple: Sell value. Two-for-one pizzas, to be exact. And the best part is, they communicate that simple strategy in a provocative way: “PizzaPizza.” (I’m sure you can hear that quirky voice in your head just by reading the words.)

That’s their story, and they’re sticking with it. Google it and you’ll see those two words, right up front in the search results. It was the fastest growing pizza chain in America last year.

The payoff for a clearly defined and well-written strategy is clear: You won’t run pretty ads in the wrong publications. You won’t change directions every year, just to be fashionable. And you won’t have an on-line marketing effort that doesn’t jive with the rest of your branding.

Bottom line… you’ll be more focused and efficient in everything you do.

But how do you get there? In most small ad agencies, strategic planning is done by the seat of the pants. Account executives rely on industry info provided by you, the client, and on their own gut instinct. They’ll tell you that “great creative work begins with sound strategic thinking” but then they’ll just jump right into the sexiest part of the project… the creative execution.

For ad agencies, strategy is not a deliverable.

It’s understandable, given the prevailing perception: Most business people think of strategic planning as a left-brained activity. But ad agencies are enclaves of right-brained, creative thinking, therefore, you can’t possibly get a brand strategy from them.

Traditional thinking says you need a consulting firm for that. But consultants don’t handle execution of their own strategies. They leave that in the client’s hands, who then turn to their agency. So there’s often a disconnect between the strategy and the creative output.

What’s more helpful is a sensible combination of both services from one team: Strategic insight and disciplined execution. A left-brain, right-brain, one-two punch.

That’s how my firm approaches it… insight first, THEN execution.

No amount of creative wizardry will save a marketing campaign that lacks a strong, well-defined sales premise. That’s why we put so much emphasis on message development and front-end strategic issues.

We believe that sound advertising begins with creative strategic thinking. In other words, right-brained thinking is just as important in the strategic planning process as it is in execution.

“You can be swimming in data and still have nothing to really go on,” says Debbie Pantenberg, who runs our research division. “The real trick is knowing what questions to ask, reading between the lines and connecting things in creative new ways. That’s where the real, game-changing insight comes from.”

Setting aside time for some productive strategic thinking is the most valuable thing you can do for your business. And it’s not about spreadsheets, it’s about story telling.

Chances are, you’ll need help. You’re too close to the situation. Too consumed by the quarterly numbers. Or just too darn busy.

So find someone whom you trust. Block out a day, get out of your office, and think it through with your most trusted advisors. Look at everything you’re doing, and ask yourself this: what is this company really all about? What’s the message of substance behind your marketing? Is your brand all beauty and no brains?

Back in the early 80’s the Wendy’s fast food chain successfully married their strategy with brilliant creative execution. The strategy was value. The idea was that Wendy’s offered more hamburger for your money. The spot featured a little old lady named Clara Peller.


Watch it, then ask yourself the same question about your business: “Where’s the beef?”

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Whisper | The Weekly B.S.
June 27, 2008 at 2:32 am

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt June 25, 2008 at 2:39 am

Strategy is only executable if you know the brand. We spend to much time in the creative world and don’t realize that what is truly important is selling widgets for the client.

Kristin Bryan July 3, 2008 at 1:53 am

I just found your blog on bendblogs.com
I’m glad I did! I’ll be visiting it often. Thanks for your insight and wisdom

Blackhatseo July 21, 2008 at 2:06 am

I like the layout here. Btw, my blog is dofollow, stop by and grab a link. Bobby.

Import from China July 22, 2008 at 11:59 am

Great info – keep up the great work.

compliancebranding August 14, 2008 at 2:21 pm

Good article John. I’ve read your work before – we’re on the same page.

In my experience creatives don’t sell when they design. Most I would say (my opinion) have never read a book on marketing. They design to win awards. To be clever. This is their first motivation.

I adhere to a bit of wisdom I read years ago (authour unknown): “It’s not creative unless it sells.”

Ad agencies like the one mentioned early in your article play to the company’s ego. Many small businesses are asleep at the switch when it comes to brand positioning and the power of differentiating themselves, while nodding in agreement, many times they blindly go to market with that fancy slogan and award winning creative. But when nothing changes and sales remain flat – they can only watch from the sidelines as their competition (who get it) lead them.

Ed Roach, The Brand Corral

These are the companies who are happy with mediocrity and are comfortable with being a follower. It takes a ‘genuine’ entrepreneur to recognize the opportunities of brand positioning and the balls to step out and lead.

decarter August 22, 2008 at 9:53 am

Found your blog via the triiibe. Great insights that keenly highlight some of the angst at our B2B startup. Practical stuff to chew on.


Dawn Carter

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