How do you advertise, if you’re really not sure what to say?

oilWe are often approached by clients with a simple question.

“There are lots of things I could say about my product, but I’m not sure what matters most to my customers. What will motivate them most. I don’t want to waste money in media saying things that don’t matter.”

Hmmmm. Good question. So how does the smart advertiser and their ad agency pick their way through this conundrum?


The first way to be sure you’re saying the right things to your market is to ensure you have done the hard yards to boil down your proposition to its core.

If your product is technically superior to others in the market, or much better value, then obviously say that. But that’s not always true.

So start by putting yourself in the minds of the people you’re trying to sell to. What matters to them? Are you clear about why they prefer your product, or might want to trial it?

What does the product actually do for them? Not just in practical terms, but what does it say about them, to them, that they buy it?

It’s easy to understand that someone buying a Rolex, for example, is not just buying a very good watch, they are also making a statement about their personal status.

But let’s consider a basic household staple sold in supermarkets.

A consumer buying olive oil, for example, is not just buying a utilitarian product; they are actually making a heap of decisions about themselves when they choose which brand to buy.

Does the packaging “speak” to them and their personal aesthetic or world view? The shape of the bottle or container, the design of the label, and how the product is described on it?

Does a consumer buying a small bottle of high-priced extra virgin oil with an artisan “look and feel” think that they are saying something about their own aesthetic and culinary qualities? Are they concerned about how their friends and family will perceive them when the bottle is produced from the pantry during meal preparation, or taken to the table?

Or the consumer who buys a five litre can of oil might simply consider it a good value buy, but maybe they are also making a statement about how they intelligent they are to buy in bulk to reduce costs, or reduce environmental impact, even if it means decanting the product at home for practical use.

And you thought you were just buying oil!

There are a number of ways you can find out about this crucial mindset of your customers.

You can try and extrapolate from your own view of the product, and consider whether it’s likely to be shared by them.

Or you can research them.

This doesn’t always mean engaging in a costly exercise with a research company, although we have seen properly conducted research save a lot more money than was ever spent on it. It might be that you, personally, engage with more of your customers. We used to know one CEO who insisted to his staff that one in every ten complaints to his customer hotline came straight to his desk, and he used the information he gathered to not only surprise and impress his annoyed customers with his personal attention, but also to refine and advance his products and services, fine-tuning them closer and closer to customer’s perceptions of what they wanted.

And to really get under their skin, track key customers’ experiences as they traverse your company’s pathways and note where the experience breaks down.  Some hospitals ask interns to experience the check-in process as fake patients. One client asked managers to listen in on its call centre. If you can’t exactly put yourself through a customer experience, try role-playing exercises at all points of the customer’s experience with your company. It may well drive product or service changes that you can then proudly advertise.


One of the strangest ideas in advertising is that you can only say one thing at a time. And that once having run the ad, you need to keep running it, for consistency.

This idea is usually driven by media buyers, who try to estimate the required cumulative audience for any ad, and so they demonstrate to you that you need to run the same ad n number of times to reach y share of the audience.

OK, that sort of makes sense. So long as you’re saying the right thing, that is. Otherwise you just miss the mark more often.

But why not turn the “problem” on its head, and deliberately create different ads, and see which arguments work hardest with your customers?

This was always the great “hidden secret” of direct response advertising, where companies would send out letters with different construction and “hooks”, and see which provoked the best response. The ones that worked were run more, and sales went up accordingly.

But the same principle applies perfectly well to many other advertising mediums. Why not run a radio ad at the same time, on the same station, every day – with one ‘proposition’ in the ad one day, and another the next, and so on throughout the week. Track the calls to your contact line or sales of your product against which messages are running on which days. Or run different print ads with a different phone number on them, or a different coupon on each ad, or a different web address. Watch which work hardest. Easy.

When you get sophisticated at this, you can get clever and check which ads not only produce the best response, but also whether one ad produces a great response, but a lower rate of conversion, but another ad produces a lower response but much more “engaged” customers.

Probably the easiest way to do this nowadays is via online advertising, where you can run a bunch of different ads and get very good “metrics” on which ads are ticking all the boxes for your customers. Provided the ads are run with equal frequency against a clearly defined audience, you will start to get useful data back within days. Certainly within a couple of weeks. (It’s important to make the ads look similar to ensure that any difference in response rate is being driven by the proposition rather than the design of the ad, but then to look at that another way you can run the same proposition but with different designs to check which design of ad is most attractive to be in terms of colours, shapes, layout. Clever, huh?)

Yes, it’s a bit more work for you, and the agency, but you want to save valuable money, right? And boost sales? It’s worth the extra effort to be sure you’re hitting home.


Advertising doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is always a reflection of your actual business, not the business itself. If you can’t make your advertising “hit home”, maybe you need to innovate in the area of products and service delivery?

Focus on what customers will want tomorrow, as Steve Jobs and Richard Branson did so well.  Try to envision different possible futures through tools like scenario planning and then explore how underlying market shifts may affect your customers.

Remember that sometimes you need to get out of your own way to really understand your customers. Psychologists know, for example, that you’re likely to listen for problems that fit your own offerings, and to discount others that might require a stretch solution. That can cause you to miss important opportunities, or to get blindsided later on by someone else innovating.

So, try to listen to what your customers are saying to you.  If you can truly hear them, they’ll tell you all you need to know about what they need to know, now and in the future.


As we keep saying, “Me Too” advertising rarely works. If your ads are essentially saying the same as everyone else’s, then you can pretty much assume, right off the bat, that you’re saying the wrong thing. Because what incentive do customers have to change? Your ads can be perfectly inoffensive, but so “un-differentiated’ that no one cares. To establish a “territory” in consumer’s minds, you need to pick your ground and proudly plant a flag. If you’re not sure where to plant that flag, then do the other things we’ve suggested. But whatever you decide to say, don’t look and sound “Me Too”.

You think there’s nothing to say to differentiate your “Me Too” product? Try harder.


2000 Cow Calendar


This is one of our all-time favourite ad campaigns, for Chick-fil-A in America. The campaign – using 3D cows trying to persuade people to eat chicken rather than cows, namely beef burgers – ran uninterrupted for 22 years, and turned a small local provider of roast chicken in Texas into the 8th largest chain of convenience food outlets in the USA.




So the best possible advice we can give you if you can’t work out what to say? Don’t buy a dog and bark yourself.

Ask a really good advertising agency to help you, and listen to their advice, even if it makes you a little nervous.

MOPCreativity sells. And ultimately, the buck stops with you. If you’re working with an ad agency that’s giving you great work that demands consumer attention and targets their needs and desires, and you don’t dare run it, well, honestly, that’s your fault. Or if you’re working with an ad agency that gives you ho hum work, and you’re still running it, then that’s your fault too.

So find an agency that inspires you. Chances are they’ll inspire your customers, too.

And if you don’t know how to get better work from the ad agencies that circle your budget like ravenous sharks, go here to find out the best way to brief an agency.


Author: Stephen Yolland

Director of Creative Strategy and Partner @ Magnum Opus Partners.

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