Lipstick on a pig – when spending more on advertising can actually be harmful to your brand

“If there’s one reason we have done better than our peers, it is because we have focused like a laser on customer experience, and that really does matter.”
Jeff Bezos, Amazon

Here’s a great, possibly apocryphal story about Amazon – according to legend, for all board meetings they leave an empty chair to represent the customer’s impact at the boardroom table.
Whether it’s a corporate PR tall tale or the truth, it’s a nice thought that reinforces how focused Amazon is on the way people experience their various services.

But how many other brands can say that they really care about that customer experience?

For the most part, there’s a stunning lack of empathy with the customer in large modern businesses. We bombard people with targeted and re-targeted advertising, social posts and email and then, when they’ve accepted the invite to interact with us, it often turns out to be a crap experience.

Many people’s reaction to actually taking the time to browse a brand’s store/website or trying to solve a product/service problem is reminiscent of this:

Anyone out there with an Irish Mammy will know that when you invite visitors over, it’s expected that you’ll have the best silverware out, the good biscuits on display and that everyone will be welcoming and on their best behaviour.

But most businesses flout these basic rules of hospitality.

Theodore Levitt coined the term ‘marketing myopia‘ in the ’60s and it’s never been more apt. According to Ted, “a business suffers from marketing myopia when a company views marketing strictly from the standpoint of selling a specific product rather than from the standpoint of fulfilling customer needs.”

Sound familiar?

It’s pretty simple – most people care much more about what a brand actually does, than what it actually says.

So why do most brands not realise this?

Rational benefits

New research shows that the experience is actually far more important than many think. Outsized feelings of affection for a brand (“brand love”) are driven by rational benefits too, such as product quality. It’s the experience that often creates subsequent emotional appeal.

Emotive, buzzworthy advertising is merely a substantiation of great customer experience, not the precursor to it. Often, brands get this the wrong way around.

As Jeff Bezos hints at above, all the advertising in the world is about as effective as lipstick on a pig when the actual product/service is crap.

I’ve seen many big Irish brands pump money into beautiful advertising and paid media filled with emotional promises, and then send people to an awful website, a poorly designed store or to wait on a phone for half an hour.

It’s like a hotel spending millions on the facade and not bothering to change bedsheets or cook the food properly.

Logically, as a lay person looking in you’d expect a big company to understand that providing a great, consistent service would earn them more customers (and more net promoters) than spending big on an ad campaign without backing it up.

But logic doesn’t come into it when you’re examining big companies. Group think, politics, short-termism and disconnected, siloed processes are at play.

If I’m on the marketing team and my KPI is to make people aware through advertising, then my annual bonus doesn’t rely on how people actually experience the brand, so why would I spend budget on better website UX or better in store I.T.?

And so, the problems never get fixed.


Much more than ad spend, experience is a real sustainable competitive advantage that’s often an afterthought.

And paradoxically, a piece of brilliant advertising that leads on to a poor experience can actually be more harmful to your brand than mediocre advertising that leads to an ok experience.

Why? Because it makes the disconnect between marketing and experience so obvious.

People can readily see that your business has spent big on a TV ad while wilfully ignoring the most important part of the process for them – the piece after the ad when they actually interact with your company (online or offline).

In a financial era when most big organisations can’t afford to waste precious marketing budget, the biggest, most wasteful problem with modern marketing is that most brands talk the talk without walking the walk.

Great brands should focus on product experience rather than brand appeal, because it’s often easier to get people to experience rather than to actively think.

That’s why Intercom is such a potentially enormous business.

It’s why Apple think long and hard about their store service.

It’s why I’m so excited about Wyldsson.

It’s why, despite selling commoditised products that are often poorer versions of what you can get elsewhere, Zappos and Starbucks are revered.

It’s why the biggest tech companies Amazon and Google are relentlessly focused on minor details like the particular shade of a button.

As the excellent Gareth Kay says (I love this quote)…

“Thinking through how we can deliver the brand in a more distinctive way is one of the biggest opportunities we have to break brands out of their commoditised sea of sameness. Perhaps one small thing we can do right now is to stop systemising brands by what they are trying to say and how they look in favour of how they behave.”

In advertising, there’s a golden rule that it takes sustained media investment to drive growth in market share. (One rule of thumb from Binet & Field’s ‘The Long & Short Of It’ holds that an extra 20 points in share of voice has the direct result of a sustained 1% growth in market share per annum.)

But given the fact that so many companies forget about it, a relentless focus on experience is another obvious way to outperform the competition without having to outspend them.

And that’s something we’re all looking for.


Further Reading:






Moving towards maturity and making digital marketing redundant…

make digital redundant

Let’s be honest with ourselves here for a second.

There’s been hundreds of millions (possibly billions?) in marketing budget wasted on digital marketing because of over zealousness about its effectiveness and misunderstanding about how it works.

That’s not an over claim. Look at the scandalous view ability rates of digital display, the amount of money that brands spend each month on creating social ‘content’ that nobody ever gets to see, or the budget pumped into the latest ‘silver bullet’ (branded apps, messenger bots, ‘influencer’ ‘real time’ or whatever the latest buzzword is).

Agencies are happy to keep pumping this stuff out for cold hard cash, while many marketers are afraid to call them out on it for fear that they’ll be seen as ‘not getting it’.

Everyone in the industry has been guilty of hyping up digital, getting excited about tactics and and forgetting of the bigger strategic picture.

But by focusing on the revered efficiency of digital, we’ve lost sight of the real value of creative advertising.

We’ve lost sight of a lot of things.


As Ian Leslie said in his recent excellent piece about adland…

“The ad industry has been bamboozeled by the rise of digital, because most of it had no idea how advertising worked in the first place.”

Sure, the growth digital has completely changed the ad industry. It’s hugely exciting and has had a bigger impact on consumer behaviour than almost anything else in history.
But it’s has also led to many negative side effects.

  • It’s meant that we prioritise short term, easily measurable data instead of clarifying thinking and focusing on long term brand building.
  • It’s led to biased thinking from marketers eager to cosy up to tech cos and desperate to distance themselves from the supposedly moribund world of “traditional” media.
  • It’s led to many of us thinking like direct marketers, not brand marketers and ineffectually using ‘precision targeting’ to try to engage the perfect individual, while forgetting that wastage is actually a good thing.
  • And of course it’s led to fraudulent practises within an industry that can’t really afford to lose any more credibility.

We seem to have convinced ourselves that digital is this completely different approach and the learnings of old don’t apply.

But as contrarians like Mark Ritson, Byron Sharp and Bob Hoffman have been saying for years, digital is just another interesting tool to add to the marketer’s arsenal. It’s not a panacea for everything and those who tell you it is are either wilfully lying, utterly biased or just don’t know enough about how advertising really works.


But maybe this period of inflated expectations and unnecessary buzz has some positive outcomes. Maybe it’s just the early stages of us truly understanding digital.

As with any technology, it takes time for it to stabilise and for smart people who are impacted by it to really understand and stop get carried away with talk of ‘disruption’, ‘game changer’ and ‘the death of’ everything else.

As a marketer who has only known the digital age of advertising, it’s been all to easy for me to over prioritise it and to demonise everything else as old fashioned. That’s the same for many under 30s in adland. They refer to ‘traditional’ advertising in a pejorative sense, and hail any small new tactical evolvement of digital as a huge step.

Tom Goodwin sums this up well when he says that…

“It’s not unusual in technology leaps to think you’ve understood the power of the new when you haven’t. We thought the wonder of the mobile phone was making phone calls anywhere, when in fact it was a personal gateway to the Internet.”

We’re only beginning to get to grips with the best way to use digital now, and this learning curve will continue for a long time yet.

But things seem to be getting better. And even the past few months, the signs are that our approach to digital seems to be maturing.


Firstly, we’re starting to see a more sophisticated approach to digital that’s more in line with the way we believe advertising works, and less inclined towards believing that it requires a completely new approach.

Let’s focus on FB for a minute.

P&G’s recent announcement about its spend on Facebook advertising is a good example. In line with Byron Sharp’s theories of brand growth, one of the world’s largest spenders is actually moving away from uber targeting and starting to remember the rules that emotional fame campaigns that reach lots of people and get talked about (building mental availability) are far more effective in the long term.

“The inference is they are switching to TV but what’s really happening is a shift to reach and frequency and away from highly targeted buying, but still on Facebook, which we’ve been doing on similar clients for the past two years.”

Ironically, this news could turn out to be a good thing for Facebook, as the digital brand building platform with the largest mass reach in the world.

BBDO’s excellent comms planning division also underline the shift in approach in their recent ‘About Face’ report.

In the past 5 years, brands have focused on building up Facebook ‘fans’ and pushing out organic content to them. But there’s two fallacies at play here.

Firstly, the likelehood is that these ‘fans’ are already existing heavy buyers and thus, this approach contradicts the fundamental marketing theory that for brands to grow, they must aim their marketing efforts at all buyers, as opposed to only loyal buyers.

And secondly, for most big brands their organic reach is less than 1%, meaning their carefully cultivated posts (likely created by an agency on a huge hourly rate), aren’t being seen by 99% of the people who ‘like’ their page, never mind anyone outside of that already qualified base.

Therefore, smarter brands are starting to realise that focusing on reaching as many people as possible is a much more lucrative and viable tactic than micro targeting.

But it’s not just brands that are seeing the light. Ironically, Facebook also supports this return to the same logic that we use for ‘traditional’ advertising, emphasising in its literature to advertisers that ‘reach’ is a much more effective KPI than precision targeting or optimising for engagement.

“By optimizing towards reach rather than towards action-based objectives, advertisers can generate a much larger impact for their brand, more cost-efficiently.”

The excellent Jerry Daykin sums it up well:

“Behind those unintelligible digital headlines, ever changing platform specifications and powerful speeches about consumer engagement & conversation is a simple truth: digital marketing is most effective when it plays by traditional rules, but does so better than traditional media can. The real advantage of digital is often when it can help us broadly reach more consumers, not specifically target fewer.”


Another sign of digital maturity is its continuing integration with other channels. We’re seeing the light that the most effective way to use digital is in tandem, rather than it being expected to do everything alone.

Consistent research has shown that multi-channel campaigns actually make the same budget work harder and more efficiently and advertising across platforms delivers a higher ROI, and that integrated campaigns build better brand associations and more brand equity. Binet and Field’s seminal research found that adding an online response element to a TV advert boosts the efficiency of TV by a factor of 4x.

Digital is strong alone, but better together.

Indeed, the best, most awarded campaigns at Cannes, in Warc awards and in IPA/ADFX tend to be those that use a variety of media to communicate their message, and the average number of channels used in awarded campaigns is increasing.

It’s clear to see that cross platform advertising builds brands in consumer brains better than a single platform. It leads to a multiplier effect. No individual media channel can become a silver bullet for a campaign, not least digital.

Make digital redundant

I’d like to finish with a proposal that I’ve stolen from elsewhere.

As an industry, let’s focus on making the term ‘digital’ redundant.

Let’s not see it as a separate thing. That’s outdated thinking.

Digital is like electricity, it’s everywhere, it’s the thing we build on top of.

Imagine if some new agency came to you with an ‘electricity strategy’.

Digital marketing is not a thing. Digital is a marketing channel, not a marketing strategy. And increasingly, everything is digital anyway.

It should be baked into every idea that we come up with, but it’s also not a replacement for any other tool.

This would mean the death of purely ‘digital’ or ‘social’ agencies too, which in my view would be a good thing for the industry, and lead to less biased thinking.

The call for talent in the future won’t be for ‘digital marketers’. It’ll be for well rounded marketers who understand how advertising really works, aren’t biased towards any one medium and can create an effective integrated plan. People who not only ‘get’ digital, but also don’t put it on an unnecessary pedestal as the silver bullet for everything.

As Jerry Daykin says, in this new age of maturity that we’re hopefully entering, It’s not so much about mastering a completely new art of digital marketing, as it is about mastering traditional marketing in an increasingly digital world.

So paradoxically, the best thing that marketers could do to push digital marketing forward, is to kill the term itself.

But enough of my rambling, there’s bound to be some holes in the thinking above, so what’s your take?





Further Reading

Irish publishers are mis-selling their native advertising offerings…


The Irish marketing scene has finally started to embrace ‘native’ advertising. And it’s about time too.

Working in one of Ireland’s largest creative agencies, it’s easy to spot a flow of time and money as brands move from traditional to digital, and from display to editorial & content.

From INM to The Journal, Maximum to Irish Time, every publisher now has some sort of native offering to support their other revenue sources.

Of course, whether this trend is a good or a bad thing for agencies is debatable, as more of our pie gets eaten by publishers, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

More pertinently, from a creative standpoint, the state of native in Ireland at the moment is poor. And that’s good for nobody. There’s plenty of badly written pieces, poorly shot video, lots of boring brand content wrapped up in editorial and really not much good stuff being put out.

If we mapped the native trend onto the Gartner Hype Cycle, it’d be midway between the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ and the ‘trough of disillusionment’. But that can change.


From my perspective, having worked with some big publishers on ‘native’ projects, the issue at the moment is that publishers are fundamentally misunderstanding what they’re actually selling. 

Go to any rate card page for a publisher with a native offering, and you’ll see them crow about social reach, Facebook fans, unique users (one Irish publisher has 8 million unique users in Ireland, which is interesting maths…) and other large numbers.

But to focus on large numbers misses the point.

The core capability that publishers need to bring isn’t access to readership. It’s not about giving brands access to reach. Brands don’t want reach. They can get that much easier and cheaper by just creating content themselves and paying for social/video ads.

The thing that publishers are selling isn’t raw numbers. It’s the ability to deliver creative value in some way.

Currently, many publishers are being lazy. They’re just saying ‘here, we’ll take your content, write a 200 word article around it and put out a Facebook post for you to our audience if you pay us’. Of course, this results in poor ROI.
It’s short-termism, and will only come back to bite them in the long run.

Brands want publishers to offer the things that FB, Google and their creative agencies can’t do.


Shooting myself in the foot?

And native content studios inside publishers do have a USP – they’re often real journalists and can write, edit, shoot and create things that agencies or brands just can’t. That’s the way they can blow agencies out of the water. That’s the way to grow and sustain a native business.

The likes of Vice offer a production capability that is better than most production companies. NYT offers an understanding of multimedia and storytelling that no agency creative can possible compete with. In fact, the NYT’s ‘T Brand Studio’ head spoke about just this subject on a recent podcast.

Imagine asking an agency to create this.

Or this.

Or this.

They wouldn’t know where to start, and they wouldn’t have the capability or platform to do it.

Perhaps I’m shooting myself in the foot here by giving out free advice! But I do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. (And of course, native is still just one small part of a wider marketing mix that does little in isolation.)


So my challenge to publishers would be to use your unique skills to do better, and to understand where the overlap between what brands want, and what you can uniquely provide lies. (If that means agencies lose business, then so be it!)

The question from publishers should be ‘What cool creative stuff can we do for you that you can’t get anywhere else?

What’s NBDB (Never Been Done Before)?’

Talk about creative solutions first.

That’s the sweet spot.

Forget about selling ‘reach’, and focus on your competitive advantage.