Gareth O'Connor
Oct 29, 2020

Say farewell to the sea of sameness

In a time where short-termism prevails, PHD's New Zealand strategy director expounds on how long-term brand platforms can—when client and agency are committed—reinvigorate and rejuvenate year after year.


Creativity will be one of your greatest allies in achieving growth.

After all, creativity brings attention, enjoyment, reaction, engagement, emotion, likeability, fame, distinctiveness, differentiation, memory, talkability, shareability, action, sales and profit.

These are all critical in the world of media.

Yet, the great Les Binet and Peter Field have found that advertising and marketing campaign effectiveness has fallen over the years. They also found ‘short-termism’ and the focus on communications designed to drive action is on the rise. The balance of thinking long-term and short-term is out of whack. Even long-term cases are not as effective as they once were, brands do not spend enough to support long-term cases, missing their maximum possible impact and return.

If you look at advertising in any category, you will see the sea of sameness pop up every time. Brands are fighting for share of mind to increase, for their products and services to be bought—all of which are saying and doing the same things in the same way. Sure, it’s a safe bet, you probably won’t get fired for it, but you are also not making it easy for people to see you, remember you, like you and therefore buy you.

In times of struggle, creativity is often easier to take on. After all, you must do something to turn the ship around. When business is good and ticking along, harnessing the power of creativity often seems surplus to current requirements. But why?

There is frequently a scariness to creativity. Focus groups do not always like it, finance people are usually not fans, but huge gains can be found from investment in creativity.

In 2014, Paul Dyson did some excellent research and found that creative execution is, after brand size, the second most crucial driver of advertising profitability, multiplying profitability by a factor of 12. Nielsen supported this in 2017 with creativity picking up 47% of the impact of advertising. This year, Kantar revisited Dyson’s work and found the same outcome. Brand size followed by creativity were first and second, respectively, with three a long way behind. Yet when they asked marketers what the most significant drivers where, the media mix came in first, followed by product versus equity versus season at second, target audience at third, creativity at fourth and brand size at fifith. Underestimate the power of creativity at your own peril, creativity can unlock so much untapped potential.

Building for the long-term, brand platforms can—when committed—reinvigorate and rejuvenate year-on-year. Ensuring there is differentiation and distinction, makes it easier for brands to be remembered, bought and liked. It is worth noting that the more consumers like your brand, the better they think your brand is.

I want to highlight a few examples of great marketing where creativity and agency partners played a pivotal role. In a world where we are so quick to throw ideas away, holding on to something good for as long as you can is a sensible thing to do, especially if it is working. Creativity is at the heart of these examples, and I believe we can all learn a lot from them.

First, those brands who stepped out of the sea of sameness, built differentiation and distinctiveness, resulted in market-share growth and greater profitability.

Linking the product action-oriented communications to your positioning

Dove, a heritage brand, was in decline and began to reposition themselves to create real differentiation and distinctiveness. The beauty category communications were filled with what society believes are ‘beautiful’ people, in other words unattainable beauty, and unrealistic standards for large swathes of the category’s buyers. Dove repositioned the brand to reflect real woman, for real beauty, showcasing and celebrating real beauty in all its forms. Dove ‘Real Beauty’ was born.

Emotive brand communications presented category buyers with lots of great work that shone a light on the beauty industry’s wrongdoings. Consumers love to buy brands that represent them, and this was an excellent example.

‘Real Beauty’ offered a platform to build greater meaning for women, especially young girls, on what real beauty means, overcoming the anxiety, depression and self-loathing many feel due to their looks, and how the industry portrays beauty. This was achieved through the Dove Self Esteem Project, an enduring brand platform that continues to pay back for the brand and women worldwide years later. Dove created a platform that stood apart from the competition, lived by it, supported and nurtured it.

To understand and realise the importance of brand-building communications that makes your brand’s point of view famous, brands must link the product action-orientated communications to that point of view.

Once you establish a brand positioning you need integration and long-term commitment

Next, Snickers created a brand platform that set them apart, again building differentiation and distinctiveness. It famously highlighted that you can be irritable, mistake-prone and not quite yourself when you are hungry. Snickers created its ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’, utilising great creative featuring famous divas as the hungry person. Likeability and memorability were achieved and growth was seen in 56 out of 58 markets where the campaign platform was utilised.

The platform endured and again, it was revitalised and nurtured every year. It was an integrated platform that could live beautifully on any channel and, both the marketing team and the brand's agency partners committed to it for the long term.

Specsavers is another example of bringing to life all the wonderful, embarrassing and amusing things that can happen if you cannot see correctly. ‘Should have gone to Specsavers’ was born. Again, this messaging was so successful because it could be brought to life creatively and was applicable across any channel. It made you smile and increased consumers’ likeability making it easier to remember the brand and buy. It also gave Specsavers an opportunity to widen their portfolio adding hearing to their offering. Specsavers did so well because they connected with consumers emotionally, they stood out from the crowd, and committed entirely to the positioning and platform.

The importance of breadth and depth

A slight detour now, but an excellent example of a brand that understands the importance of bringing breadth and depth to a campaign is Tesco’s ‘Food Love Stories’ from the UK. A mass-reach campaign that placed customers and their love of food at the heart, celebrating people who enjoy cooking good food for their loved ones. The passion, people, recipes, ingredients and process inspired many consumers to take part in the campaign. 

Reaching 99% of the UK population across paid, owned, earned and shared media, the work is estimated to have resulted in $1.3 billion in new revenue, with a 49% increase in media-driven sales in eight months.

Lastly, a brand that is often held up in many discussion of greatness, Apple—one of the world’s biggest brands and one I firmly believe we can all learn some valuable lessons from.

Brand positioning and orientation should be at the heart of any company. Everything should build from this, and marketing teams need to position themselves firmly here with a clear understanding that every experience, interaction, usage and touchpoint is a marketing opportunity, so let us start there.

Clear positioning makes differentiation possible and differentiation creates profit. Apple positions and shapes everything it does around three brand pillars; Simplicity, creativity and humanity fuels Apple including its communications.

Through Steve Jobs’ relationship with Lee Clow from TBWA, Apple gave TBWA the space needed to create truly great work. They did not test or research-group the creativity out of it, they did not water it down and most importantly, they did not back into the sea of sameness.

The real turnaround in Apple’s fortunes was when Steve Jobs started working with Lee Clow and ‘Here’s to crazy ones’ was born in 1997. A beautiful brand execution that did not speak about the brand, but the people who the brand saw themselves in, those who pushed things forward, who created and changed things for the better. Something no other IT company was doing. Something that helped the company move from US$2 billion in value to US$8 billion by 2003.

Simple, creative and human was brought to life beautifully in Silhouettes, the iPod creative platform that lived for 10 years. It lived the brand ethos perfectly: build great work and stick with it.

Building everything from the brand positioning saw Apple become the world’s first US$1 trillion company in 2018 and one third of that (US$300 billion) was attributable to brand equity. It’s now worth US$2 trillion. You may well think your products are not like Apple’s but adopting some of their behaviours would pay dividends for you in the long-term.

Ensuring you find a balance between long term brand-building such as priming people to increase your chances consumer purchases, and short-term activation such as sales in the short term, is essential for long-term growth and profitability. Creativity thrives in both.

Creativity is one of the most powerful levers we can pull to ensure we are liked, remembered and bought.

Be brave, step out of the sea of sameness and harness the power of creativity for your business.

Gareth O'Connor is group strategy director for PHD New Zealand.


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