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That sinking feeling

‘Bonkers’ is not a word that often springs to mind when evaluating new marketing initiatives, but it’s always cheering when it does. It is along such lines that the proposed Glasgow 2014 opening ceremony stunt to blow up the Red Road flats has had the media reaching for their thesauruses. I must confess to a flash of disbelief myself.

In more prosaic terms, down the years I’ve watched the best-laid plans of huge well-educated multinational companies (with marketing budgets to match) crumble into dust. Guinness bitter, Persil washing up liquid, Kleenex toilet tissue. Great hoped-for edifices that never materialised.

Sometimes, things just strike you as wrong – it may only be a fleeting tremor of trepidation, a moment’s giddy unease before misguided logic restores a sense of terra firma. But in my experience it’s a warning worth heeding.



If the polls are to be believed, the yes-no gap in the impending Scottish referendum appears to be narrowing. Come a close-run thing in September, every millimetre of advantage will count. From a marketing perspective, therefore, I’m surprised we’ve not heard more from the MR fraternity.

Most marketers get briefed at some point in their careers on the subject of bias in questionnaires (how to avoid it, and – cynically – how to use it to your advantage).

The referendum question, despite the best efforts of Westminster, seems well-placed to take advantage of the phenomenon known as acquiescence bias – that is, the human tendency to agree with questions. Should Scotland be an independent country?

Of course, a more common type of response bias can occur when the choices to a question are not randomised. All other things being equal, the first option tends to benefit. It seems we naturally associate the first choice with the correct choice.

If you wanted the most reliable outcome in brand research, you’d randomise the options – binary ‘ballot’ papers would alternate yes-no with no-yes.

A possible solution to this would be to provide a single space for the answer. However, the Yes Campaign might argue that No is easier to write (unless in the vernacular, in which case Aye has the same number of letters as Naw).

Clearly, ticks and crosses can look remarkably similar, and must be discounted – but this notion raises a real issue for a public that has been trained to tick online boxes on a daily basis. If I want to vote Yes do I put a tick (= ‘agree’) in the Yes box and reserve my cross (= ‘disagree’) for the No box?

I know what I meant but I’ve just spoiled my paper.

An udder perspective

I note the pedants are out in force regarding Tesco’s ‘wrong kind of cows’ ads – you might even say they’re having a field day. Yet for such knockers (no pun intended) to be consistent, they should criticise every ad that features a stock shot or an actor. Since when did advertising become anything other than illustrative?

As a twitcher, I’m always hearing on TV dubbed background birdsong from species that could only be thousands of miles away, wintering in Africa – but I get it: it’s near enough and creates the right effect for most viewers. Perhaps if Tesco had used horses in their visual then alarm bells would reasonably start to ring (a new miracle product?) – but, otherwise, I can’t see much misleading about 4 pints of milk for a £1.


In the late 1970s my first job was as a grocery sales rep. There were many more supermarket chains in those days (remember Crazy Prices, Fine Fare, Galbraiths, Grandways, Hillards, International, Kwik Save, Liptons, Normans, Stewarts, Templeton, Victor Value, Wm Low – to name a few?)

One East Midlands group was called Supasave – large dingy outlets where chronically angry assistant managers barked out orders, but you couldn’t run away because your soles stuck to the floor.

It was a depressing experience to do a sales call – and I used to pity the customers. There were never any staff and I would get asked where to find products I hadn’t heard of. I could only conclude they shopped there because it was handy – the single biggest factor in selling anything.

I can’t help being overwhelmed by a feeling of déjà vu when I visit one of today’s so-called ‘discounters’. The obscure range, the untidy merchandising, the absence of smiles – a retro encounter of the unwelcome kind.

Yet the media would have it that the discounters are going like gangbusters. I’m not so sure that this isn’t simply a function of the acquisition of real estate. Even the cattle-class airlines are being forced to upgrade their service levels (such as pre-allocated seat numbers) – perhaps because they sense at last the latent alienation felt by consumers.

When the good times roll, loyalty will be tested, and I suspect some retailers will need every square inch of those sticky floors.

Yes you can – no you can’t

There’s a bird in rural Brazil – a whacking great turkey-sized thing – that wakes you at dawn without fail. They call it the Chaco-Chachalaca and we joked that it sounded just like our kids in the next tent: ‘Yes you can – no you can’t. Yes you can – no you can’t.’ A kind of incessant rhythmical gainsaying.

Yesterday I heard a radio commercial for Axa that called to mind the Chaco-Chachalaca.

Actually the ad got my interest – something about how, if you lose a special item of jewellery, they’ll strive to have a near identical replacement made. (You can see this if you click here.)


Except the ad ended with the usual small print (in radio terms, the rapid speak). And it said – quite audibly – ‘Valuables lost or damaged may not be covered.’


So I’ve listened intently (or watched or read online) – I’m interested, impressed, even – and then they tell me, ‘Oh – that thing we just said, about replacing your treasured jewellery – well, we might not.’

How bizarre.

Yet this is far from uncommon in ads that involve financial services. A nice offer, then a destructive caveat that undoes all the good work.

I can understand the need for such caveats, but what really beats me is why marketers think there is any point spending money on such a message.

My advice is to listen for the Chaco-Chachalaca.

Last brand standing

I was intrigued to see the recently published list of so-called ‘Superbrands’. It seems remarkable that BA is number one, when you consider it is less than half the size of Ryanair. And Andrex still loiters (now at No.12), despite in market share terms being a shadow of the leviathan that stomped competitors during its Bowater-Scott heyday.

For those in slow yet seemingly inexorable decline, the question must be how to turn such approbation into bums on seats (apposite, I think, for both brands mentioned). As always, the answer is simple. Ignore the value equation at your peril.

A highly regarded brand that takes a nose-dive can only tell you one thing: someone is providing some of your customers with a more attractive package of benefits and cost. Brand loyalty creates inertia and lessens the attrition, but it only lasts so long. Fail to act, and your precious equity will eventually disappear down the pan.

The Y-word

I note that VisitScotland have come under fire for including the word ‘Yes’ in an advertising campaign.

Diligent readers of this column may recall my highlighting of a rather more blatant use of the said affirmative by RBS (‘RBYES’).

Given that we work in these politically sensitive circles, I have just issued a memo to all our copywriters. Until 19th September 2014, we restrict ourselves entirely to the vernacular. Yes no more, No no more, Lochaber no more.

From now on, to avoid all possible doubt, it’s Aye, Nae Chance, and – where appropriate – Dinnae Ken. That ought to make interesting reading.

What’s in a name?

Earlier, I was bemoaning the rampant commercialisation of Valentine’s Day, when a Polish colleague informed me I should be thankful for small mercies. Evidently over in the good country every day can have its obligations.

Tomorrow, for instance – St Valentine’s Day in Blighty – in Poland is Adolf’s Day, Adolpha’s Day, Adolphina’s Day, Alf’s Day, Cyril’s Day, Dobislawa’s Day, Józef’s Day, Jósefa’s Day, Konrad’s Day, Konrada’s Day, Krystyna’s Day, Lilian’s Day, Liliana’s Day, Mikolaj’s Day, Niemir’s Day, Niemira’s Day… and Walenty’s Day.

The deal is that, if you know anyone by these names, tomorrow you have to ply them with gifts and flowers.

So – yes – I am thankful that the British supermarkets haven’t got hold of this idea of ‘Name Days’ (imieniny in Polish). And long may that continue. Meanwhile I have to pop out to Tesco to get something for my friend Walenty.

Stock in trade

People sometimes ask me why I don’t like stock photography. I think the best answer is to imagine trying to convince a film director to save money by splicing some old footage into his new movie. It’s not about being precious; it’s just common sense.

Sadly, such logic is often overruled when it comes to stills. I was reminded of the principle this morning at the gym. An ad for ‘Free Friend Friday’ might have been better entitled ‘Relationship Problems?’

If you’ve ever had to crowbar a headline into a vaguely relevant image, you’ll know the sinking feeling. It just ain’t gonna work. Curiously, many well-qualified marketers seem to think an ad is something that looks like one.

Ego on board

We all know the car marque that – as my mates put it – has a high quotient of the f-wit factor. Well, now I read there’s another reason to shun it – research suggests you’re less likely to be let into the traffic by other motorists. Apparently your commute will be shorter if your choice of car is not driven by your troubled ego.

I have frequently wondered to what degree automotive marketers consider the off-putting potential of their existing clientele. I seem to recall Audi running a campaign along the lines of ‘People won’t think you’re a dickhead if you drive an Audi’. It certainly doesn’t seem to have done them any harm.

Of course, every brand must suffer to some degree from the stigma that comes with the success of its own segmentation. The Teutonic discounters are currently fighting this battle, with some tidy gains being made. Perhaps their automotive cousins should take a leaf out of their book?

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