Effective marketing communications are getting harder to do. It can be hard to find anything (other than price) that’s really worth shouting about. There are whole advertising campaigns built around seemingly marginal features. Take The Ford Motor Company. “Keys”, says the woman in the Ford Focus ad, and I start watching because it is charming and true. Or that buff chap climbing the steps to the diving board, to the opening riff of Hawkwind’s Master of the Universe – the message is loud and clear that the Ford B Max has no pillars, and that somehow this will make my life freer and fuller. (The offspring of these two ads is now on air: one about keyless entry featuring a demi god in Speedos.) These features could be dismissed as trivial in the overall ranking of car greatness, but maybe now that almost all cars are reliable, comfortable and fast, they make Fords seem that little bit better. These are smart features that deliver modest but clear customer benefits, beautifully dramatized in their advertising.

There are, though, plenty of ads out there with nothing much to say. This is usually because what’s on offer in the category is all much the same. When directory services were deregulated, a lot of money was spent on TV advertising by competing providers. There was no pretence that the offers were any different, just a scrum to get their numbers into our heads. 118 118 was the clear winner.

But now free online listings have undermined the whole directory services business model. Classical marketers would see this as proof that lack of differentiation is the road to ruin. Since brand management began, the search has been on for unique selling propositions, differentiation via the offer and/or the brand, in the firm conviction that it is the only way to create lasting customer relationships and long term value for the business. It’s received wisdom in marketing that brands need to stand out from the crowd. Certainly it’s better to be distinctive and memorable than bland and forgettable. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and sometimes, especially when under competitive pressure, getting a new offer into the market fast is more important than making it different. In a new category, to teach us all a new habit, the first mover has to establish the generic category benefit. This is certainly true for a real pioneer, Skype for example. In an emerging category with several competitors, where it’s a landgrab, businesses just want their name to be known. Price comparison sites exemplify this. We all know it’s a mad push to get scale, and all their messaging is simply to establish name awareness and drive traffic. Hence Compare the Market, perhaps feeling they had nothing different to offer, created a very distinctive advertising property instead.

Marketers in search of a USP risk treating their marketing communications as primarily a rational process, a way of giving potential customers useful information to inform their rational choices. This is true, but it’s only half of the story. Human emotion is the other half. Imagery, music, familiar faces, can all be used to trigger positive emotions, which we then associate with the brand. This approach is informed by the work of academic Robert Heath, with his “low involvement processing”, which holds that emotion not cognition shapes our responses to advertising. I believe there can be both conscious and subliminal engagement, and that we can have both rational and emotional responses. The challenge is to make sure we pay attention to both.

As marketers, it is right to push ourselves and our colleagues in the organisation to make the offering better for customers, in a material way, whether through innovation, service, price, or anything else. I’m all for differentiation, especially when it means better for customers. But it’s also valid to think about how our offer makes people feel – the ultimate measure of a brand – and to recognise that great advertising also makes people feel good.

More posts on brand communications:

Breaking bad news

Let me entertain you

Yes there?s a crisis in brand trust but please, don?t try to be nice.

Let?s hear it for the ads we love to hate

Comment | March 2015