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How to achieve brand relevance and sell boring products

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Great advertising is one of the most powerful tools in business but how do you make mundane products interesting and relevant to consumers?

How much time does the average person spend looking at an ad? The answer is 4 seconds on the low end but never more than 15 seconds. Now, imagine trying to get them to read your ad if you have a product that isn’t instantly understandable or even interesting.

Last year, I saw a stirring brand strategist from the UK speak at a conference for business leaders. He was everything a speaker should be – energetic, wry and passionate.

After a kaleidoscope of anecdotes and “Tipping Points” and “Greater Whys”, a young business owner asked him the following question: “Sir, this is very interesting but I sell screws for a living – Phillips, Flatheads and Clutch-Drive screws. They are boring and nobody wants to hear about them. What do I do?”

After some shifting, the brand maven who had spent the hour showing Go-Pro commercials and quoting Steve Jobs, bravely admitted that he didn’t have an answer.

It’s a tough one, but branding and marketing people rarely address the innovation businesses that deal with the arcane and obscure areas of invention – the things that either never face the customer because they are hidden behind other brands (think of microprocessors) or remain forbiddingly complex (financial products like collateralized debt obligations, for example).

So what do you do? It’s an issue of brand relevance. The fundamental problem is that people don’t think your product has any impact on their life and that’s why they are liable to skip your ad or video. In order to reverse this aura of dullness, it’s important to consider the equation that forms brand relevance:

Brand Relevance = User Imagery + Usage Imagery

User Imagery is the type of person who uses or is affected by your product and Usage Imagery is the situation in which your product is used or ultimately has an impact.


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Perhaps the best way to illustrate brand relevance is to look at these ads for Chanel – one from the 60s and one from last year. The 60s ad shows us an elegant women with evening gloves and décolletage evoking a socialite (user imagery) while her attire cues us to the fact that she is ready for a night on the town (usage imagery).

Clearly this ad targets the Mad-Men era woman of leisure, free from the worries of career or class struggle – a product of a time when only 22% of women in the US worked.

Compare that to the ad from the present which shows us two women sprinting down a street.

Firstly, they are younger and more feral, evoking an almost punk aesthetic (user imagery) and their shoes and body language suggest the urgency of the workday (usage imagery attending to the fact that 60% of adult American women work).

It’s the same product but the brand relevance has been entirely re-engineered to shake the mustiness and debutante privilege of the Chanel name.

It worked: the Chanel brand is today valued at $7 billion and, more impressively, The Centre For Brand Analysis listed it as one of the world’s Top 20 Coolest Brands, ahead of Alexander McQueen and Spotify. Not bad for a company founded in 1909.

Intel & Cisco

While Chanel illustrates the point, brand relevance becomes more cogent when we consider companies that sell a more elusive product.

Take Intel which does brand relevance beautifully. In their ad for the 2010 Core Processor, Intel shows us not motherboards and circuitry which would have been dull and alienating but instead an attractive, joyous female professional (user imagery) in a moment of flexibility and creative spark (usage imagery).

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It’s tied together by the idea of “computing that adapts so you don’t have to”. The net effect is that we are made to relate and care about a silicon wafer.

An even better example is this campaign from Cisco which indirectly anthropomorphizes a wireless network by showing how it empowers real people.

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The redoubtable cop on the left makes a series of outlandish claims but they are substantiated and made possible by the Cisco supercomputer on the right. The mainframe even claims the police slogan for itself: “I am here to serve and protect.” We are now aware of how Cisco’s network affects our day-to-day-life.

Flubs and Misses

Of course, attempts at brand relevance can go very wrong. Take Ogilvy & Mather New York’s campaign for SAP which was built around the concept of “clarity” with images like a mountain vista reflected on an office building window or views of factory floors.

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It’s meant to promote the idea that SAP’s software helps foster clarity, which in turn forges partnerships and provides relevant information. But the images are much too abstract and distancing (busy compositions with lots of intersecting lines and cluttered depth of fields) and long taglines about clarity that are confounded by dense, small copy that is surprisingly knotty to read.

The campaign does nothing to make SAP relevant because the images and copy hold us at a distance – as observers rather than participants.

So, to go back to the maker of screws. What should he do? My brand exercise with him would begin with a list of all the products that are fashioned with his screws. From there, we would work through the Brand Discovery and Brand Definition processes to craft a narrative around the user and usage imagery.

For example, let’s imagine an ad showing an operating theater where a doctor and her medical team are performing bypass surgery. The tagline and body copy might tell a story of how many screws it takes to hold up a 550 pound operating table – each one made of the most advanced polymer plastics.

The image would induce attention but also regard for the work done by the plucky product, making it clear the impact that these small objects have in the world. The brand idea would be built around the idea of “support” (like SAP’s “clarity”) which would open up the campaign to all sorts of arresting images.

And therein lies relevance – when done correctly it becomes the lifeblood of a product moving us from form and function to feeling.