I can just imagine the marketing strategy session at Nike about 20 years ago. Phil Knight and a bunch of really smart people are going over the latest market research. A key finding is that as the boomer generation is aging they are feeling increasingly uneasy about their lack of exercise, weight gain, and a desire to prove that they are still young.
The question the Nike team is facing, of course, is how to shape their brand around sneakers that can tap into this a huge guilt trip, also known as a marketing goldmine. They ponder. They brainstorm. They ideate. They send out for lunch. Suddenly someone jumps up from his ergonomic chair and proclaims, “I’ve got the line! Nike: Get your butt off the couch already!”
Most of us learn from experience that saying exactly what we mean to our friends, co-workers, or in particular, our significant other can have, um, negative results. Instead, we find ways to express our viewpoint more subtly, but with far greater effectiveness than our literal meaning. This is an effective technique for staying married and equally so for developing a compelling brand.
Say what you mean, but not exactly, please.
Slogans and other messages allow the consumer to process ideas on their own terms. Nobody wants to be told to get off his or her butt and exercise. But Nike’s “Just do it” creates a self-affirming mantra that a consumer can apply in their own way, whether buying a casual pair of walking shoes or top-of-the-line baseball cleats. The Nike swoosh (Which Phil Knight paid a design student $35 to create way back in 1971) has become as big a badge brand as there is appearing on athletic shoes of all types, of course, but also sports apparel, and sports equipment. It now conveys the “Just do it” message simply by implication.
“My car’s better than your car.”
BMW’s famous tagline, “The Ultimate Driving Machine” was written 35 years ago by Ralph Ammirati (of the ad agency Ammirati and Puris) and has been a cornerstone of one of the auto industry’s strongest brands. On the surface, it claims the high ground of automotive performance and driving experience. (For the general purpose marketplace, that is. Porsche, Ferrari and other exotics are left to battle it out for the pure sports car market.) But underneath the ubiquitous BMW tagline is a secondary message of status or one-upmanship that is conveyed as well. For some car buyers it makes the BMW brand more alluring, for others it makes it a bit snobbish and extravagant.
Could BMW come out and say “you’ll feel special” when you buy our car? Uh, nein. But they know full well that brands connect directly to the self-esteem of the customer and their tagline goes straight to the ego of their customers, without being literal and therefore offensive.
We believe in passionate people who care (sigh)
Another way brand messages are too literal is when they sound more like the mission statement that was pounded out during an extravagant executive retreat. “The Company with Passion” and “Our people make the difference” are real taglines currently in use, but they are hardly interesting or differentiating, or even unique to one brand. Here the offense is that the literal message has no impact whatsoever. If these companies have a basis for a strong brand, they haven’t begun to communicate it and may not know where to find it. Their brand promise is pleasant, but quaint and ineffective. They are talking mostly to themselves.
Durable brands inevitably have developed slogans and other messaging that transcend the literal and reach right for the ego of their customers. Pepsi has continually built campaigns around a message of being youthful, most recently with its “Every generation refreshes the world” campaign introduced during the Super Bowl broadcast. FedEx took control of the concept of dependability not by claiming it directly, but by using boss-like jargon, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” The best messages reach the emotional side of the customer’s brain and dramatize the meaning. The worst? Ask “The Company with Passion” how it’s working for them. Go ahead, just do it.