Harvard Business Review

Don't Leave Communication out of Marketing


Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 1, 2010 1:10 AM

Graphic design, marketing, and communicating are three different things, but all too often they become substitutes for one another, both in language and in practice. This happens at every level of business, from the small entrepreneurial up-start all the way up to the Fortune 500 consumer brand giant. And the stakes are high. If you're starting a new enterprise with limited power for getting the word out and you blow the communication, it's all over. And if you're a multinational and you do the same thing, you're throwing millions of dollars down the toilet, or worse, creating negative effects for your brand that may cost you twice as much as what you're spending.

In either case, you'd have been better off to keep your brand's mouth shut.

I got most of my schooling in this area marketing social causes, where return on investment has to be measured with a kind of precision and persistence that makes consumer brand ad measurement look amateurish. Our company raised over half a billion dollars for various causes starting from scratch, with no donor lists, generating all of the interest through carefully crafted and targeted advertising. Here are some of the things I've learned over the years:

Communication is king. There's one question and one question only: What are you trying to say? Everything, but everything else has to be in service of that — the media buys, the creative, the colors, the copy, all of it. It cannot be the other way around. You will never get the business result you want by putting something other than the communication first.

If you don't want people to think of pink elephants, don't use pink elephants in your campaign. Many campaigns make the mistake of putting the thing they don't want you to think about front and center. There's a tragic American Express campaign out now that does exactly this. I've deduced, after way more deducing than any consumer's ever going to do, that Amex wants you to think about using your AmEx card for little things like toothpaste and gas (like you do Visa) and not to think of AmEx as the card you only pull out for luxury items. So what's their headline? "It's not just for vintage bubbly." They've used their whole headline to plant an image in your mind that's exactly the image they want to erase. What should the campaign have been? Gigantic picture of a jug of Tide detergent next to a gigantic picture of an AmEx card. Big tube of Crest next to the card. Big can of Pepsi next to the card. With no words, it would have completely rewired your brain. Instead, they strengthened the old wiring.

Everything matters. In my many years of cycling, I've realized that there are a dozen things that contribute to your finishing time: your hydration, the food you're eating, the size of your tires, the weight of the bike, the height of the seat — they all work together to create a final result. Business communication is no different. In that AmEx campaign, not only is the headline bad, but the AmEx logo is tiny, as is the picture of the thing they want you to think about. (I thought the image was a bottle of champagne until my editor pointed out it's shampoo, which only underscores the point.) The three factors combined contribute to a massive failure of communication; like riding your bike dehydrated with a flat tire and a passenger on the back.

A graphic designer is not a marketing department. I feel for entrepreneurs and small businesses headed by people who don't think they have marketing sense. They subordinate their own good intuition about what needs to be said to a designer who may be more interested in beauty and composition than in message. Be wary of copy written by a graphic designer who isn't in on the business strategy. Watch out for designers who prioritize graphics over copy, or who stylize copy to the point where it is no longer legible. A handwritten sign that says "Asparagus, 69 cents," communicates everything you need it to communicate. A bad graphic designer acting as CMO will take that and turn it into a collage of 10 different photos of asparagus with the price diminished to 8-point type, and the sign will no longer communicate anything.

Distinguish yourself. The proliferation of inexpensive stock photography has contributed to the homogenization of brand looks and feels, especially for small and midsize firms. For example, law firm after law firm uses the same photo of a gavel or the same image of a bunch of smiling models dressed in business attire seated around a conference table. That's not going to distinguish your law firm. Chances are your team isn't made up of a bunch of people with model good looks. Chances are you have some folks who are really hard on the eyes. Much better to take the time to get some great photo-journalistic-style shots taken of the real people who make up the enterprise. People can smell inauthenticity, and stock photography reeks of it.

The same goes for copy. Don't try to sound like every other competitor. Don't try to fit into your genre. Try to break out of it. Diesel has a great campaign out right now that really stands out from the endless designer-jeans billboards we've seen with pictures of half-naked men and women half-wearing the jeans. Diesel opted to break out of the pack with a new campaign that's not about your ass. It's about your soul. It's called, "Be stupid." One ad says "Smart listens to the head. Stupid listens to the heart." It has a photo of a skinny guy riding his bike with his purple-haired girlfriend in his arms giving him a smooch. Another says, "Smart critiques. Stupid creates." Through the campaign, you're challenged with a whole new ethos for living. So which website are you more likely to click on: The one that says "Check out how stupid Diesel is," or the one with the same old picture you've seen a thousand times?

Bottom line: Don't confuse, conflate, or otherwise collapse communication, marketing, and graphic design. Be stupid. But don't be stupid.

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Dan Pallotta is a leading expert on innovation in the nonprofit sector and a pioneering social entrepreneur. He is the founder of Pallotta TeamWorks, which invented the multiday AIDSRides and Breast Cancer 3-Days. He is the author of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential.

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