Brands Reach for Higher Ground

“Rethink possible,” AT&T’s new image campaign, includes a spot that brings a child’s drawings to life and a voiceover asking, “Remember when you were 5 and anything was possible?” Another, to tout its coverage, shows buildings around the country being covered with orange fabric.

It’s a significantly gentler approach than the company’s prior campaign starring Luke Wilson, which detailed the specifics of its wireless coverage and locked it in an aggressive fight with Verizon (which has been using a map graphic to knock AT&T). But AT&T and its agency, BBDO, decided to step out of the ring and tell a different story.

“Comparative work in general has a certain life cycle,” said Esther Lee, svp, brand marketing and advertising at AT&T. “It’s important to ensure that people aren’t misled. Once that’s done, it’s important to elevate the conversation.”

Other marketers investing in corporate branding initiatives include Procter & Gamble with “Thanks, Mom,” its first image campaign, from Wieden + Kennedy (launched for the Winter Olympics and since extended); Hewlett-Packard and its “Let’s Do Amazing” branding from 72andSunny (starring comedian Rhys Darby from Flight of the Conchords); and Sony, with its first global tagline, “make.believe,” from 180/LA.

Susan Credle, CCO at Leo Burnett, said she’s seeing growing client interest in telling bigger brand stories. “I have at least three [asking], ‘What is our story?'” Credle said. It’s about communicating what “they stand for, not what they sell.”

Industry experts say the change in tone is due, in part, to a smart, if counterintuitive reaction to the recession. While the economy has spurred ads about price and product, it has also inspired some corporate self-examination. Credle said this leads clients back to big, unifying brand ideas that can also sustain a marketing message longer than a price or product push. There’s a hunger, Credle said, “for some kind of North Star.”

Some brands are also interested in making more emotional connections. Matt Williams, a partner and group planning director at The Martin Agency, said, “We’ve all been through a hell of a lot over the past few years — wars, financial meltdowns, natural disasters — and it’s created a general feeling of uncertainty, instability and lack of clarity. A lot of brands are running image campaigns that focus on a clear identity, a sense of optimism and shared values. That approach can be pretty powerful for brands in these volatile times.”
John Norman, co-CCO at Martin, added that it’s currently working on a number of upcoming global image initiatives. “Brands that have a real DNA want to get back to telling emotional stories,” he said.

Kraft, for instance, recently scrapped the economic arguments for its Macaroni & Cheese brand, going instead with a new ad campaign from Crispin Porter + Bogusky that uses lighthearted tags such as “You know you love it” and “The most fun you can have with your stove on.”

“Last year … thinking about how to smartly spend one’s money was very top of mind,” said Eileen Sharkey Rosenfeld, senior brand manager at Kraft. “[But] our research found [there] was now a great opportunity to bring adult consumers back to our brand.”

A study that came out last month by the Association of National Advertisers found that clients would like to see more “emotional benefits” communicated in their advertising. When asked to assess the balance between “rational/functional benefits” and “emotional benefits” in their companies’ ads, respondents gave answers that skewed at 62 percent for rational vs. 38 percent for emotional. But when asked what they think the balance “should be,” responses averaged to 52 percent emotional and 48 percent rational.

It’s important to remind people “not only what they’re buying, but who they’re buying from,” said David Lubars, CCO of BBDO North America. Brand campaigns, he said, help solidify consumer/client relationships. He compared the need for the work to a marriage, noting that a partner sometimes needs to show that he or she is not taking his or her partner for granted. “Part of what brand messages do [is] make sure we’re communicating on the same page,” he said. “It’s always good to transparently show your values and your beliefs because that’s what they’re buying.”

Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the jury’s still out on whether such positioning is working. AT&T, he said, was smart “to move away from the smackdown approach. … I don’t believe those campaigns did much more than sharpen the divide between those loyal to each provider. The success of the campaign will depend on whether AT&T can successfully convince customers and prospects that what it offers truly does expand the range of possibilities for them. That means innovative services and new experiences.”