Simon Says

OK, so you know the drill. Young American Idol hopefuls perform at various auditions or stages of the competition where the judges Randy, Paula, Kara — and of course the irrepressible Simon Cowell — pass on their comments/assessments to the contestants. Their criticism often hits hard, but invariably they get it right.

In most business categories we work with, brands need only face maybe a dozen competitors; but the music industry abounds with hundreds of thousands of talented artists of which only a small number go all the way. The stakes are high. Rarely does succeeding in this competition come down to technical singing ability. Instead, it’s how that talent is packaged and presented, and most importantly, how it resonates with viewers. There are many parallels in brand marketing.

How often have we heard them give this advice each week?

“Don’t pick a Stevie [Wonder] or a Whitney [Houston] song…chances are you’re going to come off as a poor imitation.”

Brands can’t afford to imitate. To be honest, very few brand ideas are truly original. But at the very least, you have to have a fresh take on an old idea. Would Nintendo Wii have been as successful if it tried to imitate the Sony PlayStation experience? Very unlikely. Puma is not going to win by imitating Nike, nor does it try to.

“Have an interesting story…the oil-rigging dad from Texas; the clean- cut nanny from California; the bartender from Tulsa who first picked up a guitar at age 2.”

Brands need to tell a story. As humans we can relate to stories. More importantly, we react to stories with emotion.  Emotion causes people to pay more or act impulsively-exactly what a brand needs. Jim Beam’s story of a German immigrant who settled in Kentucky, founded a distillery, and the Beam family’s 214-year association with bourbon is very much part of the brand’s story and appeal. Always remember that facts support, they don’t sell.

“Imagine what you’ve got to do to get 12-year-old girls to text in their vote.”
I’ve never really heard them say this, but let’s face it, that’s what they infer. Every market or brand has a sweet spot, yet so often the temptation is to try to appeal to too broad a consumer. Despite Coca-Cola being obviously consumed by every age demographic, they focus their advertising on that 17-year-old consumer. What about retailers? Do the same rules apply? I worked with a popular retailer in the U.K. that defined its customer as “Debbie.” It was able to articulate her life, her interests, her family and her concerns. It put up posters of her in their meeting rooms. Then every decision the company made from product ordering, store design, point of sale, promotional items, advertising creative work and even the media plan would be qualified with the question, “Do we think this is going to be relevant to Debbie?” Have a picture in your head of whose vote you are pitching. What’s going on in their lives? What does it take to sell to them?

“If you can’t dance, then don’t.”

Just because other companies have been hugely successful with certain marketing strategies, it doesn’t mean that it’s right for you. Every company has marketing competencies and you have to play to your strengths. Budweiser really knows how to leverage sports sponsorship. Does that make it the best approach for Coors? The Economist is brilliant at creating out-of-home advertising, but that doesn’t make it the right media strategy for BusinessWeek. Could P&G create a Nike ID-type marketing initiative? Very difficult, but who’s better at them at developing effective TV copy?

“We want to see the real you come out.”

Consumers are looking to a brand’s authenticity to judge its performance. This has become even more important today, given the speed and transparency of how information is spread across the Internet. This is causing brand reputations to be built or broken at the behest of how consumers and the media report their versions of events.  This has myriad implications as to how brands communicate.  Search and social media are fast becoming a more pervasive and impactful media of choice.

“It’s really important to choose the right song.”

For many brands, the ads are their music and lyrics. In the current downturn, the consumer mind-set has shifted, and what might have been the right messaging and media strategy this time last year is now very different. In our study Strategies in a Downturn, we found fashionistas giving way to recessionistas, as frugal has become the fad. Given this, Walmart, for example, has been hugely effective at pursuing this market behind its “Save money. Live better” tagline.

This is not a time when marketers can afford to get it wrong.  So my advice is to listen to the Idol judges. Be relevant, be contemporary. And importantly, keep in mind, the words no one wants to hear from Simon:”I thought you were forgettable.”   

Antony Young is the New York-based CEO of Optimedia U.S. and the author of Strategies in a Downturn. He can be reached at antony.young@optimedia-us.com.