Selling Confidence

Let’s say I’m slaving away in the research department of Happy Dog medical equipment and we’ve just gotten the memo about our third round of layoffs. My staff is decimated, my health benefits have been slashed, and the office espresso machine has been turned off. Word is in the air about a lamebrain merger with Snappy Cat software. Perfect. Everyone-from senior vps to the janitors-is irritable.

That evening, while eating cheap Chinese takeout and watching Spin City reruns, I see a lush TV commercial for my very own penny-pinching company. Do I:

1. Immediately start sputtering as I tabulate how many researchers, computer upgrades and caffe lattes this commercial is worth?

2.Feel a jolt of surprise that the bumbling company I thought I knew somehow found the sense to present itself so cleverly to the outside world?

The answer depends on how good the agency is.

There’s nothing like a recession to make the point that advertising done well can help keep a company in one piece so it can continue creating things for the sales and marketing people to sell. Cute internal slogans from HR don’t cut it when the fur behind office doors really starts to fly. But national ad campaigns are just what the doctor ordered. They’re big, public and flashy enough to do the job.

Think I’m nuts? Take another look at employee-centric campaigns by Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Philip Morris, Hewlett-Packard and the U.S. Postal Service. The key purpose isn’t so much to sell stuff as to spirit the troops through turbulent times, say insiders such as consultant Allan Steinmetz. A former Young & Rubicam executive who runs Inward Strategic Consulting, Steinmetz is big on caring for your workers so they will care for your customers.

Ads, he says, can be an ideal tool. For instance, Wal-Mart’s “This special place to work and shop” greeter campaign is aimed as much at current and prospective workers as at busy moms. The Postal Service’s “We deliver for you” campaign is designed to do the same. The Conference Board in New York reinforced that notion with a recent study on the myriad ways companies are spending good money-including advertising-to try to build brand loyalty among stressed and fickle staffers.

A sharp agency is all over this. It’s in a great position to study a company and enlist its players to tap its core identity. That’s where that ring of truth comes from. And valued staffers and applicants won’t choke on their dinners when they see ads meant to impress them. Of course, it also helps if the company can avoid scandalous reports about death rates, ? la Philip Morris, but that’s another discussion.

Anyway, this all brings up an interesting thought. No matter what the fast-food chains and holding-company honchos say, maybe the advertising of the future won’t really be about hawking tacos and fleece vests. Maybe that’s what all the integrated-holistic-organic-diversified marketing is for. Maybe advertising-pure advertising-is simply for spreading a clear, authentic message in a crazy world and that’s it.

Nah. Clients would never buy that.