Web Copy Blog

Web Copy Blog header image 2

Taste and advertisement

2 Comments · advertising laws

The customer is king. Except in many agency creative departments, where winning awards turns you into royalty.

The customer is king. Except in many agency network boardrooms, where winning new business rules.

The customer is king. Except in many client hierarchies, where advertising standards reflect what junior mangers believe will get the nod of approval later when they present the work to their senior people.

So, perhaps the customer has bee dethroned. In fact, maybe the customer’s interests are more often king-hit.

I recall a senior FMCG marketer once rejecting a TVC script by explaining: “the problem is, that idea is only made for the market!”

I recall another large manufacturer admitting that he ran national TV campaigns to “educate the sales force.”

The customer is about third in line, at best. And what’s the result? Hobbled marketing.
Advertising as a dull and blunted instrument.

Oh yes, and customers in a right royal fug. Whatever else, surely the focus of the marketing effort must be on the person that the ads are talking to?

Too many campaigns are pretending to address the market, but are continually looking over their shoulder and around the room for nods of approval.

There are even award winning campaigns that are simple, humorous and fascinating, obeying any number of the Laws in this book, but these ads may still be unsuccessful in the marketplace.

Because, for one reason or the other, many campaigns are not truly aimed at the end user; whether they’re directed at furthering the careers of their creators, or not damaging the promotion prospects of the marketing people, or are simply based on lazy thinking.

Ads are often forced to bend to many differing agendas; so they collect mandatory inclusions that aren’t really about effective communication.

Like the standard liquid metal’ beauty shot in car ads, the refreshed and delighted little shake of the drinker’s head in beer ads, and the vacanat, contented smile of mothers in practically all others ads.

The only mandatory on a creative brief should be “make it famous”. Steve Hadyn, one of the creative team behind Apple Computer’s legendary ‘1984’, is quoted as saying: “If you want to be a successful copywriter, write for the client; if you want to be an award winning copywriter, write for yourself; if you want to be an effective copywriter, write for the consumer.”

Another thing that’s come between the customer and a lot of great ideas is that advertising agencies make the mistake of styling themselves as a service industry. Far better the business should be considered a manufacturing business.

The product: Ideas.
Carefully assembled, tangible, muscular, artful and transforming ideas.
Admittedly, the manufacture process is somewhat elaborate and fraught at the moment.

Finding a way to guarantee that the idea will overcome the process in the marketer’s real challenge today.

A complicating aspect of this problem is that advertising agencies no longer seem to have the relationship with, or indeed command the respect of, senior company people.

And without a champion at the highest level of the client company, a great idea deteriorates with each and every meeting. Layers of indecision breed abominable no-men.

There’s a legendary story from the halcyon days of British advertising in the 1970s, when things were quite different – the MD of the client company invited a particular agency principal, who was pitching for his account, to ask a few relevant questions of him regarding the business.

The client MD had a bell on his desk he explained, that the would ring in precisely 30 minutes, and the meeting would be over.

“How many layers of people have to approve the final campaign?” was the agency principal’s first question. “Seven,” answered the client. “Then ring the bell.”

What’s all this got to do with The Law of Taste? Well, as you’ll see, “taste” is one example of the hollow virtues that clients so fondly and automatically mandate in their category.

‘Taste’ is frequently a piece of baggage that an idea is forced to carry in order to progress through the food chain toward the actual consumer.

Whether for good, lazy or political reasons, such category mandates are frequently misguided.

There is long-standing phenomenon regarding “taste” in food and beverage advertising. And by that, I do not mean “taste” in the sense of style or tome or production values. I mean “taste” in the literal sense of the taste of the product as an advertised claim.

It is simply that “taste” as a consumer benefit in food and beverage advertising is an almost always used claim, but very infrequently is it a persuasive claim, but very infrequently is it a persuasive claim in establishing a competitive brand position. That is, motivating the consumer to select one brand over another.

If this is so, the more time and effort that goes into communicating good or great taste in advertising the brand, the more “taste makes waster.”

Of course, as with any rule, there are exceptions. And we’ll get to them. But first, let’s examine the premise.

From the standpoint of the consumer, is taste a legitimate benefit? Certainly it is. I cannot imagine research on a food or beverage brand that would not prove conclusively that consumers give high priority to taste satisfaction as a brand attribute.

Ask consumers what they want from a particular food or beverage and the consistent response is, not surprisingly, taste.

The real question is, if consumers keep telling us they want taste, does that mean they’re not getting it?

I think there are very few if any food and /or beverage categories that are characterized by tasting bad.

The reason consumers are always telling us in benefit/attribute or focus group research that they wanted “great taste” is because it’s the natural focus of the eating and drinking experience.

So taste is the most important thing we want in our food and drink to the point that it is generic, and we should expect that research would consistently produce that conclusion.

Another reason we can bet on this is the fact that consumers are not usually creative in their answer to marketing and advertising research.

They tend to play back essentially what the category’s advertising has told tem is important.

It is not that they can’t think for themselves. Far from it, the consumer is very shrewd and discerning when it come to deciding what they want or don’t to by.

If they were dumb and easily manipulated, as may critics of advertising would have it, why do the vast majority of new products fail?

It is rather that consumers don’t spontaneously play back their often impulsive and emotional reasons for brand selection. What they do tell us is the most obvious rational answer that comes to mind.

And that turns out to be what they’ve seen in the advertising and experienced themselves. When it comes to food and beverages, the top-of-mind issue is taste.

One of the unfortunate results of food marketing research is that consumers say they want taste, so we advertise taste, so that they say they want taste.

With this circular reasoning, it is not surprising that the history of food advertising is marked by so much that is indistinguishable, undifferentiating and therefore wasteful Rather, we should concentrate on research that uncovers unfulfilled wants and needs – in other words, problems.

Ask the very same consumers who told us they wanted “great taste” in a food or beverage to respond to potential problems with that product and we will be surprised to learn that “it doesn’t taste good” is very rarely, if every, a high ranking problem.

Rather, we may learn that “it takes too long to prepare” or “it’s fattening” or “it can’t be eaten on the run” or “it’s too messy for kids” or a multitude of other considerations all of which are, in reality, bigger concerns, bigger want and bigger problems than “taste.”

A good example comes from research done some years ago in the category of canned dog food. As “our best friends,” I think they qualify for this discussion.

The results were that the purchasers (not the consumers, of course) wanted dog food that provided complete, well-balanced nutrition and a food the dog will like.

Is it any wonder we’ve seen so much dog food advertising that basically says, “It’s good for them and they’ll love it”?

The same dog owners were concurrently asked to evaluate their problems with canned dog food. The highest-ranking complaints were that (1) it’s too messy and (2) it smells awful.

In fact, all canned dog foods offer total balanced nutrition and dogs will eat every bit of just about any brand. But a lot of dry dog food get sold by solving the mess and smell problems.

Yes, the purchaser was of course assured their dog would like the taste (which they probably assumed anyway) but that wasn’t the point, or the point of difference of the advertising.

Even when we have a testable, provable statistical advantage in taste over competition, very rarely is that an effective strategy.

“Our chocolate pudding tastes better than their chocolate pudding” is of questionable motivating power because the consumer really doesn’t think the chocolate pudding they’re eating tastes bad to begin with.

They wouldn’t be eating if it did. Since the only reason, rational or otherwise, to eat chocolate pudding is because it tastes good. It’s just not a problem.

You may get the sales force standing and cheering at a sales meeting with some we’re-better-than-they-are advertising but the consumer is very likely unmoved by it.

I once asked our research department to review all the food and beverage advertising we had studied to establish any correlation between positive taste playback and the scores of the commercials in terms of memorability and/or motivation to purchase. The answerer was no correlation.

A high positive taste playback did not mean a high memorability or persuasion score. In fact, it is quite understandable for advertising that does not impart anything new or interesting to be totally forgettable.

But while I advocate that we avoid the knee-jerk reaction of building food and beverage creative strategies that first and foremost demand communication of “great taste,” I also want to suggest examples in which “taste” should be a major concern.

Despite the tremendous growth of health-oriented foods over the past couple of decades and given the well-publicised obesity problems in the US, there still seems to be a built-in resistance to the logic of eating what is good for you in favour of the pure emotional enjoyment of sugar, salt and fat.

In most categories, there is a “ceiling” effect that health-oriented foods and beverages come up against.

What seems to happen is that the health segment of a category develops in response to advertised “breakthroughs” but eventually growth grinds to a halt regardless of media weight.

In effect, we reach and persuade the psychologically attuned segment which is willing to trade off “taste” for “health”.

But beyond segment, there is little willingness to give up the pleasures of taste for the benefits of health.

It is a very complex psychology at work, because the health-oriented segment will expect a lower level of taste gratification and indeed will almost no trust the health claim if the product tastes too good.

On the other hand, you can’t grow the brand beyond the limitations of that segment unless you promise and deliver good taste.

An ongoing example of this is the diet cola category. Advertising invariably delivers the constant assurance that the latest diet cola new product delivers taste as good as full-calorie colas.

Even if blind taste tests show otherwise, most diet cola drinkers ultimately convince themselves of good taste in their diet colas to the point where they in fact no loner like the taste of the regular version.

I think this is because (1) they logically determined that they would drink the diet cola because of the weight control benefit and (2) they need to believe that the taste is just as good if not better than regular colas, so that they can get the satisfaction they want from their cola consumption.

An example of growth beyond the “ceiling” is Life Cereal, which was positioned when introduced as a high-protein, good-for-you brand.

It had a foothold share but not a profitable business. Too much media money had to be spent to maintain that share against the “ceiling” effect of health versus taste.

In fact, contrary to the natural assumption for a healthy food, it actually tasted quite good. But it was not until a commercial showed a little kid named Mikey blessing Life Cereal’s taste in spite of his brother’s negativism about the cereal being good for them that Life Cereal sales took off and became the only cereal introduced in a span of two decades that was among the Top 10 in sales.

The critical insight in this case was that the advertising convinced mothers that their kids would like the taste and indeed they did. The actual consumers – the kids – were oblivious to the health claim and therefore the dynamic of the “ceiling” effect did not apply to them.

In the beer category, good taste is an assumed given unless, as with health claims for other food or beverages, something suggests that the taste might be compromised.

More important is what I will call the “consumption milieu or mentality” that governs the beer – drinking experience to the point that a literal offering of fewer calories was impossible in establishing the “light beer” category.

Gablinger’s, one of the first low-calorie beers, also promised real beer taste. But red-blooded beer drinkers, at the bar or the ballgame with their buddies or at home watching TV, don’t want to be seen as worried about calories.

And they naturally assumed that low-calorie beer had to have a watered-down taste. Gablinger’s failed.

Light Beer from Miller came at the lower-calorie content a whole new way. They didn’t say “fewer calories” but rather “less filling” which meant that you could drink more of it.

That was the real claim and the real news. Sure, they said “great taste” but they showed bar rooms full of America’s most masculine popular heroes enjoying the beer exactly as they’d enjoy any beer, with the breakthrough benefit being that they could enjoy any beer, with the breakthrough benefit being that they could enjoy more of it.

The brilliant insight that launched Life Beer was that it had nothing to do with the “great taste” they constantly proclaimed.

It was all about being “less filling.” And it established an entire category of beer that was not so much seen as better for your waistline but rather beer you could drink more of.

In all these cases, taste in the traditional sense would have been pure waste. In each case, taste was indeed an important issue but it had to be dealt with in a unique way based on insightful understanding of the role that taste actually played in positioning the brand’s other characteristics.

But, you might be thinking, what about one of the most blatant taste superiority claims ever made a category for which we’ve already observed that taste is practically generic?

What about “The Pepsi Challenge” in which Pepsi blatantly advertised that it tastes better than coke and showed consumer taste test to prove it?

Didn’t that build Pepsi sales and in fact drive the Coca-Cola Company to introduce New Coke, positioned as tasting better?

In fact, the markets in which Pepsi sales improved significantly were markets in which they had only a very minor share of market compared to Coke, and in those markets, Coke sales actually grew as well.

In other words, “The Pepsi Challenge” energized these markets, producing increased sales for both Pepsi and coke by taking market share from the marginal brands.

It was good for Pepsi, of course, but not in the way you would have expected. And coke’s eventual reaction, the introduction of a better tasting New Coke, was the emotional result of selling their brand attacked. Remember, they weren’t losing share.

Worse yet, in responding, they unbelievable misunderstood the heritage and the role of taste in their own brand. People drink Coke because they like it but even more because they like what the brand stands for as an American icon.

That was, and still is, the competitive foundation for the coke brand. It was not the taste, as Coke management learned when Middle America greeted New coke with all the enthusiasm of a newly discovered act in a Wagnerian opera.

The ultimate irony of this cosmic marketing blunder is that the failure of New Coke bred a new appreciation for the existing product that was renamed and re-energised as Coke Classic.

While they averted disaster, taste nearly “wasted” one of the most successful brands in the history of marketing.

I’ll add one more concern to the food and beverage advertising recipe. The problem again stems from the treatment of taste as a primary product claim. It is the way in which we test taste perceptions in our advertising.

I alluded earlier to the fact that there is often no correlation between taste playback in advertising and the memorability or motivation of that advertising.

However, there is the very real possibility that this is a flaw in the testing systems not a blanket condemnation of taste communication in food and beverage advertising.

The fact is, most of our frequently used testing systems measure only literal playback. They are not equipped to measure impressions or perceptions.

There are more advanced testing protocols that can indeed get closer to what advertising actually communicates no-literally and how it really works in affecting consumer attitudes and behaviors.

Nevertheless, most such systems are expensive and time consuming, and are therefore not attuned to most marketers’ needs for positive sales and profit results every quarter of their fiscal years.

Because people are not equipped to verbalize their feelings very well and no non-verbal stimulus or response mechanism is usually supplied to recognize and evaluate emotions evoked by advertising, taste, which is not top-of mind as a concern or problem, is not necessarily played back, even if it has been built into the advertising very prominently and literally.

On the other hand, it may be very much a part of the consumer’s perception of the brand but when asked “what does the commercial or ad say or show,’ the answer is literally only what they remember, which is keyed only to whatever is responsive to their concerns and problems.

Thus, even when taste is indeed an important part of the communication, as we have seen it can be, we are confounded by testing that does not properly measure its impact.

Perhaps the most memorable advertising for Burger King was a campaign created in the early to mid-70s called “Have it Your Way.”

The commercials were stuffed with tasty, mouthwatering shots of sizzling meat, juicy tomatoes, crisp lettuce, onions, pickles, the works, but the differentiating competitive claim was a hamburger the way you want it, without the waiting.

Choice and speed were the consumer concerns so that addressing them produced motivating, effective advertising.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit it was done by my agency, as was “The Pepsi Challenge,” but that’s ancient history.

The taste playback in Burger King advertising might have been minimal, but that didn’t mean we didn’t communicate it. If “great taste” had been a part of the strategy for most food and Beverages, it is – we could have fallen into the trap of downgrading the advertising because the research didn’t play it back even though it was there. This happens all too often.

The strategy says taste, we build in literal taste claims in words and pictures, but it doesn’t play back because it’s not top-of-mind for the consumer, and it isn’t the brand position we are advertising for people to remember and act on.

Had decisions been made primarily on the communication of taste, a very successful marketing strategy would have gone to waste.

The conclusion is not to treat taste as the reason-for-being, when in fact it is an expected characteristic of the product, but rather to treat it as a reassurance and not expect to have research play it back on a literal basis.

Beer Marketers have learned to do this as a way of life. After all, how can you communicate taste if you’re not allowed to show the product being tasted (it is in fact illegal to show beer actually being drunk in commercials airing in the US)?

You do it by creating a not-verbal, non-literal imagery that defines taste enjoyment and you don’t make “great taste” the determining criterion in the research. After all is said and done, the big, leading beer brands are built on attitude, not product specifics.

So, am I suggesting that taste should not be a significant factor in food and beverage advertising?

No. I am suggesting that there are valid and important reason for taste claims but they are far fewer than our tendency to automatically assume that taste must be a primary part of communication.

What I am suggesting is that taste, when it is a strategic communication need – usually relegated to an assurance role subordinate to some other claim – should not be the concern it too often is.

It ought only to be seen in she context of how the consumer sees it, which is often something taken for granted.

At the end of the day, advertising should:
(1) Provide a positive, enjoyable, entertaining experience with the brand, or
(2) Communicate how the brand is particularly relevant to the prospect’s lifestyle or way of thinking, or
(3) Offer something new for the category or
(4) All of the above.

Making “taste” the primary claim for most food and beverages will rarely meet any of these criteria and will usually result in the advertising being a waste.

Keywords: taste, advertisement, advertising, customer, marketer, marketing, ads, campaign, copywriter, ceiling effect, brand.


2 Comments so far ↓

Leave a Comment