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The law of relevance

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I know some clients accuse creativity of occasionally committing the crime of irrelevance.

However, the reality is that your advertising message is competing with, well, reality. Your ad must not only be more interesting than other ads. It must be more immediately compelling than the editorial or programming surrounding it.

Way beyond that, your ad must also be more interesting than the other things in life that demand our attention.

Relevance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Frequently, what advertisers think is as relevant, as compared to what customers think, is as different as chalk and cheese. To a client, his ingredients are important.

The glossy features. The beauty shot. Fact is, everyday humans have a much boarder palette of emotions than advertisers. To a consumer, only the solution to their emotional problem is important.

The Law of Relevance is not about glib product correctness; it doesn’t matter how right, earnest or worthy the advertising is if it’s too dull to be noticed.

Create ads have impact, but they also pay attention to the feelings that are being generated by the idea. Impact is a start – the only possible start, really.

Invisibility is death, but so is a lack of clarity, or creating impact without t creating likeability, or a lack of emotional relevance.

If your ads don’t reach out to people, then people won’t reach for your products.
It’s not enough just to make and sell products anymore.

Nike’s Phil Knight said, “There’s no value in making things anymore. The value is added by innovation and marketing.’

Great ads are difficult to define, but they all probably have an element of novelty (they do the unexpected.), they generate positive feelings (they are likable), and they have meaning (they are relevant).

Remember REG (Respect, Empathy, Genuineness)? If your ad has achieved these three things, then you’re using the force of the Law of Relevance.

Laws like Simplicity, Humor and irreverence, are ways to reveal a truth in your idea: Whereas, Laws like positioning, Respect and Relevance ensure this insight is warmly and enthusiastically received.

Things that are relevant to the product can be irrelevant to the market. People want to know about their beautiful flowers, not about the phosphate levels in your manure. The TV networks knows this.

In late 2003, the US NBC found a new way to get people to stay with the paying commercial in the ad breaks – by interspersing minute-long “movies” among the ads and prime-time shows, supplying the stories, mystery, emotion and all the instinctive nourishment that the ads weren’t.

In what follows, Anne Bologna, Harvard tutor and president of the US Fallon network, cites Citibank’s work as an example of relevance that started out to be “refreshingly unbanklike.” How was this relevant?

Because the campaign focused on what was relevant to people; where other banks show money. Citibank showed real life. Real life, that always passes the relevancy test.

Great advertising happens when creativity and relevance meet. A good ad can be creative but not relevant, or relevant but not creative, but precious few are both. Unfortunately, most are neither.

You know an ad is relevant when it makes someone stop and pay attention to what is, essentially, an uninvited intrusion.

In the past, ads weren’t necessarily uninvited intrusions. In many cases, today, ads are actually welcome diversions, providing educational insights for people who are seeking information about a specific product or service. But how do you make people find relevance in an advertising message?

First, let’s put “advertising” and “relevance” into context. In the 1950s everything was relevant.

In the years after world Ware II, it seemed there was nothing that wasn’t relevant to the lives – and lifestyles – of returning GIS and their new families: toothpaste, cookies, canned foods, automobiles, lawn mowers, washing machines.

Was there anything that wasn’t relevant to these new families and their Baby Boomer children? Everyone not only wanted everything, but they needed it all, and even better was the fact that everything being created was for the most part brand new.

And the new technologies: television, air conditioning, the colgate Gardol shield, provided relevance in every way, shape or form.

Who could deny that when Crest Toothpaste showed a smiling Norman Rockwell-esquire, all-American child, bringing home his dental report card and exclaiming,” Look Mom, no cavities” that this wasn’t the height of relevance?

After all, millions of American parents with millions of Boomer children certainly didn’t wasn’t to spend extra money on dentists.

So when Crest claimed it prevented more cavities than any other brand of toothpaste, Moms took notice.

Everything in the 50s seemed to have a real product difference, and everything was relevant to our lives in those days. Was it creative?

Well, not in the terms of how we see creativity today. But it was quite emotional, hitting on a topic dear to parents’ hearts.

As America began to build a supercharged economy in the 1960s, along came for many people disposable income.

Though poverty was still rampant in the country, the years of war deprivation were soon replaced by a new economy, one where people could purchase new products that did new things, where they had some money left over after each week’s paycheck went for necessities.

But there was more to life in America in the 1960s. Civil rights became a major issue for the nation, and as a war in Southeast Asia escalated, the 1960s and everything in America and the world began to change, including the way we communicated.

As creativity became the buzzword in films, television, music and art (think of the enormous energy and remarkable innovations in 1960s pop and high culture), it was only fitting that advertising would also produce messages that not only sold products and established brand names, but became cultural icons on their own.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” may have been an early example of cultural diversity – or political incorrectness.  Yet it sold lots of bread, and at the same time, established a brand and created a buzz.

Alka Seltzer and Volkswagen consistently pushed the limits of creativity. Offering the public mini “feature films” complete with story lines and denouements, all within a 60-second time frame.

For anyone who had ever suffered heartburn, there was nothing more relevant. “Whatever shape Your Stomach’s in” produced a hit song, “Speecy Spicy Meatball”, made fun of the advertising business, “Marshmallowed Meatballs” parodied the bride who couldn’t cook. Each was entirely relevant.

When Doyle Dane Bernbach created the advertising for Volkswagen, they not only made extraordinary short films, “The Funeral,” they also created a style of print advertising that was clean, simple, elegant, and actually communicated fun via typeface and style.

That format remains the standard. It was not only topical back in the 1960, but it endures today, in a manner that is both timeless and yet remains fresh some 40 years later.

When the new VW Bug was launched just a few years ago, the print ads were done in the original VW print format, slightly updated, but still looking as fresh, and as new as when this campaign was born.

The Early to Mid-60s Brought Us the First Law of Relevance: Creativity
As the Vietnam War rose in our consciousness and arrived in our homes each night via television, the Baby Boomer generation set out to change the world. Demanding peace, social justice, sex, drugs, rock and roll, long hair.

A sense of fun and at the same time, a sense of outrage, the Boomers made for great visuals, lots of ink in the press and even more importantly, a new way of marketing.

While demographics had been a part of the advertising business for years, the generation gap provided new markets, new attitudes and psychographics.

No longer were age and income the prime filters for targeting and reaching a specific audience. Now there were attitudes involved – lifestyles.

Marketing products to people based on heir interests rather than how much money they earned brought marketers into a new age, and opened the door for creating products based on desire, rather than simply need.

In remembering those times, it’s clear that relevance then became a generational issue. For what was relevant to the “youth of America” Wasn’t necessarily relevant to their parents or their government.

But it was relevant to the record companies, apparel makers, cigarette rolling paper companies and so many others who studied the market and learned how best to approach them.

I Know Your Market … Well
By the 1970s relevance was not only generational and political, it was gender-based, sexuality-based, multicultural and personal … very personal.

What was political became personal, and as Boomers decided they couldn’t change the system, they would change themselves instead.

Thus was born the “Me Decade,” so named because out of the chaos of the 1960s was born a period of intense inner and outer scrutiny.

We embraced the causes that had personal meaning to us and then we took very possible workshop, seminar and course to make ourselves “better.”

And it didn’t matter if one was offering education, inspiration, motivation or products and services.

If it wasn’t relevant to the audience in question, it simply wasn’t relevant – unless the media said it was.

And the media told us that fixing our minds and our bodies was the greatest way to ultimately fix society.

Of course, the Boomers still wanted products that reflected their inherent “differences” from their parents.

So smart marketers offered products to the “Me Generation” that were functionally similar but designed to appear different … or designed to reflect the growing concerns over what would soon become known as “political correctness.”

World events, too, began to shape what was truly relevant, portending the 21st century. When the gas crisis hit the US in the late 1970s those most prepared were the car makers who were selling cars that ran 30 – 40 and, yes, even 50 miles per gallon. The US was no longer living in a vacuum as cause and effect caught up with them.

What occurred overseas and in places they didn’t quite understand had a direct effect on their daily lives. And what was really relevant in the world was what was relevant in their product selections.

Understand the World, Understand Trends. They Do Affect the Marketplace
As the “Me Decade” gave way to the 1980s, the Boomers were forced to start growing up the acting their age.

There was already a backlash against the Baby Boomer generation’s lust for staring at their navels, and then complaining to the media about it.

But what the media failed to notice, Rolling Stone, and their ad agency in Minneapolis certainly picked up on.

Perception / reality clearly depicted the media stereotypes of the Rolling stone readership – and then did one better by showing the reality.

It was the most perceptive communication about this audience, and truly helped set the stage for the changes about to come.

And what changes. The Boomers’ contemplation of their own heads beget the “Yuppies” who didn’t seem to care about anything but money, status, money, status and of course, power.

“Greed is good,” proclaimed Gordon Gecko in the movie Wall Street and everyone it seemed putting aside any sense of discipline when it came to spending money, until of course, October 1987, when the market bottomed out, giving them time to anticipate the next boom.

Who would have dreamed that it would be fuelled by technology and powered by a group of millionaires who rewrote the rules because they were too young to have learned them?
What grew out of the dotcom mania?

We’re still looking for answers. But it’s clear that younger people – the “Generation Ys” – having been so inundated by media and marketing their entire lives, were a bit jaded and cynical about products.

They saw virtually everything become commoditised and so what became more important was the way corporations behaved. “Was this a corporation I could work for? Do they share my values?

Do they have a worldview I admire?” That became the mantra that led to marketers studying emotional branding and how best to make consumers emotional about their brands!

Commodities Can Have a Special Place in Peoples Lives.
With this in mind, corporations need to communicate their corporate values and their place in the world to their audiences.

Emotional connections are important today’s consumer even when the products are commodities.
The god news for advertising folks in that, as we’ve seen in this brief and skewed history, human beings are a pretty self – centered lot, so it’s not that difficult to make you make your message relevant.

The truth is people spend most of their daily lives seeking to satisfy a host of personal needs.

Every instance already cited demonstrates this point, even with the filters of various trends and times.

Some needs are relatively trivial, though we think they’re rather important: like the need to get a date, a raise or to be in the know.

On a more fundamental level, people need to be loved, to belong and to feel safe. Once we have an understanding of needs and desire, we can reach out to our audiences with more clarity and more relevance.

As times changed, as we’ve become more sophisticated about how to create and tailor messages to reach our markets, one thing remains the same:

The ability to communicate a product or service message in a way that’s relevant is the essence of advertising. It’s also the essence of all good communication.

And in the case of advertising, it is, of course, good communication and the art of persuasion.

Here is an example of good communication, great persuasion and true relevance: Citibank – “an advocate for a healthy approach to money.” How did Citibank and its agency arrive at this provocative strategy? By using all the laws of relevance cited.

Top Line: Finally, there’s a bank that actually understands there’s more to life than money.

Citibank: A Brand Miles Wide and Inches Deep

A successful business on virtually any measure, Citibank competes in the most undifferentiated categories: credit cards and banking.

Worse yet, consumers typically think of banks like utilities – convenience drives choice. And while consumers love the spending power of credit cards, they hate the motivations of companies behind them.

So there’s little reason to care about “issuing bank” brands. After acceptance, card choice comes down to rates and fees.

A brilliant way to convince people you’re different is to act different. From the outset, the charge has been dauntingly clear: help Citibank stand a part.

Communications must give consumers a reason to care about and prefer a brand that wouldn’t normally get a second thought.

(1). Distinguish Citibank from card, banking and financial services brands.
(2). Demonstrate relevance to consumer’s lives.
(3). Predispose people to use or acquire Citibank offerings.

But first, they had to find someone who would listen. In a culture that elevates money to godliness, Citibank’s best prospects don’t buy it.

Looking at society, you’d think money drove America. Initial discussions of money led straight to expected places like “freedom” and “control.”

So we asked consumer about life instead: what makes a good life? What’s the secret to every day happiness?

How Much money is enough? Suddenly, a different view of money emerged. We found people with realistic goals, making sacrifices to stay balanced.

For them, personal prosperity didn’t equal money. Money was a means to an end. Financial success was living happily within your means.

We called this group “Balance Seekers.” Best of all, research showed they represent almost half of adults and were great financial prospects.

There’s more to life than money. Unsurprisingly, Balance Seekers were frustrated by the bank’s blatant self – interest. “Are they going ask about my money then I’m not interested.” They were interested in is my money then I’m not interested.”

They were interested in a bank that helps them live rich lives – not get rich. A bank that understood life comes before money.

We described their outlook as a “healthy approach to money.” The tooth fairy? Leprechauns? A credit card that helps you balance your finances?

Credit cards remained challenging. Credit is inherently “unhealthy”; it implies spending beyond your means.

Because companies promote plastic as worry – free money, Balance Seekers felt victimized. “They just want you to spend, spend, spend.

That’s how they make money.” In research, Balance Seekers likened cards to a “genie in a bottle,” powerful but tricky.

They didn’t trust themselves to resist the genie’s temptation to spend. Instead, they just kept the lid on the bottle.

“I only carry one card in my wallet at a time.” The others still exist but rarely see the light of day.

That seemed unhealthy too, not to mention bad for Citibank’s business. We asked if there was to use cards. Balance Seekers told us the key was using cards wisely.

“Being able to earn rewards for using your cars in wise.”
“Using your card to get purchase protection or travel insurance is a good use.”
“I need to be informed about how cards work.”
“If a card could help me keep tabs on my spending, that would be healthy.”

Grounding card communications in these ideas not only connected credit to a “healthy approach,” but also provided a link to tangible features.

A simple Fact: No One has Even Been Bored into Buying Anything. Citibank asked for “refreshingly unbank-like” advertising.

That opened the door to offer a contrast to the credit card category. As a result, where most bank ads were serious, Citibank found humour.

While banks talked about themselves, they focused on people. And when banks showed money, they showed real life.

Being “unbank-like” also means avoiding media that objectify money. In diaries, Balance Seekers described their media habits and passions: home, family, health, community, and personal growth.

Citibank’s message connects perfectly with media that reflect these priorities: lifestyle magazines versus business and finance publications. 

Just When Everything Seems Under Control, Life Happens. And When Life Happens What Have we as Marketers Learned from the Citibank Campaign?
Citibank’s campaign was launched in 2001, the era of irrational exuberance, just as the dotcom bubble was about to burst.

And right before the bubble burst, it seemed that for many people, there hours of sleep a night, but that was because the stress to produce, the pressure from the investors, the almost maniacal hysteria surrounding the bottom line (or lack thereof) demanded release and relief.

Citibank agreed to run a campaign saying there was … there is … more to life than money, a message that seemed counter to the prevailing mood.

But that was 2001. By 2002, we all knew that there was and always will be more to life than money.

And now, two years later, to us, banking consumers and marketers alike. For what is relevance but revealing these human truths in a manner that talks to us, searches us, persuades us and touches us? It’s what good advertising really is all about.

Keywords: advertisers, advertising, ads, ad,


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