Of Uber, moving forward and benefit laddering

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Benefit laddering is a technique used in advertising based on the belief that dramatising emotional benefits of a brand has a better chance of creating affinity among customers, rather than conveying functional benefits. Simplistic illustrations of this would be:

– extrapolate ‘strong cool mint’ as ‘coolness so strong that it can freeze the world around you’. The creative expression could then showcase an airport turning into the Arctic region as one pops in the mint
– dramatise the time-saving benefit of say, a washing machine, as enabling the housewife to chase her dreams (as she now can indulge in productive activities rather than dreary ones)
– an AC so comfortable that nothing hassles you – you don’t lose your cool even hearing harsh news
– creative license could interpret a shampoo which imbues shine to your hair as ‘helping you shine in life’ as you stand out from the crowd

You get the drift.

This is an age-old technique and is anchored on the firm belief that consumers don’t take advertising seriously or its promises literally (in most cases). Of course, if a service oriented delivery is promised it will be monitored and if the claim is not met, it creates a credibility gap. A pizza-delivery brand claiming home delivery within 30 minutes or an airline brand promising ‘on-time’ service will be called to question if they don’t deliver what they promise in advertising. But when it comes to certain ‘stories’ or exaggerations in advertising, consumers practice ‘suspension of disbelief’. No one believes that merely spraying a particular brand of deodorant or dabbing a talcum powder will help them ace an interview. It is simply seen as an entertaining way of conveying the implied benefit of confidence accruing from using that brand.

The overall approach is plain common sense, for the following reasons:

– product parity is a given in most categories; whether it is consumer goods, B2C or B2B services, hardly any brand enjoys an absolute, truly differentiated offering which cannot be matched by any competitor
– many product categories are low interest, routine purchases. The need to excite the consumer with a compelling story is high. And that is easier with an emotional appeal rather than a laundry list of rational benefits
– we all make choices in life based purely on emotional reasons and the intangible ‘likability factor’. Rationalisation of our emotion-driven purchase happens later. OnePlus or Redmi phone buyers may justify the laundry list of hardware features as the reason for their choice but deep down it could be emotion of getting ‘great value’ [as against the ‘over-priced’ iPhone] and hence feeling smart.

The belief is that such an approach endears the brand to both potential and current customer as the core message and execution is likely to appeal to them. Tata Tea’s ‘Jaago Re‘ [loosely translated as a rallying cry to ‘awaken’] laddered the benefit of a strong cup of tea to social causes. No one expects the Tata Tea drinker to become morally upright or stand up for social injustice after sipping a cup. The overall messaging is hoped to break the clutter and make the brand endearing…thereby increasing sales.

Is benefit laddering the same as exaggeration? In my view, no. Advertisers exaggerate the effects of a feature. If every product was asked to simply tell it as it is and not exaggerate its effects, advertising would be boring.

‘Cement so strong that it withstands the blast of a dynamite’ is exaggerating its strength. A taxi service which helps you get from Point A to Point B and hence help you ‘move forward in life’ is benefit laddering. There could be a thin line dividing the two but that’s how I see it.

How far can you stretch a benefit? How far is too far, before consumers reject the proposition as too far-fetched? There aren’t clear cut answers to such. Broadly speaking, advertisers could consider these aspects:

Credibility and role of product: if a brand promises to be an enabler of productivity or success in life, consumers may agree or find it plausible as long as it is within a set of categories e.g. a bank offering a loan or perhaps a brand of PC. When an AC promises to cure a hitherto incurable ailment of body heat, as a recent web film of Hitachi claimed, it is seen as mere entertainment. But if a serious claim of productivity enhancement or enabler of success is made, there better be a strong fit to the category and a plausible role for the brand. As Tom Fishburne said, ‘But there’s a risk of over-reaching, particularly when brands aim for abstract emotional benefits not really supported by the product story’.

Relevance to the target audience: as with all advertising claims, a stretched benefit should also be relevant to the target audience.

Fundamental product delivery issues: if a brand does not address fundamental product delivery or service issues but still goes ahead and makes a lofty claim, it creates a huge credibility gap. Telecom brands often claim blazing data speeds which help you ‘do more’ or enjoy entertainment everywhere but don’t match it with delivery.

In this context, comes a new campaign for Uber in India. ‘Moving forward’ seems to be a rallying cry for the brand as seen in their global site. In India, it is translated as ‘Badhte Chalo’ – a call to keeping going forward. The account seems to have moved from Taproot Dentsu to Ogilvy within a short span of time. Last year, Taproot launched a campaign urging consumers to think of Uber as their own car – ‘Isse Apni Hi Gaadi Samjho‘. The shift within a short span to a new agency and, not surprisingly a new theme, is also a reflection of the advertising industry and how often brand ideas and agencies change. Anyway, I am digressing. Herewith some observations on the new campaign:

Use of celebrity: advertisers use a celebrity to gain quick visibility and awareness. Very rarely is there a good fit between the celebrity and the product endorsed. There are several ways in which brands use celebrities – as characters or as themselves. The most cliched way is to have them talk to camera and endorse the brand or its philosophy. Working with celebrities has its constraints [as the script needs to match the time available, their travel schedule and so on]. So use of Virat Kohli follows the standard, tried-and-tested template of a well-known face giving a monologue. The words themselves seemed very advertising like and not natural. If Virat were to speak from his heart, would he deliver such? Also what happens to audience connect in the South [a perpetual problem with pan-India advertising]?

Execution: I liked the use of ‘Where to?’ and the destination to connote one’s life journey. Virat Kohli’s road to success, as it were was nicely captured. However, the role of the product in that journey is questionable. One can argue that Virat Kohli’s journey is simply an inspiration for the potential Uber user to progress in life. In the print advertising, I thought the second full-page ad was sheer indulgence.

On-ground delivery: of late both the big taxi aggregators in India have faced issues pertaining to safety, on-time pickup and so on. Personally speaking, I have perceived Uber to be a ‘cut above’ since its launch, primarily triggered by the experience of using its app. In my line of work, I have come across many businesses who consider the Uber app to be top-notch and a benchmark when it comes to user experience. However, for me the halo around the brand has dimmed thanks to poor service experience [badly maintained cars, drivers cancelling a fare after accepting, mismatch between what the app promises in terms of waiting time and the actual arrival…and so on]. Now both Ola and Uber are at par in my perception with the former having a slight edge as I am part of their Ola Select offering which claims to provide service on priority. Also in-car goodies like wifi and Ola Play [which remembers what you played last] have helped Ola gain a perception bump in my mind.

So a claim like ‘move forward’ would have resonated with me strongly if the service delivery issues had been addressed and if the execution was more moving [no pun intended].

On social media, some have questioned this advertising route [sorry about another transport related cue] saying that issues like safety need to be addressed first. The functional benefits vs higher order benefits is not an easy one to resolve. In my view, functional benefits like safety, on-demand availability, ease of use through a mobile phone and such like are required at an early stage of the brand when one is educating the user to a new category. For example, a diaper brand can focus on product quality, absorption and the benefit to a baby in wearing it at night [sound sleep] is required at a certain stage of the brand. However, when the category is mature a higher order benefit can be explored. P&G’s ‘Thank You, Mom’ where Pampers is featured or its salute to midwives in UK, is an example of higher order benefit.

In the case of Uber India, communication of functional benefits can also be done through tactical advertising on a need basis. Issues like safety have to be addressed on-ground and the measures taken to achieve those can be communicated through PR. In the long run, promising a higher order benefit is likely to pay more dividends to the brand than just functional benefits. So I agree with Uber’s approach to opt for a higher order benefit and hope to see some engaging executions of the core idea in the days to come.

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