Of higher order benefit and purpose driven ads

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In advertising, conveying the benefit of a product is considered more effective than simply listing features. It helps consumers relate to how it can play a role in their lives and not leave things to imagination. The benefits of a feature may not be immediately apparent to consumers too, especially if it is a new category.  The distinction between feature and benefit may not be immediately apparent in some cases. Here are a few examples of features vs. benefits:

Zero calorie chocolate is a feature. Guilt-free indulgence is a benefit

Real time traffic updates is a feature. Being able to know the correct time of arrival at a destination is a benefit

Blazing fast broadband is a feature. Uninterrupted high-quality streaming is a benefit.

Tough stain removal is a feature. Freedom from worry of spoiling your favorite white shirt is a benefit.

Admittedly, there could be more than one benefit to a feature. Marketers choose the one benefit which they think is relevant (to their audience and business needs) and dramatise it in communication. Also, the creative expression need not always take a positive angle – the embarrassment caused by a problem and hence, the negative aspects can be exaggerated in communication. In a famous ad for Tide, stains in the shirt worn by an interviewee distract the interviewer so much that they drown out what is being said. In an ad to highlight the promise of clean, germ free hands, Lifebuoy highlighted the negative aspects not washing your hands – by associating them with what we touch.

The Tide ad conveyed how stains can come in the way of one’s performance and the Lifebuoy one dramatised how we overlook the possible contaminations of what we touch. They both convey a benefit without spelling it out.

The benefits of er…benefits is that they can give a brand a perceived advantage over competition. In India, Fevicol the adhesive brand used by carpenters is perhaps better associated with ‘unbreakable strength’ compared to competition when the generic benefit itself is strength or unbreakability. It helps create preference for a brand especially in a cluttered, competitive and product-parity driven market. It demonstrates to the consumer that the brand ‘understands’ or empathises with their pain points. The focus on benefit also helps in brand associations. Popeye and his enormous strength derived eating spinach is a popular imagery. It is said Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third. The product’s feature of iron was associated with the benefit of ‘strength’. For car enthusiasts, Volvo would be associated with safety. Such associations arising out of perceived benefits apply to country brands too: the ‘Made in Japan’ and ‘Made in Germany’ labels for products have their own positive associations.

In many product categories, a truly differentiating feature and a resultant benefit is difficult to find, maintain and nurture. Very often, the creative expression becomes the differentiating factor. In this quest to find such differentiating factors, brands tend to ladder the benefits and express a higher order benefit. Sometimes, the benefit is stretched so far that it comes incredulous and unrelated to the brand. However, some effective examples of a higher order benefit come to mind:

Persil: ‘’Dirt is good’

Parents do curb outdoor play or creative work with messy materials for kids due to fear of them soiling their clothes. This insight perhaps led to the ‘Dirt is good’ credo which conveys to the parents that the ‘superior’ cleaning of Persil (known as Surf in India) sets their kids free. This was then laddered as something which helps in the overall development of kids (‘develop kids’ understanding of their world, the environment and nature, it will also shape their values, grow their confidence, benefit their health and ultimately help them reach important milestones’).

Image source.

Tata Tea and ‘jaago re’

In India, Tata Tea got a lot of accolades for their ‘Jaago Re’ campaign which urged consumers to ‘wake up’ and touched upon topics like corruption in public life through their adverts.

D7: Wake up Thailand

I am not aware which came first but D7 took a similar stance in Thailand.

Among other examples, Coca-Cola’s ‘Open Happiness’ (which linked the brand with spreading joy and happiness in small ways) and Dove’s Real Beauty (which aims to ‘celebrate the natural physical variation embodied by all women and inspire them to have the confidence to be comfortable with themselves’) come to mind.

The hallmarks of effective higher order benefit could be that they have the product at the core of the promise. Whether he promise itself seems too far fetched could be a moot point – suspension of disbelief will have to be at play to assume that sipping a beverage would make one ‘aware’ from within. Or that sugared water would actually spread happiness & joy. But overall, stretching the apparent benefit to a higher order one, within limits, seems to help in creating clutter-breaking relevant communication.

Higher order benefit vs purpose-driven ads

Cause-related marketing is not a new phenomenon. At the core of this approach is the belief that consumers love to buy from companies that ‘do good’. So companies set up funds and chased ‘causes’ which could give a halo to the brand. The ‘cause’ could be in the do-good domain or a socially relevant topic. But there have been doubts about this approach. In 2013, AdAge asked: Is the Era of Purpose-Driven Ads (Finally) Over? Of late, we have seen a slew of brands attempting to associate themselves with a purpose.

In my view, selling the ‘cause’ should not come at the cost of selling the brand. Advertising is a commercial activity and it must help brands sell. If the brand’s core messaging is lost in trying to sell a cause, then the purpose is defeated. Also, the cause should have a credible link back to the brand’s core benefit. Among recent examples with a tenuous link to the brand, these two come to mind.

  • a carbonated drink’s attempt to associate itself with pressures of exams (the act of opening the soft drink bottle, releases pressure and hence the link to ‘releasing pressure’ during exams?)
  • a mosquito repellant brand’s attempt to link it to tough moms (‘tough on mosquitoes’ being the trigger I guess)

Does every brand need a larger purpose?

The short answer, no. I think we all overestimate the role of brands in the everyday life of a majority of consumers. Regular folks have far serious personal issues to worry about than wondering what the higher purpose of a floor cleaner brand is. Unlike art of art’s sake, advertising has a clear business role to play – it has to help improve sales or brand affinity (which will have an impact on brand loyalty and therefore, sales). A portion of sales being apportioned for charity or sponsorships in some form for social-good organisations are initiatives which could attract a certain kind of consumer towards a brand. P&G’s Shiksha initiative in India and Sakthi masala’s CSR initiatives are examples which come to mind. In high involvement categories catering to a certain mindset the larger purpose could find an appeal. Tesla and its quest for sustainable energy, Apple and its respect for user privacy…could be examples of such.

In my mind they were effective because there was some credible, relevant link to the brand. Ditto with the ‘Thank you, mom’ initiative of P&G. Also, there should be a genuine on-the-ground effort – not limited to mere advertising claims. If the link back to the brand is tenuous, credibility suffers.

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