Back to basics: best practices in outdoor advertising

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Over a series of blog posts, hopefully, I will attempt to share few basics on making the best use of a particular medium (e.g. Print, Radio, Outdoor) or a platform (in-app advertising, YouTube) for advertising. This week, let me start with the basics of outdoor advertising.

A fleeting medium

The hallmark of a billboard is that people get just a few seconds to notice it, absorb the content and move on. This is especially true when one is driving on the roads, or in a moving car, bus or train. Even when one is stationery, say waiting at the bus stop, a billboard has to be attractive enough to garner attention. So the implication for advertisers on this fleeting medium is that the message has to focused, single-minded, compelling and pithy. It is said that as a thumb rule a billboard should have a maximum of eight words. Hoardings which have the equivalent of a brochure worth of copy are a waste of effort and media monies, because there is no chance that any of it will be registered – trying to say many things will only ensure that nothing is registered.

Here are a few trends and observations to consider when crafting an outdoor campaign: brevity with with & charm, visual appeal, create buzz through a stunt, use of relevant technology and providing some utility value. Also with the convergence of media, only a billboard is no longer considered as outdoor. Any outdoor activity or stunt is also considered an outdoor activity. Another aspect to consider is that a well-executed outdoor campaign has the potential to go viral and thus a PR opportunity too.

Brevity with wit and charm

As I mentioned earlier, since outdoor is a fleeting medium with just a few seconds to convey the message, brevity is important. But that does not mean that the communication has to be dull. The first rule of advertising is noticeability and boring messages don’t have a chance to cut through clutter.

In my book, the best example of this approach would be The Economist. The message that the magazine is essential reading to be knowledgeable about world affairs (and thus helping the reader to stay ahead) has consistently been brought out over the decades with some, often acerbic wit.

Agency: AMV BBDO

A visual pun too can evoke a smile as these two billboards demonstrate.

Show-stopping visual impact

The best kind of advertising is one which leaves a little something unsaid – not spelling out everything, allowing the consumer to fill in the blanks, as it were. Sometimes the job is done by an intriguing or impactful visual.

A billboard for Scrabble did that by simply representing a familiar object as scattered tiles of a player.

Scrabble elephant ad

Smoking is an irrational habit. Smokers are aware that it causes harm but continue to indulge in it. One way to evoke a feeling of disgust or shock about the habit is to showcase its ill effects on our body.

Quit smoking

How do you capture the joy of getting a cherished object back in shape? The simple task of fixing a broken toy is equated with the emotion of welcoming a friend. Superbly done, especially for a boring product category.

Another famous campaign which used an image well to draw attention was the ‘Shot on iPhone series from Apple. It was a classic case of ‘show & tell’ of the camera’s quality on the phone. Many competing brands were relying on listing the technical features of the phone (including the camera) while Apple let the results do the talking.

Interactive billboards: convergence of technology and art

Once you begin to view ‘outdoor’ as more than just a conventional billboard, new opportunities emerge. In 2014, charity organisation Misereor, created an interactive display which mimicked the act of swiping a credit card (an act familiar to most in the Western countries) on a digital kiosk. It asked for a specific amount, made donation easy and the entire experience rewarding.

Microlan Foundation created the Pennies for Life campaign, which won the Grand Prix at the 2012 Epica Awards.

A billboard equipped with a technology that attracts and kills the Aedes Aegypti mosquito is another innovative use of the outdoor medium.

Stunts done well

In 2009, to call attention to the situation in Zimbabwe, thousands of of ‘worthless’ Zimbabwe currency were pasted on billboards.

That year saw few other great outdoor ideas too.

Creating a utility value

Dubbed as the ‘world’s first solar powered billboard’, Nedbank’s efforts garnered great PR value for the brand as it was used to generate electricity for a nearby school in South Africa.

The monsoon season in Mumbai wreaks havoc every year as the city invariably gets water logged. A telecom brand, Aircel simply stuck a raft on a hoarding. Not surprisingly the raft was put to use and garnered a lot of buzz.

In 1983, the adhesive brand Araldite pulled off a great stunt to demonstrate its efficacy.

Beyond just billboards

The campaign idea for Snickers – ‘you’re not you when you are hungry’ is an eminently ‘campiagnable’ idea based on an universal insight. Here’s an outdoor activity with deliberate mistakes in implementation which ties in with that campaign idea.

Imagine seeing this bus on the roads of Copenhagen.

No copy approach

Iconic brands with great residual imagery and distinct brand assets can be bold enough to not even mention show the product or mention the brand name.

Outdoor, activation or PR?

A stunt or ‘ambient’ idea to promote a show, King Kong 3D Experience involved these pranks – giant footsteps on a beach. The media coverage of such is of immeasurable value.

Billboards are also great for other objectives too such as targeting a particular demographic or locality, needling competition or driving traffic to a nearby store.

A billboard that is guaranteed to bring a smile on the face of the 40+ age group.

A war of words between BMW and Audi is considered legendary in outdoor advertising. And then there’s a campaign to drive traffic to nearby outlets of McDonad’s and IKEA which bring alive the power of the medium.

There are many other creative uses of the ‘ordinary’ billboard. Many years ago, the Japanese brand AKAI simply painted their logo on empty billboards (which would typically carry the hoarding contractor’s phone number). It was additional income for the contractor for hoardings which did not earn anything otherwise.

Of awareness and being topical

Is outdoor a reminder medium? Or can it create awareness for a brand on its own? As with most issues in marketing, ‘it depends’ could be the answer. While it cannot match say, television, in terms of mass reach, a creative, sustained outdoor campaign can work as a reminder medium to the thematic communication on other media. Local brands such as radio stations, new-age delivery services (such as Dunzo in India) have used outdoor (including bus shelters) effectively. Another great example of outdoor would be the topical billboards of Amul – which are a tongue-in-cheek commentary on topical issues.

Any other good examples of the medium? Do share your views.

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