Sometimes a product is so good that it elevates out of the need for advertising. It has something unique such as a taste, a feature or manufacturing process, or a certain great function that solves an everyday need. However, more often than not, most products are mediocre at best. What separates these products from the rest is the company that produces them -- this includes the distribution chain, agreements with retailers, locations, and marketing. Companies wield unimaginable power with their advertising dollars to convince us of particular attributes they want us to see and mask their product's glaring inadequacies. Much like art, a product's merits are all about the lens you look through. Some will exalt the merits of Krispy Kreme donuts, while others swear by Entenmanns (which to me is sacrilege). Why would someone choose Entenmanns over Krispy Kreme? The lens we choose to look through defines how we view a product, a brand, and it's advertising. Those who swear they are not influenced by advertising and attempt to buy products solely on their functional merit are these brands' best customers. They are the sheeple who are not conscious enough to realize they are being conned, and this is their story...
Before I go any further, I'd like to exempt an entire category from my article: Airlines. Whereas some airlines boast great advertising, without exception they are all mediocre products at best. In fact, we have become so used to the product being bad, that when Virgin America or JetBlue provide us with a modicum of something less painful we jump for joy. Flying is an exceptionally horrid experience where we are price gouged for the ticket, luggage fees, and change fees. We are strip-searched and frisk-raped through security while being forced to fumble with our belts, shoes, and jackets. Then we are price gouged again after we get through security for the food we buy while awaiting our -- more often than not -- delayed flight. After all of this, we are usually greeted by surly union flight attendants decades past their expiration date for kindness, and then charged for the alcohol we need to forget the whole experience.
Unless you are flying Virgin America out of terminal two in San Francisco, you don't have a chance at happiness. Now some could argue that the airlines are not at fault, and there are companies like Virgin America that endeavor to make the flight experience a pleasant one. However, the whole airline "product experience" is the equivalent of being punched in the groin before sitting down at your favorite restaurant, and then sexually harassed by the wait staff while trying to eat your meal. It does not matter how good the food is, the product experience sucks.
OK, now that I have exempted an entire category due to its overwhelming incompetence at designing a pleasant people delivery system, on to my other victims. In each of these categories I am going to indicate the following three classifications:
This is the brand that meets the wonderful criteria of having great advertising and a mediocre product.
This is the company that -- by mere dumb luck -- benefits from the brand being known for serving up a lesser product experience.
This is the brand that every company should aspire to be. This is a brand that has great advertising and respects the people who buy its product.
No. 1: Retail
Loser: JC Penny
I actually hate putting down JC Penny. I love its "Yours Truly" campaign, and I think it has done a marvelous job resurrecting a moribund brand from the dead. The advertising communicates not only a brand that cares, but one that has a clean fresh shopping experience -- you know, like Target. Well, what else would a new logo and some catchy advertising signal? Unfortunately products often lag behind advertising, and it will take a couple years for JC Penny to update its stores, merchandise, and products to reflect this new image. In fact, it might never get there, regardless of its claims that the company will be here for the next 100 years. For now, this new advertising signals a stock price that has gone from $37.50 a year ago to $14.50 today. Comparable same-store sales for the third quarter of 2012 declined 26.1 percent and total net sales decreased 26.6 percent, from $3.9 billion to $2.9 billion. Ouch.
Poor Sears. Its "The Beach" commercial was brilliant, and by controlling Kenmore (because Sears makes it) the company gets to say that it is the only place that sells the top 10 brands. Too bad the rest of the store experience is mediocre at best. It is an aging brand that is really trying hard to upgrade its image. However, in reality, Sears' real estate is probably worth more than Sears is. In fact, unless you are actually buying appliances, you pretty much avoid Sears. I love Sears, I have fond memories of Sears, but I love it in the way you love that childhood sweetheart who gained weight, lost their teeth, and became a meth addict. You feel for them, you have sympathy for them, and you care about them, and occasionally you throw them some change. But you've grown up now and have decided to date someone who has a better sense of self-care.
Target's advertising is always fresh. The company's stores were designed after the 1950s (unlike some other retailers), it boasts friendly staff members that are actually helpful and speak English, and it offers price matching policies. Target makes it fun to shop, or at least less painful to do so.
No. 2: Fast Food
Loser: Domino's Pizza
Only Domino's could get away with a whole ad campaign that basically proclaimed it's product as crap. Domino's built an empire on mediocre pizza; the company was just blind or willfully ignorant to what people really thought of its product. Domino's was never selling pizza, Domino's was selling the convenience of pizza. And over the years, a little cut here in ingredients, a little change there, and the slow death of what started off as an acceptable product eroded into the cardboard shingle of pizza convenience. Domino's needed a turnaround. The advertising around changing its recipe and opening up to consumer feedback provided the emotional connection Domino's needed to get its consumers back and to have them believe in the company's product again. It was a great advertising strategy, combined with a connection to the people who make the product. Much like JC Penny, Domino's is trying, and trying hard. I believe the company still has a ways to go to take its product from mediocre to great, but at least it is moving in the right direction. The redesigned pizza is a vast improvement over the previous product -- if your local Domino's has the type of quality procedures in place to produce it. Unfortunately, there are many Domino's stores that have yet to get that memo, and one of them is in my neighborhood.
Also-Ran: Taco Bell
Taco Bell's Super Bowl spot this year was one of the standouts, and with more than 2.7 million views on YouTube and counting for its "Live Mas" campaign, Taco Bell is generating the kind of buzz other brands only dream about. And then there is the product, which is "awesome-sauce" while drunk at 2 a.m. and at any other time is barely palatable.
Great advertising combines with the company's "Food With Integrity" motto. Chipotle has made a commitment to farmers and organic products -- proving that you can have both good advertising and a good product in the fast food industry.
As a side note, I know that I will receive many emails about why I did not choose McDonald's as the loser here. Well, for one, I do not think its brand advertising is particularly good -- actually it's always been rather sentimental slop. However, its digital efforts and the way the company is connecting with people through social channels is nothing less than extraordinary. McDonald's is breaking down the barriers of negative memes one-at-a-time with its "Our food. Your questions." campaign. (Also, check out what McDonald's Canada has done wih this campaign.) McDonald's understands that social media is all about emotionally connecting to your consumers. If you are a brand that gets regularly attacked, this is the strategy that you should emulate. Kill your internal compliance department of fear mongers and start connecting with the people who use your product. The compliance department, your legal department, and the other "risk" managers in the department of "no" that have inserted themselves into your corporate structure are not helping your company, they are fundamentally stifling your growth, your responsiveness, and your ability to connect with people. Heed their advice at your company's peril.
No. 3: Bottled Water
From the beautiful Jennifer Aniston print ads to her Smartwater social-strategy pregnancy video, this brand knows how to appeal to people in a way that expresses that "its" water will have you satiated and wanting more. OK, great advertising, but how could this be a mediocre product? Smartwater is different. Smartwater water is "smart." Um, no. It does not make you "smarter," it just means that it has electrolytes which help prevent dehydration. It's water. You know -- that thing we used to get for free from any faucet until we ruined our municipal water supplies. Uh, wait a second. Smartwater is "vapor distilled water" which comes from -- you guessed it -- municipal water supplies. The company just heats it up, creates steam, compresses it to make purer water, and adds some ingredients to -- poof -- create "magic" water. Combine that with the fact that it takes two to three bottles of water to produce the bottle that the water comes in, and we have a massively wasteful, non-green, environmentally disastrous product that packages something we can get by simply throwing some salts into our water. If you transported someone here from 50 years ago they would fall over laughing at the gullibility and stupidity of our culture. If Nestlé had decent advertising it would have won this honor -- or lost it.
Also-Ran: Every bottled water ever made in single serve bottles
This entire category is an advertising joke. If you are dumb enough to buy bottled water you can never claim you are not influenced by advertising.
OK, so the product might not be great, and it is not a reverse osmosis water filtration system. However, anything that helps us reduce the catastrophic number of water bottles being used is helpful to our environment. For some reason, with water, waste is particularly egregious. You can't turn on your faucet and get beer or Coca-Cola, but almost everyone in this country has access to water, so buying it in plastic bottles is just so outstandingly bad.
I would be reticent not to include this in this category. "Lithuania's Vytautas Mineral Water is Earth's juice" is quite possibly the best water ad ever produced by anyone in the world ever. (Warning: NSFW)
No. 4: Energy Drinks
Loser: Red Bull
Red Bull has some of the most innovative advertising and marketing in the world. Red Bull regularly pushes the boundaries (quite literally) of what is possible in life, and in marketing and advertising, by taking a very long-term approach to supporting those who represent the company's extremist and optimistic view of what is possible. All brands should be so forward thinking. The advertising and marketing is inspirational -- it attacks life, almost a whole generation of alternative athletes, and inspires web-surfing geeks. These are all good things. Too bad the product itself is just fundamentally kind of lame. Red Bull is like Virgin but without Richard Branson -- or a decent product. Advertising has convinced legions that this concoction is necessary in their lives. The Wired article "Meat Sugar, Caffeine, and Bile!" explains what is in this soup of an energy boost. Yes, Red Bull has its legions of supporters, and there are worse soft drinks and energy drinks you can take, but mediocre? Sure, it meets that criterion.
I applaud Red Bull the brand. I just wish -- like Virgin -- it would diversify and grow that brand into something other than something.
Also-Ran: 5-Hour Energy
Unlike its name suggests, it does not give you energy for five hours. It's basically the same boost as a cup of coffee, and "little if any research" indicated that amino acids and B vitamins would result in a difference in energy level. However, those commercials? Can't get away from them.
Winner: No brand meets the criteria of one to aspire to.
No. 5: Clothing
Loser: Abercrombie & Fitch
Abercrombie built its modern brand on advertising that features sexy men and scantily clad female sidekicks. In 1992, the brand that had been making camping gear for Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt turned into a teen emporium of sex. In a strange psychological twist, Abercrombie shifted focus from the brand products to the brand image. In a sense, the brand itself became a product as Abercrombie's advertising became increasingly sexy. But brands beware: When that happens, you'd better resonate with whatever trend is currently in vogue -- and sex, it seems, no longer sells a $30 T-shirt, regardless of how provocative the advertising. Abercrombie & Fitch's product just became mediocre over the last 20 years, and now it is paying the price. I predict this storied brand with a 120-year history will be gone in the next 20 years. For 100 years it had a great product; for the last 20 it sold a mediocre product propped up with sexy advertising. Lesson here is that you can spike your brand and become hot through advertising, but if people connect to your advertising more than to your product, then you have to adapt your ads to the latest trends lest you become irrelevant.
Also-Ran: Most fashion brands and mainstream boutiques
Let's face it. They're all overpriced, usually have sexy provocative advertising that is effective and fun, and mediocre products of exclusivity. When you wear a $300 pair of Diesel jeans you are not broadcasting "These are the most amazing pair of jeans that fit me perfectly and make me look amazing." You are saying "I can afford a $300 pair of jeans." And yes, I own Diesel jeans, but at least I own them, know they're overpriced, and for some reason I bought into their whole "stupid" campaign. Oh wait, I get it now. I'm stupid.
With its "Common Threads Initiative" and "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign, Patagonia has put our planet ahead of its profits. All brands should be as forward thinking. All brands should stand for something progressive, something they believe in. Most don't. Patagonia does.
And it gets worse...
There have been products for which the advertising is effective but the products are not just mediocre, but bad. True falsehoods and con jobs on the public. For this I nominate two products for the "Sean X Hall of Fame of Advertising Shame." The following brands represent everything sad about society, the advertising industry, and the shear ability of companies to persuade people to buy products they don't need and worse -- that are ineffective at solving the one thing advertising has no control over: their low self esteem.
You remember "Smilin' Bob," don't you? Turns out, so does the Better Business Bureau and federal agents who shut down the operation. It was probably one of the greatest ad campaigns for a product that did nothing and was scientifically proven to do nothing. No evidence existed showing Enzyte to be effective in any of its claims.
Runner Up: Airborne
The former owners were fined by the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive advertising and were the subject of successful class action lawsuits. There are no studies supporting Airborne's effectiveness that meet scientific standards. To quote the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) senior nutritionist David Schardt, "Airborne is basically an overpriced, run-of-the-mill vitamin pill that's been cleverly, but deceptively, marketed."
There is an erroneous mantra in our industry perpetuated by the quote "Nothing can kill a bad product faster than good advertising," by Bill Bernbach, the B in DDB. It is a great little twist on words, and an aspirational belief that people are rational intelligent creatures who can spot a product's inadequacies and will readily stop buying that product if it is not good for them. It makes sense. It makes advertising appear almost as a gift, a public service that our great work, no matter how creative, cannot convince people of untruths, cannot sway people to believe something mediocre is great. This quote is, in and of itself, the purest example of advertising's ability to convince you of something that is not true. We can get you to believe that statement because on some logical level it makes sense. Unfortunately, it is complete crap. This is the ultimate advertising meme -- our joke to the world.
Advertising sells products, period. But convincing creative that connects with people can sell products that people don't want, don't need, and can't afford. If great creative is combined with a mediocre product, that product often wins against superior products. There are countless examples of this. Look at almost any highly processed packaged food product and this is evident. Packaged foods are veritable cornucopias of chemical soup -- if you can even understand what the ingredients are. The product does not stand on its merits as food. It stands on ancillary benefits that we can convince you through advertising are more important (calories, taste, convenience). We create the need state through advertising.
Nothing kills a bad product better than great advertising? I doubt that. It is a catchy little quote and probably makes some green ad execs sleep well at night, being all bright-eyed and bushy tailed in their naivety. However, I have yet to have anyone provide me with a single example of a great ad campaign that failed because the product was not good. No, in fact, the exact opposite is true. If the advertising is good enough, we can actually persuade people to buy something they get for free out of their tap.
Bottled water? Nah, that could never happen. People are not that gullible.
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"Before makeup and after makeup" image via Shutterstock.