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Get The Message…

For about, well, nine years now I’ve been working a book on messaging. The basic tenet has been that companies, organizations need to master the art of messaging, not just to attract attention and change minds but in order to effectively compete. And, that messaging – as lead by communicators will dwarf the spend and effort put into traditional brand processes.

The two current hot-points in messaging are framing and the challenge to the Universal Message. These two notions together are perhaps the most powerful combination in communications today. They underpin the most effective of messaging campaigns.

UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff has produced one of the best pieces on framing – essentially the art of using messaging as a competitive tool. Also see his interview on PBS.

Language always comes with what is called “framing.” Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you have something like “revolt,” that implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes it is being ruled unfairly, and that they are throwing off their rulers, which would be considered a good thing. That’s a frame.

Parallel to this another movement has been hammering away at the need for a single message to underpin the brand. This notion has been the rainmaker for many a consulting firm who has delighted in pointing out to their clients (read victim) how many messages they have and thereby how messed-up they are. Let’s call this the plee for the Universal Message.

Recently a cat-fight broke out in Ad Age between the ‘positionistas’ and McDonald’s CMO, Larry Light. Larry said at an AdWatch conference he was abandoning the universal message concept in favor of a “brand journalism approach”. No more one message for all. Instead, brand journalism:

“…is a chronicle of the varied things that happen in our brand world, throughout our day, throughout the years. Our brand means different things to different people. It does not have one brand position. It is positioned differently in the minds of kids, teens, young adults, parents and seniors. It is positioned differently at breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, weekday, weekend, with kids or on a business trip.

“Brand Journalism allows us to be a witness to the multi-faceted aspects of a brand story. No one communication alone tells the whole brand story.

“Each communication provides a different insight into our brand. It all adds up to a McDonald’s journalistic brand chronicle.”

For me, this idea is an interesting one. Laura Ries thinks it’s pretty silly.

The notion that McDonald’s should abandon the positioning philosophy and instead adopt a brand journalism approach is lunacy. Brand journalism is just another name for an approach that has been tried and has failed many times before. It is the everybody trap. Brand journalism attempts to make a brand appeal to everybody by using many different brand messages.

Brands that try to appeal to everyone end up appealing to no one.

Now while I take her point, the notion Larry is getting at points to the need to infuse brands with meaningful messages and deeper storytelling. Most brand marketers get it wrong. There is clear evidence that a single message presented in an unrelenting integrated marketing campaign winds-up dull and boring. But that doesn’t mean message diversity (driven by audience diversity) replaces the need for a clear and decisive position.

So, where I do agree with Laura is that while every company has multiple audiences we need to prioritize them and speak more to one than any other. They are the audience that defines the brand. In McDonalds’s case, that’s kids (I think). But lets not confuse focusing the marketing effort with focusing the message.

This is a fascinating debate. In converging these two trains of thought – framing and universal messaging – you get at the tenets of effective communications:-

1. Messages must resonate with a single audience first and foremost. They must speak to someone. Everybody is nobody.

2. Messages must be dimensionalized through storytelling. One message can live in many stories, for many different audiences.

3. Messages are being used today to frame competitors as effectively as they are being used to frame brands. Simon Phipps recent blog looks at how Sun’s competitors have been doing this to us (the bad news). The good news – we’ve figured this out! Actually, we’ve been doing it better than most for a very long time.

4. Even for framing to work, it needs to be underpinned with deep storytelling. Even if that storytelling is, well, a story. You can compete with framing through storytelling.

5. Messages need to be part of the product experience – the experience that can only be had and held by an individual. I liked what Burger King’s ad agency was reported to have done with the doors on stores – they had them open either way and then marked the door the the brand message “have it your way”. Brand + experience + message. This is a little superficial but you get the point.

Maybe I’ll just blog the book… more to come…

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