Ad It Up

Are you gonna make 'em laugh? Cry? Run and hide? Your advertising strategy makes all the difference.
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the May 2001 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Advertising costs are high, and consumer attention spans are low. It's a scary combination that has every business owner searching for advertising's Holy Grail: the ad that's not only memorable but also has a measurable impact on the bottom line.

The trend over the past few years has been toward wacky image ads seemingly unrelated to the products they're touting. A sign of the times, those ads emerged during the freewheeling late 1990s, when companies could put outrageous images and words onto a page or screen and still see unlimited cash flow in their pockets.

Other companies have opted for the traditional approach, running "educational" ads using text rather than images, or featuring customer testimonials. What will work for your business?

The good news is, probably any of these strategies will work-if you know how to use them. Here's a look at four companies that took different paths in their advertising as well as expert opinions on what they did right and wrong-and how you can use their strategies in your business.

Make 'Em Laugh

Ads have been trying to make funny since the earliest days of advertising. and Budweiser, with its "Whassup" TV commercials, are just two of many companies running humorous campaigns today. But sometimes the funniest ads don't ever bring in the business. Just ask, whose wacky sock puppet couldn't save the company from bankruptcy. How do you make people laugh and sell your product, too?

After its darkly humorous 1999 "When I Grow Up" ad campaign-featuring children spouting future goals such as "I want to be forced into early retirement"-Maynard, Massachusetts-based online recruiter knew it had to get more specific about the company's purpose. "We wanted to focus on the power of Monster, what it does," says Zhennaa Gallagher, the company's advertising director. After working on at least 15 concepts, Gallagher and her team focused on Ted, an employee who posts his resume on Monster and suddenly becomes fascinating to everyone in town. Employers fall all over themselves to hire him; newspaper headlines trumpet his name and ponder his future. People want Ted.

But does being funny make money? Gallagher thinks so. "We've learned that people just want to laugh," she says. The ad attempts to go a crucial step further, however, and connect viewers with the brand. "People can relate to Ted's situation," Gallagher says. "This ad says you can be loved. It's a call to action." And it's worked, she says. While the "Ted" spot ran, the number of resumes posted per day increased from 15,000 to 23,000. Monster's 2000 revenue soared to $349.2 million.

How it rates: The experts unanimously like Monster's approach. "The use of humor and its delivery does a very good job of driving home the main point of the ad," says Mary Ann Stutts, a professor of marketing at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos.

"The 'Ted' ad shows that if you post [your resume on Monster, it'll] make you desirable and people will want you," agrees Richard Zien, co-founder and president of Mendelsohn Zien Advertising in Los Angeles.

How to use humor: The experts agree that wackiness for the sake of wackiness isn't enough. "Offbeat humor is fine, but unless there's a strategic link to how the product relates to the consumer, it won't be effective," Zien says. He points to Charmin as a classic example of a product that conveys a main selling point-softness-by telling consumers in an amusing way not to squeeze it.

Also, keep in mind your demographics. Humor is generational, and consumers of certain products, like food and health care, may not appreciate your attempts at humor. "In those cases, customers need reassurance, not zaniness," says Sarah Patterson, a managing partner at ad agency Ogilvy Mather in Chicago.

Monster plans on more wackiness in 2001. Says Gallagher, "Humor will definetely play a major role in our next campaign."

Shock Treatment

Another way to grab attention is to use shocking, or even disturbing, ads. Nike tried it last year with a "Slasher" ad, featuring a man with a chain saw chasing a woman through the woods. Her Nikes keep her just ahead of her attacker. But, as Nike found out, you have to be careful. The "Slasher" ad was quickly pulled from network TV when viewers complained it was offensive.

Last summer, The Seva Group, a 3-year-old software firm based in Baltimore, wanted a new campaign that would stand out from the competition. "We wanted to build brand awareness," says Seva's co-founder and principal, Jon Byrd, 36. With the help of its ad agency, the company, which pulled in $3 million in 2000 sales, decided to play on a belief in the software industry: the idea that software fixes everything. "There's a perception in the IT industry that the next version of software will fix all the problems," Byrd says. Why not play on situations that software can't fix, while pushing the visual limits?

By the end of 2000, the company had three new shock ads. One is a parody of The Exorcist featuring a bedeviled Linda Blair look-alike lying in bed as a priest stands before her with a crucifix and some software. The tag "software fixes everything" appears with a few sentences of text and the company name. The ad has appeared in regional business journals, and there are plans to run it nationally sometime this year.

Is this approach working? "Folks are noticing us," he says, adding that company revenue has increased 17 percent since it placed the first of the ad series. The public likes them, too: People line up at the company's trade-show booths for T-shirts featuring the shock ads.

How to use shock: Know your audience's tastes and stay away from anything extremely offensive. "Shock value tends to work better on younger audiences," Stutts says. Also, you'll need that strategic link between the product and the customer."Shock is meaningless unless it's teaching, telling or reinforcing what consumers know," Zien says. As with offbeat humor, shock may not work with every product. Think about your brand and what's appropriate.

Learn By Example

Educational advertising-ads based on informative text rather than images-is a time-tested favorite of biotechnology, insurance and computer companies. When Atlanta e-benefits company Coalition America needed an ad to boost its already $16.5 million 2000-with a new ad approach, rather than run glitzy image ads, it gave potential customers a crash course in what the company does. "In our industry, there's a lot of value in educating clients," says chairman and CEO Sean Smith, 32, who founded the company with twin brother Scott. Sean had another reason for going educational: He wants to recycle the ads for trade shows and press kits.

The company's in-house ad team devised a half-page magazine ad focusing on cost savings, which will run in national business and trade publications. Will it work? Sean thinks so. "Even if people see our ads, they still need to talk to us," he says. At press time, the ad hadn't run yet, but the company hopes it'll spur inquiries.

How to use education: An effective educational ad focuses on one benefit that separates you from the competition. Patterson suggests asking yourself this: What's the main reason people should read all this information? That should be your ad's central point. Says Patterson, "The public doesn't want to be educated unless there's a clear benefit in it for them."

Talking Heads

Who hasn't seen a celebrity testimonial? Suzanne Sommers touting the Thighmaster. Dionne Warwick plugging the Psychic Network. Whether it comes from a celebrity or an unknown consumer, a testimonial is timeless and offers a simple message: If this person likes your product, it must be good.

MJ Research Inc., a biotech equipment manufacturer based in Waltham, Massachusetts, with $50 million in annual sales, decided to give the strategy a try after a biologist in the Czech Republic sent a letter about her positive experience with one of the company's oldest products. MJ's in-house advertising department combined the letter with a picture of the actual scientist holding the product to make the ad. "All we needed was the photo. It was an easy and low-cost process," says CEO and co-founder John Finney, 41. The text of the biologist's letter-which cheerily tells the story of how the product survived a flood-appears alongside her photo. A banner at the top says "Amazing Lab Stories: Flood in the Czech Republic."

The ad runs in a number of scientific publications, including Cell, Nature and Science. It was a big departure from the company's years of informational ads aimed at the skeptical biologist used to to wading through through dense research studies. "We've done a lot of text-rich ads that have become recognized by the scientific community," Finney says. He sees this customer testimonial conveying something different: a unique person, place and experience that will fascinate scientists.

Is the ad working? John Hansen, MJ Research's vice president of communications, says the company's gotten more inquiries from its educational ads featuring newer products: "We believe this testimonial captured attention, but the ad was not a champion lead generator." The company's sales continue to grow at 20 to 40 percent annually.

How to use testimonials: In a customer testimonial, customers should be fair and truthful-but not overstated-in what they say. Ask the customer to focus on one key benefit of your company. "A well-crafted testimonial can be effective. But it must be truthful and substantial," says Wallace S. Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation in Washington, DC. Along with the customer's comments, adding a seal of approval or other logos that further testify to the quality of your product can be useful.

While it's always tricky to guess the response to an ad, knowing how to use these strategies to link your product to a selling point can put you a step ahead of the competition in getting your message across. "If you can do this," says Patterson, "you've done really well."

Chris Penttila is Entrepreneur's "Staff Smarts" columnist.

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