I’ve been spending a bit of time using Photoshop lately.  I’m not very good at it which makes it easy to spot a crap job.




Something about this picture of Miranda Kerr didn’t look quite right. It appears that her torso is floating. Now there are a couple of possibilities here. Either she is actually keeping her torso off the ground, because that’s how we all lie down, right? Alternatively, the studio putting the ad together digitally altered the photo. Now almost every photo to hit the press these days (and frankly for many years) will go through some sort of manipulation process and there are often good reasons for it. The risk, however, is that the images that represent your brand start to look fake or disingenuous. Leaving aside the issue of promoting unrealistic body images, this is troubling from a brand point of view.

But who else is doing it? Food photographers used to physically alter their subjects to the point that they would be inedible. White paint poured over cornflakes looks much nicer than real milk. This article provides some terrific examples.

The public is growing much more aware of this practice and of the potential for photoreal images to be completely fabricated. David Cameron recently came under fire when an aide photoshopped a poppy onto his suit. Social media sites mocked him mercilessly.

It’s important to maintain a sense of honesty and authenticity in brand photography. Getting caught out can make you look a total fraud.

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Sell the story

I wanted to write this blog about story telling – using a couple of ads as examples.

It seems the concept of using a story as a marketing device is fashionable at the moment, but it’s not a new idea. Let’s face it, the stories traders would have told thousands of years ago about their supplies would probably put a lot of us marketing professionals to shame!

Nevertheless, when it’s done well, it really works – and conversely when it’s done badly, it can really back fire on your brand.

The first example I want to look at is a Nationwide advert, titled ‘On Your Side for Generations’.

The story is beautifully shot, so that it requires very little dialogue. And while it could be accused of being a bit saccharine, it clearly illustrates the tale of a well loved scarf, its loss and return by our heroic Nationwide branch manager. But what’s this got to do with a building society? Without getting into the finer points of the role of finance in our society – the advert has nothing to do with banking. Instead it’s all about trust, responsibility and recognising what matters. It’s about a company that will do The Right Thing.

Let’s look at a second example.

Fiat’s advert for its 500L barely features the car. Instead, it features a white, middle class mum rapping about being a mother, wittily entitled ‘The Motherhood’.

This time, the ad is selling a lifestyle. They’re not making it look very glamorous I hear you say. But the audience is not aspiring to that lifestyle, they’re already in it. The car is the simply the car that goes with that life.

The story is designed to resonate with people – it could feature any car: there are no specific features, we don’t see it in motion and we barely see the interior at all. But it gives credibility to this car being the choice of middle class parents everywhere.

And that’s what the story approach does. It gives your product credibility, your brand authenticity.

But don’t take it from me. This is hotel magnate Steve Wynn, talking about the power of the story in his organisation.

He gives the example of a bellboy driving across the country to pick up some medication for a guest. Not only is the guest is delighted, but the bellboy’s colleagues are impressed, and want to be part of it. He is given an incentive by his boss, and a general “pat on the back” by his team. Everyone wins.

So what about when it goes wrong?

Take a look at this advert from Diet Coke. It tells the story of British Designer J.W. Anderson and his quest to design a great coke bottle. The ad has no resonance. His language, and the way the film is cut is so clichéd as to be a pastiche of how designers talk. It’s already been parodied mercilessly.

There’s no aspiration here, no familiarity, no humour. And since we don’t get to see the design either, there’s no take away message. Compare that to the personalised diet coke bottles which allowed consumers to make their own stories featuring coke, and the J.W. Anderson ad is comparatively a total flop.

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Missing the point

Funny how the details matter. First that this archer’s clothes seem very out of date, secondly, and more significantly,  that the targets are behind her, apparently she’s aiming the wrong way. 


M&G Investments

So there we have the take away messages: old fashioned and malcoordinated. Is that what you’d want for your brand.

Actually, the old fashioned theme carries across to their website,  and harks to the company’s heritage being founded in the 1930s. The trouble is, these ads are seen in isolation,  so the theme is lost.

The idea is good, but needs to be better executed; much like someone standing in the vicinity of this archery range.

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Clean as a whistle

Hotel rooms greet you like one of those south east Asian markets, an assault of messages from all sides. Menus for room service, local attractions, how to work the telly, where the fire exits are… The list goes on. It becomes like wall paper, background noise. So a message from the maid stands out, in as much as it’s possible amongst everything else.


On the one hand it’s naff and slightly exploitative. I imagine cleaning a hotel room ranges from mundane to downright unpleasant. The task would be repetitive and efficiency the watch word. The idea that it was carried out ‘thoughtfully’ is frankly laughable.

On the hand, it’s a reminder that the room was (and will be) cleaned by a person. It might encourage people to leave the room in a better state than they otherwise might.

This type of personalisation is a growing trend, cafes and restaurants add the name of the waiter or waitress to the bill (presumably to encourage tipping) and cold callers often take time to introduce themselves before starting their pitch (or is it the start of their pitch?).

We’re a social species, we like the personal touch, but it needs to be authentic. Get this right and your business doesn’t just get a customer, it gets a friend.

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Buy buy buy!

I like to think of emails you get from companies that you’ve used in the past a little like a virtual version of the welcome you get when you walk back into a shop. So I find messages like the one from the Mercure Hotels group verging on the offensive.


You wouldn’t expect a sales assistant to walk up to you in a shop and say “Hello sir, anything I can help you with?” “Yes I was looking for a new laptop…” “OK, three, two, one, buy buy buy!”

These sorts of emails should be friendly and well targeted. Not randomly distributed in an effort to ‘make’ people buy in a frenzy. Emails can be an excellent low cost way to drive repeat business. An automated email to customers known to be fathers last week, might have been a good way to generate some Mother’s Day sales, but this nonsense is a good way to get up my nose.

Un. Sub. Scribe.

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A return to Mad Men (in reverse)?

I’ve got a pitch for a beer advert: A group of lads in an office sitting around, shake up a can of beer (let’s call it Fosternberg) and hand it to a young secretary. She looks up, pleased to be offered a cold drink on a hot day. But as she open’s the can, it sprays everywhere, soaking her blouse, prompting her to take it off. The blokes cheer and high five each other.

Or how about this one: We start on a close up of a glamorous young woman. As the camera zooms out, the voice over intones “Smooth…. silky… and…” as we see she’s got her coat caught in the departing bus doors “…a real airy head”. The bus pulls away and drags her with it. Pan round to see a man smirk as he puts a foamy pint of Fosternberg to his lips.

These ideas are obviously meant to be ironic. They would (I hope) never get made, but if they did they would rightly be pilloried in mainstream and industry press as crass and sexist. So how is it that these adverts have been made with the roles reversed? Diet Pepsi and Muller Light have made almost these exact adverts (see below).

“The Gardner” Diet Pepsi advert 2014

Untitled Muller Light advert 2014

Pepsi in particular has a history of adverts featuring women ‘ogling’ a man, but it’s usually framed as a kind of guilty pleasure, certainly the women have a passive role. Perhaps one could argue that “The Gardner” puts the women in a position of power traditionally occupied by men. A strike for feminism? Not really, feminism is about equality.

We don’t want to be on a course for a return to 1950s ads built on stereotypes. Commercials that rely on one gender taking advantage of the other should surely be consigned to the cutting room floor by now.

Is this a case of a man (me) not liking it when the boot’s on the other foot? No again. If more and more adverts aimed at females rely on women making mockery of men, it’ll quickly become a race to the bottom, with ads like the above becoming reality and both sides pointing the finger at the other.
Adverts should provide positive reinforcement of the brands they represent. Too much negativity is a turn off, it’s time for some smarter, more creative approaches.

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Lies, damn lies and marketing statistics

Have you seen those adverts, typically for cosmetics, with incredible claims about how many people agree that the product is the best ever? These stats seem de rigueur these days: “98% of women agreed that this deodorant worked better than their regular brand”, “Over 73% of people agreed that this loo roll made them more attractive to the opposite sex”, “86% of men said that this shampoo made them feel more satisfied with their otherwise miserable lives” etc. They’re invariably paired with small print revealing that the survey consisted of a sample of about 37 people, suggesting that the stats are about as representative of the whole population as a straw poll in the local pub.

L’Oreal seem to relish these stats, using them on virtually every advert. This one bases its claims on the agreement of 75% of 60 women  That simply means they don’t disagree with the claims, hardly a glowing endorsement.

But despite the poor validity of these statistics, there is a well established theory behind using such figures. We are social animals, programmed to follow the masses and gain approval from copying what other people are doing. Thus the logic is that if an advert can persuade us that everyone is using a product, we’ll quickly follow suit.

This has been demonstrated in a number of surprising situations. The book “The Power of Yes” byNoah Goldstein, Professor Robert B. Cialdini & Steve Martin illustrates the example of a doctors’ waiting room which swapped the regular sign e.g ‘389 people missed their appointments in July’ to an inverted version highlighting the number of people who did attend their appointments. The number of people who didn’t turn up dropped dramatically. This is part of the concept of framing. Instead of giving people ‘permission’ to miss their doctor’s appointment with the former message, the new message puts absentees into a minority, implying a general disapproval of their behaviour. The beauty product commercials frame their messages around stats suggesting that most of the target market is already using the product, with the clear intention of using peer pressure to increase sales.

Framing can be applied to all manner of business scenarios. Francesca Gino provides a wonderful example from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 election campaign in her book Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. “Right before the brochures with Roosevelt’s photograph were about to be distributed, the campaign manager realized something important: three million campaign brochures had been printed using a photograph of Roosevelt without the permission of the photo’s copyright owner.” If this had been me, the air would have been blue. Not so the cunning campaign manager. “[He] prepared a telegram to send to the photographer. Rather than telling him about the error, however, he framed the message to make it more appealing to the photographer. The telegraph stated, “We are planning to distribute millions of pamphlets with Roosevelt’s picture on the cover. It will be great publicity for the studio whose photograph we use. How much will you pay us to use yours? Respond immediately.” The excited photographer quickly replied with an offer to pay $250.” This wonderful example only worked because the frame of reference the studio had was entirely in the hands of the campaign manager, and he used it perfectly to his advantage. The contrast with the current crop of commercials is that the frame of reference of the viewer is much more open and really doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. People are much savvier about their purchases: concerned about the nature of the manufacturing process, the ethics of production and the ingredients used, and advertisers need to treat them as such.

Good adverts frame their products and we don’t even notice. Whether it’s the everyman in the beer advert or the empty streets in a car advert, we look beyond the fiction and buy into the vision. Advertisers can and should use numbers to back up their claims, but they need to get better at using meaningful stats. And we, we consumers need to start calling them out when they make ridiculous claims.

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