Just in time for the holidays, advertising advice

Tom Conway
Tom Conway

As a former defensive back for Kent State, Tom Conway is familiar with the importance of persistence.

Whether in football or business, it’s possible to gain an edge by persistently working to improve, Conway said. But just as a football team must advertise to pull fans into the stands, businesses must advertise to encourage customers to buy their products and services.

To invest in advertising while also improving profitability, Conway suggested that business owners and managers figure how to best reach the people most likely to walk in their doors, deliver on the promises stated in ads and remain unafraid to charge higher prices if the business follows through on the first two steps.

Business owners often advertise great service and the best price. “But what else do you stand for?” asked Conway, executive vice president for the marketing firm Jim Doyle and Associates. “What’s the one thing you do better than anyone else in the market?”

Addressing a group of business people during a Grand Junction seminar hosted by KREX-TV, Conway said businesses can develop a competitive advantage if they can offer customers a good reason to shop with them rather than a competitor. In fact, customers might be willing to pay higher prices.

“Is your goal really to sell cheap goods and services?” Conway said.

Once a business has identified its competitive advantage, it should spread that message loudly and clearly. Wrigley continued to advertise long after everyone knew about its famous chewing gum, Conway said, and knew why the company shouldn’t stop. “That would be like a pilot saying, ‘We’re at 30,000 feet. Now let’s turn the engines off.’”

Focus on a competitive advantage, and  advertise it with a simple and singular message, Conway said.

McDonald’s offers an example of how even the most established companies must occasionally re-define their competitive advantage and alter their messages, he said. McDonald’s started to lose market share in the fast-food industry about five years ago, so the company best-known for hamburgers and french fries shifted gears. It’s more recently focused on, of all things, coffee.

The reason, Conway said, was that McDonald’s executives noticed that Starbucks had shifted its focus from advertising the best coffee to pastries, lunch items, compact discs and other ancillary products. The emphasis on brewing a cup of coffee to match individual tastes subsided as Starbucks shifted its focus to fast service and multiple-products. By focusing on coffee as a lure for customers, McDonald’s also increased sales of other items because customers seldom buy only coffee once they’re in the restaurant, Conway said.

Once a business advertises a competitive advantage, it must deliver on that promise, Conway said. “Don’t blame the medium (for lack of sales). If you can’t deliver something, don’t say you can.”

Conway also reiterated an advertising axiom that many successful businesses have followed during tough economic times. “In good times, you should advertise. In bad times, you must advertise.”

Many businesses take the opposite approach — canceling advertising during bad times to cut costs while hoping people will continue to come through the door.

“I always ask such people, ‘Do you want to fight?’” Conway said.

In addition to fighting the challenges of a soft economy, businesses also face consumers that are more discerning than at any time in the past 30 years, he said.

Thirty years ago, customers were gullible. They purchased products from companies that advertised the most, and assumed the companies would deliver on their promises — which they often did). Twenty years ago, customers were jaded, he said. They still tended to buy from high-profile companies, but were more skeptical of the quality of the products or service they would receive. Ten years ago, customers became vigilante consumers. They became highly suspicious of advertising claims and compared services and products to a greater degree. Consumers were now able to compare prices and products via the Internet as well as by walking into bricks-and-mortar businesses.

In 2010, Conway said customers not only shop around much more, they are more likely to walk out of a store without spending a dime. “Sixty percent of consumers who walk into a store intending to buy don’t.”

He called calls today’s customer the samurai consumer. In other words, they’ll actually damage a business beyond their decision to refrain from buying because of poor products or services. They’ll tell friends to avoid shopping at the business. Such messages can spread like wildfire over the Internet through social networking media.

Because of the escalating challenge to recruit customers and to keep them coming back for more, Conway suggested businesses avoid five common mistakes:

Spreading your message too thinly.  McDonald’s offers an example of ensuring its message reaches the public with impact. The company typically advertises every other week instead of trying to be on TV all the time. Better to hit the public with many messages in a short period of time than to hit people with a few messages all the time.

No singular message. People are bombarded with advertising messages every day. Keep the message simple.  Don’t try to tell potential customers everything a business does in a brief message.

No call to action. Ask consumers to take action — to try products and services today.

Changing creative messages too frequently. While McDonald’s offers an example of the need to sometimes change the focus of the message — in its case, to coffee — it’s also an example of how to stick with one message for a long time.  Many people still recall the McDonald’s line “you deserve a break today,” even though it hasn’t been used in more than a decade.

No measurement of return on investment. Conway said he hates to hear business owners say, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.” While results from advertising might be difficult to track, there are successful models to follow to ensure businesses aren’t wasting advertising dollars.

In addition to avoiding mistakes, companies can achieve success by following these techniques, Conway said:

Identify a target market and stick with it. If a product is a good fit for people over age 30 in the upper third income bracket, advertise in media that reach that audience.

Run ads with high frequency in a few places. Again, the goal is to reach the target audience multiple times instead of trying to reach everyone just a few times.

If economic times are tough, focus on how to make pain go away. This could be anything from a medical prescription to a comfortable pair of shoes.

Fear sells. If people are afraid of investing in the stock market, they might listen to advice about lower-risk investments. If people are worried about high heating costs this winter, advertising energy efficient windows might catch their attention.

After instituting an advertising game plan that follows the model of successful companies, business owners can raise the bar by appealing to a higher ideal than the product’s appearance might suggest. Are you selling a house or making dreams come true? Many sales people call this technique “selling the sizzle instead of the steak.” Such techniques have been around a long time, but still cam prove useful even as businesses try to adapt to changing economic and consumer trends.