The secret sauce? It’s called relevance.

A couple of weeks ago I saw this ad for the launch of the Smart Car in the US.

I thought to myself, “cool”. I didn’t love it, but I did like it. I felt it took a very simple core idea that was very central to the product itself, and gave it a positive spin, almost a counter-cultural declaration of sorts. On my scale of recognizing good advertising, which I wrote about in a previous post on this blog it surpassed my hurdles of being good, sticky, and branded. Not bad! Sure, maybe it wasn’t entirely original (this kind of thing was done by DDB back in the “Lemon” days, more than 40 years ago), but I thought it was pretty good, and that was that.

A while later I ran across a post on the excellent blog “Escapology”, that dealt with this very ad for Smart Car. You can read it by clicking here.

In it, the author gave his reasons for not liking the ad. His central point was that this ad was just not going to sell to American consumers, because it didn’t address the key questions and concerns that people had in their minds about the Smart Car. So, whatever else could be said about the ad, it just wasn’t relevant to the target, and thus it was dead in the water.

It was a compelling argument, and I was sold on it right away. Even if I still like the ad, I no longer believed it was going to be very successful at selling cars. It was most likely going to “pass like a ship in the night”, the most awful (and common) of destinies for an ad.

This change of opinion got my attention. Why did I initially differ with the author at Escapology? Was there a blind spot in my criteria for evaluating creative? What had I overlooked?

Well, what I had overlooked was none other than the secret sauce of advertising: relevance.

Viewed through the eyes of the consumer, a message that has relevance is a message that matters to them. Perhaps it fulfills some kind of need, or it gives something of value (like entertainment), or something that is useful (like information). But a relevant message always intersects with something they actually care about.

This is not revolutionary by any means. Draftfcb, for example, has a positioning closely linked to this, centered on the notion of going after “what matters” to the consumer, and doing it very fast (on average you have 6.5 seconds of their attention).

So how does relevance work with my scale for recognizing good advertising? Well, it doesn’t change it, but it works as a potential enhancer for it. Basically, as a pump.

The notion of ascending levels of “good” still stands. An ad has to be good to you on a gut level. It should be sticky so you remember it. It should be linked to the brand, so you remember who’s behind it. It should be persuasive, so that it pushes you closer to the sale. It should to be campaignable, so that it can interact with the fragmented attention span of today’s consumer. And, if you’re talking about a seriously good ad, it will also touch you emotionally.

Even without relevance, and ad can be good under this scale. It’s what allows me to have a high opinion on cosmetics advertising even though the category is not at all connected to me.

But, if you add a high dose of relevance, you make this matter just so to just the right target, and suddenly your ad has a huge inherent potential. It has a much better chance to be more sticky, more branded, more persuasive, more campaignable and more emotional. It has a chance to be truly huge!

Conversely, if you miss the mark, and the ad doesn’t really connect with what matters to your consumers, you’re letting all of the air and energy out of your idea. You might still reap some benefit from the ad, and it might be good by some criteria, but the whole thing is an ode to unrealized potential.

So…this is big. Who is responsible for relevance?

What first comes to mind is strategic planners: they should have a very close understanding of the consumers and what are the levers that drive them.

But make no mistake, a good creative must have both an intellectual and an intuitive feel for which ideas can be most meaningful. A good account person will know if the strategy is veering towards self indulgence (either to the creative or to the product), and away from what matters to the consumer. A good media person will know how to reach out in the manner which will be most connected to the actual life of this consumer. And a good marketing exec should be able to make the mental switch from “why this consumer matters to my brand” to “why does my brand matter to this consumer”.

Get the picture? This buck stops with all of us! It sounds obvious but it doesn’t make it less true: if we are not highly relevant to the proper target, we are dropping the ball big time, and deflating the chances for our ad/campaign to succeed.

Relevance, people! It’s the secret sauce!

So, let’s go back to the Smart Car ad. What to make of it?

Escapology disqualified the ad mainly on grounds of it lacking relevance.

  • People are concerned with the high cost of gasoline. This matters, but it was not touched on.
  • People are concerned with safety when going on the highway with their family. This matters, but it was not touched on.
  • People are intrigued/dubious about electrical power for cars and what it means for their wallets and the environment. This matters, but it was not touched on.

Now, the folks at Merkley + Partners did not do this ad randomly. I’d bet they were going after a consumer insight along the lines of “bigger has always been better in this country. But in this over-industrialized, recessionary world, as we start to question the needless excesses around us, smaller has suddenly become beautiful”.

So it’s not that they forgot about relevance. It’s that they focused in on what they thought was relevant, and the jury is out if it really is or not.

Will we ever know who is right? Probably not.

If sales go through the roof and this “small is beautiful” insight continues and grows, then we can assume that they were onto something big.

If the campaign is pulled off the air, the account goes into review, and sales flatline, then we could make an assumption that it didn’t work…(although advertising is certainly not the only component affecting car sales!)

Most likely the campaign will evolve over time, the messaging will adjust in future ads, many other non-TV components will be rolled out, and things will move on.

But relevance won’t. If your idea doesn’t have it, you’d better go out and find it.

Thanks for reading, folks. As always, I really appreciate your comments, so let me know what you think. Cheers!


7 thoughts on “The secret sauce? It’s called relevance.

  1. As someone who has owned 2 smart cars and loved them I also thought this ad sucked when I first saw it on tv. Smart car outside the US has done a great job of making you feel like you are part of a special club when you own one and as weird as it may seem owners feel almost like they are from the same town when they meet. Love my Smartcar!

    • Hi Cristina – tell me more, WHY did you think they sucked? Is it because they were not hitting the levers that you think are relevant to prospective Smart Car users? Or do you simply view their messaging through different eyes now that you are an actual owner and not a prospect?

      Thank you for reading, and a big thanks for your post!

  2. Well said. So true.

    There’s a quote that says, “We buy on emotion and justify it with logic.” The fine line always happens between the initial idea, implementation and THEN going back to the client (to have their say). I can only wonder what the ad would’ve been if it was entirely the ad firm’s idea until completion.

  3. I think you were spot on when you laid out the relevant things to car buyers that were NOT touched on in this ad. I feel it was almost a little condescending towards “Big” Americans and wouldn’t by any means convert me to a small mind set.
    It makes me wonder who exactly their target market or target audience was.
    For something as important and planned as a car purchase, ads really shouldn’t rely on such an abstract message that doesn’t have a direct tangible benefit.

    • Hi Georgie – thanks for following the blog and posting your comment!

      I can’t take credit for being spot on, those observations actually came from the “Escapology” post which I link to above. But I’m also as baffled as you are as who the target market/audience might have been.

      As you say, it’s such an abstract message that it feels like an aimless shot in the dark. And I think this is a critical fault when launching a very new, unique product such as this one.

      Now, I do think even car purchases don’t always have to be addressed in a tangible manner – emotion has its strong place if you are one of those few brands that have “earned it” over time. The Chrysler “Imported from Detroit” or the Chevrolet “Chevy runs deep” campaigns come to mind.

      Glad to have you here, keep coming back for more advertising toughts!

  4. Pingback: Ad of the Day – November 22 (Dallas) | adboardingpass

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