Finding Focus: Chasing the Elusive Single-Minded Idea

By , Director of Brand Planning, Hanson Dodge

The single-minded idea (SMI) is the Holy Grail of advertising strategy. It’s the guiding light of great campaigns. We spend countless hours and untold research resources chasing this elusive object of our deepest desires.

And we do this for a very simple reason: consumer impatience with long-windedness. If you’ve ever been in a conversation in which a friend says, “get to the point,” or, “cut to the chase,” you know what I’m talking about.

And as obvious as this should be, “getting to the point” is no easier today than it was a hundred years ago when we emerged from the primordial goo of long paragraphs on printed handbills. Why is this so difficult? Well, here are four common barriers to locating, crafting, and seeding the SMI:

1. We don’t really understand that consumers are actual people, people who have limited tolerance for advertising messages.
2. We fail to appreciate the communication maelstrom through which the consumer navigates each day.
3. There’s often a culture clash between a marketer’s pride in product and an agency’s communication imperative.
4. We can’t really agree on what, precisely, the SMI is.

Let’s take a brief look at each of these barriers.

Consumers as People

The simple reality is this: consumers don’t really care enough about brand messages to expend the psychic energy required to decipher what the brand stands for, how they would benefit from it, and what you mean when you talk about it. All things considered, they don’t really want to think about your brand too much; we can be pretty sure that they don’t journal about the brands they use at the end of each day (and if they do, they can probably get professional help for that).

This isn’t because they’re not smart, or that they literally don’t care about your brand. No, it’s because they have actual lives. Simply put, consumers are not actually consumers—they’re people. People who worry about their families, where their kids are going to college, how they’re paying the mortgage, what to have for supper and still have time to make it to Maggie’s soccer match.

These actual life concerns are characterized as “noise” within the standard model of how communication works. In this context, “noise” is a sort of cynical synonym for “life.” Noise is anything that interferes with the consumer’s receptivity to our message or capacity to process it. If, as communication professionals, we were more cognizant of the concept of noise and, more fundamentally, of consumers as people, we’d place a much higher premium on getting to the one, truly focused, SMI that stood a chance to break through.

The Communication Maelstrom

To complicate matters, our message isn’t the only one our consumer will encounter today (surprise!). In pursuing our goal of “surrounding” consumers with “360-degree” marketing, we are, arguably, harassing them. We have all heard the old saw that the average person is exposed to 5,000 ads per day. Even though that number has been called into question (and the source is elusive), let’s face it—we’re overwhelmed with marketing messages. This is “external” noise, AKA, clutter.

Marketers seek out every available visual and aural space, from ads on eggshells, to stickers in the bottom of TSA trays, to logos on airsickness bags, to motion-activated recordings on product shelves. I can recall the first time I encountered “floor talkers” (mongo stickers) in my supermarket. My visceral reaction was, “my God, I can’t even look at my shoes without a come-on from Chips Ahoy!”

But rejection or annoyance is not the reaction that should worry marketers most. No, the most disconcerting emotional responses are resignation, boredom, even numbness. After all, if I annoyed you, I’ve gotten a reaction out of you. Not so if you’ve actually checked out. Over time, of course, we all develop an intrinsic, automated ability to tune out messages, and, when we go to our happy place, most of us don’t take ads with us.

Mismatched Aspirations: Client and Agency

Marketing managers are naturally proud of their products and, just as naturally, are anxious to tell the world all about them. Every little thing about them, in fact. Choosing just one message is a little scary—there’s a lingering sense that something compelling is being left on the table. And there’s a conceit along the lines of, “the more I tell you about myself, the more you’ll like me,” which, as we all know, ain’t necessarily so.

Agencies, on the other hand, strive for focus and simplicity, knowing from experience that this is the only hope for breaking through ad clutter.

How do we talk about Critter Crunch, a new cereal brand that is: made from whole grain; is heart healthy; low in sugar; loved by both kids and moms; made in the shapes of animals (“A Zoo in Every Bowl!”), ergo, fun; doesn’t get soggy in milk; and, makes moms feel responsible, or is it proud? Yowser! And good luck!

Somehow this organizational/cultural conflict of expectations and aspirations needs to be resolved for Critter Crunch to have a fighting chance in the ticker tape parade of ready-to-eat cereal advertising.

Lack of Single-Mindedness About the Single-Minded Idea

Most fundamentally, there’s often no clear consensus on what an SMI actually is, how it should be rendered or what it’s meant to accomplish.

Some equate it with a brand’s positioning. Well, sort of, but not quite. Positioning is the space on the consumer’s cognitive landscape that, over time, and as a cumulative consequence of all brand experiences, the brand comes to occupy. (Volvo owns the space in the brain that reveres safety, for example). Certainly, the SMI should reflect, support and evoke our positioning. However, the SMI is narrower than the positioning. Put simply, it is the focused message that helps establish a homestead for our brand on the specified mental landscape, and that is designed to motivate a specific thought, feeling, belief or behavior. Put even more simply, the SMI is what we say about the brand, which is not simply a repetition of the broader idea we want our target to internalize about the brand over time (although, again, one should lead to the other).

Brands attain positioning in a consumer’s mind for all kinds of reasons. It might be revealing, for example, to discover what position (ahem) BP occupies in the minds of residents of the gulf coast. Cadillac’s positioning as a high performance luxury car isn’t just because General Motors says it’s so; it’s because they design cars that embody, well, high performance and luxury.

Target stores seem to be positioned around the area of “hip value,” but the SMI (in the communication brief) could well be something like, “shopping at Target is smart.” The idea of “hip value,” in this case, would be a critical dimension of the overall brand strategy (e.g., hiring designers to create home furnishings at reasonable prices, etc.), while “smart” would be the core element of the brand’s communication strategy.

And, while we’re on the topic, note that our Target store SMI didn’t say, “shopping at Target is smart because I can buy great brands at reasonable prices.” Beware of “becauses” in the SMI. Usually, whatever follows the “because” creates additional ideas, and rightfully falls into the realm of supports/reasons-to-believe. Usually (but not always, as we’ll see) product facts, performance characteristics or endorsements that lend credence to the claim in the SMI are best consigned to the arsenal of RTBs.

Saying this, however, highlights another common misconception or absolutism about the SMI: that it always needs to reflect a relatively high rung on the benefit ladder, such as an emotional reward (“you’ll feel proud”) or transformative benefit (“you’ll be adventurous”). This isn’t necessarily the case.

Consider a charcoal brand that’s engineered to light faster and stay lit. Well, the full story might look like this: “Your friends will admire you and you’ll look like a grilling champion with Flamethrower Charcoal, since it lights faster and stays lit, because the briquettes are sculpted to be efficient and are saturated with superior lighter fluid.”

Of course, there are at least six ideas here (and the yawning started at about idea number three), each of which represents a rung on the charcoal benefit ladder. And I know what you’re thinking: the bottom couple of rungs (about the design and composition of the briquettes) aren’t SMIs because they’re actual product attributes. Ah, not so fast. Any one of these ideas could be an SMI if sufficiently compelling and differentiating—it’s all about finding the leverageable rung on the benefit ladder, and that leverageable rung may not necessarily be a higher order emotional reward.

If Granny’s Pomegranate Elixir is the only pomegranate juice made with 100 percent fruit juice, maybe that’s your SMI—in this case, let the consumer infer health, wholesomeness, pride or even self-esteem.

A final admonition: KEEP IT SIMPLE. Instead of, “When I serve my kids Critter Crunch cereal I’ll feel like a thoughtful mom,” make it, “Critter Crunch is the thoughtful choice.”

So, to get to a compelling and truly focused single-minded idea:

1. Understand that consumers are actually people, who are only marginally attentive to our messages.
2. Appreciate the barrage of messages these consumers encounter each day.
3. Work through divergent messaging expectations with the client.
4. Make the single-minded idea, well, single-minded.

Ronn Kirkwood, Director of Brand Planning, Hanson Dodge

Ronn came to Hanson Dodge after a 31-year stint at a couple of other agencies (DDB and FCB in Chicago, Cramer-Krasselt in Milwaukee). Ronn has worked on branding and strategic planning for a wide range of clients, from CPG (General Mills, Clorox, Kraft, Anheuser-Busch, S.C. Johnson, Birdseye, ACH Foods), to B2B (Fiserv, Wausau Insurance), agriculture (Case IH), healthcare (Roche Diagnostics, GE Healthcare, the American Osteopathic Association) and powered recreation (Bombardier Recreational Products), including such great brands as Wheaties, DiGiorno pizza (“It’s not delivery, it’s DiGiorno”), Raid, Off!, Kingsford charcoal, Ski-Doo snowmobiles, Evinrude outboards, and many others.

Ronn began his career as a professor of political science at Illinois State University, having earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Notre Dame. He brings a social scientist’s perspective to brand planning, and he says it’s really just a short step from understanding voter behavior to understanding consumer behavior.

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