Mixed Messages & The Art of Confusion

– by Albert Berkshire

Sing with me. ‘Tis the season for mass confusion. Fa la la la la lah, la la la lahhhhhh.

December is the most frustrating time of the year for any of us in the advertising and marketing industry. Since the modern celebrations of Christmas – the Christian holiday – (insert record scratch for effect)

I write “Christmas” and not “the holiday season”. No one calls Ramadan “the holiday season”. No one calls Kwanza “the holiday season”. No one says Happy Holiday Season during Hanukkah. So let the Christians have their Christmas and let’s all get over some court injunction a la oversensitive agnostic (like me) and get on with December 25th. It’s Christmas. Get over it. <Albert’s mom cheers from afar>

Roit. Since the beginning of the modern day Christmas celebrations that began back in the 1800’s – not when three dudes in robes supposedly showed up with gifts. Actually, let’s explore that brilliant branding idea for a moment. Three guys showed up with baby gifts. Are you kidding me? NO guy shows up with a baby gift. My gay friend Andrew might. He’s thoughtful. (not that Andrew, or that one, the other one. Yeah, with the good hair.) But if we believe that Christmas gift giving came about because of The Three Wisemen, we’re all doomed. What’s next? 12/21/12? (Note to self: post this tonight)

So since we’ve been engaging in the practice of modern gift giving, someone somewhere has been trying to sell us something. Generally it’s people like me. Sorry to inform you of this, but I’ve been manipulating message that bypass your Broca and go right to your wallet.

Do not reach for your tinfoil helmet. It won’t work.

The biggest challenge I, we in the industry, face is the mixed message. None of us like mixed messages. We don’t want them from friends, employers, lovers, the toll booth lady (long story, I was nervous), the descendants of Colonel Sanders, or our favourite brand. For me, I don’t want to give you a mixed message from an established brand. Especially if I’ve busted my hump to create and maintain that brand.

It would be like me suddenly write love letters and poetry in this Blog.

In effective advertising, of which I am a student and keen participant, we spend months, even years, establishing a brand. Ripping the foundation out for a one off is akin to – well, I’m not one to judge, but I think you know where I was going with that. Think Tiger and a waitress. In fact, please – think about that for a moment longer. THAT’S a perfect example of a mixed message that destroys a brand.

Look. If she has a beautiful mind…or he’s the guy who listens to you, you may want to test the message. But Tiger tossed away a brand on a little pie from the pie lady.

Tiger Woods spent more than a decade building himself as a brand. He was a symbol of success. A trusted name that represented the finest watches (Tags are really that good, by the way), all things Nike, and Buick. Okay, maybe Buick wasn’t such a good example. Sometimes you just have to take the cash. We all do it. But the moment he tagged the waitress (excuse the play on words, sexist and inappropriate innuendo, and outright shift in my general polite nature – I’m nursing a case of Christmas angst) he sent out a message that his brand loyalists couldn’t compute.

This is where the Daleks in Dr. Who frantically repeat “Does not compute. Does not compute. Does not compute” until they spin three times to the right and then explode.

It was a mixed message. And it was bloody annoying. Aside from every woman on the face of the planet feeling sorry for his wife. (I’ve seen the scowl on her face. He needed that serving a la mode.) Still, it was the ruin of a good brand and now no married man is allowed to buy Nike balls.

Tiger is no longer cute and innocent and lovable. He’s a bad boy.

End of brand loyalty.

Sidebar quickie (bring ice cream): I have NO idea how I got onto the Tiger Woods thing, and how I’ve been able to overextend the metaphor to this length, but I am starting to regret it and desperately want to stop. But I can’t. Pass the sprinkles.

When advertisers realize that Christmas is, again this year, on December 25th, they get stars in their eyes. Actually, dollar signs. Then, in a moment of make or break desperation, they often break with an entire year of branding to make ridiculous offers in a style that is a complete departure from their overall branding message.

And it is wrong. With caps. WRONG!

The hardest part is that this is Make Hay season for many retailers. It if doesn’t happen between October 31 and December 24, it’s not going to be a very happy layoff season come January.  And when desperation sets in, most retailers – being in a reactionary industry (waiting to see what their competitor’s are going to do) – will toss out the rule book and start throwing Hail Mary’s all over the place.

That makes their customers (the ball) perfectly suited for an interception. (Good Lord, now I’m onto a football metaphor. Someone help me.) A customer who may have been loyal to your brand suddenly realizes that all the time they were listening to you tell them about your USP – Unique Selling Proposition, that which makes you different form the rest and really the superior choice – you really weren’t much different form the other guy / product / service. It creates confusion. When all the retailers fall into that trap, it creates mass confusion. And what’s it come down to now?

Price. Now the odds are even. May the cheapest pie win.

End of brand loyalty.

My advice…as much as it kills you to do it, listen to the guy you hired to give you marketing advice. Because he’s been listening to you and your customers for along time. Remember, you’re not in business for three months of the year, and if you spend money on changing the message, you better be willing to accept that once you change a loyal customer’s perception of you, you’ll likely never change them back.

Not even with a nine iron to the window. Not even with a serving of humble pie.

Mmmmmm…warm apple pie. (hold the ice cream). A la mode isn’t really me. I’m all inclusive kind of listener.

Albert Berkshire is a writer, producer and voice actor. He grew up with brothers and sisters who – to this day – love to celebrate Christmas much more than him. Ironically, last Christmas his mother sent him a card that read, “Have a blessed and holy Xmas.” Way to keep Christ in Christmas, Mom. Merry Xmas to you, too. The advertising industry makes people cynical this time of year. Rum and eggnog helps. So does knowing you learned something from this. Hopefully you’ll let me know. Sharing ideas, and honest feedback has helped make his company, GreatCreative.Com, successful. For a much shorter, and less frequent rambling, follow Albert on Twitter @albertberkshire.