In my last post (Touching the void – is your marketing getting you the wrong kind of exposure?) I highlighted three major obstacles facing today’s marketers.

In this post I’m going to share a strategy that many, in an effort to tackle these challenges, are forced to adopt.  If you want to be a streetwise consumer it pays to understand what’s going on, because a lot of the world’s leading brands are pulling the kind of stunt revealed here.

Big spend but small product mention

The Holiday Inn “Stay You” commercial  is, to my mind, a very good example of this strategy in action.

This commercial follows on from one of the largest corporate rebrands in history, and the biggest in the hotel industry – Intercontinental spent about $1 billion refreshing Holiday Inn’s image in 2008.  I’ve picked the UK version, but I think the same basic idea ran globally, with slight regional variations.  Here’s a later iteration of the campaign.

The thing that strikes me is that the product barely gets a mention.   Why would they do that…after a $1 billion facelift?!

There are only two types of advertising

The key to answering this question, and understanding the many other commercials like this, is to be found in “The craft of copywriting” by Alastair Crompton.  He declares that there are “Only two types of advertising.  Ads where there is something to say.  And ads where there is nothing to say.”

Surely, however, every product, service or brand has something to say for itself?  Err, yes…but is that something enough?  Successful ads satisfy a simple formula – AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action).  If you don’t get all four you don’t get success.

Most products, services and brands are rather unremarkable – if they’re appealing to the mass market they will have a lot of competitors, who all do something pretty similar.  So there is nothing intrinsically different, interesting, remarkable, or surprising about what they offer.  I’ve italicised the word intrinsically because it is key – marketing, and branding, are largely about creating perceived points of difference, then presenting them in ways that pass the AIDA test (otherwise it would be a case of “stay boring”!).

Lost for words

Put yourself in the shoes of a creative team in a top ad agency.  I know, from personal experience, that a lot of the briefs which land on your desk, whether for a lager, an airtime provider, a low fat spread, a rail operator, a bank or a major shopping centre, will fall into the “nothing to say” category.

I’m guessing, but I think the brief for Holiday Inn would have been a case in point.  They operate a huge number of hotels scattered across the globe.  The target audience is incredibly diverse, and guests stay for hugely different reasons.  The offering will vary by hotel and region – for instance, some hotels may have free wi-fi, others might not, some will have a bar, but those in Islamic countries won’t serve alcohol, Holiday Inn differs from Holiday Inn Express, some hotels compete in the budget sector, others are fairly upmarket, and so on.  The campaign must have such a broad appeal, must take account of so many different factors, that’s it’s almost impossible to say anything specific without being factually incorrect or alienating a section of their market.

Then there’s the question of brand positioning – what intrinsic difference is there between Holiday Inn, Hilton, Radisson, Marriot or Ramada?  Holiday Inn has a loyalty scheme – wow!  Holiday Inn offers discounts for early booking – amazing!

Before long you have to face reality.  There is virtually nothing intrinsically remarkable to say about this product at all!

Enough about us.  Let’s talk about YOU.

To solve this all too familiar problem the advertising and marketing agencies have to get creative.  Actually they all pull a similar stunt, so it’s arguably not creative at all – just standard practice.  The trick is to forget the product – park it, and ignore it…  because it’s boring.   Then you are free to talk to people about something they find irresistibly fascinating.  Themselves.

So in this commercial the hero is not the product, but the customer.  Different members of the target audience take centre stage in every scene, with a hotel occasionally acting as set.  The focus is entirely on individuals, some of whom are not even shown in a hotel setting – no mention of facilities, rates, services, offers or any factual product details.

The scenarios are amusing, the tone is upbeat, and there’s a catchy tune (“You always make me smile” by Kyle Andrews).  But don’t be fooled by the happy-clappy approach – there’s a hard headed logic at work here.  Every second of it will have been scrutinised and debated, for months and months, by armies of branding experts, market researchers, account planners, marketing directors, vice-presidents, creative directors, and so on.  Every word, every image, is in there for a reason.

I can only guess at what these reasons might be, but here’s my personal take on it.  They’re aiming at what the media term the “squeezed middle”, all those who are working long and hard to maintain a reasonable standard of living despite a relatively harsh economic climate.

People who find themselves in that situation (me!) have to “put the hours in”, which can grind you down, dampen your spirits, and eventually suck out your soul.  The subtext of this commercial is that “we understand – we share your pain, applaud your resistance, and do our bit to put these things back.”

 Holiday Inn – home for heroes   

The STAY CURIOUS scenario holds out the tempting promise of spare time for chilling out, whilst saying “we love the way you manage to take pleasure from the simple things in life.”

The way I read the STAY VOCAL scenario is this.  It’s empathising with all those people who are frustrated by a lack of opportunity for self-expression and personal fulfilment.  It says “we love the way you go for it – even at the expense of a little embarrassment.”

I believe the STAY AMBITIOUS scenario is attempting to recognise all those who struggle to achieve their goals, whether in their career or personal life.  It’s suggesting that Holiday Inn understands the feelings of disappointment but applauds the effort anyway.

STAY COLOURFUL, I think, salutes all those who manage to maintain their sense of fun and individuality in a corporate world that’s dispiritingly drab and demands conformity.

STAY DAD is intended as a pat on the back for all those blokes who don’t get as much time as they’d like with the family, but make the most of every moment with their kids – even when it means appearing silly.

What’s STAY FANATICAL all about?  My guess is it’s an acknowledgement of the fact that today’s society is fragmented and many people feel rather isolated – sport is one of the few opportunities for people to feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves, and where it’s OK to show some passion.  This scenario is an attempt to harness some of that energy and acknowledge all those who feel this particular need.

Finally, the voiceover then explains that “You are at your best when you can just relax, and be yourself.  And at Holiday Inn you always can.  Holiday Inn.  Stay you.”

So the overall message is simple.  We help you relax.  Relaxation brings out your best qualities.  And these make you a pretty special person.  The hope, I imagine, is that some viewers will identify with this and, recognising these qualities in themselves, feel that “Holiday Inn understands me – so it’s my kind of place”.  Another group of less confident viewers may be attracted to the brand because they’d like to have these qualities (or at least be seen to have them).  My guess is the strategy boils down to this: if we tell enough people we love them for who they are, or who they aspire to be…then maybe some of them will love us back!

What does this tell us about modern consumer society?

What this commercial does, in common with a lot of other marketing campaigns for big brands, is focus on the viewer’s self-concern, to the exclusion of the product itself.  And, like a lot of campaigns, from beer to clothing, and cars to computers, it’s not selling something tangible at all – what the audience is buying into is an attitude.

Personally, with my “consumer head” on I find this rather manipulative, exploitative and condescending.  But with my “marketing head” on I see exactly why brands are having to adopt this tactic in order to make unremarkable products attractive to consumers who are swamped with information and sated with choice.

The twist in the tale, for me, is the fact that the Holiday Inn campaign was created by McCann Erickson.  Why?  Because the company was launched in 1912 by Harry McCann and four partners with the credo “Truth Well Told”.  I take this to mean they discovered facts about the product, then presented them in the most persuasive way possible.

That has been the ad agency’s guiding principle for about 95 years.  But looking at their websites today they seem to have dropped it.  The reason, I imagine, is that it had become a rod for their own back in a world where many of the biggest and most lucrative advertising accounts are global brands that have to focus on the emotional needs of consumers rather than tangible features of the product.

I notice that their Bristol office, has a quite different promise.  Their message on their homepage is “we create demand”.  That’s the challenge which confronts so many modern marketers – the fact that people don’t really need half of the stuff that businesses are trying to sell.  This commercial shows how companies are having to play on feelings rather than rely on facts.  No wonder some cynics describe the process as the art of making people want to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, to impress people they don’t like.

That’s my take on it – but what do you reckon?

PS.  If you’d like to know more about the techniques the world’s biggest brands use to engage their audience, and how you can apply the same approaches to your own marketing, get a copy of our book “The Authority Guide to Creating Brand Stories That Sell”.