Aren't most advertisers wasting their time and money?

Perhaps the following ramble is simply the product of the brain-addling isolation of the freelance writer. Am I missing something? Am I stating the obvious? Or the obviously confused? After reading this, kindly let me know. Please point out the glaring flaw in my thinking and put me out of my misery.

Within the universe of consumer products, how many brands are competing, at least locally or regionally, for a slot in their potential consumers’ minds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Surely there is some upper limit to the total number of brands to which one person can feel any allegiance (or any emotion, or any awareness at all, for that matter.)

Isn’t it likely that this upper limit is somewhere in the hundreds? And if that is the case, isn’t it ill-conceived folly for so many companies, especially those with smaller budgets, to be laboring so relentlessly against what will be, for most of them, a futile effort?

If you are a regional manufacturer of some product, let’s say mustard, which is number four in the category, eclipsed by one dominant national number one brand, a perennial national number two and a national number three that is itself barely on consumers’ radar, if at all.

In the absence of some very distinctive, unique benefit, or a dramatic price advantage, what should you, Mr. Mustard, do? How should you be thinking and acting regarding your “brand” (which may not really exist as a brand, to the extent that “brand” is defined as an impression in the minds of consumers?)

I don’t mean to go all Marketing 101 on you here. The point I’m trying to make is that, for many, possibly most, consumer products out there, the idea of using consumer advertising to create a brand in the minds of their target is pure folly, isn’t it? There’s just no room at the inn.

The vast number of products vying for attention vs. the number of brands any one person can hold in his/her head makes this conclusion inevitable. Doesn’t it?

I know that a lot of these products, wisely, never even bother with consumer advertising. But many, many others squander their budgets year after year, on the naïve hope that somehow they can break through. And this is a delusion that most ad agencies are more than happy to encourage. In fact, many agencies live or die on the (naïve? Self-deluded?) aspirations of the world’s struggling number three’s and four’s.

Is it wrong for agencies to behave this way, given the extreme improbability of success? Or does the free enterprise system require such tilting at windmills? Once in a blue moon, a brand defies the odds (usually due entirely to some brilliant advertising) and advertises itself into minds and homes of its target. But for every success story like that, think how many millions of dollars are wasted every year by all those other companies whose products try but fail to rise to the level of a bona fide brand in their targets’ brand-finite minds.


Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Interesting thought-piece, Jim. Like you, my livelihood is dependant upon propogating product managers' often-false hopes that their product will create traction. But IMH experience, one brand usually eclipses another not because of distinctive product benefits or price advantage or even brilliant creative--but, alas, through sheer force of gargantuan media budgets.

Anonymous said...

I'll give it to some that yes, we are peddling false hope. But, how many of us out there actually buy into that false hope and think we can make a difference for our Clients as well?

I sure do. If I didn't I don't think I could willingly put 100% into my job if I didn't think for at least a small bit that I can help my Client.

But, then again I guess it goes back to managing expectations. If Mr Mustard truly thinks he can compete with Mrs Heinz, then our jobs might be to coax his lofty goals back off the ledge.

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