Let’s start with an anecdote: An in-game sponsorship seen by thousands, and remembered by…?

Early on in the first season of the Winnipeg Jets 2.0, if you attended a game at MTS Centre you would have noticed in-game sponsorship for 24-7 Intouch. If I recall correctly, the company’s ad spend had bought them a rink board, its logo regularly spun around the digital power ring that separates the lower and upper decks, and maybe most prominently, a total takeover of the Jets’ mid-period ice cleanup crew. 

The crew’s uniforms, shovels and bins were all adorned with the bright and colourful 24-7 Intouch logo, in large type. As the crew threw 24-7 Intouch merch into the stands, the Jets’ announcer would let the crowd know the crew was sponsored by the company.

24-7 Intouch had clearly made a significant sponsorship bet on the Jets – one perhaps as large or larger than any other local or national brand at the time. And while the in-game awareness they were generating in front of sell-out crowds was unquestionable, there was one problem – at least as far as I could tell. 

None of us had any idea who 24-7 Intouch was, or what they did. 

There’s no denying that the company is a global leader in customer care solutions for big-name brands, and an amazing Winnipeg business success story. But, given all that exposure, wouldn’t the mid-six figure investment they made back in 2011-12 have been significantly more impactful if the assets featured more than just their name and logo? Couldn’t they capitalize more on all that attention by including an idea in their in-game marketing – an idea designed to resonate with the audience segment they were seeking to reach?

And therein lies the key issue for a lot of brands. They’re prepared to make the big investment. They may even get the media mix right. But the whole thing comes apart because a lot of the time what they say – if they say anything – isn’t well considered. 

The order of operations: Revisiting the conversion funnel

If you work in advertising, marketing, branding, communications or sales – chances are you understand the principles of the Conversion Funnel. 

Put simply, you need to start with Awareness Creation, then move into Engagement, and finally, Conversion. And while on the surface a three-step approach sounds rudimentary and off the shelf, it’s not. In each phase, there are limitless tactics to choose from – the selection of which is informed by your product, the opportunity, timing, the audience, budget, etc. The list goes on.

But regardless of the tactical mix a brand deploys, make no mistake, those three steps are sequential – though sometimes if you’re really fancy you might find a way to do the first two concurrently – but you can never reverse the order. And you can never skip a step. 

The big idea: The difference between a pretty picture and a great advertisement

Our agency does a lot of things really well, but at our core is an unwavering commitment to the creation of what we call “the Big Idea.” 

All our functional areas from research, to strategy, to account services, to creative, drive towards its articulation and creation. Put succinctly, the Big Idea determines what we’re going to say and how we’re going to say it – especially during the Awareness Phase – in order to effectively cut through and gain notice, build brand affinity and be sufficiently memorable in the minds of our target audience so that we can responsibly move through the funnel, and into Engagement.

The Yellow Pages Phenomenon

The example I referenced at the outset is something you see all the time. A brand spends an inordinate amount of money to put their name and logo somewhere – but doesn’t say anything. At McKim, we call this the Yellow Pages Phenomenon. 

The Yellow Pages – for those of you (and a few of our staff) too young to remember – was a giant yellow book organized by product category where consumers went when they were already well into in the Conversion stage of the buying process. 

For example, it’s 2 a.m., I just got home from the pub, and I need a pizza. Or, my hot water tank just exploded and I need it fixed now because my basement is flooding. In these cases, I’m not perusing pizza joints or plumbers out of curiosity – I’m in buy-now mode.

Companies paid to get their name and phone number into the book – and if they were really savvy, they might have tacked a block of “AAAAAs” onto the front of their legal business name in order to get preferred placement (because, you know … the alphabet).

And while the Yellow Pages was a successful and highly lucrative search platform during the pre-internet period, nobody would honestly ever describe the company listings inside the book as effective advertising. They’re not designed to build affinity. They’re designed to fulfill a specific request – i.e. What’s the number for the St. James Domino’s Pizza store, because Jimmy’s getting hangry, for instance.

And yet, look around today and you’ll see plenty of advertising that looks like it was pulled straight out of the Yellow Pages. There’s no idea. And there’s nothing intriguing or creative or in any way interesting about the ad’s layout. It’s really just a large format Yellow Pages product listing.

Informing is not advertising

Now, while it’s important to talk about what the Big Idea is – it’s equally important to talk about what it is not. And what it isn’t is a list of product features, specs and perceived benefits. 

Another example: as I was driving out to the lake last weekend, I saw a billboard on the side of the highway. The headline, which I stopped to take a photo of only because I knew I was writing this article, read: “Rural Internet with Speeds Up to 50 Mbps” in bold type, and it was signed off by a recently-launched wireless company called Xplornet

Not only is there no discernible idea here – they’re touting a benefit that most people don’t really understand. Is 50 Mbps good? What speed do I have now? Would upgrading to this speed (if in fact I don’t already have it) allow me to watch Ozark at the same time my kids are watching the Descendants? 

In fact, there’s your free ad-with-an-idea: Watch Ozark while your kids watch the Descendants at the lake.

Is it great? No. But it’s free! 

Is it better? Undeniably. 

Why is it better? Because it’s based on a consumer insight.

Not only does it focus on the customer’s needs and mindset, (my desire to finish Ozark – and my aversion to watching another minute of the Descendants,) but it gives context to the feature/benefit – 50 Mbps lets the whole family keep up with their shows on a weekend at the cabin. 

Instead, you get a billboard that assumes every weekend commuter has already done the research on Internet connection speeds, knows what speed they have, and is ready to get juiced up like The Cable Guy – the same way they’re ready for a late night pizza or a new hot water heater and sump pump. 

Maybe if that billboard had followed a concentrated Awareness and Engagement push, it might make sense. Maybe. But it hasn’t. Rather it’s an ad lacking a resonant message that’s at best forgettable, and at worst confusing. 

Got Proof? Here’s how big ideas deliver results.

The unforgettable “Got Milk?” case study encapsulates what we’re talking about. Again, at the risk of dating myself, milk is a beverage that’s produced by cows.

Just kidding.

Some may recall that back in the 80’s, the overarching campaign platform (see: Big Idea) for the milk industry was, “Milk Does a Body Good.” A nice, tidy, information-rich campaign focused on touting the nutritional details of milk’s calcium and protein benefits.

Problem is, it didn’t work. Because nobody cared about those features and benefits. Sales declined. And soda continued to grow its “share of stomach.” 

Enter the “Got Milk?” campaign. When it arrived in the early 90’s, it was hailed by many as the best ad campaign ever made with a Big Idea built around a feeling of “Deprivation.” To put it another way: what would your life be like without milk – which was informed by reams of consumer research and analysis. 

It’s pithy, relatable and most importantly, memorable – and is credited in large part with saving an industry that today seems to be under threat yet again.

The takeaway here is that it’s not enough just to say something. A brand needs to say the right thing at the right time – and ‘the right thing’ is hardly ever just a list of technical proof points pulled from the landing page of a company’s website. 

And while we’re here…

You know what else isn’t advertising? A logo. 

The truth is, the only companies that benefit from placing just their logo anywhere are marketers that have an established and ongoing well-conceived brand presence in the market. If you’re not already recognized by your logo through a concerted and considered advertising presence, built over time, displaying your logo on windows, rink boards and T-shirts is never going to build your brand. You’re more likely investing in the coveted status of making someone’s favorite T-shirt in which they paint the house. 

Because they wouldn’t dare paint in their Adidas or Coca-Cola shirt. Those mean too much to them.

Parting thoughts:

Every stage in the Conversion Funnel is important. But each needs to be considered properly. Jumping straight into tactics and/or Engagement without first landing on a resonant, impactful and memorable Big Idea is a good way to waste a lot of money. At the least, it will make a very expensive (for you) home renovation fashion line.

On the other hand, spending the necessary time and effort to sort out precisely what you want to say to your audience at the outset can help a brand maximize its marketing ROI. If done right, your Big Idea will be immediately impactful at launch, and over the long term.

In the meantime, I need to call up Xplornet: first to apologize, then to pitch.

Now, where’d I put my Yellow Pages?