Can You See Your Customer In Your Advertising?

September 9, 2014 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

If you’re disgusted by the latest Carl’s Jr. TV spot featuring Paris Hilton and Hannah Ferguson, um … washing a truck, then I know something about you: You’re not the target audience. You can tell me I’m wrong only if you are a male aged 18 to 25. Not only does Carl’s Jr. focus exclusively on this cohort, it does so unapologetically with no concern whatsoever for offending those who don’t suffer from the effects of too much testosterone.

In fact, it seems the campaign is intentionally based on equal parts appeal and revulsion depending on whether you sit inside or outside the target. As a result, the campaign is easily the most controversial in the QSR category, drawing the ire of women’s groups and the media alike. But, it’s also among the most notable for its ability to break through and reach its audience, which is no small feat given an advertising budget that’s a fraction the size of the category leaders. Personal taste notwithstanding, the audience for the advertising knows exactly who they are, and they’re getting the message. Carl’s Jr. is just for them.

If you can’t spot your customer in your advertising as easily as Carl’s Jr. can in theirs, you probably aren’t willing to make the necessary sacrifice.

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Sacrifice is the subject of chapter 13 in the now classic book Al Ries and Jack Trout wrote in 1993 called, The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. I’ve learned over my career that, while these rules are simple enough, they can be devilishly difficult to follow. This is never more so than for the frequent violation of what Ries and Trout call “The Law of Sacrifice.”

The Law of Sacrifice mandates that companies have to give up something in order to get something. It’s the giving up part that so many companies stumble over. Carl’s Jr. makes single-minded focus on young males look easy, but my experience is that C-suites are rarely so fully aligned around who their customer is and is not, and what they’re willing to do to appeal to those they covet. This is why marketers talk about primary and secondary audiences. The strongest brands have no secondary audiences and, as a result, can be fully committed to their one and only.

Interestingly, in Adam Morgan’s challenger brand classic Eating The Big Fish, sacrifice is again listed as an imperative condition for competing with the market leaders. The fifth of eight challenger credos, Hamilton says this about sacrifice: “Challengers recognize…that in order to break through, their only currency with the consumer is going to be strong preference… Challengers accept that we will need to do things that reach out and bind certain groups of people very strongly to us. And we will also accept that, in order to create those stronger relationships, these same actions or behaviors may (and probably will) leave other groups cold.”

So why don’t more companies recognize the power of singularity? The problem is that giving up customers to the competition feels so counterintuitive for growth-minded business leaders, most of whom do not have deep marketing backgrounds and may not even fully appreciate the role of marketing strategy. CMOs don’t often rise to the top spot in organizations as evidenced by the surprise appointment of Mercedes-Benz USA’s CMO Steve Canon as CEO. Mercedes is an example of a brand clearly focused on a very particular demographic without compromise.

Sacrifice is about trading numbers for loyalty and engagement. Tourism New Zealand offers the perfect example. Unlike the all-too-common “something for everyone” tourism marketing efforts, the TNZ ignores 90 percent of the touring population in favor of building deep appeal among a much smaller niche of travelers. The TNZ learned that those who most enjoy a trip to New Zealand don’t stay in one place, but instead get out and explore. As a result, the “100% Pure New Zealand” campaign has focused exclusively on the adventure traveler for the past 15 years, and with great success. Others may visit, certainly, but the point is that concentrating the marketing effort on a tightly and correctly defined customer group is what makes it successful.

Carl’s Jr. may turn off more people than it turns on with its advertising, but focusing its appeal, however controversially, on its one and only target is helping the brand succeed. In a notoriously competitive category, the brand has enjoyed consistent comp sales increases and new store openings proving yet again that narrow focus and steady aim win the day.

Mike Sullivan is president of The Loomis Agency, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency

challenger brand

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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