In 1934, the young Rosser Reeves left his small town home in Danville, Virginia, for the bright lights of New York City, following his dream of working as an advertising copywriter.
Within a few years he had landed a plum job at the Ted Bates Advertising Agency and by 1950 he was vice-president and head of copy, rising to chairman of the board in 1955.
Then in 1961 he published his first book Reality of Advertising, a large portion of which was devoted to Reeves’s principal legacy (and the ‘secret’ to the phenomenal success of Bates in the 1950s) – the unique selling proposition (USP).
(Incidentally, the Don Draper character from Mad Men is generally agreed to be an amalgam of several of the leading ad figures of the time, including Reeves. George Lois and Draper Daniels are the others most often referenced.)
Anyway, Reeves defined a USP has having three main parts. Each ad must contain a proposition – ‘Buy Brand X and you get this specific benefit’. The proposition must be unique to the brand – something that competitors can’t offer. The proposition must sell – it must be something that will, for example, convince consumers to switch brands.
To this day the requirement for and persuasive power of a USP is perhaps the most commonly held belief in agencies of all flavours.
Almost any variant of a creative brief will contain box for the ‘proposition’. Or the ‘one-thing-we-must-say’.
It sounds confident and plausible, but the truth of the matter is that the idea of a USP was simply something Reeves made up, was based on exactly zero evidence, no research and – as Paul Feldwick points out in his Anatomy of Humbug (a must-read for those with an interest in the history of these matters) – not even on a semi-coherent theory.
Slightly less well known is that propagating the USP notion was a deliberate strategy employed by Reeves to distance his own agency, and the industry as a whole, from a more dangerous idea being touted by one Vance Packard via his 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders.
Packard’s best-seller ‘revealed’ for the first time the psychological manipulations and mind control techniques that the evil ad industry – aided by foreign psychologists and subliminal advertising – used in order to make Americans want stuff they didn’t need.
This fear was possibly a lingering by-product from the Cold War with Russia that had unfolded from the late 1940s, the concern that America was being infiltrated by communism – the ‘reds under the bed’ – and their stock-in-trade mind-control techniques.
Reeves was clear in his point of view: “There are no hidden persuaders. Advertising works openly, in the bare and pitiless sunlight.”
In a way Reeves’s USP notion may simply have been a strategy to defend the entire industry against the scare tactics of the likes of Packard. He didn’t believe in it particularly, but if it got the ‘investigative’ journalists off the scent then it was all good.
Yet the USP prevails to this day and, what’s more, it has spawned several other equally unquantified yet stated-as-fact marketing theories like ‘differentiation’ and ‘positioning’.
Sadly, consumers are not up to speed with these theories and tend to buy popular brands they have heard of and/or used before. And brand loyalty – while it absolutely exists – is, for the most part, a simplification strategy employed by consumers to avoid having to think too much rather than having anything to do with brand-love.
Many marketers still also believe that changing customer retention rates is cheaper than improving customer acquisition, and that asking customers their likelihood of recommending the brand is a predictor of brand growth. This is known as the Net Promoter Score devised by Frederick Reichheld, also responsible for the prevailing and widely believed myth that a five per cent drop in customer defections leads to 80 per cent plus increase in profits.
There is scant scientific evidence to credit any of these theories (in the Reichheld five per cent defection case – the maths proves it to be absolutely false), and yet they are widely believed to be facts.
In this world of content marketing I’ve noticed another curious idea is often present – that native advertising or sponsored content should not explicitly promote or reference the brand sponsoring the piece.
This is believed by some practitioners to be overly ‘shilling’ or inauthentic, and therefore will be rejected by readers as ‘advertising’.
But is there any evidence to support this view?
A recent report commissioned by AOL and presented at ESOMAR Congress Dublin in September 2015 titled ‘What normative data says about effectiveness’ looked at sponsored content (native/advertorial) within Huffington Post and some of its other digital publishing properties.
On the topic of branding within sponsored content, and after scrutinising the data, author Christian Kugel came to the conclusion that: “Not only do activations with heavier brand integration perform better to drive higher recall and consideration, the content itself is also rated directionally more favorably.
“One would expect that content with less brand presence would be more favorable, so the fact that this shows an equivalent measure is excellent news for brands as well as publishers involved in content marketing. It means that we do not have to be afraid to push for heavier brand presence and integration. It is a fascinating revelation and a counter-intuitive insight coming out of the data.”
Kugel’s findings in the area of content marketing and sponsored content seem to correspond with what we’ve begun to understand about the science of sharing in the video space thanks to Dr Karen Nelson-Field from the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute.
In her landmark 2013 study, Nelson-Field found there was no detrimental impact on how much sharing across the social web a video achieved relating to the level of branding used.
Not only that, the evidence suggested that overt branding has no impact on a video’s ability to illicit an emotional response.
These findings also run counter to the industry’s conventional ‘wisdom’, which suggests removing branding or keeping it to an absolute minimum.
“It turns out that consumers have a higher threshold than many practitioners initially assumed,” says Christian Kugel.
It turns out that a lot of what the industry believes is based on assumption, received wisdom and a complicated set of Chinese whispers dating as far back as the 1940s.
Just because certain beliefs are popular, doesn’t mean they are right.
This situation isn’t helpful for poor modern brand marketers. Let’s not forget they are grappling with all kinds of new problems in 2015, many more than their predecessors in past decades.
These new problems include making sense of new-fangled ideas like ‘digital disruption’, ‘big data’, navigating the implications of programmatic media buying and getting their heads around the ever-growing number of channels available to potentially reach consumers.
Luckily, recent developments in marketing science and behavioural science have given us a much better view of how categories typically behave, models to better understand the patterns that underpin what people buy and the types of strategies buyers use to simplify buying decisions.
We now have the opportunity to attack these problems confidently, and with the opportunity to win, by believing only in evidence and using scientific methods to support our creativity rather than relying on wishful thinking and trusting in myth and legend.
And as a bonus, it turns out that creativity and science are much better friends than many would have you believe.