The Press, February 2006

"I'm sure we'll be able to successfully market your product, Mr Ferguson. I've got one of my best liars on it right now." This quote from a recent cartoon in a US newspaper reflects popular perception. Marketing is at worst a synonym for lies, at best prone to exaggeration. So how effective is it to lie or exaggerate in your marketing?

You don't have to look too far to find large companies who stretch credulity with their claims. BP Oil, who in recent years have run their "Beyond Petroleum" campaign, painting themselves as clean and green and devoted to environmental goals. "Our global advertising programme explains how we are acting on the challenges of climate change, energy security, new sources of energy and our ecological footprint," says their website.

BP's primary product is a non-renewable fossil fuel that causes considerable air pollution. Auckland Regional Land Transport Committee chairman Joel Cayford was quoted in the NZ Herald recently saying, "This year, polluted air from vehicle exhausts in Auckland will be directly responsible for more than 200 premature deaths." How credible is BP's story when their product is so directly linked to air pollution?

But isn't this what marketing is about - creating a cool enough image to fool the punters into handing over their money?

That may work for short time, but it will eventually come unstuck. Unless BP changes fundamentally, their green positioning is unlikely to be effective in the long term because it is so far from the real experience we have as consumers.

No matter how clever or classy advertising is, our perceptions of a brand are built on far broader planks. They are built from all of our experiences with a company - not just the 30 second advert we see on TV. If those adverts say one thing, but the experience delivered by the company, in this case on the road, says something quite different, the overall strength of the brand is diminished.

In the short term a superficially slick advertising campaign might be effective, but companies must fulfill the promises they make in advertising to perform well in the long term. They must be able to tell an authentic story, one that connects with the real experiences of the customer. Lying or exaggerating might work in the short term but it will eventually destroy a brand.

Another example is government-owned Meridian Energy. They are assailing us once again with a campaign called "Keeping New Zealand New" consisting of extraordinarily expensive double length television commercials, billboards etc. Meridian's promise to their customers is that they are the clean, green source of power, delivering energy from renewable sources such as hydro and in the future wind.

How does this story tally with our experience as consumers? An average consumer might have had their monthly account. They might be aware of Meridian's sponsorship of ballet or rugby. On the environment they would probably be aware of the huge controversy of Meridian's proposed Project Aqua (and now the revised "Son of Aqua" project), which locals said would destroy the environment of the Waitaki Valley. Even their wind farms, although ecologically sound in terms of energy consumption, are considered the world over as visual and aural pollution.

Meridian's brand story is not untrue, it just doesn't gel with our experience of them. It is also too removed from our experience as electricity consumers. Strong brands connect closely with our experience as customers, creating an emotional bond with us.

While Meridian's promise of protecting our environment is noble and a benefit most of us seek, it is not normally what we think about when turning our heater on or extra lights off. We want electricity that is constantly available at a reasonable cost. Green is a nice to have, but it is not core for the vast majority of consumers.

A 2005 AC Neilson survey showed the top consumer brands were familiar names like Weetbix, Watties and Whiskas. They are strong because they can tell stories that connect with a consumer's real experience. "New Zealand favourite cereal" Weetbix is the healthy breakfast our kids will like. "Enjoyed by generations of New Zealanders" Watties offers traditional tastes we can rely on. "Cats know the difference" tells us our furry pet will not turn its nose up at their food.

The reputation of marketers as being economical in the use of truth is unsurprising given some prominent promotional campaigns. But as in life honesty is the best policy. Fluff and flannel might suffice in the short term but it won't build a strong, sustainable brand. The real challenge is to find powerful stories to tell about your brand that are rooted in the real experience of customers.

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