Doug Garnett’s Blog


The Lost Art of Persuasion: Why Advertisers (Wrongly) Think Persuasion is Unimportant

Been reading this book by Byron Sharp (“How Brands Grow”, Oxford University Press). It’s generally an outstanding book and I’ll blog in the future about the truths that it offers which should dramatically change advertising (though I’m not certain anyone will seriously listen).

But despite a brilliant start, this book falls flat on its face when discussing persuasion. Sharp (et. al.) try to tell us that in the world of “new advertising” persuasion is unimportant.

Sharp is not alone. There is a movement among the most up-to-date advertising theorists who will tell you that persuasion is out of vogue and is a concept relegated to the dark ages of advertising (like the 1970′s).

This is bunk. While brands need to leave the right emotional connections behind, advertising is broadly devoted to only one of two outcomes: persuading or reminding.

For long established brands (like Duracell batteries or Dial soap) it may be enough for advertising to merely remind us a brand exists in order to cause us to purchase the brand a bit more often. But if you have a product that’s new, a brand that needs to evolve quickly, or a brand that’s being built, your advertising should be entirely devoted to persuasion.

In campaign after campaign, our numbers show that the action driven by persuasion is so big that it’s measurable without too many sophisticated statistical techniques.

So what happened? How could a researcher as perceptive as Sharp come this conclusion? Most of the campaigns he evaluates are reminder campaigns where the advertisers lacks any product or brand values that are significant enough to use for persuasion. And Sharp rightly notes that many branded attempts to persuade rely on minor advantages that don’t offer any significant value. These brands don’t honestly look at the insignificance of what they’re saying.

But also, on this topic his work might be self-predictive. In those campaigns where persuasion would be important, he’s testing campaigns from traditional agencies. And once we got past the 1970′s most agencies lost their ability to persuade. So what do you find when you test poorly executed persuasion advertising?

Seems that we learn that agencies who don’t know how to persuade aren’t able to make campaigns that persuade. No kidding. So what’s going on with agencies and persuasion?

Agencies think too narrowly of persuasion. Read deeply into Sharp’s book and what you’ll see is that the operating definition of “persuasion” is the attempt to persuade using ONLY words and logical arguments.

Yikes. That’s a pretty limited sense of salesmanship. Persuasion happens through a robust communication with the consumer’s heart and mind to create conviction that is far stronger than mere emotional “liking”.

Many agencies think they’ve evolved beyond anything so pedestrian as persuasion. For the past hundred years agencies have rushed to reject the past. Steroids have been added to this mix in the past decade. Taking a lesson from the Ted videocasts, the agency that gets the most attention is the one who promises to change everything.

Unfortunately, while promising massive change in advertising style may help agencies get new business, it’s mass marketing with traditional media that makes brands grow (as Sharp’s book clearly shows). So the agencies who attempt the most change are also the agencies serving their clients the most poorly.

Agencies aren’t designed for persuasion. When we demand persuasion, it makes our work much harder. We have to dig deeper than the superficial to find real meaning for consumers. We have to reject branding that is little more than ivory tower sociology and find, instead, truths that lead to consumer action.

But the ad biz isn’t structured to work this hard. Agencies make big money hiring art school or portfolio school grads and turning them loose while charging lots of money for their time. (Many, many clients tell me they are tired of having to deal with freshly minted art school grads who claim to know how they should run their billion dollar businesses.)

The Upside: Clients thrive with persuasion. Persuasion takes place when we communicate consumer truths that have compelling value. And, it’s even stronger when we put all of our communication tools behind the attempt to persuade – words, images, sounds, textures, ideas, logic, emotions, personality, music, and more.

When we do this, persuasion works. Although I always love honing our measurements with deeper analysis, with direct response television persuasion’s impact is big enough that I don’t need clever analysis to get see the sales results it delivers. And it delivers those both with direct sales AND a much more massive retail impact.

But I have been, here, too hard on Mr. Sharp. His book is fundamentally brilliant. Perhaps what we should take from his persuasion research is that effective persuasion is so rare that advertisers usually give up searching.

It’s too bad. And, I’d love to team with him for a serious look at persuasion. Because I think we’d both find surprisingly useful truths.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett, All Rights Reserved.

Categories:   Advertising, Communication, Human Tech, Innovation, Media, Research & Attribution


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