The point of saturation

Retail chain WH Smith and mobile phone operator Orange are planning to blitz selected London Underground stations this spring with posters announcing a joint initiative.

They will promote the sale of JustTalk mobile phones and pre-pay vouchers in WH Smith stores by advertising on every escalator and four-sheet poster site at London’s mainline Underground stations.

The campaign, developed by Claydon Heeley International, is the latest example of “saturation advertising”, an all-or-nothing strategy where an event, TV programme or media route is monopolised by a short burst of advertising for a particular brand. Brands from Levi’s Sta-Prest to Tango, and from Castlemaine XXXX to Cable & Wireless have all tried the strategy, though few have trumpeted great results.

WH Smith is reluctant to give more details about the campaign, although it is thought it could be extended beyond the mainline stations, and may last for up to two weeks. Sources claim such an intense blast of advertising is actually “surprisingly cheap” when used on the Tube.

It is a high-risk strategy in which sales results are by no means guaranteed. Once a company has indulged in saturation advertising, it rarely does so again.

Britvic’s Blackcurrant Tango spent 2m in one weekend in 1996, bulk-buying ad space for its 90-second TV commercial.

But Tango sales in cans through shops slumped by ten per cent last year compared with 1997, according to Information Resources, and the brand has returned to a more traditional approach. It is relaunching the Tango brand with a 14m marketing investment (MW February 4) rather than concentrating on promoting individual flavours.

MediaVest head of media planning Nigel Conway says: “The aim is to cut through a competitive market and create a major PR spin-off. It suits high-profile brands and brands that already have high awareness which are trying to do something different. If it is a relatively unknown brand, the budget has to be even bigger,” says Conway.

Launches, relaunches and one-off events are the favourite opportunity for a bold statement through saturation marketing.

Take Pepsi. It spent 300m on its packaging relaunch “Project Blue” in 1996, which included painting Concorde blue, advertising inside the Mir space station and having The Mirror newspaper printed on blue paper.

Pepsi claimed 70 per cent of the UK population were aware of the colour change within 48 hours but six months later it said market share had increased by a mere 1.8 per cent.

Carlsberg-Tetley spent 1m in one night in 1996. The initiative, for the relaunch of Castlemaine XXXX, comprised nine versions of the same commercial around one film on ITV.

Zenith TV director Andy Smith says: “The theory is that people watch an event or film throughout, so to convert them to the brand you hit them as hard as possible within that programme.” But the strategy runs the risk of either missing the target consumers (who may have been out that night, sinking pints of a rival lager) or boring an already sceptical audience.

Awareness among target consumers did increase after the XXXX campaign, but sales failed to rise and the brand has not repeated the strategy.

When Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC) launched in September 1997, it blitzed its 50m “Yellow” brand advertising campaign over eight weeks.

On launch day, Michaelides & Bednash bought all the colour advertisement space in every national newspaper as the cornerstone of the CWC campaign. “We had a decent budget although not in comparison to our competitor, BT. We had to make sure we were heard in no uncertain way, so we took the thunder approach,” says CWC brand director John Aarons.

It was an exercise in making a spend compete with other, much larger budgets. Aarons says the strategy, as well as the ads, got the company noticed and created a “halo effect” of PR, one of the benefits of the approach often cited by advertisers to justify saturation marketing.

But CWC is unlikely to indulge again: “It is an expensive way to announce yourself and it needs to be reserved for something important. We would be hard-pressed to justify the expenditure over such a contracted period,” says Aarons.

“On reflection, maybe we overdid it. We set out to hit 50 per cent awareness in the first three to four weeks of the [eight-week] campaign. We could have reined some back to do a burst later,” he says.

Shaun Orpen, director of marketing services for Microsoft UK, also says saturation marketing is something his brand probably won’t revisit, but for different reasons to Aarons.

Microsoft launched Windows 95 by linking with The Times newspaper, doubling its print run and giving it away free for a day with a Windows 95 supplement. Orpen says the promotion was typical of Microsoft in that it was an innovative idea which gave leverage – “more bang for the buck” – at a time when IT coverage in the press was embryonic.

Although Orpen considers the promotion Microsoft’s most successful marketing “big idea” in the UK, he would not repeat it. “It would be inappropriate today. IT and Microsoft have high awareness and we have other priorities, such as depth of understanding. It wouldn’t be seen as creative, it might even be seen negatively,” he adds.

Orpen believes it is getting harder to create stand-out and companies are wrestling with how to engage consumers. He says Microsoft is now investing heavily in marketing on the Internet.

The alternative to carefully planned and innovative saturation campaigns, according to Orpen, is massive budget saturation – though this does not guarantee success either.

He cites sponsorship of sports events as a typical waste of marketing resources, and CWC’s Aarons concurs: “Consumers are getting more cynical. You must be careful what media you pick and ensure you do not undermine the brand values,” says Aarons.

A World Cup sponsorship survey in Marketing Week (July 9) showed the official sponsors failed to achieve even public awareness. Only five of the 12 official sponsors achieved unprompted awareness in double figures – McDonald’s (25 per cent), Coke (21 per cent), Vauxhall (17 per cent), Adidas (11 per cent) and Snickers (ten per cent).

Meanwhile, Nike, not an official sponsor, attempted to hijack the event – a tactic it has used before – and its ads became the most talked about.

During a previous football tournament, Euro 96, Nike bought all the billboard space outside Wembley. Ivan Pollard managing partner of Unity, which produced Nike’s Eric Cantona Euro 96 TV ad, says: “Saturation marketing doesn’t shift sales unless you can buy the product at the event, like Coke. But for Nike, that isn’t the point. It is building an association between the brand and something close to people’s lives.”

Pollard makes a salient point: “You can’t own an event if eight other brands are trying to do the same thing.”

For the ad agencies and media planners and buyers who devise saturation campaigns, they are a perfect way of earning healthy commission or fees over a short period of time.

In the case of WH Smith, the Underground saturation campaign will enable it to target just the sort of people who go into its stores – commuters. But it is a strategy which should be handled with care, and one that more clients seem less willing to employ.v

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