Advertisers are trying to use direct response television to combine the generation of an immediate response with the soft-sell building of a brand. David Reed reports on how well they are succeeding.

Depending on what time of day you watch television, your view of what constitutes a direct response TV ad will vary. If you watch during the daytime, you may think of it as something urging you to pick up the phone and change your car or contents policy. If you only watch at peak times, you may be aware that certain companies are accessible by phone, although you might not remember what the number is.

Those exaggerated stereotypes represent the two poles of DRTV. At one end, off-the-screen selling, at the other, soft sell. That it is possible even to talk of a continuum is in itself remarkable – before the Eighties, the idea of a TV commercial which could both build a brand and generate a response would have been unthinkable. But while many advertisers are now pursuing “brand response” TV advertising, are they succeeding? Can these two goals be successfully yoked into a single 30- or 60-second spot?

“They do slightly pull away from each other,” says John Wood, managing director of Turnbull Wood Hayes. “That doesn’t mean you can’t do both.” Building a brand involves generating an emotional response which is developed over time. Getting a response means giving people strong reasons to get off the sofa and pick up the phone. “By doing both in one campaign, you are making sacrifices. But that may be a decision made because the client is short of money and needs both jobs done,” he says.

Yet this is exactly what makes Lesley Mair, managing director of WWAV Rapp Collins, wary of the concept of brand response TV. “It is a tricky concept. Marketing directors want to know what bang they are getting for their bucks. There aren’t that many who like being in fuzzy areas. The smart money is in spending to get awareness or sales.”

Probably the best-known response brands are Direct Line and First Direct. But Mair says even these are not running DRTV ads in the strict sense of the word. Instead, she says they are both telephone brands which couldn’t advertise without a phone number. “If you look at the cost per call, they are not doing cost-effective DRTV,” she says, adding that Direct Line has now shifted to shorter 30- and ten-second spots, indicating more emphasis on cost.

Her own agency did create an effective response commercial which also had an uplift on the brand, however. Oxfam cannot afford to advertise simply to achieve brand awareness, but it does need to explain what it does with donors’ money. When WWAV created the “fish” commercial two years ago, the communications problem was the perception of “the black hole of Africa” into which charity money was being poured with no impact.

By urging donors to give 2 per month to help people help themselves, Oxfam was able to both generate funds and change perceptions. “It all came together,” says Mair. “It also contributed to uplifting awareness.” Any client whose job was to create sales and move attitudes toward a brand would be happy with that result.

So does this prove that brand response TV works? Much may depend on just what your view of branding is. Everyone agrees that Direct Line’s phone-on-wheels is a strong brand character. But what about Churchill Direct’s nodding bulldog? Or Admiral Direct’s man-in-a-funny-hat naval officer? Norwich Union Direct may have been smart in branding its phone number to match the owl logo (0800 two eight, two eight, two oh – try saying it), or Forte to match its name (0345 40 40 40), but the brands existed before the need to go direct.

Paul Snudden, head of integration at Saatchi & Saatchi, says almost any product can go into DRTV and still achieve some level of awareness in addition to response. “Do not forget that most brands have some historical equity,” he says.

Paradoxically, this can sometimes get in the way of the job which DRTV has to do.

The Army had been running its response recruitment campaign for some years. While it was pulling in enquiries, only one in seven converted into a volunteer. Snudden says the giveaway was in what the ads were communicating about the Army; this was key to generating the right kind of response. “It was about raising people’s desire to find out more through strong brand work,” he says. Results for the current campaign have improved conversion to one in four enquirers.

But even an agency which has a 25-year history of focusing on building brands is not averse to adopting more traditional direct response techniques. For Disney World in Florida, the problem was not so much the brand – everybody knows Disney – but that it overshadowed the park so much people did not realise what it had to offer. Yet getting across the impact of 55 square miles of a resort which is bigger than Manhattan on TV is difficult.

“There is no way you can get over the magic, excitement and fun in 60 seconds, let alone 30,” he says. Initially, Saatchi ran brand ads which ended with a phone number for more information. This built awareness of the resort which a second campaign then leveraged. Viewers were invited to call up and request a 25-minute video.

This is classic two-stage selling, straight out of the direct marketing text book. “The DRTV ad pulled response at 3:1 compared with the brand film,” says Snudden. This year, Disney expects to send out 600,000 videos. What this implies is that the techniques of brand building and response generation are not mutually exclusive. They may even work better if based on a single, strong message which can motivate as well as influence.

“Simultaneously building the brand and generating response can be done and should be considered seriously by all marketers,” says Adrian Baker, business development director at Aspen Direct. “It is essential that one option is not chosen over the other because of historical reasons. Rather, the decision should be based on commercial objectives.”

Putting a telephone number into a TV commercial does not only have to mean one thing – “call us now”. It can also mean that the company is open to direct contact and is keen to talk to its customers. That is a brand message. “Agencies should be reminding their clients that the concept of opening a relationship can be valuable, and indeed vital, in striving to retain competitive advantage,” says Baker.

What makes it difficult for clients having to weigh their options is that agencies cannot agree on how brand response TV should be done, even if they agree that it should be done. If the creative message can be crafted in such a way that viewers take away positive attitudes towards the advertiser, even as they are walking to the phone, all well and good. But where should such a commercial run?

According to Wood: “If you are going to be pure about it, any media schedule for direct response is very different to one for brand building.” He notes that a response schedule needs to be highly-targeted at only those viewers which the advertiser wants to sell to. “Often that means you are not looking at high ratings. But a brand ad needs to hit as many people as often as possible. It is about coverage and frequency,” he says.

The received wisdom about DRTV is that spots perform better in daytime slots, for example, not just because the audiences are more defined, but also because the response generated will not overwhelm the telephone call handling facilities. But Snudden argues that his agency’s experience contradicts that view. Not only did it run Disney ads in peak slots within Coronation Street and Blind Date, it also pulled between 6,000 and 7,000 calls in 15 minutes.

One slot even managed to generate 10,000 calls, a result he reasonably describes as “awesome”. Disney World in Florida is either so much more appealing than a street in the North, or one received wisdom about DRTV – that viewers will not make calls in the middle of their favourite programmes – is wrong.

A converse perception is that DRTV damages brand values. This may well be a result of snobbery among advertising agencies, challenges Robin Shuker, board director of IMP. “Too often brand values are seen to be directly related to production values. The low budgets for DRTV in particular have sometimes led to poor production values and the poor image that it doesn’t build the brand,” he says.

He says this does not need to be the case. IMP is working on an initiative that would allow a six-week DRTV campaign to be produced and aired for 30,000. The only thing which still stands in the way of making brand building and generating response work together in a single ad may be lack of experienced creatives. “There is a limited pool of people in the UK who have done a lot of DRTV, which is not the old-fashioned style of shouting at people,” he says.

If there is a gap in the thinking which says brand response TV is a logical development, it might be in the potential dilution of results. In chasing both cost-effectiveness of calls and awareness, both could fall short of target. Mair certainly thinks this is the case. She says: “The purpose of DRTV is to leverage response by using brand values. But if it were my money and I wanted a branding exercise, as well as generating cost-effective sales, I would say that nobody can do that well. If I were back on the client side, I wouldn’t do brand response.”


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