From insights beyond the obvious come results beyond the ordinary

In my last column, I took a self-critical look at the discipline of planning. I asked some difficult questions about its role in the business of marketing communications. This time I feel compelled to issue something of a corrective: an unapologetic celebration of the role of the strategic planner in the communications process.


The prompt for this sudden outbreak of balanced reporting was the announcement of this year’s IPA Effectiveness Awards winners. Each year, the IPA tries to put some kind of PR spin on the news by drawing general conclusions about the winning papers. This year, the focus was on the fact that many of the winners were public service campaigns.

There is a delicious irony in this news, coming as it does six months after the demise of the Central Office of Information. However, that is not an observation I wish to dwell on here. My point is a different one.

We are constantly reminded that marketing communications is a ‘weak force’. The work of Andrew Ehrenberg, and that of his spiritual successor Byron Sharp, has shown that communications mainly work by marginally increasing the frequency with which a brand appears in a customer’s purchase repertoire.

Not the most world-changing of achievements.

However, many of the winning campaigns in this year’s IPA Awards really have changed the world. They’ve stopped people dying, whether in road accidents or from smoking-related diseases. Less movingly, but no less impressively, they’ve helped premium brands to grow in a climate of low consumer confidence and static household incomes.

I scraped O-level physics but I learnt enough to know that what turns a weak force into a strong one is leverage. In the business of marketing communications, insight is leverage.

The thing that strikes me most about so many of these campaigns is that their success hinges on insights that go a step beyond the obvious. These truths, obvious only in hindsight, may have remained hidden were it not for the combination of analytical and lateral thinking that characterises a great planning mind.

Take, for example, the insight that lies behind the 30-year story of drink-drive communications, documented eloquently by a team from Leo Burnett. In its infancy, the campaign focused on demonstrating just how drastically alcohol impairs driving ability.

This approach achieved some success. But it was only when an insight from social science was applied to the problem that the campaign achieved truly significant and lasting change. The insight was that it is an uphill struggle convincing young men that drink impairs performance. A more effective use of communications is to create a general climate of opinion that drink-driving is socially unacceptable. Echoing Mao, the minister of the day called the strategy one of ‘changing the water in which the fish swim’.

The effects have been impressive to say the least. As a result of the decline in drink-driving prevalence, it is calculated that 2,000 lives have been saved and 10,000 serious injuries prevented. The economic saving is around £3bn.

From Singapore comes the story of another glimpse beyond the obvious that resulted in similar social savings. The city state has a reputation for rigorous social engineering (a friend was once detained at the airport for being in possession of chewing gum). Despite this, smoking is on the increase among young people.

The government tried shock tactics, using all the predictable pictures of diseased organs. The results were disappointing. Even in a society as conformist as Singapore, propaganda is recognised for what it is. The breakthrough happened when someone discovered research showing that 60 per cent of young smokers had tried quitting at least once.

The objective of communications switched from shocking to supporting, helping groups of would-be quitters to support each other in the quit process using social media. The campaign slowed the growth of smoking prevalence from 8 to 7 per cent, resulting in a total social cost saving of $23m (£14.5m).

This year’s IPA Grand Prix award goes to John Lewis, a retail brand that is famous for having flourished while others perished in the lean years since 2008. (To ram the point home, the winning entry includes a depressingly long list of household retail names that are sadly no more.)

Every good middle class citizen of the nicer parts of London and the Home Counties has at least a dim recollection that John Lewis is Never Knowingly Undersold. At the start of the recession, it would have been tempting to think that all the brand had to do was amplify its core promise of price-matching.

However, the genius of the strategy that John Lewis adopted lies in two insights. First, that the brand’s main business challenge was to get existing shoppers to visit more frequently. Second, the way to get shoppers through the doors more often is to inspire them emotionally.

The resulting campaign has delivered more than £1bn of incremental sales and £261m of incremental profits to John Lewis. Intriguingly, it has also encouraged supplier brands to increase their contribution to the advertising budget, increasing efficiency as well as boosting effectiveness.

In our industry, ‘insight’ is a much over-used term, too often applied to long PowerPoint decks that reveal more about the compiler’s capacity for drudgery than they do about the target audience. Anyone who wants to understand the real meaning of the word only has to seek out the three case studies I’ve alluded to above.




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