Art meets advertising

This is a beautiful video of what maybe the last of the billboard painters.

Hand-painted billboards first appeared in the USA in the 1950s and are still seen in some parts of the USA especially in LA where they are often used to promote a new movie.

The Red Army in China used them to err motivate citizens and they are still a common sight in parts of South East Asia and India. However the quality leaves a lot to be desired and may not compare to these American billboards.

Thanks to these guys for the heads up on this video.


Build a brand with the basics

Right near my office at Phileo Damansara in Petaling Jaya, a luxury German auto manufacturer has two billboards advertising its top of the range luxury autos. One is a saloon and the other is an SUV. I like this particular SUV so much that if I was still putting posters up on my bedroom wall, the SUV would be front and centre.

This company also has a number of billboards at other locations around the city of Kuala Lumpur and in the suburbs featuring a smaller version of the SUV (for which there is a 1 year waiting list) and other versions of the saloon. It also spends a lot of money on print ads and recently advertised their top end coupe in a Malaysian daily and a Malaysian business weekly.

Cars in Malaysia are expensive as import duties can go as high as 300% for luxury vehicles. The full page full colour ad with standard automotive blurb also stated the price of over RM1,000,000 (US$333,000). At that price, there are probably no more than a handful of people in the country who can afford the car. Even if there are a 100 or even a 1,000 people in the country who can afford the car, full page ads in national newspapers are probably not the most cost effective channels to communicate with those people.

Now I’ve actually approached this particular organisation in the past to ask if we can come in a make a capabilities presentation. We didn’t get past the marketing manager who basically said that as sales were very good there was no point meeting us.

Judging by recent reports, the company is certainly doing well after the launch of new models in 2008. In fact, the company claims to have been Malaysia’s fastest growing luxury car brand in that year with sales up an impressive 102%. Moreover, sales continued to climb in the first 6 months of 2010 with sales up 66% over the same period in 2009. Impressive figures and the company now claims to have about 5% of the luxury market in Malaysia.

Anyway, seeing this billboard on a daily basis with the telephone number prominently displayed, was beginning to get on my nerves. So I decided to call the number. After all, if you advertise your products on a billboard and display your telephone number, one can only assume that you want prospects like me to call you.

And if a prospect calls that number you better have the processes and systems in place to ensure that the person receiving the call passes it on to the right department. And you better have the right processes and systems in place to ensure that the next person in the process does what they are supposed to do. In this particular case, call the prospect back. Especially when we’re talking about a luxury product.

So anyway, I called the number and asked for information about the top of the range SUV. The receptionist was very pleasant and explained that she would get someone from the sales department to call me back. I gave her my mobile number and waited for the call. That was last Thursday, today is Sunday and I still haven’t heard anything. Bear in mind this vehicle costs over RM500,000 (US$166,000).

Generally the point of billboards is to create awareness. A telephone number is there in the hope that the keen, desperate consumer who wants the product so much that he will take the time to record the number and follow through with a call. Of course most of us just ignore billboards and the messages on them. Indeed, it’s rare for a prospect to call. But there are always incoming calls that may just result in an easy sale to one person who may become a customer for life so if you don’t have those basic processes and systems in place to take the information and pass it on, what is the point of advertising?

Here are some more tips that will help this company improve its profitability, the most important metric for branding:

1) The era of the global ad buy is over. Different markets require different communications strategies. Whilst it may make sense to create awareness of a luxury product via national papers in relatively wealthy western markets, it is a waste of money in developing markets where the demand for luxury products is limited to only a few.

2) Brand building is about the long term. When you launch new products they will, if you are extremely lucky, fly off the shelves or out of the showroom. But this is the exception, not the rule. And anyway, this doesn’t mean that you can become complacent, sit back, put your feet up and relax. Your competition will soon catch up and your moment in the limelight will soon be over.

3) The whole point of mass market advertising such as billboards and newspaper ads is to create awareness with mass markets. That is why weekend copies of daily newspapers are full of ads for hypermarkets, supermarkets, discount stores, sales and so on. But luxury products require more than a mass market tactic to make a sale. If you must use these old fashioned tools, use them to develop a database of prospects so that you can qualify those prospects and invite them to your showroom if you think they have potential.

4) Many companies will have a system in place to act on incoming enquiries. But who is responsible for ensuring those enquiries are acted on? The system must also ensure incoming enquiries are reported to sales management so that they can follow up with the sales department.

5) Brands are built on offerings of economic, experiential and emotional value. That journey begins with the first contact. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on advertising, if you can’t deliver that value, prospects will go elsewhere.

Now I’m going to call BMW to get more information on the X5.

More effective brand communications required to build the Volvo brand in Malaysia

Building a brand in any country requires more than a series of tactical initiatives to create awareness and ‘get the name out there’. It takes a meticulously planned and integrated strategy that incorporates the participation of numerous stakeholders and initiatives, both internal and external. Internally to ensure the whole organisation is on brand and externally to ensure communications and content resonates with target markets and are communicated via relevant channels. There’s more but for the purpose of this article that’s enough for now.

And what if the brand is to penetrate other markets? There was a time when all it took to do this was a continuation of the positioning tactics carried out in the home country, perhaps with a few language changes in print media and perhaps some dubbing of TV commercials (TVCs). An over simplification perhaps, but essentially correct.

But as we all know, the world is very different today.

Building western brands in Asia
To build a Western brand in Asia today, as many international brands are finding out the hard way, takes an even more robust and integrated brand strategy that has at its core organisational excellence. Only once has that strategy been developed can the brand strategy be executed. And part of the brand strategy, a small but critical part, is the communications campaign.

This is particularly true of the automotive industry that has seen a number of well known European and other Western brands find it hard to repeat the successes at home in new Asian markets. There are other issues such as high duties etc but many European brands perform below expectations, despite large marketing budgets.

One of those is Volvo. Despite an extensive presence across most media, in 2009, out of a total industry volume (TIV) of just under 537,000 units, Volvo only sold 600 cars in Malaysia, South East Asia’s largest passenger market. This gives Volvo about 0.15% of the market. Although this is a slight increase over 2008 when Volvo sold 524 cars, it is way below the 2007 total of 752 units. Interestingly, in 1999 Volvo sold 839 cars, giving it 0.3% of the market. So Volvo’s market share of the Malaysian passenger car market has halved in 10 years. I think I know why.

Last Thursday, 28th January 2010, a half page full colour ad in the New Straits Times, (NST) Malaysia’s ‘premium’ newspaper caught my eye. The ad features the Volvo V50 and a headline “There’s more to life with Volvo.” The ad goes on to sell space and luxury using images of a kayak, a windsurfer and a mountain bike. The ad lists, in really small print, a number of dealers in key cities. There is no website address.

Last Friday 29th January 2010, Volvo ran another half page ad in the same publication, this time a spot colour ad. This ad features a Volvo XC60 parked on a snow covered road with the occupants, a man and a woman in warm fur collared winter parkas sitting in a pile of snow staring out at a snow covered landscape. This time the headline is “Volvo owners get more out of life!”

If I’m not mistaken, the traditional rule of thumb has it that you have approximately 3 seconds to grab a readers attention with a print ad headline, perhaps less in today’s noisy, cluttered world. I don’t know how effective the Volvo ads have been but I did notice that the offer in the second ad has been extended, rarely a good sign. I also noticed that there is no tracking mechanism in the copy. And, in case you can’t read it, the tagline in the print ad reads “Volvo owners get more out of life!” So the ad is targetting both existing and potential customers.

Coincidentally, there is a Volvo billboard outside my office, at the busy intersection of a very busy highway. The billboard ad features the Volvo XC90 Diesel. This time the headline is “Winner of fuel efficiency award.”

Sitting in my office in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur where the recent hot spell has seen the temperature top 40 degrees centigrade on more than one occassion and the humidity is often around 90%, I tried to figure out a couple of things.

1) What was the relevance of these communications to potential and existing Volvo owners in Malaysia?
2) Why are they using images featuring snow to sell a service in the tropics?
3) Why is an ad targetted at existing Volvo owners also trying to get the attention of non Volvo owners?
4) Where is the consistency?
5) Is this part of a planned out, integrated strategy or a series of one off tactics?
6) Why would anyone get out of a nice warm car and sit on wet cold snow to admire the view?

OK, ignore the last one.

Hemorrhoids and Frost bite
Well as far as I can tell, more out of life for the couple featured in the second ad is likely to be hemorrhoids and frost bite. I don’t mean to be fecetious, but what is the relevance to the Malaysian market? There are some marketers who insist that to build a brand you need to be first in a category and perhaps Volvo wants to be first in the frost bite category but I think not.

More confusing is the content. The main copy of the ad is encouraging existing Volvo owners to bring their cars in for servicing, repairs or to buy accessories and be entered into a competition to win vouchers that can be redeemed for more accessories and parts. Shooting off on a brief tangent, the takeaways I get from that copy, as a non Volvo owner are, in roughly equal amounts:

1) you are going to be spending a lot on parts and accessories so here’s a little help or
2) these cars are built so well that you will never actually win anything because nothing needs to be repaired but the model sold is so basic you’ll be spending a lot on accessories. Interestingly Volvo also offers a 3 year warranty/100,000km for cars sold in Malaysia so if you’ve got a new car you may have to wait 3 years to receive your prize!

Seriously though, The Volvo communications are confusing. Furthermore, according to the Star newspaper, 86% of Malaysians don’t trust advertising. So that means the print ads mentioned earlier are targetted at only 14% of Malaysians. Moreover, with an entry level Volvo S40 at around RM170,000 (US$48,000) it is off the radar of the average Malaysian so a mass media approach is a waste of valuable funds.

There are a number of other things Volvo can do to halt the slide in its market share and build a profitable brand in Malaysia.

1) Separate the acquisition strategy from that of the retention strategy.
2) An indifference to retention branding is short-sighted. Michigan State University estimated that US$1 spent on acquisition generates US$5 in revenue, while every dollar spent on retention creates US$60 in revenue. Bain and Co has estimated that increasing retention by 5% can increase profits by 25%. Companies have a 5 – 15% of selling something to a new customer, but a 50% chance when selling to an existing customer. But retention branding requires a completely different strategy to acquisition branding.
3) In the mass economy the brand communications goal was to increase awareness. This evolved into persuasion but the ultimate goal today is adoption. Adoption ensures the brand is seen as the best or, better still, the only choice. But adoption of a brand is not an event it is a process built on the back of organisational excellence and reinforced by the ability to deliver relevant solutions on customer terms.
4) Volvo cannot expect adoption if messaging is inconsistent and fragmented. If print campaigns and billboards are to be part of the brand communications, keep them consistent. Announcing fuel efficiency awards is not going to drive traffic to showrooms.
5) Review communication tools and explore social media options. I believe there is no benefit at all for a luxury product like Volvo to advertise in a daily newspaper in Asia.
6) Understand social media is for communities and those communities must be relevant. The only opportunity for interaction on the Volvo website leads the viewer to an international site. Volvo owners in Malaysia will want to be part of a community here, and learn about issues and opportunities in Malaysia, not in Istanbul.

The purpose of this article is not to embarrass Volvo. So if anyone from Volvo reads this article, please view my comments as feedback, not criticism. There are a number of automotive manufacturers making similar mistakes but Volvo caught my eye!

In a social media world, are Billboards a necessity or expensive exercise in vanity?

We all accept that the way consumers source and absorb data has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Instead of listening to brands and what they have to say about themselves, consumers now listen to other consumers and buy brands based on data sourced from those other consumers.

The way consumers partition their worlds is also changing and nowadays, consumers segment themselves into communities. For companies, this should be seen as an exciting development because it gives them the opportunity to communicate directly with consumers in pre identified commuities using content that resonates with those communities in a more personalised and dynamic manner and using tools that are widely available and relatively inexpensive.

But when we meet with prospects, they only seem to be interested in traditional tools such as print ads, TV commercials and billboards. And they soon lapse back into semi indifference as we suggest the future is not about these expensive, outdated tools that are increasingly closed out by consumers.

All prospects seem to want is reach, awareness and creativity to build a brand. The high profile, mass economy tools and creative stuff that looks good, reaches the most consumers, irrespective of whether or not the product or service is relevant to those consumers and wins agencies awards.

Even if it means spending millions of Ringgit on immeasurable campaigns that are lost in the fog of messages consumers are bombarded with every day. Even if it means they cannot measure the effectiveness of the campaign with real, actionable data that they can use to save money and improve the effectiveness of future campaigns. Even if the messages within the campaign make claims the company simply cannot live up to, they still prefer this route to less expensive, targeted messages with relevant content to specific communities based on the requirements for value of that community.

It’s as if they are reassured that they are getting value for money because they can see the print ads, the billboards, the TV Commercials and therefore, so can lots of other people. Sure, billboards can be an inexpensive medium to pass on a message to a large audience. Indeed one company BPS states in their marketing collateral, …”Perhaps it’s because they (billboards) reach more people for cheaper prices than any other type of media.” But is reaching more people for cheaper prices a sound strategy for a social media world? From this we deduce that if lots of people see the product or service on TV or on a billboard, then many of them will seek out the product or remember it and buy it when they encounter it in the ‘flesh’. This may have been acceptable in a more sedate world, with limited competition etc. But we all know that in today’s marketplace, this approach is no longer effective.

Is this an Asian thing? Or is it universal? Here in Malaysia, one mass economy tool that is really popular is the billboard. Billboards, and in particular getting a company on one, is fast becoming a national obsession. One prospect recently interupted our strategic proposal and asked us to find a number of billboards at strategic locations across the capital to raise awareness of the company (The company is almost 100 years old).

The belief is that if enough consumers see the product on a billboard, preferably a really big billboard alongside a really busy highway, then the success of the brand is all but guaranteed. This obsession is growing fast. Currently, out of home accounts for only 2% of ad spend in Malaysia, but it is growing at over 35% per annum and is now worth in excess of RM100,000,000 (US$30million).

But I fail to understand the logic in this. Because think about your behaviour when you are driving. Unless you spend your days splitting molecules or working on a vaccine for AIDS, driving is probably the most complicated daily activity you will do. Not only is it a complicated activity that requires great skill, but according to research, it is a skill that consists of more than 1500 ”sub skills”.

When we’re driving, there is no opportunity to relax (This is where a wry grin appears on the faces of Malaysians). Throughout the journey, we are navigating badly signposted and unforgiving roads and terrain that changes on an almost daily basis. We’re constantly scanning the environment (well some of us are) for cars that don’t signal, pedestrians who take their time crossing the road, despite the obvious implications of being hit by a ton of steel at 50km, motor bikes driving the wrong way and debris from a recent lorry puncture. Plus, we’re constantly seeking information that can help us.

At the same time, we’re trying to maintain our position on the road. We’re also constantly checking our speed and mirrors (well some of us are), making decisions (apparently, about twenty per mile), evaluating risk and reward, looking at instruments and, despite the obvious futility, trying to anticipate the actions of the white wira with a black door and five girls in the back.

Whilst doing all this, many of us, and you know who you are, are sending an sms, talking on the phone, sipping from a water bottle or thinking about ___________________(insert name of premier league team). Others are trying to stop yet another fight between irritable kids or starting one with a spouse.

Research from the USA carried out a survey on one stretch of road in Maryland and, “found that a piece of information was presented every two feet, which at 30 miles per hour, the study reasoned, meant the driver was exposed to 1,320 “items of information”, or roughly 440 words, per minute. This is akin to reading three paragraphs like this one while also looking at lots of pretty pictures, not to mention doing all the other things mentioned above – and then repeating the cycle, every minute you drive.” (source Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt). With all that going on, do billboards engage consumers effectively?

And billboards are not cheap. In Kuala Lumpur, the most expensive billboard in the country is on the federal highway, costs RM900,000 a year and reaches 252,000 cars daily. Less high profile billboards cost are around RM250,000 – RM500,000 per annum, depending on traffic. But branding requires so much more than reach today. Whilst reaching hundreds of thousands of consumers and creating awareness, especially for a new product may be an important step in the branding process of some products and services, it isn’t a goal, for any product of service.

Now I’m not suggesting for one minute that billboards are a waste of money. However, I am suggesting that you should get independent advice on whether or not it is the right tool for your brand. I’ve seen a number of billboards for B2B companies, one recently was selling shock absorbers. The major investment in that billboard and the production costs, would have been better spent on sales and marketing material to engage the automotive manufacturers and repair shops that purchase shock absorbers.

You also need to be careful how you chose the location. Just because 500,000 cars pass the billboard, doesn’t mean it is a good location. Equally important is the content of the billboard. Writing an essay will defeat the object of the billboard.

Some other questions you need to ask yourself include:

What role do billboards have to play in our brand strategy?
How can we measure the effectiveness of the campaign?
If we can’t measure it, should we do it?
What happens once we take the billboard down? How do we maintain momentum?
How can we leverage the impact of the billboard?
How can we make the billboard stand out?

It may be that a billboard will become a neccessary part of your brand strategy. But it is worth asking yourselves these questions first. Otherwise, your billboard will waste a lot of money that few companies can afford.

If having asked yourself these questions, you still believe billboards are part of your communications campaign, try to make them original. 3 dimensional billboards will definately get attention and so will digital boards. It amazes me when I see a photo of a watch on a billboard. We recently had a huge watch billboard outside our office. It was there for at least a month. No one in the office had ever heard of the brand so we decided to investigate it further to see what other communications were part of the campaign.

We couldn’t find anything so we can only assume that billboard was the extent of the communications campaign. As I write this, two months later, I have asked if anyone remembers the name. Nobody does. That’s probably RM200,000 wasted.

However, if that billboard had been digital and the watch actually worked, then we would probably remember the brand. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean we would buy the product, but at least awareness levels would have increased.

This article has some great ideas for 3D billboards. A simple search of the Internet will uncover plenty more.