No Room for Promises in Advertising
Hold off on packing your ads with claims that could prompt challenges or rankle your customers. Instead, forge an emotional connection with them
By Steve McKee
O.K., I’ll admit it. As a (gracefully) aging man, I no longer fit the sweet spot of McDonald’s core customer profile. No matter how much I remain tempted by the taste of its burgers, I just can’t pack them in with the reckless abandon I did 20 years (and 20 pounds) ago. I now tend to opt for healthier food in a more comfortable environment that better fits my, ahem, maturing taste.
Back when I was a gut-stuffing young man, however, I didn’t drool over Quarter Pounders alone. Just about any fast-food place would do, as long as the burgers were big, the fries were salty, and the drive-through was fast. Yet there’s one thing that McDonald’s—and only McDonald’s—could give me. Oddly enough, it’s something the brand never overtly promised. It wasn’t even presented in a form with which I could argue.
I didn’t realize what McDonald’s had done until I became a father and my son came of age to play Little League. It was only after he first tested his mettle on the field that the thought struck me: Where else were he and his dad going to regale his accomplishments and plot his Major League career but under the Golden Arches? Images of fathers and sons sharing a post-game moment over a big red box of fries have been playing in my head ever since McDonald’s first seeded them there when I was a boy myself. Taking your son to McDonald’s after a game— well, that’s what a dad is supposed to do.
Half a century ago, McDonald’s was one of the first advertisers to understand that brand-building isn’t about making claims, promises, and offers. It’s about making emotional connections—connections that associate positive feelings, not disputable data—with a product or service. In fact, as our consumer culture has grown ever more sophisticated, it has become more dangerous than ever to aim ads at the left brain.
For one, claims can be challenged. If McDonald’s were to claim that its fries were somehow “the best”—even if it had indisputable market research proving that three out of five people believed just that—any individual customer might personally favor the fries at Wendy’s or Burger King. Customers might even convince themselves that’s the case so they don’t feel like mindless sheep. Make a claim, and you dare people to challenge it.
Promises can be problematic as well. McDonald’s has probably served the perfect French fry somewhere to someone, and perhaps even more than once. They are pretty darn consistent, I’ll give them that. But there has inevitably been a time when the grease was too hot, the warming lamp burned out, or the 17-year-old manning the fry station was too tired from a late night that the product just didn’t deliver. Promise perfection, and you’ll paint yourself right into a corner.
Special offers can be the most dangerous, especially if they’re truly special. If the value of a product or service is pegged too closely to its price, the price itself will become a leading feature. Several fast-feeders (including McDonald’s) have learned this the hard way in recent years as they’ve heavily promoted 99¢ value menus. Rising food costs have completely squashed their already razor-thin margins.
WHAT RESEARCH SHOWS
None of this is to say that a brand should never tout its virtues or provide relevant, compelling information to prospective customers. There is a time and place to do that in the context of a broad-based, integrated marketing program. But science is bearing out why the right brain approach that McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Budweiser, and so many other master marketers have adopted works.
Research by Jonah Berger of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania has shown that emotional arousal makes people much more likely to share information, accounting for why the most popular YouTube videos are about cute, touching, or hilarious moments, not interesting and unusual factoids.
It doesn’t take too much of a stretch to apply Berger’s research to advertising. When people’s emotions are engaged, their interest goes up and their defenses go down—exactly the right environment in which to seed a compelling connection. That’s what the best advertisers do, as McDonald’s did with me all those years ago.
It can be difficult to refrain from boasting about the merits of your products or services. But as I’ve said in this column before, your advertising shouldn’t be about your brand; it should be an extension of it. If you want people to feel good about what you have to offer, focus on making them feel good. They’re smart enough to connect it to what you have to offer, and when they do, everybody will come out ahead.