Whenever the topic of useful advertising comes up, many people point to utilitarian apps like the sponsorship of “Sit or Squat” by Charmin. That’s a nice example but it just gives you a tiny idea of the usefulness of advertising.

Why advertising is useful

Imagine you never watched any car advertising. You were dropped on earth from some outer space planet and you decide to buy a car. Imagine walking down a street filled with car dealerships. Where do you start?

Personally, I don’t have a cereal problem. I eat muesli. Nothing else. But when my kid was born, I suddenly had a cereal problem. Hundreds of cereals in the supermarket. Which one to choose?

Advertising makes brands noticeable and interesting

Advertising helps me to make a quicker and more intuitive decision when buying cereal for my daughter. I don’t have time to read the label of each box and make a complete rational and linear decision. I can make an intuitive decision that’s supported by rational thinking: A brand name with low-sugar and many nutrients.

Advertising helps me to ignore the vast majority of offers that could clog my mind. It makes some things more noticeable to me and more interesting. It helps me accelerate the decision-making process. And that’s very useful because I have more important things to do than choosing a cereal for my daughter.

Brand loyalist vs. light buyer

The majority of our purchase decision are done as a light buyer: There’s a Coke and a Pepsi in the gas station fridge. I never think about Pepsi or Coke, will take one of them depending on my mood. I might have seen a funny commercial from Coke, a social initiative from Pepsi – whatever. Over the years I made extensive associations within my brain about each brand through a combination of past experiences and ongoing encounters with the brand. A brand is just a metaphor for a complex pattern of associations that exists in the heads of people, not in the head of the CMO. We have associations for thousands of brands in our brain. And they tend to fade away when we don’t keep them alive through product usage, marketing or advertising. More importantly, if the message is not consistent, it forces our brain to work too hard for something that we don’t care that much about. Almost every food product falls into that category. Almost every CPG item.

And then you have brand loyalists. There are people that will only buy certain car brands. My wife swears on Crest toothpaste. I will never buy anything else than Colgate Total. No reason. Often, there’s no reason.

And, often there is: Apple. Google. Your hairdresser. Guiness Beer.

To be really useful, advertising needs to focus on the light buyers. They need reinforcement of neural structures to optimize their associations. Don’t confuse them with too many messages. Volvo should be safety. Nothing else. Not focusing on safety, confuses people and makes them think that Volvo gave up on safety. People don’t care to listen to your complex brand message. They won’t. They never did. (Besides the few brand loyalists.)

Advertising helps make better decisions. More intuitive. Better informed.

That’s very useful.