Word-of-mouth & Advertising - brewing a different kind of WOM

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There is a HUGE difference between these two questions:

1) Are Advertising and Word-of-Mouth diametrically opposed marketing tools?

2) Are Advertising and Word-of-Mouth mutually exclusive as marketing tools?

The answer to (1) is yes: Advertising is the epitome of the top-down model. It's a monologue. It's a sell. The advertiser has a story to tell, and the ad tells it. This is not where dialogue lives. Advertising is a billboard on the side of the road, on the side of a building, on the back cover of a magazine, during 30-second spots in the middle of your favorite show, between songs on the radio, on T-shirts, on the backs of programs, at the top of maps, and just about everywhere customers live.

Word-of-mouth, on the other hand, is a lateral model. It is the lifeblood of peer-to-peer networks. Word-of-mouth is about dialogue. It's about trust. It's about truth. There's no selling here. No ulterior motive. Just users recommending great products to other users out of sheer excitement and empathy.

But are they mutually exclusive? No way: Black and white. Yin and Yang. Heads and Tails. Laurel and Hardy. Beef and Strogonoff. The two can exist alone... but shouldn't.

Think about Apple products. Absolut. BMW. VW. World of Warcraft. Publix supermarkets. Nintendogs. Jaguar, even. All spend a whole lot of money on advertising and promotion. All also benefit from strong WOM chatter. These are examples of brands that have managed to merge both the produced monologue and the open dialogue beautifully. So yes, both can co-exist... but there's WOM, and then there's WOM, and then there's WOM. (I'll try to clarify that in a minute, but first, let me backtrack a little.)

I was fortunate enough to find a free seat at WOMBAT 2's session on Advertising and WOM, last Wednesday, when Jamie Tedford of Arnold Worldwide, Ryan Berger of Euro RSCG, and of John Bell, of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide spoke about making WOMM work for advertising agencies and PR firms. (You can read all about it here.)

To be frank, I was really curious about what was going to be said in that room. And you know what? I was pleasantly surprised... Though not in the way that I expected to be. I went in that room half expecting ad agencies to try and add WOM to their services: "Hey, you want WOM? Here's what it'll cost ya." Nope. There was none of that. What I heard instead was a sober, smart and very agency-specific way of generating WOM:

Make a big splash.
Get people talking.
Use this momentum to bring people closer to the brand.
Make them want to interact with it.
Make them want to share their experience.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Actually, to help explain the angle of agency-driven WOM, here are a few telling words from Ryan Berger (Euro RSCG):

"Buzz is harnessing the energy between consumer life and pop life."

"The power of an idea is now as much about how it is delivered as it is about the idea itself."

"PR is about activating media. Buzz is about activating people."

"When done right, buzz helps validate an advertising message."

Valid statements, all. And absolutely 100% in tune with what agencies are there to do for their clients.

But I have to be honest: What struck me the most about all three presentations, including Ryan's, was that none of these agencies seemed to be doing anything new. Other than the fact that buzzwords like "buzz marketing" and "word-of-mouth" were used a lot, agencies don't seem to be doing anything they weren't already doing five, or even ten years ago, back when WOMM wasn't even a topic of discussion. What I heard about for 45 exciting and well-packed minutes were presentations on little more than simple promotion.

Case in point: Jaguar has a great new car and wants to make a big splash. Agency comes in and creates a phenomenon for them. A new image. A new story. A new culture. A whole new identity... and to give it all traction, to give it momentum and wings, it generates buzz: Cool new enigmatic ads, followed by stunning cinematic ones. High-end event sponsorships. Celebrity endorsements. A perfectly executed media blitz now known as "Gorgeous."

As cool and effective as it all is, as WOM-worthy as it may be, it's still just... promotion.

Verdict: The game hasn't changed. The methods haven't changed. We've just added a few new terms to our professional vocabulary to make it look like we're ahead of the curve.

It's clear to the best of the best in this business that word-of-mouth was always an essential component of any good campaign... But this isn't exactly the kind of WOM that we have been talking about for the last year. (The 100% free, product-centric, user-driven kind.)

Luckily for Ogilvy, Euro RSCG and Arnold, their clients produce great, WOM-worthy products, and as firms/agencies, they continue to produce wonderful WOM-worthy campaigns for them. As long as that balance of excellence is maintained, this system will continue to work: Exciting products backed up by engaging marketing. The perfect combination.

But my question is this: When the money dries up, when the client turns off the tap, when the agency decides to move on... when that multi-million dollar budget-intensive marketing machine is taken out of the equation, what happens to the product? To the brand? To what people say to each other about either? What will be the WOM then?

Can advertising's flashy brand of WOM truly be compared to true WOM? The kind that is generated by users, out here in the real world? The kind of WOM that drives universally positive reviews of great products... and turns them into purchases? The kind of WOM that took James Cameron's flailing "Titanic" over the top and then some? (Advertising didn't get people in the theaters. Word-of-mouth did.)

Ultimately, WOM comes down to a simple question: Is this product so cool, so great, so fun, so valuable, so exciting or so unique that people will want to tell everyone they know about it?

That's WOM.

Don't get me wrong: There are plenty of seats at the WOM table for ad agencies, PR firms, and other marketing companies. Their brand of WOM-involved promotion is absolutely vital to most brands (especially when superbly done)... but I would caution that there's WOM, and then there's WOM, and then there's WOM. Not all being created equal. Agency-driven WOM is the visible part of the iceberg. Spontaneous, user-generated WOM is the hidden part of the iceberg. The huge part. The core.

(And no that was not an intentional "Titanic" reference.)

Tomorrow, we will look at the role that advertising plays on purchasing decisions... vs. the role that word-of-mouth plays on purchasing decisions. (I might even have a table or two to share with you, which will shine a whole new light on today's discussion.) Which one do you think is most effective? Which one do you think costs the least?

Have a great Monday, everyone. :)

Note: All of the case studies presented by the three speakers were astonishing. From the revival of the Polaroid brand to the creation of Jaguar's "Gorgeous" campaign, I was absolutely spellbound. Despite my somewhat lukewarm response to their WOM presentations this time around, these guys absolutely rocked and completely restored my faith in the value that big agencies that "get it" bring to the table.

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