The Elusive Brand Experience and How to Get It

I love this ad campaign. A simple idea, well executed. I ask a deceptively simple question: why is it so good?

Dentyne's Make Face Time Campaign, by McCann Worldwide

Dentyne’s Make Face Time Campaign, by McCann Worldwide

Designers are key players in the world of advertising. It’s where many of us make all our money. The giants of our field all won major battles in that arena: Paul Rand, Saul Bass, Tibor Kalman, to name a few. Though I would not presume to place myself in such august company, I have worked for commercial firms and wrestled with advertising work, branding, and experience design in a corporate setting. I’d love to say that I could come up with something as good as McCann’s “Face Time” campaign. But how would I do it?

My design approach is, traditionally, to let the content speak for itself. If I understand the material, then communicating it to an audience through whatever medium I’m working in becomes almost a transparent process; the job sometimes feels like it’s flowing out of me. But frequently in the corporate advertising world, there is no content, in the traditional sense. There is no script, as in theater or film; there are no curators, filling volumes with text about artifacts or ideas. There is only the product, and the company that makes it. Frequently, the folks from the company are looking to the design world to define and shape the substance of the experience. They understand who their target audience is, and all about their brand and product, but look to designers to craft the messages.

It’s not a step I’m accustomed to. I understand, at an elementary level, the message is that the product/service is the best and people should purchase it. But ads with copy like, “WE ARE AWESOME,” or “BUY OUR STUFF BECAUSE IT’S THE BEST EVER” really do not make it to the public eye anymore. Clients expect more from someone who claims to be a hotshot designer–and rightly so. Advertising is a competitive and subtle world; there are wonderful ad campaigns and brand experiences out there. I know them when I see them, and I admire the specificity of the message. So where does that message come from?

In my readings and research, I recently came across this quote.

The new medium of brand experience is now people, not television.
– David Dernie, In Exhibition Design

In one phrase, David Dernie both encapsulated and completed my unformed thoughts about what it means to, as the oft touted phrase goes, “build a brand experience.” For me, it goes beyond television, though it certainly applies. The thing I respond to in ad in any medium is how the people in them feel. The more specific the ad hones in on that feeling, the more effective it is.

Consider this commercial, long considered to be a watershed in the world of automobile advertising:

(For more about this ad, and the Nick Drake book that talks about it, see John’s comment below.)

The ad speaks volumes, and not just because of Nick Drake’s marvelous “Pink Moon.” The ad is incredibly specific about the product and the people who use it. The look the young man in the back seat gives the young woman as she silently watches the night sky fly by, wind in her hair; the flash of the backup light; almost iconic images. The viewer instantly understands what kind of party the young foursome is pulling up to–and why they choose to pull away. When viewed through the lens of Dernie’s statement, the reason for the ad’s success becomes obvious.

In this statement I find a key, also, to understanding why I get that feeling of the medium becoming transparent. When the story is strong, the tricks and skills needed to manipulate the medium fall away as the audience folds into the experience. Listening to Nick Drake for the first time, one rarely wonders what kind of tape it was recorded on, or what Drake’s tuning on the guitar is, or even how skillful a player he is; one listens to the song. Likewise with any good design experience; both for the viewer and the creator, the problems of the medium are all smoothed away. Television and film, in its best moments, no longer merely fascinate us with what they can do; skillful camera work, direction, scripting, combined with the audience’s comfort level with receiving information in that form, have made the television a frictionless conduit for story.

This touches on McLuhan’s signature axiom, of course, of the medium being the message – and might go a long way to refuting it. What happens to a medium when both public and designer are so familiar with it that its novelty, and all the tricks it can be made to do, has worn off? In the past decade, we have seen this happen. The internet used to be a place about itself; merely to have a website or be “be online” was enough of a statement. No longer; we are all so familiar with the medium that we can now push it out of the way and receive the messages.

So what makes an ad good? When approaching my next project, I will pull Dernie’s lens from my pocket and look through it for the people within it. They, after all, are the touchstone for understanding the brand experience. The closer I can get to communicating the emotions, the more specific I can be about them, the more successful the ad.

9 thoughts on “The Elusive Brand Experience and How to Get It

  1. The Volkwagen spot above, titled “Milky Way,” was authored by Shane Hutton, Tim Vaccarino, and Lance Jensen for Arnold Communications in 2000. In that year, at the Art & Technique of the American Television exhibition/awards at The Museum of Modern Art, it won a slew of awards and was added to MoMa’s permanent collection.

    The history of this ad is marvellously chronicled, by the way, in Amanda Patrusich’s excellent book, Pink Moon. The book is written about the album PInk Moon, Nick Drake, and the ad that made him posthumously famous, published in the 33 1/3 series, which I highly recommend for all music-philes out there.

  2. I happen to love this campaign as well! I think what’s powerful about it, is what is NOT being said. Just like the silences between two notes of music, the quick connection between the references to two now-universals – technology and affection (one could argue that these are in fact opposites of one another) – is what makes the viewer go “oh yeah!” and immediately relate to it. It’s sad but true that the internet and all other forms of electronic communication bring us humans together, even while they drive us apart…they isolate us, just as they give us common ground.

    I would further argue that this campaign could apply to many brands other than Dentyne, although it’s especially useful when you’re talking about a product that makes you want to get a little closer. (And what brand name just popped into your head? That’s right, a “Big” ol’ Dentyne-competitor!)

    Just something for y’all to chew on. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the comment, Liz!

    I agree with you about the campaign; it could apply to many brands – and not just other brands of gum. Things in whole different markets would be suited equally well by these print ads. It’s hard to say whether this hurts the campaign. In many instances I think it could be construed as “bad” that an ad could accept other logos at the bottom of it. I think, though, that Dentyne gets away with it because the message has such resonance right now.

    Perhaps that is a by-product of tapping into the emotions at the heart of an experience. You strike a common chord within your audience; in return, you sacrifice a little brand specificity. The real trick is to strike the balance so well that the audience cannot imagine the experience without the product. That’s what makes the Volkswagen spot so compelling; it’s hard to imagine that foursome driving a Toyota.

  4. Thought it was a milk ad. Them do look like healthy bones.

    Seriously, though, don’t advertisers strive to brand products by associating them with a particular lifestyle? Dentyne’s going for affectionate early 20-somethings (they hope gum-chewers); VW (who makes sure that everyone can read ‘Cabrio’ clearly, a failure I think Liz alludes to) is continuing its tradition of tying into casual, counterculture (think Beetle, think Microbus). Sports ads are notorious for this, no? (Think Nike, Reebok, Gatorade, and Under Armor without conjuring up a starkly lit B&W image of rippling muscles and dripping sweat).

    I think advertisers sell a service, more often than a product. You can buy into the image they promote by buying the product being pitched. I want to be cool, so if Palm wants me to buy a PRE, they better invest in a good marketing campaign. Okay, bad example.

  5. I agree with Bruce’s comment about selling an image, but self-image is fundamentally tied to those universal human emotions and experiences that Liz alluded to in her post. In the 1950s, writer Freeman Tilden described six fundamental principles of interpretation, which I believe ring true today as well as apply to the discussion at hand:

    Principle #1:
    Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.

    Principle #2:
    Information as such, is not Interpretation. Interpretation is revelation based upon information. But they are entirely different things. However, all interpretation includes information.

    Principle #3:
    Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural. Any art is in some degree teachable.

    Principle #4:
    The chief aim of interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.

    Principle #5:
    Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase.

    Principle #6:
    Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.

    At the risk of being burned at the stake by purist colleagues in the museum world…do these principles not capture the essence of a successful ad campaign or overarching brand?

  6. Thank you for writing about the Dentyne shots because it has been bugging me and now here is a space where I can say why. I agree it is brilliant but John, you likely could have improved upon it had they let you in the design room. What bugs me is the lack of clothes in “Chatroom full” on the obvious models and that the lady with the most skin showing happens to be the only one of color (you can’t see that in the above clip but you can on the CTA). The other thing is there seems to be a lack of ethnic diversity in the photos and the fixation on kissing. Kissing is dandy but why not someone arriving as a guest with flowers for “send and receive” instead of another kissing photo? Oh so he is talking to her in the “original voicemail”?

    Thanks for letting me rant. All done now.

    I’d say good advertising should be pleasant to look at and comfortable to look at in any company if in a public place. Good advertising is pleasing to look at

  7. Thank you Bridgette! I think the focus on kissing and intimacy is related to the product: Dentyne is a gum that has long focused on being something that provides fresh breath. Remember the “Brush your breath, brush your breath with Dentyne!” campaign? Showing intimate moments is indicating that these people are able to get physically close, kiss, etc. because they’ve been chewing Dentyne and their breath is pleasant.

    If I may borrow from Anamari’s post (principle #4): I think that good advertising can also provoke. It’s job is to be remembered; one of the ways it can do that is to be a little confrontational. I’m sure the company would not be happy that you were offended – but, in a way, the ads have done their job. We’re discussing them; Dentyne has raised its profile in the marketplace.

  8. Oh that makes some sense then! I didn’t grow up with a TV so didn’t know fresh breath was it’s platform. And I agree – pushing the envelope does get the envelope a little further. What I do like about the ads is that they focus on people being people together rather than in remote rooms facing the computer as I am now 🙂

  9. I like the way the designer used nice diagonal movement in the images that all gently focus the eye to the product placement at the bottom right. The subtle product placement works well because this is a series of print ads, all with the same theme. I’ve seen them in the subway in NY and in various airports, including Heathrow in London, and I know what the ad is for just glancing at it, which is helpful since the ad placements I’ve seen have been next to escalators, on subway platforms, etc. These are also places where one can usually buy gum, and where one might want to buy gum-airport especially. Is this ad campaign also in magazines? Cause it seems specifically designed for public places-catches the eye with a bold subject matter. Now, whenever I see it, I think about whether or not I might want a piece of gum.

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