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Never Say Always

More and more, brand executives are pressured to be in market faster, especially in demand generation campaigns where there are revenue expectations within a specific time frame. They, and by extension as their agency partners, we, push every level to squeeze more time from a hasty schedule to think, design, react and revise our creative solutions to the business problem.

One common approach to save time is to use design templates in which the layout and graphic elements are already established. Depending on the template,  the theory goes, the art director would simply (and efficiently) swap out the visuals and the writer would provide copy to be placed in the space allocated. Once the original template is designed (and tested for consumer response in the marketplace), it's reasonable to expect that the development process would be significantly reduced, especially in direct marketing. Direct mail templates would allow for advance production of envelopes and letterforms. Email templates for tablet, mobile phone and full screen consumption would take the guesswork out of what goes where.

The University of Texas at Dallas Marketing Science team shared a research study showing the wearout (and, interestingly, the wearin effect) of a repetitive advertising formula. While it works well for awareness, it has a diminishing effect on demand. If the campaign is taken out of media for a period of time, awareness decreases, but demand increases when it is re-introduced. http://www.utdallas.edu/~nxb018100/wearout.pdf

It's tempting to say certain tactical elements, once proven, should be always applied based on one's experience with it. But our experience, along with that of various other agencies and institutions, show that "always" is a dangerous word. One of our B2B clients tested the use of a Starbuck's gift card in a demand generation DM campaign with terrific results. We applied the same tactical approach to a slightly different segment and found significantly higher preference for the Amazon gift card, which was tested against the Starbucks version in an A/B split test.

Some of the most memorable campaigns are indeed templates, but they're conceptual templates around a common creative approach as opposed to efficiency-based design. My favorites include Goodby's "Got Milk" for the California Milk Board featuring white mustachioed celebrities, Penn's "Official Ball" series showing various interpretations of their tennis ball at the French and U.S. Opens, and the Tiffany jewelry ad that appears every day in the New York Times - same size, same layout, same amount of copy, but the surrounding environment helps it stand out, as noted by Ross Bleckner in A3: Our Lives in the New York Times:

Every day, on page three of The New York Times, section A, an ad for Tiffany jewelry appears in the upper right corner of the page. Because of its placement in the paper's first news section, the advertisement generally appears alongside a major new story, most frequently an international disaster or tragedy of some kind. The effect of these juxtapositions, for those alert and lateral-minded enough to notice them, are variously humorous, tragic, tragicomic, ironic or subversive. An ad for a pair of Tiffany earrings is titled "Gold Rush"; to its left is positioned a photograph of a line of Palestinians at a cash machine, after Israel had begun to release frozen Palestinian Authority funds. An ad for a Tiffany bracelet bears the tagline "A Charmed Existence," and across from it the headline reads "Despite Embargo, Haiti's Rich Seem to Get Richer." An ad for four Tiffany rings carries the title "The Masterpieces of Engagement," and to its left, below an image of the president, is the headline "Obama Chastises Wall St. in Push to Tighten Rules."

That said, here are thoughts on where and how to use efficiency-based advertising templates.

When we SHOULD (nearly always) use tested templates

  • Reaching a fresh audience of consumers who fit the same prospect profile as the  originally tested template
  • Fulfillment of requested content, such as newsletters or white papers, to people who  request them, allowing the recipient to become familiar with content style and to build a  sense of continuity
  • Providing official notices regarding legal updates, change in pricing or other elements of  service agreement

When we should NOT (nearly never) use tested templates

  • Attracting the same prospect base with the same or similar message within a close time  frame or space proximity
  • Reaching a different prospect base whose attributes are not the same as the originally  tested group
  • Facing significant shifts in the competitive landscape or consumer preferences
  • Introducing a new product, service or offer that deserves a different approach to stand  out in the mailbox or on screen

In other words, we use templates to save time when we don't risk losing touch with our audience, or losing sales for the sake of efficiency.