strategic communication

“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.” – Lawrence Clark Powell

Don’t Sell Out, Sell Purpose

Product placements and key messages are how brands survive today. Between movies, television, and the Internet, people can be in front of a screen at all hours of the day. How a brand develops its product placements and key messages is part of a strategic communications plan to connect with customers.

When faced with the idea of “product placement” many people immediately associate it with “selling out.” A scene from Wayne’s World comes to mind when Wayne and Garth claim they are not interested in representing any sponsors on their show, all while modeling labeled clothes and using brand named products.


Product placement is an effective method of advertising, and we see it on nearly every television show or movie. Sometimes it’s subtle: the main character takes a quick drink of a Coke in a scene. Other times it seems to be very in-your-face, ultimately taking away from the drama of the story.

I remember watching an episode of Pretty Little Liars during its first or second season. Those familiar with the show know that the four main characters are constantly plagued by text messages from an anonymous “A” person. “A” sends on average about 4-5 text messages per episode, so it is naturally part of the show. The characters and the audience are used to hearing the sound of a text alert and seeing the girls quickly take out their phones to read the next message.

There was one episode when I found product placement both extremely obvious and irritating. At the time there was a new Microsoft phone out called the Kin. It was a tiny phone with a slide up keyboard that claimed to be the perfect phone for social media. In the episode, one of the main characters, Aria, gets a text message and stops in the hallway saying “it’s my Kin!” followed by an extreme zoom in of her using the Kin. I didn’t remember them ever explicitly saying the brand of their phone before this episode, so this instance really stood out to me. It was the first time I’ve ever seen blatant product placement that was serious instead of a joke. I could not take it seriously and laughed at how obvious it was.


I am not alone in this opinion. Cowley and Barron (2008) state when “people with high levels of program liking see a prominent product placement, they may interpret the placement to be an attempt to influence the viewer, which could interrupt the viewing experience.” Fans of television programs want to be entertained by the world of the program, not by characters making a point about a product they use.

There are ways to advertise products without shoving the advertisement in the faces of audiences. Going back to the example of a character drinking a Coke, or even asking another character “Can I have a Coke?” is a natural way of mentioning a product, because most consumers see drinking Coke as a regular habit for many people. After a subtle mentioning of the brand, the next commercial break could begin with an advertisement for Coke. The brand is being delivered in repeated messages for recall, but it is not so over-the-top in the actual episode. Those who are highly involved with the show won’t feel the storyline has been interrupted strictly to promote a brand.

Another example is undercover word-of-mouth marketing, or “shill/stealth.” The example from this link (starting on page 235) involves 60 actors dispersed around New York and Seattle with a new product from Sony Ericsson. The actors were not given a script, but they were asked to use the product in public. When approached by people, they had to have an honest conversation about the product. It was easy to have an honest conversation since there were no scripts or guidelines. What happened is that people were engaging with one another and sharing information. Those who were interested in buying the product had to go find out where to purchase it themselves. This meant the consumers actually found value in the product and wanted to use it in their own lives.

It may seem sneaky, but how many times has word-of-mouth worked in your life? There is always that friend that jumps on a trend and talks about the benefits until you jump on too. Why not engage in personal conversations with customers about your brand?

When developing key messages, it is important to research your audience. What’s the population of your city and are you in a large metropolis or a small town? How many people drive across town for work? How many have access to cable and Internet? Is there a certain location where your company could engage with the most people at a single time, or is your online presence the strongest point? Answering these questions will aid in your messaging strategy.

One example of a leader seeking out message delivery to customers is Gap’s up-and-coming CEO, Art Peck. Peck is commonly referred to as the “digital guy” and lives up to this name by being enthusiastic about e-commerce sales. In a time where shopping mall attendance is slowly dwindling, online shopping has become more important than ever in terms of store success. Wi-Fi has been set up in 1,100 stores, and he is interested in measuring the number of clicks each site in the Gap family receives. Going back to last week’s post, Peck truly is a “visionary leader” in that he knows his customers, he knows how habits are changing, and he is using forward-thinking ideas to keep the company valuable.

Most recently, he is behind the campaign of “Dress Normal.” The campaign highlights ordinary style as opposed to the busy patterns and unique cut-out clothes. Neutrals, comfort, and hidden labels are the main components of this style, often called “normcore.”


I was not familiar with normcore when I first saw Gap’s slogan. My first thought when I saw “Dress Normal” was that the Gap was scolding people to dress in a way that is universally acceptable as opposed to some of the edgier styles out there. Further criticism includes those who do not want their style to just be “normal,” they want to be trendy and stylish. There are mixed reviews about the message Gap is sending, but Peck wants to stand by it for a couple of seasons to see how it plays out. He has explained his purpose behind the message and feels that if given the chance, it will be successful. On Twitter, the “Dress Normal” message is accompanied by pictures of models in what is considered “normcore” style, which assists in what the message is actually trying to convey. Their Facebook page also features advertisements with more messages about how clothes shouldn’t be what attracts people to you: your actions are more important .


Developing message and product placement strategies is more than just selling your name. What do you really want your audience to gain from your product? Make sure every advertisement option you use has a purpose behind it, and that it is not just selling out empty messages.


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