Step Out of the Spotlight: Shine It On the Product

Step Out of the Spotlight

No one reading this will be surprised to hear that designers have egos. But those egos can lead us astray, and result in work that does not serve our clients well.

Per behavioral researcher Richard Shotton, marketers are quite prone to a particular error in perception. We believe that our messages, branding and creative ideas are exciting, memorable and noticeable, while our audiences may scarcely be aware of them, let alone find them motivating, or even memorable. This is known as the spotlight effect.

The Spotlight Effect: our tendency to believe we are the center of attention far more than is the case.

The same effect comes into play when agencies deal with their own clients. Agencies too often believe that marketing is a top priority for clients… when they are usually focused on more critical demands of financial management, sales data, labor management, regulation, product development, et. al. Our daily purpose is not front and center for our clients; for most businesses, marketing is a necessary evil, and well down their list of must-haves.

Rory Sutherland (vice-chairman of Ogilvy and an industry thought leader) says businesses have a hard time accepting that marketing works, because it does not fit economic models of cost management and efficiency. What is efficient is not always effective in marketing. Why? Because of human psychology; humans don’t think rationally, we react emotionally, make choices based on short-term convenience or top-of-mind concerns, and yield to inherent biases and random influences. The human factor is why advertising and marketing have an impact.

“It messes with the map of the world [businesspeople] hold in their heads,” says Sutherland. “They would rather pretend that their success is attributable to efficiencies, economies of scale, cost-cutting or any MBA guff than to think that it might be due to psychological factors.”

May We Have Your Attention?

Creative marketing is all about getting attention, and more critically shifting attention to product benefits that help people become comfortable about making a purchase decision. As Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman recently noted, “Brands that are in the spotlight have a much higher likelihood of being successful than brands that are not in the spotlight. This is where we have leverage. For this reason alone all marketing communication should have a common objective—to find a piece of the spotlight.”

Getting noticed should be marketers’ first priority. That means pushing harder to develop riskier creative concepts that will stand out from the competition. And it means agencies need to understand how to bring clients to accept the creative risk that goes along with reaching for the spotlight. To do that, we have to stop deceiving ourselves about how great our ideas are, and get very good at crafting messages that will attract positive attention to client brands. This includes choosing the best channels and tactics to deliver those messages to the right audiences at the right time.

Keep in mind that in advertising, Shotton advises, playing it safe is the higher risk. If you choose safety over distinctive positioning and message, you’ll disappear into the advertising clutter.

Some related effects of spotlight thinking are:

  • The proportion of people who believe the ads are as good as the TV programming they surround has halved since 1990. (Yet, there are so many more of them!)
  • Advertising creative people believe the target audience is “us.”
  • We get so caught up in what we have to say, we ignore the unspoken messages our audiences might be hearing. (E.g., early ads promoting wearing car seat belts emphasized people in the front seat, so back-seat passengers didn’t wear them.)

Spotlight Lessons: 

  1. Critique your work. Look at how well it is targeted. Pre-testing is not essential, but could be insightful. Get before-and-after user feedback on the campaign and measure pre/post perceptions of the brand/product.
  2. Measure. Track response and effectiveness. What did you fail to consider that you learned from the campaign? 
  3. Assess the quality of the idea. Did you push into riskier ideas, or settle for safe? How might you have improved it? What have you learned for future projects?

Agencies need to work harder to shift the spotlight from what we want to believe is great creative, to the right attention-grabbing message for the right audience at the right time. Our job has become figuring out how to keep the light shining on the most memorable strategic idea. We must not go down the rabbit hole of designer ego and bias, producing lazy branding applications and pretending it is effective marketing, without ever offering evidence of effect. Instead of believing the spotlight shines on our ideas, we need to work ever harder to shine the brightest light on our clients’ brands… and measure effectiveness so clients and we know the creative is working. 

Again, I give you Bob Hoffman:

“The ads that best build brands are those that have a clear and specific message about a product and deliver it in a memorable way.” 


Cue the follow spot…


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