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Theory & Practice: Jim Oates
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Jim Oates

Theory & Practice: Jim Oates


By Jim Oates, former president of Leo Burnett Worldwide, and Kellogg Dean's Advisory Board member

A powerful communications play

I don't know who invented the "misdirection" play in the N.F.L.; it could have been Walsh or Shula, or Lombardi or even Brown, but it became a powerful tool in the football arsenal for breaking through some strong, aggressive defenses. The same holds true within the advertising communications game. "Misdirection" can be a very powerful communications strategy in highly competitive marketing sectors to break through the clutter of competitive claims. It is difficult to execute effectively and can only be executed well if the message is clear and concise and follows the K.I.S.S. rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid). The communications platform must be pre- and post-tested to insure the communication is well understood and not confusing, otherwise the message will be wasted. It also needs to be targeted toward a widespread prevailing attitude about the brand. Perhaps the best way to define "misdirection" in this context is by example.

In the case of the "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile" campaign, market data had indicated that the Oldsmobile user base was shrinking due to the aging of the brand's buyers. Also, Oldsmobile was discovering that their primary target (35-50-year-olds) was starting to perceive the brand as an "aging dowager." With scheduled introductions of several new models targeted directly at these 35-50 year olds, it was imperative to reposition the brand to this important target group where Oldsmobile had enjoyed its greatest success.

A competitive analysis of the messages broadcast to this highly sought after target group, along with analysis of their perceptions of the brand, uncovered a couple of other issues that needed to be addressed in the communications platform: First, the "youth" message was pervasive and had resulted in most of the advertising directed to the target group looking and sounding the same. The target group had thrown up a strong mental defense to overall youth appeals. Second, the target group had strong lingering positive associations of Oldsmobile and its quality. The primary problem was the brand and its models looked old and sounded old.

Leo Burnett was given the repositioning assignment and we developed the "Not Your Father's Oldsmobile" campaign. This campaign utilized famous fathers and sons and mothers and daughters as spokespersons for the brand. Preliminary research using one-on-one interviews and focus groups indicated the campaign line was clear, concise and moved respondents to a favorable disposition regarding the brand. The launch of the campaign was an immediate success in gaining awareness among the primary target group. The post-campaign launch research indicated the "cut through" capability of the campaign, as it exceeded all of General Motors' normative benchmarks. The campaign and its line went on to become a part of the American vernacular.

A second case that also successfully utilizes the power of misdirection is that of Maytag. Long known for the quality of their appliances, Maytag asked Leo Burnett for a demonstrable presentation of this primary position. Previously, Maytag campaigns had emphasized the longevity of its products through the use of family testimonials to show how Maytag had outlasted the family grind. The campaign and the product had delivered on the promise, but the campaign was losing its impact.

To solve this challenge, Leo Burnett created the "Lonely Repairman" campaign. This campaign was not designed to feature what a repairman would do when not on call but was designed to demonstrate that Maytag products need few repairs. The strong, engaging characters and situations cut through the generic quality claims of its competitors and freshened Maytag's quality image.

Both of these cases demonstrate that misdirection can be a powerful communication platform when it follows some common principles: the message is simple, clear and concise; the primary target understands the message completely and is favorably impressed; and the communication platform is geared to overcoming a prevailing attitude on the part of the target group.

Well-executed misdirection can offer a marketing breakthrough and should be considered as part of one's communication playbook.

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University