Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

How Not to Misfire the Message

Khalid Naseem on how to avoid the pitfalls of bad messaging.
Updated 07 Mar, 2024 12:19pm

Advertising plays a pivotal role in building and shaping brand identity. Effective advertising creates awareness and establishes an emotional connection with consumers. It helps differentiate a brand from its competitors and reinforces its positioning in the market.

Ineffective advertising can negatively impact a brand in several ways, ultimately leading to a decline in brand perception, customer trust and market share.

Negative Perception
Misleading and offensive ads create negative perceptions among consumers. Remember HBL’s Mr Bean campaign ridiculing their customers? Mr Bean assumed the role of an HBL customer, implying that their customers were dumb. However, HBL is a big brand and it was saved by its brand equity. Had a lesser-known brand launched such a campaign, it would have been in trouble.

Customer Disengagement
Culturally insensitive or offensive campaigns may lead to disengagement from consumers, causing them to distance themselves from the brand. Remember Ufone’s humorous campaigns? There is nothing wrong with using humour in advertising, but it needs to be used with caution to avoid ridiculing customers. Ufone’s MNP campaign made its intended customers an object of humour. The protagonist is beaten and thrown out of his apartment by his wife. The commentary goes: ‘Some things are difficult to change but you can change your network easily and come to Ufone.’

Competitive Disadvantage
If the advertising fails to highlight a brand’s unique selling proposition or differentiate it from the competition, it may struggle to stand out in a crowded market. This lack of distinction can result in a loss of market share. Remember Exide Battery’s ‘Exide chalti jae’ ad? Now juxtapose this with AGS Battery’s ad Zindagi ki gari chaley. Not only are the executions similar, but the brand promise is also similar. Remove the shadow of the bird from the AGS commercial and try to figure out the difference.

Failure to Adapt to Cultural Sensitivities
In Pakistan, failure to understand and respect cultural sensitivities can lead to advertising that is perceived as disrespectful. For instance, Careem installed a billboard with the message: ‘If you want to run away from your wedding, call Careem.’ The brand came off as being insensitive to the prevailing cultural norms and gave rise to angry responses on X (formerly Twitter), with critics contending that it violated the sanctity of marriage and was not aligned with ‘our culture’.

Tone Deaf Messaging
Ads relying on harmful stereotypes or humour that mocks certain segments can alienate a large portion of the target audience. Remember the ads for Josh condoms, particularly the one that led to controversy not only in Pakistan, but in the US as well? The ad was unclear in its messaging and there was no obvious link between the storyline and the brand’s benefit. Such ambiguous communication does more harm than good. I understand that given cultural sensitivities, it is difficult to promote products like condoms. However, such restrictions should force one to be more creative in their approach.

Overused Clichés
Done-to-death jokes, tropes and storylines leave viewers disengaged and bored. Who has not seen the ‘family sharing data’ ad a million times? Clichés provide no differentiation and make brands forgettable. Remember Rivo mobile’s stereotypical copycat ads for QMobile, which attempted to beat the competition on its own turf but ended up becoming a ‘me too’ brand? The tagline ‘Take Control’ only added insult to injury, by taking the ‘empowerment’ high ground in a mature smartphone market – which typically works when the goal is to penetrate the market with a new product, not when you are trying to grab share from a market leader. Not to anyone’s surprise, the brand disappeared within a year of launch.

Misaligned Values
Promoting values that the brand itself does not embody is a recipe for disaster. Think of the greenwashing campaigns. Nestlé Pakistan has initiated a transformation to renewable energy at its Kabirwala plant and claims to be contributing to a greener Pakistan, even though it is the same company that uses millions of plastic bottles of Pure Life alone. People who know this will not be impressed by Nestlé’s sustainability advertising and will doubt its sincerity.

Incomprehensible Messaging
Confusing messages can result in ineffective communication. Consumers may not understand the value proposition, leading to a loss of interest in the products or services. A few years ago, Warid ran a campaign with the tagline ‘Life Ka Network.’ No one knows what they were trying to communicate. Not surprisingly, Warid was bought out by Jazz. One may quote a ton of reasons justifying the sale, but the truth is it was a weak brand, further weakened by confusing messaging.

Limiting Heritage
Heritage can be a blessing, but it can also be a limiting factor and companies struggle with what to do with it. Remember the Pied Piper’s ‘the Legend Leads’ classic TV commercial which tried to give a positive spin by weaving a story around the character, although people know that in the actual story, the Pied Piper was a vengeful character who lured away children from their homes. The Pied Piper is still the character that embodies Peak Freans, but the company has shied away from further leveraging the character to avoid controversy. With their new corporate campaign, it seems they are preparing to move away from the Peak Freans brand and make EBM a customer-facing brand.

Execution Blunders
Using the tagline Tum hi tou ho, Ufone has positioned itself as a company that celebrates its customers. However, its humorous campaign ended up making it an object of humour. There is a disconnect between their positioning and their advertising. Data suggests that although the campaign had entertainment value, it did little to build the brand.

Inappropriate Language
Telenor recently ran a campaign with the tagline ‘More se ziada. The brand’s value proposition made sense to price-sensitive segments by offering them value. However, more se ziada means ‘more than more’, leaving one to wonder what it really means. Even if you get the message, the tagline is not part of consumers’ lingo. You can argue that ‘Minglish’ is the new language we talk in Pakistan, but certainly not in this way. The team could have communicated the brand’s value proposition better. When you don’t talk the way your consumers do, how can you initiate a relationship with them? The result? Telenor has been sold to PTCL. Again, you can quote multiple reasons, but you know it is the weakening of a brand.

These are a few examples that highlight the importance of thoughtful, responsible advertising. Brands need to be mindful of cultural sensitivities, avoid clichés and harmful stereotypes, and focus on creating genuine connections through relevant and creative messaging.

Khalid Naseem is a brand and marketing strategy consultant and freelance writer.