Advertising as failure, or as caulk?

Jeff Jarvis discusses the notion of advertising as failure:

“The ideal relationship a company should have with its customer is that it produces a great product the customer loves and talks about and thus sells; there is no need for advertising there. It’s only in the case of failing at that idea that one needs to advertise.”

Go check out his post because he expands significantly on this idea in three video segments.

I see the logic, at least in cases with these characteristics:

  • A given company and its given product have existed long enough to develop any reputation, good or bad.
  • The product falls into a non-commodity category (fashion apparel, for example, vs. table salt).
  • Price is no object, or at least not a significant factor in demand.
  • The current and prospective customers for the company/product actively use capable, trusted communications methods.

Minus one or more of these characteristics, advertising would not necessarily suggest failure of the company to communicate, or failure of the product to endear itself with customers. Other factors come into play, enticing companies to advertise to fill seams and gaps (a la caulk) in word-of-mouth:

  • Maybe it's a new product. Word-of-mouth usually has to start with some kind of announcement, and maybe a little reach-and-frequency. Not every product grows its customer base successfully under an invitational test program that evolves into a five-year public beta.
  • Maybe it is table salt. How do you differentiate Morton's from store brand? Price? Brand awareness? Advertising commonly gets word out to support either differentiator. (Effectiveness, of course, is another matter.)
  • Maybe I'd love a Lexus, but my finances suggest I need to find the most capable car I can, with enough of the luxury characteristics I want, for a lot less money. Perhaps advertising persuades me to consider alternatives.
  • Maybe several of my friends own Hondas or Fords that I'd love almost as much as the Lexus, but they live far away, and for whatever reason, I never get that great testimonial from them.

In some of these cases, nothing really fails in a way that leads to the need for advertising — circumstances simply warrant it. In other cases, things outside the company's control fail. I agree with Jarvis that advertising bridges a gap companies should wish did not exist, and should strive to eliminate by all means: between them and their customers or prospective customers. I hope the conversation he kicked off will lead to many more ideas on how to do that, with or beyond advertising.

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