Advertising’s current sea of sameness: Immense waste of money or awesome opportunity to set your brand apart?

March 11, 2021
March 11, 2021 Marty Donohue

This one is for all of you heads of marketing and advertising- those smart, hard-charging people responsible for the current messaging your brand shares with consumers. The messaging that has as its primary goal to create interest in and desire for whatever product or service you are putting out there.

I ask you all to please switch from your marketing to your consumer hat for the next few days. Become a student of advertising. Watch or listen in earnest to the commercials playing on TV or the radio. Pay close attention to any pre-roll, display ads, or social media marketing posts. If you’re out and about, take in the outdoor boards and transit posters you come across.

Notice anything? Anything at all? How many brands stood out to you? How many messages got your attention or made you think a little differently? How many ads stuck with you?

Chances are not many. There is indeed a rising sea of sameness, a pattern of parity, happening in the ad world at the moment. And while Covid certainly had its effect, this homogenization has been building for quite some time. There isn’t one reason for this. There are several:

  • CMO’s have less time to make an impact.

    According to SpencerStuart’s annual CMO tenure study, the average tenure of a CMO was 41 months in 2019, a number that continues to trend downward for the past five years.

  • The hyper-analysis of certain analytics.

    There is such thing as too much testing, especially when it saps the emotional impact out of the idea. Brands spend weeks if not months making sure their message is right, oftentimes losing sight about making it great.

  • The “Content is not Concept” conundrum.

    Interview footage combined with slo-mo B-roll is not an idea. An anthemic script and powerful music track over stock footage is rarely an idea. Tactics like these have been overdone so much they are all blending into each other.

  • Shrinkage of non-working media spend.

    In an effort to put as much of their budget into paid media as possible, some clients are grinding down the fees they reserve for strategic and creative development: the very resources which could be deployed to fill valuable media space with fresh and impactful messaging that truly resonates with consumers.

So how is all of this manifesting into today’s advertising product? Where there were once Ideas there are now just proof points. Creative inspiration is being replaced with information. You can listen to three minutes of back-to-back radio spots and not know where one message ends and one begins. Too many messages out there look or sound exactly the same. And for marketers who are spending a small fortune every quarter on media, I fear they are wasting big chunks of their money producing flat, formulaic creative that doesn’t resonate with anyone.

Of course there are exceptions. There are brands who still get it, who still push the boundaries across all media to create messages that stand out, make consumers take notice and maximize their brand’s relevance. Progressive, Burger King, Geico, Oatly, Reddit and Crocs are phenomenal at flying in the face of the current status quo.

Many other brands choose not to. And therein lies the opportunity.

Because the bar has never been lower, the opportunity has never been greater for a brand, let’s say your brand, to become one of the exceptions. You don’t need tens of millions of marketing dollars either. You do need, however, to commit to doing things more distinctively than many of those who don’t. There are great agencies out there who would love to help you do it too. Full Contact is just one of those agencies. But it starts with you.

In my thirty-plus years in this business, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with marketing leaders who saw the opportunity and made a commitment to stand out, to be fresher and more disruptive than anyone else in their category. David D’Alessandro of John Hancock was one. Eddie Binder of Dunkin’ Donuts was another. Ari Haseotes, George Fournier and Gwen Forman of Cumberland Farms were too as were Stephanie Shore at Zipcar, Jen Robison and Julie Smith at Atlantic Broadband, Gayle O’Connell and Mary Anne Hailer at Arbella insurance, Katelin Spaulding at Boston Private and Deena McKinley and Jill Grogan at Papa Gino’s/D’Angelo. They each committed to look, sound and feel different from their competitors and they transformed their businesses because of it. They also did it without relying on a mountain of data to inform what they should and shouldn’t say.

This was not a case of the agency pressuring them into doing great and differentiating work. They wanted it just as much as we did for their brand. They saw the immense value of setting themselves apart and they went for it. There was nothing gratuitous about it. It was a smart business move and a far better use of their marketing dollars than coming across like every other brand.

Here’s another way to think about it. From a product development standpoint you are always looking for that Unique Selling Proposition, the distinctive benefit exhibited by a product, service or brand that enables you to stand out from your competitors. Well, your advertising is a product of your brand. Shouldn’t it stand out as much as anything else you put in front of consumers?

Not a rhetorical question. Yes it should.

Marty Donohue is a founding partner of Full Contact advertising in Boston.

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