Radio Advertising: What Works and What Doesn’t

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip November 30, 2006

Yeah, you can wait to see how your ratings respond, but is there any better way to know what advertising works, “what sticks,” and know before you spend the big bucks? And is there any better way to get improved results for your clients – and more of their advertising bucks in the bargain?

Well, yes there is. And Rex Briggs has written a book on the subject. Rex is the co-author of What Sticks? Why Advertising Fails and How to Guarantee Yours Succeeds

Listen to the full 15-minute audio interview (what follows is only an abbreviated transcript).


Rex, when it comes to radio advertising, what does stick?

In radio, what’s been really successful are the ads that are able to paint a picture, even through the words, and are able to connect the message to the main part of the campaign running in television, magazines, or other media. When they reinforce each other it works wonderfully.


So what you’re saying, essentially, is that for those radio spots which have TV equivalents it’s best to use audio elements from the TV spot in the radio spot in order to connect back to the original campaign.

If a consumer hears a message on radio, and they see it in a magazine or on television or on the Internet, will they know that this is the same message? Will it connect and fit together?

That’s what we call “surround sound” marketing, which is when each of the different marketing elements reinforce one another to create a more powerful experience for the consumer sitting in the middle of all of that advertising and messaging.

In radio we tend to believe we should put all our marketing money in one media basket to “own” TV or outdoor or direct marketing. But you indicate that it is much more effective to allocate resources across a mix of advertising vehicles, not to try to own one outright.

That was one of the shocking things we discovered. You see, consumers are pattern-recognizing beings. Our brains are naturally looking to see the same message or the same idea in different environments, and when you see that reinforcement of the same idea in different places it actually creates a deeper meaning in our minds than if we just see the same message repeated again and again and again in the same environment.

So you are better off recognizing that there’s power in the media mix, and that power is greater than if you concentrated only through a single megaphone. Think of the difference between mono and stereo, where the sound is coming from all different angles. Who wants to go back to mono, right? That’s like going back to a TV-only plan.

What else “sticks” for radio advertising?

The most important issue is for the marketer to stop for a moment and decide what exactly “success” is. What’s our business success and what’s advertising success, because those aren’t always the same objective.

For example, in radio, let’s say that you’re part of a campaign that’s meant to drive foot traffic to a retail store. Well, the business success for the marketer probably isn’t foot traffic, it’s probably sales or profit, and having the marketer recognize the difference between the business success and the advertising success will help them recognize how to properly measure if the advertising did its job.

Now let’s say the foot traffic isn’t there. Then we need to think about the creative, because it’s not necessarily that radio is ineffective in driving foot traffic, it probably is the fault of an ineffective message. And that’s where advertising pre-testing comes in. We would try different radio ads in different markets and see if some messages work better than others,

If you’re one station in one market you might try running different ads in different weeks, and correlating the spots run to foot traffic. It then becomes collaboration between the station and the marketer, the local merchant or agency. You’re out to achieve your client’s goals rather than sell them a schedule of advertising per se.

A healthy collaboration with the clients will achieve better results for them and for you. We believe in the effectiveness of radio and we know the medium works. The question is, what message do you put inside the medium, and how do we make that as powerful as possible?

On radio you said the marketer has to figure out how to convey meaning with sound. What do you mean by that?

As consumers we have become increasingly visually oriented in the way that we deal with communication, and visual symbols play a very large role in the way that we communicate in advertising and marketing now. And that has led to some bias in media plans towards the visual communication media: television, magazine, Internet, and even more so towards media that have a motion component to the visual. So it has been a challenge to show marketers that sound is actually an opportunity to differentiate the brand and reinforce meaning. Some companies have done a really good job of coming up with a sound imprint. Look at Intel as an example. Their sound imprint helps to reinforce other areas where you’ve gotten the message about what Intel stands for.

Or think about Wells Fargo. I remember a radio ad that used the same sound of the cowboy, or whatever he is, who’s riding the stagecoach saying “Yah,” to the horses, and you hear the horses galloping and moving on, and that reinforces the idea of “fast then, fast now,” which was their message at the time. And that worked very well in radio because that sound imprint tied back to their overall message of “fast then, fast now.”

Unfortunately, a lot of marketers don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about all five senses that you can communicate a brand with, and sound is one of those that is under-leveraged.

What is the main opportunity for radio in communicating its value to potential advertisers?

My sense is that the big-spending national marketers of brands that under-leverage radio haven’t really thought through what their visual equivalent is on the radio – the audio imprint of their brand. A lot of them have a visual identity, but they haven’t developed an audio identify. So, I might really try to figure out how I became the leader in helping agencies and marketers determine what that audio imprint is.

Out my window here in our California office I see a UPS truck driving by, and I can tell it’s UPS even though it’s pretty far away because it’s a big brown truck with a yellow logo on the side. It has a visual identity that you can see from a distance, but what’s the audio equivalent that says UPS automatically to me? If I could help UPS develop that, and show them that it worked to reinforce the key promise of their brand and help them drive their business success, I could certainly get more of their advertising dollars.

What do you say to the radio station that says, “Look, all I need to do is show my spot in the ranker,” and to the agency that says, “Look, radio station, all I want to know is where you are in the ranker.”

I would say to look at what happened with vendor and supplier relationships as supply chain theory kicked in. And what happened was that more and more manufacturers whittled down their lists of suppliers to the ones that were really adding value beyond just delivering the products to spec, because that is the exact same thing that was happening in that industry 10, 15 years ago where they thought, “All we have to do is deliver the raw material to the spec we promised and show that we deliver the quality that they specified.”

And a lot of those companies aren’t in business anymore.

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