get the message?

cadbury gorilla

Simon Law shared some thoughts in response to the recent measures of success post that alluded to another interesting question:

Does advertising always need a message?

Much like ‘big ideas’, advertisers increasingly question the validity and relevance of ‘messages’.

But I believe much of that criticism is unfounded.

Every advert – and indeed, every communication – needs a message.

The issue in advertising is not the relevance of messages, but what the word ‘message‘ has come to mean.

People use it arbitrarily to mean a variety of different things: slogan, tagline, theme,…

Strictly speaking, however, it’s none of those.

Defining the term

Communication is all about exchange.

The word’s linguistic root means “to make common” – i.e. to share.

Modern definitions have evolved to encompass a slightly broader context; this is‘s perspective:

The imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.

It’s clear from this that communication should always involve some kind of sharing.

And that’s where ‘messages’ come in.

Sharing what?

In an advertising context, the message is whatever we hope to share: thoughts, opinions, information, etc.

Put more simply, the message is

The subject of communication.

However, this is still a little too ambiguous.

The role of a message

We’ve seen before that the purpose of brand communication is:

To create a shared understanding between a brand and the people it wishes to influence.

In that context, the ‘subject‘ of brand communication is the understanding that we want to share.

So, fundamentally, a message is

The thing we want people to think, believe, or perceive as a result of experiencing our communications.

So why do we need one?

Some people have suggested that a ‘message’ isn’t necessary – that advertising can work perfectly well without one.

But that makes no sense.

All advertising must have a purpose: an objective that relates to the brand’s success.

Furthermore, that purpose will always involve sharing something with an audience that will influence their attitudes and / or behaviour.

So, in light of how we’ve defined ‘message‘ above, it’s logical to conclude that all advertising must have a message.

Deciding the message

Deciding exactly what that message should be is a lot more complex.

As always, the most appropriate message depends entirely on what the brand wants to achieve, and whom it’s talking to.

Let’s look at an example that many detractors cite when asserting that advertising doesn’t need a message:

I’ve heard many people suggest that ‘Gorilla‘ doesn’t have a message.

But, together with a group of very intelligent people*, I worked on the strategy that inspired Gorilla (and the subsequent ‘Trucks‘ and ‘Eyebrows‘ films), so I can confidently assert that it did have a message.

The expression of that message even appears in the clip, albeit subtly.

At the time we began development of this strategy, the Cadbury Dairy Milk brand faced an interesting dilemma: although it was still the nation’s favourite chocolate, it had become a category generic: Cadbury Dairy Milk was ‘chocolate’, and people didn’t perceive it standing for much beyond that.

Meanwhile, competitors were gaining ground with highly targeted positionings that appealed to specific audience desires.

A thorough exploration of the Cadbury Dairy Milk brand revealed that there was a generosity that ran through everything the brand did – from its cooperative roots, to the fact that Cadbury continues to use fresh milk in the production process.

Coincidentally, we already knew that the audience aspired to be more optimistic: they were tired of the constant cynicism that surrounded them, and they wanted to break free from that by surrounding themselves with more optimistic people.

We saw a relevant connection between generosity and optimism.

Then, when we reflected on the brand’s heritage of ‘a glass-and-a-half of milk in every half pound‘ (a well-known claim used in much of the brand’s historic advertising), the somewhat obvious line was too good to ignore:

See the world as a glass-and-a-half full.

The play on seeing the glass half empty versus half full is obvious: Cadbury Dairy Milk offers people an exceptionally optimistic outlook that counters the cynicism that pervades their lives.

It’s not rocket science, but then, choosing a brand of chocolate isn’t too complicated either.

I wasn’t involved in the specific development of the Gorilla film,  so can’t comment with authority, but I think the intended ‘message’ is pretty clear:

Cadbury Dairy Milk’s communications bring you a moment of optimistic joy – just like Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate.

Simple, but very effective.


Communications always need a message: something that the brand wants its audience to understand, and that will help it achieve its objectives.

That message doesn’t need to be complex, and it doesn’t need to be expressed explicitly.

But we’ve always got to share something.

Even if that’s just a moment of joy.

*As a consultant at ascension strategy consulting, I helped to develop the proposition and subsequent positioning for the Cadbury Dairy Milk brand. Publicis were Cadbury’s agency at the time of this development, although the brand’s account subsequently moved to Fallon, who created the Gorilla film featured above.

3 Responses to “get the message?”

  1. 1 Simon Law October 15, 2009 at 21:39

    I’m finding myself agreeing with you, although I’m strongly anti the panacea thought that advertising should “always have a message”!

    I don’t disagree with your structured thinking around the “message” but I do disagree with the label, I think – how shallow, eh!

    The reason being that, like all things (my previous bug bear being the label “insight”), people abuse it. And misunderstand it. Which I think is your point as well. If you take “message” to be a ‘proposition’ in the old sense of it, then you can get unstuck.

    What all brands need is something that gives purpose – a sort of defining principle or organising thought is the best expression I’ve got right now. I think this is the same thing as the “message” that you refer to here. But maybe gets us out of the language trap?

    Certainly, when you go from TV ads to online, you need to have more than a proposition – you need to have a whole collection of behaviours, information and utility for your audience… All of which can still be governed by an organising thought, but can’t all be telling the same message. Because what you may be briefing and looking for has no message to tell, but does have value as an application that extols the values of the brand. Think Nike+ as a over-used example, or Lego kiosks in stores (showing how the built toy looks when a kid holds up the Lego box to the camera), or Starbucks Google app… and so on. Things that have value, have brand effectiveness, but don’t have a message.


    • 2 eskimon October 16, 2009 at 09:55

      Hi Simon, thanks for sharing such detailed thoughts again. I agree with you on the use of the word ‘message’ – it’s abused and has lost its meaning.

      Oddly, the technical definition of the word is ‘the subject of communication’, so it should be the most appropriate; however as we saw in the brand interpreters piece, it’s not the words that matter, but what people understand.

      From that perspective, I think its OK to call it whatever works for you and the people you work with – as long as we all know that we need to clarify what we want people to understand from the communications before we get into channel planning or media creative.

      And on the Nike+ example, there’s a reason we keep referring back to it: it’s exceptionally good. More to come on that in a couple of weeks…

  1. 1 it’s all about the benefits « eskimon Trackback on November 10, 2009 at 15:45

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