How advertising can turn a relative weakness into a strength

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From the middle of the 19th Century until the middle of the 20th, passenger liners competed to win the ‘Blue Riband’ – an unofficial accolade awarded to liners that crossed the Atlantic Ocean with the highest average speed.

Some 35 ocean liners held the title over the years – some multiple times. One liner, patriotically named the United States, proudly announced in its newspaper advertisements that it was “the world’s fastest passenger ship.”

This turned out to be a short sighted campaign.

When transatlantic air travel by jet became popular from the late 1950s, thanks to Boeing, the speed of ocean liners – however fast they might be – became an irrelevance.

“Cunard essentially invented the cruise ship industry because they said, ‘We can’t sell on speed anymore. We have to find some other comparative strength,'” advertising executive Rory Sutherland recently explained, during a lively episode of the podcast EconTalk.

“And what advertising does is focus you on the comparative strength rather than the comparative weakness. An advertising campaign that said, ‘The Queen Mary, it’s so fast,’ would be ridiculous. Essentially, what that means is you’re getting worse value for money. Because I’m paying as much for the journey as for the destination.”

The word ‘advertise’, as Sutherland goes on to say, has its origin in the classical Latin word ‘Advertere’. ‘Advertere’ means to turn towards.

“Advertising affects what we pay attention to. And then what we pay attention to becomes, in our minds, more important because we’re paying attention to it.”

Turning a relative weakness into a strength is a magic trick the advertising industry has pulled off many times.

Avis, for example, began an ad campaign in 1962 that made its position as the second most popular car rental company – which meant they were less likely to have a car available – into a strength, by declaring: ‘Avis is only number two in rent a cars. So we try harder.’

So successful was the ‘we try harder’ campaign that within 12 months Avis had gone from losing $3 million a year to making $1.2 million — its first profit in a decade.

A version of this article was published as part of a weekly column by Guy Cookson on marketing, design, trends and strategy in the Lancaster Guardian, Blackpool Gazette, Lancashire Post and other titles. See our brand, web design and marketing recent projects.
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