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A brand is more quantifiable than we think. In his new Promotion Fix column, Samuel Scott uses an outdoor campaign for a new vegan cheese to show an example of how to build a strong one and why OOH can be very effective.

After a six-month third national lockdown, Israel opened on Sunday amid the country’s continuing successful vaccination effort. The prior week – before the stores, museums, hotels, restaurants and pubs were full of people again – I took a quiet stroll down Tel Aviv’s beachfront to see the views that I had not seen in a year.

At a time when the streets were almost empty except for outdoor ads, it was an out of home campaign for a new local vegan cheese brand, Gaia, that has been stuck in my head ever since. (And that alone is the best sign of brand advertising success.)

Even though I am the complete opposite of a vegan – one of my common breakfasts is a lamb bacon and egg sandwich with garlic mayonnaise, spices and hot sauce – I recognised that Gaia is an example of building brand equity.

(The Hebrew at the bottom says: “New! Vegan Cheese Line” and then shows “herb,” “goat,” “classic,” “cheddar-style,” “black pepper,” “chives” and “paprika” varieties.)

First, it is important to remember the difference between a product and a brand. Vegan cheese is a product made from soy, nuts or vegetable oil. All vegan cheese products are essentially the same. But a brand is a product with something significant that distinguishes it from competing products and within the category. And that significance lives in the minds of human beings.

Second, we must understand the purpose of brand marketing. Today, marcom departments are often separated into two “units”: performance and brand. “Performance” is short-term, logical and focused on metrics such as clicks, leads and sales while “brand” is long-term, emotional and pays attention to goals including awareness, top of mind and purchase intent. Supposedly.

But there is more to it. The primary goal of brand management is actually to build brand equity, even if it might be more difficult to do with outdoor campaigns during a pandemic.

“OOH advertising has been negatively impacted by lower foot traffic,” Brandon Verblow, a forecast analyst in digital marketing and online media at Forrester Research, told me. “Less movement means fewer eyeballs to view OOH ads. It also means companies’ physical locations are generating less revenue, so there is less incentive for them to spend on OOH ads – which are partly aimed at driving foot traffic.”

“Google data shows that movement in locations like retail and recreation, workplaces, and transit stations in the US remains 18% to 35% below pre-pandemic levels.”

An introduction to brand equity

Take a plain metal can that has no label, and tell consumers that it contains a given food product. Ask them how much they would pay for it. Then, put a brand label on the can and ask them again. The difference is that brand’s equity.

Here is a real-world example from Walmart’s online store in the United States, which is selling these large bottles of similarly flavoured carbonated sugar water.

Dr Pepper
 
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A two-litre bottle of Dr Pepper costs $1.78. A generic version is $0.74. Dr Pepper’s brand equity allows it to charge 140% more. Multiply the difference of $1.04 by the many millions of bottles that are sold every year, and you can see the financial value of the brand.

The same model holds true for celebrities and influencers. All actors and actresses, for example, deliver the same basic product function. Take a random, unknown actress and cast her in the leading role for a film. See how much it makes. Then, make the same movie with Gal Gadot instead. The amount of added box office revenue is Gadot’s brand equity.

Even in the B2B software world, the principle remains. Take Scott Brinker’s martech landscape – last year, there were 8,000 platforms in areas such as email marketing, advertising and CRM. But for as much as the tech world loves to be “product-led,” I must ask one question: how different, really, is each offering from the competition in a given category? It is the brand that makes much of the difference.

Essentially, the goal of brand management is to get more people to pay more and more over time for the same product. And that is something that both “brand” and “performance” marketers can welcome – as well as something that will impress their chief executives and boards.

Building brand equity at the top of the funnel helps all other marcom activities. And that is partially why Brandless failed in early 2020 – it was actually a brand, just a bad one.

In addition, brand equity and other intangible assets are also what often increases the overall value of many companies over time. Here are some slides from BBH Labs that I have collected showing the effects.

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The market for vegan products in Israel

Building, managing and measuring brand equity is a lengthy topic. Here, I will focus on the Gaia ad.

According to Chef’s Pencil, Israel was the third most popular country for vegans (after the UK and Australia) in 2020. In Tel Aviv, 4% of the people are vegan and another 4.5% are vegetarian. There is more: Israel has held the world’s largest vegan festival, Domino’s Pizza debuted its vegan menu here and Adidas did the same with its leather-free shoes.

There is even a long-running joke. The first thing that young men must do when they move to Tel Aviv is get a dog, grow a beard and go vegan – and then tell everyone that they got a dog, grew a beard and went vegan.

So, it is not surprising that Gaia is a challenger brand with a lot of preexisting competition. Here is just one example of the many vegan cheese brands here. And again, remember: they are all pretty much the same. I searched a local supermarket chain’s website for vegan cheese to compare the prices per 100 grams (because packages, of course, vary in size).

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Most often, the Live brand cost NIS 11.45 ($3.46), Vega was NIS 11.71 ($3.54) and Violife priced at NIS 11.95 ($3.61). Gaia? NIS 13.27 ($4.01).

To create an entirely new brand and charge a market-leading price from the beginning takes beitzim. (That is Hebrew for “eggs,” but it means something else in slang.) You need brand equity to back it up. Which takes us back to Gaia's outdoor campaign.

How Gaia has already built a strong brand

The Live brand says that its cheese is delicious enough for vegans and non-vegans alike. Vega’s website states little of consequence. Violife is a bit negative and talks about “a milk-free diet without fear” and enjoying “cheese substitutes without remorse.” Yawn.

Moveover, those brands have never run ads. (Which is bad.) Or perhaps I have just never noticed or remembered them. (Which is worse.)

Gaia's core brand value seems to be that it is the veganist vegan cheese to ever vegan. (After all, the name literally means “Mother Earth.”) In brand positioning terms, this is doubling down on a category point of parity rather than expressing a point of difference. And the ad campaign delivers by focusing on the people rather than the product.

Look at the tagline: “They say cheese. We say Gaia.” Whoever came up with that copy at the Avraham ad agency in Tel Aviv deserves a big raise. The beauty, in part, is that it creates in-groups and out-groups without being specific. “They” and “we” are vague and not defined. It works on several levels.

Vegans versus non-vegans. This is the most obvious interpretation. Non-vegans eat cheese while vegans eat substitutes such as Gaia.

Real vegans versus lighter vegans. If “we” refers to all vegans, then the ad is saying that true vegans eat Gaia specifically.

Tel Aviv versus Jerusalem. Tel Aviv is a young, liberal and secular bubble in a country that is majority conservative and run by a government that has usually been dominated by right wing and Orthodox religious parties since 2001. Those same young, liberal and secular people (“we”) are also those who are becoming vegan.

Young versus old. New generations establish identities in part by rejecting the one that came before. The ad is also communicating that only old people (“they”) still eat cheese. Young people, like the fresh-faced twentysomethings in the ad (“we”), do not. (At least we can make fun of their man buns and skinny jeans.)

In short, it makes Gaia's target audience want to buy the cheese and join the in-group in numerous ways.

A few other creative notes. The “say cheese” line especially works when the copy is next to smiling, playful people who are being photographed. (A tip – as you can see in the ad, smiles are genuine when they are accompanied by tiny wrinkles at the corners of the eyes.)

And international marketers, take note: The use of English is likely intentional because of the signaling. Israeli ads for mass consumer products such as milk and prime-time TV shows are always in Hebrew. But when the target audience is educated and affluent – as with tech platforms or vegan goods – the ads are often partially or completely in English.

It is the ad “winking” at the viewer and saying, “I know that you’re smart and worldly enough to understand this. Aren’t you cool!” Especially when it comes to slang such as “say cheese.” The same use of English for signaling occurs in many countries.

Finally, I would build a series of campaigns around the “We say Gaia” tagline that would last for a generation. I think it is that good. (Israel has a dearth of good brand campaigns.) Take the neo-hippie protest leader in the 1994 American comedy film PCU (which unofficially meant Politically Correct University in the movie).

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Now, imagine someone like her is in front of a crowd of hundreds or thousands of vegans doing a call and response at the end of an advertisement.

- Leader with a megaphone: “They say cheese… We say…”

- Crowd shouting in unison: “Gaia!”

That could work time and time again on television, audio channels, online video and elsewhere to build brand equity by spreading the desire to join the in-group. Gaia also ran an advertorial in advance of its September 2020 launch in Haaretz, which is Israel’s equivalent of The New York Times and The Guardian.

Outdoor ads are often very effective

In advertising, the medium is not the message – but it does influence what is communicated. Different types of media are better at doing different things. Here is an old chart I have that is still useful today. (Someone should create a new version that adds online and other new channels.)

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As you can see, one good use of OOH is to make a brand, idea or person seem larger than life. Just as Gaia is doing. In the UK and elsewhere, outdoor ads have also been a critical part of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“The post-Covid opportunity for OOH is in local community resonance,” Tim Lumb, insight and effectiveness director at Outsmart in the UK, told me. “OOH did a huge amount of public service in 2020, donating a huge amount of media to supporting government messaging, thanking key workers and the NHS.”

“For a time, the medium became something of a compelling and compassionate public information service. As trust in institutions and advertising in general is slipping, OOH can buck that trend and be both a force for public good as well as a reliable, effective and safe environment for brands.”

For a darker example, watch the 2017 US crime drama film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A woman rents the space to call attention to her daughter's unsolved rape and murder.

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The message is more effective on billboards that it might be on, say, social media. Why? Not only does the chief of police see the ads, he also knows for certain that everyone else in the town sees them. They exist in the real world. We have no idea who sees what online. Plus, OOH allows us to be creative in three dimensions.

“There’s still a strong place for OOH in the channel mix,” Ewan McIntyre, VP analyst at the Gartner for Marketers practice, told me. “Marketing leaders need to flex and adapt their channel strategies as we move towards post-COVID recovery and renewal.”

“There’s a mass audience who cannot wait to emerge from their homes, creating immense opportunities for OOH to re-establish itself as a medium that can both deliver mass reach, but also provide context and location targeting.”

Anna Bager, president and chief executive of the Out of Home Advertising Association of America, told me that she thinks of outdoor ads as “big screens driving consumers to small screens.”

“Pre-pandemic OOH experienced a decade of consecutive quarterly growth,” she said. “Unlike other traditional channels racked by audience fragmentation from the digital media explosion, OOH works synergistically with digital media by prompting online activation, especially with mobile devices.”

The importance of targeting

Of course, anyone can walk into a supermarket and buy vegan cheese. But if you advertise to everyone, then you will advertise to no one. That is why targeting a specific segment is important. (Just do not go overboard and try to personalise everything.)

And that is another reason why the Gaia ad has stuck in my mind.

Marketers always need to remind ourselves that we are not the market. As a middle-aged omnivore, I am certainly not Gaia's target market. When the copy separated people into “they” and “we,” I understood that I was now the “they.” As much as I felt excluded by the advertisement, the target audience likely felt included.

When I looked at the ad, I realised that I was no longer young and cool. But then I remembered that I had received my coronavirus vaccine a long time before they did. So it was a wash.

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive column for The Drum contributed by global keynote and virtual marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former journalist, newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel