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Choose or Lose: The Power of Focus and Why You Can’t Be Everything to Everyone

Imagine it’s summer, and you need new sunglasses. You have $85 to spend. Would you rather buy one high-quality pair that’s a perfect fit, or buy three or four pairs that kinda fit and are sorta meant for the sunny days ahead? It’s a no-brainer, right? You focus your investment and buy the pair that’s the best fit.

Well, when it comes to advertising, many brands seem to think (and act) a bit differently. The average 30-second TV commercial contains about 85 words—not a lot of real estate. But plenty of ads try to cram 3 or 4 messages into those precious few 85 words in an attempt to communicate everything to everyone. The result? A jumbled mess that doesn’t resonate with anyone—forgettable at best and, at worst, really annoying.

So how do brands avoid that messiness? Embrace focused messaging.

Simply put, embracing focus in advertising means picking a key differentiator—a product feature, a brand “truth,” maybe even a cultural trend—and anchoring your messaging around it. Focus requires sacrifice.

Believe it or not, industries with high product parity are often great practitioners of this concept. Take, of all things, insurance:

  • A brand like The General has fully embraced being the low-cost leader and focuses its messaging on the lowest price to get you back on the road, even if the coverage isn’t exactly comprehensive. Even their commercials look like they are skimping and saving on production (Shaquille O’Neal notwithstanding).
  • On the other end of the spectrum is Nationwide, whose whole shtick is mayhem as the reason to never skimp: “Life’s wild and unpredictable, and if you settle for cut-rate insurance, it could bite you!”
  • Somewhere in between is a brand like State Farm, which focuses on having an agent who knows you. Cares for you. A “good neighbor.”

Not every insurance company focuses as consistently as these three; take Progressive. What’s their core message? Name your price? Bundle and save? It’s a little murkier and, in some ways, less effective.

But like we mentioned at the open, brands don’t always have to focus on a product feature. You can choose anything (well, anything relevant) to your brand, product, or even target market.

Let’s look at Apple, for example. Back in the day when they focused on selling iPods the message was simple – iPods are cool. That was pretty much the whole thing. Remember the dancing, technicolor iPod ads? No real product feature focus. No mention of price. Just cool silhouettes dancing like crazy to music you hadn’t heard of yet. Technologically speaking, they weren’t superior to a Zune or a Rio, but within 3 years of launch, Apple had 92% of the digital audio player market. Simple coolness beats scattered feature lists..

So why does focus work?

It’s simple. Focus means you can communicate one message repeatedly, hammering home a consistent point to increase the odds that you can cut through the noise, capture viewer attention, and make a crucial connection.

It also aligns marketing and brand teams on a clear message hierarchy, making it easier to make those big brand decisions. Would The General ever leverage a partnership with Wimbledon? Probably not, because Wimbledon attendees (and, arguably, viewers) aren’t looking to save a few bucks on insurance.

So how do you encourage focus? The easiest way we have found is an exercise we do with brands that are stuck in a swirl of competing benefits.

  1. Outline the top 4-5 benefits of your product through the eyes of your consumer. These can be features or even just perceptions (Apple’s “coolness” factor).
  2. Imagine you have $100 to place “bets” on each of those benefits over the next 12 months. Where are you putting the most money?
  3. Have a group do this and see what comes out on top. Best case, it’s pretty unanimous where the money needs to go. And worst case, it sparks a healthy debate.

Choosing one message means deciding not to emphasize certain features or benefits, and it means not trying to appeal to everyone…which can be a hard conversation to have. But by embracing a single differentiator and expressing it everywhere—TV, digital, spokespeople, print, etc.—your messaging becomes easier and more understandable to the people who matter: your customers. 

Focus is sacrifice, but in the long run, it’s product and brand rocket fuel that lets you own a piece of the market. And the best part is that it doesn’t have to last forever. But it can if you want it to (see also: Apple).

About Greg Abel

Greg Abel | Founder of Tailfin Marketing
Greg has been disrupting the ad industry for decades. After graduating from UGA’s Grady College of Journalism, Greg found his path at big ad agencies as a Media Planner and Account Executive. From there, Greg jumped on the digital wave at a consultancy where he helped to develop digital strategy and online user experiences for a range of consumer brands. In 1999, Greg co-founded Tailfin, an ad agency that specializes in branding, traditional and digital advertising, engaging content development, and social media.

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