What’s the point of the proof point?


Agency News

Published by

Charles Vallance



Why hard product truth always lies behind any emotional selling proposition.

"I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This famous quote from Maya Angelou can come in very handy when you're trying to persuade a decision-maker that it's better to underdo rather than overdo the rational component of their advertising.

You will never argue someone into liking you, you have to make them feel something first.

Most advertising theory now accepts this principle, that the heart should have primacy over the head. That's why we get models such as love-choose-buy and its various iterations (eg feel-think-do).

The argument that love or feeling should come ahead of thought or reason has been considerably bolstered in recent years by advances in neuroscience, not least our understanding of intuitive System 1 thought processes (or, more accurately, lack of thought processes).

That said, a few years ago the model was threatened by the rapid ascendancy of performance marketing. In contrast to the hard metrics associated with programmatic, SEO and clickthrough, softer measures such as brand fame and brand love came under pressure.

But, after some notable U-turns from some prominent doubters, the big ad and the big feel are back. Indeed, given current double-digit levels of TV media inflation, the return of emotion might well have further to go.

Which leaves a question hanging over the middle tier in the layer cake of love-choose-buy. Just like love, the role of buy is assured. Yes, performance budgets might have been reined in from their peak but, given their inherent accountability, they will continue to command a significant chunk of overall spend.

In light of this, a client might well decide to focus more and more of the remaining budget on appeals to the heart (love) rather than the head (choose) so as not to dilute resources.

If we put our foot on the ball for a moment, this is all a long way away from concepts such as the USP and brand differentiation which guided a lot of thinking in the 1980s and the 1990s.

In one of my numerous advertising apprenticeships (at WCRS) I was taught to "interrogate the product until it confesses to its strengths". No mention of anything so woolly as a brand, let alone feelings. The starting point for most briefs was a product story, a proof point, or a reason to believe.

Of course, there was always more to it than simply rational substantiation. In another of my advertising apprenticeships (at BBH) I was taught the concept of the ESP (emotional selling proposition).

Like many things you learn young, this has stood the test of time. Perhaps because it was ahead of its time in game-changing campaigns for Levi's, Audi, Boddington's et al.

But the ESP was, in itself, something of a sleight of hand. Scratch any one of the campaigns mentioned above and you'll get to a hard product truth, whether it was stone-washed for Levi's, Quattro for Audi or smoothflow for Boddingtons.

The trick was to wear these product truths sufficiently lightly, so that they didn't become an impediment to emotion.

What was true then, is 10 times truer now. To use a meteorological analogy, where brands once competed with the equivalent of a headwind in the fight for attention, they now compete with a storm Eunice.

Which means we have to fight harder and harder to be remembered, to achieve the gold standard of branding which is, of course, a tiny little bit of real estate in the mind of your prospect.

Call them what you will – distinctive assets, fluent devices, brand properties, sonic or visual equity, branded language and nomenclature – these are the new vehicles for the only measure that counts. And that measure is mental availability. Without mental availability you might as well whisper into the face of the storm.

Which is why Angelou's quote is so salutary. If brand distinctiveness is the vehicle to unlocking memory, then emotion is the key. You can say what you like, you can even do what you like, but without emotion you will be forgotten. People only remember what they feel.

Despite appearances, this is not an argument against the layer cake's middle tier of evidence and substantiation. I remain a firm believer in the proof point and the reason to believe.

The only caveat nowadays is that the point of the proof point has changed. Where once it was an end in itself, it is now a form of logical permission to leave justification behind (perhaps in the body copy or on the website) and take your brand up to the altitude of emotion.

This is where memory resides and Eunice is a mere breeze.

Charles Vallance is a founding partner of VCCP.

You will never argue someone into liking you, you have to make them feel something first. Charles Vallance, founding partner of VCCP