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Can Marketing Change Your Corporate Image?

Published: August 23, 2008

Author: David Rodnitzky

If I asked you which of the following phrases best represent your perception of Exxon Mobil, would you choose:
a. Fighting to stop malaria;
b. Helping teach math and science to children;
c. Leading the search for alternative energy solutions;
d. Making billions in profits by gauging consumers at the pump.
Somewhere inside Exxon there is a team of marketing executives who have deluded themselves into thinking that they can convince Americans that Exxon is something other than an evil, money-hungry oil company. If you’ve watched the Olympics over the last two weeks for even a few minutes, you’ve no doubt seen the ever-present Exxon commercials attempting to show Exxon’s incredible benevolence.
As John Stewart wryly suggested on The Daily Show, if you broke down the price of a gallon of oil, you’d see that $10 went to pumping, $20 to refinement; $20 to exploration, and $100 to public relations advertisements designed to convince Americans that oil companies aren’t evil.
Savvy marketers know by now that Americans are no longer so gullible as to buy this. As Al and Laura Ries point out in the The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR, that as soon as any American sees an ad that shows a giant corporation doing good for the world, they immediately assume that the corporation is buying the ad to cover up all the bad stuff they are actually doing.
What’s your perception of professional athletes? Has your perception been changed by the countless NFL commercials showing players helping the United Way or NBA commercials showing spoiled, self-centered stars taking an hour out of their year to read to a few school children (in the presence of many, many TV cameras, of course). As you can tell from the preceding paragraph, my perception has not.
So why do marketers keep trying to trick us with phony feel-good stories? Because there are tons of marketers (mostly on Madison Avenue) who have not yet figured out the new paradigm in advertising. Advertising is no longer about deciding your positioning and then spending millions to fool Americans into believing whatever you are feeding them. That worked 50 years ago. Today Americans distrust all advertising and an ad must be extraordinarily effective to win over their trust (compared to the opposite 50 years ago).
I just finished Seth Godin’s most recent book, All Marketers are Liars, in which he basically argues that the only effective ads are ads that fit into a consumers pre-existing worldview. In other words, if a consumer believes that a fancy car will make her feel better about herself and will make her neighbors jealous (and therefore her happy), only then will a Lexus ad convince her that it is indeed worth the extra $30,000 to buy something other than a Hyundai. Put another way, ads these days are basically preaching to the choir – if your audience already believes the general concept of your positioning, they’ll be receptive to your ad. If they don’t, they’ll distrust you and their negative perception will only grow.
Do you think Miller Lite is the best tasting beer in the world? Did your perception change once you saw commercials boasting that Miller Lite had won the American Beer Taste-Off (or something like that) for the sixth time this decade? If you already prefer Miller Lite, the ad probably spoke to you quite strongly. For most beer drinkers watching the ad, however, I suspect that the ad provoked a bit of laughter and a bit of disdain.
The nice thing about search engine marketing is that it fits quite nicely into this new paradigm of advertising. As John Battelle eloquently put it in his book, The Search, search engines are the “database of intentions.” We have a good idea what a user’s world view is simply by analyzing the search query he submits. A user who types in “buy miller lite” is much more likely to be sold on the idea of, well, buying Miller Lite, than a user who types in “best foreign beer.” As search marketers, we can tailor each and every message we deliver based on the worldview of different consumers.
As has been shown by the thousands of companies that have virtually been made by successful SEM alone, this shift of control from mass medium to ‘one to one’ marketing has been great news. Companies like Exxon Mobil, however, will not be so lucky. No one does a search for “oil companies doing something good” or “is Exxon Mobil really that bad after all?” When consumers control the medium, the opportunity for changing worldviews disappears.
Not that this will stop Madison Avenue from trying. After all, if you are the advertising agency for Exxon, you’ve got to at least throw a few dollars towards online marketing, if for no other reason to make it seem like you’ve got the pulse on consumers today. And sure enough, do a search for “Exxon” on Google and you’ll see such an attempt:

That’s all well and good, but again, this isn’t NBC’s coverage of the Olympics. The percentage of people typing in “Exxon” isn’t all that high, and Exxon doesn’t control what consumers will or won’t search. Indeed, I noticed that Exxon’s paid search ad was absent (no doubt through negative keyword insertion!) when I did a search that probably more accurately reflects consumer perception:

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