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The age-old question answered: Is it better to fit in or stand out?

By John Foust

Advertisers – like the rest of us – often struggle with “fit in or stand out” decisions. While we all want to share an identity with our chosen group or groups, at the same time, we want to be recognized for our uniqueness.

That’s one reason why a real estate advertiser will claim a desire to stand out from the crowd and then run an ad that looks like all the other real estate ads in the paper. The same goes for department stores, car dealers and local insurance agencies.

When things get stale and repetitive, a bold advertiser might venture off the beaten path and develop something that is truly different. If it is effective, others may follow. And later – perhaps years later – that different approach could become the new standard that everyone follows. Then another advertiser will take a new approach. And so it goes. New becomes old. And old leads to new.

This cycle can be seen everywhere. Some years ago, a director filmed a television commercial with a deliberately-unsteady, hand-held camera. It stood out from all the other spots – until others starting using the same technique. The first ad that depicted an SUV easily navigating deserts and snowstorms was compelling – until other SUV manufacturers said “me too.”

Every advertiser has to make a choice. Fit in or stand out? Be a follower or a trailblazer? Stick with the familiar or take a risk which could lead to bigger rewards?

It takes courage to break away from the crowd. (Think of the first person who ate an oyster.)

When you’re discussing ad ideas with clients that’s a perfect time to shine a light on the choice between the new and the old. Although they probably have an innate awareness of the dilemma, an honest dialogue will provide them with a deeper understanding. That will put both of you in position to keep the best of the old, discard the worst of the old – and consider new ideas that can help the next ad campaign stand out on the page.

You can introduce the topic by saying something like, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that a lot of ads in a given category tend to look similar. Let’s take a look at some examples in your (real estate, furniture, autos, etc.) category.” Many of your carefully-chosen tear sheets should be from other markets, which will make it easier for your advertiser to be objective. As you go through the ads, consider breaking your analysis into two general areas:

1. Ad themes. Do the ads make the same types of offers to readers? Do they make any offers at all? Are the headlines similar?

2. Ad designs. What is more common – photographs or illustrations? What about the use – or non-use – of white space and color? Are there similarities in typography?

It’s all about making a statement. Your advertiser can whisper, “Look how much I have in common with all these other advertisers” or shout, “Hey, I’m different and here’s why.”

(c) Copyright 2013 by John Foust. All rights reserved.

John Foust has conducted training programs for thousands of newspaper advertising professionals. Many ad departments are using his training videos to save time and get quick results from in-house training. Email for information to john@johnfoust.com

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