Unique Versus Useful

The other day we were passing around a magazine that tends to offer really good marketing advice. In particular, an article about out-of-the-box direct marketing caught our eye. The article was about using 3-dimensional objects for direct mail, specifically – coconuts! The opening spread of the article (yes, it was in a print magazine) was designed to look like a picnic table. The left-hand page showed a coconut and other sort of tropical items. The right side of the spread, where the copy started, was just the table. All in all, it was a really creative design. There was just one problem. The seriffed font was virtually illegible against the background, which suddenly seemed busy as it presented the table’s wood grain in high detail. As you might suspect, we all gave up reading the article pretty quickly even though it looked like the information may have been beneficial.

If you’re the publisher of that magazine, how would you feel about this review? Ultimately (one would think) you’d want people to read the content. That’s the whole point of a magazine. On the other hand, the presentation was clearly unique enough to be memorable. A motivated reader could look up the article online to learn more. Was the article a success? Is it better to strive for unique or useful?

The Marketing Conundrum

You can see this battle between unique and useful all of the time in the world of marketing. Think about super bowl commercials as one example.  A lot of the ads are really unique. They’re funny or touching or innovative. However, when you are thinking about those ads the following day, do you remember what they were advertising, not to mention who the advertiser was? Were you inspired to visit the company’s website? Were you inspired to buy? If the answer to all of those questions is no, can we really say that the ad was successful? Can we say it was useful? Does that matter?

Sometimes a company will create an ad that is intended to run upside-down or backwards. It makes you do a double-take. It makes you look. It makes you explore the ad more closely than you might have otherwise. But does it make you more likely to buy the product?

When Unique Can Go Overboard

The other risk in weighing unique versus useful is that sometimes an effort to be unique can lead you far astray from your ultimate goal. Perhaps the company makes references that the audience does not understand. Perhaps the effort to be funny or memorable ends up in a PR nightmare, which is what Groupon experienced with their controversial Super Bowl ad involving Tibet. Not only did this ad prove to be the opposite of useful, it actually resulted in a major hit against Groupon’s popularity. On the other hand, we are still thinking about Groupon as a result of the debacle a couple of years later. Was it a total loss? Does the ad’s impact keep Groupon on your radar? Could it have been useful after all?

Is Useful Boring?

Perhaps marketers strive for “Unique” because they feel that useful is too boring. We tend to think that useful marketing can be, well, useful. People are increasingly hit with more and more marketing messages every day. They’re more pressed for time and more things are distracting them from paying attention to any single marketing message. If you want your ad or your other marketing tactics to result in driving sales (and who wouldn’t want that) it may be better to get right to the point. How will your audience benefit from using your product or service? How much does it cost? Why is it better than your competition? The presentation of this information need not be boring, but it also may not need to be cushioned with famous celebrities, over-the-top humor, or design that makes you wonder what it is you’re looking at.

What do you aim for in your marketing? What is most important to you, and why?

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/6228420376/ via Creative Commons


2 comments on “Unique Versus Useful

  1. This is always a tricky one.

    Unique is good for eye-grabbing, but needs to be supported with some kind of utility.

    Useful doesn’t have to be dull as my rather lovely Android OS phone shows!

    I feel that too many designers go for unique and then forget utility on the other end. If they’re off for a flash in the pan, fine. But if they want the viewer/reader/user to take action, there has to be something else in there…

    • There is definitely a lot of pressure to “stand out” or “make an impact.” It’s important to remember though that ultimately (hopefully) your marketing message is not going to other marketers. Your marketing message is going to be seen by people who already buy or who are thinking about buying a particular product or service. The most important litmus test is their understanding of your message, not whether you win an award for your creative work. I think it’s easy to lose sight of that in such a competitive space, unfortunately.

      Thanks for weighing in!

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