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Image Advertising: Is It Worth It?
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Dave Donelson distills the experiences of hundreds of entrepreneurs into practical advice for small business owners and managers in the Dynamic Manager's Guides.
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Let’s talk about your advertising. Why it works and why it doesn’t work a lot of the time. There are three basic advertising functions, which you must keep in mind. These are the goals that advertising can accomplish for the advertiser: image goals, sales goals, and positioning goals. They are not mutually exclusive and certainly many ad messages accomplish or attempt to accomplish more than one. But for now we will focus on image goals.

Image advertising goals are those sort of warm, fuzzy, amorphous ambitions that many advertisers have. They want people to feel good about their business or good about their company. There is no question that television is the great image medium. But keep in mind that those kind of images don’t sell a heck of a lot of merchandise, so image advertising needs to be used with great care. The key to doing this kind of advertising is to start by answering the question, who are we trying to influence? Who is the intended recipient of our message? 

Legitimate image advertisers almost always have a very specific and narrow intended audience. These will tend to be companies like financial institutions, public utilities, health care companies, certain manufacturers or others who have very specific image problems. The people they are trying to reach will have some influence on the success or failure—the economic health—of the advertiser’s business. The root of addressing an image need through advertising isn’t to enhance the image—it’s ultimately to affect the bottom line, which can mean either profit or loss.

A company’s employees are a frequent target audience for advertisers. If the employees feel better about their company, they’re less inclined to do nasty things like go on strike, more apt to work harder, and less likely to leave for greener pastures, among other things. That’s why you’ll often see companies advertising on TV a year or so before their union contract negotiations begin. They want to soften up the opposition. They can’t very effectively address employees directly with messages about company love, but they can obliquely get the message across through such image ads on TV.

Sometimes advertisers spend to influence even smaller groups, like government regulators. If you’re in one of many kinds of regulated businesses, like public utilities, insurance, or telecommunications, your ability to make a profit is highly dependent on the attitudes toward you held by the public service commission or insurance commission or other regulatory body that governs your business. That group of five, ten, or fifteen citizens holds your fate in the palm of their hands. 

Lastly, there’s another audience that image advertisers sometimes try to influence, but it’s one that they don’t talk about much. In fact, they’re usually not even conscious of their attempt to reach them. Many times, image ads are directed at the advertiser’s friends and acquaintances! If you’re the only bank in town that doesn’t advertise on TV, you may feel somewhat self-conscious at the country club when your peers and competitors are talking about their TV campaigns. There’s some keep-up-with-the-Jones’ in business life, too.

The danger of all image advertising is that it doesn’t directly influence the sales or other revenues of that company. But it can be profitable when it comes to getting the word out there about your small business.