Sales Focus: Sell the Brand, Not the Ad

Car ads tend to blend together. That's because the creative is driven by the owners of car dealerships, who insist that the product's virtues be featured in the ads. As a result, car brands tend to adopt the qualities of their products. Ford's "Built Ford Tough," BMW's "Ultimate Driving Machine," and Volkswagen's "Think Small" effort are all examples of this.

But in 1989, there was a dramatic departure from this approach. That year Hal Riney & Partners put the Saturn brand behind the wheel of its campaign. The product would become an extension of the brand's core values, not the other way around.

The campaign literally invited consumers to care more about the folks making the car than the car itself. And they did. Saturn owners caravanned three separate times, the first time in 1994, to gatherings dubbed "Homecomings," hosted on the grounds of Saturn's Spring Hill, Tenn., assembly plant, to bond with the men and women who built their cars.

What does this have to do with selling ads online?

Online publishers have been coerced into selling the virtues of their ad products over and above the value of their content brands, and like many auto ads, they are all starting to blend together. If you asked a buyer the difference between Yahoo! Finance and, the answer will most likely reflect the differences in ad-serving capabilities rather than the editorial and design differences that distinguish one brand's reader from the other.

It doesn't help that trade publications like MediaPost's OnlineMediaDaily constantly cover developments in behavioral targeting, rich media, video ads, RSS feeds, podcasting, and a host of new ad-serving technologies. All the attention causes the content brands that deliver these products to slip into the background, like an instrumental version of a pop song, while the companies that produce these enhancements grab headlines and a portion of the media budget, as opposed to a production budget.

I'm not suggesting you stop investing in technologies that meet buying demand. I am suggesting that you make a focused investment in sales communication that places your brand back in the spotlight and your ad products in a supporting role. Here are two simple steps to help you increase the value of your content brand:

REPLACE "USERS" WITH "READERS." Stop calling your audience "users." It has a negative connotation: The audience is using your site, you are using the audience. It all sounds transparent and cheap. The term "reader" implies a deeper commitment to the branded content with which they choose to engage.

OWN THE READER. Selling the value of a content brand starts with understanding the value delivered to readers in exchange for their attention. That means you must become one. Many salespeople mistake glancing for reading and thus miss out on high-grade sales fuel. You have to read everything produced in some scale consistently to identify how this content relationship matters to the clients that matter to you.

At IGN, where I used to work, we took this one step further by meeting with our readers. We hosted a group of them at our offices and peppered them with questions in the hopes of better understanding their commitment to our brand so we could then translate that in our sales communication. It was after this impromptu focus group that we started to truly care about the readers we represented -- so much so that we stopped selling pop-up advertising, because our readers begged us to.

Warren Greshes, a motivational speaker, says that clients don't hear your words, they hear your commitment. Once you become more intimate with your readers, your sales dialogue will reflect their commitment to your content brand.

If you can increase your content brand's value, the price for your real estate will go up. If your brand shows signs of erosion and all the houses start to blend together, it becomes a buyers' market.

Ari Rosenberg is a media sales consultant and principal at Performance Pricing. (

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