Michael Follett
Aug 27, 2010

Whatever the season, helpfulness is in fashion

Michael Follett, senior VP strategy & planning, DDB Mudra, Mumbai writes on why helpfulness is a universal agent.

DDB Mudra's Michael Follett
DDB Mudra's Michael Follett


An interesting find while hanging around in the reception area of a prospective client: a charming old ad from 1934. In delicate watercolour, it shows a delivery truck that has stopped on a country road to help a female motorist in distress. This is a particularly apposite form of aid, as the company advertised sells engine oil. Below, in what purports to be a letter from the rescued lady, she thanks the delivery man for his time and consideration, compliments the company on employing such nice, helpful young men, and says that she’s going to tell all her friends to buy the company’s product.

A beautiful reminder of a bygone age? Not a bit of it! This is demonstration of the cutting edge of marketing thinking.

Let’s start with the ‘deep branding’: the way in which the company’s employees obviously know and live out their company’s brand values in the way in which they behave.

Then, what about the concept of ‘branded utility’ that some claim has only been recently invented by Anomaly in New York? The driver was being helpful to his customers over and above his primary job function; the ad invites other motorists to expect the same treatment. If this doesn’t count as ‘useful’ marketing rather than ‘useless’ marketing, then I don’t know what does.

And then there’s social media, 1930s-style. As has been pointed out by many people now, all social media is digital word-of-mouth. Here we have an example of analog word-of-mouth – letter writing, talking to friends – but it’s just as effective and just as important.

Finally, there’s the sheer beauty of the ad. In the painting, the lush green landscape recedes majestically behind the bright orange delivery truck. The brushwork is firm but fluid. In a world full of noisy ugliness, there is a calm, warmth and security that seems to come straight out of the textbooks (or textblogs) of the ‘branded beauty’ theorists.

What it goes to show is that there are truly no new ideas under the sun. People can shout and squawk about ‘discovering’ new insights into ‘consumer behaviour’ or ‘marketing science’, but they are only uncovering their own ignorance for the rest of us. Even this thought is itself well worn. As Bill Bernbach once said: “human nature hasn’t changed for a million years. It won’t even vary for the next million years. Only the superficial things have changed. It’s fashionable to talk about the changing man. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging man.”

But just because there is nothing new to be said doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything important to be said. There is wisdom to be had in this engine oil ad. What the makers of this ad knew – and what Bill Bernbach knew, and what all the advertising greats knew – is that they are here to help. The more helpful you are, the more money you make. Simple as that. The ad is helpful – in that it conveys useful information in a beautiful way – and it depicts helpfulness – in that it describes actions and attitudes of the workforce of the company. It is helpfulness squared. And it works very well as a result.

Being helpful, like being truthful, works because it is simpler. If you tell the truth, then you don’t have to remember lots of lies. If your marketing is helpful, then you don’t have to agonize over all the finicky little questions that abound in modern marketing departments. Once you’ve answered the question ‘Is it useful?’, then you’ve automatically answered whether it has a customer insight, or a brand benefit, or is media neutral and or socially contagious. Helpfulness is a sort of universal agent that just makes marketing work.

So, how about trying this. Next time you’re faced with a complex marketing brief, that requires you to navigate through the complexities of the modern ‘consumer ecosystem’ or some such nonsense, forget the latest thinking. Try the oldest thinking. It’ll help.

Campaign India

Related Articles

Just Published

17 hours ago

Megha Tata to continue as president of IAA India

Pradeep Dwivedi, Nandini Dias, Abhishek Karnani and Punit Goenka among office bearers

18 hours ago

Apac Effie Awards 2021: Seven wins for India

The Womb wins two Gold Effies; McCann (two), Ogilvy (two) and The Leo Group also among winners

21 hours ago

Kriti Sanon and Shanaya Kapoor fix skin and hair ...

Watch the films conceptualised by Leo Burnett India here

1 day ago

Uni Cards helps cowboy and samurai win a battle, ...

Watch the films conceptualised by Dentsu Webchutney here