Skip to content

The challenge of the dual

Marketers shouldn't fear using multiple messages to communicate a brand's singular attributes
Two or more messages can be communicated if wrapped in a bigger linking thought
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

One of the flashpoints in the relationship between marketers and agencies is the issue of dual messaging. Advertising agencies are especially hot on insisting that communications messages are brought down to the singular level, and stridently emphasise this with the boxes in their creative briefs: “What is the one thing we want to communicate?” “What is our single-minded proposition?”

When confronted with a recalcitrant marketer, they are apt to go further, and venture a metaphor. Looking the client in the eye, the creative director will say: “If I throw you an orange, you’ll catch it. If I throw you two oranges, chances are you’ll drop them both.” Occasionally, for added drama, two oranges will be awkwardly lobbed at the appropriate moment, for the off-guard client to dutifully fumble. Point made: choose a single message or risk bungling your expensive communications initiative.

If only commercial life were that simple. Here’s one time when it definitely is not: when a new entrant comes into an established market with an innovative offer. The marketing academic Kevin Keller has shown that the most common reason for a flop is not that the entrant fails to communicate its point of difference – it’s usually good at that – but that it fails to establish what Keller calls its “points of parity”. These are the norms and must-haves that give the brand permission to play in the category in the first place.

This inability to communicate both parity and difference is what caused Unilever to abort its intended re-entry into the European toothpaste market with its Close Up brand.

Close Up enjoyed big shares in developing markets such as Brazil and India with a sexy positioning in breath freshness. Research showed that this point of difference was attractive in European markets too – but consumers worried that it wasn’t a high-quality toothpaste, and wanted reassurance on parity issues such as tartar protection and effectiveness against decay. Unilever’s agencies focused on the freshness message, purchase-intention scores stayed low, and market trials never got going.

Don’t let the single-orange dogma deter you if you know that dual messages are needed to make your communications strategy work. Just as two oranges can easily be caught if wrapped in that mesh sacking you get in supermarkets, so two or more messages can be communicated if wrapped in a bigger, linking thought.

Anyone who doubts this should take a look at this ad for The Co-operative Bank. Early in its successful relaunch as an ethical brand, it faced doubts from potential customers about whether it was a ‘proper’ bank with all the expected features. So the ad juxtaposed simple references to parity services – like cash machines – with vivid, intrusive scenes of oppression and violence. The voice-over concluded that in many ways the bank was the same as others on the high street, but in one respect was utterly different: it would never “invest its customers’ money in countries with oppressive regimes”.

This classic parity-difference execution played its part in making The Co-operative Bank a seminal case study of the 90s, a decade in which its retail customer deposits rose from £1bn to £6bn.

Next time your agency tries the single-orange routine, play that ad. Should the creative director persist, hit back with a metaphor of your own: if you can’t ride two horses at once, what are you doing in the circus?

Kevin Lane Keller

Kevin Lane Keller is the EB Osborn Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, New Hampshire. He has a formidable academic record, with more than 60 published papers and numerous awards.


The Church – creative sideline for Professor Keller

Aside from his seminal thinking on Points of Parity and Points of Difference, Keller introduced the 10-point Brand Report Card, an evaluation system based on his research into the world’s strongest brands. It’s worth a look to see how your brand measures up.

Keller’s textbook, Strategic Brand Management, has been adopted both by practitioners and top business schools. This ‘bible of branding’ combines straightforward, practical advice with the substance and rigour of academic research and insight.

A man of many talents, Keller helps to manage and has been a producer for Australian rock band The Church.