Ideas and insights to take your marketing to the highest level

October 27, 2014
Russ Klein

Tension in Advertising

This post is the second in a three-part series on the “secrets” to my success in marketing. You can read my first post, on a concept called design targeting, here. Next up:

2. The Source of Effective Advertising is Tension: When I was at Foote Cone & Belding almost 20 years ago, one of the accounts for which I had worldwide responsibility was Gatorade. Those four years were some of the greatest years of my life. I had the opportunity to work with a number of wonderful people both at the agency and at the client company, which was parent company Quaker Oats, at the time.

During that period, Quaker Oats changed CEOs and the new top dog was a gentleman by the name of Bob Morrison. Bob came to Quaker from Kraft Foods with marketing credentials that included time spent at Procter & Gamble. I had the honor of accompanying him on a trip to China where Gatorade was being introduced. At one point, Bob asked me to develop a point of view as to what strategic approaches to advertising were best in class and could serve as benchmarks for Gatorade, in particular.

We had a long history with Gatorade that dated back to Gatorade’s longtime partner, a mid-size agency called Bayer Bess Vanderwarker. FCB actually purchased us during this period and we already had a distinguished track record of developing some great pieces of advertising, particularly the topical work that we were doing to adapt to Michael Jordan’s retirement, his adventure in professional baseball and, of course, his eventual return to glory with the Chicago Bulls. We had caught the world’s imagination with “Be Like Mike,” including an encore rendition of the original commercial with which the world was humming along, but that was not a long-term position for Gatorade. We were struggling a bit with finding a long-term campaign idea given that there wasn’t a lot of conviction for the work on the air at that time, “Life is a Sport. Drink it Up.” So Bob Morrison’s question was certainly a fair and timely one to ask of us.

So off I went, collecting strategy documents from willing donors and trying to correlate so-called effective advertising with any common patterns that I could identify, either in the positioning statements, or in the creative briefs, that led to outstanding advertising. I easily reviewed more than a hundred brands as well as entries for Effies and Account Planning Award winners. I reviewed some great and, by most accounts, effective advertising, but were there any common denominators strategically? None.

However, as I reflected on what I had seen, a theory popped into my head that kept me up all night. The next day, I went back through the work that I felt was most deserving of being called “great” and that could make a case for being certified as effective, as well. And there it was, the common denominator to all of the work: tension.

This is not gratuitous tension, just artificially creating opposites or anything like that. To paraphrase DDB’s Bill Bernbach, never stand a man on his head in a commercial unless you’re selling a product designed to prevent change from falling out of pockets. The tension must be relevant, and must live at the intersection of your brand and your customer’s life. Finally, the tension must be vividly set up, and then discharged by the story of your respective product or service.

I continued to test and retest this theory incessantly in the days and weeks that followed. I studied tension and what was known among psychologists and social scientists on the subject. I came upon the quote by Sigmund Freud that became a mainstay of every presentation that I’ve ever given since: “Without tension, there is no release. Without release, there is no joke.” All of the best humor is rooted in tension. Think about it: Tension is at the root of all great stories however they are told or whatever medium is used to tell them, including advertising.

I then wondered, in the context of advertising, whether someone else had made this connection before me. I figured that the chance that I had really articulated something truly new was slim. However, the closest published work that I could find at the time was on a concept called the “gap theory” by George Loewenstein from Carnegie Mellon. Loewenstein’s theory asserts that if you create awareness of a gap for the consumer, a gap between life with your product or service and life without it, you can create advertising that will motivate the consumer to fill that gap with your product or service.

As I studied the theory, my takeaway was that such a gap could be a source of tension, but not necessarily so. His theory is predicated upon the curiosity that a consumer would develop upon learning of such a gap, and it also relies on what people don’t know. His theory kisses right up against my theory of tension because, if I recall, he asserted that the existence of this gap would then cause a “pain” that consumers would choose to vanquish. Still, pain does not necessarily equal tension.

In the meantime, my team and I were all working hard on the next big thing for Gatorade. Now that FCB gobbled us up, we had more resources than ever on Gatorade, and everyone all the way up through the CEO of FCB Worldwide had opinions on what the next big idea for Gatorade needed to be, and how to get it. We had the agency’s best and brightest on the account because it was an account with which everyone wanted to be associated. We were all thinking deep and hard about the essence of Gatorade. I was ultimately responsible for the brief that would go to the creative team to hopefully inspire the proverbial big idea.

After having had the epiphany about tension, there was another important insight that came to me. None of the great, effective advertising that I had reviewed in my quest to answer Bob Morrison’s challenge was inspired by a strategic document or even a creative brief that featured the tension that ultimately made each piece of work so special. In other words, it was the creative teams who had identified the tension when executing on the ad strategies, rather than the teams responsible for developing the original strategies in the first place.

Why should something so important be left up to chance? Why can’t the discovery and identification of the source of tension that rests at the intersection of a given product or service and the life of the consumer be upstream in the advertising process? I decided then and there that it was my team’s job, working cross-functionally, in particular with our planners and researchers, to identify the source of tension. Further, by doing so, we would exponentially improve the chances of getting great, effective advertising on a repeated basis because however many creative teams we had working on the project, we’d have baked in the most important element from the start.

At this time, I happened to be reading a runners magazine article in which the author examined Ernest Hemingway’s novel Islands In the Stream. In the story, there is a moment when a father and son are deep-sea fishing and the young boy hooks a Marlin on his fishing rod and struggles mightily to land it. The third-person narrator speculates, “If David catches this fish he’ll have something inside him for all his life  and it will make everything else easier.” I remember stopping upon reading that line and thinking that what Hemingway was talking about in that moment was confidence.

All of us on the Gatorade team were debating how Gatorade should be positioned. Should Gatorade be positioned for winners? At the time, Nike was perceived to be very focused on winning, perhaps to the exclusion of anyone who isn’t a winner. Nike even had an advertisement with a headline: “You don’t win silver. You lose gold.” We believed that Gatorade had to find a place that was aspirational, but also relevant and relatable. There always will be a winner and a loser. That’s when Hemingway’s quote struck me that winning, or catching just one fish, builds confidence even if you don’t win all of the time, so you accumulate confidence with every little win. Every fish. Every tackle, Every touchdown. Every score. Every point. Every marathon. Every run. Every personal best.

The Gatorade brief was born around the tension of whether or not a competitor or athlete had inside himself or herself the will (and confidence) to win, regardless of day-to-day outcomes. The creative team, Scott Larson and Brad Berg, then beautifully and powerfully dramatized the intersection of an athlete’s eternal desire to get that win, thus gaining that confidence, and Gatorade’s ability to help them perform in the moment of need, by posing the question, “Is It In You?” The campaign captured and dramatized the lengths to which athletes will go to win, but at the same time, it was universally inclusive, demonstrating how one small “win” in sports or fitness builds confidence that stays inside you forever. The Gatorade “Is It In You?” campaign ran for more than a decade, compellingly placing its finger on that source of tension. Eventually, it was replaced, and replaced again, with the current campaign, “Win from Within.”

After my Gatorade days, I developed a creative briefing template and process that we used religiously when I was CMO and president of global marketing, strategy and innovation at Burger King. Our agency partner, Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, adopted the brief for their agency-wide approach to advertising. Burger King went on to be named “Advertiser of the Decade” by Adweek and CP&B won agency of the year five times, as well as agency of the decade for the 2000s. Also, the tension-based creative brief for a campaign called “Whopper Freakout” resulted in what was the most recalled advertising ever measured by IAG at the time. The campaign was based on the tension experienced by Whopper sandwich lovers. In a deprivation study, we’d uncovered the fact that when they had a taste for a Whopper sandwich, nothing else would be an adequate substitute.

Try this approach, and let me know how it serves you.


Russ Signature




Russ Klein, CEO

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