How to produce advertising that sells. Ogilvy Modernized, Part Two

Click here for Part One

What’s up my fellow Marketing Mercenaries! Welcome to PART TWO of my blog series finding advice from legendary advertiser David Ogilvy’s book “On Advertising” and framing it in the context of the present day.

The key to finding out what content works in advertising (tv, print, and ESPECIALLY social) is to first look at what DOESN’T work.

this is like “the creation of adam,” but it’s more like the CRINGation. #ForcedPuns

Wrong advertising can reduce sales of a product. In other words, if you do something with your ad that makes a lot of people mad, you are essentially un-selling your product.

At the same time, there’s a lot of companies that are too afraid to run any ads at all. 1 out of 5 is better than 0 for 0 and you have to test things out in order to learn. It’s important to execute your ads with your audience in mind. You are selling to HUMANS.

What made Pepsi’s L particularly painful was that despite having billions in advertising dollars, they decided to hop on what was trending for their young audiences.

“How can we reach out to young people and get them to drink more Pepsi?”
“They’ve been protesting a lot. Maybe we can do something like that?”
“Yes! Kendall Jenner has been popular lately. She would be the perfect role model for young people to drink more Pepsi!”
“Brilliant! Should we look at what issues they’re protesting about and take a stand on what’s important to them?”

Fictional ad agency meetings aside, judging from how they executed this strategy, it ain’t hard to tell that they just wanted to throw together a bunch of things that people have been clicking on hoping that will get them some easy dollars without taking into account WHY people are protesting.

In order to avoid committing the same mistakes Pepsi did, it takes proper research and ASKING your audience what’s important to them. In other words…

Do your homework.

Heineken did their research and made an awesome ad that’s being referred to as the antidote to Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad. Seeing this ad made me think AND it made the product the hero of this ad by being an enabler for people to talk out their differences. It actually had an important message for their audience to find common ground with people with different views. This commercial was also the reason why I just bought myself a 12 pack of Heineken right now despite being an avid wine drinker. Not gonna be putting together any furniture any time soon, though.

When Ogilvy talks about “doing your homework” he mainly talks about how critical it is to study the product you are going to advertise. Inspiration can come from anywhere and you never know when you find that big idea from a piece of industry writing.

He uses his famous Rolls Royce ad mentioned on my previous post as an example.

During his research, Ogilvy came across a statement saying that “at sixty miles an hour, the loudest noise comes from the electric clock”. Ogilvy used this as the ad headline and followed it up with some factual copy, and it was all history from there.

If you don’t do your homework, you can still luck into something successful, but you will be on a “slippery slope of irrelevant brilliance”. Luck always comes into play, but it’s not sustainable.

How can we do homework on a company that doesn’t have much content or readings? Simple. You ask their product manager. You find out what advertising your competitors have been doing for similar products, and what success they’ve achieved with it. You use GOOGLE.

You can also research consumers and find out “what they think about your kind of product, what language they use when they discuss the subject, what attributes are important to them, and what promise would be most likely to make them buy your brand” according to Ogilvy.

What happens if you can’t afford researchers? Simple. Talk to as many people from your demographic as possible and know what brings them value. It’s as simple as messaging them on Instagram or just asking a couple friends in the demongraphic. More often than not, you can actually learn more than you would conducting a survey that you’re not a part of.

Positioning/Brand image

In every industry, there are many companies trying to find their white space because they are more or less selling the same type of product. Everybody is marketing for a commodity, so differentiating themselves from one another entails decisions made in product development to marketing and branding.

Branding is the difference between Panda Express (fast Chinese food) and P.F. Chang’s (bougie Asian Fusion food). People are more likely to judge you for wearing sweatpants at P.F. Chang’s than at Panda Express (I’ve tested this myself, but if anyone wants to make this into a larger experiment, hit me up).

Ogilvy’s example discusses Volkswagen, which was positioned as the antithesis against ”the vulgarity of Detroit cars” at the time and the conspicuous consumption associated with them. People who own Volkswagen Beetles don’t do it for the flex, and Volkswagen’s advertising reflects this counter-culture mentality.





Positioning and brand image are interconnected in a way where the brand image reinforces the determined positioning of the product. In On Advertising, Ogilvy asks us to decide what “image” we want for our brand. Are you reliable? Are you eco-friendly? Are you cheap?

Ogilvy mentions that brand image can be demonstrated by “its name, its packaging, its price, the style of its advertising, and, above all, the nature of the product itself.” Every advertisement (or a piece of digital media content today), he says, should be thought of as a contribution to the brand image (State Farm is a good neighbor, Red Bull is extreme, Tesla looks to the future, etc.).

Since I was introduced to the concept, I’ve been a believer that if we are to consider corporate entities as people, then marketing is the way you give those entities personality. In the 20th century, brands relied heavily on television ad spots showing a quick commercial projecting that personality and telling you to BUY NOW. Since then, the tools have evolved in the form of social media where brands can storytell and interact with their customers.

Source: Wendy’s Twitter

Sometimes it entails the occasional Twitter clapback that goes viral (see above). This is because for the first time, brands have a chance to scale the unscalable and utilize word of mouth. Back in the day, when a business does something nice for their customer, they’ll probably tell a couple of their friends about it. Today, if you do something for your customer that brings them value, they can send a tweet that can be seen by a whole lot more people.

Brands doing social media correctly and natively let their personality shine by being genuine about their product, yet notice how they’re not trying to sell their audience on every interaction.

There are examples of this strategy in older forms of advertising as well. Ogilvy talks about how Schweppes’ Commander Whitehead became a popular guest on talk shows.

Even back then, good things happen when you’re not trying to go for the hard-sell every time. You can warm people up to your product by representing your through content that represents your brand image. Commander Whitehead did this through answering questions about his beard and talking about his product while he’s at it.

In a social media landscape where everybody is fighting for attention, consumers require a heftier amount of warming up. This is because TV ads can’t really steal our attention if we’re on our phones during commercials.

Just as how Whitehead reflects the classiness associated with Schweppes’ soft drink, brand image can shift a perceptions between similar products.

Ogilvy writes:

“Give people a tastle of Old Crow, and tell them it’s Old Crow. Then give them another taste of Old Crow, but tell them it’s Jack Daniel’s. Ask them which they prefer. They’ll think the two drinks are quite different. They are tasting images.

Old Crow’s brand image has the street cred of being a cheap whiskey (my college self can confirm this) and JD is a relatively standard whiskey. Jack Daniels didn’t build this leverage by arguing the consumer into choosing their product. They did it by representing the ruggedness and down home American spirit of an American-made whiskey with a rich history stretching back to the 1800s.

Companies are always looking to short-term profits to make investors happy, so it’s understandable that they’re always in “hard-sell” mode, but branding is the key to getting more dollars in the end. I’m just concerned for the old school marketers who still this is still a hard-sell advertising world and don’t think brand is insignificant in comparison and rationalize it by pretending to care about results.

I’ll conclude this post with a quote from Ogilvy (this is a “Modernizing Ogilvy” series after all) about how powerful brand images can be.

“Next time an apostle of hard-sell questions the importance of brand images, ask him how Marlboro climbed from obscurity become the biggest-seling cigarette in the world.”

Small, obscure brands today can have the same kind of advantage. Trust.

If you’re still skeptical about this, feel free to hit me up on:


Instagram DM.

SoundCloud (I spit hot fire).

If you got some value out of this, please click that heart! Ogilvy is an influental figure in modern marketing and I’m interested in how my perspective is digested. Let me know what you think in the comments. Much love.