Posted by: kevinliebl | December 22, 2010

Sizzle vs. Substance

Your Name HereSizzle vs. Substance – it is a classic marketing debate.  When putting together a marketing campaign, what is the right balance of sizzle vs. substance?  This issue also translates into press releases, trade show strategies, advertising, internal business presentations, speeches, resumes and almost any form of communication.  The obvious answer is that it depends on the message itself and the vehicle used to communicate the message.

Early in my career, I was asked to put together a direct mail campaign.  The objective was to get customers to extend their service contracts.  I put together a series of direct mail pieces that clearly communicated the value proposition.  I was able to overwhelm the target audience with facts and logic, showing mathematical calculations that demonstrated the clear return-on-investment (ROI).  I created four different mailers that were scheduled to be mailed over a four-week period.  I thought I had nailed the project.  My boss hated it.

He reminded me that regardless of how compelling the message was, if no one reads it, then the entire campaign was a waste of time.  You need to draw in the audience with an appropriate amount of sizzle.  In a word, my campaign was as interesting as reading a calculus textbook.

Later in my career, when computer animation was becoming cost-effective, I put together another campaign that had brilliant animation.  We designed a series of animated visuals that could be mailed on CDs.  Everyone on the team became so enamored with the technology that we failed to build a compelling message.  While everyone loved the animation and ended up sharing it with their friends because it was so state-of-the-art, no one walked away understanding what we were trying to sell.  Clearly, a project too skewed toward sizzle and not enough content.

To illustrate the point, I would like to share with you two videos that are very appropriate for the holiday season.  The first is a commercial produced by the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) of Australia.  It is a public service announcement intended to reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents, by reminding people of the consequences of drinking and driving.  In my opinion, this is one of the best videos on this subject and has an outstanding balance of sizzle vs. substance.  The “sizzle” is gut-wrenching and shocking, and the “substance” (or message) hits you over the head in every frame of the video.  A warning – this is a powerful, yet graphic commercial.

On the other end of the spectrum is a unique view of the nativity story told through social media.  This is a promotional video by a web development firm.  It uses a very creative approach to demonstrate their marketing and web services.  Again, this is an excellent balance of sizzle vs. substance because they entertain you while demonstrating their ability.

Remember to focus first on the message.  Make sure that you are communicating the top 1-2 messages in an easy-to-digest format.  It is always good to use the old technique of 1) Telling them what you are going to tell them, 2) Then tell them; and then finally 3) Remind them what you told them.

Once you have a clearly defined message, then identify a unique way of telling the story that engages the audience.  Always make your message memorable by finding your own unique balance of sizzle vs. substance.


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  1. Great videos! balance is something we lost on the teeter totter which is why there is a whole industry built around creating the balance. In the spirit of the second clip , Merry Christmas to you and to all
    Christmas 2010
    We must be a rugged and hearty, rebounding lot
    Trying to avoid the gifting frenzy and not get caught
    In the decorations in the stores from the eve of Halloween
    To most media ads now being a sea of red and green
    To the frenzy of Black Friday kicking off at 12:01
    Hard to believe another Christmas season has again begun
    Cyber Monday in hyper click just two days behind
    Just need an app to escape the malls surging grind
    The pull upon our wallets, we have slowly grown to expect
    The impulse to use a card is so hard to keep in check
    The online malls beckon– just point and click
    The world is a cart with so many choices to pick
    Ever mindful of the greetings to be politically correct
    Sherpas in the malls with heavy bags we trek
    The lines become longer, the selection dims
    Then in a flash a purchase of the expensive whim
    The lists get longer and the time gets short
    Slight joys to see the children waiting to visit Santa’s Court
    The muses are scratching with worry their heads
    Will we scrap the 12 days to sing of 12 months instead?
    A simpler time and life is just not meant to be,
    But the answer is not to get a bigger tree
    Nor the credit card limit seek to raise
    Seek the gift always in vogue, always in praise
    Give the gift of Peace and the gift of love and self
    No matter how hard to find on any shopping shelf
    Serenity projects calm, serenity projects Peace
    Giving self is so valued in our short term lease
    Whether it is to forego the 24/7 lines
    And with loved ones share more time
    Or extend a helping hand and volunteer
    Others are not so fortunate in this recession year
    Never forget love makes the world go round and round
    If it stops, our spec is just a globe of barren, fallow ground
    The mind can live without the latest Nook or the body without the latest dress
    But the soul and heart often lost in the gifting blizzard need the Peace caress
    This Christmas may Peace and Goodwill graft deep into your heart
    Lasting gifts not found in malls or in any online e-commerce mart.

    (c) Michael P. Ridley a/k/a the Alaskan Poet
    December 21, 2010

  2. Hi Kevin,
    As a direct marketer the substance always is primary although even with accountable marketing, it is important to break through the clutter.

    In the history of classic marketing successes, sometimes the breakthrough comes through an offer that uniquely appeals to a target audience, heavy on the substance. Such as the Book of the Month Club’s efforts from decades ago where there was simply an offer a dedicated reader could not refuse. When I worked at Chiat/Day advertising, Jay Chiat defined breathrough advertising as intrusive an relevant. I notice an awful lot of advertising that emphasizes creativitity for intrusiveness at the expense of relevance. Today’s great marketers, such a Dell Computer seem to strike the right balance though and understand the differences in B2C and B2B.

    My own current work includes both and often with Beasley Direct Marketing, a Silicone Valley group that understands the balancing act as well.

    Thanks for the stimulating topic here.

  3. Kevin,
    You are such a powerful person! Nice going!

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