​Years ago, and I mean many years ago, my family had a game we would play during long vacation rides in a hot car. We referred to it as “The Commercial Game,” and since it required no batteries, moving pieces, cards or dice, it was the perfect portable time killer and the best way to keep us from bailing out of a moving vehicle on the interstate. The rules were simple: recite a line or hum part of a jingle without mentioning the name of the product or the company. The first one to fill in the blank or shout out the product or the brand won the point, and then would gain the next turn. If people were in the right frame of mind, this contest would consume a good 45 minutes of time and keep young siblings from kicking each other or shoving their pillows over back seat neutral zones and declaring war on each other for the rest of the trip. 

Now the funny part of this game was when people would go blank on the product or the company. Oh, they had the tune down cold and could see the three old ladies at the counter of the fast food joint staring down at the hamburger in front of them. About 30% of the time, there was that painful brain freeze when all recall went dark and time would run out on the clock much to the joy of the presenter who would maintain his turn for another round. 

What happened then is an example of a great ad or promo that failed to make any attempt to factor in the correct use of buttons and messages, and it’s imperative to have these understood by anyone you have deputized as your marketing manager. The first thing that must be understood and accepted is these two terms are not the same thing at all. A message is the communication, the thought, the significance an advertiser wants to convey to his target audience. A button is merely the thing that is used to get the audience’s agreement to hear or read the message. The term originated in an early 20th century expression “press the button,” which means to perform an action that automatically brings about the required state of affairs. In marketing communications, which includes public relations, the required state of affairs we are looking to reach is agreement and cooperation with one’s actions. In other words, read the darn ad, or open the email. Graphics, images, headlines are used to push that button.

The message on the other hand is the real essence of any promotional piece. It is the idea, copy or narration that tells dear viewers and readers what fun they will experience once they’ve slipped behind the wheel of a new SUV. You’ll drive over rocky streambeds. Camp out in the woods with your dog. Fit every stuffed sports bag and its kid in one shot without a single bit of mud and be on your way with everyone beaming away. Those concepts and ideas are using buttons to draw your attention and agreement, yet the message is the second part of the equation, and it speaks promissory words of quality of life, the comfort of a smooth ride with lane change warning indicators and other bells and whistles that make the new SUV the must-have vehicle for you and your family.

That’s how good marketing is done. It determines what the buttons are for any given audience and builds from there. It often uses some of the very same words, phrases or images uttered by your prospects.  

Here’s one of my favorite examples. Years back, I was involved in a major positioning strategy and branding program for a capital equipment provider that was trying to overcome years of frequent thematic changes in its promotional campaigns. If something didn’t appear to have worked one year, the group tried on another coat of paint without giving any thought or effort toward learning what buttons its target audience had available to push.

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The products it had to sell were all well and fine and its service capabilities were on par with any competitor – better and more personal in some many cases. Yet, the audience never recognized this group as a player in the marketplace. That is until some surveying was conducted; the buttons were identified and then pushed fervently throughout the rest of the program.  

Creatively speaking, the button in this case was time, or more precisely, the concept of saving time. Everything else about the equipment and the company, though extremely important, was secondary to building that agreement to read or view. Saving time was the button and to take it one step further, “It’s about time” was the phrase many prospective customers had used in their survey responses. Ergo, the campaign theme and the headlines in every ad started with the button “It’s About Time…” and the graphic design featured an instrument casting a shadow of a clock to convey the idea that all of these machines were designed and built to save time. 

The message elaborated on that idea, briefly enough to establish more credibility and interest for further information or assistance, and then we were in the race with continuity of message deployed across all tactics we had to create: advertising, emails, website landing pages, presentations, direct mail and so forth. We also didn’t take our own internal people for granted either. They too had to be oriented on the program and what its content meant and how it all could be used in their vernacular, sales and service alike. No one was left behind!

Independent dealer in business systems have the same, simple formula at hand and many of them usually have enough information if they’ve surveyed to know exactly what buttons to push. That data has inspired some very successful promo pieces without making a hit-or-miss investment on development, design and production. Think of it as if you were in your prospect’s position – if you are facing stressful cost reduction directives and you saw a line that read “XYZ’s document management solutions cut down paperwork, expenses and my stress level” would that not generate a little bit of agreement from you? If your workflow was being hampered by old office products like a ball and chain, wouldn’t a graphic of that very image hit home? It sure would and the accompanying messages would provide the appropriate back up info to validate your take on the situation and present the opportunity for you to handle it with the right kind of help. Throw in a discount or special offer for added enticement and now you have some effective lead-generating marketing underway. Button first. Message next.
So now you know why certain advertisements succeed where others do not. These is why you keep snapping your fingers as you think about the clever spot with the guys walking buy the diner, but go blank on what or who the ad was promoting. The ad didn’t push the right button for you and failed to get your agreement to pay enough attention to its message in order to find it memorable. Remember, it’s not what you think of your product, service or company that matters. It’s what your customer base thinks. It’s your job to get them thinking, and the only way to do that is to push their buttons and when you do, you’ll be remembered as the go-to-resource when the need for your product or service arises. Who knows, you may end up having your ad come up in a game being played by a family driving down the highway on its way to summer vacation. Only this time, there’ll be no memory blanks. They’ll know it was your promo and they’ll know it by your name.


Contact Tim Votapka at [email protected] or at 631.382.7762.
In Successful Marketing, It's Buttons First, Message Next

By Tim Votapka