Developing Advertising Strategy – Stephen King


Here is the entire presentation as  a pdfDeveloping advertising strategy Stephen King of J Walter Thompson. Actually produced in the 1970s it was in widespread circulation.


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  • The Planning Cycle


Let’s start with the first the famous planning cycle which initially supplemented then replaced the Targeting Plan – the 1 page brand brief against which all future ads was briefed and measured.

The planning cycle uses deceptively questions to get you thinking.  My introductory comments are a precis from Stephen King’s paper Improving Advertising Decisions which you can find printed in full in A masterclass in Brand Planning the timeless works of Stephen King published by Wiley. You can find it here.  Required reading as far as I am concerned. But I post this in the sure and certain knowledge that very few planners find their way to Stephen King’s papers so ironically more people are likely to find out about his seminal thinking on posts like this one.

The cycle is less a cycle than a spiral since where you get to at the end is a chance to use what you have learned to start the process all over again.  I’ve used the word process but wish I hadn’t. Because the cycle is really a way of thinking in a systematic and disciplined way about the role of advertising. It is not a process for producing advertising or for identifying the ideal ad based on market conditions.

King makes it clear in his introduction that this is inductive – a way to learn cumulatively rather than to find the absolute truth and stick with it.  It evolves. That’s why it is a cycle.  He poses it as an alternative to focussing on advertising which drives sales. Since in his judgement advertising influences lots of things better than the immediate impulse to buy so the cycle is a way to smoke out the best way for advertising to work.  Go straight to sales and you will miss the gold.  He also is concerned that advertising research has become a misnomer for research that tests or proves advertising and research to be useful should be more tentative and more diverse than some kind of crude test matrix.

So let’s turn to the cycle itself. Which is focussed on the brand and its relationship with the customer.  Not advertising nor the production of a selling message.

Where are we?

Where is the brand or service in people’s minds? How does it fit into the market context? What is its past. What is its potential?

Why are we there?

This is where you look at the factors which are driving the brand positioning and its direction of travel

Where could we be?

Where should the brand be going in terms of the market? In terms of people’s thinking? Where is it feasible to get to given the resources the brand has?

How could we get there?

What combination of actions would get us to where we want to be?  And King makes a comment here about the significance of feedback loops. You can’t make a strategy without having an objective. But at the same time you need to know based on past experience whether previous goals have been achieved and what your learnings have been? It is a to-ing and fro-ing between past learnings, desired objectives and the effective deployment of resources.

Are we getting there?

To be asked before and after the campaign – is it likely that we will get there – why do we think that? That is what pretesting by rights ought to be. And having run the activity what indication do we have that what we did indeed took us where we planned to be?

And so round again to

Where are we now?

starting from a new and better position.

I suggest for discussion we use the Planners should read Facebook page which you can find here.

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  • 2. The Buying System

Essential for answering the question Where does the advertising fit in?  It has 4 components








We move to the buying system which Stephen King boils down into 4 components. I think today I would add the context of the buyer since we have so much more control over where messages are delivered. But in King’s time there were only half a dozen advertising channels. Only posters was close to the point of purchase. So qualitative media buying was an idea being explored particularly by Doug Richardson one of JWT’s first planning group heads. But doesn’t really happen here.  Notice that the 4 supports are not linear but equally important and there is no suggestion that you work through them in a sequence.  I suppose whether the purchase is on or offline would also be another consideration which King didn’t have available to him.









We have to start somewhere so here are the influences. The word of mouth brigade sometimes talk as if they discovered it. It should be very obvious that what drives consideration is those closest too us with whom we live. And our friendship groups

We will come back to repertoire later but the structure of shopping is influential in its own right (behaviour). King then acknowledges the value of information  and expert endorsement in editorials. He then puts down price and within that implicitly whether the product is on offer

Accident is a classic King addition. He is not creating a closed system of questions to cover all eventualities but recognises that all sorts of things including happenstance influence our choices

Purchase Mode








In every category the purchasing patterns are different. So is this a habitual purchase which the buyer doesn’t really register – its a replacement?

Is it an occasional purchase which gives the opportunity to get people to reconsider their brand  choice? Is it situational – where distress purchasing can become so influential – your door has been kicked in – you don’t have time to go through a tender process with 3 locksmiths

Impulse of course is a huge modality often driven by routine – the chocolate bar on the way home from work. The purchase may be so affordable that there is no risk

A lot of purchasing is experimental. Not least because buying the same thing becomes boring. And the more confident a buyer is in the category they express mastery by trying other brands.

Search – people don’t buy the first thing they find – a lot of store visits result in no purchase because the purpose of the visit is to find the right product – the same can be said for websites can it not?  And searching doesn’t result in a purchase but in a short list or consideration set with brands added and dropped from it.

Research is as much learning about the category and asking experts and family and friends. Sometimes buying is a way to resolve the tension of knowing when you have done enough research. So what you are minimising is the risk of buying the wrong thing or paying too much for it.

Everyone has a different buying strategy. Every category has a different repertoire of search strategies. Advertising that doesn’t take this into account is frankly irrelevant.









What is the motive behind the purchase? Account planning came out of a period where advertising was trying to move beyond the simple appeal to status – getting ahead of the Jones.  And this is a great list

Problem solving – we’re inclined to be overly dependent on this as a way to promote a product but it clearly is a very important role that a product can play – not least because what accompanies it is the language of benefits – how does the product solve my problem?

Rewards/treats adds self gratification and instant gratification to the list – important because as well as persuading someone to buy something very often you need to add the tip over – why you should buy it NOW

Self impression – not sure about this one does it mean that the product is consistent with the way you see yourself – impressing yourself rather than the Jones – constructing your own identity. In furniture purchase there are things you say you want to buy but you won’t because you don’t have the confidence to buy them. And other products you won’t consider because you see other people considering buying them. People who you don’t want to be associated with! So self image is important – the issue is how to trigger it for a particular audience.

Gifting – a major part of purchasing – which also represents the relationship between the giver and the receiver. It is also useful as a proxy for self treating – a gift to myself! And gifts have a different pricing structure.

Ritual – either because of the cultural or public significance of the purchase or because of high value – which means the purchase process has to be seen to be honoured even if you really want to just get it over with  – like buying insurance!

Which leads neatly onto prevention as motivation. This is a funny one.  You don’t need to be burgled to feel you have had value from your insurance. But one of the main reasons for cancelling roadside rescue is not breaking down.  You never used the product.  But another major motive here is peace of mind. Because I have the product – I don’t have to worry about the consequences about not having it and something bad happening.

And then there is maintenance – regular essential repairs or replenishing. This is why supermarkets set up shopping lists online so you have less to do.  If you don’t have a shopping list you may buy far more on impulse. But if you are using their shopping list it is more difficult to go anywhere else.

What are the choices?








I love this slide. What is the brand instead of?

Other brands – yes that’s what everyone says

But also other products or activities which are not directly competitive.   The hotel is not just competing with the local b&b or AirB&B but with staying with a friend.

Existing brand repertoires give a variety of options – am I being encouraged to multibuy? to lock me out of needing to come to the store to consider competitive offers?  Do I binge buy or am I looking for bargains. A lot of supermarket offers are driven by offer junkies who stumble from brand to brand to get the cheapest offer on the day. Which means they are driven more by price on the day or even money off  than what’s inside the tin

And Nothing.  Brilliant – sometimes we just make do. Or learn to do without. The alternative to buying brand X is never just buying brand Y.  When constructing advertising one of advertisings’ main contributions is to reduce this option – the can’t be bothered one.

These 4 sections need to be completed in tandem with the next one which I will go on to in the next post very soon.  Which is looking at where advertising fits. If you think that all you need to do is to identify a benefit and a message then think again.  There is a mass of information out there. And a mass of marketing materials. So what specific task advertising plays is what needs to emerge from this exercise.

What role does the advertising play?












The role of advertising needs to be articulated once you have articulated the 4 components of the buying system. Stephen King put the slide straight after the summary buying system slide.  The role of advertising is not separate but emerges organically from how best to use the advertising to influence purchase. Notice that King is saying nothing about what the message is here but how the ad is supposed t0 work.  Note to all those planners already trying to polish up a proposition.  What you say matters less than what you are expecting the advertising to do as part of the buying system. Because if you don’t get the role of the advertising right then it doesn’t matter what you say. Actually you can say anything you like. It will be ignored.  One example may help. I was working on Chrysler a few years ago and looking to improve their sales in Europe. I found out how many Chryslers there were on European roads and was able to calculate how many minutes you would drive before passing a Chryser on the road. The role of the advertising was to show people what Chrysler cars looked like because you would see one so rarely that the advertising had a specific job to do. Now I know that far too much automotive advertising is showing you the car in the belief that if you see it you’ll want it and you’ll need to buy it. But with the majority of models being refreshes on a look and a name which is already known I would suggest that car advertising needs to do more than that (actually most car advertising is I believe address to car dealers to give them confidence to stock and promote the car – but that’s another story!).  I hope that makes it clear that the role of advertising is more important than the message of the advertising.

Somehow I have to explain this scale of indirection to you without writing an essay – though you could always read Stephen King’s paper on the topic which you can find in Masterclass in Brand Planning on the Amazon site! The paper is called a Practical progress from a theory of advertisements (snappy title eh).

The point about the scale of indirection is that the less immediate the effect of the advertising the more powerful it is likely to be. Yes we have direct response advertising but that is effective on a tiny number of people – percentage points and less. Whereas the indirect effects of advertising are measurable on substantial proportions of people who have been exposed to the advertising. If you are a digital advertiser who is chasing clicks – then I apologise – you can see the dilemma – it is likely to be the indirect effects of digital advertising which will build your business. Of course you still have to get your message in front of the right people  – I suspect most of the effort of digital is getting to people (unfortunately that means there is far too little discussion about what they then do with what they have been exposed to. And that’s the valuable part.

Back to the heresy lesson courtesy of Stephen King. In order from most direct and least immediate – to more effective and less immediate

1/ He begins with Direct – an important but specialist segment – and all the effort will be towards getting someone to sign up or to respond in some way. Which is why offers – why buy now? are so important – the ad is looking for a behavioural response.

2/ Then seeking information. What King calls the Tell me more response. Sometimes you need to know a certain amount before you can buy. So the role of advertising is to motivate you to start educating yourself.  You can see how different that is from the Buy Now. Some media channels are better for this type of education – your research should tell you which those are.

3/ Relate to own needs, wants, desires. This is what King calls the What a good idea! response. This is where the customer relates  to their own experience or re-interprets information is a new way. I never wanted to go on a cruise… but when I heard the story of someone who went on permanent cruises instead of a care home and saved a ton of money I saw going on cruises in a new light!!  King’s own example is showing the use of paper towel’s around a baby eating a soft boiled egg (who does that these days?) the point is to talk about the usage – not the product. Work on the action not the thing

4/ Recall satisfactions:reinforce/reorder/short list. This is what King calls the That reminds me response.  Which is when you want someone to repurchase something they have already bought. In which case you would do better to remind them what a good experience they had last time. Because customer experience trumps marketing information every time.  People either buy a banker of a product which saves them thinking about it – or work from a short list. So make sure the product is on that shortlist and is in a higher position than the others.  BUT King describes this as jogging people’s memory -not triggering a full scale evaluation – its on the edge of the radar if not under it. And it identifies the role of advertising as maintaining and reinforcing the status quo.

5/ Modify attitudes. What King calls the Really? response. The product is not changing or a new occasion or a new use. We’re just chipping at changing the attitudes which prevent people from buying.  And he gives the example of a Guinness ad with the immortal line Every girl should have a little black drink. Chipping away at the prejudice that girls don’t drink beer. This is slow work but incredibly profitable if you successfully change attitudes.  Chuck out the Chintz for Ikea was another memorable campaign which set out to change the way people felt about furniture.

6/ Reinforce attitudes. What King calls the I always knew I was right response. Which is often used by brand leaders to reward customers for loyalty and make them feel good about their purchase for which they may have paid a premium. And perhaps even talk about it to other people.   It is used to justify price premiums. It is particularly useful  for luxury goods.  Making loyalists feel good about what they have already bought. And making it more difficult for those who are less loyal to consider an alternative. And King suggests that advertising can help a brand become big, it can also help to increase the intensity of affection.  This is what King calls the most indirect kind of advertising but potentially the most powerful.

Clever stuff. And that is all from that single slide.  Frankly every planner should know this slide and have it memorised. Sadly only a minority will ever come across it.

Modelling Markets

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This is the only page which looks at how the category performs  as a whole. The factors which affect all brands trading in the space.

What is driving patterns of behaviour – often this is to do with the way the market is structured – how people buy and use the products.

Some are more important than others hence the prioritisation.

What returns on marketing inputs – in other words how hard is it to reach people and how much do you have to spend to make an impact and to get a return? And these are the returns on all marketing activity not just the ones that drive purchase.

That is something all brands in the category will struggle with and the smaller the brand the harder it will be to break through.

Today I think we would ask more questions about the communications context – how people use online and the balance between on and offline purchase.

How cluttered the communications environment is.

Checklist for  Target Groups

This surprised me. King only provides one slide. And it is a relatively modest list.  But that I suspect is because of his pragmatism. He doesn’t need an exhaustive list of consumer information. Just the essentials which would affect your choices as a communicator.

audience checklist







King starts with the relationship with category and with the brand

And their beliefs in relation to the specific brand or category

Only then does he ask for psychographics, lifestyle and media behaviour. And role in the purchasing decision

And demographics last of all. The issue is less finding people than motivating them – so start with what you know about people that allows you to address their motivation.

It’s not a long checklist as checklists go is it?

What is a brand – and what affects brand personality

We come to brands. Brands are central to King’s thinking about how advertising but he never makes the error of talking as if advertising is the only or primary thing that builds brands – but advertising does play a special role.

what is a brand

So to the first brand slide. It is extraordinary (to me at any rate) that given all the literature and schematics which the branding industry has accrued that King uses 4 phrases to summarise what a brand is

Unique  – in other literature he says indivisible too. w (‘On a scale of 1-10 how modern would you say this brand is?’ – would be a nonsense to King) But each brand needs to be understood on its own terms – branding experts like to generalise about brands – King doesn’t do this.  A brand is the sum of the total impressions

Then physical features – what does the brand taste of , feel like to the touch – brand impressions ultimately derive from physical experience. So what is that? Said decades before Apple championed the connect between design and experience.  The T plan which King designed gave special place to the sensory profile of the brand.  Over time this got dropped as the rational and emotional became more important – not least because intellectuals could conceptualise these.  But the physical aspects of a brand are primary. Without the physical there is nothing for advertising to promise or connote.

Then performance – the great FMCG brands talk about brand benefits. King summarises it with single word Performance. What does it do for you?

Then style and associations – so often where brand experts start – but that is where associations are shared with other brands and experiences so are less unique.  This sequence pushes you to product consumption and purchase and to ask the simplest hardest questions about what is distinctive about that and the associations that come with it. Before moving onto rational and emotional associations.

What affects personality? (sorry the title got lost in the scan)

what affects brand personality


Then how to affect or influence brand personality – note that the total impression of the brand is inside a circle marked Me. It is not in a filing cabinet in the office of the brand manager or his corporate lawyer. Brands belong to the people as a  way for us to orchestrate our experiences of using products.  The total impressions are in me and indivisible. So how do we get to tweak them?

The maker is one of the drivers (brand owners know your place)

The product is another and separate influence.

Other users are a clear influence

Competit0rs also – watch the category folks.

We have the retail environment (price/distribution/display)

And then the visual representation  – the name, the pack, the advertising , the promotions.

Notice how advertising is in its place as one of many – King puts it above promotions!  This is a document about developing advertising strategy and yet within one of the 2 brand slides advertising gets mentioned once as a component.

It is ironic that having so thoroughly de-centred advertising that this kind of system produces advertising that was so often so memorable.  Monomania does not lead to great advertising.  But as an element among many advertising can do what it does best. Which is where this document is going next. We are finally at the point where we can discuss the advertising strategy.

Why set strategy using desired responses?

setting target responses

We now get to the heart of what makes Stephen King’s thinking so distinctive – he focuses on outputs. What the customer takes away from the communication. This in contrast to virtually all communications which wants to check that the message has been received believed and acted upon. King doesn’t care about the message. He only cares about what you do with it.  Because that is what matters.

So he describes ads as means not ends – so often all the effort is about getting the ad right. What matters is getting the response the brand owner needs to achieve their communications objective –

When you focus on consumer response then you work with all of the elements of the marketing mix. And if another element of the mix is more influential than advertising in achieving this then that is where the focus should be.

He makes the obvious point that what people take out is not necessarily the same as what you have communicated to them.

And this focus on response opens the door for a range of types of response of which understanding and credibility of a marketing message is only one aspect and may not be the most important.

Setting target responses

setting target responsesSo here are the 3 questions he sets.

  1. What changes in response to the brand message – that means as we have been considering the role of advertising that the advertising may be reinforcing beliefs that the receiver already holds – its not introducing new ones. Or those believes may be more strongly held. This is so different to measuring whether a message is understood.

2. What is the comparison with competitors? How credible is this compared to what they are saying? It may be that they are saying relatively similar things? So what it is it that makes the response to this particular brand communication convincing? This question leaves open the question that competitive brand advertising may actually be working in favour of your brand? Either because the competitor isn’t believed. Or worse because competitor advertising is so generic that it becomes a generic encouragement to continue to use my regular brand.

3. Lastly what kind of response is the advertiser setting out to get? Are you trying to persuade people? Or create empathy? Or to be memorable? Or a call to action? Do you want an emotional response? Or a rational response?  You can see how wasteful so much discussion around creative ideas is – about whether they are on message – when the discussion ought to be How does it make people feel? What does it make them think? And you might not actually want a rational response.

What makes a good advertising idea?

what makes a good ad idea 1Good question.  We have moved beyond strategy to a territory in which the creative department are more comfortable. The sad truth is that you can be great at parsing strategy but still terrible at judging the quality and potential of advertising ideas.  The strategist needs to cultivate this ability as much as what we have covered already in this document.

These are King’s answers

1. The right role for advertising. The document has already covered this.  If you don’t know what job you need your advertising to do then you have no business looking at creative ideas – as a planner you reason for being in the room/meeting is because you have a grasp of what the role for advertising is and can remind people even when they want to select an idea that won’t actually do the job however brilliant or funny it is.

2. Originality – small word big issue – this is why creatives comb the D&AD annuals to make sure it hasn’t been done before. The advertising idea breaks new ground within the category – this is usually very very had to do.

3. Comes from the brand positioning. This harks back to the time when at JWT they didn’t write creative briefs but each brand had a T Plan which articulated the positioning of the brand. The idea had to be original – it had to match the brand positioning – and it had to create the right response (the role of the advertising). And if they had that they didn’t need to write a creative brief that was all the information the creative team needed. Amazing.

These days now that we have lots of briefs – umbrella briefs, campaign briefs, executional ones and a brief for every different comms channel the box with brand written over it is faithfully filled in. But this is one of the most important tasks. If your advertising idea comes from the brand positioning it keeps the brand positioned in the customer’s mind. If it doesn’t come from there it either repositions the brand somewhere else. Which the brand owner may or may not want – and it takes time and effort to do this.  But alternatively it may deposition the brand. In other words great ad but no one knows what you stand for any more. There are brands who have hopped from execution to execution of different advertising ideas. And they don’t stand for anything.  Actually they are helping to promote the category since when a brand is depositioned the main thing it still does is to  remind people to buy the product. Usually someone elses.

What makes a good advertising idea? 2

what is a good ad idea 2King repeats the question.  But answers this time in terms of the direct effect of the advertising – to demonstrate the brand’s function. Of course this doesn’t mean a product demonstration. If there is an emotional  benefit it is this which the ad directly does. But teasers aside.. the ad is not primarily about entertainment or distraction – every part of it should be telling us what the brand is offering to do for us.

The indirect effect of the ad – is this where the idea of the brand halo comes into play? The way in which the ad tells us what the brand will do for us is itself a metaphor for the kind of personality the brand represents.  The customer won’t usually take this on consciously but cumulatively after seeing a series of ads, the customer will get an impression of who the brand is and how the brand is different from other brands. Advertising isn’t the only way that brand personality is conveyed but it is one of the most powerful. Not least because it slips under the radar. You know who it is – and unless you dislike the brand intensely or reject the project it is virtually impossible for the brand personality as delivered through advertising to influence the customers’ choice. Even when you know how it is done it is hard if not impossible to resist.

Structure of advertising strategy

sttructure of advertising strategyThis really ought to be a summary slide but King’s thinking is so dense that he is still telling us new things about what a decent advertising strategy needs to include.

  1. Firstly a worked out and costed media strategy. There’s no point in making advertising which nobody sees. Nor is there much point in making advertising which people don’t see often enough for it to be commercially effective.  Or which does not support marketing and business goals because not enough people see it.  I am amazed by the number of times the client announces a budget and the agency uses that to make an ad and to place it on media channels – but there is no discussion about whether the spend is complete overkill – so the client should spend less (when did an agency last turn a budget down?) . Or what is more likely the budget is too small for the ambitions the client has. Now part of the answer is I know the strength of the creative idea. A brilliant ad will be noticed more quickly, remembered better, may even be sought out by the customer. But on average most ads don’t do this. So have a proper media strategy. How many eyeballs do you need? And can you pay to reach them?

2. What is the role for advertising. Again. Have you got the message yet? This is the last slide so if you don’t know the role of your advertising this is last orders.  After this no more reminders!

3. What are the priorities? Strategy is sacrifice. You can’t do everything. And no ad EVER does everything you want it to do.  So which groups will you reach first – please don’t try to talk to everyone!  That by definition means you have no strategy. Prioritise your target groups And prioritise your target responses? Are you going for an emotional response? A behavioural response? Which is most important? If you can’t make these hard choices you will give poor advice when asked to review creative ideas.

4. Why ?  The sort of question which makes me love Stephen King.  Why are you going to the effort of doing this? Is there something else easier or cheaper that would achieve the same result?  What is the likelihood that you get exactly the same result as you did last time you tried to do this with the last piece of creative work? In which case why not save the client time and money and rerun the old ad?   I once worked on a brand where we didn’t advertise but the tracking study showed that everyone thought we had. We supported the same level of sales enquiries not advertising as when we had advertised.  Partly because of an effective sponsorship. But also because of mis-attribution of competitor advertising from which the brand benefited. And if you are bemasterclassbrandplanningstephenkinging outspent 5 to 1 is it possible that nothing will happen in response to your advertising?  The why question is always worth asking. Even if the agency isn’t always comfortable with the answer.

And that brings us to the end of the strategy document. Roughly typed – and the layout is enough to give a graphic designer kittens. Its not very polished is it? But the thinking is first class and as relevant now I believe as when it was written in the early 1970s.  I hope you’re found it helpful. Once again – if you want to get into his thinking then for goodness sake read A masterclass in Brand Planning which contains Stephen King’s best known papers. But I hope this taster has whetted your appetite for this seminal advertising thinker and father of planning. If you want to know more about planning then of course I would suggest you read the recently published book about the origins of account planning which I wrote with Tracey Follows. Its called 98% Pure Potato. And its chockful of wisdom from those who we interviewed who worked with Stephen King and put his ideas into action in some of the greatest advertising of the 20th century. So get a copy and read all about it!

That’s it for October. In the first week of November I shall upload and comment on a new document out of the box of inheritance files.  This deck will be given its own page – and we start again. Watch this space.


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