Lessons from Cookie Monster

Blogger Deb Maue provides five lessons for higher ed marketers based on Apple’s iPhone 6 commercial.

March 31, 2016

Every once in a (great) while, an ad comes along that reminds those of us in marketing just how powerful advertising can be when it’s done well. The new iPhone 6 ad, starring Cookie Monster, does just that. In the 60-second ad, Cookie Monster, with help from iPhone’s hands-free Siri virtual assistant, tries to distract himself while waiting for his home-made cookies to be done. If you haven’t seen the ad yet, here it is:

Marketers in any industry can learn lessons from this ad, but there are some especially important lessons for higher ed marketers trying to create communications that are memorable, persuasive, unique, and ownable. Whether you’re creating TV advertising, print advertising, or really memorable prospective student videos, this ad shows us how we can make it better:

1. It's based on a powerful insight. Humans hate waiting, and we all can instantly relate to a character who will try just about anything to make time pass more quickly, because we’ve all done it. (My favorite part is when he uses the oven mitts as puppets.) While the product benefit (hands-free commands) isn’t directly tied to the insight, the insight holds our attention so that we actually understand what the ad is communicating.

What’s the lesson for higher ed? In my experience, we don’t work hard enough to find ways to incorporate insights into higher ed marketing. By digging for the emotional insights that drive higher ed decisions (which can be done fairly easily in focus groups with current or prospective students), we’ll create more powerful communications.

2. It uses humor effectively. This ad is funny in a light and playful way, and it reminds us that it’s possible to be funny in a way that is not mean, condescending, or rude.

In higher ed, we usually stay away from humor because a) we’re afraid we might offend someone, or b) we believe that humor has no place in marketing a serious business like higher ed. But a light-handed, effective use of humor can make a strong emotional connection with prospective students and their parents.

3. The music works on several levels. The song is directly related to the story being told in the ad AND it takes us back (some of us, anyway) to junior high.

The lesson? Sometimes it makes sense to pay more to use a recognizable song. Another example of this is the University of Phoenix that uses a clever re-write of “If I Only Had a Brain” to demonstrate how smart and hardworking its students are:

4. The benefit is clear. While the iPhone 6 can’t make time pass more quickly, it does allow us to communicate effectively when our hands are not free.

Most higher ed advertising is long on attributes and short on benefits. We have small class sizes, a diverse student body, and lots of beautiful new buildings. We assume that our target audience will be able to connect the dots well enough to understand the benefits they get from those things. The problem is that our target audience is busy and distracted. We need to connect the dots for them.

5. It connects the ad to the brand. An ad can be funny and memorable, but if the target audience can’t remember the brand, it’s time and money wasted. Not only is the product shown multiple times throughout the ad, the name Siri (which everyone knows is connected to the iPhone) is used several times.

In a category with thousands of competitors offering variations on the same thing, higher ed marketers must work hard to make sure all of our communications are strongly branded – visually, and throughout the content.

6. (Bonus point.) It uses a spokesperson who will never be accused of a crime (except maybe a stolen cookie or two.) You can never be too careful.

Deborah Maue is the Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications at Columbia College Chicago, and is a leading voice in higher education marketing.


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