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Toothy Headphones on an Egyptian Billboard

This post is part of my series based on People-Optimized Marketing, summed up by the keywords think, feel, act, and design. It’s a quickie.

striking 3D billboard
Photo by David Evers.

Obviously this billboard wins when it comes to design. The mouthy headphones and three-dimensionality are eye-catching. But how about the necessary intellectual aspects?

commercialized Rolling Stones logo
Illustration by Christopher Dombres.

Well… the billboard conveys a sense of rock-‘n’-roll brashness, and you can identify the brands Nokia and XpressMusic if you look closely. Obviously it has something to do with cell phones (back in the quaint old days of flip phones). But what is the message of the billboard? What is it proposing to the viewer? Mysterious. The think component is not spelled out sufficiently.

How To Design An Effective Billboard

Here are two pieces of feedback that I got about my billboard manifesto: 1) “Sonya, more people have watched Office Space than you think.” 2) “This post is like the billboards that you’re criticizing.” Although I had good points (if I do say so myself, which I do), my suggestions weren’t presented in a clear, actionable manner. Hopefully this post will amend that. Most of the following design ideas apply to other types of display ads, like magazine ads or even web ads, but my specific aim is to improve billboards.

The process is slightly different for new brands versus established brands. (You are a new brand if most people have never heard of your company/product. You are an established brand if everyone already knows who you are and what you do.) The advice for new brands largely also applies to established brands, but not vice versa.

celebrate 125 years with Coca Cola
Photo by Elliott Brown.

Billboard Checklist For New Brands

#1: Define your objective. What do you want people to do after they view your billboard? Do you want them to visit your website? Buy your product next time they see it at Target? Simply remember your company when they’re prompted to think of your industry? It’s important to pin this down so that later you can evaluate whether the billboard accomplishes what it’s supposed to. Keep in mind, as a new brand, that getting your name/logo/image in people’s brains is CRUCIAL before you can expect anything else.

#2: Include essential information. These things MUST be on your billboard, and they must be big and readable: the name of your company, what your product is/does (if there’s room, also why people should want it), and where people can get it. Textually, here’s an example:

Safer Dog Leashes
made by Company Name
available at

Accompanying the text would be a picture of the dog leash. That’s it. Simple is good! People need to be able to process the information quickly, with little attention and zero intention. Prioritize clarity, and when in doubt, enlarge the font!

blowing a giant bubble
Your text should be as big as this bubble. Photo by Thangaraj Kumaravel.

Billboard Checklist For Established Brands

#1 is the same: Define your objective. How do you want people to react to your billboard? What do you want them to do? As an established brand, you may be playing a longer game, oriented toward perception as well as action. Do you want people to start associating your product with luxury, business, fun? Etc, etc.

#2: Signal your brand. You don’t need to lay out everything about the company and what you do, but you still need to show whose billboard this is. In a legible way! Depending on how well-known you are, this can mean putting your company’s name in a corner, or in some cases just the logo. Make sure that people can tell, from far away, what brand the billboard represents.

shot on iphone 6
Photo by Elvert Barnes.

#3: Core message. Suppress your desire to be clever. Jokey or sarcastic billboards can be done well, but it’s so infrequent that statistically speaking, you’d do better not to even try. Be straightforward. To use the example of “Shot on iPhone 6”, the core message is, “The iPhone 6 has a really good camera.” Boil down your core message to be as simple as possible. If you use text, use LARGE text.

HELLO light art installation
Artwork by Peter Liversidge; photo by See-ming Lee.

Now I gotta backtrack. Before you do anything: Step zero in any kind of marketing endeavor is to consider, “Is our [product/service] valuable? Why should people want it?” If whatever you’re offering isn’t useful and desirable, go back to the drawing board before you try to sell it. If you’re in a position where you can’t amend the product to make it better, your job is going to be a hell of a lot harder. More on that here: “The single worst marketing decision you can make” by Ryan Holiday. Also, this memo from Stewart Butterfield to the internal team at Slack (a workplace communications system) is a must-read. Salient quote:

“Just as much as our job is to build something genuinely useful, something which really does make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant and more productive, our job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of [our product] into their terms.

A good part of that is ‘just marketing,’ but even the best slogans, ads, landing pages, PR campaigns, etc., will fall down if they are not supported by the experience people have when they hit our site, when they sign up for an account, when they first begin using the product and when they start using it day in, day out.”

That’s it! Let me know in the comments, on Twitter, or via email ( whether you think this post is correct, super wrong, or how it could be more helpful. Feedback is welcome. Thank you!

Why Your Company’s Billboard Sucks

iPhone 6 billboard ad in San Francisco
Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns.

I like to critique billboards (read: make fun of them). There’s plenty of material along the freeway or in downtown areas. A few of them are good. The frequent winner is Apple, with their colorful-but-minimalist ads. Recent displays have been boring–dude, I know what an iPhone looks like–but at least they make sense. (Granted, the “Shot on iPhone 6” campaign is brilliant, but I haven’t seen it many places.)

Most billboards are headscratchers, especially Verizon and AT&T ads, which are full of inscrutable acronyms. To this day I don’t know what LTE stands for, and I don’t care enough to look it up. This indicates that Verizon and AT&T have failed, especially since I actively pay attention to advertising, unlike most people.

Verizon billboard
Photo by Mike Mozart.

Verizon proudly announces, “We’ve doubled our 4G LTE bandwidth in cities coast to coast.” Okay, um, what does that even mean? Here is a better thing for Verizon to say: “Fast, reliable texting and data, available all over America.” Or something to that effect, preferably shorter and simpler.

People seem to think it’s fine to resize a magazine ad and slap it on a building. They are wrong! Often the magazine ads aren’t very good in the first place, so this is doubly ineffective. I am consistently amazed by how many billboards neglect to communicate extremely basic information: 1) the company’s name, 2) what the product is and what it does, and 3) what action the potential customer should take.

Here is a train billboard for a good cause that totally fails:

Are you 1 in 26? Epilepsy billboard on the train
Photo by Elvert Barnes.

When you look at this ad, the immediate question is, “Am I one in twenty-six what?” The answer is “epileptics”, but unless you stop to examine the lower lefthand corner, you won’t figure that out. Very few people are going to slow down to closely examine the small print. This ad just doesn’t work, because billboards are usually not the place for high-concept, or even intermediate-concept, artwork. Billboards need to be punchy, delivering their message immediately.

billboard: Shot on iPhone 6
Photo by Elvert Barnes.

There are situations where you can ignore the basics. For instance, if you’re Apple and everybody already knows what your brand sells and how to get it. At that point you can do high-level emotional marketing. (See also: beer and car ads.) Most brands are not in this position. They try to be clever and complex, although it would be wayyy more effective to say, “We are [name]. We sell [product]. Find us at [location/website].” A+ if you can figure out how to say that your product is superior, but brand recognition is probably all you should shoot for with a billboard. Remember, most people aren’t paying attention. They’re looking at the road. If they’re on the train, they’re looking at their phone. Your billboard should be SUPER SIMPLE, easy to comprehend at a glance.

HipChat billboard ad, a play on the cult comedy Office Space
Photo by Elizabeth Krumbach Joseph.

The HipChat billboard above toes the line between “Ahhh I see what you did there, that’s funny” and “Huh?” Joking about the horrible boss from Office Space is cute, but you have to pay attention to the ad to get it. You also have to have seen Office Space. (Steve Carell’s character from The Office would have been a similar-but-better choice.) Sure, some people are going to notice the billboard, get the joke, and enjoy it, but most people aren’t going to pay attention long enough to go through all that. At least HipChat’s logo is big and readable, but the explanation of the service is too small for people to scan while changing lanes.

I could do more examples, but I’ve probably harped on this enough now. What do you think? Comment below, or hit me up on Twitter/Facebook.

UPDATE: I wrote an instructional follow-up post.

Office Space boss

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