Fake and Trusted: The secret to repairing the totally awful state of the HVAC industry’s branding and advertising “plan.” Or: Why every HVAC “advertising” agency creates distrust.

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Creating totally fake and awesome advertising is the smartest way to fuel interest in a product, service, or brand that consumers don’t know or care about.  That might sound inflammatory by design, but it’s true.  Consider two contrasting examples:

There’s a local television and appliance store in my neck of the woods.  The owner of the store runs ads on local stations.  He claims that their low prices are beating everyone else’s low prices (some sick claim to fame that he’s the cheapest guy in town?).  Nothing new.  Nothing particularly credible.  Just a guy I don’t know telling me he sells Dr. Dre headphones at a super cheap price and asking me to trust him because we share a zip code.  

“The Most Interesting Man in the World.”  The ads are brilliant.  Syrupy, vintage, super-8 shots of TMIMITW laughing with Buddhist monks, fencing along a cliff, shagging models in a snow cave.  I’d hang with this guy over the discount t.v. guy any day.  But he isn’t real.  He’s invented.  His stories are invented.  And I KNOW they’re invented.  Yet why do I trust him over a real-life local business owner who is just trying to advertise his products? Why do I want to drink his beer? 

Because the local guy falls in to the Valley of Distrust.  The brand or advertising abyss in to which an attempt at authenticity explodes for a variety of reasons.  

This isn’t a new branding or advertising paradigm.  David Ogilvy, the original Mad Man, developed this idea before unleaded fuel existed.  The concept–as it pertains to products, services, or brands–is simple: Your literal credibility is significantly less influential than an invented yet fantastically desirable fantasy because your real-life “brand” means nothing to me on a personal basis.  A business owner may, in fact, be 100% trustworthy.  Yet because I don’t know (or care to know) the business owner or his product I may not have a single reason in the world to pick up the phone and ask for his service.  Or, because I can find identical services elsewhere the emotional connection I feel toward his business is on par with price shopping ice-berg lettuce between grocery stores.  Different by pennies but not by degrees.  This is only worsened by a spokesperson or celebrity who “recommends” a product or service or brand.  The valley deepens.

“The Most Interesting Man in the World” proves the point.  My ability to suspend disbelief about his playboy lifestyle simultaneously invites me to vicariously participate (I’d love to play chess in Iceland) and in the process of that vicarious suspension I myself become the participant.  And if the participant drinks beer then (by God!) I’m going to drink beer.  And if his beer is Brand X then it’s suddenly my brand too.  It’s the same thing we feel when we identify with a character in a movie, a book, a song, a poem, a band, a star.  We fill our personal voids with their fabricated reality and become, for a moment, part of them.  And we love them for it because it makes us love ourselves just a little more.

To put it more plainly: If your advertising and branding message is that you’re the most awesome thing in the world then, from the consumer’s perspective, you probably aren’t.  You’re a shill.  Telling people you’re amazing doesn’t create trust, it creates suspicion.

The HVAC industry has been guilty of this for as long as I can remember.  Doesn’t matter the media: newspaper advertisements, websites, “SEO” gurus, social media masters, direct mail fliers.  All a bunch of distrustful nonsense.  A collection of white noise.  “Sound and fury signifying nothing.”  Advertising agencies re-sell nonsense stock photos of happy families sitting on couches reading magazines, smiling.  Website designers build websites filled with “After 40 years in business we’re still the best” smattered all over the pages.  “SEO” gurus sell something called “visibility” or “page ranks” without a thought to the actual content of their grey-hat game.  Quarter-page newspaper advertisements are given away for songs so a print guy somewhere can add a couple bucks to his commission without any thought to the creative message, process, or audience response. “Industry experts” say “Your service truck is your best branding option…it’s a rolling billboard!”  Gack.  It’s the state of “advertising” in the industry.  And in the valley of it all is Distrust.  Distrust because that beautiful family doesn’t exist.  Distrust because those claims about  heritage have been imitated.  Distrust because “SEO” can be, is being, will be, gamed up and manipulated by the next smart kid with a decent hand at back-linking.  Distrust because your service van is not a compelling emotional hook.  It’s a friggin’ van.  And on and on.  

But people, business owners, friends of mine, throw dollar after dollar in to the circle and hope that the bones roll right this one time.  

David Ogilvy said: “If it doesn’t sell it isn’t creative.”  He’s referring to the power of Fake and Trusted in branding and advertising.  We can learn from others:

Main Street Heating and Cooling invented a brand around a retro handy-man with a jet-pack.  He tells their brand story.  He doesn’t exist.  If he does I want this George Jetson looking guy to come fix my air conditioner.

Couer D’Alene Sheet Metal is reviving their original brand: An on-the-go working man with a crown on his head and a prideful smile on his face.

Howard’s Heating and Air Conditioning invents a penguin–yes, a penguin–as their brand mascot and suddenly he’s running through the streets of Phoenix.

Canada Furnace invents a retro 1970’s advertisement around horrible old-school tennis shorts or a guy cramming himself in to the ice cooler at the supermarket.

There are tons of other fake yet trusted examples.  And they all win, and the businesses are growing, in part because their message to the world leverages the unusually strong relationship between fabrication and trust.  Then they deliver literally world-class actions.

This morning a friend on Twitter shared with me that he’s moving away from corporate branding and their recommended advertising in order to brand himself and to tell his own story.  Five years ago I would have said, “You need money to do these things.”  But he doesn’t.  The barriers that previously prevented uninhibited creative processes are nearly gone.  Anyone (almost) has access to more free and functional resources than ever before. The argument as to why any HVAC business should permit its’ identity to be beholden to a corporate program falters more and more each year.  But that does not exonerate the necessity of having a plan.  To which I’d say this:

Be The Most Interesting Man in the (HVAC) World.  Startle your audience with your audacity.  Surprise them with your characters.  Delight them with your stories.  Elate them with your humor.  Imbue them with your passion.  Charm them with your guile.  Your business, your brand, can be “The last of the famous international playboys” without relying on corporate menus and mandatory monthly payments that put money in to somebody else’s pocket and scant little in to yours (all while suffocating your creative potential).

The fact of the matter is this: consumers don’t really know the HVAC industry.  Try as we might to create “trusted” images and advertisements and “brand” packages to generate interest they largely fail. They’re expensive and they fail.  But that’s not the only option.

Go fake.  Go fake and go big.  Invent a narrative that you want people to love and to love being associated with.  Tell a bigger, better story and the wonderful power of storytelling will create an unmistakable gravity and desire.  

 

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