[su_pullquote align=”right”]By Jean-Marc Décaudin and Denis Lacoste[/su_pullquote]
Selling services requires a very different approach to selling products. Services are intangible, and they are often produced and consumed simultaneously. Services cannot be stocked. It’s very difficult to maintain consistent quality and the customer is involved in the production of the service, which isn’t the case for tangible goods.

Marketing specialists started to consider these differences in the 1980s. Two French researchers, Pierre Eiglier and Eric Langeard, created the concept of “Servuction”, a neologism created from the words Service and Production, and which underlines the need for a specific approach to managing non-material goods. Since then, much work has been done in the field of services marketing, echoing their growing role in wealth- and job-creation. The goal of the research is to help managers in the banking, air transport, rental, health and wellbeing and other sectors, to consider the specifics of consumption and production that are driven by the characteristics of the different services.

Research focussed in particular on the field of advertising communications. There are many questions to be put to marketers, the main one being: how do you communicate something that can’t be seen, touched, smelled, heard, or tasted? Advertisers also had to work out how to communicate an experience which is perceived differently by different customers and whose quality can’t be guaranteed to be identical in all places and at all times. Coming up with communication axes which rest on objective technical characteristics – for cars, computers, TVs – is relatively easy. It’s a lot harder to communicate the type of experience on offer in an amusement park, on a dating site, or even in a university.

So the issue facing advertisers is how to successfully express what a service is, to represent it to a potential client in a manner powerful enough to make him or her notice the brand, become interested, and want to try out the service. Specialists have identified five key strategies. Businesses are advised to communicate:
• About the consumer benefits (price and performance)
• About the customer (testimonies drawn from customer reviews)
• About the customer-facing staff (focus on skills, the quality of customer relations)
• About the hardware associated with the service (the quality of the planes for air transport, equipment and supplies for a diving club or a ski resort)
• About its corporate image with a focus on the company’s values and commitments

How well the strategies work has been very little investigated, and most studies have focussed on only one communication strategy, so their usefulness to advertisers is limited.

That’s why our research aimed to test the effectiveness of each of the various communication axes by exposing customers to a series of adverts, each using a different axis. The results show that the effectiveness of the advert is hugely dependent on the dominant axis.
In the two sectors under study (banking and tourism), the most effective adverts are those that emphasise the customer. It could be a laughing child riding the Mine Train in Disneyland, a family eating out together at McDonald’s or a happy couple moving into their first home thanks to a mortgage agreement. The presence of a customer in the advertising reassures the consumer because it causes them to identify with someone who appreciates the service. We know that customer reassurance is fundamental in the service sectors, where risk is perceived as being high. In both the sectors, emphasising the physical dimension of the service also seems to be a very effective strategy (although a little less so than the first). The three other advertising axes under study are of far more limited effect, either on one of the two sectors, or on a single effectiveness variable.

The results of this research are useful for businesses in the service sector as well as to advertisers, because they give them specific elements with which to create new campaigns. Care is nonetheless called for because the results could be different in a different cultural context, in a different advertising format, or in other sectors.

[su_spoiler title=”Methodology”]The study looked at 50 press adverts in two markedly different sectors: banking (25 adverts) and tourism (25 adverts). Each ad chosen uses one of the communication axes (competitive advantage, contact staff, customers, physical dimension, brand image). In each of the two sectors, 5 different adverts using the same axis were used in order to limit the influence of creativity on the interviewees’ assessment of the product. The sample was made up of 249 respondents who were questioned online. Each respondent evaluated 25 adverts. 1245 evaluations are therefore available: 620 for banking and 625 for tourism. For each advert, a series of 22 questions were asked to measure attention level, how interesting the ad was, understanding the message, the level of curiosity sparked, attitude to the advert and the brand, and finally the impact of the ad on purchasing intentions.[/su_spoiler]

This research was published in the Journal of Marketing communications (2016) under the title “Services advertising: Showcase the Customer!” ».