“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of  fuzzy concept.” – Ansel Adams

Smart people do dumb things . . . and so do successful companies. Of all the foolish mistakes businesses make, the two that I see most often involve marketing. They are:

1. failing to develop and sell a USP (Unique Selling Proposition)

2. spending good money on advertising that doesn’t work

I’ve talked about each of these issues many times. Today, I want to talk some more about the second mistake — investing hard-won dollars into advertising programs that have no chance of working.

If you’ve been reading business magazines, or going to seminars, or even attending MBA courses at the university level, you’ve undoubtedly been bombarded with talk about brand advertising. This was the only form of advertising the Internet shysters ever spoke of, and it formed the basis of most of the best-selling marketing books published in the last six or eight years.

The idea is simple: The first job — and the most-important job — of the CEO of a start-up company is to get his company’s name, logo, or tag line as widely recognized as possible. Once people know who you are — once your brand is recognized — everything else, including selling your products, becomes easy.

Millions of investors bought into this idea by buying shares in technology companies with a strategy for growth based on this type of program. And billions of dollars were invested in brand-marketing schemes. What happened?

I don’t have to tell you. Simply scan the front page of any financial newspaper or magazine from 1998 to 2002 and you’ll see the names of hundreds of major new businesses that followed this path into bankruptcy. You would think this would have put the kibosh on brand advertising. Not so. Although some of the shrewder large businesses are now moving toward direct marketing, many medium-sized and large companies still believe that selling their image or selling some clever idea about their products is the only way to go.

New evidence refutes this. As reported by USA Today, only six of 22 of the country’s largest marketers have tag lines that are recognized by more than 10% of their customers. Three slogans — Kmart’s (“The stuff of life”), Staples’ (“That was easy”), and Circuit City’s (“We’re with you”) — were recognized by nobody. Zilch.

Now, these are all big businesses that spend a minimum of $100 million each per year for advertising. That’s a lot of fancy-dancy TV commercials and magazine ads that are having very little effect on the public. And remember, too, that recognizing a slogan doesn’t equate with buying product.

What does this tell you?

It tells me what I’ve been telling you. Brand advertising is definitely not for start-ups and probably not for most medium-sized and large companies either. Conventional advertising people — the guys who come up with those funny, clever commercials you see on Super Bowl Sunday — aren’t really interested in increasing the profits of their clients. What they want to do is impress their clients by winning advertising awards. The selling that these guys know how to do is the selling it takes to convince their clients that the hugely expensive and very bizarre newspaper-insert campaign they’ve designed (the one that will give the advertising company millions in placement fees) is worth doing.

Let me give you a good example.

In a recent edition of my coveted USA Today (the best newspaper in the world for marketers), there is a 24-page insert promoting Hewlett-Packard. The front page of the insert features a single, huge image of a placard on the side of a city street. On the placard is an image of a young Asian woman holding a camera. Across the center of the page is the word “YOU.” What that means, I don’t know. On the bottom-right corner of the page, reversed-out in white, is a little Hewlett-Packard logo with the tag line “Invent” underneath it. OK. On Page 2, the left side of a two-page spread: “Here’s more power to YOU. You make the rules. You are in control of the entire picture-making process. You take the pictures. You edit the pictures. You print the pictures. Only HP gives you all the digital tools you need to do this: camera, printer, computer, inks, papers.” Fair enough. This is the pitch. It’s a good one, I’d guess. But it’s hardly, at this point, a convincing ad. For an ad to work, you need more than claims. You need proof. And you need credibility. And then you need a strong reason for the customer to buy.

I search for these, but what do I find? Page 3 is a large, very surreal display…a flat, black body with a camera as its head and a printer as its chest. What am I supposed to make of that? I persist. The next two-page spread features a photo of a women’s upper face and a camera lens with a bit of copy: “You are a point and shoot REVOLUTIONARY with an itchy shutter finger.” What is that supposed to do for me? Do the clever guys behind this believe that their customers are closet rebels hoping to exercise their anti-authoritarian impulses by buying a camera? I’ve now forgotten the original message, the one I just read a few seconds ago. What was it? I can’t remember. I turn the page.

Here I have a cross made of small color photos, mostly beach photos, out of focus and out of frame. Next to it, a cartoon image of a hand touching a plus sign along with another message: “YOU click first and ask questions later.” Gee. Now I’m really lost. This, I guess, is supposed to bring out the Dirty Harry in me. Hmm.

The next two-page spread has YOU blasted across the center of a patchwork of photos, again unframed and unfocused, and a message: “You print what you want when you want it.” Do I want to print such pictures? Surely not. I’m getting lost.

The next two-page spread is really scary. It looks like Robert DeNiro’s wall in “Taxi Driver.” This is spooky territory. I want to get away from this Hewlett-Packard group ASAP.

But I persist, if only to complete this study. Now, we have the grand moment, the two-page center spread of the insert. Here, a rainbow is flowing out of a printer. Above it, the headline “YOU have millions of colors at your fingertips and you’re not afraid to use them.” I’m not? Why not? Or why should I be? Is there something about having millions of colors that I should be worried about? I’m getting very nervous.

The rest of the insert gets even odder. I can’t go on. I’m confused and slightly nauseated by this cacophony of edgy, artistic images. I definitely don’t want to buy a camera. And I’m going to be very careful in the future whenever I’m near anyone who works for Hewlett-Packard.

(I’m afraid it may be some kind of cult.)

I asked CB, our senior editor, how much this ad probably cost. The answer: “Somewhere between $2 million and $3 million!” As I said earlier, the only selling involved here is the selling that took place when the ad agency that thought up this thing convinced Hewlett-Packard to spend that kind of money on it. I must presume that the marketing executives at HP, the people who approved this campaign, are smart, educated people.

Persuading them that this was a good investment — that the money spent would result in sales of at least two or three times the cost (including the expense of the product, fulfillment, retail markup, and advertising) — was quite a trick.

Those guys — the advertising guys who made that argument — are bloody geniuses.

Don’t be a victim of such genius. Spend your advertising money wisely. Use direct-marketing methods.