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For advertisers, there's a virtue to being useful

From instructions on how to tie a Windsor knot to a website that finds the closest restroom to the user on a map, advertisers are keying on a new concept to gain brand loyalty – utility.

Here is how companies hunt you down online.

You, the coveted consumer, are likely turning to Google (or if you are contrarian, another search engine such as Bing) many times a day on a computer or mobile device, with questions. Companies want their products to be the answer, and buy ads based on search keywords to pop up next to relevant results. Car makers gobble up the names of their models, or terms used to find car reviews, tech retailers may nab words such as "smart TV" and others may buy words related to a competitor's business to take a shot at changing your mind if you are shopping the other guy.

This is all standard. The problem with this model, for advertisers, is that the most desirable keywords quickly become expensive, and marketers can end up in small-scale bidding wars.

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Last month, clothing retailer Mexx launched a campaign to get around that problem. Rather than trying to simply target people shopping for fashion, its ad agency, Anomaly Toronto, decided the brand could present itself as a source for fashion advice. Anomaly analyzed Google trends to find out what the most common fashion questions were.

"We were surprised, because they were some pretty basic ones; like 'how to tie a tie,'" said Anomaly Toronto president Franke Rodriguez. "It felt like editorial magazines – the GQs and Vogues of the world – often play in that space, fashion tips. But no retailer had gone after it … They're not necessarily looking for, 'Hey, I need to buy a pencil skirt,' but they're looking for 'What is business casual?'"

In looking for a more cost-effective way around its search engine marketing, Mexx has also become part of a growing trend that will be even bigger in 2013: utility. Advertisers are trying more and more not to make just ads, but content that is actually useful to their target audience.

The YouTube videos in English and French – which show how to tie a Windsor knot and even how to properly roll up the sleeves of a work blouse – began to be posted in early December, shortly after Mexx announced Anomaly as its new lead global agency (the Toronto team is partnering with Anomaly Amsterdam, where Mexx is headquartered, to manage the business). In the first three weeks, the videos together netted more than 100,000 views, surpassing the modest targets set for the campaign at only the halfway mark.

The campaign takes its inspiration from another that Anomaly conducted in the U.S. a few years ago. The makers of Converse sneakers wanted to reach an ad-skeptical teenage market. Seeing that teenage boys were frequently Googling "how to talk to girls," for example, it built a website called "Out of Your League Girl" with a very attractive female giving the viewers advice on the subject.

Converse built a number of these microsites , which attracted more than 600,000 visitors at a much lower cost than the company was accustomed to. It landed a gold at the Effie awards that year, which monitor business effectiveness in advertising. While the websites featured the Converse logo, and links to the main site, it did not force visitors to go to the corporate home page. The content was in a separate place, with the logo visible but not intrusive.

The Mexx campaign opted to host its how-to videos on YouTube. Each video provides a link, but the agency did not want to annoy users by automatically redirecting them to the Mexx website.

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"There's an amazing opportunity for brands to create a true value chain for the consumer. It doesn't have to be an interruption," said Mitch Joel, president of Montreal-based agency Twist Image, who has dedicated a chapter in his upcoming book to the subject of utility marketing.

Many marketers are trying to achieve that – and it is even more important as advertising develops on new platforms. Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are still a medium that advertisers are attempting to conquer; many of the screens are too small to make the traditional online banner ads useful, and users are even more resistant to being interrupted in their use of those devices.

Procter & Gamble Co. is just one company that has figured out an ingenious way to be useful, while promoting the Charmin toilet paper brand: it created a tool called " Sit or Squat ." A downloaded mobile application or website finds the closest restroom to the user on a map. Visitors can add public bathrooms to the map, and rate cleanliness (pristine locations get a "sit" while the less desirable that will do in a pinch are labelled "squat.") Users can even add details such as hours, wheelchair accessibility, and for parents, which locations have changing tables. A tool as useful as this can create so much goodwill in a person's mind that they may develop brand loyalty for the product that brought them that service – which is the idea behind the growing importance of utility marketing.

Clorox Co. has also ventured into this space. It built a website giving advice for cleaning and laundry problems, as well as a "myStain" mobile application on how to remove stains from clothing at home or on the go. And Johnson & Johnson Inc. launched a new health and wellness brand in November, called Healthy Essentials. It launched a website that offers coupons for product discounts, and also includes tips such as how to take a child's temperature or give stress-relieving massages. "We're going to communicate with our consumers and nurture and build that relationship with them beyond the transaction. That's our goal," said Shelley Kohut, director of communications and public relations for Johnson & Johnson in Canada.

Consumers can expect to see even more of this in the year to come, as marketers attempt to get noticed without the annoyance. "Now, in 2013, is the point where you can't ignore it any more. We know the consumer trends: especially younger consumers are spending more time online, and they're becoming more savvy about how to customize their experience so that they are not interrupted by advertising," Anomaly's Mr. Rodriguez said. "The things as a brand that you have been doing online, they're not working any more. The way to do it is to genuinely be considered useful."

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