To all those who follow me (and anyone else who might be interested) my blog is moving. I love Tumblr (the theme options and social elements in particular) but I’ve chosen to start using Wordpress so that people can leave comments and I can see more stats. This is where I’ll be - http://ideamagpie.com/ - hope to see you soon.
Earlier this year, Mitt Romney (to jeers from the assembled audience) asserted that corporations are people. Of course, in a literal sense he is right – corporations are populated by people who interact with other people to transact and make money. But in a metaphorical sense, the idea is repellent because so many corporations appear to forget that they are made up of people, behaving in a way that abdicates all responsibility to be civil.
This is the thesis of Todd Carmichael, the founder of La Colombe Torrefaction coffee shops whose entertaining talk at this year’s PSFK conference raised a simple challenge to corporations to act less like douches and more like decent people.
But it’s not just CEOs who should take note. If the majority of corporations act like douches, this is also true for the brands attached to them.
This misbehavior was aided an abetted by 20th century media. We spoiled people’s fun by interrupting their favorite TV shows or magazines (or commutes to work) to shout often poorly targeted, ill-conceived nonsense at them. And we would go straight into ‘selling mode’ without any attempt to get to know them and understand their needs. Not, I’m sure you’ll agree, attractive traits in a person.
As I wrote in great detail in a previous post (so won’t bore you with here) new technology has enabled people to escape this invasive messaging. Devices and services like Dish Network’s controversial Hopper and Firefox’s ad-blocker are helping people to build personal firewalls and live blissfully ad-free lives enabling them to engage with brands only when they choose to. And when you aren’t compelled to engage with a brand, why would you when there are so many more interesting things to do?
In many cases, the thing that people are choosing to do is spend time on social networks: spaces that enable them to connect, share and build communities of interest. In other words, forums that accentuate and augment our humanity. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter’s need to monetize, they are making it as easy as possible for brands to engage in all this humanity using their services and in certain cases, brands are embracing the opportunity to behave like people you might want to build a relationship with.
Much of this relies on good community management – literally making a brand more human by empowering a human to speak spontaneously and authentically on its behalf. As these examples from Samsung Canada and Smart Car demonstrate, even the most incidental interactions give brands the opportunity to engage consumers in a more human manner.
As Andrew Keller wrote in an email to CP+B employees this week , these small interactions are fundamental to brand building, representing “opportunities to show the lights are on. That someone is home. The personality, the story is in the details.”
But these opportunities aren’t simply reactive. Many brands are also proactively connecting with consumers in more human ways using social networks. Red Bull, for example, recognizes that everyone already knows about the energy drinks it sells and that no one wants to hear about them, so uses its FB and Twitter presences to engage its audience around their passion for high-adrenaline sports. In doing so, they transcend their category and the fact that they are a brand at all to become a vital source of news and content for their target audience. On social networks, as elsewhere, Red Bull stands for something more than the products it sells – presenting a compelling point of view to which people gravitate.
Of course, for every Redbull, there are brands that continue to see social networks as broadcast channels; a repository for press releases and product information. The beauty of social networks is that this self-indulgent douchie behavior is rewarded with the response it deserves – small numbers of followers and limited engagement.
But beyond the ubiquitous Facebook and Twitter, I’m finding myself increasingly excited about the opportunities for brands presented by Instagram and particularly Pinterest because of the necessity to communicate exclusively visually. Humans respond to imagery at visceral level and the explosive growth of these services are testament to this. Afficionados of Pinterest spend huge amounts of time and effort to express themselves, building immersive visual worlds and in so doing, attracting large followings. So for brands to make any sort of impact, they must do the same ie. take an inherently less selfish, less self-indulgent approach to communication by presenting a compelling point of view (beyond product) through the selection and curation of imagery. After all, who would follow or re-pin a stream of product shots?
Kate Spade does a great job building a ‘colorful’ world to support it’s broader brand point of view
Even if Pinterest’s audience is incompatible with a brand’s, I still believe that thinking about a presence is a worthwhile exercise as it forces marketers to do in microcosm what’s necessary for them to succeed elsewhere. As the cliché goes, a picture tells a thousand words and brands have the opportunity to harness the power of imagery in order to express what they stand for in a truly compelling and accessible way for consumers. However, for this to happen they need to be more human – to have a belief system, to be generous with their time, connect with their audience, save the selling for later – in short, no more douche.
At a time when it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the prospects of retailers, a perspective on the wealth of new opportunities opening up for them from a think-piece I wrote for a client…
You don’t need me to tell you about the disruption that the internet and the explosion in smartphone ownership has brought about in the world of retail: freeing up information, taking the effort out of price comparison and turning brick and mortar stores into showrooms for etailers. This disruption was felt first by music and book retailers and latterly by big box CE. But as technology becomes more sophisticated and people more comfortable online, it continues to gather pace impacting other sectors including fashion and beauty.
The internet revolution has also fundamentally impacted consumers’ relationships with brands, enabling them to express opinions and feelings in public and leaving us one #fail away from potentially damaging consequences.
But while it’s easy to feel pessimistic about these shifts, they also provide unprecedented opportunities to retailers. Consumers are giving us with reams of data revealing their tastes and preferences, the products they’re in the market for now and what they will look for next. And those ubiquitous screens that surround them give us opportunities to engage them on a highly personal level. Add to this the shareable nature of modern media which makes it simple for consumers to advocate on our behalf and we have the worlds largest and most persuasive communication channel at our disposal.
Of course, the difficult bit is turning these possibilities into reality. Taming the big data fire hose to ensure that we are gathering actionable insights, tracking customer journeys so that we know when to engage and when to leave people alone, providing them the right content to fuel their interests and passions and the right offers at the right time to drive conversion. And doing all this in such a way that it creates a seamless experience in-store and online, making real stores where people can touch real products and speak to real people a source of real competitive advantage.
Finally, it is fundamental that a retailer have a clear and compelling point of view that consumers can engage with. A guiding ‘north star’ that can inform all of the tactics discussed above and be brought to life at every touch-point in order to forge deep and long-lasting relationships.
The day after the Superbowl, I read a piece from Mashable which suggested that the fact that Apple didn’t advertise was a sign of weakness. Pointing to Samsung’s spot which mocked Apple disciples lining up outside the Apple Store and invoking the legend of 1984 the writer suggests that “by not appearing at the Super Bowl, Apple is letting its competition frame the discussion”.
But we’re not living in 1984. We live in an age of ubiquitous social media (and PVR’s) where a brand’s success or failure is determined much less by its ability to buy conversation than to earn it.
I find the notion that Apple have surrendered the conversation to a rival purely because that rival bought a spot during the Super Bowl laughable. Of course, conversations about Super Bowl advertising are less likely to have featured Apple (though a surprising number did thanks to Samsung’s overt reference) but there’s a lot of conversation that happens outside of the world of advertising (as much as us ad-folks don’t often notice). In fact, a quick look at Google trends shows us that even on the day that Samsung invested millions of dollars to reach 111million Americans, Apple still enjoyed a far greater share of searches.
Rather than a sign of weakness, I would suggest that Apple’s decision not to buy a Super Bowl spot is a sign of strength. The fact is that Apple has a great brand, game-changing products and armies of advocates, means that it doesn’t need to pay over-the-odds for a Super Bowl spot to tell people about them.
In an interview with Inc. in 2008 Geek Squad founder Robert Stevens commented “Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable”, that those brands unable to earn conversation must buy it. And watching the advertising that ran during the game, I couldn’t help agreeing with him. Putting aside the quality of the creative, the thing which most struck me as I watched the advertising was how unremarkable the propositions were. A procession of me-too brands, peddling generic products hoping that an expensive production could hide this.
Take Kia’s ‘dream car for real life’. Expensive production. Check. Winking, knowing Super Bowl guy clichés. Check. So far, so Super Bowl good. But don’t Adriana Lima, Motley Crue and the huge sub just serve to draw more attention to a breathtakingly average car? And doesn’t the line only serve to reinforce this?
And if Kia couldn’t find anything noteworthy to tell us about their car, spare a thought for the good people of Danone who chose the Super Bowl to tell us nothing about their Oikos Greek Yoghurt (nor entertain us, shock us, move us…). A couple enjoy a yoghurt together. All seems nice. Then Bam. She head-butts him so she can have it all to herself. And yet she doled out this potentially relationship-ending violence for a yoghurt that is only possibly the best in the world. Doesn’t seem like a very fair trade.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to suggest that brands shouldn’t advertise in the Super Bowl. But the great opportunity offered by putting your brand in front of 111million people also presents a great risk. The question marketers need to ask themselves is whether they want to spend up to $4million to tell these people that their brand is unremarkable or whether they should invest that money in making it more useful, relevant, distinctive and compelling in the first place.
The Super Bowl always comes as something of an eye-opener for those of us who inhabit the bi-coastal bubble that is advertising. For all our dreams of groundbreaking executions and clever socially-driven engagement, the winning formula is clear: employ dogs – as USA Today commented “for sure, ads with dogs had the most bark”
Much as this depresses me, I would only be reinforcing the out-of-touch-with-real-America stereotype to complain about the lack of ambition exhibited by these as well as most of the other spots aired during Super Bowl XLVI.
One thing that I can legitimately complain about (and did so last year) is how maddeningly self-referential Super Bowl advertising is. When making Super Bowl spots, we have a straightforward task – to take advantage of the fact that we have the single biggest TV audience of the year to present our clients’ products and services in a compelling context. A common way to achieve this (whether explicitly or more subtly) is with reference to popular culture – to demonstrate the relevance of these products and services by aligning them with other things that the audience finds interesting. Whatever your feelings about the finished executions, the Honda ‘CRV‘s day out’, Audi ‘Vampire Party’ and Best Buy ‘Game Changers’ spots were designed to achieve this.
What I don’t understand is when brands choose, instead of referencing a common cultural touch-point, to reference other advertising (particularly when they’re paying $4million for the privilege. The point is to engage the mass audience, not the advertising nerds but you could be forgiven for not realizing this watching some of the spots. This was true of Motorola’s labored 1984 parody from last year and the trap that others fell into this year.
Volkswagen gave us an unremarkable but inoffensive story of a dog motivated to get in shape so that it can chase the new Beetle. But then they felt the need to append an irrelevant Star Wars riff, recalling last year’s mini-vada spot. Why? VW has not built a Star Wars property, Luke doesn’t drive a Passat, it does not have special edition Star Wars products (like Adidas). Last year, VW created an engaging spot bringing to life charming truths of family life. Star Wars was referenced but it was not the focus. This year, rather than continuing with the theme of insights into family life to give us a similarly heart-warming spot, VW decided that Star Wars was the thing to take forward, leading them create an irrelevant and potentially confusing adjunct to this year’s message.
Though it did not necessarily detract from the spot itself (which I thought very powerful), I also found Chrysler’s winking reference to Hal Riney’s ‘Morning in America’ spots for Ronald Reagan a little to knowing.
But self-indulgence is not just about referencing old advertising. Another example of indulgent self-reference was to be found in Bud Light’s ‘Weego’ spot. A good showing on the USA Today Ad Meter was guaranteed by the appearance of a dog, but mutt-aside this was a spot entirely about Bud Light’s tagline. A tagline that as pointed out by the very smart Seth Gaffney @elgaffney isn’t even that good.
Of course the naval-gazing wasn’t restricted to the game itself. Many of the advertisers also put strenuous effort into pre-marketing the marketing (that’s right, instead of taking the opportunity to talk to consumers about a new product, service or offer ie. something that would actually benefit their brands or businesses, many chose to tell us that they had taken a spot during the game and that we should pay attention to it). This led, among others, to VW putting together a film of dogs barking the Imperial March from Star Wars (as it turned out this had only very tangential relevance to their spot) and Kia to create 5hr-long teaser for their 60 second spot. Can this be a good use of anyone’s time?
As a cultural phenomenon, the Super Bowl is pretty unique in that the advertising plays a role in the experience. But let’s not kid ourselves. Having a massive audience watch the game is different to having a massive audience engage with your spot or indeed your brand. And while people undoubtedly pay a little more attention to ads than they may otherwise (for one thing they can’t skip them), as advertisers we must still compete with their consumption of food and drink and the conversations they are having with friends and family. It’s probably wishful thinking to hope that we might look beyond the dogs and babies but we must stop thinking that people care about a spot we may have run in the past (or about advertising in general) and take the opportunity to make them laugh, touch them, shock them, pull on their heart-strings and generally add to their experience of the Super Bowl.
The one night in the year that real people give a shit about advertising and we gave them… a pile of shit
I begin this rant by admitting that I’m an outsider, that last night was only my second Superbowl as a US resident, that no doubt I’m missing something. No doubt there were references beyond the chimps in the Career Builder ad and Gregory House’s nod to Coke that people across the country nodded along to I don’t know about. But what I do know is that any glimmers of original thought or creativity were few and far between, that this year’s crop of Superbowl spots were dominated by derivative and lazy strategy and uninspiring creative.
In her oft cited Fast Company article from October last year Mayhem on Madison Avenue, Danielle Sacks laid out a promising future for marketing on the brink of “its first creative revolution since the 1960s” but a bleak one for the ad industry who “might get left behind”.
So has the industry heeded her warning?
2011 was meant to be the year that Superbowl advertisers got their shit together, building off buzz generated by the TV spot to drive richer and more rewarding participation around brands. Twitter has been alight for the last week with the battle for pre-game-buzz supremacy, tracking which advertisers were extending their ($3 million) media-buy. And during the game itself, you were nowhere if you didn’t include a Facebook URL.
This is all well and good but on Superbowl Sunday, your spot matters like at no other time. Unlike the rest of the year when most people are ignoring TV advertising, Superbowl Sunday is our special night – the night when ad-watching is sport as much as the sport on screen. When every brand has a clever Facebook activation, Twitter integration or FourSquare check-in strategy, your advantage is directing them to yours with a great TV spot: on this night, the fate of your brand depends on how epic / funny / touching / charming you can make a 30 second spot. And for me, the vast majority failed to do so.
1. We must stop talking to ourselves
I have already congratulated myself for spotting references to other advertising in last night’s ads (Careerbuilder’s perpetuation of the chimp meme and House, and I’m sure that there were many others that I missed) but maybe this is the problem. As advertisers, we have the whole gamut of popular culture to reference in order to spark a connection with the viewer, so why do we choose to reference our own work instead of something with more resonance? Step forward Motorola who re-imagined Apple’s 1984, this time with a twist! Now Apple is the oppressive Orwellian big brother in control of our thoughts. Motorola is cast as the hero with ‘The tablet to create a better world’. Leaving aside the ridiculous claim (how will people using Motorola Xoom tablets in stead of Apple ones make the world better?) and the laughable strategy and creative (being anti-apple is not a strategy and the first idea that comes up in the brainstorm is probably not the answer) the real problem is that no one cares. The only people who remember / care about 1984 are ad people, Morotola would be better off running an ad in Ad Age rather than subjecting Superbowl viewers to it.
2. If your only strategy is to entertain, you’d better be entertaining
There is a school of thought which says that the only role of a Superbowl spot is to entertain. Spend the rest of the year ramming selling messages down people’s throats but save Superbowl Sunday for affinity-driving. The danger is that in the YouTube era, you have a lot of competition. When limitless amounts of the world’s most entertaining content is only a click away, yours better be good – how galling for a video made by a kid in his bedroom to have millions more views than your multi-million dollar Superbowl spot. This is a balance I think VW got right with ‘The Force’ (though it’s s shame they only ran the 30). Rather than trying to talk up product features, it set out to charm, and it achieved this thanks to a nice creative idea and a great performance from the mini-Vada.
Less successful in my opinion were Bud Light, Pepsi Max and Doritos which set out to entertain and largely failed. Poker-playing dogs? 80s style stand-up comedy material about how men and women think differently? Man gets floored by puppy? Really? I learned nothing of interest about your products (so not useful) and can find millions of funnier skits on YouTube (so not entertaining).
3. When you have something to say, don’t let an elaborate ad idea get in the way
Though humor (particularly male American Pie-esque humor) has been a Superbowl staple over recent years, it is now necessarily the answer. Particularly when you have a compelling message to impart. Credit to Verizon and VW for not letting an advertising conceit get in the way of a strong proposition. Everyone wants an iPhone, on a network that works, so that’s what Verizon gave us – some product porn and a simple message. Similarly, VW announced the forthcoming Beetle…with a beetle. At the other end of the spectrum, Groupon, a brand with an incredibly compelling message hid it behind a very polarizing ad idea and probably managed to alienate existing customers rather than gain millions of new ones. And Living Social’s spot was better. Oops.
4. If you’re trashing a competitor, make sure you’re pushing on an open door
Knocking copy is a risky strategy at the best of times but your risk is multiplied when it is witnessed by hundreds of millions of viewers. So you’d better be pointing out something negative about your competitors that people agree with. Hello (again) Moto. As someone who works for one of Apple’s competitors (Samsung), I feel your frustration. The products don’t work well, they are arrogant and yet people follow them in a worrying zombie-like frenzy. This is particularly the case for the iPad, the most successful ever CE launch (fastest product to ever reach $1 Billion in sales). So making an ad saying people who love Apple are mindless drones (when that’s basically everyone) feels somewhat counterproductive if your objective is to get them to like you.
I felt the same about Audi’s spot. I really liked the detail of the execution (setting Afghan Hounds on people escaping from ‘old luxury’ was priceless) but I question the strategy. It is true that Audi is the (relatively) new kid on the block in the premium car segment – Audi was launched in 1965 whilst Karl Benz created the first gas-powered car in 1886. But Mercedes aren’t still rolling out that same car. Whilst I found P Diddy’s cameo in the Mercedes spot utterly pointless, you can’t argue with the presentation of the product – their 2011 model line-up looked stunning, sleek and decidedly modern. Though the profile of a Mercedes driven is older than Audi, it doesn’t mean that young people don’t aspire to own a Mercedes. Ultimately, Audi’s sneering claim that Mercedes is decadent, out-of-touch old luxury feel a little shallow.
5. For a spot to be truly compelling, it must feel like it’s delivered by the authentic voice of the brand
I loved the spirit the Chrysler spot. A proud statement of brand provenance, a rousing call-to-arms for America to re-find its pride in the things it makes, a brand and town reborn. As @Scottfrog commented “Chrysler incites a movement that millions of Americans will want to belong to”. My only question is whether they tried to do too much in one (admittedly pretty lengthy) spot. In addition to claiming Detroit, the spot was also charged with showcasing a new model and attempting to build an argument around gritty, blue-collar Detroit being a natural place for luxury cars to be born which I found a little confusing. However, what you can’t argue with is the authenticity of the tone.
Which is more than can be said for Ford which, during local ad breaks ran footage of a car driving over the Brooklyn Bridge set to Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind”. To the best of my knowledge, Ford has little claim on New York City (beyond supplying the cabs). This just felt like a weak attempt to buy favor, very inauthentic compared to Chrysler.
So, back to my previous point. If the Superbowl is our industry’s zenith, the ultimate showcase of our best work, I fear that Fast Company’s prediction may be right. Mark-Hans Richer, Harley Davidson CMO commented in the article “many agencies are hanging on to this idea that creativity is theirs to own and sell”. Based on last night’s evidence, we’re grasping by our fingernails alone.