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.
I wrote a post a while back about the difficulty of applying traditional approaches to marketing to a new generation of multi-faceted and super-connected products. Whether you’re talking about physical devices like the iPad (a huge number of converged functions supported by a complex ecosystem of digital services) or virtual ones like Foursquare, the impulse to dramatize a single-minded value proposition in communications is increasingly complicated.
Infographic by Section Design demonstrates the iPad’s complexity
Two new posts from Paul Worthington of Wolff Olins and Henrik Werdelin take this thinking a step further, calling into question long-held assumptions governing the relationship between brand and product. Traditionally, the role of the brand has been to elevate the product. Your audience may not be interested in the toothpaste category and your brand of toothpaste may be undifferentiated in the marketplace; but the identification of a bigger, more engaging brand promise / purpose / mission to attach it to will elevate it and make it (and therefore the product) aspirational for that audience.
But increasingly, digital products are re-writing these rules. Werdelin points out that “few digital products are true commodities” meaning less need to differentiate on purely emotional terms. In fact the opposite is true “digital products are instead successful when they solve a problem and also look pretty and feel good–not the other way around. The importance of the packaging will of course change as more digital products get made and their utility becomes commoditized. But for now, the product creates the brand.” And if the product creates the brand, the marketing challenge is less about projecting that brand via advertising and more about finding ways to stimulate usage (participation) so that people can be enveloped in a multi-faceted user-experience.
As an example, Paul Worthington points to Google posing the question “is the Google brand elevated beyond the Google product, or does the Google product create the expectation and underlying narrative for the Google brand?” Despite Google’s many laudable efforts to build its brand over the last year or so (a lovely Superbowl spot, Teach Parents Tech, ‘Life in a day’ etc) which have sought to build warmth and humour into it, perceptions are still almost exclusively driven by people’s daily interactions with the search engine whose utility suggests solidity, trustworthiness and straightforwardness. In the case of Google, the product creates the brand and not the other way around.
BrandZ data suggests Google’s utilitarian, product-centric brand associations.
Contrast the way in which the Google brand is constructed with how Microsoft have gone about presenting Bing. Putting aside the fact that Bing appears just to be copying Google’s results, it has been built in a manner that seeks to differentiate it from Google by making the presentation of results (in theory) less overwhelming and more relevant. The descriptor “decision engine” has been coined in order to explain this value proposition and in this way (like Google), the brand is defined by the product.
And yet the advertising campaign has accompanied the launch of Bing appears to seek to do the opposite – to build a brand image around a higher-order consumer benefit (the avoidance of information-overload). Though true to the product, how credible is this benefit for consumers generally happy with Google? Does Google really leave us paralyzed and incapable of making decisions (it may have uncovered 30 gazillion results but how often do you go beyond the first page)? Whatever the case, Bing ran with it, employing advertising hyperbole to make their point more forcefully and in the process making an interesting but somewhat shaky insight seem faintly ridiculous.
Whilst I’m not suggesting that Microsoft were wrong to use advertising (they needed to build awareness quickly), I can’t help thinking that they could have been smarter with the role that they ascribed it. Though it would be nice for Google to have some competition, no one is crying out for an alternative. So rather than running advertising which seeks to engage people in the hope that they are encouraged to (maybe) consider Bing next time they’re searching online, why not be more direct? Why not create initiatives that directly drive usage and have people experience the ‘decision engine’ for themselves? And why not use advertising to publicize these rather than just tell people about the brand
in a not very convincing way?
To their credit, this is exactly what Microsoft (with the help of Droga5 http://www.droga5.com/) did in partnership with Jay-Z around the launch of his autobiography ‘Decoded’ (great Fast Company write-up here). Armed with a compelling property, Droga5 created a worldwide scavenger hunt where, in advance of the book’s release, all of its 320 pages were posted in a variety of unexpected locations (ranging from a rooftop in New Orleans, a pool bottom in Miami, cheeseburger wrappers in New York City, a pool table in Jay’s 40/40 Club) with eager fans keen to get an early look encouraged to hunt them down. And Bing became the indispensable tool for doing so, with clues revealed and locations posted on its maps meaning that dedicated page-hunters were enjoying habit-forming interactions with it around 3 times every day during the life of the event.
As a planner, it is tempting to seek to craft acute comms propositions which shed light on the complexities of the brands we work on. To build complex analogies and elaborate metaphors which bring their benefits to the surface. However, with technology products whose experience in its totality is what’s compelling, we must accept that traditional comms will never be able to do them justice and find ways to enable people to experience these benefits rather than having to listen to us talk about them.
As we know, the recession that we have experienced over the last few years has had a profound impact on our industry; trimming any remaining vestiges of fat and hastening the shift away from traditional approaches to marketing towards something more interactive and participative (“Digital and new media are the strongest forces of growth…we’re certainly not an advertising agency anymore” Sir Martin Sorrell). And whilst this situation presents many exciting opportunities for marketers and their agencies, it has also brought about confusion: what Sean Corcoran of Forrester terms “an agency purgatory.”
In what Corcorran calls the “great race for relevance”, agencies of all disciplines recognize the opportunities and attempt to state their case as the gate-keeper to the new world of marketing. Once harmonious ‘all-agency-groups’, previously clear and secure in their roles now vie for the clients’ attention, presenting their credentials in every conceivable discipline and looking to undermine one another at every juncture – we’d love to set up a meeting to talk you through our new social media / events / creative technology unit. In addition to the hiring of more diverse talents, this land-grab has seen a spate of agency repositionings with ad agencies such as Crispin Porter and Goodby building formidable interactive capabilities, digital natives R/GA taking on the role of lead agency for Ameriprise, Starcom Mediavest repositioning themselves as a “human experience” agency (no me neither), and PR agencies like Edelman extending their ‘influence’ remit deep into social media.
But if agencies are confused, spare a thought for the poor clients trying to work out how to deploy them. Despite agency posturing, Forrester research suggests that clients find themselves in a state of confusion “most marketers don’t trust their traditional agencies with digital work and yet most don’t believe their interactive agencies are ready to lead yet either.”
The result is that many of us find ourselves in a catch 22 position. The best way to prove our capabilities is by creating great work for clients. But how do you convince the client (who has you pigeon-holed in some or other discipline box) to give you the opportunity to do great work? Faced with this conundrum, a handful of farsighted agencies are getting on and building stuff, creating self-initiated projects demonstrating their capability to the world.
Mother are the masters of these sorts of projects – seeing creative opportunities at every turn. Whether it be producing a movie, creating their own comic book, making light of the Wikileaks controversy with their Christmas Lappileaks Twitter effort even seeing their recent New York office move as an opportunity to present their unique take on the world.
But we’re also seeing a group of less well established agencies putting themselves on the map thanks to self-initiated projects. To call advertising powerhouse Dentsu ‘less well established’ seems strange but in the UK where they have recently set up shop, this is exactly what they are. Initially without client work to show, they have set about creating a series of high-profile, attention-grabbing projects which demonstrate their creativity and thoroughly modern approach to marketing. They brought innovation to print teaming up with Wallpaper Magazine and artist Robert Wilson to create a moving magazine. Capitalizing on the excitement around the UK launch of the iPad, they collaborated with super-smart creative technologists BERG to “invent a technique using long camera exposures to record the iPad moving through space in order to make a stop motion film of 3-d light forms” (something beautiful to behold if difficult to explain). And then followed their New Paper where they teamed up with London free sheet Metro to create stylish, sustainable wrapping paper for Christmas.
Another new agency creating noteworthy self-initiated projects is Happiness Brussels. A timely and eloquent comment on the BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they teamed up with British artist Anthony Burrill to create Oil and Water do not mix, a limited edition print, made using oil collected from affected beaches. Then for Christmas they created Gift a Stranger, a project built on Google Maps allowing users to send a gift to a complete stranger somewhere in the world (more info on how it all works here).
With projects more focused on strategy and trends than creative output, JWT have caught the eye recently with their future gazing. First their comprehensive 100 things to watch in 2011 trends presentation was everywhere on Twitter at the end of last year, and now, they’ve followed this up (for people too lazy to read it all) with this nifty short animation. And finally, BBH consistently impress with their Labs blog which enables them to punch above their weight and provide genuine thought-leadership to the industry - a must-read / follow.
The moral of the story: stop talking, start doing. If I was a CMO with a newly restored marketing budget burning a hole in my pocket I’d be rewarding the agencies with tangible examples of their new and innovative approaches to marketing over the ones which write powerpoint about it.
I wrote a piece a couple of weeks ago exploring how technology manufacturers from across a wide range of categories are looking to encourage upgrade behavior and thus emulate the shorter ownership cycles of mobile phones and computers.
The hope (on their part) is that we will be locked into a constant upgrade cycle with a form of planned obsolescence increasingly the norm. This certainly seems to be the case given the ever-decreasing life cycles of tech products (Droid over after 8 months!). However, it could come at a high cost in the long run given the frustration that it causes consumers: I’ve recently seen evidence in research groups to suggest that the fear of obsolescence is creating purchase paralysis as consumers hold out for the next big thing (hands up if you’re waiting for a webcam before you consider an iPad).
The notion of technology heirlooms is not a new one, Leica has proudly claimed that its products are built to last a lifetime…for longer than a lifetime. And there is a growing movement within the design world to popularize the idea of technology heirlooms.
Even the larger tech brands are not immune to exploring the ‘built to last’ territory; take this rather quaint Sony Press ad which promises that their cassette deck will be something you leave to your great-grandson…I guess you might if you wanted to really confuse him.
Where once we simply looked to fill ad space, today we spend more and more of our time looking to drive consumer participation with brands. The thinking, as eloquently expressed by my colleague DB, is that consumers (helped by PVRs, music streaming services like Pandora etc etc) are creating ‘personal firewalls’ allowing them to lead blissfully advertising-free lives and enabling them to engage with brands only when they choose to.
Once our objective was damage limitation: we intruded on our captive audience’s TV viewing or magazine reading and hoped that we could win them round with funny / catchy / emotive / silly advertising so that they might remember us next time they were in the supermarket / car showroom / online… But today this captive audience has all-but disappeared, meaning that brand engagement must be a more positive choice – when you aren’t compelled to engage with a brand, why would you when there are so many more interesting things to do? Our new task, as argued by Gareth Kay is to create ideas that give people something in return for their attention: ideas that actually do something rather than just talking up our new toothpaste, car, perfume, cat-food. Citing examples like Nike+ and Fiat Eco Drive, he calls for us to ‘get into the business of creating communication products and out of the business of simply communicating products.’
Though this ‘give and take’ relationship with consumers entails more work and exposes brands to greater risks (Skittles anyone?), the rewards for getting participation right are significant. Thanks to their ability to spread brand messages far and wide via social media, engaged individuals represent a larger (in many cases) and significantly more persuasive channel than any TV or poster campaign we may have bought in the past, meaning that if we can create a sufficiently compelling ‘communication product’, they will work on our behalf to popularize it.
Where once the brief may have been ‘do me a 1984 or a Sony Balls’, it is increasingly ‘do me an Old Spice / VW Fun Theory / (insert flavor of the month here)’. But for every brilliantly conceived, so-simple-an-idea-you-wished-you’d-had-it, even-your-mum’s-talking-about-it, participation-driving-social-media-phenomenon, there are numerous others which fail to hit the mark. And of course, in our super-connected world, antagonizing consumers is the last thing we want to do: participation has more power to engage than traditional marketing approaches but it also has more power to piss people off.
In an open letter to ‘all of advertising and marketing’ (which has gone viral, striking a chord with consumers bombarded with ill-conceived invitations to participate) that objects to a campaign for a sausage brand, Brian (he doesn’t give his surname) writes “I don’t want to make a film, or draw a picture, or nominate a friend. Or compose a sound-track, or re-edit your advert.” He continues “I know it must be very tempting to sit in your nice, comfy offices and dream up schemes where normal people like me forget our everyday cares and participate in your marketing. But…please, please, PLEASE…Leave me alone.”
I have a suspicion that Brian may be from within our industry and this may be a hoax but whatever the truth, he raises a valid question: are there some categories and some brands where attempting to drive participation is inappropriate?
It is certainly true to say that the campaigns that often stimulate the most participation are from categories and brands (like the ‘Why so serious’ alternative reality game which launched ‘The Dark Knight’ or ‘The Best Job in the World’ which showcased one of the most beautiful places on earth) that people genuinely care about. But in these cases, consumers were not participating with the film or the Great Barrier Reef, they were participating with an idea (a communications product) inspired by them. The Barrier Reef has existed for many millions of years and the Batman franchise for 70 without a huge amount of social media buzz. It was the creation of compelling ‘communications products’ around them which got people participating.
The same goes for more mundane brands and categories. Given all the other distractions available to them, for consumers to spend time thinking about (participating with) blenders or soda would be and odd choice. But this is exactly what they do thanks to ‘Will it blend?’ and ‘The refresh project’, compelling ‘communications products’ that have been created around Blendtec and Pepsi and have successfully driven participation.
In his letter, Brian says ‘If you’d like to tell me what’s good about your product, fine. I may buy it. I may not.’ This is a perfectly logical approach and one that often used to work. That is in the days when Brian had little option other than to listen to what brands had to say. But now I fear that he has put up his personal firewall and is blanking out marketing messages meaning we have little option other than to attempt to communicate what it is that’s good about the product via more participative means.
So rather than condemn the sausage brand in question for attempting to stimulate participation, we should question the ‘mode of participation’ they sought. Finding itself in a low interest category, Blendtec doesn’t make big demands of its audience. It simply asks that people endorse its brand in the form of sharing links to, ‘liking’ and ‘tweeting’ the videos that it creates. I would argue that the mystery sausage brand’s mistake was to blindly seek participation without considering what its audience wants / needs and how a communication product could provide them with genuine value.
Identifying the appropriate ‘mode of participation’ is as important as the idea at the heart of the brand.
Given our changed brandscape (and despite Brian’s protestations), I believe that creating participation around brands will be absolutely key to their future success. And that even the most mundane products and brands, by understanding the role they play (or could play) in consumer’s lives have the opportunity to create compelling, value-adding communications products. But for these communications products to be successful, the demands they make on consumers must be proportionate to the reward they offer in return. Where traditional campaigns were about getting the message right, participative campaigns demand that we also get the ‘mode of participation’ right.
Given the miniscule readership of my blog, I’m unable to apologize on behalf of ‘all of advertising and marketing’. But on behalf of me and others who believe that done well, participative marketing is the future; sorry, we’ll do better next time.
This year’s Cannes Lions mark a shift from the age of celebrated creatives to one of collective creators
With the exception of the wonderfully written and realized Old Spice campaign which picked up the Film Grand Prix, one could easily view this year’s (and last year’s for that matter) Cannes victors as marking a definitive shift in the DNA of great communications.
If the last 50 years of our industry has been beholden to the talents of great individuals (epitomized by Don Draper who magics award-winning ideas out of the bottom of glasses of scotch), campaigns such as AMV’s ‘Choose a different ending’, DDB Stockholm’s ‘Fun Theory’ or Crispin Porter’s ‘Twelpforce’ are characterized by the collective labors of broader teams of creators.
W+K have shown with the Old Spice and Nike ‘Write The Future’ campaigns that the ability to agonize over a 60 second film, to hone and craft every frame and make every split second a delight remains an important skill. But at the same time, such opportunities are increasingly thin on the ground. Spending this much time and effort is only worthwhile if we can ensure that the content will be consumed in a set form; but as we know this is increasingly not the case with consumers assuming control. Just as brands are becoming used to consumers interacting with them on their own terms, so too must agencies.
And this is creating a different approach to idea generation. Where advertising was judged on the basis of its visual and verbal execution, this year’s Cannes winners stand out thanks to the quality of their core ideas, applied to our changing media landscape. A chalk-toting robot which allows consumers to participate in the Tour De France, a platform which enables us to get tech support more efficiently, an experience that gives us an understanding of the causes and consequences of knife violence rather than simply telling us that it’s a bad idea. All of these ideas were the work of creative minds though not the excusive preserve of a conventional creative department. Indeed, without the up-front input of broader teams of creators: media specialists, technologists and industrial designers, none of these inspiring campaigns would ever have seen the light of day.
After I attended the Global Leadership Summit at Best Buy last month, I wrote a piece arguing that ‘the connected world’ (the holy grail for technology and media companies) is not something that can be easily defined and packaged (much less explained via traditional communication channels). Rather it is a complex ecosystem of kit, connections and content allowing individuals to better engage with their passions and interests through technology.
As marketers, this is complexity we’re facing more often as we find ourselves trying to present the increasingly complicated user-experiences enabled by these connected technologies. And the channels we have conventionally relied on; dependent on reductive thinking and neat propositions are ill-suited to the richer, more multi-faceted experiences required to bring them to life.
As if to demonstrate this point, this inforgraphic by Section Design shows how the iPad (the ultimate converged device) does basically everything making it (as apple have demonstrated with their advertising) equally difficult to define.