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.
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.
Over recent years, the narrative of trust in peers supplanting trust in institutions has become accepted wisdom. The steady decline in influence of institutions such as the church, government and business has been matched by a concurrent rise in the influence of peers; a process catalyzed by the explosive growth of online social networks, which make the opinions of those peers so readily available.
Numerous studies have posited this hypothesis but it really appeared to gather momentum on the back of Edelman’s (highly influential in its own right) annual Trust Barometer, which in 2005 asserted “Trust shifts from ‘authorities’ to peers”, explaining that “trust in established institutions (business, government, media) and figures of authority (CEOs, heads of state) is being supplanted by a personal web of trust that includes ‘colleagues,’ ‘friends and family,’ ‘a person like yourself’”.
This school of thought has taken firm hold in the marketing world, devaluing previous assumptions about the ability to influence consumers via 1-way communication and obsessing us with the creation of influencer-strategies where we seek to stimulate conversation and participation, encouraging networked influencers to spread our message to their peers on our behalf (what Griffin Farley has termed Propagation Planning).
So it comes as something of a surprise to note more recent Trust Barometer findings which suggest that our trust in peers is now in decline. This trend was noted last year by my colleague Patricia McDonald (then of BBH Labs) who pointed to a 20% decline in the influence that US respondents ascribed to peers between 2008 and 2010, a trend that has continued in 2011. Concurrently, the influence of CEOs (and ‘experts’ generally) increased by 19% between (2009 - 2011) see the full report here.
Edelman data shows declining influence of peers vs. increasing influence of CEOs between 2009 and 2011
Edelman seem not to offer an opinion as to the underlying causes of this shift so we are left to speculate. I wonder whether the changing nature of our relationships (catalyzed by social networking) is causing them to weaken with a consequent decline in the level of trust we ascribe to them? Is the way we use Facebook weakening the influence of friendship?
Naysayers (and your parents until they joined Facebook) have long questioned the substance of friendships conducted virtually. But an uneasiness around the number of ‘friends’ we have amassed and our ability to actually maintain relationships with all these people has become more prevalent recently. This trend was the focus of the launch campaign for Microsoft’s ill-fated Kin smartphone, a sociological study following individuals as thy sought to build real-world relationships with friends they had only ever encountered virtually.
The scientific basis of this questioning of the validity of online friendships is provided by the oft cited Dunbar’s Number. Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University first put forward the theory in 1992 that “the way in which our social world is constructed is part and parcel of our biological inheritance. Together with apes and monkeys, we’re members of the primate family – and within the primates there is a general relationship between the size of the brain and the size of the social group. We fit in a pattern. There are social circles beyond it and layers within – but there is a natural grouping of 150. This is the number of people you can have a relationship with involving trust and obligation – there’s some personal history, not just names and faces”.
Back to Edelman’s findings, a contributing factor to the declining influence of our peers would appear to be that we simply have too many with whom to sustain relationships built on “trust and obligation”. That our mania for collecting Facebook friends and unwittingly rendered these friendships less meaningful. So what does this mean for brand’s carefully-constructed influencer strategies?
Whilst friend influence (as defined by Edelman) may not reach the heights of 2008 again in a hurry, our peers have always influenced us (we’ve just paid attention more recently because we’ve been better able to follow and influence their conversations) and will continue to influence us. However, for this influence to be useful in the building of brands, we must focus more on the quality of ‘friendship’ over quantity.
For social networks looking to command brands’ marketing budgets, the key will be helping people manage different kinds of friendships and prioritize more meaningful ones (whether through the segmentation of an existing network like Facebook Groups or the creation of new, tighter networks like Path which limits users’ total number of connections to 50). For our part, marketers need to pay less attention to generic metrics like ‘likes’ and more to defining exactly what we’re hoping to achieve, how peer-influencers will help us to achieve these objectives and how to engage with them in their social networks in order to achieve this.
Lots has already been written about the likely impact of Facebook Places: the potential for it to take social networking genuinely into the real world, the threat it poses to Foursquare, that fact that you wouldn’t actually want most of your Facebook ‘friends’ to know where you are anyway, the opportunities it creates for burglars…
But for me, the most noticeable impact has been a decline in the entertainment value of status updates. A recent SDSU study finds, 57% of young people believe their generation uses social networking sites for “self-promotion, narcissism and attention seeking”. And the evident effort that people put into creating their social media personas (humorously-written dispatches from the minutiae of their days) has provided generous voyeuristic entertainment. But sadly, the advent of Facebook places has damped my enjoyment because for every report of work-place embarrassment or drunken misadventure, I have to scroll through numerous banal check-ins at parks, shops and railway stations. I’m terrified this is going to become another Farmville and I’m going to have to start de-friending.
Thank god they changed the privacy settings allowing you to select which of your friends to alert as to your whereabouts – otherwise my favorite time-wasting activity when waiting for elevators or for sandwiches to be made may be gone forever.
I couldn’t have put it better myself
A few weeks ago I wrote a post in response to Brian, a disgruntled “consumer” who had written an ‘open letter to all of marketing and advertising’ objecting to brands’ attempts to stimulate consumer participation. I offered apologies to Brian, arguing that done right, participative campaigns can provide genuine value to consumers and promised to try harder in future.
…And then Kellogg’s goes and unleashes Pop It Forward, an idea so bad it makes me want to cry. The name, echoing charitable Pay it forward-type initiatives made me think that this was cause-related; that Kellogg’s are assuaging their guilt for encouraging mothers to feed their children chocolate desserts for breakfast. But this is not the case. Pop it Forward is in fact a competition which asks young people to submit their ‘Big Ideas’ as to what they would do with 1 million Pop Tarts. The people who have the best ideas (as voted by fans of the Pop Tarts Facebook page) receive a bulk delivery of ‘toaster pastries’ together with a film crew to capture for posterity their idea as they put it into action.
To help would-be participants along the way, the Facebook page includes an utterly baffling ‘Idea Generator’ which, when clicked, provides insightful suggestions like ‘Gifted’ ‘Wish’ ‘Kitten’ (me neither). And to whet our appetites, they have posted a series of ‘Inspiration Videos’ on their YouTube Channel which provide example ‘Big Ideas’. My personal favorite is ‘Inspirational Video Baseball Game’ where Krysta shares her plan. If she could get her hands on 1000 Pop Tarts she would ‘give them out to anyone I could’ and proceeds to hand out Pop Tarts at a baseball game.
So have Kellogg’s been deluged by people desperate to share their ‘big ideas’ and get their hands on the goodies? When I originally checked the campaign’s Facebook page (which I had to ‘like’ to access doing untold damage to my carefully-managed social network persona) they said they would be sharing ideas on September 20th. But when I checked back on 20th, no ideas had appeared. Competition entries have since begun to filter through with the main themes being ‘I would eat a load and then give the rest away’ with ‘the homeless’, ‘the elderly’ and ‘the lactose intolerant’ the most likely recipients. Despite over 2 million people ‘liking’ Pop Tarts on Facebook, very few ideas have been submitted and the vast majority of these ideas have received no votes.
So why am I singling out this campaign from all the other misguided attempts to stimulate participation which upset Brian and make our industry look stupid? The reason that this campaign is so bad is that it benefits nobody – it is completely pointless. For participatory campaigns to work they must be mutually beneficial: something consumers choose to engage with because they find doing so in some way rewarding (they receive a prize, they look cool in front of their friends etc). And the brand should also benefit because by choosing to participate, those consumers perceive something compelling about it (whether something specific like that it has a new product or more general about its unique outlook on the world) that they would not have understood had they not taken the time to do so.
Uniqlo’s Lucky Counter is a case in point. The initiative asks consumers to tweet about a selection of the brand’s products in return for a discount on them. The brand benefits because potential customers are exposed to a range of its products and share those products with other potential customers via Twitter on the brand’s behalf. Those participants benefit because by sharing said products, they receive a discount on them. A simple, mutually-beneficial transaction.
I may be missing something but as far as I can see, no one benefits from Pop it Forward. I’m assuming that Kellogg’s aren’t suggesting Pop Tarts as a solution to feeding the homeless meaning that the only thing that this initiative communicates is that they have lots of Pop Tarts and that they want people to eat them (not an obvious reason to invest millions of dollars in a marketing campaign). They are not asking their fans to help them choose a new flavor or package design or even using this initiative as a platform to launch an inspiring new brand idea. If it were a TV ad, it would be a Kellogg’s executive appearing on screen saying ‘buy Pop Tarts’ without offering any reason why anyone would ever want to.
And the lack of any sort of idea guiding the initiative makes it very hard for conumers to engage with. Of course, the real prize on offer is not the Pop Tarts themselves but (in Henrik Werdelin’s words) the ‘opportunity to look awesome in front of their friends’ as they demonstrate their creativity through the activation of their ‘big idea’ on film. But since they are being given no tangible inspiration, it is unsurprising that the ideas they are contributing are so equally uninspiring. For the consumer, this initiative is neither useful or entertaining. It is, however, eminently ignorable.
So what do we learn from this? Nothing new or startling: brands must stand for things beyond the things they hope to sell. It is only by finding ways to engage people that we can hope to get their attention, win their affection and encourage them to consider us. This was as true for traditional approaches to marketing (TV ads needed to entertain or touch or shock… so that the audience would be paying attention when the sales pitch happened) and it is also true for more participatory approaches – participation isn’t an idea (this is the trap Kellogg’s has fallen into), it is an outcome: the result of an engaging initiative that benefits both the brand and the consumer.