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 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.
God knows, the last thing anyone needs is more smug blog commentary on the Gap logo fiasco. Was the brand burned by social media or was this an elaborate publicity stunt? Does it mark a dangerous precedent putting design decision-making in the grubby hands of the masses? One thing’s for sure, it hasn’t helped Gap get any closer to knowing what it stands for.
This is a classic example of a brand papering over the cracks, hoping that a cosmetic quick-fix will mask a larger problem. The fundamental question is not, what should our logo look like? but what should it be saying to consumers about our brand? If the only thing you have to say is ‘contemporary’, you’ll end up looking like all the other brands who equally have nothing to say and also want to look ‘contemporary’ (It’s no wonder that the logo ended up looking like it came from a faceless petro-chemical conglomerate or a pharmaceutical company, it reminded me a bit of one of the free templates that came pre-loaded on Powerpoint 97). The question that needs to be asked at Gap is not in relation to communication strategy or even marketing, this is a business strategy question: who do we want to shop at the Gap and how are we going to convince them to do so?
Gap once had a very clear idea of itself. It was a supplier of well-priced American basics: khakis, denim, t-shirts, button-down shirts with the occasional fashion flourish. This was a position which consumers ‘got’, making the brand a phenomenal success and driving global expansion over many decades. The rot set in with the introduction of Old Navy by Gap Inc. in 1994 which quickly found success as… a supplier of even better-priced American basics: khakis, denim, t-shirts etc. Gap, usurped as the nation’s favorite ‘basics’ supplier (Old Navy now accounts for 41% of company revenues to Gap’s 40%), was forced to move upmarket and attempt to adopt a fashion positioning, which its product range, store experience and customer-base was ill-suited to.
So what now?
If you want my opinion (and of course no one really does but here goes) Gap should go back to what made it great in the past: well-priced American basics. This isn’t mere nostalgia, I believe Gap could be the lucky recipient of a realignment of the fashion planets – the rise of what The Wall Street Journal calls ‘the heritage hipster’.
The recession appears to have done for the fey, skinny-suited, pointy-shoed Euro man and brought with it ‘brawny man’.
“He’s dressed for the elements, looking as rugged as a lumberjack—and also a tad pleased with himself. Yes, he can hunt, chop trees, mine gold and pull lobsters from frigid waters. But his oil-waxed knapsack of tricks has just grown: He’s today’s fashion icon.
His fisherman sweater is coming down the runways of Gucci and Jil Sander; his flannel shirts and Navy-style pea coats are for sale at Barneys (add a zero or two to the price). After years where a sexual ambiguity ruled, today’s menswear designers are taking cues from yellow-paged copies of Field & Stream and L.L. Bean catalogs. Pioneering names like Barbour, Filson and Stetson are catchwords of the moment, while Gucci, Prada and Helmut Lang are sounding almost… passé.”
You only have to scroll through blogs like A Continuous Lean or witness the fuss around the re-issue of seminal preppy look-book ‘Take Ivy’ to recognize that much of fashion these days is being driven by an unlikely trinity of hunters, fishermen and Ivy League students.
I’m obviously taking a very menswear-centric approach to this problem but many of the same trends are also evident in womenswear; witness the recent success of J Crew which (under the stewardship of former Gap CEO Mickey Drexler) has grown from 196 to 321 stores in the last 7 years. As The Wall Street Journal commented in a recent profile of Drexler.
“Drexler’s vision for the company was simple and not unlike his original vision for Gap: quality basics, the perfect T, the perfect pair of khakis, the perfect sweater—but he took it further by increasing the quality to create more upmarket pieces. Cashmere cardigans that cost a little more—he used Italian cashmere brand Loro Piana and sourced leather shoes from the same factory as Prada. His theory being: Customers will pay more for well-made clothing.”
Just as Old Navy (under Drexler’s stewardship) usurped The Gap’s traditional position in the market-place, J Crew is steadily unseating more upmarket designer labels.
“What Drexler has come to understand is the biggest rip-off in retailing is designer goods. Saks CEO Stephen Sadove “walks around saying, ‘We’re reducing price points.’ Sure they are. But also look at the reduction in quality. Customers aren’t stupid. Drexler sees this and thinks, ‘I’m going to have a higher price point, but it’s going to be a quarter of theirs and I’m going to offer better quality.’ That’s a real strategy.”
Perhaps Gap should learn from its former CEO. J Crew has become a touchstone for the influential millennials whose business the Gap craves. And whilst it cannot compete on quality, it certainly can on price. Why not be the place where people who wish they could shop at J Crew (or Tommy Hilfinger or Ralph Lauren or Jack / Kate Spade and all the other stores popping up in Bleeker Street) but who don’t want to spend the money? In Europe, Zara and H&M have built huge businesses by quickly and skillfully appropriating the looks of upmarket European designers. Why can’t the Gap do the same with high-end American looks?
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
Last week I wrote a piece arguing that if the objective of our campaigns is to stimulate consumer participation (and amplification of our message via social media), the effort that we ask of them must be proportionate to the reward we offer in return. The key question is, how can brands get consumers working on their behalf in a way that also works on their behalf?
Image by David Mejias
The easiest answer to this question is: would I be prepared to participate in the scheme we’re dreaming up or would I be worried about looking like a dick in front of my friends? This may sound blindingly obvious but think about it next time you’re in a brainstorm dreaming up new ways in which consumers will help you spread the word about your socks, light-bulbs, detergent (I certainly wish I’d had it written on my hand in a few).
Key to this is understanding how and why people use social networks in the first place. In many instances, social networks are about providing people with a platform to ‘sell’ themselves. An opportunity to reveal their wit, taste, knowledge, ahead-of-the-curve-ness… via their status updates, comments and wall-posts; the things they ‘like’ or tweet, the places they check-in, the photos and videos they share. In doing so, they are creating value, ‘selling’ themselves to existing and potential friends and followers, augmenting (or even creating) real-world relationships.
As a recent SDSU study finds, 57% of young people believe their generation uses social networking sites for “self-promotion, narcissism and attention seeking”. And they have enough on their plates with self-promotion without having to worry about promotion brands as well.
Henrik Werdelin argues that ‘virality is about making your users look awesome in front of their friends’ and suggests that we should be asking ourselves: “How will the message I want spread make my audience look cool or clever?” providing a series of examples:
1. Make them show they are early adopters. Make users feel important by giving them something to say about themselves, e.g. I am a user of this new cool software – it’s still in closed beta – but I can try to get you an invite.
2. Make them seem funny or interesting. When adding a ‘tell/invite a friend’ into your sign-up flow be sure to spend extra time making your invite email interesting. You are essentially the ghost-writer for your users. Make them sound funny or interesting – they will want to share your story with more people.
3. Allow people to add their personal touch to your story. Users are more likely to spread stories that have their own personal touch. So leave room for them to add their fingerprint to your narrative easily. I guess my best example is to always allow for a bit of space when you do tweets – so people can add their own comment to your narrative. By doing that, you allow your audience to become co-senders. If that fails, then piggyback your message on to something entertaining, as a last resort, in case there is no other way to make the message itself cool to communicate. Just think of how OfficeMax have made you Elfyourself.com
4. Make people better storytellers by giving them templates of ‘guide them’. Facebook’s initial status update did this delicately by adding the ‘Henrik is…’ to each update. This forced users to write a certain type of update and allowed them to be more creative by working within the template of the ‘Henrik is…’ template. A new trend is to give people personal information about themselves to share via Behaviour Generated Content generation.
Whilst marketers may be tempted to employ old-media tactics to broadcast to the huge audiences engaged in social networks, it is only by understanding the reason that these people are so engaged and adding value to their experience that we can harness these huge numbers.
The other option of course is to buy their dignity by offering a reward so great that they will happily sell-out their hard-earned reputations. Ben Southall, now the recipient of the best job in the world waged a social media campaign that his friends must have got bored of quicker than a Farmville addiction in order to secure it.
Still, there may be hope for him. In an interview last week, Eric Schmidt called for people to be given the opportunity to change their names in order to escape their embarrassing social media pasts (in what Colbert brilliantly referred to as Ctrl-Self-Delete). In addition to people fleeing from videos of them rapping or photos of them downing shots, this may also provide them relief from the damage that ‘liking’ a butter brand or changing their profile picture for a bank in a moment of rashness did to their carefully-constructed reputations.
Clock Clock by Humans since 1982
This is an exciting time for planning. Disciplines are converging meaning that we’re no longer restricted to (brand, media, digital, data etc.) silos while increasingly sophisticated and participatory campaigns call for us to play a far more active and creative role in the development of work (vs. handing over a brief and twiddling our thumbs while we wait for the tracking results). Today we are less the strategy department doing the thinking so that creatives can concentrate on crafting TV scripts and headlines and more a part of a broader team of creators, working together towards creative solutions to our clients’ business problems. But feeling excited about the possibilities of our evolving discipline is different to having time to actually realize them (whatever they say about our cognitive surplus).
Just before moving to New York, I attended an APG (British Account Planning Group) ‘group mentoring’ event hoping to discuss the weighty issues of the day and learn at the feet of that evening’s assigned mentor. Except that we didn’t get past the first point on the agenda “what’s on your mind?” The session was completely dominated by planners moaning about how little time they have. Lack of thinking time, lack of time to interrogate problems, lack of time to spend with creatives coaxing out ideas – like the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, we were in terror of time ticking away.
Whilst planners can be delicate souls who enjoy a bit of a moan and a naval-gaze (Carroll described the white rabbit as ‘wearing spectacles…his voice quaver, and his knees quiver, and his whole air suggest a total inability to say ‘Boo’ to a goose!” which could equally be applied to our kind), I was startled by the unanimity of the sentiment and the depth of feeling. Particularly when industry trends suggest that this ‘speed-up’ of the way we work will only continue to gather pace. Our clients are having to engage in ever more ‘real-time’ interactions with consumers calling for less theorizing and more doing. This means that our work is increasingly ‘in beta’ as we look to hone and refine, test and learn, iterate and optimize. The ability to continually track consumer sentiment and engage with them whenever and whenever they are is a blessing but it can also be a curse (just ask my wife). The notion of a campaign going ‘out the door’ is something we may never fully experience again.
So how is a planner to reconcile the growing demands on our time?
For me, our jobs can be divided into 3 parts – Inspiration, Creation and Administration – our key challenge: finding the correct balance between them.
Both inspiring ourselves through our reading, research and conversations with others and providing inspiration to our colleagues and clients – creating the right conditions for great work.
This activity demands that we be connected. The growth of social media has brought unprecedented opportunities for planners to share data and access sources of insight previously out of reach. We are no longer held back by lack of information (Blogs, articles distributed via Tweets, presentations on Slideshare mean that we can find almost whatever we desire), our obstacle is our ability to organize it into something useful. We are lucky to do jobs where browsing the net counts as homework but to consider this activity a luxury is a mistake. The gathering of intelligence and insight is a vital activity and not one that we should put on hold when we’re pushed for time.
Having gathered our inspiration, we put it to work during the process of creation. Whether working alone or as part of a team, the objective is to come up with the creative solutions that will engage consumers and solve our client’s problems.
Our abundance of information and inspiration is a wonderful thing but it can also be overwhelming. There must come a point where we switch off and direct our energies towards creation – a process I find easier when disconnected. Nicholas Carr argues in ‘The Shallows’ that the internet has altered the chemistry of our brains, making us less able to concentrate on complexity and more prone to flitting from one ting to the next. Though the debate rages, I notice this trend in my own behavior and find that I’m most productive on long flights ie. when there are no distractions (I dread the introduction of WiFi to the 14 hour-er to Seoul on my way to Samsung where I do much of my best work). Without distractions, I’m able to focus on a problem and work thorough its intricacies without the temptation of taking a Facebook break if it gets complicated. This week I will be experimenting with the freedom app which locks you out of email and the internet for a pre-determined amount of time to allow for proper concentration on the task at hand.
Emailing, organizing… all the boring stuff that gets the bills paid. Though important and not particularly taxing, this activity saps time and is a favorite of procrastinators. We must put a time limit on it and get it done to enable us to do something more useful.
So how should planners manage their time. By connecting with others and gathering sufficient inspiration to allow them to shed new light on a problem, by allowing adequate time and space for creation and by getting administration done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’ll check in soon to let you know how I’m doing.