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.
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.
So there was me getting misty eyed about the Old Spice campaign which I characterized as a last hurrah for the beautifully crafted TV commercial, the work of great (but old school) creatives in control of both the message and the medium… and then the social media blitz began. Responding directly to the buzz that the campaign had already created in blogs, on Twitter and YouTube, the team behind it created 183 videos over the course of 4 days, adding an additional 11million YouTube views to the 13million that the original TV spot had garnered (See We Are Social’s full case study here).
Particularly smart was the choice of comments and commentators to create video responses to, which targeted digital influencers (like The Huffington Post, Demi Moore and Ellen Degeneres) who had publicized the campaign in the first place and were rewarded with special content to share with their followers which flattered them (demonstrating their influence) and perpetuated the campaign on behalf of the brand creating a virtuous circle of content creation and sharing.
In my previous post I was making the point that in order to work in today’s fragmented and multi-faceted media landscape, campaigns can no longer be the domain of individual creative teams and must bring together the varied talents of a broader team of creators. At the time, I presented the Old Spice campaign as the exception that proved the rule, though what has become evident over the last week is that the campaign’s extended life has indeed been the work of a sophisticated ecosystem of specialists working (all hours) together.
In fact, whilst I was busy comparing the team behind the original commercial to Don Draper (sitting back with their Cannes Grand Prix, scotch in hand, admiring their handiwork as it played out on TV), they were busy together with media and social specialists, production people and of course, a (“ridiculously good looking”) actor, turning their campaign into a cultural phenomenon. Much like the Budweiser Wassup guys or Aleksander Meerkat, The Old Spice Guy has transcended his original context, sitting comfortably alongside other much-loved characters like Cartman and Borat. Indeed, so powerful a meme is he in his own right that he has become a platform for the communication of other brands – I would be willing to bet that this film made on behalf of sister brand Gillette has been far more engaging to consumers than any of their own advertising.
So a huge amount of credit must go to the creators of the Old Spice campaign.
- The people who realized that there was space for a real man’s brand as an antidote to the mass of metrosexual or infantile frat-boy alternatives in the men’s grooming aisle
- The people who conceived the campaign’s wonderfully 3 dimensional central character capable of living in any channel and beyond
- The people who delicately choreographed the TV spots
- The awesome actor
- The people who recognized the cultural significance of the Old Spice Guy and tapped into the buzz around him, selecting key influencers to perpetuate the campaign
- The people who were able to turn germs of ideas planted in tweets and YouTube comments into smart, humorous and engaging video content
- The people within the client organization prepared to fund the extension of the campaign beyond their original investment who relaxed control over the content so that it could become genuinely real-time…
And finally proof that advertising agencies are able to adapt to the modern world: combining the ability to uncover powerful insights, write high-level brand strategy and craft TV spots; yet also be fleet-of-foot enough to seize real-time opportunities, create lots of content quickly and cheaply and understand how to achieve maximum exposure in social media. A lesson from the creators at W+K to us all.
I suppose I fell for it because I sat through a round-up of some very mundane tweets I’d sent and at the same was exposed to the new UT collection (and now I’m blogging about it so even more fool me) but the praise that this campaign has received feels a little out of proportion. Yes we’re all in-thrall of Twitter but this doesn’t add anything to it – it is an application of social media looking for an idea.