Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Moment of Truth

"The moment everything changed was...__________"

These "I finally hit rock bottom" or "it was then I realized I had arrived" moments are great for newspapers, magazine articles, soundbites and autobiographies. However, that's where their usefulness usually ends.

In reality, great change doesn't often turn on a dime. We oversimplify major events, ideas, practices and long processes into tiny finite moments of truth to achieve two things; make them easier to consume and create a greater impact on the listener. It's an effective marketing tool, albeit a dishonest one.

A more honest story is one with continuous trial and error, working through problems everyday and refusing to let failure be where the story ends.

Don't search for and wait on big moments of truth. Instead, work toward a real solution.

Don't forget this when making your New Year's resolutions or forecasting the future.

Be Authentic in Branding

Just months after October's logo-gate, the Gap brand has been exposed again. However, this isn't exactly the swift justice of transparency served up by WikiLeaks. It was just a guy with a camera who caught the retailer acting dishonestly.

The goal of feeding hungry children in America is a noble one to support; however, this obvious oversight is a strong indictment that Gap was acting disingenuously. If the work of ending hunger in America is something that the company truly cares about, do you think this would have happened? I don't. So it ends up looking like what it probably was: a marketer contrived shortcut designed to generate publicity, goodwill, and store traffic during the holiday season.

The entire campaign is sadly reminiscent of a tactic KFC used last spring, which involved pink buckets filled with fried chicken in exchange for a donation to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Contrast this kind of strategy with a brand like Tom's Shoes. For every pair of shoes sold, they donate a pair of shoes to a child who doesn't have them. One for one—no exceptions. Tom's is clearly passionate about its cause and lives out that mission every day. The program is not a marketing gimmick with a core purpose of generating sales.

Of course, there are few for-profit brands that operate like Tom's. Nevertheless, the lesson to take from both examples is simple: be who you say you are. Consumers don't need Julian Assange to reveal that a brand is faking a commitment and not living out their own marketing message. Dishonesty exposed in public can be especially embarrassing if charity is an element of the marketing strategy, and far more mortifying than getting confused over a logo.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo Media's Beneath the Brand.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Herd Behavior

It's essential for marketers to understand how and why an idea or belief spreads. It's not enough to simply match up the sales figures with correlating marketing expenditures in order to judge the effectiveness of a campaign.

Particularly important to understanding the spread of ideas is the concept herd behavior and the influence peer groups can have in forming brand perceptions. Not surprisingly, consumers often make brand perceptions without any direct interaction with a brand. They judge the actions of others.

Picture going to try a new restaurant and it's completely empty. Would you stay or find another place to eat? Human nature says most consumers would bail because we seek the approval of others in making such a decision. And a restaurant with no diners doesn't say "we approve."

Understanding this is a issue that many live event marketers tend to struggle with. In their case, communal consumption is a major part of the product itself. So obviously, its critical for these marketers to an understand the effect this will have on the brand. In fact, I wrote a little about this over a year ago when I posted ideas to fix our local hockey team, the Rochester Americans. For a team struggling with attendance, a prolonged perception that no attends their games may be worse than the fact that no one is going.

On the other hand, this can work to the advantage of successful marketers. For decades, consumers were greeted with four powerful words under the signature golden arches of sign outside McDonald's: billions and billions served.

By keeping a running tally of the customers they have served, McDonald's is reinforcing the trust and confidence the public has in the brand. It doesn't tell the customer what they should think, rather it reinforces what they learned on their own.

Furthermore, premium brands work by going the other direction. They're scarce and expensive on purpose; to create a barrier of ownership. Therefore, the people who can afford the item or service will relate to and identify with the others who also can afford it.

However, manipulating herd behavior is a tricky practice. I'm guessing most have experienced going to a bar or nightclub that kept people waiting outside even though the inside looked very different. How did you react? Not pleased I bet.

Remember, gimmicks and playing games like at the nightclub won't work in the long run. What will is building a brand your customer is proud to identify themselves with.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Political News Marketers and Prickly Politicans

When I want political news and opinion on television, I always watch the "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart and "The Colbert Report" first. However, on "The Daily Show" Tuesday, Stewart delivered an interesting real-life marketing story. Like campaigning politicians throwing quick jabs at their opponents across the aisle, the three major 24-hour news networks, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, are all taking shots at each other with their new marketing campaigns.

It all started in October when MSNBC news network unveiled a two-year multimillion dollar campaign to increase brand awareness and raise ratings to the level of competitor Fox News. Network President Phil Griffin said, "We've taken on CNN and beat them...now it's time to take on Fox." To do so, MSNBC developed dramatic ads that call the viewer to "Lean Forward." The tagline is a play off the common political-pundit expression of "leaning to the left." By saying, "lean forward," the network says "we're not left-leaning liberals, we're progressive."

Fox News was quick to respond with their own creativity to pooh-pooh MSNBC's progressive movement. Fox says it doesn't lean anywhere; they "Move Forward." While it may not be an official retort from Fox, its pundits have no issues with making their feelings known; for instance, Glenn Beck has suggested on Fox airwaves that MSNBC's slogan should be "Bend Over."

CNN wisely differentiates itself by taking shots at both networks. Their latest spot denounces both networks' partisan agendas and says that it, in fact, reports the most accurate version of the truth.

I love it when marketers directly respond or make overt statements about the competition in their ads. First of all, I believe the practice can be very effective in differentiating brands. Secondly, it's entertaining to watch the battle play out. Burger King versus McDonald's, Verizon versus AT&T—I'm all for it. In this case, however, I immediately questioned the effect this straightforward approach will have. If my logic is correct, the only people to switch brands will be the rare few who switch their political ideologies. If you're conservative, you'll keep watching Fox. If you're progressive, you'll keep watching MSNBC. And if you cannot stand either, I guess you'll watch CNN. There isn't a lot of wiggle room, and that's the whole point. The ads, primarily directed at those already watching the network, only serve to harden the viewer's political stances. Do you lean left? Lean further. Have conservative values? Be more conservative. By reaffirming the beliefs of current viewers, the ratings payday will come in the form of longer viewing times.

Oddly enough, politicians use a similar strategy to achieve the opposite result. During election season, politicians turn up the intensity and increase the scale of their sometimes crude direct-attack ads with the intent to induce the "they're all jerks" reflex of the general population. The end result can be low voter turnouts at the polls in critical elections and primaries, which naturally translates to an easier and safer road to public office.

The similarities don't end there. We all know the reporting and punditry of the news networks can be just as questionable as the words of a politician. It's no wonder that Jon Stewart and Stephan Colbert are so popular for revealing the truth.

This post also appeared on Beneath the Brand.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Do Your Customers Know Why You Exist?

My Sunday ritual is very similar to the rituals of many Americans. I always block out a few hours of the day to watch football and cheer on my favorite team. After a long week, we football fans cherish the opportunity to relax and be entertained by the game we love.

But it seems the game isn't the only thing trying to entertain us. The advertisers, who are obviously desperate to prevent viewers from picking up their remote controls, are on the same mission: captivate us at all costs. In fact, if I didn't know better, I'd guess that the purpose of advertising was to entertain and be a sideshow to our weekly sideshow. Naturally, this leads one to start asking some the serious questions. For instance, can an ad that buries its most compelling selling point under 26 seconds of fluff and punch lines really be effective?

But the questions don't end at the tactical level. At its very core, what reason does your brand have to exist? And more importantly, do consumers know the answer to that question? If not, can they find it in your marketing?

I consciously realized on Sunday that a lot of major marketers cannot answer with a definitive yes. They seem to have enough trouble just getting noticed. If these marketers struggle with declaring a purpose for being here, perhaps they should start by focusing on what consumers will miss most when they're gone.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo's Beneath The Brand.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Better Than Social Media?

We all know that our Facebook messages, tweets and blog posts will last forever. However, for most of us, they wind up living in perpetual hiding. But, rest assured, they will survive somewhere.

Yet with word of mouth (the medium its so often confused with), the story or message is almost certain to die one day. But, for as long as it survives, it's guaranteed suvival in the mind.

As a marketer, where would you rather have your story live?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Replace Vague Terminology In Advertising

To explain why some advertising campaigns were successful and others were not, legendary ad man, Rosser Reeves theorized that the difference was successful ads had a Unique Selling Proposition. The theory was composed of three elements. First, the advertisement must be honest, without empty words, and the ad must clearly state what single benefit the customer will enjoy for the product or service. Secondly, the proposition must be unique; no other brands can already be making the same claim. Lastly, the proposition must be powerful enough to motivate the masses.

Regardless of its age, the merits of Reeves' unique selling proposition haven't eroded over time. In fact, I'd argue that the theory is even more important today, as marketing noise grows. In order to be heard and still be effective, marketers must convey the specific benefits that are unique to their brands. Yet, many marketers are using very vague and tired terminology to sell to consumers.

Quality is one of the worst, most overused marketing terms. Perhaps the biggest offender is the automobile industry. Auto executives want consumers to believe that their brand is quality. But how they go about saying so is very important. Often, they simply emphasize the quality. Sometimes, they work around the word by highlighting the latest resale valuations or Consumer Reports rankings. However, in a recent round of ads, Toyota specifically related quality to the car's longevity; 80 percent of Toyota's purchased 20 years ago are still on the road today. That's a fantastic line that gets reinforced every time an old, beat up Toyota is seen on the road.

Another empty adjective marketers use often is fresh. Sandwich chain Subway has built its brand around fresh-baked dough and ingredients. Its latest attempt at nailing down fresh is, of course, "Eat Fresh." However, its refrain of fresh remains unsubstantiated. How are the fixings at Subway more fresh than the deli down the street? Who knows. On the other hand, Canadian doughnut shop Tim Horton's found a way to define fresh during its battle with Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, and McDonald's for the king of coffee. They specifically advertise that their coffee is brewed every 20 minutes, 24 hours a day. In the coffee ad war, this should be their only rallying cry.

Of course, this can and should be extended to product packaging, as well. For example, instead of simply saying healthy or all natural, Naked Juice smoothies specifically but simply tells customers what's in the bottle. For instance, a 15-ounce "Red Machine" contains 13 raspberries, 11 strawberries, seven grapes, three cranberries, one and a half apples, a quarter of a pomegranate, a third of an orange, and half a banana. Now, we know it's healthy.

Reeves' Wikipedia page
says that his techniques began to fail after the Creative Revolution began. However, I would argue the finest creative work is specific and definite. And is also telling the truth.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo Media's Beyond Madison Avenue.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Fragile State of Celebrity Endorsements

Marketing professionals should be taking note of just how fragile the celebrity endorsement strategy can be. Sure, defenders of celebrity endorsement will always be quick to remind the world what Michael Jordan did for Nike, but more and more, Nike is looking like the exception and not the rule and marketers should be skeptical of the practice.

Lebron James provides all the evidence one would need. Last night, James made his return to Cleveland to play the team he so publicly abandoned over the summer. Instantly, his public persona changed; transforming from a fun-loving, freakishly talented basketball player to egomaniac villain with a propensity for quitting. People questioned his integrity, wondering how long he knew about the move and why didn't he tell his former teammates. Consequently, as Mr. James' public persona was altered, so were the attitudes towards the brands he represents. Suddenly, the greatness he once personified could no longer be magically reflected upon vitamin-laced waters or auto insurers. What about that deep connection between the celebrity and the brand represented? If it can be replaced that easily, shouldn't one question its real value in the first place?

Furthermore, the Kardashian sisters recently demonstrated how little of a connection can exist between celebrities and the brands they represent. With negativity swirling about the "predatory" fees tied to the Kardashian-branded prepaid MasterCard debit card, the sisters swiftly dumped their partner, the University National Bank of Minnesota. While the Kardashians mostly walk away unscathed and their teen-friendly image intact, a reasonable adult should be able to draw the line at  shameless self-promotion. A bit like Donald Trump, is there anything they won't put their name on?  If so, what value does it really have?

Clearly, a celebrity-based marketing strategy is fragile at best. If the human qualities of an endorser can be positively transferred to a brand, the fact that a pitchman can be replaced at a moment's notice when things go haywire, is a sign of the real connection between them.

This post also appeared on Talent Zoo Media's Beneath the Brand.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Is GM Completely Repaired?

After General Motors raised $20.1 billion in last month's initial public offering, setting a record as the largest in United States history in the process, GM seems to be is signaling that its tough times are officially behind them.

Not surprisingly, its new corporate marketing campaign is reinforcing the idea that it's back from the brink. The powerful new television spot mixes a variety of visuals to demonstrate strength, perseverance and pride, with an obvious flair for of all-things-American. It's a strong deviation from the cliches of winding roads, lab coat wearing engineers in testing facilities and base-level pricing in front of fully loaded cars. The message is simple and seemingly forthright; adversity has made us better.

Shouldn't this have been their refrain all along? Our struggles will make us stronger. This approach that could resonate with all consumers who share in very similar struggles. It would have been advertising that inspired a great mass of people who were in desperate need of some inspiration. And it could have made a huge difference in actually being perceived to be a real life Rocky who picked himself up off the mat.

Instead, GM chose to be the recessionary punching bag. They looked and behaved just like car company we all knew, but now the sign on the front said Government Motors. They chanted "May The Best Car Win" while Ed Whitacre, its sleepy government appointed Chairman and Chief, walked consumers through the cliche factory and repeated the same empty jargon the world was too preoccupied to care about.

"We know you're hurting. So are we. How 'bout bigger rebates and we will all hurt a little less?"

Worst yet, they behaved like the bad boy marketers consumers have trained themselves to be suspicious of. As Mr. Whitacre boldly claimed that the company has repaid the taxpayers in full, consumers default intuition was we don't believe you. It was just another case of GM acting like GM; leaving the consumers to sort through its claims and determine exactly what's honest, what's half truth and what's a complete fabrication.

Is the buying public just supposed to completely buy in now? Better yet will they?

Of course not. They know what the advertisements don't say. That despite its record public offering, the sign out front will still say Government Motors; the American taxpayer still owns 43 percent of the company. Many today's top officials are were appointed during the Troubled Asset Relief Program days. The United Auto Workers, the union widely blamed for broken behaviors of the company, may have more leverage than ever with its seat at the owners meeting.

Most importantly, they know that buying a GM car today is no different than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Sure, the products have drastically changed. They wouldn't declare "May The Best Car Win" if they didn't think it was good. The problem is its perception has not. The disconnect may lie in the fact that for consumers, the only truth that really matters is how they want to see it. Unfortunately, that's been the problem at GM.

The motto all this time should have been "May The Best Marketing Win." And the best marketing is always honest.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cigarettes Are Bad

Growing up, I was always taught that cigarettes are bad. In fact, the perception of cigarettes is so bad that guns have less of a stigma.

Despite the stigma, the terrible health risks, the fact they make ones clothes stink and teeth yellow and are incredibly expensive, people still smoke. No doubt, addictions are hard to overcome. So until the last person quits, governments continue to battle tobacco use (while using the revenue to keep themselves employed).

Interestingly, the United States and United Kingdom are going about their cigarette packaging legislation in very different ways.

Last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed stronger warning labels on cigarette packaging- complete with descriptions and disgusting pictures to scare consumers from buying.

Conversely, the UK is proposing that cigarettes be debranded. The packages will be white with black lettering, including the brand name and a health warning.

I think the proposed measures in England has great potential cutting usage. Debranding will be difficult to work around.