CNN and its gentle social approach

As the events of the horrific June 12th mass shooting in Orlando unfolded, news outlets around the country shifted their attention and coverage accordingly. CNN was covering it non-stop, from initial reports, through law enforcement and elected official press conferences and on to background information that emerged in the hours and days that followed.

But now, as the investigation continues and other stories begin to grab attention, CNN is using its social platforms – Twitter in particular – to continue coverage in a new and interesting way.

CNN’s Twitter feed is now featuring vignette Tweets about EACH deceased victim. Each tweet is designed and presented differently so that it stands out in the feed and features the name, age, a photo when available, and a short background of the person.

cnn_twitter

It’s a considerate and fitting tribute to what would have otherwise been a personality-less list of death. Instead, CNN is focusing on attributes of the victim’s personality, or sharing a brief description of what that person was up to in his or her life.

CNN has taken heart-wrenching news coverage, packaged it for social media, and has maintained what appears to be a healthy respect for the deceased. In the process, they’ve done more to add to the story of those people’s lives beyond where they were the night they were senselessly shot by a madman.

In the category of “I really like and respect this approach,” I think CNN has provided an object lesson for how a media enterprise can comport itself at the intersection of journalism and social media. Well done, CNN.

Sprint and Verizon: balls to balls, toe to toe

Coke and Pepsi. McDonald’s and Burger King. Mac and PC. Hertz and Avis. In the history of advertising, there have been some pretty great one-on-one battles waged for attention and preference in various categories.

In the recent battle for supremacy among wireless service providers, the conversation has seemed to focus on network performance. Verizon’s work with Ricky Gervais pokes fun at how the other networks’ “coverage maps” are a joke.

Then, things heated up when Verizon launched their “colorful balls” spot, which then garnered near-immediate responses from both T-Mobile and Sprint. (Almost simultaneously.)

In the latest skirmish among these two rivals, Sprint has fired the loudest shot against Verizon in a long time – employing Verizon’s long-time “can you hear me now” pitchman Paul Marcarelli.

Back in 2002, Verizon launched this campaign to make the case for their “go-everywhere” coverage, and in the process, made Marcarelli a household face and voice. (It was widely reported that for the nine years he was employed by Verizon – and their agency – he was both handsomely paid, and severely restricted from pitching ANY other brands.)

However, Verizon abandoned that campaign around 2012, and Marcarelli faded into the advertising shadows.

That is, until Sprint decided to bring him back this week.

Sure, this is a gut shot at Verizon, only because Marcarelli was SO recognizable as the “Verizon guy.” Plus, the script is written specifically around him – a fictitious character, I may remind you – first, and around network coverage second.

A couple of things are interesting about this spot, especially in the way it’s channeling the legendary “we’re #2” ethos. Sprint never says “we’re the best” or “we’re the fastest.” In fact, they say they’re about 1% smaller than Verizon, but that Verizon costs nearly twice as much. Pretty good claim if that means anything to you.

Here’s the important question we should be asking: Why isn’t any one of these brands (not just Sprint and Verizon, but T-Mobile and AT&T as well,) looking to differentiate on some other attribute? Is “network performance” really that important? (Some select research must say yes, otherwise we wouldn’t see billions spent against it.)

If you look back at the classic examples (like Coke and Pepsi or McDonald’s and Burger King,) the brand that came out on top was the one who changed the conversation. Coke and Pepsi beat each other’s brains in for years about “taste,” and then Pepsi took their biggest leap forward when they altered their position to “the choice of a new generation.” (Shifting the conversation away from taste and focusing it on WHO drinks.)

For the big wireless networks, they’re going to continue beating the snot out of each other on “wireless network performance” to the same ends…a ¼-point bump in quarterly performance here, a year-on-year nominal profit margin spike there.

When one of these brands finds a new “voice” and a new position, (hint: it has to really matter for consumers,) I think you’ll see the conversation in the advertising world really start to shift. One of these marketing teams ought to be working on finding that path. Sure, the other brands will follow (almost immediately,) but there will never be a substitute for being first…for zigging when the market zags, and for creating new connections with consumers.

Why would Amazon rush up to a #2 position in a category? (Hint: it’s the money.)

amazon-com-logo

One of the basic tenets of marketing, (and what almost all of my students are sick of hearing about already,) is that brands need to strive for a leadership position. You may not always be able to achieve category leadership, but you can certainly attain positional leadership: quality, price, availability, etc. Heck, leadership is so important, the concept of loss leaders is a thing.

And while leadership is the coveted spot, there happens to be some pretty cushy seats in the #2 position as well. Just ask Avis, Burger King, and Pepsi how they’re doing. Avis is the quintessential case study here, having turned their #2 status into a promote-able benefit nearly 50 years ago, and successfully positioning themselves in their category. (It turned into some pretty great advertising from Doyle Dane Bernbach, too.) Sure, these companies have never beaten out their category leaders on the key metrics, (revenue, profits, number of locations, etc.) but they have consistently beaten out EVERY OTHER player in the space.

I’m most interested in this positioning battle model since hearing the news that Amazon is entering the video content space with a new platform called “Amazon Video Direct.” This platform will allow users to upload their own content, and will even have revenue-sharing models for those who upload premium content that other users may be willing to pay for. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s YouTube under a different name. [PS – if you think you can be a video star, this may be your big chance to get in on the ground floor.  Just sayin’.]

Amazon has made a history (and quite a good living, thank you) by exploring opportunities outside its core competency as an online retailer. While purchases of companies like Audible and Zappos make perfect sense as extensions, development of electronics devices (like Kindle and more recently, Echo,) cellular enablement services (like Amazon Wireless,) and original content (Amazon Studios) really didn’t. That those products may have performed fairly or even very well is beside the point.  T

Just as a sidebar, let’s think on that for a moment:  Amazon, an online retailer, delivers original programming content. Could you imagine if, 30 years ago, K-Mart (a one-time very successful retailer,) launched a dramatic series on television? Who would have ever taken that seriously? So yay for the tech revolution and skewed boundaries!

Video content is really far from what we might consider Amazon’s sweet spot. Sure, Amazon Studios may have a mild hit with “Transparent,” as a piece of original content, but they’re not going to catch Netflix any time soon. And that may be precisely the point.

Nor is Amazon Video Direct going to catch YouTube and its billion-user infrastructure any time soon. But with Amazon’s 130 million unique visitors per month (just let that sink in a moment,) they can rush right up to a cozy #2 spot in the category, maybe disrupt a few long-held market beliefs, and add a few more zeros to their bottom line and their $700 per share stock price.

Chevy Hits a Little Red Home Run

Here’s a simple question. Why do a “brand ad?” You know, the kind with very little copy, no call to action, no URL…just sort of a “this is us” statement.

The obvious answers, of course, are “to build awareness,” or “to support the other integrated efforts with frequency or broader reach.”

But what happens when that “brand ad” doesn’t hardly mention the brand, and only a certain segment of the population will even understand the headline?

Such was the case recently when this ad appeared the day after the news of Prince’s passing broke.

prince-tribute-chevy-hed-2016

To borrow a phrase, this ad is insanely great. It’s smart. It’s sexy. It was perfectly timed. There’s no waste there. It appeared as a full page in multiple newspapers, including USA Today and The New York Times.

But there are people that might ask: why bother? It won’t sell any more Corvettes, and not everybody will “get it.”

That’s exactly the point. It’s not meant for everybody. It’s aimed entirely (and only) at people who do get it – in order to say something very purely and very simply.

A couple of things to note about this ad:

1 – It’s brilliantly executed.  The derivative use of the lyric from the song is so perfect, and gives this ad a strong emotional overtone.  (It also alerts people in the know that Chevy, too, is in the know.  Wink, wink.)  The 1958 – 2016 tells you it’s a tribute.  And have a good look at the art direction – all that black space creates not only a sexy mood, but also an appropriately somber one.  Note how the curvaceous rear view of the car creates a gorgeous and vivid topography to anchor the otherwise colorless page.

2 – It’s not self-serving.  There’s no logo here.  No URL.  No Twitter handle.  Sure, there’s a Corvette nameplate in the lower right corner, but it’s not retouched or enlarged so you’ll notice it.  Neither Chevrolet nor GM used this as a platform to say “hey, look at us!  We loved Prince too! Now go buy our shit.”  You’ll also note that Chevy used a 1963 body type, with the identifiable split rear window, and NOT the 2016 body type.  Instead, they used the space (and the money it cost) to make a genuine statement and to quietly share in the collective sadness along with all the other fans.  Too many other brands used this as an opportunity to call attention to themselves, and in some cases, it backfired pretty badly.

My compliments to CMO Tim Mahoney for having the guts to do this ad, and of course, the folks at Commonwealth/McCann for coming up with it.

These days, we place so much emphasis on goal-meeting, sales benchmarks, quarterly returns, and year-on-year improvements. (Especially in the auto industry!) Add to that the relentless testing and measurement protocols now afforded via digital, and we’ve exact-ified ourselves into a dark marketing corner.

And here comes Chevy, the pride of behemoth General Motors, with a small statement that has nothing to do with sales goals, or a dealer group, or a competing nameplate. A simple, elegant statement to honor the passing of a musical legend.

Stop scratching your head. I can see you there, reading this, saying to yourself “yeah, but WHY do an ad that won’t sell any more cars today than yesterday?” Your left brain hurts. You want accountability, returns. You want it to DO something.

But that’s just the thing about brand building. This IS doing something. It’s furthering a sense of alignment. An orientation around the coolness of Prince, and around the collective grief we all share when an icon like this passes away.

If you got your hands on the Corvette brand book, I’d bet the word “cool” appears in there more than a dozen times. Remember, a brand is simply a stand-in for a promise of value. Corvette is about the promise of cool. The promise of sexy. The promise of fast. The promise of classic American indulgence. [Listen to the lyrics of Little Red Corvette, and you’ll see those same themes. Heck, Prince was all those things!]  This ad, very simply, synthesizes all those same themes into one elegant execution. And I would argue that this one ad does more to build the brand essence than the last decade of stuff combined.

When “Little Red Corvette” came out in 1982, it probably didn’t sell any cars, either. But it sure built awareness! So, Chevrolet is simply repaying a small favor that was done some 34 years ago.

Good on ya, Chevy.

State of Emergency: Rhode Island Stumbles and Falls. But What Happens Next is Even Worse.

Have you heard about the marketing disaster happening in Rhode Island? It’s pretty bad, and it’s only getting worse. Instead of just recounting the disaster, let’s look at what happened, step by step, and point out the mistakes.

I assure you, we won’t do this to point fingers or tease, but rather to make it a teaching moment to help avoid similar setbacks in the future. Just in case you’re a state about to rebrand, and aren’t sure if you’ve got all your ducks in a row.

What happened first.
Rhode Island was set to invest approximately $5 million in a rebranding campaign. Naturally, they wanted to anchor the new direction around a central identity and theme. So they hired Milton Glaser, legendary designer and creator of the iconic ILoveNY theme and logo.

MISTAKE #1:
If you’re going to rebrand your state, and try to attract tourism, shouldn’t the creative come from a firm IN YOUR STATE? (Sure, there’s an argument to be made for going outside the borders…objectivity and all. But still.) Especially when you’ve got some pretty good agencies in the state, and one of the nation’s most respected and sought-after design schools in RISD.

What happened next.
Okay, so the new NYC-designed logo comes out (it’s pretty ok, I guess) along with the new NYC-written tagline (which I also think is pretty okay) and appears as part of a RI-agency-produced brand video to launch the new positioning.

Here’s the new logo with the tagline added:

RI_logo

And here’s the video:

MISTAKE #2:
Not easy to know unless you’re from Rhode Island, but apparently, there’s a scene in this video that is NOT shot in Rhode Island, but rather in Iceland. Yes, you read that right: Iceland. Probably a slip-up on the part of the editor…looking to put something “cool” in the video, he or she grabs a placeholder piece of stock footage of a skateboarder on a seaside pier doing some cool tricks. Unfortunately, the stock footage is shot in Iceland.

Stuff like this happens all the time, and unless some troll hadn’t pointed it out, no one would have noticed. But when you think of the essence of the assignment (to show off Rhode Island so people might become interested enough to visit,) it is kind of a big deal. I feel terrible for that kid.

Then the social media backlash happens.
Naturally, there are people out there who relish the schadenfreude, and go to great lengths for likes and shares. And boy did they have fun with this one. Here’s a particularly witty twitter post poking fun at the gaffe.

RI_twitter

Others had fun with the tagline and logo, and went out of their way to kick poor RI when it was down, right in the first hours of what was supposed to be its coming-out party. Ugh.

Then some really kooky stuff happens.
Amid the social media feeding frenzy, Betsy Wall, the CMO of the state (yeah, I didn’t know they had those either,) resigns amid the turmoil caused by the whole thing. This, despite having done her due diligence and run market research to uncover that the “cooler and warmer” tagline was the best (evidence-based) direction to take.

Then – are you sitting down? – the governor (yes, you read that right,) steps in and SCRAPS the tagline. For reals. And then (I’m serious, it gets worse,) is opening a studio and inviting the public to come and play with the logo to make it their own. The public. To play. With. The. Logo.

Sidebar: the state also recouped more than $120,000 from Havas (the PR agency) and IndieWhip (the agency that developed the video.)

MISTAKES # 3 through 1000:
Listen, I’m all in favor of crowdsourcing. But never, ever, EVER invite the public in to do the work of a professional. Madam Governor, you wouldn’t invite the public in to play around with your insides while you were having surgery, would you? No, because that’s the work of highly skilled, highly trained and highly experienced professionals. And so it is with the work of crafting identity, artwork and marketing messages.

In retrospect, we might assert that Rhode Island should have sucked it up and put its big-boy pants on and told the Twittersphere to piss off and deal with it. The tagline is kinda cool. The logo is meh, but it’s meh from Milton Glaser, so it’s better than most others might have developed on an off day.

And the truth is that a brand is more than simply its identity and its tagline. A brand is a cumulative sum of experiences and formed perceptions and continued delivery on a promise. It takes time and careful interaction to blossom, and it looks like Rhode Island simply ripped it out of the ground before it had a chance to grow into something tangible, and maybe even beautiful.

Wherefore art thou, Facebook?

belgium_hands

By now, you’ve heard of the terrorist bombing attack that took place at multiple locations in Brussels. Awful news. And awfully reminiscent of the news that came out of Paris back in November of 2015.

And when major news events like this happen, people around the world are saddened, or maddened, confused or conflicted. Or all of those things. We can’t quite comprehend these monstrosities, and we yield, typically, to our softer human nature to offer support.

In the modern world, social media provides a forum for us to do this and tell our friends and our networks how we feel. We can demonstrate, protest, or mourn in many digital forms.

Back in November, after the Paris attack, Facebook quickly offered an opportunity to all its billion plus users to show solidarity and support for the French by offering a profile picture overlay of the French flag. This was offered at the top of your news feed.  Your usual mug shot was now overlaid with the red, white and blue stripes of the French flag colors. And millions upon millions of people rushed to switch their pics. Of course, it doesn’t change the horror, but it certainly helps people to know that others around the world are standing with them – whether in prayer, or in purpose.

This was not the first time Facebook enabled such a broad-based community alignment. Several months earlier – in June 2015 – Facebook offered a “pride overlay” where you could have your profile picture draped in rainbow colors, following the Supreme Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Here, it was a more exuberant mood, and Facebook enabled its community of users (especially here in the United States,) to show support for the landmark decision. (See below.)

fb_pride_pic_maker

But, interestingly, Facebook has been conspicuously quiet following the Belgium attacks. There is no Facebook-offered profile pic overlay of the black, yellow and red bands of the Belgium flag. Why is this? Does Facebook hate Belgium? Does Facebook favor France over Belgium? Do Belgians matter less than Parisians or gay couples?

This seems odd, and ill-timed for Facebook to be so…selective. Surely, it’s not a DIFFICULT piece of code to offer the profile overlay. And surely, there’s no denying that the deaths of 31 innocent civilians and hundreds more injured don’t merit global support, especially since a terror group has already claimed responsibility.

It wouldn’t be an oddity if Facebook hadn’t done it – nearly immediately, I might add – for the two events I mentioned in June and November of 2015. Indeed, they have set a precedent for this kind of offering. And when they did those others, it was within the Facebook platform – you did NOT have to go to a third party to have it done. [An unofficial user-created page sprung up yesterday on Facebook called “Belgium Flag Overlay Tool.” ]

Why now, then – after something this important and impressive on a global scale – is Facebook so…absent? (And some may also argue, where was the overlay tool for Turkey, or for Mali?)

In my opinion, it’s sending a blurry signal. And blurry signals from a brand so ubiquitous and so central to so many people around the world are dangerous, if not deleterious, to the future of that brand.

Does Facebook hate Belgium?  Of course not.  But it kinda looks that way.  And in terms of brand image and management, that’s about all that matters.

[As a note of fact, if you do prefer to have your profile pic draped in the Belgian flag colors, you can visit the Rainbow Filter website, and choose from the preset “Belgium Filter.”]

And the award for outstanding performance by an ad goes to: KOHL’s

oscars

Last night’s Academy Awards will be talked about for many reasons. Chris Rock’s controversial opening monologue (which basically continued throughout the entire show,) teasing at the #hollywoodracism subtext was very labored indeed, and you could see the squirming in the front five or six rows as it went on. And then there was some strange stuff going on with Sam Smith’s musical performance. And lots of political stuff – including a segment setup by the VPOTUS. Oh, and Leo finally won one!

But, sadly, what many people aren’t talking about is Oscar’s real big winner: Kohl’s. The retail brand basically KILLED it last night with their Oscar-focused ads. Remember when Gwen Stefani did a “live” ad for Target during the Grammys? That was cool, but Kohl’s proved last night that you don’t have to go live to go big.  (Although, they did go big, considering the ad buy alone cost roughly $10 million.)

Kohl’s ran four separate commercials with the concept of “acceptance speeches” as the common thread to tie them all together. In each spot, something happens to each of the main characters. In one, an older brother offers the front seat of the car to his younger sister on the way to school. In another, parents inform a young boy that his friend’s parents have agreed to let him sleep over.

Upon hearing this awesome news, each character launches into their “acceptance speech.” Filled with gratitude and excitement, they are wonderful snippets of comedy and context. Because each speech is perfectly lip-synced from an actual Academy Awards acceptance speech from a famous actor. And it’s pretty friggin’ irresistible.

For instance, the girl in the car (who was just given the front seat by her older brother,) lip-syncs Whoopi Goldberg’s speech for her best supporting actress role in the movie “Ghost.”

She gushes, “Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve wanted this. You don’t know. My brother’s sitting there, he says ‘thank God we don’t have to listen to annnnnymore…you can do it now’…my mom’s home, everybody’s watching. I’m so proud to be here..thank you SO much.”

[It’s edited, of course. The little girl in the spot does not thank Jerry Zucker for “taking the time he took before deciding to use me.” She also did not thank Patrick Swayze as Whoopi did during that Oscar acceptance speech.]

Nonetheless, the performance the young girl gives (brilliantly lip-syncing and emoting the edited speech,) is what drives this spot, as well as the others. Each actor does a similarly spectacular job of acting out the edited speech, and it makes for wonderfully entertaining–and highly contextualized–advertising of the highest order.

Check them out:

If there’s one drawback, it’s that the spots are almost too contextualized. There’s almost no mention of the brand (until an obligatory final billboard,) no mention of benefits, no mention of positioning whatsoever. It’s entertainment with a logo tacked on to the end.  When I first started watching the “Whoopi” spot, for instance, I thought it was a spot for a car brand.  It’s an otherwise fantastic effort, and the halo effect should carry the brand through any difficulty the execution may have inadvertently created.

But as far as advertising goes, it WAS entertaining. And I cannot underscore enough (as I did during my roundup of the Super Bowl spots,) the power of a strong performance, and each one of these spots featured an outstanding display of acting, (not to mention strong conceptualization.)

And for that, in addition to changing the game of putting the right ad in front of the right people at the right time, the 2016 Oscar goes to KOHL’s.