A clash of cultures: Twitter cancels Burger King.

A lot has been made of Burger King’s recent ad titled “Women Belong in the Kitchen.” If you’ve heard about it, you’ve likely already taken sides and are either itching to rage-tweet me, or are eager to hear someone else who supports your point of view.  Instead of taking sides, let’s be objective and unpack this thing one step at a time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, or didn’t read past the headline, Burger King was announcing the establishment of a new scholarship called H.E.R. (Helping Equalize Restaurants) to aid aspiring female employees who want to pursue careers as Chefs. The timing of its release coincided with International Women’s Day. 

Here’s the ad that ran as a full page in The New York Times:

First, let’s clarify what the ad was meant to do.  And we can do so by remembering what ALL ads are meant to do: get your attention. And this headline, while controversial if it stood alone, does that very well, because it’s dangerous. Because it’s a trope. Advertising leverages drama because it leads the reader to a destination that’s equal parts entertaining and attention-getting. And because a headline that reads “Burger King launches new scholarship to aid female representation in restaurant kitchens” is neither.  That sort of thing is for a press release, not an advert.

From a craft point of view, this is a strong headline, in that it serves to do at least one job that all good headlines should perform: it summarizes the content that follows. If we’re being objective, (and we agreed that we would be,) this is a very good all-copy ad-nouncement.

Now, let’s look at where it went wrong: in a word, Twitter. When the brand (and the agency behind it,) wanted to extend this exciting conversation online, it took to Twitter and Burger King’s 1.9 million followers with the initial tweet. Which, sadly, was just the headline. It then tweeted a summary of the content that follows in the ad. [Important note: the tweets were initially “debated” on @BurgerKingUK.] While Burger King did clarify the headline tweet in subsequent posts, it was apparently the string of ugly comments in the conversation thread that got out of control. The entire thread has since been deleted, and an apology was issued by global CMO Fernando Machado.

Ad culture meets Twitter culture and fails.  Cancel culture meets Burger King and shuts it down. This whole thing has gotten off the rails, and I think it’s mostly because people are not taking anything beyond face value. I would argue that we need a context culture more than anything else these days.  An army of fact checkers and industry experts who could act as docents for a whole generation of people who seem to crave being offended, and who magically find a fix on social media at roughly the rate of every news cycle.

The ad, the subsequent Twitterstorm, and the media kerfuffle that followed it have become new facets in the cultural touchstone that is today’s cancel-happy culture. The sad part is, it’s a pretty good ad. And Burger King, as a restaurant chain, (whether we should call them a “restaurant” or not is a different subject altogether,) is trying in earnest to do a darn good thing in the face of an inequality on which they are wholly qualified to comment. It’s a shame that we’re dealing with this level of bullshit from a minority of wokesters when a brand decides to put its money into something that might actually help in a concrete way what is, in this case, a marginalized segment of the population.

Now let’s look at what’s REALLY wrong with this ad: the typesetting is insulting, and should be cancelled immediately! The face is what it is – Burger King’s going for the retro-hip thing with the old bubble letters logo. Fine. I’ll concede that for the sake of the old-is-new branding mission.

But lord, where is the copyfitting? When the creative director was reviewing this, didn’t he or she think, “hmmm…that’s a weird place for a hyphen?” In the middle of the name of your new scholarship, in the middle of what’s arguably the most important word (Equalize,) you couldn’t break the line differently? And then again, in the last line of the ad, in another important word (kitchen) we couldn’t hard kern a little bit?

After a week of debating the merits of this approach, I haven’t heard any ad geeks talking about this.  Why? If we’re being objective, there’s probably a conspiracy afoot.

Super Bowl 55 Grins and Groans

Well, Super Bowl 55 is in the rear view mirror, and for those of us who root for other teams, we’re counting down the 212 days until the 2021 season kicks off and hope springs once again. But for those of us who love advertising, last night was a pretty good night.

Overall, the ads were solid.  That’s saying a lot, considering we’ve had years in the recent past where there were lots of stinkers and head-scratchers. No, this year, the advertising gave us some good laughs, some fun little surprises, and even some smart marketing.

Diversity was certainly a theme this year, and that’s always a good thing. So was optimism.  We saw very little mention of COVID-19, and only one or two of the roughly 75 national spots that ran even referenced what has happened over the last 10 months. It’s as if advertisers are simply looking forward to what’s next, and that’s a very good thing.

We also (thankfully) heard very little in the way of political viewpoints or messaging, which grew over the past three or four years more than at any other time. Finally, we did have some nostalgia this year, with ads dropping pop culture references from decades past with cameos from Edward Scissorhands, That 70’s Show, Sesame Street, Wayne’s World, and a surprise appearance by Beavis & Butthead.

Here are the ads from Super Bowl 55 that made us grin, and yes, a few that made us groan.

First, some honorable mentions:

Doritos 3D – the “flat Matthew McConaughey” was cute, and is mentioned here because it did a good job working the basic claim that “life is dull when things are flat.”  The problem, of course, is that Doritos still sells a LOT of flat chips.  No mind. Marketing a new 3D snack chip (remember Bugles?) requires marginalizing all the 2D snack chips. Got it.

M&M’s – a good use of the product as currency to make amends. The spot used funny vignettes of typical douchebaggery and turned it into an uplifting little message that M&M’s can help us all get along again. They’ve been really good at working the “Disney of candy brands” angle.

GM – one of the very few automotive spots in this year’s Super Bowl, (only three,) where Will Ferrell does his thing and fixes his faux anger on Norway.  Light, funny, and did not take itself too seriously while telling the world that GM is focused on going all electric over the next decade and a half. Note to all big brands:  doing a Super Bowl spot?  Start with a really funny improv comedian – that’s half the battle.

Dexcom – I thought this was a weird category for Super Bowl (Dexcom is a continuous glucose monitoring system for people with Diabetes,) but it was well done, and the use of Nick Jonas (resurrecting the “I’m also a client” approach,) was effective. Simple, smart advertising for the people who need to hear it.  What a concept!

Klarna – I had never heard of this brand before, but after watching the commercial (silliness to the power of four tiny Maya Rudolphs,) I understood the basic premise:  Klarna lets you turn any purchase into four tiny payments. Hey, that works.

State Farm – they took their Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers schtick and raised it a Paul Rudd and a Drake.  Very good performance from “Drake from State Farm” in this one.

BIG GRINS:

SAM ADAMS WICKED HAZY IPA – “Horses”
A team of Clydesdale horses is inadvertently let loose through Quincy Market by “yaw cahzin fram Bahh-stin.”  It’s funny, and entertaining, and a classic shot across the bow from a challenger brand, especially when the leader (Budweiser proper) decided to sit this one out.

BUD LIGHT SELTZER LEMONADE – “Lemons”
One of the few brands to even reference the previous year, the ad starts out by saying “2020 was a lemon of a year.”  Then we cut to various scenes of normal and even celebratory gatherings getting interrupted by thousands of lemons falling from the sky.  Hat tip to Paul Thomas Anderson who hat tipped to the book of Exodus.  For an ad that’s trying to get you to remember one thing (LEMONS) this one was a winner.


AMAZON – “Alexa’s Body”
This could certainly have been the ad of the night for me.  First, the ad does the basic duty of explaining that “Alexa has a new body.”  It’s dramatized in the form of Michael B. Jordan, and the ad imagines various scenarios of him as Alexa.  Beyond that, the ad is diverse, well-acted (the husband and wife performances are really strong, and Jordan plays the submissive and willing AI deliciously,) and also flips the gender roles very well.  A device with a female name is now embodied by a very male body indeed. A little sneak-in of an upcoming feature film as an “ad within an ad” is also a sweet little trick.  This ad was like a complex gourmet dish, where subtle flavors kept showing up with every bite.  Well done, Amazon.

WINNER(S):

ROCKET MORTGAGE – “Pretty Sure”
In two of the best spots of the night, Tracy Morgan (one of at least a half dozen SNL alums to appear in the commercials this year,) steals the show with his brand of pay-attention-to-me-while-I-melt-your-face comedy.  In each execution, a family is interested in purchasing a home, and is “pretty sure” they have everything in order to purchase it.  Tracy steps in to clarify that with Rocket Mortgage, “you could be certain.” Then we go through several zany clips where “I’m pretty sure” is simply a terrible idea.  Snakes. Murder hornets.  Jumping out of planes. Running from bears. Angry aliens. Wrestling WWE superstars. You laugh out loud, you gasp, you cringe, and then you realize the man is right:  pretty sure isn’t sure enough. Point well made, brand well represented. Super Bowl advertising honors won.

Now, not all the spots were that good.

GROANS: While this year’s crop of Super Bowl ads was pretty strong, there were still some brands that maybe didn’t hit the mark with their messages. I call them “groans.”  That doesn’t necessarily mean they were bad, it just implies that maybe their money (roughly $183,000 per SECOND,) wasn’t well spent around these concepts.

MOUNTAIN DEW – “Bottle Count”
It was cute. And trippy.  And it was kinda cool to turn it into something interactive.  (Guess how many bottles of Mountain Dew in this commercial and you could win a million dollars.) But maybe too cute? Too trippy? It looks as though it’s targeted to nine-year-olds, and maybe that’s why I didn’t get it.

HELLMANN’S – “Fairy Godmayo”
This would be a good ad (and a lot more affordable) if it were run during an episode of the Rachael Ray show.  42 times. And there would still be almost four million dollars left in the budget. On the surface, it’s not terrible:  Hellmann’s shows up to dazzle every day leftovers into something sparkly!  That’s exciting.  But when the character asks the Amy Schumer-as-fairy-godmayo “what else can you do?” Hellmann’s responds “Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.” And that’s where I groaned.  This could have gone into “making salads shine!” “Making grilled cheese grillicious!”  “Making burgers bippity-boppity-yummity!” But nope. The brand is happy to say it can do nothing else but some fake magic on bad artichokes. An opportunity missed here, I think.

TIDE – “Jason Alexander Hoodie”
After two years of absolutely crushing it on Super Bowl (seriously, “It’s a Tide ad” from 2019 is already in the lofty company of all-time greats,) this one just falls flat on a.) some tired jokes and b.) some graphic tricks and c.) Jason Alexander doing a pseudo-Costanza as the climax. Sorry, but it made me groan.

VERIZON – “Fortnite”
Look, I get it.  Everybody wants Samuel L. Jackson in their commercial.  And everybody wants a fast network.  But turning him into a Fortnite avatar and having him give a sermon on the mount about “ultra low lag” and then doubling down with JuJu Smith-Schuster is all sorts of confusing. Like, who’s the target? And isn’t Fortnite kinda over if you’re not under 16? Asking for a friend.

FIVERR – “Four Seasons”
Remember when I said there were almost no political statements being made? Well, Fiverr had to futz with that and make a reference to a bizarre moment in our recent political history.  The problem is that this reference is divisive at best, and not that funny at worst. Just a real miss on an obscure talking point in a sorry attempt to be, what, cute? Kitschy? In this moment, when millions of highly qualified professionals are out of work or struggling to find it, Fiverr could have made a brilliant and timely statement about the need for  – and availability of – freelancers on its platform in an ever-increasing side-hustle economy.  (Squarespace came closer with its “5 to 9” spot.) Instead, they sunk five and a half million bucks into making Four Seasons landscaping in Philly even more famous. Ooof.

So…what did YOU think of Super Bowl 55 ads? Would love to hear your comments.

Until next year!

2021 Marketing Outlook: two possible scenarios for advertising’s near future

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As we’ve turned the calendar to a new year, and the leadership of the country has turned over to a new administration, we have to consider if there might be a new kind of marketing landscape to be formed in a (hopefully) post-COVID world.

There are two distinct possibilities that could feasibly materialize. One, that we are in for a boom time in advertising as the population wakes from its imposed hibernation. And the other, far more daunting, possibility is that advertising may be met with increased skepticism, or worse, not welcomed in the national commercial dialogue.

Possibility 1 – it could be the best of times. As more and more Americans receive a vaccine, it’s conceivable that life could return to what we would consider “normal,” perhaps even as early as the summer months. It could mean being allowed to gather again with friends, to travel again at will, to eat indoors at restaurants, and (oh please, dear sweet baby Jesus) to sit with 70,000 close friends at the home opener for your favorite football team.

With that, consumerism will likely not just be on the rise, but there’s very good reason to believe that we’ll see an elongated surge in consumer spending across numerous categories, built largely on pent up demand, and the sheer joy of having the “privilege” to once again participate in the analog retail experience.

And once those floodgates open, or it’s even hinted that they might, I would argue that we are likely going to see an equally giddy advertising crop burst out of every conceivable corner and category. Brands will trip all over each other for a share of the voracious consumer appetite, and media companies will feast at the table of “flexible” rates while the demand stays unusually high, and the competition is unusually fierce.

And the best part of this rosy prediction is that the tenor of the advertising itself is likely to be more positive, less serious, and almost joyous in nature. Simple messages like “we’re back!” or “we’re open” will lie at the core of most claims, and brands will be paying big money just to have the “privilege” to beg consumers to come back now that the pandemic has loosed its grip on the nation.

That’s a rosy outlook.

Possibility 2 – (okay, let’s go with the Tale of Two Cities theme,) it’s plausible that it could also be the worst of times.

It’s possible that consumer perceptions have changed significantly over the past 10 months, (and perhaps continue to do so for the next five or six months,) and that large demographic segments may be more guarded against brand messaging delivered across the typical media. This, as a result of first the shock therapy of nightly news with a drone of grim reports, and subsequently the drawn out solitary confinement of houses and apartments, living both professional and private lives in the same spaces.

Consumers may be in a kind of post-pandemic stress disorder, and it might last well beyond the days when it’s deemed safe to come back in the water. This bodes ominous for those sectors hardest hit: restaurants and hospitality, travel and tourism, the arts and entertainment, even healthcare.

And more importantly – and the reason this subject is being taken up on this blog – is that the normal receptivity to advertising messages may be affected in ways that has brands and their agencies re-thinking their strategies, and re-tooling their plans.

It wasn’t long ago (seriously, it was August 2019,) that we all reveled in the great Chicken Sandwich War between Popeye’s and Chik-Fil-A. Or watched like rabid MMA fans as Wendy’s and Burger King dealt death blows to each other via Twitter. It was fun. It was entertaining. And it was good for all the brands involved.

Mostly it was frivolous, and that’s what made it so much fun. Nobody got hurt, and we were just dishing abstract concepts and opinions that no one took THAT seriously. But here we are, perhaps about to come out of the year-plus-long fog that seems to have changed everything. Will American consumers have the patience for frivolous feuds? Will we tolerate the background noise of cola wars? Is it too soon?

Remember that brands (at least the ones with discretionary budgets,) scrambled to change the tonality of their advertising in the first few weeks and months after the pandemic took hold. Starting as early as St. Patrick’s Day 2020, we saw national brands releasing more heartfelt messages, saying things like “we’ll be here when this is over,” and heralding frontline workers. Somber. Serious. Considerate.

A few of the standouts: GUINNESS

UBER

DOVE

While those ads were all very good, (and I say this politely,) it was also almost too easy. When you do ads like that, you know you have about a 97 and a half% success rate, and you’d have to do something egregiously wrong to not curry favor with your target. The real challenge that faces brands and their agencies now is in striking the most appropriate first chord as the stage lights come on and everyone starts watching again.

It’s about to be morning in America once again. (Hat tip to Hal Riney.) And I’m just over here wondering if there will be Twitter feuds this afternoon.

What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts. Please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

[Important note – We cannot overlook the seriousness of post traumatic stress disorder, including those struggling with the fallout of the pandemic. It’s real, and the people who face it are struggling in untold numbers and in myriad ways. For more information and resources on PTSD, visit www.ptsd.va.gov]

Playing through the pause: marketing never stops.

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There was a phrase that was popular in the late 20th century that advised “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It was a meme that implied you were making a prudent choice in your technology partner, because IBM was so ubiquitous and so darn reliable, you couldn’t possibly go wrong if you chose to pay the extra fees and engage with such an established leader. (And talk about a GREAT branding platform for IBM!)

Here in 2020, it appears there’s a new version of that old trope as it relates to marketing. It would read “no one ever got fired for being cautious during the COVID-19 crisis.” And if you look around, all you see are brands being cautious. Brands stepping back. Brands holding on to their marketing spend. Brands putting their agencies in lockdown “until further notice.” CMOs, VPs of marketing, brand managers, and other senior executives are in full wait-and-see mode, and some of them have quickly pivoted to warmer and fuzzier messaging platforms in the short term.

If you own or represent a brand right now, it’s likely that you or someone in your organization has ordered a “pause” on some or all of your marketing activity. After all, it’s expensive to “keep the lights on” an operation that isn’t (or can’t be) visibly returning results. And you’d be more than justified for being cautious and for demonstrating prudence with your precious budget.

However, you’d also be violating one of the immutable laws of marketing. And that is to find competitive strategic advantages over the other producers in your category. Hint: now is absolutely the time to do it.

While your competition is sitting on the sidelines, you gain zero ground by sitting on the opposite sideline. Competitive marketing never stops – even when it looks like all marketing has stopped.

Irrespective of your brand category, or what position you own in the category, here are six cornerstone marketing efforts you can put to work right now (without spending tons of money) to gain an edge on your competition:

Focus on or improve your core product/service
Can you add a key ingredient, or replace a less-than-desirable one in your product formulation? If you’re a more service-oriented business, is there a new policy you can put in place that would give you an edge over your competition? (Think longer warranty period, free upgrades, adding value in new or unorthodox ways.)  Put some structure on this.  Give it language.  Give it a name.  Start talking about it.

Add new products or extend your line
If you’ve ever thought about why you’re not gaining ground on your competitors, maybe it’s because you offer limited choices. Think about adding new flavors, new varieties, or new services to your practice. Hiring a new subject matter expert into your practice is almost the same as acquiring a new company, so consider how you can go “wider” in your business, and give consumers (existing or new targets) more opportunities  – and reasons – to interact with you.

Re-evaluate or re-negotiate your distribution deals
Following on the heels of having new products or an extended line, this is a great time to read the fine print on all your contracts. Especially your distribution deals. Can you get more lineal inches in your current deal? Maybe you can reduce costs in some way, since third-party resellers are taking it on the chin right now. They’d be hard-pressed to avoid losing your business, so take advantage of the opportunities while you can. It’s also a great time to hear proposals from new distributors or brokers or affiliates who are also innovating to stay relevant.

Do some research/learn more about what consumers really want (or who your consumers will actually be)
It’s very likely that consumer behavior will be altered in many ways as we either return to normalcy or forge whatever the “new normal” will look like. This is the crucible of competition – find out why consumers may have chosen a competitor over your brand, and see if you can accommodate their desires. Is it price? Is it a personal touch? Is it the ingredients? Is it your location? You’ll never know if you don’t ask, and paying people for their opinion right now makes you look magnanimous as well as appealingly curious.

Think about a new approach to your advertising
We’ve seen many brands pivot to a more “we’re with you” approach in the last several weeks, and it’s likely we’ll see even more message morphs in the coming months. But maybe it’s time for a new thousand-foot strategy. Maybe it’s time for a new tone. Or a new face. Or something classic and familiar. The point is to zig when the rest of your competitive set is zagging (or lagging. Or sagging.  Or gagging.  This is fun.) At the very least, you’ll get more attention, and that’s always a good thing.

Develop at least three strategic marketing plans for your brand
It must be said that no marketing strategist is ever right 100% of the time. So make contingency plans. The marketplace will be different, so make sure you have plans to address whatever those differences might be. For instance, it’s possible one or more of your competitors may fold. So have a talk with your bank (or investor group) and be ready to acquire at a favorable cost (if that makes sense,) or to at least swoop in and grab the lion’s share of that brand’s customer base. It may not be so rosy, so consider what some worse-case scenarios might look like, and script responses to those as well. With so many unknown variables, you can keep your team focused and motivated by creating pre-coordinated plans and putting them in place for virtually any outcome.

Stay in touch with all stakeholders
Speaking of all of this, it’s a great time to have renewed and refreshed conversations with all your stakeholders. Let them know that you’re thinking ahead, and thinking positively. Let them know that they may be called on to think outside the boxes of convention. And most importantly, let them know that they will play a role in kicking the competition in the teeth, and getting ahead when all this uncertainty is behind.

 

The brand cure for coronavirus: advertising.

The weeks and months leading up to and following March 2020 will go down in history as an incredibly important and impactful time period in the history of the United States. Between the COVID-19 pandemic itself, the economic ramifications of a roller coaster stock market, and the drastic measures being taken at the federal, state, and local levels, nothing seems normal. Virtually all major sports shut down. All major gatherings shut down. Schools closed for mandatory periods of time. Bars and restaurants closing. Social distancing. Self-quarantining. And of course, the dreaded toilet paper shortage. (Ugh.)

The citizenry of the United States is in a near-total lockdown. Without engaging in the regular retail experience – one of America’s favorite social and commercial pastimes – except out of pure necessity, what is the appropriate path for brands during this time? What should brands be doing? What should brands be saying?

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At the risk of sounding insensitive, I say advertise. There are a million reasons to be doing it right now, and to be doing it well. Here are my top five.

Advertise. Because American consumers are concerned and confused, and there’s no precedent for anything like this in recent history. (Zika, Ebola and some of the other outbreaks never reached this level of penetration or panic.) There’s never been a time when we’ve been virtually forced back into our homes to sit and wonder what will happen next. Brands have the unique opportunity to reassure consumers (of course that depends on your brand, and the category in which you compete,) or at the very least, entertain them. If your brand can be a voice of reason, or a voice of compassion, or better still, a voice of comfort through generous offers, then that voice will get valuable attention when Americans have more of it to give.

Advertise. Because with Americans huddled at home for weeks (and potentially months) at a time, there will be record HUT/PUT numbers. National brands can leverage near Super Bowl-sized audiences at what would be considered regular airtime rates. Every advertising dollar will go twice, thrice its normal distance, especially during this time in the broadcast programming calendar, which is typically a lull bridge between the large audience events of Jan/Feb and the scripted series finale season to arrive in April/May. Ratings will be unusually high for the foreseeable future, simply because more people are home with more time – and more opportunity – to consume television.

Advertise. Because programming diversity will actually be an ally during this time. Sure, people will be binging on streaming services. But after three or four hours of catching up on the hottest shows, people will turn to both local and national news. My guess is that media buyers are in a feeding frenzy right now with MSOs to snap up relatively low-cost cable buys, and especially around news programming.

Advertise. Because your competitors are sitting on the sidelines right now, and this gives you a greater potential share of mind. Every brand is thinking about the opportunities they currently have, and what to do with them. But while most of them contemplate, they’ve probably held off on filming anything new, or producing any spots with context to the national psychology. And yes, while you can suffer a great deal for a misstep at this time, the potential also exists for exponentially greater gains if you can connect. Take a look at this spot Guinness released online regarding their brand (with high context to both the pandemic and the upcoming St. Patrick’s day,) and a message that is just wonderfully articulated and perfectly timed:

Advertise. Because we will get through this at some point. Although it’s hard to imagine it today, life will return to normal. Concerts will be staged. Stadiums will be filled with 80,000 fans screaming their heads off for their favorite teams. Schools will be open. Bars and restaurants will be flooded with people who no longer want so much social distance. And most notably, shopping malls and supermarkets will be flush with consumers looking for their favorite foods, clothes, drinks, sneakers, cars, electronics, beers, and so much more. And if you were smart enough to advertise to those consumers during this time, and your message was a strategic one, (or at least a kind one,) you just might have made a valuable impression (while making valuable impressions) to new fans for years to come.