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.

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.


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.

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:


And here’s the video:

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.


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.

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


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.

Super Bowl 50 Grins and Groans


Well, the Super Bowl had its “golden” anniversary last night, and, by all accounts, the anniversary was about the ONLY golden thing of the evening.  The game was a bit of a mess, dominated by Denver’s defense, with a lot of fits, starts, sacks and turnovers.

But the advertising that showed up was a little dull, too.  Which is sad, because last year’s big game didn’t live up to 2014.  Alas, we’re on a downward trend.

A couple of notable items:

Scantily clad women were kindly asked to stay OUT of the advertising this year. Weird.

There were very few surprises, but the ones that were held back were certainly worth the wait.

A couple of newcomers likely won’t be back. They’ll be lucky if they’re in business.

It was basically the “Celebrity Bowl” of advertising this year. A few of the standouts (read more below) were Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren, Drake, Ryan Reynolds.

And say farewell to the Doritos “Crash the Super Bowl” party.  This was the 10th and final year of that enormously successful campaign.

The ads that made me grin:

Snickers – “Seven Year Itch” with Willem Dafoe
They continue to nail this campaign with the “you’re not you when you’re hungry” meme year in and year out.  And this year’s offering, a takeoff on the Seven Year Itch scene with Marilyn Monroe, was so well done and so well executed and so well performed, it made me grin twice.  (I still think it may be slightly off target, unless Snickers is now being marketed to Boomers??  But still, this spot kills.)

Mtn Dew Kickstart – “PuppyMonkeyBaby”
While a lot of people just scratched their heads at this, it’s actually very funny, and simplistic enough to be strategically on point.  “Three awesome things combined,” says the ad, referring to Mountain Dew, juice and caffeine.  So they combined three awesome things into one triple-cute mascot:  puppy, monkey, baby.  Makes perfect sense!

Quicken Loans’ Rocket Mortgage – “What Were We Thinking?”
This was most certainly a reach, and some may argue an over-reach.  But it was also so helplessly optimistic, it was hard not to like.  Plus, when introducing a new product, what better way to get people to remember it than by comparing it to, say, the Internet?  Well done.


Double Grins:

Bai Antioxidant – “Horse Whisperer”
This was a spot that wasn’t leaked earlier, and it’s super funny, super on target, and super performed, and so super unexpected!  What a great risk to take – I think they pulled it off!

Doritos – “Ultrasound”
The “ultrasound” commercial was funny.  In a gross, male, immature way, but funny.  And that’s EXACTLY what Doritos advertising is about.  It’s not supposed to be haughty, it’s supposed to position the chips as so insanely delicious that people will do anything to get them…including jettisoning from the womb.  Also remember that this ad was submitted by an “amateur” into the “Crash the Super Bowl” sweepstakes.

Hyundai – “Ryanville”
How far can you go to promote one tiny little (optional) feature on a car?  Well, in this spot, they went all the way to Ryanville, and nailed it.  Not only do they make a good case for the auto-braking-pedestrian-detection feature, they do it with a nice flip-of-the-gender-script, and have the gals ogling the guys.  Well, it’s one guy, but apparently, this one guy is all girls need.

Audi – “Starman”
Audi has basically been killing it for the last three years with their sweepingly cinematic spots.  But this one manages to do something that the last couple haven’t done:  connect (finally) more completely to their target audience.  It’s a piece of fiction, and a momentary suspension of disbelief, but we are more than willing to go on the journey to the past and back to present within a span of seconds.  Really well done.  And wow – they had Bowie.

But my biggest grin came when I saw this spot from Kia called “Walken Closet”
Could anyone else have delivered such a compelling performance?  “It’s like the world’s most exciting pair of socks….BUT – it’s a midsize sedan!” Funny, and drives home a core point about standing out of the “beige-ness” of midsize sedans.  (I know what you’re thinking.  “But Kia IS a midsize sedan!”  True, but the average car buyer in that category doesn’t consider Kia as a car with any excitement, or performance, or as Walken so eloquently puts it:  “pizzazzzzzzah.”  The mere fact of CONSIDERING Kia, as opposed to the “safe” choices in this category, like Honda, Nissan or Toyota, is what makes this a leap out of the “beige.”  Good stuff.)


Honorable mentions:
Prius’ “The Chase”
Two brand (and beautiful) spots from Jeep
Texting PSA for domestic abuse
Drake for T-Mobile

As usual, there were some groans this year.


Persil Pro Clean – It’s always risky to come into the Super Bowl as a first-time advertiser, and Persil didn’t really do enough of a job of distinguishing themselves.  It was a clean and well-produced spot, but there wasn’t much there to grab onto.

OIC-  this spot, entitled “envy,” shows a man wishing he could go to the bathroom, and envying all these others that can.  Again, a well-produced, well-executed spot, but because it wasn’t for one particular brand, but rather, more of a PSA to get you to a doctor to talk about OIC, it just lost any connective tissue.  The spot is “made on behalf of those living with chronic pain and struggling with OIC.”  Which is everybody, sorta.  And nobody.  Sorta.  Just think what they could have done with the roughly 8 or 9 million bucks this spot cost to get this message to the right people in the right places at the right time.  Smells like a consortium buy to me.

My least favorite:  SoFi. 
Listen, no matter what anyone tells you, you never, EVER, EVER say mean things to your consumer.  Not even anything that can be misunderstood as mean.  Well, there’s nothing misunderstood in this spot, except why it was made in the first place.

This commercial starts its first eight seconds of life like this:  “Jim is great.  Sara is not great at all.  This guy – NEVER been great.  (then the camera pans down to a cute baby in a stroller…) No.”  So inside of eight seconds, we’ve identified that three out of four random people, including a baby in a stroller, are not great.  And since they’ve set up the construct that there are basically two kinds of people in the world (great and not great,) we’re all nervously wondering if we’re great.  I probably don’t need to tell you this is NOT what you want your consumer doing when you’re trying to get them to like you.

The ad goes on to say that SoFi gives great loans to great people.  (And leaves the rest out in the cold, I might add.)  And then…are you sitting down?…the ad invites you to visit SoFi TO FIND OUT IF YOU’RE GREAT!  (I bet a zillion people did that.) I know you can’t believe this, but it actually. Gets. Worse.  The final line of the voiceover, after saying “find out if you’re great at SoFi.com,” says “you’re probably not.”

Hey, here’s an idea.  Fuck you, SoFi.

Until next year, keep grinning!

H&R Block’s Not-So-Ordinary Giveaway Gimmick


If you’re a working American, you know it’s tax season. And for the first quarter of the year, the airwaves are awash in tax preparation advertising. Leading the charge is H&R Block, continuing its “get your billions back, America!” themeline, developed by their lead agency Fallon.

This year, they’re executing a major promotion, which started about a week ago. They’re giving away $1,000 per day to a thousand people who walk in to an H&R Block office over the course of 32 days. I’m not great at math, but that’s $32,000,000 in cash being given away by February 15th.

One of their spots is a fun, hip-hop themed, music-video-styled approach called “1,000 Washingtons.”

And they can afford it. The company earned approximately $2.3 billion in tax preparation revenue last year. They’re spending about 5% of revenue (which is right on target,) or roughly $100 million in US measured media in addition to the $32 million in given-away dollars.

This is a gimmick, pure and simple. And normally, that would be seen as a four-letter word on this blog, and among most practitioners. To be clear, a gimmick shifts the focus away from the consumer and on to the brand. When a brand runs a campaign and says “hey look at us! Look at what WE’RE doing! Look how cool WE are,” it’s generally considered cheesy, to use a technical term.

Under the surface, the brand is trying to induce early filing (on or before February 15th.)  It’s good for the company’s earnings, and doesn’t, um, tax the Block filers with a crush of returns in the last 60 days of the filing period.  So you can see how the gimmick is a convention set in place to serve the needs of the brand, not necessarily to serve the needs of the consumer.

However, this is a REALLY SMART gimmick, because, while the promotion is about what the BRAND is doing, the focus is squarely on the consumer, and what he or she might get if they use Block to file this year. So Block wins twice: they win on differentiating the brand from other tax prep companies, (nobody else is giving away this kind of coin,) and they win because the consumer is thinking ONE thing and one thing only: “I may get money if I file with Block.”

Did you hear that? The consumer is thinking “I may get money…” If you’re in the tax prep business, and you’re trying to lure consumers into a brick and mortar store to file their taxes early (which is done by only about slightly less than half of all filing Americans,) there is simply only ONE thing you want them to think: I may get money.  Forget the fact that the promotion will only award 32,000 in-store H&R Block filers out there:  a ratio of about 2 out of every thousand people.  Better odds than the lottery, but not a lock by any stretch of the imagination.

Marketing, and specifically, the promotion pillar of marketing, is mostly about managing perceptions of consumers. We can’t control what consumers do, or how they behave, or where they shop. But how they perceive the offerings, claims and other messages of influence is totally fair game, and why agencies who develop those messages are so critical to the success of brands.

In the big picture, then, Block is winning as a marketer by centering their advertising around a promotion that is focused on the simple meme “I may get money.” In the tax prep business, that’s what you want your consumer to think. (Even though millions of Americans will end up owing the government money.)

Add to this that the core theme of Block’s advertising (for the past two years) is “get your billions back America,” and you see how seamlessly this fits in with their overall messaging strategy. That’s a cohesive messaging plan at work. Nicely done, H&R Block.

VW: follow-up to previous post

Back on November 11, 2015 I wrote a post entitled “Das Issues: What’s Next for Volkswagen?”    In it, I discussed the emissions scandal, and what I thought the brand could do to start the process of reconnecting with current customers and reaching out to prospects.

At the end of the post, I made a suggestion that went like this:

If I was a brand consultant for Volkswagen, (full disclosure: I’m not, but certainly available!) I would start by going back to what helped build their perception: The dorky little outsider that promised the moon and modestly delivered it. My very next ad headline (think full page insertions in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today,) would probably read “11 million Lemons.” And the body copy would go on to overtly apologize for the transgression, and then outline the steps we were taking to make good on our (new) promises and deliver exceptional automotive engineering.

And then I’d invite consumers to come along for the (literal and figurative) ride to redemption. Das Step 1.

So I was just poking around today and saw this article about Volkswagen. As you can see, it’s written on November 17th.  It talks about how VW started running full-page insertions in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.  The headline reads “We’re working to make things right.”  And the CEO apologizes for the transgression, and begins to outline some steps to make good.

Kooky, huh?