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.

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

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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

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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.

Groans:

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

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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?

Marketers: Get in the game!

Whether you’re a mega-global-brand-giant or a small regional player trying to get noticed, marketing can be a complex enterprise, indeed. So many factors to consider. So many competitors. Choosing the right channels. The nuances in the target segments. What are the right objectives? Which daypart? Oooh! And our social feeds need to be updated, too. Yikes!

All of these complexities pre-suppose that marketers of all shapes and sizes are active in the consumer (or b-to-b) arena, each taking their shots at the proverbial goal – often missing, and occasionally scoring a heart-stopping buzzer beater. But the unspoken truth is that very often, and in some cases with alarming number, marketers are simply sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the right time to “get in” in the hopes of maximizing their scoring opportunities. (Alright, I’ll quit it with the sports lexicon, but you get the idea.)

Why in the world would a marketer choose to NOT market?  What we see in many cases is the symptom of “analysis paralysis.” You’re bunched up with budgets, message, partners, coordinating schedules with holidays or industry-important trade shows. You’re waiting for approvals or certifications. In the meantime, other marketers in the category are gaining ground simply by being visible.

One familiar refrain: “we can’t afford to do marketing right now, so we’re waiting it out.” The simple truth is this: you cannot afford to NOT be marketing. It’s become more critical now than ever before, since we live in an “always-on” socially connected world. In your absence, your competitors are making impressions, driving conversations, making conversions and building engagement. Sure, sometimes it’s on a small scale, and sometimes they may misstep. But the consumer segment you’re all after is being “trained” that your competitor is a brand that’s ready to be engaged with. Your brand, even if it’s empirically “better” in some respects, is invisible in the meantime, and therefore not considered at all as a player in the category. Now that’s costly.

Another recurring pattern is that marketers are tentative, afraid to go out with a “less-than-perfect” iteration of their materials: the website isn’t quite there, or the first cut of the spot was a little rough and could use some cleaning up.

While we all strive to get it as right as possible every time, you’re perfectly allowed to make a misstep here and there in terms of presentation. Not every performer has his or her best night every night of the tour, and not every marketer is going to nail it on every impression. As long as your misstep is not of the “off-brand” or “off-message” variety, you’ll be fine. Every major brand started modestly, and built off their small successes to improve their messaging and put a more shiny coat on their advertising.

So get off the bench, lace up your briefcase, and get out there with your marketing! Who knows? You might even score a few points with your audience.

Here’s a quick checklist:

  1. Do you have a product or service that can be sold to a consumer [or intermediary] right now?
  2. Do you have a brand promise associated with that product or service that can be turned into a compelling marketing message?
  3. Is that brand differentiated from competitors in your category?

Then YAY! You’re ready to go! You can basically start marketing immediately. How much, or how aggressively, is up to you.

Super Bowl 49 – Grins and Groans

If you’re a football fan, you liked this game. A slow burn, with twists and turns, and a dramatic finish. Good stuff. (Unless you’re a Seahawks fan, then, not so much.)

If you’re an advertising fan, you got pretty much a reflection of the game: a kind of slow and steady stream of ads, none of which made you say “wow,” and a few headscratchers late.

Mostly, we were left with questions:
Where were the really big ideas?

Where was Chrysler? (there was only the one Fiat spot and it was pretty funny) – but after Dylan, Eastwood and Eminem, they had set the bar pretty high, and not seeing them in the game was weird.

And seriously: what was Nationwide thinking???

A few themes this year that were notable:

Dads – three advertisers embraced dads this year: Dove, Nissan and Toyota. (And we’re not sure why, exactly.)

Puppies – Bud’s follow-up to “Puppy Love” from last year, and GoDaddy’s “controveersial” spot that never made it to the air (and it should have, since their “replacement” spot was meh.)

Celebrities poking fun at themselves:

Kardashian for T-Mobile was really good and funny and actually made good advertising.

Brosnan for Kia was very well done and a big grinner for me.

Pete Rose for Skechers was actually cute, and he was a good sport to take on that sensitive subject matter with such air.

The Esurance spots with Lindsay Lohan and Bryan Cranston proving that “sorta” is not good enough were pretty good.

And Liam Neeson absolutely KILLED IT in his I’m- a-badass-and-I’m-coming-for-you brogue for Clash of Clans.

The ads that made me grin:

Fiat and the little blue pill:

Mercedes Benz fable

Coke

Double Grins:

BMW i3 with Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel

This spot was funny, had great performances, and made an excellent point: big ideas take a little getting used to.  Smart, and very non-typical auto advertising.

Snickers Brady Bunch

Snickers took their “you’re not you when you’re hungry” to a great new place, by going to a great old place.  Well done!

Doritos – When Pigs Fly

This wasn’t my favorite of the Doritos “crash the Super Bowl” ads, but it was still entertaining, light-hearted, and well-executed.

But my biggest grin came early in the game when I saw this spot from Turbo Tax:

Man this was just flat out good. High cinematic value in the production of the spot, and high concept in rewriting history around a simple (and relatively benign) benefit of “free filing.”

Of course, we all know it’s free to file your federal return. But you still have to pay for the software of course, and for state taxes, you’ll still shell out that pesky little 29.95 or so. Bah, details. They made a great ad!

As usual, there were some groans this year.  And one flat headscratcher.

Groans:

Cure.com insurance (pair of 15’s) – bad jokes, worse production.

Jumlia – credit to coming into the game as a first time advertiser, but it was forgettable – an animatic for toenail fungus. They could have made like a billion or so targeted impressions online, and still had a couple million bucks left over to buy a whole bunch of spots during the professional bowling championships later in the year, when toenail fungus really flairs up. (Duh.)

Squarespace with Jeff Bridges – just weird. Any ad that’s going to make you go to a URL to figure out what it’s all about is just a waste of the airtime. Who’s going to leave the game for that? And for Jeff Bridges acting creepy? No thank you.

But the biggest WTF this year was Nationwide Insurance’s “make safe happen.” I can’t even believe they chose THIS strategy, and chose THIS buy. Didn’t anybody over there THINK about what the typical super bowl viewing environment is? You’re talking beer, wings, chips, salsa. You’re trash-talking about your team. And wait, now we’re thinking about our potentially dead children? No, no, no. NO! Kids and puppies in advertising are great…but you don’t KILL them in your spots. Jeez! You’d think somebody over there knew the basic rules.

Outside of the Turbo Tax spot, there was no real altitude attained this year in terms of high concept approaches. A few bright spots, and a few duds. Oh, and Nationwide killing our children to make a very serious point at a really shitty time. And that’s STILL not as bad as that one really bad decision to pass at the 1-yard line by the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator late in the game.

Until next year, keep grinning!