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.

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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.

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.

Nice Legs, DirecTV – but a little hairy.

(Part 2 in a 2-part series examining a current campaign.)

In my post from last week, I wrote about DirecTV’s most recent campaign featuring Rob Lowe in a series of very entertaining commercials. And while I lauded the campaign for having “great legs,” I also alluded to some parts of it that might not be so appealing.

Each spot starts out with the line “Hi, I’m Rob Lowe. And I have DirecTV.” It’s then followed by another “version” of Mr. Lowe – we’ve seen “overly paranoid” Rob Lowe, “meathead” Rob Lowe, “super creepy” Rob Lowe, “scrawny arms” Rob Lowe and others, all of whom complete their introduction with the sadmission “and I have cable.”

So the joke, of course, is that this is Rob Lowe playing other characters to highlight the DIFFERENCES between DirecTV as a television delivery service and cable carriers (sort of all lumped together.) In some spots, the focus is on sports programming. In others, its uptime. So features and differentiation points abound.

And as I mentioned, these spots are FUNNY. They’re well-written, with a rhythm and a meter that you don’t often see in many spots today. Kudos to the writers over at Grey for developing this campaign (word on the street is that five new executions will appear this year,) with a wit and a style that’s very clean.

So what could possibly be WRONG with these spots?

DirecTV is using these spots to say that they’re decidedly a better brand, based on features and the benefits they deliver. Which is fine. Brands in the same category have been beating the snot out of each other for the better part of a century. No big woop.

But the underlying tonality of these spots is a mocking one. These spots imply that if you have cable, then YOU are some sort of creepy/scrawny/awkward goon. So, for one, that’s just not nice. Two, it’s not really funny when you mock someone for who they are. (But they get away with this – deftly, I might add – by making it a “version” of Rob Lowe…so there’s always that reminder that you’re suspending your disbelief for 30 seconds.)   Three – and this is the doozy – who in the world does DirecTV think are their best targets? Yeah. It’s cable customers. The very people they hope to acquire as DirecTV subscribers.

So, basically, DirecTV is making this statement to cable customers: “Hi, I’m going to make fun of you, and lump you into a loser category of some sort, and make you look foolish, and then I hope that you’re super enthused to buy my product.” See how the logic there is a little goofy?

An interesting side point here: unlike most tete-a-tetes between brands (think Coke v. Pepsi, McDonald’s v Burger King, etc.) this campaign isn’t against a key competitor. It’s against a whole category. Single brand (DirecTV) takes a broad swipe at an entire category (cable companies.) It’s brilliant, strategically…because it’s hard for cable companies to organize a counter-strike.  [Sidebar: it’s a lot like the Mac vs PC spots (TBWA/Chiat Day) that launched (yikes!) nine years ago. In that campaign, it was a single product against a whole category, too.]

Overall, I’m splitting hairs here. These ARE funny, well-thought, well-executed television commercials that have all the important ingredients: a good strategy, strong production, great performances, and a simple and strong call to action (every spot ends with the decisive “get rid of cable.”)

There’s a very fine line between caricaturing and name-calling. And that line gets even thinner in advertising. I think the coming executions will be even more outlandish and more comical than the ones we’ve seen. But I’d LOVE to see the results data on this one, and see if any of the name-calling backfires. After all, a lot of meatheads DO subscribe to cable.

 

Now That’s Punny!

If you love advertising, you probably love good writing. Because, after all (with all due respect to the wonderful art directors and designers out there,) the creative side of advertising is, ultimately, a writer’s business.

If you are a fan of advertising history, as I am, you’ll know that, in the early days, clients went to ad agencies for one thing: superior writing. This was, of course, in the age before television, (when eye candy became the commodity of promotion.) But for more than 50 years, newspaper, magazine and radio – and the writers who developed all that copy – ruled the ad world.

In today’s more outsized, outpaced, hypertargeted marketing world, the ad agent has a much more robust toolset. Beyond words, there are pictures, video, and moving pixels virtually everywhere.   (See what I did there?) But if you want to reach consumers, it’s still a few well-orchestrated words that people will ultimately remember.

These days, it seems we’re writing for a different reason. It’s not so much for memorability as much as it is for virality. I would surmise that social media has pervaded the creative process so much that creative teams in agencies large and small sit in meetings and think less “how can we connect to consumers?” and more “what do you think will get shared?”

Let’s look at a few ads that are playing with words, using a sort of snarky pun game to gain some attention.

Sheets Energy Strips started their brand off with some word play in 2011. “I’ve taken a Sheet right in the cockpit.” Just what you want to hear from your pilot, eh?

 

Kmart sought to re-establish itself as a more current brand with some pun humor on their famous “ship my pants” spot from 2013. And whether or not you like this kind of humor, you might actually shit your pants when you hear that it has more than 21 million views on YouTube.

 

Verizon is out with a new campaign (and a corresponding hashtag, I might add) featuring the ever-so-homophonic “half-fast” meme for its Internet products with a “Speed Match” guarantee. Here’s a holiday spot:

 

If you look closely at the examples above, you’ll see an evolution of the form. Sheets simply did a play on words for the sake of it. But there was no real value to the consumer. (There WAS a value to the brand, in that the meme was a good way for consumers to remember the brand name.)

Kmart did a better marketing job, in that they had the fun, and at least communicated an important feature: that you can shop online at Kmart.com, and that they would ship your pants, or your drawers, or your bed. For FREE.

But Verizon seems to be going a step further, and trying to tie in a benefit. Or at least a negatively associated benefit. By playing on the half-fast theme, they’re communicating the important feature of upload speed that matches download speed. (And taking a shot a the “cable connection” competitors who don’t deliver matching speed.) But with the meme, they’re highlighting all the things that you CAN’T do with half-fast connections, like “I’ll be half fast when I’m sharing my photos,” and “I’ll be half fast updating my blog.” And although they’re negatively associated, those are still functional benefits, and they go a lot further with consumers.

Which is why it strikes me that more campaigns aren’t harnessing the power of language to its fullest potential. I see a lot of great work out there – meaning great ideas – but we rarely see a willingness to play with language the way we once did. Where’s the “Snap! Crackle! Pop!” or the “Leggo my Egg’o” lines for breakfast foods? Where’s the “Plop, Plop, Fizz, Fizz?” And heck “Where’s the Beef?”

If you’re going to go for some fun with your next ad, have at it. But note the conventions and craft it to take it up the ladder and deliver some actual value – like a benefit – to the consumer while you have your pun and eat it too…or something like that.

Creative or Re-creative?

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” So the saying goes. But when that imitation becomes a direct lift of concept and content, is it flattery or is it something else? This question is begat with a new ad for an organization called GrassIsNotGreener.Com, who recently ran a full page ad in The New York Times to caution against widespread legalization of marijuana, and protest recent supportive editorials.

The ad uses a headline comprised of the two words “Perception” and “Reality.” [If it sounds familiar, you’re probably over 40 years old and in the marketing business. More on that in a moment.]

Cleverly art directed, the “perception” typography sits adjacent to an inset head shot of a semi-cute 20-something long-haired bandana-wearing stoner dude with a 2-day scruff (just long enough to denote slacker, but too short to pass for intended hipster stubble.)

The “reality” typography sits two inches below, and we see that the main image of the ad is that of a power-suit sporting corporate executive at the head of a board room table. The obligatory wristwatch, broad single Windsor, a rocks tumbler filled with spring water, and the latest quarterly earnings report comprise the modest styling of the shot.SAM_ad_full_page_NYT_11.55x21_31Jul14_FINAL-1

The copy is strong, and gets to its points quickly and clearly. Not a word wasted, and they took a firm shot at The New York Times along the way. They’re also borrowing a lot of negative equity from the tobacco industry, which is also hinted at in the copy.

All in all, this is a very good ad. It says, “hey…you think this one thing, but there’s another really important thing going on that you may not be aware of…so we’re here to make you more aware.”

Here’s the problem: it’s using a creative concept that’s been done before. And when I say “using,” I mean, damn-near-exactly DUPLICATING a creative approach that was done some 30 years ago. What further complicates this issue is that it wasn’t some obscure little creative execution that no one saw…this was a campaign (props to Fallon McElligott as they were known at the time,) that appeared in Advertising Age, among other publications, ran for a decade, won every major award known to man and other species, and was wildly successful for its client, Rolling Stone. (To add further props, it was a b-to-b campaign, a category in which people are still arguing “you can’t be super creative.” Right.)

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[In case you’re interested, GrassIsNotGreener.com is supported by a group called ProjectSAM, [which stands for “smart approaches to marijuana,”] founded by former government officials and comprised of several medical, legal and volunteer organizations.]

But wait…there’s more. It’s not just that this ad directly lifts this concept. Boyd Communications, based in Shrieveport, LA, used the same (exact) concept for their client CryoLife to demonstrate that most people’s perceptions about age and cardiac valve transplants are wrong. Does it work to crystallize the point? Yes, extremely well. And while there’s nothing new under the sun in advertising, they could have used that helpful, “hey there’s more to know about this subject” approach without using the same exact words, no?

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And it’s not like this hasn’t happened before over the last 100 years or so – it has, countless times. Big popular executions and little-known local work gets riffed on and ripped off all the time. Sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes, strong ideas simply resemble each other.

Advertising – especially creative strategy and execution – is about finding an effective “way in” to consumer perceptions. So when that way in has been paved on the efforts and talents of someone else, is that cool? I’m not sure. But when you use the exact same words, for the exact same ends, that is to say, when your creative is actually re-creative, we may have to start asking the question “what’s the compensation package for credit?”

Dos and Don’ts to Beef Up Your B-to-B Advertising

If you’re in a business that sells to other businesses, you know how difficult it can be.  Whether you’re a small business or a global enterprise, the daily challenges of communicating can add up to quarterly headaches and annual recalibrations.  But if you’re marketing as actively as you need to, then some simple rules can help.

For much of my career, I’ve been involved with businesses that need to convince other businesses to engage.  From media companies to industrial businesses to distributors and exhibitors, I’ve seen the challenges of articulating compelling messages that resonate and drive response. B-to-b marketing is indeed a unique discipline, and it has rules that its consumer counterpart cannot even imagine having to navigate.  However, that doesn’t mean that it has to be cold, or impersonal or the mother of all sins:  boring.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts when it comes to formulating business-to-business advertising or other marketing outreach:

DO talk to a PERSON
Despite what we may think about business-to-business marketing, we’re still in the persuasion business.  And it’s critical to talk directly to one person, understand his or her needs, promise him or her benefits and build a case for your product or service.  You can’t do any of that to “an organization.”

DO be willing to SELL
A fair amount of b-to-b advertising approaches will highlight some random case study about Bob, of Company Y, who increased productivity 400% while using Solution X.  No call to action, no contact name, no direct connection.  Now, in fairness, not all b-to-b advertising has to be direct response, but it should have an articulated point of view, and should clearly define what the value proposition is through some means.  It should sell in whatever way works best for your brand and in whatever way makes it easiest for your prospect.

DON’T run a competitive ad unless you can back it up with verified third party data.
Your opinion of your competition means nothing unless there’s a tangible difference to your prospect.  It’s okay to establish a clear difference between your brand and competitive offerings – but if you’re just beating your chest over a nominal difference in features, you’ll coming out looking mean.  And nobody wants to do business with a meanie.

DO use a strong CTA
Someone I admire very much constantly reminds me of the phrase “don’t ask, don’t get.”  While I’ve just said that all b-to-b advertising doesn’t have to be direct response, the best business conversations do include an appeal to interact.  So propose a demo.  Ask for the call.  Heck, ask for the business!  But do it in a way that makes the prospect’s life/business/daily challenges easier, and then ensure that at the end of the road, things get even brighter! Remember the important lesson that hope is not a strategy for success.

DON’T be afraid to be emotional
Regardless of the “professional” nature of b-to-b, every buying decision – whether it’s technology, or information or industrial steel – is an emotional process.  The CEO, or the CTO or the procurement manager of a municipality still has to “feel” good about your offering, your pricing, your service guarantee.  Don’t abandon this core principle.  It could mean the difference between getting a response or not.

DO be visually arresting whenever possible
Advertising, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful forces in global business. We have the opportunity to persuade and entertain using interrelated words and pictures.  Many executives agonize over the words, (because we all have opinions, whether or not we can articulate them,) but leave the pictures to an afterthought (because not everyone is a visual thinker or an artist.)  When you can be visually arresting (in print or moving pictures,) you can elevate the corresponding language to a level that the words alone could not have achieved.  Sure, use a chart or a graph to visually demonstrate, but make sure it’s designed to delight as much as it is to inform.

DON’T be blah
As mentioned above, it’s important to talk to a PERSON.  Unfortunately, a lot of b-to-b advertising tries to sell to the whole organization, or a department or an executive team.  But the only way to do that is to use generic, bland, SAFE language.  I’ll remind you that generic, bland and safe do not compelling advertising make.  Be excited!  Be visual.  Dramatize the benefit.  Claim the highest possible ground for your brand and then differentiate the snot out of it.  Get out of techno-speak for techno-speak’s sake…start using hard-hitting language that proves you understand the prospect’s challenges, proves your product or service can meet and exceed those challenges, and proves that choosing you will make that singular prospect feel empowered, excited and engaged.

Image source:  DeviantArt

Brand Guidelines: Sometimes Ya Gotta Cross ‘Em

We’ve all heard a lot about brand guidelines, and how vital they are to the marketing success of your company.  And in most cases, this is quite true.  A strong brand structure can provide an incredible level of connective tissue between your company’s product or service and the consumers you have and, most importantly, those you hope to reach.

And while a lot of care and thought goes into brand development and brand representation, in some cases, we can overdo it.

Before we get into that, let’s make sure we’re clear on what brand guidelines are.  Many companies entrust their brands to experts to develop guidelines as to how the brand behaves, what it says, what it does, (in some cases what the company produces,) and very importantly, how that brand is represented visually and verbally across the landscape of media in which it may appear.

These guidelines, especially the visual and verbal ones, can get very specific and very detailed regarding how the brand (and the logo, or taglines or images) is reproduced and presented for public consumption.  If you’ve never seen a brand guideline handbook, it’s a cross between a diary of a madman and the exactitude of an aerospace engineer’s drawing book.  In some cases, they can be hundreds of pages long, and stipulate everything from specific color swatches to negative space to how NOT to reproduce the various design elements.

Ultimately, it’s a usage document, in that it instructs anyone responsible for pushing the brand out into the world exactly how the brand should be represented.  (This is true even if the brand is a person!)  All in the name of the venerable core objective:  consistency of perception.

However, this control issue can sometimes become, well, a control issue.  In many instances in my work with brands that my firm hasn’t created, we’ve been saddled with guidelines that have actually gotten in the way of – even obstructed – clear and consistent communications.

In one instance, we were working with a company who (inexplicably) had an extremely long, multi-word URL.  When creating a Facebook application for this brand (targeted to suburban soccer moms, by the way,) we suggested using capital letters to help guide the reader along.  Imagine this url:  thecompanyyoushouldvisitinyourtown.com.  We suggested TheCompanyYouShouldVisitInYourTown.com for clarity.  Our client came back and said “our brand guidelines instruct us to NOT use capital letters in the URL.”  When we reminded them that it was simply easier to read with the caps, (especially online in about 10pt type,) they pushed back.  Hard.  The brand guidelines were scripture, and were not to be messed with.

In another instance, we were working with an important media company whose brand is very well recognized in the consumer marketplace.  In designing a microsite that demanded a rich color background, (ironically, for consistency with the print campaign,) we opted to knock out (make white) their logo, just as we had done in print.  Knocking out was acceptable according to their brand guidelines, but not in digital applications.  So it was okay to trust printers to knock out the logo using ink, but not okay to use never-bleed pixels for the same brand representation.  Strange.

The reason I highlight these examples is because they were actually attempts to arrive at either clear(er) or more consistent communications between the brands and their intended audiences.  We were (we always are) striving to make it easier for the consumer to interact with the company, not the other way around.  But the brand guidelines were so stringent, these simplified communications were overlooked for standards that could not possibly have recognized these interactive objectives.

Don’t get me wrong – there ARE guidelines that are un-crossable. Stretching or tilting the logo is a no-no. Swapping out colors is a no-no-no.  Going off script is a no-no-no-no.  Inserting a new tagline is a triple-dog-quadruple-no-no. We’re clear that some lines shouldn’t be crossed.

Because it is important to have a voice.  It is important to have the brand represented consistently across all touch points.  But when adhering to your brand guidelines, we also have to consider: would it HURT the brand if you drop-capped a URL?  Would it HURT the brand if you didn’t honor the standards to the letter?  If crossing the line a little means engaging the consumer a little more, then maybe it’s time to consider a little tiny brand rebellion.