How to get control of your brand. Now.

It’s tough for brands these days. All the competition. All the change. And all that damn marketing! And perhaps most difficult is getting consumers to know you, then like you, and finally, to trust you.

Brands – and I’m talking about brands of all sizes, really – invest a lot of money in so many areas – it might be research and development, or operations, offices, showrooms or retail stores, or even the “perfect” ingredients for their recipes. These are all things that are relatively controllable for the brand.

But once they’re born, brands are basically out of control. Because, ultimately, consumers decide if the brand is good or bad, cool or “over,” worth the money or not. And in the age of social media, the lack of control can really get scary.

Consider the recent tweet by the then-President-elect Donald Trump:

trump_tweet

On the surface, it sounds like another one of the Donald’s weirdly-supportive and overly generalized ramblings. But there’s something really telling about this. The account of @realDonaldTrump has about 22 million followers. That’s a really lot. All of whom now have this “advice” about supporting and patronizing L.L. Bean.

We’ll stay out of the politics of this exchange, and whether or not it’s ethical for a candidate to receive a donation from an individual, and then use his massive influence to issue a sales pitch for her company after winning. Because eeeewww.

But what happens if that brand DOESN’T WANT that endorsement?

After the tweet, a group called Grab Your Wallet added L.L. Bean to a boycott list of any companies associated with Donald Trump. What if thousands, or even millions of L.L. Bean consumers got wind of that and decided to protest the man by dropping the brand? That has real consequences for the brand – especially if it’s publicly traded.  L.L. Bean quickly issued a statement on their Facebook page (that reaches just slightly over 750,000 followers – see the disparity there?) distancing themselves from alignment with any candidate and asking Grab Your Wallet to reconsider their position. [They haven’t.]

And if you’re a brand that’s invested time, and money, and millions of dollars and hired people all over the country and have supply chains in place and employees who count on your continued success for their livelihoods, it’s a little disconcerting to know that equity can all disappear – or at least be seriously compromised – with 140 characters or less. In this hyper-polarized age, it’s certainly possible that bonds are being formed and broken in more and more capricious circumstances.

So what’s a brand to do?

Well, it’s simple. Advertise.

While there are many ways to develop and grow a brand, advertising remains the most direct route to establishing your own position, and forwarding your point of view.

So, if you’re an apparel company, and someone does or says something terrible while wearing your clothing, advertise. If you’re a food brand that gets protested by a fringe group who claims you’re not environmentally responsible enough, advertise. If you’re a retailer and you’re losing share because some influencer tells millions of followers that she overpaid for your wares, advertise.

At the very least, you’ll have had your say. You’ll have run commercials and ads and said to the world: “this is what we stand for.” “This is who we stand for.” “This is who we are.” Otherwise, you might get hijacked by someone’s wayward ramblings…even if they may have had good intentions in the process.

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

oscars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check them out:

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

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

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

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!

The “other” – and really important – part of your ads

Advertising creative has a lot of moving parts.  There’s the brand’s voice and its implicit promise.  There’s the creative idea that’s holding the ad together.  There are the visuals.  The copy.  In many cases, the VO and the supers and the animation and the call to action.  And the magic pixie dust that we’re all after to sprinkle it with some kind of lasting power and persuasiveness.

But there’s this “other” part that no one really talks about.  The critical part (or parts) that the consumer BRINGS to every ad.  I realized recently that not many of us are including this in our craft.  And it’s time to change that.

Even though advertising seems like a one-way conversation (the brand just shouting out “look at me!” or “sale ends tomorrow!” or in some cases whispering “get over here, sexy,”) it’s not.  The consumer brings a lot of stuff into the mix, and in that magic moment when she reviews your work, it’s deeply influencing how she perceives the brand you’re working for.  I see advertising much more as a careful dance between brand and consumer, and there are a lot of attitudes, feelings and suspicions providing the background music.

There are probably a million little attitudinal elements that consumers bring to ads, but I’ve narrowed it down to what I think are the six most important:

DESIRE.
We all know the pure fact that none of us would have a job if consumers didn’t have wants and needs that they’re trying to fulfill every day.  And in the modern American experience, brands are fulfilling all kinds of desires for consumers every day.  It’s important to distinguish needs and wants here…It may be very true that consumer X needs motorized transportation to take him to and from work.  But he WANTS a BMW, based on the experiences he’s had, and likely, the advertising he’s seen.

You can do a whole semester just on consumer desire, but understand this:  we’re all clawing and scratching for the same things deep down.  We want people to like and affirm us.  And (some might see it as sadly,) we strive for that by what we do, what we wear, where we eat and the labels on everything we consume.
The consumer brings desire to every ad.  Fulfill it.

KNOWLEDGE:
Consumers are smart, and getting smarter about the things they want and the products they buy.  But they’re also smart about advertising.  They know (mostly) that they’re being retargeted in digital.  They know why they’re receiving certain offers in their inbox.  And they know that slick copywriters are weilding language in a way that shrouds the selling messages.  So they’re looking through that.  And by the way, they’ll know when you’re wrong.  Here’s an example:

citi_lo

Cute ad, right?  Makes the point about the convenience of the Citi Mobile App, and ties it right into the language of the subway commuter.  (As you can see, this ad appeared on a subway station in Manhattan.)

One small problem:  THE B TRAIN DOES NOT STOP AT 14th STREET.  And since the target consumer also brings knowledge of the NYC Subway System to the reading of this ad, the wheels kind of fall off abruptly.  The consumer starts reading and says, “wait…the B doesn’t stop at 14th street…it goes express to West 4th.”  The imaginary part of the conversation might then continue, “well, if Citi doesn’t even know the basics of the subway system like I do, how can I trust them to know more than me about mobile banking?”  See?  It’s some dangerous shit.
The consumer brings knowledge to every ad.  So get your facts straight.

PROBLEMS.
One of the cornerstones of marketing [and why advertising exists] is the premise that consumers are trying to solve problems in their daily lives.  They ask internal (and sometimes out loud, if you ride the subway long enough,) questions like “how can I lower my blood pressure?” or “how do I get my ass to look good in these jeans?” and “what steps should I take to prepare for retirement?”  And similar to the desire stuff we discussed above, in many cases, they look to brands to help them solve those problems.  Not every ad can do that.  But in the ones that are explanatory, and for products that might aid consumers, give ’em a little help, eh?
The consumer brings problems to every ad.  Help him solve at least one of them.

CURIOSITY.
Consumers are inherently curious.  Heck, you might say we’ve trained them to be.  Every day, new products come out, new services, new concepts to help them solve problems.  And they don’t just want to know what you’ve got, they want to know what’s behind the curtain, too.  You don’t have to give away the farm, but you can certainly meet this need with a few well-placed words, images and ideas.
The consumer brings curiosity to every ad.  So satisfy it.

BIAS.
As nice as consumers are, they can be pretty picky, too.  Or grumpy.  Let’s face it, they’ve seen like 5,000 ads already today, so the last thing they’re interested in is your opinionated, slanted, over-promising, under-delivering puffery.  No, you have to understand that the person you’re talking to is smart, experienced and has opinions of her own.  So tread carefully, make your case convincingly and you just might change a mind or two along the way.

exxon_lo

Here’s another ad I saw while riding the subway this morning.  Attention-getting?  You betcha.  But when you think of the bias the consumer brings to the reading of this ad, it’s either an immediate “yes” or a decisive “no.”  I don’t love those odds, and would rather have a “definite maybe” from every eyeball.
The consumer brings bias to every ad.  So overcome it.

If you’re involved in either the strategy or the craft of advertising, make this the last item on your review of the work:  what’s the consumer bringing to the reading of this ad, and are we addressing that intelligently and in alignment with the brand who has entrusted us?  It’s quite a dance when you get a hang of the steps.

Seeing is (way more than) believing.

In the wake of the recent developments with the Ray Rice video-gone-viral situation, it’s become very clear that, as a nation of content consumers, seeing is way more potent and far more powerful than believing.

The politics and passion surrounding what happened in that elevator aside, (reprehensible behavior that should never be tolerated, even under intense provocation,) the basic truth of the matter is this: we all KNEW what Ray Rice did to his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in that elevator. We KNEW there was an assault that was egregious enough to knock her unconscious. But SEEING it cemented it in our minds, and suddenly made others take different and more severe action as a result.

The Baltimore Ravens Football Club KNEW what Ray Rice did as far back as February. The team even stepped up and defended Mr. Rice, including making statements about his character and willingness to rehabilitate himself.

But something about SEEING the incident on video has changed everything. It changed his punishment, it changed his employment status and it has impacted his future and his ability to earn a living as a professional athlete.

And there are many other cases, some very recent, that follow this same path: we KNOW what happens, either by reading about it, or hearing about it, but something about seeing it takes our understanding of the concept to a whole new level. In terms of online videos alone, think the gruesome ISIS beheading of James Foley, the chaos in the moments following the Boston Marathon bombing, and (pardon the sudden shift in gears,) even the Miley Cyrus twerking debacle at the 2013 MTV VMAs.

But why?

There seems to be something deeply embedded in our psychology when it comes to seeing moving pictures, (they’re even more potent than static images,) that takes our understanding – and our belief – to an entirely new level. A big reason is that what we consider perception is far more than a simple functional process. Indeed, perception is influenced and even altered by emotional factors, by our personal histories and by our psychological predispositions. You can go further into this topic, and look up subjects like unconscious interference and the Gestalt Laws of Organization to see how the human mind does a lot more than just process visual information.

There’s no wonder, then, that when television came along as a serious medium with enough reach (think early 1960’s,) that it decimated radio and print and quickly became the primary carrier of advertising. Same reasons apply: it was one thing to hear things, and read them, (and some practitioners wrote and read spectacular copy in that regard,) and an even better thing to see beautiful static images. But gazing at a shiny new Cadillac glide across the screen? Watching a puff of Lucky Strike smoke waft into the air? Seeing those four moptops bounce around on the Ed Sullivan show? That’s what pushed us over the edge. That’s what made us believe and then some.

Marketing is not about selling stuff. That may be an outcome, but marketing is really about managing perceptions. (Knowing that perception is more than just a simple function of understanding.)  And if you want to do that?  Show, don’t tell.

Sure, there will always be an arena for print and radio advertising, but there’s a reason TV and web advertising comprise over $100 billion in advertising spend. Seeing – and watching – are believing. If you don’t believe me, just ask Ray Rice.