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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a rosy outlook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few of the standouts: GUINNESS

UBER

DOVE

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

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

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

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

For brands – and for revolutions – words matter. Why “defund the police” is the wrong message.

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I used to have a daily calendar with pithy sayings, and one of my favorites, attributed to French moralist Joseph Joubert, read:
Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make more clear.

Over the last several years, we’ve been confronted with a lot of words that reflect our social, political and racial realities. “Me Too.” “Time’s Up.” “I Can’t Breathe.” And now, “Defund the Police.”

As an observer, I see everything through the lens of marketing. And the disciplines of branding and advertising rely almost entirely on one key element to help reach human beings and manage their perceptions of the world: language. Language is how you convince. Language is how you compete. Language is how you win.

Language is what helps companies communicate IDEAS. And more specifically, language, when used correctly, communicates only the ideas you need to convey in order to shift or change perception.

Some context: in the famous cola wars, the soda brands Coke and Pepsi were duking it out for decades to convince people that their brand tasted better than their rival’s brand. The governing idea was that “people drink one soda or another based on the taste.” When Pepsi (and their 1984 ad agency, BBDO) rolled out the new slogan “the choice of a new generation,” it not only caught Coke off guard, it also worked to generate a huge shift in Pepsi’s favor.

It worked because it shifted the conversation away from the idea of the flavor profile of some caramel-colored carbonated sugar water towards the idea that the individual that drank it actually mattered. And the language was very clear that the lines would now be drawn on the basis of age and attitude, (youthfulness in particular,) and not taste.

There are other examples, like Folgers Coffee’s slogan “the best part of wakin’ up is Folgers in your cup.” Sounds like a simple rhyme, right? But what’s actually going on is the brand driving a stronger association between coffee and mornings, which is when most Americans drink their coffee. That’s language working the idea.

Then there was the famous “the other white meat” slogan from the Pork board. As American consumers were worried about heart health, red meat became public health enemy #1. Pork pivoted (never thought I’d write those two words,) and in 1987 hired Bozell, who devised this tricked-up language to associate pork with what consumers deemed healthy: white meat, such as chicken, turkey, and fish. While pork is considered white meat in culinary terms, because it is pale in color both before and after cooking, it is (still) classified as a red meat by the US Department of Agriculture. So you can see how language can be used to blur the lines as much as reveal them.

This is true in branding. It’s also true in revolutions.

The language that has emerged over the past several days and weeks of protesting police misconduct has centered around three impactful words: “Defund the Police.”

Strong idea.
Not a great choice of words.

And we need to rethink it, because people can (and will, especially for political gain,) easily misconstrue the WORDS to conjure up alternative ideas that are likely contrary to the intent of the message.

The IDEA of “defund the police,” is rooted in what many see as a history awash in abject racial inequity as it relates to policing. But read carefully: “defund” is neither a social construct, nor a racial one. It is an economic concept. Sure, we can talk about the steady escalation of local taxes and state budgets around policing: more funds for newer technology, vehicles, weapons and tactics that create what looks like a more “militarized” police force, even in Smalltown, America. But that’s not entirely why people are marching.

While a small percentage of people will stand behind the idea, I doubt that most protesters or demonstrating citizens would actually vote to actually defund the actual police with actual economic policy. But because the words themselves are not quite perfect, and so packed with far-reaching implications, it’s hard to have any constructive conversation around them.

What many people are expressing is that they want a hard reset. On race relations. On police use of force, especially against people of color. On political pressures and police union out-clauses that protect the uniform first, and then ask questions of any weight later. And mostly, they want to feel equally protected and equally served by their police. These are not conflicting ideals. These are complex collective emotions and they seem to be shared in this moment by more people than ever.

And yes, there should be a national dialogue around these issues. And there should be some time to reflect on everything that has transpired and brought us to this moment. And maybe there should even be a new approach to policing.

But words matter. And although “defund the police” expresses outrage and communicates its own #timesup with the current state of policing against a disproportionate number of black and brown Americans, it nonetheless sounds inflammatory and abrupt. It’s hard to unite around language that is inherently blurry.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. said “I have a dream,” he chose the words carefully. Even while he mused about people being judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” he simultaneously acknowledged that it was, at the time, out of reach of reality. By choosing “dream,” he communicated sheer possibility alongside the harsh reality of long, hard work to come.

And since words matter to me, I’ll offer these as an alternative to “defund the police.”

Reflect. Rethink. Retrain.

In my estimation, this is what demonstrators all around the country are actually clamoring for:

  • That we reflect on the choices that we’ve made, and the errors that systemic myopia can yield, from the Central Park Five all the way up to George Floyd. (And that’s just the very recent history.)
  • That we rethink what policing actually is, and more importantly, what it isn’t. In many ways, police are in less advantageous positions to protect and serve largely because they’re asked to do too many other things that may fall outside the purview of what “policing” actually is.
  • That we retrain police and the entire law enforcement ecosystem for the jobs they’re very good at, and move away from the “broken window” policing strategies of the 1990’s, which are at the heart of some of today’s core issues.

It may also require retraining of our own expectations – and responsibilities – as citizens around policing. As an object study, read what the Camden, NJ police department did, and how local activism and cooperation, along with de-escalation training and requiring officers to intercede if another officer was using inappropriate force, finally and positively changed an entire community.

There may not be perfect language for all of this. But we can start by avoiding imperfect, incendiary and inflammatory language that divides, misleads, and impairs our ability to collaborate on solutions.

Reflect. Rethink. Retrain. It may not be perfect, but it sure does make for a good chant from a crowd marching down Main Street, USA.

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.

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!

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.