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.

Playing through the pause: marketing never stops.

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There was a phrase that was popular in the late 20th century that advised “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.” It was a meme that implied you were making a prudent choice in your technology partner, because IBM was so ubiquitous and so darn reliable, you couldn’t possibly go wrong if you chose to pay the extra fees and engage with such an established leader. (And talk about a GREAT branding platform for IBM!)

Here in 2020, it appears there’s a new version of that old trope as it relates to marketing. It would read “no one ever got fired for being cautious during the COVID-19 crisis.” And if you look around, all you see are brands being cautious. Brands stepping back. Brands holding on to their marketing spend. Brands putting their agencies in lockdown “until further notice.” CMOs, VPs of marketing, brand managers, and other senior executives are in full wait-and-see mode, and some of them have quickly pivoted to warmer and fuzzier messaging platforms in the short term.

If you own or represent a brand right now, it’s likely that you or someone in your organization has ordered a “pause” on some or all of your marketing activity. After all, it’s expensive to “keep the lights on” an operation that isn’t (or can’t be) visibly returning results. And you’d be more than justified for being cautious and for demonstrating prudence with your precious budget.

However, you’d also be violating one of the immutable laws of marketing. And that is to find competitive strategic advantages over the other producers in your category. Hint: now is absolutely the time to do it.

While your competition is sitting on the sidelines, you gain zero ground by sitting on the opposite sideline. Competitive marketing never stops – even when it looks like all marketing has stopped.

Irrespective of your brand category, or what position you own in the category, here are six cornerstone marketing efforts you can put to work right now (without spending tons of money) to gain an edge on your competition:

Focus on or improve your core product/service
Can you add a key ingredient, or replace a less-than-desirable one in your product formulation? If you’re a more service-oriented business, is there a new policy you can put in place that would give you an edge over your competition? (Think longer warranty period, free upgrades, adding value in new or unorthodox ways.)  Put some structure on this.  Give it language.  Give it a name.  Start talking about it.

Add new products or extend your line
If you’ve ever thought about why you’re not gaining ground on your competitors, maybe it’s because you offer limited choices. Think about adding new flavors, new varieties, or new services to your practice. Hiring a new subject matter expert into your practice is almost the same as acquiring a new company, so consider how you can go “wider” in your business, and give consumers (existing or new targets) more opportunities  – and reasons – to interact with you.

Re-evaluate or re-negotiate your distribution deals
Following on the heels of having new products or an extended line, this is a great time to read the fine print on all your contracts. Especially your distribution deals. Can you get more lineal inches in your current deal? Maybe you can reduce costs in some way, since third-party resellers are taking it on the chin right now. They’d be hard-pressed to avoid losing your business, so take advantage of the opportunities while you can. It’s also a great time to hear proposals from new distributors or brokers or affiliates who are also innovating to stay relevant.

Do some research/learn more about what consumers really want (or who your consumers will actually be)
It’s very likely that consumer behavior will be altered in many ways as we either return to normalcy or forge whatever the “new normal” will look like. This is the crucible of competition – find out why consumers may have chosen a competitor over your brand, and see if you can accommodate their desires. Is it price? Is it a personal touch? Is it the ingredients? Is it your location? You’ll never know if you don’t ask, and paying people for their opinion right now makes you look magnanimous as well as appealingly curious.

Think about a new approach to your advertising
We’ve seen many brands pivot to a more “we’re with you” approach in the last several weeks, and it’s likely we’ll see even more message morphs in the coming months. But maybe it’s time for a new thousand-foot strategy. Maybe it’s time for a new tone. Or a new face. Or something classic and familiar. The point is to zig when the rest of your competitive set is zagging (or lagging. Or sagging.  Or gagging.  This is fun.) At the very least, you’ll get more attention, and that’s always a good thing.

Develop at least three strategic marketing plans for your brand
It must be said that no marketing strategist is ever right 100% of the time. So make contingency plans. The marketplace will be different, so make sure you have plans to address whatever those differences might be. For instance, it’s possible one or more of your competitors may fold. So have a talk with your bank (or investor group) and be ready to acquire at a favorable cost (if that makes sense,) or to at least swoop in and grab the lion’s share of that brand’s customer base. It may not be so rosy, so consider what some worse-case scenarios might look like, and script responses to those as well. With so many unknown variables, you can keep your team focused and motivated by creating pre-coordinated plans and putting them in place for virtually any outcome.

Stay in touch with all stakeholders
Speaking of all of this, it’s a great time to have renewed and refreshed conversations with all your stakeholders. Let them know that you’re thinking ahead, and thinking positively. Let them know that they may be called on to think outside the boxes of convention. And most importantly, let them know that they will play a role in kicking the competition in the teeth, and getting ahead when all this uncertainty is behind.

 

Coronavirus CMO Checklist

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As we’ve turned the calendar to another month of dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of brands and agencies are wondering what’s next.  While many brands have pivoted to pandemic-related messaging (see a regularly updated list here,) most are taking a breath, and working hard to plan their next move(s.)

Believe it or not, this forced time-out can be an incredibly useful opportunity on many levels.  Whether you’re the CMO of a global brand that spends millions or an owner/manager of a small to medium-sized business that’s trying to edge out your competition on a regional level, this may be the best time to evaluate your brand and make structural moves to re-position it for success when the world wakes from its medically-induced commercial slumber.

Here’s a quick dos and don’ts checklist of items to consider while we’re all waiting for the refs to say it’s time to get back in the game:

ON POSITIONING

DO reinforce your strategic position, whatever it might be. If you’re the low-cost leader, then now is the time to forage for ways to maintain and even strengthen that position, perhaps by having new discussions with suppliers and distribution agents.  More importantly, if you don’t have a strategic position (or perhaps don’t know exactly what yours is,) you’ve now been given the gift of several weeks and even months to figure one out.  Huddle with your team – or better yet, a consultant or agency – and learn how to articulate who you really are in ways maybe you haven’t before.

DON’T waver.  If you do have a position and it helps the consumer/customer understand what makes you different, do not veer from your course.  You might hear of brands trying to “strategically pivot” into new areas and try to replicate what competitors do in an effort to grab short-term revenue gains or “narrow their gap.”  We’ll probably see a LOT of price manipulation once the markets begin to wake as competition for consumer attention will spike – but don’t be tempted.  If your position is built on quality, or prestige, or speed, or technology, or safety, or any other attribute that you can effectively “own” in the mind of the market, stay the course.  The consumer segment that desires your position will be more motivated than ever to seek it out when this is all over.

ON STAYING IN TOUCH

DO stay in touch with consumers/customers and stakeholders of all kinds. Be a friend in some way.  Be a lifeline if you can.  One of the most compelling aspects of this pandemic is the psychological toll it’s taking on people from all walks of life.  Routines are disrupted.  Rituals interrupted.  And we cannot forget that brands represent constancy and normalcy for so many Americans – perhaps the only two commodities that are in shorter supply than toilet paper. As long as your brand is reminding consumers that you’re still there, and will continue to be there to support them with what they expect of you, you should come out of this national hibernation in pretty good shape.

DON’T brag.  Even if you’re doing the most amazing things right now in your community or in your industry, no one wants to hear how great you are.  Do what you can to serve in this crucial time, but do those things quietly and let the results speak for themselves. Grandstanding is not a good look in a crisis.

ON ADVERTISING AND STAYING VISIBLE

DO advertise if it makes sense and you have something valuable to say. In my last post, I advocated strongly for advertising, and provided several reasons why it’s more important than ever.  I continue to recommend that you stay visible and adjust your messaging to take the current consumer environment into account.

DON’T disappear.  Find ways to stay relevant, even if you’re conserving major expenditures (like media costs.) This is a great time to get more social, expand or enhance your app, send timely email updates and so on.  AND DEFINITELY DO NOT use your advertising presence to take shots at competitors.  You should notice that there’s no “feuding” going on now, even among the largest brands.  No cola wars.  No chicken sandwich smackdowns.  Competitive advertising in the current climate is not only a waste of valuable ad dollars, it’s in poor taste. Consumers are paying rapt attention right now, so behave with your brand as though momma was watching you.  ‘Cause she kinda is.

ON PLAYING THE LONG GAME

DO be prepared (financially and otherwise,) to ride this situation out well into 2021.  It’s clear that some brands will falter during this time as consumers are also re-evaluating their priorities and allegiances.  Staying true to your brand ethos (and reinforcing/refining your position, see above,) can a.) cement the relationships you’ve already worked so hard to forge and b.) make you look darn attractive to those defecting from other brands.

DON’T rush your expectations.  Although confidence is virtually nonexistent at the moment, consumer motivation will be high and will likely surge for many months as the commercial rebound begins.  Expect a tentative but large wave of consumers re-entering the market with fresh perspectives and open minds.  Rushing to grab profits and short-term gains (in an attempt to recoup some recent losses) may preclude your brand from the much more substantial rewards of sustained success and new fans.

The brand cure for coronavirus: advertising.

The weeks and months leading up to and following March 2020 will go down in history as an incredibly important and impactful time period in the history of the United States. Between the COVID-19 pandemic itself, the economic ramifications of a roller coaster stock market, and the drastic measures being taken at the federal, state, and local levels, nothing seems normal. Virtually all major sports shut down. All major gatherings shut down. Schools closed for mandatory periods of time. Bars and restaurants closing. Social distancing. Self-quarantining. And of course, the dreaded toilet paper shortage. (Ugh.)

The citizenry of the United States is in a near-total lockdown. Without engaging in the regular retail experience – one of America’s favorite social and commercial pastimes – except out of pure necessity, what is the appropriate path for brands during this time? What should brands be doing? What should brands be saying?

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At the risk of sounding insensitive, I say advertise. There are a million reasons to be doing it right now, and to be doing it well. Here are my top five.

Advertise. Because American consumers are concerned and confused, and there’s no precedent for anything like this in recent history. (Zika, Ebola and some of the other outbreaks never reached this level of penetration or panic.) There’s never been a time when we’ve been virtually forced back into our homes to sit and wonder what will happen next. Brands have the unique opportunity to reassure consumers (of course that depends on your brand, and the category in which you compete,) or at the very least, entertain them. If your brand can be a voice of reason, or a voice of compassion, or better still, a voice of comfort through generous offers, then that voice will get valuable attention when Americans have more of it to give.

Advertise. Because with Americans huddled at home for weeks (and potentially months) at a time, there will be record HUT/PUT numbers. National brands can leverage near Super Bowl-sized audiences at what would be considered regular airtime rates. Every advertising dollar will go twice, thrice its normal distance, especially during this time in the broadcast programming calendar, which is typically a lull bridge between the large audience events of Jan/Feb and the scripted series finale season to arrive in April/May. Ratings will be unusually high for the foreseeable future, simply because more people are home with more time – and more opportunity – to consume television.

Advertise. Because programming diversity will actually be an ally during this time. Sure, people will be binging on streaming services. But after three or four hours of catching up on the hottest shows, people will turn to both local and national news. My guess is that media buyers are in a feeding frenzy right now with MSOs to snap up relatively low-cost cable buys, and especially around news programming.

Advertise. Because your competitors are sitting on the sidelines right now, and this gives you a greater potential share of mind. Every brand is thinking about the opportunities they currently have, and what to do with them. But while most of them contemplate, they’ve probably held off on filming anything new, or producing any spots with context to the national psychology. And yes, while you can suffer a great deal for a misstep at this time, the potential also exists for exponentially greater gains if you can connect. Take a look at this spot Guinness released online regarding their brand (with high context to both the pandemic and the upcoming St. Patrick’s day,) and a message that is just wonderfully articulated and perfectly timed:

Advertise. Because we will get through this at some point. Although it’s hard to imagine it today, life will return to normal. Concerts will be staged. Stadiums will be filled with 80,000 fans screaming their heads off for their favorite teams. Schools will be open. Bars and restaurants will be flooded with people who no longer want so much social distance. And most notably, shopping malls and supermarkets will be flush with consumers looking for their favorite foods, clothes, drinks, sneakers, cars, electronics, beers, and so much more. And if you were smart enough to advertise to those consumers during this time, and your message was a strategic one, (or at least a kind one,) you just might have made a valuable impression (while making valuable impressions) to new fans for years to come.

 

Super Bowl 54 Grins and Groans

Another Super Bowl in the books, and I’m sure all the fine citizens from Kansas* are still floating after the Kansas City Chiefs rallied in the 4th quarter to beat the San Francisco 49ers in a pretty entertaining football game.  Interestingly, the ads had a little late-game heroics, too.  The first half was a little flat, but the ads started getting a bit more entertaining right about at halftime.
(* See the President’s tweet.)

Overall, the ads seemed to come from a different source than in years past.  While we’re used to car, beer, snacks and financial services ads, this year the ads seemed to be coming from various (and some new) directions.  It was balanced, but almost none of the ads will have anyone saying “did you see that (brand) ad?”

Here are the ads that made us grin, and alas, some that made us groan.

First, some honorable mentions:

Amazon/Alexa – some funny and interesting musings about “what people did before Alexa?”

Discover Card – a good use of airtime, sandwiching two spots around another, one for “YES” (we take Discover) and one for “NO” (hidden fees.) Shout out to the media team!

Tide – they’re kind of on a roll with the Super Bowl, this time running several spots around the theme “stains can wait.”  Even crossing over with (the now defunct) Bud Light knight.  Smart smart smart.

Porsche – the “theft” of a new electric Porsche turns out to be a “drill,” and turns out to be a wonderfully crafted ad.

Bud Light Seltzer – no snark here, but who knew Post Malone was such a good actor, and surprisingly effective pitchman?

Sodastream – big budget ad around a low-budget gag, but it was very well done.  Any time I make a huge gaffe (and it happens on the reg,) I’m just going to say “I thought it was Mark’s water.”

Doritos – anytime you can get Sam Elliott to do something funny, (and a mustache dance-off with Lil Nas X is friggin’ funny,) you’re winning.  This ad was cute and wholesome and entertaining, and probably the best branding spot of the night.  A lot of people this morning will remember that it all happened on a “cool ranch,” and that’s a victory.

GRINS:

CHEETOS Popcorn – “Can’t Touch This”
A series of situations made infinitely better because the main character “can’t touch” a stack of paperwork, a screaming baby, a couch when the movers need help, and so on.  Cleverly refrained by MC Hammer, it humorously highlights a happy outcome of eating the treat – cheesy fingers.

HYUNDAI SONATA featuring Smart Park – “Smaht Pahk”
Massachusetts natives Rachel Dratch and Chris Evans look on as Massachusetts native John Krasinski tries to park a Hyundai in a tight spot.  When he reveals that the car does it robotically using a new feature they call “Smaht Pahk,” the New England accent jokes prove a perfect explanation.  The ad, also featuring a cameo from Big Papi (David Ortiz) was indeed wicked smaht.

DASHLANE – “password reminders”
This was almost the ad of the night for me.  So funny, so well-executed, and so in tune with what so many of us struggle with every day on nearly every website where we have a password. A really good reminder that advertising, when done simply and smartly, can be very  effective indeed.

WINNER:

JEEP – “Groundhog Day”
By far, the best ad of the evening was Jeep’s sendup of the classic movie featuring Bill Murray reliving his iconic role.  This time, it’s super fun, because he gets to enjoy a new adventure in his new Jeep Gladiator.  (By the way, that is one badass vehicle.). Yes, it relies heavily on having seen the movie.  Yes, it relies on a series of animal gags.  And yes, it worked to great effect.  That it was aired on Groundhog Day makes it even cooler.

GROANS:
Some ads just make you go, “huh?”  And there were plenty of those this year as well. Wal-Mart’s “famous visitors” could have been a grin, except that they’ve executed on this concept already with last year’s “famous vehicles” ad. Hulu probably relied on Tom Brady too much (while he’s universally recognized, he’s not universally liked.) Some ads just relied too heavily on the celebrity aspect (I’m talking to you Coke, P&G, Hard Rock Hotel,) and some were just old gags executed pretty well (Reese’s Take 5.) And for future reference, let’s not sour Super Sunday with political ads, okay?  Maybe save that for The Oscars, when everyone is going to make a statement that evening anyway.

HINT WATER – “pie eating contest”
This ad was smartly conceived, well executed, and makes perfect sense for the brand.  (It’s water with a hint of fruit.) However, something in it was just un-funny and gross.  And the grossness makes you (okay, makes ME) want to avoid the brand.

OLAY – “space for women”
There were several ads that sought to highlight female empowerment this year.  (Note – God Bless America, the national anthem and the halftime show kind of proved that women rock.) But this ad kind of backfired when it made women look, um, less than brilliant.  “There’s tons of space in space” is not brilliant.  Inelegant, I think this was a miss.

PEPSI ZERO – “paint it black”
Another ad featuring two recognizable women (hip-hop/R&B stars H.E.R. and Missy Elliott,) pitching soda for Pepsi Zero.  I guess they used this song because a.) the cans are black and/or b.) the Rolling Stones let them?  Otherwise, what?

AUDI – “let it go”
For years, Audi was ruling the Super Bowl, until 2017’s female empowerment spot grossly missed the mark.  Here again, the ad uses a song that has no context, and seems to be aimed at teenage girls (-ish.)  A real head-scratcher this.

GENESIS – “young luxury”
Can we all just admit that the Chrissy Teigen experiment should be over now? I really like the concept that there’s a “new kind of luxury” that Genesis offers.  That, in itself, is a wonderful encapsulation of the brand’s strategic position.  But the devil is in the details, and Chrissy pointing out partygoers who have had plastic surgery and are hangers-on was probably not the best way to articulate that.  John Legend was kind of an afterthought here. Bummer, too, because the SUV itself looks like a gorgeous vehicle.

So…what did YOU think?

Until next year!