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.

Pepsi’s Oopsies

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Pepsi is having a bit of a rough week. On Monday, the brand released a full 2:40 second version of an ad featuring Kendall Jenner. It planned to roll out a 60-second version worldwide in TV and several other cuts for digital activations. By mid day Wednesday, the brand pulled the ad and the buys altogether.

How could 36 little hours do so much? Well, let’s look at both sides of this.

Here’s the spot:

Okay. Let’s look at what you could consider as the bright sides of this ad.

  • It’s timely and topical.
    Protests and civic engagement have indeed become a part of our social fabric, here and abroad.
  • It’s multicultural, and gender equal.
    Never a bad thing.
  • It ultimately has a kind of positive aspirational tonality.
    An otherwise peaceful demonstration is rendered even more peaceful (I guess) with music, smiling, and the culminating action when the young woman (and all that the metaphor entails,) hands the police officer a can of Pepsi.
  • It puts the brand at the center of the action.
    That’s always a good idea.
  • It puts the brand in the center of the consumers it targets.
    Y
    outhful people – totally on strategy.
  • It would likely have appealed to many people around the world.
    There are millions of people who wouldn’t look beyond the surface of this, and would likely have seen it as a “nice little movie” that makes Pepsi look “relevant” or even “concerned” about what’s happening in the world.

That’s a lot of upside.

Now, to be fair, let’s look at the many down sides.

First, this is just a terrible piece of advertising. While all of us who practice in this business (and/or teach it,) can agree that it’s important to tell a story in your ads, we should probably mention that it’s important to tell a GOOD story. This ad tells a weird and disjointed set of stories that a.) don’t relate to one another very clearly and 2. ) don’t make a whole lot of sense. It sounds kind of like a bad bar joke: “An Asian cellist, a middle Eastern photographer and a socialite model walk into a protest…”

And, as far as plot, are we to believe that this otherwise unconcerned model on a photo shoot suddenly gets interested in the cause of the protest, (because Asian cellist hipster gives her a head bob,) and then joins it, only to be at the forefront of the central action in a matter of seconds? That’s kinda hard to believe, right?  It’s okay to stretch the truth in advertising – but it should be rooted in something that’s at least mildly feasible.

Second, the ad clearly co-opts the past several years of protest memories and tries to leverage them to its own gain. When Twitter blew up over this ad, most of the reaction was centered around the #blacklivesmatter theme, since that is our most open and infected social wound, and is (sadly) almost constantly in the news along with coverage of ensuing protests.

Pepsi decides to double down on the poorly conceived concept, and in the culminating scene, the star of the spot (Ms. Jenner) hands a police officer a can of Pepsi. Which seems and looks an awful lot like the very real and very terrifying moment when Ieshia Evans was arrested by officers in riot gear on the streets of Baton Rouge last July.

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Third, this ad is derivative on multiple levels. Hundreds of tweets mentioned the similarity of the spot to the first half of this Chemical Brothers video, which uses the protest scene as a vehicle for conveying chaos, passion, violence and yes, cola commercialism. But in that video, the commercialism is sort of mocked and shamed for its essence – a protestor later smashes a TV screen showing the “commercial” being parodied in the video.

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Remember the 1971 groundbreaking commercial, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke?” That, too, was multicultural, gender equal, timely and topical (it was sort of the middle innings of the hippie generation, but extracted a message of peace and “perfect harmony”,) and showed a cola brand at the center of the action. But without the need for the hyperrealism or cheap celebrity. Sure, it was a bit of commercial melodrama, but it was an ambitious and original idea, had a commissioned jingle we can all still sing in tune and – to provide context and even a little cover – it was more than 45 years ago.  Pepsi has had a long time to learn how to do this.

Fourth. The Kardashianification of America continues. Can we get past these people already?

But here’s the odd truth. Despite all the shortfalls of this ad, my guess is that there would have been millions of people who would have reacted positively to it. Because a lot of people don’t want to contemplate the harsh realities of life, and the provenances of the day’s socio-visual references. This ad would have simply gone down as schmaltz liquor for millennials, and half of them would have loved it.

Instead, we live in a world where Twitter is judge, jury and ad critic.  The ad never got to see the light of day.  And, in a discussion with my students last evening, another important point came up:  where was the agency of record in all of this?  This ad was created by Creators League Studio, an in-house content development team at Pepsi.  Perhaps they should have collaborated with their agency cohorts for some racial/cultural/how-to-do-an-ad-that-won’t-get-piled-on perspective?  Where was the grownup in the room? Where was the let’s-look-past-Pepsi perspective?

I fully understand and recognize that Pepsi is competing in a crowded marketplace, answering to shareholders, and trying to stay on the crest of every commercial wave. But ultimately, brands have a responsibility to the tens of millions of people who will be exposed to their messages. If you personify a protest as a social event that somehow gets “better” because and when a Kardashian joins it, then you’ve immediately devalued what a protest actually is: an often dangerous and sometimes necessary means of engagement and disruption and communication activation. A protest is a very real, very intense reality. To reduce it to a convenient advertising convention is just asking for trouble.

This is especially true when the protests in recent memory have ended in actual death for so many actual activists. Can you hear the souls of the departed from the Arab Spring crying out, “if only I had a Pepsi?” No. Very much no.

Okay. Off the soapbox. To make this a valuable teaching moment, let me just say this. If a company hands you the keys to their brand and a big fat budget, yes, tell a story. But tell a good one, with good characters, action and development.  And yes, celebrate the brand.  Heck, exaggerate the brand.  You can still do rom-com and sitcom and even cheesy melodrama. But remember who and what you are as a brand, and more importantly, what you are not.  And for fuck’s sake, TEST IT BEFORE YOU DROP IT.

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.

Why would Amazon rush up to a #2 position in a category? (Hint: it’s the money.)

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One of the basic tenets of marketing, (and what almost all of my students are sick of hearing about already,) is that brands need to strive for a leadership position. You may not always be able to achieve category leadership, but you can certainly attain positional leadership: quality, price, availability, etc. Heck, leadership is so important, the concept of loss leaders is a thing.

And while leadership is the coveted spot, there happens to be some pretty cushy seats in the #2 position as well. Just ask Avis, Burger King, and Pepsi how they’re doing. Avis is the quintessential case study here, having turned their #2 status into a promote-able benefit nearly 50 years ago, and successfully positioning themselves in their category. (It turned into some pretty great advertising from Doyle Dane Bernbach, too.) Sure, these companies have never beaten out their category leaders on the key metrics, (revenue, profits, number of locations, etc.) but they have consistently beaten out EVERY OTHER player in the space.

I’m most interested in this positioning battle model since hearing the news that Amazon is entering the video content space with a new platform called “Amazon Video Direct.” This platform will allow users to upload their own content, and will even have revenue-sharing models for those who upload premium content that other users may be willing to pay for. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s YouTube under a different name. [PS – if you think you can be a video star, this may be your big chance to get in on the ground floor.  Just sayin’.]

Amazon has made a history (and quite a good living, thank you) by exploring opportunities outside its core competency as an online retailer. While purchases of companies like Audible and Zappos make perfect sense as extensions, development of electronics devices (like Kindle and more recently, Echo,) cellular enablement services (like Amazon Wireless,) and original content (Amazon Studios) really didn’t. That those products may have performed fairly or even very well is beside the point.  T

Just as a sidebar, let’s think on that for a moment:  Amazon, an online retailer, delivers original programming content. Could you imagine if, 30 years ago, K-Mart (a one-time very successful retailer,) launched a dramatic series on television? Who would have ever taken that seriously? So yay for the tech revolution and skewed boundaries!

Video content is really far from what we might consider Amazon’s sweet spot. Sure, Amazon Studios may have a mild hit with “Transparent,” as a piece of original content, but they’re not going to catch Netflix any time soon. And that may be precisely the point.

Nor is Amazon Video Direct going to catch YouTube and its billion-user infrastructure any time soon. But with Amazon’s 130 million unique visitors per month (just let that sink in a moment,) they can rush right up to a cozy #2 spot in the category, maybe disrupt a few long-held market beliefs, and add a few more zeros to their bottom line and their $700 per share stock price.