Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Tyranny of Platform

If you're a regular visitor to this blog, I guess I owe you an apology for my abrupt hiatus from posting. It's not an uncommon phenomenon in the blogging world, where social media that are more 'real time' have commanded precious attention writers like me maybe once took for granted. I've taken a break from Brandcowboy for what amounts essentially to triage reasons: there's simply so much else to do, and this was always only about my passion for the subject. I hope to be back at it soon. But in the meantime, I'd love it if you followed my column in Canadian Business, for whom I've been writing for about four years. Each month's column is also posted on the magazine's web site, and you can find the archive here. They're a little less raw, but hopefully no less honest.

Thanks for reading this, and for reading everything else. You've been an inspiration. See you on the flip side.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sons of Anarchy

This post isn’t about a grand theme. It’s not a cri de coeur, or a polemic, or a rant. It’s just a simple love letter to the magic that happens when sound strategy and sensitive art direction come together. You have to call this stuff out when you see it, however you may think it should be taken for granted. You have to let smart marketers know someone is paying attention, if only so that they keep doing it. Here’s the story:

The near and dear will recall that my beloved horse passed away earlier this year. It was a tough loss and he was sort of one of a kind, so I wasn’t ready to think about replacing him right away. Instead, guessing it might make for a less demanding relationship, I did the only thing stupider than owning a horse. I bought a motorcycle.

Well. The motorcycling world, it turns out, is a branding theme park. It’s an intensely tribal culture, and each tribe has its own set of approved brands, its own mode of dress, its own acceptable makes and styles of bike, and in some cases even its own prescribed pop culture regime. The language of the sport is rich and deep, and profoundly consensual. This is, without a doubt, part of what makes it so infectious.

Over the last few years, a new tribe has joined the motorcycling world, one that – believe it or not – owes something to hipster culture. Firmly retro in its agenda, it’s seen the ‘standard’ motorcycle make a comeback, reviving once obscure British and Italian marques, along with 70s-era Japanese bikes. Even the fashion world has joined the fun, with brands like Britain’s Belstaff catching such a tailwind that they’ve crossed over to the mainstream (Harry Rosen’s fall magazine even featured an entire collection of motorcycle-inspired couture). Around the world, bike manufacturers are rushing dainty retro-styled machines to market to feed the nostalgia-tinted false modesty of the urban hipster.

So imagine Harley’s dilemma.

Harley Davidson makes, I’m sure, a fine motorcycle. But dainty and urban it is not. It would seem no more reasonable to have ZZ Top modeling Tom Ford suits than to market a Harley to the hipster biker market, right? I mean, what could they possibly say that would win them a spot in the hearts of all those sensitive, The National-listening kids who probably fell into motorcycling because their Vespas were too slow?

And the smart answer turns out to be, nothing. Say nothing. Just show them you get it. That’s what caught my eye in the picture at the top of this post, clipped from Harley’s web site. Yes, they’re now building bikes for this market, but that was the easy part. The hard part was connecting with it, and they chose to do that using motorcycling’s essentially native language. Look again at the photo: the stylish desaturation, the vaguely Brooklynesque setting, the rider’s ambiguous ethnicity, his open face helmet, Warby Parker-ish glasses, rolled jeans, and vintage-y lace-up boots. This thing is a festival of semiotics, which is exactly how motorcycle culture communicates.

If Harley had even hinted out loud that they were trying to penetrate this new segment of the market, if they had called out any of the symbols and myth that define it, they would have fallen flat. Even flatter if they’d made too much of a point of BEING Harley, or for that matter too little. Instead, the writers just got out of the way and let the art director demonstrate Harley’s fluency. The result - a credible alloy of hipster sensibility and Harley’s trademark loner aggression - gives new life to a brand that, in different hands, could easily have perished under the weight of its own history.

You have to be a branding nerd to appreciate this kind of stuff, I guess. But I love it when someone in this game cares enough to consider who’s doing the talking, and to whom. And I love audacity. That’s the best kind of branding there is.

Friday, November 01, 2013

The Kids Are Alright.

When I speak to a business school audience, I expect ambivalence. It’s not that I think they won’t be engaged; you’ll rarely find an audience more so. Nor is it that I think they’ll resist what they’re hearing; they want to hear everything, perhaps more than they ever will again. No, the ambivalence is more fundamental than that. Today’s student of marketing wonders what she’s got herself into, wonders if it’s even going to be a legitimate way to make a living (at one school I visited, a faculty member estimated that half his students thought it was not, if you can imagine). I enjoy trying to change their minds. I love the raised eyebrows when I tell them that a world without branded marketing is a world without choice, and in a world without choice, a consumer would be powerless. The transformative quality of that little piece of logic tends to elevate everybody’s mood long enough, at least, to survive the post-presentation networking session.

And that’s kind of how it went this week when I was invited to speak to the marketing society at a university just outside Toronto. In fact, I’d almost got away clean when a young man intercepted me with a nagging worry about his chosen path. “How,” he said (paraphrasing here), “can I be a marketer without having to resort to invented needs to sell my product?” Axe was the brand he used as an example to make his point, but they are legion. From smelly armpits to clumpy mascara to a patchy lawn, there’s no doubt that a certain sort of marketer depends on making us feel self-conscious in order to make the cash register ring. He didn’t want to do that.

This question was a first for me, so I don’t think I gave him the most reassuringly polished answer. I ended up thinking about it all the way back to the city before clarity finally came. Hopefully you’re out there somewhere, dude… because here is the answer you deserved:

First, don’t. Don’t work for someone who makes you feel ethically uncomfortable. Trust me when I tell you that the more energy you have to spend in your career overcoming cognitive dissonance, the faster that career is going to eat you alive. There is no standard playbook for this, either. Deciding what you stand for is your lonely task, and the price of living by it will be yours alone to pay.

Second, don’t make the arrogant mistake of thinking that consumers are stupid. They are not. Provided that its product is legal, safe and truthfully presented, a prospering business means that someone sees value in it. Never put yourself above that.

Finally, remember that the way people spend their money creates the kind of world we all have to live in. The choice of a brand can – should – be about more than getting the ‘best’ product, or even whether you really need it. It should also be a vote for a certain kind of corporate behavior. Marketing today is far more about who made a thing than about the thing itself. There’s great power in that, because it makes consumers the conscience of the system rather than just being seekers of value. And it makes trust the only capital that really counts. That’s why marketing is important work, no matter what all those No Logoists with their humanities undergrads might be telling you.

Anyway, that’s what I would have said, if I’d been quicker on the draw. Thanks for asking. And thanks for being so worried about it… that means you’re going to be great at this job, and any marketer you choose to work for will be lucky to have you.

Image used under license from The Cartoon Bank

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Other Four Ps.

There’s a special place in hell for people who dispense leadership advice when they are not leaders (I think it’s right next door to the one for childless people who dispense parenting advice). It’s a topic I generally avoid, unless it’s to do with its ineffable connection to branding. I’m a marketing guy. Give me those Four Ps, and I’ll go on for days. But leading? Nah. I can’t even inspire our cat to ‘excellence’. Nor am I alone in this weakness, though most people won’t say so out loud. There’s a reason Amazon lists four times as many titles on leadership as it does, say, on auto mechanics. I, too, am less afraid of changing my own oil.

This week, though, I can’t help ruminating on the subject. I’ve just wrapped up a year of being embedded in a working team, a role I haven’t played in a long time. And by coincidence, last night I shared dinner with the leader from my past who was almost solely responsible for civilizing me to corporate life and giving me a chance to amount to something. When this kind of coincidence happens, you’re supposed to ponder. You’re supposed to have epiphanies.

My epiphany is this: It turns out that in organizational life, there is (are?) a second, unspoken Four Ps, another alliterated set of fundamentals that define a leader’s job as succinctly as product/price/place/promotion do for the CMO. And it is they, more than anything – including strategy, money, and even a leader’s own charisma – that determine whether something of value ever gets done. Consider the best job you ever had, and tell me these weren’t foundational to that experience:

Purpose. That this topic has been covered ad nauseam, including by me, in no way diminishes the truth of it. Suffice it to say, if your people don’t think they’re doing sacred work, they’re mercenaries. Watch your back.

Product. Nobody can afford to be above what they make and sell. Do your people brag about their product? Would they buy it for their moms? And pay retail? If not, terminate with extreme prejudice. Cognitive dissonance is how rot begins.  

Process. We like to think that a noble mission redeems any amount of pain, but for most people it’s not true. The march has to be intrinsically satisfying, at least some of the time, or it – and not the destination – will define you.

People. Duty alone doesn’t make a team. Neither, for that matter, will a compulsory paintball night. People have to care about each other. If they don’t, then there’s nothing holding the enterprise together except money and vanity.

I know, it seems obvious. For natural leaders, it probably is. But if you’re like me, it bears bookmarking. Leading isn’t about ideas, it’s about what gets done. And that turns out to be a pretty human sort of business. This week has been a good reminder of that. As much as I might sometimes wish otherwise, nobody can take strategy to the bank. Not by themselves, anyway. 

Friday, July 05, 2013

The devil you know.

Somewhere out there in the celestial firmament, a mythic battle rages. Mythic because it’s endless, as in Sisyphus perpetually rolling that rock up a hill or Orion eternally hunting the skies for, I guess, dinner. But this battle is between two lesser gods, marketing gods, the ones known as David “the consumer is not an idiot” Ogilvy, and Claude “what can’t be measured doesn’t matter” Hopkins. At the moment, Hopkins seems to have Ogilvy pinned to the mat. It doesn’t look good.

This epic imagery may be the result of too much coffee (in turn, the result of Sweetie’s insomniac cat), but it is nonetheless apt. I dare you to read this and tell me you feel otherwise. If you’re too excited to click out and scan the article, I’ll summarize for you: apparently, the subject-line words that are most likely to result in consumers opening unsolicited emails include “new”. And “alert”. And “news”. And “video”. And “win”.  And it seems that 60.7% of consumers can’t resist the word “sale”. And these insights were gathered from 2.2 billion – BILLION – data points. According to this irrefutably scientific body of evidence, humanity is a steaming bolus of Pavlovian imbeciles.

And it was in this moment that I finally understood why brand marketers and direct marketers will forever remain two mutually distrusting solitudes. It’s not that they’re somehow competitors, as is commonly believed. It’s more existential than that. It’s more like an Enlightenment-style standoff between the chosen belief that man is inherently noble, and the opposing belief that he is inherently a hairless monkey with impulse control issues.

The good – and bad – news about this is that neither view will ever win out. People will always have weak moments in which we think maybe a Nigerian prince really does have our email address. And we will always have transcendental moments in which we hear a great Killers track and think maybe it’s time we went for a jog. It turns out humans are at once capable of both. Marketers just have to decide which shoulder they want to perch their brands on.

Right now, all the cool kids seem to want to be on Hopkins’ team. Which is fine, as long as we don’t make the mistake of thinking the game is over. The only way that will happen is if there are no marketers left to believe in their customers’ better selves. And if that day were to come, we might be surprised at just who ends up pinned to the mat.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Both sides now.

You can probably tell by my long silence that it’s been a busy winter. That excuse, of course, is the blogger equivalent of the dog eating your homework, but it’s really true this time. Sure, I’ve had lots of work to do, just like you probably have. But these past few months, I’ve had an extra handicap. You see, I’ve got myself involved in the startup of a new business (it’s pretty cool, but I can’t say much about it yet). So, versus my usual role as smug advisor speaking truth to power and billing by the hour, I’ve been operating from the opposite point of view. I’ve been… how to put this, exactly… um, a client. Or imminently, anyway. I’m taking care of a brand from the inside, and I’m poking around to see who might be able to help bring it to market one of these days.

Well. Let’s just say that my desk hasn’t been the scene of so many facepalms since that whole Gap logo thing. Seen from without, the marketing communication business these days sometimes resembles nothing so much as a pack of five year olds chasing a soccer ball, at least if their own marketing tells us anything. But look, it’s not too late. I don’t have to make any hard decisions this week. There’s still time to change. If I were you, here’s where I’d start:

First of all, stop saying you can do all the things. I’ve prowled web site after web site until I was bleary with existential misery, trying to figure out what the hell everybody does. You remember positioning, right? Well, you might find it an easier concept to sell to clients if you commit to it yourself. Just, you know, tell me what you’re good at. But, no. Instead, everyone from graphic designers to digital shops to ad agencies to PR firms to transmission repair specialists would like me to believe that they can do ALL THE BRANDING THINGS. All of them. Strategy whatnot all the way to, you know, TV commercials and stuff. I need shop nowhere else. And, just to keep it simple, half of them use almost identical language to say so. If I were from another planet trying to figure this business out, I’d conclude that branding must be easy, since practitioners are lining the sidewalks like bubble tea cafes. If you’re wondering where your margins went, start with the illusion of oversupply.

Second, act like you want to do business. Pretend, if you must (I do remember the conflicted, sinking feeling of getting a new assignment when you’re already slammed. I’m not made of stone). But at least for this first contact, I’d like to feel like maybe you’re going to be an enthusiastic partner. You would be surprised at how rare this is. An astonishing number of marcom companies don’t even monitor their ‘contact us’ email accounts. One, a vaunted social media shop – I mean seriously vaunted, like Fast Company vaunted – met with silence two separate attempts to contact them through their own digital channels. When I finally called their San Francisco office in exasperation, it rang through to their New York one. WTF, as the kids say. Another estimable vendor's web site actually specified a minimum budget if I expected my message returned with any vigor. It had more zeroes in it than you might guess. Part of me admired the frankness. Part of me made a note to find their office and egg their cars, which I assume are exotic. It lacked, at the very least, grace. 

No, this job is going to be harder than it looks, that’s clear. The last time I was a client, you just had to hire an agency. They’d send Darrin Stephens over – the Dick York one - and we’d be shooting a commercial before you could say “pass the swordfish.” Now, branding is more like building a rocket ship than it is like writing an ad. It’s just so strange to hear the marketplace saying, “anybody can do it, and we’re all too busy.” Wish me luck. 

Friday, December 21, 2012


Sweetie has a charming way of describing the feeling you get when someone is about to make a terrible mistake and you can’t stop them: She says it’s like being in the audience at a play in which we see a clown poised with a cream pie on one side of a door, and an unwitting victim reaching for the knob on the other. I’m feeling a bit like that about branding these days. And the consumer, in case you were wondering, is that clown. To wit:

In the marketing world, we’re trained that the secret to prosperity is to follow popular culture. Stay as close as you can to the front of the zeitgeist – without getting ahead of it – and the cash register will ring. It’s usually a pretty safe policy. In fact, in Consumer Republic, I exhort consumers themselves to understand their role in this dynamic and use it to influence the path of capitalism. Regardless of the fevered conspiracy fantasies of the No-Logoists, that’s the dirty secret of branded marketing. It follows. Only very, very rarely does it get away with leading, and even then not for very long.

But every once in a great while, the zeitgeist will make a sudden turn, without even signaling. One minute the marketplace is trundling along, digesting fashion like a big, happy python, and the next, boom! You’ve got a warehouse full of unsold Hammer pants. It happens. And I think it’s about to happen again, especially to brands who might be putting too much stock in social media as a proxy for that zeitgeist.

I’m not talking, here, about social media’s uneven record for predicting market behaviors (it’s sometimes been spectacularly wrong, about everything from election outcomes to the iPhone 5), or even its still-elusive value as bellwether for consumer sentiment. I’m talking about something more basic, about how we are there. In a year of highs and lows, humanity as we observe it on Twitter and Facebook seemed to reveal itself as quick to anger, shameless in its rhetoric, irredeemably cynical, and having the attention span of a hummingbird. In stark contrast to social media’s giddy dawn, humanity in 2012 seemed strident, sarcastic, hopeless and nihilistic, and unable to turn off its caps lock key.

Woe betide the marketer that thinks this is an insight to build a brand on. It’s questionable whether humanity’s online voice ever really spoke for everybody. But even if it did, I think in about ten minutes humanity is going to get sick of what it’s seeing in Facebook’s mirror and either smash it to pieces or make changes. And if those of us trying to sell small appliances or snow tires or packaged vacations or microwavable pizza pockets decide that the way to connect with people is to share in their nihilism, we’re going to get the biggest almighty pie in the face marketing has seen since Gloria Steinem.

So, just this once, I think we marketers should ignore the meme of the human condition, and focus instead on the real thing. I think we should operate as if consumers – people – are generally good and intelligent, and that they prefer to be hopeful. Those things haven't really changed, regardless of how it seems in your Twitter stream. They’re just vulnerable right now, and that’s put brands in the improbable position of deciding whether to be part of the problem or part of the solution. I think we should pick door number two. Just in case that clown gets there first.