Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Redemption Road.


The little town where I spend part of my time is home to only about 1300 people. But today, for reasons best known to the mandarins of the organizing committee for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Olympic torch paid a visit. If you look closely at the picture above, you’ll see it, held bravely aloft by 79 year-old Gertie Gowan, who walked it half the length of our main street grinning like a schoolgirl. It was a curiously reassuring end to a long, strange year.

By any rational measure, 2009 has been a tough year for anybody who depends on the belief of others to sustain themselves, and brands surely answer to that description. 2009 was the Year of the Lie, perhaps even the final year of the decade of the same name. From Balloon Boy to Tiger to Berlusconi’s assault to Al Gore’s investment portfolio to General Motors’ house of cards, things in which we’d invested some faith of one kind or another inevitably seemed to dissolve before our eyes, in ceaseless succession, into sordid, embarrassing vessels for our naïveté. It was just a little bit depressing, especially for someone who sustains himself preaching the power of authenticity to corporations like I do. If we all become conditioned to believe that nothing is ever as it seems, then I don’t know how anybody is going to build a brand anymore, much less lead a nation, say.

Like a lot of people, I’m not really a fan of the Olympic circus, even as I am one of the Olympic ideal. My wife dragged me into the village kicking and screaming to see this spectacle. But standing there on Mill Street, I surprised myself. All around me, hundreds of bundled and be-toqued people were shaking hands and hugging, cops were smiling, the village’s resident clown was making balloon animals and playing arena rock anthems on her boom box while local kids played shinny on a side street, and the village’s poet laureate and official bagpiper stood bare-legged in his kilt in the crackling -12 cold, belting out The Maple Leaf Forever. And I realized (in a moment that was altogether too reminiscent of the climactic scene from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, if I’m honest) that there is still one more thing to believe in: us. We’re tough little mammals. We’re not stupid, and yet we hope. We’ve got stamina, and yet we have a sense of humor. And we invite spectacle into our lives now and then not because we’re weak, but because we like sharing a good story and an excuse to get together. This is still our town, this world, and not even an army of philandering golfers and conniving attention whores can change that.

Thanks for dragging me along, Sweetie. And Happy New Year, everybody.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

All your base.


This was written as a guest blog for a fascinating web project called 5brand, which was created by some very switched-on branding people in Brazil. You should visit them and see if you can answer their provocative question: Could you define yourself with only 5 brands?

To me, 5brand was irresistible. I couldn’t wait to answer the question, and I did it with ease. But then, like most of the people who joined the 5brand party early, I am in the branding business. What reaction, I wondered, will this experiment get from a more typical mall-cruising consumer? Could they even perform the task?

I’ve spent the last several months working on a new book that deals extensively with the social meaning of brands. The book will contend that, in the difficult times we face both economically and environmentally, people should not turn their backs on branded marketing so as to punish corporations. Far from it. They should, in fact, engage deeply in that system of commerce. Brands, I believe, put power into the hands of consumers in the same way as democracy puts political power in the hands of citizens. Because we can choose, we control the destiny of marketplaces, whether we like it or not. And from the perspective this project has given me, I think the answers to these two questions are different.

What reaction will the 5brand experiment get from a ‘typical’ consumer, especially in North America? Tentative at best, I’ll bet. Ironic, maybe. Subversive even. And probably most commonly, they will simply decline the invitation. Consumers in this culture are uncomfortable with the fact of branding. They see brands as a shallow vanity. They worry that brands exist to manipulate them, and they don’t want to be seen as fooled so easily. And they’re more than willing to blame what’s wrong with the world today on the companies behind the brands they buy. A typical North American consumer sees himself as above brands, and as a profoundly rational creature. Not the sort of person who could summarize the essence of their character by naming their favourite computer, sneaker, cell phone, beverage or musical instrument.

Given that, if so forced, could the average consumer still perform the task? Yes, in fact. With ease. Whether people want to confess it or not, brands are a language in which we are all stunningly fluent. Assuming the brands involved are all familiar, I think that it would be a rare consumer who would look at another respondent’s answers and not feel that they knew them better afterward. I think it would be a rare consumer who could not name five brands that would provide a similarly revealing mosaic about themselves. And what makes this more interesting is the reason why. It’s not, as we might suspect, because marketing has taught these meanings to people the way your 10th grade Latin teacher conjugated verbs. It’s because it was consumers who actually wrote the language. It’s native to us. Marketers can give a brand its functional meaning, and they can try to charm us into granting them permission to make it mean more. But, in the end, the social meaning of a brand is entirely in the hands of ‘we, the people’. If a 5brander chooses to include Apple (as many did), it will not be because Apple claimed to be awesome. It will be because people like us anointed them so, and because, with our money, we fed this value judgment back into the system from which brands come.

The interesting and passionate people who built this experiment have their own motives, and they’ll learn from it what they seek to learn. But, daydreaming here in my frosty corner of the world, there is one revelation that I would love 5brand to deliver unto everybody who buys things, everywhere: Brands are whatever consumers say they are. And the fact that we ultimately control their meaning is our best hope that we might ultimately control their conduct, and the world that conduct creates.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Begging to differ.


After a week of forehead-smackingly circular debates, I would like to propose that we ban differentiation. I’d like to suggest that all brands immediately refrain from this dangerous and archaic practice, and that there be some sort of penalty for failing to do so. I’m thinking something like, say, being exclusively distributed by Walmart. Just spitballing , here. We can discuss this detail another time, but the issue is, I have suddenly realized, pressing.

Like most evil things, it started out innocently enough. The idea that a brand has to be distinct from its competitors is hard to dispute, and it’s so deeply embedded in the DNA of marketing orthodoxy that a sane person would question it no more than they would gravity. Trout and Ries, the great sages of positioning, would nod solemnly at this from whatever Olympian sanctum they now inhabit. Free marketeers would add piously that the quest for differentiation is an incentive for continuous improvement of the things we buy, and that it preserves the sacred artifact of consumer choice. There is hardly a phrase less likely to invite argument in a boardroom than, “we have to stand out from the clutter.”

But differentiation, it turns out, is like a Pop Tart. Excellent as part of a balanced diet, but probably fatal if it’s all you eat.

For one thing, I am increasingly doubtful that differentiation, in isolation, even has commercial value anymore. In the marketing world, we tend to visualize our brands as being lined up on a metaphysical store shelf alongside their competitors like a bunch of hookers in a red light district. When you look at it that way, it makes sense that you have to stand out first if you’re going to do any business. Except that I’m not sure that’s the metaphysical space most brands compete in anymore. I think brands more often are nodes on an infinite grid of what people want and who can give it to them. In a searchable world, it seems to me that ‘different’ is well on the way to becoming quaint, as is the idea of clutter.

Meanwhile, the monomania for differentiation, for those marketers so afflicted, is turning brands into narcissists. By definition, they become self-obsessed and inward looking, oblivious to the world. In clinical terms, narcissism has a couple of cautionary aspects worth thinking about here: One is that it’s a short walk from there to sociopathy, and a brand without a conscience would be a scary thing. And the other is that narcissism is sure sign of controlling parents. If you don’t cut your brand some slack and let it out to play, nobody will like it and it will never develop its own character. Which, at the end of the day, is about the only kind of differentiation worth having.

Now ask yourself: Do I really want my brand to be a sociopathic hooker with unresolved parent issues? No, I think you do not.

So, until I can convince the government to make differentiation illegal (which I acknowledge may take some time), I’m going to boycott it myself. From now on, if someone wants me to help them make their brand awesome, I’m only going to help them make it relevant. I will refuse to talk about how their brand is different; I’m only going to talk about whose life it intends to make better.

Join me. There’s still time to stop this scourge.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Faith.


Throughout the twitchy world of modern marketing, social media is, of course, the new black. And by black, I mean overcrowded lifeboat. Marketers are falling all over themselves firing up Facebook fan pages, pimping themselves out to build Twitter followings, and uploading those bacterial video thingies to YouTube. It’s an orgy of ingratiation that smacks a bit of somebody’s tax auditor dad rocking a Hollister hoodie.

And then someone comes along to show us the way. Someone German, arrogantly elitist, and resolutely stuck in the past. Someone named Porsche.

Let me set this up for you:

Porsche, iconic maker of iconic sports cars, believes it must launch a luxury sedan to stay alive. This sedan will be called the Panamera, and it’s meant to compete with the likes of Mercedes Benz. It’s tried this sort of thing once before, when it introduced an SUV, the Cayenne. From this experience, it learned some things. On one hand, it learned that there are people out there who are willing to pay for this brand, but don’t want a sports car. That’s good. But on the other hand, it learned that great marketing is not always great branding. The Cayenne was seen by the Faithful as a sign of spiritual rot for Porsche. Opportunism. Proof that passion was being displaced by greed as the company’s primary motivation. And Porsche needs the Faithful, maybe more than any other car company. The Faithful are guardians of the mythology, and without the mythology, it’s hard to get away with charging a hundred grand plus for what is, objectively, a strangely engineered, Spartan little freak of a sports car like the 911. Without the myth, there is no brand. And without the Faithful, there is no myth.

This fall, if you don’t care about cars, you might see some ads on television and in print for this Porsche Panamera contraption, and that’s all. The news will fly right past you. But if you’re a car nut, and in this particular snack bracket, these ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg. You’re going to sense buzz around the Panamera. You’re going to feel like this car is ‘important’. You’re going to want to see one, get one, and brag about it to your neighbours. And why? Because, unbeknownst to you, Porsche has for months now been turning the Faithful into an army of endorsers at least, and evangelists at best. When you ask around about the Panamera, you are going to hear good things. And that was by design.

Consider, for example, a web site they built called ’The Family Tree’, and then previewed to members of the Porsche Club of America (an enormously powerful lobby group in the Porsche world). Members were invited by its President to contribute their own personal stories about the cars they drive (“I dreamed of having one of these ever since I was a kid…”). The stories, presented graphically as a chronological tree, did three things things: They recast Porsche’s narrative as bigger than the 911, they flushed out the emotional relationship people have with their Porsches rather than the rational product experience, and they aggregated themselves into a very nice narrative context for the next chapter, the Panamera. In which the new sedan suddenly doesn’t seem like such a betrayal.

Or consider the simple little YouTube video they produced called ‘Family Gathering’ in which a bunch of famous old Porsches welcome the Panamera to ‘The Family’, released, again, just ahead of the public launch. To an ordinary person, those old cars are just a bunch of noisy, irrelevant antiques. To the Faithful, they are the Arc of the Covenant, raising the hairs on the backs of their necks and reminding them of the story they’re part of. To an ordinary person, the video is pure cornball. To the Faithful, it’s porn. ‘Family Gathering’ got fantastic pass-around on Porsche message boards. (And before you snort at the 13,000 view count, remember the size of the family: Porsche sells less than 200,000 cars a year, worldwide. As with all social media, it’s about the quality, not the quantity, of a community).

Or the audacious production of a 30 minute documentary called “Welcome to the Family”, which airs tonight. Or the dealers across North America who hosted cocktail parties to introduce Porsche owners to the new machine in the flesh, before it was available for sale. And so on, and so on. The campaign is still unfolding, and I hope they yet have some tricks up their sleeves. But, to me, the genius part is already done. The Faithful, if not all bought into the Panamera, have at least forgiven Porsche because the brand has proven it still knows who it is.

And the fact that all this got done while the company was getting bought by Volkswagen in the wake of a spectacularly hubristic effort to do the opposite is nothing short of miraculous. As for those of us who can’t afford Panameras, I think these snooty Swabians still have something to offer in the form of a pretty good example for social branding in the twitchy future.

They started inside the community they already had. Instead of advertising the car as if their current tribe of owners didn’t read or watch television, they tried to mobilize them to help out, with a message only they would really get. It was respectful, and it was smart.

They saw their brand as a narrative rather than as a fact. A brand that’s an unfolding story, an unending campaign for election, is engaging and magnetic. A brand that’s merely a proposition? Well, that’s what Google is for, isn’t it.

And they turned the campaign itself into a story informed by a single idea, patiently rolling out each chapter in sequence, giving it time to sink in, building on it, and not treating ‘online’ and ‘offline’ as discrete universes. This, instead of the customary multi-media blitzkrieg that was the ‘launch’ paradigm in the previous century.

Yeah, I know, this is a long post. And it’s less entertaining to admire a brand than it is to be snarky about it. But this one deserved shouting out. It reminded me of what a brand can do, if you have a good one and you let it off the leash. For that, there really is no substitute.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Speak no evil.


I am driving a dreary, abused little rental car today. And my lawn is deep enough to conceal ocelots.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been disappointed by a couple of very famous brands in which I’d invested both faith and cash. And I’m not just whining, here, about a lousy customer service experience or some random product quality deficiency. I’m talking about products that failed on precisely the terms in which their brands defined them (Land Rovers aren’t supposed to strand you in the middle of nowhere – routinely - whatever other quirks they may have. And John Deere tractors cost a little more specifically because they don’t just quit without warning, and Deere dealers know that crops don’t wait for parts). These things happen to all of us, I realize. And I will do what I can to exercise my consumer franchise. For my more rugged transportation needs, I have been driven straight into the arms of Toyota. And as for John Deere, word of mouth is actually still a powerful thing in a rural area like this. My neighbour has already bought a Cub Cadet.

But it got me thinking.

I can punish a brand that doesn’t mean what it says by depriving it of my own future business, yes. But let’s be honest: That can be, in this short horizon business world of ours, kind of an abstract threat. How can I make them blush with shame? How do I make them try a little harder for the next guy, even if it’s only to prove me wrong? Where is the soapbox on which I can stand for a minute and say, “The big green tractors might be awesome, but the little green tractors might be just badge engineered boat anchors”? How is it that some guy in Flemington, WV, selling a used lawn mower on eBay bears more public accountability for keeping his promises than the biggest heavy equipment manufacturers on the planet?

I think this is a gaping hole in an otherwise brilliant system of commerce. You see, a brand’s commercial value lies fundamentally in its reputation. Whatever other arcane nuances make branding interesting and get consultants all lathered up, the foundation on which a brand stands is its putative community of happy customers. When we see a big company, we assume that it got that way by succeeding more often than it fails. When we see fame in a brand, we assume that this is because a lot of people have said glowing things about it in the past. Success, whether we’re conscious of it or not, is supposed to be a cue of competence. But these assumptions only make sense if the opposite outcomes are also possible. They’re really only valid if a company can’t get big by having its mistakes go unnoticed. Can’t get famous simply because the people it let down were mute.

We’re entering an era in which the influence of advertising is receding like the polar ice caps, and with it the power to buy reputation. In its place, we’re promised a glorious future of consumer information empowerment, enabled by the internet. But we also live in an era when lots of the things we buy aren’t even built by the company whose names they bear. Brands are curating and mediating more often than they’re actually building things. That means that the provenance of a product is becoming more important than the product itself. And while there are lots of scraps and crumbs of user feedback online for those willing to slog through it to try to form an impression of that provenance, there is no repository of feedback on the companies behind those products.

In a speech last fall, Eric “Don’t be evil” Schmidt said of the web, “Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool [of false information online].” I fervently believe this. But if brands are going to be our beacons of credibility in the information age, somebody’s got to keep them honest. That somebody is us, of course. The question is how.

Cyberspace teems with geniuses who write code that rates eBay sellers, predicts what songs and books we might like, and ruthlessly assigns blog authority. Someday, one of them – maybe even one who works for Mr. Schmidt - will do the same for the authority of brands. Some late night, one of them, buzzing with idealism and Red Bull, will figure out how we can collectively, objectively keep score.

That would change everything.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

WOM in sheep's clothing.


A couple of weeks ago, I gave a speech at a conference in Colorado Springs. My hosts graciously invited me to join the delegates at dinner the night before my keynote, and I – believing ardently that the words ‘sushi’ and ‘buffet’ are poetry together – gratefully accepted. It was a lovely evening, and I met lots of interesting, smart people. Including one patrician fellow who firmly gripped my hand, looked me straight in the eye like a gunslinger, and said, “So, what are you here to sell us?”

On the plane for home, I thought up all sorts of witty answers. None, however, were forthcoming at the moment the question was asked. I just sort of stammered something about ideas and wished that lady with the cabernet sauvignon bottle would do another lap.

But however badly my Wilde-ian reflexes might have failed me that night, there was a kind of simple genius in the question: Before this guy was willing to listen to what I had to say, he needed to know if I had an agenda, and he needed to know what that agenda was. Armed with that information, he could filter and modulate whatever I said and make his own conclusions. Without it, he would be deafened by his own suspicion.

I wish there was a way to firmly grip the internet and ask it the same question.

In the last week or two, there has been a bit of a spike in the chatter online about the commercialization of social media. Lots of furrowed brows and hand- wringing on Twitter about sponsored tweets and the like. Meanwhile, the self-styled mavens of this parallel universe are hanging out shingles and promising marketers, whose budgets and nerves have been shattered by the recession, that the future lies not on CSI Miami, but at the end of a hashtag.

Which is probably true.

But in the midst of that same chatter, you hear people conniving to bury selling messages and product exposure inside Trojan Horse content. You hear it said that marketing’s way forward is to spend more money on ‘Word Of Mouth’ advertising. I have even heard with my own ears, from an estimable ‘online agency,’ the phrase, “non-branded bait tactic.” In certain quarters, at least, web marketing’s default to deception has been so blindingly fast as to make Don Draper look like an ingenue.

People of Earth: The difference between the internet and, say, television, is that any sort of deep exposure to what a brand has to say is 100% voluntary on the internet. Online, there’s very little risk that your content will be held hostage for four minutes while your brain is marinated in 99 cent cheeseburgers and geezer car insurance the way it was when you used to watch Hogan’s Heroes. Therefore, you can be transparent. You can let them understand - respectfully - what you’re there to sell because, in effect, they’ve asked. It is precisely illogical that a brand should feel it has to disguise itself in order to be heard online. It is precisely illogical that a brand has to hire shills, or create some kind of digital ventriloquist’s dummy to say things that it is somehow too embarrassed to. If you have to hide your intentions, then that must mean you believe your brand has nothing to offer people.

Meanwhile, if consumers end up learning that they should, by definition, distrust anything flattering they see about a brand on the internet, we’re all in for a world of hurt. No marketing, no brands. No brands, no choice. No choice, no economy. There is nothing after the web, kids. Brands have to make their stand, sustainably, here and now.

It’s not a crime to sell things. But it is a crime to try to fool people. And the only ‘WOM’ spending that matters is that which makes your brand experience so awesome that people can’t stop talking about it.

So, I guess that’s what I was there to sell, sir.

Well, that and some of these.

(Image courtesy of www.idiomsbykids.com)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Raiders of the Lost Art.


It’s a classic, the ageless cinematic equivalent of a whoopee cushion: Having escaped certain doom by the skin of his teeth, Indy and the girl find refuge in a cave/cellar/catacomb/flaming biplane, only to discover that they have leapt into the certain jaws of a worse fate. And that’s where the real adventure begins.

Thanks to a misspent youth, it’s this image rather than something more Homeric that popped into my head as I read Forbes’ piece last week on the explosion of spending in online media. It’s getting hard to argue that traditional advertising has seen its best days. By the estimate of the expert they interviewed, something like $65 billion will end up migrating from meatspace media to web media during marketing’s Black Swan of 2009. It’s a big number, and the gurus reckon that money’s never going to go back where it came from. Those Housewives might be about to learn the true meaning of Desperate.

The implications of this are pretty well understood, grimly in Madison Avenue bars and smugly on Twitter: Mass media are on the economic ropes. That’s bad. Online channels are growing by leaps and bounds. That’s good. Marketers are losing the ability to reach huge audiences efficiently. That’s bad. But their money is now being spent in a medium that is measurable, trackable, accountable and infinitely tweakable. That’s really, really, really good. There’s nothing a brand manager loves more than to present charts and graphs to his VP showing what a budget-optimizing little devil he is. Career-wise, you can’t do better than that. In data, there is safety.

Or is there.

I’m not so sure, but I can’t wait for this second act to get started. Because, mon corporate teamwear-clad brand manager ami, on the internets, measurement turns out to be a double-edged sword. The way I see it, all this ‘accountability’ is a pleasant collateral effect of something much bigger and hairier: $65 billion worth of marketing spending is being directed to a public bazaar in which the consumer can and will talk back. And I don’t mean Larry King-type talking back, with call screening and time delays and quaint rural accents. I mean real-time, frank, visceral reactions. From well-connected opinion leaders and inarticulate grumps alike. What marketers are measuring, everybody else is watching live. And the consumer – because her behavior is going to be so closely observed and adapted to – is about to become more powerful than she has ever been. Those people marketers are following around online will effectively be making their decisions for them, now, especially if they rely exclusively on their precious data rather than on their own imaginations.

In other words, no matter how empowering all those lovely analytics might seem, marketers might not have the whip hand anymore.

To them, I magnanimously offer two pieces of absolutely free advice: Don’t piss those people off, not if they don’t have to do business with you. But more than this, don’t bore them. You might be there to do business, but they’re there either for fun or for information. I imagine I don’t have to spell this out for you, what with you being trained professionals and all.

And as for you consumers? Well, you got what you wanted. The marketing world is paying $65 billion worth of very close attention to you, now. Make it count.

Friday, July 03, 2009

An inside job.


There still walk among us ‘branding professionals’ who believe that the consumer will think, feel and do exactly what they’re told, no matter how pointless. This kind of totalitarian arrogance, you’d think, would mostly travel in herds up and down Madison Avenue. Only an overpaid, mojito-soaked, Chuck Taylor-wearing spawn of Don Draper could have the temerity to spend decades and millions teaching one thing to consumers, only to spend millions more changing it in a fit of whimsy worthy of Kim Jong Il. But no. Ad people, at the very least, are accustomed to listening to the marketplace, even if only in the hope of praise. They usually prefer to avoid making trouble unless there’s the possibility of a Cannes Lion involved. No, the last bastion of mid-20th century shut-up-and-listen marketing is the branding consultancy, and one of them has just pulled off the crime of the century.

I’m speaking here, of course, about the announcement this week that Brink’s Home Security will be rebranding itself as Broadview Security. Perhaps you’ve heard of Brink’s? It’s a 150 year-old company in the security business, and one whose brand is practically onomatopoeic in its promise of iron-clad protection. At the end of last year, Brink’s completed the spin-off of its home security business, and though none of the rebranding publicity I’ve found explicitly says so, we can assume that this is why they thought they needed a new name. And scrounged up a reported $120 million to buy one.

And what did all that loot get them? Well, as near as I can tell, it got them a seriously cavalier attitude toward brand equity. I’m not so sure they had to give up the Brink’s name but, if they did, you’d think they would a) Have built a more obvious narrative bridge from the old one to the new one, and b) Have chosen a new one that had the same clanky solidity about it. This brand is, among other things, supposed to be intimidating. As a fellow Twitter citizen @jeff_allgood succinctly put it, “I prefer a sign in my front yard with a name I know. That means the baddies know the name too.” Instead, the new name and logo are opaque, utterly unfamiliar, and self-consciously modern and sophisticated. It’s as if the sheriff has shown up for work in capris.

And the solution to clearing up all this ambiguity? Well, they’re going to advertise, of course. With liberal references – including in their slogan – to the Brink’s name. In other words, they’ll just tell people. That should do it.

It just seems kind of arrogant. And it seems like a terrible missed opportunity.

Why do I care? Well, because I actually think this branding stuff matters. I think there’s more to doing it well than just putting new labels on companies as if brands were ‘Hi, I’m…’ stickers at a speed dating convention. And I think that doing it with integrity is an important pillar holding up the free market. So it’s a setback, a big one, when famous companies toss a brand’s hard-earned goodwill for reasons that seem from here to be arbitrary and cosmetic. Branding ‘experts’ have to remember that most of the value in a brand lies in a consumer’s autonomous willingness to understand, trust and remember it. Treat that as worthless, and one day it will be.

Then, there’ll be nothing left to steal.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Rust never sleeps.


Dear Facebook,

I’ve tried. I really have.

I’ve tried to understand your new thing. I’ve even tried to like it. I’ve tried to consider your titanic social media stature and the wisdom that it implies, and told myself that it must be me who doesn’t get it. That there is some inherent brilliance in your feature-bloated interpretation of Twitter I am just not seeing. But I can’t. And I’m not alone. Everybody I know shakes their heads sadly about the new Facebook, speaking of you in the same wistful tones they do about hot in-flight meals. I think, just possibly, you have blown it.

Because I care – and I do – I’d like to tell you a story. Stop me if you’ve heard this:

Once upon a time – the ‘70s, say - in a land called Detroit, the powerful brands who invented the auto industry were fighting a pestilence. They called this pestilence ‘the imports’, and its incursion would not stand. After conferring about the problem, they decided that the answer was to beat ‘the imports’ at their own game. “This,” said the brands, “must be what the people want. So we will give it to them, too. It will be awesome.”

And so they did. Mind you, they did not change their way of thinking. They did not change the way that they made their cars or how they worked. They did not adapt their business models to lower margin products. And, worst of all, they did not ask the people what they really wanted that they could not already have. They continued making cars as they had always done. They just made them smaller, and they called them ‘import fighters’.

And, lo, darkness descended upon the land: The people who wanted imports just kept buying imports. The people who wanted cars as they had always been felt abandoned. And neither of them was ever shown a third, cooler alternative. Nobody was happy. And the eventual decay of this industry the powerful brands invented began.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

I think this little parable has four lessons for you Facebook guys:

1. Disaster stalks a brand that doesn’t see its value from its customer’s point of view. You thought you had invented a machine that would let people who care about each other stay close. But you didn’t realize that Facebook’s slight asychnrony was part of its appeal. Opening up your Facebook account was like going home. It was a bit pastoral, a bit static. More like a newspaper than like radio. And we liked that. You should have asked.

2. Comparison is surrender. The minute you reveal that you’re trying to outgun somebody else’s standard, you’re anointing that standard. You made Twitter look like The Next Thing, when all you needed to do was be clear that Facebook is a different thing.

3. Imitation commoditizes. Someday, someone will have to make some money at this stuff. It will not help your cause if you create a situation where consumers can choose between you and your competitor and not risk losing much either way. Besides which, there isn’t much margin in commodities.

4. Marketing is still a skill. There are too many 21st century Masters of the Universe out there who think that writing kickass code is the new everything. But believe me, the big money is still in relevance. Fire an engineer, hire a marketer. Even just one.

Give it some thought, Mr. Zuckerberg. Remember, if we’ve learned nothing else this year, it’s that nobody is too big to fail.

Not even MySpace.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Consider the source.


So, there’s another ferryman on the internet’s River Styx : Bing. Microsoft’s new entry into what some people are surprised to learn is a competitive category, search. Yes, yes, I know. The propeller-heads in the audience will point out that there’s a pantload of search engines out there and always has been. They will point out that Bing isn’t even the only piece of major news in this ‘category’ right now, and will solemnly gesture to the impenetrable Wolfram Alpha as proof.

But, the fact is, for millions upon millions of people who use the internet with the same level of engagement as they do their kitchen faucets, Google is search. The hydro company delivers electricity, the municipality delivers water, the phone company delivers maternal guilt, and Google delivers answers. For all those people, Google is the public utility for finding things online. We believe, because we need to believe, that they’re almost like a government: a bit too powerful, but omniscient and commercially agnostic.

What makes this new brand interesting to me is that I think there are about 17 people in the world who could call themselves connoisseurs of search. I think the rest of us operate on the naively hopeful assumption that the answers are the answers. Our relationship with this product is based on faith. And faith is based on imputed motive. In other words, we’ll judge a new brand like Bing summarily on the basis of what we think it’s really up to.

On this score, I think Bing has some challenges, and they all have to do with the assumption that we wanted choice – and thus brands - in search. They have a lush, designery interface. They have a slogan. They have an advertising budget, and it’s twice the size of their main competitors’. And most of all, the parent of this brand is not a mythic duo of Stanford University nerds on a mission to save humanity, but rather one of the world’s largest and frankly wealthiest corporations. A corporation for whom search is but one of many profit centers. Where Google has always felt like a library, Bing feels like a mall.

I think they’re in for a rough ride. I’m not sure most of us really wanted to have to choose a default search engine. And if we did, I’m not sure Microsoft’s is the one we’d choose. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether it’s any good or not. It has to do with our natural suspicion of any brand that grandiosely promises to solve a problem we didn’t know we had.

Especially when they’ve done it before. Those of us with a little grey hair will remember the launch of Windows 95. There, at the moment when most computer users were desperately hoping the whole operating system thing would settle down so we could get on with the future, Microsoft wheeled out the Rolling Stones. And Jennifer Aniston and Matthew Perry. And Wheezer. And lit up the Empire State Building and the CN Tower. They came across as arrogant and rich. And three years later, they were in court on anti-trust charges. Proof, possibly, that of all the things you should never assume about your brand, benefit of the doubt is perhaps the most perilous.

Bing won’t turn out quite like Windows 95, I’m sure. And, partly, that’s because we aren’t quite like we were in 1995, either. But if I were Microsoft, I’d give some thought to humility. And empathy. And to listening a little harder to what people need instead of assuming they’ll buy whatever you can invent.

Apples’ already got that market cornered.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rehab.


Everybody, I’d like you to say hello to General Motors. This is their first time here, and we should make them feel welcome. General, you can go and sit over there beside Bank of America. No… not there. Please don’t sit with Chrysler. They’ve been disruptive ever since they started hanging around with those Europeans.

Bear Sterns, you can just stop snickering right now, or leave. Don’t make me call your parole officer.

Now, then. Before we begin, let’s all stand and with hand on heart recite our creed:

“We can’t do business if everybody in the world is mad at us.”

(Capital One, that’s not where your heart is. How many times have we been through this?)

Today, for the benefit of the newcomers in the group, I’d like to review the 12 steps we’ve each committed ourselves to on the path towards a new life as a sustainable business. If each of you does these things, your brand has a chance at a happy, prosperous future. And if you don't, then your paths shall be to the same ignominy as the ShamWow guy. Now, can someone lend General Motors a pen? Okay, here we go...

1. Admit there is a problem. Nobody is going to believe it’s business as usual if you keep stumbling home late at night stinking of taxpayer’s money. Confession is good for the soul.

2. Admit there is a power greater than yourself. And that power is the marketplace. No customers means no business, bucko, no matter who your tailor is.

3. Make a decision to turn your brand around. You don’t want to restore things to the way they were, and you never can. Decide to be better than that.

4. Take inventory of yourselves, honestly and fearlessly. Your license to compete in this marketplace depends on the truth of who you are, not on whatever fiction your ad agency and PR consultants create.

5. Admit to yourself and your stakeholders the exact nature of your wrongs. If your customers know that you see what they’ve seen all along, you have common ground and a chance at a fresh start.

6. Be willing to change. Whosoever is attached to the past or the status quo, cast them out. There are plenty of squeegees to go around.

7. Humbly ask the CEO to remove your shortcomings. Even if one of them is the CEO. Change can only come from the top.

8. Make a list of all whom you have harmed, and make amends. If someone is still a customer after all you’ve done, they aren’t fools. They’re precious gifts. Don’t take them for granted.

9. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible. The loyal customer you reward will have greater and more enduring value to you than the prospect you buy in desperation.

10. Continue to take inventory of your character, and when you’re wrong promptly admit it. The conversation you have to start with your marketplace now can never end. A return to silence will be judged harshly.

11. Seek through meditation and listening to improve your contact with the Supreme Being. That being the tribe of consumers who pay your bills.

12. Having had this spiritual awakening, carry this message to other lost brands and their leadership. Set an example. Such conversations may be the only truly noble reason to play golf.

Alrighty, then. I think that’s just about all the time we have for tonight. There’s lemonade at the back if you’d care for a refreshment, and AIG has baked us all some lovely muffins.

By the way, there's a jet in the parking lot with its lights left on. Let me know if you need to borrow my jumper cables.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Right here, right now.


I wrote this piece for the May 18 edition of Marketing Magazine, and it is reproduced here with their kind permission.

I came to the whole Mad Men thing late, I’ll confess. I have a snotty aversion to anything the cool kids do, and tend to sit sullenly in the bleachers until the mania has passed. But as soon as everybody stopped telling me I just had to watch this series, I rented the first season and got myself caught up. And for all the series’ craft and cultural punch, one brief scene left a particular impression on me: The snarky – and vaguely uneasy - mocking of a Volkswagen ad by the good men of Sterling Cooper. It happens in Episode 3, it doesn’t take very long, and it doesn’t even seem to end up being very important to the plot.

I’m not sure what the “Lemon” scene meant to the average viewer, but I imagine it had something to do with the great iceberg of modernity looming ahead of these guys. For me, though, and probably for any student of our business, it recalled the moment in advertising’s history when everything was about to become awesome. Advertising would become a full participant in popular culture, with all the glory and duty that implies. The consumer would be acknowledged as intelligent and powerful and worth the trouble of understanding. What we do would matter, and the best imaginable time to be in this business was about to begin: The Creative Revolution. In those exuberant few years, the business we’ve all grown up in was invented, made up on the fly by people with the guts to be excited by the sound of conventions being shattered rather than fearing it.

On the surface, I guess the contrast between that moment and this one seems pretty extreme. With the econolypse spreading like a plague, anxiety seems more sensible than excitement does. Something seems to be about to expire here, and it would be easy to argue that the ad biz is a candidate. Our track record as an industry doesn’t offer much encouragement: The last time we faced a serious recession, agencies cut costs by, as Hugo Powell famously put it at the time, “firing the handlers”. They downsized themselves by delayering, forgetting that the whole system had been built on apprenticeship. The predictable result was a meager crop of well-trained, well-mentored people a few years later, and a devastating loss of credibility. So, no, we don’t always deal with crisis wisely.

But look around. Just as in 1960, new distribution technologies are exploding the business of media. Channels to the consumer are opening up faster than we can count them, to the point where countless millions of dollars are being invested in them without even knowing how they’ll be monetized. The power of consumers and the need and means to understand them, in the meantime, have taken a quantum leap. Brand building has gone from something we did to consumers, to something we did for them, to something they’re complicit in. And a society reeling from the consequences of mindless consumption is asking itself how to be more principled about the way it buys things. At this moment, there is infinite possibility for us, and there are no rules. Everything could be about to become awesome again.

So will it? The answer, it seems to me, is tied to a more basic question: What’s our purpose? If it’s to make ads, then no. Strap on your lifejacket and brace for that iceberg. YouTube will not save you. But if it’s to keep this great conversation between consumers and commerce going, if it’s to keep the meaning and value in brands by whatever means necessary, then hell yes. It obviously won’t be easy. We’ll have to fearlessly throw anything overboard that’s not useful, even if that means our structures, our processes, our definitions of ‘great’, as well as our parochialism and the cynics who are just along for the ride. But whatever price we’re asked to pay, it will seem pretty paltry in hindsight if we can say that we did it again. Reinvented what we do and made it matter. Started another revolution.

Me, I think this is an exhilarating time to be doing this work. Somewhere out there, new Bernbachs and Ogilvys and Lois’ and Allys are waiting to happen. There’s no other place I’d rather be. Yet, not so many months ago, I sat across from a senior staffer with my own firm at the time, while they petulantly declared that they “didn’t have time to learn the internet.” I can’t imagine that the next Creative Revolution is anything but terrifying to them. So, you see, it’s a choice. Right now, only two things are certain: That our current troubles will pass, and that the future will not be very much like the present. Beyond that, it’s up to us.

While you’re thinking it over, by the way, you might be amused to know that you can follow the characters of Mad Men on Twitter.

And you thought irony was dead.

Friday, April 10, 2009

License to shill.


I heard a terrible story from a colleague this week. It went like this:

A perfectly decent marketer I know of hired a ‘social media consultant’ to help them get the cool kids talking about their brand. A sensible move for them, since these particular cool kids like to hang out on the internets. And here is what this ‘social media consultant’ was going to do: They were going to troll internet forums posing as consumers, chatting up the marketer’s brand as if they had bought the product with their own money and been converted to evangelists by its unalloyed glory.

It almost made me nostalgic for advertising. With ads, no matter how outrageous the claim may be be, at least you know who’s doing the talking.

The growth of social media has, as they say on Wall Street, gone parabolic. The historic US presidential campaign of last fall mainstreamed this stuff almost overnight. And the economy’s troubles have produced a tidal wave of outreach and community building as people connect with each other for comfort, information, and work. It’s been a perfect storm. Unfortunately, though, that storm has washed some crap onto the beach. Whether it’s the kind of shilling I described above, or fake YouTube videos and Facebook fan pages, or the practice of hiring ghostwriters to ruminate as celebrities on Twitter, scoundrels and cynics have pounced on this opportunity in a way we haven’t seen since spammers learned to spell ‘Nigerian royalty’.

For brands, I think this is terrifying. Once upon a time, you see, brands used to be like little dictatorships. They made their own rules, and they relied on propaganda to sustain themselves. But now, brands are republics. They are engaged in ongoing conversations with their marketplaces, and they rely on dialogue, transparency and a point of view to get elected and stay in office. Authenticity has never mattered more than it does right now.

But authenticity is powerless in an environment where suspicion has become the default state. Somehow, we have to resist that. With mass media running for the lifeboats in a storm of their own, the ability to connect with consumers this way might just be branded marketing’s last, best hope.

As long, that is, as everybody knows who’s doing the talking.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The peasants are revolting.


The fifth chapter in “The Orange Code” begins with one of my favourite anecdotes about corporate arrogance. It happened years back, when I was working with one of Canada’s big 5 banks. As I’m setting up for a presentation, I overhear a conversation between the Chairman and Vice Chairman of this particular institution. The two oligarchs are gazing out the window of their 68th floor boardroom, and the Vice Chairman, looking at the street below, awkwardly jokes, “See all those people down there? Those are customers.” The Chairman, a charming wag with brilliant comic timing, squints imperially for a moment at the teeming street below and then says:

“But they’re so small!”

Sadly, I’ve been able to dine out on this story for years, and it came to mind again as I read this piece in Advertising Age this morning. It’s about how America’s biggest banks have chosen to deal with their current travails by remaining largely silent, and how this strategy is doing little to rebuild either confidence or forgiveness.

Gee, imagine that. A PR tactic time-tested by pros like Nero, Marie Antoinette and Jeffrey Skilling is failing to rebuild trust, or even to distract us. Quelle surprise.

Think about it. Silent spouse: Good news or bad news? Right. You’re sleeping on the couch tonight, sport. Silent teenager? Pray it was just a speeding ticket. Silent boss? Update the resume, hotshot. Or let’s say you’re on an airplane and there is suddenly quite a lot of turbulence. Would silence from the cockpit be reassuring? It would not.

If silence was ever a good PR strategy for a brand, it certainly isn’t one now. Maybe there was a time when we trusted institutions so much that we could believe no news was good news. But brands aren’t monarchies any more. They are republics. And silence in the midst of crisis is not reassuring. It’s frightening at first. And then it’s infuriating. Here, now, in 2009, even politicians know that.

The problem, gentlemen, with observing those tiny customers only from the serene altitude of an ivory tower is that you can’t always see the torches and pitchforks.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Synchrony for the Devil.


I am not a fan of Walmart. To be frank, I think that the fundaments of this company – universal entitlement to a limitless supply of cheap stuff, and the ruthless, monopolistic driving of costs out of their suppliers’ business models – have, in the long run, done a lot more harm than good to the economy and to the planet. So it’s a bit galling to see them luck out the way they did with their mid-2008 ‘rebranding’. Apparently, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The story goes like this: In the middle of last year, Walmart treated itself to a new logo. The logo was friendlier and mellower than their previous, chunky Ministry of Greed livery. The new look also gave fresh life to a slogan change they’d made in the fall of the previous year, an admonition to the throngs: “Save money. Live better.” Design wonks were predictably critical. But hardly anybody else paid much attention.

And the Dow was above 11,000.

But it’s not above 11,000 any more, is it, kids. And suddenly, context has utterly changed the meaning of this ‘rebranding’ and made it accidentally brilliant. You see, in a time of rampant consumption and groundless optimism, preaching bargain hunting is an inherently differentiated thing to do. Of course, Walmart was never unique in this, but they certainly became the dominant and defining voice for tightwad consumerism. But in a matter of a few harrowing months, the need for frugality has ceased to be a choice for a lot of us. And so, not being a matter of choice, it thereby loses its value as a basis for branding.

And in the very nick of time, in what seems like a stroke of sheer, dumb luck, Walmart reframed bargain hunting from being a competitive sport for greedy people, to being a way of living well despite the troubles. Had they not done so, their “Always low prices” message would have become a dreary reminder to consumers of the hard times; having done so, the brand now seems to be cheering them on.

Of course, a slogan is not a brand, and I doubt it’s in Walmart’s nature to invest a lot in giving this one meaning. But the whole affair is a potent reminder that no brand exists in a vacuum.

And that fate has a funny sense of humor.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A little bird told me.


From the Things I Thought I’d Never Say department, this: If you want to know what the future of branding looks like, try asking a geek.

Unless you’ve been locked in your basement watching Bewitched reruns, you’ll know that the flavour of the past couple of years in marketing circles has been ‘social media’ , that bucket of online environments comprising brands like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter (about which more in a moment). For sure, it feels like this phenomenon has finally ‘tipped’, to put it Gladwellianly. A perfect storm of critical mass, plus the epoch making election campaign of Barack Obama, plus the legions of newly unemployed and insecurely employed suddenly networking their brains out to cope with the anxiety, has made doing this stuff seem suddenly very, very normal.

Now, you’re thinking, “Yawn. Hey, cowboy, 2006 called, and they’d like their blogging topic back.” But it’s not the fact of social media that interests me. To which you might reply, “Don’t tell me you want to write about how to monetize these spaces with ad models?!” Please. As much as I’m enjoying this imaginary conversation, don’t insult my intelligence. I think the only people who are going to directly monetize social media will be the clever ducks that build the sites and then sell them to desperate 20th century media companies like Florida real estate.

No. What’s fascinating about this environment is that you can watch how a brand really happens, in accelerated real time. It’s like one of those stop action films that depicts a hibiscus growing from seed to blossom in 60 seconds. And nowhere is the lesson more acutely delivered than on Twitter.

Live there for awhile, and you’ll see what I mean. Scan someone’s update page. What do they talk about? Well, if all their posts have to do with the mood they’re in, then you’ll write them off as narcissists. If too much of their posting is self-promotion, you’ll stop following them. If they post exclusively for the benefit of their little clique, likewise. If they’re all business, then you wont relate to them; if they’re all simply amusing, then you’ll cull them mercilessly. And you’ll judge them. For the ratio of following to followers. For the quality of their followers. For the frequency of their tweeting, and for their artfulness with 140 characters, and for the frequency with which they’re honoured with the coveted re-tweet.

But the best ones, the real Twitter geeks, have a genius for it. Read over their update histories, and you see deftly rendered mosaics: Information, amusement, heartfelt opinion, trivial personal insight, friendly support, impassioned debate, all narratively constructed as painstakingly as if they were writing code. They don’t say the same things over and over. They say everything in careful proportions, in the process creating either an authentic portrait of themselves, or a brilliantly synthetic one. Believe it or not, there are even corporate Twitterers out there for whom the same formula seems to work, and the results are just as engaging.

Put simply, in the Twitterverse, your personal brand is not a stated claim; it’s the aggregate effect of every observable thing you say and the company you keep. It is the perfect, perfect metaphor for how commercial brands happen in the post-mass media era, no matter what they told you at Cannes.

Geeks, despite the wedgies they may have had to endure in the schoolyard, might just be ascendant in the world of branding.

I really hope smart-asses are next.

Friday, January 30, 2009

And they're off!


Super Bowl Sunday is almost upon us, and NBC has reportedly managed to sell out its ad minutes, despite the economy, at as much as $300,000 a second. Madison Avenue rejoices, this being the best news since Wall Street’s meltdown freed up all that parking in lower Manhattan.

I get tiresomely cranky with the dinosaurs-at-the-tarpit condition of the advertising business these days, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love advertising. I do. I love it when it connects consumers to brands. I love it passionately when it actually adds value to those brands. But I don’t love it when it just amuses people. That’s what Janet Jackson is for.

No, I think there are two sober messages in all this: First, the reason NBC can get $300,000 a second for air time on this program is that big television audiences are a rare commodity. The nearly two thirds of high-earning households in America that use DVRs can skip the ads on 30 Rock, but they have to watch the Super Bowl live. And second, the ads have become part of the show in more ways than one. They are now consensually understood to be entertainment. It’s no more logical that this leads automatically to persuasion than that watching the game makes you want to buy the Steelers. Faddishness aside, this might be one reason why so many of this year's advertisers are using their spots to drive viewers to the web. (Here’s an interesting piece on this).

Enjoy the game. Enjoy the show. And enjoy the ads. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that all this creativity is a positive sign for the business. The Super Bowl no more signals the healthy future of advertising than the Kentucky Derby does the healthy future of horses as a commuting option. For most people, obstinate poop producers are only entertaining once a year or so, and only then at a safe distance.

And even then only as long as they’re not lame.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Televised After All.


Cynicism was hauled out into the town square yesterday and shot. (Its dimwitted cousin, irony, was spared execution and exiled to France). And as I watched the whole thing unfold on CNN from a barstool at Philadelphia International Airport, every break to commercial felt like a pie in the face. All of a sudden, the detached, puerile slacker humor that advertising has used to cover its embarrassment for the last decade or so looks ridiculous. Looking around at the upturned faces in the bar, I had the very strong feeling that American self-esteem was recovering very quickly indeed, and one casualty might just be their tolerance for being treated like greedy morons by the people who are trying to sell them things.

Hey, a guy can hope.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Authors@Google hosts The Orange Code.

Arkadi Kuhlmann and I were invited to speak at an Authors@Google talk in New York last November, and the video was posted yesterday. Authors@Google is kind of like a lunch 'n learn, except lunch gets prepared by, oh, say, Mario Bartali. And the guest speaker is, oh, say, Barack Obama.

Or us.



And lunch really was delicious.