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.