Monday, November 07, 2011

If you read The Orange Code and enjoyed it, you may want to deplete your savings just a little more to invest in this new book by Arkadi Kuhlmann. Arkadi and I wrote The Orange Code together and, while we went into it meaning to explain how culture becomes a brand, it unavoidably took us to the topic of leadership. It's this, I've come to believe, on which all the rest of it depends. Leaders build teams. Teams build cultures. Cultures build brands. Brands build communities. It's fashionable to talk about the latter as where marketing is going, but the elephant in the room is always going to be the person in charge. Being that person is what this book is about.

At first, when we were writing The Orange Code, Arkadi resisted making it too personal. With this book, he's got over that. Rock Then Roll is full of hard-won wisdom for leaders, without a doubt. But it's also a fascinating and honest look into what makes this particular leader tick, made all the more so by the knowledge that the three years since The Orange Code launched have been the most challenging a bank CEO could ever face. If you're a leader, or if understanding leaders is important to what you do, it's worth your time. You can find it here.

Friday, October 28, 2011

The thought that counts.

Once, a long time ago, someone gave me a nose hair trimmer. I didn’t think this was a particular problem of mine, but it was German, came in a very nice box, and bristled with elaborate engineering that promised to ease the burden of the task. These are qualities I admire, so I accepted it without rancor. The next time this sort of grooming was necessary, I looked forward to executing it with elegance while saving valuable seconds in the process. I was, of course, disappointed. You probably saw that coming. The diabolical little appliance, with all of its arrogant whirring and snipping, was as useful as socks on a rooster. It only took one attempt before I reverted to the artisanal method. It sits in my medicine cabinet still, sullen in its over-engineered ignominy. I can’t even show it off.

In fact, I’d almost forgotten I had it until this week, when Klout, the social media influence measurement people, breathlessly informed me that it had identified me as an expert in cats, earthquakes, lacrosse and the Republican party. This happy news lifted my spirits, which I needed after being bullyragged for months by Facebook ads offering to expunge my criminal record. Even the banner promoting custom-made yarmulkes served up alongside ads for used snowmobiles hadn’t distracted me from my paranoia. Either I have a secret (and interesting, in the David Lynch sense of the word) alterego, or the internet isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. I’m hoping it’s the latter. Which brings me back to my German nose hair trimmer.

There is a lot to admire about the application of math to the problem of giving people what they want. Not only does it promise to revolutionize marketing, it also has the potential to take some of the dysfunction out of the way people relate to the corporations they buy things from. But, while we’re congratulating ourselves on all this algorithmic reform, we shouldn’t forget what’s motivating it. From the first pre-millennial dotcom business plans scrawled on napkins to the present day, the algorithmizing of marketing was about making it easier. More efficient, yes. More effective, yes. But the dream, the real dream, of all this was to automate the process. To have a server chugging away in the corner doing our thinking for us, and silently printing money. We have made amazing progress, but even the most hardcore lacrosse-playing, cat-loving, snowmobiling rabbi ex-con has to admit we have a long way to go. Or so I imagine.

Not every job gets better by getting easier. Not every signal is unmistakable. Marketing is still a soft science. It’s been a source of endless frustration to marketers that the last ten yards of any really effective strategy is cloaked in mystery. They’ve been complaining about this since the 19th century retail pioneer John Wanamaker confessed he didn’t know which half of his advertising budget he was wasting. But there it is. Even as we try to make marketing more efficient and accountable, and even as we try to waste less of the consumer’s attention in the process of selling them things, we cannot forget that the artisanal method still has its place. We still have to understand how they feel as well as we monitor what they do. We still have to leave room for the possibility of surprising them utterly. We still have to spend at least some of our time a step or two ahead of them rather than contenting ourselves to be their shadows. Math can make a marketer better, but it should never make her obsolete. We still have to be willing, now and then, to say, “what if?”

As for the person who gave me the nose hair trimmer, well, we don’t talk anymore. It wasn’t the trimmer that ended things, mind you. That was more of a symptom of the problem. It’s hard to build a lasting relationship with someone who doesn’t seem to know you at all, and isn't willing to make the effort.

PS. You’ll find a very interesting take on the perils of a ‘filtered’ internet here.
PPS. My snowmobile is still for sale.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Burning down the house.

Once, at a cocktail party, I challenged a group of people with the following question: Your house is on fire, I said. Your family and pets are safely on the front lawn watching the conflagration, and you have time to save five of your possessions. What do you grab as you bolt for the door? It was an experiment designed to reveal something about how we relate to our possessions (and it failed, because I think they all fibbed. They claimed they’d grab sentimental stuff like photographs; nobody admitted they’d save their Rolex, or their Eames chair, or their 25 year-old Macallan), but it came rushing back to me this week in another context altogether as I meditated on the flight home from a client meeting. This client’s house is not on fire, mind you. But the dilemma of what to take and what to leave behind is every bit as urgent and real, and honesty every bit as important.

This organization, you see, is quite possibly about to lose its name. As a result of its pending acquisition by another company in a related business, it appears likely that the label and livery that have made them familiar to their customers and communities will change. Some people think that means a brand will be lost. That’s understandable. But as I watch the way they’re going about dealing with this, I become more and more convinced that it’s not necessarily true. Because, you see, the specter of this ‘loss’ has produced heroic introspection. People are talking earnestly about culture, about their relationships with customers, about the experience of doing business with them, about their values as an organization and a team. They’re passionate, engaged, and verbal. They’re writing things down. Testifying. United. Imagining they’ve been stripped of their name, they’re getting to the heart of what really made them such a great brand in the first place. If Descartes had been a branding guru, he might have said, “I care, therefore I am.” Like a kid suddenly realizing his bike is staying up without training wheels, these people are finally confronting the reality that it was they, not their flag, who created all that value.

Too often in this game, branding is a strategic crutch for organizations. Or, worse, sometimes even a distraction behind which an organization’s true nature can be concealed. But a brand is supposed to be the product of leadership and purpose, not a substitute for them. The last thing, not the first thing. In all the years I’ve been doing this, it never occurred to me to ask a corporation, what would you save if your brand’s house were on fire? It’s a helluva question. I bet it would save a lot of companies days worth of offsite flip-charting, and result in more than a few consultants going hungry. Standing there in your bathrobe on your metaphoric front lawn watching your identity go up in hypothetical flames, whatever you grabbed on the way out, that’s who you are. That’s your real brand.

Which I guess means I’d better make sure to save my squeegee so I can still make a living. That and the Macallan, natch.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Uneasy lies the head.

Last month, a continent apart in both geographical and ideological terms, two organizations lost their leaders. Steve Jobs announced his resignation as CEO of Apple Computer – that one resonated everywhere – and Jack Layton, only recently anointed Canada’s social conscience incarnate, passed away leaving his party and a few million pro tem “ich bin ein socialist” Canadians bereft. The air was thick with punditry. And no theme received a rounder thrashing than that of succession: Who could ever truly pull the swords from those stones?

The question says a lot about leadership, at least in these post-post-modern times. We all like to think of great organizations as giant collaborations, well-intended creative peers collegially pulling together, sharing ideas and lifting each other ever higher in a cuddly utopian festival of self-actualization. And we like to think of leaders as managers, facilitators, coaches, motivators and enablers whose responsibility is to make that happen while making the numbers. But, truthfully, this is just a myth we perpetuate to keep everbody happy in the Matrix. It’s not really how most effective organizations work, most days. Most days, they are simply led. There’s an exchange between worker and leader that offers cooperation for vision, and assumes the person who makes the most money should be held to the highest standard. It’s not very fashionable to say so, but we all expect that the boss should be the best among us. In these moments, when we’re trying to figure out how to fill that void, it’s suddenly all so clear. You don’t hear employees and stakeholders clamoring to replace their fallen leader with a politburo. Not even the socialist ones. They want a warrior king.

A couple of posts back, I wrote, “branding and leadership are inseparable quantities in the modern corporation.” I really believe, especially in consumer facing organizations, that no leader can ever be above his or her brand, and no brand can ever be greater than the moral standard set by its leader. It’s not a coincidence that the best brands are the ones with the most vexing succession problems, while the weakest ones seem to be a revolving door for self-styled professional managers. We wring our hands over the loss of arrogant ideologues, while I doubt anyone is going to lose much sleep over the loss of, say, Carol Bartz. “Growth by 2012” just doesn’t have same ring to it as “love is better than anger” or “1984 won’t be like 1984.”

When interviewed Steve Wozniak about his co-founder’s resignation the day it happened, a reporter asked him what books Jobs liked to read when the two of them were imagining that enterprise in the 1970s. The only title Woz could remember was Atlas Shrugged. Great leaders with great brands are like that. Ideologues. Arrogant. Deaf to compromise. Pains in the ass. Irreplaceable. It turns out that leadership is more Shakespearean than Skinnerian, more myth than science. And great brands, often, in the end, might simply be the collateral effect of that, a signal to the rest of us that a company we might do business with is the real thing. That such reigns end is just the price we pay for that inestimable value.

Saying goodbye to a genuine leader is tough business, whether they were the greatest CEO in capitalist history, or a stumping lefty dreamer. But the harder job comes after. Because the job of leadership is too important to squander on merely protecting somebody’s legacy. As difficult as it is to face, the best we can hope for is more than that. The best we can hope for are new leaders, so good, so authentic, so burning with hope that we’re allowed to forget the predecessors upon whose shoulders they stand. The late Ted Rogers, a formidable leader himself, would always end his company addresses with the line, “The best is yet to come.” The day that stops being true for an organization, its story is over. A sword in a stone is just a monument, and monuments are only about what’s been lost.

There’s never going to be much profit in that. Or, for that matter, much future.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Field of memes.

I’m not usually one to whip out my curriculum vitae, but this is a special circumstance. Given that someone has decided there should be a ‘digital divide’, I feel compelled to clarify which side of the damned thing I’m on so that the following screed isn’t unduly dismissed. I get the web. I do. Here I am getting the web in 1994, before there was even a Netscape (apparently, the fact that consumers were going to be able to talk back to marketers was going to be a pretty big deal. Oh, and I think we gave up on the word “interactive” too soon). I’ve advised lots of startups in the space, including very big ones like a bank and an online travel retailer and the only online grocer who achieved an operating income during giddy Web 1.0. And small ones, even as we speak, little companies with great ideas and founders with that unblinking, glistening stare that only pre-VC entrepreneurs have. I’ve even been an investor, once placing a tidy sum behind a bulletproof plan that disputed the following truth, and losing every penny of it. I’m not some aggrieved creature of the mass media age, grumping about the new economy and the devil music those kids are listening to. I’m a dude, and, here’s my truth:

Most internet-enabled, technology-driven products are ridiculously over-developed and criminally under-marketed.

What triggered this eruption was watching people trying to cope with Google+, the answer to a problem most mainstream social media users didn’t know they had. This specific example may prove unfair in the end – only a fool dismisses Google - but there are a million more where it came from. Fantastically useful web-enabled services and apps nobody has ever heard of, brilliant utilities buried layers deep in ones that thought they knew, features so difficult to explain that their creators rarely try. Nor does the problem live only online. I could argue that benighted RiM would have done well to spend a little less time impressing engineers with its nuanced improvements over the iPad and a little more of it trying to create desire. This techno-centric faith that more is better and better will win perforce has dug a deep moat around the future. On one side of it are the novelty-addicted nerds trying endlessly to impress themselves, and on the other is the rest of the world who have no idea what they’re missing. Or are tired of feeling disempowered by it.

A developer is not a marketer. Differentiation only matters within a known frame of reference. You have to have prospects before you can have customers. Search only sells when people know what they’re looking for. Viruses run their course and then flame out. Marketing still needs scale to make money. And people will always, always, always learn when they are fascinated and never when they’re forced.

As Luddite as it may seem, I’m coming to believe that the most progressive thing the tech world could do right now is innovate a little less and market a little more. It really is time that we invited regular people to join the fun. I’d certainly settle for less awesomeness if it meant that more people were going get some. Just because we build the future doesn’t mean anybody’s going to come, but if we can get enough of them to come, you might be amazed at what they’d help us build.

Photo used with the kind permission of Dennis Crowley (@dens)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Fit for a king.

What you are about to read will probably revolutionize branding. You see, I’ve invented a new organizational role that will finally, once and for all, cement brands as constitutions for corporate behaviour, and integrate marketing communications with, um, cross-functional synergy and, ah… community engagement. Or search engine optimization. Something like that. Anyway, here’s where I got the idea:

For the past week, the dashing Prince William and his bride, the Duchess of Cambridge, have been touring this fair dominion, shaking hands, complimenting people on their fascinators, and engaging in feats of derring-do. Let me tell you, going bald apparently doesn’t amount to much of a social liability when you can land a helicopter on water. And as with all royal visits to our home and native land, this one has generated the usual ritual debate over the relevance of the monarchy. I’m not, myself, a monarchist per se, but I’m still kind of glad to have the Windsors on the payroll, and these winsome kids made me ask myself why. The answer, I concluded, was that the role of a constitutional monarchy – the kind we all agree to accept rather than the kind that’s imposed on us by men with guns – is to personify its nation’s defining values. Free of politics, free of the messy, pandering process of getting elected, free of the practical exigencies of getting things done, the ideal monarch’s only job is to conspicuously be what’s best about a people. So far, at least, that’s what everybody has decided Will and Kate are to be, and so far, at least, that’s what they are.

That’s what I think brands need. Royalty. That’s my big idea. For sure, some of the best brands already have their dukes and duchesses, people who are incidentally CEOs but are mostly spiritual leaders. But a lot of CEOs just aren’t up to the job, are they. Some of them are too distracted by the demands of shareholders, or franchisees, or head offices or some other high-leverage stakeholder who isn’t a customer. And some of them are journeymen, people who come to the job with personal agendas and timetables and never really unpack their carpetbags. Distracted people aren’t the sort you want setting a moral example for your corporation. Neither are transient, self-interested ones. Both tend to produce workforces who learn the same pathologies. Neither tends to produce a particularly valuable or coherent brand. That’s where monarchy kicks in. While the King of RiM may not have exactly the ring to it that we’re looking for, I think you can still see how it would be an improvement. Even a Baroness would help Bell, and a Marquis, we can all agree, is the very least Air Canada deserves.

It’s one of my favourite tubs to thump that branding and leadership are inseparable quantities in the modern corporation. Every good leader knows that accountability is the foundation of the job. But I think too many forget that as important as it is to be accountable to your constituencies, you also have to be accountable to the idea that gave life to your enterprise. Sometimes above all. In corporate life, at least, the line between a democracy and an unruly mob isn’t held by management. It’s held by inspiration.

And, occasionally, I guess, an axe.

Monday, June 27, 2011


There are exceptions, of course. Some masked people do good things. Batman, say. The Lone Ranger. But, generally, when someone won’t show you his face, you won’t like what’s going to happen next. You know this, I know this, bank tellers know this, many dogs even know this. That’s why I was overcome with such a feeling of futility as we planted the protest sign at the end of our driveway. There were no logos on it.

Our house is on the Niagara Escarpment, one of the world’s ecological treasures. And like a lot of those treasures, the Escarpment is also host to some valuable natural resources. Around here, the two most vexing are wind and gravel. Most people we know are presently engaged in a fight against one or both of a multi-thousand acre quarry that will displace millions of liters of aquifer a day, and industrial wind farms that will render vast swaths of agricultural and natural space inhospitable to life. For a lot of people, these fights have been very personal, gone on for years, cost a fortune to wage, and remained inconclusive. And, for me, it’s hard to ignore why. In the case of the wind farms, the enemies are investment banks lapping up government subsidies and trading in carbon credits, what one New York Times writer called “the next bubble.” Behind the quarry is a Boston-based hedge fund. The corporations involved in these issues don’t sell things at the mall. None of them has a brand. Thus, they have no fear of public opinion and no motivation to listen and try to work something out. They just throw lawyers and procedural chicanes at the process and continue their work unobserved in the shadows of capitalism.

It doesn’t matter what you think about either of these conflicts, not for the purpose of this post, anyway. What matters is that the process of dealing with them has been so terribly lopsided. And that’s because the anonymity of the companies involved deprives ordinary people of democratic leverage. People like to say that the problem is simply that these corporations are rich. But Procter & Gamble and McDonald’s and Nike are pretty rich, too, yet they’re a lot more circumspect about messing with us. They’ve got skin in the game.

It’s all been an interesting reminder for me – as if I needed it – of how lucky we are to live in an economy that relies so heavily on branded marketing. A brand is like a commercial Second Amendment, turning consumers into citizen militias that make tyrants think twice. A bit like fresh water and arable land, we take them for granted, but we’d miss them mightily if they weren’t there. All those silly labels staring vapidly back at you from store shelves? That’s power, baby. You don’t need to have a bulldozer in your backyard to appreciate that.

But it sure helps.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Reflux redux.

Growing up, I remember deciding this: I will know I’m old when I start making that little grunty noise when I sit down. But, like so many of the things we tell ourselves as adolescents, I was wrong about this. I will now know that I am old when I start making that little grunty noise when asked to discuss the integration of marketing communications.

That’s what I was doing yesterday, at a wonderful conference called mesh. Attended mostly by digerati of one stripe or another, it bills itself as ‘Canada’s Web Conference’, and so the question of integration was not surprisingly bent in a digital direction. The web marketing world has suddenly realized that it’s still sitting at the kids’ table when it comes to brand building and, while it may not be clear exactly who the grownups are anymore, they want in. Prepping his panel for the discussion, the moderator – with almost palpable exasperation – wanted us to think about why in the blue hell this cross-platform integration thing wasn’t working, how it could, and whose job it was to make that happen.

Well, welcome to the grownups’ table, kids. That’s been a preoccupation of the marketing world since Dallas was a prime-time juggernaut.

Back when we all had flowing beards and wore robes and sandals to work, this very question was already transformatively vexing the advertising industry. “Lo,” said Maurice and Charles Saatchi, “verily, our lunch is being eaten by companies that are not even advertising agencies. They are public relations companies, and promotion companies, and design companies, and – shudder – direct marketing companies. Since we do not like sharing our fatted calf thusly, we will buy them all. Go forth,” they intoned, “and integrate.” And so the multinational advertising conglomerate was born. And they started integrating, all right. But for too many of them, too often, that integration stopped at the balance sheet. Clients paid too much for one stop shopping while functionally siloed agency teams fought internally over budgets and bonus targets, and the closest too many of them ever came to integrating branded communications was when their production studios, wielding Pantone books like scripture, enforced graphic standards. Then as now, there was no answer. Just a lot of competing interests, a lot of rank, parochial ambition dressed up as principle.

The fact is, and always has been, that two conditions are necessary for ‘integration’ of a brand’s marketing activity: Engaged, culture-driven organizational leadership, and a really well defined and understood brand. Then, integration happens by itself, whether you’re talking about print ads or web banners or dancing monkeys. If you have to ask whether digital media changes the integration game, you’re doing it wrong. In fact, if you’re still using the word ‘digital’, it’s possible you’re not ready for the grownups’ table at all. What technology has done to media has changed a lot of things, but one of them isn’t human nature. Branding is like nation-building: you have to be willing to acknowledge there’s something bigger than you, no matter how awesome you are at your job, or you’re just part of the problem.

So, how has ‘the emergence of digital’ changed integrated marketing? It hasn’t. Not one bit. The problem is, as David Byrne might put it, the same as it ever was. There are people who want to help brands tell their stories, and there are people who want to show off what they know how to do. And as long as the latter outnumber the former in the marketing services community, the responsibility for integration is going to have to default to the marketer. Not the answer anyone in the room was hoping for, I suppose, but there it is.

Man, I need to sit down. My self-righteous indignation is killing me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wagging the dog.

Rendered redundant following the 2011 federal election, campaign strategy gurus decide to form an ad agency. How hard can it be, they reason. If we can sell the Four Horsemen of the Whateverlypse, surely we can sell Tide. Let’s listen in as they make their first presentation…

“We recommend that you go negative right away. The polls… er, market research says that people are getting soft on Oxi-Clean. They see it as a real option. It’s important that we nip this in the bud. A preemptive strike.”

“I see. But, well, that’s not really how we do things here. We prefer to promote the benefits of Ti…”

“Sure, fine. You could go that way. If you want to be the Jimmy Carter of laundry detergents. But if you want to win, the gloves have to come off. Now, our research people have discovered that some of the people who make Oxi-Clean are vegans. We think we can leverage this against the silent meat majority. Vegetables grow in dirt. How can you credibly promise laundry detergent when you eat things that grow in dirt?”

“Well, I see where you’re going, here. But Tide gets clothes clean, as we like to say in Cincinnati. Check out these socks. Blood, mustard, grass… gone. No matter how violent your barbecues get, you’re going to look good on laundry day. That’s some differentiating benefits right there…”

“Oh, socks. That’s just great. That’s really going to rock the vote. What do you think this is, a Mickey Rooney movie? Look , if you don’t have the stomach for this…”

“No, no, fine. Carry on.”

“Thank you.” Heavy sigh. ”Now, on to the matter of personal branding. We think Tide should wear denim shirts and look concerned all the time. With the sleeves partly rolled up. Rurals and Sun readers love this stuff. It’s, like, all authentic and whatnot. And do you think it can drive a backhoe?”

“Look, this is really about getting stains out. Moms feel good about sending their kids to school in clean clothes. That’s what we…”

“Oh, listen to Norman Rockwell, here. Adorable. Really. Anyway, moving on to messaging. We want you to take your promise just a little further, give it some zing. Some above-the-fold magic. Instead of saying that Tide gets out blood, mustard and grass, you should say, ‘Tide will prevent crime, feed the hungry and cut your lawn.’”

“But that’s not actually true…”

“I feel like I’m talking to a wall. ‘True’? Really? True? Read my lips: It doesn’t matter. It just has to look true. For a week. Then, when we win and they do their first load of socks, we’ll say, ‘the previous laundry detergent left things in a worse mess than we feared and covered it up, the fascist bastards. This is going to take some time, patience and sacrifice. And public consultation. Maybe a study. Which we’d be happy to conduct for you. For a fee. And a senate seat. ”

Something to consider the next time you're worried marketing is becoming too cynical. Kind of makes you nostalgic for the Super Bowl. And branding consultants.

Heavy sigh…

Photo by Joe Hardy

Friday, March 11, 2011

High School Confidential.

It began, as revolutions sometimes do, with a small army of people sporting bad haircuts, rumpled khakis and faded “Han Shot First” t-shirts, swearing at us from conference podiums about marketing’s coming age of conversation. Though they did their own credibility no favours by using social media to report on their breakfast menus and transient emotional states, and racking up social influence points on their own obtuse scoreboards, there was no question something was happening here. Every once in while, some airline would break a guitar or some far away people would riot for democracy, and the seeming banality of it all would be briefly eclipsed by portent. The corporate world divided itself along approximately those lines, in fact: Those with imperial feet of clay, and those who madly dove in without checking to see how deep the water was, kindly making our mistakes for us. I think consumers did the same, and have been divided about the same way.

I had always put myself in the “something’s happening here” camp, for sure. Especially where the relationship between consumers and brands is concerned, this sudden leveling of the playing field was bound to produce some kind of permanent, fundamental change. But I haven’t always been sure just what, or how soon, having witnessed the fates of lots of “the death of this and the new that” false idols over the years. Two stories that I came across in the last month made the picture a lot sharper for me.

The first was an item on Google’s blog, announcing some changes to its Social Search feature. In essence, Google said, they’re going to start giving preferential treatment to search results that are endorsed by people in your social network. In other words, the credibility of people who are demonstrably, provably like you is going to weigh more heavily than it has in the past, and the credibility of the world’s billions of strangers a little less so. And the other, just a few days ago, was an article in Bloomberg Businessweek about “sentiment analysis,” a nascent science whereby corporations can keep an eye on what we’re collectively saying about them online, in real time. A nascent science one pundit reckons will soon be a billion dollar business. Corporations are about to become as nervously obsessed with their social reputations as a bunch of high school kids. Which means those social reputations must matter.

I often get asked in interviews about Consumer Republic whether it can really be true that ordinary people have this much power. And I often get asked if it really all just boils down to social media. The answers, in order, are yes, without a doubt. And no, not ultimately. The enabling technologies of social media are something we should be glad of. But what’s really happening here is more basic than this. The corporations who sell things have seen a gradual, decades-long erosion of meaningful competitive advantage in the products they sell, and concomitant growth in the competitive advantage in their brands. In other words, when two toasters are more functionally alike than different, the brands they wear will decide who gets the money. Products are just things made in factories. Those brands, on the other hand, are reputations made in the street. Sanctioned and spread like rumors, by ordinary people and their friends.

And so, finally, here we are. Like those high school kids staring at each other across the gym on prom night, one side desperately hoping for approval and the other hoping not to be disappointed. It doesn’t feel so much like a revolution as it does the way things naturally ought to be. Of course people have this power. Of course they do. They always have, except for a few brief decades when mass media came awkwardly between us like a chaperone. And brands are realizing that if they want people to dance with them, they’re going to have to ask nicely, and then behave with decorum.

Because word gets around.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Bread and circuses.

Allow me to quote the Roman satirical poet Juvenal, and thus leave you awed with the mistaken impression that I read poetry in Latin when I’m not flying jets and playing polo:

… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

In other words, if you want to keep the rabble from becoming troublesome, it might be as simple as amusing them.

As I write this, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, and the chatter online feels almost equally anticipatory of the interstitial advertising festival as of the contest itself. For most of the time I spent in the ad game, I had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it was wonderful to see what creative people could do with the handcuffs of money and cultural convention removed. The Super Bowl provided some epic moments for McLuhan’s “greatest art form of the twentieth century.” On the other, though, the whole ritual took on a sort of pagan quality, where for one day the marketing world cast off accountability and common sense and danced naked around the bonfire to see what they could get away with. In the grand scheme of things, though, I thought it was all fine. Everybody seemed happy, no harm done.

Writing Consumer Republic changed this a little for me. I’ve come to see advertising whose sole purpose is amusement as a bit of a waste at best, and subversive at worst. The idea that a brand can win us over by putting on a little puppet show rather than having a conversation with consumers somehow trivializes the democratic purpose of marketplaces. I still think this is fine when it’s confined to the circus; it would worry me a little, though, if it ended up somehow becoming a model for all dialogue between brands and the People. Liking this kind of thing too much could make us slaves by making us passive.

I really do hope everybody enjoyed the ads. We just have to remember what we were watching. This wasn’t marketing (even ad folk evade the ROI question when it comes to the Super Bowl). This was entertainment. Marketing’s job is to give us a right to vote and a reason to do it. Now that it’s Monday morning, that’s the game we have to go back to, all of us.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some verbs to conjugate. And a yacht race.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Cotton ninny.

I’m not showing you the rest of this ad. What I want you to look at is this girl’s face. She is, if she’s real, a child. Or is meant to look like one. The company that commissioned this illustration and the ad in which it appears would like you to buy cotton underpants from them.

American Apparel was always a pretty interesting brand. Underpinned by a comparatively ethical business model, they neatly assumed the position pioneered – and then abandoned – by Gap in the early 1990s. Virtually unbranded, willing to put some money where their mouths are on garment industry labour practices, they became a campus darling brand around the world. In my own classroom, American Apparel often came up as an exemplary post-modern brand, a way to declare that the wearer was above marketing. Nobody discussed the naughty pictures. They were, I think people concluded, ironic. An edgy send-up of fashion advertising. Pop art. Like a lot of people, this Newsweek blogger, for example, I was on the fence. It didn’t seem to be more than people could handle. And there seemed to be a lot of goodness in their value proposition.

Then this.

Sex doesn’t really sell. Everybody likes to say it does, but mostly that’s because they don’t want to discourage marketers from decorating their ads with attractive, underdressed people. The truth is that sex makes people like ads. Personally, I’ve never seen much evidence that it actually sells anything other than itself and perhaps the odd condom. So marketers and consumers kind of wink at each other and accept a little borrowed carnal interest as all in fun, but neither side generally loses sight of the fact that an ad is still an ad, and something in it is actually for sale.

American Apparel is well outside that arrangement now. Watching Dov Charney cathart his high school dating issues, I waver between being insulted that he thinks this will work, and worried that he thinks this is okay. Neither accrues any particular value to the brand, and more’s the pity given that the company itself has an interesting story to tell. Or did. American Apparel has become kind of like a weird old uncle who plays a great game of golf. At a certain point, no matter how impressive his swing, we’ll do anything to avoid being stuck in the cart with him.

As a citizen consumer, you can formulate your own moral take on these latest ads. But if brands are your thing, trust me. This was a mistake. Playing some kind of arrogant game to see what they can get away with, American Apparel seems to be telling us that its value proposition never actually meant that much to them. In the process, they’ll risk becoming an embarrassment to their customers rather than a choice they feel ethically good about.

Such a waste.

P.S. American Apparel invites comment on their ads at their web site, which is laudable. I just couldn't bring myself to encourage them, but you may be a better person than I, in which case feel free.

PPS. I'm delighted to see that, whether it's cause or effect, American Apparel is not enjoying the approval of the marketplace right now. Interesting read here.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Garbage day.

One snowy night over the holidays, Sweetie and I decided to curl up in front of the television and lose ourselves in a big, long movie. Somehow, that movie ended up being Australia . At 165 minutes, it certainly had girth going for it, and with growing ties to the antipodes both in my family and as a writer, I thought at the very least I might learn something. Well. The film is gorgeously shot, the kind of thing that makes you feel good about buying that big-screen TV. The cast has some bona fide stars in it, for sure, and a solid performance or two. The costumes and sets are beyond excellent. In fact, at a craft level, there is a lot of brilliant work here. And it is one of the most egregious steaming piles of cinematic compost I have ever endured. So bloated and predictable was it, so unable to get out of its own clich├ęd way, we gave up before the 2-hour mark.

While I nursed my bleeding eyes, Sweetie – a film buff – explained to me how a well-resourced project like this, populated with very competent people, could end up in such ruins. Film, she said, is the most collaborative art form there is. Every project temporarily gathers disparate independent talents who will work together for a few months and then scatter to the winds in search of their next gig. And the ability to collaborate effectively, it turns out, has nearly nothing to do with the talents or skills of the people involved. Sometimes, everyone gets the director’s vision instantly, shares it, follows his or her charismatic light, and makes it brighter. Then you get art. And sometimes, everybody just shows up for the paycheque and a chance to show off and burnish the ol’ resume. Then you get Australia.

Reflecting on this later, it occurred to me that the same dangerous turning point exists in the life of a brand. Brands aren’t movies, of course, but the risks are strikingly similar.

In the branding world, the potential for greatness is usually born in a hurricane of resistance. Someone has an idea and a vision, and they gamely fight to keep the thing alive until it can breathe on its own. From there, whether we’re talking about a brilliant brand or merely a brilliant ad campaign, it then seems to pass through three ages: a first, in which the leaders and creators are its stewards and protectors; a second, in which disciples of those people are handed the torch; and a third, when the journeymen show up. And it’s here, not at its glorious genesis, that its fate is determined. Sometimes, the journeymen want to use their skill to serve the idea that’s feeding them. And sometimes, like raccoons on garbage day, they just root around in it to see what they can use, and move on when they’re either sated or trapped, oblivious to the mess they’ve left behind.

Conjuring up examples proved distressingly easy. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, and experienced it more times than I care to. I’ve even hired the occasional raccoon myself (they always seem adorable at first, with their little masks and their prehensile paws). It’s the most innocuous-looking peril a brand will face, and the most dangerous. And where it hasn’t happened – where a great idea has had a chance to grow and thrive and make a difference – ultimate credit almost always goes to leadership. A brand’s story might have a great script, but it’s the director who makes it into a great experience. When it comes to a corporation’s brand, the CEO really is where the buck stops, and if they phone in their performance, so will everybody else. Just ask Tony Hayward.

If your brand is lucky enough to be led by its own Griffith, Coppola, Hitchcock or Allen, you might want to stop by and say thanks and maybe bring them a nice muffin. But if it isn’t, let me know. We can have them over for movie night. I’m almost positive that Australia DVD will be there if we need to rent it again.