Back in 2007, weeks after Apple launched the iPhone, I wrote a cranky post about RIM, the makers of Blackberry. Permit me an immodest moment: I think it was kind of prophetic. My thesis was that they were headed for pain for the simple reason that they’d let their users define their brand, while they themselves had never seriously stooped to the fundamental act of marketing to Main Street. RIM considered their customers to be the wireless carriers, and most of our contact with the brand consisted of reading about what Jim Balsillie was going to buy next. This was long before the infamous service outages, the disastrous Torch and Playbook, the firing of its CEOs and the embarrassing delay of its new OS. Blackberry seemed to be doing fine, at the time. It just bugged me that they thought themselves above marketing, and I wanted to believe they would one day pay.
This all came rushing back in the past week or so, as Facebook announced its billionth user, and the company made an ad to celebrate. And what an ad. It’s the kind of branded communications I used to love, back in the age of mass media, and still miss sometimes. It’s epic, serious, sentimental, a little morally overreaching, the kind of thing that made brands like Nike great, back in the day. And not coincidentally, it was created by my one of my favourite agencies in the world, Wieden + Kennedy. Unlike a lot of recent attempts to rediscover sentiment in advertising, this one is pretty successful. Note for note, pretty great. And it’s built on the time-honoured proposition that if we can ladder a product’s benefits out far enough, we’ll discover how it makes the world a better place.
And yet it made me cringe. I’m not completely sure why, or whether it will end up having been a fair reaction, but two themes shot me back to those RIM days. I couldn’t quite reconcile the nobility of social networking as the ad portrayed it with the reality of life on Facebook, a parallel universe that is more often about narcissism and pettiness than it is about elevating humanity. And I couldn’t quite reconcile it with the company’s CEO, a character at least as publicly charmless as Balsillie ever was, the difference being that we used to read about the latter wanting to buy a hockey team, while we now read about the former shooting his own food. Wieden + Kennedy’s ad portrays the noble purpose of a company I don’t recognize, but wish existed.
I want to dismiss it in a hail of sarcasm. After all, that’s what sells these days, and it’s not like Zuck and Facebook don’t deserve it. But – speaking as a guy who’s trying to make a career out of rehabilitating branded marketing – I think that would make me part of the problem. Watching it again and remembering just how powerful a cultural force a brand can be, I think what I really want them to do is keep going. Make five more ads just like it, and then ten more. Create a hurricane of righteous rhetoric so relentless that Facebook won’t have any choice but to live up to it. And Mark the smugly reluctant capitalist won’t have any choice but to become Mark the principled leader. So, yeah, Facebook. Great work, well done. I can’t wait to see what you do next. RIM’s story is over, but you’ve still got time. To do the right thing. To make us feel good about being customers rather than coerced into it. To make us actually like you.