Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Where would you place

the line of accountability among the advertiser, the publisher, and, say, your third-party rich-media vendors?

The first line of accountability rests upon the data and influence gained during the consumer dialogue. Some just post a privacy policy, some call it ‘data transparency,’ others call it responsible business. A few years ago most everyone began asking users to opt in. Later, with the failed credibility of corporate America and the ongoing media hunt for suspect data usage, it’s more than courteous. It’s obligatory.

Now we see that any time the user steps in or around something we create, it’s more probable that they’ll be irritated than turned on. Thus, everyone on the team must understand the end-objective and build an atmosphere that (with luck and talent) reliably spits out brilliance.

The second line of accountability is toward each link of the client-agency-publisher chain, with an eye on strong relationships along the continuum. This is critical, because when something breaks, no one will pass the buck and most will cooperate in the all-hands-on-deck scenario. Without real shared responsibility, there’s only one true loser: the brand.

Popular logic states that company personnel, at the end of the day, need only feel accountable to their employer. Winning logic states that company personnel should act in the interest of their employer, which makes vital the cooperation among the publisher and the agency and the ad hosts and the IT groups and, of course, the client.

When this happens, you’ll notice the first line of responsibility is somehow automatically fulfilled.

What can be done

to address the challenges that online marketers face yesterday?

Clients must learn to rely more heavily on both their internal teams and interactive agencies to remain vigilant while they tend to whatever it is they do best.

When an audience or medium shifts, they must be ready to hear their consultants out, move with conviction, and act swiftly.

Without genuine top-down buy-in from clients, improved creative will not have the oxygen to breathe and succeed.

+METAPHOR ALERT+ The work’ll suffocate.

What challenges does the

industry face for improved creative?

Once again, the answer comes down to user experience.

With the growth of those technologies which enable agencies to engage consumers more effectively, so is some other application learning to keep commercial messaging out. Remember, with every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction -- pop-up blocking being the most basic example.

Smart creative shops with foresight will think well outside the machine to earn a coveted “brain bookmark” with their audience members. The others -- what with having to involve (heaven forbid) traditional, direct response, and other kinds of agencies -- will be pulled kicking and screaming into the real-world user’s sphere, probably recognizing too late that this was where they should have been all along.

How will web creative

-- and I'm talking EVERYTHING -- change over the next 12 months?

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.

Or, for the simple folk, only one "simplicity," please.

After a decade of adding functionality ad nauseum, Google and its stark sterility are the multi-billion-dollar gorilla. Oh sure, there’s plenty of technology under its Egyptian cotton homepage, but the site’s enormous success -- in contrast to its minimalist design -- proves less is more. Heavy on the “more.”

Certainly, Google is no more an ad unit than is The New York Times, but it’s time we stopped viewing online ad initiatives so separately from site environments; the user’s eyesight has had every reason to blur these two together. Ads and the sites they occupy have been sharing DNA for years now.

Even offline we see the iPod-itization of our surroundings. (No, not the 20 million iPods sold, which are ubiquitous.) It’s what art gallery curators worldwide have always known -- busily overwhelm your visitors and they’ll quickly exit.

The causes for clumsy interactive products are many, but to my mind, the culprit is two-pronged: first, user feedback just doesn’t make it back to the engineers and designers, so they work in a vacuum and lose touch with customer needs; and second, the immense competition for consumers leads companies to pile more and more toppings onto an already ten-pound pizza.

Online creative, as adroitly as it moves, will follow closer than any other medium. Over the next year, we’ll see the “keep it simple stupid” approach flourish big-time.

P.S. With such an evident surge toward cleanliness and simplicity, mobile devices and their users should benefit greatly (at least in the States, where we’re behind in infrastructure). After this movement is manifest, watch speech recognition software become the hot new sector. When users only have to press the “Send” button to get whatever they want, it can’t get much simpler.

Is the sea-change

in online creative gaining sufficient attention internally?

Absolutely. After the interactive agency world was forced to get over itself, those shops left standing had learned a valuable lesson: this space was never about technology, it was always about the user.

“Application intoxication” had long worn off; strategy, psychographics, trending, analytics, ROI, and long-term accountability -- basically, the factors that have always mattered to successful communicators and their audiences -- peeked back through the dot-bomb ashes.

Today, technology pretty much allows an agency to build anything but a “Save the World” button. (And we’re working on it.) Rich media, broadband access, and browser advancements have joined forces to level both the agency playing field and the creative work these firms generate. Almost every agency has its tech wizards; the late-90s paved the way for that. So technology, as critical as it is to everything we do, has become the cost of entry. Compare that to 2002. Indeed, the messaging wizards are now center-stage.

Translation: shops realize that hitting their ever-accelerating-moving targets will be mandatory -- and recognizing and reliably acting on emerging trends is growing into the agency breadwinner.

How has online creative

changed over the last couple years?

Beyond the continued expansion of broadband -- and the richer-media creative executions it allows -- I contend that the involvement of the audience itself in building, enhancing, and trafficking creative content represents the most seismic shift.

By and large, the marketing creative we build and launch isn’t truly user-manipulable (yet). However, it’s the growing expectation of the web consumer to not be spoken to, but rather cooperated with, which has changed our tone, our content, and our placement of creative.

TiVo, iTunes, podcasts, blogs, wiki’s, Flickr, Creative Commons, online prediction markets, local news media offering addresses for eyewitnesses with cell phones, mashups, anything on-demand, cool-hunting, software enabling users to change the websites they visit, tagging, mobile phone-affected outdoor advertising -- these and dozens of other examples are just a slice of what’s going on at the cross-streets of Choice and Power. And it won’t be long before the marketers who ignore their users will themselves be ignored en masse.

At this stage of web creative, the product must at least acknowledge the user’s power as authority. Very soon it’s going to have to live by it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Saab, I got me

dyspepsia. Just tell me your new tag isn't "Born from Jets" and I'll recover.

If this isn't in fact a low-grade trip, to the shop behind all this -- albeit an alma mater of mine -- I respectfully present this haiku:

"Born from Jets" is Lowe's.

Don't ever do that again.

The humanity.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Communicating, regardless

of who the sender is or how many receivers there are, is a four-layered phenomenon. That may not sound logical at first, but I contend that one message can have as many as four different meanings during the long, strange trip from the sender's brain to the receiver's brain. They are, in chronological order:
  • What the sender thinks he said
  • What the sender actually said
  • What the receiver actually heard
  • What the receiver thinks he heard
That makes the matter of commercial communications a seemingly impossible task -- the equivalent of hitting at least three moving targets with every bullet.

Notice the layers ascend in difficulty; naturally, it's easier to control your perception of what comes out of your mouth (a.k.a. speaking from the heart) than it is to control what your audience believes it hears (a.k.a. damned near impossible).

What we do for a living every day as marketers is, to harken back to school days, an incredibly expensive game of "telephone" -- except that all the kids in line passing the message are buried deep inside the recesses of our communication and perception functions. Indeed, branding is a sensory thing.

Which means building a brand requires more than making sense. It needs to be sense.

What substance mixes fastest with water? Water. You have to build your message out of the very essence of your and your audiences' gray matters, or you jeopardize your budget and potentially the brand itself.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, this blog entry isn't some hot-air ad for consumer research, though that discipline often provides a springboard for effective messaging. No, this is a plea for you to REALLY scrutinize your brand and your consumer -- and to be brutally honest with your assessment of both.

Remember, the sender represents two of the four steps in the communication process. Roughly translated: you're in control of your own house, and the receiver's is, at best, an educated guess. So, the first two quarters of your communications football game are a lock if you a) believe in what you're saying, and b) tightly control your message touchpoints. Achieve these and you'll go into the locker room at halftime with a strong lead.

I'm not saying it's easy, just that it's doable. (See anything from Apple recently if you don't believe it. Huge credit goes to the Apple product engineers/designers, to their ad shop TBWA/Chiat/Day, to Apple's p.r. agency Edelman, and to the folks at Apple who supervise and approve their work.)

Here's a less clinical view of my conjecture:

Last year, one of my buddies had a conversation with his wife, telling her that "Steve's going to become an S-Corp," meaning in shorthand that I was just about to turn my business, Brand Spanking New York, into a corporation.

Much to his surprise, his better half was visibly stunned, and a moment later, appalled. She stopped in her tracks and stood speechless outside their apartment on Broadway.

John asked, "What's the big deal? I'm seriously thinking about doing it too."

Alberta reached for a nearby wall on the verge of fainting, as John innocently told her that he might make his own design consultancy a real company as well.

"Honey, I don't think you're thinking practically," he pleaded. "It's smart. A lot of successful people start out like that. It's good for taxes. He'll be good at it."

Alberta nearly hyperventilated. "John," she exclaimed, "isn't that dangerous? Isn't it illegal? I can't BELIEVE what I'm hearing from you. I think I'm getting sick. Tell me you're joking. PLEASE."

John giggled out of embarrassment, genuinely dumbfounded at his wife's overreaction. Here were two people occupying seriously opposite ends of the communication spectrum.

Turns out, Alberta heard that I was about to become an "escort," not an "S-Corp" -- and for a moment seriously reconsidered not only her marriage but her sense of judgment. (Not to mention her opinion of me.)

Good for a hearty laugh, yes, but it corroborates my point. John thought what he said "S-Corp," and sure enough, he did say "S-Corp." But that's as far as THAT message went.

From there it became a different -- yet no less real -- message, if only for a moment. However, a moment of attention is a lot more than most marketers get from their audiences. This is the scary synapse between steps in the four-tier process. (And the basis of every Three's Company episode ever.)

The pre-school game of "telephone" had just passed along a new position on my morality to an audience which, just seconds later, found the speaker literally defending it.

So, to save your brand (and perhaps your marriage), know exactly what you're saying, who your audience is, what their predispositions are, and follow up with them to confirm they got it right.

Anything else and you might have a lot of 'splaining to do.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Do the actions of celebrity

spokesmen/women/models/criminals really affect the equity of the brands they hawk?

Watching celebs shill anything from insurance to back pain relief is a joke, and I’ve always felt, an insult on my intelligence.

The concept harkens back to the days of Reagan pimping Chesterfield cigarettes, and when I was a kid, Bill Cosby promoting Jello. What could be more American than mixing our heroes with capitalism? But this begs an important question: if a consumer actually believes Tiger Woods drives a Buick, do marketers really want to count this brain-dead prospect as a member of their hallowed target?

Thankfully, I believe the numbers are dwindling, and that fewer Americans are falling for this nonsense. (Though I admit that statement doesn't apply to youth marketing for cereals and toys, nor may it ever affect the creepy deification of logo-laden racecar drivers by NASCAR Nation. But I digress.)

In short, I think people today are savvier consumers than ever before, and so the chasm between celebrity testimonials and credibility is widening. With that in mind, Kate Moss's recent de facto testimonial for nose candy, and the p.r. firestorm it created, inflicted far less damage on her brand roster than it would have even a decade ago, as consumers are slowly waking up to the truth: celebrities have nothing in common with us, and their testimonials are a sham.

With no accountability exerted on the famous for their actions (see also: Barry Bonds, Hugh Grant, and the rapper of your choice), the brands that the rich-n-famous are paid to love are merely winning free press -- and reinforcing what we already knew: dirty laundry sells, and consequences are minor.

Now, do I encourage H&M to run to Winona Rider as a Moss replacement? No, but anything short of murder these days seems tantamount to being "cool" or at least "rebellious" in the eyes of consumers and their growing indifference to immorality, and worse, classlessness.

Good news, bad news, no news -- with the message-barrage consumers endure daily, these three are more alike than ever, practically neutering the decisions made (good or bad) by anyone on a brand payroll in the court of public opinion.

Is price-slashing killing

brand loyalty? Hardly. In fact, I could make the argument that cost-cuts ENHANCE brand loyalty. How? Simple.

Focusing on price begets brand agnosticism, and so, on one level it reverts the marketplace back to the Industrial Revolution. In those days, mass-produced goods introduced the world to product parity -- and therefore, the reliance on differentiation messaging (some new-fangled thing called “advertising”).

Now we’re left with a somewhat even playing field across the competitive landscape -- and instead of quality as the constant, it’s price. Just another denominator. This makes the “brand braggart” the last differentiator remaining. Those companies or products buoyed by the pride of their consumers will become increasingly rare, and according to human nature, more magnetic to the customers who matter most.

Thus, with rock-bottom prices minimizing the value of, say, world-class customer service, the last refuge of the marketer is the ability to focus on the old “80% of your revenue comes from your top 20% customers” maxim. In the popular vernacular, “Who’s your daddy?” Why, brand loyalty, of course.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Access. Certainly the secret

to a strong brand.

Perhaps. But then tell me why accessibility is too-often overlooked when it comes to the notion of building a robust "brain-mark" on target consumers.

We're led to believe that, on average, no one on earth is more than 100 feet from a Coke machine at any moment. The great chicken-and-egg question is: Is Coca-Cola popular just because the thirsty can quickly and easily get a bottle, or did Coke spend all that money to infuse themselves into popularity?


It's not a stretch to believe the children of the primitive Mandinka Tribe would choose Coke in the Pepsi Challenge. They've never heard of Pepsi, let alone consumed it. Indeed, to people all over the world, a white ribbon on a red field signifies "cola." Or "sweet" or "fun" or "America" or even "Christmas."

If familiarity generates comfort, the inverse is also true. Putting on my ugly mega-capitalist mask, I recognize immediately that this fact means big-time Lifetime Customer Value, long the holy grail for relationship marketers. To simplify, a customer can feel "at home" with something or someone only after dozens, even thousands, of interactions. (Of course, the product must perform over and over and over again, or putting it in everyone's hands would only expedite its demise.) Translation: $ to the nth degree per consumer brain.

The victory of the Open Source ideology over the proprietary is just another example. So is the global penetration of English, resulting in the first true international language. Everyone's invited to speak English, making it possible for a man in Perth and a man in Edmonton to do business with each other, prosper, and proliferate their own interests together -- as opposed to the French, who lord over the use of their precious tongue as if each word their last Euro. (It's still my next-favorite language, but I digress.)

I've worked nearly five years in the luxury auto sector, and between the accounts I worked on and those of our competitors', one less-than-tasteful phrase rang loudest: "Butts in seats. Butts in seats. Butts in seats."

My job as a marketer is to compel someone to actually put his posterior inside of one of these machines and try it out. +TANGENT: To do that, they have to visit a dealership, one of the few places of business that rank lower than the dentist's office on the comfortometer.+

It's not putting "marketing messages in eyes and ears," the saying is putting "butts in seats." I have to repeatedly beg someone to access the product before I can ask 'em to shell out an immense amount of money to acquire it. And even for makers of the best sedan in the world, without access, the product and the dealer cannot complete the experience cycle. That means no sales, no money, and no manner by which to expand the access net.

So next time you slide (a pocket's worth of) change into a soda machine, ask yourself if you did it -- honestly -- because you were thirsty for that brand specifically, if you were just plain thirsty, or because it was there. You might be surprised at the answer.