Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Battle of Our Den

Does war change branding? Does it modify brands themselves? Well of course. The short answer is that war changes everything. (And on the totem pole of your, my, and Maslow’s hierarchy of anything, branding is of absolute zero importance in comparison to, say, death.)

So, yeah, sitting on our full-scale arses absorbing military conflict on every channel has the canny ability to transform the perception of messages and the thinking that surrounds them — mostly and evidently on the receiver’s side of the equation.

Because brands are merely the stories our brains report to us when appropriately stimulated, the frenetic, DEFCON 5 delivery of messages that happen in life during wartime tend to shift a promise like “Whiter Teeth in 14 Days” down a few notches on the importance scale.

I’ve never supposed that the human brain can only accept a finite amount of information; rather, I subscribe to the belief that the mind has a self-protection mode wherein it raises the criteria required to begin recording stories. You may have also heard this called “modern life.”

For a related perspective, just look at the depths to which non-hurricane-related charitable donations dropped last year after the amazing city of New Orleans was put on life support. Nicknamed the “Katrina Effect,” our usually generous nation felt temporarily immune to pleas for breast cancer research dollars and AIDS walks sponsorships. Indeed, the collective brain could only consent to the same message so many times before shutting out all of them.

And that was just mother nature doing her thing — twist the screws that much harder when it’s humans killing each other (and often themselves in the process) on TV, and we’re rendered numb to the whole concept. As a result, we’re anaesthetized to the ideas of every subject lower on the hierarchy. It’s just our “self-preservation mode” in action, the one that allows people like me to fall asleep in my New York City apartment with car horns blaring on the street below at all hours while my friends, visiting from the Midwest, lay awake wide-eyed until morning. People simply acclimate to their surroundings and adjust their importance criteria accordingly. That’s just the brain. If you don’t like it, donate it to the nearest university.

Okay, now to the ideology of war.

That “i” word has kinda been mutated in the last few decades here in the States. What once meant “belief system” or “principles” has been pulled cursing and screaming into a definition akin to a political calling card, or worse, a moral platform. Chalk it up to the religious wrong.

Branding, as it’s widely defined, is merely a subset of “ideology.” War shifts a nation's ideology to the short-term pragmatism of achieving military goals. In my opinion (and I’m not alone), the most effective and impactful branding campaign in history is what a failed artist from Austria so originally appointed the ‘third reich.’ Wanna talk ideology, influence, mindshare, and results? Look no further than the goose-stepping morons’ 1933 public speeches, their subsequent brainwashing of millions, and the 1938 Time Man of the Year. Those were pre-WWII events, yes, but they were also the causes and fuels for the war following “the war to end all wars.” We know what happened next to 55 million human beings, their families, and the modern world in general.

Branding “good” and “evil” plays a key role in gaining support for everything from poker sites to police actions in Vietnam. We see it every day: Coke vs. Pepsi, Microsoft vs. Apple, Nike vs. adidas. But when it’s someone’s son vs. someone else’s son, our country vs. yours, it takes on abnormal gravity.

The Three C’s of branding are called up for their tour of duty: first, a launch awareness initiative; second, the consideration drivers; next, purchase promotions.

Clarity, Consistency, and Constancy report for the long campaign in the mindshare theatre. Soldiers, voters, and mothers are asked to buy the battle with messages as clear and consistent as they are constant. Welcome to branding, Patton-style. Do it long enough and voilá. People actually find themselves WANTING it to happen. (And hey, tell the Defense Secretary that a massive media buy won’t be necessary. Unlike the days of propaganda posters and newsreels, cable news vehicles will provide 24-hour coverage — er, ad spots — supporting the campaign; for no media dollars, that’s a helluva return on investment.)

Unfortunately, war has become the defining characteristic (brand) of all generations since the Spanish-American. Mine (stupidly titled Generation X) was the first without one. Oh, but we made up for it in spades, ain’t we.

Yeah, every pair-o-decades needs something to define itself. I guess the only spot powerful enough to help us belong is the blood kind.

Just think, for a moment, about the most influential, best educated, highest numbered generation of them all — my parents and millions of Americans like them, born a few months after our boys came home from saving the world from itself.

Does war brand? Just ask some Baby Boomers. Then ask their parents about target audience.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

There’s Breakfast

at Tiffany’s, the classic that turned 45 this year, and just as many stomachs. The Coca-Cola Kid hung out with Cadillac Man before packing a Colt .45 and standing in line to see Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

Okay, that was as subtle as an Ayn Rand dialogue; the nearest cadaver’s id and superego got the point. Still, before brands grew up (and for good reason, paranoid), it was kinda neat-o for a feature film to use a product name in its title. Gosh, that’s swell, marketers thought. They like us. They really really like us.

Hell — even this summer, when The Devil Wears Prada, the anti-christ will have never enjoyed so much target demo mindshare.

But just like most things, the innocence of brand inclusion went the way of the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man long ago. Recently, it’s taken a turn for the weird. I guess in some ways this trend kinda reminds me of the creepy hero-worship feeling I had when I watched Hollywood slobber all over #23 in Space Jam. Michael Jordan was the supernatural focus of the animated subject matter, yes; but in actuality, the whole thing ended up a superliminal music-video-tisement for the coming of the logo Jumpman.

But I digest. Well, that was, until I saw the title of the upcoming United 93.

Now I’m not about to launch into a 9/11 diatribe that could instantly consume every precious petabyte on the web and bring the whole damn thing down for a few seconds. (I watched the planes hit that morning from the street below, so this isn’t some pedantic attempt at shock blog bullshit; I’m forever distorted.) Rather, I'll just make a calm prediction.

But before I do, I want to admit openly that I don’t know what the official licensing agreement is (if there is one) between United Airlines and Universal Pictures. And that’s not for lack of looking.

Now here it is (and you read it here first): someday brands will pay NOT to be involved — in writ, mention, or image — with media vehicles.

Go to the site and just look at the title logo. Then read below it — “From the Acclaimed Director of Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy.”

Someone other than Holly Golightly, please make me understand.

I know I represent the mere fractional percentage of the U.S. population that witnessed the New York, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania events first-hand — so I and others like me make for an audience disincentive that’s laughable by Hollywood standards. All the same, without a clear, upfront message of cinema proceeds going to charity or some such cause, I'm going on-record as saying I’m so nauseated by the idea of the movie, of the title, of the consummation of United Airlines and Universal Pictures, of the Ameri-common betrayal/alienation of the thousands lost and their families, that I (of all loudmouths) am at a loss for words.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

White. The official color

of Gen-X yuppies. No, not skin color. Brand color.

Thank the iPod, the little device that could. And did.

This machine's proof-positive that certain brands travel in packs. Apple, Volkswagen, J.Crew, Puma — look at ANYTHING any of these companies (and others) have marketed in the past year and I bet you’ll see something that looks straight out of Warhol’s White-on-White period. Interesting, as they all share the exact same target demographics. Hmmm.

“Vacant, vacuous Hollywood was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into. Plastic. White-on-white.”
—Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism

The Gap's in-house agency could've made that quote. In fact, their addiction to the white stuff pre-dated the iPod (i.e., their late-90s/early-00s campaigns). But it took the iPod to inseminate the global "cool" culture with white. My guess is that it's the result of a Holy Trinity effect that manufacturers/marketers of any product anywhere would do anything to have happen to them — the combination of Apple's effective marketing visuals à la TBWA/Chiat/Day (contrasting the white machine and earphone cord against the black silhouette of the listener); the fact that they're EVERYWHERE today (easily noticed because the white sticks out like a sore jog-wheel thumb); and that the product is effin' great.

Not only has the iPod mutated the music and computer industries in its wake, but fashion and advertising too. Everything’s gone white.

White shoes and suits are no longer the domain of used car hucksters or lounge lizards. And it ain’t just for after Memorial Day anymore. Anything with wires inside seems to be white outside. Every VW you've seen in the last two TV campaigns has been white. Every :15 spot comprising the latest Puma TV campaign is set in a white seamless soundstage using white stage props.

The iPod has done this, and I find that incredible. White is now the new black (high fashion) or silver (high technology). Something as out-of-nowhere as a portable MP3 player has now made the distinct lack of color THE color. And the yuppie-friendly brands which all chase me (yes, I’m a slobbering fan of all of them) have blindly followed suit.

Come on, guys. Have some guts. Use your intuition. Find some calling card of your own. The iPod’s amazing success has made a cottage industry of white paint, but it’s whitewashing (er, homogenizing) message-senders and their wares. It’s almost embarrassing to me as a marketer to witness these amazing marques all coalescing to capitalize on the “idea of white” begun by Apple, the king brand of all VW-drivin, soccer-lovin, Puma-wearin, Europe-travelin, slightly artsy yet safe clothes and hairdo and music-ownin Gen-Xers.

Again, I hate to admit that I’m one of them. Which may have been why I was recently asked by someone who doesn’t even work in commercial communications, “Why do you think so many Apple users drive VWs?” His consumer intuition spider-sense was right on. And the riot of white that’s ensued has only made the ugly truth of bedfellow-brand-imitation more obvious.

Come to think of it, sheep are white.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Another speaking engagement —

and this time, at the incredible Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale for the AAAA Management Conference for Agency CEOs.

No, I didn't win a contest in hell and become an agency CEO.

And yes, a certain luxury auto manufacturer has been keeping us busier than a shredder at BALCO; but not so much so I couldn't accept the invitation. The Phoenician is amazing, and our moderator Mike Donahue is cool as hell and has so much ad industry experience that I walk away 32% wiser every time we talk.

As well, you should know that a branding discussion this was not. My onlookers were CEOs, and as such, weren't jonesing for the latest creative tactics per se. Rather, I figured they'd respond stronger to a more holistic view of creative — a service offering that drives ROI and upsells clients.

Nauseate by viewing my opening remarks. (For some reason, Firefox doesn't agree with this link.)