August 2008

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In real life, I’m told, I’m pretty funny. On paper, bound by grammar and marketing rants, not so much. Conversely, David Brooks’ “funny” comes out on paper yet he is pretty dry as a TV pundit. Please spend a minute to read his Op-Ed piece in today’s NY Times. A democratic convention speech parity, it’s a hoot.
 
As we get closer to the election, Mr. Brooks conservatism grows stronger and the gap between us expands, but his humor is cleansing. It is also disarming.  Marketers who use humor correctly and not with malice, can often create stronger selling arguments.  Humor me and I’ll humor you — even if you are trying to sell me something. Humor is not a strategy, it’s a tactic but if done well it can be an effective voice for marketing. Have any examples? Write me at steve@whatstheidea.com.
 
Peace and Happy Labor Day!
 
PS. He should have written McBushcain rather than Bushmccain. 😉
 
  
 
 

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Ad Age reported this week that WPP’s Martin Sorrell may be negotiating to buy Avenue A/Razorfish from Microsoft.  As part of the deal, WPP will offer up its ad serving (read software) business to lessen the sting for Microsoft, which way overpaid for Avenue A.   
 
Having been in advertising and software, I can tell you that this will be a good move for both parties. Software and advertising are two uniquely different businesses. Microsoft people are different from advertising people, digital though they may be. Writing software code is algorithmic. Writing selling prose is orgiastic. The latter practice is left brain, dealing with emotion and inspiration. Coders rely on themselves for answers. Sellers rely on consumers. Culturally, Microsoft and Avenue A never had a chance. 
 
Mr. Ballmer, get our of the digital ad business as fast as you can. Mr. Sorrell, get out of the ad serving business even faster. You’ll both sleep better.
 

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Absolut Relevance

In marketing circles Absolut vodka has always been famous for its ads. Today I learned Absolut will become famous for ad-inspired product innovations: 2 flavored vodkas celebrating America cities. Very inventive and very smart. The first flavors are New Orleans (easy) and Los Angeles (hard.)   The New Orleans flavor has a Cajun twist, while the LA’s is based on a mélange of berries.
 
Absolut is breaking from convention in two ways: moving away from single flavored vodka, say lemon, to a mixture of flavors. But the bigger idea is tying the flavor provenance to a city. Every city is pregnant with “flavor” (as Fab 5 Freddy might say) and the imagery associated with that flavor is what will carry the Absolut message. TBWA/Chiat/Day now has a new canvas for Absolut’s advertising, which I hope it will use to re-invigorate the spirits category.
 
One little misstep I should mention is the cause-related element of the effort. Donations are not a reason to try these vodkas and it taints the excitement. Make the launch about the flavors and the city. Selling the “flavor” of New Orleans will do more for the city than a big check on the steps of city hall. Make the donations, but make them quietly. Peace!

 

 
 
 
 

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I applaud Interpublic Group and its Emerging Media Lab for dabbling in social networking. A firm, firm believer that branded social nets will be an important marketing tool, I think this particular effort in conjunction with SocialVibe, will not work. Not in its current incarnation.  
 
Using micropayments to consumers to endorse brands, even in cause-related marketing feels forced. SocialVibe as a branded third party intermediary is where the idea falls down for me. Social nets bringing people together on marketers’ sites does make sense: Pampers talking baby ass, Milk Bone talking dog teeth. Volkswagen talking energy conservation and greening even makes sense. But the whole payment thing based on a personal endorsement — even to a cause — feels like a marketing dud. Another example of a technology looking for a marketing idea?
 
If IPG learns from this effort and creates a means by which marketers can turn up meaningful social nets, with ease, brand relevance and differentiation, it will have a winner. Though I would bet on Publicis rather than IPG in this space, I’m hopeful IPG pulls it off.
 
 

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Creating branding ideas for colleges and universities is challenging. When all is said and presented, the promise is largely about preparing kids to lead a good life and get a good job. Good brand planners take a deep look at the institution and build the idea (and platform) around its strengths and, if need be, perceived weaknesses.
 
A couple of years ago, I was involved in a pitch for Hofstra University. Hofstra had invested in some research and a brand redesign, e.g., new logo, color palette, signage, brochure templates, etc.  Unfortunately, the graphics company never took the research deck and created a message platform or brand plan, so the university decided to do an agency search.
 
Unfortunately, Hofstra never gave out the market research. My presentation was about message discipline and graphics discipline – a “How To,” if you will. We lost. The account went to a company that focused on graphics and digital asset management.  
 
Today I read where Stuart Rabinowitz, president of Hofstra, has announced the university will host the third and final presidential debate; a brilliant publicity coup.  They will derive from this event great brand awareness, momentary fame and a good warm feeling for alumni and donors. However, because it is not packaging this moment in history with its own branding idea, it will simply pass as news. 
 
Marketing and branding are about packaging the tactics…about packaging the idea. 
 
 

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I took a phone call from a friend yesterday asking for some research advice on marketing a new energy drink. A couple of investors came up with a new packaging twist that sounds like fun and they are willing to spend a million dollars for the launch. Not a lot of money. 
 
The energy drink category is certainly mature, (for a list of competitors click here http://www.screamingenergy.com ) so this venture needs a big, consumer-resonating “branding idea.”  Packaging, ingredient sourcing, bottling/canning, formulating are all exciting new product activities, but when you start thinking about spending real money, that’s when the knees get weak.
 
The fact that these entrepreneurs are just now starting to ask primary consumer research questions is a concern. Marketing is not about tagging along to trends, it’s about creating trends.  New trends start with consumers. Consumers are not the last mile, they are the first step. And every step. 
 
 
 

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I recently met with a couple of men building a company that helps small businesses update and maintain their websites. There are apparently 15 million small businesses websites and most use cousins or friends-of-friends for this sort of work.
 
The company’s strategy is to replace this freelancer workforce with a branded, affordable solution. They believe every small business website contains more or less the same content components: contact info, about, product/pricing, email and maybe commerce. They’ve codified the assessment, evaluation and solution in a way that provides a quick and effective website upgrade and content management capability which they guarantee. Brilliant! 
 
The business, however, needs to be mindful of one additional thing that is hard to codify. Not impossible, but hard. It’s called the magic. Every company large or small has a little magic that makes it different; it might be the people, an ingredient, attitude, location, or simply creative flair. It needs to be captured and presented in the website.     
 
The good news for this company is that the product is not a software crawler. It’s people driven. And the people are not off-shore, they are here in the U.S. Capturing the “magic” is the last piece of the puzzle for this company. And when they figure out that piece, they will hit the Inc. 500.
 

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Crispin Porter Bogusky’s work for Burger King, love it or not, has contributed to the fast food giant’s resurgence. I believe it’s their strategic help, especially in targeting young men, that has turned the tide more than their creative, but let’s not quibble.
 
A recent example of Crispin’s smarts can be found in its use of creative talent Seth MacFarlane to help sell burgers. Mr. MacFarlane, the creative force behind “Family Guy,” will be creating animated BK spots running as pre-roll for his new internet property called “Seth MacFarlane’s Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy” which will be distributed via Google.
 
As a believer that content is king when it comes to creative, this is a brilliant move. So long as he isn’t spread too thin, Mr. MacFarlane who really knows how to talk to BK’s core audience should kill with this creative. Watch out Mickey Ds, Burger King is winning over future fathers who in a couple of years will be driving right by the Golden Arches with the kids.
 

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Is it just me or is anyone else starting to burn out on the Geico cavemen? (And the freakin’ gecko is starting to get on my nerves too. I can’t paint the house and listen to the radio without hearing that Cockney blather every 15 minutes.)  To add insult to injury  AdAge.com  announced http://adage.com/madisonandvine/article?article_id=130330
the Cavemen are being used in a cross-promotional deal with ESPN’s Fantasy Football. OMG.
 
I yakked when I heard the caveman was doing a TV show on ABC, but this is downright silly. What’s in it for ESPN? Will women buy more Geico insurance because they associate men who play fantasy football with cavemen?  And as for entertainment value, did anyone notice the Cavenman TV showed flamed out?
 
Hope this stuff only runs in the summer during reruns. Peace!
 
PS. I’m cranky because my car got towed in Brooklyn yesterday.
 

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Skechers shoes is trying to buy Heelys.   It is another example of a billion dollar company trying to improve its lot by taking over a hundred million dollar specialty company and I hope the sale doesn’t go through.  Skechers is a nice brand that had some focus and momentum but lately has been trying to find its way; it is now less about the shoes and more about style, fashion and yesterday’s stars. The ads on the Skechers website are pathetic. I guess they can’t afford a good idea or good production, while paying all those celebrity endorsers. 
 
Heelys on the other hand is focused. They have a sizable consumer target, unique product and though it appears things have slowed for them somewhat, a tight business idea.  If Heelys dilutes its core idea and tries to expand to older kids or allows Skechers to take them over and taint the product waters, they are finished. As in buh-bye finished!
 
 

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