Mar 6, 2007

Admission Against Interest

First off, I know I haven't been a very good blogger these past two weeks. Combination of illness and subsequent busy-ness. Mea culpa.

Second off-- Joe Jaffe over in Jaffe Juice blogged about a survey done the other day that showed that purchases of brand name items in houses with DVRs were down 12%.

And it got me to thinking about the oft-repeated fact that four of the most successful brands of the past 10 years: Starbucks, Amazon, EBay and Whole Food Market built their brands while doing a very minimal amount of advertising.

Which, I realized is the very reason they succeeded. Because by not advertising, they allowed the sort of upscale consumers who are their core customers- David Brooks' "BoBos in Paradise"- to think that they'd stumbled onto something that the hoi polloi didn't know about.

I suspect most of my readers can relate. Remember that vicarious thrill you got back in say 1998 telling your parents about Amazon. Back when they didn't quite get the whole idea of the internet. Or being surprised that your clients in Cleveland had absolutely no idea what Starbucks was. (Let alone a half-caf skinny latte.) And this feeling of superiority, this sense that you were part of this elite group that was on to something, was enabled by the fact that none of these brands did any real mass advertising.

Their message was, instead, spread by word of mouth, by the press, who wrote about them incessantly, and by the pop culture zeitgeist that associated these brands with a particular stripe of hip urbanite. The lack of any discernible advertising meant that these brands, initially, were an insider's secret, inaccessible to the masses. I mean imagine if Starbucks had run a hundred million dollar national campaign with some target-appropriate celeb (Tarantino? Uma Thurman?) plugging their coffee. You wouldn't be caught dead there. It would have been way too mass-market, way too uncool. I mean they were trying to sell you this shit and you weren't going to be sold.

So the question is, have we entered a new era of advertising awareness, where upscale, educated consumers reject messages from advertisers because they're sophisticated enough to see through them, no matter how clever or on-target they are? And if so, how do we in the business, respond to that?

(NB: I'm well aware that all of the aforementioned brands do some seasonal and retail advertising, and that eBay now runs a national campaign. But none of them used mass, brand advertising to build their brands initially nor do they run advertising at the level their more established competitors do.)

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