May 29, 2009

What Marketers Can Learn From Celebrities

While inanimate brands may occasionally get into trouble, they’ve got nothing on the very human brands known as celebrities. From drug arrests to illicit canoodling, we can pretty much count on our famous friends to mess up in one way or another.

Yet we love them despite their errors. Well, most of them, anyway. And there’s a lesson in that love that many brands can learn from.

Celeb love has three things going for it:

  1. POPULARITY: Celebrities have fans who really like them and so are willing to forgive them the occasional slip-up. This is key: a popular celebrity is far more likely to be forgiven than an unpopular one. And the public can turn on you quickly if you’re not showing them some love. Brands too, can recover far more quickly from social media setbacks (Motrin Moms, Dominos) if we’re been mostly thinking good thoughts about them. Otherwise, it’s just seen as further proof that our dislike is justified. (Just like celebs.)
  2. CONFESSION: They’re willing to admit their mistakes. The tearful celeb promising not to abuse drugs/their spouse/their hotel room is so familiar as to become a cliché. But we love forgiveness: it’s in our DNA. And so long as the celeb seems sincere about their apology, we’ll give them a free pass. (Well, a couple of times anyway.) Brands too, need to be willing to admit their mistakes, apologize and move on. The public is far more forgiving than you realize. And everyone loves a reformed sinner.
  3. LOW EXPECTATIONS: We expect celebs to be less than perfect. We’re used to them messing up time and again and the line we hear over and over again is “it makes them more human.” Brands, unfortunately, aren’t human. So we don’t expect them to mess up. Their marketing campaigns, however, are a different story. We don’t expect those to be perfect and when they’re not, we appreciate it when brands acknowledge the mistake, proclaim how badly they feel about the error, promise to do better and get back on with it.

The most important lesson here though is “make sure they like you” because if they do, the public is willing to forgive a world of sins. That means paying attention to quality, customer service and the like so that your product is at least as popular as your average B-list celebrity. If you’ve got that going on, you’re far more likely to be forgiven any missteps and foibles.

Just be sure you’re ready for your close-up.

May 26, 2009


One of the great untold secrets of the ad business is the power of repetition. The most annoying or banal commercials, repeated often enough, can often have a powerful effect on sales.

It’s what made the agency business so successful back in the days of three television networks (how many jingles do you still remember) and why even today carefully targeted repetition works.

Now there’s always the argument that annoying the consumer is bad for a brand in the long run. And while it makes sense logically, Charmin and Wisk, perpetrators of two of the more annoying commercials of my childhood, both seem to be going strong.

It’s a quirk of human behavior we need to keep in mind as we proceed through the new digital landscape: messages need repetition in order to sink in.

But repetition does not have to mean cringe-inducing inanity. Any experience that’s compelling enough to encourage return visits or ongoing conversation is going to be more effective than one that requires a one-time hit (the old “viral video” trick.)

In the social media arena that means finding something about the brand consumers want to talk about. And since few brands have much worth talking about on their own (does anyone really want to discuss orange juice?) it means giving them something of interest to talk about, something that (a) they’ll want to follow up on and (b) has some relationship to the overall brand message.

Of course not every conversation about a brand is going to be on target or result in more than a single visit. But if they’re paying us to help steer the conversation, it’s incumbent on us to at least try.

May 20, 2009

Real Time NBA Playoff Scores Are Back

In one of those quirks of Googledom, if you enter the phrase "real time NBA Playoff Scores" (sans quote marks) into Google, you get this:

It's all because of a post I did last year. I've been getting a couple of dozen hits a day from people looking for them, so who am I to dissapoint: they're back, about halfway down the right hand sidebar.

Redefining Failure

For years success and failure have been finite notions in the ad business. An ad either worked or it didn’t. A campaign was a resounding success or a dismal failure.

There were three pressing reasons for that:

First, there was the cost of changing things. A photo shoot was expensive; a TV shoot even more so. So there was no room for error. Even recording a few alternate takes for an ending was regarded as a profligate waste of money. After all, wasn’t the agency sure that the campaign would work? And that was the model that got many of the top people in the traditional ad business to where they are now: the ability to convince a client that the campaign they were presenting was the key to the kingdom of heaven, and that any slight variation or tweak would surely lead the brand into perfidy and damnation. And faith, as we shall see, played a huge role in this, since there was no measurable way to see if the campaign was actually working.

The second reason is the campaign mentality: ads were to run for a brief and clearly defined period of time, never to be seen again. It was easier to scrap the entire campaign and start afresh than to try and make adjustments midstream.

The final reason was the lack of any realistic feedback. Ad testing, of the sort performed on already-produced ads was one of the great scams of the twentieth century. (To the point that people unfamiliar with the process often assumed you were joking, since no one could really be that gullible. But I digress.) Without any sort of realistic consumer feedback, brands and agencies had nothing but their gut to go on: with so many factors coming into play from the weather to major news events, sales may or may not have been tied to advertising—it was hard to tell. So they didn’t.

But the current state of digital media changes all that. We can tell if ads are working: not from the number of click-throughs, but from the amount and type of buzz they’re generating. Are consumers taking away the ideas we want them to? Is there something else they want to know about? By listening in on the conversations going on online, it’s easy (okay—easier) to learn where the tweaks need to be made.

And the relatively low cost of digital media means it’s easier to make them.

But that’s easier said than done. If this is to become the status quo, we’ll need to see a real behavior shift on the part of both ad agencies and brand marketing departments. One that says that accepts that advertising is more gray than black and white, that acknowledges the increased visibility of consumers in the conversation, and, more than anything, accepts the fact that failure is relative and can be seen as either fatal or a learning experience.

Now that’s not to give carte blanche to bad advertising and dumb ideas. Far from it. Agencies will have to come up with better ideas and learn from the executions. But they need to be able to take some risks rather than become paralyzed by the fear of failure, to put things out there before they’re fully baked and let the market determine where they end up.

Twitter is a great example of what I’m talking about. Clearly they were onto something with the idea. The execution, however, has it’s flaws (instability, for instance) that users are willing to forgive because they like the idea of Twitter. Moreover, the platform has evolved in response to user preferences and user input (kinda, sorta) over the past two years. So what could have been viewed as a failure the first time the infamous Fail Whale showed up, is now viewed as a brilliant experiment. (Or a brilliant experiment that overlooked the “how do we make money from this” question.) Either way, there's no denying both its popularity and effect on the culture. Neither which would have happened had the engineers waiting until the code was absolutely, 100% perfect.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, but if the ad industry is to remain relevant, it does need to happen.

May 19, 2009

The Long Tail In Action: Anatomy of A Meme

Literally a year ago, Canadian blogger DearJaneSample started something called "Brand Timeline Portraits" which I also took part in. It was a simple idea: use logos to make a timeline of all the brands you interact with during the course of your day. There's a lot of psychology in there too in terms of which brands you select and which you don't-- I tried to pick ones I actively interacted with and/or whose identity I knew off the top of my head, e.g. I have no idea what brand our bath towels are.

Anyway, the meme got a decent amount of play and then sort of fell off the radar.

So I was surprised a couple of days ago, when I looked at SiteMeter and noticed a couple hundred more hits than was usual for a Sunday. Most all of which were heading for the Brand Timeline post from May 2008. That number grew yesterday and today, with literally a thousand more hits than I usually get, all of them to the aforementioned Brand Timeline post.

I investigated.

It seems that on Sunday, a guy named Andrew Baron, posted about the meme on a popular blog called Rocketboom. (And Andrew, if Google Alerts gets you here, I'd love to know how you stumbled upon it a year later.) The Rocketboom post was then picked up on Monday by Jason Kottke on his equally popular blog. Which caught the attention of Cory Doctorow, a well-known sci fi write (among other things) who posted it last night on the Godzilla-like Boing-Boing, and hence, a full year later, a meme was reborn.

Pretty cool. Though with the exception of having replaced my Blackberry with an iPhone, I realized that my day is still exactly the same as it was last year. Thus confirming that I am indeed a committed creature of habit.

PS: With all those hits, you'd think at least one of the brands I'd mentioned would have reached out to me, but so far, no takers ;)

May 13, 2009

Your Brand Is Still Not My Friend

When the new Facebook went ahead and allowed people to become fans of brands and even began including them in the section formerly known as “people you may know” (now simply called “suggestions”) along with your real life friends, it looked like my “Your Brand Is Not My Friend” theory was on its way out the window.

But Facebook users seem to be having the last laugh.

Instead of brands, they’re becoming friends of the generic: Chocolate chip cookies have 1.3 million fans, Chips Ahoy, 2,500. Orange juice has 25,000 fans; Tropicana 5,000.

Charity and cause groups, popular (Prom King) brands and the like seem to be acceptable things for people to become fans of, with brands like Starbucks getting numbers in the millions. Ditto commonplace events like becoming a fan of sleep or vacations. And coming up fast are joke groups like being a fan of “Not Being On Fire.”

Bottom line is that users still don’t want to embrace non-Prom King brands on social networks. Least of all in a public way that their friends can see. Prom King brands and so-under-the-radar-they’re-hip brands will have their fan bases. But who really wants to become a fan of Maxwell House Coffee?

Now that doesn’t mean people won’t buy Maxwell House or that they don’t enjoy it. Just that it doesn’t have enough of a coolness badge for people to friend it on social media.

Because as I've written previously, social media always involves a value exchange. I will become your friend if you give me something in return: information, money, entertainment, or, in the case of Prom King Brands, coolness.

On the new Facebook, consumer behavior seems to be playing this scenario out to a tee.

UPDATE, 5/17: Changed the picture up. Some people were reading some unintended imagery into the original one.

May 10, 2009

Afraid of What, Exactly?

I constantly hear people talk about their fear of letting their employees talk to the public via social media.

As if most of them weren't talking to the public every day in the course of business, either in person or on the phone.

But the most egregious examples often happen in the mainstream media. Take the PR nightmare for Radisson and their parent company Carlson, as a result of this recent article in the New York Times. When a Times reporter questioned why he was quoted one price over the phone and given another when he showed up a couple of hours later, corporate spokespeople basically shrugged their shoulders, blamed the computer system and told the reporter that it was his tough luck and caveat emptor. All for a $20 difference in booking fee.

It's similar to the snafu K-Mart suffered when its spokespeople assured Wall Street Journal senior editor Laura Landro that she should indeed have been arrested for accidentally placing a pair of flip-flops that had fallen out of a display into the wrong box-- this after she'd just spent $800 in the store.

And those are just two examples: employees don't mess up any more or less in social media than they do in other interactions. But at least with social media, it's easier to remedy those mistakes. One more reason not to be afraid of it.

UPDATE: Fixed link to Radisson article. Thanks to CK for pointing that out.

May 8, 2009

Is Twitter from Mars and Facebook from Venus?

It's been about six months or so since the proverbial "Everybody" started jumping on Facebook and one of the more interesting trends I've noticed is that among my 30 and 40something suburban parent friends, Facebook is perceived as a very female thing.

Which makes sense at some level: for that crew, it's largely about posting photos (and commenting on them), arranging get-togethers and taking the sorts of quizzes that populate the more mainstream women's magazines. So it's easy to see where that perception comes from. (NB: That doesn't mean I agree with it; just that I think I understand where it springs from.)

So that's definitely a trend to watch: will social media, Facebook in particular, be perceived as a female thing? Or is this just a temporary blip based on where the service is in spring of 2009?

For that matter, will Twitter, with its short quippy, guys-hanging-out-in-the-schoolyard tempo be perceived as male? (I've heard that proposed recently as an explanation of why Shaq and Ashton get Twitter and Oprah does not.)

It will be interesting to see how this all develops, particularly given the way the platforms- and their user bases- continue to evolve. Love to hear your thoughts and personal experiences with this.

May 2, 2009

I Like Search

While search, search consultants, the end of serendipity and the putative value of paid posts have been the topic of much discussion as of late, I'd like to put in a word in defense of search optimization from a consumer POV.

Because if nothing else, search optimization makes my life a whole lot easier than it was even 5 years ago.

It's the little things, like being able to put in the name of a local ice cream parlor and getting a map and all 6 locations as the first result. Or searching for a very specific technical question and finding the answer I was looking for more or less immediately. All that happens because more and more companies are optimizing their sites for search.

Point here being that while search is a great tool for marketers, the true benefit is to the consumer.

May 1, 2009

Prom King Brands Redux

Few things frustrate me more than the very false notion promulgated by many working in the social media space, that all brands are Prom King Brands.

By that I mean the countless calls to “engage your hardcore fans” and “energize your base.”

As if all brands actually had hardcore fans. Or any fans, for that matter.

I mean seriously, do you think that Acco staplers (it’s the brand on my desk right now) has “hardcore fans”? What about Uniden phones? AOC computer monitors? Are hundreds of people actively participating in groups for them on Facebook? (I’ll answer that for you: Acco has a group around an October 2008 Canadian giveaway promotion with the movie “Office Space” called “Organize Your Desk Day” with 108 members; Uniden has a fan page with 14 fans; AOC has a Spanish language fan page with 14 members.) And those are three fairly large brands in the scheme of things.

Remember the simple test for Prom King Brand-ness: Would someone, unironically, wear the brand’s logo on a cap or t-shirt. Eliminate sports teams and entertainment properties (movies, bands, TV shows) and you can likely list all the Prom King Brands in a couple of minutes.

That’s not to say that other brands can’t play in social media; they’ve just got to do it differently. Putting out Apple or Coke or even Zappos as examples of how to participate in social media is just wrong. They are the exceptions; not the rules.

Here’s the simple example I give clients: there’s always an exchange of value going on in social media. (I call it “the candy.”) Prom King brands have “coolness” to give: I may not be an athlete, but becoming a fan of Nike makes me look like one. Non-Prom King Brands don’t have coolness to give. They need to give something else. And that something else can be anything from a coupon to information to entertainment. The only requirement is it’s got to be something the consumer actually wants.

Do that, and you have a fair exchange of the sort that encourages consumers to interact with you in social media. You’ll be able to make them aware of your product and whatever it is you’re pushing that month. But chances are they’ll always remain consumers. Your product isn’t likely interesting enough or unique enough to turn them into anything remotely resembling hardcore fans.