So You’ve Painted Yourself into a Corner

Some articles by marketing strategists expand your horizons and render your giddy over the endless possibilities of our craft with soaring language and sparkling analogies.

This is not one of those articles.

Instead, this article focuses on one of the more grind-it-out aspects of our trade: what to do when you’ve got to provide strategic input for a purely executional project.

Rise and grind, kids.  Rise and grind.

You know the type: you have to direct your creative team to complete a very prescribed set of display ads, emails or social posts to meet a specific set of objectives, which usually boil down to clickthroughs, even if objective focuses on branding.  More often than not, someone else, perhaps at a different agency, has finalized the brand strategy and creative idea, aka “the fun part.”  More to the point, this project may not actually make sense to you.  For instance, in the above example about objectives, clickthroughs do not serve as an effective proxy for branding.

Or the task may involve picking existing creative assets to fill a role they weren’t designed for.  You’ve got the proverbial hammer all right, but none of the problems looks like a nail.

I liken this situation to the proverbial “painting oneself into a corner.”  It doesn’t matter what color you’ve used; you’re stuck.

Here’s the secret: don’t think of it as a chore, think of it as…ah, who am I kidding?  It’s a chore all right.  However, that doesn’t mean you can’t stretch your strategy muscles and make something as good as can be.  Hell, maybe you can even make it fun, as long as you have a flexible definition of fun.

Let’s assume “do something else” isn’t an option.  I’ll admit that I’ve often taken “no” for an answer when I could have pushed back a bit.  Mea culpa, but mea cupla minima as I’ve learned the hard way that pushing back ends badly more often than not.

Instead, try this approach:

    1. Clarify objectives and metrics.  Go over both thoroughly with the client or client manager.  As the strategist, you have to be clear about them even if the powers-that-be aren’t.  Pay close attention to any disparity between objective and metric, such as the branding/clickthrough inconsistency.  You better believe that when it comes down between the two, the metric will matter more than the objective.
    2. Find the most likely key.  Here’s where you earn your kibble.  Use whatever you can to establish which factors drive the metric that matters most.  In the best case scenario, you have previous results that you can parse for clues.  Fire up Excel and look for anything that you might compare.  These comparisons might include the basics (segment, offer) and any and all creative factors (headline/subject line length, call to action copy, image content).
      Unless you have really huge audiences, you’ll probably end up with anecdotal evidence.  But that’s better than nothing.  By the way, if you do have nothing, raid whatever you can for insight, including the overall brand brief, customer research or even insights pulled from competitive or desk research.
    3. Build your brief around the factors that emerge.  Present those factors to the creative team as puzzle pieces.  Encourage them to think of themselves as beating the brief; finding the tricks that will make the whole thing work.  Then let ’em rip.

 

While we pride ourselves as strategists and planners by our ability to weave together the whole cloth of new brands and platforms from the frayed threads of consumer insight, business requirements and cultural trends, we still have to pay the bills.  In this case, paying the bills means writing the quotidian briefs and offering the quotidian feedback on the long tail of client relationships.  Rise and grind.

The Playbook for Terry Malloy Brands

You may not recognize the name Terry Malloy, but I bet you know his work:

 

I coulda been a contender!  I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum.

I’d like to apply “Terry Malloy” to brands, brands that have faded in popularity for any number of reasons including changing tastes, mishandled marketing or the relentless search for novelty*.  While we have a name for brands fighting their way up–Challenger Brands–I can’t think of any meaningful names for brands fighting to keep from falling down.  So I’ll enlist Marlon Brando’s iconic character from On the Waterfront.

Just to give a few quick examples, I’ll list some brands that enjoyed greater followings than they now have.  Mind you, I do this without malice; I like some of these brands, which is a point I’ll revisit presently:

Notice the lack of Fresca?  Fresca fans probably raided this Target’s meager supply already.

 

Aim relegated to the bottom shelf.  Perhaps a casualty of the 3,000 SKUs of Crest and Colgate.

 

Any number of spirits brands would fit here; I just watched an episode of The Sopranos where someone mentioned that J&B was Anthony’s favorite Scotch

 

Step 1: Admit the problem

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Terry Malloy brands lies in fessing up to being Terry Malloy.  Both client- and agency-side marketers work hard to reach positions of responsibility and, as a result, do not generally want to admit to problems in their kingdoms.  In my experience I can remember only one client who admitted “the old gray mare she ain’t what she used to be:” Blimpie.  In the mid-90s, Blimpie was still run by its founders, one of whom spoke openly about his business successes and failures.  To his credit, he knew when he had lost it and made every effort to get it back.

Every marketer needs to look at her brand and, in the matter of all Presidential candidates since Reagan, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?”  Or fourteen.  Or forty.

Step 2: Take a new look at old customers

Assuming that your brand still has sales, it stands to reason that somebody out there likes you.  Spend time with your customers to understand what keeps them with you.  If the answer is “it’s the cheapest,” then so be it.  At least you’ve learned something.

There is, perhaps, a temptation to take this learning and simply go retro–to present the brand as it exists in the minds of former customers.  However, I suspect that doing so limits the ongoing appeal of the brand.  How Pabst can anyone drink before realizing that it’s swill?

Whatever it is that keeps fans with your brand, firm though few they may be, will serve as a launchpad moving forward.

Step 3: Contemporize

To turn William Gibson’s famous quote on its head, “the past isn’t gone; it’s just not widely distributed anymore.”

While expression changes quickly, bedrock values change less so.  Almost no one can relate to Borax’s “20-mule team” strength these days, but we all want laundry soap strong enough to clean our clothes.  Instead, look for ways to update the meaning of the brand.

200-year-old Brooks Brothers might serve as a great example of a brand that contemporized without really changing all that much in terms of product.  It still sells essentially the same preppy polos and khakis that they always have.  However, instead of relying on the Nantucket set for sales, they’ve basically remade themselves as merchants of high-quality, reasonably priced and completely safe office wear.  They realized the same virtues that made them a favorite with the Groton crowd make them relevant to a much broader group of people today.

And if all else fails, be charming

Some brands just don’t make the transition to the modern world so easily, if at all.  However, they can still diffuse the situation with humor.  Arby’s has gotten a lot of mileage over its Twitter feed and quasi-feud with The Daily Show.  Oscar Meyer still has its Wienermobile.  And, dammit, Tad’s Steaks is still holding on, whorehouse moderne decor and all.


*I’m pointedly excluding brands that fell because of a failure to adapt to new technology, such as Kodak or Alta Vista.  Dying technologies rarely enjoy more than a niche following and helping companies recognize technology shifts is a road well traveled elsewhere.

I am also specifically excluding Sears because…wow, where do I begin?

Outdoor Event Marketing: Things to Consider

So last weekend in New York, this happened:

Obviously an out-of-towner.  A real New Yorker would have added two words to that sign

My son and I participated in the first of three Summer Streets Saturdays this year.  In an event started last year, the City shuts down Park Avenue from 72nd Street to the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge.  Cyclists and walkers can traverse the entire length with no cars and only a few stops at major cross streets.

Since the event attracted a lot of marketing participation, from lead sponsor Citi to relatively small brands such as GoGo Squeez and Nuun, I thought it might provide a good opportunity to discuss how marketers can get the most out of sponsorship and other types of participation in events like these.

Strike while the iron is hot & other cliches

It should come as no surprise that the Knicks missed what we can only call an easy layup. Continue reading

Facing an Army Of Steamrollers

My beloved New York Times ran an article today about Germany’s national soccer museum in Dortmund that focused on how the museum holds up a mirror to Germany itself:

Any soccer fan — in fact, almost any German — will tell you that the moment the country first felt able to return with dignity to the international arena after the evil of Nazism came with what is known here as “the miracle of Bern,” the 3-2 victory in Switzerland over favored Hungary to win the World Cup in 1954…

…But the museum does not shy from Germany’s past. The national team of 1941 is seen giving the Nazi salute before a game in Sweden. An infamous 1944 propaganda film runs, showing Jewish inmates at the Nazis’ Theresienstadt camp near Prague playing soccer and ostensibly enjoying a relaxed life. (In reality, most were about to be shipped to Auschwitz.)

The German Football Association’s ban on women’s soccer from 1955 to 1970 is also related in detail — as are the considerable achievements of Germany’s female soccer team since.

I’d like to argue that while the Cooperstown Hall of Fame may not hold up a mirror to America, baseball certainly does and that, perhaps, explains why Major League Baseball’s brand has lost some of its shine.

This image was decidedly not approved by Major League Baseball or its affiliates

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Why Did You Spend $5 Million on the Superbowl Again?

Superbowl Monday brings out America’s platoon of ad critics, who discuss which ad had the best joke, the cutest baby/animal and strongest political point.  Rarely, however, do they discuss what the advertisers got for the trouble of spending a reported $5 million on a 30-second spot.

As of this morning, the product page for the Kia Niro has a module with still from the Melissa McCarthy ad that lets you watch it again.  Why not some information about environmental or nature causes such as the ones espoused by McCarthy in the ad?  The NFL page has no mention of the ad with the babies in it, which seems odd for an organization that’s struggling to promote youth football.  Bud’s immigration story ad features heavily on the brand’s home page today but has no follow-up, such as Adolphus Busch’s real story or Anheuser-Busch’s pioneering role in American brewing.

Let’s talk about one advertiser who got it right with, ironically, the most controversial ad of the night, 84 Lumber’s “Journey” ad.

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Plannerben’s Foreign Policy

Last fall, John Chipman, the director-general and chief executive of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, advanced the notion that in our globalized world, “every company needs a foreign policy.”

The New York Times, 31 January 2017

I can’t say that as the owner of a very small business–as small as you can get before you cease to exist–that I’d ever considered the need to have a foreign policy before.  However, executive orders issued by our nation’s President have inspired me to think about the global nature of my business and to respond accordingly.

If it seems ludicrous that a consultant should have a foreign policy, consider this: most of my clients are multi-national and global companies.  Over the past 27 months, I’ve worked with one ad agency that’s part of a Paris-based holding company and another agency based in London.  Those agencies’ clients, in turn, include a global bank accused of bribery in China and a UK-based company with businesses across the globe.  I helped a mid-sized US agency pitch a bank holding company based in Japan.  I’ve even worked for two companies based in that most foreign of locales, New Jersey.

So, while I don’t jet-set around the globe, I do recognize that my work depends in a large part on working with people from anywhere and everywhere.  These people include foreign nationals, naturalized Americans, undocumented residents and people with countless political and religious beliefs not to mention gender identities and sexual preferences.  I can’t count ’em because it’s none of my damn business so I don’t keep a record.

As such, I commit Plannerben | Anecdata to support and work with people and companies in any nation as long as they believe that our differences are strengths and not weaknesses.  I will work with people of any political stripe, with any belief system as long as they recognize that what connects us as humans outweighs what separates us.

I strongly reject President Trump’s attempt to wall off America from the world.

Like my daughter, I support international diplomacy

I recognize that I’m not Apple.  I’m not Hard Rock Hotels for that matter.  And it’s not like Kim Jong Un is burning up the phone lines trying to hire me.  I do not anticipate any substantial negative or positive reactions to our policy.  However, I accept John Chipman’s challenge above as an opportunity to think about my business and how I conduct it.  Even in New Jersey.

No One Cares About Your Origin Story Unless You’re Batman

Far be it from me to tell a vampire squid how to run its business, but I consider it my professional responsibility to pass this story along as a lesson to others:

Goldman Sachs, which has been rolling out its first foray into banking for the little guy, is going back to its history to name its big new push: an online lender for the masses.

After much internal discussion, the Wall Street firm has decided to call the retail banking operation Marcus — the first name of the company’s founder, Marcus Goldman. (emphasis mine; New York Times, 18 August 2016)

Sorry, Marcus the brand, but precisely none of your prospects will appreciate the link between your name and Marcus the founder’s.  People care about superhero origin stories, but not most brands’ origin stories.

batman-1367730_1280

Note: not an accurate depiction of Crime Alley

[Disclosure: I let a headhunter submit my resume to Goldman a few months ago when they were looking for a crew to develop and market Marcus because I MEAN COME ON, back the money truck up, it’s Goldman.  They declined to interview me.]

I don’t mean to single out Goldman Sachs.  In the past few years, we’ve seen ads illustrating Bacardi’s role in the Cuban Revolution, Michael Dell’s dorm room and Dr. Stanley Pearle’s first optician shop.  I doubt any one of them did a damn thing for the brand.

Look, some brands have a fascinating–and relevant–history.  There’s a cult around the Steves of Apple.  Jack Daniel’s historicity–even if it’s not entirely told–gives it a distinct brand presence that helps make an American whiskey that isn’t bourbon the most popular one in the world.  However, most people DO NOT CARE where things came from.

For perspective, two things:

  1. After the invasion of Iraq, most Americans thought Saddam Hussein had something to do with the 9/11 attacks.
  2. Volkswagen still sells the Beetle.

What the Sirens Sang

The New York Times recently ran an article about Pariano, a town on the Amalfi Coast region of Italy where, they claim, the mythic Sirens of “The Odyssey” tempted the equally mythic king of rocky Ithaca to lead his ship onto the rocks.  The story, however imaginary, brings to mind the single most illuminating question asked of me in college and remains a great question for legacy brands:

What song did the Sirens sing?

andreas-achenbach-91572_1280

Dude, ear plugs are like 99¢ at CVS

The answer actually matters.  In fact, it matters a lot if you develop brand marketing for a living.

Continue reading

It’s Not a Car Show: It’s Speed Dating for Brands

Once again, I accompanied my research assistants to the New York International Auto Show (#NYAIS) with an eye on evaluating the event as marketing.  Although I didn’t see any new exhibits that made me think differently about any given brand, I did recognize a hidden value of the show: speed dating for brands.

NYIAS Retro: Read My Posts from last year’s show

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

With over one million visitors, all of whom seem to want to slide behind the wheel of the same Corvette that you do, NYIAS has no room for subtlety.  In my personal case, my research assistants made sure that I had even less time to decide whether to visit a booth.

IMG_20160402_102503

My research assistants couldn’t even agree on which booth to knock over first

As a result, I started to see the similarities between the show and speed dating (as least as I’ve seen it in the movies; I last dated in the Cretaceous Era).

  • The room has a lot of potential matches who start to look alike after awhile
  • Everyone is trying his or her darndest
  • You always suspect there’s someone better for you…somewhere

So, let me point out the brands that would have merited a second date, at least with me (disclosure: I have not been on a second date since 2001, so YMMV) and why I liked them.

Ford Cars: My Kids Liked Her

The closest thing I saw to a home run was (mixed metaphor alert): Ford’s partnership with the New York City Football Club of Major League Soccer. Continue reading

How to Make Patriotism a Good Business Strategy

With our Presidential campaign in full swing, Americans could easily begin to feel a bit leery of anyone waving the flag too hard, and rightly so.

However, it doesn’t take much for a marketer to do something patriotic, appropriate and (probably) profitable.  Here’s an example:

Cloudpets_offer

This is what you see when your kids watch Nickelodeon 16 hours per day

In the current jargon, CloudPets are connected stuffed animals.  As in, the toys have a wifi-enabled memory chip in them that allows a parent to record a brief message for his or her child on a cellphone and then have the child listen via the inbuilt speaker.  The DRTV spot shows a parent on a business trip recording a good night message on his phone that the child (happily, obviously) receives at home.

Notice the circled offer in the image above: free shipping for active-duty military.

Regular shipping and handling costs the buyer $6.99, which represents mostly profit for the seller.  The manufacturer can well afford to give away the cost for the relatively few military families who will take up the offer.  Saving seven bucks on a moderately-priced toy does not–and cannot–fully compensate the families of our armed services members, but it still represents a nice gesture.  It gives non-military families a sense that CloudPets has good priorities.  I couldn’t say that the offer drives incremental sales (perhaps they’ve tested it), but a little goodwill goes a long way.

At the same time, CloudPets deserves kudos for making the offer without making a huge deal about it.  They offer this simple, patriotic gesture without acting as if they had raised the flag on Iwo Jima.

Nicely done.