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New News

[Note: This was written for publication in March 08 at the height of the primary season. In retrospect, it’s observations about the campaigns seem fairly accurate and predict a challenge McCain would have in the Fall election. It runs here for the first time.]

I realize that I’m just a simple advertising guy, but here’s what I don’t understand about the current campaigns for president. Why is it that I can’t turn on the TV without hearing some talking head tell me that the best thing for the Republican party would be if Mike Huckabee dropped out, or bemoan the fact that Hilary and Barack really ought to work out which one is the nominee so we can move on.

Are you people nuts? Move on to what? Because in the business I’m in, what’s going on here is exactly what you want. It’s what brands crave and pay agencies large sums of money to manufacture. It’s called new news.

“New news” combats the fatigue people experience when they feel that they’ve already heard your story a hundred times before – because they have, in fact heard it a hundred times before. As every salesman knows, there are only so many times you can say something to a person before they start to tune it out. We call this, the “nagging mom” effect. And advertisers know it too. That’s why the smart ones try to vary their media buys – where they show which commercials when.

But what advertisers really crave, because it really energizes people, is new news. A new “thing” to talk to people about, a new reason to talk to them.

Right now, every day, the Democrats have one and the Republicans don’t. Every time Hilary and Barack open their mouths, it’s news. What did he say about her, what did she say about him, what do we say about both of them. The press covers it, the cable networks repeat it and the pundits discuss it, until the next thing happens.

But on the Republican side? “This just in, John McCain is still the de facto Republican nominee”. Over and over again, with decreasing regularity. Which pushes McCain to the back pages – either literally, as the press covers him less, or figuratively, as the public tunes him out.

For proof, look no further than voter turnout. Democrats are up two and three times what they usually are – especially in states where, four years ago, the nominee was a foregone conclusion. And on the Republican side? Flat to down, especially since they established a presumptive nominee.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. But if it was, that would be news…

The Political Marketplace

[Note: This was written for publication before the election. It runs here for the first time.]

For several years I’ve observed a battle waging between two distinct factions in American marketing. On the one side are those who believe in a top-down approach and on the other, those who embrace something more “bottom-up”.

To review, those who believe in a “Top-Down” approach use traditional methods – TV, print and radio – with the occasional foray into viral and other newer media. These are marketers who are, by and large, engaged in monologues with their customers – “I have something about me to tell you”. They also jealously guard the “meaning” of their brand.

The “Bottom-up” camp, on the other hand, are more active about engaging “alternative” media – SMS, text, viral, social networks, guerrilla, etc. These are marketers who tend to view their relationship with their consumers/customers as a conversation, involving give and take on both sides. Similarly, they tend to view their brand as somewhat fluid – precisely because of these conversations.

By and large you see this battle played out by which marketing efforts (and even which agencies) each side uses. But this year, Americans are in the unusual position of experiencing this battle on the Presidential stage as the two candidates – by word and by action – are demonstrating how they fall into one of the two camps.

John McCain, for example, has been widely criticized for his unfamiliarity with the internet (citing comments that he has his staff print out email for him and that he “watches” the internet whenever he can). This would seem to indicate that because he’s not web-savvy, he’s a “Top-down” marketer. But he truly demonstrates his “top-down” view in his policies. To take one example, McCain’s approach to the economy is to encourage big companies with tax cuts so they will create more jobs. In another era we called this “trickle down economics”. In marketing we call it “top-down”.

And Obama? Again, not only do his roots as a Community Organizer point clearly to his being in the “Bottom-Up” group, but so does his economic plan. By giving tax breaks to the broad majority of Americans, he is hoping to incent the consumer end of the market equation – to get money flowing through transactions within the economy. Retailers call this a “pull” tactic, and it is a hallmark of “bottom-up” marketers.

To be clear, I’m not arguing who’s right. Or even who’s left. Nor am I saying that the election of one will herald the demise of the other’s tactics. Rather, I’m pointing out that in both cases, actions speak louder than words. Or rather, that the media is no longer merely the message, it actually belies the way you wish to engage with others. Understanding that is crucial, whatever your politics.

These Bonds Have No Brands

[Note: This was originally written in April, when we were just beginning to understand what a mess the mortgage market was. The fact that it’s still relevant now is not a little frightening.]

I was waiting for my train with a friend who trades bonds, when I thought, Here is a perfect opportunity for someone to explain to me, a simple advertising guy, just exactly what the heck was going on with the economy.

What he said was that none of the people who usually buy the bonds are buying them. Why? Because they don’t know what risk is bundled into them. And because they’re not buying them, the folks who are selling are holding off on generating more debt. Which means they won’t lend to guys like us. Oh, and sidenote – it’s not just the buyers; the sellers don’t know exactly what the risk is in the bonds they’re selling either. And that further erodes the trust between buyers and sellers, which, my friend felt was the long-term problem.

“Is that all?” I said. “Brother, I deal with that stuff all the time, and if that’s all that’s wrong with this economy, then we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Because what he had just described is a branding problem. These bonds have no brands.

Look, a brand is what a consumer thinks your product is and not what the seller thinks it is. It’s the shorthand, the mishmash of everything he or she knows about your product – what it tastes like, what it feels like, what other people say about it, the advertising for it today and ten years ago, the features, the benefits, the endorsements, the price – everything he or she knows about it. The consumer’s shorthand. That’s the brand.

If the consumer doesn’t have that shorthand, you’re not in the game. Even a bad, inaccurate shorthand, is better than nothing, because at least you’re on their radar. But no idea? That means you’re not even in the game. So they don’t buy you.

That’s what’s going on here. These bonds need a brand. The sellers need the buyers to have a good idea of what they are – an idea that’s not going to come just from the sellers. How could it? Would you trust a product was good just because the guys selling it to you told you it was? Do you?

These bonds need a brand. That’s all. And the good news is, guys like me are paid to figure this stuff out every day. And we’re happy to help. Cash in advance, of course…

Collateral Damage

[Note: This was originally written at the end of January/beginning of February, when Hollywood was in the grips of the Writer’s Strike. So dial your brain back to those halcyon days before reading]

One of the most interesting aspects of the Writer’s Strike in Hollywood has been the repercussions. The Golden Globes, the Grammys. And here’s one more: Advertising Agencies.

Consider this: A company hires an advertising agency to advertise it’s product. Most of the time, that happens on television. The agency says “Show X is watched by 10 million 18-year-old men, so if we run our commercial during it, ten million 18-year-old men will see it and stop whatever they’re doing and run out and buy thirty or forty of your product.” Or something like that.

But what happens when people stop watching TV because there aren’t any new shows on? I mean, the company still needs to advertise their product – because they still need to sell their product, because they still need to make a living, right? So where do they turn?

Increasingly, they’ve turned back to their advertising agencies and said “Okay, we can’t do TV – do other stuff that will make my numbers.” Other stuff? Like on the web, at the point of purchase, on cell phones, via guerilla stunts and viral tactics, or even good old print and billboards.

Now here’s where things get a little sticky. Because even though advertising agencies have been talking about integrated marketing  – advertising across all the places a consumer might be – for a decade, very few of them are actually built to make it happen. And most of those that are, are really only able to do it if it’s anchored by, you guessed it, massive television advertising.

That’s why the Writer’s Strike has created a tremendous challenge for most advertising agencies. On the one hand, they’ve needed to quickly ramp up their non-television-commercial capabilities (so that their clients don’t go hunting for those skills elsewhere), while on the other hand, they’ve been praying like crazy that the strike settles quickly so they can go back to making tv commercials again – which are lucrative and safe and at which they are king.

In the long run, this will force both agencies and companies to be more creative with their marketing, finally forcing them to try some of the media they’ve jawed about at conferences for so long. Someone asked me if I thought it would kill the television commercial? No – but if it did, how ironic that it was writers who held the gun?

Ladies and Gentlemen, what we have here is a failure to communicate.

Traditionally, brands have spoken in a “monologue” form to consumers. Print ads. TV commercials. Billboards. They talk at, or to, consumers. They say “Here I am. This is what I am/do.” And for a long time, the only way consumers could engage a brand was with their wallets. If people bought the product, well, then whatever the product was saying was working. And if they didn’t, then it wasn’t.

This began to evolve when brands started asking people what they thought of products. Emotions. Feelings. Focus groups. Product Testing. The stuff that P&G is famous for (or notorious for, depending on your pain threshold). And suddenly the consumer could talk back – albeit in small doses. “Talking Back” however, is not the same as having a conversation (as anyone who has endured a focus group knows). So, while consumers suddenly had a voice, they used it the only way they could – to deliver monologues right back at the brand.

Another path for the consumer was promotional items. Coca-cola t-shirts. Tide race cars. McDonald’s holiday ornaments. The pursuit and display of items like these by the consumer became another way for the consumer to deliver a monologue on the brand they prefer – announcing to a broader audience than a focus group (that is, everyone who can see it) that they align with this brand.

So what started as a simple financial transaction between two interested parties – I give you money, you give me product or service – evolved into “matched monologues” – Brand: This is what I am. Customer: This is what I want.

But look what’s happening now. Now, those simple monologues are evolving into a genuine dialogue – as the consumer takes the brand message and reconstitutes it (via mashups, sampling, etc.) and feeds back to the brand a variation of itself. Which the brand may either embrace, build upon, or ignore at their peril.

Because when the means of production (to use an ironically archaic expression) are in the hands of the consumer, the “matched monologues” turn into an actual conversation. Think of how consumers turned Mentos into a pop icon in 2006 when they mixed it with Diet Coke and YouTube. Or consider how Scion has used “tuner” culture to shift their customers purchase cycle from the showroom to the longer aftermarket customization

Nowhere is this more brilliantly illustrated than in the 25th anniversary website for the Brian Eno/David Byrne album “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts”. Back in 1982, they built an entire album around sounds and audio clips they found on other albums, on the radio, and on television. Back then it was unheard of. Today, we call it “sampling” and it’s the foundation of hip-hop and rap.

So what did they do to mark the album’s 25th anniversary? They posted all the mixing tracks to two of the album’s songs, allowing – indeed encouraging – the public to build new songs off of them – just as they themselves had, twenty-five years earlier. And these songs are then reposted on the site, adding another generation to the conversation begun twenty-five years ago. Check it out at: http://www.bush-of-ghosts.com/remix/bush_of_ghosts.htm.

This is what user-generated content really means, and this is what it will look like in the future: A genuine “back and forth” between consumer and brand that regularly evolves and changes. What’s holding us back is that brands – trapped in a monologue mentality – are merely using the trappings of the new technology to help consumers create their own monologues.

Ultimately, the successful brands will be the ones who learn how to talk with consumers. The others? They’ll be the ones just talking to themselves.

Welcome to “Beyond the Line” – a series of monthly essays on various aspects of marketing. Please feel free to comment or advise.