When You Go To Hire An Agency, Don’t Pick a Dog

Let me make this real quick. Advertising, marketing and creative agencies are horrible at marketing and building their own brand. Cobbler’s shoes and all that (“someone very good at their profession but are completely unable or unwilling to use this ability on themselves”). While head of marketing at Interbrand, I obsessed over our brand. Given Interbrand was the leading global brand consultancy, my many lost sleeps were to be expected.

As Chief Communications Officer at DDB, I felt the weight of legacy while trying to make a Mad Men-era brand relevant. I give thanks that the competition were more laconic and greatly paralyzed in managing their own brand. While at the iconic agency, I tried to point out that PR was not brand-building. Further, award shows and sending out a press release on a new client win is table-stakes. To be more pointed, agencies of any size should redirect award show cash towards thought leadership and staff development (but I partially digress).

Over the last few years, I have consulted to over 20 agencies and consultancies on their business and brand strategies. It has been challenging because true sources of differentiation are elusive. All have great people, a smattering of cool clients (often the uncool ones keep the lights on), talk about a unique, cool culture that doesn’t actually exist, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and too many have an office canine featured in the people section of their website (agencies have made a cute pet table-stakes).

Here is more frank, straight-shooting … every agency should be a best practice case in their own marketing. When you are looking to hire an agency, look past the Nascar slide of past client logos. Discount the featured case studies unless they include impressive quantifiable results (97% of agency case studies are wishy-washy fluff). Drill down on process and methodology. See if they hint at their revenue model because that will drive how they behave and serve.

As much as I detest the proliferation of marketing award shows (a cottage industry of vanity), it could be fun to start one that recognizes agency marketing. There would be a lot of participation ribbons with very few standouts. So, when you go to hire an agency, do so based on its marketing. Otherwise, you may be hiring a dog.

Narrative Psychology in Brand Storytelling

Let me tell you a story. It’s a bit about our past, a bit about our future but more importantly, it concerns what is happening right now. It is also a story that nears 2,500 words because our complex world cannot be dumbed downed, reduced to a vague tagline, summed in a tweet, or captured in an oversimplified how-to formula. True learning and understanding requires time and effort so heat the kettle or uncork a bottle and enjoy.

Marketing and advertising agencies claim to be professional storytellers. Agencies deliver a brand story as part of engagements while creative briefs bring the story to life. Agencies pump out papers on the subject and profile case studies where the story is key to client success. Within the industry, marketing conferences make room for storytelling as part of the agenda. Media and publications write on the topic with frequency. Storytelling permeates the profession. Here are three changes taking place in business storytelling:

They Don’t Tell: by its very definition, storytelling is broadcast in nature. We tell a tale. It is ‘one-to-many’ like the Mad Men era of advertising. We know that no longer works. Stories must now invite consumers in and let them be both character and storyteller. It is now about storyparticipation not passive absorption.

They Are Organic: the best brand stories take root organically and get consumers involved. Then they really evolve. This scares traditional marketers. They fear ceding control. Granted it is a bit of a wild ride when consumers help build the story but this is what is taking place with Uber and Airbnb and has taken place with Apple and Red Bull.

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Waste Not: The Staggering Business, Societal and Environmental Cost of Returned Goods

Did you know that in 2018, luxury purveyor Burberry admitted it had destroyed £90 million worth of clothing and accessories over the previous five years. After a public outcry, the company stopped burning returned and leftover merchandise. Now they focus on recycling and donating.

Unfortunately, that is just a drop in the bucket. You see, it is cheaper for businesses to throw away returns rather than go through the process of reselling. So much focus is put on our supply chains…getting something to market, it seems there is very little focus on the “remarket”. It is incredible in this time of tech, how retailers mismanage inventory and promote returns.

Thanks to the CBC program, The Current, for investigating this astounding issue in our society. They call out consumers who order two or three different sizes of clothing, knowing they can return the one that doesn’t fit (this is called “bracketing”). That return, more often than not, is sent straight to landfill. With about half of U.S. customers engaging in bracketing, the returns built into the sales cycle are staggering. More so in Germany, where 72% of consumers bracket clothing orders.

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#WMW 3rd Quarter Newsletter

Read a few excerpts from Why Marketing Works. Pabst Blue Ribbon refuses to market and Lacoste had to get fancy when it broke into America. Plus much more…WMW.

Taglines…need to be all they can be

Read this piece below or download the nicely designed PDF (Taglines).

It is ironic that a short bit of writing used to concisely convey an idea is called different names. These communication devices go by slogan, catchphrase, motto or tagline. For the sake of this piece and my preference, I call them taglines. Slogans possess a cheap connotation, 8701catchphrases seem vacuous bits of pop culture, and a motto is actually a hard rule more than an idea or aspiration. You can also throw jingles amongst them as a type of slogan set to music. So tagline it is.

Taglines are battle cries and statements of benefit and intent. They exist to offer information in a succinct, appealing and creative way. Ideally they deliver a message that shapes opinion and changes behavior. Taglines, when combined with action, have spurned whole movements.

These tools have been around for centuries and were refined during political campaigns in the 1800’s. In the latter half of that century they began to be employed to create awareness for products and services. Ivory Soap’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure was a pledge of quality to ivory_old_1954consumers. It floats was added in 1891 because competitive soaps did not float. Heinz’s “57 Varieties” came along, as well as, Nabisco’s clever Uneeda Biscuit that was both tagline and name all in one.

Memorable taglines have stated clear positions. There is American by Birth. Rebel by Choice. for Harley-Davidson, A Diamond is Forever for De Beers, and AVIS’ We Try Harder. Some engage by asking questions including Capital One’s What’s In Your Wallet? And UPS’ What Can Brown Do For You?

These lines tend to offer clear benefits like M&Ms Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand or the United States Postal Service We Deliver for You. Others include the name of the product or company to firmly plant them in our conscious or subconscious. Examples include Virginia Is For Lovers for Virginia Tourism and Like A Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There. Some appear www-VA4L-neg-verdefensive like Live in your world. Play in ours. for PlayStation.

Taglines have been historically a pithy short sentence or combination of words meant to live for several years if not decades. They have been locked up with a brand name and logo. That choice of words, “locked up”, is deliberate. This use of taglines is incredibly confining and tethered to antiquated marketing thinking that has lost relevance.

They should not always be carved in stone. While the idea of finding some all-encompassing nirvana statement that nails it and resonates for years is appealing, I believe the tagline can be doing so much more for a brand. In fact, I view them as mini campaigns that deserve far more freedom.

This epiphany came to me through a series of client rebranding engagements. A new brand or rebrand all demand fresh communications. When launching a rebrand I was repeatedly recommending a launch tagline that would live for a few months or upwards of a year. Then at the appropriate time it would be swapped for an attempt at a more timeless rendition. This meant avis-logoconcocting a handful or more for the client to evaluate. In every case this bundle of taglines had one or two that did not create a spark but the others were always enjoyed. So why cast them all away?

I advocate the use of different taglines at different times for different audiences. Branding is much more flexible and tailored these days. The heavy and thick guideline books that once dominated the practice no longer exist for a reason. A single tagline has diminishing value given the fluid and variable applications we use today. I often think that brand guidelines were less about consistency and more about command and control from the brand owner. They limited creativity in a monolithic manner.

There was also the fear of the cost of changing anything “locked up” in the guidelines. This I can understand. No business can change where a key brand element lives with frequency. Now in this time of digital, brands can afford and need to tailor their communications and that includes taglines.

Arguably HSBC has been doing this for years. Granted they go by The World’s Local Bank but all of their communications leverage the notion of tailored taglines used in combination. They employ, We see no problem in different points of view. Only potential. Then there is, The more you look at the world, the more you recognize people’s different values. and The more you look at the world, the more you recognize what really matters to people.

So though A Diamond is Forever a tagline does not have to be. Taglines need to ‘try harder’. Rather than use a tagline as a static statement or one battle cry, set loose a manageable army of them. Lead them and make them work together but act fast because soon every brand will be doing the same.

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The Back of a Napkin

Marketers and ad professionals are attracted to shiny new toys. They look to technology as a panacea for reaching and influencing buyer behaviour. Newspapers, radio, tv, the Internet, big data, social media, AI, and whatever is next. There is one thing missing in this equation.

The fact is all great ads regardless of medium or platform start out on a whiteboard, a flip chart, a notebook, or the back of a napkin.

Print ads are therefore the gold standard. If an ad or campaign cannot compel from a single sheet of paper, no algorithm will save it. Technology will just irritate consumers with irrelevant and poorly timed ads. In other words, why make something flawed more efficient?

Recently, I came across two sets of print ads that share characteristics. They draw you in visually. They create allure and make a promise. They know their audience. Someone sweated over them and were proud in the end. In a time when more means more, these were designed to cut through the clutter that advertising and converging technologies have created.

Great ads start with a Bic pen not an algorithm. Look ahead and see if you agree.

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How Advertising Can Defeat Extremism

During the 1964 Presidential election, Lyndon B. Johnson’s campaign approached the ad agency DDB for a particular type of television ad. The result was “Daisy”, sometimes known as “Daisy Girl” or “Peace, Little Girl”. It aired just once and is credited with tarnishing Barry Goldwater’s run for the oval office. It never mentioned him by name but got the message across that, if elected, Goldwater would push America into nuclear war.

Fast-forward a few decades and we now live in world of extremes, extremists, and extremism. An extremist, by definition, “is a person who holds extreme views, especially one who advocates illegal, violent, or other extreme action”. These are polarizing times full of overwhelming debate among ever-more tribes. These fractious groups are both new and long-standing.

The Proud Boys are an example of the new. A group labelled extreme by the FBI because of misogyny, glorification of violence, and ties to White Nationalism. The growing delta between America’s Republican Party and the Democratic party represent the long-standing but deepening extremism in mainstream politics.

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Wants and Needs

Life comes down to wants and needs. Those things we have to have and those we would would like to have. What we require and what we desire.

Marketing is about setting up the want and need equation. Giving consumers the right amount of honest information in relevant and entertaining formats so they can make sound decisions.

Brands that are indispensable have become both a want and a need. That is the place to be … a brand that is both required and desired.

Brand Consultancies, Do This

Four years ago, I wrote the article, Branding Needs Rebranding. In hindsight, the title was a tad misleading because it covered the lack of differentiation and delivery between brand consultancies, it was not an indictment of the entirety of branding. I argued, branding is largely premised on differentiation, so shouldn’t the consultancies be different?

Today, the processes and methodologies of branding and rebranding from consultancies remain the same. Meanwhile, many of the larger consultancies have undergone different kinds of change. Prominent ones have left poor-performing markets and shuttered practice areas where margins grew slim.

Those under the large holding companies have been grouped together for synergies, more on the cost side, than revenue growth. This cycle of consolidation and rationalization is nothing new in the larger communications industry, but it could be less severe or avoided…more on that in a bit.

Let’s set the stage by looking back. Prior to 2000, branding was a nascent practice and profession. Then it exploded. Books, conferences, job titles, and businesses sprung up around brand. The sad fact is, “brand” became a buzzword and consultancies focused on building repeatable processes and methodologies, creating an uninspired assembly line of parity. Brand became ubiquitous but lost its edge.

Same Process, Same Result
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Marketing is a Human Activity

Marketing-Jeff-Swystun

This article originally appeared in WPP’s Sparksheet.

As bots become more and more prevalent, as brands take an aggressive approach to social media, and as everyone drowns in data, it’s worth remembering that successful marketing has always been about one thing only: a personal connection.

Every marketer is bombarded with overwhelming and conflicting information. Most companies (and marketers) can barely digest the data they produce let alone turn it into actionable insights and strategy. Add the utopian promise of Big Data and we have a real issue because the most sophisticated systems will never spit out a marketing roadmap. More importantly, we must never forget that marketing is an intensely human activity.

There are an ever-increasing raft of studies, rankings and surveys that pelt the marketing community every day. In branding alone there are now 294 studies tracked on the website, Ranking the Brands. Most of these are celebratory lists pitting brands against each other on one dimension or another. And the tech industry is an expert at producing reports that skew towards ‘technology-as-savior’ conclusions. Add on consumer and market research studies and marketers are now buried in elephant-size data dumps.

Marketers have forgotten how to segment and to clearly understand the wants and needs of consumers. Marketers know this but get distracted by shiny new toys and theories promising better performance.

The practice and profession of marketing has never changed. It has always been predicated on human behavior. It exists to understand consumer’s motives and give them justification for making a purchase. Everything else either supports or erodes this fact.

The relationship between brand and consumer was pretty much a fair relationship until the Mad Men, mass communication era. That marked a point when brands took the appearance of control through the ubiquity of advertising. This went on for a few decades then the balance of power shifted back towards consumers…but was then interrupted by the advent of social media.

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