Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Brand Interactions: Mean, Clean, and Charlie Sheen

Bob Garfield, the Huckleberry Finn of marketing and advertising who insists on being present at his own funeral (or at least the ongoing funeral of The Way Of Life As He Used To Know It), wrote in a columnette several days ago that no one wants to interact with a brand.

I couldn't agree more, but since I am an old-line editor I have to modify it ever-so-slightly, like so: No one that you want to interact with your brand wants to interact with your brand.

People do interact with brands. They write fan letters to the most god-awful foods, White Castles and Krispy Kremes, they compose love notes to Shout, they make movies where a stick of Old Spice is the star, and they even kidnapped Captain Crunch's Twitter account.

But these people are not all people. They're not even a significant minority of all people. They're brand groupies. If it weren't for their untoward love of Oatmeal Cream Pies, they'd be stalking Flounder from National Lampoon's Animal House.

Furthermore, these people love the brand so much that they would buy it without interacting with it, and in roughly the same quantities. They don't buy significantly more Mountain Dew because they entered an online sweepstakes that almost netted them a beanie. The Captain Crunch Twitterers don't eat more Captain Crunch because they have the Captain Crunch Twitter account; they eat less if anything, because they have to spend Cap'n Time actually tweeting about the stuff they used to spend that time eating.

And finally, the people who love your brand are not necessarily your best brand ambassadors. Imagine the Oatmeal Cream Pie stalker; is she your best salesperson?

None of this has really changed over the course of the modern advertising-and-marketing era. If anything, there's less of it now than before.

I'll prove it to you. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the major advertising media were the newspaper and the radio.

America was much more provincial then, and much more distrustful of any voice from outside. Getting used to the idea of a disembodied voice pouring out of a box in a living room took years; deciding to buy something because that disembodied voice told you to required another Beamonesque leap. To compensate, almost every ad sounded like an over-the-back-fence chat. Announcers stopped reading off of scripts and talked to you like a neighbor. And like a good neighbor, these new neighbors were eager to hear what you had to say about Rinso or Mum. Letters from Mrs. B.V. Mungo in West Neither, New Hampshire, peppered the airwaves. Slogan contests and jingle games filled the spaces between testimonials.

The most successful salesperson of the era, Kate Smith, pitched only the products she tried in her own home, and if they worked for her she sold 'em hard, with a Girl Scout's giddy zeal. Then if people tried the products and liked them as much as Kate they wrote her and told her, and she read the letters on the air – a double word-of-mouth whammy. Only today we call it "retweeting."

So all the hot talk in marketing circles about brand interaction is another case of old talk being run through new channels – Twitter instead of radio, Facebook instead of Life magazine. There is no evidence that the level of brand interaction has increased in any tangible form since the widespread employ of these “transformational” marketing tools. More people are not ascending from brand like to brand limerance to brand love, more brands are not getting the Kate Smith treatment, significantly more people are not communicating their brand experiences, and the people who couldn't care less ... still couldn't care less.

And the messages are absolutely unchanged. "We like you" and "give us stuff" and "you messed up" still goes up; "buy our stuff" and "tell your friends" and "we're sorry" still goes down.

As you can tell, these quasi-dialogues that form the bulk of brand interactions aren’t really conversations; they’re one-way messages passing each other. They pass each other faster than they used to, but minivans can do 85 these days without breaking a sweat. Everything moves faster.

So outside of a couple of tweaks to the sheet metal, this is your father’s Oldsmobile. Essentially the same messages are being passed back and forth by essentially the same people.

The implications for your brand are staggering. If your current strategy includes a brand-interaction component, stop. Step outside. Forget about what you want for your brand, focus on what really is happening with your brand, and ask, "Are people who wouldn't normally interact with my brand interacting with my brand because of anything I’m doing?"

The answer is probably going to be "no."

If this process of questioning makes you want to cut off Twitter and Facebook, stop that, too. That's another wrong answer. Twitter and Facebook are this era's Kate Smith. If you were Jell-O back then you needed to be there, and if you're Tide today you gotta be there, too.

How should you react? First, accept the inevitable: A desire for brand interaction fuels a tiny portion of brand encounters and brand decisions. Your fans are the fringe. Second, acknowledge that most decisions involving your brand are made not out of brand relationship, brand loyalty, or brand recognition. They’re made out of antipathy.

Brand decisions are rarely, rarely made out of burning desire. Even the brand decisions that hit closest to your heart – and I’m thinking Caribbean cruises and churches here -- are picked just as often because they’re handy as because they alone are the must-have.

The overwhelming majority of brand encounters are brief, casual, poorly thought out, and generally unimpressive. If they were human relationships, they’d make some of Charlie Sheen’s dalliances look like Paul Harvey anniversaries. Wham, bam, thank you Spam.

Making sure you get your share of these strangers-in-the-night brand interactions, then, is a matter of being there – being at the cash register, being on the shelf at eye level, being first in the search engine, being on your friend’s lips. It even includes being what you read about first on Twitter and Facebook – provided you can take these situations quickly and easily from brand talky-talk to brand action.

And as every marketer knows, actually being there, in position for the casual brand encounter, is a lot harder than being here and encouraging customers to come find you. It requires old-fashioned work with new-fashioned tools. It does not include the margin for failure built into most social-media marketing campaigns. It requires grunt work on a squillion fronts. But it works.

Ask Coke and Pepsi. Pepsi is dropping billions into conventional advertising because it slunk further behind Coke during Pepsi’s foray into social media, the Pepsi Refresh Project.

Note: I’m not blaming Pepsi Refresh for the sales decline. That could have been caused by a billion factors, including the fact that Mountain Dew Live Wire tastes like WD-40. But the people running Pepsi must think it’s Pepsi Refresh – and they also must think that conventional advertising is the cure.

We’ll see on both fronts. But whatever happens, the idea that widespread brand interaction leads to increased brand sales is lying low for a while. And that’s about right.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

That's Balderdash, Spaldermash

If you’re old enough to remember Harry Chapin you’re old enough to have strong feelings about Harry Chapin.

If you’re not old enough to remember Harry Chapin let me give you a contemporary reference point. He’s like … well, something like … or maybe …

The fact is, Harry Chapin isn’t like any current musician except maybe Tom Waits – and not just Tom Waits, but Tom Waits if he sang like the principal soloist from the Sewage Disposal Workers’ Glee Club. And if you know Tom Waits you’re likely old enough to remember Harry Chapin, and here we are again.

(By the way, congratulations to Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, and Neil Diamond for making the Rock-‘n’-Roll Hall of Fame. Three of my favorite rock-‘n’-roll creeps enshrined at once. I haven’t been so excited about an HOF enshrinement since Whoopee John made the Polka Hall of Fame.)

Harry Chapin wrote “Cat’s in the Cradle,” which I liked ell enough when it came out until I realized that this was as light and cheery and singable as Harry Chapin got. Listening to one of his albums was like being trapped in the slow parts of Les Miserables—the book, not the musical.

The reason the lugubrious and overwrought Mr. Chapin is the lead subject for this week’s blog is that he did one thing very right to this listener’s way of thinking. He titled an album Verities and Balderdash.

Verities and Balderdash might be the perfect album name for marketers, because 98 percent of the time we’re dealing in one or the other.

Sometimes they’re the same, as they are in this week’s topic.

One of the verities in modern marketing is that you must communicate to people in the manner in which they are consuming information. If they live on an iPhone, in other words, you have to be at iLevel.

This is also balderdash.

Like so many things in marketing, life, and hockey, the truth lies somewhere between the poles.

It is a verity that if you communicate to someone through a channel they ignore that your message will not be heard. A tree that falls in the forest makes no sound if there is no forest. (I don’t know what that has to do with anything. I just love the zen-ness of that statement. It’s like having Buddha do your root canal. [See football-with-1-stick-gum.blogspot.com for an extra helping of Buddhist existentialist dentistry.])

However, is there any channel left standing that people routinely ignore? They read their mail. They’d read a telegram, if such a thing can even be sent and delivered. They pick up the phone. They grab a handbill. They look up in the sky when a plane is towing a banner. They rip the hanger off the doorknob. They read a text. They glance at a billboard. They scan a newspaper. They take the piece of neon-green paper from under their windshield wiper. You shout at them, they pick their heads up. They even read the words that go, “Try this one weird trick to cut down a little of your belly every day,” though they’ve read it a zillion times before.

So the idea that people ignore channels is balderdash.

All channels are monitored, which leads to the next marketing revelation: All channels matter. It’s not about mobile. It’s really not. It’s not about being on the iPad or having a Groupon. Sure, those are great for reaching people the technological hoi palloi, but most organizations can’t make a living off those people without turning skinnier than their glasses.

Even though the phone book is going the way of the manual typewriter, you could be successful doing nothing but Yellow Pages advertising – if you did it right. You could be the Prince of Doorknob Hangers – if you owned doorknob hangers.

And the funny thing is, doorknob hangers do not have to be the A-number-one way of reaching your target audience. Maybe it is mobile – but mobile’s too crowded. Maybe it’s TV – but TV’s too expensive. Doorknob hangers are the way-back fallback. Plan N, on a good day.

So what does it take to own doorknob hangers? Well, here’s another verity: It takes hard work to own doorknob hangers. You have to know doorknob hangers, whether that involves researching doorknob hangers and the people who love them or simply having doorknob hangers entwined in your DNA right alongside the genetic code.

One reason people are so excited about mobile is that no one’s done the really hard work and converted it into a repeatable formula. You can be totally biblically bad at doing mobile and still come out fine because everyone else is getting turned into a pillar of salt, just like you. The ground rules are changing so fast that a successful mobile/social campaign might last a couple of hours, like the Old Spice viral-video campaign, and the effect on sales might be a collagen-implanted 0.01 percent.

So the next time someone – an inside semi-expert or an outside demi-consultant – tries to tell you that you need to be somewhere because everyone who buys is there, you know what to say, don’t you?

That’s right – balderdash.

And you know why, too: You don’t need to be there because everyone who buys is there. You’ve decided to be elsewhere because it’s ownable and figure-outable, and guess what? Everyone who buys is there, too.

And that’s the verity, Garrity.