Time for retailers to shape their own future

[This article was first published on the Singapore Business Review: thttp://sbr.com.sg/retail/commentary/its-time-retailers-shape-their-own-future]

There are two ways to predict the future: the first one is to turn to the experts and trust their wisdom; the second is to look at the gap between what people expect and what they’re able to do, and see in it the shape of things to come.

After 20 years of research with 284 experts producing 28,000 predictions, Philip Tetlock concluded that “the average expert was found to be only slightly more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee”.

While the object of his study was Political Science, it could as well have been retail marketing: ever since the time of dial-up modems, analysts have been anticipating the day when brick-and-mortar shops would be made obsolete by a new generation of shoppers that would buy everything, from avocados to Z4s, from their computer/smartphone/Facebook page/twitter feed.

Of course that day hasn’t come yet, and chances are it never will, so when we decided to investigate the face and fate of retail in the digital age for Havas’ latest Prosumer Report, we focused on real habits and expectations.

The state of commerce in the digital age
Surveying over 10,000 people across 31 countries, “Digital and the new consumer” discloses what we’re getting right and wrong about digital commerce and what the challenges are for online and offline retailers. (Spoiler: this is an example of what we’re getting wrong…)

Bill Gates once said that “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years”, and this seems to be the case with mobile commerce: despite all the talk of it, only 22% of mainstream respondents have used a smartphone to shop online.

Things are about to change, though, as that figure climbs up to 38% among Prosumers, a relatively small cohort of influencers who have been proven to give a good indication of what the majority will soon think and do.

Moreover, if we take geography into account, mobile is confirmed as the new frontier: in Singapore, where shopping is almost a competitive sport, 48% of people have made purchases from their smartphone and 26% from their tablets, a figure that, given the category penetration, shows that virtually every tablet user is a tablet shopper.

Having said that, before we rush to stick miniaturized versions of our stores into an app, we should be aware that we are not just talking about another screen. It’s the shopper that is mobile, and that is fragmenting the purchase process across multiple real and virtual steps: the smartphone is only the glue that keeps it all together.

A transition towards a new form of shopping
51% of Singaporeans say that for major purchase decisions their first stop is usually the internet; that’s far from being their last, though, with 66% “showrooming” (i.e. visiting stores to see/try-out a product before buying it online) and 58% checking for price and customer reviews online while in a shop.

This blend of on- and off-line has unlocked the e-commerce potential of non-commoditized goods, such as clothing, shoes and accessories, which is now the most popular category of online shopping in Singapore (65%), well ahead of books (37%).

The most important insight offered by the Prosumer Report is that we’re not in a transition from an age of brick-and-mortar to one of bits-and-bytes, but rather from one of confrontation between the two models to one where retailers can create a hybrid model to respond to what is already a fluid experience in the minds and habits of shoppers.

Singaporean retailers have been waiting for too long
Unfortunately, the local industry seems to be lagging behind: some retailers are still very hesitant to create an online presence, leading to nearly half of all Singaporeans feeling frustrated; at the same time, e-stores have problems of their own, with 70% of online shoppers feeling overwhelmed by the amount of choice and information, and 64% still preferring to buy certain products in person for the tangible benefits of touching them and trying them on.

Real innovation seems to be coming from local start-ups, who understand that the best use of new technologies is not to support old business models, but rather to invent new ones: companies such as Swiff, MOGi or ERN are determined to unleash the full potential of mobile commerce, while Tate & Tonic is suggesting that we could rid of shops altogether, replacing them with a monthly subscription to a curated, personalized fashion collection delivered to your door.

While this is certainly good news for entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, established retailers should start worrying, as they cannot expect to leave radical innovation to smaller competitors and still stand to benefit from it.
Whatever commerce will look like ten years from now, it will reflect the objectives and needs of those talented and ambitious enough to shape it, and it will surely be more disruptive than just more windows on more screens.

After saying that “we always overestimate change that will occur in the next two years”, Bill Gates went on to add that “we underestimate change that will occur in the next ten.”

It’s time for retailers to stretch their imaginations and start shaping the retail industry of 2023, to ensure that they will play a part in it.

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Three things I still don’t understand about Obama v Romney

I’ve been doing my homework, diving into Nate Silver‘s stats every morning for breakfast, reading Real Clear Politics’ “A time for choosing” and “The battle begins“, Politico’s “Obama’s last stand” and even “The race to 270“, and with a few days left before the election there are still three things I don’t understand:

1. WHY IS THE ROBOTIC ROMNEY NOT BEING CALLED A ROBOT?

All pundits have noticed and remarked a shift in how the Obama campaign depicted Romney, going from decrying him as someone who’d say everything to get elected to painting him as a hardcore conservative. The problem is not that the two strategies are contradictory, it’s that they both don’t work: voters think that virtually any candidate is going to lie to part of the electorate to win their vote (but they never think that it’s going to be them), and the former governor of Massachusetts doesn’t really come across as a dangerous conservative, particularly after a primary season when the Republican base stubbornly supported the most unlikely series of candidates rather than endorsing him.

The only attack that produced any result was about making him the embodiment of corporate America’s cynical and irresponsible greed, and that may  be enough to cost him Ohio (and the election), but it’s not a rounded strategy: it’s only about the economy, and voters might actually welcome a Gordon Gekko, as long as they think that someone else will pay the price (just like with candidates’ lies).

Ironically, a much better strategy was right before everyone’s eyes: Romney is an incredibly efficient robot that pursues the interests of whoever is behind him. A single strategy that can be adapted to target different groups of voters:

- Blue-collar workers. When Romney was serving the interests of Bain and its shareholders, it made companies bankrupts, fired people and shipped jobs overseas.

- Women and civil right activists. As validated with his pick of Ryan as his running mate, Romney is going to serve the interests of an extremist Republican congress, and will efficiently pursue a radical agenda.

- The middle class. Romney would be a great middle class advocate if that’s where his supporters came from. But they don’t. He’s a candidate of the 1%, and you can rest assured that he will very effectively serve their interests, and their interests only.

- Independents. There is no denying that Romney can be a good person and a good manager: his community service and his record  at the Salt Lake City Olympics testify to that. Moreover, a Democratic Massachusetts General Court helped him be a relatively successful governor. He just can’t be trusted to be the President of his irresponsabile party and extremist contributors.

This strategy would have allowed the Obama campaign to weave Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate to the White House (his appearance and demeanor,  his history at Bain, the general disdain for the GOP…)  into a consistent narrative, while preserving a personal respect for him, and avoiding silly canine-related issues. I don’t know why it was never tried.

2. MID-MITT

This, courtesy of of is.R(), shows exactly how fast and how strongly the Republican Party has been moving towards radical positions in the past couple of decades. How the candidate for president of this GOP can make claims of bipartisanship is hard to believe, but why he’s being given a free pass on this is even more past my understanding.

This is not just a lie: it’s the lie that could win him the election.

There are many voters who know that key Republicans are irresponsible extremists from another planet who are alien to logic and common sense, but they consider Romney a competent businessman and would like to give him a chance. Reassuring them that he could reach across the aisle and bring together reasonable minds from both parties may just be what swings their vote.

Moreover, this plays into a cynical but ultimately solid reasoning: early in his term President Obama tried to reach across the aisle and collaborate with Republicans on a range of issues from the economy to health care, only to be met with categorical oppositions, calls of socialism and anti-americanism, and a declared intent to make him fail, all else be damned. This Republican party has no intention of working with President Obama, to the point of entertaining the thought of a sovereign default.

Democrats, on the other hand, are in the inconvenient position of having repeatedly proven to be much more responsible, so that now a rational voter can acknowledge the current attitudes of the two parties and consider a Romney Presidency as more likely to break the gridlock in Washington. They should make it perfectly clear that as long as Romney is the standard bearer of the GOP, no compromise is possible.

3. WHERE IS HILLARY?

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Crack for nerds (or, the hidden correlations of everything)

I love how sometimes A+B=C, and then all hell breaks loose. Case in point:

A: Google knows everything

+

B: Google has the talent, tools and will to make sense of that knowledge

=

C: Google Correlate.

What was born as Google Flu Trends is now a holistic tool that lets people discover all sorts of unexpected correlations.

Have a go at it, maybe starting the intuitive and pleasantly childish “Search by drawing“. But watch out: it’s seriously addictive!

Here is what I discovered while I should have been busy doing something else:

Yet more evidence than Blackberry is dying

I started by drawing a simple curve that would grow steadily from 2005, peak in 2010 and then collapse:

Google Correlate returned the 10 most-correlated search queries. 4 of them are about Blackberry.

The Diaspora that never was

Remember Diaspora, the open-source social network that was born to address the widespread (?) concern over privacy and offer us an alternative to the corporate, intruding, profit-driven Facebook?

Well, this is a curve drawn to peak late in 2011 and then disappear back into oblivion:

And here are the 10 most correlated search results.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but it seems that Facebook won our love back.

Have fun drawing your own curves, while I’ll be busy finding out everything about “sesural genda phool”…

(hat tip:  Joan Arensman)

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Is Salient the new Viral?

Do you know someone who seems to regularly say exactly what you’re thinking, but using better words? To me that’s (Jed Bartlet and) Martin Weigel. Good thing he has the good taste to voice his opinions before I do, so I can at least avoid the embarrassment. (Although that also implies that he’s either way more efficient than I am to find time for it while producing brilliant work, or he’s just as lazy but gets to those ideas faster than I do. Both scenarios are rather discouraging.)

Case in point, his list of “Words I hate” that I would sign with my own blood (except for strategists: I don’t like “planner” because it leads to an abundance of plans and a shortage of ideas), and his general disdain for Adland rhetoric.

That’s why I’ve been scratching my head over his two long posts about Differentiation v Saliency. He makes a great job of combining an extensive range of sources to make the argument that:

  1. Consumers are just not that into brands. Virtually any attempt to engage them in a relationship, join a conversation or expect them to respond to the intricacies of your brand are futile, delusional and egotistic. (Spot on!)
  2. Shopping metrics show that consumers are highly unloyal, purchasing from a basket of brands for each category, and disproportionately rewarding the market leader. Consumer segmentation models that distinguish between the Brand-X woman and the Brand-Y woman are a work of fiction.  (Can’t argue with that…)
  3. This is backed by research showing that consumers can’t differentiate between brands, across almost all brands and categories. Differences in brand attributes are overwhelmingly explained by scale. (Hmm….)
  4. Consequently, our efforts towards differentiation have been misplaced. If consumers don’t spend enough time in their purchase decisions, then there is no point explaining the differences between products. We should get out of the persuasion business. (Hmm hmm…)
  5. We should instead find creative ways to turn our generic, un-ownable products into something exciting and worth remembering. This is what it really takes to trigger a purchase. (Ouch…)

When I first read the articles I couldn’t reconcile how much I agreed with their initial points and how unconvinced I was by their conclusions. I thought it boiled down to a contradiction (Did we fail to create brand differentiation or did we succeed but it was proven worthless? You can’t have it both ways…), but there is more to it. So let’s complicate this:

Brands are not people, my friend

Let’s get the first two points out of the way: most normal people want to engage with other human beings, not with commercial abstractions.  They don’t want to own your brand, nor are they keen to join any conversation with it. Virtually all segmentation models produced by the corporate world are bull-s**t. End of story. I know it, you know it. Let’s move on.

Spot the difference

There’s a difference between saying that brands are undifferentiated and that most brands are undifferentiated. While it’s true that we have plenty of examples of interchangeable brands, we also know some that are wildly recognized as different, with research to back it up: Volkswagen v Chevrolet, Barclays v The Cooperative Bank, Innocent v Minute Maid, Jil Sander v D&G,  Singapore Airlines v American Airlines…

There’s more: there’s a difference between saying that “consumers don’t differentiate between brands” and that “according to research, consumers  don’t differentiate between brands”. The output of a research is only as good as its input. Most brand equity researchers test fundamental category attributes with very traditional questions, and what you get out of it is not very insightful. Take sportswear: if you run a traditional test on items such as “modern”, “athletic”, “successful” you probably get very similar results between Nike and Adidas, with differences explained by the relative size of the user base. But if you instead ask them who would win in a street fight, you get much more revealing results. I know because I asked.

Let’s face it: we’re really not that good

This is a point I feel very strong about. Martin looks at how central “differentiation” is in the marketing textbooks, and concludes that if we failed despite all our efforts, then it must be unattainable. I have a very different point of view: we’ve been rubbish. You only need to walk into virtually any meeting room of virtually any company in the past 40 years to see the same words written on virtually any brand identity model: how many banks are about “fulfilling dreams” and being “by your side”? How many mobile operators about “being better together”? How many posters have we seen with headlines such as “Capture life”? Or “Never miss [X]“? And how many “Inter-racial-urban-young-adults-raising-their-hands-at-a-gig”?

We should take a good look at ourselves as an industry and admit it: garbage in, garbage out.

Of course, some brands make the opposite mistake: in an effort for textbook hyper-differentiation, they look for the tiniest granular ownable property (2% more whatever-unpronounceable-ingredient) and expect that people will care. This is true, but we shouldn’t benchmark our strategies on this kind of rubbish. The quest for ultimate ownability should have been pronounced dead ever since the question “But can’t our competitors also claim X?” first received the answer: “Yes, but they’re not.” Let’s move on.

Let me entertain you (?)

The traditional Christmas cake in Italy is called “Panettone”. It’s a very simple product: a sweetbread filled with raisins and candied fruit that is mostly produced industrially and, to be perfectly honest, is not what you would call an unforgettable culinary experience. It’s mostly produced industrially, and it’s the kind of product you only think about once a year: every Italian family buys one for Christmas lunch or dinner, with an attitude that is more about ticking a box than anticipating a festive delight.

You can now understand the challenge that a friend of mine was faced with a few years ago, while working on a brief for a brand of Panettone that was going to spend the same budget of its 4-5 major competitors, who were targeting the same consumers with the same message (ie. “Yummie!). The fans of “saliency” would advocate saying pretty much whatever you want as long as it’s not repulsive (“we’re not in the message business”), but doing so in a compelling, exciting, memorable way. My friend did something different and, well, complicated things a bit. He bet on the hypothesis that even though Panettone is a tick-boxing purchase, it can be about more than taste: while everyone else claimed yummie, he put all his chips on “soft”. He believed that the weekend before Christmas shoppers would flock to supermarkets and, faced with a half dozen equally legitimate brands and similar packages that all claimed to taste good (who wouldn’t? and how can you believe it anyway?), they wouldn’t know where to turn to. He knew they’d want to buy something that their children wouldn’t complain about, and there was his answer: “soft.” Children like softer cakes more than harder ones. And not just that: old Panettone gets hard, so you can desume that fresh Panettone is soft; as for another non-negative, soft also makes it seem less likely to be dry.

Did he convey that in a memorable, compelling ad like the Cadbury Gorilla? Not really, as you can see below. But it was enough for Panettone Motta to achieve record sales that year. And the following. And the one after that.

What’s the big deal?

So why am I writing a ridiculously long post about something that was written months ago by a guy whose other opinions I agreed with before and since? Because I see a risk hidden behind that argument, the same I see in Dave Trott’s words advocating that being interesting is more important than being relevant. It’s not just that there is no silver bullet (but it’s always worth repeating that); it’s also that we fail to grasp the complexity of our job.

I believe that the single most important contribution a creative agency can make to a brand is making it distinctive. Not just distinctive among all the other distractions we’re exposed to today: I agree with that, but it’s not enough. We must also make it distinctive among the competing options that shoppers are forced to consider, especially when they’re frustrated about it.

No one  is happy about how electronics retailers are displaying tens of tens of TVs forming an endless black wall. But this is how things are, and we can’t pretend otherwise. We also can’t pretend that shoppers will walk into an electronics shop and not be shaken by such a wide choice, no matter how preeminent brand X was in their head before they walked in. “Sony Balls” was a great ad not just because it was memorable, but also because it gave shoppers a cognitive shortcut to navigate through that choice: “Colour”.

Martin Weigel recognizes this when he quotes Romanuik and Sharp (Conceptualizing and measuring brand salience, 2004) and their recommendation to consider a range of attributes associated with the brand in any measure of salience, but we should also be aware that this is not very different from what we’ve been trying to do for the past few decades. We simply haven’t done it very well, for many reasons.

If we instead celebrate “saliency” as a Copernican Revolution, the process of dumbing everything down that has been dooming our industry will more than likely turn it into a new buzzword like it did with “viral”, and we’ll soon hear clients asking us to give them something “salient” like they used to ask us for a “viral”: this terrifies me, because the quest for the “new exciting wonder” coupled with the unlimited creative possibilities of the digital age is more likely to produce the the most amazing collective waste of resources that Adland has ever seen than anything really valuable.

I’d rather do what we should have been doing, and do it well: investigate our product; explore what makes people tick; see if there’s a connection between the two; make it easy for them to find it; get them excited in the process, but not more than they’re willing to be.

If we do all this, and we do it well, we’ll make our brands salient. Chances are, we’ll make them viral, too.

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Why the Dark Knight doesn’t rise high enough

Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Dark Knight Rises is one of the best films of the year, and one of the best superhero movies ever. However, it fails to live up to the expectations generated by the first two films, and that says a lot about the ambition of a franchise that has deconstructed super-heroism and addressed complex philosophical and sociological themes, while at the same time making more than 1 billion dollars at the box office. (“Lost” is the only other example of such an intellectually ambitious yet commercially successful project I can think of in recent years…)

The most common criticism of TDKR you can find around the internet boils down to one word: the film is “bloated”. Christopher Nolan is accused of having tried to pack too much into a story that ended up running at 165 minutes.

That’s true, but only at a superficial level. I believe Nolan should have added something more into the film, something of critical importance, but talking about it requires a big deal of spoilers.

[SPOILER ALERT]

[ No, seriously. If you haven't yet seen the film, go watch The Daily Show or something...]

What Christopher Nolan didn’t include in TDKR, the one thing that would have tied up all loose ends, is Bane’s motivation, and the story behind it.

Is Bane a populist or a terrorist?

In the film he’s both at the same time, and that not only makes him a superficial and foggy character, it also makes his job harder: “I’m here to free you, and I have a nuclear bomb!” is not exactly the most compelling rallying cry.

Had Bane been given a clear motivation, he’d have come across as a stronger, driven figure, and this would also have made his interactions with the other characters more natural, helping them develop their own narrative arc.

So, what could have Bane been?

A terrorist

Bane as a pure terrorist pursuing the destruction of Gotham City would have borrowed from the two previous movies: here you’d have a character who wants to see the world burn like the Joker, but does so out of a moral imperative like Ra’s al Ghul, rather than for pure madness.

While not very original, this take would have still raised interesting questions: Does Batman’s choice to spare his enemies result in them coming back with new, stronger faces? How will Gotham react to widespread, asymmetrical war after 8 years of peace? Will the already tough Dent Act be made tougher, and how will people react? Will common citizens invoke the return of the Dark Knight, so that the devil they know can save them from the devil they don’t? Will Bane and Miranda Tate destroy Bruce Wayne’s reputation framing him as the reclusive, paranoid mastermind behind the nuclear threat?

A populist

This is when things get more interesting. As a populist intent on bringing down the old order, Bane can be the perfect Batman mirror: a charismatic figure that challenges Gotham’s established powers and inspires people to follow his example and rebel. This take would also make many other characters more credible: it would give Selina Kyle a compelling reason to help him and bring Batman to him (in the film she seems to do it just so that the plot can move on); it can offer the citizens of Gotham an interesting role, instead of just fading in the background; it would cause an underprivileged Blake to struggle with what side of the law to stay on; it would also make Batman even more of  a troubled anti-hero, as for once he could be seen as an instrument of Bruce Wayne’s wealth, instead of the other way around.

However, doing this would require setting up an underlying social struggle, between a wealthy class that has been taking advantage of the economic growth that we can expect following 8 years with no organized crime, and a middle- and lower- class that may not have seen its quality of life improve since the days of Falcone and the Joker. Building this setup within the context of a super-hero movie and the limits of an already stretched script would have sure been a challenge, but it’s one that I’d have loved to see Christopher Nolan tackle, as it’d have brought out the best of his talent as a storyteller and a visionary director. Given how much the trailer hinted at this (“A storm is coming…”), and the narrative and genre-subverting potential of such a framework, I believe that this is THE missed opportunity of TDKR.

A populist that is later revealed to be a terrorist

This might have been the most coherent solution, in light of the previous films and the characters’ development. Bane could have introduced himself to the people of Gotham as a populist leader, offering them freedom and inviting them to overturn the establishment; with the violence spreading, he’d prove to Batman that Gotham is beyond saving, as ordinary citizens are turned into vandals, robbers and killers; at this point he’d be ready to unveil the bomb, having broken Batman’s faith in his city and given Gotham citizens’ a glimpse of hope before the despair.

This character evolution would also give Miranda Tate more time to develop a proper relationship with Bruce Wayne (as opposed to rain/kiss/sex), introducing her as a fellow member of the establishment at the mercy of an angry mob, before revealing her to be Talia al Ghul when the bomb is announced. It would also make Selina Kyle’s arc more credible, going from sympathy towards a populist to fear of a terrorist, with no need for an unlikely Mac Guffin such as the “clean slate”.

While this seems a more complex arc, it would have actually resulted in a more linear and credible plot, that would have laid the basis for stronger character interactions and compelling moral dilemmas: Is inequality a moral or a security issue? What are regular people willing to do when there is no law? Who are we willing to believe in?

At the end of the day, the catalyst for action in super-hero stories is the super-villain. If that character is not perfectly crafted, everything else will tend to fall apart, and it’s a testament to how good a director Christopher Nolan is that he still manages to make The Dark Knight Rises a really good film.

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Does advertising even work?

(This is the third, much delayed, and last post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

Let’s get to what really matters: does political advertising work? And what can it teach us when it comes to brands?

Last things first: it can teach us a lot. Firstly, it’s a stress test: political campaigns are the most sophisticated form of persuasive communication. Secondly, we have more and better data: very few marketing organizations put as much effort and resources into research as campaigns do; those who do are not as consistent, regularly varying methodology, scope and object of the research depending on quarterly marketing plans; finally, the very few companies with a consistent record of research that allows for historical comparison tend to keep their results confidential. (Data from political campaigns is widely available because it comes partly from academic institutions and partly from organizations that tend to dismantle after one or few political cycles.)

So, back to the original question: does political advertising even work? Or are the billion+ dollars that are going to be spent in a presidential year just a huge waste to keep the networks happy and the pundits employed?

***

John Sides at George Washington University has summed up decades of scientific research to show what advertising has been proven to do and what it has not, in 6 points. (I dream of the day when Millward Brown will produce something this insightful, concise and solid). Here is what he found out, followed by my considerations on what it means for brands.

1. Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar

Not so surprisingly, we are more influenced by ads when we haven’t had a chance to formulate our own opinion on candidates. As time goes by, one of our many cognitive biases makes us more receptive to information that reinforces our opinion and less to that which would challenge it.

2. Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent

Again, not such an original finding, but one we should take into account more: no matter how much we like the idea of underdogs defeating established leaders with smart tactics, share of voice still carries a huge weight.

3. Campaign ads can matter, but not for long

Folks in Madison Avenue and DC can recall every detail of an advertising campaign for years, but the truth is that regular people are exposed to an amazing amount of information every day, and even the stickiest ad won’t have a long-lasting effect. According to Sides’s study, “the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week”.

4. Negative ads work, except when they don’t

While negative ads are more easily recalled and can generate intense debate, there is no conclusive evidence that they can win votes.

5. Campaign ads don’t really affect turnout

This is easy to understand once we take a healthy distance from the Madison Avenue mindset: something you see on tv today, no matter how brilliant, is unlikely to make you get up and go to a polling station a few days or weeks from now. Direct communication on election day, whether door-to-door or over the phone, is much more effective, and exponentially more so when coming from sone you have a personal relationship with.

6. There is no secret sauce. Really.

Are successful ads about policy or a candidate’s biography? Should they raise fear or hope? Are stats and numbers interesting or boring? Like with so many other things in life, it depends. If there was a silver bullet, both candidates would be firing it at each other, and that would most likely neutralize its effect. But the truth is, there is no shortcut. It’s all about doing the right ad for the right objective at the right time, as defined by our talent and experience, and then hope that it works.

***

So what about brands?

There are clearly some major differences, the most significant being that brands don’t have the same amount of public exposure as political candidates: you don’t see Nike v Adidas televised debates in college campuses (no matter how fun that’d be…), and there is no army of reporters documenting their every move. Because of this, advertising is comparatively more important in shaping their image. (Although a case could be made for those brands that are often at the center of news stories, such as banks.)

However, John Side’s research does raise some questions worth thinking about:

1. If ads are more effective when brands are mostly unknown, should we really buy into the idea of lightning many fires and only investing in those that gain traction, or will it be too late by then to make the brand what we want it to be?

2.  If the effects of advertising disappears after a week, should we only produce ads that are engineered to deliver a tangible call-to-action to take the relationship further (eg. buy a product, enter into a loyalty program, download a widget) as opposed to mere brand-building?

3. Should we stop pretending that advertising alone can drive people to retail, and start taking the “lead a horse to water” metaphor more literally?

4. Finally, as none of this is particularly controversial, why are we not doing it?

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What advertising and publishing should both learn

Let’s take a break from comparing advertising to politics, and take a look at publishing instead.

Here what Daniel Victor, social media editor at ProPublica, has to say about this job:

“You need equal attention to the distribution and the reporting aspects of the job. [...] The big temptation is to focus more on the distribution than the reporting.”

This sums up very neatly that major problem for advertising today: it’s not the recession, it’s not commoditization, it’s not globalization. It’s spending too much time thinking at how we’re going to distribute an idea via social media/influencers/promotions/applications/younameit, and too little time thinking at the merit of the idea we want to distribute.

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Always-On Marketing: what it is, what it’s not, and what politics should learn from it.

(This is the third post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

What I most admire in political communication, and without any doubt what businesses would benefit the most from, is its pragmatism, its focus on the one thing that matters: voting. Yes, perception, fundraising, volunteering, word-of-mouth are all important, but the only thing that really matters in the end is how many people will turn out on election day and vote for that one candidate.

This is in remarkable contrast with brand advertising, where we plan our campaigns to address KPIs like brand metrics, data capture, website visits or Facebook likes, as opposed to the behaviour that really creates value. Even campaigns rewarded for their effectiveness highlight their business results, but fail to demonstrate how they were engineered around the intended behaviour: more often than not, they highlight a disproportionate effect on the usual metrics (perception, website visits…) and imply that this somehow led to achieving the objective, but in a way that is hard to really pin down.

A good political campaign manager can instead trace the number of votes in each constituency back to the “get out the vote” drives and calls, to the field operations and to media communication within an acceptable degree of statistical significance.

Of course, this is greatly helped by the one key difference between votes and purchases: elections take place in one day, the same for everyone. This makes it much easier to plan investments and messages, concentrate efforts and mobilize voters.

However, is the focus on election day doing more harm than good to politics?

***

There’s a big literature on how winning elections has gone from being a mean to being an end in itself,  and how governments have failed to execute the policies they were voted for, opting instead to prepare for the next election cycle. What many commentators do not understand is that this is not a triumph of marketing, but rather its failure.

The draining drive towards a cathartic instant when change would happen and a new time would start makes it incredibly hard for politicians to maintain support and use it when it matters even more than on election day: every single day after it, when policies must be passed and enacted through a number of obstacles.

It’s not for a lack of effort: Organizing for America was created precisely for the purpose of mobilizing voters in favour of Obama’s legislative agenda. Yet Organizing for America failed. The greatest support-generating machine in political history failed to generate support for its first major, defining policy: health reform.

I believe this is due to a fundamental misunderstanding of marketing (hence its failure): marketing is seen as what leads to a sale. It’s entirely normal then that once the sale is secured, and the elections are won, the best talents move on to the act of governing and policy-making (or backroom politics) until the next election cycle, where they’re brought back into the field to secure re-purchase.

This is a familiar pattern to anyone who runs a commercial business, and this is where politics can learn from Always-on Marketing.

But first we should define what it is.

Always-on Marketing is not monitoring what’s happening and reacting in real time: that’s all right and good, but it’s only tactical behaviour that leads to spot promotions and damage control. It doesn’t affect the fundamentals of the relationship between you, your consumer, and your product.

Always-on Marketing is not pestering your consumers every day trying to engage with them and get them to join the conversation: that’s a childish behaviour that provides no value apart from feeding your brand’s ego.

Always-on Marketing is also not Customer Relationship Management, if by that we mean an effort to provide a satisfactory service and performance in order to secure the next sale. There’s much more to that.

Always-on Marketing is designing your product to be a journey: the product is just the ticket, the real value is in the ride. And your role as a brand is to point out the exciting directions where people can go, and help them get there. Again, the first obvious example is iPhone: the phone is the ticket, but Apple soon moved on to advertising apps, and then games, and then films and tv-series… On a smaller scale, Lurpak is doing the same.

There are obviously some products that are not suitable for this (toilet paper, anyone?), and in particular we can say that Always-on Marketing works at its best with products that are platforms.

Yet too many of them are still not marketed this way, starting from politics.

***

Politics is fundamentally a platform: a series of relationships between elected officials, activists and voters, that can be used to activate policies.

Looking at it through the filter of Always-on Marketing allows us to bridge the gap between campaigning and governing, and look at the system as a whole, where:

- elections give candidates an opportunity to build the platform

- the strongest platform wins the elections

- the platform is activated by policies, that are at the same time its purpose and its vital support

- if that’s the case, maintaining the platform is as important as using it to activate the policies, so as much talent should go into the former as into the latter

- actually, activating the policies equals maintaining the platform, and the other way around, so the same talent should do both

In  politics, your best policy expert is also your best community organizer.

In business, your best experience designer is also your best evangelist.

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Brand Strategy in Washington, Dc. What advertising can learn from politics. (2/2)

(This is the second post in a series comparing political and brand communication.)

In my previous post I suggested a framework for brand strategy inspired by a model for political communication devised by Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates. It looks a bit like this:


We can use this model to judge the consistency between what some brands are currently communicating and their ideal trajectory.

Let’s start with Mobile Operators: they’re a funny breed, as they all essentially behave the very same way, to the point of even sounding the same. Don’t you see how “we’re better connected because life’s for sharing?”  That’s the sign that all operators have their feet firmly planted on a visionary territory. The problem with this is that they’re all telling slightly different variants of the same story about people and life, one in which their only direct contribution is, well, connectivity: aka, air. They bought so much into the idea that they’re an undifferentiated commodity, that they’re behaving as one: they’re not telling us about who they are (because they believe they’re all the same, so we end up believing it as well), nor about their products (save the regular new tariff…when was the last time you paid attention to one?), nor about why they’re better than their competitors (have they even given up trying to be?). They’re only telling us a human truth, be it that “together we have fun” or that “we are who we are because of the people we met”: that’s all good and true, but it is so with or without them. In other words, they’re selling us a vision that we can’t recognize as theirs, because we don’t know who they are, what they give us, and where that will take us. Things would be different if they worked out a distinctive, credible and relevant purpose for their brand, and then proceeded to position their products and services within that framework. To this extent, it doesn’t matter that they factually run the very same business. Just look at Nike and Adidas: they produce commodities, but refuse to look at themselves as one.

Fast Food chains are in a very different place: they each managed to carve their own distinctive positioning, a remarkable achievement for an industry that essentially sells meat, bread and an undistinguished bunch of toppings. Most of the communication is still focused on product (with the exception of some comparative ads), and that’s a reasonable universal trait of the food industry: it’s what makes us drool, just show it to us and we’ll want one. Now. Having said this, in response to the alleged undeniable obesity epidemics in some western countries, certain major brands have been broadening their product offer to include salads, fruit and other unlikely combinations.  These products have been marketed as evidence of a new vision of healthy/balanced/fresh/you-name-it diet, that is supposed to be more in line with what consumers (and regulators) expect today. That’s precisely the problem: that vision is in line with what consumers expect (from eating in general) and what regulators may  demand (from the fast food industry), but they’re not necessarily in line with the brand themselves. This is an issue of consistency between the brand’s DNA and its vision: no matter how sleek their new shops are, Mc Donald’s still smells of hamburgers. (Much to the delight of many of its fans). On the other hand, a vision built around “fresh” is entirely consistent with who Subway is, and as such they’ve been able to benefit from recent food trends without changing much of their offer. On the other end of the spectrum, Burger King has for a long time stayed loyal to its vision of Food for Men, one that is rooted in their products and their heritage. I’m curios to see what will happen now that things have changed.

Finally, fashion sheds its own peculiar light on this model: high-end fashion is fundamentally tautological, and it finds the justification for its promise within itself.  A certain item is fashionable because it comes from a fashion label. (More precisely, a certain item is fashionable because it respect the canons of fashion. The canons of fashion are as such because they’re established by fashion labels. And fashion labels produce fashion items). In other words, a brand dna is its vision, and the other way around:  think at Armani’s rigorous elegance (with a few exceptions that might end up proving harmful) or Dolce&Gabbana’s decadent taste. Fashion makes itself credible and relevant, so all it has to be is consistent. With the first and fourth step of the trajectory being effectively one and the same, and the third ruled out because fashion brands are tautological and as such can only be compared to themselves, all that’s left is ensuring that all the products, from haute couture collections down to accessories, are consistent with the label’s creative (and symbolic) direction. Unlike what some people think, fashion labels are not recreating themselves every few months in an effort to make their old collection obsolete and get people to buy a new one that they really wouldn’t need: that’s only a skin-deep drama, although an incredibly effective one. Fundamentally they’re the most conservative brands, always true to their core and incapable of evolution. This model visualizes why.

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Brand Strategy in Washington, Dc. What advertising can learn from politics. (1/2)

(This is the first post in a series comparing political and brand communication.)

I mentioned before that US Presidential Elections can be considered the most complex and advanced form of persuasive communication, and as such can offer an interesting framework of reference for brand advertising.

This is true for political campaigns in general, as they all share a number of defining and challenging requirements:

  1. the goal of influencing not just perception, but a specific user behaviour (or actually, two: voting v non voting, and the merit of the vote)
  2. a mix of functional and emotional needs and triggers
  3. a diverse audience
  4. the broadest media environment (earned, owned and all sorts of paid media you can think of, including the not-so-legal…)
  5. a direct, fierce competitive environment where there can only be one winner
  6. a deadline everyone works against
  7. a vast number of stakeholders and influencers
  8. inequalities in resources
  9. formal and informal rules to abide by
  10. a need to respond to unforeseeable and potentially game-changing events
  11. (I could go on, but I think 10 is a neat number)

Looking at the narrative and structure employed by political campaigns can provide an enlightening framework for businesses dealing with some of the issues above.

***

In their bookThe Spot (1992), Edwin Diamond and Stephen Bates identify four phases of political advertising: ID spots; argument spots; attacks spots and what they call “I see an America” spots. (For each phase I’m showing examples from Obama 2008, as the best and most recent example of a candidate going from virtual unknown to frontrunner, and Apple, as the brand with the most strategically solid trajectory.)

ID spots introduce the candidate and establish an initial credibility and positional framework. They’re necessary to lay the ground for future communication, and we can consider them akin to brand ads. They’re particularly important for candidates (or brands) that have little name recognition and need to become popular enough to be taken seriously, or have slipped out of the public eye and need to reaffirm their saliency.  

Argument spots introduce the candidate’s policies, ranging from broad statements to greater level of details, and can be (and usually are) tailored for specific communities and constituencies. We can consider them product ads 

Attacks spots are negative ads aimed at hurting other candidates, and they’re only introduced after a positive profile of the candidate has been established. The fundamental reason for this is that getting someone to reconsider support for candidate Y is only useful if they have an immediate, acceptable alternative in candidate X. They work in a very similar way to comparative ads.  

Finally, the “I see an America” spots invite “viewers to visualize the country as it would be under the candidate’s presidency” (Craig Allen Smith, “Presidential Campaign Communication”). The purpose of the ads is at the same time to move the candidate beyond the phase of conflict making his victory seem so immediate and inevitable that it has already borne fruit, and to reconcile him with supporters of struggling rivals, offering them a future scenario they’d also feel comfortable in. This genre of ads is remarkably rare in brand communication, and rightly so given the mismatch between their ambition and the limited potential that any product has to change the future. However, there are cases of ambitions brands that come up visionary ads painting a portrait of the future and inviting us to step in: most of them are meaningless and easily dismissed, but every once in a while the combination of creative inspiration and an inch of credibility makes them stick.   

***

What does this mean for brands?

First, it defies the recent marketing myth that states that brands should not talk about themselves, but about consumers instead. If people don’t know who you are or where you’re coming from, it’s very hard for them to grant credibility to anything you say or sell.

Second, it offers a trajectory for brands, and provides a framework to evaluate messages against.

For instance, it captures how Apple went through a phase of birth, decline and re-birth, and this explains why you see two visionary ads: 1984 came on the back of the first few years of success, and was meant to open Apple to a broader audience; the recent iPad 2 ad, while displaying the product, is fundamentally stating an inspiring and approachable brand vision that can make everyone feel welcome. It’s no coincidence it does so with its most ecumenical product, and it represents the culmination of Apple’s rebirth trajectory.

In the upcoming post I’ll use this framework to look at a number of other brands from different industries.

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