April 09, 2020

A Seriously Imperfect Species


I wrote this a few days ago but didn't post it because I felt uncomfortable about posting non-positive things during this unpleasant period.  However, after reading the great Mark Ritson's column today, and seeing that he isn't afraid to be level-headed, I decided to stand with him.

We are a seriously imperfect species, we humans.

For those who think the corona virus experience will "change everything," I have some dispiriting thoughts. It won't. Circumstances change but human nature doesn't.

Did the Bubonic Plague make our species more kind, gentle and selfless? Did the Spanish Flu? Did World War I? Did WWII?

At best, disasters lead to temporary outpourings of kindness, gentility, and good deeds. For those who think the CV-19 experience has made us less selfish and more community-minded, I invite you to come to California and try to buy some toilet paper.

One thing every sensible marketer learns very quickly is that as a rule people act in their own self-interest. You may think this cold and disheartening - and it probably is - but it is nonetheless true.

Are there examples of amazing people doing incredible things for others at the expense of their own safety? Yes, and we should be forever grateful for the existence of these wonderful people.

Are there examples of average people being especially thoughtful in their behavior. Yes, and we should be proud of that.

But will we be a changed and chastened species when this is all over? I doubt it. Our memories are short and soon after the CV-19 experience is gone, I am pretty sure we will revert to the usual norms of unpleasant, irresponsible behavior.

The same is true in advertising. For now, many of our major marketers are trying to put their best feet forward with responsible, gentle advertising. This won't last long. Nor will our industry's self-control. Soon the ad industry will be leveraging the CV-19 experience to our advantage. As I wrote 10 years ago in a piece in Adweek entitled Ads in the Age of Hysteria...

"...if there’s one thing we ad hacks understand, it’s the relationship between anxiety and cash flow. We’ve spent decades creating anxiety in consumers... Now we can apply the same principles to our clients. And so we have created an ongoing hysteria-fest called The Thing That Will Change Everything. The object is to keep marketers in a constant state of anxiety about the future.

The more we can convince them that everything is changing around them — and they need us to interpret the changes — the longer we stay employed."







March 30, 2020

Branding And Grandstanding


I sometimes listen to branding "experts" talk and wonder if they live on the same planet I do. I hear them say...
  • Consumers want to “join the conversation” about brands.
  • Consumers want to co-create with brands.
  • Brands need to create communities of engaged consumers to be successful.
  • Consumers want a relationship with brands.
  • Consumers want brands that align with their values.
I suspect that the more these branding experts can link "branding" to business success, the more of a market they are creating for their services.

First of all, I don't like the word branding. It's like so many words in the dreadful lexicon of marketing -- far too open to interpretation to mean anything specific. There is nothing stupid you can do with a logo that can't be excused as "branding."

Yet, despite my misgivings about branding "experts," I believe that creating a well-known, desirable brand is the highest achievement of advertising. So what the hell are we talking about here? Let's do a little thinking.

As stated above, creating a well-known, desirable brand is the highest attainment of advertising. There are people who would disagree and say that creating a best-selling product is advertising's highest attainment. They are wrong. Advertising alone cannot create a best-selling brand or product. There are far too many elements in marketing, and business in general, that influence product sales. Advertising cannot affect product quality, distribution, pricing, product design, etc. As Mark Ritson often points out, marketing is a lot more than communication.

In the long run, no amount of brilliant advertising and its concomitant brand value can overcome a shitty, ugly product that tastes bad, is hard to find and is unaffordable or unprofitable.

And yet brand babblers seem to think that every business problem is a branding problem. They rattle on and on about the power of "the brand" until you want to shoot yourself. Or them. They inflate the importance of what they do and disguise their ignorance of the complex nature of business success, behind a vague, non-specific curtain - the magical mystery module of "branding."

Many well-known and respected brands have died ignominious deaths (e.g., Polaroid, Oldsmobile, Kodak) -- not necessarily because their "branding" sucked, but because either their products couldn't cut it anymore, or they fell behind the competition, or their financials were cockeyed, or some non-communication aspects of their marketing strategy were inadequate.

To wit, I suspect that one of the economic consequences of the current CV tragedy will be the demise of several "major brands" who have been living on investor money instead of operational income.

Successful "branding" can help make a product more desirable and it can raise the perceived value of a product. In general it can raise the likelihood that a business or product will be successful.

Yes, creating a desirable brand is the highest achievement of advertising, but...
No, creating a desirable brand is not nearly a guarantee of business success.

There are a lot of contingencies in creating a successful business. There are nuts and bolts, and wind, rain, and snow, and salt and pepper, and a little of this and a lot of that.

Despite the implications and assertions of brand babblers, in no way does successful "branding" lead inexorably to a successful business. Getting "the brand" right is a significant component of marketing success, but you gotta get a whole lot of other things right first.

February 24, 2020

Sugar And Technology


For a good part of human history food didn't taste so good. That's why spices from the Far East were such treasured commodities in the West.

In the seventeenth century sugar imported from New Guinea and India became more easily available in England and started becoming very popular. One of the prime reasons was that it made tea taste a lot better.

But Brits went overboard on it. They couldn't get enough. In 1700 the average Brit consumed about 4 pounds of sugar a year. By 1900 the annual per capita consumption was 90 pounds.

Until experience kicks in you never know what the effects are going to be. At first, they didn't know about the effects sugar had on teeth.

It is reported that Queen Elizabeth's teeth turned black from sugar. Not that long ago, many women in England had their teeth pulled in their twenties.

The point is, when something comes along that magically satisfies a craving there can be harsh and unintended consequences.

In the 20th century the advertising industry had a gaping hole. We had very little scientifically reliable information on the efficacy of advertising. Mostly what we had were anecdotes and case histories - in other words, bullshit tarted up to look like facts.

The 21st century brought us technology. And with technology came the promise of science and an enormous appetite for data, measurement, and mathematics.

Data, measurement, and mathematics are important aspects of advertising when consumed in reasonable quantities. But when the craving for numbers becomes a mania, there are sure to be unintended consequences.

We humans are emotional creatures. The release from deprivation tends to create an obsession for that of which we have been deprived. Ask any sailor.

We ad humans have been kicked around for so long because our discipline has been devoid of the benefits of reliable science, that when technology came along we went from 4 pounds to 90 in about three seconds. We are swallowing all the technology we can stuff into our mouths as quickly as we can regardless of its relevance, reliability, authenticity, or the detrimental effects (corruption, fraud, scandals, political and social disruption, the deteriorating quality of our product) it is having on our industry.

Desperately hungry for the gratification of science, we are gorging on technology and finding that our frenzied indulgence is rotting our teeth.