Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Throwing away that damaged umbrella (brand)

From today's Washington Post (see below), we read of General Motors' unprecedented dumping of its (previously invaluable) corporate brand. Instead, the company will focus solely on building individual vehicle brands.

What a smart move. All the American car brands - with the exception of perhaps Ford - are black and blue after taking billions in stimulus dollars from the Red, White, and Blue. It will be years - even decades? - before these companies recover their business and their good names.

I applaud the wise GM marketing pros who made the wise decision to fold up the umbrella brand and wait until the rain has passed.

GM to Remove Its Logo From Cars, Stress Brands

By Kimberly S. Johnson
Associated Press
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

DETROIT, Aug. 25 -- General Motors will begin removing its "Mark of Excellence" logo from vehicles as the company places greater emphasis on its individual brands.

GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said Tuesday that the company would phase out the placement of the GM logo on its cars and trucks, leaving just the GMC, Chevrolet, Cadillac or Buick logos on the vehicles.

"We really want to elevate the prominence of our four core brands," he said. GM is discontinuing or selling four brands: Hummer, Saab, Pontiac and Saturn.

The final decision to remove the silver square logo was made earlier this month, although executives had mentioned the possibility of such a move months ago. The company found that consumers had a greater affinity for GM's individual brands than the corporate name.

"What we're seeing is the GM brand gets dinged big-time in terms of considering a GM vehicle," Mike DiGiovanni, GM's executive director of global market and industry analysis, said during a monthly sales conference call in April. "But when you look at Chevrolet, Cadillac and our other brands, they haven't changed." The company began putting the logos on all its vehicles in North America in 2005.

Rhadigan said removing the logo -- which is generally placed on the lower section of the door panel -- will be more difficult on some models than on others. On vehicles where a specific indentation is made in the sheet metal for the logo, phasing it out will take longer. On models such as the Camaro or Equinox, removal is easier and will begin immediately, Rhadigan said.

Taking the logos off the vehicles will save GM a "nominal" amount of money, Rhadigan said.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Skip Past the Ads, But You're Still Being Sold

From Sunday's Washington Post
By James P. Othmer

In the 1960s Madison Avenue era, painstakingly re-created in the cult hit television show "Mad Men," which returns Sunday for its third season, advertisers could buy a fixed block of airtime on television and be guaranteed a captive audience. That's what Winston cigarettes did for the inaugural season of "The Flintstones" in 1960; cartoon-loving prospective smokers tuned in to see Fred and Barney gleefully puffing away, shilling the product.

But now if we don't like an ad, we can zap, TiVo and DVR it into consumer oblivion. If it truly offends -- say we discover it is fake or untruthful -- we can trash the brand on our blogs or write nasty comments under the spot on YouTube.

On the other hand, if we're entertained enough by something a brand does, we can do its job for it -- by becoming its social media champion. That's what millions of people do every day. They "elf" themselves for OfficeMax each holiday season, spreading the word about discount paper products while having online fun in Santa's workshop. They forward Cadbury's "gorilla playing drums" video to anyone who likes to see a primate jam. A few years ago, they had their way with a man in a chicken suit with Burger King's "subservient chicken," which had 25 million visitors during its first 48 hours online.

And in the past few weeks, hundreds of thousands -- including seemingly every ad person I know -- have been playing along with AMC's ramp-up for Sunday's premiere, joining a "Mad Men Casting Call" and flocking to the meta social-media promotion "Mad Men Yourself," which lets people swap their Facebook profile pics for hip "Mad Men" avatars.

Ads in the "Mad Men" day were about the art of persuasion. Advertising today is about the art of engagement.

Nowhere was this more apparent to me than at the epicenter of advertising yet-to-come, the Brandcenter at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. During a two-day visit there I never saw a single idea in the medium that had been advertising's delivery system of choice since the days of, well, Don Draper: the 30-second network television commercial.

Instead, I saw discreetly branded viral video shorts, graphic novels and performance art. I saw Facebook and Twitter campaigns for mega-brands, and real-world scavenger hunts and online interaction with fictional characters. It didn't seem like the industry in which I'd worked for more than 20 years. When I left advertising in 2005, every major campaign still revolved around the almighty TV spot.

And this isn't happening only at VCU. For two years I visited many of the most progressive idea factories for the $670 billion-a-year global industry. Everything revolved around viral, immersive, "360 degree" advertising, with nary a martini or a TV spot in sight.

On the surface this seems pretty good, this two-way digital transparency model that seemingly makes it incumbent upon advertisers to step up the truthfulness and entertainment value of their messages. Indeed, many smarter agency-guided brands already get this and have thrived because of it. At the very least, it's much less harmful than the loosely regulated, sex-in-the-ice-cubes booze and cigarette ads churned out by the chain-smoking, sublime persuaders of the 1950s and '60s, right?

Not quite. Because while we now have the ability to assert more control over advertising, we're unwillingly being bombarded by more messages than ever, infiltrating our lives in new and increasingly insidious ways.

The market research firm Yankelovich estimates that the average American living in a city 30 years ago saw up to 2,000 ad messages a day. Today, estimates range from 5,000 to 20,000 ad impressions a day. To hone in on a more accurate number, one would have to determine what exactly constitutes an ad in today's ambiguous media environment. Print, radio, TV and online pop-up and banner ads are easy to tally. But what about Internet search results, recommendations on Amazon, subtle product placements in film, music and TV, and, of course, spam?

Then there's the blogosphere, where an entire cottage industry blurs the line between content and advertising, truth and spin.

This month, it was revealed that pharmaceutical companies had hired ghostwriters with no medical training to produce and disseminate "research papers" for online public consumption. Before the drug companies were the mommy bloggers -- parents writing about their children, and their children's favorite products, online. That scandal exposed an ethically tenuous relationship in which bloggers received corporate swag, and in some instances vacation junkets, in exchange for favorable, seemingly honest reviews and "content" mentions. And the brands are not shy about it. Jill Beraud, a marketing officer at PepsiCo, is on record saying that courting the mommy bloggers is a long-term effort.

The Federal Trade Commission has responded by proposing that all bloggers and the corporations that sponsor them be held accountable for the validity of the claims they make. The agency is updating its guidelines on endorsements and testimonials for first time since 1980. Good luck with that. And by that I mean assigning a task force to tackle First Amendment issues and police the entire digital universe to see if someone's passionate Huggies recommendation on is on the up and up.

Meanwhile, members of Congress alarmed by the creeping ubiquity of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing (the United States and New Zealand are the only developed nations to permit such ads) have taken steps to rein in the people who bombard us with ads that are often accompanied by 30 seconds of legal copy about side effects including death and blindness.

In 50 years we've gone from loosely regulated advertising based on the art of persuasion, to more regulated, perfectly legal and often spectacular ads based on the art of engagement, to anything goes.

As a result, it is increasingly difficult to determine what is authentic. It is impossible to tell if a cool video clip is just that or an ad for a car, sneaker or cellphone. Is that really an environmentally responsible vehicle, or is the message pure greenwash? Is that really an unaffiliated "concerned citizen" stepping up to speak at a town hall meeting with Rockwellian authenticity, or a paid party hack who heeded the call of a social media networking blitz?

I recently spoke about all of this with a former colleague and current advertising creative director. "Eventually," he said, "the Internet always reveals the truth." The question is, when the messages come at us at the speed of light, many thousands of times a day, can it or anyone reveal it fast enough?

At its core, advertising is a tension between art, commerce and ethics. With time, consumers, brands and the law make adjustments and the balances shift. Which brings us back to 1962, and Don Draper. Would his contemporary self approve of mommy bloggers and pharma spam? Or would the man who in one episode frowned with disapproval at Doyle Dane Bernbach's revolutionary "Think Small" print ad for Volkswagen evolve and become a proponent of ethical, engaging ads?

For an answer, cue the DVR to Season One, Episode Six -- skip the ads -- when a beatnik says to Draper: "You work in advertising. . . . How do you sleep at night?"

The Mad Man's response: "On a bed made of money."

James P. Othmer is a former advertising executive and the author of the forthcoming book "Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Why Marketing is Broken, Part 1

I've been giving the state of marketing a lot of thought this summer, and I have concluded that marketing as we know it is dead - not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.

Long gone are the days of Mad Men where ad execs create campaigns that slither their ways into our hearts, minds, and wallets. Every consumer in America is now an expert on advertising - and we universally hate it. We listen to iPods and XM because we want to listen to music - not ads. We Tivo television shows so we can fast-forward through the commercials and reduce "The Office" down to 20 joyous, annoyance-free minutes. We universally enlisted in the Do-Not-Call list (even if we continue to get calls during dinner from charities and marketing research companies). And every morning, we're faced with an anemic Washington Post (or whatever daily you read/used to read) because the paper can't pay for journalism now that the advertisers vanished.

Why has this happened? For many reasons, which I'm going to write about over the coming weeks. But I'll start with Exhibit A: the Omega Watch television ad.

This dreadful piece of drek represents the worst of the worst. Why? Because it sells out all that is great and good about our country. For the sake of a buck, Omega Watches exploits our country, our dead president, our greatest scientific achievement of the past century, and worst of all, my childhood memories. IT IS JUST AWFUL. I wouldn't buy an Omega Watch ad now if it meant I could fly to the moon on its back.

(And whoever sold out JFK by allowing the use of that noble footage ought to be ashamed. Completely, utterly, and unabashedly ashamed.)

I don't object in general to Omega using its "first watch on the moon" status in its promotion. If they'd done a campy campaign with a cartoon moon and then shown a cartoon spaceman looking at an Omega watch, I'd have smiled and remembered the watch's unique status. This approach would have yielded a soft but powerful message rather than the overstated, overmarketed, absolutely nauseating patriotic 2x4 to our heads.

So this is Reason 1 why marketing is broken: because we've come to the place where everything is for sale - and we hate that fact. We all know better; we've heard about the evils of selling your soul to the devil - and the company store. Smart marketers need to recognize that some things remain above the almighty dollar - namely President Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, NASA, setting foot on the moon, and a very, very long list of other precious things.

Next time, the second reason marketing is broken: Veterinarians gone wild - or why marketing now matters more to them than my pets.