Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Scott Donaton's audio essays. Cutting to the chase on Advertising Week.

I've long considered Ad Age a stuffy old trade publication, but its online content is actually quite dynamic and interesting.

There are four audio segments about Advertising Week from Scott Donaton that are definitely worth a listen — they're on the right hand side of this page.

It's nice to listen to a thoughtful critique of this week-long celebration — as if a celebration is what our business needs — of advertising.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

We're absolutely crucial. Just look at everything we contribute.

Looking at these photos, I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Okay, it's pretty damn funny.

The best is the caption, "The second annual Advertising Week kicked off early this morning inside the Nasdaq building in Times Square. The invitation-only event symbolically emphasized the crucial role advertising plays in the national economy." Apparently, advertising is crucial because it has contributed a lizard and some oddly unerotic hot twins who love to chew gum. Without them, the country's financial machinations would surely come to a grinding halt.

I hope it was an Ad Age writer with a subversive streak who was responsible for the description. I'm afraid it was probably something picked up from a press release, written without any sense of irony at all.

It's no surprise that brands like Starbucks and Apple seem to be absent from this week-long maroon.

As an aside, how did that creepy Burger King fellow get in there? I'm not convinced that he was actually invited. It looks like he just showed up after blowing through a wad of cash at Scores the night before.

Run! Run, advertising icons! Run like you've never run before!

Turns out even the New York cops can't stand advertising these days. Looks like Advertising Week (in New York, they never fail to remind us) kicked off with, well, sort of a sprint. This quick dash through Times Square probably had people looking uptown to see if some tourists just had their wallets nicked. The I'm-so-80's creative minds behind this week-long celebration of advertising — advertising, baby! — will probably spin it as a "high speed parade designed to break through to American consumers in today's cluttered environment." My favorite part of the article might be the bit about the 50 DDB staffers "milling about" on the sidewalk in front of their global headquarters. Rudderless, adrift, lost — who knew actual agency personnel could be such apt metaphors for an industry.

I believe this week will provide much fuel for Lab Reports.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

There's always a very strong chance I'm wrong.

Fred Bueltmann from New Holland Brewing commented on my post about marketing scarcity and pointed out some holes in my argument for limiting supply to drive demand. And — damn him — he makes an excellent point.

I've edited Fred's comments a bit — his full response is with my post. Here's the abridged version:

"I think that your analogy is good, but a little bit dangerous. Compare it to your New York observation — you're not interested in eating at Pastis often, nor do you want to be with New York right now. If we developed this feeling in our regular customers, we'd have people who were convinced they couldn't get our products, and therefore may stop trying.

My suggestion is that you must balance the 'specialness' and the 'hard to get' aspects with reliability and consumer confidence. If you have one 'cabbage patch' item that's expensive, hard to get and probably allocated, you'd be well served to have another item or brand that keeps your customer sated and engaged.

I imagine it changes a good deal depending on the industry, but I think it's relatively consistent. A line at a restaurant is a good thing. Keeping it the right size is an art."

It seems Fred has used the real world experience he's gained after years of marketing craft beer to take apart my half-assed theory. And with surgical precision, I might add. I read his comments and thought of the old line, "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

I probably should have done more to explain that I think scarcity is something to consider when you're marketing something truly extraordinary. But Fred's point — here, I must damn him again — about having another item to keep people engaged makes great sense. Probably far greater sense than my own wine besotted entry did.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Robert Parker in decline.

There's a review of a new Robert Parker biography over at Slate — it also features podcast content. (For non-oenophiles, Parker has long been considered the leading wine critic in the world. His reviews have shaped the success or failure of entire vintages.) While the biography sounds like an indictment of both Parker's role and palate — smug, pompous Parker has always been an easy mark — I think there's a larger media story that the authors may have overlooked.

Parker's decline won't be hastened so much by his aging tastebuds but by the new, emerging web. Today, there are countless very good blogs that offer reviews of different wines. The result? My palate no longer has to match Parker's — or the critics at The Wine Spectator, for that matter. I can find a reviewer who seems to share my taste in wine — less fruit bomb, more nuanced. So while I might agree with Parker half the time, I can find a reviewer I'm likely to agree with 90% of the time. It's not hard to figure out who is more likely to shape my purchase decisions.

Micromedia is making the soap box much, much bigger. Instead of room for one or two opinions on it, there's space for thousands. Smart marketers will find a way to be a part of the ones that make sense for their brands. Sometimes it's going to be an uber-critic like Parker — but there will be many instances when another voice is better.

Traditional communications is about telling people something. Going forward, we'll all need to figure out how to be a part of the right conversations.

Monday, September 19, 2005

If they can't get it, they'll probably really want it.

After you've lived in New York once in your life, any trip back to the city creates a bit of emotional conflict. The city seems to taunt me just a bit, as if it's saying, "Didn't have what it takes to stick around, huh?" Then I step back, look at the frantic nature of Manhattan and respond, "I still love you. I just can't be with you anymore."

It's that frantic nature, however, that makes New York tick. The madness works because it fuels a kind of hyper-demand for everything — apartments, restaurant reservations, the perfect pair of jeans, parking spots. People are striving from the moment they get up in the morning.

What Manhattan does, organically and seamlessly, is market the very scarcity of everything. It stems from the impossible geography of the place — a relatively tiny island packed with millions of people. Anything that's great is in short supply. This creates even more demand, fueling the sense that the great thing is a must-have.

The crappy tourist table I had at Pastis — hard by the crowd at the bar — afforded me the opportunity to watch people jockey for the better real estate in this packed restaurant. Everybody wanted the very thing — a great table — that wasn't available. Personally, I thought the food at Pastis was terrific — many think it's just average — but it's not the food that makes people so frantic. It's the need to get that food served in just the right location.

How does this relate to your brand? Well, we don't all have Manhattan's impossible geography for our products and services. But if you you do have something great, I think it makes sense to make it just a bit scarce. People want nothing quite as much as the things they can't have.

It takes patience and real cajones to fuel demand by undersupplying it. But it can create real passion for your brand.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

If I dissect your commercial, will it be full of crap?

The Hurricane Katrina aftermath prompted a great column by Danny G over at Talent Zoo about the problem of advertising and PR that doesn't match reality. (I found it via Ad Pulp .) All politicians, and especially the Bush Administration, have learned that you can't spin absolutely everything. Social Security, maybe. Dead bodies, not so much.

Fact is, the bullshit meter of most people has become incredibly sensitive. When communications stretch the boundaries of believability, they're a waste of the consumer's time and the advertiser's money.

I was thinking about this while I caught a bit of the NFL's opening day. Coors Light, with its usual missionary zeal, was once again assaulting the public with another batch of awful, predictable commercials.

Coors Light has always struck me as the brand that just can't stand the truth. For years, it's been advertised as the choice for crazy, hard-partying, hell bent on, er, something, guys. But whenever I see a Coors Light in a bar, it's in the hand of a young woman who doesn't seem to really like beer and would prefer to not get, like, totally hammered.

Advertising won't change the fact that Coors Light is a low-alcohol, low taste brew. Just like nobody believed Brownie was "doing a heck of a job" when their televisions kept showing people stepping over other dead people in the streets of New Orleans.

Finally, all this thought about truth brings me, in a strange and wonderfully random way, to Menard's, a home improvement chain in the Midwest. For years, they've run these ridiculous commercials that often feature some old guy shouting out things like unbelievable sale prices on screen doors. Every bone in my former creative director's body should hate these spots — they are heinous and, yes, there must be a better solution. I would never create or produce them. But, at the same time, I've been surprised to discover that I find them less grating than well-crafted spots with absolutely no real, truthful connection to the products or services they promote. There's something brutally honest about that Menard's guy. There's no gauzy film quality — he's selling me his screen doors and his buckets of paint and maybe his damn lawn tractors. And he's selling them hard. He's not trying to convince me that Menard's is a great place to spend an afternoon wandering the aisles and dreaming of home renovation projects. They're certainly not great, brand-building commercials. But at least they're not disingenuous.

B.S. really does stink. Best to avoid it.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Is your brand evolving?

Watching the U.S. Open tennis final — even though watching tennis is something I rarely do anymore — was interesting for one reason. It was another opportunity to see Andre Agassi in his role as the grand old man of tennis. (I was probably more appreciative of Agassi after seeing him around the pool at a resort during a summer trip. More than once over a few days, I saw him and Steffi Graf struggling to travel from poolside to their suite with two kids, toys, towels, diaper bags, etc — sans entourage. Nothing like seeing someone famous being human to make them seem more, well, human. I even saw them at the valet stand getting out of their rented minivan. At that point, I actually started to wonder if I wasn't a player in some marketing ruse, but they did seem quite happy with that Toyota Previa.)

Remember the youthful Andre Agassi? The frosted mane, the pink shorts, the behavior that included spitting at an umpire — so easily despised. And oh so 80's. Today, Andre Agassi is proof that everything can change and improve. Now he's the aging underdog with the creaky back, getting by on guts and guile. Even in a finals defeat, he won.

It might seem shallow to equate personal development with brand evolution. But what would have happened to Andre Agassi if he had failed to move beyond his earlier self? My guess is that he'd be resigned to appearances in those reality shows that feature C-level celebrities. Maybe that truly awful one on VH1 — I think — where the the barely famous try to lose weight.

When brands struggle, it's usually because they fail to adapt. Consider McDonald's just a couple of years ago or Coca-Cola at this very moment. Even if your brand is hitting the right notes right now, you need to be working diligently to alter it. To find ways to improve it. And, since it's a brand and not a person, even consider removing it and replacing it with an entirely new brand.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Kalamazoo Brewing Company Celebrates 20 Years.

One of our clients, the Kalamazoo Brewing Company ,is celebrating 20 years of craft brewing today.


Here are some things to consider. In 1985, there was really no such thing as a craft brewing industry in the United States — one's choices were usually Bud or Miller Lite. Larry Bell started the company with 200 bucks, a stock plan to raise additional money and what was essentially a home brew kit. He once called his company, "...a great big chance." Today, Bell's brands are distributed in ten states and it is the sixth-fastest growing craft brewery in the country. Ask people around the country what they know about Kalamazoo and many will say, "Oh, that place with the weird name and the really great beer."

Larry will be the first to admit to some dropped balls along the way. Who is in business for 20 years without some missteps? But what the success of his company demonstrates is the strength of a great product and a point of view. It was always about making beer that wasn't just good, but uncommonly good.

Over twenty years, the company has gone from one employee — Larry Bell — to more than 60. It was an important part of bringing people back to downtown Kalamazoo. It invested in the construction of a new, modern brewery in 2003 and is now brewing more than 50,000 barrels of beer each year.

Today, there's a party at the original brewery location in downtown Kalamazoo. It starts at 2 PM and runs until 2 AM. If you know anything about the company, you're going to be confident that it will be a great time. You also know that if you stay until 2 AM, you should take a cab home and expect to accomplish very little on Saturday.

Happy 20th to everyone behind the success of the Kalamazoo Brewing Company.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

I'm not there, but I sure feel dirty.

I'm suspect I'm like many Americans right now. Embarrassed. When I watch the hopelessly inept response to Hurricane Katrina, I'm embarrassed. I'm embarrassed when I see the President, as corpses bob in flooded New Orleans, congratulate the head of the FEMA for doing, "...a heck of a job." I'm embarrassed when I hear former First Lady Barbara Bush, upon visiting refugees from New Orleans housed in the Houston Astrodome. say, "And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway so this (chuckle)--this is working very well for them." I'm embarrassed to see the government of a country filled with people as generous and compassionate and rich as ours botch this job so completely.

It makes marketing communications feel very, very small. And, right now, I'm too embarrassed to write much about it.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The situation in New Orleans.

I usually don't link our blogs, but I wrote this entry over on our Local 59 Shop Talk blog.

Here it is:

The situation in New Orleans continues to unravel and it's getting difficult to see how the city will find its footing again. It was, in so many ways, the perfect storm — Mother Nature's fury, an ill-advised location, an underpaid police force rife with corruption, impoverished neighborhoods.

It's been decades since the city of New Orleans was a true community and became an amusement park for booze-filled conventioneers. Any visitor who ventured away from the French Quarter quickly encountered some of the poorest, most desperate neighborhoods in the country. Yes, there is plenty of wealth in the area, but there seemed to be very little in the way of a business community that had actual connections to the city.

What has struck me in the coverage of the disaster is the absence of business leaders coming forward to form alliances and put forward plans for solving the crisis and planning reconstuction. In most areas of the country, this would be standard procedure.

In New Orleans, there doesn't seem to be a business community that can help lead the city out of the situation. In fact, I can't think of a single national company with a New Orleans address. Floating barge casinos are not bulwark companies. The fact that they now lie twisted up on the shores of the Mississippi is an apt metaphor.

Anyone who thinks business and community don't mix should be persuaded otherwise this week. A Visitors & Convention Bureau cannot lead a city in times of crisis. Government and quasi-government leaders cannot do it themselves. Think back to 9/11. Along with Mayor Giuliani, the business leaders of New York City stepped forward to galvanize people and create a sense of hope.

Right now, it's crisis management in New Orleans. But the problems began long ago, when business turned its back on the city and government — rather than help foster companies that would make New Orleans a true community — spent most of its time developing tourism.

Our company is located in a town — Kalamazoo, Michigan — that has experienced more than a few economic hits in recent years. Fortunately, business leaders have stepped forward and worked diligently to keep the community growing. It's difficult work — it's far easier for successful business people to simply watch their money grow — but it's vital and it's made a great difference.

I'm making a donation to the relief efforts for Hurrican Katrina — the immediate needs are overwhelming. But perhaps some good can emerge from all this human misery. Perhaps now, every city and town will work harder to ensure that business is an essential part of the community fabric.