Social Marketing and the Digital Landfill

In the United States, the last two years have removed any doubt that social media sites, and the behaviors they engender, have transformed many aspects of society. Advertising, in its dual role as America’s slimming mirror and evil twin, has begun to change with it.

Yet, despite the hype rolling out of ad agencies and internal marketing departments for the past 10 years, much of the explosion in social marketing investment has been cosmetic. In fact, the social component of many an ad campaign is merely a high-fashion tactic. Instead of transforming either marketing strategy or branding, a great many firms use social media platforms as landfill sites for yesterday’s news.

Without much effort, you can stumble into an ocean of uncategorized, barely differentiated posts that, to an alarming degree, resemble the recently reported avalanche of used K-cups. One root of the problem, of course, lies in the adoption of the word “content” several years ago. By downgrading creative output to the status of carpeting, wallpaper, furniture, or home appliances, marketing and advertising started down the slope to producing disposable, generic messaging.

Read up on the K-cup controversy and you’ll find no one can resist the urge to work the word “brewing” into the discussion. Why? Because it’s the easiest, most generic way to create the illusion of relevance. This type of messaging is rendered even more faceless by being “data driven.” If today’s data mavens really believed in science, they’d realize that human behavior can’t be quantified.

Just read your local police blotter if you don’t believe me. In case it isn’t obvious, the impact of pseudo-science on marketing theory also contributes to the mechanical production of faceless communications. The exaggerated emphasis put on mere statistics makes no more sense than using a Magic 8-Ball to make major life decisions. Signs point to “Yes” that you can interpret your stats in any way that gives you comfort.

Digital sludge…
Whether we’re talking about the ‘book, the twit’, the ‘gram or the ‘tube, promotional pollution is clogging digital space with nominally topical, but eminently forgettable sludge that supposedly:

  • Builds brand awareness
  • Improves audience engagement
  • Maximizes retention
  • Fosters authenticity
  • Creates peer-generated dialog
  • Delivers greater relevance

I have my doubts.

While a few sleek consumer brands might be doing some of that, some of the time, the evidence in the media landfill says the majority of this “content” is largely a knock-off of branding established off line through traditional media. Yes, I know. When you wear the right glasses, you can see the virtual revolution in full bloom. But in real time, the logo, the tagline, the product shot and even the spokesperson have both feet planted in three-dimensions.

…vs the gold standard
Because, as I hope I’m not the first to point out, a true social marketing campaign is more than a series of HTML5-encoded print ads or videos with comment boxes below them. The real thing has a provocative message, suited to its marketing environment and designed specifically to generate more than information-neutral “likes.” Sites that understand this, do well in social space.

As an article on Sprout Social points out, Wayfair uses social space to simplify shopping in a way that mirrors its “Drop the Mike” broadcast campaign. That the campaign is itself a generic appropriation from the 1980s is worth noting. In today’s world, the only thing more kingly than content is cloned content.

Yet I doubt I’m alone in becoming aware of Wayfair through the TV screen rather than the tablet, phone or computer monitor. This merchandizer’s TV spots are obnoxious, syrupy and contribute to the further de-evolution of the American intellect. But they do convey the message “Simple, Easy, Convenient Shopping” very well. Given that, all Wayfair’s online presence has to do is stay out of the way.

This, lest we forget, is what we mean by “branding:” a clear statement of a specific, fulfilled promise. It’s not a logo or a color scheme. It’s not a set of pixel-widths, a font or a commitment to grainy archival photography. And it’s certainly not any of that nonsense about “branded copy style, tone and voice.” Most of the time, the emphasis placed on those externals is a deliberate attempt to cover up for a lack of substance.

With a true brand message — that’s backed up in the real world in obvious, concrete ways — any font will do. On the flipside of that same equation, an Apple laptop that was brown instead of silver would still have its high cost, its cloying pretensions of social relevance, its legacy of east Asian sweatshops, its incessant, meaningless upgrades and that ugly, swirly rainbow thing.

Box checking…
In the case of pharmaceutical brands, social marketing is so constrained by privacy laws that it’s easy to see why they don’t venture out past the medium’s most basic structures. All the same, most of  these brands could do more with the content they post. However, as an unscientific survey of a few major pharma brands reveals, Pfizer succeeds better than many in this category.

Its Facebook page positions the company as a thought-leader by:

  • Demystifying the science behind a variety of drug therapies
  • Explaining the role of diagnostic tools
  • Providing overviews of complex medical topics
  • Exposing the societal impact of untreated disease

The Pfizer Twitter account repeats much of what appears on Facebook, with slightly more emphasis on its role in society. On Instagram (#pfizerinc), the company opens the lens a little wider in an attempt to integrate and ingratiate itself into everyday life. Some of the posts are a tad off topic, but succeed in humanizing this larger-than-large corporate entity.

And that, in the end, may be the most significant value that social marketing may have for a great many brands, including those outside of pharma. Yet as anyone knows, who follows the news, in some cases, these engaging PR efforts are often no more than a Band-Aid plastered over serious self-inflicted wounds, incurred in the court of public opinion.

…results in waste
Regardless, what’s evident, even in Pharma’s best social marketing efforts, is a lack of planning. Posts appear at random, without an Editorial calendar to lend coherence over the course of the year. Merck, for example, uses an approach similar to Pfizer’s, though in an even more scatter-shot and self-promoting way. It’s a phenomenon characteristic of outreach by American corporations in general.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a single company that understands a simple truth. “Our commitment to society” has promotional value only as a set of deeds, not a set of words. A pilot program here or there, simply for the purpose of touting it later is not enough. To pay off that promise, public service needs to actually be a part of the corporation’s reason for being.

When it comes to distributing content to YouTube, there is also no over-arching scheme to lend coherence over time. Both Pfizer’s generic YouTube feed and its Pfizer News channel lack meaningful organization that would help, say, diabetes patients find relevant videos quickly. What they’d find instead is an unending heap of videos, in the order posted on another site. Merck’s YouTube videos are also unsorted and, like a community landfill site, are repositories of waste — in this case, of wasted opportunity.

Ultimately, Pfizer, Merck and many other Pharma companies have simply created a social marketing checklist. And that’s a shame, at least insofar as much of the content these companies post in social spaces has the potential to help millions of Americans navigate a medical landscape that grows more complex, more unwieldy and more unnecessarily expensive every year.


“Brand Narrative:” Misnomer or Misunderstood?

Of the many branding conceits of the last few years, one of the more elusive is the idea of Brand Narrative. I gather the framers of this term envisioned it as a big picture overview — of everything a brand promises — built up through a coordinated series of communications. The brand narrative would “unfold” gradually, and etch a brand’s attributes indelibly into a consumer’s mind.

Yet the on-the-ground experience of producing ads is too chaotic for this grand conceit to work. Coordinated? Gradual? Clients want quick hits that sell specific attributes right away. Sure, there’s lip service to loyalty and retention. But see what happens whenever you scratch the surface of any request for a targeted campaign.

“Well, we want to appeal to the target, but we don’t want to turn anybody else off in the process,” you’ll hear every time. Inevitably, what was originally sold in as a branded narrative about the lives and loves of a specific group, gets diluted to a generic “Everyperson” story.

Hence the parade of families jumping for joy, sharing teary smiles, hanging with grandparents or scarfing down weenies at a backyard barbeque — while bastardized multicultural pop music swells up in the background.

Obviously, these campaigns and their digital offshoots are thoroughly narrative-neutral.

Flowing past factoids to feelings.
For narratives are anything but the concise, directive, motivating thing an advertiser wants it to be. Narratives are sprawling and time-intensive. Their impact is indirect, intuitive and ambiguous. They build to a climax by gradually doling out details in discrete chapters. Their success or failure has no concourse with the retention of factoids.

And yet, it’s easy to understand the appeal of the narrative approach. It has even been achieved by a small minority of brands willing to explore its impact on the status quo. Yet, especially online, the prescriptive nature of established practice makes accommodating true narrative absolutely impossible.

While building and maintaining a coherent brand narrative involves more than words, the current dismal view of copywriting presents one of the main obstacles. For starters, there are many people who believe “the copy” should be purely functional — a minor support function, like caulking or carpeting. Worse, one of today’s core assumptions is that People Refuse to Read. This despite the hundreds of thousands of books sold each year to eager buyers. This despite the Googling of millions of topics a day by users hungry for articles on every conceivable topic.

It never occurs to many in the field to consider that, just perhaps, People Refuse to Read Poorly Conceived, Droning Manipulative Nonsense.

That’s the same, ideological fervor that allows brand managers to complain that Nobody Watches TV Spots Anymore. They fail to grasp that the amount of air time currently devoted to commercials, not to mention their incessant repetition, outstrips the patience of any audience.

Staging your message like a true storyteller.
Now, what is there about the concept of brand narrative that doesn’t suggest making a series of TV spots that tell a continuous story? Yet taking that approach means giving up an unassailable tenet of 21st-century marketing. It’s the idea that every single communication must contain every single branded message each and every time.

In the end, that anxious demand is the death knell for the concept of Branded Narrative. Because great narratives, down through time, have been about unmistakably original characters, not statistics. Think, for example, of Huckleberry Finn. That is, I’m sure, the thought behind the gecko, the duck, the tiger, the dough-boy and their parallels who have graced TV screens since the dawn of the Media Age.

In these instances, a brand narrative adds dimension to the avatar by taking occasional discursive detours. I’m reminded of an — ancient — TV spot, which featured Tony the Tiger composing his own jingle with his son. I never ate that stuff as a kid and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone now. But I remember how effortlessly the kerchiefed tiger wove his narrative into my consciousness.

No boring product details, just a story about a guy who thinks the product is great and integrates it into his daily life.

Yet, perhaps the most powerful aspect of the campaign had nothing to do with “Tony.” What mattered was its long-running association of the product with specific attributes (GRRREAT!). Instead of a new set of brand differentiators every six or nine months, it had a personality you recognized just as surely as your next door neighbor. It got under your skin and, over time, became integrated into your life — as part of your own personal narrative.


Marketing to Data Ghosts

Today, many a creative brief is a direct outgrowth of market research. Clients amass largely anecdotal data, out of which they construct a generic audience model. With a gracious nod to reality, that model most often describes a range of “personas,” each with a different relationship to the product.

I’ve met these mannequinized stand-ins many times. Whether it’s Priscilla Proactive, Inez Informed or Ned Nervous, I’m resigned to sharing an agency’s post-modern decor with a gang of data ghosts. I shudder to think what agency life will be like when, inevitably, Google or IBM develops data-driven persona-androids to oversee every project.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Priscilla will tell the copywriters — joining the throng of intelligences brimming with advice. Nor will the art directors have it any easier.

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that car,” Inez will insist. “89.2% of me drive a Volvo.”

But in the paradigm to come, account execs will likely have the easiest adjustment. Not only have they been data-driven for decades but, like Ned, they’re used to worrying about everything.

“What if I don’t understand the concept?” Ned will ask. “Let’s put all the benefit bullets in the headline.”

Talk about preaching to the choir.

Data-driven drivel
Kidding aside, what I object to is this: The tacit assumption that anecdotal data, quoted verbatim, should dictate messaging strategy. It makes me wonder if a temporal-lobe suppressant has been mixed into the Kool-Aid of modern marketing theory. That’s the only way I can imagine that so many clients and agency-types fail to realize how unfounded that assumption is.

As an illustration, consider the following from Samsung:

The Infinity Display has an incredible end-to-end screen that spills over the phone’s sides, forming a completely smooth, continuous surface with no bumps or angles. It’s pure, pristine, uninterrupted glass. And it takes up the entire front of the phone, flowing seamlessly into the aluminum shell. The result is a beautifully curved, perfectly symmetrical, singular object.

The what, now? If the display is “incredible,” why should I believe you? But, OK, I guess you’re telling me the screen is smooth. So there’s no reason to mention its lack of bumps — as if any smooth screen could also be bumpy. Next, you assert that the screen’s smoothness is also evident in its lack of angles.

Now, in what branch of Geometry do angles intersect with smoothness? I’ll have to bleep over that, too, and assume the Samsung Galaxy 8 has a flat, smooth screen. Except now, you also assert that the screen glass is “pure, pristine, uninterrupted.” First off, “uninterrupted” is exactly what I expect from a smooth, flat screen. Second, there isn’t too much about “purity” that isn’t included in “pristine.” But the fact is, glass isn’t pristine. As most people know:

Glass is a combination of sand and other minerals that are melted together at very high temperatures.

You realize I understand English, right?

Mistaken-identity messaging
Maybe you think I’m an idiot, with no grasp of the cultural context that generated your message. Is the glass “flowing seamlessly [smoothly?] into the aluminum frame,” because it’s molten? Are you saying I’ll burn my fingers on your phone? Or is your target named Norman No-critical-thinking-skills?

I suspect there are two sources for this inflated sales pitch. First, is the conviction that flowery language confers an aura of Quality to any product. I half-expected to see the phrase “impeccable craftsmanship,” that turns up in luxury car spots — even though, as every former autoworker knows, today’s cars are cranked out by mindless robots.

The second source is Market Research, the false friend of lonely ideologues. No doubt “pure,” “pristine,” “seamless,” “incredible,” “end-to-end,” and “spills over” all tested well inside a qualitative research facility. The result? A hapless copywriter, enjoined to work each of those words into a product blurb. It’s a laughable exercise that reminds me of those Vocabulary Builder assignments I used to get in 5th Grade.

And that’s how Samsung ends up with 56 words, dedicated to telling me the phone has a smooth, wrap- around screen that I might enjoy if I had any reason to care about such things. Too bad no reason is given. Instead, Samsung wants me to know its phone is “singular.” Right. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is singular. There’s nothing like it in the world, and there hasn’t been for over 500 years.

The Samsung Galaxy 8? It’s only singular to a data ghost, just brought to life by a research associate on Acetazolamide.


Social Marketing: What & To Whom

In 2017, if you want to develop and execute a social media strategy for your brand, there’s an ocean of advice available online to get you started. You can find out how Facebook, Twitter or Instagram serve your needs in different ways, and why some audiences respond to chatbots as they would to a trusted friend. And then there’s the snapchat phenomenon, which is sure to morph into a snapchatbot by year’s end.

Just as important, you can learn how easy it is to track for whatever metric you decide measures the success of your strategy. Who’s clicking through, who’s looking at more than one offering on your site and, the ultimate, who actually bought something? There’s also a ton of advice about how to “assign roles.” Jimmy? Video. Marsha? Analytics. Chandra? Engagement.

Ah yes, Engagement. There’s a word that surfaced around a decade ago and remains the unicorn too many marketers dream of capturing, by simply checking a few boxes and cloning copy from exiting promotional materials. But what can you expect from someone with an MBA in Pretending Google Analytics Mean Something? That is, despite the fact that any discussion of engagement quickly devolves to a puddle of over-thinking.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there’s some sense in studying statistics, but I often wonder if the real reason people devote so much attention to it is the false sense of security it brings. Metrics tracking makes the nebulous relationship between communication and motivation seem more concrete.

After all, if the ratio between your click-through rate and your bounce rate achieves the golden mean, you’ll surely grab more market share, right? Common sense says nothing is so certain. If you’ve ever had to say, “No … please … let me explain,” you know perfectly well there’s no predicting how people will react to the simplest stimuli.

That’s because, regardless of demographics, human behavior cannot be predicted. Why else would The Big Bang Theory continue to be popular, long after it mutated from a fresh comedic take on science nerds to a multidimensional version of I Love Lucy with better sets and a shade less misogyny? Although the latter qualifier is open for debate.

Too busy living to care about your brand.
Am I getting distracted here? That’s because I’m human and that’s the point. You can have all the triggers you want but that doesn’t guarantee anyone will pull them — no matter what Facebook’s bar graph captures or how often the pie chart makes you hungry. People only care about your brand when and if they care, and only for as long as they do.

So, for example, if I buy a printer from Epson, then ask my Facebook friends how to treat my sprained ankle, I have absolutely no interest in the three to five Epson ads that inevitably appear in the sidebar. Trigger? Only if Epson has a scanner bed that will keep me from seeing a doctor.

If Epson had done their research properly, they’d have found out that I’ll do anything to keep from seeing a doctor — and come up with a branded ace bandage. What? Google Analytics doesn’t track that? Too bad. Because that’s one of the many thousands of things that make me, me, and which no amount of demographic theory can tell you. It’s the kind of insight you can only gain in the real world.

What this suggests is that long before you visit the hundreds of sites that offer advice about social marketing, you sit yourself down and work out what you’re selling and to whom you’re selling it. Does that sound too old school for you? Well, I’m willing to bet the larger your company is, the more different ideas about “What?” and “To Whom?” there are.

Would everyone, for instance, on your social marketing team answer these questions the same way? And what about your brand team, especially if, for some ungodly reason, you’ve outsourced your branding to a separate company? Better find out now. Because until there’s agreement on this basic point, you’ll be so stymied that no about of “tweaking the campaign” will make a difference.

Cracking the chicken-egg conundrum.
But let’s assume you’ve already reached a true consensus. The next step is accepting a simple truth: Trying to discover who your audience is, based on their random responses to Web content is like trying to create a chicken-laying egg. You have to know your audience and build your engagement strategy around that knowledge. And it’s a kind of knowledge you can’t acquire in digital space.

After all, there are already plenty of cues as to what large groups of people respond to. From the most popular books, TV, film, music and sporting events, to favorite foods, vacation spots, cars, to points of general agreement, about honesty, courage, love, babies, kittens, puppies and roses, you can glean a lot of information by direct observation.

The test for any fine-tuning you want to make based on opinion polls and the experience of similar brands is whether your assumptions align with what you know from your own experience. Of course, if your entire experience of the world derives from popular culture and me-too posts on Facebook, you need to get out more before you have any hope of striking a nerve.

And the only nerve to strike is the one that motivates to action. Titillation is entertaining. Entertainment can be titillating, but if you don’t know what drives your customer to buy a new car, it doesn’t matter how engaging your dancing baby/hotdog/chicken is. A mishmash of TV-style ads and “Share My Experience” posts like the one on Ford’s Facebook page won’t jangle the cash register unless it’s curated properly to rouse genuine emotion.

Which emotion, you might ask? I vote for trust. Once you decide To Whom you’re selling, you have to package the What in terms that evoke trust. Whether you deliver that in packets of seriously useful advice, an exclusive offer for a service your audience actually needs, the ability to customize your product, or a no-questions-asked return policy, you’re no longer straining to sell a thing. You’re offering your audience emotional satisfaction, free of charge. Ask yourself whether there’s any product more valuable than that. To accomplish this, you need more than an editorial calendar. You need a narrative voice to give shape to the “whatever” you and your customers post.

Wait until you’re ready.
It’s only when you’ve achieved a deep understanding of your audience that you’re ready to build a social media strategy. Not, that is, from a cookie-cutter formula, based on an acronym like SMART, but from your knowledge of human nature. The most powerful aspect of social media is its ability to create, with an artfully developed tone and voice, a multidimensional personality for your brand.

That this personality is only possible as an extension of the offline brand you create should be obvious. Digital space is too immediate, too action-oriented to allow for actual brand development. Your audience needs to come to your social media presence already knowing that you’re the brand that delivers “it” better than any other brand. Only then can you offer content based on a shared premise that your audience can immediately relate to.

Whether you’re an excitable brand manager, a hyperactive account supervisor or a world-weary creative director, don’t make a move in social marketing just to check off that box. Stop, take a deep breath and look at the world around you. Travel. Talk to people — no, not in a focus group — and most important, listen. You’ll find out more about why your customers do what they do in half an hour on public transportation than you ever will in Statistics for Dummies.


Silo-busting Collaboration: A Prescription for Pharma Advertising

The lore of pharma advertising is littered with stories of nightmarish regulatory battles. The vise-like grip of the law is enough to turn the most placid personalities into raging beasts, in a kind of evolution only a Pokémon fanatic could love.

Really, I sympathize. In a situation where the FDA allows no superiority claims in the absence of a head-to-head trial, the temptation for manufacturers to gussy-up their products with statistical manipulation is irresistible. Trouble is, the strict regulatory and legal requirements that govern every word and image make transmitting a coherent marketing message devilishly difficult.

That’s not to say, however, that the only response is to fold your arms and crank out drivel. I get it, you want to play it safe and not incur any Guidance from your legal-regulatory team. And doing anything else requires an Account Director to occasionally say “No” to your client.

But maybe the only way out of the nightmare is to confront it head on.

Instead of hedging, second guessing and, frankly, cowering before internal regulators, pharma brand managers should engage them directly. With the help of an agency creative team, they should work out a coherent messaging strategy in advance that’s both approvable and, just as important, engaging.

It’s a process that requires continued vigilance, yet it’s frequently side-stepped by establishing a rigid dichotomy between Copy (facts) and Graphics (visual metaphors). Over time, all manner of garish imagery has served as eye-candy, expressly to distract people from a dry rehash of the clinical trial data.
These executions range all over the spectrum but the middle ground is inhabited by:

• Literal
• Slightly less literal

When directed to HCPs, the copy merely stacks claims on top of graphs, charts and tables until the pamphlet runs out of space. When the audience is consumers, boilerplate small talk bleats “it’s natural to be afraid,” then strings generalities together about drug and disease until the designers run out of stock art. What you end up with, especially on the consumer side, often differs little from the information available at some combination of WebMD, Mayoclinic.org and Drugs.com

In fact, if you’ve ever been tasked to “refresh” pharma Web site copy, you know how much of the copy provided by the previous agency was picked up nearly verbatim from these, or similar sites. Worse, copywriters are perennially asked where their copy “comes from,” as if there were no such thing as writing an original text, based on the direct consultation of primary sources. Instead, one is often enjoined to copy the copy that someone in Copy copied before — as if the original writer were anything more than another harried person slamming words together to meet an impossible deadline.

And, hey, the result is an ad object, so why worry?

Yet the goal of the exercise is communication. Let me be the first to tell you that the two aren’t automatically the same thing. Pages covered with unassimilated facts are as incommunicative as blank pages. Whatever the target audience, people need to know what you mean your facts to convey. To achieve that takes a fine balance between imagination and planning. For the same reason that eating a piece of Black Forest cake is not equivalent to reading a list of its ingredients, your communication needs to be a rich and enriching experience. And that doesn’t happen by accident.

In other words, every communication must deliver value, which facts alone can’t do. But when presented in a way that enlightens, strengthens convictions, steels resolve and motivates people to action, those same facts are priceless.

Add value through partnership.
Trouble is, of course, that takes time. To accomplish the goals I’ve just laid out, you have to look up from your Approved Claims List and develop a set of over-arching messages that summarize, educate and, particularly for consumers, show a way forward. And that’s where the partnership with your regulatory team becomes crucial. Because, in case you haven’t noticed, waiting until the actual review to present your idea for a compelling brand narrative always fails miserably.

Instead, start the process by working out acceptable thematic messages with Regulatory that rise above the level of:

“In a clinical trial, Brand W improved Factor X by Y% in Month Z.”

Just as important, realize that forming this partnership does not diminish the role of either the Brand Manager or the Creative Director.

At the same time, it does diminish the head-banging, hair-pulling, weekend-crushing last-minute revisions that I suppose a small percentage of C-suite masochists must actually enjoy. Otherwise, I can’t account for the current passive acceptance of the status quo, which pitches talented people from at least three different disciplines into month after month of dreary siege warfare with common sense.


Advertising Craft and the Metrics Epidemic

From time to time, despite advances in psychiatry, an insidious strain of ideological nonsense starts weaving its way through the corridors of advertising and marketing communities. It’s a destructive threat no amount of practical experience can curtail for long.

I’m talking about the multilevel delusion that advertising exists to increase sales by measurable amounts.

At this late stage in the most recent outbreak of this pandemic, I know it will be hard for some of you to read the previous sentence. If so, I urge you to seek medical attention right away.

This rapidly mutating ideological virus has a cascading effect on all aspects of the advertising/marketing industry. Once unleashed, it turns even the savviest minds into anxious, literal, perfectionist Golems, perpetually clinging to their “precious” metrics.

“How can you guarantee my customers will open this envelope?”

I heard one afflicted brand manager shriek this gibberish, during the height of the outbreak of 1997. Very sad. Yet so infectious is this delusion, it caused several of my colleagues to dismantle the entire conceptual array for a direct mail piece, just to splash “SEE INSIDE TO SAVE 10% ON YOUR NEXT PURCHASE” in big red letters across the envelope.

Recently, I realized another outbreak had taken place. I feared the worst when I learned that a client had vetoed a set of robust creative concepts simply because his sales reps didn’t understand them.

Well, of course not. An advertising concept isn’t fundamentally about sales. So where does this confusion start? Like most of its kin, this profound distortion of the truth is based in ignorance. For in this jumbled world, advertising must necessarily sit shoulder-to-shoulder with sales promotions, catalogue space ads and supermarket circulars. No wonder people with an MBA in “Will-this-be-on-the-final?” get confused.

Nor should it surprise anyone if many a car brand manager, in the grips of Delusio Metriciencis, will demand an ad campaign set in a car dealership. If you’ve seen any one Volkswagen “Sign Then Drive” TV spot you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and wish to research this topic on YouTube, I suggest you wear dark glasses to ward off contagion.

In a world without branding …
Anyway, an ad set in a store is the epitome of the confusion of advertising with sales. In reality, advertising exists only to create the emotional, cultural and societal context in which a sale can occur. It’s the very reason, when you set out to by a cellphone, you arrive with a clear conviction about whether you want to go with IOS or Android, Apple or Samsung.

Otherwise, in a world of nothing but sales messages, you’d walk into a store filled with identical cell phones and simply pick one from the price-bin you’re comfortable with. In that context, the first marketer to offer a red cell phone would create a sensation. And the first to say: “Your lovely spouse deserves a lovely red phone,” would own the market within the first week.

Not because of price points or sales messages. But because the Red Phone company had invented branding — a cultural environment in which consumers can perceive your product, value it, distinguish it and identify it.

… a mindset ruled by rulers.
In light of these simple realizations, it’s painful to watch a marketing manager’s spiraling descent into the kind of short-term thinking that de-brands a product. You can almost hear his or her fevered dreams:

“Hey, love your new $55.47.”
“Thanks! It’s so much better than my old $59.95.”

“You are so lucky. My $72.19 is so much more expensive.”

I know. Marketing is hard. You have to distinguish between one aspect of your annual spend and another. And towering over you is Metrics, an ogre with hypnotic powers, who convinces you his slithering percentage points are endowed with meaning.

Wake up! Spend a few hours in a decompression chamber. Do whatever it takes to flush out the ideological toxins that plague you. Trust me, they’re the only reason you believe Advertising can deliver measurable results.

Ironically, more than one creative director in my career has opined, “Advertising isn’t rocket science.” But my message to you today is more sweeping:

Advertising isn’t science at all.

And no amount of sketchy market research, sticky eyeballs, click-throughs, retweets or “participations” can make it into one.

Advertising is a craft. And its ablest practitioners are people who understand human nature — as expressed in a specific, well-defined target audience. Remember that, the next time someone on your extended team demands proof that a gecko with an East London accent can make cynical Americans warm up to a car insurance company.


Brand Essence? Essentially Redundant.

In a common agency scenario, advertising creatives huddle with strategists and account directors with an intimate understanding of the client’s POV—to craft a presentation spelling out the Essence of a brand.

My qualms with this process begin with its redundancy. A brand has always been a summary of the values espoused and the promise made by a company. It’s only recently, when the term “branding” has also been applied to logos, fonts and color swatches—that the cry goes up for a brand to cleave to its essence.

No one who understands what a brand is would allow that to happen. A brand is a distillation of attributes a company, its products and services already exhibits in the real world—not a slogan crafted by committee. It’s an idea, a thought-process, a way of life for the company that owns it. As such, it can’t be made: It must be earned.

Marketers who don’t grasp that embark on periodic quests for the kind of unifying phrase that previous generations would have recognized as a campaign headline—one possible surface manifestation of a brand.

Is it any wonder that this tail-wagging-the-dog effort fails so magnificently?

Senseless…but darn concise.
Compounding the problem is the contradictory intent to be all-inclusive and inoffensive—yet still say something specific, unique and “ownable.” It’s here that the creative torture begins, as anxious marketers attempt to substitute a thesaurus for real creative thought. The search is on for a string of words that say something memorable without deviating into sense.

Yet, once the process is finished, the resulting Essence statement contributes nothing to branded communications. Filtered through its gelatinous mass, even simple phrases abandon all hope of Meaning.

How else explain “The Joy of Pepsi” or statements like:

We are Farmers (Farmers Insurance)
Go Further (Ford)
Get a powerhouse of productivity in your pocket (Windows Phones)

The last example, aside from being socially tone-deaf, conjures up the absurd image of firing up a power plant in your pants.

The others, and there are many others, are merely blank. For instance, while I might experience joy with my family at Thanksgiving, the last thing I’m liable to remember about the holiday is how great the Pepsi tasted. Regarding Ford, no matter how I interpret the phrase “go further,” it rings false.

Because unless I’m a NASCAR driver, my relative success in life won’t be determined by the car I drive. At the same time, this slogan is linked to a PR campaign revolving around the theme of empowerment. But as much as Ford deserves credit for even entering this arena, this campaign needs to be utterly separate from the idea of buying Ford cars.

Not least because, as with nearly every multinational corporation, the disparity between Ford’s C-level compensation and pay for the rank and file is a major contributor to dis-empowerment.

Again, because a brand is a promise, the credibility of that promise is an essential component of any branding exercise. Go further? Only if you’re a member of the 1%.

As such, Ford’s latest branding blunder is another triumph of marketing/PR ideology over common sense. Somebody sold the car maker on mounting a “purpose-centered” campaign, because such campaigns are very chic right now. They just forgot to check if their high-flying rhetoric actually had wings.

The committee-process ate my thought-process.
If the taglines above appear to make sense, it’s only because they’ve been cast in the form of a brand essence statement. Now, I know how such shallow phrases are produced. It’s a painstaking process, involving many late nights, hundreds of pounds of ugly wrap sandwiches and a headache-inducing stream of jargon-encrusted e-mail.

And in that horribly attenuated process, a kind of groupthink evolves. Trouble is, the final result is a phrase or phrases with countless unspoken associations that, unfortunately, “you had to be there,” to understand.

Paradoxically, the current obsession with Big Data, and its presumption of reality-based messaging, has been accompanied by a withdrawal from the real world. If the only requirement to attaining joy were buying Pepsi, don’t you agree life would be a tad simpler? Yet many other brands also think nothing of expecting consumers to associate their products with life’s greatest achievements, its loftiest feelings.

Want to speak to the essence of your brand? Keep your messaging in bounds. Pepsi as a universal metaphor for life’s great moments? Ford cars as a conduit for self-fulfillment? Please. Once and for all, dump the data, burn the research and just get real with your audience.


Website Optimization: Beyond the Code. Behind the Words.

If you’re engaged in digital marketing, I invite you to try a simple experiment. In a rare quiet moment,
sit back, close your eyes and ask yourself if you actually like your branded website.

That’s “like,” as in actively enjoy using it, as in looking forward to its latest updates, as in almost feeling sorry for your competition because your website is way cooler.

If I had to guess, your answer will be, “Well, it could be worse.”

Having looked at branded sites in many different categories over the last decade, I can’t help thinking this is the likely answer at least 80% of the time. Part of the problem is expectation.

Fact is, website design, execution and maintenance has been so mediocre for so long that few people expect a website to be more than a collection of boxy stock art captioned with rigidly standardized “copy tone.”

Sure, maybe there’s a marquee on the home page. Maybe there’s a quiz, contest, video link or embedded e-marketing platform. But what’s missing is the one thing consumers care about: themselves. No wonder the garden-variety branded website gets ignored: It’s about a brand instead of a person.

The distance between consumer and brand is nowhere more apparent than on e-tail sites that engage in price-point jockeying instead of providing meaningful shopping advice. Despite oceans of market research to the contrary, most people realize that making shopping decisions based on peer reviews is tantamount to opening their souls to the jaws of Hell.

Looking past the code…
Now, ranting aside, it’s obvious that even utterly functional e-tail sites manage to sell stuff. So why bother building a website you can be proud of? The answer lies in how completely you want to discourage brand loyalty.

After all, if your business is based on being the low-cost leader, you can always be undercut, especially by a company who offers a feeling of belonging. How many people, for example, can’t do a “hat trick,” yet crave a pair of Jordan Super.Fly4s? Or, by the same token, will never own a Winchester XPR, but are hooked on the classic style of LL Bean?

Consumers can get sneakers or flannel shirts for the same price or less all over town. But people who get hooked on a feeling will bookmark, tag and share your site over and over again. Why? Because human beings are inherently, intrinsically, insistently emotional. Our motivation to act depends on an established emotional connection. Do you really need to attend another Webinar to know that?

All you need is to walk away from the rigid conventions that have grown up around digital marketing and talk to people in a real voice about themselves.

…to a distinctive thought process
Now, you’ll notice that neither LL Bean, nor Nike piles up its web pages with conventional marketing trash like “Our Promise to You, the Consumer.” You won’t find any talk about “fine quality” in the upfront. It’s just that the products themselves, lovingly photographed, have grown out of a thought process, an ongoing communication with an audience segment each brand understands. The advertising works because the brand works.

So if you’re answer to my initial question is an unwavering “Meh,” you may need to look way deeper than whether or not a flat design makeover is in your future. You may need to start at the root of your problem —the lackluster emotional appeal of your product. Want to fix your website? Start by fixing your brand.

If your primary marketing message:

…revolves around price, you can be undersold
…includes buzzwords like “quality,” you’re generating background noise
…is a celebrity endorsement, what happens when the celebrity melts down?

But if your message speaks directly and honestly to the identity your audience wants to claim for itself, an identity with a sharp emotional hook, you can generate loyalty on a scale a flood of coupon offers can’t match.

And in case the point is lost on you, a website built around that hook will come as close as any can to driving sales and fulfilling the promise of digital marketing. Not because your programmers have mastered HTML5, but because you, amigo, have mastered branding.


Pharma Advertising and the Talisman of Doom

Despite years of experience in the real world of stringent regulations, many pharma brand managers still believe their mission is to push the boundary of the permissible in an effort to promote a doubtful claim. So begins an exhausting round of creation and revision in which language is tortured and communication is reduced to a string of factoids.

As any rational person could foresee, it’s all for naught. The medical, legal and regulatory departments of even the tiniest pharmaceutical companies know their mandate: to ensure the FDA doesn’t send them a warning letter. The result is overreaction, leading to the stiff, stilted and stagnant prose we now accept as the norm in pharma advertising.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If marketing, medical, regulatory and legal teams met with their advertising agency on at least a quarterly basis, it would take nothing more than honest work to find a viable solution to any marketing problem.

A marketer who feels market share is slipping could discuss ways to cast their brand in the most favorable light. Trouble is, this would mean moving away from the “pre-approved copy,” brand managers cling to like a mystical talisman. Like such a talisman, this pre-approved copy is incomprehensible to its supplicants. It is simply understood to work. The result is a process that values consistency over contextual sense, and demands that every single communication contain exactly the same magic words—regardless of its intended purpose.

But the first step in making pharma advertising actually motivate its many audiences is to kick this addiction to all types of mechanical thinking.

Breaking the obsessive cycle.
The antidote to this toxic behavior is a multistep process. It begins with a frank discussion of the problems implicit in marketing to consumers or the healthcare community. Instead of charging ahead with a bold statement that will never get past the lawyers, brand managers must build a consensus with medical, legal, regulatory and agency creatives about what can and can’t be said about the product in different contexts for different purposes.

This is important, because a creative team can only motivate an audience to action if it works within a coherent messaging strategy. In the absence of such a strategy, it’s common practice for an agency to create a stab-in-the-dark positioning, only to have it arbitrarily eroded over a period of months—until it becomes meaningless.

That’s how we end up with headlines that promote “stepping in the right direction,” accompanied by the image of a pair of sneakers—not for a drug, mind you, that treats topographical disorientation. Somewhere, buried beneath this landslide of silliness is the thought that there are steps one can take to control the condition in question.

As if every other conceivable medication for every other conceivable condition doesn’t start from the premise that it exists to take your health in the right direction.

Clear, declarative and actually true.
But the dreary process leading to ineffective messaging is completely unnecessary. Instead of winnowing down unsupported claims until you settle on something that’s inoffensive, why not start with a powerful affirmation of what you can say under the law?

As I see it, the origin of the status quo lies in the misapprehension that marketing and advertising are fundamentally about coming up with something “poppy,” “strong,” or “catchy.” The memorable ads from the deep past that had those attributes succeeded for only one reason: They were grounded in an underlying thought process that changed the way people thought about the entire product category.

Now, I’m the first to say this is stacking the deck. By law, the FDA cannot allow pharmaceutical companies to communicate the way Volkswagen used to. But the underlying idea—i.e., of having an underlying idea—is something pharmaceutical brand managers can emulate. Not by puffing up their product with not-so-subtle innuendo, but by translating the concrete concerns of their audiences into clear, declarative statements.

Changing this tried and true process requires a radical shift—away from anxiety and authoritarianism toward a collaborative approach that acknowledges and respects the expertise of others. I’ve seen for myself the miraculous change that comes over a “stubborn” regulator once someone bothers to hear them out. The change was so pronounced, I can only equate it to a religious conversion in which everyone in the room who was blind was finally able to see. To see, that is, that great advertising in any field arises from a balance of multiple points of view.


Can’t Say No? Say What You Know.

Look into the mission statement of many an ad agency, and you’ll find some kind of happy talk about “serving our clients.” In many instances, this boils down to demoting your business model from Consultant to Vendor. Now, maybe you see this as a non-issue. I’ve heard more than one agency head conclude that if a client wants to spend three times as much for work a design studio can do, that’s their problem.

To which I say, “hogwash.”

For one thing, doing so amounts to fraud. By demoting yourself to Vendor while charging Consultant fees, you’re participating in the fiction that your clients get full value for their money. But at the end of the year, when the shop-worn nonsense you agreed to fails to move the needle, someone on the client side is bound to notice. Are you planning to say, “Don’t blame us, we’re just the Vendor”?

This phenomenon explains why many high-value accounts bounce from agency to agency like a basketball on steroids. Ironically, it often happens that the creatives from the latest agency bounce with the account to the next. That’s because in today’s literal-minded environment, who’s better qualified to work on an account than the person who last participated in its demise?

And that, mind you, is despite the insistent drum-beat of agencies seeking new hires with “fresh thinking.”

Business model 1: Self-abasement
Now, I’ve heard the counter argument many times. It’s about needing a particular client in the portfolio to attract similar clients. Or it may be about having a complete roster of product categories covered because, again, in today’s literal-minded environment, a cookie brand will never hire an agency with only cracker experience.

But I’ve also heard near-death exhaustion in the voices of entire agency teams, when they’re driven to the edge of insanity by abusive clients who are:

• Obsessive-compulsive
• Money-grubbing
• Lacking in visual imagination
• Willfully ignorant of the limits of language

…and possessed, shall we say, of colossal egos.

Yet, even clients with a more humane attitude can drag your work down out of gross incompetence. As long as I live, I’ll never understand why the study of marketing effectively includes no meaningful introduction to the principles of visual and verbal communication.

After 22 years, I can count on the joints of one pinkie the number of “experienced brand managers” who didn’t need to be reminded, at each presentation, that water is wet, the stove is hot, and a Web site is not an a-dimensional repository of novel-length marketing blurbage.

Of course, by now, I hear someone in the back of the room shouting, “That’s fine, but we have to deal with what is, if we want to stay in business!”

Business model 2: Collaboration.
Right. And there’s always room for compromise in any collaboration. But the first step to preventing Abusive Client Syndrome is establishing that collaborative relationship from the start and insisting on it all the way down the line.

Even when your client is a classic Type-A personality, there are things every agency must do if we have any hope of reversing the industry-wide trend toward ground-eating serfdom.

Above all else, refuse to be silenced. You can’t win every point, but never refrain from laying out the truth. Over time, I’ve seen the phrase “pick your battles” morph from a savvy management strategy into a cowardly avoidance strategy. Try attracting top talent with an attitude like that.

A commitment to standards.
Of course, client management begins with actually retaining clients. But even if you feel you can’t say No to your more difficult clients, you can say What You Know and make it concrete with tangible examples. You may not achieve all your goals, but you’ll establish a basis of respect for your expertise.

And that can be tough—partly because the more persuasive you are, the more irritation you’re liable to cause. But it’s the only thing that will keep your agency from losing its creative edge. Because the mandate to say “yes” at all costs is the very death of creative thinking.

If that seems too difficult to pull off, you may have fallen victim to the language of acquiescence. “We don’t want to spin our wheels,” I hear, or “we don’t want to dilute our efforts,” or a thousand other platitudes that exist solely to make the spine-extraction process less painful. But as it stands, your only prayer of working with the clients you deserve is to say What You Know at every turn.

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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