Juno what I mean?

I think that, generally speaking, the creative quality of advertising these days has to be approaching an all time nadir. This concerns me as someone whose career started in the agency business and as someone who is still hanging on to the lofty ideals and ambitions that made advertising an interesting profession in the first place. I think one of the many reasons that the quality of the advertising “product” has tanked (and let’s be honest, it’s bad—most commercials are terrible) is that technological advancements have made it easier than ever for creative people to copy each other. Given that one of the primary purposes of advertising is to differentiate the product, sameness is the equivalent of badness, in my book.

One of seemingly a million examples of the copycat scourge is the trend of using musical tracks of really trite, nauseatingly and self-consciously cute coffee-house type singers. It’s a whole genre now, and for some reason agency creatives seem to be looking for any and all opportunities to work it into their product (I first blogged on this last year, begging advertisers to stop using music by Feist or the scores of bad Feist knock-off acts). Most recently, we’ve seen a couple of campaigns obviously knocking off the signature tone and style of Ellen Page and that other guy in the movie Juno, as odd as that may be. I liked Juno, and the Page act had some real novelty and authenticity to it, but please, people, can’t we come up with something else? And can we call an armistice on the battle to out-cute one another?

Anyway, for a prime recent example of how the creative community is drowning in its own backwash, first check out this clip from Juno: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBDbUVXXp-U

Now, check out the new megabucks campaign launching Truvia, delivered in the obviously identical style, all the way down to the monotone singing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzsTU60egf4

And Comcast is on the game too: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGflGJ8nuW8

And wow, the creative director on the Comcast account must have REALLY liked Juno, because the animated visual style is also (ahem) “borrowed” from the official Juno video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20PQBtyfNZY

Depressing. Whatever happened to original thought? Of course creative people have been ripping each other off forever. And of course, every great creator is influenced by someone or something, and invariably those influences show up in the work. I’m just respectfully submitting that the advertising industry needs to go back to its drive for originality.

Hot to Trop

I tend to be something of a curmudgeon in evaluating branding initiatives out there, but I rather like this one. Naming line extensions is difficult, and all too often I feel that brands stay too close to home. Pepsico’s new “Tropolis” line is a good example of coming up with a naming regime that is fun, compelling, and different… without straying too far from the source.  On its own, the “Tropolis” name is sort of tongue-in-cheek and clearly targeted for a different end user, giving the sub-brand its own credibility… but the “Trop” element in the name (and on the packaging) clearly identifies the source, trading on all the equity the brand has built over the years. Well done.

Fashion emergency

DC Comics announced last week that Wonder Woman has gotten a makeover. Compare the Lynda Carter version to the new one on the right.

I’m not a fashionista, but I don’t understand why the New Wonder Woman is rockin’ out with a jean jacket and what appear to be weightlifting gloves. Seems very 80s to me. What’s more, she seems to be wearing a swatch of Victorian-era furniture upholstery around her waist, for some reason. Seems odd to me. I am not sure  how those fashion accessories will help her fight crime, unless her plan is to confuse her enemies into submission. THAT SAID, entertainment characters are a lot like traditional consumer brands, and as such, folks will quickly get used to the new standard.

Like Pavlov’s Dogs,  consumers have been conditioned by untold millions of advertising, packaging, and promotional impressions over their lifetimes to not only accept products that are “New! Improved!”…  but actually demand them. The engineers of this makeover at DC Comics should not fret… and I hope they have the gumption to hold their ground if an angry mob forms on the web and tries to get them to go back to the familiar. As I have blogged in the past, I think that web-based lynch mobs, with all their venom and virtual torches, are a true scourge in marketing, and can strike a dealthly blow to any marketer trying to innovate — but that’s a different subject. I don’t actually like the New Wonder Woman (and REALLY didn’t like the new, now old Gap logo), but I think it is important for marketers to try new things and stick with them long enough to see if they really work or not. Crowds are inherently conservative (from a behavioral standpoint, not necessarily political), and will almost always trash anything that is new.

In any event, Lynda Carter said she was on board with the updated Wonder Woman, and if she is, then I guess I am too.  I just hope Lynda doesn’t start wearing that stuff herself.

Define “reasonable”

This is not exactly a high-impact national marketing initiative (it’s the storefront window of a rug store around the corner from me), but it is representative of a real problem marketers have wrestled with forever: behaving as though your customers are stupid. “No reasonable offers refused?” Come on, man. Really lame… and sort of gross.

I have always maintained that there is a big opportunity for good old fashioned straight talk in our business, because it is right, and also because it would be disarmingly effective. I blogged a while back about the brilliant new Domino’s campaign that basically said, “you know our pizza wasn’t any good, and we know that you know, so we tried to make it better.” Excellent– and it has been a blockbuster success for them. Truth and candor are very powerful marketing tools. As marketers look to brand and peddle their wares, if they are not motivated by ethics, then they should at least be driven by capitalist ambition, and do what’s best for business: be honest.

Brands you may NOT want to experience… especially on the receiving end

I had the privilege of attending a fascinating innovation conference earlier this week. There were innovation leaders from all sorts of industries there, and during one of the breaks I got to know a guy from a company that is a top defense contractor. I am a consumer brand guy and can talk a good game about categories like laundry detergent, breakfast cereal, and soft drinks, but didn’t know much about what was going on in the missile business.

Which got me thinking… the military (and their contractors) are actually fantastic at naming stuff. From a pure branding perspective, think of the Stinger, Hellfire, Trident, Patriot and Longbow missiles. Attack aircraft like the Hornet fighter plane, the Dauntless, the Avenger, the Phantom, and Apache helicopter. Drones like the Predator and the Reaper, pictured above. You’ve got bunker-busting bombs, like the 21,000 pound M.O.A.B. (that’s an acronym for “Mother of All Bombs,” for those of you scoring at home). Look, all would agree that war is terrible, and I don’t mean to get into a debate about how these “products” are used and why. This is a blog about how things are labeled. And from a branding perspective…  man, those are some awesome brand names. Even some of their missions have compelling names… “The Surge” and “Shock & Awe” come to mind. Even nicknames for products are compelling; for example, submarines whose purpose is to deploy long range nuclear missiles are affectionately known as “Boomers.” I get it.

The military occasionally excels at graphic design too… recall the iconic “Flying Tigers” of WWII fame. Actually a very interesting and extremely creative way to think about painting airplanes. See below. (Aside- not to be nitpicky, but doesn’t that look more like a shark than a tiger? In any event, if you’re the one getting strafed or bombed, I’m sure you’re really not debating which creature it most closely resembles…) In fact, there is a whole cottage industry of artists, collectors, and history buffs who focus on a trade called “Nose Art,” which can be basically described as “designs on the noses of WWII-era airplanes.”

War is hell. From a branding and design perspective, however, there are some compelling cases.

Mind the Gap?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the new Gap logo (above right) completely sucks. Or should that be, “sucked,” past tense? Per this article (and many others on the subject), it was like the Nic Cage movie: gone in sixty seconds. We hardly knew ye.

I don’t like the fact that Gap executives are saying that they should have essentially gotten “approval” for the new logo (quotes intended) from the online community first, however. It’s almost like they are cowering in fear. The degree to which marketers are essentially defaulting to crowd action – or, put differently, mob action- is getting to be a bit over the top, and it can really hinder innovation. Marketers need to be mindful of the fact that consumers will typically reject anything that is unfamiliar to them, yet of course familiarity leads to the “sea of sameness” that is death to brands old and new alike. This presents something of a conundrum– and the only way marketers can work around it is to be creative and LEAD, not work towards the common denominator and follow.

Btw, I love this hit job on the new logo… now that’s funny! (source: Laist.com)

The right way to do technology branding

When you have a great product and great technology, the way to take it to market is to start by explaining in very clear terms what the thing @*#& does. In theory the marketer should be as proud as a peacock, and should revel in telling the world about the game-changing innovation that they have created.

Yet too many new product launches are compromised by marketers being so clever, so intent on being funny, or so something that they forget (or intentionally disregard) the need to explain how the product functions and why we should care. If you see a killer app that is buried in mixed metaphors and rhetorical questions (see Behr post below), or any other hackneyed marketing tricks that are all too common today, chances are a crappy creative agency is behind it, paid by a weak brand manager who didn’t know any better.

The abundance of launch campaigns that get it wrong is why I absolutely love one that gets it so right: Dyson. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_xVWN1Wm_A. They have a truly great product… and their advertising simply focuses on showing us what it does, and why. The production values and graphics establish the unique, sophisticated tone that seals the deal.

There are a lot of great product innovations out there today, and unfortunately most of them are poorly served by the people responsible for branding and communicating them. The Dyson case is a wonderful exception.

Where have you gone, Joltin’ Joe?

As mentioned in the Labelry “charter” (if you could call it that), this blog is all about the art and science of labeling…including the branding of people. This particular post is about a fantastic new person brand.

Just when I was getting ready to hold funeral services for the lost art of the sports nickname, along comes Denard “Shoelace” Robinson (above), the  exciting  young quarterback at the University of Michigan who has burst onto the national stage this year with his exceptional play. Apparently he answers to “Shoelace” because he prefers shoes without laces– not that it matters, as long as there is some explanation. “Shoelace” is a great nickname that has all the attributes of a great brand name: it is fun, unique, memorable, distinctive, has authentic narrative to it, and even has some nice meter to it… “Shoelace Robinson” sounds like a character of myth and legend.

Ex-pro basketball player Chris “C-Webb” Webber (who by complete coincidence also went to the University of Michigan) unwittingly became the basis for a true scourge in nicknaming, that being the construct of First Initial-First Syllable of Last Name.  As far as naming goes, how incredibly unimaginative, how uninspired, how downright lazy. This model spawned a gazillion copies (perhaps most famously Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez). For example, when the Boston Red Sox acquired Victor Martinez, my first thought was, “please, fans and media – don’t start calling him ‘V-Mart.’” Yet that is exactly what happened. V-Mart? That’s the best you can do?

The Splendid Spinter. Hammerin’ Hank. Nightrain Lane.  Pistol Pete.  The Galloping Ghost. Mr. October.  Iron Mike. Charlie Hustle. I could go on and on about the great nicknames of sports stars past. Let’s hope that Shoelace Robinson inspires more nicknames that take us back to the future. At least he doesn’t go by “D. Rob.”

“It’s getting to be re[expletive]diculous.”

“It’s getting to be re[expletive]diculous.”  – John Wayne, baffled and exasperated

I am really not a Luddite, but this trend of using social media, web-enabled contests, crowd sourcing, and other such things is getting completely out of hand, and it’s disturbing. Actually, a better word is: gross. These tools can have valuable applications– if used properly and if the practitioner is mindful of their limitations– but the article below about yet another example of a brand group completely punting on basic responsibilities under the well intentioned (or just lazy?) aegis of “let consumers decide” put me over the top, and I had to write something.

http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=134974

Have marketers completely lost confidence in their ability to market? Are they unwilling– or unable– to lead?

Memo to brand managers and agency folk: the consumer is not the boss, YOU ARE. Coming up with great products and great communications campaigns is YOUR JOB. The responsibility to lead projects like doing a simple new package design is YOURS, not that of an anonymous group.

I don’t believe that many consumers actually want “conversations” with their mayonnaise. They don’t want an “interactive engagement” with their dish soap. It is brand managers’ job to know their consumers and the marketplace well enough to cough up some products and marketing campaigns that will resonate.

Research and consumer engagement has limits. Talking to consumers is rarely a bad thing, but its role is to provide the marketer with insights and data, not to serve as a decision by default. Marketers have to be the creators. As a practical matter, some of the great innovations in history have actually spectacularly failed in consumer testing.

Overreliance on consumer research has always been problem facing our industry, and it has been made a whole lot worse by technology making it so darned easy. This is a serious issue and I will write more about it later.