For the last couple of years, the advertising industry seems to have been intent on making the world cry. Commercials that tug on the heartstrings have always been popular, but sharing on a worldwide scale means that your 60 seconds of schmalz can now be seen from Nigeria to New Zealand within a few seconds of its release. From P&G's Moms to John Lewis' Christmas weepies to the faithful friend comforting his widowed master in the Cesar spot to the dad who makes birds from the Extra chewing gum silver paper, every Hollywood trick is there.
All the Buzzfeeds and their ilk are chock a block with lists of "X commercials guaranteed to make you cry" while composers of maudlin music must be having a field day.
A lot of these ads are brilliant, and will go down in history as greats, but there are plenty that (for me) veer into being just that little bit cheesy - and don't necessarily have a strong connection to the brand. Tapping into emotions is a neat way to get remembered, and to associate your brand with strong and positive feelings.
But there are other emotions besides making you laugh and making you cry and I have a feeling that brands who want to stand out should look beyond these.
Perhaps one route that is a little neglected these days is that of wonder. Instead of making you cry, commercials that take your breath away, make you feel wow, a sense of awe, a feeling that I couldn't have done that. With the emphasis on CGC these days, I feel there is also room for brands to also spend their budget to surprise and enchant us - to produce commercials that are almost works of art.
My recent favourite is the latest IKEA commercial in "The Wonderful Everyday" campaign, from Mother and Juan Cabral. It's beautiful to look at, doesn't dumb anything down or seek a lowest common denominator and has tapped into cultural relevance with its echoes of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.
But back to all those weepies. Is it perhaps a big marketing ploy by Kleenex? This is the brand most often mentioned in all those articles about ads that make you cry.
The pursuit of engagement has become the Holy Grail for marketers, as I blogged here a few years back, and the enthusiasm for the creation of Engaging Experiences has certainly not abated. Engagement is an objective written loud and clear on many a marketing plan. Even the humble owner of a Facebook page with a couple of hundred likes is informed continually about how many people are engaged with the page that week.
But the problem arises when it comes to measurement. Engagement is a slippery fish to pin down and fit into a nice KPI pigeon hole, if you'll excuse all the mixed metaphors.
Perhaps that's because engagement has become one of these words that people use without really thinking what it means.
I looked up engagement in one dictionary and found "The act of engaging or being engaged."
The Advertising Research Foundation defined it, in March 2006 as "Turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context." And Wikipedia offers the following for engagement when used in a marketing context: "The extent to which a consumer has a meaningful brand experience when exposed to commercial advertising, sponsorship, television contact or other experience." This last mouthful brings to mind rats in cages having full-strength carcinogens painted on their raw flesh by sadistic scientists.
To get away from these tortuous and tautologous definitions, maybe it's easier to look at the verb rather than the noun. To engage is to occupy or attract someone's attention, from one perspective, or to participate or become in involved in, from another.
Interesting that the words attention and involved appear in this definition. Do desire and action follow? Has a wheel been reinvented somewhere?
Engagement is here to stay but it's worth questioning what is behind the word for our particular case. First of all, the question is "engaged with what?" - a piece of communication, be it a TV spot or an app, some aspect of the brand, or the brand as a whole? And what are the terms of that "engagement"? Is it something longterm, or is it something specific to a discrete period of time. Is it short and intense, or more of a longterm undercurrent of commitment? Once you know the nature of the engagement, then you can work out how you might measure it.
Engaged can change rapidly to vacant, devoid of meaning.
I've been lucky in my time as a freelancer to work with some of the biggest names in marketing - such as P&G - and also with a number of very creative small organisations and individuals, for whom the cost of an ad agency on their business is prohibitive.
As a general rule, a top marketer at a company like P&G and a creative entrepreneur will tend to move in different worlds, and play by different rules, but I was impressed to see a new development from Unilever that attempts to bring the two together, for mutual benefit.
In the spirit of co-creation and collaboration, Unilever have launched The Foundry - a platform whereby the marketing people for the big brands can get together with entrepreneurs and inventors to work on challenges to improve people's daily lives.
It's a kind of David meets Goliath - and they make friends. Your ingenuity, creativity and agility for our investment, mentorship and marketing muscle.
Under the heading of "Collaborate. Experiment. Pioneer," a number of projects and challenges based around Unilever brands or groups of brands, are put up for pitch to technology start-ups. These range from the Young Entrepreneurs' Award - for anyone under 30 with a new product, service or app that could make a big difference to enable sustainable living - to Smart Bathroom - enabling families to plan/predict/recommend, organise and enjoy their personal grooming products more effectively and efficiently - to Smart Wardrobe - backed by Persil/Omo to maximise value from the family's clothes while reducing environmental impact.
I'm sure this will result in more breakthrough innovations than yet another new air freshener fragrance.
When I started in the advertising business, the military metaphors held sway, whether we were talking strategy and targeting, or training, or even how we were going to build our dream battalion, sorry, team. People got sent on "Bootcamps" and who can forget the horror of paintball games dreamed up to help us work better together?
These days, things are very different. The new metaphor for brands and business seems to be heading in the direction of a festival, rather than a war. Here's a great example of what I mean: The Happy StartUp Summer Camp, which takes place from the 19th -21st Sept near East Grinstead, Sussex, UK. 3 days of learning, inspiration and play are promised, with not a paintball gun in sight. No military types here, just thinkers, doers and makers. The programme looks like a dictionary of current buzzwords - digital detox, camping or glamping, yoga, DJs and live music, craft ales, mindfulness, empathy, storytelling, happiness with awesomeness sprinkled liberally in between.
It's all set up by an outfit called The Happy StartUp School who are on a mission to help people start businesses that have a purpose beyond profits, which seems a pretty good reason for being to me. I haven't read them yet, but they are generous enough to provide a couple of useful-looking downloads about all those "P" things - people, purpose, profits and piranhas (or maybe I got that wrong!)
I suppose the cynical amongst us could look at this and say that it doesn't pay the bills at the end of the day and that in twenty years we'll find the idea of grinning kidults having a midnight feast in an overgrown teddy bears' picnic as absurd as all the wannabe Rambos paintballing each other.
But, I don't know. I find it curiously appealling, especially the price, which is less than half of what you'd pay for an "average, boring business conference". And there are still a few places left.
There are plenty of blog posts around about advertising to children, but today I'm going to have a look at advertising with children, and celebrate some classic little brand ambassadors from the UK and Germany.
A few posts ago, I mentioned the new pack stars of Kinder Schokolade - some of whom are now World Champions. The picture above shows the changes in the pack since its introduction in the late 60s. Günther was the chocolate chap for years, sporting a variety of hairstyles, until Kevin kicked him out in the early years of the new millennium.
Another cult kid is the boy on the Brandt rusks pack - the hairstyle and clothes change, but the blue eyes, blond hair and perfect white teeth have been there since the 1920s.
Another picture of glowing good health is the little girl on the Pomps Kindergrieß (semolina) pack - at least, I think she's a girl. She's been around since the early 70s so must be well into her 40s by now.
Another little girl, reminiscent of a character from Grimm's Fairy Tales can be found on Rotbäckchen - literally, "little rosy cheeks" - a range of vitamin-packed juices.
Of course, I didn't grow up with any of these, but there are English counterparts who I recall dearly: the cheeky chappie on the Rowntrees posters, for example.
Or the Start-Rite Kids.
And their slightly disreputable cousins, the Bisto Kids.
All of these brand ambassador boys and girls are advertising products that are specifically for children, or families anyway. But I was rather tickled to see a product with a lovely little laddie as the logo which is certainly not for children:
Here he is in all his Hummel-figure glory - the Allgäuer Büble. He harks back, apparently, to the tradition pre-beer bottles, where children were sent with an empty Stein or jug to the pub to collect beer for their elders and betters. On the beer's website, you can buy all manner of paraphernalia from glasses, trays and metal signs to Trachten shirts and jackets.
Can you imagine the uproar if such a thing were suggested in the UK?
In my early days in branding, there was a lot of talk about brands being like people. One brand had a "sophisticated, witty, inspiring" personality. There was another one that was continually "reinventing itself according to the Zeitgeist", like Madonna. Yet another was "your best friend, who truly understands you and is always there when you need her, for tips and advice."
This stuff was all very well up to a point, as long as those bright young marketing people remembered it was just an analogy. But it often got out of hand, with those oh-so-keen execs wittering on about what their brand "wanted" or "needed" or being obsessed with consistency, such that the sophisticated, witty and inspiring personality was apparent at every possible touchpoint - and any signs of imperfection or irrationality were clouted promptly with a large Corporate Design manual.
The point is, it is a mistake to attribute human emotions to something non-human - or worse still - inanimate. You are welcome to love a brand but it is not going to repay your love. Your loyalty, perhaps, but not your love, because it can't.
The tables have now turned with the rise of social media and we hear less about brands as people, and more about people as brands. An entire industry of writers, coaches, courses and programmes is devoted to Personal Branding. 27m plus Google results popped up on the subject. There are thousands of books on the subject on amazon.
Some people have set out to be brands - it's their personal ambition, which is OK if you too want to be "as famous as Persil." But for others, I'd be very wary of being treated (or treating yourself) like a packet of soap powder (or a luxury car if the soap powder stuff makes you squeamish!).
Self-promotion is not the same as self-expression. Self-promotion is about self-packaging - defining everything from your appearance, your online presence and which areas of your skills or knowledge are going to pushed - and what is going to be hidden. And someone - you or your publicist - will be making a decision about which of those factors will be associated with success.
If you are going to blow your own trumpet, it's a good idea to learn to play it first.
For all the trivial jingles and frivolous apps that we get involved in creating in the ad business, it's always gratifying to see strategic and creative communication skills used for good. I don't just mean those brands that decide to leap on to whatever is the latest "issue" band wagon with some tenuous connection to their product, but agencies who get together with NGOs and grass roots organisations and combine their skills and knowledge.
One such partnership is that between Ogilvy and Mather, India and Breakthrough, a global human rights organisation that uses culture to change culture. Working together on a campaign to stop domestic violence, they created the Bell Bajao (Hindi for "ring the bell") campaign.
The challenges for tackling such a complex issue were many. But a simple and elegant solution was found - through the insight that a simple action from a bystander can break the momentum of violence and maybe deter it in future. In the film above, for example, the main character uses "can I use your phone?" as his excuse to ring the bell, even though it's clear he has a working mobile with him. Other spurious excuses included asking for the time or collecting a lost ball.
The campaign employed a mix of mass media such as the film above as well as community outreach. Its success is apparent in that the campaign idea is now being rolled out across the globe.
Sometimes the most effective ideas are the simplest ones.
When I was little, I wanted to be a spy. I got off to a good start, studying Psychology at Trinity College, Cambridge but somehow got side-tracked into the wonderful world of advertising and marketing.