I recently visited the Strathisla Whisky Distillery, of Chivas Regal fame, and as well as having a thoroughly enjoyable time, I was reminded of two fundamental truths in Marketing:
- seeing, hearing, experiencing how food and drink is crafted can all add further enjoyment to the consumption of that food or drink
- knowing the story behind a product or brand can add greatly to its perceived value
These truths are known by most marketers intuitively, and we can all back up our assertions with any number of examples or personal experiences.
I was interested to find a 'literary and anthropological experiment' which has sought to value the effect of storytelling on the value of objects. The experiment was started around 10 years ago, and is called Significant Objects. The experiment - which has taken on a life beyond the initial round - was conceived by journalist and author Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, who conclude that: Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object's subjective value can actually be measured objectively.
What the experimenters did was to buy a load of jumble-sale bric-a-brac, then give a number of writers a piece to write a short story or flash fiction about. The objects were then put on ebay, together with the accompanying story.
You can see the objects on the website, divided into 'significant' categories - Fossils, Talismans, Idols, Totems, Evidence. There's all manner of tat, from a Charlie's Angels thermos to a lighter in the shape of a pool ball. And the stories range from 6 words to minor epics.
In the first round of the experiment, the experimenters sold items that had cost $128 for $3612.
Now, I know you can pick holes in this. The stories were fiction, and were clearly marked as such. Would true stories about the objects, well-written have had the same effect? Did the well-known status of some of the authors have an influence? Was there knowledge that the proceeds would be going to charity? Was there a word-of-mouth element amongst the experimenters' literary and journalistic friends and contacts?
Still, you have to admire a writer who can raise the value of a 'mystery object' from 99c right up to $103.50.
How can a company with thousands of employees around the world recognise the work and commitment they put in? Of course, at the local level, it's up to immediate bosses and colleagues to say thank you and make gestures that acknowledge what people do.
And in these days, of course, technology allows companies to make gestures on a global level, while still recognising the contribution of each individual. I'm impressed with the 'Big Thank You' event that Delta ran over the weekend - a 50 hour Facebook Live Marathon to thank each of its 80,000 employees, whose names were read out by a cast of celebrities, along with stories and entertainment for the course of the weekend.
This is the second year that Delta has said 'Thank You' on an epic scale. Last year they got themselves into the Guinness World Records with a 50 foot tall Thank You card - see above.
I guess you could argue that the money spent on these events could go straight into the pay packets instead. But I'm not sure anyone would notice, let alone remember for years to come.
A week later, and I'm still on my soapbox about humour (or lack of) in advertising. I read a super piece by Paul Burke in Campaign entitled No laughing matter: Why Advertising isn't funny anymore. The guilty are all called out and charged, from the Client to Sir Martin Sorrell and his bean counters, from Tony Blair to the Creative Department. Well worth reading: even if advertising isn't funny anymore, this article is, particularly the paragraph with the ghastly client marketing-speak.
One potential culprit, or group of culprits not mentioned in the article, are what we used to call target audiences. The people 'out there.' With social media, the stereotype of 'Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' (usually a retired colonel) has been replaced by a whole army of militant social justice warriors, just waiting to spring onto your ad from Twitter, Mumsnet, Facebook, you name it, and give it a good savaging. Advertisers and agencies live in fear of causing offence and outrage. 'All publicity is good publicity' has its limits. It's one thing upsetting a stuffy retired colonel, but quite another offending an entire generation.
But I question: are the new audiences lacking in humour? Do they take a masochistic delight in ads 'making them cry?' I'm not sure. There's still plenty of humour around. But I feel sometimes that it's only the medium that's changed. Youngsters used to tell jokes in the playground, that they'd heard on TV, or through word of mouth. Now they flick through 9gag. And maybe show their mate if it's particularly funny. But the jokes haven't really changed. There's stuff on there that I remember from my schooldays, and that's going back.
20 years ago, it was cool for creative people to be finding inspiration on the internet. But, as I've said before, we've gone from surfing to stumbling to being fed as far as the internet goes. I think - and hope - that there's a huge opportunity for brands and the creative people who work on them to reclaim humour. Fresh, new humour that fits to the brand and comes from observation of life out there, not rehashed old chestnuts from the internet.
I'm convinced that people are even more well-disposed towards a brand that can make them laugh as one that makes them cry.
I'm afraid that the words 'social experiment' in connection with advertising now have me running for the hills - or at least the fridge for a nice cool beer. Although it's not even safe there any more.
The latest ad for Heineken is over 4 minutes long, and is called 'Worlds Apart.' It takes two strangers who - unknown to them - have opposing views on political, social or environmental issues. The pair are given a task - to build some furniture together - and find out what they have in common. The big reveal then comes up and the hapless victims/actors stars then have a chance to walk away or sit down, have a beer and discuss their differences.
It would be churlish to dislike this ad. It's well-done, and it does kind of hit on a truth - sit down and put the world to rights over a pint - that's as old as those hills I was about to run to. Maybe it even draws something from Heineken campaigns of yore: Only Heineken can do this? My favourite part is at 3'40"
I guess that I'm no longer in the target audience for Heineken. When I was, back in the 80s, Heineken ads were brilliant. They were like this:
Brilliant, silly, unrealistic, and completely irresponsible (if you were to take them seriously.)
I still remember them through over thirty years' beer fuddle today.
Maybe young people these days are more serious, more responsible. Maybe the brewers have their hands tied, their mouths gagged against making outrageous claims.
But how realistic, exactly, is 'Worlds Apart?'
Would such pairs of people ever really come together, outside of a 'social experiment?' Or would they continue to rant forth to their social media followers in their echo chamber?
Would any of these people even find a pub to go and sit in and put the world to rights in the UK?
Personally, I prefer this new ad from Carlsberg. Probably.
I do love a work of fiction about advertising and ad people, and recently enjoyed Kathleen Rooney's Lillian Boxfish takes a Walk. Before I get onto my review, the way I came upon this novel is also worth a mention. It was recommended by my long-lost pen pal from the US, who used the wonders of technology to seek me out and renew our correspondence after a gap of decades. One of the nicest surprises of the last year or so for me! Anyway, that's a whole other story.
The fictional Lillian Boxfish describes her career thus:
I wanted there to be something to do in life besides mate and reproduce and die, and advertising was that, or it was for a long while.
And here's what I thought of the story:
'Before Mad Men (and Woman), there was Lillian Boxfish, or in real life, Margaret Fishback, the 'world's highest-paid female advertising copywriter' in the 1930s. This book is somewhere between fact and fiction, taking the poetry and advertisements written by Margaret Fishback, plus some of the details of her career and private life, and weaving a fictional character, the sparky and spunky Lillian Boxfish, around them.
Being a fan of walking around cities and having worked in the advertising industry, I was charmed by the premise of this book, in which the elderly but sprightly Lillian takes a walk (in her mink coat) around New York on New Year's Eve, 1984, conversing with the various characters she meets while reflecting on her colourful life. She's a wonderful character, witty and acerbic, and it made a change to have to look up quite a few words in the dictionary while reading. Lillian remarks on how her long-copy ads, often in the form of verse, respected the intelligence of the reader, and I did wonder what she would have made of some of the dumbed-down advertising of today.
The book captures the sights, smells and sounds of Manhattan from the Jazz Age right through to the 1980s beautifully - the fire escapes, warehouses, smell of burnt toast, Italian restaurants - as well as the characters: not just the ad men and women, but taxi drivers, barmen, street gangs and shopkeepers.
*Slight spoiler alert* I was slightly disappointed with the last part of the story, which started to feel a little phoney and stretched credibility somewhat. For those who have read the book, I'm referring to what felt like a sequence out of 'Crocodile Dundee' which grated a little.
Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed Lillian's reflections and observations on life, and the insight into advertising, writing and life.'
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.
My children's books: