Monday 29 August 2011

Jumping on the oompah-bandwagon

We're not out of August yet, but the Oktoberfest is already banging on the door, dressed in a jaunty Dirndl and bearing an unfeasible number of Mass beer glasses.

The celebration of Germany's most famous Fest is not confined to Munich. Increasingly, brands, especially retailers, are cashing in on the act. A few years ago, this was restricted to a little display of tinned Weisswurst and a few Bavarian-pattern paper napkins in the local supermarket. But these days, it's big business and - like Christmas - starts earlier every year.

If you're looking for something to wear, then look no further than C&A where the selection of Dirndls ranges from the matronly and Landfrauisch to the simply saucy - definitely the place to kit out the entire family.

And Tchibo have a fine selection of cooking gadgets and gimmicks from a kitschy Bambi timer to some seriously professional knifery to help you recreate the Wies'n in the comfort of your very own home. All demonstrated by charming Trachten-clad models, including a Japanese couple to add to the authenticity.

But maybe the best selection I have seen this year so far is from the pet superstore Fressnapf. From comfy Herzilein cushions to a smart checkered collar, the furry friends don't need to miss out on the fun, either.

Thursday 25 August 2011

We are what we are

One sign, I think, when a brand or an industry is in danger of losing its way is when it starts trying to be something it's not. Instead of holding fast to its original purpose, it grabs onto a rising star and tries to fly heavenwards.

Although there may be debates about how accurately the world of 1960s Madison Avenue is portrayed in MadMen, I expect no-one in those agencies at the time had any doubt about what their job or the role of the company that they worked for was. Ditto in London in the 1980s. We worked for an advertising agency and we were proud to do so.

These days, of course, advertising is a dirty word and agencies try to position themselves as anything other, trying desperately not to use the "a" word, rather like the game of Taboo. For the last twenty years or so, my role, the Account Planner, has adopted various personas removed from the world of advertising to try and justify its existence.

There was a Management Consultant phase where we went through an "Agency MBA" and shelled out our hard-earned cash on forbidding textbooks on Corporate Strategy and Organisational Management, when all we really wanted to do was make ads.

And the current mode seems to be Account Planner as programmer geek, where I expect a touch of a Californian accent, a name like a 19th century farmer (Seth, Josh, Abe) and a smattering of facial hair takes you a long way. There don't seem to be any training courses anymore to learn to be an Account Planner (apart from the odd Bootcamp) - instead, you "share stuff" at unconferences, barcamps and Open Sources.

I've nothing against learning from other industries - but in the end, I'm here to help make ads that work.

Thursday 18 August 2011


When I first saw an iPhone, three or four years ago, I was singularly unimpressed. A guy from one of the ad agencies had bought one in the US and while he had fallen head-over-heels in love with it, I saw it simply as an impractical, complicated and expensive gadget.

I'm coming up now for my one year iPhone anniversary and I note that even primary school kids seem to have iPhones these days.

The difference between the ad agency guy and me is that he's one of the early adopters in this market and I'm one of the early majority. Doesn't sound like a huge difference, but it is. We tend to think of the adoption curve for new products as continuous, but it's not, always. If you're not familiar with it already, I recommend a look at a book from 1991, Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. And in this book, you'll see that, for discontinuous innovations - those requiring a behavioural change, there is a huge difference between those two "early" groups. A chasm, in fact. The guy from the agency is a visionary. I'm a pragmatic conservative.

Crossing the chasm between these two psychologically vastly different groups is even more relevant these days. With the fast churn of technology, there are simply more discontinuous innovations around. This may explain the huge interest in behavioural economics amongst the marketing community. And, it's also vital to hang onto your visionaries aka early adopters for long enough to let you cross the chasm, before they flit off to this month's (week's?) thing.

The book was originally written with hi-tech markets and products in mind. But the theory may also be applicable in areas where a behavioural change is required - like moving to a carbon-neutral lifestyle, for example.

And that may be a chasm we're all going to have to cross one day.

Friday 12 August 2011


However hard you try, however well-honed your target audience description may be, brands often get hi-jacked by groups way outside the "intended" users.

I expect most whiskies are a case in point. Despite the many descriptions there are floating around of dynamic, cosmopolitan, happening, sporty 30-somethings, the reality is that most of the consumption comes from the over 60s.

It happened to Burberry a few years ago, in the UK, when the formerly exclusive fashion label with its trademark tartan became an essential part of chav uniform.

And this week, we've heard that, whoever the thugs are co-ordinating the riots (and there seems to be a great deal of discrepancy in the reporting), they are using BlackBerry, specifically the messenger service, as their chosen communication system.

I suspect, in BlackBerry's case, the dust will settle and not too much of it will stick - somehow it is not quite such a visible brand as Burberry.

It's strange that it works both ways. For every "exclusive or professional" brand that ends up in the hands of the rabble, there is at least one brand that positions itself at the young rebels and outsiders but is lapped up by the middle-aged mainstream. Just look at Levi's and Harley Davidson.

Although some of that is the difference between targeting and positioning.

Friday 5 August 2011

Thanks for not sharing

There seems to be an epidemic of oversharing these days in the world of brands. Every logo tweak is accompanied by a lengthy exposition from the design agency, every piece of communication is justified with a full-length feature on the making-of by the ad agency, brand managers are obsessed with collecting Brand Touchpoints with the same enthusiasm little boys show for Pokemon cards and a huge array of soul-baring corporate films clutters up YouTube.

I'm all for transparency in the sense that companies, at least, should not be trying to pull the wool over people's eyes, but many brand managers seem to confuse this noble virtue with picking their noses in public.

It has long been said that successful brands - especially those in certain categories, such as luxury goods or fashion - owe their greatness in many cases to maintaining an aura of mystique. Angostura Bitters is one of my favourite examples.

So let's hear it for mystery, aloofness, even - and a few more "Please Do Not Touch" points.

Monday 1 August 2011

Narcissistic Brands

I've never been a huge fan of the "brands are like people" mantra. OK, it's a reasonable metaphor up to a point. But I start feeling queasy when people start applying essentially human terms to brands. Loyalty is bad enough, but love? And while some brands can be annoying, or provide a less than enjoyable experience, is hate maybe too strong a word?

The "hate" that's expressed in a temporary irritation with Ryan Air, or that slightly sick feeling at being stuck with eating one of McDonald's goo-ridden burgers due to lack of alternatives is the sort of "hate" that a five-year-old expresses - it'll be gone in the morning.

But the latest attack on social media from Baroness Greenfield has reminded me of a way that some brands have of behaving that really is reminiscent of some people who get a little carried away on Facebook and Twitter. The Baroness comments that social media is making people narcissistic, rather like a toddler stuck in the "Look at me, Mummy. I've done this!" stage of development.

And, yes, there are brands who are guilty. They use the social media platforms to tweet mindlessly or get people to upload photos wearing a silly branded hat in the interests of participation. While a bit of fun now and again is fine, it would be good if the people managing these brands could remember that they need to offer people something - from a solution to an everyday problem, to a fulfilling experience, to satisfying a fundamental human drive.

No one is that interested when a brand learns to stand on its head.