30 November, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing…

What is the most appropriate way for retailers to address customers during this heightened season of religious sensitivity? Do they go with the generic, boiled down “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” or the more pinpointed “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanza”? Big decisions, big debates, big dollars at stake.

Not sure what all of the hub-bub is about. Every passing year, the intensity of the debate seems to get stronger. And this year, the debate rages on…

A brief article in Time Magazine this week noted how the American Family Association's Project Merry Christmas was targeting stores like Lowe's for advertising "family trees" instead of Christmas trees in its catalog. This actually forced an apology from Lowe’s, citing a “proofing error”. Heightened sensitivities indeed.

The same article referenced that seasonal sensitivities are not unique to the United States. A story out of Australia made headlines worldwide after a department-store Santa reported being told not to say "Ho, ho, ho" for fear of offending women. (no joke)

Retailers usually set the tone for the debate early in the fourth quarter with the directness of their advertising. In a pluralistic yet ego-centric society such as ours, it’s a risk major advertisers take by focusing on one segment of the population (Merry Christmas) rather than the population at large (Happy Holidays). However, an overwhelming majority of Americans celebrate Christmas as opposed to their non-Christian counterparts. A national telephone survey by Rasmussen Reports supports this, as 67% of Americans chose “Merry Christmas” to the alternatives.

Now in full disclosure, I’m Jewish. I don’t celebrate Christmas. And I may be in the minority here, but I never really took offense to those wishing me a “Merry Christmas”. I never “corrected” them or attempted to insert my “Jewishness” into the situation, and usually replied in-kind (i.e. with the same verbiage wished upon me). However, there are many out there who do not agree and will rebut anyone who says “Merry Christmas” unto them with a “Happy Holidays” response. I see both sides of the argument. But this is supposed to be a season of harmony, of peace on earth. Therefore, I believe that during this time of year, it is just easier if the minority capitulates to the majority. Now, those who know me know I’m all for a good fight, but I’ve been living with this all my life and have just found it easier to roll with the punches than to take an affront to something so harmless as Christmastime advertising and peer-to-peer well wishing.

For marketers, though, this is a complicated and hyper-sensitive season. I believe that a direct approach is the best approach. Since, as stated above, an overwhelming majority of Americans celebrate Christmas, advertisers need to direct their ad dollars towards the majority. Makes perfect sense to me. Why would Target create a “Happy Hanukkah” broadcast TV campaign to cater to less than 10% of the population? Besides, this year Hanukkah will be over long before Christmas even starts (Dec. 4 – 12). Hardly worth the advertisers’ effort.

Really, the only thing that gets me in an uproar is the debate itself. My thoughts—a Christmas tree is not a Holiday tree or a Family tree, it’s a CHRISTMAS tree. A Christmas wreath is not a Holiday wreath or a Seasonal wreath, it’s a CHRISTMAS wreath. And the likes of Santa Claus need not be matched with the creation of a Hanukkah Harry or the Kwanzaa equivalent.

For me, images of Santa Clause hocking everything from Q-tips to car stereos do not offend me. And though I know he isn’t talking directly to me or my “people”, I can’t imagine a holiday season any other way.

Much Ado About Nothing…SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

28 November, 2007

Customer Service Strikes Back

At Renegade, sure we do advertising. We also have a studio, produce films and documentaries, and even handle customer service training, a facet of business that may not be as sexy as Superbowl ads and viral videos, but is just as essential to success .

Picture this: You’re standing in line at your local deli counter, coffee shop or fast food chain. The clerk asks if he can help the person in front of you. As they step forward to place their order, they reach toward their purse/pocket to grab their cell phone, “Oh, hey…Standing in line. What’s up…No way.” The burger jockey waits with a painful, painted on smile for the customer to place their order, “May I help y—” But the clerk is cut off by a single finger of silence held up by the oblivious cell phone talker, as if to sneer incredulously, “Can’t you see I’m on the phone…idiot?”

Or how about this: The jackass in front of you picks up their cell phone, steps forward to place their order while continuing their conversation, and the clerk with a genuine smile and air of satisfaction says, “I’ll be right with you as soon as you’re ready,” pointing to the sign that clearly reads, "If you're on your phone, we don't want to interrupt, so we'll just help everyone behind you first." The clerk smiles as you stride forward. Score one for the little guy in the paper hat.

It’s a trend that’s been slowly catching on. From PA to the PCH, all sorts of businesses–coffee shops, gynecologists and everything in between—are standing up for their employees and their customers with one simple request: PUT. THE CELL PHONE. DOWN. According to an article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, Robbie Stevenson of phonesoff.net has made silencing this daily annoyance into a lucrative business. In 2003, Robbie sold 1,000 $4.95-$6.95 “No cell phone signs.” Today she sells 1,000 a month to companies from the Girl Scouts to Harvard University. The guy in the paper hat cheers and goes back to studying for the bar.

I may talk on the cell phone while strolling around Safeway, but I hang up or tell the person to hold on the moment I get up to that counter. Despite the urgency I feel to continue a conversation about whether or not Nicole Ritchie is “too thin” or if Suri Cruise really is an alien, I can sacrifice for the two minutes it takes to ring up my Mac n’ Cheese and cherry cola. I don’t know, I’ve just always thought people who don’t hang up the phone are rude. And as a former fry flinger (from back in the day when beepers were all the rage), it tickles my heart to hear that somebody is stepping up for the little guy. (Now, if we could only get the swerving land whale SUV drivers to do the same, I might go so far as to say courtesy is making a comeback in our country—but that’s a different rant.)

The point is. Somebody’s getting the message. When you take your customers seriously, they take you seriously, and they appreciate it. The aforementioned article noted that some people complained, but it was about 1 complaint for every 600 “thank you’s.” According to a 2006 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the Associated Press and AOL, 82 percent of all Americans and 86 percent of cell phone users were irritated by loud, annoying cell conversations in public. THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN!
So in honor of the people speaking, when you think about customer service, think this: “What do our customers really want?” “What would make our customers happy?” And not just the loud, fickle, bully customers whose opinions you’d already know even if they weren’t constantly telling you how to better run your business, but the dedicated customers, too. The ones who’ve stuck with your business through the toughest growing pains, the ones who’ve stayed because they like what you’ve got. Building business is about finding new customers, but it’s also about keeping the loyal customers you’ve got.

Next week we may see Wal-Mart may putting in drive-thrus in the power tool department, but this week, notch one up for customer service.

Customer Service Strikes BackSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

15 November, 2007

McDonald’s Hopes to Skim Latte Lovers from Starbucks

Looks like McDonald’s is really serious about McCafé, their new coffee house-styled restaurant concept. So serious that they’re gearing up to make a run at Starbucks’ customer base with it. They’ve revamped their menu and stockpiled it with more affordable coffee drinks, in addition to renovating their restaurants to skew more upscale. But there’s one problem: It’s still McDonald’s.

Starbucks is about the experience as much as it is about the coffee. People feel good with that warm cup in their hands. Whether you’re a school teacher, executive VP, or a bag boy at the local grocery store, you feel like you’ve tapped into something special when you throw down five bucks for that venti Foamalacious Whiptasticular Awesomecino with skim-soy-goat milk. You feel like Somebody. And you want other people to know you feel like Somebody, too, so you plop down on a cozy leather sofa with your laptop (I can’t afford a laptop, so I bring an Etch-a-Sketch) and you get to work tap-tap-tapping out the next great American novel (or etch-a-sketch-sketching a mean staircase) while the musical stylings of Thelonius Monk echo from the rafters. In a Starbucks, the alchemy of ambience and caffeine inspire us to be more than the sum of our parts.

In a 2005 interview, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz put it this way:

“I can best describe it by stating that we are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee. The equity of the Starbucks brand is the humanity and intimacy of what goes on in the communities that exist in each and every location. We continually are reminded of the powerful need and desire for human contact and for community, which is a new, powerful force in determining consumer choices.”

My McDonald’s experience, on the other hand, generally trends in the other direction. Whether it’s the homeless guy sifting through his hobo paraphernalia in the booth next to the Playland jungle gym or the semi-comatose counter kid who operates the McFlurry machine like he’s trying to diffuse a bomb underwater, I’ve noticed that McDonald’s restaurants have a “dynamic” all their own . Sure, I’m still Somebody at McDonald’s, but it’s usually that Somebody who’s wondering why he decided to eat at McDonald’s. And that’s why I’m skeptical of McCafé. It’s so opposite of the core McDonald’s brand. It’s less about the experience and more about the end result—getting food in my stomach as quickly as possible (and then getting the hell out of there before I get stabbed by a drifter or a party of eight year olds doped up on trans-fats and high-fructose corn syrup).

Don't get me wrong. I don't hate McDonald's. It serves its purpose, and I've contributed more than my fair share to its multi-billion burger tally. But when it comes to making the coffee house work on the same level as a Starbucks, I’m doubtful McDonald’s can get out of the way of its own brand. It’s developed into a cultural icon—and not in the wholesome baseball-apple pie way, either. Sociologists bemoan the McDonaldization of our civilization. It’s been stigmatized so much so that “Mc” has become the prefix of mediocrity: McMansions, McJob, McPaper, McDermott—see, the list goes on. Adding a latte and changing out your furniture won’t scare Starbucks. Consumers’ emotional connections have a longer memory than the marketing execs may want to admit. There are images from past visits to McDonald’s that continue to haunt me to this day.

My two cents: Use all the effort, the money, the creativity that they’ve been pumping into retrofitting these franchises with McCafés, and simply create a new brand from scratch—and then keep it as far away from the McDonald’s brand as possible. If a marketing guy even suggests sticking “Mc” in front of anything, send him to work a fry line somewhere in Toledo for six months. Make this brand the un-McDonald’s.

Or, better yet, buy out Caribou Coffee. They have free wi-fi and ottomans upholstered to look like stuffed bears. Now there’s a primo place to etch-a-sketch.

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13 November, 2007

Fall is the New Spring

You know what I love? I love fall. Who’s with me here? I bet a lot of hands just went up across cyber space. Or at least a lot of my Gen X/Y compatriots grunted some sort of less than enthusiastic, but positive response. So, I’m thinking about it, and I’m like, “Why do I like fall?” There are many reasons, but I think in some sense the 17.5 years I spent in school has reset my psyche to where I now associate cooler temperatures and crystal clear skies with a nervous excitement about the season to come.

As a kid growing up, I was rife with scattered anxiety and enthusiasm for the school year to come. Then as I got older it only got more intense. At that point, I’m looking at meeting new girls and going away to college-- a whole new level of, well, newness. This inane, yet somehow fixating line of thought led me to an epiphany and a conclusion that I’d never thought of before- fall is the new spring.

It’s true! (For me and all the members of my cult, anyway) In generations past, we were an agricultural society planning our months, and even our measure of time, with one foot on the tractor and the other in a cotton gin (thanks to Eli Whitney). As an aside, I actually don’t know what the heck a cotton gin is, or if you can even put your foot in it, but for some reason, I’ll always remember that Eli Whitney invented it. [Editor’s note: No he didn’t. Catherine Littlefield Greene came up with the idea, but women weren’t allowed to receive patents in the late 1700’s. Way to perpetuate the sexist agenda, Ken.]

Anyway, I digress. [Editor’s note: Yes, you do.] I have never planted an ear of corn. I don’t work the field and look forward to harvest dances with Betty Lou (Who?). I’ve never even planted a flower outside of 3rd grade science class. So I, like many of my generation and probably the generation before, have barely any concept of spring as a time of re-birth and newness. But come the chilly months of September and October, we could always look forward to new friends, new adventures and new challenges.

So, what does all this have to do with advertising? Well, I’m not really sure, but as “experts” on demographics, market trends, and making meaningful connections with an audience, it’s important to identify changes that can take place on a generational level.
If they question time-aged traditions, then so be it because sometimes traditions change without an act of Congress or decree from the Pope. Sometimes a culture evolves without really knowing it. It just happens day after day, season after season. And sometimes, even the seasons themselves change.
Now, I’m left with another inane question-- if fall is the new spring, what does that make the old spring? I believe it has something to do with baseball, but I’ll have to think on it for a while.

Fall is the New SpringSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

09 November, 2007

Facebook's Social Ads Gamble

Social Ads? Okay, so the name is partially fluff. What ads aren't social? But naming conventions aside, Facebook's announcement of its new consumer-centric advertising model constitutes a major shift in the way messages can be delivered in the digital domain. I know, you’re probably thinking, “But how does it work, Jason? I didn't read any of the other 90,000,000 articles written on this same topic.”

Here's the basic concept. When a Facebook user visits a brand's Facebook page or external website in some cases, they'll be able to share and promote their interaction with the brand with friends. This user-initiated recommendation is then matched by Facebook with an advertisement created by the advertisers. Advertisers create these ads based on and directed towards demographic information obtained directly from traits Facebook users voluntarily post to their profiles, such as age, interests, hobbies, political affiliations, etc. Thus highly focused ads are directed "socially", from person to person, instead of from unknown external sources.

WTF!? (What the Facebook!?) Exactly. If it works it could be a watershed moment for Facebook and marketing in general. And that's really the question. Can it work?

(Click here to see englarged picture)

As I see it, there are a few hurdles, but all of them are surmountable. First, will users recommend products to friends? On the surface this may seem unlikely. But people do this all the time. In the real world it's known as "word of mouth" advertising. In the online world, I suspect brands will need to offer enticements to get the ball rolling, or make the recommendation process feel more like a game, but I don't think it will take much. People love to make their opinions known and share with friends where their minds are. Twitter is a perfect example of the level of social minutia people are willing to send and consume.

Until recently the assumption was that consumers didn't really care enough about products to visit their websites. Consuming the product was one thing, but who wants to read a website about their favorite brand of toothpaste? But a study conducted by ComScore throws strong doubt on this assumption. According to the study, "a majority of U.S. consumers visited at least one package-goods website during the three months ended in April, with search driving a substantial proportion of those visits."* And these visits were primarily initiated by the consumer. " Only 40% of searchers and 47% of non-searchers said they went to brand sites to seek promotional deals, compared to 73% and 58% respectively who went there seeking information and help."*

But is the demographic information advertisers are using to create their targeted messages reliable? After all, users voluntarily add this information, and are under no duress to make it accurate. Who hasn't fudged the truth a bit (or a lot, depending on how low your baseline is) in favor of themselves when creating an online persona. It's like online dating. Make yourself seem as attractive to other people as possible. They'll have plenty of time to be disappointed when they finally meet you.Ultimately, I think this is a non-starter. Yes, people lie. But I think mild exaggeration and understatement are the worst evils most people include in their online existence. After all, most online social linking (outside of dating) is between offline friends, already known entities. You can't get away with much when your friends are policing you. Plus, the point of online social linking is to find and interact with like-minded others, and lying defeats this.Of course, even outright lies make for useful information. If someone feels strongly enough about a particular idea, product or company to lie about it on their Facebook profile, they'll be interested in forwarding even incorrectly matched advertising messages to their friends and family.

Ultimately, I think socially distributed advertising's benefits will outweigh the detractors. Advertising sent within social interactions feels less like advertising and more like friendly recommendations, akin almost to viral marketing videos on YouTube. At least that's what Facebook and their prospective advertisers will be banking on. And I for one think it's great and highly recommend it!

*Source: Advertising Age - October 23, 2007 - "Study Finds Large Audience Online for Package-Goods Brands", Jack Neff (Look! I footnoted!)

Jason Bloom, Senior Avid Editor

Facebook's Social Ads GambleSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

07 November, 2007

Mrs. Bitterworth

The day I realized that you can’t believe everything you see on TV remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. I was four years-old and running around the grocery store. This was before parents had to worry about their kids getting kidnapped. I'd volunteered to get the syrup as long as my dad agreed to let me have Mrs. Butterworth. I remember careening around the corner and down the aisle, my mind full of what I would say to Mrs. Butterworth when I finally had a chance to have a tête-à-tête with her. You see, I was fascinated with the animated maple syrup diva.

See, my world would come to a stand still when a Mrs. Butterworth commercial came on the air. I don’t know what it was about those ads, but I’d stop whatever I’d been doing and stare at the TV and listen to every word Mrs. Butterworth would utter. I would laugh and feel like I’d just visited a favorite relative—the warmth of her grandmotherly goodness like pancakes fresh off the griddle. Freud might say I adopted Mrs. Butterworth as my surrogate grandmother since I was never fortunate enough to have had one of my own.

Anyway, so I get to the display shelf and see the bottles of Mrs.Butterworth syrup, and I start talking to them. No response. I am crushed. I start to cry. Somehow, I find my way back to Mom and Dad and pour out my heartache. Mrs. Butterworth didn’t really talk or move like she does on the commercial. Could it be that TV had…lied to me?

Now this was back in the 60s (yes, I’m in my 40s and hotter than ever, thank you very much) at about the same time that Juan Valdez made it on the scene. By now, I’m a jaded five year-old, but Juan did have a certain allure for me as that’s when I became cognizant of the world outside the United States. Somewhere south of Baltimore, MD was this really earnest guy who spent his whole life picking coffee beans at just the right time so that my mom and dad could have the best coffee in the world everyday. It wasn’t until I was in high school or maybe even college that I learned Juan Valdez was a fake, too. If I had been a coffee drinker I would have switched to Kona.

Now there’s a new Juan Valdez. In April of 2006, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia produced a reality show to find the new Juan. This was a top secret mission. La federation wanted no hint of what they were doing to leak to the press until they’d found the perfect Juan with the perfect mustache. They found Carlos Castaneda, a real coffee grower. Juan, I mean Carlos (or is it really Juan?) now travels the world, attending coffee related events. Juan’s been to Europe, Russia, Japan and the US and apparently he’s got an adoring fan base of older women who think he has perfectly revived the Colombian cultural hero.

And isn’t that what these fake people are supposed to do? If you buy into them as authentic spokespersons, (spokesbottles in Mrs. Butterworth’s case) then you’ll buy the product. But therein lies the rub. The Mrs. Butterworth ads spoke to me in a way that the real product certainly could not. That ad made a four-year old feel so good that she influenced generic-buying Dad into coughing up the extra dough to bring Mrs. Butterworth home. But the expectation the commercial pumped into my impressionable young brain could never be met by the real product. I left the supermarket with brand X syrup to spite her. Now, I can’t even look at her anymore. Betrayal—at any age—runs deep, and much like Mrs. Butterworth's thick, rich syrup, it runs slow. Such is the loss of innocence. So I take my hat off to the Federation - at least Juan Valdez is a real coffee grower, even if his name is not Juan, and he can only speak Spanish, but hey, at least he speaks. In your face, Mrs. Butterworth.

Gay Pinder, Director of Program Development

Mrs. BitterworthSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
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