I love living in this new golden age of possibility; where anybody can–poof!–proclaim themselves an ad professional or an ad agency without any experience, training, credentials, or a resume in actual advertising.
So, I’ve decided, even though I do have experience, training, credentials, awards, and a resume in actual advertising since sabertooth squirrels scampered in the treetops, I’m going to change my profession, too.
What qualifications have I to be a brain surgeon? Good question. That shows you’re a smart shopper when it comes to researching neurosurgical services. You don’t let just any plumber poke his latexed fingers around in your septum pellucidum.
First off, I have an unbridled passion for excellence…in brain cutty stuff. And a relentless drive for innovation. With Dr. Jeff, Professional Neurosurgeon, the patient comes first. And that’s a promise you can bank on. Also, I have a Dremel Tool with a whole case full of attachments, handy for removing the tops of skulls, but also perfect for all those delicate jobs within.
We’re a Comprehensive Neurosurgery Center
Got a nagging tumor pressing on your optic chiasm? A hard-to-reach itch in your cingulus gyrus? An unsightly lump on your temporal lobe? Call Dr. Jeff, Beloved Neurosurgeon to the Stars. We’ll even manicure your pet rat’s claws while you wait to emerge from your coma.
Tired of paying through the nose for pre-frontal trans-orbital lobotomies? You’ll love all the money you save with Dr. Jeff’s competitive rates. And this month, buy one, get one free! In fact, bring in the whole family, and Dr. Jeff will do all of you together. We’ll make it a lobotomy party.
But wait, there’s more!
And to celebrate our Nation’s Independence from oppressive British medical licensing laws, we’re also having a special on trepanning all through July. Release those noisome demons causing you so many disturbing urges. Don’t delay, call today!
If you’re thinking, “Hold on there! How can I be sure Dr. Jeff, Professional Neurosurgeon, will observe the highest standards of professional care with my valuable cranial assets?” Rest assured. I always wash my hands before every surgery. Dremel attachments, too! No extra charge!
I know. It sounds too good to be true. Don’t worry about that. Just concentrate on the “too good” part. After one of my surgeries, you won’t worry about whether anything is true ever again.
That’s Dr. Jeff, Professional Licensed* Neurosurgeon.
Be honest. Do any of you ever read those agonizingly composed letters from marketers that begin with the deadly phrase, “Your business is important to us…” (YBIITU)? In the first place, even if you open the envelope or the e-mail, you know what this means. It means bad news coming. They’re raising their rates; they’re closing your local branch; they’re discontinuing a service you’ve enjoyed; your frequent shopper points have expired…something bad. In other words, YBIITU means the opposite; that “your business isn’t important to us,” at least important enough to be honest upfront. And if it were that important, why would you do this bad thing to me?
YBIITU letters are examples of marketing that shoots itself in the foot. We have all, as good little Pavlovian dogs, become conditioned to regard this phrase as the buzzer before the electric shock. It’s the commercial equivalent of the equally deadly phrase in a romantic relationship, “We need to talk.” Somehow, you know that the “talk” isn’t going to be about something positive, like whether the Kings have a shot at the Stanley Cup this year. “We need to talk,” is the bell that announces the bad news coming; “I’m seeing somebody else,” “This isn’t working,” “I’m moving out,” “You’re moving out,” or “I’m going to have to raise my rates for you sleeping with me.” YBIITU is the same. It’s the wrong way to deliver bad news.
Yet the writers of these communications, while they may stay up all night carefully composing their obsequious prose, don’t seem to get what starting off with these shallow clichés does to their audience. It immediately causes the defenses to go up. The same happens when they leaven the first few paragraphs with self-aggrandizing language that extols how much the company thinks of itself, of how many customer-service awards it’s won, of its commitment to excellence. Nobody gives a damn about your customer service ratings (those are rigged anyway, we all know). We’re only scanning for the bad news you’re about to hit us with; the broken glass in the sandwich.
Well, how do you give bad news to your customers?
Be honest. Be upfront. Since your customers are already going to be wary of the contents of this letter, just cut to the chase and say right out, “It pains us, but we’re going to have to raise your rates 1.5%” Then you can explain why. But the bad news is already over, and, usually, it probably isn’t as bad as you think. It’s like when the nurse gives you a shot. The good ones just do it quick and painlessly, before you can even tense up. The bad ones talk about how it’s not going to hurt, but may “sting a bit,” and then slowly push in the needle.
Relate to your own experience as you write these letters, too. When you hear someone yammering on about all the good things you should be grateful for in doing business with them, don’t you start thinking, “This is going to be bad.”? You brace for the pain. And that amplifies it when it eventually comes, way down in paragraph #4.
Likewise, make it short. Don’t fill up the page with cant about how great you think you are. We don’t care. In fact, it makes you look like an egotistical jerk. Bad news is worse when it’s verbose. Just opening a letter with bad news sets an “off” tone for the recipient. We can smell it. And if we see hundreds of words in 10 point type, you’ve added insult to injury by requiring us to sit down to do a lot of reading. Most of us won’t anyway. We see “YBIITU” and immediately start scanning below for the sting.
So if you have a rate increase to announce, or you’re closing a store, or you’re no longer supporting some popular software, don’t take more than 50 words at most to say that. Be deferential, of course, even apologetic. But be brief and honest.
And never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say that my business is important to you. That just makes me think the opposite.
There has been a lot of discussion lately about the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution and what they mean. Since I took a Civics class in high school (and got an A) I thought, as a public service, I’d clear this all up.
The Supreme Court can use this cheat sheet, too.
Right to say absolutely anything I want without anybody objecting or challenging me.
Right to have any kind of weapon I want and use it on anybody who challenges me…or even just for fun.
British soldiers can pound sand. They can’t stay in my house. They can check into a Motel 6. And get off my lawn.
Hands off my stuff.
The Government can pound sand. I ain’t sayin’ nuthin.
I ain’t sayin’ nuthin’ until I talk to my lawyer.
If you say I stole $20, I get to have a trial by jury, which will cost taxpayers millions. You still wanna go there?
Any punishment the Government imposes on me is cruel and unusual. But on people I don’t like, it’s justice.
I have no idea what this one means…something about the exercise of my rights should not deny rights to other people. I guess that sounds fair. Unless it violates my rights.
States rule, not the Federal Government. Unless I don’t like what my State is doing. Then I rule.
What the hell happened to Avis? Oh, yeah, they got a new ad agency. And what’s every lumbering, Cretaceous-era ad agency’s mantra? If you get a new client, take everything they’ve ever done and lift your leg on it.
As every sentient being on this small, rocky planet orbiting a third-rate star must be aware, for the past fifty years Avis’s brand position and slogan has been “We try harder.” One of the classic and most effective brand positions ever. First conceived at Doyle Dane Bernbach back when Kennedy was president, it has stood as a powerful brand message ever since. Timeless. Inspiring. Memorable. Self-sustaining. And brilliant. It stands for perpetual improvement, a hunger to get better, and making the customer first.
Enter the Keebler Elves
Now along comes a new ad agency for Avis, Leo Burnett (of Tony the Tiger, Jolly Green Giant, Keebler Elves, and Pillsbury Doughboy infame), who felt the need to chuck all that and come up with perhaps the dullest, most banal ad campaign so far this year. They’ve also added insult to injury by flushing Avis’s stalwart “We try harder” in favor of some focus-group-generated, lifeless tagline and a derivative concept that seems to come right out of Don Draper’s hackneyed, martini-soaked, Sans-a-Belt slacks.
This campaign, “The Professionals,” is part of a new (and I use that adjective with extreme irony) brand proposition called “It’s your space.” Of course, it’s just a humiliating attempt to imitate National Car Rental’s “Rent like a pro” campaign. Because National has been stealing Avis’s lunch money and dunking their heads in the toilet for years now, some marketing MBA at Burnett probably thought it would be just the ticket to emulate those bullies. That’s how you make yourself unique; remind your customers of the other guys.
The concept is pathetic on the surface. And in execution it’s even worse. Like you’d expect from every other bloated, obsolete ad agency, Burnett’s creative teams had the original idea of paying celebrities (but in this case, third-level celebrities) to shill their client’s product. I’ll bet that was a late-night, white-board session. So the message is, if you’re a celebrity, Avis treats you like a celebrity.
Everybody in the commercials just looks bored to be there. And the jokes are so limp they would make a minivan full of preschoolers groan. (A Playboy centerfold/volleyball player says she’s going to slip into this “tight black number I brought with me,” but it turns out to be just her yoga leotard. Get it? Get it? Because you thought it was going to be a…oh, never mind.)
They even have the gall to post a “behind the scenes” video on Avis’s website, just in case you were curious to see what it might have been like to stand around all day, pigging out at the craft services table, and shoot this steaming mountain of Triceratops dung. What’s so great about this BTS video is that it’s message is, when you’re a near-celebrity, you really need to retreat to luxury (“your space”) to get away from all those sweaty little people who can be so annoying.
Back when advertising was creative, Avis used to do spots that amused, but, more important, identified with us, the “sweaty little people”. They told us they had to try harder to earn our loyalty. Now, of course, their message (at least from these ads) is they would prefer not to have to deal with us at all.
Here’s a strong brand. Let’s kill it.
But the unbelievable and heartbreaking thing about what they’ve done is the cavalier dismissal of one of the strongest, tallest, oldest brand positions in the history of the world. Rather than seeing how they could creatively refresh and remind us what trying harder means, they’ve decided to not try at all and apply an advertising formula from 1959…and saw down this Sequoia of a brand.
But that’s what obese, senile ad agencies do: Kill brands.
Avis’s new, Gen-X CMO, Jeannine Hass–whose first act was to fire incumbent and longtime AOR McCann Erickson (as every new CMO must do to show everybody who’s boss)–explained her reasoning in dumping the brand position that has worked longer than she’s been alive, “Consumer-centric brands must always evolve in order to keep pace with ever-changing customer needs and preferences. Avis is evolving as a premium brand to better meet those needs.”* Inspiring words; right out of a Douglas Adams satire. One can see where “We try harder” doesn’t cut the butter where “ever-changing customer needs” are concerned. The new customers don’t want a rental car company that tries harder. They want a rental car company that gives them their own space…man.
Haas backtracked a little, though, when she said, “We firmly believe that after nearly five decades, ‘We Try Harder’ is fully embedded in the Avis DNA, and defines the spirit our employees embody to deliver superior customer service.” Yes, so let’s shitcan it. And, yes, she actually used the phrase, “embedded in the Avis DNA.”
Good luck, Avis, with your new marketing officer and your new agency. Don’t stop trying. I’ll still rent cars from you, even if your advertising sucks.
And if a headhunter approaches me about a sweet job at Avis or Burnett, this post never existed.
If I have to read one more Website, ad, brochure, PowerPoint slide, or e-mail that uses the following words…well, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Probably nothing more drastic than to immediately mark it as “spam.” As an activist, I’m a wimp. But these words fill the skies like passenger pigeons once did. They need a mass extinction event.
Here are some words I’d like to see terminated…yes, with extreme prejudice:
“Methodology” is a malaprop, at least as it’s usually used. It’s one of those misapplied Latinate words (okay, Hellenate) intended to make the user sound more cerebral than he is; a word with unnecessary decoration on it. Broken down, “methodology” means “the study of methods” not the methods themselves. There’s usually no “logy” at all. But you read “methodology” so often when “method” would do just fine…and usually more accurately.
This isn’t a word. In fact, anything “…set”: “toolset,” “mindset”…I can’t think of any more at the moment. What’s wrong with just “skills” or “tools” or “frame of mind”? People who say “skillset” want you to think they are more credentialed than they are. It’s a mask. When they describe their “skillset” they usually have just one skill, like the ability to sort socks.
Did you mean, “talking to people”? I must admit, I’ve heard myself use this asinine word way too often, and I’m trying to stop it. Usually I think, right afterward, “I can’t believe I just said ‘engagement.’ I sound like an asshole.”
“Engagement” in the military sense is a euphemism for a fight in which people are killed—not a good thing—less than a full-on battle but more than an exchange of withering insults. Or it refers to that cooling-off period after you’ve rashly asked someone to marry you. But in marketing and branding; it usually means the wishful thinking that your customer actually gives a shit about you when you’re not in their face,”engaging” them.
Meaning “business” or “company”. When you use the word “enterprise, ” however, you’re sounding like you have an MBA from some name-on-request, online university. Can you think of an enterprise that isn’t a business? (Aside from the aircraft carrier and the starship, I mean.) It doesn’t mean that “enterprise” can’t sometimes be used to describe the whole magilla that is a modern, commercial operation, but stop to think about another word for a change; you know, to liven it up a bit.
People do love to use words that end in “logy,” don’t they? But unless you have a defensible patent on it, it’s just a way you do things around here; it isn’t technology. It’s only a method (and not a methodology).
What’s even worse is “technologies.” Plural. What makes that thing you do plural? Does “technologies” sound more hi-falutin’ than simply “technology?”
And my problem with it is that both “technology” or “technologies” sound way too precious, like when people pluralize “water.” (Don’t make me demonstrate.) Years ago I needed to get a new shirt in LA and I went into this snooty store in the Beverly Center (let’s face it, a shopping mall), where the sales clerk described what he was selling as “shirtings.” The signage over that part of the store also said “shirtings.” Shirtings are $300+. I went to Nordstrom, where they had shirts. For $40.
Do you think it makes you unique to describe your company as customer-centric? Can you imagine any successful company (aside from a derivatives trader) that is not customer-centric? And when you use this mule-of-a-word to describe yourself, you sort of invite closer scrutiny of how UN-customer-centric you really are. Especially if you keep talking about yourself: “At Dingbat Digital, we’re customer centric. We do this. We believe that. We, we, we. But enough about us. What do you think of us?”
Next time somebody uses the word “granular” in a PowerPoint presentation, ask them what they mean by it. Is it composed of grains? Does it promote regularity? Does it make you want to rub your eyes?
Full confession here: I also misuse this word. I’ve hired somebody to kick me under the table when I do, though. And my frame of mind when I do use it is, “Oh, shit! I don’t know what I’m talking about! Say “granular” quick!”
Usually used as an adjective for “provider.” “We’re a solutions provider.” What your customer, or prospective customer hears is “We still haven’t figured out why we started this company. So we’ll do anything you pay us to do.”
This just means rotund, fat, bloated, and beyond the reach of the law. It also means you use criminally negligent sweatshops in the developing world to pay little girls twenty-two rupees a month, working under life-threatening conditions to glue, sew, weld, dye, solder, or assemble your solutions providing technologies.
That’s a phrase I’d also like to see stuffed and mounted in the Smithsonian (preferably in a dramatic diorama showing prehistoric people driving herds of it off a cliff). But it’s also my exhortation. Seriously. Stop writing like this. Hire a writer. Or if your hired writer is writing like this, get another writer. At least get them to come back with simpler, fresher, more direct words.
Last week there was a sad story in the New York Times about a respected particle physicist at the University of North Carolina, Paul Frampton, a PhD from Oxford, falling for one of the oldest scams in the book. He’s now languishing in an Argentine prison for drug smuggling (actually, he’s just under house arrest at a friend’s). You have to read the original story for details (the Physicist, the Bikini Model, and the Suitcase Full of Trouble). But the gist of it is, here was this brilliant scientist, undoubtedly a measurable genius, who believed he was having an online love affair with a gorgeous, European model forty years his junior. They never met in person or spoke on the phone; only chatted online or texted. When she wanted to meet him in Bolivia, of all places (she was going to be on a photoshoot in La Paz), he leaped at the chance. And then, after he flew to La Paz to meet her, she texted him that her plans got changed (OMG) but could he pick up a suitcase of hers at the hotel and meet her in Brussels, flying through Argentina? She said an e-ticket was waiting for him at his connection in Buenos Aires and…
“ALRIGHT!” YOU’RE THINKING, “HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!”
How could a Beautiful Mind like this fall for such a blatant, old scam? Of course, any half-wit could see he was being set up as a drug mule. And of course, the Argentine authorities saw it as well. That’s why they were waiting for him when he landed in BA. But how could he not see what was happening? Even his friends were urgently shaking his shoulders that this was a scam; that he was being “catfished.” But he wouldn’t believe it. Oh no, this twenty-something, gorgeous Czech model he’d met through online dating was madly in love with a 68-year-old particle physics geek. Why isn’t that plausible? What’s not to trust?
It’s because, genius or no, Professor Frampton was subject to the same tendency we all have when it comes to judgment; we see what we want to see. Don’t confuse him (or us) with the facts. It’s almost like we want to be rolled. So thousands of otherwise perfectly intelligent people every year still fall for Nigerian 419 scams. And college football players have what they think are real, online love affairs with young women they never met. And, of course, there’s snake oil we buy from DRTV ads, promising that our “Low T” can be cured by smearing this gunk on our armpit (just don’t get near any women or children).
MATH WON’T HELP YOU
Our hapless, lonely professor even used his prowess at math to “prove” he was right about his love object. This was the same person who had developed an algorithm to determine, to five standard deviations of certainty (99.99994%), that the experiments being conducted on the Large Hadron Collider were, in fact, seeing evidence of the Higgs Boson. He used (or misused) the same algorithm to determine that the probability that Ms. Czech Republic 2010 was in love with him had the same level of certainty. I’m not kidding.
Guess what. Math can’t prove everything. I got a C+ in Statistics 312 in college and I could have told him that.
BUT THE SECOND UNBREAKABLE RULE CAN HELP
In our book, The Unbreakable Rules of Marketing (now on Amazon! shameless plug), this almost self-willed blindness falls under Rule #2: Perception is Reality. People believe what they want to believe, and they see the world the way they want to see it. They’ll even select data and facts to fit their belief. This is a well-researched and proven behavioral phenomenon called Confirmation Bias. And it can be used for good. Or –as with the Professor and the Model–evil.
In marketing you obey this rule to cultivate loyalty in your customers, recognizing what they want to believe and gently reinforcing it or nudging them away from it. The application of the rule doesn’t itself constitute a scam, because you can (and should) use it to persuade people to believe beneficial things, or genuinely improve their lives. But you can use it to snooker people, too. Even PhDs.
The Second Unbreakable Rule is ethically neutral. It just describes how confirmation bias applies to marketing.
THE SMARTER THEY ARE, THE HARDER THEY FALL
The educational level or IQ of the person you’re cultivating doesn’t have any bearing on whether they can be influenced or not. In fact, I would contend, through personal experience, that the higher the degree, the more prone they are to manipulation…er…persuasion. That’s because, besides hobbled like the rest of us with confirmation bias (seeing what we want to see), they also suffer from over-confidence in their perspicacity. I call it the Rock Star syndrome. Success in one, narrow field leads to the self-delusion that you are an expert in all fields. Just look at me.
I’ve sat in on marketing focus groups with PhDs, listening to them describe themselves as being unswayed by the blandishments of brands; they pick their instruments based on hard, cold data. Then we all watched them get emotional about why they hated (not just didn’t prefer–hated) this brand of scientific instrument over another. When presented with the cold, hard data about the brands they favored or disdained, they said they didn’t believe it. Or, they picked out the data that conformed to their emotional prejudices. We all do.
So I love advertising to scientists, bless their hearts. Wrapped up in their intellectual hubris, they tend to be some of the more persuadable people because they are completely unaware of the role (or, in the case of poor Prof. Frampton, the roll) of emotion in their decision-making. They tend to think they are all Mr. Spock.
I know a sales-engineer with one of my hi-tech, B2B clients who describes a technique he uses called “The Illusion of Data.” Stick a chart or a graph in your ad, load it with irrelevant numbers like Throughput Rates, Torque, AXT (Alien Crosstalk–this is a real measurement), or Noodles per Furlong, and engineers won’t even look carefully at it; they’ll just assume that, “OMG! Look at the stats on that baby!”
I would never do such a cynical ploy, though. No. I respect the intelligence of my audience.