One of the most unintentionally hilarious questions in this Age of Data Mining must be, “Would you like to see more ads about this product?”
I wonder, does anybody actually click “Yes”?
Ironically, the thing that initially got me interested in a career in advertising was the very first thing out of the mouth of my mentor at Art Center, Ray Engle, “All advertising is an interruption.”
Nobody likes to be interrupted:
Nobody likes to have a TV show broken into with some non-sequitur thought about reverse mortgages.
Nobody likes to be called out of the blue by somebody trying to sell them something (especially the phone calls that begin with the blatant lie, “This is not a solicitation.”)
Nobody likes clicking on a YouTube video only to have to wait for 30 seconds through a commercial.
Nobody likes having pop-up windows get between them and the article they’re trying to read.
Nobody likes having to clean out their mailbox (literal or digital) of the 99% of the crap that’s cluttering it up.
And nobody likes to have their smartphone constantly vibrating with ad-mails and ad-texts (well…depending on where they carry their phones…almost nobody).
When you interrupt somebody, especially with an ad, you’ve already put them in a foul mood. Not the greatest state in which to sell them something.
And that’s why everybody hates ads. The only people who seem to like them are those that make them. And they only like the ones they make. Or the funny ones.
That’s also why there are spam filters. And that’s why there are DVRs, so you can FF through all the ads. And there have been “MUTE” buttons on TV remote controls ever the advent of the first Zenith Space Commander sixty years ago, which predated the creative revolution in advertising by six years.
It used to be, back in the Mad Men Golden Age of advertising, that advertisers recognized this timeless fact about human nature; people don’t like ads. This recognition was first uttered (supposedly) by David Ogilvy, “Nobody ever bored their customers into buying their product.” But for some reason, the majority of people making ads today seem to think that human nature has changed in recent generations and that people nowadays seem to love to be interrupted by ads. And bored into buying products.
I’m not a scientist, but…
Now, I’m not a behavioral scientist (even with my degree in it) and I haven’t actually read any studies to the contrary, but it seems to me that people still don’t like being interrupted. That hasn’t changed. That app is still working in Human Brain OS 1.0.
So, what’s an advertiser to do? What’s the anti-anti-spam technology? According to my first ad mentors, Ray Engle and Lee Clow, and to countless other genii of the Golden Age, the answer was simple: Make it good. You just pissed somebody off by interrupting them–you can’t get around that–so you’d better make it worth it. And “worth it” doesn’t mean telling us about all of your J.D. Power Awards.
The “worth it” is where creativity in marketing comes in. Make it entertaining. That was the giant, forehead-slapping discovery made by Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach and all the ad people who weren’t working at that hack-factory, the Sterling Cooper Agency, in 1962. Why are funny ads ten times more successful than information-only ads? (There actually have been studies to measure this.) Because they reward us for listening. They respect us as intelligent people. They know they just interrupted us. So they give us a peace offering.
And then we are not so inclined to hit mute, or change the channel, turn off the TV, or click “skip” on the pop-up window.
Want to make somebody watch your ad? Then make them laugh. Or cry. Or scared. Or at least feel entertained. Other than kidnapping them, duct taping them to a chair, and clamping their eyelids open, there’s no other way to do it. Legally anyway.
When “introducing” is used in a headline, it takes the average reader less than 14.2 nanoseconds to recognize that you’ve got nothing interesting to say. (I made that datum up to impress the engineers among you. Let’s just say it doesn’t take much time.) And since, in every reader’s mind, all ads are perceived with disdain and irritation to begin with, to flag one with the death word, “Introducing,” is to insure that it will never be read…not unless it’s part of the sentence, “Introducing the best way to stick your elbow in your ear.”
(Admit it, you just tried to do that. Didn’t you?)
“Introducing” is also a gerund. Which means it’s passive. Of course, this is covered in the first hour of any community college copywriting class. But it doesn’t seem to have sunk in lately, at least judging by all this year’s crop of $4.5-million-per-30-second Super Bowl spots. If you want your ads to be read or listened to, don’t use the passive voice. Don’t use other gerunds like “celebrating” (as in “Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence”), “innovating,” or “leveraging.” The passive voice sucks all the life out of your ads. It makes them dull. It makes them ignored. It makes you waste the $4.5 million you just spent on your Super Bowl spot.
“Introducing” betrays an amateur copywriter, without even a hint craft or talent. No professional copywriter would ever use such a lazy, lifeless verb like “Introducing.” Not in the headline. Not in the copy. Not in the script. Not in the content of a website. It’s a dead word. And it screams, “I’m a hack!” Such a hack would also not hesitate to use a phrase like “passion for excellence,” “formula for your success,” or “the difference is in our people,” in their copy.
But there seems to be much more hackitosis in advertising these days.
“Introducing” also embarrasses the client who would tolerate such a passive, lazy word in their marketing. It tells all of us, unconsciously (in 8.9 nanoseconds), that the advertiser isn’t all that enthusiastic about their product. So why should we be?
Do you ever, in normal conversation, use the word “introducing” as a predicate? When you are introducing two friends, do you say, “Liam, introducing Miyako. Miyako, introducing Liam.”? Do your e-mails and texts use that word? Then don’t write your ads using it.
Unless, of course, you have a very good reason. And a note from your editor.
Don’t you love those Esurance spots that show how dumb old folks are when it comes to modern inventions like social media and mobile gaming? Isn’t it adorable how that one old lady is crushing hard candies on her table with a literal hammer and thinking she’s playing Candy Crush? Or the other old lady has taped pictures to her literal wall and thinks she’s sharing them on Facebook? They’re so funny because they’re so true; old people are dumb as walnuts.
Okay, now let’s do a mind experiment and recast those old ladies with black or latino people. Same script. Is it still as funny?
Actually, you don’t have to imagine because they did one with an old African-American guy who is so dumb he actually thinks you’re supposed to rewind rental DVDs. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!…Wait, what are “rental DVDs”?
The point Esurance is trying to make (I mean esurance, because the lower case “e” makes them seem so much more accessible) is that young, smart people know that if Geico claims you can save 15% in 15 minutes online, you can save even more in half the time with Esurance. What a brilliant strategy: First remind me of the competitor’s brand position (which is itself utterly weak to begin with) and then vaguely say we’re twice as fast. Yes, twice as fast. What’s that? Let’s see, fifteen, divided by two, carry the one… SEVEN-AND-A-HALF! Ooo…that’s fast!
If you don’t believe how fast that is, call them up and wait on hold for seven-and-a-half minutes. You won’t believe how time flies. Unless, of course, you’re a Baby Boomer and those are seven-and-a-half minutes docked from your already dwindling time on the planet.
Rule: Don’t insult the people writing the checks.
Of course, we get it: The intended audience isn’t composed of old people or aging Baby Boomers. The campaign is for very young (usually male) drivers who just want the minimum, catastrophic insurance required by state law to register their pickup truck. They don’t care how fast or well their insurance company takes care of them when they do have an accident; they just want to be able to show that they have minimum coverage when asked for their license and registration by Officer Muzzy. And besides, they don’t plan on having an accident. Duh!
The old people in this campaign, on the other hand, who would have had some experience with how the world actually works (and in particular, insurance companies) would know that it isn’t how fast it takes to get a quote, it’s how fast it takes the insurance company to come through with a claim, a tow, repairs, a rental car, and all that boring service part of the business.
The Baby Boomers would also be of an age where their own parents, or they themselves, are terrified of getting older, of senile dementia, physical infirmities, and the horror of Alzheimer’s. So they probably don’t see the humor in the jokes.
I’m surprised at Allstate (who owns Esurance), whose main commercials are otherwise so smart. Their agency since 2011, Leo Burnett, who did the terrific “Mayhem” campaign and the intelligent spots with Dennis Haysbert, also did this utterly witless and offensive campaign for Esurance. Great idea. Baby Boomers are still the biggest market demographic in this country, and are the ones most likely still paying the insurance premiums for their kids and grandkids.
So, by all means, let’s insult them.
Rule: Don’t pick a weak position.
The other strategic boo-boo this campaign makes is thinking that the battle is over how fast it takes to get a quote. Did they run some focus groups on this? I always thought Geico’s own purchase proposition (15 minutes can save you 15%) was itself one of the weakest brand positions on the planet. They may be crappy in every other aspect of service, but…”oh, let’s see, what else have we got, Murray? Fifteen minutes? Fifteen percent? Okay…well…if that’s all, let’s run with that. At least it’s not as dumb as ‘so easy a caveman can do it.'” (A geriatric caveman.)
“But be sure to say ‘could save you’ and not ‘will save you.’ Don’t want to over-promise.”
Yet having to spend fifteen minutes, or even seven-and-a-half minutes, on a website getting a quote (much less fifteen) is itself interminable. Do nothing for seven-and-a-half minutes and tell me how quick that feels. This week I had to contact my own car insurance company (USAA) and they took my claim (none of your business for what), set me up for repairs, and upgraded my policy. And the entire transaction took less than five minutes with a live human being. So I’m thinking, I have to wait seven-and-a-half minutes to get just a quote from Esurance? And that’s supposed to be good because at least it isn’t fifteen minutes? And fifteen minutes was supposed to be fast? (I’m talkin’ to you, Geico.)
Rule: Don’t pick an unsupportable position
Here’s the other weakness of this “cheaper “position; make sure you actually are cheaper. I went through the exercise of going onto Esurance’s site in researching this post only to find out that getting the exact same coverage as I was getting from USAA was, in fact, about 36% more. So, in spite of the daily robo-calls, hourly e-mails, and irritating pop-up banners I get from Esurance now, they’ve completely lost me forever. They hung their hat on cheaper, and weren’t. End of pitch. (It did, I’ll admit, take under seven-and-a-half minutes; just six minutes ten seconds.)
Rule: Don’t remind me of your competition.
But wait! There’s more! Esurance compounds this marketing error by actually reminding us of their competitor, Geico. In fact, the first few times I saw their spots, they seemed so similar in message, lame humor, and production quality that I thought they were Geico spots. But that must be because I’m a dumb senior citizen.
Rule: Don’t set up non-existent problems to solve.
Really, Esurance, nobody thinks taping her photos up on her living room wall is the same as posting them on her Facebook “wall.” Nobody thinks you have to rewind DVDs, or that smashing candy on a table is a game, or that standing on your roof using a megaphone is a good way to search for roof repair. And nobody thinks that the problem with shopping for car insurance is that it takes fifteen minutes online (It doesn’t. Not unless they have weak-ass servers in Pakistan.) That isn’t a problem. And it doesn’t need a solution.
And no it doesn’t humorously highlight how modern Esurance is. Especially if they think you can still rent DVDs.
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.
So the big news today (I mean, besides ferry and school bus disasters, Russia’s threats to Ukraine, domestic terrorism, and the death of Gabriel Garcia Márquez) is General Mills’ sudden reversal of an announced self-proclaimed exemption from any wrong-doing, past, present, or future. Last week, the giant food processor published their new terms and conditions that if you downloaded one of their coupons, “liked” them on Facebook, “followed” them on Twitter, bought any of their products, or even ate a single Cheerio at any time in your life since you were sitting in a high chair, you waived all your rights to sue them for any harm whatever you may have, now or in the future, or in any parallel universe, possibly claim you think you may have allegedly suffered from them.
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the brilliant meeting where that policy was presented. I’m sure General Mills’ lawyers, bless their well-meaning hearts, all thought they were so clever in arc-welding together this Iron Man pre-emptive defense. Nothing could penetrate it. General Mills, if they were evil, could knowingly pour buckets of broken glass, rat poison, plutonium, and X-acto blades into their brightly colored cereal boxes (yes, yes, yes, we know they make more than cereal) and never have to worry about being sued. All because you would have waived your right to redress by simply “liking” a General Mills Facebook post. Brilliant.
Except for one thing. The law team that crafted this impenetrable body-armor forgot about the wrath of the public and the power of marketing backlash. I don’t know how many people fired in angry letters, box tops, or e-mails (I was one of them, sarcastically putting myself on the record as opting out of their can’t-sue-us agreement). But evidently it was enough for General Mills to reverse itself this morning and rescind the policy. They’re happy to accept any and all lawsuits again. Yipee!
That’s too bad, because it would have been fascinating to see how that but-you-said-you-liked-us defense would have played out in the first class action lawsuit. I’m not a lawyer, but I play one all the time, and it may be that the pre-emptive legal force field was, indeed, impenetrable. If it was, then maybe another GM should consider it.
But what isn’t impenetrable is public backlash. It’s not good for your brand to announce that you intend to be a jerk from now on. And there’s no legal defense on earth that can protect a company from falling sales due to public outrage.
I know corporate lawyers aren’t concerned with marketing. Their only concern is the protection of their client (or employer). But they really should look up from time to time and notice that occasionally the act of defense itself causes more harm that what it was intended to ward off. And General Mills has done the right thing here by putting the gun down.
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.
I may be alone in this, but I think it’s the nadir of bad form to troll for dates on Match.com when you are married. You may think you’re just trying to hedge your bets in case your marriage goes south, or to increase your list of leads, or maybe you’re a Congressbeing who has a compulsion to torpedo his own political career. Whatever the excuse; there isn’t one. And your spouse probably isn’t going to understand. But, of course, I don’t know her…yet.
Well, in commerce, it’s also bad form to troll for new customers in front of your old, loyal customers.
Of course, you know I have an example: Last week, while logging on to the New York Times, a big, fat, roadblock ad popped up announcing a promotion of so-many weeks digital subscription to the NYT for only $1.88 a week, considerably less than the $8.75 a week they currently automatically charge me. So, naturally, I lunged for the bait and spent the next several minutes entering in all my data, including my credit card information. It was only after I clicked “submit” (a curiously loaded marketing word) that I got an automated reply that I was ineligible because I was already a subscriber (paying full fare). Oh, I’m sorry.
Aside from wasting 12.7 minutes of my time, I felt cuckolded. And (like any cuckold) stupid. I should have known the ad wasn’t for me. Just as your spouse should know your Match.com post is not for her.
I sent the NYT customer service department an e-mail sharing my hurt feelings and formally requesting that special advertised promo rate (at the very least, to reward me for my loyalty and recompense me for my wasted time). Three days later, I got an e-mail telling me they “value” my readership and “welcome any feedback”, but no dice. I was told I was sent that e-mail in error (it wasn’t an e-mail, it was an ad, out there for all to see–but, okay, I shouldn’t have read it). Not “We’re sorry, let us make it up to you by offering you this special, limited time rate.” Not squat. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have read that ad. But at least I know they value my readership.
Free Advice for All (Even My Paying Clients).
Here’s some free advice, something I usually charge big bucks for, but something I’m also offering free to my paying clients. Get a pencil and a piece of paper. Here it is:
If you run a promo involving a price reduction, make it across the board. Don’t insult your existing customers for being loyal by only rewarding people who aren’t yet customers. The bad stink you spread by doing that will also lose you business. And since we are all sophisticated consumers, we know that once we’re in the CRM database we’ll be shunted aside in future promotions. This has happened to us all before. A lot.
Instead, show everybody, loyal customers and not-yet-customers alike, how generous you are. Throw a promotion and invite everybody, even your loyal customers–even your spouse. Make them glad they’re your customers, or want to be, and want to tell their friends.
But if you aren’t generous, certainly don’t advertise it. And certainly don’t compound your marketing booboo to those you’ve insulted by telling them they weren’t invited.
But act on this advice today. It’s a limited time offer. Next month, I’ll charge you for it.
Are 12-year-old girls in charge of public corporations now? I was just wondering because the highly profitable Men’s Wearhouse retailer did what seemed like an impulsively 12-year-old thing this week; they fired their founder and 30 year spokesman, George Zimmer, of “You’re gonna like the way you look, I guarantee it” fame ( not the George Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin murder infame…could the board have been confused?).
Of course, it makes perfect business sense. After all, the company is apparently very healthy, made a record 23% jump in profits last year, is beating the bejeezus out of competitors Jos.A.Bank and Macy’s, and had one of the strongest brand positions in its field. So, obviously, what better time for the board to act on a brain fart and shoot itself in the breadbasket? Of course, as in all cases like this, nobody at the company could be reached for comment other than with the boilerplate we-have-tremendous-confidence-in-our-current-management-team variety (which makes you think it was a hormonal, mean-girl decision on the board level). And Zimmer himself has not been talking either (making you think there are lawsuits a-flying). But the board and all concerned won’t be able to keep this quiet for long. You know they didn’t consult with their PR firm first before whoever it was had their hissy-fit.
So there’s a vacuum of information coming out of the corporation. And in the absence of information, people just make stuff up. Like I am. And once that starts happening, you’ve lost control of your brand. You’ve ignored Rule #2, Perception is Reality.
They probably had their good reasons.
Now, I’m sure the Men’s Wearhouse board probably had their good reasons. Maybe we just didn’t realize how difficult it was to work with Zimmer. Maybe we didn’t realize the Machiavellian environment over there. Maybe somebody didn’t like his personal support of certain lefty political causes. Or maybe they thought they could get more Millennials to buy suits if they didn’t think they were buying them from their grandfather (newsflash: Millennials aren’t going to buy suits anyway, even if you got The Bieber to sell them). But we don’t know. We’re just dumb customers. Yet, in the tweeted words of one of those dumb customers (who identified himself as a Millennial), “You’re gonna miss the way I shop, I guarantee it.”
In our new, highly leveraged economy in which mundane things like, oh, sales, productivity, earnings ,or customer loyalty have no relevance any more–and all that matters are rents–one can laugh at the naiveté that the rules of marketing would apply to how a board conducts itself. But they will. The rules don’t give a shit about the minutiae of corporate politics.
For us, this becomes an ideal experiment to observe. We should grab some popcorn, pull up to the rail, and see what happens when a company violates nearly all the Unbreakable Rules of Marketing at once. It’ll be fun. We might very well be witnessing a brand suicide.
Consistency vs Creativity
Now, nobody ever accused the Men’s Wearhouse of being particularly creative or entertaining with its advertising. But George Zimmer, with his charming New York accent, repeating his corny, I-guarantee-it tagline, ad infinitum et ad nauseaum, helped the retailer become, over three decades of consistency (and some $90 million a year in advertising), one of the strongest brands in America. It grew from a single store in Houston in 1973 to over 1200 stores, with annual sales of $2.5 billion.
That phrase, “You’re gonna like the way you look,” with Zimmer saying it to you directly, meant that this guy personally cared about your appearance. That was a very compelling idea. Very empathetic. Very persuasive. Realistically, you know he wasn’t going to be fitting you when you went in to get your interview suit, but it certainly wasn’t beyond your expectation that he could. He had that credibility.
It would certainly have helped even more had the advertising been more entertaining. But Zimmer, having obeyed all the other Nine Unbreakable Rules of Marketing, especially the Give Love to Get Love Rule, made his company unbelievably successful. And his board, ignoring all those rules (especially Rule #9, Everything is Marketing), are setting themselves up for, as the Chinese curse goes, “interesting times.”
In history we’ve seen what happens when companies have fired their popular founders and spokesmen. It happened to Apple back in the 1985 when John Scully manipulated a boardroom coup to fire Steve Jobs, only to come crawling back to him ten years later to save them again. It will be interesting to see the direction of the Apple brand now that Jobs has gone where no board can crawl back to him.
But it’s one thing when a founder who has become the personification of his brand dies (Jobs, Wendy’s Dave Thomas, Frank Perdue of Perdue Chicken). It’s another thing when the board fires him. That just smacks of bad mojo. Nobody likes a family fight. People on the outside don’t want to take sides. All they know is that there’s a stink in the air and they want to get up and leave.
Among their non-statements about the incident, Men’s Wearhouse has said that they haven’t made a decision about whether to continue to use Zimmer and his famous phrase in their advertising. I’m sure they hadn’t thought it through that far.
But Zimmer will probably land on his feet. At the very least he can stand in for The Most Interesting Man in the World, which is who I thought he was anyway.
So, apparently, the venerable Borghese family, a family of 1000-year-old Italian aristocratic lineage, is being sued by Borghese, Inc., a company founded by one of them, Princess Marcella Borghese, in the 1950s to sell some foofoo water under the brand name, Princess Marcella Borghese. This brand and company was sold to Revlon in the 70s, who turned around and sold it to M&A conquistadora Georgette Mosbacher in the early 90s. Now Mosbacher is suing the family for having the temerity to use its family name to make a further living. Mosbacher is claiming she owns all uses of the family name, Borghese.
Ho hum, I know. When the 1% have a cat fight, it’s so much fun.
Aside from the obvious lack of merits in the case (at least to me; I’m no lawyer, of course, but does one member of a family have the rights to sell the family name in the first place?) this feels like just one more example of companies behaving like bullies, at the expense of their own brands. Borghese, Inc. is not giving love. Violation of Rule #6. Also Rule #2: Perception is Reality.
Imagine if McDonald’s or Disney or Ford were to sue anybody with those family names (and there are probably millions) to stop them from using them. Those companies are anything if not hyper-vigilant trademark enforcers, but they stop at the unreasonable and ridiculous. They’re also savvy to the value of brand loyalty and imagery. They know it’s not smart to be a jerk. Not Georgette Mosbacher though. That’s now her personal brand. (Incidentally, I just registered the name Mosbacher with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so she’d better lawyer up.)
As the NYT article linked above referenced, there’s also been the case of bad-PR-magnet Chick-fil-A suing some little silk-screener in Vermont for daring to use the phrase “Eat More Kale” on his homemade T-shirts, which CfA apparently thought was way too close to its unique “Eat Mor Chikin.” Yes, CfA, that imperative sentence (with its adorable misspelling) has never, ever been used in the English language in any variation before your copywriters thought of it and your copyrighters trademarked it. Just before the gay-bashing misunderstanding of last summer, the fast-food chain had already covered itself with bullying glory with this let’s-pick-on-the-little-guy lawsuit. Chick-fil-A (or is it Chik-fil-A?) seems to go out of its way to give us reasons to boycott them.
The Patent Parasites
And then there are the patent parasites; genetic and software companies who lay claim to the rights to things discovered in the natural world (like your genes) or ideas so obvious they aren’t even ideas (like backing up your files online, a claim by Intellectual Ventures of Silicon Valley).
There was a victory for common sense in this regard, however, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Myriad Genetics could not enforce patents it claimed it owned on the discovery of certain genes responsible for breast or ovarian cancer in women. This was such a forehead-slappable ruling (they even had Clarence Thomas write the opinion) on a blatantly evil ploy by a company to try and make an extortionary buck off of the suffering of millions of women, that it amazed me the plaintiffs had the gall to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. But greed has no shame.
It did, however, dash my own nefarious plans to become the richest man in the world. I have noticed, over decades of meticulous and exhaustive study, that a majority of human beings have brown eyes. This is my life’s work. I don’t think anybody else noticed this before. So I’ve filed a patent to claim brown eyes as my intellectual property. If approved (and before the High Court’s clearly anti-free-enterprise ruling, I had every expectation it would have been), I would have been able to charge licensing royalties to anyone on earth possessing brown eyes…brown eyes I discovered. I wasn’t going to be greedy, though: I figured a low, annual licensing fee of $10 per eye very affordable and reasonable, possibly a buy-one-get-one promotion or with a family plan for big savings. But multiply that by the estimated billions of brown eyes on the planet…well, let’s just say I would have been able to afford the legal army to enforce my patent forever (with surgical spoons if necessary). But now the activist, anti-innovation, anti-capitalist Supreme Court has rendered my life’s work and investment worthless. Thanks again, Clarence Thomas.
You can win the battle and lose the war.
Companies that indulge in bullying (aside from law firms and equity ventures), making IP lawsuits against individuals who pose no threat to them, seem to be stuck in the narcissistic notion that their right to own something because they saw it or thought of it trumps what the public thinks of them–that same public they want to win over and keep as loyal customers. It is just plain stupid. At least from a branding point of view.
The article in the NYT quotes an IP legal specialist, Kenneth Port, a law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in Minneapolis, “We’re seeing a growth because trademark owners are finding that the more kind of bullying conduct they do, the more the trademark is worth. They think they have to act like a bully to get the trademark stronger.”
I would respectfully submit that this is thinking like a lawyer, not a marketer. Since your brand really only thrives in the minds of its perceivers, to poison those minds with bad karma poisons your brand. Your brand means “bully.” Sometimes the best defense is no defense.
This may be showing my 20th century psych-major prejudice, but it seems that the people who make these patent/trademark suits (from Georgette Musbacher® to the ironically named Intellectual Ventures) have, somehow, become stuck in what Freud described as the oral phase of early childhood development. Everything they see they want to stick in their mouths, to ingest the whole world into their bodies… like The Blob.
But The Blob didn’t exactly have a great brand, and it ended up being frozen and dropped in the Arctic. Something that will happen to Chick-fil-A, Intellectual Ventures, Georgette Musbacher®, and any company that acts like a bully…if they aren’t nicer.
But this isn’t to say you should never defend your trademark or your patent. In fact, I would recommend that you do so zealously. But with common sense. Pick your battles. If someone seems to actually be trying to steal the equity in your brand to enrich themselves, or sell fake Oakley sunglasses, by all means go after them with your SEAL Team of IP lawyers. Just think about the context, though, and what the cost to your own image (not to mention the cost of the lawyers) that would do. Don’t pick on the little guy (sometimes just a friendly personal phone call can do more wonders than a lawsuit). And don’t be a jerk.
Still, you do have such pretty brown eyes. Twelve billion of them.
Learn a language in just 30 minutes a day! Sound too good to be true? It is!
Out of curiosity, I just clicked on a Facebook ad promising to show me the Secret Language Professors Hate–because, as we all know, and the video literally claims, Language Professors just want to get your money. But not Pimsleur. They don’t want your money at all; they just want to use up the 35+ minutes of your time to argue with you.
And that’s what this incredibly dull video does. Before you even know what it’s trying to sell you, it spends the first five minutes arguing with you (putting your straw man objections in your mouth for you, since there is no interaction). After that, it spends more precious minutes in which the perky narrator shares with us her own story of how hard languages were for her to learn in high school. Fascinating. Go on! (She does..and on, and on.)
All the while, the visuals are nothing more than a repetitive series of patronizing animations of adorable French mimes in berets, cute camels in fezzes representing Arabs, and angry girls with steam coming out of their ears, all drawn on an imaginary whiteboard, with the salient copy points written at a helluva speed by a static hand with a Sharpie. What an original and economical creative technique! I could watch that all day.
I don’t know about you, but the very idea of a whiteboard is enough to make me nod off and wreck the car.
As I said, this tedium goes on for at least 35 minutes. It may go longer since there is such a thing as “longform” of up to sixty minutes, but I shut it off, even though I was curious to see how long it could go…and if watching my fingernails grow might be more exciting. But I just wanted to gnaw my leg off to get away from it. There is no interaction. No way to pause the thing. No way to jump to buy the product (even if you were sold in the first 10 minutes). No controls at all. Just shut up and listen…oh, look, a cute kitty!
Shooting Themselves in the Foot
This is what’s wrong with most Direct Marketing. Apparently, it seems to believe its mandate is to bore its audience to death. It presumes, going in, that there’s going to be resistance to the sale, so it wastes endless time listing those imagined objections and smacking them down. It has no confidence that there might be an inherently attractive benefit to the product. And it takes forever to get to that benefit, giving its audience way too much time to rethink their initial interest…that is, if they hang around that long.
In the case of Pimsleur, an old and well-established language learning technique and brand, this is a ridiculous marketing approach. The inherent benefit of learning to speak and understand a new language quickly (versus writing or reading it) is self-evident. You’d think it would require no argument. But the rules of Direct Response say otherwise. Those rules mandate that you always go in arguing with your customer. That’s the way you make a sale. In fact, though I was intrigued about the Pimsleur technique, after the first ten minutes of listening to the straw man arguments against it (incredibly), the video actually started to sell me off the idea. It brought up objections I hadn’t even thought of. It was that good.
The other problem with this model of selling is that, even if I’d been sold on the product to begin with, they make it so hard to cut short the pitch and just buy it. There is no pause button, no fast forward, no controls whatever. It won’t take “yes” for an answer. The link to the Add-to-Cart doesn’t show up for nearly 20 minutes. Who knows how many potential buyers don’t have the patience to wait that long and just give up? They might just go to Pimsleur’s site directly via an organic search, but then the DR company would have lost its commission, not getting credit for the sale.
Whoever produced this for Pimsleur was actually probably chasing good customers away. But you can’t tell them that. They’ve been producing longform DR videos for generations and they know “what works.”
As a know-it-all who has been selling stuff to people via advertising for…well, a long time…I’m going to open my heart like the selfless person I am and give some free advice.
Free Advice to Direct Marketing
1. Don’t hide the 1-800 number or the Add-to-Cart. Run it the entire time. There’s no conceivable reason not to. It’s not like they don’t know it’s a sales pitch. If your customer is ready to give you his credit card info, don’t get in his way.
2. Don’t argue with your customers. Concentrate on the product benefits. When you start arguing and putting anticipated objections into people’s mouths, you just piss them off. And a pissed-off customer is no longer a customer.
3. Don’t knock the competition. Especially if the competition are earnest and underpaid language teachers. This is really bad karma. And it has the other unfortunate side-effect of reminding your audience that there is competition. So you might, inadvertently, be advertising for them. The Pimsleur video takes several minutes telling you how expensive competition Rosetta Stone is, but also how it involves visual interaction…hmm, I should look into that.
4. Don’t cheapen your product. People will think something’s wrong with it. If you start comparing what you could spend for it, and then offer a price that is unbelievably low, people get suspicious. Did it fall off a truck? Is it defective? The Pimsleur video tells you Rosetta Stone costs $700, a language course at a university or night school can cost thousands, and a year abroad in a total immersion experience can cost as much as $100,000 (if your year abroad is in Dubai). But now you can get Pimsleur not for $30, not for $20, but for the unbelievable price of just $10. Unbelievable is right. What’s wrong with it?
5. Don’t insult your customers’ intelligence. The gratuitous use of the word “Free”, for instance, is insulting (the title of this section included). The Pimsleur video describes itself as a “Free Presentation.” And I ask myself, does a sales pitch usually cost money? Also insulting are unfair comparisons, like saying you could spend hundreds of thousands and decades learning a new language, only to fail, when you could master it in just five hours (in 30 minute increments) for $10. That’s insulting.
6. Don’t be dull. People need to be entertained. Show them love for stopping to listen to your pitch by making them laugh (and cartoony French mimes don’t do it). They are not duct-taped to a chair with their eyelids pinned open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. They can get up and leave. Or click off. Or fast forward (if DVRing). So give them a reason to listen.
Apologies to Pimsleur
I’ve been picking on Pimsleur and their direct marketing vendor. They were just the most handy example, and, so as not to be a complete dick to them, I’ve linked to their site by way of apology (click on the screen-grab at the top–yes, I am a dick in that I’m going to make you scroll back up to the beginning). It may be, in spite of what their pitch may lead you to believe, worth looking into.
But the problems I saw in the Pimsleur video, I’ve seen rife in the whole DR industry. There is no reason, no constitutional amendment, no statutory injunction, no FTC ruling, and no mother’s warning preventing DR advertising from following all the Rules of Marketing. Just because it’s direct, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be creative, or show love, or be simple, or have a compelling message, or reflect positively on the client’s brand, or do all the other things that “mainstream” advertising should do. To the people looking at it, it’s all advertising. They don’t distinguish. So you shouldn’t either.
By the way, I can teach you conversational Marketingese in just ten minutes. What would you pay? $1 Million? $2 Million?