Monday, June 30, 2008

HP Shows up Apple for Innovation

I'm no Apple fanatic nor Apple hater, but anyone with two eyes can appreciate the knack Apple has for innovation. That's why I'm so surprised that after leavings PCs and peripheral companies in the dust for so many years, HP got a one-up on the oft-hailed innovators. It comes in the form of HP's new desktop, a desktop with touch screen capabilities. While Apple certainly lead the way with the iPod Touch and the iPhone, HP brought it to full-powered computers first. I had wondered why no PC makers bothered to follow Apple's footsteps in the incredibly efficient model of having the entire computer contained within the flat panel monitor. It turns out HP was just waiting to add an extra innovation to theirs to get a leg up on APple. I'm sure Apple lovers will be fuming everywhere and decrying how it's not really that good, or that it's derivative of iPod Touch's technology. But the truth remains, that HP got a full-powered touch-screen desktop out first.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The name game

I don't know how often most copywriters get naming projects, but in my experience, it's usually rather rare. It's probably for the best because, though lots of fun, naming projects can take a lot out of you if done right. Naming is usually like one of two things- wading through a sea of crap until you find a tiny gold nugget or finding a golden snitch (nerddom unite). The biggest difference is whether you're writing down all your ideas while you brainstorm. Personally, I usually write down at least 60-100 names before starting to narrow down the list. Naturally that includes the crap names you have to get out of your system to let the good ones push their way through, but it can be taxing work. I liken that to sifting through a sea of crap until you get your golden nugget. However, if you're not writing them down, then it's much more like finding the snitch. You can circle around the quidditch pitch for hours looking for its elusive gleam, and once you catch it out of the corner of your eye, there's no guarantee you'll catch it. I don't recommend this practice though because aside from not looking busy and having nothing physical to show for your hours of work, if you're writing them all down and you don't have a lightbulb moment, at least you have a something to choose from. Sure, we'd all love to come up with the perfect name every time, but sometimes the constraints of the real world make this impossible. Happily, that's not the case in my latest naming project. Anyway, it's back to wading...

Friday, June 20, 2008

How Steve Turns Plastic into Gold

There’s a lot of talk these days about “adding value.” For all the jargon, I think adding value is part of the conundrum that has gone unobserved for many marketers for a long time and mystified them at why their efforts are unsuccessful. I think its come to the forefront more recently because marketers are trying to get into channels where they will be ignored, or worse, outright opposed, if they fail to add value, and they’re finally recognizing this.

Giving me a branded baseball hat from a software company? That’s a miss. Having a baby changing station with free baby wipes from a baby-products company? That’s a winner.

That said, I think this idea helps diffuse some of the mysticism surround Apple’s Steve Jobs. Granted, almost anything the man touches turns to gold. He’s a business wonder on many levels. But if any serious Apple lovers are reading who want to keep an image of Mr. Jobs as a paradox of divine inspiration inexplicable by the common man, I suggest checking out the new iPhone instead of reading on.

I think Mr. Jobs success comes mostly from adding genuine value. Practically every innovation he develops gives consumes something they really want, or something they can really use and don’t even know they want yet. What was one of the first things he did when he got back to apple? He created a computer in a tidy, one piece unit that could be easily carried in one hand. It didn’t require the large amounts of space that modern desktops STILL require, but simplified the package, saving space and difficulty when moving it. I wonder if that had anything to do with its success among college students…hmmm…Next, he led the charge into mp3s full speed. He didn’t wait around like most manufacturers, tentatively toe-ing the mp3 waters, seeing if they were right. He knew if you only had to bring the player and not every tape or CD you wanted to play, people would jump on it. And he was right. He also made the interface very intuitive, something that other companies making mp3 players are only now finally getting right. Next, he combined two overlapping demographics- WiFi web surfers and an extremely mobile generation to create the iPod touch. Not only was the interface incredibly intuitive and something our imaginations have been craving since Star Trek, but it allowed people to leave their laptop at home AND have their music at hand in a nice little package. Then, came the iPhone. I won’t even pretend to have to educate anyone on how that added value. And let’s not forget how he turned the desktop into an even smaller, more compact and manageable package with the newest iMacs.

Every innovation has been based on genuine consumer needs and wants. Not just squeezing more power out of a processor or reducing price again. Anyone who compares prices of Apple products to non-Apple competitors knows Apple usually costs twice as much or more. But, still they sell. That’s because they add value. I can’t believe that STILL no PC manufacturer has put a computer into a tidy package like the latest iMac. Their R&D departments must really have their hands tied. The biggest difference I’ve seen between businesses that work one ones that don’t is the ability to say YES vs. the propensity to say NO. I bet there are R&D guys at PC companies all over tearing their hair out to create something that would put the iMac to shame. But management is probably too scared to do anything about it. Meanwhile Steve says yes and stock prices rise again. Ad agencies say “maybe we shouldn’t do that” and people detest cookie cutter advertising. Agencies like Crispin take the chance to say “yes” and maintain god-like status in the business world because they create amazing things. Maybe more of us should take a hint from Steve Jobs and say “yes” instead of cringing in fear of our own shadows. Success isn’t an inexplicable power bestowed by the gods, it’s adding real value and having the courage to try a good idea.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Third Party Credibility and Cannes: Have They Met?

I’m an oddity in the ad world- I’m an advertising guy with genuine PR training (got my B.S. in PR along with my B.S. in advertising). Perhaps it’s because of this, I understand the importance of third-party credibility. It’s one of the foundations of public relations activities. You send a press release to a publication, if the publication thinks its interesting enough, they cover it, in part or in whole. You lose control over if it’s covered, when it’s covered and the exact message. However, you get the coverage for free and people are more likely to believe the message since the information comes from a source (often a trusted source) OTHER THAN the company itself. If LG tells you their new phone is a complete revolution, you will probably chalk it up to fluff. But if an article from a CNET journalist says so, you might think there’s some merit.

And that’s where we get to Cannes. I’m going to try to use the name of the award event as few times as possible because I’m so sick of seeing it on every advertising site and blog I can’t stand it anymore. I shall therefore call it, the Festival. In an column called “Categorical Support for Cannes”, Mark Tutssel, CCO of Leo Burnett hails the Festival as a great beacon, measure, forecaster of the future, gage of the present, trendsetter, cultural experience, etc. etc. etc. Obviously Mr. Tutsell thinks quite highly of the Festival. In another strange turn in the column, Tutsell goes on to describe how one particular award that the Festival has just invented, the Titanium Lion, is “the most precious and prestigious awards to win.” In fact, he spends more than a paragraph going on about how the Titanium Lion “is an idea that's so unique, pure and new it cannot be labeled in a conventional way.” But then we see the byline, and it call becomes clear.

Mark Tutsell is the president of the Titanium & Integrated jury at Cannes. I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in….the president of the Titanium & Integrated jury at Cannes. I challenge anyone to tell me that Mr. Tutsell doesn’t have an vested interest in promoting a Festival he helps run and praising the merits of an award category which leads. Am I really supposed to believe anything in this column now? Don’t get me wrong, the Festival and the new award could indeed be all the things he says they are. But how is any one supposed to believe such high-minded, idealistic Festival-worship from a man who’s part of the very thing he’s praising. And how is anyone supposed to believe the jargon-laden dribble about category shattering, revolutionary blah blah blah from the man who heads the very award he’s showing off? Maybe it’s just a shot at transparency, maybe he was just so excited, he wanted to share his vision, but if anyone is to believe a message like that (which would have to lose some of the embellishment to get credibility from any source), maybe Mr. Tutsell should have looked into using PR to get some real third-party credibility instead of praising his own doings under his own name.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Copywriting in the Stock Photography Era

I think we can all admit that stock photography has made advertising possible and more profitable for a great many people and agencies. Gone are the days of assignment photography for every assignment (sorry photographers, honestly). In fact, unless you’re a fairly large agency, you’ll never have a single shoot. Almost all advertising today is done with stock photography. But this begs a question.

Why so much emphasis on visual solutions when it’s becoming harder to create them? Stock photography means that already over-taxed art directors and designers have to do Photoshop back flips to Frankenstein together an image that hopefully looks something like the intended result. Instead of trying so hard to squeeze water out of rocks (props to those who do so on a daily basis), should there not be more emphasis on copy? I’ve seen a disturbing trend in many agencies of cutting copywriters. But when one of your two artistic elements is already set and incredibly difficult to change in even small ways, should not there be added importance to the one you can change and tailor to an incredible degree? In other words, when the pictures are already taken, shouldn’t there be added importance given to copy, to the remaining place you can actually express and articulate everything you’re trying to say?

But nobody reads copy any more, visual solutions are the only solutions. Tell that to Mini. The incredible success of the entirely new make of little autos was built upon a campaign that featured a simple product shot, truly insightful copy and an unassuming, but unmistakable colored box outline. Or perhaps you think the footage that could have easily been replaced with stock footage (if it wasn’t stock in the first place) from MasterCard’s Priceless ads would be just as effective if the announcer didn’t say anything and items with prices didn’t show up on the screen. The truth is, copy is a great way to inject real personality into your ads, a way you can do it without the technical difficulty of creating crazy visuals, a way to give your brand a unique voice that make it more accessible (or less, depending on your brand’s intended personality), and a great way to ease the load on your probably over-burdened art directors and/or designers.

Finally, emphasizing copy more in the stock photography era is actually very economical. Don’t be misled to believe that the copy idea takes less time to think up. But I think we all know that once the thought work is done, the copy rarely takes the same amount of execution time as the design. And, you can change and tweak the copy very easily, even once it’s in place. Not so of the design. The point? All this adds up to hours of work that the agency is paying for. In essence, copy is a cheaper way of giving your ads real creativity because the total amount of time to execute and make changes significantly drops with copy-driven solutions. Turn-around time increases. Art directors and designers have their burdens lightened and the client’s brand gets a voice beyond a funky visual.

If you ask me, that’s a win-win.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Predicament of Content Creation and Social Media

Marketers create branded communities that get limited patronage because those communities are transparent attempts to use community to further their brands, and will obviously only provide information/content beneficial to their brand.

Marketers are also willing to invest huge sums to sponsor programs and websites that are relevant to their category, names that people trust in that category, but names that obviously also have information on the marketer’s competitors.

What will never happen? Creating a forum that covers other brands than your own. Why would it be beneficial? People would see you as being more concerned about their needs than your sales and would be more likely to buy from you. Your forum could also prove a pre-eminent source of information on the category, lending extra credence to any information you might provide on it. Incredibly important- people interested in the category would seek your forum for information, and while they might not have gone to your website to consider you before, your branded presence on the forum means you’ve just put yourself in the consideration set for people who weren’t looking to consider you in the first place.

Why it will never happen? Marketers have a clear, yet artificial division in their minds between content created by them, and content created by others. Imagine asking Nike to put up a forum that allows discussion of Reebok and Converse shoes. Never gonna happen. Then imagine Nike sponsoring a leading forum that discusses cross-trainers. They’d consider it a must-have. When you really take a look at it, both a sponsored third party forum and a Nike-made forum would do the same thing. However, one would be essential and one unconscionable in the modern marketing atmosphere. Looking at it closely, the difference between the two begins to seem rather ridiculous, since both offer consumers the same information and both would be branded through and through. It’s the artificial boundary of who creates the content in marketers’ minds that makes the difference between the who. And if you did happen to create a branded forum that allowed honest discussion of other brands, and it did become a go-to source for info for consumers in your category, it could actually prove to be a revenue generating tool. Having your competitors pay you to advertise? It doesn’t get much better than that.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Tattoos & Taglines

In recent years, many have doubted the usefulness or value of taglines. Certainly in some cases, taglines have acted as crutches for otherwise undifferentiated products. And for some advertisers, their brand promise is so clear even without taglines that they can get along fine without them. Starbucks, to my knowledge, doesn’t have one, yet they remain a household name. However, saying that taglines are useless because they don’t always increase sales is tantamount to say advertising doesn’t work because it couldn’t sell the Ford Edsel.

For starters, taglines exist on a branding level, not a promotional level, and are therefore pretty hard to quantify, especially over time. Somehow I doubt Nike would be as strong without “Just do it.” Second, even unsuccessful companies and products use taglines. No amount of advertising or clever line is going to save a bad product or a company who lacks a clear brand promise. I think that taglines are more difficult than most people realize, that focus groups destroy the possibility for truly effective, insightful taglines, and that corporations often get in the way with their undifferentiated grandiose vanilla “Innovation. Commitment. Dedication.” type lines. Kudos to companies who can get out of the way of great work, it takes great courage.

Taglines can give people a few things that can really ad value. It gives them something familiar to hold onto that’s not visual. People don’t carry little trading cars with corporate logos on them, but they can sure spit out a slogan or two. For anyone trying to recommend your brand or product to another, it can help them communicate what you do, creating easier brand evangelism. For new companies, it can help communicate and/or clarify their brand promise. When FedEx came onto the scene, we knew they did shipping. But their tagline, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” positioned them not just as a shipping company, but as the authority on fast shipping. I think it would have taken longer for the company to take hold without it.

In the modern era of consumers increasingly interacting with and influencing brand communications, the NBA has had a huge hit this year that illustrates the power of a well-crafted tagline. (I should mention here that the difference between brand lines and campaign lines can be blurry) “Where amazing happens” and its many iterations was a massive success this year. And while some purport that the success of this season’s playoffs is due to a lack of tattoos, I submit that it was due to a tagline that provided endless possibilities for customization and created something that consumers could take and play with, change around, have fun with and make their own. How else can you explain the hundreds of thousands of parodies of the Where Amazing Happens NBA spots online? The same concept was behind the overwhelming success of Elf Yourself. While more conservative thinkers might posit that letting someone “bastardize” your brand like that is a detriment, it’s actually a great brand building tool. It lets consumers interact with your brand on their terms, share your brand, get excited about it and associate it with positive experiences. If you still doubt the utility of taglines, maybe you should scrap logos too. After all, facebook uses plain type and it’s a cultural phenomenon.

So, are taglines dead or futile? Not a chance. They’re an art that just have to be handled very well to be successful.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I’m proposing a much needed new word. I’m allowed to make up words. I’m a copywriter. I do it for a living. I only say that because of the litany of terrible made-up words (presumably not by copywriters) that pervade much of modern life- words like Brangelina, Rathergate, and greenwashing.

Greendexing would be the infinitive form of a root word whose base is greendex. A greendex would be a score given to products, services or claims that companies proclaim as green. Greendexing would be the act of rating these products (infinitive- to greendex).

I think this idea is especially necessary, considering the adoption by companies of the green message. Now any company that uses low-electricity lightbulbs to save on their own budget claims to be green. However, a company that runs completely on solar and wind energy is also green. You see the problem? There’s no scale.

I therefore propose the scale of greendexing to help consumers understand the degree of green-ness a product or service really offers. I think a greendex for products and services, for example, should work on a 10 point scale. It should be based on the actual environmental impact combined with the motivation of the company.

Example 1
For example, a company who says you should buy their insulation because it makes your home green by saving on energy costs related to heating and cooling would get a 0. First, insulation has been around for a long time and has always done the same thing. Just because it happened to match with a green talking point doesn’t qualify it as anything new. Also, as to motivation, the company’s interest is clearly in selling you something and not at all with environmental interests because it is doing nothing different.

Example 2
Another example might be a company that claims to be green because it uses lower wattage and natural lighting it its warehouses to reduce its carbon emissions footprint. This claim might get a 2. The company is actually doing at least the smallest amount to help the environment, but only in the tiniest way. And naturally, their reason for telling you this is to convince you of their conscience so you’ll buy buy buy. Last, but not least, their motivation for making those changes is probably primarily budgetary- less energy costs helps their bottom line.

Example 3
An example of a 6 might be a crushed seaglass countertop composed of 80% recycled glass that washes up on beaches. This product clearly provides substantial environmental benefit by using recycled materials. What’s more, it doesn’t do it at a negligible level- 80% of the product is made from recycled material, which is pretty impressive. Why not give it a higher score? Because products like this usually command a premium that will knock your socks off. This might cost you two or three times the cost of a normal countertop. So, despite its overwhelming environmental benefit, the motivation for creating the product is still clearly one of profit, as evidenced by the huge markup. It preys on people needing green cred.

Example 4
Finally, imagine a house that runs completely on solar and wind energy, has a cistern and water collection system for water, uses energy efficient lighting, heating, cooling, bamboo floors, etc. and has a base of shipping containers as structure of the house. This house would do great on practically all fronts, assuming it’s not arbitrarily marked up for being green. Everything it does helps the environment. You might be wondering about those shipping containers, though. It’s actually a growing practice as of late to use shipping containers to form the primary structure of a home. Since the US has had a trade deficit for so long, there are giant farms of shipping crates just sitting around. Using them for housing puts them to good use, and not in ugly landfills, and they’re actually very sturdy and affordable. Some of the homes are also quite nice. So, like buying second-hand furniture (which they now call “reclaimed” because the new green yuppies wouldn’t be caught dead with something “used”), it’s not only environmentally friendly, but also cheaper.

Rating People
I also thing people who have “gone green” should be rated, perhaps on a 100 point system for better accuracy. This is less crucial, but there should be a difference between someone who buys CFL lightbulbs (not a magnanimous difference) and someone who buys a home like the one above. I won’t bother with examples here. Just think it over.

So, that’s why I think we need this made up word, greendexing. It will help us sort through the clutter and figure out what’s really environmentally responsible and what’s just a twist of words for profit. After all, greenwashing (shudder) is already rampant and consumers are already lashing out.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Banned in Boston

If it’s been banned in Boston, it must be good. While many have told me how fun and progressive a city Boston is, I have to wonder sometimes. My guess is that they must have some of the most boring advertising and bookstores around due to their pension for banning anything remotely interesting. In fact, as one article illustrates, they’re perfectly happy to ban something that hasn’t garnered any public complaints or broken any rules. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to start a Banned in Boston list that serves as a guide to help people find really good, fun innovative stuff. Who knows, maybe it’s already been done. For now, my apologies to any Bostonians I may have offended, I hope you don’t ban me for it. I hear you have a lovely city, though it seems you have to enjoy much of it in hiding.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Making the Smart Car Look Stupid

When the Smart Car came to the U.S., I was elated. I’m a huge fan of things that genuinely contribute to environmental sustainability, cut out the fat and get more efficient and things that save space. Naturally, the Smart Car looked like a Mecca at first glance. However, checking it out online, I discovered that while it did cut out the two back seats that rarely any of us without kids ever need, that was about it. It doesn’t get much better gas mileage than my Corolla, which has considerably more interior space, and it’s not much cheaper either. I thought it was supposed to be a bare bones vehicle that did everything smart, not a fashion accessory. If I can pay the same and get a roomier vehicle with the same gas mileage, there’s no reason to foot for the Smart Car than to LOOK smarter to the uneducated, or if you genuinely want to save the room, which the car does wonderfully. It kind of reminds me of those pseudo-intellectuals I knew in college who knew less but pretended to know more. In short, I’m at a loss for what’s so smart about the Smart Car. Moreover, when it comes to affordable cars, they’re taking the cake in India. The Tata Nano is set to retail for $2,500 in India once it rolls of the assembly lines. It’s got room for four, too. Now, that’s smart.

How Kelly Ripa Sent the Women’s Movement Back 50 Years

It’s hard enough to justify our profession to the general public sometimes when some polls show people trust us less than lawyers and doctors. I try hard to explain to people the benefits of advertising, while that conceding a host of factors often lead to bad ads and practices that are hard for a single person to control. However, companies like Electrolux don’t make that job any easier. In their latest ads for new Electrolux appliances, Kelly Ripa is depicted as an updated version of the 50s supermom. She works a full-time job, takes impeccable care of the kids, take impeccable care of her appearance, is a perfect hostess who tends to everyone’s needs before they realize they have them, and the icing on the cake- she loves doing every bit of it. Many of us know that one of the dilemmas for the modern women is the expectation to be both career woman and career homemaker and do both flawlessly. People have been working hard to dispel this expectation, as it’s almost impossible. The new supermom image, build much, I’m afraid, on the shoulders of advertising also says this woman does all of this work while looking strikingly beautiful and poised in designer clothing, and probably most detrimentally, that she should enjoy everything about her 120 hour weeks. Kelly has certainly done her job in furthering the unachievable image of the supermom. And just in case there was any doubt about Electrolux’s intentions, the entire ad is set to a subtle soundtrack of nostalgic 50s music. I love retro touches as much as the next guy. In fact I think the kitschy Enzyte ads do a great job of using retro satirically to take some of the discomfort out of a touchy subject. But Electrolux’s most recent ads are clearly an effort to put women back “in their place,” as some of the older generation would say, with the added twist of the modern supermom’s responsibility to hold full-time employment. Women, good luck, and my sympathies.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Will One Misfit Be Conspicuously Missing?

It was released today that Verizon is buying Alltel, a deal which will make it the largest wireless carrier in the U.S. I’ve got a few questions though. First, is Alltel keeping its name or simply having its resources folded in under the Verizon name. That question is mostly important to me because it leads to my other queries. If the Alltel brand remains, will it continue to run its wannabe Mac vs. PC style commercials? And if so, will the crazy cat playing the Verizon guy be gone, leaving a conspicuous absence? Or perhaps, they’ll have the Verizon guy join ol’ Chad (the super cool, all-knowing Alltel guy from the spots). Naturally, if the Alltel brand disappears, this is a moot points, but if it remains, I’m curious to see which way it goes.

P.S. This assumes Verizon is planning on retaining its name. While I don’t see the Verizon name going bye-bye anytime soon, a well- known competitor ditched a more lucrative name in a merger that ended up doing it great damage with the younger demographic and sealing its image as a dust-and-cobwebs icon of big business.

Why Some Creatives Don’t Trust Account Service People

While I’m glad to say that this is not the case at the agency where I currently work, I have encountered places in the past with this very problem. I’m glad to say that the account service people I work with now are extremely capable, insightful, trusted partners. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. However, if you’re curious, there are some good insights into why this is the case, of course barring cases where creatives are just whining…which I admit, do happen from time to time (check the last paragraph).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Quote of the somethingorother

Don’t let the excitement ruin your grammar.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Is a legitimate language being bastardized or a bastard language being legitimized?

The younger generation, in informal speech, often makes up words like “awesomer,” most often in jest of the understandable but grammatically incorrect words. The use of these in some cases becomes so pervasive as to work itself into niche journalism and advertising, spurring a backlash (that often hits advertising, who also loves to make up new words or misspell old ones) touting the breakdown of the English language. Some would debate whether the English language ever had particular status to claim a breakdown, considering it’s basically a hackneyed puzzle of borrowed words from scores of languages.

However, one must consider the basic formation of these grammatically incorrect words and put them in context. In most cases, the formers of these words take regular conjugations (or suffixes, etc.) and apply them to irregular words, of which there are far too many in English. If you then consider that, applied broadly, these changes would actually regularize and simplify our language into a learnable, user-friendly language instead of the eternally expanding enigma we now have, it seems these word pioneers are doing more to further the legitimization of a language formed by stealing bits from other languages a few at a time, giving it a distinct and consistent set of rules and sounds, making it more its own.

However, this will never happen for several reasons- first, the regular influx of new words that people bring into the language from elsewhere is a never ending stream, second, our language would begin to resemble its European counterparts and be laughed out of existence for its idiosyncratic sound and supposed over simplicity, thirdly, because English snobs would no longer have their tightly held arcane knowledge of the minutia of the language to hold over others and finally, because an entire industry of English teachers, text book makers, proofreaders and more would be out of jobs.