Casey Flanagan

The Brand Ad Is Dead. Long Live The Brand Ad.

The brand ad is dead. But it’s not because there are no more brand ads. In fact, the opposite is true.

Because every ad is a brand ad. Further, everything a brand does is an ad.

Product ad? It’s the brand’s product. Sale ad? It’s the brand’s sale. Strong call-to-action? It’s the brand doing the calling.

So rather than deciding whether we’re doing a brand ad, let’s decide what kind of brand ad we want it to be.

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Katie Mullen

Reaching “Peak Bullshit” and Where We Go From Here

I’m a college graduation speech junkie. When you ask interesting people to share life lessons, not surprisingly, it can make for some pretty great stuff.

My favorite of 2013 was Jon Lovett’s address to the graduates of Pitzer College, which the 30-year-old former Obama speechwriter later excerpted in a piece for The Atlantic called “Life Lessons on Fighting a Culture of Bullshit.”

You had me at “bullshit,” Jon. Being that the recession created skeptics out of even the most trusting among us, I’m willing to bet his point of view will strike a cord with you too. It’s kind of hard not to agree with statements like this:

“One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything.”

You can see where I’m taking this as it relates to brands. Phoniness is becoming a liability and, conversely, there’s more opportunity than ever for brands that are honest. In a McKinsey & Company article about the rise of socially conscious consumers, the growing importance of brand integrity is spelled out in the stats:

“At the same time, consumer trust in corporations has declined by 50 percent since the crisis. Consumers now trust only one in four companies on average. The dearth of trust in the marketplace makes it an agent of differentiation. As a result, the correlation of trust to brand equity has increased by 35 percent in the past three years. Trust, once an afterthought, can even help companies enter new market categories.”

Jon Lovett not only recognized a similar demand for sincerity in his commencement speech, he argued that it’s led us to an important cultural tipping point:

“I believe we may have reached ‘peak bullshit.’ And that increasingly, those who push back against the noise and nonsense; those who refuse to accept the untruths of politics and commerce and entertainment and government will be rewarded. That we are at the beginning of something important. We see it across our culture, with not only popularity but hunger for the intellectual honesty of Jon Stewart or the raw sincerity of performers like Louis CK and Lena Dunham. You see it across the political spectrum, from Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts to Chris Christie in New Jersey to Rand Paul in Kentucky.”

Marketing can’t create trust in this environment, it can only magnify it. More and more, people are looking into the practices and policies of the companies they choose to hand their money over to. Do they treat their employees fairly? What are their environmental policies? Where/how are their products made?

That’s why I think Jon’s parting advice to the Pitzer graduates is as relevant to brands as it is to individuals:

“All you have to do is avoid BSing yourself — in whatever you choose to do…be honest with yourselves, and others…reject a culture of insincerity by virtue of the example you set.”

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Ilana R. Borzak

Scientology as a Brand

You can learn a lot about a brand from its advertising. Here’s a good example:

(1)  Go to Google.com

(2)  Type “Scientology” into the search bar.

(3)  Look at the top paid result. What do you see?

I see an ad sponsored by the Church of Scientology. It reads, “Truth About Scientology  – You’ve heard the controversy.”

Regardless of whatever prior knowledge you might have about the religion, you can easily see that the Church of Scientology is using the ad to defend itself. The Church, like Mormonism, has never fared well in public perception polls, especially in the past couple of years. In response, the Church has turned to advertising, spending unprecedented amounts to combat the negativity and build a positive brand. Even though the Church’s campaigns are reactive, I believe that other religions can learn from Scientology’s attempt to strategically build its brand of religion.

The Church’s first large-scale campaign was in 2008 right after a video of high-profile actor Tom Cruise acting “manic” during a Church ceremony leaked.  Soon after, ad campaign “Get the Facts” launched. This campaign urged viewers to ignore any rumors and go to the Church’s website to learn ‘the truth.’ Subsequent campaigns also launched in the wake of PR crises but use an emotion-evoking strategy and attempt to position Scientology as the provider of meaning. Ads from these campaigns play inspirational music and speak about one’s existential quest for the truth.

In recent months, the media has increased its mostly negative coverage about the Church. In November of 2012, Vanity Fair published an article claiming that the Church controlled and destroyed Katie Holmes’ high-profile marriage to Tom Cruise. Three months later, Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright published his highly publicized investigative book, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. These, as well as other exposés, encouraged critical media coverage.

In November of 2012, just as this media hype was building, the Church of Scientology launched “Knowledge,” its newest ad campaign. While its underlying strategy isn’t novel, Knowledge’s media strategy represents many firsts for the Church and general religion. In November and December of 2012, the Church played a “Knowledge” commercial 16 times an hour in Times Square, including New Years Eve. In January, they sponsored an editorial-like article in The Atlantic and also aired the commercial during the high viewership AFC Championship and Super Bowl.  According to Karin Pouw, the Church’s spokeswoman, near future plans include airing the commercial on other prime time shows like Modern Family, Dancing with the Stars, Glee, and Vampire Diaries. The Church has never used such widespread and public media to spread its message.

Thanks to the Mormon Church’s “I’m a Mormon” campaign, Times Square billboards are no strangers to a religion’s ad campaign. But Knowledge’s other media platforms are and they represent Scientology’s departure from the spiritual realm where religions are supposed to live and its entrance into the commercial-marketing world. Although Scientology is often mocked, I believe other religions can learn from its use of advertising and modern branding. We live in a time when work is replacing religious institutions as the place for social connections (Einstein, 331) and religious membership is dwindling. In many regards, the current religion system is broken. Perhaps it’s time for religious leaders to take advantage of modernity’s offerings and learnings. Brands realized long ago that they need to attract and engage customers to survive. Religions are no different. They need members. Perhaps religions, not just ones like Mormonism and Scientology, should reconsider their marketing strategy.

 

 

 

 

SOURCES

Borzak, Ilana Rae. “Digital Divinity: The Mormon PR Crusade.” Web log post. Http://blog.laughlin.com/. Laughlin Constable, 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2013.

Borzak, Ilana Rae. “The Church of Marketing.” Web log post. Http://blog.laughlin.com/. Laughlin Constable, 17 Dec. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.

Cook, John. “Cult Friction.” Radar Online. American Media, 23 Mar. 2008. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Einstein, Mara. “The Evolution of Religious Branding.” Social Compass 58.3 (2011): 331-38. Web. 4 Mar. 2013.

Orth, Maureen. “What Katie Didn’t Know.” Vanity Fair Oct. 2012: n. pag. Condé Nast. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.

Poggi, Jeanine. “Are Scientology’s Ads Aimed at Recruitment or Retention?” Advertising Age. Crain Communications, n.d. Web. 04 Mar. 2013.

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Ilana R. Borzak

Digital Divinity: The Mormon PR Crusade

“What’s your favorite advertisement?”

I hear this question a lot. From friends, family, and people like Mike, the guy who sat next to me on my last flight. At this point, my response is instinctual. [Pause]. Then respond, “the ‘I’m a Mormon’ ad campaign.”

“I’m a Mormon” isn’t known for its success. It never won any prominent awards nor is it particularly successful in transforming the public’s general perception of the Mormon religion. In fact, most of the buzz the campaign generated criticized both the campaign and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the “LDS Church” and “Mormon Church”). Despite these opinions, I admire the campaign because it not only provides clear insight into both a religion’s perception of itself and its desired positioning, but it also challenges our general understanding of how a religion functions.

The “I’m a Mormon” campaign launched in 2009 when the Church’s longstanding tensions with the American public were amplified. During this time, the Church and its members were taking an active role in the political sphere (ex: Proposition 8 and Jon Hunstman Jr.) while shows negatively depicting the religion, such as Big Love and Book of Mormon, were hurting the religion’s reputation. The media did not respond favorably and the Church turned to global agencies to help them with their image problem. The resulting campaign’s strategy is clear: depict the Mormons as an open and all-accepting religion. Members who defy the ‘Mormon stereotype’ (not just Republican, white, and well-educated) weave their personal stories and beliefs into compelling video clips. These were posted in taxis and on billboards (including two 40-foot billboards in Times Square), phone booths, and YouTube. Every ad directs the viewer to a then-newly revamped website — Mormon.org — where pictures of smiling Mormons from all ethnicities welcome the visitor. The site also provides a forum to chat with a Mormon hand-selected based on information one shares with the site. On every page, the visitor is urged to learn more about the religion. Regardless of whether the Church’s base intentions are retention or recruitment, the Church uses this digital-heavy advertising campaign to extend a friendly hand to the secular community of today.

The Mormon Church’s use of a multi-million dollar campaign shifted the religion from our American understanding of the Sacred to the Profane.  American culture and its understanding of social categories are influenced by its Puritan-Protestant beginnings which distinguishes between a physical and spiritual world. Grounded in these beliefs, American culture understands that spiritual institutions, or in this case religious ones, do not employ commercial tactics.[1] To some, the LDS Church’s use of an ad campaign transformed Mormonism from a consecrated American religion into a commercialized brand, like Gap or Dollywood (for which the LDS Church’s agency is also an Agency of Record).  For others, it eroded the distinction between the religious and commercial world. The advertising forced people to accommodate their schematic understanding of the relationship between advertising and religion, Mormonism, or both.[2]

I believe that the Mormon Church was fully aware that the “I’m a Mormon” campaign communicates more than its basic strategy. The Mormon Church’s public embrace of modern forms of communication that major brands of today’s world freely employ separate it from other more ‘traditional’ religions. Time will tell but I believe that while the “I’m a Mormon” campaign might not have accomplished its perception changing goals, it does mark the beginning steps in revolutionizing how we understand advertising and religion, or at least how a religion uses media.

And that is why “I’m a Mormon” is my favorite advertisement.

 


[1] In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber speaks about this phenomenon in his native North Europe where Protestantism is common. He argues this point when describing the rise of capitalism in this area.

[2] Peter Berger’s Sacred Canopy goes into great detail about how a nation’s worldview is shaped by a certain set of common assumptions.

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Casey Flanagan

Yoga For Brands: Alignment

Is your brand feeling sluggish? Is it becoming less flexible? Is it in need of a spark?

Brands that answer yes to one or more of those questions could learn a thing or two from alignment – a core concept of yoga.

Proper alignment:

  1. Promotes better circulation. When your brand is properly aligned, a central idea can flow more easily from one media to another. Defining the bigger picture clearly provides proactive support for real-time ideas.
  2. Provides proper space. When your brand is properly aligned, space is created. Space to think. Space to breathe. Space for more people to feel ownership while building from a common understanding.
  3. Creates a strong foundation. When your brand is properly aligned it can stretch farther than you ever thought possible – and still know that its feet are planted firmly on the ground.

Paying attention to the alignment of your brand – how its positioning, its architecture and its core principles affect how decisions are made – can help revitalize an otherwise plodding path.

With practice, enlightenment may follow.

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Casey Flanagan

Is The Future Of Television Walking Dead?

House Of Cards is the new entry from Netflix into the world of original programming. And there has been a good deal of talk lately about how it may just be the future of television. What Netflix is doing is certainly interesting. And, at least in my opinion, good TV.

But what AMC is doing with The Walking Dead is just as interesting. And much less heralded. There are many lessons for marketers to learn from how the show is creating content. Yes they have an app. Yes they have a social game. But it’s what they are doing with their broadcast content that is truly innovative. Three lessons I took in-between watching zombies get their heads smashed in:

  1. Create for the medium. One of the most interesting – and simple – tactics employed by the show is an image that is shown for three-or-so seconds during a commercial break. It is a screen full of copy, usually with an actor’s take on a character. It’s something fans would be interested in seeing. But here’s the thing: it can’t possibly be read in three-or-so seconds. AMC is thinking about its viewer and the pause button on their remote control. Why eat up more time than necessary for something that doesn’t actually need it? Interested in reading? Just pause it. Because that’s how we’re used to watching TV.
  2. Repurpose content in a smart way. Many fans of the show are fans of the original comic books. Others may be fans of the old horror movie genre. And starting this Thursday, AMC is airing the first season of Walking Dead in black and white for both. Starting over from the beginning. Same show. Same episodes. Something new. Great for new fans looking to get into the show. And super-fans looking to consume every last homage morsel.
  3. Let fans take the next step. After every episode of Walking Dead is a live talk show – Talking Dead. Polls are gathered. Hashtags are shared. Questions are taken from fans who just watched the show. Actors are invited to share their take. And fans get to not only extend, but participate in a real-time experience. Bottom line: a community is created. One that viewers see value in participating in. And according to reports citing the success of the format, AMC is considering extending this concept to other shows.

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Casey Flanagan

How Thought Leaders Communicate

If you want your brand to be a thought leader, it needs to lead thought. Sounds simple. But it takes work.

In order to lead, it needs to move people. To move people, it must create a spark.

Thought leaders can create a spark in two basic ways:

Be aspirational
Show that there is a better way. Illuminate the path to get there. Motivate. Tell a story. Be poetic. Make it clear that you – yes you – can do it. [See: Nike’s Find Your Greatness.]

Be heretical
Use dissonance to get attention. Lay out a simple logic. One that’s relevant and compelling. Make it clear that there is a new truth that you – yes you – haven’t thought of. But when you do, it will make total sense. [See: Intel’s Rock Star.]

Some brands can do both at once. [See: Apple’s Think Different.] But while the paths to thought leadership may seem different, they share a common theme – they both inspire confidence. And that’s the real key to leading thought.

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Ilana R. Borzak

Riding the slipstream

It’s Monday morning after the Super Bowl. Your feet drag as you walk into the office. You stop by your desk to put your bag down and then charge towards the coffee machine. You pour your first cup of the day. The guy who is always wearing a short sleeve button-down shirt regardless of the weather approaches you and starts chatting about his favorite ad from the game. You take your first sip and before you go for a second, you look up and spot a small group of people heading towards the coffee machine that is not even two feet behind you. They pour their coffee and join the conversation.  Two minutes of commercial-mentioning pass:

GUY WITH BUTTON DOWN (GWBD): How much did that spot cost to air again?

WOMAN FROM CUBICLE NEXT TO YOU: The average price for thirty seconds of Super Bowl air time is 3.8 million.*

GWBD: That’s just for the airtime. Don’t forget about the added costs of actually creating the commercial.

Conversation ensues for another minute until GWBD mentions his workload and everyone returns to his or her desk.

 

The nearly four million-dollar price tag is the highest amount the networks have ever set. Many marketers, such as the creators of Go Daddy’s commercial, point to the volume of conversation their ads created on social media to justify the multi-million dollar price tag. But does a brand need upwards of $3.8 million to take advantage of Super Bowl hype?  Not necessarily. This year, two brands got people talking without a huge price tag:

Oreo Takes the Cake 

Oreo cookie has been declared the winner of the Super Bowl’s blackout, beating other brands that used the power outage as a marketing opportunity. Within minutes of the power failure, @Oreo tweeted a photo of an Oreo cookie in a lit corner against a black background. White text under the cookie read: “You can still dunk in the dark.” The satirical, simple, and relevant message resonated with frustrated viewers, most of whom used the interruption to check their Twitter feed and revisit the snack menu. At the time of writing, the Tweet had more than 16,000 retweets and more than 13,000 related news articles. The photo’s production cost was minimal and the media buy was nothing.

Even with the considerable cost associated with setting up a war room for senior management and the client, this social media execution still cost significantly less than a Super Bowl commercial would. And it got people talking.

The Commercial You Didn’t See

Old Milwaukee Beer’s Super Bowl antics are not novel to 2013. For the past couple of years, Will Ferrel has been writing and starring in “crazy fun commercials” for the beer. He spends very little on production and shoots all of the commercials in small towns like Terre Haute, Indiana. The beer company airs the commercial during the Super Bowl in small markets like North Platte, Nebraska, spending very little on media. They then post the video online and allow the powers of the internet to take over.  The beer company’s adept manipulation of the Super Bowl hype brings awareness to the brand at a low cost. And, despite its affiliation with the hyper-commercialized Super Bowl, they successfully maintain their branding as an underground beer. At time of writing, the 2013 Super Bowl ad had more than 3 million YouTube views and nearly 7,000 related new articles.

 

A huge budget is not a requisite for owning a piece of the Super Bowl conversation. True, some of the bigger spenders own a larger chunk of the conversation, but that’s okay. Perhaps ideal. For a brand like Old Milwaukee, a multi-million dollar commercial isn’t appropriate for the image they are working towards. Their method fits with the brand and thus provides a high value at a low cost. Plus, we benefit from brands like Old Milwaukee Beer and Oreo by seeing how creativity, ingenuity, and wit can take a brand places that no money could ever buy.

 

*Note: While quotes are direct, characters are fictionalized

 

 

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Casey Flanagan

The Easiest Word To Say Is No

I watched the Super Bowl on TV last Sunday. But I “watched” it on Twitter, too. And Twitter provided an interesting real-time perspective on the commercials.

My big takeaway? There was gut-level consensus on very few of the Super Bowl ads. In fact, most sparked polar opposite opinions – often from two (or more) perspectives I trusted.

It reminded me of just how easy it is to not like something. How easy it is to say no. And how easy it would have been to leave the three most popular Super Bowl ads (at least according to USA Today’s AdMeter) on the conference room wall…

1. Budweiser’s “Brotherhood” (7.76 AdMeter Score; over 9 million YouTube views)

Easy to say: “Haven’t I seen this (many, many, many times) before? No thanks.”

But… In the words of AdAge’s Ken Wheaton, it was “Weepy, sentimental, nostalgic… everything I want from a Budweiser Super Bowl spot.” I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve heard from that said they actually cried during this spot. With viewers leaning forward in their chairs, Budweiser gave them exactly what they wanted.

2. Tide’s “Miracle Stain” (7.75 AdMeter Score; over 800K YouTube views)

Easy to say: “You want to make fun of religious zealots and imply we’re rooting for the Ravens? Why would we want that kind of trouble? No.”

But… This was one of the most watchable ads in the Super Bowl. And it spoke to a – gasp – feature and benefit. Tide gets stains out. Even salsa stains shaped like Joe Montana.

3. Ram Truck’s “Farmer” (7.43 AdMeter Score; over 4 million YouTube views)

Easy to say: “You want to use a two-minute-long thirty-year-old speech from a conservative commentator that has already been made into a commercial? Seriously? No.”

But… It was beautifully written – by Paul Harvey. It was beautifully shot. (Full disclosure: This was my favorite ad from the game.) And, like Clint Eastwood last year, it made my Twitter feed stop. As I can only assume everyone stopped tweeting to listen.

It’s easy to say no. It’s hard to trust a vision not yet realized. Congratulations to the teams that had the conviction to see these ideas through. Now if only someone had said been able to say no to the sounds Bar Refaeli made.

Interested in more stuff I find interesting? Follow me @casey_flanagan on Twitter.

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Ilana R. Borzak

The Church of Marketing

The marketing practice of creating branded communities has a lot to learn from religious communities. These communities developed over time as people transformed the individual experience of spirituality into a group activity in order to add meaning and belonging to adherents’ lives. Religious rites, no more than instinctive human activities modified to fit within a religious framework, became the membership card. Dressing according to a specified standard, abiding by dietary laws, and attending group worship are expressions of religious belonging that create and sustain religious communities.

Much of today’s marketing follows a similar model. Marketers idealize branded platforms that organize like-minded people into a coherent community that transforms its members into brand advocates. The successful ones build their communities around already existing activities. Nike+ and Vail’s Epic MixApp for example, use running and skiing, traditionally isolated experiences, as a metric for community membership.

While branded communities rise in prominence, according to recent Pew surveys, religious community membership is dwindling. This growing group of what Pew calls the “unaffiliated,” are much more likely than the overall public to say that religions are too concerned with money, power, and politics. They continue to pray and pursue spiritual transcendence but on an individual level. I suggest a causational link between their critical views of religious organizations and their lack of affiliation. Simultaneously, the diminishing “affiliated” group has increasingly been describing their religious observance in terms of church attendance and other social, religious activities. Thus, religious affiliation in 2012 is increasingly defined by community membership and the pursuit of meaning.

Brands building communities can learn from the current state of religious membership. People have an inborn desire to belong to a community of like-minded individuals but, as learned from the increasing numbers of the “unaffiliated,” not at the expense of other morals. Brands desiring to be prominent members of their consumers’ lives should aim to fulfill not only man’s primal need of belonging to a community but also appeal to man’s sense of meaning.

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