Monthly Archives: March 2008

Ad pollution: An argument with our brother

What would it mean if the economy stopped growing?

We stayed up until 1 a.m. Friday night arguing this with our brother, a smart, liberal, arts- and granola-minded man who has settled down with a lovely woman in a tiny town in Maine. He’s taken up environmental activism and since we work in marketing — you know, stimulating demand while a bit worried about melting glaciers in our heart — and he works for a nonprofit job corps, the conversation rubbed a bit raw. Brother pointed out that our job in advertising leads to consumption, which triggers pollution, atmospheric poison, dead coral reefs, the end of an inhabitable planet, and eventually a burned out shell of carbon circling our sun, covered in the detritus of plastic CD casings and Christmas bubble wrap.

Well, if you put it like that. Steven Stoll raised the same question in the March issue of Harper’s: How long can unbridled consumerism last? The desire to ingest new things is the engine that turns the economy, and economic growth is the aspirational principle that eliminates disease, gives millions clean water, creates jobs, and pushes technology. The fact that you are reading this on a brilliant micro-computer more powerful than the machine that calculated orbital mechanics to put men on the moon is tied to the fact that your parents bought way too many things, stimulated business, and spurred investment.

Yet, man, the landfill off I-95 north of Hartford, Conn., is looking tall. Uncontrolled growth in biology has a very ugly term: cancer. So what will our voracious appetites and sprawling cities do to the planet if unchecked?

Stoll, in his essay, suggests that the past few hundred years have been an aberration, and that as the world’s resources eventually become scarce, human beings will be forced to adjust to a stationary state — an economy in balance. Trouble is, people tend to get ticked off when growth stalls. In the Great Depression, families starved, and in the stagflated 1970s U.S. cities had massive crime waves. Every time the GDP flattens out, society rebells.

Our brother suggests the individual path: Consume less. It’s a noble idea, we said, but we responded that the desire to consume is ingrained in human genes. Consider the hungry effect chocolate has on most people. Peter Rogers of University of Bristol in the UK noted it isn’t the chemicals in chocolate that give us the craving, but the fact that we know we can only eat a little and have to stop. The psychological impact of having to restrain ourselves — of not having enough — makes us want chocolate all the more.

And that’s the problem with the future of the planet. Resource scarcity creates an inevitable crunch (Google “peak oil” to get really scared), yet as resources grow scarce we all hunger for them even more. We told our brother that perhaps the only way out is to redirect human longing, like parents pointing bratty children at dinner to the vegetables, by leading people to consume things that are good for the Earth. Cars that run on hydrogen. Clothing made of bamboo and hemp. There are rays of hope in greener technology, and the maturation of Western Society into service-oriented businesses (advertising agencies, after all, don’t pollute).

The debate creates a business opportunity. Imagine the profits to be had by the first major company to produce cheap hydrogen fuel cells, allowing you to plug in your house, boot up off the grid, and emit nothing but water vapor as waste. A market exists to meet consumer demand with efficient supply, or better yet, goods and services that give something back. In the long term, we’ll have to get there when petroleum and forests begin to run out. In the short term, profit goes to the first mover that meets the unmet market need.

The choice is twofold: Either we stop wanting so much, or we start wanting things that are good for us. Since want seems to be part of the human condition, dear brother, here’s to wanting better things.

Wilkins Ice Shelf hangs by a thread. Rebranding opportunities abound.

Big news on global warming this week. The Wilkins Ice Shelf, an area of floating ice about the size of Connecticut off the coast of Antarctica, has started to collapse. Block after block of ice is just tumbling and crumbling into the ocean, said Ted Scambos of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The good news is Wilkins is only 1 of 19 ice shelves around the southern continent, so we still have 18 left. Um. Yeah. Whatever your politics, people are going to start noticing this stuff. Maybe it’s time to put more green in your corporate logo.

John McCain: Yes He Can’t

The interesting thing about today’s social media is how it has pushed marketers and PR specialists totally out of the control seat. Now anyone can comment, and if their idea is powerful enough, it could be passed anywhere.

This has to be tough in politics, where no matter what your stand, half the country will disagree with you.

But how will you manage the angry masses for your own brand?

Starbucks vs. Spherion: Blogs about you, blogs about us

Man, did Starbucks get its social media wrong. John Moore over at Brand Autopsy started beating up on Starbucks, so we swung over to check out — a new blog designed to gather feedback from customers on how to improve the upscale coffee shops.

We were a bit annoyed that Starbucks insisted upon identifying us first before we could check in — create a username, password. OK, so before any value, we have to give up something. But the real failing is the entire blog is all about Starbucks, not us as customers. The ideas float egocentrically in, about potential points cards, free coffee on your birthday, designing more comfortable chairs, and occasionally Starbucks writes back to say they’ll consider the idea. Yeah!

The problem with this is (a) it’s all about you, Starbucks, and (b) that is boring.

For a company that gets blogging right, click over to Spherion, a job recruiting and placement network. The Spherion Career Blog is filled with helpful ideas about us, not them: effective job search techniques, how to manage politics at the office, the value of “soft skills” in interviewing, a pop quiz on whether you are a workaholic. The ideas are so fresh, and so relevant to our lives, that we might check back in, or even start commenting back on the stories.

Think about that. Both companies will succeed in gathering feedback. But while Starbucks’ approach is cold and mechanical (give us your idea and we’ll consider it), Spherion’s is subtle (here are dozens of ideas for your career, and we bet you’ll write a note in response).

It’s not the technology, layout, or even quality of writing that makes the Spherion blog work and the Starbucks site fail. It’s simply that Spherion feels helpful, and Starbucks comes off as selfish. If you want to build an online community, you have to give more than you take.

(Self disclosure: A friend of ours works with Spherion, but that doesn’t matter, we like the blog anyway.)

Wrestling the demons of spam

We realized today that some important emails from friends and colleagues were being dumped into our junk mail folder — hidden from view, lost amid erectile dysfunction pitches for weeks. This probably cost us a new account or two from business contacts who wonder why we haven’t written them back.

So we dug in and reviewed crap from spammers — you know, those marketers who flood the internet with millions of messages about your private parts, rotten souls surely condemned to the Seventh Circle of Hell. Not Dante’s inner ring, reserved for the blasphemers, and not the middle ring, with its Harpies and thorny bushes. Nope. We mean the outer ring, the special place for those who are violent against people, sunk in a river of boiling blood.

Did we mention we don’t like spammers?

But wait. Perhaps we go too far. After all, every form of advertising is intrusive — the question is simply the degree to which our marketing messages are uninvited. The most welcoming are the signs at the retail store or the text ads on Google, which invite users searching for wares to find exactly what they want. Then come catalogs and targeted web banners, tailored a bit to our preferences, followed by magazine print ads that might delight with good copy or harmonious design. As we continue down the intrusion scale, the braying of commercial radio car salesmen begins to grate on our nerves.

Ah, but junk email. Spam. Those misspelled messages trying to sneak past our filters, promising to build long dongs that ring gongs and all manner of girth, whatever that means. (Historians, unearthing digital bits of our age, will think girth was the most popular product of the early 21st century.) Junk email is more than obnoxious. It overwhelms us with bad taste, and upsets us when real messages from our friends get lost in the mix.

It’s really not the email medium that is rotten. Instead, it’s the sneakiness — the fact that the authors hide behind the message, avoiding any adverse impact from consumers who would think poorly of the brand. These marketers prey upon the stupid or naive, and disguise their own names so that anyone with half a brain can’t fight back or complain.

We’ll rethink the punishment … let’s put the spammers into the Ninth Circle of Hell, which Dante wrote was guarded by giants to lock up souls who were betrayers. People who committed fraudulent acts were frozen in a lake of ice called Cocytus, sunk into the painful cold at various degrees depending on the level of the crime. For the marketing authors of unwanted email, ice up to the neck feels about right.

Keep it simple

We worked on several projects this week where things got really complicated. And then it got simple. After all the discussion and logic, either projects go live or they don’t; web site conversion rates go up or down; the advertising creative pulls response or fails.

Love me. Love me not.

It’s important to cover every angle in the planning phase. It’s also important, as you prepare to execute, to make a decisive, single stroke. This can create conflict in an organization where some people are brilliant at planning all the angles, and others chafe to pull the trigger. Neither are right or wrong; both are needed; the trick is making contingencies and clarity come together.

A good exercise for your next project is to whiteboard the top 10 key decisions — then look at each and ask, “what is the simplest way to make this part work?” Too few considerations, and you fail. Too many requests, and you end up with a bad logo.

BMW’s kinky Hofmeister tease

Just as we’d given up sports cars for $4-a-gallon gas, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG brings its 1 Series over the pond from Europe this month to taunt us Yanks with a tighter design and 230 horsepower. And to seal the deal, BMW includes magazine ad copy that makes absolutely no sense.

Here’s the offending copy block:

the BMW 1 Series truly is a car that has been condensed but is missing nothing. The greenhouse with its Hoffmeister kink has been moved rearward.

Now that’s copy! Who could resist? We lunged for the computer and Googled “Hoffmeister kink” five times before finding out BMW’s agency had misspelled it. tells us the Hofmeister kink is not a German sex game, but rather the tiny bottom bend in the C-pillar, the piece of metal separating the rear window from the back glass, which launched in 1961 by designer Wilhelm Hofmeister.

The greenhouse, by comparison, is the grouping of windshield, side windows, back window, roof and support pillars that collectively give most cars the majority of their design vibe. That’s right. The literal translation of Hofmeister kink is curvy top. BMW, you naughty, naughty tease.

Either BMW is targeting auto enthusiasts who speak this rare jargon, or some brilliant ad agency is tempting affluent readers to Google obscure argot in hopes they’ll read more about lovely nuances such as BMW’s 50-50 weight distribution and rear wheel drive. Call the bad ad copy an Easter Egg for the obsessively curious.

Hmm. It does look so sweet. The heck with miles per gallon. We’ll see you at the kinky greenhouse dealer.

Bill, rebrand it like this

A friend of ours is helping an ad agency rebrand itself, so he basically has to pitch ideas to black-clad creatives. Imagine that fun conversation: No, Pantone 19-1557 was the color of the year LAST year … and omigod you chose Arial over Helvetica!

Just kidding. Anyway, our advice when rebranding is to move out of category.

Let us explain. Back in the 1960s ad gurus Jack Trout and Al Ries wrote the landmark book on brand positioning, theorizing that every customer has an invisible ladder in his or her head for every product type. To “brand” your firm, you have to stake a claim on an empty rung. Think Avis: We try harder, which positioned Avis as better than No. 1 car renter Hertz, or Wendy’s Where’s the beef?, which knocked McDonald’s bready burgers.

Rebranding is even more complex, because it means changing to a new position in your customers’ already crowded heads. The exercise is tough, because it involves myriad factors such as competitor claims, emerging market trends, your own future product development — and usually a committee. The simplest route we’ve seen is to map competitors on three axes, product innovation, customer-focused total solution, or operational efficiency, and then look for the white space.

White space often exists, because companies and people tend to be ego-centric and so similar businesses cluster together. Home service companies, for example, work hard to provide service so may position their brand as the best customer solution company — leaving the efficient price rung open. Ad agencies, filled with award-winning creative, like to focus on their product innovation — leaving room in the customer solution department. You know. Like achieving concrete marketing results.

So here’s a quick exercise. Draw three arrows radiating from a common center point. Label the arrows “innovation,” “efficiency/results,” and “customer solutions.” Plot your competition. Then go where they aren’t.

White space exists even if you have to stretch to find it. Just ask the judges on American Idol.