Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The Age of Confusion

If I had one wish for Christmas, or even for next year, I'd like to knock all those brands off their faux social mission bandwagons and take an axe to that plinky piano whose music always features behind such creations.

OK, maybe I'm being unseasonably miserable, and maybe the ad for Olay has a fantastic insight that will have women round the world cheering, but I find it patronising. There's the ad itself. Do people really take comments such as 'you're beautiful' and 'you've got a lovely smile' and 'I love your hair' from a random film-maker that they don't know as 'true compliments'? Oh, and incidentally, what if the film-maker had been male? Where would we have been then?

And I have never, ever heard anyone say someone has 'a lovely smile for their age.' Then the rallying call 'It's time we stop defining women by their age.' I wondered who 'we' means in this context. Who is the finger being pointed at? I can only come to the conclusion that it must be Olay pointing the finger at themselves. I wonder if they'll put their words into action?

As (Oil of) Olay, Ulay, Olaz, Ulan and maybe some other permutations and combinations, this brand has invested years in the idea of younger-looking skin.

Today, the product line-up includes products 'For fighting the 7 signs of ageing' while there are anti-wrinkle products classified into age groups 25+, 40+ and 55+. By the way, whether you're 55 or 95, you come into the 'deep wrinkles' category. Sorry.

And of course, the makers of Olay send you a wonderful magazine once you get over the age of 50, together with an incontinence pad sample. You see, they are allowed to segment and judge according to your age, but for the general public, it's a no-no.

I think Olay - or at least the people running the brand - need to work out what they stand for, and what they are offering. At the moment, the messages are mixed and contradictory. It would be a brave move, for example, to accept that many women do want to look younger, even if it's not the most PC, feminist right-on thing to want. (In the same way that many women in the Far East wish for fairer skin.)

And while much of the advertising from the last century is cringeworthy, there's a brilliant ad from the then Oil of Olay which I think captures the spirit of the brand and still works today. Better than 10,000 plinky pianos.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Colours reunited

This year, there's been rather a spate of what I'd call 'diversity' commercials, for example Levis' 'Circles' above. It's got a great soundtrack and definitely leaves you feeling good about humanity and wanting to get up and dance. So far, so good.

But the more of these rather generic-looking commercials I see, the more I get deja-vu, right back to the 80s, when I was getting up and shaking my stuff rather more frequently than I do now. And I think of The United Colours of Benetton.

Although Luciano Benetton had been going with his fashion emporium since 1969, it wasn't until 1982 that he met his partner in crimes against bland advertising, photographer and art director Oliviero Toscani. And the two of them changed the face of marketing and advertising forever.

These posters may look a little dated now (especially the clothes!). But we're going back over 30 years. Is the 2017 Levis commercial any different to this in terms of the idea behind it?

What came subsequently from the creative partnership maybe overshadowed these posters with their spirit of youthful optimism and a borderless future. As the decade turned, the idea of 'United Colours' was taken into a more controversial sphere:
And what happened in the early 90s is now advertising history: the newborn baby, the human hearts, the blood-stained uniform, the death row prisoners, the AIDs victim deathbed scene. Was it controversy for controversy's sake? And where, in all of this, were the clothes?

As an aside, for all the talk about the importance of the retail experience today, that was another area that Benetton pioneered and got absolutely right in the 1980s. Who of a certain age can ever forget the stores with their neatly-stacked piles of rainbow-coloured jumpers? It was a fashion sweet-shop if ever there was one.

Diversity, shopping experience, political and social causes - Benetton was definitely ahead of its time.

Toscani and Benetton parted ways as the millennium turned. But now they are back together, older and maybe wiser. In the new campaign, they have gone back to their roots in some ways with photography of an Italian primary school class with children from 13 different countries and 4 different continents.

It looks almost as if we could be back in 1984. But with one difference. These aren't models - this is real life.

Make of that what you will.

Monday, 4 December 2017

We're only human

It is estimated (by Gartner) that by 2020, the average person will have more conversations with bots than with their spouse.

One of the things that interests me in the development of AI is just how closely we'll be able to replicate human - not just thought - but perception in all its forms.

I've recently (probably late to the game) come across some nifty resources about understanding our human quirks, from The School of Thought. The first is on the subject of Cognitive Bias and here you can find (and download a poster) 24 biases stuffing up your thinking.

These range from the 'Barnum Effect' beloved of astrologers, through to the ever more prevalent 'Group Think' and 'Just-World hypothesis', beloved of many a spat on Facebook. There are plenty of these that saw me nodding, from 'The Curse of Knowledge' to the 'Dunning-Kruger Effect.'

What can you do with this stuff? Well, of course, you can use it for your own self-knowledge - and it is always reassuring to know that you're not the only one that's fallible. Beyond that, it's vital for anyone involved in the planning and creation of brand communications. People do not behave rationally, as rational thought is only one mode of perception. By the way, I don't necessarily hold these biases to be 'bad' - they are short-cuts, which we need increasingly in an overloaded world. What is bad is not being aware of them, and being convinced we are driven only by rational thought.

And then there are Logical Fallacies, flaws in reasoning, which are also helpful to bear in mind for most of what passes for journalism today.

As The School of Thought says on its website: isn't it more important to teach children how to think rather than what to think?

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Past Forward

Sometime in the 1970s, inspired by Blue Peter, I buried a time capsule in the woods at the back of our garden. Well, time capsule is a bit grand: it was a biscuit tin filled with various ephemera - a newspaper, probably, a paperback book, sweet wrappers, that sort of thing.

The only problem is that 40-plus years later, I have no idea where I buried it.

One criticism of much marketing activity is that it's terribly short-term. Even for durables and long-term services, the emphasis in today's digital world is on the now and the present and the instant. OK, there are the occasional exceptions. Ads for watches that you're just keeping 'for the next generation.' Or the promise of your own share of a barrel of whisky to enjoy in a decade or two. We've got a couple of rather nice bottles of red wine, vintage 2000, sitting in the cellar to enjoy when the boy turns 18 - not too long to wait now.

I've written a post here about taking your time, which mentions the Long Now Foundation (Founded in 01996 to foster long-term thinking and responsibility.) And here's another smart piece of thinking from Remy Martin and their agency to promote their Louis XIII cognac, which takes 100 years to make.

Two years ago, they kicked off the 100 Years campaign by producing a film starring John Malkovich which would first be released in 2115. (They are lucky they chose Mr Malkovich and not Kevin Spacey, but no doubt there will be other worries by 2115.)

And now they have teamed up with Pharrell Williams to create a music track that won't be released for 100 years. And this time there is a 'planet positive' message built-in: the disc has been pressed on unique clay vinyl (using soil from the vineyard - whatever next!) and will be stored in a water-vulnerable safe. So if we mess up, and water levels rise, our descendants won't get to hear it in November 2117.

Of course, people in 2117 may be wondering who on earth Pharrell Williams was, but still.

Now, some people may argue that it's a bit pointless spending so much on and making such a song and dance (and film) about a product few can afford. (A bottle of Louis XIII costs over £2,000.)

But advertising Concorde never did British Airways any harm.

Monday, 27 November 2017


One of the liveliest sections of the Mumsnet Forum discussions is the section entitled 'AIBU?' - for the uninitiated that's 'Am I Being Unreasonable?' There's everything on here from the trivial to the traumatic, and the answers rarely stop at a simple 'Yes' or 'No.' Ideally, I'd guess, one would like to be regarded as a touch unreasonable, but with justification.

On the subject of unreasonableness in the world of marketing and advertising, here is a short article in Campaign from Mick Mahoney, Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy & Mather, London. It's entitled Being Unreasonable in four easy steps and starts by quoting George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

It's implied that being unreasonable is a harder job than being reasonable. The reasonable man 'adapts' where the unreasonable one 'persists in trying.' And not only is unreasonable harder, but you're likely to be met with more resistance at the end, too. If something 'seems reasonable' it'll probably be accepted. It'll do. The boxes will be ticked and we'll move on. (Ugh.)

But will anything change? Probably not.

These days, our obsession with 'seamlessness' and 'consistency' means that we'll feel more comfortable with reasonable ideas. It's about fitting in and following. It's about looking at the past and what worked there to generate ideas for the future.

It's actually about not needing people at all - reasonable, unreasonable or otherwise. It's how AI works.

But shouldn't our ideas be more about standing out, being unique, leading, being first? Using our innately human ability to put things together to create something new?

To quote George Bernard Shaw again:

We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The Gospel according to Powerpoint

I must make a confession. I am not a regular church-goer, either here in Germany or back in the UK. Having said that, I do have many memories of church from my childhood, and I have to say that most of those are related to what marketing people today would call the 'experience' rather than the 'communication.'

Church-related communication has always been charmingly amateur, in my experience. Amateur in a positive way: not slick, not 'professional', communication that looks hand-made. For all the 'hand-written' and 'hand-crafted' yet carefully designed communication that commercial brands and enterprises put out these days in an attempt to appear authentic, they could well take a leaf out of the local church's poster advertising the Summer Fete, or the parish magazine. It's amateur in the sense that the people producing these communications genuinely love what they are doing.

As for the 'experience' - well, that's quite different, and I'm not in any way alarmed by this inconsistency. My memories of the experience, certainly in retrospect, include feelings such as wonder at the mystery of it all and, yes, awe in its original sense. Whether it's stained glass windows, bells ringing, organ music, polished candlesticks and pews, ancient texts or stories from two thousand years ago, there is plenty to stimulate the mind, the senses and the spirit.

So imagine how I felt when I attended a church service on a recent trip to the UK (not to the beautiful church pictured above, I hasten to add) and heard the language of the boardroom and the management consultant. Now, admittedly, the management types pinched the idea of a 'vision' from the spiritual types to start with, but it was rather alarming to hear it played back in the context of a 'Vision Statement' for this particular church. Not just that, but talk of priorities and process, enablement and empowerment, roadmaps and workshops. I didn't actually hear mention of Change Drivers and KPIs but I suspect they may be part of the package.

My view of the beautiful stained glass windows was somewhat obscured by a series of posters depicting a number of 'pillars' relating to the 'Vision', which looked as if they had come from a Powerpoint design-your-own-strategy-presentation background format.

Maybe I'm over-sensitive and others less close to the world of business will welcome this more down-to-earth approach (is it?) - and maybe God moves in mysterious ways - but I would rather leave the bullshit bingo in the boardroom.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Are your roots showing?

A long time ago, when I was still in the UK and working on the British Airways account, they set up a fascinating piece of international 'Britishness' research which looked at impressions of Great Britain in a number of countries around the world. This was qualitative research, and people in each country were asked to imagine a typical British town and what the characters were like there: policeman, doctor, teenager, manual worker and so on. It was rather like that 'Heaven and Hell'  joke, one version of which you can see above. And - surprise, surprise - there was little consistency in the way Britain was seen around the world - sweet and quaint in the US, compared to pushy and arrogant in Australia.

I've just read a long article in The Guardian about the rise of nation and place branding, which appears to be a booming business. Not just from the point of view of attracting tourists, but for governments to attract investors, workers, students, or to allocate resources and increase esteem generally internally and externally, much as you would use a Brand Purpose or Position.

It's not an easy job. Apart from an uneven playing field to start with (as in the differing impressions of US and Australia in the example above),  just think how quickly the overall impression of a country can change due to a change in its leadership. Obama's USA and Trump's USA - worlds apart. Or how a personality associated with a country or place can make or break impressions. Or how a natural disaster can overshadow everything. The article quotes Naomi Klein: Diversity and debate are the enemies of branding. Is it folly to try and reduce something as complex and multi-faceted as a place to a mere brand?

As mentioned in the article, Institute for Identity are having a good try. Their work sounds like a dream job - travelling around, getting the feel of the place, talking with the people, everyone from historians to lace-makers to film-makers.

And even if it seems a step too far to attempt to distill an entire country with all its dynamism, history and diversity down to a slogan and a logo, in these days of globalisation it's increasingly important for brands to be unique and authentic. And part of that has to come from the provenance. How has where the brand came from, where it was founded, informed its purpose and values? Instid have some useful tools and techniques on their website for getting a clearer understanding of a place - through the intellect, emotions and senses.

For brands, as for people, it's important to never forget where you came from.