Yes, Brands Are Opinions, Even the Element 79 Brand

In today’s socially-networked, immediate-impact world, brands suffer when negative opinions spread unchecked.  When those negative opinions are unfounded or severely exaggerated, the damage can be massive (ask any ex-Bear Stearns employee about that one).

Because in today’s socially-networked, immediate-impact world, opinion trumps reality.  As soon as it forms, opinion spreads through mass viral channels like Facebook, Twitter and blogs.  And because it is opinion, it doesn’t require fact-checking.

Last week, I got a wake up call that this truth applies to our Element 79 brand as well.  In the finals of a new business pitch, a CEO mentioned that he Googled Element 79 and wondered when we were gonna merge with DDB?

We’re not.  Never were.  But due to a newspaper column written by a speculatively-inclined columnist for the Chicago Sun Times over fifteen months ago, that rumor popped up in our prospect’s search engine.  Worse, when I shared this anecdote with a few friends at other shops in town, they admitted hearing the same thing.  When the rumor mill, or at least irrelevant suppositions, can influence the outcome of new business, you’ve got trouble.

We’ve spent two years reinventing and rebuilding our agency.  And slowly, we’ve been regrowing.  Today we have about 110 people busy working to help our clients thrive during these tight times.  We want Cricket to leverage their national coverage into a leadership position for value innovation in wireless.  We want Supercuts to show the value of their affordable haircare so that if and when the economy turns better, people realize they don’t have to pay more to look good.

We want Amway to help people supplement their incomes and Central DuPage Hospital to be the first choice for superior healthcare — especially as they bring Illinois’ first Proton Therapy Center online this Summer.  And we want Harris to keep helping people realize how much better the right bank can be.

We also want to do big things for the half-dozen new clients we’ve brought in these past five months.  We want LasikPlus to show glasses wearers that this simple procedure can radically improve their lives quickly and safely.  We can’t wait for the private equity firm GTCR to launch their revamped website and concise brand story in May.  And we take inordinate pride in winning three new brands–Wolf Chili, Alexia, and Banquet–from our friends at ConAgra.

There’s an old adage about physicians taking their own medicine.  And so we’re also going to be taking some steps to clean up our online hygiene.

It wasn’t good news to hear.  But like criticism from a smart coach, it will make us better.  And that’s the daily goal.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

.

PS:  Michael Gabriel and Gus Gavino made the video above for a recent pitch.  Though we didn’t prevail there, the energy of this piece is just delightful.  The track is “100,000 Thoughts” by Tap Tap.


Babies: The Proven, Can’t-Miss Video Stars

On video, few things bring as much joy to the casual viewer as a baby.  Check out this little giggling guy.  And this guy Charlie.  And this little ham too.  If you’re not grinning now, check your pulse.  We love our babies.  Show the world a baby bouncing to Beyonce and that’s gold Jerry, gold!

I’ve been thinking about babies for two reasons: first my friend Rick and his wife Diana welcomed their second son Luca into the world over Thanksgiving, and next a group of roller-skating, hip hopping babies just scored huge for Evian.  The Guinness World Record people just named “Rollerbabies” the most-viewed online ad of all time.  It’s been watched more than 45 million times already and this new recognition will only add to that tally.

evian-roller-babyAs cute as these babies are, they didn’t go viral all by themselves.  Evian leveraged YouTube home page ads in the UK, Germany, France, Japan, Canada and the United States to promote the spot.  They also credit its massive popularity with positive brand impact.  Specifically, Nielsen and YouTube research indicates Internet users in France experienced increased brand awareness and purchase consideration after viewing the ad.

For a metrics obsessed client, that may not be nearly enough hard data to confirm their believe in the ad’s effectiveness.  Or the general worth of pursuing viral fame in general.  But in this medium, and with this market of widespread casual viewers, the Rollerbabies made quite a splash.  In a world where brands are opinions, their runaway popularity means they generated a great deal of positive talk, and that influences opinion.

At a certain point, everyone has to embrace the uncertainty of John Wanamaker’s classic maxim: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted: the trouble is, I don’t know which half.”

One way to tilt the odds in your favor is to include a funny baby.  Or ten.  And putting them on roller skates seems to help too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Forensic Planning: Consumer-sourcing Insights Based on Actions, Not Assertions

Picture 1For years, advertising research relied on what people said to determine insights.  Unfortunately, people lie.  Not maliciously, but when you pay people to participate in focus groups, they often say things that do not jibe with their actual behavior.  Still, ‘consumer conversations’ have stayed evergreen in advertising circles, as time and again, agencies return to the two-way mirrors of focus group rooms, hoping to glean insights into behavior and motivation through this long and costly interview process.

It’s not entirely awful (I mean, we all love the free M&M’s in the back room), but today, it’s far from the best means of extracting insights from consumers.  After all, it would be far better to draw our insights based on what people actually do.

Which means it’s time for the rise of forensic planning and consumer-sourcing.  ‘Forensic’ means to use science and technology to establish facts, usually in the court of law but for our purposes, in the court of public opinion–brands being opinions after all.  With the vast data engine that is the web readily accessible from everyone’s desktop, there’s little point in travelling to anonymous corporate office parks to pan for insights.  A clever planner can surf through Flickr and see how consumers decorate their houses, what they choose to emphasize with their kids, and where they most like to spend time with families and friends.  She can comb through Twitter feeds, explore Facebook posts, and scour the blogs.  She can read shared recipes, skim reviews on Amazon and tally click counts on YouTube.  The wealth of information freely shared by consumers is staggering–and this is why rethinking ‘crowd sourcing’ as ‘consumer-sourcing’ makes sense.  Best of all, planners that access consumer-sourcing review actions, not assertions.  They can assess things consumers actually do as opposed to what they claim to do.

Shaping consumer-sourcing coherent insights however, takes a bit more work and far more curiosity and creativity.  Then again, those traits have long been table stakes for truly talented planners.  For those who still rely on tradition, insights gleaned from forensic planning can be validated in those windowless focus group rooms.

But we should really talk about online polling…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

After A Year, the Collective-Thinking is that Brands Are Opinions: Introducing brandsareopinions.com

SmileBalloon_IMGThis blog began almost one year ago as a repository for thoughts and opinions related to the rapidly-changing world of marketing.  “Collective-Thinking” referred to the cloud nature of modern intelligence; how the thoughts and opinions surrounding our industry exist in an ever-growing, ever changing aggregation online.

The process of keeping pace with our changing industry in order to write about it forced a lot of growth and new thinking.  Perhaps the most fundamentally game-changing realization is how the time-honored notion of ‘brand truth’ no longer holds.  “Brand Truths” are vestiges of a time when advertising dollars could buy a one-way sales channel to consumers.  Because the messages flowed solely from the marketer, the advertising agency could determine and dictate what constituted ‘truth.’

Today, that model simply doesn’t exist.  Opinion enjoys a mass channel, personal recommendation drives the vast majority of sales, and the dawn of broadband and the widespread access to Web 2.0 has eradicated the old one-way channel.  Today, there are more outlets for feedback, more forums for discussion, more places for consumers to provide their perspectives on brands.

Today, Brands must find ways to thrive in a world of opinion no longer dominated by advertisers.  Brands must begin adopting a two-phase process of advertising and word of mouth, of building awareness and empowering advocates, of getting recognized and the getting recommended.  Agencies must work to develop and spread ‘sharable stories’ to influence the dialogue out in the world of opinion.

That will be the way forward for marketers.  At least, that’s my opinion.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Advertisers Will Thrill That 20% of Tweets Reference Brands…

One In Five Tweets References a Brand

One In Five Tweets References a Brand

…but really, that’s hardly surprising.  As a culture, what do we share?  The Chicago Bears? Republican or Democratic politics?  American Idol?

The simple truth is that one thing all Americans have in common, regardless of gender or age or race, is our firsthand knowledge of brands.  Listen to the material of any stand up comic; chances are, nearly a third of it revolves around brand advertising and marketing messages because they act as a touchstone to help comedians connect with their audiences.  Brands are opinions and though we might not always be informed, Americans always have opinions they are always willing to share.

But once again, this study from some researchers at Penn State raises an issue many advertisers would rather not address as it relates to their place within social networks.  Yes people may be mentioning your brand by name on Twitter, but does that constitute a selling opportunity?  Maybe the people involved are just connecting over common ground, a common opinion they hold.  Perhaps they are using your brand to serve a social interaction.  In that case, does it make sense to try to sell them?

Or does it make more sense to listen?  And observe?  And learn?

In this ecosystem, we’re best following the guidelines of the responsible naturalist: leave only footprints.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

There Is No Free Lunch. Or Free Media.

In his post on Advertising Age’s Small Agency Diary, Marc Brownstein offers some thinking on ‘free media’ and whether or not it poses a threat to advertising and media agencies.  Despite the soaring popularity of social media, do brand efforts in these media advance the strategy and differentiate the product?  Can a fanpage create enough attraction on its own without an introduction via a TV commercial?  Is the platform even viable for self-promoting sales messages?

What?  All You Got Is A Hammer?

What? All You Got Is A Hammer?

In the end, Marc gently and tactfully demurs, his answer boiling down to “possibly, kinda, but not really…’  I’ll be more direct; absolutely not.  There is simply no way ‘free media’ will usurp paid media. First of all, the entire notion that there are ‘free media’ is flawed.  The placement of brand messages within social networks may not have an associated cost the way a spot does, but the time required to create bespoke responses to each individual inquiry/complaint/compliment/request for more information can be staggering.  For most companies, the current means of working social media amounts to little more than a new take on the old department store complaint office; you create a human face for the brand that allows people to talk and engage directly and conveniently.  But that requires staffing.  And man hours.  And training.  None of which come free.  I far prefer the title ‘earned media’–and savvy companies that commit to that investment are very likely to earn meaningful media placements in this emerging space, if for no other reason than there efforts will be have a strategic foundation.

Second, advocates love to trot out a few high profile examples of success in these arenas to demonstrate the emerging power of social media.  While a few efforts merit our attention, even those require a bit more sober assessment.  Yes, @DellOutlet is a notable success story for social media with it’s Twitter-exclusive offers and 600,000+ followers.  Its growth has been phenomenal, earning two million in annual sales in less than two years.  All of which is remarkable.  But it’s chicken scratch compared to the company’s total 2008 revenues of $61 billion.  Twitter sales represent maybe .003% of total Dell revenues, which makes me think it’s a bit premature to toss aside the traditional media powered sales channels and throw everything into free media.

And lastly, do consumers really welcome brands as active participants in these spaces?  They are, after all, social networks; the ‘social’ notion comes first and foremost.  Some brands can navigate this challenge, offering enough interesting content to keep people engaged, but that requires consistent, steady effort to insure your exchanges mesh with the brand’s strategic voice.  Treating social media as a separate silo will inevitably create dissonance between brand messages.

I believe every brand should engage with social media because brands are opinions and social networks let marketers assess ever-shifting consumer opinions of their brands in real time basis. Since social networking provides opinion with a powerful mass channel, marketers must take steps to actively influence brand opinion in that channel.  This is why we see such powerful convergence in the form of advertising and word-of-mouth.

If you truly want to integrate your messages, you can never rely on simply one tool.  You need to use you entire toolbox in thoughtful, strategic concert to build a truly great brand.

by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Opinions Create The True Future Value of Facebook

I recently had my consciousness raised regarding Facebook.  On this blog some months back, I wrote a surprisingly popular post wondering whether this social network would become the Members Only jacket of the early 21st Century.  Once the novelty wore off, would the investment of time required outweigh the benefits of all this easy connectedness?  In hindsight, the ‘Members Only’ tag could be what drew readers, but I’m a bit sketchy on my SEO knowledge to really determine that.

Picture 2

Turn To Page 96

Writing in the July issue of Wired magazine, Fred Vogelstein outlines how this aggressively market-capped, yet-to-make-a-profit social network aims to create value, and it requires insuring the benefits of this easy connection platform always outweigh the time investment. As it stands, over 20% of all internet users are on Facebook, spending an average of twenty minutes a day there.  Mark Zuckerberg and company aim to further embed Facebook as the center of all online activity.  

Why?  Because everything we do there is trackable.  And owned solely by Facebook. Every connection we make, every opinion we express, every last ‘Which type of canned vegetable are you?’ quiz we take and share produces data which they alone own.  None of it will ever show up in other web browsing search engines.  And since Facebook is the one place online where people regularly use their real names to share real thoughts with real friends about real topics, that data has remarkably robust human context.  By comparison, Google’s data is largely limited to search history.

The ramifications of monetizing all this contextual data could be staggering financially.  If this type of deeply human Facebook information informed even a tiny percentage of the incomprehensible 3.6 trillion banner ads placed in 2008, they would stand to make…well, technically speaking it would amount to tanker ships of cash (I know even less about finance than I do about SEO).

We live in a world where opinion has a mass channel greater than TV, radio and print combined.  We work in a world where brands truly are opinions, and thus bound to the vagaries of fluctuating public consideration. For Facebook to have exclusive access to untold hours of that opinion provides them with a competitive advantage that borders on the scary.

I doubt Google, Bing, Dogpile, IceRocket, Collecta and dozens of other search engines will be friending them anytime soon…

by Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

The New Marketing Challenge: Mastering Perpetual Beta

Picture 1Last week, a post on iMedia Connection with the incindiary headline “Why Twitter Will Soon Become Obsolete” , caused a bit of a stir. Jason Clark, a creative director at VIA Studio, made a rather compelling argument that despite the hype surrounding this platform, people shouldn’t consider it a final destination as a social network.  Referencing the constant stream of new platforms that have sprung up on the net these past twenty five years, Clark argues that all have been social networks of one form or another, from the late 70’s bulletin boards and usenet groups, to the rise of email in the 80’s and then the increasingly rapid iterations and adoption of blogging and AIM to the more contemporary platforms like Friendster which begat MySpace and eventually Facebook, along with all the recent graphic networks like Flickr, YouTube and Vimeo.  The only constant throughout has been change; as soon as one platform captures the attention of a large group, a technology and needs-driven iteration develops and if it proves useful, the herd quickly adopts it as well.  Or more depressingly, once the signal-to-noise ratio becomes unbearable with marketers spamming the platform and chooching up the interface, people look for something new.  He points to Google’s Wave as a potential next destination.

Despite the pugnacious headline, Clark’s argument makes fundamental sense, even as iMedia simultaneously posted a story on how Nielsen measured Twitter’s user base growth at an astounding 1444% this past year: as of May, 18.2 million accounts had registered on the service.  Marketers now must evolve their tactics to keep up with internet time, creating an uncomfortable cycle of constant reinvention to keep pace with engaged audiences.

Our business challenge now is to sustain a constant sprint, to keep tabs on critical consumer markets that migrate with quicksilver speed in a constant movable feast.  This is the phenomenon guest blogger Tim Mauery wrote about this past Tuesday: today, Fastest/Smartest wins.

The trick however, is keeping an eye on the one marketing goal that never changes: building client brands.  You can lose hours of the workday, surfing the web and social ‘NOTworking’ under the pretense of understanding the market.  But the business of brand building has also become more time consuming, particularly today when the participatory Web 2.0 has essentially provided consumer opinion with a mass distribution channel.

Brands are opinions, and we need to continually shape, steer and improve those opinions with clever, strategic engagement across more consumer touchpoints than ever.  Against our shrinking timeframes, picking which touchpoints to engage given finite marketing dollars will decide who soars and who stumbles.

If anyone has any tips on doing that successfully, the comment board is open.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Moving From IntegratED to IntegratING Marketing

It may seem like so much facile wordplay, but the fundamental need for advertisers to move from the dated notion of ‘integrated marketing’ to the more contemporary concept of ‘integrating marketing’ makes sense for a number of reasons.  First, it’s active.  ‘Advertising’ must be thought of a verb: an active pursuit that demands ongoing care and engagement.  Given the constant stream of opinion that fills and influences the content streaming over social media, brands and their agency protectors can ill afford to fall into the old habit of ‘set it and forget it.’  Today, brand advocacy demands a deeper commitment to insure their ongoing health; we always have to be doing something.  Because brands are opinions.

Picture 1Another upside of re-imagining our job as ‘Integrating Marketing’ is that it encourages a broader view that incorporates both paid, earned and even ‘drive-by’ media like Twitter and brand review sites.  The messages we produce and introduce to the marketplace create movement and impact, but they are hardly the last word.  With purchase intent so driven by recommendation and word of mouth, agencies need to monitor and ideally, impact, every available platform for widespread opinion sharing.

Ultimately, the real reason to reorient ourselves toward ‘integrating’ marketing is that our market is continually disintegrating.  Through technology like DVR’s, Hulu and YouTube, the market continually expands away from one common location.  To reach these far flung micro audiences requires a constant process of ‘integrating’ them back into a larger group around a common bond.

So, are you integrated?  Or are you integrating?

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Opinion’s Omnipresence Renders Traditional Conceits Like "Brand Truth" and "Consumer Truth" Irrelevant

The HSBC 'Points of View' Campaign

The HSBC ‘Points of View’ Campaign

For the past four years, HSBC has run a provocative poster campaign from JWT.  Using a brilliant media buy in high traffic airport jetways, the ads highlight paradoxical points-of-view.  Simple graphics and headlines illustrate the insight that people from different regions, backgrounds or cultures often view the same phenomena in vastly different ways.

More than anything, this campaign demonstrates the fungible nature of opinion; something that’s become all the more relevant with the massive informational and behavioral changes brought on by the pervasive, worldwide adoption of the participatory Web 2.0.  By most any measure, opinion’s recently emerged mass distribution channel makes it far more impactful than TV, print, and radio combined.  We may not think of it as a traditional medium per se, but we ignore it at our peril.  As word-of-mouth experts are fond of saying, as much as 92% of all purchase decisions are driven by recommendation, which is nothing more than vocalized opinion.  More importantly, opinions have never been easier to come by; out culture is literally awash in them.

Google “review of Pixar’s Up” and you get 3.6 million entries in .33 seconds…  Every product on Amazon features buyers’ ratings and other key retailers like iTunes, NetFlix and eBay encourage prominent feedback opportunities.  The crushing volume of blogs and soon the exponentially larger world of Tweets can be simply searched.  We even edit our own networks to match our personal opinions, watching Fox News, listening to Air America, or subscribing to magazines and blogs because they reflect our personal politics.  Opinion is literally everywhere and louder than it has ever been.

All of which threatens the relevance and usefulness of those long-held marketing saws ‘brand truth’ and ‘consumer truth.’  What is ‘truth’ in a wold where opinion holds such dominance?  And whose truth?  Can there truly be a universal product or consumer truth?

Instead of the classic Venn diagram that guided years of integrated marketing by highlighting the intersection of ‘brand truth’ and ‘consumer truth’ we now have one vastly larger, much less uniformly shaped universe of consumer opinion, with all of it’s variants, anomalies and conflict.  Brands are opinions–and so our agency job today is to determine not something as debatable as brand truth, but rather the Brand Authenticity (and yes, Authenticities) within all of that opinion and then help meld and coalesce them into a universally-accepted Brand Authenticity.

Do that, and you bring powerful alignment to the often warring worlds of paid and earned media.

At least, that’s my opinion…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79