Sometimes, when I'm thinking of setting myself on fire because in the ICU burn unit I'd finally be out of reach of that Swiffer "Who's That Lady?" commercial for a few weeks, I long for advertisers to take more risks with their broadcast media. I dream of more irreverent, non-sequitur-laden spots like this:
(I loved this spot when it came out in the early 1990s, and I'm pretty sure it's still my all-time favourite tv commercial.)
So you'd think I'd have appreciated Kmart's recent viral sensation, 'Ship My Pants':
Sure, it was a risky move for a big, family-oriented, mainstream American brand to make - you won't be seeing JC Penney or Walmart creating a whole campaign around a play on the word 'shit' any time soon.
The problem is that it's a whole campaign around a play on the word 'shit'. It's a one-note joke. It's not particularly creative, it's not kooky or irreverent, and it makes people think of poop when they think of your brand. It's only marginally amusing because no one can believe that K-mart is referencing shit in a commercial. If this kind of pun was used by, say, a clothing brand targeting the urban 18-24 crowd, the 18-24s would all think it was lame and trying too hard.
However, the biggest problem with this kind of lazy thinking (there's a reason why Samuel Johnson said that puns were the lowest form of humour) is that it leads to stuff like this:
All the ick factor of the original, plus bonus racism!
Oh sure, this wasn't done by Kmart - it's a parody by some comedy outfit called Gunfordemay - but if you look at the comments on YouTube (the video has now been posted to several accounts), you'll see that more than half the viewers don't realize it's a parody. The original 'Ship my Pants' spot was so preposterous that they now think that a spot which plays on the N word is within the realm of possibility for Kmart.
If you thought scatological humour was risky for your brand equity, just think what racism will do for it!
(Interestingly, if the aforementioned clothing brand was targeting urban 18-24s who over-index for thinking that Drake is a great artist, this N-word-referencing spot might be just the ticket. But that's beside the point.)
Now, we all know what happened here. Kmart's sales are tanking, so a bunch of suits sat around a boardroom table saying things like "Guys! If we're going to turn this around, we have to start thinking outside the box!" and "Let's really get crazy with this! Now that we've got Nicki Minaj, we can really go nuts! Maybe we can use glitter!"
Except that people who use terms like "think outside the box" in boardrooms are the kind of people for whom slim-fit khaki pants represent a bold fashion statement, so they end up confusing 'toilet humour' with 'creativity' - and thus Ship My Pants was born. Their ad agency is DraftFCB, which isn't necessarily the most avant-garde creative agency in the world, but which should have been able to do better. I'm 99% certain that there were any number of better, more creative ideas which got left on the cutting room floor because the suits didn't 'get' them or thought they were too 'out there'.
"But Sarah," you may say, "the Ship My Pants spot got 18 million views and lots of PR coverage. Doesn't that make it successful?"
Well, it's possible that it reminded people that Kmart exists, and perhaps that's what Kmart really needs right now, as it loses ground to other discount department retailers. But reminding people of your brand while simultaneously associating it with shit, then spending a week assuring everyone you didn't have anything to do with the N-word spot, ultimately puts you farther behind.
When you're just starting to spend marketing dollars, it's all about the balance.
Quite a few of my clients are small-but-growing-quickly companies. When they call me, it's because they're just starting to expand beyond their original footprint. They're spending money on new salespeople, looking to build on early success, and they need to find a way to make a mark in a larger marketplace.
Typically, these companies have strong entrepreneurial leaders who've attracted some great talent, and they have a good idea of what's working well with their clients. But they're so busy wearing so many hats, and getting approached by so many vendors trying to sell them marketing 'opportunities' (how on earth do those obscure trade journals find small businesses so quickly? And manage to convince them that spending $4000 on a half-page ad is actually a good idea?), that it's easy for them to waste money on marketing efforts that don't work, and don't build anything for the future, either.
Successful marketing strategies are based on a continuum.
The best way to start building a brand and a marketing strategy is to start by defining 3 key areas, and then keep refining, revisiting and reiterating them.
Successful entrepreneurs are already telling a story about their business. Growing the business means codifying that story, and then making sure that everyone in the company is telling it consistently.
This becomes the basis of the brand identity, but for small and growing companies it will change and grow over time, as new products and services - and points of difference - are added.
In my experience, the best entrepreneurial companies are selling stuff all over the place, and not always doing it in a systematic manner. This is fine when there are only one or two core salespeople, but can become problematic when the company starts hiring a more junior salesforce.
So before you even start recommending a marketing spend, you have to take the time to figure out a sales strategy for the short, medium and longer term. This includes identifying target markets, termite strategies (i.e. quick and easy sales that will lead to long-term sales relationships), and products.
The sales strategy will also change over time, as the client moves into different markets or expands its offerings.
This is really about defining what success looks like in both the short and longer terms. Sometimes a smaller company can get so focused on short-term cashflow that they don't have time to look at long-term goals; other times the company dreams big but isn't balancing long sales cycles with quick hits. Some entrepreneurs dream of winning awards for R&D; others define success as being able to spend 6 months in Tahiti.
Balancing Story, Sales and Success
In the first year of a real marketing strategy, it's all about balancing these 3 elements: Making sure the story is the right one to achieve the sales and success goals; making sure the sales goals are reflective of the story; making sure that the story and the sales are the right ones to lead to the vision of success.
All three will change, especially at first. But if you keep them all firmly in mind, you'll find that it'll be much easier to assess, budget for, and measure marketing efforts.
Ah, the heady days of 1984. MTV was still new, and high-concept music videos were still considered the first step in the slippery slope of 'selling out' by bands who had barely begun to think of things like branding or those pesky morality clauses in their L'Oreal contracts. Production budgets were slim, digital cameras non-existent, and every band trying to maintain a shred of street cred hoped that Tim Pope was available to shoot a quirky, not-too-commercial video for them.
Talk Talk has always been one of my favourite bands. Most music snobs will claim that their later albums, like Laughing Stock, or lead singer Mark Hollis' 1998 solo album, are their best, but I'm not ashamed to admit that I love their early albums - particularly It's My Life - the most. When it comes to pop music, I'm a sucker for layered production.
Poor old Mark Hollis was a 'serious' musician. He famously hated the trappings of pop music: The interviews, the wardrobe - and the music videos. But in 1984 the record companies were in charge, and they said music videos were mandatory. For Talk Talk's second album, this resulted first in the video for 'It's My Life', full of stock footage and a defiantly non-singing singer. It's a great song, but the video...meh. The second video, on the other hand (for 'Such a Shame'), was another story.
I don't know how Tim Pope got Mark Hollis to 'perform' for this video, but it was an effective strategy. Hollis looks less like a curmudgeon and more like the pop star everyone wanted him to be. It's an enjoyable video and it makes the song much more accessible than it is with audio alone.
What's more interesting to me now, 30 years later, is that the video doesn't look dated at all. While it's hard not to cringe watching other videos of the same era, full of Cindy Crawford-type models and unfortunate 80s wardrobe, the video for 'Such a Shame' wouldn't be out of place on a YouTube top 100 list today. The art direction, the wardrobe (well, give or take a couple of pairs of high-waisted jeans in the background), the concept - it's as good as any Tegan & Sara indie-pop video circa 2013.
But it's the way Hollis interacts with the camera that makes the video feel so contemporary. Instead of trying to create a cheesy 'storyline' or create some kind of pop-star persona, he just lipsyncs into the camera, and you can almost hear Tim Pope's direction: "Yeah, I know you hate this, Mark, and the last thing you want is to be stuck on set all day lipsyncing the same song over and over again. So why don't we just run through the song, say, 5 times, and you can do each one in a different mood. Just be yourself."
So Mark's not pretending the camera's not there, he's not pretending that he's just being captured in a natural moment, but he's making it obvious that he's pretending these different moods - and he's letting you know that he knows he has an audience, and that that audience knows he's pretending. In fact, it may be the first deconstructionist and self-reflexive music video of the modern era. It led to videos like this, and it's the reason the 'Gangnam Style' video has 1.6 billion views. 'Gangnam Style' isn't the best pop song ever, and it isn't even the best music video ever. It's popular because it makes it clear that it knows it's ridiculous, and invites the audience to join in the ridiculousness.
Why is this so interesting? Because it's a good metaphor for the way marketing communications have changed in the past 30 years. Marketing types talk a lot about 'transparency' these days, but what they really mean is 'self-reflexivity'. In order to be successful, brands need to know how they're perceived by their stakeholders, and then acknowledge that perception - even if it's not entirely positive. When Rogers runs ads about how great their prices and service are, the audience just rolls their collective eyes and tunes out, because the message is so blatantly untrue and verging on the delusional. When Kotex runs ads acknowledging that most advertising of feminine hygiene products is ridiculous, on the other hand, they earn credibility - and they do a better job of engaging their target.
You never knew you could learn so much from some synth-pop 80s video, did you?
I dunno...I kind of think I like this ad mostly because I like the Grimes song they've used. On the other hand, it's amazing what a little slo-mo can do for what would otherwise be a pretty dull bit of footage.
Ah, the perfect commercial to run between episodes of Jacob Two-Two and HR Pufnstuf!
Bonus: This video has a note from a guy named Barry Stringer who says he was the art director and copywriter for this commercial when he worked at Vickers & Benson in Montreal. The 70s were a great time for Canadian commercials, if you ask me.