Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kindness as a brand attribute.

When folks in the ad biz refer to a human being as a brand, or a franchise -- some nod with understanding, some raise an eyebrow in confusion, and others (understandably) show visual distaste for the concept. But get it or not -- the publicity machine takes authors, actors, and artists (among others) and pushes them to the forefront like so many Big Macs to make sure that the public consumes them – and, in the end – converts their exposure to dollars.

An example? Think Elvis: Farm boy. Momma’s boy. U.S. soldier. Actor. Celebrity. The King. And, oh yeah… I think he was a musician as well. The Elvis Presley franchise made the man an icon, and this unsuspecting crooner from Tupelo, Mississippi was jettisoned from rags to riches.

Today, celebrity is almost commonplace – but what defines each “human brand” is vastly divergent from one to the next. Paris Hilton is a brat… George Clooney, a heartthrob… Sergey Brin, a genius… and, the real subject of my blog; Darius Rucker (a.k.a. “Hootie”) a County music star, having reinvented himself after he and The Blowfish had spent their 15 minutes of fame, a decent guy (stick with me on this for a minute.)

I saw the versatile Mr. Rucker in concert last night. A black man rising to Country music stardom is rare. His music and showmanship were good. But something unexpected happened, and it brought huge equity to his brand worthiness in my opinion… Darius showed himself to be an incredibly decent human being. I had excellent seats, and sat close enough to see a young boy of nine or ten years old maneuvered to the front of the venue in a wheelchair, severely handicapped and twisted from whatever deformity plagues his young body. I was not the only one who saw him. I watched the man in the spotlight continually look over at the boy – and even direct his performance in that direction a few times. But what happened at the end of his final encore is what locked me in as a Darius Rucker fan for life. While everyone else in the CMT crowd seems to prefer a Stetson, the x-Hootie sports a well-known baseball cap to cover his bald dome. As he said his final thank y’alls to the crowd, he ended his last number in front of the crippled fan. Taking a pen from his front pocket, he pulled off his cap, signed the bill, and motioned for the masses to separate from the young lad. When they did – he gave a gentle toss in to the boys lap and departed the stage.

Everyone who manages a brand thinks about corporate citizenship. It’s popular. It’s newsworthy. And one would hope that most of the time it’s done with sincerity. But last night, among six-thousand people who would have killed to get a hold of the Hootie Hat – few were close enough to see who claimed the prize. This was not a brand-building exercise for the superstar… this was an act of kindness, that while not his intention – will serve to sell more CDs to this guy and anyone else that I can convince. I plan to support his career in whatever way I can – just because I think he acted in a way that’s rare these days.

I can’t claim that his songs are my favorites, but I can say that he’s now one of my favorite artists. Way to make an impression Mr. Hootie.

Friday, October 15, 2010

I'm cooking now..., really. “I’m cooking” isn’t a metaphor for working hard at ADG... I’m actually standing in my son Tyler’s kitchen, cooking. A business trip this week left me with a few days to travel to his home in northern Idaho where he attends school. So why should you care about any of this? Well, if you’re a client, my culinary experience will actually make your projects better. Seriously.

I’ve been seeking to better understand not only what makes campaigns bomb or succeed – but also where the source of “mega success” comes from. What causes a brand to go viral? How is it that some just seem to stick around? And the granddaddy of them all (at least in my mind;) what firmly implants a brand forever in the hearts and minds of its intended audience? And after much consternation… I’ve come to this conclusion; the foundation of any bountiful brand is found in its “story.”

Back to lunch. The ingredients for my meal came to me courtesy of the local food co-op, and everything on their shelves came with a price. I’m not talking about the transaction at the cash register… I’m talking about the artisanal craftsmanship -- the blood, sweat, and tears that accompanies creating things “the hard way.” Don’t mishear me – I’m not submitting that just because something’s “hard” also means it’s good... but “story” doesn’t lie.

For the soup, I trimmed delicate ‘shrooms grown in the woods of Washington state (mere miles from the co-op.) The Feta for our salad was made in Greece and imported – there’s got to be a story there (or so I romanticize...) and the honey that was drizzled into the dressing carries the taste of the Idaho Palouse and it’s surrounding valleys. When the meal was finally served, as we sat down, my son and I became yet another part of the story.

So without going on and on (if I haven’t already,) I guess my point is that getting in the lives of clients, partners, consumers, and students requires building brands that have lives poured in to them.

Perhaps today was not so much an epiphany as it was a reminder... ADG has stellar people who love what they do and they pour themselves in to their work. I believe that they’re also incredibly grateful for the opportunity they have to do what they do for you, our clients. A lot of subtext goes in to the broader stories that ADG helps to tell. It’s a strange brew that we’ve concocted – strategists, designers, developers… writers, PMs, and AEs… their all part of what we do, and as the staff continues to grow, so too does the story continue. I can hardly wait for the next chapter to begin.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

End of an icon.

The computer icons of today (think “big W” for Microsoft Word, or that crazy swooping “A” for Adobe Acrobat) are analogous to the barbershop pole or the golden arches brand icons of the past. In today’s digital age, those program and application monikers live on our desktop, in our toolbar, our iPad, iPod, our Blackberry… you name it. I’m not sure that I ever realized how much impact these tiny “shingles” have until Apple changed the one attributed to iTunes.

When the game-changing entertainment application came out on a cold January day in 2001, I was one of the “virtual many” standing in line to get into the new e-music store. Like so many other big box retail verticals gone digital, nobody thought it would have a huge impact on the way business was done in the “record biz.” Well, in less than a decade, iTunes has not only changed the way we buy music, it’s revolutionized the way we watch movies, receive reviews, purchase applications, and now – with Ping, their new social media tool for all things entertainment – the way we connect to the rest of the world to express ourselves.

I’ll spare you all the statistics. Many I don’t know, and they’re changing every day. So, to my point, and the title of this blog… with iTune’s latest release, Apple has changed the application’s well-known icon from a shiny silver platter with a glowing blue musical note hovering above, to a simple blue circle with a note inside. Why ditch the well-known graphic that has become so recognized among Mac and PC users alike? Steve Jobs addressed this in his most recent keynote at Apple’s MacWorld event.

At the release of iTunes 10.0, online purchases through Apple’s tool had exceeded the purchase of music on CDs. To continue to represent the iTunes tool with a CD-ROM icon would be to identify the future with the past. The new icon? Aesthetically speaking, I hate it. The reason behind the change? Love is not a strong enough adjective to describe my approval.

I’m old enough (just barely) to remember the death of the 8-Track tape. I have boxes of old vinyl that tell the tale of the demise of the 33rpm recordwhose standing began to falter when the portability of the cassette tape seized the day. The cassette? The ones that didn’t melt or warp in my car on sunny days have long since hit the dumpster. So here we are… my CDs, those digital dynamos that were the end all, alas, are ending themselves. If video killed the radio star, what will kill iTunes and the electronic distribution of all things musical (and otherwise)? Chips surgically implanted in our noggins at birth, where music is infinitely streamed into our conscience? Who can tell?

There is a back-story here… the Apple corporation was quarters away from irrelevance and extinction prior to the iPod and iTunes. They were losing the personal computing battle to the behemoth known as Microsoft. Then Apple realized that the current affairs of personal computing wasn’t so personal, and they remembered that music soothes the savage beast (I think that’s what you meant – not breast)… and so, a connection to “people” and not technology was made. Apple began to win hearts over minds (at least on the outset), and this dealt a staggering blow to Microsoft, one that they’ve still not realized as they fight to be relevant in a world that demands a greater connection than binary code to the technology that it embraces.

Lessons here? Giants fall, underdogs overcome, and consumers will only consume mediocrity for so long. Don’t get cocky Mr. Jobs (i.e., no Flash on the iPad), there’s a place on the bench next to Microsoft if you decide you no longer need to innovate or you decide to give the market what’s important to Apple instead of what the market wants. As for ADG? We’re learning lessons every day. Serving the customer and staying humble are high on the list. Help keep us in check. Deal?


Thursday, June 3, 2010


There’s an old rule in Direct Mail; avoid “high-like/high-dislike” marketing. What does that mean? It means that when someone pulls a piece out of the mailbox, they should neither love it nor hate it. And, generally speaking, what one loves – another will hate anyway. So the adage became “shoot for the middle.” The middle is big. Perhaps (I’m making these stats up, but the principal is close) 15% of an audience will be discerning and really need to be impressed… another 15% won’t be pleased – no matter what… that leaves 70% of an audience that “may be persuaded” if you neither aim high nor low. Now the question becomes – is that where you want to be? Middle of the pack? Really?

It was an article on creative writing for marketing brands that got me thinking about ADG’s Direct Mail days. We created “Direct” that ended up in tens-of-millions of mailboxes, and nearly as many trash cans -- especially for financial services clients who flooded channels to try and get credit card customers to always be spending more. The goal: get a 1% - 3% response rate simply by playing the law of averages.

So back to the aforementioned article… the writer drew attention to the fact that most every corporate entity plugs itself the same way. The words in quotes are Google search terms, and the digits that follow the number of companies using the phrase. “Full-service solutions provider” (47,000,) “cost-effective end-to-end service provider” (95,000,) “value-added services” (600,000.) Quick! Somebody coin a new phrase so the masses can adopt that too.

After 20 years, ADG is still growing as an agency – but one lesson we learn over and over is that for companies to make a mark, they need to be original, distinguishable from the crowd, true to their own brand, and willing to swim against the tide at times. Aiming for the masses is a crap shoot; so when you do, it’s entirely plausible to end up with, well, crap. Doing the analysis to understand current customers and discover something new is business. And in this creative director’s opinion, “high-like” is the only place to be -- if you’re committed to putting the right message in the hands of the right audience. When corporate brands strive for lukewarm, they’re bound to be ice cold soon after.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Death of the Phonebook

Alas, another “end-of-an-era” event in my lifetime (they seem to be mounting up…) The phonebook is on its way out. Yes, that go-to pub of the past that not only provided info for connecting via the telephone -- but also gave strong men something to tear and thousands of youngsters a boost at the Thanksgiving table -- is about to become extinct. With the growing adoption of the internet in every household… sentiment gives way to sensibility and Donnelly has announced that the good book is going bye bye.

Some staggering facts: Before the presses stop, calculations estimate the number of phonebooks printed each year equal three (yes, 3) books for every single American – man, woman, and child. The Yellow Pages currently generate nearly $15 billion in ad sales. I’m certain budgets for print will quickly be obligated to digital ad sales without a second thought. And finally – with the disappearance of the paper (and ink, chemicals, and resources to run the presses) bio-waste will be greatly reduced and the ever talked about carbon footprint will shrink. Hmmm… along with jobs for thousands of pressman, cameramen, bindery personnel, and the like.

I have to confess, I haven’t used a real phonebook in years – but for some reason I’m going to miss it when it’s finally gone. Not because I’m against technology – but I somehow believe that along with the disappearance of the phonebook may come the depletion of another old friend, conversation. Feel the same way? Gimme’a call… or – on second thought – just shoot me an email. I guess that’s just the way it goes.