(NOTE: This essay draws on a chapter in my new book, Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs, which identifies nine radical branding and marketing insights for innovative business leaders to watch in 2010).

It's hard not to dish on some of the year's deliciously insane marketing and advertising ideas.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I'm not shy about calling out the particularly bad ones. Sometimes I feel a little guilty because it's just so damn easy. 2009 had more than its fair share of stupidity:

  • TV: Ask had a creepy guy stalking a pregnant woman, even resting his chin on her shoulder as she lay in bed, to illustrate that its search engine was ready to find answers.
  • Print: Louis Vuitton hired has-been actors to pose with their expensive handbags, as if to declare that the products were utterly irrelevant.
  • Spokespeople: Sprint, Walgreens, and GM were just a few of the brands that didn't have enough insight or guts to keep their top executives out of their marketing.
  • Billboards: London's Evening Standard plastered Underground stations with apologies for being a bad newspaper.
  • New Media: Ford bribed twentysomething with cars, insurance, and gas money to blog about the new Fiesta instead of creating ads that mattered.

See? Too easy. I'm sure you have your own list of marketing artifacts that made no sense and/or were offensive. Upon reflection, however, I've come to realize that many of them could have been great. Whether small and just silly, or enormously stupid, much of what happened in 2009 was more like tragedy than comedy.

What was the difference between the home runs and the numbnut ideas? Misplaced vision was the single most common point: marketers set out to accomplish things, often establishing very clear purposes and expectations for their activities. Then they executed against those plans...only the goals were just wrong.

The worst examples were those that did the absolute best jobs of accomplishing the wrong things. They were also probably some of the examples that were heralded in the mainstream business media as great successes. I'm not sure the media have caught up with what's going on; many businesses surely haven't. There's a shift that's been going on since before the recent economic woes, and I've long believed that marketers have been slow to acknowledge and respond to an emergent fact that the changing technology and cultural landscape doesn't mean we need to do branding differently, but that we need to come up with a different definition of brands altogether.

There are many brilliant, creative marketers still working to deliver on outdated expectations that brands are things people care about, depend upon, or otherwise maintain as deep psychological states. This old definition means that marketing's purpose is to get people to think things, and makes the time they spend doing so − irrespective of what exactly they’re thinking about − an absolute benefit of branding.

A solid chain of strategic vision stretches from Texaco sponsoring Milton Berle's radio show in the 1930s, to Burger King paying for a friending promotion on Facebook in 2009. Different media, and different content. Same intention. Same definition of brands.

But not the same reaction from consumers, who keep getting harder to find and talk with, more suspicious of what they're being told, less likely to buy what and when we want them to (and at the prices we wish), and almost never loyal.

I'm all for a snippy laugh about bad marketing, but it's a bit biting when so much of it was simply really good at pursuing bad ideas. Hence the tragedy.

So as we contemplate the last few weeks of the year, and ponder what may follow in 2010, I'd like to skip giving you my list of the bad stuff and instead come up with 10 things you might want to consider so your marketing doesn't end up on a "Worst of" list a year from now:

  1. Doing beats thinking. A fundamental disconnect between old and new definitions of brand center on measurement; whether it's worthwhile to hope people think something, or whether it makes more sense to focus on prompting behaviors. Just like many of the year's home runs did the latter, I think the dumbest ones were those that successfully got people to think something (for a moment, if little else).
  2. Need is more important than want. No matter how entertaining some of the year's spots (or campaigns) might have been, they were ultimately losers if they didn't address a consumer need instead of simply trying to promote a desire, or want. My guess is that purchase behavior isn't going back to the profligate ways of the past decade; if people don't need something, they very well might not buy it.
  3. Marketing doesn’t own marketing. When you look at your dedicated marketing budget for 2010, consider all the money other corporate departments are spending, too...because a lot of what they do influences consumer perceptions and proclivities. Some of it is lots more important than what marketing says (corporate behavior matters more in social media than your ad creative). There's still no good model for mapping these dependencies, by the way.
  4. Don’t underestimate the impact of little things. Big campaigns with big ideas talk about bigness, yet it is often the little thing − a contextual conflict, or fact that didn't substantiate the big claims − that makes them inert.
  5. Selling irrelevant stuff is irrelevant. If we added up the marketing budgets for the top ten most expensive branding campaigns in 2009, you'd have to conclude that the most important themes to communicate were various complicated corollaries of a fart joke.
  6. Never trade “funny” for some imaginary engagement. Talk about your business. My agency friends will sometimes argue otherwise, but I don't think any recent marketing activity substantiated the proposition that you can associate your product or service with some external emotion or experience (like being funny) or that it does anything permanent (or motivating to subsequent sales). If you're going to spend money, why not spend it to talk about your business?
  7. Be obvious. Consumers on average spend something like a nanosecond paying attention to whatever it is you're throwing at them, even if your reports say that they spent a half hour watching your brilliant viral video. They weren't conscious for most of it. 2010 will require us to make sure we use the little time we have to talk with more judicious thinking (more relevance, meaning, and immediate utility). Think of a fart joke if you must, but add a payoff of action other than a good laugh.
  8. Acknowledge context. I think some really dumb activities were really smart, but only if you experienced them in a vacuum separate from any real time or place. There's a "looked so good in the conference room presentation" phenomenon that dooms so much stuff, especially when the creative requires that people "get" things like interaction and/or jokes (See point 7).
  9. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. I don't know how we could ever measure brands by asking consumers explicit questions about what they think about branding. It's marvelously circular logic, isn't it (See point 10)?
  10. Sales matter. You already know this if you've cut a marketing budget (or had yours slashed). Selling is the ultimate purpose of having a brand, doing branding, or spending anything on marketing, so you're not going to have the time in 2010 (let alone the reasonable hope) to wait for awareness or some other squishy measure of communications efficacy to pay off.

Want more? My new book Bright Lights & Dim Bulbs riffs on this theme in great detail, along with 8 others.

Original Post: http://dimbulb.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/12/what-were-they-thinking.html

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