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June 18, 2008

I’ve been having a nice conversation with David Deal who is the marketing director of Avenue A Razorfish about an ad campaign which has apparently caused a bit of a stir. The NY Times ran this article on the 28th of May about Coors Light embracing social media and launching a MySpace page and a post on YouTube which shows a bunch of happy go lucky youngsters pouring beer into glasses from impossible angles to demonstrate the virtues of the new wide mouth cans.

Whatever. The level of creativity is not really put into question here and neither should it be. The ad is a decent idea like a million others in this big wide world and an efficient vehicle for the idea of targeting a young male consumer. What is creating the most noise is the idea that Coors has used Avenue A Razorfish (a professional advertising agency) to create posts and “amateur” videos which in fact aren’t.

The notion of social media is put into question as the authenticity of the word of mouth suddenly feels icky. Why? Because the base of trust is shifted from the arena of the word of mouth generated by the user and a pastiche is presented as reality by a bunch of highly paid pros. David invited comments on this idea and this is how part of the conversation went:

David Deal I might be influenced by a peer who I know and admire, period. But there’s more to it than that. Consumers quite willingly trust even anonymous peers — fellow consumers who rate products and services even though we might not know those peers personally. Social Influence Marketing is about harnessing the power of peer influencers to achieve your business and marketing needs.

Me -Me too. And of course many people like us are influenced this way. The real question is – can a bunch of super clever cookies in an advertising agency (despite giving away what might be obvious clues) pass off a professionally devised campaign as being socially generated?

This is the point of what viral, buzz, socially influenced, whatever you want to call it marketing isn’t. It isn’t designed by professional sellers. Why? Because it takes away the benevolent and therefore untainted intentions of someone recommending a product or a service to someone else. The intent is untainted (for want of a better word) because they have no vested interest in promoting the product so the trust we have in the product comes back to the trust we have in the integrity of the person, which I presume is not the case here. I presume the client paid a wad of money to launch this campaign and despite how well targeted it may be it’s traditional advertising dressed up in viral drag.

“Engaging the consumers” in an “entertainment experience” comes off in the end sounding like bollocks because it’s not the consumers who are talking about the product. It’s you. The agency.

I hope this doesn’t come off sounding too snippy and I have read your excellent blog for quite a while now and of course will continue to do so I allowed myself to be as honest as possible.

David Deal
Tim, thank you for your comments, and they are well taken! It’s far more interesting and useful to hear your constructive criticism so that we can have a conversation about it. We debate this question all the time: although we believe the enterprise (in this case, Coors) should join the conversation that consumers are having with each other already, at issue is how to do that in a compelling way (which is where being entertaining and engaging often comes into play)? My blog post overlooked one important point about that “perfect pour” video: Coors essentially acts as a host for the consumer-to-consumer conversation by posting the “perfect pour” video on to YouTube, where consumers can comment with each other in all manner (as they are doing). Another one of our clients, Carnival Cruise Lines, does this via its own site, CarnivalConnections. In both instances, I think the enterprise is creating an engaging experience and enabling a conversation among consumers simultaneously.

Me – I am sure you are talking about these issues constantly and I don’t have the presumption to think I’m teaching you anything new but the ambiguity is how the client (Coors) uses an agency (you) to transfer the message to the consumers.

“Experiential marketing is all about engaging consumers instead of pushing messages at them”.

Am I right in thinking it’s also about how the relation I have with the brand makes me feel? I babble to our clients about the idea that we are in an experience-based (as opposed to function-based) age and our sense of well-being is in part tacked along by little consumer experiences and if I am vaguely correct then the delicate relationship a company has with the consumer depends on delivering messages which will make them feel in harmony with the experience sought after in purchasing the product.

Considering beer has no function to speak of the choice of the consumer would be almost entirely made on how the buying of this beer creates an experience. If they feel like they are joining the fun gang of beer pourers like on YouTube then mission accomplished.

David Deal I think you’re absolutely correct. In fact, the brand IS the relationship that one person or company has with another. Like a relationship, a brand can be good or bad. And, like a relationship, you can influence it, but you can’t control it. The essential buiding blocks of a brand remain as relevant today: having a clearly articulated positioning, a visual identity, and product or service performance that makes people trust you. Experiental or “engagement marketing” is another way of building a brand. Through an experience, the enterprise says, “I am not going to tell you what I’m all about; I’m going to make it possible to experience what my brand is all about.” And by the way, your insights are valued! Especially at a time when an amateur can create a Doritos Super Bowl advertisemet for $12, no one can claim to be the expert. If you were Coors, what would you have done differently with the “perfect pour” viral ad? Would you have done it at all?

And this is the question. How can a company who is trying to appeal to a consumer group who demographically fits the mould of social networking sites to a T and to whom you are trying to sell a product with no real primary function launch a viral ad campaign without coming out looking like phonies?

Seth Godin posted this timely post about authenticity…

How much marketing fakery do you willingly accept, and how much do you want to know about? Does the vegetarian really want to know that they didn’t wash the pot at the restaurant and a few molecules of chicken broth are in that soup? How many molecules before it matters? Is it different if it’s an accident? Why?

Marketers like to talk about transparency and authenticity. I think for most people, most of the time, we care a lot more about the effect and use of a product or service and less about who made it and why. We chose Converse because they get us a date, and we don’t change brands just cause Nike owns them now.

Except for when we do. When we feel deceived or tricked, the game can change, and rapidly.

It’s easier than ever to mount ornate hoaxes and fancy subterfuges. And you can get away with it for a while. But often, and at the worst possible moment, the market might change its mind. It might stop enjoying the fakery and switch to scorn and anger instead. I have no clue how to predict when this will happen. How much risk are you willing to take?

Guy Kawasaki also interviewed Dave Balther from BzzAgent who has worked with schools of big fish about using this mystical new form of communication to one’s advantage and has written this book which you can get here – The Word of Mouth Manual, Volume II. Right from the first question it’s obvious the lines in the sand have moved.

Guy: How often do companies successfully engineer word-of-mouth marketing?

Dave: The phrasing, “engineer word-of-mouth” is very interesting. Inasmuch as it suggests “force” or “manipulate,” I’d say that no company has ever successfully engineered word of mouth. However, for those companies that guide or inspire word of mouth by empowering consumers, respecting their opinions, thanking them for sharing their input, and making changes based on consumer counsel … in those cases, word of mouth marketing is successful all the time, every day.

Yeah, well, it seems a fine line to skate trying to find the right mix of harnessing the power of consumer conversations. Everyone’s leaning on the idea and everyone is dreaming of coming up with the next iPhone buzz.

I think at the end of all of this two things remain certain, 1. Whatever product you have it is not a waste of time to make it the best in the (your) world, and 2. Motivating people to talk about your product is different from forcing them.

An inspired product (campaign, service et al) will inspire conversation.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2008 1:28 pm

    David Deal gets Brain Dead Cliche of the Year Award for using “conversation” 4 times in one paragraph. New indoor record.

  2. Tim permalink*
    June 20, 2008 4:47 am


  3. June 20, 2008 3:14 pm

    Speaking of having a conversation, I really appreciate the one that’s happening here. Tim, thanks so much for the input. Bob, my brain is very much alive although not always functioning properly. (Thanks for keeping me honest with the cliche-o-meter.) I have since posted some more examples of companies like Smirnoff and Nike that have worked with Avenue A | Razorfish to employ social media as part of the branding strategies. I’d love to get your feedback on these, too:

  4. Tim permalink*
    June 20, 2008 4:11 pm

    Me too. Apart from Bob’s notorious crankiness the comments I made in relation to Coors and the danger of pre-fab conversations still stand.

    “Embracing” social media is almost nonsense unless you are talking purely about using the platforms. And the platforms for social media are in place for people to babble away in different ways (Twitter, YouTube, et al) about whatever it is which motivates them. Pushing a brand into a conversation (there I said it) is still pushing if it is on Facebook or on TV.

    Once something goes pro, the creators go elsewhere.

  5. fayezie permalink
    July 15, 2008 3:08 am

    See Faye Think:

    A motivated conversation versus a forced conversation. well, no one is going to want to talk if a conversation is forced upon them, therefore, a forced conversation is a dead conversation. A motivated conversation requires inspiration, and if successful then results in said desired motivated conversation. So a motivated conversation equals a real conversation, and a forced conversation equals no conversation.

    If the product is a “dead”, un-inspiring product like, oh, toothpaste, then the conversation will take place if inspiration is created. Wow, Brooke Shields really “inspires” me to want to show my audience my best smile, guess I need to go out and buy Colgate… oh wait, isn’t she the crazy mom? never mind, not so inspiring now…. so, Colgate then becomes a dead product. But, wait, my dental hygienist suggested purchasing Colgate because it has a higher percentage of flouride in it… ah ha! a peer influenced, inspired, motivated conversation about the boring subject of toothpaste, and Colgate wins! Sans commercial.

    Speaking of using the Social/viral video for promo, what about the perfect example of the cellphone popcorn? hmmm? quite successful, I’d say, it was passed around my “circle” a few times until someone finally had enough wits to suggest that it was phoney and an ad campaign created by a bluetooth company.

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