Friday, April 11, 2014

never trust a hippy

The following is a short response to an article which appeared in Marketing magazine UK this week entitled 'Why does Ben & Jerry's have such loyal customers?'.

In the article, essentially a promo piece for his book 'Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry's', the author Brad Edmondson asserts that the people who buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream are intensely devoted to the brand and this single factor explains the success of the company.

Among some of Edmondson's other claims is one that states that the company’s liberal political stance (vocalising support for things like same-sex marriage and the occupy movement) make lots of people angry, particularly conservatives.

However this is ok because the company doesn’t sell ice cream to conservatives.

Their customers are only affluent, middle-aged, and urban liberals, apparently.

And intensely devoted.

And what's more, when I queried this point to the author on Twitter, pointing out to him that Ben and Jerry's sales patterns will in all likelihood conform to the same patterns as any other fmcg type brand - ie the vast majority of it's sales over a year will come from people who buy the product only once or twice in that period - he responded with the following:

'B&J's success comes from connecting to a passionate segment. "The vast majority" is not their concern.'

The article is, as you will have gathered by now, utter delusional nonsense if viewed as any sort of real-life marketing case in point.

One suspects the entire book is much more of the same. Probably more intensely devotional.

But, as a piece of brand marketing collateral a bit of myth-building is never a bad thing, so fair play on that one.

What interests me more is 'why' this sort of myth building is important to Ben and Jerry's, and who, exactly, is the audience for the myth.

The first clue is when considering the the B&J story within the frame of the classic counter-culture to sell-out journey.

Very short version.

In 1978 Ben and Jerry, a couple of slightly out of date diet-hippies have an ahead-of-their-time-idea and set up an 'artisanal' ice cream shop in Vermont.

The Ice cream parlour gets popular locally, in no short measure due to the quirky distinctiveness of our two protagonists, a quirky distinctive product and the brand they had begun to build.

Before you know it they are beginning to establish a distribution network among grocery stores and supermarkets.

This draws the attention of media and marketing commentators, some national media coverage hails their product as the best of it's kind in the country, which leads to more distribution and more rapid growth.

However now, our heroes are faced with a sell-out conundrum.

Quite quickly this thing has turned into a pretty viable big-bucks business drawing lots of interest from 'the man' in various guises, and the lure of national distribution and even bigger profits.

Because, as the chaps are now starting to realise, this is the engine of capitalism.

And they are bang in the middle of it.

Every new anti-establishment approach business or thing that starts off as some sort of alternative to the mainstream - more artisanal, authentic or rebellious - eventually gets acquired or incorporated by the establishment and resold back - often completely intact - to the mass market looking for things to consume that signal their alternative status to others.

[One way of describing this I've heard is that act of attempting to run counter to the culture is what creates the next wave of culture that the next wave of counter-culture will want to counter.

That other counter-culture to captain of industry, Steve Jobs got over this very quickly. Despite his hippie roots Jobs had no problem at all accepting the natural laws of capitalism]

Indeed, the man does come calling, chequebook in hand, and B&J ink a deal in 1986 for distribution by Dreyers (a Nestle company), within two years they have also a national chain of 'scoop shops' and are picking up Businessmen of Year accolades from none other than that other old counter-culture hippy Ronald Reagan.

Shortly before signing with Dreyers, a swift hippy realignment is established, as the company sets up a foundation and directs a portion of pre-tax profits each year into grants which 'grass-roots' community projects can apply for.

In the 90's however the tide has turned, B&Js is in decline and not profitable for a period.

Seems that the hippy ethical business spurt was a bit of a blip. Something has to change.

It seems that in the cold light of day, far from being the main driver of growth, the company’s social mission was a luxury it could no longer afford.

Despite this in the the mid-90's B&J's is still a $200 million dollar business, but reality bites, the firm is unprofitable so a new shareholder value and growth specialist CEO is appointed, and he engineers the sale to Unilever.

The counter-culture to corporate sell-out cycle is complete.

And the company is now faced with sort of collective cognitive dissonance.

This little hippy company that set out it's stall against the mainstream has got bigger and bigger and become the mainstream. Not only that, it's new master is Unilever.

Unilever, the world's third-largest consumer goods company, subject to the ire of Greenpeace on the issues of deforestation and unsustainable palm oil while also allegedly responsible for up to 4% of global green house gas emissions.

Like Joe Strummer said in Death or Glory (in belated acceptance of his own dissonance, The Clash having being accused of sell-out on the day they signed with CBS/Sony)-

'I believe in this, and it's been tested by research...he who f*cks nuns, will later join the church'.

With Unilever as your new boss, what's a hippy to do?

Let's briefly return to Edmondson's article again.

The author skirts close to the truth when he asks...

'Why does Unilever, the second-largest food company in the world, allow one of its wholly owned subsidiaries to embrace radical street protestors and take other positions that it knows will piss off millions of potential buyers of Unilever products?'

The simple answer is that Unilever knows very well that the hundreds of millions of buyers of Unilever brands have no idea that they are buying Unilever brands, are not even vaguely interested in whether they are Unilever brands or not, and the embracing of radical street protests or whatever of Ben and Jerry's is of little or no interest to the vast majority of the buyers of that particular brand.

Because Unilever knows that the so-called counter-culture is actually the engine of capitalism.

For Unilever to continually find new companies to buy, and therefore continue to oil the machine, these companies have to come from somewhere.

He goes on...

'Again, it goes back to the independent board. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield did not want to sell their company in 2000. They agreed to do it only after Unilever signed a contract that created the board, which exists in perpetuity.'

Presumably the three hundred million dollars was also a factor.

'In addition to protecting product quality, this board also has the legal power to ensure that the company’s investment in edgy political causes continues, and that their spending on social mission activities grows with Ben & Jerry’s sales.'

Well, we all love to believe a good story.

Indeed, the stories we believe the most are the ones we tell ourselves.

For Ben and Jerry's idealist hippy roots the dream is never over.

The story of the global brand that grew by staying true to it's values, never really sold-out and connected emotionally to it's intensely devoted loyal fans.

This makes for a great feelgood story inside the company to resolve the INEVITABLE inner conflict that comes with any sell-out.

And it's fantastic that Ben and Jerry's do these things for their local community, at a grass-roots level. I'm sure we all applaud.

But none of these things have anything to do with why they are one of the most recognisable brands in the supermarket.

But the 'devoted loyalty' story should not be be presented or viewed as some sort of marketing how-to, and the slavish retweeting and sharing but the kum-bya brigade does not lend any credibility to the idea whatsoever.

For a brand that has 40% of the US luxury ice cream market to be sustained by the small group of devoted ultra loyal superfans would mean that these fans would likely to be somewhat on the overweight side given the amount of product they would need to consume.

This is not, in any way, how brands get built.

The real story of the success of Ben and Jerry's is somewhat more straightforward and explainable by universal laws of marketing.

Ben and Jerrys, over time has become a highly distinctive brand, easily noticed and remembered, with great distribution that's easy to buy for lots of different types of people.

Yes, they have some very loyal buyers.

But not proportionately any more than any other brand. It's the same for everyone.

And in the ice cream category heavy buyers will be literally heavy buyers as the probably consume an equal amount of Haagen-Daaz too.

Edmondson's story might make an entertaining book, but at its root it's fiction.

Most of Ben and Jerry's customers only buy the brand very infrequently. But there are millions of these buyers.

This is how they got big.

And for the vast majority of these customers Ben and Jerry's social mission is of no interest whatsoever and has no impact whatsoever on their purchasing behaviour.

I'll leave you with Edmondson's sign-off line.

If I said this in the boardroom of any of my clients I would not be in a position to complain if they chucked me straight out the window.

. 'It’s much harder to run a mission-driven company than it is to run one that is simply devoted to making a profit.'

Thursday, April 10, 2014

a couple of observations on 'f*ck the poor'

I've been intrigued by this 'social experiment' conducted by Publicis in London on behalf of The Pilion Trust, a charity which supports people living in poverty and the homeless.

The premise being a public intervention that challenges people's behaviour and attitude towards 'the poor' and possibly also around charity street collections in general.

The basic idea is - on the surface - reasonably clever from a behavioural standpoint.

Problem. It's very easy for people to ignore calls for charity donations in the street.

However by calling people's self image as caring types into question - the 'collector' wears a sandwich board proclaiming 'f*ck the poor' - bystanders are jolted into action.

Our old favourite cognitive dissonance comes into play.

Because our self-image as caring citizens is not always matched by our actual behaviour.

Until it is provoked by a point of view that contradicts how we see ourselves.

Later, we see the collector with the sign flipped to read 'Help the poor' as he asks for donations. Of course, this time people ignored him.

While the experiment does prove the point about human nature, to an extent, it's been roundly panned by the ad commentators as gratuitous creative award-bait.

From a marketing standpoint I'd possibly argue that it's not necessarily worthy of advertising awards either.

Principally because of the absence of two factors.

While the confrontational nature of the piece means it's salience factor is indisputable.

I would be hard not to notice.

However at no point does the 'collector' appear actually attempt to collect.

What a missed opportunity to convert the attention into a dollar (or pound)!

Coming back to cognitive dissonance.

When confronted with that disconnect between their actual behaviour and their self image people would be almost guaranteed to make a donation in order to re-align.

But they are never asked.

Secondly, the complete absence of any branding whatsoever (even after the bystanders are moved into action) does not make it easy for them to donate - the guy does not appear to represent any organisation, he's just some random nutter.

Without the frame of a brand it's going to be very hard for our befuddled shoppers to have a reason to 'buy' and - more importantly - for the Pilion Trust they get no benefit, in a brand sense (or donations) from the activity.

Sure, the clip has gathered up a significant number of YouTube views but, of course, the evidence to support how this regularly and predictably converts into donations is thin on the ground.

I only say this because it's disappointing to see good creative ideas, grounded in truth that fall over in execution through a lack of some basic marketing chops.

The fatal flaw being in it's own dissonance.

It's a behavioural intervention ('new' paradigm) in one active arena that has been constructed in order to attempt (old paradigm) to change the 'attitudes' of spectators in another - passive - arena.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

the golden age of bullshit - advertising week 2014 keynote with the great Bob Hoffman

This entertaining and correct 30 minutes or so with Bob Hoffman - aka the ad contrarian - is the absolute dog's bollocks.

The talk is a recording of his guest lecture at Advertising Week in London just the other week. The material will be reasonably familiar to those who read him on a regular basis but to have the man himself deliver it, and all his key themes in one chunk is a treat.

And he swears quite well, for an American.

As someone who, for a long time - and up until perhaps 2 or 3 years ago when I called time on it - displayed many of the traits of the bullshitters that Bob calls out with evidence, there is a certain relief at having come out the other side of that social media marketing kool-aid party intact, and a good deal wiser.

Bob's lecture title is very similar to one I had planned to use for a guest lecture that I'm doing next week for some students in Melbourne - 'You can't Shit a Shitter' - which I have now relpaced with something else.

I'm hoping to record the lecture and will post on here if I do.

Here's hoping that Bob's vitriol also inspires some new writing round these parts, it's been a bit quiet of late.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

this is a generic brand video

So, this film should give ad people a wry smile.

Particularly when viewed in the context of the whole 'humanisation' of brands lobby that won't seem to go away.

Though knowing that it is indeed a real ad for the company that sells the stock footage used, did leave me somewhat perplexed about what exactly is being communicated.

Maybe I'm over-thinking it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

come on feel the salience

Whether or not this nugget from Slade guitarist Dave Hill is actually true or not is besides the point.

The way he thought about it is correct.

In their 70's heyday Slade were on UK TV's 'Top of the Pops' every other week.

Each new release would gain a high week one chart entry due to sales coming from the group's large fan base. In fact, it was not unusual for the group to debut at number one or two.

In the early 70's this phenomenon was much more unusual than it is today.

As radio was the predominant distribution channel for hearing new music, songs could take several weeks to build momentum as they gradually got heard by the broader population.

What Slade understood was that in order to sell beyond the fanbase it was important to stand out and get noticed by the less committed music fans, who bought what was popular. 'Top of the Pops' was that opportunity.

In the early 70'S it was the one half hour in the week, on a Thursday night, when the entire nation tuned in to see what the top songs were.

Slade's Dave became known for his outrageous outfits and huge platform boots.

Indeed, Slade once had to cancel a tour after Dave broke a leg after falling off of his boots, such was the height. While a bit of an inconvenience, this tale merely added to the legend.

Anyway, in an old BBC documentary I stumbled on concerning these 'glam' years Dave recalls how he would road-test particular outfits by wearing them while walking round the local Woolworths in his home town of Walsall (a working class industrial town near Birmingham in the English West Midlands).

The outfits that drew the most extreme response from the local shoppers were the one's he wore on TV.


Getting noticed, standing out and being memorable.

Adding to Slade's set of associated brand elements that them super easy to recognise (and buy) - even for those with very little 'brand' knowledge - alongside Noddy's mirror top hat and shouty voice, the deliberate disfluency of mis-spelled song titles (Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me etc) and boot stomping accompaniment (even the ballads!).

(It's probably no accident that Slade's eventual decline began around 1976 when they returned to the UK following and long US tour having dropped the Black Country Glam boot-boys look for a more studious laid back Californian soft rocker vibe).

While Dave never wrote any of Slade's hits in their superstardom 73/74 era he is reported to have remarked to principal songwriters Noddy and Jim.

'You write 'em, I'll sell 'em'.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

love action for Peter Pawlett, baby.

With any rule or set of rules there can be exceptions or anomalies.

A social media manager recently presented conclusive proof to us that Facebook sells product.

Sales data over a four week period on a particular item had remained steady until the item was a featured post on the brands Facebook page, then et voila a 30% spike in sales occurred.

Conclusive proof, right?

Not really. We all know now that a brand's Facebook following is made up of mostly its heaviest and most 'loyal' buyers, albeit a tiny fraction of its total customer base.

In all likelihood the vast majority of these 'extra sales' were merely sales 'brought forward', that would have happened anyway. The measure and value of Facebook pages being their ability (or not) to spread a message and bring in new or lighter customers and increasing penetration.

Historically Facebook has never been very good at that, and by all accounts the algorithm changes (much reported by geeky types elsewhere, so no need for my ham-fisted interpretation) now mean a significant acceleration of its transformation from a social network into an ad network as organic reach becomes less and less likely for most brands.

However, one should always expect the unexpected.

While fans of a brand page are among its heaviest and most loyal buyers, what happens when that group generates momentum around the product of another brand, in a completely different category, where there is very little cross pollination of customers?

80's synth weirdos turned popsters, The Human League, woke up this week to find that their 1981 chart topper 'Don't You Want Me' has had a mysterious revival in interest and (at the time of writing) is sitting pretty at number 13 in the iTunes chart having not troubled said charts for 35 years or so.

The principal driver of the revival has been a collective campaign to 'bum rush the charts' (yep, it never gets old) by football supporters on Facebook, to push the song to number one.

Why is this so?

An interpretation of the song has been adopted and sung by the fans of (my beloved) Aberdeen Football Club throughout this season.

The latest highpoint of said season was the League (no pun intended) Cup triumph last weekend, when Aberdeen edged it on penalties in a semi-local derby against Inverness Thistle at Parkhead (renamed for the day as ParkRed, again a fan-driven modification in recognition of the fact that 90% of the 50k match tickets were held by Aberdeen supporters).

The phone video clip below will reveal all.

The latest in a long tradition of pop songs adapted with football lyrics, Dont You Want Me is replaced with the name of star Aberdeen attacking midfielder Peter Pawlett. Hence 'Peter Pawlett, Baby'.

(As another aside, one of my favourites of this nature is sung by Chelsea fans to visiting Liverpool fans. To the tune of the famous 'Do They Know it's Christmas' charity song, Chelsea's version goes 'Feed the Scousers...'. Also worth noting that Aberdeen have some form in this terrace meme department having invented the 'ten men went to mow' thing, later adopted - with somewhat less gusto - by Chelsea)

What examples like you see in the clip also clearly demonstrate is that social influence is less the 'hub-and-spoke' model as the common Gladwellian 'influentials' notion suggests - ie a small group of influencers directing the many - but much a more fluid and mutual influence, all happening at once. It's much more akin to what Mark Earls describes as the behaviour of the 'influenced' (and their perspective) counting for more than that of the 'influencer'.

For those in the crowd who may have not known what was going on they could quite easily get it because of what they see ordinary others around them doing, in the moment.

Then following that mutual influence there's a further action available, Buy the song.

So, yes, Facebook can sell.

Just not in the way we think (or perhaps would prefer).

And what we, as marketers, can learn and apply is probably something like this.

Understand that it is impossible to try to predict random events. Instead, it is essential to make peace with uncertainty, randomness and volatility (as Taleb would say).

This is, in effect, the essence of the 'real-time marketing' opportunity.

Not the one where every brand in the world huddles round the Oscars or such-like waiting for the thing to comment on.

The one that, when it comes along, the smart brand takes it.

Certainly for The Human League a chance to capitalise on some unexpected newsworthy-ness among a public (many of whom will never have heard of Phil Oakey and gang, and many who had forgotten) getting acquainted and reacquainted with the brand - it's all about those associated memory structures, after all.

And for Aberdeen FC a fan driven vehicle to further attract the 'light users' that are critical to brand growth.

40,000 supporters made the trek to Glasgow for the cup final, whereas the average attendance at home matches is closer to 10 or 12,000.

There's a huge market of lapsed or infrequent customers who can, and should be nudged to buying a little bit more.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

a note on brand frames and anchoring

In the clip above, Aussie discount retailer Best&Less hosted a pop up store in a Sydney shopping mall.

However, ‘The L&B Experiment’, was designed to look like more a boutique fashion store (with the, naturally, hefty boutique-y price tags). The twist being that the clothes for sale were all regular cheapo Best&Less products.

The 'real' price was revealed at the point of payment, around a third of the actual ticket price.

The happy shoppers were, of course, delighted to discover this.

But it's worth remembering what we know about brands as frames.

The amount that we are prepared to pay over and above the objective value of any product is usually equal to the value of the frame that the brand provides at the moment of purchase.

This why we have brands. It makes buying easier.

Framing operates implicitly, hence the shoppers in the clip are not aware of its influence.

Therefore, while the percieved value of the product is greater in the context of this 'designer' store, what happens when the products return to their natural habitat? The Best&Less store.

When returned to their original 'frame' does their percieved value change back to what it was in its original context?

Nice bit of anchoring (with a priming effect) on the price tags, though.

But it remains to be seen what this will deliver from a brand standpoint.

it's got a basket, a bell that rings and things to make it look good

Fly6 is an interesting idea that's come from a couple of cycling enthusiasts and inventors out of Perth, here in Australia.

Their product is a rear bike light with an embedded HD camera that 'aims to discourage bad behavior on the part of motorists by warning them that they’re being filmed'.

Essentially a nudge-like move that (in theory) works in much the same way as speed cameras do in managing the speed limit.

Although on consulting Mark, our resident cycling expert in this office, we were reminded that innovations such as this will only be effective as a deterrent if widely adopted by cyclists and 'mentally available' to the mass of car drivers.

Until that point there's still value for the cyclist should they be the victim of dodgy driving, they will have the evidence on film.

But at a $169 price point and limited distribution mass adoption is probably a way-off yet.

Until the $25 knock-offs arrive.