Friday, January 21, 2011

Packed to the Rafters...with ads.

As viewers fast-forward, time-shift and download to avoid commercial breaks, product placement has been promoted as the solution for brands and marketers. Now, new technology allows brands to insert products and messages digitally, long after the TV show or movie has been shot. So is this virtual embedding the answer, or just another technical gimmick is search of a sucker?

A week or so back, Channel Seven announced a deal with MirriAd, a London-headquartered company with a proprietary tool that allows products or advertisements to be placed digitally into movies or TV shows after filming. Months, years or even decades after a scene has been shot, the MirriAd technology can drop in any product or message into any scene for any length of time.

Seven intends to use it on two of its top-rating shows, Home and Away and Packed to the Rafters.

The showreel on the MirriAd website shows Forrest Gump now sitting on a park bench painted with a Coke logo, The Cosby Show Huxtables trading banter around a breakfast table with a box of Special K in the centre, and Derek Zoolander unleashing Blue Steel to the backdrop of a poster for jeans.

The company claims this as the cure to time-shifting (and fast forwarding) television audience. And no doubt for many frustrated marketers and brands, it's an attractive sales pitch.

But will it work? Is it the future that its promoters claim it to be?

No. Not in and of itself.

Digital or otherwise, product placement isn't new. Jules Verne mentioned several companies as he serialised his novel Around The World In Eighty Days. Soap Operas got their tag because they were initially underwritten by companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble. Mr Ed's Wilbur drove a Studebaker. The Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies famously turned $100 million before selling a ticket. Sometimes it worked.

But sometimes it didn't. Sylvester Stallone's 2001 feature Driven featured 103 brands in 117 minutes, but shifted few units of anything. Mostly due to the fact it was so awful, nobody sat through it.

Context is everything. MirriAd's technology is interesting, but technology won't shift a unit of product without an insight or idea that connects the brand back to the content they choose to watch.

In his book Buyology, Martin Lindstrom analysed the performance of three brands featured in the 2007 season of American Idol. Each of Ford, Cingulat (a wireless telephone network) and Coca-Cola had invested the same US$26 million, but each took a different approach to leveraging that investment.

Ford did little more than hire the contestants to appear in commercials that ran during the breaks. Cingular sponsored the ring-ins by which people voted performers on and off. While Coke took a far more integrated approach, putting cups of soft drink in front of the judges and having the cnotestants wait in a fire-engine red room, and siting on a sofa shaped in the style of the brand's signature bottle.

Lindstrom's findings were interesting. Amongst the focus groups, brand salience went backwards for Ford, improved a little for Cingular and went gangbusters for Coke. WIth a carefully crated and relevant strategy, the Atlanta kings were able to dominate the show and get great ROI (and, to Lindstrom's thinking, at the expense of their co-sponsors).

It seems obvious. Product placement where it is a relevant and believeable part of the story, can work. Because it ceases to become product placement and starts to become a part of the story. And it is here that creativity plays the crucial role.

When ET followed the Reece's Pieces into the boy's home, nobody in the audience saw the colour of Hershey's money. Because Spielberg understood that we all deal with brands every day, and created a believeable and charming moment.

If similar judgement is exercised with Packed To The Rafters, the positive results may ensue. But blind reliance on technology is a guarantee of nothing at all.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Nestle want to sell food to my dead dog.

Three years ago Bandit, our much loved blue heeler cross, died. My wife had found her as an neglected puppy on the streets of Cairns. For sixteen years Bandit was her constant companion. When we moved in together, Bandit came with her. When our children were born, Bandit was the embodiment of canine tolerance.

When Bandit passed in 2007, we felt like we'd lost a member of the family. Because we had.

Then yesterday, my wife received a spam email from pet food manufacturer Purina, a division of Nestle. It was charmingly addressed to Bandit.

Amongst other things, the nice people at Purina gave helpful advice on what Christmas foods Bandit should avoid this Christmas and how to manage her fear of fireworks (a great tip in a country where fireworks have been banned for decades).

The spam then goes on to gush about a local lost dog's home, and the brand's proud and sincere support of it.

At the top is the Purina tagline 'Your Pet, Our Passion' and the spam is signed off 'Your Friends at Purina'.

The world groans at the seams with astoundingly stupid and thoughtless marketing. But most stupid and thoughtless marketing is, by it's very stupidity and thoughtlessness, invisible and ignoreable. The only damage done is to a marketing budget and an investor's dividend.

This makes me want to burn something to the ground. Something Purina-shaped.

Sending spam emails to dead dogs is just about as insensitive as a pet food can get. Slapping Australian references on an American eDM is just about as lazy as a marketer can get. And faking empathy is far nastier than being properly and corporately selfish.

Maybe I'm over-reacting. Maybe this is just a sign of the times, and we should just put up with it.

Or maybe it is a virulent and dangerous strain of marketing-degree moronism that should be bundled in a hessian bag filled with bricks and thrown in the nearest river.

The floor is open...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Using Celebrities

The latest Lipton Ice Tea commercial, starring Hugh Jackman. It's a classic use of a celebrity, simply taking what we know of him (uncomplicated, talented, friendly, famous) and trying to attach those values to the brand.

The commercial tells us nothing at all about the product. It could just as easily be for a rival brand of iced tea or a mineral water, chewing gum, energy drink or instant coffee.

In fact, the commercial is pretty much his opening to the Oscars a few years back, without the witty dialogue, star cameos and insightful interperetations of the zeitgeist.

Instead of informing or persuading, it tries to dazzle us (probably successfully) with the stratospheric calibre of it's star.

There's nothing especially wrong with this approach. Nor is it particularly new. Aligning your brand with a current celebrity is a fast and proven way of shifting attitudes toward your product or service.

However, the effect only lasts as long as your celebrity retains currency (and your budgetary pockets remain deep enough to run your commercials). In the case of Jackman, his personal brand is probably stronger that the product he's pitching. Should he move on to the next beverage endorsement, he'll take all the the things that make this commercial watchable and effective with him and leave Lipton to pick up the pieces and start again.

Additionally, consumers are so used to this approach (no Bono, no!)that they don't attribute any lasting value to it unless,
(a) the endorsement seems believable
(b) the endorsement is 'left-field'

Let's take the latter first. While there's nothing especially surprising about a movie star endorsing a soft drink, there is something astounding about a Russian communist leader endorsing luxury luggage.

Which gives the Louis Vuitton celebrity endorsement its power. It's unexpected. It extends our knowledge of both the man and the brand. And the headline not only reflects the journey of Mikhail Gorbechev, but also taps into the truth of travel.

The message far outlives the successes or failures of the celebrity because it doesn't attach itself to them. The brand and the celebrity combine to form something new and salient.

We can imagine Gorbechev thinking about the consequences of his decisions each and every day, as we might also reflect on our lives in those quiet moments in cabs, planes and solitary hotel rooms.

Sainsbury's association with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is also successful for slighty different reasons.

Oliver doesn't simply and blandly endorse the produce of the UK's third largest supermarket chain. Watch it carefully. He mouths none of the usual platitudes about 'market fresh' or 'everyday low prices'. That would be a misuse of his own powerful brand.

Rather, Sainbury's resist the temptation to use him as a dumb mouthpiece, or pack their brand as a passenger on the Jamie Oliver juggernaut, and instead take what we know of him (the discerning, infectiously enthusiastic chef and purveyor of quality ingredients) and mix it indelibly with their brand offering.

The creators of the Oliver campaign understood what people liked about Jamie and extended that (who wouldn't like Jamie to come home and make them dinner) rather than simply feeding off it.

And in the process they create something new and believable and powerfully branded.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You don't have to be perfect, just human.

If you follow American sports, you'll know the furore caused by NBL star LeBron James' move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat a few months back.

Twice the league's MVP,'King James'was considered the lynchpin to his team's hopes of winning a first-ever championship.

His announcement to leave was televised live to a breathless nation, the response in his hometown was singlet-burningly vitriolic.

Cleveland Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert immediately published an open letter to fans, denouncing the decision as a "selfish", "heartless", "callous", and "cowardly betrayal", while guaranteeing that the Cavs would win an NBA title before the "self-declared former King".

If you were LeBron, the sensible thing would be to keep your head down, right? And if you were his major sponsor, you'd try and gloss over the fact that half of America despised the behaviour of your star asset, right?


This is a great spot. It's great because it treats the viewer with intelligence, asks us to challenge our pre-concieved views, and invites debate.

It's great because it doesn't set out to be a monopoly of information, or try to provide you with an opinion.

It's great because it doesn't mind if you walk away unconvinced. It puts its faith in the argument and in the smartness of its viewer.

To be a great brand, you don't have to be perfect. Because you can't be. It doesn't hurt to admit your imperfections if they are there for all to see.

In fact, they might be the key to the way ahead.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Being useful

Precocious bike brand Rapha have this last weekend launched their new iPhone app.

For us it serves as a pretty handy marker as to where brands might be headed.

It doesn't tell you where to buy their expensive bike attire, or show you styles and prices. Perhaps it already assumes you own a piece or two, or have at least heard the talk.

It simply allows you to organise groups of people who like riding to and from the same places at the same time as you do. Which if you are a rider (Campbell isn't but Chris is) is incredibly useful.

From the Rapha site:

We all know the problem. Organising a ride with friends. Or maybe not friends, more likely adversarial training partners, or perhaps someone you have never ridden with before. Arranging meeting for a ride can be a thankless task spread over a multitude of devices and communication methods.

And then, further to this complication of arrangement is the uncertainty involved in the act of meeting. An unforeseen puncture, a headwind from hell, getting lost, another unforeseen puncture (after two they become foreseen) – the epic could begin before the planned epic (or perhaps just a light training spin) has even begun.

It strikes right in the heart of a human being that likes nothing more than getting up in the dark at 5am to ride in the rain with a bunch of people he or she never sees at any other time of his life.

It appeals to the human quarter that he or she believes sets them apart from everyone else. And could anything be more useful than that?

Able and Baker's travel budget didn't extend to sending delegates to last weekend's Caxtons. But we're reliably informed that keynote speaker, R/GA's Nick Law spoke on this very subject.

"If advertising tries to compete on storytelling, you're up against (Pay-TV channel) HBO and Hollywood," he said.

"We think the new formula is innovation plus demonstration. When you create a social (application) you're designing a system of engagement. It's less about telling stories.

"In the systematic space, make it useful, for God's sake," he said.

R/GA has proved this point with their much lauded Nike Plus campaign. Rapha have managed to get to the heart of their people with this app.

But perhaps what's most striking about the Rapha app, and what's most counter-intuitive for marketers, is that you don't have to be a customer to use it.

It's free. No cash, no credit card, no proof of purchase required.

It recognises that while you may not yet be a customer today, if we spend a little time together, you just might be tomorrow.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Is Australia the 'dumb blonde' of the world?

In a Sydney conference yesterday, branding expert and author Simon Arnholt labelled Australia as the world's 'dumb blonde', attractive but shallow and unintelligent.

He pointed to the current tourism advertising campaign, Tourism Australia's move to bring Oprah to Australia and the lack of a cultural exchange programme like Germany's Goethe Institute or France's Alliance Francais.

''What you have is an image of a country that is considered to be very decorative, but not very useful,'' he said.

Mr Anholt said Australia relied too much on ''logos and slogans'' in its efforts to change people's minds about the country.

In a similar vein, Paul Hogan who starred in the 'Shrimp On The Barbie' ads of the early 80s, commented;

"If I go to your house to visit and I want to come back, it's because I enjoyed your company not the furniture," he said.

Campaigns like this address the furniture. If you took them at face value, and I'm not sure how much other value there is, the world would get the impression that we all spend our days beach-frolicking in the shallows, communing with kangaroos and watching fireworks in sequinned dresses.

And you've got to wonder what kind of hook that is.

Brand uber-guru Wally Olins, who's been working in this space for decades and amongst other things, helped Spain transition from the Franco-era poor man of Europe to the country that hosted the Olympics less than twenty years later, points out, sun, sand and sea are commodities. As soon as someone else can provide it closer and cheaper, your brand is diminished.

'You have to sell your culture, your history, your food your background,' says Olins. 'Otherwise, you are in the commodity business.'

Compare and contrast the 'Nothing Like Australia' campaign with Tourism Victoria's current campaign featuring Daylesford.

Simon Arnholt probably has a good point.

(If you are a Wally Olins fan, here's an excellent presentation on branding and nations in four parts. It's long but excellent)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Under the influence

Mazda have been a client of Melbourne agency CHE for several decades or so. Which is a lifetime in the cut and thrust of Australian advertising. And in the last couple of years or so, they've been nice enough, from time to time, to ask Able & Baker along for the ride.

As reported in influential industry journal GoAuto, Mazda's advertising has been found to be the 'most likely to influence a buyer to own one of its cars'.

The report said:

'A startling 42 per cent of buyers told market researchers Colmar Brunton that Mazda advertising was most likely to make them consider one of its models – a stunning result for a company on nine per cent total market share.'

In the same month, Mazda failed by just two vehicles to outsell traditional Aussie heavyweight Ford.

Which is nice.

Here's an on-air TVC for Mazda 3.

You can read the full GoAuto article, here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

We live in your world

I don't mind the 'Barbara from Bankworld' campaign for ANZ. The scripts are well-written, the performances are spot-on and the end result is pretty funny. And full marks to the client for having the self-awareness to approve ideas like these.

However, I worry a little that it's the right campaign for the wrong client. Or a cute advertising idea with a hollow centre.

The sector is extremely competitive, with any product or service advantage quickly matched and neutralised. The end result is, with a few odd exceptions like the excellent ANZ iPhone app, it's pretty much a level playing field.

ANZ has pretty much the same products, the same service levels and branches in the same sorts of places as the other Big Three. So while Barbara captures the zeitgeist of anti-bank frustration, I wonder what long-term value there is for the brand. We might well laugh at Genevieve Morris' excellent character, but it may not be quite so funny when encountering a real-life Barbara at an ANZ call centre or in a branch.

And as anyone who's ever tried to cancel a credit card or arrange a small business loan will tell, there are plenty of them.

However while in the Collins Street last week, I flipped open my laptop in a cafe to find the following notfication on my screen.

With little fanfare or self-aggrandaisement, ANZ provided free wi-fi in this small CBD cafe. So that people could check their emails, read the news or even do their banking without any hassle.

The tagline to the Barbara campaign is 'We live in your world'. I reckon this is a far more persuasive expression of that brand idea.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Friday, September 10, 2010

This is like totally two weeks old already...

Technology is really cool. If you don't believe me, listen to Louis CK.

But sometimes there is a tendency to get overexcited about the technology itself, rather than what the technology enables you to do.

A brand isn't cool just because it has a facebook page or tweets. A twelve year old can do both those things. Probably better than you.

What's cool about technology is not what it is, but what it does. What it enables you to do.

And when the convergence of an idea and technology is at it's very best, you don't even notice the technology at all. It just becomes a part of the storytelling process.

The new film by Chris Milk for Canadian band Arcade Fire is a co-production with Google, using the the bits of wizardry at the pointiest bit of the pointy end of their arsenal. Which is pointy to the power of ten.

But funnily enough, once you're in, you forget all about the wizardry and just get lost in the moment.

Try it for yourself here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


A hundred hours of painting compressed into a ten minute video. Artist Phlegm (good name) describes himself as someone who 'makes comic books and sprays paint on walls.' You can find more Phlegm at