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A Branding & Advertising Evolution: 5 in a Series of Musings Sparked by “The 100 Greatest Advertisements,” Julian Lewis Watkins, Dover Books, 1959

Had lunch with Ted Regan again Friday, this time to return his generously loaned books on Ayer and on the 100 Greatest Advertisements. Next time we get together, I’m bringing my notepad and planning to grill him on his days pitching, winning, and retaining the U.S. Army account. He has shared lots of tantalizing details, but it is an amazing and important story that deserves a full treatment.

I told Ted I was good for one more blog post  in the 100 Greatest Advertisements series and that it was going to be about packaging and retail. There were two examples in particular that sparked some sharp contrasts. And not surprisingly, one of them is another Ayer story.

For everyone who has eaten at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, did you know the origins of the name? That country stores and early groceries, at turn of the century (pre-FDA) America, used to sell crackers, as well as just about every other item, out of wooden barrels or open boxes? A.W. Green, Chairman of the Board of the National Biscuit Company, is credited with pushing for a concept that was likely the forerunner of the packaged food business in the United States — selling branded crackers in neat, sanitary, exact quantity packages. Crackers that would always be clean and fresh and protected from moisture, dust, germs, odors, and whatever else that could find its way into an open barrel. Incredibly, Green’s board did not share his vision, did not want to disturb grocers or their barrels, thought the idea would fail, and did not get behind it.



Fortunately, one of N.W. Ayer’s top execs, H.N. McKinney, saw Green’s vision and raised it with a brand, a plan, and a campaign to entice the public via newspaper and magazine ads, streetcar cards, and posters/signage. And so, UNEEDA Biscuits in boxes were born and promoted by a little boy in a rain slicker (the art director’s nephew).  U-Need-A-Biscuit may be a corny name, but it worked. All of it worked. Together (integrated marketing communications anyone?). It all worked so well that National Biscuit had to build additional bakeries in different parts of the country in order to supply the huge demand that the Ayer campaign and the Green packaging concept created. You can bet that a lot of copycat packaging followed on and that little by little groceries and retail stores, and packaged goods companies, scrambled to entice customers with bright packaging, from folding cartons, to tins, to labeled bottles, cans, and tubes.

The irony is that today, the drive is in the other direction, toward less packaging and a more sustainable future. There are a lot of positive stories, but also mindless zealotry. Packagers keep trying to source reduce to lowest possible but sometimes absurd levels. I’ve had water bottles spring leaks because they have been rendered so weak and flimsy. I have found toilet paper now being marketed as eco-friendly because the cardboard roll in the middle is gone. Many landfills are at a point where they are actually looking for more trash in order to feed trash-to-energy projects.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The Catalog Side of Sears, Circa 1949.

The drive is also in the other direction on many retail fronts. I was struck by a couple of things on this page from the 100 Greatest Advertisements, which featured the cover of the Spring/Summer 1949 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog (where have all the Roebucks gone?). First, the cover didn’t obviously feature merchandise, unless worn by kids and teacher in the classroom setting depicted. Second, in that classroom setting, circa 1949, the emphasis was on Safety with a capital S.  There is a never-ending quest these days to make this the safest of all possible worlds (and that’s a blog for another day), but few people associate 1949 as a safety-focused year. Third, Sears’ message on the front cover talks candidly about higher prices being the norm, then casually delivers good news that many prices inside are lower than the prior fall.  Finally, the catalog came by way of Roosevelt Boulevard (I can still picture one of the Great Northeast’s classic landmarks).

Just as video killed the radio star, e-commerce has been making life very difficult in the retail bricks and mortar world. Sears is still there (but with a lot fewer stores), as are Macy’s, J C Penney’s, WalMart, and a host of others, especially individual specialty stores. While Amazon seems to be online’s 800 lb gorilla, the most successful retailers today are those who successfully bridge physical stores, great shopping experience web sites, and well-targeted catalogs. Know thy customers and reward their loyalty with many options, stellar customer service, and promos, discounts, and freebies. No one said marketing, sales, and advertising are easy.

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Black Friday shopping gets bleaker with each passing year.

Black Friday shopping gets bleaker with each passing year.

“When Black Friday comes, I’ll collect everything I’m owed.  And before my friends find out I’ll be on the road.” I’m pretty sure that Steely Dan didn’t have the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season in mind when they wrote those lyrics. But there is a sense of entitlement captured there that rings truer with each passing annual installment of these retail follies.

This year, the yuletide injury report is evenly scattered coast-to-coast, many at Wal-Mart stores, and this year with pepper spray being used by both a psycho-shopper, and in a separate incident by law enforcement as a warning to an unruly mob.  Nothing says the season of giving like trampling others in a bid for electronic gear that will still be available in the same stores tomorrow and the day after that. And December 26, too. The obsession with material goods clouds all common sense — one shopper was shot to death by parking lot robbers when he refused to part with his purchases.

For 11 months out of the year, brick and mortar retailers are begging shoppers to come visit (and shop) and yet mall traffic continues to dwindle. Then, one stinking, heavily promoted, holiday sale day arrives and suddenly amateur productions of “Lord of the Flies” break out in unison across the US map.  It is little wonder that online and catalog sales continue to surge. Seasonal shopping is no longer a Currier and Ives moment. Darwin rules.

My son decided to brave the crush and went with friends to the Philadelphia Outlets at midnight. It turned out to be very good exercise because they had to park a mile away or risk getting in the parking lot and off-ramp gridlock that went on for hours.

In spite of the holiday horrorshow that is Black Friday, one retailer has managed to strike a balance of quirky humor and obsessive fun about the shopping frenzy. Last year, and revived this year, Target created an entire campaign centered about the loonytoon Christmas shopper lady, well dressed, but with crazy ninja skills, who encourages shoppers to prepare for the season. And for the mayhem.  If all the real world shoppers shared this lady’s off-kilter spirit and uber-anticipation, we wouldn’t need a national police blotter tallying the body count. I preferred the original meaning of “shop ‘til you drop.”

Black Friday isn’t about to go away as a sick holiday tradition, though. Early reports show that sales surged once again in spite of several years worth of sordid news stories.

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Video can close the deal. On line. In store.

Video can close the deal. On line. In store.

Interesting article from VentureBeat on encouraging study results when video is used online to boost sales of non-tech products like Air Wick.

Video is just a great way to engage prospects and now there are more places to do so than ever before. Sure, everyone who wants to go viral has a clip on YouTube. Plus, more and more web sites out there incorporate video promotion opportunities.

But the really amazing thing to me is how many other places that flat screens are showing up to sell people during downtime. You can find them at the local diner. At the grocery store (in produce, at deli, and at checkout). At the gas pump. In the back of NYC cabs. In local bars, and it sometimes follows, even over urinals.

The best uses I’ve seen include digital billboards that are the most engaging outdoor since Burma Shave. They feature rotating advertisers, the ability for advertisers to rotate their own messages, and even law enforcement APBs such as Amber Alerts.

Also, I was surprised, during a recent trip to Wal-mart to find more video displays on end caps. For many years, Wal-mart was a bare bones shopping environment. There weren’t many options for POP displays, let alone digital signage. Times have changed for the better.

Well done point-of-sale videos, whether they are TV commercials or a dedicated sales presentation about the product, are a great way to close the deal. You’re engaging buyers when they’re filling their shopping carts. Why aren’t all package goods companies and retailers investing in in-store video? Then, posting them online, on their web sites, on YouTube, and on as many other locations as possible for driving traffic?

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While most of us in marketing are working hard to figure out how social media can be leveraged to help commerce, build brands, and add jobs, youth is still utilizing Facebook, Twitter, and other apps as a way to fight boredom and generate excitement through instant buzz events. There is some indication that the recent flash mob violence in Philadelphia began innocently enough with a couple aspiring artists trying to create a crowd for street dance performance. The problem is that crowds are tough to control and real people were hurt by real thugs. And real damage was done to real retail stores. And real challenges are now faced by the Philadelphia police and the City’s tourism team.

Enter this past weekend’s attempt to have some silly fun on an international scale — 150 cities, 150 public parks, 150 pillow fights with anyone who through Facebook, Twitter, etc. wanted to join the fray.

Here is a video of one of the larger gatherings from NYC’s Union Square:

And here is my own first-person take on the proceedings. Earlier in the day, my family had walked around Union Square. It was hard to walk through Union Square because there was an outdoor market filled with food and craft and art vendors. We opted to enjoy the glorious weather in Central Park instead. Returning late afternoon, we exited the Lexington Avenue subway stop just in time to see the crowd gathered in the park armed with big fluffy pillows. Not sure we heard a whistle, but we suddenly saw a sea of white, especially airborne feathers. It was a fascinating spectacle. Including watching a NY eccentric (he seemed to be too well dressed to be homeless) pull a discarded pillow from a nearby trash can and discard it again with a disgusted look.

And here was the wind-down/aftermath.

The aftermath of NYC's pillow fight

The aftermath of NYC's pillow fight

People were supposedly asked not to bring feather pillows, but a lot of pillow-fighters missed that public service message. One girl with very frizzy hair walked past looking like she had been buzz bombed inside a chicken coop. There were also a lot of young people having a genuinely good time. Plus, many amused bystanders. There was a hell of a mess for NY City’s streets department to clean up. And as I walked around Union Square, there were still outdoor market merchants breaking down their tables and wares, covered with a thin layer of feathers. No one said commerce in the new digital economy was going to be predictable or easy.

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