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Every business decision can be a way to burnish the brand or avoid nightmarish PR scenarios like this one.

Every business decision can be a way to burnish the brand or avoid nightmarish PR scenarios like this one.

Let’s admit it — as marketing and PR have gotten increasingly commoditized and digitized, C level executives have increasingly tuned out this profession. When high level branding and marketing decisions are made, it is often C level executives themselves who craft the messaging. For bread and butter stuff, too often inexperienced and sometimes entry level people are tasked to administrate programs.

This local news story that escalated to national attention is a perfect example of what can happen when corporate decision-makers limit their thinking to what is legal and to what will save them money in the short run. If you haven’t read this story yet, you need to and to draw your own conclusions. I don’t intend to rehash it; however, it is, as Oprah says, “a teachable moment.”

Now, their need for PR is immediate, but it is crisis PR, and frankly, there is no way to “spin” a story like this so the company and the decision-makers come out looking like reasonable people or good corporate citizens.

There may be a very significant backstory here that makes the decision to terminate this woman seem sensible and a practical course at the time. However, it will be forever drowned out by the ripple effect headlines. It will cost a lot more than this employee’s salary during this period to repair the damage to the company’s reputation. In retrospect, it might have even been forehead slapping commonsensical to retain her instead of taking the weasel course of having her “sign a form” before she left. “What were we thinking?” Light bulbs are probably going off now that perhaps a woman taking medical leave for such a selfless reason is the kind of employee any company would welcome back to work.

The truth is that the best companies recognize and appreciate that corporate branding, marketing, and PR is integral to every business decision made by every department, at every level— it is all about customer service, enterprise operations, employee relations, community involvement, industry thought leadership, etc. The littlest things can sometimes have the biggest impact. It is impossible to anticipate everything that might lead to negative headlines or bigger problems, but when experienced marketing and PR people are part of the day-to-day mix, they see things differently and can serve as a conscience and a buffer to what is strictly legal or totally bottom line driven. Without them, even seasoned business professionals can wind up looking very amateurish.

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Audi's Terrific New "Luxury Prison" Campaign is This Year's SuperBowl Champ

Audi's Terrific New "Luxury Prison" Campaign is This Year's SuperBowl Champ

The hype over SuperBowl commercials gets bigger every year. That’s because the number of advertisers willing to pony up $3 million per 30-second spot has mushroomed. That’s excluding creative strategy, development, and production costs. If you have a celebrity endorser, the price tag goes even higher. Obviously, this is a competition only the biggest brands can compete in. The real value is in the opportunity to cut through the clutter with some truly memorable messaging and brand positioning.

Ironically, with the advent of YouTube and social media, the buzz generation machine was in full swing the last few weeks. The vast majority of the spots, or teaser versions of those spots, are up on YouTube and sites like this and this and this. The best place to take the temperature of hot, hotter, hottest spots, however, is Mashable, which has compiled Twitter results on the ads generating the most advance interest. Advertisers and agencies have caught on to the formula that Hollywood uses, releasing various versions of movie trailers and stills, especially among “fan boys,” to build excitement to a fever pitch when big budget blockbusters hit the theaters.

Even with this unprecedented opportunity to win fans in advance of the big game, some brands still don’t get it.  The posted clips are long-form making of the spot promos (Mercedes) or celebrity behind-the-scenes documentaries (Faith Hill for Teleflora).  And amazingly, Coca-Cola has told Mashable to take down their video because of copyright issues (it’s free publicity, folks!).  David Meerman Scott’s book, “The New Rules of Marketing and PR,” recounts a similar tone-deafness to new media opportunities when the soda giant ignored opportunities to leverage the viral video phenomenon created by dropping Mentos candies into open liter bottles of Diet Coke (the ultimate junior high science fair experiment).

According to Mashable’s Twitter tracking results, Volkswagen has won the SuperBowl advertising fan poll with an entertaining spot of a young Darth Vader wannabee trying to marshal the “Force” by interacting with a variety of things around his household. Its popularity is earned and it will definitely be a water cooler favorite on Monday morning.

The real winner, though, came in second in those Twitter results. It is an audacious new campaign for Audi that is so creatively and strategically original that the car company deserves to reap huge rewards in new car sales in the months ahead.  Previously, if pressed, I couldn’t name you a single Audi commercial, marketing theme, or slogan. For a luxury brand, their advertising has been unmemorable as wallpaper. Not any more.

The change started in recent weeks with a spot that was a narrated voiceover takeoff on the children’s bedtime classic, “Good Night, Moon.” That spot began to redefine luxury and set the stage for something totally unexpected that came next.

The new campaign for Audi is a parody of  the landmark 1978 documentary “Scared Straight,” in which lifers from Rahway Prison spoke to juvenile offenders to paint an unflinching unforgettable portrayal of hard times they can expect from the penal system if they don’t turn their young lives around immediately. Not exactly material for selling luxury cars, right?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9MIs0sBBwBo

That’s the beauty of the new “Startled Smart” spots and extended YouTube videos that are set in a “luxury prison” where old money convicts are enlisted to talk sense into a group of Generation X drivers who think they understand status and how to spend their inherited wealth. The segments are so new, unexpected, and hilarious that you can’t wait to replay them. The real strategic brilliance is that Audi’s creative team has found a way to entertain baby boomers who remember the rawness of the Rahway inmates, as well as Generation X who are down with spending less to get luxury and to sharing these spots via social media.

Following on the first spot’s heels is a second that adds yet another rich layer. It is devoted to the quelling of riots at this luxury prison. The answer is none other than smooth jazz elevator music sax man, Kenny G, having tremendous fun at his own expense.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXE6L2gUDKQ&NR=1

Audi has managed to turn the luxury category on its head with unexpected, truly inspired humor. In the process, it will make a much bigger name for itself, with all those SuperBowl eyeballs. It deserves to win the big game ad contest hands down over all those beer and snack food retreads devoted to all too familiar themes.

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The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

The Mummers Parade, every New Year's Day, is Philadelphia's Mardi Gras.

Every New Year, the Mummers return to amaze, entertain, and ultimately mystify. They are the greatest show on earth that most outside of Philadelphia (and sadly many in the Delaware Valley) seem to pay little attention to.  The parade is thousands of Elton Johns and Lady Gagas in full feathery regalia. An American Idol competition for marching bands and street choreographers. A city-wide spectacle unfolding block by block up Broad Street.

So why aren’t the Mummers front and center in selling Philadelphia tourism? It’s complicated. The City seems to be annually challenged to make the Mummers Parade a profitable enterprise. Because it falls on the New Year’s holiday, the cost of services escalate (and that’s even when the weather is cooperative). Ironically, at a time when the City is packed with people, many businesses prefer to stay closed for the holiday to making money when the opportunity presents itself.

Separated from the parade, the Mummers seem to lose a lot. A single string band is festive, and “O, Dem Golden Slippers” is lively, but a small representation merely hints at the pageantry and year-long sweat and toil by volunteers and performers to pull off each annual parade.

Not surprisingly, the Mummers haven’t translated well to the web. Lots of sites (like this, this, and this), some selling and supporting the uniquely Philadelphian Mummers enterprise, but none capturing the Mummers experience. A somewhat better repository is YouTube with clips of individual club performances. However, that underscores how hard it is to distill the essence of Mummery.

For years, the local TV stations have taken turns providing Mummers parade coverage and playing hot potato. It is always a LONG day of endless commentary and a thankless job for anchors assigned. Only CNN with its 24/7 filling airtime model might be up to the challenge.

Seeing the parade up close and personal, as it unfolds, is the only way to take in all things Mummers. Once, a friend invited my wife and I to watch the parade from the eagle eye view of the Union League. We were warm, had great food and drink, but it was antiseptic. The Mummers parades I remember best were all ground level, strolling along Broad and around City Hall, enjoying both the string bands and the crowds cheering them on. It wasn’t always family friendly thanks to public drunkenness, but it is hard to be judgemental when carrying your own hip flask to help ward off the all-day cold.

Maybe Philadelphia is holiday’d out, with so much devoted to the July 4th Freedom Week celebrations.  Maybe the Mummers are too much of a peoples’ parade of neighborhood clubs and volunteers to be managed cohesively by city officials. Maybe the competition of Mardi Gras (New Orleans has its own holiday), the pageantry of Cirque du Soleil, Ringling Brothers, and Disney theme park parades, and ever-more-elaborate music videos make the Mummers pale to a jaded public.

However, more and more people are attracted to Philadelphia for New Year’s Eve celebrations at great restaurants, bars, and music clubs, with city-sponsored fireworks, and by attractive hotel packages. In 2012, according to recent reports, the city might even be host to the NHL’s national audience tv event, the outdoor Winter Classic. Capping it all off with a full day of Mummery would seem to make Philadelphia a destination city for the entire New Year’s Holiday. The Mummers are a live event and a street event — the city should start planning for 2012 and how best to integrate the parade into making Philadelphia  and the Mummers synonymous with New Year’s memories for visitors from near and far.

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The World Series isn't the Super Bowl when it comes to marketing.

The World Series isn't the Super Bowl when it comes to marketing.

Major League Baseball would love to replicate the advertising juggernaut that is the Super Bowl. The championship match between the two remaining survivors of a brutal NFL schedule. A half-time concert by one of rock’s superstars. A whole lot of pre- and during game hoopla. All those zillions of eyeballs glued to TV sets around the country (and increasingly around the globe). A multi-hour epic time slot in which to sell the world’s most expensive (and in a few cases, the world’s best) commercials.
The World Series is just a very different equation. Like the Super Bowl, it features two prizefighters still slugging it out after a ridiculously long season and post season. But a best of seven series doesn’t have the attention-holding power of a one-night extravaganza. It is less a gladiator battle than a prolonged chess match. The seventh inning stretch is enough time for a local artist to sing God Bless America, but it’s not a mini Stones concert.
Those are all the obvious reasons. However, MLB seems to consistently shoot itself in the foot even by its own standards. Games start at a reasonable hour, but thanks to prolonged pitching changes, they often end deep into the night. Sometimes, like two years ago during a monsoon and following a Bud Selig brain cramp, games are held, delayed, started, stopped, and finished the next day. What starts out as a family event ends as an endurance contest for the heavily caffeinated. Broadcast booth commentary that holds some nominal interest for ardent baseball fans becomes repetitive and a definition of torture under the Geneva Convention by game seven.
Even when there are new faces (bearded ones) like this year’s entrants, the San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers, who supplanted last year’s favored New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, some larger spark is missing. Fox Sports’ ratings are down 25% over last year. It is attributed to the size of the metro markets of the league series winners, but a baseball championship should hold much more than local interest. Fans seem to follow their teams most of the season, then fade away when the field whittles down to eight in the post-season. Here’s a good take by a Giants newsletter writer.
Maybe MLB needs to challenge the marketing community to identify ways to improve the trappings around the game without disturbing the game itself. A few years ago, the NHL (and Fox Sports again) went to a glowing blue circle during TV coverage of the Stanley Cup that highlighted where the puck was at all times. That gimmick didn’t catch on, but at least it was an attempt to engage more viewers.

Erectile dysfunction spots are revealing of MLB demographics.

Erectile dysfunction spots are revealing of MLB demographics.

The clearest example of the need to expand the MLB demographics is the most frequent advertisers that the World Series does attract — erectile dysfunction drugs. Insert your own broken bat single joke here.

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Sign of the Times: Will Market for Food

Sign of the Times: Will Market for Food

The harsh economic reality is that during this prolonged economic downturn, most companies are spending as little as absolutely possible on marketing. Chief marketing officers are under intense pressure to show measurable results on marketing dollars allocated. Companies are willing to spend on technology, such as marketing automation systems, if it enables them to track and tweak every program in every marketing channel. Meanwhile, media spending is way down. A lot of good people have been cut loose and are on the street. There is constant grumbling about sales numbers.
What is missing, besides funding of marketing, is any anticipation of, or excitement over, a great idea. With everyone thinking small and smaller, we are all losing sight of the big picture and transformative thinking. When everyone is fearful of losing their job, there isn’t a long line of managers waiting to take a chance on something that doesn’t resemble wallpaper to blend into.
Standing out is what marketing used to be all about, before the appearance of one-size-fits-all templates. Today, I heard a radio spot for the UPS Store promoting their easy 1-2-3 marketing materials (instant brochures, business cards, etc.). UPS does terrific branding, marketing, and ads for its own global delivery services. Why are they trying to sell the opposite (cookie cutter answers) to Main Street businesses?
Great branding and advertising can make a huge difference. People anticipate the Super Bowl every year as much for the Super Bowl ads as for the football game. Why not make coming up with a Super Bowl level idea a daily pursuit instead of just a one-and-done event. There is nothing exciting about current economic numbers and I suspect the bean counters are running out of ways to cut costs and make them more palatable. Those who understand the value of superior marketing, then support and fund it will be the ones coming out ahead when the economy improves.

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College Marketing Materials: From Here To Infinity

College Marketing Materials: From Here To Infinity

We had a new business meeting this week with the marketing director of a local college. That meeting was about continuing ed, but it prompted me to visit a shopping bag I had kept in the corner of my office after my son headed to campus last fall. The bag was a collection point for all the undergraduate marketing materials he’d received over the course of junior through senior year of high school, from colleges large and small, near and far, looking to fill their freshman class. Hundreds of suitors, who all knew that only one would ultimately be chosen. The Miss America pageant and the nickel slots in Atlantic City offer better odds.
I took the occasion to review many of these postcards, direct mail letters, multi-panel mailers, view books, and other forms of solicitation. Most were also replicated in e-mail form and some with personal web pages (PURLs). It was an incredible example of target marketing run amuck. The deluge began some time after my son’s data was entered online for the taking of the SATs. Multiply him by the number of college-bound students in every high school across the country and you start to get a sense of the crazy business model of higher ed admissions. The goal is to fill as many seats as possible, with the best and brightest you can attract. You have them, hopefully, for three additional years. But every fall, it’s musical chairs all over again.
I was struck by how many images and messages blurred together from one institution to another. All were professionally crafted. Only a few stood out as remotely unique. Campuses and ivy covered buildings look like they were shot for National Geographic. Students are shown with blissful expressions of living in a better place (Brigadoon? Away from home?). Each is chosen by central casting to fill a diversity rainbow and for their Ralph Lauren model looks. Touch football games are big. So is the promise of study abroad programs. Slogans with the words future, career, imagine, and vision abound. There were quite a few mailings with “green” sustainability themes. Given the small forest shown here spread across our conference room table, I got a chuckle out of that conceit.
With so many choices, how do kids and families sort them all out? Everyone has their own criteria and methods. But once the short (hopefully, short) list is arrived at, the campus visits become all important and from each school’s perspective, a minefield. At one top name school, the campus tour guide was completely drowned out by the sounds of construction jackhammers a short distance away. At another, much time was spent (unsuccessfully) silencing the alarm on the front door of a student dorm we were touring. At yet another, prospective students were asked to share something about themselves with others in the room; the problem was that the room was an auditorium full of people, most of whom were pressed for time and were there specifically to learn about that college, not about other prospective freshmen.
The effectiveness of presentations is paramount when you get hundreds of guests into an auditorium. Many that we attended were rambling snooze-fests. Some were technology challenged. And a few were very, very compelling. A really well-done video can compensate for too many speeches from too many campus representatives. Even the Q and A should be carefully prepared for, not with pat answers but thoughtful ones that represent the consistent voice of the institution.
There aren’t any easy answers to college branding and marketing. The processes and messages in place at most schools are well thought out, but often derivative of competing institutions. Really hammering home what is unique about your campus and its offerings is critical. When you throw in the challenges of ever-rising tuition and room and board costs, an especially tight global economy, and competition from more and more online education options, something has to give (and I don’t mean the alumni).

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Startups on a Shoestring

Startups on a Shoestring

That headline is what we in the business call a grabber. Intentionally provocative and written to get you to read on. The subject of this blog post might also be called When Financial Media Overpromise. What prompted it was a special section of the Wall Street Journal entitled Start-Ups On A Shoestring/The tales of three entrepreneurs who launched companies for less than $150. At one time, the Wall Street Journal was considered a pro-business paper. You could say that the intent of this section is pro-small-business. However, the opening sidebar is A Guide to Online Marketing Tools and it shows you how to get marketing for practically nothing. So, since most marketing companies are small businesses, how is that helping them? As for the small businesses this piece purports to help, how is cookie-cutter DIY crap going to help them properly brand, market, and grow?
Get It On Paper tells you about web sites that can help you design and print marketing materials via templates. Who needs four years of art school and many years of learning this craft when you can download a design off the Internet? What’s next? DIY CAD sites for engineering your own products? Cranial mapping sites for performing your own brain surgery? Air traffic control for dummies?
Not bad enough yet? Enter Hewlett-Packard whose Marketsplash services enables users to design marketing materials on their web site and print out virtually anywhere. Cost? It’s free. I hope every designer who owns an HP printer will remember this valuable service. Of course, when they are put out of business, that’s a lot fewer buyers of HP printers anyway.
Making Pictures Perfect is a wealth of nonsense regarding photography, one of the most expensive costs of marketing. It explains how Google’s Picasa program enables digital imaging for amateurs who can’t be bothered spending hours learning Photoshop’s many complex features. And in the hands of amateurs, the results typically look as clumsy as when the Politburo would routinely blot out unpopular officials from historical photos.
The section goes on to suggest use of stock photo sites to buy or rent professional-level images. Of course, it does so barely touching on the distinctions between royalty-free and rights-managed, except to note the significant liability to improperly using a photo someone else owns (i.e., intellectual property) and that “legitimate sites generally aren’t cheap.” What a concept — paying for the product you are going to use.
Don’t Go It Alone introduces crowdSpring LLC, who allows you to get things like a logo design for $200. Designers submit designs (a.k.a. spec work) and you pick your favorite. Each project typically receives an average of 110 submissions, which means that one designer earns the below minimum wage honor of winning payment and 109 designers walk away with 100% empty pockets feeling used.
Things to Keep In Mind are some of the caveats to all this instant online marketing and graphic arts. Caveats such as templates need tweaking. Try to look unique. Don’t forget a coupon.
Shame on the Wall Street Journal and everyone out there selling solutions in a box. This is how to drive innovation and ideas and talent out of the business world, marketing businesses out of business, more people off the job rolls, and more money back into mattresses.

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