Sunday, August 31, 2008

Yes, it's back to school time again...

I said I wasn’t going to even mention back to school as a retail category, but here I am, unable to avoid it. My children get on the bus on Wednesday of this week. Yes, we spent money on school. And yes, we weren’t the only ones caught up in the hype despite our desire to stay on a budget.

I normally deny that I am at all moved by the calendar or invented retail "seasons." Just as bad as hearing Christmas music in the mall before Halloween is being hit with flyers and circulars for B2S specials while August is still in full swing and I’m still not done with the second of my three beach novels for the week. We typically try not to splurge on more than a new backpack or lunchbox and, as we moved to a new school system, some desk supplies required for each grade, but even that can be fun for the kids. The first two years we tried to get our school supply shopping done over the summer at all the fun, weird stationary stores in the little towns where we vacation. It’s nicer to have folders with college logos than the endless busy patterns and kittens from Target. But this year we didn’t get the list in time and, well, there are only so many varieties of file folders. So we hit the back to school forced march.

All summer I’ve been commenting on how much or how little I see people in retail stores. But there’s been a limit to my own retail research: I studiously avoided the mall until I had no choice (There were those three trips to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store, but that’s a story for another time.)

Media Post's Karl Greenburg reports that specialty retail stores are particularly hard hit this fall. Stores like the Gap are down, of course, but they were already feeling the pinch, as they say. Still, it was hard not to notice the difference in the mall: the Old Navy was strewn with clothes and long lines, but the Gap was relatively empty. The sales clerks looked forlorn as we walked by. Much of the kid retail, like the Limited 2 and TCP were hopping, as you’d expect, but the big department stores – from Macy’s to Sears – were relatively quiet. Let's hope the Gap's new celebrity-driven ad campaign can pull in some late fall shoppers who still need classics that last longer than the Old Navy "ten minute t-shirt," as it's called in my house.

On the other hand, despite my derision of the JC Penney and Sears campaigns to get teens to buy their clothes, the jaded teenager in my house noted that the JCPenny television ad that mimicked the Breakfast Club -- and the clothes it featured -- were, in her words, “not bad.” Apparently I was supposed to like it, too: "We knew parents would relate to it," says Chief Marketing Officer Mike Boylson. The ad also has a twist for today's tweens and teens: a remixed version of Simple Minds' Don't You (Forget About Me) from The Breakfast Club's soundtrack. The hook? “What’s old is new again.”

And unless my daughter develops a sudden need, I think I’m keeping my artic parka and Madonna gloves in the attic for a few more seasons, thanks.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Following consumer trends when there aren't any

It's a bit dizzying trying to follow retail market trends in this economy. One day it looks like Wal-Mart and the other big box discounters are doing well. The next, people are cutting back. Today, Marketing Daily reports on a study by Cramer-Krasselt that basically demonstrates what common sense should tell us without the research expense: under tough economic times, it's hard to predict what consumers will do.

This downturn is like no other in generations," the agency notes in its study, "not because of its severity, but because it has given rise to a new set of consumer beliefs." It isn't just that people are frustrated (as 50% of the survey's 500 respondents are), worried (48%) or annoyed (29%). And it isn't even that the sense of financial security is so weakened, although 61% of the people polled feel less financially stable compared to a few years ago, and only 26% of people feel very secure about their financial future.
Consumers are simply following patterns they've already established, sticking to certain brands in some cases, going with store label and generics in others, and cutting back in places where they can. The lack of predictability is bound to create a bit of frenzy in the retail marketing world: what do you do when you've developed a whole industry around reading behavior that now seems hard to read? At the same time, there's opportunity for creativity. It's useful to note that people are still spending -- and they believe these trends will not go on forever, an important factor in creating brand loyalty. If they can count on a product now, they can count on it later, too. This holds true for luxuries as well as necessities: Despite the complaints about the new 3G iPhone, the Apple stores I visited in three northeastern malls were packed with customers every time I visited. It's a desirable product with some long term viability, especially as new reports suggest greater customer satisfaction with Apple than any other computer products. The Genius Bar was buzzing and appointments were filling up fast. The rest of the malls had a stale quiet air in comparison (admittedly, this was a week or two before the Back to School hype began to kick in. This week, I notice, the parking lots are filling up). NPD reports that consumers are choosing more judiciously from among these offerings, too. Not everyone needs a new backpack this year, despite the endless variety rolled out in all kinds of stores.

Although it may seem contradictory, there are two simple lessons for marketers in this climate: one, stick to what works and two, be creative. Anyone who can master that relationship can stop worrying about where the spending may happen next.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cookies, grass, and other stuff: giving 'multimedia' a whole new meaning

Whether digital or not, alternative out-of-home formats are exploding as advertisers try to catch consumers during those few precious minutes between work and home (or anywhere and home, for that matter), when their guards might be down and they might be a little bit more receptive to viewing ads.

So aside from digital, what other kinds of things fall under the 'alternative' umbrella, you ask? Well, a few recent ad campaigns were highlighted in the New York Times and other media for their uniqueness, always creative, though not always directed entirely at a point-of-sale:

My favorite involve unusual sites and familiar materials. One was a giant Oreo cookie decal on the side of a glass elevator that dunked into a giant decal of a glass of milk on the exterior of the bottom. The giant dunking Oreo is gone now, but the You Tube video is still popular.

Another great example is from Wimbledon, where the firm J. Walter Thompson hired UK-based artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey to create grass portraits of three figures in the tennis world. The process involves exposing the seeds to different amounts of light in order to get shadings of green, creating a kind of negative effect, varied by the length of the grass. The campaign originally involved planting grass in other sites (bus stations) to highlight Wimbledon’s uniqueness, but the company ended up using artificial turf (which, of course, is precisely what’s NOT in Wimbledon). Either way, the portraits have gotten Ackroyd and Harvey some attention and while it may not have directly increased revenue for the tournament, it did put it back in the news.

The Times also noted Papa John's giant pizza construction, which is designed to bring attention to their new whole wheat crust. While I think giant food is always fun, I'm not sure it's in the best taste at the moment, where people are beginning to strain to fill their supermarket carts.

For some other companies, it’s not about where the ad is placed or how it’s constructed, but the stories being told. Using a format similar to “This American Life,” KeyBank is running a new version of testimonial ads that are designed to encourage people to figure out how to manage your money. In a timely fashion, one ad features an animated video voiced over by U.S. Olympic swimmer Diana Munz who tells how she decided where to keep her gold medal:

As she tells her story, animation depicts her storing the medal in a clam, à la a pearl, putting the clam in a blowfish and having the blowfish swallowed by a secure steel whale. Instead, she opts to put it in a KeyBank safe deposit box. Other spots depict a man's decision-making process on how to finance a home remodel, and another family's work to create college savings funds.
All three of these campaigns do something unique, but all three tell a story, whether it’s a short familiar one (Oreo into milk) or a more complicated one (taking care of you money), it’s all about using different tactics to engage the jaded viewer.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Megabrands make a soggy market

In Advertising Age, Al Ries recently commented on the pitfalls of Megabranding. Megabranding, you ask? What’s that? Remember when a name was attached to a single product? Megabranding expands products in two directions:

One, we get more varieties of the basic item. The first person to point this out to me and the larger public was Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and Public Enemy #1 to the Food Industry. Oreos come in the following (not exhaustive) variety: Double Stuf, Mint chocolate covered Oreos, Fudge Covered Oreos, Springtime Oreos, Reduced Fat Oreos, White Fudge Covered Oreos, Halloween Oreos (Orange Colored 'Stuf') Holiday Red Creme Oreos, Oreo Magic Dunkers, Oreo Big Stuff, Giant and Mini Oreos and, the most necessary of all, Chocolate Cream Oreos.

Two, is the name gets attached to other products (Ries calls this “line extension.”) So, while there’s Oreo ice cream, megabranding would give you oreo candies, even (Marion, cover your ears), perhaps, Oreo breakfast cereals. We already have: Oreo Pie Crust, Oreo ice cream and ice cream bars, Oreo Chocolate Cones (for ice cream), Frozen Oreo Cookies n' Cream Cones Oreo Granola Bars, Cookies 'N' Creme Flavor Hershey's Nuggets chocolate candy), Pillsbury Oreo bars Deluxe, bar mix (, Oreo Brownies, Oreo Snack Packs, Oreo Crunchies, Oreo snack cake mix, Ready-to-Spread Oreo Frosting, Oreo Twist, and the ultimate, Oreo Cake. I'm sure I've missed a few...

Megabranding seems extremely problematic at a time when people are having to make more constrained choices about how they fill up their grocery carts. Choice is not always a good thing, especially when it’s essentially a choice of the same item in only slightly different iterations. Then there’s “overbranding,” where a product logo begins to appear on way too many unrelated items. The New York Times recently profiled Under Armour, an extremely successful athletic wear company whose tiny logo has become ubiquitous to pro football and military personnel. Now, however, the Times wonders, as the brand expands to sports shoes and a women’s line, can Under Armour become a megabrand? It's certainly already on its way.

While sports-minded young men have propelled the brand into popularity, the tiny logo has gotten bigger to stretch across the abdomens of non-athletic middle aged men across American suburbs. It’s on water bottles, umbrellas, bags, hats, and sunglasses. Watching my daughter’s soccer game, I always see more Under Armour in the stands than on the field. I'm not begrudging people's fantasies (after all, the ads are a textbook example of marketing masculinity), but wasn't the original point about a functional piece of attire? How far will it go before Under Armour is unable to wick away the saturation?

Personally, I've decided that my limit is when the Oreo Bagel shows up on the breakfast table and Under Armour puts out a line of energy drinks.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Mad Men and mind reading

AMC’s series Mad Men has been generating a lot of positive attention from critics lately. It’s a slick show set in the 1960s that follows the experiences of Madison Avenue Advertising Executives and the people around them. The New York Times review captures what everyone likes about it:

The advertising executives, who called themselves “mad men,” were at the front of the consumer rat race, hypnotizing the American buyer with huckster campaigns created off-the-cuff in smoky meeting rooms or on a cocktail napkin at El Morocco…. The advertising business was flush, blissfully unburdened by aging readerships, failing newspapers, DVRs or the Internet, and only barely accountable to the federal government or public opinion.

That kind of unbridled freedom is the series’s one speck of sentiment, evoking nostalgia for a time before the current audience-knows-best rule of business, in which viewers vote on who gets to become a pop star, publishers ask readers to choose their authors, and politicians ask viewers to decide what issues they should discuss, as is the plan in next week’s live Democratic debate, a joint project between CNN and YouTube. When Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the suave creative director of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, receives consumer data from the research director that suggests there is no way to avoid addressing Americans’ concerns about the health risks of smoking, Don coolly drops the report in his wastepaper basket.
While some of the big agencies are still run by a few iconic personalities, for the most part it's quite different today. While at one time the industry might have been enthralled with some new creative campaign, data, analytics and big business practices grab the lion's share of headlines these days. Case in point: Brandweek reports that its parent company, Nielsen is partnering with Mindset Media to develop a method of tying consumer behavior (actual purchases) to behavioral data (personality mapping). The idea is to expand Nielsen’s ability to target types of consumers beyond surface demographic information. Retailers may know who buys what, but it’s hard to link that information with good answers to the “why” question.

Personality profiling is nothing new – and certainly the rise of the psychological mindset was important to advertising in the 50s and 60s, too. But today, agencies and retail companies adore it even though everyone admits it’s not an exact science and requires a fair amount of interpretation. But what’s most interesting about this announcement is Nielson’s attempt to link personnas with actual purchasing behavior -- people who allow Nielson into their home get to scan their purchases and then match their behavior against personality tests. On one level, this is good multi-method research, attempting to link actions and ideas. On another level, it’s based on a rather shaky premise, that personality is fixed, measurable, and drives consumption.

It’s not clear that today’s ad campaigns have a better fix on the human imagination than those Mad Men of the 1960s. Neither group really knows how people make decisions. The only research that could actually show this is long term ethnographic work, watching the same people shopping over a long period of time. Reacting to the Nielson news, Russell Jones from AlixPartner put it well when he said:
"The real question in my mind is this: How does it help me make branding decisions any better than the information I used to have? It doesn't tell me who I should target, although it tells me who responds to various brands."
It’s not clear what exactly Nielson and Mindset Media will find out. But I can tell them one thing: whoever came up with the retro-lighter package design for the Mad Men DVD boxed set was right on target.

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