Don’t just have serious converastions

I just read a short book that interviewed advertising guru Charles Saatchi, of Saatchi & Saatchi fame.  In it he refers to a period in advertising when people actually looked forward to commercial breaks because the advertising was that entertaining.  People it seems looked forward to the latest ad from brands in the way they now get excited about the next movie staring their favorite celebrity.  I remember that era and he’s right.  I recall wanting to see the latest Levi ad before the start of a movie.  The closest we get to this now is a Budweiser ad during the Superbowl.  That’s sad.  Very sad.

My point here is that marketing should entertain as well as inform.  It should get us on the edge of our seats waiting to be sold to.  In a way Apple has adopted this approach by on the one hand helping fuel rumors about its latest products (see all the rumors around the tablet for example) and on the other making sure it says nothing publicly.  In short we are all dying to find out what Apple will do next.  This is a launch though, so building hype is to be expected.  But what can brands do to build expectation into their marketing AFTER a product is launched?  I’d argue that marketing has lost the art of entertaining and is too wrapped up in having a dialog that is focused on the ‘key points.’  Talking about the key points after the news is out gets, well, boring.  Also, as a consumer I don’t want to spend all my time in a serious conversation with a brand.  I want that brand to entertain me, surprise and even shock me.  Not in  the Tiger Woods way perhaps but you get my drift.

2009 was a year when everyone feared for their jobs and people ran a mile from risk.  In the race to avoid risk, they also avoided anything that was just plain fun.  Please let’s not repeat that in 2010.  Let’s create marketing programs that have a serious conversation but which also engage with customers in other, less serious ways.  Ways that may be harder to rationalize but which we all know just plain work.  Let’s have a Happy New Year.

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Is quality the enemy of marketing?

Marketing execs love product quality for good reason.  A well made product is far easier to promote than one that falls apart in a matter of minutes.  But today’s products are becoming so well made that the need to replace them is moving further into the future.  This latest recession proved the point.  People who would normally replace their cars, computers, appliances etc every few years, didn’t.  Many will have come to realize that the car they are driving doesn’t need replacing.  People are realizing that their existing product will actually last a very long time (thanks to its quality) and so many people  are simply not seeing a need to change or upgrade.  It’s for this reason that many PC makers will have heaved a huge sigh of relief when Windows 7 emerged.  While Windows 7 runs fine on older PCs, it runs much better on newer, more powerful machines.  But there is no Windows 7 for cars, or appliances.  Better gas mileage is a plus but if you have an older Honda, the cost of moving to a newer one far outways the savings on gas.  For car makers like Honda who have a good track record on product quality this creates a problem.  Their customer’s existing product is still working just fine and does 99% of what the new model does.  So how do they convince people to swap?  Indeed, should they even bother?  Of course they have to try and get people to buy their new cars but I wonder how many of the marketing execs wish that the cars on the street were a little less well made?


Why do we want to be entertained?

My wife is convinced I have ADD.  She may have a point in that I struggle to stay focused on anything for longer than 20 minutes and in truth I struggle to read most newspaper articles in their entirety without my mind wandering off.  Part of my problem is that I struggle with content that doesn’t grab my attention and then make a serious attempt to hang on to it.  Like my own blog for instance.  I need content that gets me thinking, makes me laugh, cry etc.  A good book, movie or TV show can do this for millions but what is it about this content that keeps us engaged while other content causes us to head for the coffee maker?  The answer to this question has enormous importance for people in marketing and yet when I’ve subtly, and not so subtly, asked this question to marketers they, like me, have no real answer.  Like me they tend to… well, make something up.

If like me, you decide to look up on the web what keeps people’s attention you will find some pretty weird blog posts that tell you to use the word ‘and’ a lot and to put confetti in your envelopes (I pray that doesn’t happen to me).  Indeed it seems that to holding people’s attention either nobody has written the definitive work, OR the person that has figured it out is Warren Buffett or Bill Gates.

And yet, just as we all like to get attention we all love to give our undivided attention to great content.  Just think about the number of times when talking to friends to talk about books, TV shows, movies and concerts you’ve seen, read etc.  It seems we like both the process of being engaged AND the process of reliving that engagement.  When I started work the founders of my company spent hours each week recounting lines from various Monty Python films or shows.  They derived huge satisfaction from this, much more in fact than they did from the actual work as far as I can tell.  That level of engagement is a marketers dream.  Yet I doubt for a second that anyone who had responsibility for the Python franchise knew why people loved their content.  They just knew they did and they made every effort to take advantage of that.

Of course it may be that trying to capture engagement in a bottle and analyze it is a fruitless exercise.  It may be that the ingredients of fun are a secret we shouldn’t learn.  That said, authors, movie makers and comedians do have formulas they use to create successful products.  We all know that these formulas fail from time to time though.  Witness the Bruno movie that repeated the Borat formula.  In other words even the best of us know only parts of the formula.  As a result the secret ingredient that makes an idea work either shows up and turns it in to good work, or takes a vacation and leaves us bored and rather annoyed.

What is clear is that humans love to be entertained and engaged.  We love a book (Kindle) that we can’t put down.  We love a movie that makes us laugh for days afterwards.  I for one have no idea why we crave this in the same way we crave food that is bad for us but we do.  We seek out great content as if it were that food.  Unlike fattening food, however, this content stimulates our brain and gets us thinking.  Sometimes it gets us to think about profound issues, and sometimes it gets us to think about topics so irrelevant we get to escape our daily lives for a few minutes.

In short, therefore, it seems clear to me that the marketer who could figure out some magic formula for grabbing and keeping our attention will make billions.  Until then we will all keep guessing at that formula time and time again.  Sometimes we will succeed and other times we will fail.  But at least we’ll have fun trying!