Scrolling and clicking, clicking, and scrolling, the mobile economy is surely a boon to retail brands. Strong brands are not defined by sales alone. Strong brands are built on a feeling.
None of this is new or news, yet the media environment and the metrics associated with algorithms of mobile media would appear to favor sales at the expense of brand building.
There is more than one way to build a brand. All brands want to achieve sales. The differences in approach to building a brand often have to do with its origins. If you built your brand out of your garage, then sales are essential to keep building and growing and keeping the lights on. In this scenario, sales are essential to keep funding the operation. If your product or service is good and your sales grow, you’re a success at creating something of value. Why need awareness advertising and brand building efforts? Let’s call this garage scenario brand A.
Let’s consider another scenario, we’ll call it brand B. You’re a well-established entity that has already achieved scale and you have a new idea for a product or service, and you have budget. You can build demand for this brand through an awareness advertising campaign that demonstrates or implies the value of your new idea. This will be the lead driver of sales. In scenario B, you are investing in a feeling, in the aspiration of your idea as an integral part of the life of the consumer. If the advertising is effective and the brand idea is good and the product or service delivers on its promise, you’ll begin to grow your brand and sales too.
How do you measure the effectiveness of one approach over the other? Let’s conduct a thought experiment. If your brand were to disappear, is it easily replaced in the lives of consumers? Would it be missed in a manner that people would find disturbing?
Most brand managers don’t like to answer this question.
If the world wakes up tomorrow and the Apple brand is gone, is there a replacement? Nike? Amazon? Prada?
Functionally you may try to argue there are alternatives. Emotionally, if you’re being honest, your response will be no. This is the signal of a true brand, it’s irreplaceable in hearts and minds.
Why? Brands and branding are not simply about driving sales. It’s about making deep connections with your audience. Connections that head for the heart. It’s these connections that drive more than sales, they drive loyalty above all other choices, they create advocacy among users; spokespeople who recommend your brand. They defend against upstarts, build positive association that protect against the odd mishap and build equity. This equity shows up as brand value that support brand extensions, partnerships, and new offerings in an ever-present response to evolving consumer needs. Most importantly, brand drives market value.
If you can only speak of your brand in terms of sales, chances are pretty good it can easily be replaced in the lives of your customers. You can start with scenario A and build a substantial bottom line but failing to invest in the brand building approach of scenario B leaves your business open to the vagaries of ruthless competition with little more to protect you than price.
Price alone is a race to the bottom.
The rise of Ai and its impact on image making has me rethinking what it means to create photographic work. It’s true that images have been easily manipulated since the earliest days of photography, but each day it gets tougher to tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It’s wonderful and discouraging at the same time. Photography is not illustration. Ai, to me, is more akin to illustration. This post image was captured approximately 23 years ago during a trip to Andros Island in the Bahamas. I was on a fishing holiday and during down time wandered the island with the Holga. For the uninformed, the Holga is a medium format camera (plastic lens, no light meter). Finding focus is no small task either. Everything by eye and importantly, feel. The B&W film was processed, and I pulled a contact sheet. I would scan the contact sheets because I did not have a film scanner. Other than scanning the contact sheet, no manipulation was done to the image. It is as I saw it, as I captured it. It’s an accurate representation of reality. It is non-fiction.
Ai as a tool of fiction does not diminish its value or potential but to me, it is not photography. It is commercial, it is industrial, it will change many things but for the moment at least, it lacks an easily achieved celluloid negative, proof positive of a life more tangible.
For brands seeking to connect with an audience seeking authenticity, like Gen Z for instance, Ai generated images represent the exact opposite. As consumers we may all get fooled once, but great brands deal in authenticity. It’s true that many a brand has leaned heavily into illustration to tell its value, but those illustrations are also authentic works aligned with the authenticity of the brand. Little opportunity existed for the consumer to question if the talent is a real person, no matter how retouched.
The Dove Real Beauty Campaign is a perfect example of consumers seeking authenticity. There is no room for a lack of authenticity with Dove consumers. Hint, hint, there’s none for your brand either.
An Ai rendering of a person is a complete work of fiction. Is the spokesperson, the influencer real? A lack of authenticity will eventually reveal itself as fiction. Even in the sugary perfection of most advertising campaigns, the greatest brands are anchored in their authenticity. If the lived experience of the customer does not align with the promise, the authenticity of the brand, the customers will vote with their wallets.
Ai generated images make a great case for film capture as a validating providence for images anchored in authentic origins.
While in New York City, I took the opportunity to visit some old haunts. I hadn’t had the chance to step inside the renovated Hotel Chelsea, so off we went. I’m not claiming I was a denizen of this much celebrated bastion of creativity in residence. I wasn’t. In the late 70’s as an art student in NY, it was one of those places we’d occasionally end up. A very real New York experience. The Chelsea remains a place for creativity, in fact, while my wife and I were visiting, as if on cue, a small film crew was packing up.
The renovation is spectacular in its thoughtfulness and restraint. Honoring its past and fully embracing its future, a ready canvas for new stories. It’s spot-on-brand and reveals its treasures to the curious. See it for yourself if you can. It’s a powerful example of brand stewardship. As an experience brand, pictures alone will do not do it justice. The warm inviting tones of the piano room, for instance, are enough to make you want to book a room, a shoot, an event, dinner at El Quijote or all four. Experience brands grow through word of mouth and the shared positive experience of its users. Here you have it. The piano room inspired this curious portrait of my better half.
By stark contrast, a short distance away is Hudson Yards, a modern spectacle. Cathedrals of glass that skyrocket while playing with light. Monuments to the moment, bold statements of power and daring and, I’ll add, a bit cold. It’s a different city. It could be anywhere in the modern world. It’s difficult to imagine it will gain the legend and lovely patina of the Chelsea.
The Chelsea remains a testament to itself, the perseverance and resurrection at the hands of its new owners deserves a round of applause. The Hotel Chelsea is part of the fabric of old New York. The richness of its character perhaps never more appreciable than after a day of wandering this ever-changing city, to stand at its lovely bar drinking in its history.
The air was blue with my rants as I discovered my site had been hacked. The blog section filled with spammy, fraudulent posts — from the bizarre to the disgusting.
I removed all the bad posts and changed my login credentials, only to discover a few weeks later they were back in my site. How? I’m still not sure, but to shake them off, we took down the site, moved hosting locations and updated all security protocols. Apologies if you were affronted.
It’s not the first time, perhaps it’s also happened to you. Entirely disruptive. It’s hard not to get angry about it. The last time this happened was years ago and I really was furious. This time, more annoyance than anger. I was traveling and enjoying a few days in NYC and took the opportunity to not let it bother me too much. Instead, I took a break from everything and considered the value in the effort of writing blog posts.
It will be nice one day if I can directly link the effort to incoming work…but after some thought, to be honest, I’m doing it for myself. I enjoy it.
Maybe you’ll enjoy one or more of my posts and find them of value, maybe not.
I send them with love in either case.
Allow me to rant about YouTube for a few minutes. I consume a lot of media via YouTube. I’m insatiably curious. I watch all kinds of media from all kinds of publishers from all over the world. Maybe you do too.
YouTube is sort of like TV, but worse in its use of advertising. TV has gotten bad; in fact, it is a shambles because they lost the narrative. Like many others, I cut the cord. Instead, I’m paying more for 4 or 5 different streaming services. The programming tends to be better overall. The user experience is not convenient. I want to pay less, have better programming and greater convenience.
TV used to have them on convenience, everything they offer all in one place, minus the pay walls. YouTube is convenient. I’m talking about the allegedly free version, but the user experience is horrible. Some of the content posted for free by its creators is awesome. Most of it is crap, but I get to choose what I watch and find programming I value and enjoy. The options are far greater and geekier than any traditional TV programming.
There is a more organic relationship on television between show creators, advertisers and the networks. They’re all in on the gag together. The use of advertising on YouTube is a vulgar onslaught, a cold, ill-timed smack in the face.
The internet serves up great ads and the worst dreck I’ve ever seen. Your perfectly executed idea is surrounded by crap. Rarely is any of it delivered with respect for the programming or the audience. It’s a race to the bottom.
The ad servers have control and have no issue slapping you upside the head with an ad right in the middle of an extremely poignant moment. It may be a powerful interview, artist portrait, great musical performance, film, cutting edge news broadcast, you name it; but the robots and the people that built them do not give a damn about the quality of the experience.
There are no gentle hand-offs between programming and advertising. It’s hideous. I find it so annoying that it makes me dislike the brands involved. Advertisers beware, you are turning off your potential customers because the ad servers that you pay to deliver impressions don’t really care about you or your customers.
The system is gamed against us both. Advertisers pay for impressions and the impression is, “go piss off.”
The latest trick of the platform is to have advertisers create short ads that the user is not allowed to skip. These ads are just as annoying. Recently, I noticed that it takes multiple taps on the skip button before it skips. Frustrating. I can’t skip fast enough and I’m not alone, and they know it.
Then there are the long form spots, the 15-minute variety. Some of these spots are longer than the programming. If you let these play the entire way through, you no longer remember the sentence or whatever, when the ad cut off your program. The people behind these platforms do not care about your brand, about your potential customers, or your sales. They only care about their sales; not about the negative impression they are fomenting about your brand.
When programming, networks and advertisers work together to create a quality experience everyone benefits. This is the power of the traditional broadcast model. It’s not too late to fix it, to get back to delivering a quality experience. The broadcast networks need to fight back with better programming. YouTube needs to go to school. Netflix is now entering the fray with the “free version.” Perhaps they’ll do a better job.
In the meantime, we’re all paying the price.
One of the challenges that comes with the democratization of camera technology is that anyone who can afford a video camera or smart phone can consider themselves filmmakers. “Do it yourself” starts to feel like an obligation because it seems so achievable.
Running around swinging a camera, pointing-it here, there, and everywhere without the benefit of intentional lighting is a disease of the digital age.
Just because one can record an image does not automatically make it good. What is good? Good is an image in service of a relevant story. Good is an image crafted to evoke the appropriate intention and mood of the scene. Good is a frame, designed to create the visual tension necessary to hold the gaze of the audience, to keep them in the story.
Modern cameras and lenses have incredible capability to capture images in low light, some can practically see in the dark, but this does not forgive the need to understand how to light a scene. It is not simply about achieving exposure.
Even without a proper light kit, the ability to utilize sunlight and practical sources in conjunction with modern camera technology will deliver impressive results. It just takes some knowledge of the principles and the forethought to put them to work.
Great production is made with great preparation.
There are countless on-line tutorials, so there are few excuses other than time and the will to do better. For many businesses who do not prioritize their content, the task often falls to younger staff that do not automatically show up with the full range of required skills. Taking this on internally seems efficient but it is anything but.
The perceived need to keep up a steady stream of content takes precedent over quality. This is a significant misjudgment. The damage inflicted on a brand that churns out subpar content is like repeated exposure to radiation, you may not feel the effects right away, but eventually, it is going to kill you.
The opportunity cost is real and often realized too late.
Investing in quality content is not money wasted, it is an investment in the future of your business. Make your work stand out by making it better. Do not let it stand out because of its shoddy workmanship.
There was a time when almost all media was inclusive. The old analogue days of 13 TV Channels, rooftop antennae, a handful of news programing and perhaps a few dozen major newspapers and magazines. There were some specialized publications, and radio stations were somewhat local, but they were the exceptions. Media was broadly casted by a limited number of producers, reaching millions of people.
Today almost all media is exclusive. Everyone is a specialist, if not due to content, then due to targeting. Even the national and international outlets cater to regional influence, and why not? Effective targeting is also about giving your audience what they want. Or what they think they want. Or what you think they want. Or what the AI predictive models think they want. It’s enough to make us toss our hands into the air and just default to something that feels safe for our brand. Something with hopefully broad appeal that we can run anywhere, hoping our audience will self-identify.
Our segmentation modeling is so divided, it’s become segmentation meddling. Exclusivity in media is a problematic reality if we stick to outdated norms of thinking. Let’s put aside the fact that it has created a platform for every nutjob with a computer and look at what it means for brands. A world of distractions in a distracted world.
Across the paid, owned and earned media landscape, there is now endless fractionalization of your audience which diminishes the reach of your brand. Not because the media is not reaching the target, but because the targets are polarized by the fragmentation.
This polarization is a buzzkill for what might otherwise be a campaign that would jump the chasm into popular culture.
What is popular culture when culture is now unpopular?
Cultural fragmentation may not impact too negatively on major legacy brands, assuming they stay out of harms way. But for newer, smaller brands, success means obsessively focusing on a minimal viable audience. Connecting with this audience and delivering real value to these customers will motivate them as culture ambassadors for your brand. These ambassadors will help the brand bridge to additional culture communities as they share their experience.
Bridging is the major action of digital media. It amplifies the power of word-of-mouth, of shared positive brand experience and helps drive brand growth.
Specificity should be a core part of your strategic and creative development. Create for one specific group of potential customers and build from the core.
In truth, this thinking is nothing new. Perhaps it’s been forgotten. Some brands have not forgotten. Patagonia is one example of a brand that has always been entirely specific in its audience goals and campaign platform. It puts its values of honoring and protecting nature into all it does and communicates. Its current market value is $3 Billion and recently the founder, Yvon Chouinard determined to give it all away to help save our planet.
Patagonia’s specificity of purpose, planning, action, and communication recently arrived in my mailbox in the form of a Patagonia publication, a magazine celebrating people and nature. This is no catalogue of merchandise but a catalog of beliefs and values, and it’s printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper. It’s a home run in my opinion. I’m a nature fan boy and have, over the years, purchased Patagonia clothing. I still have most of it. It wears like iron. Built to last, not to be discarded. The user experience of the product aligns completely with the mission and values of the company.
This alignment includes Patagonia’s use of media: specific, focused, and effective. You may point out that they use the mail channel to reach me. Why not? It’s a great tactic when used correctly. The publication has value, will be passed on and then recycled. But there is a bit more to it. Within the pub, there are URL’s that lead us deeper into the stories. This publication is a well-integrated driver of brand engagement.
Exclusive media means exclusive opportunities to Head For The Heart.
As some of you may be aware, I’m currently teaching at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Management and Business. Being a place of higher education and a fine one at that, there are weekly guest lectures given by thought leaders from both inside and outside academia.
For the most part, these are highly intellectual and interesting discussions. I prefer to think of them as discussions because the Q&A that follow is often more interesting than the lecture itself. Students and faculty engage the speaker with challenging questions. The freewheeling endings, if Skidmore students are a barometer, gives me hope for the future of our country.
A recent discussion led by an extremely well-studied thought leader, presented years of data that pointed to a significant insight in the world of business. I’m not going to try to unpack the topic, my point of writing this post is the use of data.
The data was significant and overwhelmingly clear in what it implied and what could be inferred.
During the Q&A a student asked the million-dollar question. If the data is so clear why is nothing changing…why are the trend lines continuing as they were?
The speakers answer: The data is not enough.
The world has become overly reliant on data as an end point. Data alone is not enough. If it was, no one would ever smoke, Hillary Clinton may have gotten elected and maybe (if this applies to you) more people would buy your brand.
Compelling ideas move people. Ideas that slap folks in the face, stun them into awareness and seep into their hearts, turn ideas into action.
This is the work of creativity. Let’s get busy.
What was true during the American Revolution is still true today and applies equally well to the media. Better together.
The hyperbolic segmentation of media is a landscape of diminishing returns. With some notable exceptions, media performance reviews leave more questions than answers.
The ideal scenario is one of ever improving ROI as refinements are made, not only in the creative, but critically in the media buy. To optimize results also means lowering costs.
Media technology companies have extraordinary ability to target and segment audiences and should generate strong results. At least that’s the goal. Conversely, too much segmentation can drive up costs, reduce ROI and add to the confusion.
Media-tech is very good but, in their ambition to drive their technology forward they have lost the thread. Media strategists and buyers have a tough challenge to untangle the gordian knot. Brands deserve optimized ROI, not more ways to spend money on media.
The right media mix is not a kitchen junk drawer of guess work. The right mix more closely resemble a well-organized silverware drawer.
Too often, media cannot explain itself and the default is to start faulting the creative work. It may indeed deserve the criticism, but it should not be the first place we look for improvement.
Here’s why, media spread sheets look like certainty but just as often, turn out to be an inexplicable hot mess. All you need do is ask a few probing questions. Don’t take my word for it.
Before the creative ever hit the media, it has been developed with audience insight and research and goes out into the world with some earned confidence.
Thanks to vast segmentation and targeting, media today needs to be considered within the discipline of direct response. Direct response methodology would employ control and test groups to refine the mix and optimize results to a final plan. Then, with incremental decisions, make adjustments with A/B splits of media and creative to achieve optimization.
This approach at first appears more costly but in the long run achieves optimization with assurance. Quarterly readouts of media performance are insufficient for the dynamic nature of media today. Monthly readouts in context of a rolling 30-day strategic plan that seeks optimization and learning offer brands increased efficiency and confidence.
If done correctly, ROI modeling utilizes segmentation as a tool and not an end in itself.