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The paradoxical Chicago Cubs. The brand succeeds even when team doesn’t.

Can “sucking” be a brand virtue? The notion seems counter-intuitive but I wonder if in some cases sucking might actually benefit a brand.

I should define sucking. For the purpose of this discussion, I mean the act not being good. For example, I suck at golf. I can’t even hit a ball off the tee. Thankfully, this fact does not harm me in any particular way. I am not expected to be good at golf. God’s plan for me does not include acumen for the game. If I were an account executive, one could argue my lack of golfing skills impedes my ability to cultivate important client relationships. True or false, the point is a moot one. Assuming people can be considered brands, mine is not affected one way or another by sucking at golf.

Herein lies the critical distinction for my argument. In order for sucking to be considered a legitimate brand virtue, the brand –be it person, place or thing- needs first to first be something ordinarily expected to be good but for some reason… isn’t.

Take the Chicago Cubs. Please. Here is a major league team that has not won a World Series since 1910. The last time they appeared in one was during World War II. Frankly, the Cubs seldom make it to the post season and when they do they don’t stick around very long. By most criteria, The Cubs suck. So much so they are often referred to as “Lovable Losers.”

Lovable? Well, for one thing they regularly sell out beloved Wrigley Field, no matter what their record. WGN consistently scores huge ratings for Cub’s games, despite their record. Interestingly, WGN delivers a national audience for the Cubs, sustaining and creating fans all over the country. People love the Chicago Cubs even though they suck. Why? Fans typically point out the venerable, old ballpark as a reason. The fact that the Cubs play in the heart of one of Chicago’s most pleasant and fun-filled neighborhoods, Lakeview attracts executives, pretty girls, tourists and gay people –people who ordinarily wouldn’t go to games. The Cubs are transcendent.

images-16.jpg  “The Cubs are hot!”

But one hundred years of sucking? I can’t think of any other brand that could survive under these terms, let alone thrive.

Just look at Chicago’s other professional baseball team, the White Sox. They are held to an entirely different standard. When they suck attendance drops, ratings flag, and everyone but the diehards lose interest. Like any other team in professional sports, winning is mandatory. As the White Sox’ new slogan suggests: It’s Black & White.

If the Chicago Cubs suddenly became a great baseball team what would happen to the brand? The hysteria would be off the chart. Fans would go bonkers. But then what? The Cub’s would be held to a new standard, wouldn’t they? Folks might not tolerate sucking anymore. For the first time in a long time, The Chicago Cubs would be taken seriously. And if they started sucking again, they might not be taken at all. At least not like before. Therefore, sucking can be viewed as a brand virtue for the Cubs. The brand scores precisely because the team does not. Truly a paradox, I can’t think of any brand on earth with such a hall pass. Can you?

Author’s Note: First draft of this essay was written in 2010. The Cub’s were in 4th place in their division, going nowhere. Growing up 5 blocks from Wrigley, I could not be happier for their current success. #flytheW

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The glittery potential for every brand…

According to Zen, one’s serenity is inversely affected by one’s attachment to things. The more you live the more you realize it. Obviously, you can’t take anything with you but I wonder why it takes us so long to figure that out? On some level, we all accept the spiritual truth in this idea but on a day to day basis most of us don’t “go there.” We are too busy acquiring things, building things, starting things and ending things.

When I began this blog a decade ago I titled it the way I did for irony’s sake. As if there could be Gods of anything, let alone advertising. Ha! I also gave the blog a subhead: “We Make You Want What You Don’t Need.” Even then I felt the low-level hum of tension inherent to making a living in Adland. I’m an agnostic (mostly leaning on belief in a higher power) but I’m also a realist (leaning on skepticism). Still, I knew and know that making people covet brands was a form of idolatry. Obviously, I’m not talking about selling a car on Craigslist. I’m referring to branding. Big “A” advertising: Nike, Apple, McDonald’s, etc…

As brilliant as Nike’s historical marketing story is (and precisely because of), there is a tension to it. When Air Jordan’s came out with its iconic marketing (the jump man and the swoosh and “Just Do It”), all hell broke loose. People who could least afford them wanted them the most. And, well, bad things happened to realize those aims. People stole for them. Harmed others. Or more casually frittered away resources. Nike had become a religion. It is believed God can walk on water. And so, as all of us are lead to believe, with a pair of Air Jordans, can we.

This is an extreme example and not typical of most branding efforts. Yet, that is not because we don’t try to achieve those results. We do. Therefore, in theory and sometimes practice, we are efforting to “make people want what they don’t need.”

Admit it, copywriters. When you’re drafting a manifesto for a product or service or company (it doesn’t much matter what the thing is) don’t you feel the power at your fingertips? There, at your desk, you are creating a myth. Our words are like sparks and we want them to ignite. We are toying with Pandora’s Box and it is nothing short of thrilling. For me it is.

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As far back as 2008, I made a presentation at Cannes (at the Palais no less!) sharing some of the above ideas. I recklessly compared coveting Gold Lions to the Israelites worship of a Golden Calf. Needless, to say I was not invited to give that speech again. Ever.

Who doesn’t want their copy to go viral? To be shared. To spread like, frankly, a disease. If it does, we are blessed with silver in our paychecks and Gold Lions at Cannes. With powerful alchemy, we will have turned people into consumers. Into Believers. We will have become GODS OF ADVERTISING!

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“Our new campaign rocks and so do we!”

I am delighted to report (with a bit of an eye roll) that one of the themes at this year’s B2B marketing conference in Chicago (BMA14), was the supreme value of internal stakeholders and employees when it comes to branding.

I’m happy because the internal audience is likely the most under-appreciated target market of them all. I roll my eyes because I’ve been singing this psalm for almost as long as I’ve been in advertising. Whenever a company produces a piece of marketing, particularly in the realm of branding, it simply must consider its employees. And not just a little. I’d argue first and foremost.

As many of my colleagues will tell you, I have a short list of marketing truths I hold to be self-evident (aka “Steffan-isms”) and my absolute favorite is this idea that a branding campaign is the company’s jersey. Ergo every employee should feel comfortable putting it on. Better yet, the wearer should be fired up, ready to represent the firm. Every morning, when an employee enters the parking lot, he or she should be made proud (at least somewhat) by the company’s colors, theme and logo.

The same way your university has a poetic uniform, your place of business has one too. Or it should. If you agree with me on this point then the key question is do you like your jersey? Are you the Fighting Irish or Stanford Cardinal or are you the Peoria Piss Ants?

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Does your brand look like this poor bastard’s uniform?

Answer affirmatively and your brand is probably in a good place or has a reasonable chance at getting to one. If a jersey is meh how can anyone expect the people wearing it to do a good –let alone great job?

I like using the above argument when trying to sell new campaigns to clients because it reframes the branding discussion into one that is more humanly relevant than a marketing funnel or other left brain algebra. It also forces the decision maker(s) to look at his or her brand from an insider point of view.

Granted, this does not always work. Fear of rocking the boat exists inside every company. Hence the old cliché “running it up the flagpole.” Yet, when we exalt the CMO as a quarterback or coach, and relay to him a new and improved uniform (or flag for that matter), it takes particular cowardice for him to demand blandness in the face of a bolder choice. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen. But I like to give my creative ideas every chance at succeeding. Rallying employees is a powerful way to do it.

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Too much of a good thing?

Last Sunday, I read a story in the New York Times Magazine about a woman who had become obsessed with an obscure songwriter and producer from the 1960’s, Curt Boettcher. It’s an interesting story. A classic tale of a talented artist that almost became famous. But for the writer, Alexandra Molotkow it was Boettcher’s obscurity that fueled her obsession with him and in turn with another writer who was also obsessed with Boettcher, Dawn Eden. Eden actually did become famous, first as a rock historian and then as a born again dogmatist.

As fascinating as the story and the people in it are it is the theme of obsession that I’m left with. This short article is shot through with it. Boettcher, Eden and Molotkow were all obsessed with different but related things (music, fame, destiny and even God) propelling them forward into life and in Boettcher’s case, death.

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The object of obsession, Curt Boettcher

Teen-agers and myriad other types throw around the term obsession, expressing devotion to a person, place or thing. For example: “I’m obsessed with Pretty Little Liars!” Or “I’m obsessed with Sprinkles cupcakes!” It comes and goes. The word obsession is like the word awesome. Played.

Obsessions like those in the NYT magazine piece are fairly named. They altered the lives of the people obsessed. They became all encompassing, driving forces. Perhaps because I have an addictive personality, I find these stronger affectations deeply interesting. I have become obsessed with malignant things (alcohol) and benign (leather jackets). For better and for worse, these obsessions have indelibly altered my life.

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Advertisers take note of obsessions; indeed they can become obsessed by them. After all, a person obsessed with a product or service is one hell of a customer. Whether she is a collector of toys (Beanie Babies) or a fanatic about a professional football team (Cheese Heads), these obsessed people are customers for life, often spending good money after bad living it.

I wonder if that’s bad. Most religions and many spiritual teachers tell us that craving material possessions is wrong. As we all learn soon enough, ‘you can’t take it with you.’ True serenity, it is said, comes only when we “let go” of materialism and “selfish pursuits” and open ourselves up to a “higher calling.”

I won’t argue the point. Yet, as we are not saints, it seems impossible for most, if not all of us, to let go completely. Hobbies, collections, habits are part of the human condition. We can’t help ourselves. Fishermen always buy more tackle than they need. Women own more shoes than they require. I can only wear one leather jacket. I have twelve.

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Pathology or Perfecto?

People get “need” and “want” all mixed up. One becomes the other. Obviously, there is a difference between hording and collecting, addiction and passion. But just how big a difference?

As a copywriter, I’ve always wondered what magic combination of words and pictures I might conjure that could trigger obsession. I’m not sure any one thing can. But certainly our contributions can provide fuel. I saw for myself what a handful of “curiously strong” posters did for Altoids. It took more than one TV commercial (“1984”) to create the cult of Apple but few doubt it wasn’t a catalyst.

The rise of the cult of Apple…
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This is the power I love and at times loathe about our craft. When done to perfection it is witchcraft. As is written in the header to this blog, We make you want what you don’t need. Word.

“She could teach us something new but what fun would that be?”

I was listening to Colin Cowherd on ESPN, while driving my oldest daughter to school the other day. He was going on about how “we are a society that craves affirmation not information.” I forget the context of his rant but the statement stuck with me. I told my 8th grader she wasn’t going to learn anything at school that day as prescient as what the man on the radio just said.

Sad but true. Americans (maybe all people) crave affirmation for beliefs, politics, and faith. Just about anything. It takes precedent over actually learning or evolving. Birds of a feather flock together.  A perfect example would be right leaning folks listening primarily to FOX News.

“Stay tuned for more of you want to hear…”

Wouldn’t the enlightened view have them listening to the Democrat’s preferred news outlets? That way they could learn something new. Find out what the other party is up to. But to Cowherd’s point, it really isn’t information people are seeking. It’s affirmation.  Obviously, the left is just as culpable. Can you say MSNBC?

Modern marketing has slavishly followed suit. If back in the day an advertiser had to inform one about a “unique selling proposition” now it need only garner “likes,” “fans” and “followers.” In other words: affirmation. Brands come off as just wanting to hang out with us, support our passions, be a part of our conversations. Frankly, it might be getting out of hand. It certainly can be annoying. I don’t want to follow Crest toothpaste on Twitter. Nor do I want them following me.

Yet, information is dull. We know what we want to know already. In the words of Kurt Cobain: “Here we are now, entertain us!”

I hadn’t completely absorbed the concept of “affirmation versus information” until Cowherd spelled it out. In my opinion, it’s a more incisive and correct analysis of modern society than simply saying we are getting lazy or dumb.

Craving affirmation defines our popular culture. If people ‘like’ us enough we get popular. Brands have modified their approaches accordingly. We all have.