My friend Len Kendall has a post about TOMS Shoes up on the Fearless website titled Effortless Benevolence as a Sales Driver. In it he talks about Tom’s One-for-One business model (buy a product, and an equal product is given to a less fortunate person somewhere in the world). It works in part, according to Len, because so little effort is needed on the part of the consumer (the effortless benevolence of the title).
Check out the Campus Clubs section of the TOMS website and you’ll find this video:
That’s also how TOMS succeeds. Empowering people to make a difference drives the company (and lets people like me participate on the ‘effortless benevolence’ level). If TOMS was just about buying the shoes, then it would be LIVESTRONG (nothing wrong with that, by the way). But it’s also about shoe drops:
I think ultimately it’s a symbiotic relationship. Without the tremendous effort – with the opportunity to give the tremendous effort – TOMS is something else. Len asks, “…will their bigger and more well-known competitors try to copy them soon?” If we’re just talking about the ‘effortless benevolence’ model, then yes. But could Nike (or Zappos?) create a TOMS program? I suppose they could, but I think it would be a lot harder than it looks.
The TOMS model doesn’t work if you just throw money at it, or rely on distribution channels or a big advertising campaign. In fact, my guess is that Blake Mycoskie, the guy behind TOMS, had none of those things. Has he succeeded in spite of those ‘handicaps’ or has he succeeded because he had to figure out a different way to succeed?
His agency has chose to remember him in a thoroughly modern way, with a #DO100 Twitter hashtag and the ability to turn your avatar Ogilvy’s signature red.
I have a bit of personal history with Ogilvy as well. During the Mad Men on Twitter rage a few years back, I brought David Ogilvy to life and engaged with the other characters, amassing thousands of followers to this account. For a far more famous appropriation of the great man, see @BadBanana’s avatar.
Certain traits (excellence, integrity), and certain characteristics (ego, wit) never go out of style.
I think it’s fair to say horse racing holds, at best, a very small place in current pop culture. Two recent movies, Seabiscuit and Secretariat are about horses who captured the public’s imagination in the 1930s/40s and 1970s respectively. In fact, the 1970s was probably the last decade that horse racing really mattered in this country.
Saturday was the Kentucky Derby, the most (only?) important race left in America. The one day every year when people who don’t care about horse racing may pay attention. Unfortunately, it looks like the Kentucky Derby wasn’t ready to capture this opportunity and do something with it via social media.
First, they need greater clarity and coordination of Twitter accounts. Should I be following @KentuckyDerby or @ChurchillDowns? Both seem like they would be the official, but neither account is verified, so I’m not sure. The fact that each account only had about six or seven tweets on the day of the race is positively baffling. Neither account seemed to be using a hashtag either, and as a result, my Twitter stream on Saturday featured #KYDerby, #KentuckyDerby and #Derby. Plenty of people were talking about the race, but with three viable hashtags the race never made it as a trending topic.
It probably would have been a worthwhile play to buy a trending topic. Something like #MintJulep could have been very interesting. As a side note, had K-Y bought a promoted trending topic such as #KYWinner, that may have gone down as the greatest bit of social media ambush marketing ever.
Unbelievably, the Kentucky Derby YouTube channel hasn’t added a video in six days. Surely there were “behind the scenes,” “what to look for,” human interest, fashion, food, culture, etc. videos that could have been created. This was literally the one week of the year when people might have been searching out their channel, and no new content. Location-based services such as Foursquare or Gowalla seem like another natural play for the race with the iconic Churchill Downs locale, but I couldn’t find any trace of an official presence.
My colleague and resident horse racing expert Derek Brown points out the NBC did a l0t with the race from a Social Media / digital standpoint, including several Twitter feeds, a #DerbyonNBC hashtag and some nice broadcast integration between NBC and Versus. All good, but does that benefit the Kentucky Derby longterm? NBC has already moved on and won’t be back for another year.
There are probably a dozen other things they could be doing (reality show on Animal Planet? Listing on Empire Avenue?) to start to get back in the popular culture. They had a record in-track attendance so there is still interest, but how do they engage those not at the race? I’d love some true horse racing fans to share their thoughts.
One of the indisputable laws of social media is authenticity. It’s the Tao of Social Media; it must be rendered; it’s what matters. We’ve all heard this so often, from so many people, that it has become gospel. Brand managers will say with earnestness and sincerity how important it is for them to engage with consumers in an “authentic manner.”
But the truth is people don’t always want authenticity and brands rarely follow through on delivering it.
What is authenticity?
First, let’s start by getting a handle on what we mean when we say authenticity. Is it being ‘real’ or ‘truthful’? Is it talking with the ‘brand voice’? Maybe it’s being ‘conversational.’ Ultimately none of those definitions is going to work. They won’t work because either people won’t believe it, or brands won’t allow it. The examples are easy to find:
The agency working for Chrysler publishes a tweet questioning the driving ability of motorists in Detroit and does so with some off-color language. Was that ‘real’? Yeah, that was about as real as it gets. Unfiltered, honest, direct. The result? The agency was let go. A discussion about the quality of drivers in its home town was something Chrysler wanted no part of. They even removed the tweet. Erasing history, that doesn’t sound very authentic to me.
But maybe you think ‘authenticity’ means speaking with the brand voice. Ok, I can buy that, but most brands think that means ‘being conversational.’ They water things down so much that different brands within the same category become indistinguishable. Take a look at the casual dining category. The ones that do stand out are often the result of a carefully created persona constructed by the brand’s agency, or they are actually the authentic voice of an individual employee (Scott Monty of Ford).
This TED Talk from Joseph Pine does a great job of explaining the paradox of authenticity. Around the seven minute mark he really starts breaking it down.
Now I want you to think about Sh*t My Dad Says or BadBanana or BP Public Relations. All play with the notion of what is authentic, real or fake. Not only are all incredibly popular – spawning TV shows, books and T-shirts – but people don’t seem to have any issues with their lack of authenticity. Are people upset that BadBanana’s avatar is in fact David Ogilvy?
The Authenticity Matrix
Ultimately the zero sum game of authentic v. inauthentic is too narrow to encompass all the different ways one can engage with people via social media. Rather, it’s more as a quandrant-like matrix. Made up of the Real-Real, Fake-Real, Real-Fake, and Fake-Fake. What do these four categories look like?:
1. The Real-Real
This is perhaps the toughest to pull off for many of the reasons stated above. I think the “brand” that does it best on Twitter is Seth Godin. Seth doesn’t particularly believe in using Twitter, he prefers to communicate with people across other platforms and does so in a very authentic manner. I’ve met him personally and exchanged emails with him on more than one occasion and you always get the full Seth Godin experience. But rather than try to fake that on Twitter, Seth simply posts one tweet a day, a link to that day’s blog post. Nothing more – he’s not pushing his books or replying or retweeting; nothing less – you know you are going to get one tweet every day. That’s a real-real experience. Seth is being true to himself and to the people he connects with.
2. The Fake-Real
This is where things can, and should, get interesting. The original master of the Fake-Real, as pointed out in Pine’s video, was Disney. Their theme parks create an inauthentic universe that is so rich it seems real. J.K. Rowling is the modern master with her Harry Potter series. In social media we see this come to life with the Mad Men on Twitter experience, that featured a wide range of talented, creative individuals like Paul Isakson and Bud Caddell. Fictional characters created today but living in the 1960s using Twitter, a medium that didn’t exist at the time. Tough to see that as “authentic,” yet none of the thousands upon thousands of people who followed the story complained that this was phony. They loved it, and many joined in to help make the fake more real by introducing real life characters from the time period into the story. A fake so well done that it feels real can be very effective. This is different from trying to deceive people. A brand trying to pass off tweets as coming from the CEO when they are written by a marketing department isn’t creating a Fake-Real, they are just frauds.
The Authenticity Matrix
3. The Real-Fake
Playing with the artificiality of media is a long-standing practice. Remember the intro song to the Garry Shandling Show?
This same artificiality, this nod and wink to the audience, has been pulled off brilliantly in social media by Old Spice. No need to show examples, you’ve seen them all, but think about what they’ve done. They constantly play with the notion of authenticity. Where is he? Who is he? Where does the commercial start and end? By pulling back the curtain, Old Spice (or rather Wieden + Kennedy) acknowledge the inauthenticity of the whole campaign. By contrast, an equally compelling character, Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, tries to maintain the Fake-Real by not acknowledging the actor’s name or providing behind the scenes footage. Andrew Teman notes the different approaches here. To what degree did Old Spice’s acknowledgement of the Real-Fake contribute to the campaign’s longevity?
4. The Fake-Fake
This last category is difficult to pull off. I’ve written about my disagreement with those running the SXSW panel on brand mascots in the digital age. To me, a character like Tony the Tiger would be a Fake-Fake. If the character was anything beyond a corporate shill it would be disingenuous to the brand because that’s what he was created to be. Furthermore, any interaction with a consumer beyond pushing the product would seem false to a consumer. Another example is that of P.J. Bland’s. To showcase how tasty their menu is, Chili’s created a fake restaurant chain called P.J. Bland’s that served cardboard. Clever. But then they tried to take it to social media. Not clever. More than 1,000 tweets in three months netted them just 1,200 followers. Who knows how many of those are just bots that started following long after the account went dormant? P.J. Bland’s didn’t work because it was a Fake-Fake. I called them on this early (see post here), and in the same post I called out T.G.I. Friday’s for their Fake-Fake fan Woody program which didn’t turn out too hot either.
Ultimately we need to understand that in an age of Lady Gaga and recombinance ‘authenticity’ has lost much of its meaning or at least that it has multiple meanings, and that people are not always looking for some idealized truth. They are looking for an experience that can take many forms. In some cases it could be conversational or an interaction with an actual employee, but just as easily it can be a fictional experience – one that creates a new world while acknowledging that is indeed creating a fictional experience.
The problem with making claims for authenticity is that brands are interested in it in theory far more than in practice. The sooner they stop pretending that authenticity is what they want to deliver – and what people want to receive – the sooner they can create experiences that are truly engaging. Have you ever thought to yourself, or heard someone say, “I really want to have an authentic relationship with a soda company.”?
I want to revisit a panel I attended on Friday on Brand Mascots in the Digital Age. (Full disclosure – I had to leave early so I’ll only discuss the part I was there for). The presentation was hosted by Derek Fridman, Creative Director at Sapient Nitro and Emily (Reid) Fridman, Account Director at IQ. The format was terrific, taking a more conversational approach that allowed (required actually) participation from the crowd. It soon became clear to me that the direction Derek and Emily were taking didn’t quite ring true to me. Here’s the copy from the panel announcement:
Why doesn’t Toucan Sam Twitter? Where’s the Pillsburry Doughboy to poke on my mobile phone? And which one of the Snuggle Bear Facebook pages is real? Join us for a pow-wow on how you take your brand characters out of the 1980′s TV commercials and place them in the social and interactive world.[bold added by me] There’s no napping when your characters are in the digital age. We’ll talk about preparing your characters personality, environment and lingo for the demands of the “always-on” consumer. And what about the character’s of tomorrow? We’ll look at concept to completion, how a brand creates and introduces a new cast of characters ready for today’s digital stage and beyond. Similar to my grandmother who doesn’t understand these “crazy kids and their internets”, mascots need to take up residence in the digital world, make some friends, and tweet about their day.
Why doesn’t Toucan Sam Twitter? Because he’s a fictional corporate mascot. I found myself really struggling with where the conversation was going. As reference points they also mentioned a variety of cereal brand characters such as Snap, Krackle and Pop, The Trix Rabbit and Tony the Tiger. Let’s take a deeper look at that last one:
Tony the Tiger was created in the early 1950s. He is one of the iconic characters of advertising and his “They’re Grrrrrreat!” catchphrase is known to just about everyone. But that, by and large is the extent of the character. Tony the Tiger is a one dimensional character designed to do one thing and one thing only: sell sugary cereal to kids. Tony the Tiger is part of American culture thanks to the advertising machine that created him. What made him so successful, repetition of a single phrase over and over again is exactly what makes him a horrible candidate for social media.
Let’s say we gave Tony a twitter account. What could he possibly say about the product other than, ”They’re Grrrrrreat!” and still be in character? If he did say something else it would be fake. You’d have a fake character saying something fake. And if he did say something else, why would I care? He’s a cartoon tiger, what value is he adding to the experience? He can’t be talking to young children, because of rules against marketing to children. Is he talking to adults? I guess, but that seems to go against the overall trend. In speaking about this with Saneel Radia of BBH Labs he spoke of how Axe works on twitter. You know exactly which real person is handling their account. It’s not a stick of deodorant, or a made up character, it’s a human. On another panel I heard Shiv Singh speak about how Pepsi handles their twitter accounts. Look at Pepsi Max, you know exactly who you are talking to, a real person.
But those aren’t beloved mascot characters. Ok, you know who is? How about Ronald McDonald? Can’t get more iconic than that. This weekend I spoke with Rick Wion, Director of Social Media for
Billie Jean, I'm so tweeting this later.
McDonald’s and asked him. He explained to me the very specific parameters within which Ronald McDonald, the character, can work. Social Media was not one of those channels. Want more proof having your mascot tweet is a bad idea? During the Brand Mascots in the Digital Age event an audience member mentioned that he worked at Sea World and they had Shamu tweeting. When asked how it was going he admitted that the account was on hiatus since the real life Shamu had been involved in an incident that killed a trainer. That is an absolute tragedy and renders a discussion about tweeting mascots as insignificant. But from a business perspective, think about how different it would have been if, instead of a having a twitter account for a whale, it was an account for the actual person who was tweeting on behalf of the whale. How that person could have helped express the grief that everyone at Sea World was no doubt feeling. How they could have openly and honestly discussed the situation and helped educate people as to what happened. Note, Sea World does have another account and people were directed to it, but it still left them with a dormant account.
Also worth noting, apparently Kellogg’s doesn’t seem to think putting Tony the Tiger on twitter is a good idea since they haven’t done so.
I do think branded characters can work under certain circumstances. The Geico Caveman would seem to work because he is very much of this era and the whole joke is that he is this sort of hipster. And in fact he does have a twitter account. But take a look at the number of followers. Less than 1,000. What about the Geico Gecko? Also a hip, modern character. About 2,500 followers. Quite frankly I was surprised, even though this seems to prove my point. The actual Geico insurance account has more than either mascot because it actually provides a value to customers.
Putting mascots on Twitter sounds like a fun, clever way to engage consumers, and I’m sure it’s possible to ring up some nice follower counts using this tactic. But ultimately people will tire of this because social media is, well, social. I don’t want to talk to a cartoon character, I don’t want to talk to logo and I don’t want to talk to some faceless corporation. Give me a person I can have a relationship with.
It’s that time of year again when WNYC, New York’s NPR affiliate, holds their winter pledge drive. A time when incredibly intelligent radio talent, commentators and journalists come begging, hat in hand, for dollars so they can keep doing what they do. John Moore of Brand Autopsy explained why these pledge drives are problematic several years ago.
I’ve been listening to the radio a lot more now that I drive to and from work and probably 80% of the time I listen to WNYC. I decided to make a donation and strongly urge you to do likewise. If you don’t live in New York, donate to your local station. If you live in another country, donate a couple of bucks anyway, it’s a worthy cause.
But in thinking about their business model – commercial free and subscription free means the money has to come from donations and the government – it occurred to me that NPR needs a new business model. One that reflects modern realities.
Let’s start by understanding that NPR – national public radio – is an anachronistic notion from a bygone era. NPR, the brand, has about as much to do with radio as The New York Times has to do with newsprint. If NPR defines itself by one medium they’ll suffer the same fate that many newspapers and magazines across the country suffered. In fact, it’s entirely possible to engage with NPR in a variety of ways without ever listening to your radio. From the website you can listen to concerts, read blogs, attend events, listen to podcasts, and watch videos. So let’s be clear, NRP is not in the radio business, they are in the content business. Just like J.K. Rowling or Oprah or MTV.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing NPR is the prevailing culture of a Freeconomy. Everyone knows the Stewart Brand quote, “[i]nformation wants to be free”but I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding in how it is applied, or at least perceived. By free, I take that to mean not in the sole possession of a specific person or group - Think Freedom of Information Act. Information, or content should be available, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be without cost. We’ve seen the effects of this ideology in many facets of our society. Nobody wants to pay taxes, but they expect to continue to receive government services.
Of course this genie is impossible to put back in the bottle (although some outlets, such as the New York times are going to try). So what can NPR and their affiliate stations do? If they want to survive in a world of Freeconomics they need to start building a business based on content.
By all means, let’s keep the radio commercial free. Let’s keep great online content, audio, video and text, free. But NPR should explore how they can leverage their brand to develop revenue streams to self-support those endeavors. Here are just a few obvious options:
From iconic musicians to up and coming bands, NPR has been a home to all types of music acts. Why not create a record label? The costs at this point are pretty low. With a graphic designer and digital technology there is no need for a warehouse or even physical manufacturing. Although you could make hard copies and partner with Starbucks on a distribution deal.
No Michael Bay-style blockbusters here, but just one My Big Fat Greek Wedding or other small indie hit and they’d be a long way to being in the black.
Another obvious choice. Collections edited by authors like David Sedaris or original pieces from NPR contributors would be obvious choices.
Hi, I'm Rick Liebling, the Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York. I use this blog to share my thoughts on branding, marketing, advertising, PR, social media and how they all create, react to and reflect our culture.
Click on over to the "Speaking / Events / Writing" page to see a listing of content I've contributed to other sites and events where I've spoken.
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This is normally where you might find one of those disclaimers that says the content of this blog is solely my own, and does not represent the thoughts or opinions of my employer or client. But aren't my thoughts the very reason my current employer chose to hire me? Don't they in fact want me to express my thoughts? And does any reasonable person believe that when I'm discussing ABC's Fall lineup or the cultural relevance of Bioshock that I am, in fact, speaking on behalf of one of my clients?
So yeah, I'll go ahead and own this.