or… the Battle of the Two Volkswagen Superbowl Spots
In one corner we have “The Force”, the 2011 Volkswagen 50-million-YouTube-views Superbowl commercial featuring a “powerless” diminutive Darth who re-gains the power of The Force with a little help from his father and a Passat.
In the other, we have this year’s Volkswagen Superbowl Spot, “The Dog Strikes Back”, starring Bolt, a St. Bernard – Australian Golden mix. A canine “biggest loser” metaphor for the return of the New Beetle.
Both entertain. Both offer a story arc of struggle and reward. Both have a surprise ending.
Does the former make the latter the better? Or does Little Darth still reign supreme?
I don’t think there’s much question that the quality of a really great ad is dependent on the quality of the idea it’s built upon. Ads like DDB’s the 1960’s iconic VW “Lemon” or any of the ’90’s “Got Milk” campaign we’re memorable high concept ideas that influenced consumer behavior in the pre-Facebook, YouTube, Twitter days of advertising.
There was a time in the not-so-recent past when print truly made a difference in brand advertising. When people bought a product because because they believed it made them appear smarter, more sophisticated, or more intelligent. Not only in their own mind but to others as well. No more. When consumers of advertising messages also became the creators, a tectonic shift occurred.
The 20th century ‘analog’ idea became the flexible, agile, stretchable, shareable ‘digital’ idea of 2011. One that doesn’t rely on ads anymore. One that doesn’t fight with competing brands for the consumer’s attention. Not anymore.
Today, ad ideas battle against every other message out there that people see, hear or read. Slugging it out against more than just advertising messages. Trying to get noticed above all the other bits of information, from RSS feeds to blog posts to Facebook walls to a countless stream of text messages.
The thought that I’ve wrestled with in the past few days is this: “Have ads, as brand building blocks, finally become irrelevant and unnecessary?”
In a word, probably. Much as I still love creating them, (I really do) they’ve sadly become the Jimmy Carter of media… aging (not very gracefully), occasionally attracting some attention, but for the most part, they’re irrelevant and unnecessary.
Here’s proof. Name a print campaign that made you want to buy the product without going online first.
Don’t misunderstand me. I like nothing better than to gaze upon a two-page print ad with a killer concept, pithy on-point copywriting and art directed to the nines. But the times they are a changin’… too fast, maybe. Tick, tick, tick. Waiting three weeks for the next copy of Wired to get a new print blast of brand personality just doesn’t cut it in today’s 24-hour, spin-dry, news cycle world.
So just give me ideas. Lots of them. And keep ’em coming. Ones that solve problems. That satisfy a need or desire. Hopefully the ones I have. In any media. Any time. Every day.
I recently read that match.com created 100 commercials this past year. Talk about speed dating!
So content isn’t just king. It’s King Kong!
But I for one am glad. Really glad. Because for us idea junkies, well, we’ve become more relevant and valuable than ever before.
It’s been almost two months since I posted my first observation of the UPS brand repositioning. Sadly my first opinion hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s been reinforced through repeated viewings of subsequent creative efforts by the package delivery industry’s version of Avis. The ‘love’ thing still rings semi-generic, uplifted by the outstanding production values of each spot. They almost make you forget the idea driving them.
“We love logistics.” makes me pine for the demonstrative ‘Whiteboard’ campaign by way of Richmond’s Martin agency. Instantly and uniquely recognizable for both brand and benefit. OK, like many others I kept shouting “Get a haircut” every time I saw a spot, but, let’s not forget that the campaign became so iconic it was even spoofed on Saturday Night Live and in dozens of YouTube parodies . Talk about becoming part of America’s social fabric… not bad one of the color wheel’s tertiary colors. The campaign made the UPS brand position of partnership and simplicity a powerful one. “What can brown do for you?” Miss ya.
UPS “Logistics” commercials work hard and look good demonstrating the functional aspects of the lengths to which they’ll go to demonstrate their love, but it all still comes off as a generic exercise in creativity. I even imagined a FedEx logo in place of the UPS shield and everything made sense as a campaign for FedEx, sans the love. Unique brand position? Not in my book.
Why explain in excrutiating detail (a brown smart car, even) what you spent the entire last campaign simplifying? It’s as if UPS was saying “We make it really, really simple, but look how complicated it all is and see how hard we all work to make it really, really simple for you! And it’s all because we love what we do!”
AND… we do it internationally!
Love ya Brown. But you’re giving me lessons in logistics that I already know. And that love thing, sorry. I like logistics.
Now don’t be misled by the title. This post isn’t going to wax poetic about television commercials advertising Butterball Turkeys or Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce.
No, I just want to take up a little digital real estate (is that an oxymoron?) to say thanks to Advertising for the opportunity it has given me to earn a pretty fair living, work with a lot of great people and have more fun coming up with ideas than I ever could have imagined. Along the way I’ve logged lots of frequent flier miles, worked late into the night countless times, and sold my share of campaigns with smoke and mirrors. No, I’m not going to name names here. It’s Thanksgiving, remember.
My work has sold everything from supermarkets to Chevrolets (before the bailout). Light bulbs to surgical blades. Spaghetti sauce to ice cream. Casinos to bottled water. And while every client relationship has its ups and downs, I’m thankful for them all. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, although sometimes I’m not quite sure exactly where that is.
But I digress…
I’m also thankful for the opportunity given to me by Kean University as an adjunct professor on the Robert Busch School of Design. It’s a great honor and challenge to share my knowledge and expertise with the next generation of young creative thinkers. And to see so many of my former students become successful art directors and copywriters is personally rewarding, to say the least. One of my students, who shall remain nameless, once called me “the Simon Cowell of Professors.” I think she meant that as a compliment.
But I digress… again.
Like any business, our “industry of ideas” has certainly changed since I created my first advert back in those dark days of the last century when typesetters roamed the land. But, the technology revolution of the last decade and the communications opportunities that have resulted offer more ways for us to be creative than ever before.
I’m REALLY thankful for that.
I guess there’s not much else to say but “Can you pass the sweet potatoes, please?”
I recently was discussing a creative project with someone who remarked to me that they had a hard time “Thinking outside the box.”
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, that old cliche. The one that describes the land beyond those four little cardboard walls. The place where incredible, unforgettable ideas float gently across our minds like so many puffy clouds on a sunny spring day.
Which brings me to the point f this post.
Who came up with this box? What’s in the box? What’s outside the box? And, what makes the inside of the box such a bad place for ideas, and outside the box such a great place?
Frankly, I don’t believe there’s a box. Or a tooth fairy. Or a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Or……
You fill in the next one.
I’ve seen “outside the box” thinking that couldn’t sell ski gloves in Alaska in January. Great idea? Sure. Make me want to buy the product. No way.
And, I’ve seen a supposed “inside the box” idea drives sales off the charts. No Gold Lion Winner to be sure. But a solid, creative concept that made me want the product, get up off the couch, and part with some hard earned money. Mission accomplished.
The point is, that whatever the idea, it had better connect with the viewer and drive home some positive, motivating thought. Great ideas that are funny, entertaining and well executed but fail to deliver a relevant differentiating brand message are just that. These messages still have to solve a problem in some way. And, the problem doesn’t have to be a big one. Often the small conquest of a problem can have the most impact… if the idea that solves it is a big one.
Porsche makes some of the most wicked fast sports cars in the world. They built their brand on speed and the adrenaline rush that results. Find a curve in the road, drive fast. Find a straight stretch of road, drive wicked fast. Then, they build the Cayenne. An SUV. With all the Explorers and Grand Cherokees already out there on the road, and selling for a LOT less money, what problem were they hoping to solve?
Remember, there’s no box. Really. There’s just ideas. Big ones and little ones. Smart one and dumb ones. Ones that entertain and ones that really sell. Ones that make people like a brand and ones that make people buy.
There’s just a place in our minds where ideas come from that we have to discover. Over and over and over and over and…
I’ve seen the following unfortunate situation unfold countless times for nearly a decade in advertising courses I’ve taught : A student will come up with a highly engaging, on-strategy, traffic-stopping campaign idea for a creative assignment. Then, execute it with visual images that are as well matched and powerful as Lady Gaga singing opera.
Sure, a well composed photograph from one of the many stock photo websites looks great in a layout at first glance. But, upon closer examination of the ad and its concept, the image often does more to blunt the idea than amplify it.
Imagine if there were a website that offered stock concepts. Think ‘Corbisideas.com’ for instance. Type in “Funny, toothpaste, whitening.” Hit search and bingo!!! A page full of creative ideas ready to go. Now imagine coming to class and seeing another student’s work with the same idea from the same site. Royalty-free concepts???
Now I’m not denigrating stock photography. The quality and selection of photography by way of a “click” has become quite impressive. And royalty-free stock has long since shrugged off the perception as generic and common. Full disclosure… many of the outstanding images we see in advertising, both online and off, use stock photography. And to great effect. As a result of today’s shrinking ad budgets, stock is often the only viable solution.
The point I’m making is this: a concept that’s highly original deserves nothing less than an image of the same quality. Your photograph may be original or taken from stock and Photoshopped until its origin is unrecognizable, but you should settle for nothing less than a final execution for a wicked concept that’s wicked as well.
Remember this… when you finally get that interview with the Creative Director of an agency you’d kill to work for, the last thing you want to hear during a review of your portfolio is “Is that picture from ThinkStock or Corbis?”
Current advertising campaigns driven by big ideas are about as plentiful today as plug-in stations for electric cars. Geico’s the one big exception that comes to mind. And it’s no wonder they’re an endangered species. Ideas, really good, honkin’-big ideas that take a brand “on their shoulders” and powerfully position them, are seldom recognized or truly understood by today’s crop of marketing mavens. Hey, it’s a tough balancing act making that sales chart grow in the right direction and keeping the bloggers from flaming your product at the same time.
Warning: 20 tweets and a well-liked fan page do not a big idea make.
Fortunately, there is still a real need today for big ideas that adhere like velcro to your brain. Great ones do that. They take a product, make it water-in-the-desert desirable and create a rabid community of brand lovers. They drive brand leadership and bottom line sales. And they spawn legions of imitators. And they’ve been doing it long before the Internet. The stickiness of Bartles and Jaymes and Miller Lite’s “Less Filling/Tastes Great” campaigns (Google ’em) are good examples of iconic, powerful concepts from the late 20th century.
In contrast, Apple’s recent “Mac vs PC” campaign may have been memorable and entertaining but upon closer examination reveals itself to be an excellent example of an execution substituting for a concept. And so is the original iPod television campaign. Visually compelling? Absolutely. Great product demonstration? Dead on. Strategic? Yep. Big idea? Uh-uh>
And when it comes to ideas don’t confuse consistency with concept. Progressive Insurance relies on their sales concierge, Flo, to deliver their brand message but I challenge you to tell me what their big difference is.
When they do surface, big, duct-tape-sticky ideas barely have the time to drive brand equity or positioning in today’s viral, solar-flair-hot, crash and burn, social media online environment. Instead, replacing them is an avalanche of lukewarm, interchangeable, post-it note ideas. Hardly sticky. Easily forgettable. A classic case of quantity over quality. Like technology inmates running the idea asylum. Think Transformers II.
Think it’s a crazy point of view? Well, this big-idea aversion is even infecting some of the big NY agencies. The recent exodus of top several creative directors from top New York shops underscores my point. Most recent is the departure of BBH New York Creative Chief Kevin Roddy. Here’s what he had to say in a story that ran in last week’s ad age: “Creativity used to be put on a pedestal, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” he said. “Creative people have become more of a commodity, and I think that takes the wind out of them. The creative ego is a very important thing, because it drives talent. But it’s also a very fragile thing.”
An interesting brand change occurred this week as UPS refreshed their entire brand position and strategy. It’s best exemplified by their new brand line. You may remember the tag “What can brown do for you?” Well, its been replaced by the new more consumer-ish “We [heart] logistics.” Check out their website to see how the new positioning plays out.