Boring Your Brand to Death

I've recently been tapped to write the advertising column for Omaha B2B magazine – a quarterly publication from the folks behind Omaha Magazine. My agency, Webster, redesigned the magazine's layout, which you can see here (warning: requires, shudder, Flash). I've embedded my column below, along with the necessary-for-SEO text version.

I've got mad squinching skills.

Boring Your Brand to Death

Depending upon which study, source, anecdote or observation you wish to rely, the average American’s average attention span averages six to nine seconds. (So the fact that you’re even reading this sentence means you are – rejoice – above average.) Whenever this statistic pops up on Twitter or in a TED talk or at Cannes (the advertising festival, not the Gathering of All Things French and/or Clooney), marketing and ad types of a certain stripe work themselves up into seven different kinds of lather. Then, nearly instantaneously, the industry produces an allegedly paradigm-shifting remedy to the public’s increasing need for the new and shiny. After many blogs are written, books promoted and conferences spoken at, the cycle begins anew.

While I have nothing scientific to refute the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span hypothesis, nor the power to single-handedly stop the bloviating of the self-appointed marketing gurus (or is it ninjas?), I do posit that we – specifically, owners and caretakers of brands – are looking at the wrong side of the coin. The real problem is not that consumers have short attention spans. It’s that we give them so little of interest to look at.

In other words, we’re boring.

Okay, maybe we as people aren’t boring. Maybe our companies or products aren’t boring. Maybe our newest offering even has lasers. Lasers have never been boring. But our marketing too often is. Instead of telling compelling mini-stories that prod a chuckle, jerk a tear or elicit a smile, we reformat PowerPoint slides to make the most bullet point-intensive print ad ever. We run Twitter feeds that do nothing but push deals and make occasional-yet-still-self-serving references to winning sports teams. We pore over spreadsheets trying to figure out how many impressions a banner ad will get without giving a second thought to the type of impression it will make.

Boring is a never a good adjective nor, unless you’re drilling for shale, a good verb. The only action you can bore someone into is ignoring you; therefore, boredom never equals sales. And if you really want to spend 10% of your revenue (the rule-of-thumb for establishing growth-oriented marketing budgets) simply to go unnoticed, I’d recommend saving up for a stealth fighter or passel of ninjas instead of blowing it on an ad campaign. The ninjas, at least, can keep Bob in accounting from absconding with all the donuts.

Too many marketers – and that doesn’t just mean CMOs or ad agency types; if you own a small business, guess what, you’re a marketer – mistakenly believe that an ineffective marketing message does them no harm. But, aside from being an absurd justification for anything, that isn’t always true. Just because a message wasn’t acted upon doesn’t mean it wasn’t seen. Whether stuck in rush hour looking at your billboard, staring at a TV in a sports bar as your commercial interrupts the game, or clicking “skip this ad” (as in yours) on their way to read an online op-ed, people often do witness boring messages. And here’s the rub: While no one remembers boring ads, they never forget how boring your brand is. So a boring campaign not only wastes time and money, it can squander whatever brand equity you already had.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Even a boring product is no excuse for a boring ad. After all, everything serves some relevant purpose to someone. And that’s the key. What is your relevant message? Not the message you want to say, but the message your target might actually care about and respond to. It doesn’t matter if that message is the same one it’s been for the past quarter century – if it’s still relevant, just do it.

So relevance is the foundation of your message. Without it the most interesting piece of information in the world will evaporate seconds after it’s viewed, yet relevance alone does not equal interesting. That is where the artistry comes in. The combination of personality, tone of voice, skillful storytelling and respect for the audience that keeps people from hitting the triple-speed fast-forward button on their DVRs. Or has them smiling in traffic. Or retweeting 140 characters of something with actual value to them, their followers and you. Or even reading the copy on your product packaging because it, too, holds their interest.

The good news is that you don’t have to be Apple or Target or Harley-Davidson or Chipotle to pull this off. You do have to put in the effort to define your brand’s core characteristics, hone a personality and voice, and deliver both interesting messages and a great experience. Do this consistently (that’s consistently, not perfectly) and one day you’ll discover your brand – instead of dying the slow death of ten thousand yawns – is championed by the very people who once wouldn’t give it the time of day. Let alone their cash.

The Obligatory Super Hole VIII – The Uppity Armchair CD Edition

Welcome to the eighth annual edition of a futile exercise I call The Super Hole. This year, unlike Super Holes VI and VII, I'll return to passing out letter grades along with proffering tidbits on how the spots could’ve been better. Granted, I could take the easy way out for all of them and just say, “Step 1: Hire me. Step 2: Leave me alone. Step 3: Drink in the genius.” But that would be rude. Very rude. Besides, some of these spots are actually quite good.

As usual: I only review ads shown during the four quarters of the game, so no pre- or post-game spots (although a couple sneak in). And no movie trailers, TV show promos, NFL ads or local ads.

Spots are arranged in alphabetical order according to brand. If I missed a couple, try one of the 8.3 million other blogs writing about this today.</p>

And if you helped make one of the ads that I ream, take solace in the fact that you worked on a Super Bowl ad. I worked on a blog about Super Bowl ads. I’d rather be getting reamed myself.

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Audi, “Doberhuahua” – I love this spot, so I’ll just pick some nits. The banter between the dog show commentators could’ve been funnier, in the vein of “Best in Show.” I’m sure Fred Willard would’ve been available. The dog park scene could’ve used a smaller moment...

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Take two and die slowly

Fixing a brand is hard. Rarely does salvation arrive in the form of one product, tag line, commercial or initiative because a broken brand is rarely ill in just one area of operations. This fact, obvious though it should be, seems lost on too many brands. Forget improving product quality or the in-store experience. They want a silver bullet – a magic elixir that fixes all their ills with minimal time and effort. They are like a man who goes to the doctor and discovers he has extremely high cholesterol. The doctor advises, "I'm going to put you on Lipitor, and you'll have to exercise five days week and completely change your diet from one based on powdered mini donuts to one based on celery and bran. If you don't do these things, you'll have a heart attack within two years." The man balks, "What if I just take the Lipitor?" "That won't cut it," admonishes the doctor. "You'll just die a little more slowly." The patient considers this and then replies, "Nah, I think I'll just give the pills a shot. Because, science." Then, while on his way to the pharmacy, the man is struck and killed by a car driven by Alanis Morrisette.

That last sentence doesn't transfer so well as an ad analogy, but the rest holds true – and how many brands do the same thing every day? Ignore the advice of those who know how business works in hopes that tomorrow will just be a magically brighter day because they ran an FSI with three coupons instead of just two? Worse yet, how many such clients are clogging up your agency roster with missed opportunities and wild placebo chases?

Exactly.

Later,

Fox

So Long, and Thanks for All the Retweets

Photo by Bill HornsteinOn Monday, May 11, 2009, the statement "I've yet to hire a writer who uses ellipses in an ad" echoed out across the Twitterverse and into the feeds of 15 followers*. And so began the long, steady, often donut-powered accumulation of once-a-day crumbs of (alleged) ad wisdom that is @leeclowsbeard.

And today it ends. Kind of.

A few moments ago, I tweeted Crumb O' (Again, Alleged) Wisdom No. 1,000. That seems as good a milestone as any to give it a rest before I grow even more repetitive. Maybe for a few weeks or months. Maybe forever. Who knows. But unless a hue and cry rises from the Beardist Collective (or an outpouring of PayPal donations to jfox-at-jasonfox.net), I need a break. But, I suspect as long as I'm in this business I'll have something to say about it. Just not every day. Spewing is easy. Spewing with purpose and meaning, less so.

If you've followed LCB for a while, you know what strange trip it has been. You can read much about that journey here, but to summarize: LCB started in May 2009 while I was freelancing. Three months later, I took a job back at an agency that had laid me off nearly three years prior. LCB gained followers, including then CCO of the Los Angeles TBWA/Chiat/Day office, Rob Schwartz. Eventually, I asked Rob if Lee knew what I was up to. "Yes! Who are you? Let's have lunch," replied Rob. So, in July 2010 I flew to L.A. for lunch with Lee and Rob, and the idea for the book was spawned. More tweeting, more followers, more value ensued. The day I signed the book production agreement with Chiat, I got fired. A year passed. The book, beautifully designed by Bill Hornstein, was released in June 2012. I became the ECD at a design firm (don't forget, I'm a writer) in Omaha. The one in Nebraska. Strange indeed.

The @leeclowsbeard book is still available in hardcover, iBook and Kindle versions, along with the free iOS app. I do not know how many hardcover copies remain. Also, as an aside, the book was never intended to be a moneymaker. Although if you buy through these links, I may get to take my wife out to dinner again.

As of this writing, LCB has just over 34,100 followers. I thank you all, even the bots I didn't manage to weed out. I hope that, more often than not, what I said helped get you through another day in adland. Or at least provided ammo for an overlong meeting. Yes, I know the "overlong" was unnecessary. 

And so, until time and brainpower permit a return to my hirsute ways, I bid you all adieu.

Grow long and prosper, 

Fox