Monday, April 23, 2007

When viral spreads disease

Gotta love it when a fancy-pants ambient stunt 'goes viral'...but not quite as planned.

Marketing types should have learned not to play with urban fire (aka graffiti) after the PSP debacle a couple of years back.

The highest profile word-of-mouth balls-up of recent weeks has been's Information Revolution campaign. Its backfiring has less to do with ill-conceived wall scribblings and more to do with the fact that (the brand whose ambassador used to be a butler) never was and never is going to start an Information Revolution - especially not one that consumers have no appetite for. (Most people want more of Google's genuinely revolutionary applications, not less.)

Painful landing page copy like this doesn't help the cause:

"Welcome, person of courage... [cue lots of whinging about Google without actually saying the G word] we've been forced to go underground [what, TV and poster advertising and a crappy microsite?] to get the word out about No one said it would be easy [damn right, and you've failed miserably]. We're glad you could join us [sorry, I only came here to gloat]. Information Revolution Now!"

The cod-soviet grammar of that last sentence is brilliant. Give that man a Lion.

Changing tack slightly, it seems that marketers aren't the only people struggling to meet the challenge posed by P2P distribution. The Onion reports that some of the more serious jounalists at the NY Times were shocked and upset to discover that the newspaper's online readers tend to pass on articles about sex, animals and sex with animals much more than they do stories about Iraq and gender politics:

"I thought my Elizabeth Edwards breast cancer article the other week had a great chance, as it was at the intersection of politics, health, death, and family—and had the word 'breast' in the headline—but it didn't even make the top 10," Nagourney said. "Whatever."

So, what have we learnt about viral? Well, don't try to do it. Don't worry about it. Instead, just focus on making interesting stuff and making it shareable. Blog-happy Diginatives and their bulging Gmail addressbooks will do the rest.

Marketers can never own viral: it's not a medium, it's a mode of distribution, which by its very nature can't be controlled. That doesn't preclude us from observing and learning from it, though. Viral transmission is real behaviour, not reported behaviour. The contents and scale of that transmission comprise a dip-test for the digital age.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Your smoothie needs you

The folks at Innocent don't just talk the talk.

And they don't just walk the walk, either. Not on their own, anyway.

No, Innocent are inviting all of you to join them on a branded march to the virtual doorstep of Number 10, where you can voice your protest at the unjust tax legislation affecting their company and it's customers.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that legions (herds?) of Innocent Smoothie fanatics will clamber over each other to sign the e-petition.

Is this the most remarkable packaged-goods brand in the world today?


Friday, April 13, 2007

Mitchell or Webb?

I watched the first episode of the new series of Peep Show on Channel 4 last night. It was bloody great. Comedy gold, in fact.

However, the thing that stuck in my head (curse you marketing profession) wasn't the witty screenplay, or those internal monologues for which the show is famous.

No, no. The thing I couldn't stop thinking about was this:

Yep, that's right. Peep Show has turned into a half hour advert for Mac computers.

I don't know if the timing of the recent PC vs Mac campaign featuring Mitchell and Webb was pure coincidence or pure genius. Either way, it's been live for just long enough that when Peep Show came on last night my first thought was of PCs and Macs. More precisely, it was of Mitchell's character, Mark, as a metaphor for the PC, and Webb's character, Jez, as a metaphor for the Mac.

And there lies the problem. Neither Mark nor Jez delivers a particularly flattering association. In fact, it's Mark the nerdy cynic, not Jez the insouciant chump, that I find myself strangely endeared to.

So, that's Mark over Jez. Mitchell over Webb. PC over Mac. Oopsy daisy TBWA - that clever bit of casting no longer looks quite so clever.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Brand Portals

Russell Davies has suggested that a crop of small ideas united by a multifarious and organic Brand Voice should in some cases be preferred to the tyrannical Big Idea. (Check out Russell's Honda APG paper for a case in point.)

I've been thinking about how all of this might apply to brands on the web. More precisely, I've been thinking about the following question:

'How can a Brand Voice manifest itself online?'

To answer that question I'll need to fork off on a couple of tangents: the first will concern the humble web portal, and the second a marketing trend dubbed Brand Curation. Stick with me as I veer off-piste - the examples and conclusions that follow are worth the wait.


Before Google came along, web-enthusiasts obsessed over things called 'portals', not things called 'search engines'. The default way to discover stuff online was through exploration of the Yahoo, Lycos or Excite portals, not by whacking keywords into search boxes.

But what exactly is a web-portal?

The concept of a portal that I have in mind is similar to that of a newspaper or magazine: each comprises a collection of content with a specific domain of interest and a defined editorial voice. (Note how the web presence of most newspapers and magazines is portal-like in look and feel. My favourite UK press brand, The Guardian, has used its portal to morph into a global multi-media brand.)

In addition to collecting content, portals - again, like newspapers and magazines - tend to point to relevant third-party content with which they share a domain of interest, if not always an editorial voice. It's hard to imagine now, but the Yahoo portal started life as an outward-looking web directory, only building in naval-gazing proprietary applications and content over time.

For more on the history of portals and search, John Batelle's book and blog are essential reading.

Right. That's enough about portals for now. On to tangent two...


As the web continues to grow exponentially, and the value of filtering, aggregation and recommendation mechanisms grows with it, a viable role for brands online would seem to be that of curator - either of branded content or third-party content, or both.

Contagious Magazine recently noted the Brand Curation trend, but mainly in reference to brand involvement with real world arts events. I'm interested in the virtual world (specifically the WWW), and in a more engaging and dynamic form of curation; a form of curation where the brand directly presents consumers with curated content in a bespoke and interactive branded context, and then points - or in some cases, leads - them to web destinations where they can find more content like it. In short, I'm interested in Brand Portals.

Referring back to my definition of a portal, all a brand need do to create one is collect (or curate) content with a specific domain of interest and a unique editorial voice. This editorial voice is of course the Brand Voice touched upon earlier. And so the question 'How does a Brand Voice manifest itself online?' can be answered, 'Through a Brand Portal'.


So, who's doing the Brand Portal thing? And more importantly, who's doing it well?

Part of the reason I wanted to write something about Brand Portals is that some of the most likeable and successful brands around today have utilised them - particularly those brands who are liked and successful in the digital sphere.

The first brand I ought to mention here is Absolut. In recent years, Absolut and their interactive agency Great Works have created a series of capsule campaigns, some (Bling Bling, Ruby Red) to support new product launches, and others (Lomo, 100 Absolutes) to progress the master-brand. For the purposes of this post, it's not these apparently disparate campaigns that I'm interested in, but rather the coherent Brand Voice they all share and the Brand Portal whose nifty carousel interface organises them for consumers.

Absolut's Brand Portal is more new-Yahoo than old-Yahoo: it is navel-gazing not outward-looking, with a focus on own-brand content. That's okay for an iconic drinks brand with an arty pedigree, but for other brands, the old-Yahoo approach is more appropriate.

Onitsuka Tiger's Made of Japan campaign has been noted and applauded by various commentators in recent weeks. The website element of this campaign epitomises the old-Yahoo approach to Brand Portals. By clicking on one of the hundreds of tiles that make up an interactive trainer mosaic, users are transported to an authentic Japanese blog or website.

Whilst the content aggregated by Onitsuka's portal is all third-party, it still fits within the parameters of a single, albeit multifarious, Brand Voice. In fact, it is this third-party content that adds colour and nuance to the Brand Voice, rooting it in the everyday lives of natural brand advocates.

Contrast this with the portal mentioned earlier, which links to content that betrays its Brand Voice. Paradoxically, this betrayal is a crucial component of a media brand's voice. Unlike your average consumer brand, media brands must reference some off-voice sources to retain integrity.

I'm digressing again. Back to the examples.

So, I've looked at a Brand Portal that takes a new-Yahoo approach, collating purely own-brand content. I've also looked at a Brand Portal that takes an old-Yahoo approach, aggregating on-voice third-party content. There's two further examples I'd like to discuss: a Brand Portal that takes a mixed approach, gathering both own-brand and third-party content, and a Brand Portal that isn't tied to a brand website.

First up, the mixed portal.

Now, whilst conceiving a marketing trend that doesn't reference Innocent Smoothies is certainly an ambition of mine, it's not one I can fulfil here. Innocent have mastered the Brand Portal.

The most recent example of Innocent's portal mastery is the Innocent Pinboard. The Pinboard metaphor is a great excuse to gather content produced by Innocent consumers and third-parties, as well as stuff from the company's prolific in-house creative department. The April 12th pinboard I'm looking at (Innocent update it daily) features an animated tip of the day, a fruit fact of the day, plus consumer photos of a customised lunchbox and a dog playing with an innocent carton. There's also a widget linking to the Innocent Flickr group. It's a truly mixed Brand Portal.

What the Innocent Pinboard doesn't do is stretch the Innocent Brand Voice - certainly not in the same way as the Onitsuka portal does. Whilst the Pinboard incorporates consumer-generated and third-party content, this content is largely (though not entirely) product-centric. It's mostly about fruit and Innocent smoothies.

Another Innocent portal initiative does a better job of exploring the full range of the brand's Voice.

Every Thursday morning, tens of thousands of people receive an Innocent newsletter in email format. It's mostly composed of product and packaging updates, with a whimsical tale or two from Fruit Towers thrown in for good measure. But it's the little section at the foot of the newsletter that I really look forward to. 'Other stuff...' is where you'll find a handful of bulleted headlines that link to weird and wonderful things located in distant corners of the interweb. Whether it's space pics, brain facts or pet vids, the Brand Voice is unmistakeably Innocent. It's a great example of how to play portal in an off-site context.

I'm conscious of case study overkill, so I won't analyse the Milwaukee Light portal here. (An old-Yahoo-style 'point' will do.)

However, I do want to leave behind a slideshow featuring my favourite example of a Brand Portal: the White Rabbit banner trail created for Mini. This comprised a series of linked banners that led consumers on a journey through obscure third-party websites that share Mini's playfully eccentric Brand Voice. It's another off-site portal, and one that cleverly subverts the standard banner campaign.


So, to summarise:
  • Brand Portals are a bit like Brand Curation, except better, and on the web
  • They can showcase the full range of a multifarious Brand Voice
  • There are new-Yahoo-style Brand Portals like Absolut's
  • There are old-Yahoo-style Brand Portals like Onitsuka's
  • There are mixed portals like Innocent Pinboard
  • And there are off-site portals like Innocent's 'Other stuff...' and Mini's White Rabbit banner trail

I appreciate that the whole Brand Portal thing is conceptually quite raw at present, so feel free to comment, critique and add flesh to my bones.

If, however, you think it all makes perfect sense, then please direct me to any other Brand Portals you've stumbled across on your e-travels.