Friday, March 28, 2008

Fugly Ducklings

Photo remixed from David Of Troy

How do you arrive at distinctive ideas when corporate America is such an unfertile environment for anything out of the ordinary?

Ideas on important initiatives do not go forward unless they’ve been validated by research. The research is done against the same people your competitors are using. The research methods are the same. The resulting insights are the same. And the ideas that ‘rise to the top’ are the same.

Great, now you have a ‘same’ idea. Beating your competition is now a matter of speed, money, and execution.

Enter the Fugly Duckling. A Fugly Duckling is the sort of idea that draws nervous giggles in the brainstorming session. They’re the ones that hit the floor first in focus groups. They die in the bottom left quadrant.

True, many of these Fugly Ducklings, if allowed to live, would grow up to be Fugly Ducks. But a few of them end up being breakout hits. Their very Fugliness gives them a massive head start in the market. Think of the Aeron chair. Fuuuuuugly!

While we’ve developed a research system that actively searches for Fugly Ducklings and gives them a chance to grow, we’re wondering if anyone else out there has any thoughts or solutions.

Have you ever had a Fugly Duckling on your hands? How do you support the rearing of Fugly Ducklings?

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Persuasion - it's only natural

Photo courtesy of aussiegall

If you are in advertising or marketing, you are in the business of persuasion. Oh yes you are.

In fact, if you’re in the human race, you’ve been persuading since you could first make goo-goo eyes at the grown-ups.

Persuasion, at its finest, is a symbiotic connection between two entities.

Girl < > Boy.
Flower < > Bee.
Brand < > Customer.

You offer potential customers a series of reasons to engage with your brand. Each reason, whether factual or emotional, moves a person closer to a transaction. Then, the product experience itself becomes the first in a new series of reasons – “would I do it again?”

Persuasion is what we do. And we can all be better at it if we see it for what is.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

R.I.P. Arthur

Arthur C. Clarke, author of “2001: A Space Odyssey”, passed away yesterday at the fine old age of 90. He was not a particular hero of ours - at least, he wasn’t, until we read his obit this morning and were reminded of his rare blend of skills. Clearly, he was a leading example of what can happen when art has an appetite for science, and as such, fully deserves to be the first oil portrait in our Hall of Fame.

By delving into the tedium of existing knowledge, and intuiting vivid possibilities from there, he was able to describe the future – for example, his 1945 forecast of telecommunications satellites came a decade before even the first orbital rocket flight.

Would the likes of Directv have happened without him? Most likely. But by giving esoteric notions form in the public imagination, he hastened the pace of progress. He inspired young scientists. He built an acceptance of, and even a hunger for, world-changing ideas. He created paths for science to follow.

That’s what creativity can do to lifeless fact. It can intuit new meanings, new applications, and new connections. Not only that – these imaginings can be real, long before fact catches up.

So, what facts are sitting around your business, doing nothing, waiting for a curious, lateral mind to turn them into a competitive advantage? Channel your Arthur C.

Update: Here's what Seth Godin (another hero of ours) had to say about what we can all learn from Arthur C. Clarke.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Handling The Truth

I was delighted to see in a recent presentation from Valeria Maltoni a slide stating that to be a successful advertising agency, you had to be able to handle the truth.

I’m not sure if Valeria meant ‘handle the criticism’, but I took my own meaning from her suggestion – that the truth is the only solid ground we can ever walk on as we develop strategies and ideas for our clients.

When we named our company Persuasion Arts & Sciences, it was done with this point front and center.

Too often, we confine our search for the truth to our own narrow areas of concern. In the creative department, that often means looking only at the challenges within communications – how to create and sell the edgiest, funniest, newest idea possible.

Our dream at Persuasion is to bring creativity much closer to the ultimate truths of a business - how that business makes money, how the individuals running the business reach consensus and move forward, how customers and customers-to-be truly navigate their way through the world.

In practice, this means our creative people spend a lot of time pouring over raw data, research, financials etc – the sort of stuff one would think would bring out hives in the average writer or art director.

To us, the truth is most plainly represented by facts. And creativity is well suited to uncovering the surprising truths within those facts. Truth is not just something well worth handling, it is something that must be pursued, embraced and championed.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Auto No-Show

Car brands have to be about the most sophisticated examples of the marketer’s art. Each brand is so finely nuanced, so clearly differentiated, with stories so thoroughly told.

At least, that’s what I thought, until I took a trip to the local, annual auto show.

By and large, the stories were not in the room. Only a handful of brands even made much of an attempt. For the majority, it was enough to line their cars up in an efficient manner, plop a brochure dispenser in the middle, and hire a few models to walk around wearing logo shirts and headsets.

In other words, most of the marketers failed to capitalize on one of the most persuasive touchpoints in the buying experience.

Not everyone forfeited, though. Hyundai, ironically the latest to market with a new brand idea (“Think about it”), did an impressive job telling their story. Their display featured plenty of cream leather seating and white seamless backgrounds, and well-crafted, consistent communications - for example, “would you rather have more cupholders or airbags?”

Scion made the most of their real estate with a double-deck display of modified cars, and giveaways of Scion-ish lifestyle mags, keychains and music.

And the throw-everything-at-the-wall award had to go to VW, who not only had conversation pits, audio pods, video games, three-foot wide Fast statues, and stylized auto factory production lines, but they did much of it in German.

Perhaps the no-show story-tellers are relying on the reputations that precede them, or the virtues of the product itself. My money is on the brands that go further, and take control of their story arc.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Neophyte Network

“Dad, how come school buses have to say “School Bus” on the side? Everyone knows they’re school buses just by looking at them.”

That’s what my son said to me this morning over breakfast. After laughing at the rightness of his observation, I started to think about the beauty of the fresh perspective.

When you’re eight years old, things that don’t make sense occur to you all the time and you know no better than to ask the question. When you get to be a grown-up, all those incongruities become white noise. We learn what to focus on and what to ignore. We become experts at being in this world.

Of course, that’s exactly what happens in our jobs, too. We become experts in our brand, in our business, in our industry, and we learn to not waste any time on the things that don’t make sense, and instead become fluent in the things that do.

Yes, they’ve made plenty of movies about how beautiful it is to keep our childish perspective. “Big” was a popular one. So was “Amelie”. We see the movies, they ring true to us, but we never learn the lesson.

We are still asked to prove our experience in any one given area. Before we land an assignment to work on a box of cereal, we have to demonstrate that we know the box-of-cereal business backwards.

Wouldn’t business benefit from a steady supply of intelligent, inquisitive people flowing through their offices, asking the na├»ve, and often revealing, questions? Imagine if consultants were hired for their areas of INexperience? It would be a network of neophytes, providing immense value through horizontal wisdom and vertical ignorance.

To start the ball rolling, here are some categories I don’t know the first thing about: pharmaceuticals, toys, auto parts, government organizations, and motion pictures.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Hero Curse

At a dinner I recently attended, featuring a handful of the industry’s top bloggers, the subject of Target’s awkward history with social media came up.

The disappointment in Target was such that within minutes, the conversation had moved on to what a conservative culture the Target company actually has, how the stores never really measure up to the hype, how the service is poor to non-existent etc etc.

It was breathtaking to see a brand that many in our industry admire, so suddenly tipped over.

It reminded me of the awful responsibility heroes have – the hero brands and individuals who inspire us to do better. Think of the ghastly fall of Marion Jones. Or the terrible wobbles that Nike suffered in the late nineties. These heroes were blessed with a seemingly endless supply of public goodwill. We were willing to imbue their everyday behaviors with some kind of magic, and we did it over and over again, through seasons and years.

But then, just one transgression breaks the spell, and we suddenly see only the warts. In the case of Nike, they never had to give back any gold medals, but they have never taken back the mantle of unassailability.

The truth is, Target has been a conservative, buttoned up company for a long time, the stores have always been a disconnect with the image, and when did Target ever have or even promise good service?

It suggests that the more successful an illusion (and heroes are illusions we are all eager to buy into), the more vulnerable it is to a single, piercing disappointment.