Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to speak authentic

People have asked me what I think about Foster’s returning to an advertising campaign I helped create many years ago. They wonder if I’m pissed, if I feel vindicated, if I feel I should get royalties.

None of the above.

What it makes me think about is how much has changed, how Foster’s squandered its place in pop culture, and what it all means for today.

Let me say first though that I think the people behind the latest Foster’s advertising did a good job revisiting the original spirit of the advertising. It was always hard to ‘get’ what Foster’s was about… whoever did the latest work is either Australian, or channeled their inner Hugh Jackman.

But here’s some history that leads to a criticism, not of the advertising but of the brand.

When I first worked on Foster’s, it was the beer of choice for Wall Street workers commuting home to Connecticut or Staten Island. It was one big can, big enough to last the ride home, small enough to tuck discretely into a brown paper bag. Though those guys all wore suits and ties, a little piece of their self-image connected with the larger than life macho nature of a huge can of fantasy Aussie.

That’s what we focused on. And back in those days of ‘advertising campaigns’, it didn’t matter all that much to us or to our customers that Foster’s was moving from a cool tin can to a new, sleek, but still large, aluminum one. Nor did it matter terribly, though the fact made me queasy, that the beer was actually brewed in Canada (so it could still say ‘imported’ on the can, y’see).

We just went all out at doing short, sharp, tough guy advertising.

It was a huge success. Big sales increases. Pound for pound the most effective beer campaign of its time. Years later, men in focus groups still mentioning Foster’s as their favorite beer advertising.

Funny thing happened, though.

As much as Americans loved the imagery, Australians hated it. HATED IT. Though all of our senior clients were either Canadian or American, they answered to people who answered to people back in Australia. And at a time when Australia was trying to brush off its outback imagery and set itself up as a glittering, modern, cosmopolitan society.

We managed to fend off the complaints. But then, a new regime of marketing people inherited the brand. They looked at the customers - the urban white collar professional. They looked at the communications - blokes in dusty denim. And they said, hey, we have to show our customers in the communication. That would make the work so much more effective.

You know what happened next. The whip-cracking, croc-wrestling imagery disappeared, to be replaced by sophisticates at cocktail parties.

Fantasy over.

For a decade, Foster’s wandered from one excellent agency to another, trying to get its groove back. Trying to re-capture that tiny slice of pop culture relevance. And, up until now, assiduously avoiding any hint of neo-neanderthal outback shindigs.

Here’s the problem, though. “Advertising campaigns” don’t work like they used to. Unless they’re absolutely accurate depictions of the brand’s heart and soul, they’re dead in the water. And they smell that way, too. In fact, I doubt we’d have gotten away with that original campaign today, pretending to be an authentic (fantasy) Australian experience when on the back of the can it said ‘brewed in Canada’.

So, the problem does not lay with the new advertising. It’s the brand itself that’s gotten lost in a series of sensible, efficiency-driven decisions.

Unless your brand has efficiency at its center (say, Intel), efficiency is the enemy of authenticity. And authenticity is everything today.

Now, one of the greatest beer drinking countries in the world, with a legendary drinking culture, has no mass representative in the US market. (With the possible exception of Cooper’s. Limited distribution, great AUTHENTIC beer. But really… is there anyone who’d like to make a fortune importing and distributing VB? Let me know.)

And if you look at the back of a can of Foster’s today, you’ll see it’s no longer brewed in Canada. Whoah! Did common, modern sense win out?

No, Foster’s is now brewed in Tennessee. Dear oh dear.