I’m sure you’ve all seen this quote. It’s attributed to Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad, and goes something like: “Advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” (I was reminded of it most recently reading Josh Porter’s blog, Bokardo.) It sounds good and, at first blush, correct, but it’s not for lots of reasons.
Broadly, the line between advertising, marketing, branding, and communications has always been a blurry one. Depending on who you talk to they have a very different definition. For the purposes of the quote, let’s assume when Stephens was talking about advertising he was specifically referring to the buying of media space across platforms like television, magazines, and websites.
With that as the working definition, there are lots of complicated reasons big companies advertise their products. Here are a few:
- Distributors love advertising: If you’re a CPG company you advertise as much for the supermarkets as your do for your product. The more money you spend the better spot they’re willing to give you on the shelf (the thought being that people will be looking for your product). I don’t think there is anyone out there that would argue shelf placement doesn’t matter. At the end of the day supermarkets are your customer if you’re a CPG company, so keeping them happy is a pretty high-priority job.
- Advertising is good at making people think you’re bigger than you are: Sometimes a company or brands wants to “play above its weight,” making people think they’re bigger than they’re actually are. When we see something on TV or in print, we mostly assume there is a big corporation behind it. Sometimes that’s more important than actually selling the product.
- Sometimes you’re not selling a product at all: There are many companies who advertise for reasons wholly disconnected from their product. GE, for example, isn’t running TV commercials about wind turbines to solely try to communicate with the thousands of people who are potentially in the market for a multi-million dollar purchase. A part of why they do it is to communicate with the public at large who is both a major shareholder for the company and also the end consumer of many of their products (many planes we fly on run GE engines and our electricity probably wouldn’t reach our house without GE products). How remarkable their products are has no bearing in this case, since we would never actually be in the market for the vast majority of the things they produce.
Broadly, though, the point I’m trying to make is that while many write off advertising as having no purpose (or being “a tax”), it’s just not true. What’s more, as advertising becomes a more seamless part of the process of being a brand in social, I think this will only become more true. If you see a piece of content performing well on Twitter or Facebook why would you not pay to promote that content and see it reach an audience beyond the core? At that point you’ve eliminated the biggest challenge traditionally associated with advertising (spending tons of money to produce something and having no idea whether it will actually have an effect on people). Seems to me if you’re not willing to entertain the idea you’re just standing on principle.
Ran across an interesting quote (reportedly) by Jony Ive about the difference between measurable (speed, hard drive size, etc.) attributes and the non-measurable ones:
But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.
I think about this a lot. One of the things that inspired Brand Tags originally was a similar quote from my friend Martin Bihl’s 2002 AdWeek article: ”The way I look at it, a brand only exists in the consumer’s mind. That other product isn’t a brand yet because consumers don’t really know about it. It’s still a product.”
I’m guessing you heard about this, but earlier this year the University of California introduced a new identity system. It looked something like this:
As people are wont to do, they freaked out. In fact, they freaked out enough that the University eventually decided to drop the new logo. Now, with the controversy in the rearview mirror, I’ve read/listened to a few post-mortems on how and why something like this happened and I felt like chiming in. My credentials, like most commenters, are pretty thin, but I think they give me an interesting perspective. Beyond spending a sort of ridiculous amount of time thinking about brands, overseeing a product team including three designers and previously working in advertising overseeing creative teams for some time, I also built Brand Tags, the largest free database of perceptions about brands. I am, however, not a designer.
That last bit, especially, shapes my perception on conversations about design.
Okay, with disclosures behind us, a bit more background: When this new logo was introduced to the public (though apparently it had been on a roadshow for some time before it showed up on the web), it was misinterpreted as a replacement for the official seal of the University of California system. That seal looks like this:
This, apparently, was inaccurate. The new logo would not be replacing the seal, but rather helping to unify the various logos that had popped up across the different UC schools (the script Cal and UCLA logos are two examples). As occasionally happens the digerati spread an idea that wasn’t true. I know this isn’t shocking, but to be fair to all the bloggers on this one, the University hardly helped its case when it produced this video as a companion piece to explain the new identity:
I know this all seems like a slightly exhaustive bit of background, especially if you’ve been following this story, but I think it’s all important. In a long piece on RockPaperInk which spurred this piece, Christopher Simmons, a designer and former AIGA president, writes:
“Designers too often judge logos separate from their system…without understanding that one can’t function without the other,” criticized Paula Scher when I asked her views on the controversy, “It’s the kit of parts that creates a contemporary visual language and makes an identity recognizable, not just the logo. But often the debate centers on whether or not someone likes the form of the logo, or whether the kerning is right.” While acknowledging that all details are important, Scher also calls these quibbles “silly.” “No designer on the outside of the organization at hand is really qualified to render an informed opinion about a massive identity system until it’s been around and in practice for about a year,” she explains, “One has to observe it functioning in every form of media to determine the entire effect. This [was] especially true in the UC case.”
Which I mostly agree with. Logos don’t exist outside the system (for the most part) and, even more importantly, they don’t exist outside the collective consciousness they grow up in. This is something I got in quite a few arguments about while I was running Brand Tags. I would get an email from a company no one had ever heard of asking for me to post their logo, to which I invariably responded “no”. My reasoning, as I explained at the time, was that the point of the site was to measure brand perception and for people to have a perception, you need a brand, which you don’t have if no one knows who you are. Brands, as I’ve expressed in the past, live in people’s heads. They are the sum total of perceptions about them.
This is part of what makes it so tough to judge any sort of logo: Lack of context. Even if you see the way the system works, you don’t have the rest of the context that would come with experiencing it in the wild. If you’re a high school senior and the new UC logo is on a sweatshirt worn by the girl you had a crush on that’s home for her freshman Christmas break it’s going to have a very different meaning than if you’re first encounter is in the US News & World Reports list of top US universities. Context shapes experience and we can’t forget that.
Which makes something Simmons writes later so confusing for me:
Design as a discipline is challenged by this notion of democracy, particularly in a viral age. We have become a culture mistrustful of expertise—in particular creative expertise. I share [UC Creative Director] Correa’s fear that this cultural position stifles design as designers increasingly lose ownership of the discourse. “If deep knowledge in these fields is weighed against the “likes” and “tastes” of the populace at large,” she warns, “We will create a climate that does not encourage visual or aesthetic exploration, play or inventiveness, since the new is often soundly refused.”
Most of the article, actually, is blaming the public (and designers specifically) for the way they misinterpreted and criticized the logo. That truth, however, is at least in part due to the context they experienced the logo in. It’s near impossible, for instance, to not walk away from that introductory video believing that the logo is replacing the seal and that was produced by the University itself. Design, I’d posit, is about far more than the logo or even the system, it’s the story that exists around the brand as a whole and the designer is, at least in part, responsible for how that story is told. I agree with part of what’s written above: Design is a tough discipline because everyone has an opinion. But that’s not really new and it’s been lamented to death. People know what fonts are and many have heard of kerning or played with Photoshop. This is just the reality we live in. We can choose to ignore that reality and think we can put things out in the world without hearing from many people who are “unqualified” to have opinions or we can acknowledge that and try to spend as much time thinking about the context people are first experiencing new identities as we spend on the identities themselves. It’s not a simple solution, but it’s a whole lot more sustainable.
Finally, we need to recognize that with this new world we all live in, where everyone has an opinion about everything (let’s not pretend that design is the only victim to this reality), that its going to be harder than ever to stand behind convictions. On the one hand this can mean “a climate that does not encourage visual or aesthetic exploration, play or inventiveness,” as the UC Creative Director says, or it can mean that we need to do more to educate everyone involved in the decision-making process of what’s to come. We need to help them understand the design process, the effect of context and the potential for backlash (with our plan on how to deal with it).
Or we can do boring stuff.
Though I didn’t quote it anywhere here, a lot of my thinking in this piece was shaped by the very even coverage on this issue from 99% Invisible, which I would highly recommend listening to.
Excuse this bit of bragging, but this makes me incredibly proud. Today, Christa Carone, CMO of Xerox, wrote this about Percolate on Forbes.com:
As an active Twitter user and scanner, I’m constantly prowling for Tweet-worthy articles and insights to share with my followers. But, like every multi-tasker, over-committed, “not-enough-time-in-the-day” person I know, there are always competing demands for time that keep me from heeding the call of the little blue bird.
Thank goodness for Percolate, a small but fast-growing company that recognizes that marketing on the “social scale” requires content, content and more content, but only if it passes the relevancy test. Through algorithms, filters and other tools, Percolate scours the web and serves up content tailored to my specific areas of focus that I can review and easily share.
I’m grateful for and a tiny bit envious of this start-up. I marvel at how its founders quickly spotted a need and last year created a company that has scored a slew of clients and, in November, $9 million in funding. Besides that, everything this company does is on-brand, from its business cards and its Daily Brew email to the—yes–perkiness of its staffers.
One of my resolutions for 2013 is to spend more time learning from small companies like Percolate. Big organizations can be great marketers but often find it hard to act fast. Frankly, “seize” isn’t something that is easily said or done. But there are lessons that Goliaths like Xerox can learn from more nimble David-sized enterprises.
Beyond it being incredibly flattering, there are two things that make me especially happy reading this: First, it’s just the recognition around the brand. I spent a lot of time working with large companies with unbelievable brands and its fun to get a shot at building your own. I still believe deeply that there’s an opportunity within tech, especially on the enterprise side, to take advantage of the lack of thoughtful brands in the space. Second, and more importantly, it’s the recognition of people as part of the brand. When I worked for Naked Communications the tagline (or whatever you want to call it) was “everything communicates.” Brands aren’t built with collateral and style guides, they’re built through interactions and, for us and many other companies, those interactions are with people just as much as they’re with software. Your brand is the total of all those parts and interactions and the responsibility for it sits with everyone in the organization, whether they’re on the front lines dealing with clients or they’re just out at a bar talking about their jobs.
It makes me incredibly proud to read something like this.
An aside in the book I’m reading sparked a thought I figured might be worth sharing. First, the snippet:
From our e-mail providers to our mobile-phone carriers, most companies’ business models are too lucrative to risk by mishandling our personal information and angering the consumer. So it is safe to say that despite the many potential risks represented by the volumes of data available, our past is relatively well safeguarded.
Which reminded me a lot of economic definition of brand. Here’s The Economist’s dictionary of terms on the meaning of brand:
Many economists regard brands as a good thing, however. A brand provides a guarantee of reliability and quality. Consumer trust is the basis of all brand values. So companies that own the brands have an immense incentive to work to retain that trust. Brands have value only where consumers have choice. The arrival of foreign brands, and the emergence of domestic brands, in former communist and other poorer countries points to an increase in competition from which consumers gain. Because a strong brand often requires expensive advertising and good marketing, it can raise both price and barriers to entry. But not to insurperable levels: brands fade as tastes change; if quality is not maintained, neither is the brand.
A brand is a promise: The more valuable it is, the less a company can afford it to be broken.
I wonder, though, whether that’s as true now as it was in earlier times. The example I’ve heard most for thinking of brands in this is not killing your customers. You pay more for a Pepsi than some random house brand because you know it won’t be poisoned (you also know it will always taste the same). But something seems to be changing, especially with digital brands. Maybe it’s that there’s more of them or maybe we have far lower expectations, but I feel like large brands frequently have data breaches or other terrible things and we forgive them in a way that doesn’t really jibe with the two paragraphs above.
If we don’t hold our brands responsible, the very meaning of brand changes. Part of it is that it’s easier to show outrage than it ever was, so when people get up in arms about Facebook’s latest privacy change I suspect it’s not real. Part of it may be the insanity of the news cycle: TJ Maxx loses millions of credit cards and its only a big deal for a day. But none of it explains how a bunch of banks that nearly sunk the economy are able to bounce back (except, maybe, regular brand laws don’t apply to oligopolies).
No matter what, something is different and its important that we understand what it means.
I’m doing this “virtual panel” about content over at the new FastCo Create site. The first round is up (I’ll update this post as it goes up) and here’s a quick excerpt from my answer about what brands need to know about content:
I’m not actually sure that creating editorial content is all that different than creating promotional content, at least on a high level. Advertising is a process of combining brand outputs (look, feel, voice) with cultural inputs (insights, trends, etc.) and creating a piece of communication. The shift I see taking place is that the traditional processes around creating content for a world of campaigns break-down in a real-time content creation environment: Brands and agencies aren’t currently set up to consume culture as it happens, which is what media organizations do. I think this is a big shift we’ll start to see inside brands over the coming years. It’s not that they’ll try to model themselves on media organizations, but rather, they’re going to rearrange themselves around real-time consumption of content, data, analytics and anything else they can get their hands on to help make decision and communicate better.
Good thoughts from Neil Perkin on curation and Percolate: “As brands increasingly become content producers, and move into content hungry practices and channels, creating interesting stuff on a sustained basis is becoming a real challenge. As does mastering not just the stock, but the flow (flow being "pieces of content, produced rapidly and at a low cost"). Brands simply do not have the resource capability to accomodate this emerging requirement without utilising different forms of curation including algorithmic, social, as well as professional. As usual, it is by overlaying the best that technology can offer, with the capability of smart, talented people that works.” Pretty awesome to see smart people picking up on some of our themes.
Really smart thoughts from Dan Frommer on the Twitter redesign. I especially agree with his thoughts around direct messages: “Twitter is trying to de-emphasize private messaging by moving it a layer deeper in the user interface. I’m guessing there are a bunch of reasons for this, not limited to: Simplicity, perhaps relatively low usage by most users, potentially confusing rules around DMing, and that more public content is probably better for Twitter’s product and advertising goals. Some long-time and hardcore Twitter users are probably going to be upset about this, but one of Twitter’s strengths has always been its willingness to design for its mainstream users at the expense of its geek users. (Tip: To get fast access to your DMs on Twitter for iPhone, you can swipe up the “Me” icon at the bottom.)” Also curious to see where things go with brands.