Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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When Too Much Listening is a Bad Thing

This one’s been germinating for awhile now. About a month ago I was having drinks with my friend Matt and he made a point I hadn’t heard before about the election: “Sarah Palin’s handlers let the chatter get to them.” Basically what he was saying is that if they had really been good at their jobs they never would have let her go on with Katie Couric and that the only reason they did is because everyone (media talking heads, DC folks) was saying that you can’t have a VP candidate that doesn’t do any interviews. But who says so? Who makes the rules?

Now I don’t know whether I agree with the hypothesis or not, but I think it nicely frames an issue which seems to be coming up more and more lately (thought its really not new). In some ways its related to Alan’s Nascar Blindness (the ad industry’s tendency to miss out on that which they can’t see) but in the opposite direction. This is actually about paying too much attention to the chatter and losing site of your goals. In the case of Sarah Palin, it seems safe to say that her role was to sure up the base of the party (I don’t even think that’s a controversial statement at this point). So if that’s the case, what do you get out of putting her on with Katie Couric other than the potential for harm?

Take another example, those Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld Microsoft ads (video for those that missed it). Immediately, online folks started ripping at the flesh of Microsoft and their agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky. (The most ridiculous thing I read was from Information Week and suggested “The effectiveness of brand-driven advertising died about the same time Seinfeld hit syndication.” That’s so dumb I’m not even going to bother with it.) Now, according to Gizmodo, “there’s even more of an indication now that Microsoft aggressively cut the Gates/Seinfeld spot production short, canceling the shoot for a fourth spot just three days into production. The spots were intended to be part of a running series with up to 12 planned spots conceptualized. Now it’s unclear whether or not we’ll even see the last spot air, let alone Seinfeld come back for a reprisal.”

But why? It couldn’t have been because the ads didn’t get attention: As AdAge pointed out, the Seinfeld/Gates ads were getting 14x as many views per day as the new “I’m a PC” spots. What’s more, that same article points out that much of this came from all the chatter online and “The Seinfeld/Gates ads had more adjectives in them, while comments in PC ads had more nouns, suggesting a more emotional response to Seinfeld/Gates ads.” Now my argument from the start is that the goal of Microsoft advertising right now is to reposition/humanize the company. From my original Seinfeld/Gates post:

Anyway, let me get to my point. I think there are a lot of problems at Microsoft, most of which can’t be solved with advertising. For one, it won’t solve the fact they put out a dud in Vista is something they’re not going to fix with an ad campaign (OS 9 ring a bell??). However, what it can start to do is make people think about Microsoft in a slightly different way. It starts to soften the company around the edges. As I wrote in an IM to Alan earlier today, you can’t just jump from super-nerd (Microsoft’s perception) to cool guy (Apple) without at first rolling up your sleeves. The ad humanizes Microsoft by making one of the world’s richest men seem like an every day guy.

It’s precisely those emotional comments that the ads should have been aimed for and seemed to have succeeded at. So why did they drop it? Well, my theory is that it’s because a bunch of people with blogs and such started talking about how they didn’t like/didin’t get the ads. Lots of people were saying that Microsoft needed to respond and listen to what the consumer was saying, but I call bullshit. In a quote for PRWeek I explained, “Other than the Super Bowl, how often do people talk about ads? Microsoft should let this play out. I think there are times to listen to everyone and there are times not to listen to everyone… the people talking about this may not be the audience for this ad. They may not be talking to early adopters.” And I stand by that.

In the end I guess my point is that there are times to listen and act upon what you’ve heard and times to listen and respectfully ignore the feedback. As a small example, I’ve been asked a ton of times to add logos to brand tags for companies that have just started/don’t exist yet. Every time I’ve declined because I’ve explained that the site is about measuring brand perception and that if you don’t exist yet, you don’t have a brand perception. What these people want is for consumers to give them feedback on their logos and I basically just think that’s useless. What are people going to tell you? That your logo is too blue? The reality of the situation is that logos, like brands, don’t exist in vacuums and people’s feedback on your logo without holding your product or seeing it on the shelf is pretty much 100 percent useless (unless you’re missing some giant thing like you’re selling mens deodorant and your logo is pink with flowers, but some basic testing/a decent design firm should clear that up).

Commercials are different that products. If your product is hurting someone you’ve got to do something about it immediately, if your commercial is offending their sensibilities think carefully whether anything really needs to be done. Brands need to ask themselves, is this the a vocal minority speaking or are they actually a reflection of our target?

Sometimes too much listening is a bad thing.

November 17, 2008