Cool Hunting: what's the big deal?

So Crirpin Porter and Boguski (the advertising agency) are up for the challenge of making Microsoft cool again. Not an easy task.

According to many analysts, Microsoft has really lost control of its image... becoming cool is going to be very difficult in a world where Apple has been calling the shots for a while.

Makes me wonder. Cool has become such an important buzzword. There is a whole science of cool and how to get it. Numerous websites like coolhunting, trendunter etc are reporting the latest cultural trends. Everybody wants to be on the cutting edge.

But what is meaning of cool? How important is it? Do you really need to be cool regardless of the market and the category? Can you survive if you are not cool?

According to wikipedia "Cool is an aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance, style and Zeitgeist. Because of the varied and changing connotations of cool, as well its subjective nature, the word has no single meaning. It has associations of composure and self-control and often is used as an expression of admiration or approval."

Let me repeat this: it is about admiration or approval. Cutting edge or classic. Mainstream or controversial. Safe or risky. Character is irrelevant, it's all about the end result.

So what/who is considered cool today? No great surprises according to one of my favorite source of brand health data (Brandtags ).

I checked a number of brands and I tried to see how "cool" ranks in terms of "strength of association with these brands". Not surprisingly, Puma, Mini and Apple clearly topped the list, defining the essence of cool. Brands like Absolute, Harley and Adidas also had a very strong association, although there were other elements defining their personality. Then there was a third layer of brands including anything from Ferrari and Playstation to Heineken and Blackberry (!), where cool was just one of the elements of their personality. Lastly, brands like Facebook or Nintendo had a good association with coolness, probably coming from very specific target groups.

So what's the moral of the story? Well, if you are one of these brands, your challenge is to stay on the cutting edge. I guess it is very difficult to change your strategy once you have decided to play the "cool" game. For everybody else it's a whole different game. Too many options:

Do you try to deconstruct cool in order to create your own proposition?
Do you look outside the existing models and try to invent a new space?
Or do you just forget about cool altogether and position your brand differently?

As someone said "To chase cool, you’re chasing something that already exists, which means you’re always going to be on the wrong side of it, you’ll always be following." Traditional marketing research will only cover the areas that already exist, focusing on those things that people consider cool today.

So being original and authentic is the only way to go. But I guess you knew that already. Being authentic is easier said that done and that is why it creates admiration and approval.

Doppler Effect and Razor Sharp Focus

People who know me from school know that I never liked Physics, maybe because I used to be single minded back then and I was only interested in anything that was had to do with (succeeding in) business. Without stating the obvious, I would like to admit how wrong I was, as it is very clear to me now that the laws of Physics and similar sciences, can provide amazing insights if applied to business problems. (which probably explains why engineers make good MBA candidates)

The Doppler effect is a great example. Named after Christian Doppler, “it is the change in frequency and wavelength of a wave for an observer moving relative to the source of the waves”

In layman’s terms (for those of us who are still not big funs of Physics): You are driving a car and there is a motorcycle ahead of you. The noise from the exhaust will not really change if your distance from the motorcycle remains the same. At the same time another motorcycle is coming from the opposite direction. As it is approaching you, the noise becomes louder and sharper, like it’s accelerating. (you get more frequent waves from the motorcycle because its moving towards you). As the motorcycle passes you and starts moving to the other direction the noise becomes softer and flatter (you get less frequent waves because the source is moving away from you).

Business Analogy: You have clearly defined your competition and your long term strategy and you are determined to stay focused and execute in line with this mission. In essence, you are “following a motorcycle”. As a result, the “noise” that is coming from this target is probably not changing as you are adjusting your speed and your actions to stay on course.

Suddenly, another “motorcycle” appears, moving to the opposite direction and approaching you fast. The closer it comes to your radar, the more alarming it sounds and you are now tempted to spend more time analyzing this new source of noise. At some point the noise is so loud that you paralyze and you start questioning your initial strategy. Maybe you even make a u-turn and start following the new motorcycle.

If you could just wait for a little longer you would realize that the motorcycle was indeed heading somewhere else. False alarm, but the damage is done.

As we all know, staying focused on what we do is not easy. There are many distractions from the environment and it is really hard to filter out all the “noise” from the messages that are really important to our business. Razor sharp focus is difficult but it can really make all the difference when it comes to success in businesses and careers. It’s about knowing your objectives and staying on course.

This is a lot different from being rigid and shutting your eyes to the outside word. It just means that you are only focusing on the things that matter avoiding distractions and sirens along the way.

Brand Tags and the Kingdom of (Internet) Evil

One of the first things that they teach you when you start working in advertising is that "you need to have a clear positioning". You need to be different; you need to stand for something.

So when people think about your brand, they need to have very clear connotations in their mind. Even better, they should be able to visualize and "mentally experience" your brand using their senses.

Let's see how this works for Starbucks. What comes to mind? Words like coffee or lounge maybe? Music and sounds of espresso machines? Smell of freshly brewed coffee? (and recently bacon and eggs unfortunately). I bet it's very clear in our minds, because Starbucks is a very successful brand.

Now, the ultimate goal for a brand is to also "own" certain values, words, or emotions in our hearts and brains. So this relationship should work backwards as well: when you think about coffee, you should immediately think of Starbucks. When you think about computers, you should think of Apple and so on.

Of course not all associations are positive. Think of the computer industry for a minute. It's not a secret that Apple has a very fresh image while Microsoft creates very polarizing emotions. It's not a surprise that Google is also facing some challenges as it is becoming a larger corporation and people start realizing its size and world domination plans. But it's very interesting nevertheless to see the internet population expressing their views in real time.

Many of us have seen Lovemarks a few years back, a website where consumers can go and share their thoughts about certain brands. Brand tags is a much more recent (and more interesting) experiment in this area. The idea is very simple and to the point: the website presents you with various brands (one at a time) and you have to write down the first word or phrase that pops into your head. That's it.

Then you can go and see the tag cloud of any brand just like you would see it for your delicious bookmarks.

Let me show you an example: I took the top 15 associations for the 3 most important players of the new technology arena (tags from Brand Tags)

Not surprisingly, Apple has an amazingly positive brand image. Most of its equity comes from its two flagship products (mac and ipod) and as a brand it defines design, innovation, creativity and "awesome-ness" in consumers minds.

How about Microsoft?

The first thing that comes to mind is EVIL. There are other interesting things there (like crap, shit, shucks, boring) but most of it is negative and totally associated with the generic notion of "computer" and windows. I guess this doesn't come as a surprise, but it's still pretty bad and difficult to change.

Then we have Google. On the one hand there is a clear admiration of the brand's technology (awesome) and clear indications that the brand "defines" the internet in general and web search in particular. On the other hand, as Google approaches "GOD", the brand also becomes evil in consumers minds, illustrating the fear associated with the dominant position of the brand.

(As a side note, the data from Lovemarks (balance of positive vs negative comments) also provided on the chart, support the qualitative results from Brand tags )

So this is all very interesting. Only a few years ago, a marketer would need thousands of dollars to collect this information. Now she can get it for free. So can everybody else, which makes things very interesting.

I recommend that you visit Brandtags and spend some time playing with different brands. It's not only illuminating but it's also fun.

Employees and Customers

"You’ve got to treat your employees like customers", writes Matt Linderman from 37signals, suggesting that when you trust your employees and you treat them as human beings they will return the favor and be loyal to the company. There is nothing wrong with this idea, but I think that it is a rather simple way of seeing the world. It is based on the premise that, first of all you should treat all your Customers in the same way and second, that loyalty alone (of customers and employees) can ensure success. Let’s see these arguments one by one:

All Customers are (not) created equal.
So, treating your employees like customers assumes that you treat all your customers in the same way. Of course this is far from true, or at least it’s far from true for successful companies. What set these companies apart is that they have a clear positioning, they target specific customers and they try to develop their relationship with them in very specific ways.

Does this mean that you should “fire” customers that don’t fit your target profile? Of course not, as a matter of fact you should try to accommodate them as long as they can coexist with your main target group and be potentially profitable for your business. The point is that your brand needs to stand for something and this by definition will screen some customers out. It’s like going to a restaurant expecting to see trendy and sophisticated people, only to be disturbed by a loud group of drunk hooligans watching sports on the TV.

Employee loyalty is (not) enough.
The same argument holds for your employees. I am not suggesting by any means that you shouldn’t treat people as human beings. But loyalty is not enough. You need people to take initiative, be passionate about the vision and be good ambassadors of the brand. Treating people as human beings is a prerequisite. But you need to attract and hire the right people to begin with. Then, you need to empower and motivate these employees, in other words inspire them and provide them the tools to excel. During this process, some people will remain loyal. Some others will be much more than that: they will become star, making a difference in your organization.

Are you going to reward these people in the same way?

Better advertising targeting and implications for brands

WPP digital organized an interesting conference about new media and advertising last Friday. Part of the discussion addressed the new targeting opportunities available for marketers and brands, suggesting that they will increase content relevance and consumer engagement.

No groundbreaking news here, but there are some quite interesting implications for brands. Let's take an example and try to see how this works for a minute:

Jack is a single guy, 18-24 years old and he lives alone. Every time he surfs the Internet or watches a show on digital TV we collect and process information about his attitudes and behavior so we can start serving him more relevant content. Ultimately, the promise for Jack is that he will never have to see another diaper ad again in his life (or at least until he gets married). Equally, the promise for brands is that they will never need to waste resources serving diaper ads to Jack. Sounds like a win-win. Better results for brands, less clutter overall. Less clutter?

Let's think about this for a minute. Until recently, Jack would be exposed to 10 ads for every hour of TV watching (similarly for Internet surfing). Of course, some of these ads would be for diapers and Jack would probably pay no attention. A cluttered world? Maybe. Inefficient use of resources? Perhaps. Advertising is far from perfect and we all know that.

Fast forward 3-4 years. Brands now have better information about Jack's behavior (or even Jack's psyche) so they can serve him more relevant content. Jack still sees 10 ads, but now all of them are relevant to him: cars, deodorants, clothes, all this ads target single guys just like him. More efficient use of resources? Totally. Less cluttered world? Hmm. I actually believe, that new targeting technologies will raise the bar and eventually increase competition. More relevance for Jack means more "clustering" of relevant offers: cars vs cars not cars vs diapers. A beauty contest. I am not sure if this is called more or less clutter, but it's definitely a lot of information for Jack.

So what happens then? People driving this change claim that targeting technology will save the day, by adding more layers and capturing Jack’s mode and needstate. The theory goes that this will enable brands to differentiate and better target Jack’s different needs. So even better targeting is the solution to the problem.

But then again, this technology will (again) be available to all the brands. So the next step will be that Jack is going to be bombarded by multiple W-relevant ads using information about Who he is, Where he goes, the time of the day (When), What he is looking for and Why. Undoubtedly this will be an iterative process and as such it's hard to predict what the key success factors will be.

So which brand will win? Is it the brand that stays one step ahead in the targeting technology race? Or the brand that also leverages this technology with the best creative (at a personalized level)? Or is it the brand that has the most relevant positioning but also uses the best technology and the best creative? Maybe in the end it is just the brand with the best price?

Difficult to tell. As always, different categories may have different rules. For occasion based categories, location and time relevance of targeting (through GPS and mobile phones) will play a key role. For others, that have a longer decision making process (insurance) more transparency may bring more commoditization and price competition.

At the end of the day, one might want to think what the new "persuasion strategy" will be. Do you want to build a strong image and ensure that you exceed expectations with your product? Or do you want to bet on the ability of new technology and channels to influence decision making at the last possible moment (for instance at the point of sale)

There is never a right or wrong answer. What's certain though, is that staying ahead of the competition will only get more challenging requiring new skills.

What does it take to be a Tiger?

Since 2003, Tiger Woods has been the centerpiece of Accenture advertising. In their words "As perhaps the world's ultimate symbol of high performance, Tiger Woods serves as a metaphor for our commitment to helping companies become high-performance businesses."

Now in its fifth year, the campaign has become widely recognized around the globe but I am personally getting a bit tired of it all. Being a frequent traveler I see this campaign in every airport and after all these years it has been reduced to an airport wallpaper now. How many different combinations of catchy phrases like "playing it safe, Knowing when not to" or "left brain-right brain" can someone come up with?
Even if this pool of phrases is endless, what is the meaning of that after a while?

Working in communications and marketing I have often been is situations when marketers are intrigued and tempted by creative ideas that are "campaignable". Instead of trying to come up with a new ad every time, they create a "master concept" that they apply with minor modifications in order to communicate the same main idea, although with some variations. The obvious benefit is that consumers can more easily connect with the idea and when combining the different pieces they can get a whole which is larger than the sum of the parts.

The problem is what happens after that. How do you switch after 5 years with Tiger Woods to something else? What happens if Tiger Woods is not successful anymore? How do you reinvent yourself and keep your brand fresh?

Think about Absolut vodka for a minute. An Iconic Brand. A very successful campaign. Transitioning to the new campaign (in an Absolut world) has been a major challenge. (I was involved so I know first hand). Now,the brand is finally turning around the corner. But it took them years to come up with this new idea.

So successful advertising comes at a cost. Does that mean that we need to shoot for mediocrity in advertising? Of course not. But then again, the higher you set the bar, the more difficult your mission will be next time. Everybody can get lucky once. What makes the difference is consistency in creativity. The ability to sparkle magic time and again. And that's what makes the difference between the Apples of this world and the rest of the companies. Or to quote Accenture, that's what it takes to be a Tiger.

In love with Tumblr

Without trying to state the obvious, I just felt the need to write a post about Tumblr which I have only recently started using.

Here is an insight:
There is so much clutter out there and each of us only have limited time and energy. Some of us like to experiment all the time, while some others are only willing to invest time in a limited number of things (it is called focus) to avoid spreading too thin. I tend to identify with the latter group and thus although I have known about Tumblr for a while, I had never realized how much I would like it until very recently, when I started using it.

There is something so simple and totally visual in this tool which I absolutely love. Of course I don't see it replacing this blog any time soon, but I will definitely be posting some of my more random thoughts there from now on.

The long and winding internet trail, that leads to you.

Fred Wilson made waves today with a controversial post about his vision for Social Media: 59 comments on a Sunday (as of 11:53pm), not bad at all, considering that the weather was great in NYC and everybody was outside. In his exact words: "Honestly I am not envisioning anything other than this; every single human being posting their thoughts and experiences in any number of ways to the Internet."

While he admitted that some people will probably find this vision ridiculous, he concluded that "I believe that we are headed to a world which everyone will share their lives with the rest of the world via the Internet. That is social media. It's a huge movement and we are at the start of it"

Some of his readers did in fact find this notion ridiculous, but there was another interesting theme that emerged, that of online privacy. So while some people argued that "not everybody is an extrovert" or "some people don't have anything interesting to share" the most interesting comments (in my humble opinion) addressed the issue of "do I want to share this information with other people", or even better "which parts of my life I want to keep private".

Taking this one step further, let's think about all this information that we share without even knowing. Or even more important: how about this information that we feel comfortable sharing today, not foreseeing the problems or limitations that we are creating to our personal or professional lives 5, 10 or 15 years from now. Photos. Comments. Blogs. Videos. Even groups that you join:
Two years ago, I joined a meetup of Greeks in NYC. There was no mention about this being a singles group, otherwise I wouldn't have signed up (I am happily married with two kids). Luckily, I was googling myself a few months later and I found a link that said something like "meet exciting Greek singles in NYC like Vassilis Bakopoulos". I consider my self "web literate" but I didn't see this one coming.

What does this all mean? There are millions of people using social media. Billions of tagged photos of young kids having fun; drinking; exposing themselves. It's part of being a teenager, we've all been there. Actually, even people leading countries have been there. (Even if they didn't inhale). But the accuracy of recording and organizing this information and keeping it stored for ever is a new phenomenon. And I find it really scary.