Sunday, January 25, 2009

'Trust Me' me on TNT - branded entertainment at its best

Creative executives, Hunt Baldwin and John Coveny are part of the team responsible for creating "Trust Me", a series premiering tomorrow on TNT. The authenticity is provided by the fact that both have worked at agencies like Leo Burnett, JWT and Y&R.

Now, what does this mean for all the brands competing with each other in every possible media in every possible way? Can we hold the television viewer's attention in today's fast paced touch-screen dominated world? Let's hope so, for Unilever's sake. Apart from being one of the sponsors of the show, Dove hair care products are actually being woven into the story-line. Which of course is no big deal since the show deals with brands and products anyway.

And that is why big brands like Apple, Chris-Craft boats, Effen vodka, Green Giant, Hallmark, Frosted Flakes from Kellogg’s, Nike, Pillsbury, Potbelly Sandwich Works and Starbucks have jumped on the proverbial bandwagon. Not all of them have the luxury of being the focus of an episode, some are merely being mentioned or or in-film brand placement as we know it.

To balance out the heavy dose of real brands, the show also has a few imaginary products like Arc Mobile Cellphone Service. But is that enough to ensure that the series maintains its distinct flavor and doesn't become lost in a sea of brand promotions? In order to preserve its individuality, the script of the show may sometimes deviate from what the sponsors prefer.

According to the Jan 21, 2009 New York Times - David Rubin, United States marketing director for Unilever hair brands in Chicago is fine with it. “What is so central on any branded integration,” Mr. Rubin said, “and I’ve worked on a bunch, is that with the ones that do it right, the brand’s involvement adds to the story being told without usurping the storyteller’s job.The show has to be great entertainment for me to succeed in doing what I’m trying to do.”

True, and given the premise of the show, it will be fairly impossible for it to be anything other than entertaining. Having worked in an advertising agency including two of the three mentioned above, I can safely say that no advertising firm can dare to be boring. Ego clashes, weird fashion choices, creative temperament, hard-to-please bosses and unreasonable client demands...all add in making an ad agency unlike any other.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Pod-busting, but of course!

In a desperate attempt to engage viewers, more and more TV networks and advertisers are resorting to creative innovation in US. The last couple of years saw a surge in "pod-busting" which was initially restricted to MTV, VH1 and Comedy Cenral keeping their young gadget-friendly demographic in mind. In 2005, MTV invented the concept of pod-busting which proved to be partly successful though not a radical movement. Slowly bigger networks caught on. Now, what exactly is pod-busting?

According to the International Herald Tribune, "This year, for the 2008-2009 television season, the networks are betting on a panoply of "pod-busters" - unconventional content meant to entice viewers to pay attention during the commercial breaks, which are also called pods.

"It's a form of creative insinuation," said John Ford, president at Discovery Channel U.S., part of Discovery Communications. "It's a little Zen-like: being intrusive without seeming intrusive." On the drawing board is a promotion for "Shark Week" during the series "Deadliest Catch," during which digital sharks will leap from the water.

The main types of pod-busters can be classified as below:
  • Minisodes/bitcoms/ micro-series sponsored by marketers

  • Sponsored clips that combine elements of shows and commercials

  • Promos of one program shown inside another program, thanks to digital effects

  • Content of commercial matched to theme of the program (In fact, the buzz word for matching themes of shows and commercials is TV in Context. While it sounds right strategically, it helps in pushing engagement metrics only when done right.)
Examples of pod-busters to help understand the concept:

Turner Broadcasting System, Inc.(TBS) - The cable network started offering "bitcoms" in 2008 — an original comedy sketch involving a brand, followed by its ad.

Sunsilk - The Unilever hair care brand worked with TBS to create Lovebites, a series of two-minute "minisodes" presented by Sunsilk which ended with offers of product samples from the Sunsilk website. This minisodes were aired during "Sex and the City". Yes, similiar content is a major driver in such innovations.

This does not mean that networks are giving up on the conventional 30-sec format which makes up more than 50% of TV advertising. It is cost-effective, it is a standard selling unit and it is very much alive. Marketers are just trying to find better and newer ways to keep the target audience engaged. Not an easy task in these days of TiVos and other DVRs.

If the advent of pod-busters means we will see less of inane logo-driven commercials, testimonials and comparitive ads, then this is definitely the direction of the future. The results are complying. Known for their penchant for pod-busting initiatives, MTV, VH1 and Comedy Central have jumped from -15 percent to -5 percent in their commercial ratings deliveries, according to Adweek of Jan 14, 2009. No mean feat in today's distracting environment and a young demographic with an ever-decreasing attention span.

Is India listening?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The architecture of advertising

My brother, who is studying architecture once told me that one cannot design a building without knowing its purpose. Similiarly, you can't create an ad without a strategy.

Creative without strategy is called 'art.' Creative with strategy is called 'advertising.'” - Jef I. Richards (US advertising professor). The marketing team from the client's side and the account management team from the agency's side usually decide on the perfect strategy and consequently, the brand message. Depending on the creative team and the target audience, the same brand message maybe be treated differently. What happens when the creative rendition of the same brand attribute of a similiar service is radically different in two different countries?

Take the example of Hutch and Verizon Wireless. Both are cellular service providers with the same USP - great connectivity. Both are major players in their respective markets, India and US.

What O&M did with Hutch is legendary. The year was 2003. The basic concept was a boy with a dog which followed him everywhere, kind of like Mary's little lamb. This idea was spread across a series of TVC, print and every other media possible. What followed were awards, accolades and a significant increase in the sales of the dog, a solemn looking pug. The tagline was "wherever you go, our network will follow". The dog was a powerful visual aid symbolising the network and eventually became the Hutch mascot. The TVC was devoid of any unecessary conversation, a lilting background score not only made the campaign entertaining, but also pushed up the brand recall.

Did it work? According to Businessworld, "Hutch saw its subscriber base shooting up by over 70 per cent right after the campaign broke."

McCann-Erickson, armed with a simliar brief for Verizon Wireless created a TVC, with parodies of horror movies and ghoulish looking characters trying to scare a person with tales of a Dead Zone, who calmly responds that he or she has Verizon, and then the slogan appears, "Don't be afraid of Dead Zones". The scare lingers and the message is crystal clear. The brand attribute is understood and brand recall is very high.

Did it work? The ad was released in June 2008 and an October 27, 2008 issue of the New York Times says "Verizon Communications' stock price jumped 10.1 percent Monday on news that profit increased 31 percent for the third quarter, buoyed by surprising gains in the number of new wireless customers. Verizon Wireless added 2.1 million customers in the quarter — to total 70.8 million." Please keep in mind the economic condition of 2008 when you read this.

The premise of the Hutch campaign could in no way be called anything like that of the Verizon campaign. The campaigns proved that similiar strategies can have dissimiliar execution with exceptional results in both cases.

Here I must add that Vodafone acquired Hutch in 2007 in India and Verizon Wireless is a joint venture of Verizon and the Vodafone Group. Seems like network supremacy is the motto for this telecom giant.

One from each of the series of Pug Ads and the Dead Zone Ads for you to get an idea

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mentioning competitive brands in your commercial

After spending five years in Indian Advertising, I moved to Connecticut, the bedroom of New York. Hoping to get a first-hand experience of US ad agencies and their work, I dived in. Of course, anybody who is interested in advertising can see first-rate ads from around the world, thanks to the Cannes website, ad-based shows on TV and the youtube....but what about the regular Joes? How and where are American products being promoted day in and day out?

The first thing that struck me about American TVCs was the abundance of "comparitive ads". Pain relievers, sandwiches, car category is spared. As an ad executive and a consumer, I can say that it does not work. What I am left with is either confusion or the competitive brand.

Let's take the example of Advil, a popular pain reliever in US. It actually shows us a split screen comparison between itself and its competitor Tylenol, complete with a voiceover and on-screen scribbles underlying the benefits of taking Advil over Tylenol. But know what, by the time my mind has juggled back and forth over the two brand names and their pros and cons, I have already moved on to another channel or the next ad.

Next time I am at a pharmacy, my mind has happily glided over the details and I am left with a feeling of "either this or that". Both are good as both are market leaders is the message that I have retained. Differentiation be damned when the basic composition and the usage is similiar. Note how the brand message is lost in a clutter of comparisons.

Also, why would you promote your competitor in your time? You bought space or time in a particular medium to advertise your brand, why waste it on anything else?