Buy buy buy!

I like to think of emails you get from companies that you’ve used in the past a little like a virtual version of the welcome you get when you walk back into a shop. So I find messages like the one from the Mercure Hotels group verging on the offensive.


You wouldn’t expect a sales assistant to walk up to you in a shop and say “Hello sir, anything I can help you with?” “Yes I was looking for a new laptop…” “OK, three, two, one, buy buy buy!”

These sorts of emails should be friendly and well targeted. Not randomly distributed in an effort to ‘make’ people buy in a frenzy. Emails can be an excellent low cost way to drive repeat business. An automated email to customers known to be fathers last week, might have been a good way to generate some Mother’s Day sales, but this nonsense is a good way to get up my nose.

Un. Sub. Scribe.

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A return to Mad Men (in reverse)?

I’ve got a pitch for a beer advert: A group of lads in an office sitting around, shake up a can of beer (let’s call it Fosternberg) and hand it to a young secretary. She looks up, pleased to be offered a cold drink on a hot day. But as she open’s the can, it sprays everywhere, soaking her blouse, prompting her to take it off. The blokes cheer and high five each other.

Or how about this one: We start on a close up of a glamorous young woman. As the camera zooms out, the voice over intones “Smooth…. silky… and…” as we see she’s got her coat caught in the departing bus doors “…a real airy head”. The bus pulls away and drags her with it. Pan round to see a man smirk as he puts a foamy pint of Fosternberg to his lips.

These ideas are obviously meant to be ironic. They would (I hope) never get made, but if they did they would rightly be pilloried in mainstream and industry press as crass and sexist. So how is it that these adverts have been made with the roles reversed? Diet Pepsi and Muller Light have made almost these exact adverts (see below).

“The Gardner” Diet Pepsi advert 2014

Untitled Muller Light advert 2014

Pepsi in particular has a history of adverts featuring women ‘ogling’ a man, but it’s usually framed as a kind of guilty pleasure, certainly the women have a passive role. Perhaps one could argue that “The Gardner” puts the women in a position of power traditionally occupied by men. A strike for feminism? Not really, feminism is about equality.

We don’t want to be on a course for a return to 1950s ads built on stereotypes. Commercials that rely on one gender taking advantage of the other should surely be consigned to the cutting room floor by now.

Is this a case of a man (me) not liking it when the boot’s on the other foot? No again. If more and more adverts aimed at females rely on women making mockery of men, it’ll quickly become a race to the bottom, with ads like the above becoming reality and both sides pointing the finger at the other.
Adverts should provide positive reinforcement of the brands they represent. Too much negativity is a turn off, it’s time for some smarter, more creative approaches.

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Lies, damn lies and marketing statistics

Have you seen those adverts, typically for cosmetics, with incredible claims about how many people agree that the product is the best ever? These stats seem de rigueur these days: “98% of women agreed that this deodorant worked better than their regular brand”, “Over 73% of people agreed that this loo roll made them more attractive to the opposite sex”, “86% of men said that this shampoo made them feel more satisfied with their otherwise miserable lives” etc. They’re invariably paired with small print revealing that the survey consisted of a sample of about 37 people, suggesting that the stats are about as representative of the whole population as a straw poll in the local pub.

L’Oreal seem to relish these stats, using them on virtually every advert. This one bases its claims on the agreement of 75% of 60 women  That simply means they don’t disagree with the claims, hardly a glowing endorsement.

But despite the poor validity of these statistics, there is a well established theory behind using such figures. We are social animals, programmed to follow the masses and gain approval from copying what other people are doing. Thus the logic is that if an advert can persuade us that everyone is using a product, we’ll quickly follow suit.

This has been demonstrated in a number of surprising situations. The book “The Power of Yes” byNoah Goldstein, Professor Robert B. Cialdini & Steve Martin illustrates the example of a doctors’ waiting room which swapped the regular sign e.g ‘389 people missed their appointments in July’ to an inverted version highlighting the number of people who did attend their appointments. The number of people who didn’t turn up dropped dramatically. This is part of the concept of framing. Instead of giving people ‘permission’ to miss their doctor’s appointment with the former message, the new message puts absentees into a minority, implying a general disapproval of their behaviour. The beauty product commercials frame their messages around stats suggesting that most of the target market is already using the product, with the clear intention of using peer pressure to increase sales.

Framing can be applied to all manner of business scenarios. Francesca Gino provides a wonderful example from Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 election campaign in her book Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan. “Right before the brochures with Roosevelt’s photograph were about to be distributed, the campaign manager realized something important: three million campaign brochures had been printed using a photograph of Roosevelt without the permission of the photo’s copyright owner.” If this had been me, the air would have been blue. Not so the cunning campaign manager. “[He] prepared a telegram to send to the photographer. Rather than telling him about the error, however, he framed the message to make it more appealing to the photographer. The telegraph stated, “We are planning to distribute millions of pamphlets with Roosevelt’s picture on the cover. It will be great publicity for the studio whose photograph we use. How much will you pay us to use yours? Respond immediately.” The excited photographer quickly replied with an offer to pay $250.” This wonderful example only worked because the frame of reference the studio had was entirely in the hands of the campaign manager, and he used it perfectly to his advantage. The contrast with the current crop of commercials is that the frame of reference of the viewer is much more open and really doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. People are much savvier about their purchases: concerned about the nature of the manufacturing process, the ethics of production and the ingredients used, and advertisers need to treat them as such.

Good adverts frame their products and we don’t even notice. Whether it’s the everyman in the beer advert or the empty streets in a car advert, we look beyond the fiction and buy into the vision. Advertisers can and should use numbers to back up their claims, but they need to get better at using meaningful stats. And we, we consumers need to start calling them out when they make ridiculous claims.

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British Gas: Smart homes, dumb websites

It’s been a while since I updated this blog.

Starting a new job, moving home: life takes precedence! But I’m back, and it’s back and I’m going to try and update it every other week… watch this space.

So to business, and specifically British Gas. The company used one of Metro’s special cover features to advertise its new smart meter product.

Sticking with its theme of cartoony, almost Tim Burton-esque artwork, the ad shows the smart meter bathed in heavenly light.
British Gas smart meter Metro wrap cover 22 August 2012
Now, this is enough of a sales pitch for me – anything with a screen and a USB port is immediately on my wish list. Even more so, this little gizmo will (apparently) help me reduce my energy consumption and save me money. What’s not to like?

There’s a simple drive-to-web call to action – visit a specific URL to find out more. But vesting the company’s website is a little disappointing. First up, is a plain page, inviting me to begin. Well I’d done that by typing in the URL. The second page has a movie extolling the benefits of the smart meter. Yeah, yeah, yeah, how do I get one? Oh and I’m at work, so just some simple text instructions will be fine. But nothing. No more info, no further links. Nada.

After a bit of a hunt, I found some FAQs, suggesting that all British Gas customers will be receive one of these meters, and I can register my interest. So why not state this up front? No doubt someone will be counting the hits to the website and views of the videos – but if these are unsatisfactory to the customer – the stats are no indicator of success.

The customer journey is disappointing and frustrating. Some considerable resource must have gone into this campaign, but to me, it feels like a missed opportunity.

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Banners to be banned

Now that everyone has the tools to be a web designer, digital artist and online entrepreneur, it’s easy to come across badly designed websites, poor graphics and badly conceived businesses online. If you want to create a website purely for your own entertainment or hobby it doesn’t matter, visitors who don’t like it can go elsewhere, but for most people, design matters.

If you are running a business, the look and feel of your online presence is as important as your ‘real world’ presence. Most people will do a modicum of research before committing to any purchase more than a sandwich and if they do so online, they will make quick decisions, put off by slow loading or badly laid out websites. This extends to online advertising. Banner adverts are your shop’s sign posts. Get them wrong and your customers will get lost (literally).

Banner adverts directing customers to your site are important means of gaining traffic. They can be carefully targeted to websites and content that matches your service. Using social media, they can be localised and tailored to the audience, and placed on targeted websites. This means relevance is absolutely crucial. It’s crucial to get the messages, design and location just right.

Sussex Beauty Clinic

The first is a beauty clinic. There is a lot going on in the advert, in all sorts of different size text and font, coupled with an image which, simply, isn’t very beautiful. A visit to the website shows that it’s a model with an ice cube on her midriff, but in this context it could be a piece of ham, a sand dune or some sort of brown animal. You don’t want that sort of ambiguity from company that is going to permanently change your physical appearance. As a local business, its placement on a local news website is correct, however this ad needs to effectively demonstrate the firm’s service with a much more elegant design.

EDF Banner

This banner is from EDF Energy, advertising er… something blue. The message is completely lost. It has a call to action, but not one I’m likely to click on. Adverts are meant to inform their audience, not leave them guessing. I’d guess this ad is meant to rotate as an animation, but without the other images in the message is completely lost. The problem here is an absence of useful content.

MG6 Magnette

This MG advert has no real problems with design or content, and the call to action is implicit (this one does rotate), it’s the location of this banner that I was surprised about. It featured prominently on the Guardian’s environment page. If it was a particularly environmentally friendly car that would be fine, but since it has a CO2 output of 174 g/100km, against EU targets of 130 g/100km (falling to 95 g/100km in 2020) its hardly the eco warriors chariot of choice.

Banner ads can be sold on a pay-per-click basis, but often the owner will need to pay for the banner for a given period. This means banners that don’t drive any clicks are a waste of money.

Effective online ads, need to:

  • Be well designed, so they jump off the page
  • Contain good copy or product benefits
  • Provide a reason for clicking and a call to action
  • Be placed on a relevant page

Banner ads are easy to make – but that doesn’t mean successful banner ads are easy to make. So what do you think, any banners that make your blood boil?

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Proctor and risky gamble

For the second year, Procter and Gamble is running a Mother’s Day themed advert.

The concept behind the advert is pretty good – focusing on mothers by, not focusing on the mum. The mum is always in the background, quietly supporting her children. It’s a simple idea, and probably one that many people can relate to.

The messages between each photo are emotive, but can apply to fairly universally. The photos show scenes that are typical of childhood and by not showing the mother’s face, they become both generic and familiar.

Where it falls down is the tagline – “Proud sponsor of Mums”. This line irritates me. P&G represent many brands including Fairy, Pampers, Pringles, Pantene, Olay and Head & Shoulders. They’re brands that mums will probably be familiar with but the idea that P&G somehow sponsors mums is frankly offensive. If anything, the opposite is true – mums through their purchases sponsor P&G. Football clubs don’t buy items from their sponsors, they take a payment in return for advertising. Firms often pay significant sums of money in return for the support of an opinion leader. P&G makes significant revenues from its target audience.

Proctor & Gamble owns some of the biggest consumer and has a huge advertising budget (estimates vary from £189m to £204m in 2010). This is the first time it is advertising under its own brand rather than the individual product brands, and is intended to boost sales across all of them. In order to do this, it’s going to have to win the trust of mums, and gain their collective trust in all of the brands. Conversely, it risks putting all its eggs in one basket if any one of those brands fails.

This doesn’t work for me. It’s too saccharine and the sponsorship message puts me off. My loyalty to the brands it represents isn’t strong enough to prevent me switching to alternatives. If P&G is going to continue this approach, it needs to manage its advertising choices extremely carefully.

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What comes after the HD 4g iPad3?

Apple launched the third iteration of its iPad on Wednesday. Following on from the iPad, the iPad 2, we have… the.. iPad.

iPad Hero

It’s an interesting convention to choose.
Calling it an iPad 3 “would be so predictable,” said Phil Schillersenior vice president of worldwide marketing. But that implies that taking the number away was unpredictable. In a post last year, I suggested that Apple would move away from adding a number to each new model it launches, and I’m sure I was alone.

This new approach follows the company’s practice of simply naming its MP3 players, laptops and desktops, iPods, Mac Books and iMacs etc. Lots of speculators have suggested that this is the right way to go, simplifying the range and avoiding comparisons with competitors.

I’m not so sure the decision was a good one. It may have provided Schiller with a sound bite. But it will store up problems in the future. There is a fundamental difference between computers and MP3 players and mobile phones and laptops. Both the iPad and the iPhone are (often) sold on a contract, so there is an ostensible sell by date on these products. It is therefore necessary to have a quicker life cycle for these products. Assuming Apple continues its strategy of releasing new products each year, it will get into difficulties when it comes to product launches. Will we expect the advertisement of the new iPad and subsequently the newer iPad in a year’s time?

Comparisons with Apple computers and MP3 players are all very well, but they have fundamentally different uses. A computer should last several years, and can be upgraded to run current software. MP3 players have not changed function very much in the last few years and are unlikely to be upgraded as regularly as a phone or tablet. Therefore there is an inherent difference in the lifecycle of a contract based product.

It’s not hard to imagine the scenario of unscrupulous third party salesmen selling the ‘new’ iPad as the ‘new new’ iPad, or frustrated customers calling Apple’s (or even worse, third party network providers’) help desks trying to explain which ‘new’ iPad they have. Already, news articles are referring to it as the “new iPad” or the “iPad 4g“. The image above, from Apple’s website is titled iPad Hero. It feels like Apple has lost control of the brand name.

Of course Apple has always sought to be different and to buck the trend. Whilst its product launches attract enormous public interest, this new strategy may deliberately seek to homogenise demand and encourage people to upgrade in a more organic, as-required fashion. Theoretically this could actually limit sales at launch, unless Apple is actually planning to change its business model. Much has been made of Apple’s huge cash stockpile, and speculators have suggested that it could buy a mobile phone carrier. In this position, it would be preferable for its customers not to upgrade as often, but to stick with a single handset until they ‘need’ a new one, thereby increasing the life of each handset. It’d be a brave strategy indeed, not many brands have customers willing to queue for days to upgrade nearly-new products on the day of release, but would undoubtedly be an economic business model.

So what is this, Apple’s first big mistake, or its greatest coupe yet? We’ll have to wait and see.

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