Friday, January 24, 2014

if “luxury kia” seems weird to you, read on

In teasers for what is sure to be a big Super Bowl ad push for Seoul-based auto manufacturer Kia (client of agency David&Goliath), the company is announcing the launch of a new model, hinted to be the brand's first true "luxury" vehicle. The jump into the luxury division is hardly surprising, as the brand has shifted towards more expensive models and trims over the last few years. While the decision is certainly bold, throwing a gauntlet at the feat of established luxury brands such as Audi and Lexus, it only formalizes what we already knew about Kia's future aspirations: To shirk its perception as an "economy" car.

Three years ago I wrote about the high cost of the redesigned Optima, which totaled around $26,000 at the time, and how it was an indication that Kia wanted to move up in the market. However, feedback on the article (available in the comment section) took issue with using the $26,000 price-point as a bellwether for the brand. The commenters all had fair points, but I believe were missing the forest for the trees, as the K900 clearly shows.

The point was not that Kia couldn't effectively reach various market-strata through trim options, but that Kia shouldn't try to do that.

Conventional wisdom suggests the greater variety of your offerings, the more customers you will reach (and the more money you will make). However, that's not the case when it comes to branding. Bygone are the days when companies made money producing average products for the average person. To paraphrase Darwin: The market today favors the extremes; not the averages. Brands who try to expand their territory -- either trying to move up in the market, or down -- often find themselves in a dangerous place branding pioneer Al Ries calls the "mushy middle" of the market. And, this is a place even the strongest brands go to die.

"When management sees the great success of its brand, the next thing they usually say is, ‘What else can we get into with our hot brand?'" writes Ries' daughter and fellow branding maven, Laura, in a 2010 article about this concept. "The answer is usually trouble." Laura uses Gap as an example; a brand once known as a "the" place fashionable, basics in apparel. Then, Gap success caused it to expand, adding GapBody, GapKids, and GapBaby. However, as Laura writes, Gap discovered that its core customers -- teenagers and 20-somethings -- didn't want to wear the same clothes as baby's and kids.

"All the expansion diluted the power of the Gap brand," Laura writes. Gap's hot brand turned into a hot mess. It lost its identity, and competitors had a foothold to overtake this once powerhouse name in fashion. It is no coincidence the company's strongest sister brands today are those occupying the low end of the market (Old Navy) and the high end (Banana Republic).

Taking this same principle and applying it to the auto industry, it's obvious why brands caught in the mushy middle, in particular American automakers, are struggling to carve-out an identity in a market that has evolved away from the everyday car for the everyday driver. The growing number of import options since the 1970s gave car consumers greater variety. As a result, the old model of a "one-size-fits-all" car gave way to a niche market where consumers could now be choosy about what they were looking for in a vehicle.

Today, there are domestic cars, "Japanese" cars (yes, people by cars simply by the fact that it is engineered by Japanese company -- the country itself has become a "reliability" brand), economy cars, luxury cars, hybrid cars, electric cars, etc. The strongest auto brands are those that clearly occupy a single space in the market.

There is little question that Kia is one of the strongest automotive brands right now. However, its success is largely because Kia is a brand born in the bottom of the market, which it then grew to dominate by producing a quality product for a budget price. In 2005, Al Ries even uses Kia as an example of a low-priced brand "doing great," while lamenting the "mushy middle" troubles of automakers like GM and Ford. Unfortunately for Kia, they must have overlooked his article.

Nobody can fault Kia with wanting to capitalize on its success. It's a natural thing, especially for an auto manufacturer; the existence of brands such as Acura (owned by Honda), Lexus (owned by Toyota), Infinity (owned by Nissan), and others are a byproduct of this desire for greater market share, especially at the top (Scion is Toyota's recent divergence into the low-end of the market). But, Toyota, Nissan and Honda recognized that it was better to create a new luxury brand than try to introduce a high-end model with mid-market brand ID. Many consumers have no idea those three luxury brands are really spruced-up, rebadged, lower-priced cars.

Even Hyundai, which debuted a luxury-model under its own brand, gave the Genesis its own logo and identity. Sure, it was the Hyundai Genesis, but you wouldn't know it from the badge. Hyundai recognized the need for keeping it at arm's length, even if it didn't want to fully commit to a full line-up of luxury cars.

However, Kia looks like it will release the K900 as a Kia, with a price tag decidedly un-Kia. And, that's the problem. The idea of a "luxury Kia" is an oxymoron in the consumer's mind; Kia stands for quality economy, not quality luxury. While the K900 is an astounding car on paper and will undoubtedly be one of the best "bangs for the buck" as luxury goes, the Kia consumer is not a luxury consumer, and portraying itself as a luxury brand dilutes the Kia name. Just like Gap, the move could have traumatic long-term consequences for the company.

At the moment, Kia enjoys the same sort of niche notoriety as its high-end German colleagues. Consumers know Kia as the premier economy vehicle, just as they think of BMW and Mercedes as the premier high-end vehicles. So, it makes little sense why it would want to leave a position occupied -- largely without rival -- in the economy market. A move to the middle would only cannibalize the success of its parent company, Hyundai -- just as Coke Zero merely cannibalizes the success of Diet Coke.

It's easy to sit back and suggest, "Well, surely if Kia got this far, it knows what it's doing." Yet, the same thing could be said for thousands of once-household names now defunct as a result of bad branding decisions, many of which were the same as Kia is making now. There is a reason why GM and Chrysler were bailed-out, and it wasn't all to do with Union-related overhead or quality issues. It was because everybody knows what an Audi is (German luxury, and thanks to the positioning work done by agency Venables Bell, it is becoming even more specialized as a German luxury auto for the younger generation), or knows what a Toyota is (Japanese reliability). There wasn't one "idea" consumers had about Ford, GM, or Chrysler, except they were "American" -- and the widespread availability of competitor imports (many of which are now more "made in America" than "American" cars) quickly showed how weak of a positioning that was.

In its teasers for the K900, the ad copy says "preconceived notions are the voices that distort reality." It's a great progressive philosophy, but it simply not true when it comes to a brand. A preconceived notion is the very definition of brand. Your brand is not what you say it is, but what a consumer believes it to be in his mind. That is why positioning in the mind of the consumer is one of the hardest, but most important aspects of brand management. It takes years, if not longer, to move the needle on consumers' "preconceived notions" about a brand. Hyundai's fight from the bottom to the middle of the market did not happen overnight.

Kia may very well think it's attempting to change the preconceived notions about the brand, but it's already been doing that over the last few years with industry-leading warranties, on top of industry-leading quality; not to mention stylish designs that challenge what an economy car has to look like. All Kia will accomplish with the K900 and the models that follow is muddying the waters for what the Kia brand "is" in the mind of a consumer.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

super bowled over?

Last week, I was researching an article for The Weekly Surge on Super Bowl advertising. To me, this was like the holy grail of free lance assignments. Obviously, if you're here, you know I live and breath advertising. So, to be able to actually write on advertising, and talk to people in advertising (especially people who I have long admired), I was pumped. Below is that article, now out in digital, and in print on Friday.

A special thanks to Paul Venables at Venables, Bell & Partners, Scott Brandon at The Brandon Agency, and Bonnie Drewniany at the University of South Carolina, for all giving me a few minutes of their busy day to talk shop and make this article happen. These three people are at the top of their game for advertising, which is not praise I toss around liberally. It was a personal and professional privilege to be able to pick their minds.

bowled over?

On Jan. 15, 1967, the Kansas City Chiefs met the Green Bay Packers in the first-ever AFL-NFL World Championship Game. That game would retroactively become known as the very first Super Bowl ever played. And, in front of an audience of nearly 62,000 people, the Packers dominated the Chiefs 35-10.

Since then, the game has changed significantly. Athletes are bigger. Hits are harder. Competition is fiercer. Even the helmets and pads have evolved to resemble something akin to military-style combat gear. And, as the Super Bowl transformed from a novel event that couldn’t even sell-out its inaugural championship into a sporting powerhouse where luxury suites sell for six figures, commercial sponsorships have matured as well, and have become a part of the indelible fabric that makes up Super Bowl Sunday.

Read more here...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

an interview with paul venables

This week I'm writing an article for The Weekly Surge on Super Bowl advertising. I spoke with Venables, Bell & Partners Co-Founder and Creative Director Paul Venables about his experience putting together campaigns for advertising's biggest night. Venables and his team at VBP have handled Super Bowl ads for client Audi since its first spot in 2008. Since then, Venables helped rip apart the German luxury "aristocracy," campaign, after campaign. In this interview, he explains what goes behind making some of the Super Bowl's best commercials.

How does it feel to see your Super Bowl ad running?

"Having your ad play on the biggest stage imaginable, with millions and millions of viewers across continents, is a pretty darn exciting thing. Usually you're watching the Super Bowl in an atmosphere -- either party-like, or at least there's a spirit of good times and fun -- your ad comes on, and you just wish it could be longer. Commercials are so fleeting in our lives, so you watch a three-and-a-half or four-hour game…so you stole the audience's attention for 60-seconds but that's still pretty fleeting in the grand scheme of things. But it's worth it. It's a fantastic experience. When you go in designing something for the Super Bowl, I think your approach is a little different. There's higher stakes, so maybe you're a little bit more nervous. But, you know the opportunity is tremendous, and you keep kind of pushing yourself to do something great."

Was it Audi's idea to go for the holy grail of TV spots, or did you pitch that to them?

"We pitched that. When we pitched the business, we had a Super Bowl idea at the time. We, with Audi particularly -- this brand was doing all the right things from the product and engineering side -- the world just didn't know about Audi. The world didn't know that they were beating BMW and Mercedes at their own game. So we, with them, worked to shift their media dollars to be in more marquee events; to really stand out -- to create that conversation. And so we've done that from day one. The first one we did, you may recall, was the 'Godfather' spot, where the guy wakes up and instead of the horse-head in the bed, it's the front end of his luxury car. And we put old luxury on notice. That was our stake in the ground: Audi's here, shoulders back, chin up, we're coming at-cha. That was the gauntlet that we through down, and now here we are."

Is that why Audi is a good brand for the Super Bowl? It's not a mass market brand, but it's a brand that wants to get on everybody's radar.

"I think that's exactly it with Audi. They're not a mass market brand. We're never going to compete with the Doritos, and the Pepsis, and the Budweisers of the world, with slapstick humor and the silliness. And that stuff, I love it; it's all well and good. But, Audi has to do both. It has to appeal to the masses, but has to maintain its sophisticated persona. And, that's a trick for luxury brands to do. It's hard. It's hard to do both; something that wins on the Super Bowl with the mass audience, but is true to who you are. I think the Mercedes Benz [Kate Upton] teaser that they released is just a terrible embarrassment for them because they're trying to be…something that they're not. It's really, it's kind of sad."

"They're clearly trying to say, 'Hey, look at us! We belong in the Super Bowl and we can act like Doritos.' But no one wants to buy a Mercedes knowing they're acting like Doritos. You need to keep that allure of the high end premium brand, and still do something creative, provocative, and funny -- whatever your angle is. But, you got to be true to who you are in the Super Bowl. It's just that some of the rules, some of the guidelines, are less rigid. You can push it a little bit more, but you can't step outside and be somebody that you're not."

How do Super Bowl ads compare to campaigns that are otherwise run throughout the year?

"Well I think Super Bowl ads now are campaigns in and of themselves. You have to figure out your pre-Super Bowl strategy; are you releasing other content. You have to create a dialogue online. You have to use social media. You have to create content for social media. Do you do a YouTube channel? Do you launch it all on Facebook? Do you do both? You got a hashtag? We were the first to put a hashtag at the end of our Super Bowl spot two years ago to create a conversation in that regard. You know, how do you play the press angle? The traditional auto press, the USA Todays of the world. And, it's an onslaught; it's an entire campaign with other content created. And, I think that's the value of the Super Bowl. It's not just you buy a spot and you're done. You're basically creating a conversation that has a lot of people involved that lasts from several weeks before the game to several weeks after, and so there's value in that."

Is this a trend that you've seen recently, that Super Bowl ads are no longer a one-and-done campaign?

"Anybody that does the Super Bowl one-and-done is wasting an awful lot of money. It's too expensive to just play the game, hope you do well on some poll or meter, and be done. There's just way too much at stake. It's not a smart investment to approach it that way. I think very few companies do."

Has the style of Super Bowl ads influence advertising outside of the Super Bowl?

"I don't know. That's a good question. I think the Super Bowl in and of itself can be pretty predictable. There's going to be, you know, there's going to be a lot of dogs, I guarantee it. There's going to be some babies. There's going to be men being stupid. There's going to be men being too feminine and soft, who should be tougher. There's going to be slapstick; somebody is going to get hit in the nether-regions. There's going to be horses, probably Clydesdales. There's a lot of predictability, and I think that is comforting in a few ways to America; they have come to expect a kind of certain style of spot, but I think there's a huge opportunity for an advertiser to do something different, and stand out, and win people over with something different.

So, it's more than just slapstick. Do you think there has to be a "prevailing idea" behind the campaign that makes it a 'good' ad?

"Yeah, in my book. And you know we all probably judge the ads with our own value set, but I think you have to have something bigger than the *schtick.* Throwing the celebrity in the ad just because you know you're going to get more followers on Twitter is nice, but it's got to be meaningful. There's got to be an idea there. In fact, I'm interested to see, you know, instead of celebrities, and dogs, and monkeys, and talking babies -- what about good, old fashioned storytelling? A nice piece of film that tells a story that's captivating, that's interesting, that's shot well, that's casted well, that doesn't rely on the usual gimmicks -- I would love to see some more of that on the Super Bowl. Just win with the value of the idea and the storytelling of it."

Do you think a lot of agencies are starting to get that, and move away from the banal, slapstick humor?

"No. I think in a lot of creative departments the call comes to do a Super Bowl spot, and they immediately go, 'Well we have to do something extreme and crazy and gimmicky.' I just think that's still how people approach it. And, sometimes that yields great stuff, but a lot of times I think it leaves people reaching for something that isn't quite worth reaching for, or is shallow because it's a quick gimmick."

From an agency standpoint, what goes into getting an ad ready for the Super Bowl?

"Like I said, we approach it like a campaign. We have strategy specific to the Super Bowl. We work out a range of ideas. I like to have some flexibility going into the creative development to make sure we know of the absolute best thing that's suitable for the Super Bowl and yet true to Audi, in this case. And, so we approach it with a lot of discipline on the front end. What do we want? What do we want to accomplish? There are a lot of ways to measure success. It could just be impressions. You know, we've hit billions of impressions with past ads. Or, it could be the amount of buzz generated, or the activity on Facebook, or the USA Today poll, [or] did you make it on Good Morning America -- or, whatever. And, you kind of need to be clear on what you're going for, and have some discipline and rigor on the front end, and really unleash creatively on a range of ideas, and then put the rigor back in when you evaluate and debate which things have merit and which things don't. So, a lot goes in. Usually a lot of ideas I want to generate. You know with Audi, we can do a brand specific thing that's just really about the four rings, or we could do something about a particular model. The Super Bowl ad that we're running this year features the S6. Or, we could do something about a technology; we could do a Quatro thing, or a TDI clean diesel thing. So, right there, those are three different briefs, really. And sometimes we open it up. We know generally the objective we want to hit, and then we might look at from each of those angles -- product, technology, and brand -- and see what's the best story; what's the most compelling thing for the Super Bowl."

Do you have any all-time favorite Super Bowl ads, other than your own, of course?

"Off the top of my head, some things pop-in just randomly. One is the old 'Mean Joe Green' classic Coke spot from, I guess it was the 70s. I'm pretty sure that was a Super Bowl spot. That was just phenomenal and endearing commercial. The 'morning after' spot -- I forget the name of it -- that Nike did after the 'Y2K' non-event. That was just epic and wonderful…I think '1984' is a great story, but a little overrated. And, I think it was for its time and all of those things, amazing -- it's nothing short of amazing -- but I still don't count it among my favorites for some reason. And, maybe it's just because it's been so hyped over the years."

Some in the industry have suggested that Super Bowl ads are bad for the advertising industry, suggesting that it conditions people into believe that all advertising is like what Doritos typically does during the Super Bowl. That is, putting slapstick ahead of smart ads. What's your take?

"You know what I say to that? Yada, yada, yada. Only in advertising, in the industry of advertising, would you have someone in the industry complaining that the entire world sits up and takes notice of our craft. [Laughs] Give me a break. Now I don't think the industry always does itself proud because I think that sometimes we put a lot of dreck out there on the Super Bowl, [but] I'll take the eyeballs and the attention for one day a year on advertising. …We do a Super Bowl survey every year, and I don't have the numbers in front of me, but it says something like people are just as likely to talk about the ads as they are the key plays of the game the next day, or on Twitter, or during the game. So, it's a day we're elevated to pop culture status and we have to accept that, and we, as an industry, have to do our part which is to deliver the good content. But, to complain that people are paying too much attention to the Super Bowl, or its not what it's supposed to be cracked up to be, or look at our ads for the rest of the year -- you know what, we're lucky they're looking at them that one day."

Monday, July 16, 2012

your 'likes' are stupid.

I have a great deal of respect for social media pariahs. In a world filled with "gurus" and "ninjas," these are the people that say, "Your 'likes' are stupid."

Now, I (and, I'm sure, these people as well) recognize that social media isn't completely useless. In fact, social media can play a major role in consumer engagement, as well as customer service. If done correctly, social media can be a major marketing tool.

The problem is when we get stuck on the superficial statistics -- likes, follows, retweets, comments… You know…the stuff that's easy to talk about.

What nobody wants to talk about are the conversions after the 'like' or follow. After all, it is in the conversion where you can really measure the effectiveness of your social media. Sure, there are a lot of intangibles when it comes to social media, but that's true of all marketing channels or mediums. But, even with social media, you develop very effective measurements of ROI.

And, if you're converting to sales/donations, it's a good place to start.

Otherwise, what's the point? Really. So what?

Tom Belford, an editor at the non-profit marketing newsletter The Agitator, has a great article on the topic. And, in the comment section, he leaves this golden nugget in response to a reader who was questioning the post:

"Yes, I like that extra traffic to our site. But what’s it worth? Do we still have crap conversion? Show me what these 24,000 new fans have done for our cause in 3 or 6 months and maybe I’ll be a happy camper."

Ah…there it is. Traffic (or, likes, follows, etc.) is another meaningless stat when looked at alone. A site with 1,000 visitors a day that converts at 10% is just as effective as a site with 10,000 visitors a day that converts at 1%.

So, what is more important? Traffic, or conversions?

So, while you may have 25,000 likes on your Facebook page, I'm not going to be impressed until you show me what you've done with them.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

the campaign against treason

As I've posted on here before, I run a parody Twitter account that started back in Nov. 2010 when the TSA first went crazy. Or, at least, first got noticed for being crazy.

It's sort of bloomed since then, and now has more than 25,000 followers.

In looking for new ways to keep the audience engaged, while maintaining the account's "brand," (oh yes, I approached it like a brand) I created a "propaganda campaign" aimed "against the American public." It's called, "We're Sorry You Hate America: The Campaign Against Treason." The ads are simply goofy photoshops I created as mock-propaganda posters that belittle dissenters.

For the users, it's a cool divergence from the typical 140-characters of snark. For me, it's a fun excuse to photoshop.

Below are the first three ads in the campaign. You can also click on the links to go to a larger image.

We'll see how long I can keep this up.