Point of View

Michael D'Antonio Brand Planning

20/20/20 Vision

by Michael D'Antonio

Vision is a difficult thing. It is perhaps the single most important ingredient to success in business. It is what makes good ideas great and great brands famous.  Yet, it is rare, often misunderstood, and at times, even vilified and run out of town. We all admire a few of the canonized default-heroes like Jobs and Hsieh, but rarely do we find that kind of vision on display in our own organizations, core teams and break out rooms.

So the question is…why? One answer is that you can’t teach vision. It is a skill you cannot coach. Like a world-class musician or an elite athlete, you can chalk it up to God-given talent – a freakish natural ability that comes along once or twice in a generation in the form of a Bezos or Branson. While that may be true, it feels too easy and far too cynical for us. Sure, there are those natural born visionaries and extraordinary folks that will always be the super nova luminaries in the industry, and thank goodness for them.

But for the rest of us mere mortals, can we learn vision? Can we develop vision? I believe so. I believe that every creative thinker, every manager, every executive and every junior can develop vision skills much like they can develop presentation skills. They may never be a Steve Jobs – in fact, we are pretty sure they won’t be. But it is a travesty that most companies and organizations put virtually no effort or energy behind vision. They spend more time teaching about the email system than having a vision for the brand. This seems incredibly (and pardon the pun) shortsighted.

At Madhouse, we believe in 20/20/20 Vision. This is our model for teaching the core discipline, so it permeates throughout an organization. There are three simple steps to 20/20/20 Vision.

First - 20 Questions.  Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest. The first reason most never develop vision is because we don’t ask enough questions.  We choose the path of least resistance. We don’t like conflict. We hear what we want to hear. And we get it as quickly and painlessly as possible. So…ask questions until you have completely run out of ways to ask them. Then…ask different ones.

Second – dedicate 20% of your time to developing a vision for your brand. This has to be a consistent priority. That is, spend 8 hours of a 40-hour workweek dedicated to the vision of the brand, on things like developing core principles and values, creating white space heat maps, challenging preconceived notions and sacred cows and proactively tearing down conventional structures that get in the way of that core vision.

Third – 20 independent advisors. Build a list of 20 smart people who are completely outside of your industry/sector/space. Meet with each of them at least once a year via a face-to-face meeting, conference call, coffee, informal chat but no email.  Simply select 20 people you admire who have no connection to what you do or to your brand, and this will become your Board of the Future. Bring one problem to each of these conversations and then listen. That is all – just listen. Trust us, doors will open and ideas will flourish. The combination of brainpower, intuition, common sense and outside perspective these 20 people will bring will be invaluable to developing, maintaining and protecting your vision.

Madhouse Strategic Planning

Easier Said Than Done.

by Michael D'Antonio

There has been much written about start-ups, entrepreneurs and companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter driving most of the innovation in America. In fact, the National Science Foundation documents only about 9% of all U.S. companies innovate. Experts further explain, in and of itself, this information technology-based innovation has not led to the manufacturing of innovative products – in either industrial or consumer products, bioscience, nanotechnology or the alternative energy spaces. In other words, our significant investment in innovation has not led to a commensurate amount of “valuable” output. As a result, it has produced sluggish job creation, real declines in income, an increasing trade deficit and overall, anemic growth.

Truth is, America’s rise to the top of the economic food chain – albeit innovative and valuable – was built on the scale of production efficiencies. Our recent humbling economic experience has only reinforced such measures. Further, even as most large American companies conflate globalization and efficiencies with true innovation, there is little argument that building stuff is the foundation from which our great prosperity has come. However, while all of this may be jeopardizing America’s status as the world’s leader in traditional economic value, it is important to understand that economies, like countries and businesses, evolve. It is how we develop through this maturation cycle that will ultimately decide our fate.

Trained in the value of efficiencies, we are taught the pillars of success are titles, awards and profits. Companies, like individuals, are graded on such metrics. Have you ever wondered why organizations have so many sovereign departments – all with independent yet interdependent objectives?  Why so many people are apprehensive to do things differently within this hierarchical construct? We learn to be good at something. We become specialized and masters of our domain. We pad our pocketbooks. This ferments in silos and is reinforced by habit and acceptance. But, all too often it manifests into close-mindedness – protecting all that challenge it.

Innovation is a perspective – a way of life. It is about a process, not the product it ultimately yields. It is fueled by participation, not approval. It chooses the path of most resistance. It seeks uncomfortableness and embraces weakness. It is inspired by passion and sustained by resolve. It lives by the notion that good is never good enough. It is non-linear. Its dynamic path ebbs and flows and adapts to new generations, environments and problems. Like change, it is contrary to conventional wisdom and corporate and social culture. It threatens human truths and innate human instincts. No wonder why it is so damn hard.

Often the best ideas are the most ridiculous. Usually they are counterintuitive. New approaches to handle traditional needs appear ignorant. They defy common logic and the status quo. They are immediately rebuffed, constantly denounced and given an unlimited number of reasons for failure – in fact, they almost always fail. But, innovation is learning by trying, ideating and making – and failure is an unfortunate requisite for change. It teaches us, builds character and serves as the compass for a direction not yet traveled. For those who innovate, they have learned one vital lesson; above all else, you can never – ever – lose the faith.

The new digital landscape has provided an infinite number of platforms for us to explore. Unlike our predecessors who produced the great American Industrial Revolution, current generations now have the ability to gain immediate access to global perspectives and learn how to learn on their own. Knowledge and education, the mother of all innovation, has been democratized for all.

It is true, information technology innovation may not directly generate new widget factories in a neighborhood near you and we do need to make more stuff once again. However, companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter constantly innovate as a result of their culture – because they plant the seeds of ingenuity – which is the foundation for many more American revolutions indeed.

Marketing in Michigan

A Simple Plan

by Michael D'Antonio

As the discipline of “Planning” emerged in our industry in the mid-90’s, so did the infrastructure of the Planning Department. It has traditionally been reserved for the highly cognitive individual, usually yielding cerebral or trite presentations. Like many specialties and specialists, I’m convinced some things are intentionally done to preserve their integrity or their value in the food chain.

At its core, planning is simply the process of discovering and developing business, product, consumer and cultural insights that can lead to the development of a knowledge-based brand strategy and/or foundation from which everything follows. This should lead to a brand’s purpose and ultimately effective creative. There are many tools to this trade that may or may not resemble Planning’s precursor, Research, but no matter how planning is approached or applied, it is almost always housed in its own unit – its own fiefdom, silo or vertical on the agency value chain.

This current model is closer to an antiquated rust belt assembly line than a rapid prototype workflow model one may find in the workspaces at Palo Alto. Presently, the Planning Department “does the planning,” and then hands over some sort of artifact to another department to act upon. This artifact may take many different forms – a brief, an insight doc, a planogram – but it is always essentially an input that is dropped off by the planning department for further workflow. This is very much a system Henry Ford would recognize and very much a system Jeff Bezos would blow-up sight unseen.

Perhaps it would make more sense to model the planning disciplines after other creative businesses where intellectual capital, innovation and speed-to-maker reign supreme – like software development or e-commerce – instead of modeling it after the linear manufacturing process of durable goods. In doing so, we wouldn’t have a planning department. Instead, we would have cross-functional innovation cells comprised of forward-thinking individuals across multiple agency disciplines whether it be creative, account services, experience planners, social media experts, etc. This would allow for a richer, broader exchange of ideas, thus increasing the scope of intellectual capital without incremental overhead through additional hires.

It would also allow for instinct, common sense and intuition to have a role in the process – things that have been instituted out of the current planning process. Over time, planning departments, like many departments, have become insular. They have become ghettoized as certain ideas, language and processes have become sacrosanct and others have become unthinkable, as a tribe mentality has exerted a fundamental “this is how we do it” code of conduct over professionals that were originally hired to be original thinkers.

Cross-functional innovation cells are faster and more fearless. They are also more modern and more successful. From Apple to Etsy and Pixar to Pandora, we see this model arise time and time again. In the tech sector, it is called innovation. The core of planning has not changed – gaining strong insights to develop great output – and it has never been more important or more relevant. What has changed is the way planning should be executed. In a dynamic, multivariate and non-linear world, we are still planning like we live and work on an assemble line. My advice – we need a better plan.

Madhouse Branding

It’s the Story, Stupid

by Michael D'Antonio

Let me state this as simply as possible. If you want to create fun, award-winning advertising, find a hot agency known for their brilliant scripts, give them a pile of money and enjoy your 30-seconds in the spotlight. But if your goal is to create great branding, you need to start with a great story.

If you’ve ever watched a Super Bowl telecast in the company of other adults, you’ve done all the research you need. Some of the commercials grab your attention but leave everyone scratching their heads. Some are provocative, but only enough to build Monday morning buzz. There’s no substance. Other ads are visually arresting, but are thinly veiled attempts by the creative team to build a reel or win an award. And the really awful ads? Odds are, a client exec got involved and hijacked the whole mess in order to jam more mumbo-jumbo into an already cluttered message.

Year after year, the spots we remember are the ones that got their story down first. The Snickers commercial with Betty White was hilarious, but it clearly began with a good story, e.g., “when we’re hungry, we’re not our best selves.”  We get it – a Snickers bar will tide us over until we can eat a proper meal. Perfect. The story makes sense and the spot has the kind of staying power that builds brands.

Even a TV diva like Betty White could tell you that brand storytelling isn’t limited to traditional media. Red Bull energy drinks have consistently told their story in every possible medium – but most effectively through experiential marketing, where they can show Red Bull is the perfect energy pick-me-up, an elixir that gives you the boost to accomplish anything. So when Red Bull sponsors a non-stop series of extreme sports events and adrenaline-junky stunts, it all makes sense. In fact, the Red Bull story has become so iconic, and retold by so many people, that Mashable aptly notes, “Red Bull is a publishing empire that also happens to sell a beverage.” Their content – the Red Bull storyline – has totally outstripped the product while remaining authentic to the foundational brand concept.

Or how about a smaller, but no less impressive example? Michael Dubin had a humble product to sell, backed by an audacious brand story – the Dollar Shave Club. He told the story himself in a simple YouTube video that went crazy viral – and garnered 12,000 orders in the first 48 hours.  His success wasn’t because he had proof that his razors were better, but because people love a good story and the authenticity of his message was beyond doubt. In a recent New York Times article, Dubin explained the brand premise this way, “Guys are so used to milking their blades for as long as possible because they’re so expensive, and they’d forgotten how awesome it can be to shave with a fresh razor each week.” Bingo.

Entertainers, from Madonna to Kid Rock, have also figured out that the secret to staying power is a good storyline. They continuously reinvent their brand personas in a way that keeps people engrossed in their personal narrative; in many ways, it’s more interesting than their music.

It’s the same thing with entertainment destinations. Las Vegas lost its glitter. And it totally failed when it tried to bill itself as a family-friendly experience. It just wasn’t authentic. But when they tapped into an authentic story – everyone’s fantasy of an adult weekend adventure – they struck gold. The line “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” quickly became cultural shorthand for a thousand guilty pleasures, spawned movies, provoked parodies and rebuilt the brand into something Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack could once again claim as its own.

My point? Whether you’re a marketer or a consumer, you don’t have to accept shoddy substitutes that try to pass off glittery, special-effect-laden marketing as the real thing.  Technology is a great tool, but it isn’t storytelling.  Hilarious scripts with huge personalities still need to convey something we care about.

And don’t be fooled by so-called branding gurus who will have you believe that only the elect few can divine the Oracle of Big Brands. After all, every four-year old knows what needs to be done. Tell me a story. Please.

Detroit Marketing

What’s a Tech Company Anyway?

by Michael D'Antonio

What does it mean to be a “tech company” – if indeed it means anything anymore? Like almost any other slang term that enters popular dialogue, “tech” and “technology” have started to lose their meaning through overuse. From bankers to ball bearing manufacturers, companies of almost every type have started to apply the term – or the broader lexicon around it – to their businesses, with widely varying degrees of relevance.

In one sense, this trend is just the latest symptom of an old disease: the over-application of business jargon. Terms like “agile,” “solutions,” “focused” and “lean” have taken serious beatings in recent years as they’ve assumed permanent resident status in ads, brochures, taglines and annual reports. (Indeed, a quick Google search for sites containing all four of these terms returns over four million results; here’s wishing the best of luck to the next “agile, lean, solution-focused” firm that tries to differentiate itself.)

“Tech,” though, is arguably a special case by virtue of being both so prevalent and being so inappropriate most of the time. Is there really an advantage to being a “tech” banker or ball bearing maker – or is it better to simply offer better banking service, or better ball bearings? The motivation for adding the “tech” tag seems clear enough: to capitalize on a current trend in order to make the business seem modern and relevant. The actual effect, though, is often something quite different. Leaping on the technology bandwagon most often appears to be precisely that; what’s worse, it serves to distract and confuse audiences who are unfamiliar with the actual advantages of the company’s product or service. “Tech” banking or bearings don’t mean anything; reliable banking and precision bearings, on the other hand, mean quite a lot.

What too many companies don’t understand is that there is a big difference between being a business that uses technology and being a technology-based business. This is the 21st century: Customers expect – and have every right to expect – that the companies they do business with use the latest tools and techniques to conduct their business. That’s a far cry from being a firm whose core function consists of conducting the research, refining the processes and developing the intellectual property associated with technological innovation – a true “tech company.” When a company that actually does the former positions itself as the latter, confusion is the most likely immediate result – as well as the appearance of being disingenuous.

Brand loyalty comes from brands who know who they are, to whom they are talking and why they are doing it. In a cluttered marketplace, the medium by which one delivers or supports its product isn’t what ultimately sustains them. Companies whose profiles rise above all of their competitors are those who have purpose and offer a value proposition that directly connects with their customers’ desires.

While integrating technology to create a better customer experience is valuable, slapping “tech” framing inappropriately onto a brand only serves to diminish its core DNA. As the digital universe continues to grow around us, consumers are starting to catch on. Despite the endless tech-hype in blogs and the business press, consumers are still human and humans still make decisions based on emotions. If you really want to connect in a certain marketplace, make sure you focus on values and character that inspire people.

Branding Consultancy Royal Oak

Paradigm Shift? A Nudge Will Do.

by Michael D'Antonio

In our business, we have traditionally admired the mavericks, risk-takers and magnificent bastards who make big bets, take big swings and are happy to tell you all about it. But in the modern marketplace, there is relatively less room (and fanfare) for the cowboys and relatively more whitespace (and retweets) for the pragmatic tweakers who nudge their brands toward efficiency and resiliency in far less bombastic ways.

Two simple examples would be Toms Shoes and Warby Parker frames. Toms made two smart, simple and soulful choices. First, they benchmarked off of Zappos in their desire to ask the question – when is a shoe company not a shoe company? Zappos famously became a service company under the guise of selling shoes. And it worked. Brand loyalty, advocacy and sales consistently rose until Amazon ultimately bought them for their principles instead of their inventory.

Toms stood on the shoulders of the Zappos model in that it isn’t a shoe company either. Toms is a NGO – a modern, practical, pragmatic and effective way for consumers to make a difference in the world. The value proposition is not anchored by the shoes that Toms manufactures in China, it is anchored in the ethos of One-For-One.

The result is that brand loyalty, advocacy and sales have consistently risen for the brand because people don’t buy Toms, they buy into it. And Toms achieved this with the oldest, most unsexy bullets in the retail chamber – the Buy One Get One. They simply made a tiny, yet significant tweak, to make it Buy One Give One, and they created something altogether new.

Another example is Warby Parker eyewear. With a name inspired by The Great Gatsby, the founders of this frame company took a much more humble and practical approach than their namesake. They simply capped the price point of their frames at $95. This is a significant savings from certain designer frames that can range from $200 to $300 and beyond, but not so cheap as to devalue the perceived value of the product. The other thing Warby Parker did was borrow from the car industry in that they let you test drive and send you five pairs to try. You keep/buy the ones you like and send the rest back.

This company is fast becoming a darling on Wall Street, as well as Madison Avenue, and all they have done is find a moderate/reasonable price point and allow their customers to test drive the product. Again, old school tactics reinvented for the modern marketplace. Not a bad recipe for reinvention.

The lesson here is that some of the most dynamic, modern, progressive and forward-thinking brands in the market today are simply making small, smart choices that ladder up to big things. Paradigm shifts are great, but they can often be distilled down to a simple little nudge.

Strategic Planning Michael D'Antonio

You Don’t have to be Perfect…
Just Humble

by Michael D'Antonio

Domino’s Pizza was never a brand that invested its intellectual capital (or its actual capital for that matter) into its marketing and branding. They focused instead on real estate and operations. Franchises popped-up in every C- and D-county strip mall across the country, and the key selling proposition became “30 minutes fast or free.” This is hardly a claim of quality or commitment to craft and the customer. It was a one-dimensional dare instead of a fully formed vision of company purpose that can actually be of some value to the customer’s life.

The outcome were drivers that exceeded the speed limit to beat the 30-minute clock, resulting in myriad accidents, traffic violations and a brand that ultimately stood for nothing – at least nothing positive. It was the kind of slogan-based marketing that many companies employed in the 80’s and 90’s, and it even worked on some occasions. But then the world changed, consumers changed, information dissemination certainly changed and alas…so did Domino’s.

Now, this is not to say Domino’s advertising is particularly great. It is to say that their strategy is all of this and more. At some point, Dominos did something incredibly risky and irreverent – they admitted they weren’t perfect. Blasphemy among the brand management ranks. Domino’s had learned humility, turned itself inside out and brought their consumer base into their very own self-help process. As CEO Patrick Doyle put it:

“You can either use negative comments to get you down, or you can use them to excite you and energize your process of making a better pizza. We did the latter.”

Instead of pretending to have all the answers, Domino’s simply asked some hard questions of itself and built a documentary-style campaign that tracked their progress to becoming a better pizza maker. Suddenly they were an underdog – a flawed character, not unlike us all, and people responded. And Domino’s was consistent in their commitment and messaging across all channels – the corporate site, microsites, social media platforms, radio and television, stores and print advertising.

But more importantly, Domino’s didn’t just say something. They actually did something. They sourced better ingredients, hired better talent and stood behind their product in ways they had never done before.

There was now a narrative – an arc of a story – and every stakeholder was complicit in the telling, including the folks who eat the pizza. Turns out their customers wanted to be a part of something, too, and joined in with Domino’s.

And there is hard data to support this soft sell. Eighteen months into the turnaround campaign, Domino’s shares increased 75% compared with 15% for Papa John’s International Inc. Since the end of 2009, when Domino’s announced its plans to change, the stock has gained 233%, compared with 37% for its rival.*

In a marketing world where having all the answers is considered the gold standard, Domino’s highlighted their weaknesses, humbly acknowledged they needed to work on those weaknesses and then proceeded to do just that as consumers cheered them on. And a perfectly imperfect go-to-market strategy was born.

* “Fast Food Sales Benefiting from Economic Concerns,” Preparedfoods.com

Marketing Consultancy Detroit

Super Bowl Commercials: Advertising, Entertainment or Other

by Michael D'Antonio

As I watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, it occurred to me that it has become much more than a football game – it’s a platform for us to embrace, grieve and celebrate human emotions. With this in mind, I watched the commercials through a different lens.

There are many definitions and objectives of advertising. By way of most traditional models, it starts with “awareness” and ends with “action.” Translation - the desired result is sales. However, not everyone has the same goal, and this is necessary to understand prior to fairly judging any commercial. Unfortunately, it is not disclosed by advertisers.

It is true, more times than not, commercial viewers will not remember the brand, not to mention the product. Hell, in many cases, it’s difficult just to make an intuitive connection. And to the extent recall exists on both levels, when is the last time a Super Bowl commercial gave you any real reason to purchase? Given this bias, it seems producing sales may not be the intent of some advertisers at all.

Further, on this certain day each year, to break through the clutter and make an impact, brands feel they have to outdo everyone else, or themselves, and be outrageous. In fact, they feel compelled to be outrageous merely for outrageous sake. The problem, of course, is that outrageous has many contexts – from shocking to shameless, hilarious to horrendous.

It is also true that the Super Bowl provides a unique opportunity to reach an unparalleled cross-section of audiences. In a landscape of media and consumer fragmentation, it is no wonder why so many covet this property and no doubt why the commercials are so big and lofty. Even those commercials that “score” poorly gain increases in traffic (awareness) – affirming the investment – and making the advertisers’ case indeed. Certainly conventional wisdom tells us that awareness precedes action, as people have to know you exist before they know why you exist. But how many tell us why they exist? Consumers are ultimately inspired by truth and vision. Considering the 100+ million Super Bowl viewers, is there a better place to articulate this? Sometimes the messages are seen as opposite or confusing – potentially alienating those very consumers intended to be inspired.

Having said that, I’m suggesting another methodology in which to grade these commercials. Instead of critiquing in a vacuum, you really need to understand how brand managers, company executives and/or CEO’s are making such decisions – what ulterior motives they may have – how they may be measured in their own jobs – how they may be building their own personal brands. Corporate America, in some cases, does not foster the right environment or reward its people for doing the right thing. But, in fairness, sometimes we as consumers don’t either.

In other words, if the goal is to create awareness irrespective of any strategic foundation, and those responsible are rewarded based on the amount of buzz they generate (good or bad), accolades and awards they receive or legacies they leave, then it seems the more outrageous, the better. Congratulations to many are in order. However, if the goal is smart, authentic and inspiring advertising – organic, relevant and valuable story telling that articulates a brand’s vision – some may need to re-evaluate.

My purpose is not to opine on any specific Super Bowl spot, rather provide you a different foundation from which to do so yourself. Whatever the brand’s goal, my concern – my disdain, as should be yours – is with companies who abuse this bully pulpit to cover-up their real issues and/or mislead audiences with disingenuous communications. You can judge for yourself but life experiences have taught us time and again, good, honest and generous people/brands never exploit such a platform to make their case. They simply demonstrate it in everything they do and let others sing their praise. Besides, no company in their right mind would spend several million dollars for self-serving interests only, would they?

In my view, the Super Bowl, intentional or not, has provided a platform for many stars to reveal themselves. While some choose the path of mere outrageousness, others have figured out that advertising and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. If done with the right perspective, they are great by any measure.

Brand Marketing

Google It

by Michael D'Antonio

It’s not difficult to find reasons to heap praise upon Google’s assent and reign as one of the world’s preeminent innovation companies. Pundits and analysts inside and outside The Valley have scoured their online thesauri for superlatives that can do justice to the rapid prototyping, relentless innovation and market-moving force multiplier that is Google.

But doing innovative things isn’t enough in an oversaturated, hyperkinetic marketplace – you still have to tell your story. And Google tells their story well. The reason is that they approach their brand story the same way they approach their product development with rapid prototyping, nontraditional teams, over-communication and an insistence to keeping the human benefit at the forefront of any technological breakthrough.

Robert Wong, CCO of Google Lab, the internal creative shop at planet Google, has developed three specific ways to inextricably link story to product in an intimate, organic way. His process provides an interesting lesson for any brand that wants to connect in a deeper, more meaningful way to its consumer.

The first thing Wong does is to allow storytellers at Google to affect the product itself. That is, instead of the product team building stuff for the marketing team to sell, the storytellers get upstream and help develop the actual thing they will ultimately sell. The marketing team knows the consumer and the marketplace better than the product engineer. By baking this expertise into the product offering, the entire process becomes more organic, fluid and relevant to the end user.

Second, Wong believes in the philosophy of “get out of the way of the product.” You can see that philosophy come to life in a compelling, elegant way in the “Dear Sophie” spot from last year. There is no fabrication, melancholy or melodramatic heartstring tug – no ad tricks.  It is simply a well-composed, well-crafted product demonstration. To do this well, you need a great product, which is also a good lesson for brands. The creative work only works when the product does. Google is smart enough to know that the days of smoke and mirrors ended with the first organic search query.

Finally, Wong believes in getting out of the way of the audience. When the time came to advertise YouTube, Mr. Wong's team approached director Ridley Scott, but they didn’t ask him to shoot an action sequence with a helicopter. They simply asked him to produce "Life in a Day," a documentary distributed by the National Geographic Channel showing scenes from around the world in a single day – all shot by YouTube users.

These are simple lessons – get the marketers and creatives upstream into product development, get out of the way of the product and always look for opportunities to celebrate real human behavior like "Life in a Day." The result is work that doesn’t feel like work. It isn’t self-conscious or self-reflexive. It isn’t cynical or forced. It is easy, even welcome. As all good creative should be.

Michigan Michael D'Antonio

Return of the Critter

by Michael D'Antonio

In the heyday of mid-sixties to mid-seventies advertising, titans of the industry like Burnett and Oglivy created characters, archetypes and caricatures to represent their brands. Collectively, they became known as “critters” and soon became a standard trope in the advertising lexicon. From the Jolly Green Giant to Charlie Tuna to the Pillsbury Dough Boy, these quirky, bizarre creations saturated advertising and the culture itself as they made their way to T-Shirts, lunch boxes and even early forms of content creation models.

But over time, tastes changed and so did the industry. Critters went out of vogue. They were seen as cheesy and silly – the worst kind of pandering manipulation in the creative arsenal, and over a few decades they went extinct, suffering from their own version of an ice age. Eventually the critters were replaced with advertising that looked more like programming – scenes and scenarios acted out by real people – the “two moms in a kitchen” type of advertising. In the 90’s, this scene-based model ultimately gave way to a music video-inspired model with rapid cuts, disjointed narratives and visual techniques carrying the day.

Today, as ironic as it is, we are seeing a resurgence of the critter or more accurately, a reinvention of the critter. There is no doubt that the critters are back – from Progressive’s Flo to Geico’s British gecko, critters are back on the airwaves in force. The difference between these 21st century critters and their mid-century forefathers is that these critters are in on the joke. They are hyper-aware that they are critters with a developed sense of self-awareness and irony. You can see it when the Geico gecko looks to the camera as he tells us he is drinking digitally created coffee, or when Flo winks and nudges her way through yet another commercial, rolling her eyes at the triteness of her character before the audience can.

This meta-critter is a new animal – at once self-referential and self-mocking. This is a more cynical critter that doesn’t expect its audience to suspend disbelief. In fact, it doesn’t even believe it itself. However, these modern critters do share some connective tissue with the past. They are still memorable, they can still say things humans can’t and they are still built through repetition and ubiquity, just as they were in the 60’s.

Advertising may not be green but it does know how to recycle – even with things we vowed to never do again…like create a critter. And it seems to work. Progressive has doubled down on the Flo campaign – migrating that character into virtually every piece of communication they create. Geico has continued building its gecko campaign to a level that is verging on Energizer Bunny. The lesson is that anything is up for grabs and ripe for reinvention – even something as mundane and twee as a critter that giggles when you poke his tummy.

Madhouse Royal Oak

Branding – let’s get physical

by Michael D'Antonio

Pick a brand. Any brand. What do you like best about it? Most people with a strong brand affinity can point to a tactile or emotional experience that describes how that brand makes them feel. That experience is the product of a thousand small gestures – a series of brand affirmations at each customer touchpoint, which includes social media, traditional advertising, event marketing, point-of-sale, retail experience, word of mouth and so on.

While we may love the convenience of shopping online, most of us don’t have the same connection with, for example, Amazon, as we do with the people at our local Apple store, favorite hair salon or Starbucks. This gets at one of the most defining human conditions – we remain fundamentally social animals. Ironically, people have turned to social networking to hook up with each other online. Virtually! But does it fulfill that basic need? And does that even matter if the end purpose of branding is to facilitate sales?

Clearly, the ubiquity and scope of social media are irresistible. And for simple retail transactions, online shopping is tough to beat. But for most of us, digital experiences haven’t displaced the urge to touch, sample, sniff, taste, examine, thump and listen to a product. In car jargon, we still want to kick the tires.

Will this change as the Millennials gain market dominance? One of the most interesting insights to emerge in the wake of post-digital branding is that it’s not enough to market a brand online, in a strictly virtual arena. In fact, if we can agree that a brand’s experience is defined by the collection of all its touchpoints, why would a marketer want to leave any potential connections “untouched”?

This seems like a no-brainer. Chalk it up to the theory of “rising expectations,” but in general, when we offer people something more, they don’t say, “okay, this works, so you can take that other thing away.” People always want more and more.  Just because consumers have embraced online shopping, doesn’t mean they’re ready to give up on the brick-and-mortar retailing experience. “Virtual” is cool and convenient, but nothing replaces “real.”

Increasingly, consumers tell us that they seek a tactile, 3-D encounter with their favorite brands. According to the Seamless Retail Study by Accenture, 49 percent of consumers believe that the best thing retailers can do to improve the shopping experience is to better integrate in-store, online and mobile shopping channels. Make pricing and product selection the same. Make the transfer seamless. And 89 percent of consumers said it is important for retailers to let them shop for products in the way that is most convenient for them, no matter which sales channel they choose.

The key insight here is that many shoppers are using the local retail presence to facilitate an online purchase. The research shows that 73 percent of respondents participate in “showrooming,” the practice of browsing in the store and then buying online. And 88 percent said they participated in “webrooming,” or browsing first on the internet and then buying in-store.

That’s why many bricks-and-mortar stores are fighting back against the likes of Amazon by leveraging their physical, local accessibility within the community.  Need it right now? Buy it online and we’ll have it ready for local pick up in our store in an hour. Need a different size than you found in our store? Let us help you find exactly what you want and we’ll ship it to you, no extra charge.

Brands win when they can engage all of the senses and create a space in which the face-to-face experience amplifies its inherent value. Apple stores are always popular because their Genius Bar offers real value – experts who listen, take notes and answer specific questions with live product demonstrations. Many new car dealers are hiring local high school students to help customers with their cars’ high-tech infotainment systems and telematics. And even Match.com, the quintessential online dating service, has started hosting “offline” events where singles can meet socially out in the real world.

Online shopping is here to stay. But smart retailers and OEMs are learning that physical experiences can crystalize emotional connections and position their brands as living, personally relevant consumer assets. We may feel relieved to quickly dispatch a purchase on Amazon. But we’ll remember the sales associate who found us a more flattering jacket, the barista who always remembers our favorite brew and the corner merchant who sets a bowl of water outside for passing pets. It’s not a big deal, but it’s real, it’s memorable and it leaves us with a smile.

Accenture Study Shows U.S. Consumers Want a Seamless Shopping Experience Across Store, Online and Mobile that Many Retailers are Struggling to Deliver