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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A Brand New Obsession

Looks like Neil Boorman has reached brand saturation point over at the Beeb… As an experiment, his idea is interesting - if incredibly wasteful! Would it be possible to live a non-brand life in today’s Britain? The statement he is making also raises a few questions for anybody who works closely with brands. Is Neil’s disillusionment justified? And can we imagine a world without brands? Of course, there are now precious few corners of modern life left that aren’t now branded. We buy our food from supermarkets, in which even own-brands are, well, brands. Anybody not interested in designer clothes, is still likely to buy from a shop that is in itself a brand. If we want to drive, use a mobile phone or have a drink at the pub – brands again. Even Naomi Klein's anti-branding bible, No Logo, has turned into a brand. Just writing and posting this text, I’m interacting with many brands – Apple, Google and Mozilla being the most obvious. Lets remind ourselves how brands originally came into being. At its most basic, a brand is a mark given to something to distinguish its provenance – literally the cow branded in the field as a sign of ownership. This concept naturally extends to becoming a mark of quality. Even in a place without commercial branding, communist Russia say, we can imagine the flour from a certain region being better quality than that from another. So the mark of provenance on the superior flour becomes its brand and it becomes sought after. To this day brands continue to serve the useful function of helping us to make sense of the world by differentiating between similar but different things. In his disillusionment, Neil seems to be concentrating on the most modern (and vacuous) concept of brands. They may not make you “more attractive, more successful, more happy for buying their stuff” but they can help you to make sense of the world around you. The fact that Neil’s experiment to live without brands is newsworthy is in itself a sign of their significance. McDonalds, Monsanto, Google, Nike – all of these names conjure up feelings for us, they represent something, whatever our interpretations or feelings towards them, whether we buy into them or not. In the end, even Neil does start life afresh, free from any branded possessions, he will still be living in a branded world, in which we derive so much meaning and understanding from the brands that we share as part of our culture. In that sense, there’s no escape for Neil, despite the grand gesture.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

More on Digital and Not so Digital Natives

More on one of our favourites … Young People, the Net and the Real World - today's Guardian is reporting on a new Shanghai initiative of providing shelters for young Internet Addicts. Whilst first giving voice to people blaming all sorts of psychological ills on the Net, the article says it all in the end - surely the main issue here is a 'less than satisfactory' offline world which makes young people seek refuge in the virtual -rather than an inherent problem with the Internet… By the way … when I was in Shanghai last month I noticed these two girls on the Bund who had at least temporarily abandoned the Internet and found a big new loving friend in 3-D…

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mobile advertising: Intimacy and intrusion

It seems that mobile operators, after years of talk, are finally taking the idea of mobile advertising seriously. In the latest issue of Campaign magazine, Deborah Bonello talks to some of the advertisers (subscription required) who are hoping to take advantage of this trend and the potential for intimacy, targeting and tracking that the medium is able to offer. But just how intimate are consumers willing to get at this stage of the game? We’ve talked before about the close relationship that people have with their phones. It is this personal connection that offers the potential for powerful advertising reach. As Dusan Hamlin, the managing director at mobile marketing agency Inside explains "Mobile offers the ability to target an ad to the consumer by personal information such as age, sex, interest and location at any given time, plus the ability to bill for products and services." Watch out though for the “piss-off factor”. People tend to open and read all of their messages on their mobiles and they do not take too kindly to spam. Direct mobile advertising through SMS has been going on for some time now with less than ideal results. Our own research suggests that this kind of intrusive advertising is more likely to generate ill will towards its source than anything else. So will more accurate targeting brighten the public’s perceptions of mobile advertising? It certainly has some potential but something important is missing from this debate. In our own experience of the issue, consumers are worried about more than just the “piss-off factor.” As advertising becomes more closely targeted so it draws more upon personal information. There is a real risk of alienating consumers if they start to feel that advertisers are starting to snoop on their personal lives. When we talk to consumers there is a spectrum of acceptability on this issue. Targeting according to a customer submitted personal profile seems to be fine. Control remains in their hands. Targeting according to customer location receives a more wary reception. Is their location really something that the public wanted in the hands of marketers? When it comes to targeted advertising based on the content of text messages, people really begin to feel uncomfortable. Although there is some variation to how seriously people took the issue, there seems to be a general concensus that some information should be kept private and out of bounds for advertisers. Doubtful of any real benefit to themselves, many consumers are more concerned about their perceived loss of privacy. Of course, all the information needed to make use of these services is already available to mobile operators. But the thought of it being used for advertising really brings that fact home for the consumer. Any company wishing to play a part in mobile advertising should be mindful of this fact. If they don’t treat the issue of privacy with due sensitivity to consumer concerns then they risk losing their customers to a company that does.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Heroes No More

Sometimes things you see or read just seem to come together. First I read this comment, made by Bob Dylan back in 1991: " People today are still living off the table scraps of the '60s. They are still being passed around - the music, the ideas. Look at what's going on today: there used to be a time when the idea of heroes was important. People grew up sharing those myths and legends and ideals. Now they grow up sharing McDonalds and Disneyland." The next day, I saw this grafitti near to our office at Goodge Street - the anonymous message seeming to me to be a positive affirmation of Dylan's lament. Dylan was never comfortable with his fame. Neither can he have expected it – the kind of worldwide stardom that he achieved only really began in the 60s. The proliferation of visual images, the popularisation of music, an increasingly specialised and widely distributed media and the solidification of youth culture all saw to this. In his own words: "It wasn't me who called myself a legend. It was thrown at me by editors in the media who wanted to play around with me or have something new to tell their readers. … What's important isn't the legend, but the art, the work." In an international youth study last year, we asked young people directly about their heroes. Considering this was international study, it was surprising how often David Beckham came up. The common reason why he was considered a hero? He rose to fame on the back of his sporting ability so you may expect this to have something to do with it. But it was actually the fame itself that was admired. That along with the money and good looks (apparently). Of course, we all know about the cult of the celebrity. Shows like Big Brother and the X-Factor go to show how fame, in many cases, has become disattached from anything more than just being in the public eye. But perhaps the fact that Bob is famous for and admired for more than just his lifestyle should give us some cause for hope. Bob may have been mythologised by the marketing machine and he may resent this fact. But new generations do continue to return to his work for inspiration. Although the legend that has become Bob Dylan may have become greater than the man himself, the meaning that it has taken on, and now represents, still offers some balance to superficial celebrity that has become the longing of much of today's youth.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The US 'Cellphone' - Commodity rather than Lifeline

Reading Nick's post on the Carphone Warehouse UK mobile usage survey got me thinking about the very different and strangely barren mobile landscape in the USA… Despite Americans' techno-friendliness and ease with technology the US (and to an extent Canada) were latecomers to 'cellphones' and today seem to be the only developed countries in the world which haven't developed a deep, multi-dimensional relationship with them. Yes, to some extent 'cells' are techno-hubs there too, but in a much diminished way. At Thinktank we have researched the mobile phone market around the globe quite extensively; the US always stands out. North Americans, even if young and techy and into gadgets, struggle to come up with more than two mobile phone brands. When asked what phone they have they’ll probably mention their carrier/network rather than the mobile phone manufacturer. For many US consumers the mobile phone is what the provider makes it. And it is true that that's rather less than in Europe or Asia. In group discussions with young Americans I've often heard that you can never really ‘own’ a mobile phone in the States. Strictly speaking, this isn't true any more - mobiles did indeed become 'portable' in 2003. However, since this happened rather late in the day it has not been anchored in consumers' heads. As a consequence they feel that mobile phones only work as communication devices for as long as the contract with the operator lasts. After that point they consider the phone useless, the device dead…you can’t use it ever again, you can’t do anything with it. There is no sim card slot in CDMA phones, the technical standard which dominateed the US market for a long time and still persists alongside GSM today. Again this has led to perceptions that the ‘sim card’ (the heart) belongs to the operator and that everything you save into the phone disappears as soon as you change provider. Manufacturer brands have much more limited visibility - although Motorola has been making more of an impact lately - than they do elsewhere. The carriers are holding the keys to the communication but also the relationship with the sector. And much of US carrier marketing seems stuck in price promotions and communication about tariffs vs aiming to forge brand relationships. As a consequence the functional/rational rules and US mobile phones have lost much of the power as fashion accessories, status symbols, displays of tech-savviness that they hold in other markets. In fact, mobiles - compared to other gadgets like iPods and Blackberries - can be considered a bit passé. 'Aren't cellphone a bit 90s?' as one group respondent was asking recently. At the same time mobiles, whilst still considered very useful, are far less pivotal in people's lives. The mobile phone there is more disposable than essential, is more replaceable commodity than a uniquely important piece of kit, merely a tool with a short expiry date but not 'your lifeline'. And as such I would guess a lesser commercial opportunity - even for US operators themselves.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Survey on Food Ethics

Though we don't do quant around here, have a look how the figures coming out of a new BMRB survey on UK consumer attitudes to 'ethical' shopping have been reported. Interesting that the Observer only focuses on those who DON'T care about consumer ethics - 'most Britons do not care where the food and vegetables they buy come from' - when there's surely a the flipside to the 61% who don't, ie a not unconsiderable 39% who do. And isn't a figure of almost half of the UK population who think that Britain should import less food to limit environmental damage even if this leads to less variety and higher prices astonishingly high and more interesting to focus on than the 52% who reject this idea? Especially considering that worrying about food ethics is a bit of a luxury and that we can assume that at least some in the 'don't care' camp may have other concerns like making ends meet! In the business section of the paper is an article on supermarkets starting to roll out box schemes, so far the preserve of independents, surely another sign that food ethics have made enough of a breakthrough to make business sense. As far as reporting on the survey is concerned, it just goes to show again how quant figures need interpreting and can be used for any agenda rather than being the 'objective truth' for which they seem to be sometimes mistaken...

Real world still influences young people!!!

An LA Times/Bloomberg poll of 1650 12-24 year olds from across the US (weighted to national census figures in terms of age, ethnicity, gender, region, urban/rural residency & Internet access) lends some support to our own research (see the "THOUGHTS" section of our website for a complete version) into the, as yet still rather limited, influence of blogs. Amongst other interesting stats in the report: "Only 10% of teens and 11% of young adults said blogs or other websites were their best source. Teens and young adults said they most frequently kept up by talking with friends and family and watching local TV news." A follow-up article appeared in the August issue of Research magazine a month after our own, with a headline claiming that "last month's feature on blogs took a rather pessimistic view of the technology". Were we being pessimistic? We don't think so. For a start, the article was reporting what we found when we talked to actual consumers about their feelings towards blogs. If we sounded underwhelmed by their current influence, then this is a reflection of the public's views as we found them. Secondly, do we see any value in blogs? Of course we do, otherwise we wouldn't have started our own! In fact, much of the rest of the article was focussed on how new voices are joining the blogosphere, voices that may make it more appealing to consumers, including those of businesses. And on how the blogosphere was a route that offered many benefits for businesses themselves, especially making connections with people who mattered to them. We are just calling for a sense of perspective. New forms of social media are emerging that are changing some of the ways in which people communicate. What's more, they are observable and measurable by businesses wishing to reach an audience. There will be important consequences for media organisations, marketing agencies and advertisers. But life carries on in the real world and, as Sabine explained in more depth earlier, that is still where most views and opinions are formed - from the details and interactions of everyday life. Let's not forget that amidst all of the hype.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Goldrush 2.0 and the Real World

Here's a bit of a rant... Is it just me or does the current buzz around web 2.0 remind anyone else of the 90s New Economy goldrush… remember when the normal rules of business/life wouldn't apply any more - eg projected customer numbers supposedly over-riding balance sheets?? The hype around blogs, search marketing blah shares the same sense of breathless excitement and throw-out-the-rule-book-ism that lost people money last time… Still,I don't want to sound like the oldest swinger on the blog (ha!): of course some of these phenomena like online communities lead and have led to important changes. As Nick was pointing out the other day, on-line WOM is likely to have an impact on brands through its permanence and wide reach. There clearly is also something going on about democratisation - both in terms of opinions (eg about brands) but also in terms of content -and marketers and 'brand owners' will need to take note. However, what takes me back to the late 90s is how the rise of the new always seems to bring about nonsense and charletanerie (is that a word?), at times meekly nodded to by old client and planner hands who really should know better. Take 3 current hot topics/buzzwords - democratisation, social networks, 'digital natives'. All interesting no doubt but all written about in terms of truisms or insights which, upon closer inspection, are just plain wrong. Democratisation. Consumers, so we are told, have changed. Not the passive receptors of brand messages of old 'any more' but 'now' participating in creating brands. Sorry but anyone with a brain before 2.0 realised some time ago that brands don't belong to the people who market products but are created in conjunction with the consumers who accept or reject them. The Net allows new forms of participation (and the jury's still out on how important they are/will be) but it does not change the principle, which just ain't new! Social Networks. Look at this amazing chart which was recommended by one of the planning bloggers. Maybe I'm a bit dense but is it saying that people are organised in communities which are linked to other communities by a common, if possibly tangential interest? I'm no sociologist but shouldn't there be tools through social network theory which explain things in just a bit more detail?? Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants. When these two groups are being compared you could be forgiven for getting the impression that young people live their lives only in a two-dimensional digital capacity and actually don't have a three dimensional off-line existence too… Take this week's Campaign where Paul Frampton from Media Contacts reasons that search marketing has influenced consumers in such a way that 'Most consumers would not consider a purchase without researching it online'. OK, let's assume he meant 'most consumers in the UK', or, to be kind, "most consumer in the UK under the age of 25'. No, still doesn't work. Who googles food, drink, toiletries, or most fmcg products? And even for those products that you DO research online - how important and powerful are online vs offline influencers? (Nick touches on this in his piece on WOM) And possibly, most importantly, how does a more left brain activitiy like 'searching' stand up to all the right brain offline impressions you take in about a brand in a 3-dimensional world? So in summary, a caveat to Mr Client/Emptor…there are interesting new developments but they are interacting with, not over-riding human nature and reality as we know them - even though there are vested interests in making you believe otherwise!

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Observable WOM

John Tylee reports in last week's Campaign (subscription required) on a speech given by Peter Friedman, CEO of LiveWorld, an online customer community and social networking agency. Friedman suggests looking to the past and considering how brands found fame before advertising really took off: Through word of mouth. The Internet, specifically online communities, is now allowing that to happen again. Advertisers beware he warns – the rules of the game are changing. Of course word of mouth has always been the most effective form of marketing and satisfied customers have always been the best advertisement. What the Internet is now doing is boosting the reach and longevity of consumer opinions. To paraphrase Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, authors of business-blogging book Naked Conversations, what we are now witnessing is “word of mouth on steroids”. But is a recommendation from an unknown blogger online really as effective as one coming from an offline acquaintance? Is word of mouth online really the same as word of mouth offline? All our work with consumers around the world indicates that they would still rather follow a recommendation from an offline acquaintance than the opinion of somebody they've read on a website. Of course, on the other hand, opinions recorded on blogs or sites like Amazon have a global reach. Unlike offline conversations, which continue their existence only in the minds of those directly involved, online conversations can theoretically exist forever. All anybody needs to find them is a search engine and a few relevant terms. It is this that makes online word of mouth so powerful. It is far-reaching and it has permanence. It is this feature of online conversations that is getting brands to notice - they are observable and measurable. As more consumers switch to search engines and the internet as a source of information, they are likely to hear what has been said, good or bad. But I suspect the jury's still out as to the exact future role of online WOM - how far is the democratisation of the business/net world really going to go? What will be the role of online pundits vs communities and how are either of them going to interact with offline word-of-mouth? Can anyone really know at this stage?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sleep & Culture

Could you imagine introducing yourself by saying ‘ Hi, I am so and so and sleeping is one of my favourite pasttimes’? Or what would you think of your local shop owner if you caught him taking a nap the next time you walked in to buy your morning paper? Or a colleague who fell asleep at his desk at lunchtime? Of course, we all need sleep to survive. But based on my own unofficial mini-survey amongst my friends we in our Western cultures seem to take a dim view of people who like to sleep a lot - 'lazy','dull, 'boring' were the key associations my friends came up with. Well, this is not how Asians, in particular the Chinese, would view sleep at all. In fact, people in Chinese groups, however cool, trendy or serious-minded and ambitious don't hesitate to list sleep as a hobby. And looking around in China it's clear that Chinese workers wouldn't be mortified if they were caught having a nap in public during the working day. In the preface to the book “Night-time and Sleep in Asia and the West’ by Nicholas Lacarra Mazza, Brigitte Steger suggests ‘practices concerning sleeping (…) can widely differ between cultures and societies' So different cultures attach different values to sleep which then impact on people’s attitude towards it and determine people’s public behaviour with respect to it. In fact, as the same study discovers, the Chinese, tend to be more tolerant to sleeping in public or to day-time sleepers than people in contemporary Western cultures. Possibly this is partially due to longer and less structured working hours and more time spent outside the home where people will simply get caught out by tiredness at some point. However, whatever the reasons, the lesson for us as international researchers is surely the importance of cultural context even when we're examining behaviour which is, on another level, universal. I do not mean to say that our most basic human drives and emotions do not unite people around the world on certain levels. Clearly, international marketing has to and can work with these. However, if even such a biologically driven, seemingly banal phenomenon as sleep is filled with cultural meaning, international researchers really need constantly to interrogate where commonalites end and where cultural differences may start to make a real impact on consumer behaviour or response. A fuller version of this article appears on our website.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Online "facts" & "opinions"

Some further illustration of our cautious approach towards mining online facts and opinion (see our article 'Is Anybody Out There Listening?' in July's Research magazine for more details - subscription required) for research purposes today. First, on opinions, from BusinessWeek - news that bloggers are now being offered cash rewards to favourably mention products on their blogs. Product placement on blogs is just another barrier to effective online research and raises the question - how you can ever be sure who's doing the talking when you're reading online opinions? Second, on facts, from American satirist Stephen Colbert - a brilliant take on Wikipedia (via YouTube). The wisdom of crowds? Wikipedia may be an excellent online resource for some starting info - but always make sure you double-check those "facts" (thanks to Michael Calore at Wired mag for pointing me in the direction of this one)

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Neuromarketing - Scam or Threat?

I thought I'd do an overview on this 'phenomenon' since everyone seems to be talking about it - for our own 'education' Have a look at the Fallon (US I presume) Planners' Blog on the topic. (The ads they're talking about are American so it's a bit difficult to understand all the detail but still very interesting). Anyway, the planners are having a lot of fun rubbishing brain-scanning as adding anything to our understanding of how ads work. They may be right about this but I'm not sure we can or should dismiss these methods - quite - as easily dismissed. By the way, we're talking of updated techniques - mainly they're using something called fMRI which shows which parts of the brain are active when an ad is being 'processed'. I was especially interested in the finding that the Dove campaign (presume it's the same 'real women' one we have in Europe) is endorsed by women when they post-rationalise their response but actually makes no impact on an emotional level on a brain scan. I haven't done groups on this but I would have expected this head vs heart dichotomy in response to the campaign - based on my knowledge of people/women - it's at least interesting that 'science' seems to confirm this. Also, I gather from the posts that the scans could raise the ugly old question as to whether some really irritating, 'poor' ads may not actually be rather effective on consumers… Having said that, there are quite a lot of queries around neuroscience in marketing - and advertising research - some of which are touched upon by Fallon. For me the key question is - what is anyone on a day-to-day basis going to do with brain scans on finished ads? Post-analysis is all well and good but clearly the challenge is to help develop effective advertising not to assess it after the event, ie after money has been spent. And I'm not sure what brain scans during exposure to unfinished ads (vs the finished Superbowl ones) would tell us about their potential. The scans would still need interpretation and projection into the future by an ad literate researcher, so would they be worth the costly technology? Could scans be a back-up for us or would they just confirm what we'd know anyway and could elicit by researchers' common sense, interpretation and careful questioning - ie by the use of projectives? Is it all just a waste of money? Since I've started writing this I've read a bit more around the subject and looking at some of the 'classic' examples (re-hashed again and again) mainly in the US media I'm unconvinced that the method is adding much in terms of insights - as yet. Just have a look at this article. So, the old non-blind Coke vs Pepsi preference is due to branding. Wow. Sports cars are linked to sex in men's brains - their reward centres light up when they see a sports car but not when they look at an estate. Well I never. What's really amazing here - as has been observed by others is that neuromarketers get press coverage and sell their wares on the back of such shocking banalities and that there are calls to stop their 'unethical' methods which are feared will lead to manipulative marketers pressing the 'buy' button on helpless consumers. If only life were so easy! But on to why we should take this seriously: One of the main reasons for neuroscience raising its head in market research is scientific confirmation of the idea that people tend to post-rationalise their behaviour - but didn't we always know that anyway? Which qual researcher worth her salt takes consumer response always as read? Is the issue here about measurability and replicability and clients' mistrust of 'mere' informed qual expertise? Chris Forrest from The Nursery explores this in depth in an MRS paper International Journal of Market Research - Article Viewer (subscription) and comes to the conclusion that clients' need for certainty - ideally underpinned by numbers - is likely to be satisfied by some of the (more or less pseudo-)neuroscientific insights and that we should take this threat to our more 'humanistic' approach to marketing/research quite seriously. I agree with him that we need to work on some methods ('neuroscience lite' he calls it, like it!) or at least on some answers to challenges to our profession which query its very premise - ie our ability to ask and consumers being able to answer questions about their motivations. As always, Wendy Gordon in the International Journal of Market Research (subscription only) is interesting on this and suggests that we work with the insights coming out of neuroscience - she recommends 'bricolage' (though can't remember whether she uses the actual word), ie a mix of different methods - including observation and desk research - as we can't completely trust any method to deliver the 'truth', so our safest bet is to tackle a research brief from different methodological angles. I completely agree but fear that a healthy mistrust of the concept of 'one truth' goes against the grain of current corporate climates . The supposed certainty of the neuromarketers accommodates pressures on clients to PROVE numerically the effectiveness of their marketing activities - even if it may be less insightful or useful than what Chris Forester calls 'humanistic' approaches. As a professor of advertising told the New York Times magazine 'A lot of it is garbage, but it's powerful garbage'...