Buying “Cool” and how MTV died with TRL

Today in my consumer behavior class, I watched a documentary (Frontline’s Merchants of Cool) that I’d seen before, probably in Comm 101 and possibly again in Understanding Media Industries, I don’t remember. Half paying attention because I could have recited bits of it, I started thinking about what it all means. Hey, at least it was productive daydreaming.

Three things stuck with me:

First, buying cool means killing cool. In other words, once something from a so-called niche hits the big time, the trendsetters move on. Fast. Can we talk about hipsters? Yes, I know, you were hipster before hipster became hip, but what’s that all about? Why does it matter? I liked the All-American Rejects when their self-entitled album debuted in 2002. Why does that mean I shouldn’t have liked the earworm Gives You Hell six years later? Maybe it’s mental, but we all do it. We love to be on the cutting edge – and we hate it when our thing becomes everyone’s thing.

Take house music. Majority of the pseudo cool kids today love it. Those who jumped on the bandwagon first? They’re pissed. Because all of the sudden their thing is parading itself around Lollapalooza and being blasted at so-and-so’s frat party pregame. It’s not theirs anymore, it’s everyone’s.

It’s the same reason we get annoyed when “x” song plays on “y” radio station over, and over, and over again. Sure, We Are Young by Fun. was great the first 15 times we heard it, but by time 467? Not so much.

So what does that mean for brands, for marketers, for advertisers? It means you need to know your consumers inside and out, you need to be able to spot the trends before they reach the mainstream, and you need to spot the next trend while you ride the wave of the first.

There’s a reason consumer understanding is such a vital part of account planning and strategy – and why I find it all so interesting. Without that knowledge, how can advertisers hope to develop a meaningful connection with consumers?

Second, Sprite has done really well. What do you remember about Sprite from your childhood? What do you associate with the Sprite brand name? For me, I’m thinking about hip-hop music and the NBA. I think every brand should strive to create a connection as strongly as Sprite has with urban culture. The Coca-Cola spinoff has activated this relationship by sponsoring the NBA Slam Dunk contest, pairing up with MTV for the “Sprite Step Off” series, hosting parties featuring big name artists, and producing spots that feature artists and athletes at the top of their respective games.

While Sprite was used as an example in Merchants of Cool, I think Mountain Dew has done an equally terrific job at ingratiating itself in the culture of extreme sports. Not only do they sponsor the Dew Tour – but they activate using the tour outside the tour. Just glance at the Mountain Dew website – you’ll hardly be able to separate the soda from its cultural identity.

We ourselves don’t necessarily have to buy into the culture in order to consume the product, but we do hold the association. Sprite and Hip-Hop. Mountain Dew and Extreme Sports. We remember that; and maybe that’s what makes the difference.

Finally, MTV died with TRL. For at least an entire generation and much of my own generation’s childhood, MTV defined cool. It’s where the music video debuted in an age before Youtube, where people stopped being polite and started getting real, and where the non-manorexic Carson Daly had quite clearly the best job in the world.

When TRL ended, MTV should’ve changed its name, having replaced music with so-called “reality” programming almost entirely. Since TRL’s demise in 2008, what has MTV been known for? Snooki? Awful dating shows? Also-rans from previous hits like my favorite, Laguna Beach, now call MTV their permanent home.

The “M” in MTV is what made it what it was, a cultural magnate that was able to determine what would be “cool” for millions of American teenagers. The culture that surrounded the music was equally as important, but music was at the heart. Without it, we’re left with GTL and not much else.

So what now, if not MTV, defines “cool” for the largest and most marketed-to generation yet? 

In this age, with social media, globalism, and segmentation down to the smallest of characteristics, it’s possible that no single entity could be so culturally significant again. My takeaway is this: understanding your consumer is now more important than ever. Generalizations are harder to make, trends are harder to find and faster to fall, and for a generation who thinks its smarter than advertisers? We have to be that much better.

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Consumer Behavior: Learning From the Toddler Crowd

Brian Millar, strategy director at Sense Worldwide and co.Design contributor, spent a couple of years as a stay-at-home dad and learned a few things that proved valuable to his career as a creative strategist.

His insights are remarkably dead on. What that says about consumers, I’m not sure; but the 5 lessons he mentions can certainly go a long way in teaching consumer behavior.

1. Emotional benefits sell better than rational ones. 

Rational: “Eat your spinach, it’s good for you.”
Emotional: “Kids, tonight we’re having…pasta presents!” – also known as spinach ravioli.

2. Don’t ask your consumers whether they want something new. 

He cites two really smart guys in talking about how he got his kids to watch Laurel & Hardy in black and white, an impressive feat when they were used to watching the Tellytubbies.

Malcolm Gladwell in Blink (a book I highly recommend): “We’re programmed by evolution not to like unfamiliar stuff (me, especially). So if you ask people whether they’d like something completely different to what they already have, they say no.”

Steve Jobs – in a quote that was ironically talked about in my marketing class just this morning – acknowledges that he knew better. “He didn’t ask us whether we wanted to lose parallel ports, floppy drives, or DVD writers. He just stopped putting them on his machines, and gave us something better.”

Consumers don’t always know they want something until its put in front of them. Did you know you wanted an iPhone before those first commercials came out? It’s more likely that on June 4, 2007, you had no idea such a phone was even possible.

3. Bonuses are better than bribes. 

Sales promotions fall into 2 categories: bribes and bonuses.

Bribes: think vouchers, money-off deals, etc. When the bribes dry up, everybody moves on. Millar uses the example of airline-loyalty schemes: when you pay for people to like you, you shouldn’t be surprised when they demand more.

Bonuses: getting something extra for doing something you’d like to do anyway. Think 2-for-1, discounted upgrades, etc. Bonuses increase loyalty after the promotion ends, where bribes do not.

4. Move beyond functional equivalence. 

For toddlers, everything is a toy. The toy itself, the box it came in, pots and pans, or a pile of rocks – it hardly matters. As a toy maker, the goal is to make something that’s especially fun.

That’s what marketing really boils down to. All cars are basically functional nowadays, and a Rolex tells time as well as the $20 watch from Target. Price has to be justified with better design, luxury, and superior service.

5. Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.

It doesn’t matter how good your ad is, if the product is crap the product is crap. Telling his kids The Louvre would be better than Star Wars may have gotten them through the door, but skepticism quickly reared its head.

Lesson: “Don’t write checks in your communications that you can’t cash with your products and services.”


Back in Action

I haven’t posted in a while because I just got back to school; well actually, last Monday, but things have been crazy hectic and my final welcome week certainly did its job. Anyways, I’m back and hope to make blogging part of my schedule during the year. We’ll see how that goes.

So, getting back to it, I have a few things to talk about:

First – I think it officially means I’m a grown-up when I’m purchasing books that fall under the “textbook” category on the Barnes & Noble website for pleasure. Well, I guess we’ll call it that. My first “professional development” book purchase was Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet by James P. Othmer. It’s actually been a very entertaining read so far – so if you’re also into advertising I’d definitely give it a read!

Second – I got the best mailer, IMO in the history of mailers, from VCU’s Brandcenter a few weeks ago. People look at me cross-eyed when I tell them I want to go to VCU for grad school; but if you know anything about advertising, you’ve likely heard of the Brandcenter (formerly AdCenter) in Richmond. After talking to an account planning professional, I knew that VCU and Miami Ad School were the  programs I should be looking into, and this only cemented why.

I’m a sucker for packaging, design, creative messaging, and really anything memorable. Brandcenter’s Sixty definitely fits that description. Even if you aren’t thinking about VCU as a destination, it’s worth a look to really see where the future of advertising is getting its start. Essentially, it showcases student work and emphasizes just how closely the disciplines work together – art direction, copywriting, creative technology, creative brand management, and the program I’ll be applying to, communication strategy.

There’s some seriously awesome creative work in the magazine – a great deal of which I wouldn’t have been able to tell you was produced by students, and a pretty hilarious spread featuring the “Junior Art Director” meme.

You can request a copy of Sixty here. The magazine definitely proved to me why agencies love to hire out of the Brandcenter, and motivated me even further to learn about the work that’s being done at VCU and Miami Ad School.

I also think it’s pretty awesome that someone at VCU replied to me on Twitter, and I can’t wait to visit over fall break!

Finally – This article in Adweek is the story of my life, and my last piece of “if you love advertising, do x” advice for the day.

Behold the ad nerd, a new breed of ad professional who grew up admiring the industry as much for its ability to entertain as to sell. Long before Mad Men unleashed a new era of Madison Avenue retro cool, these millennials were being influenced by campaigns such as Budweiser’s “Wassup?” spots, which became a cultural phenomenon. As kindergarteners, they watched TV for the commercials. In high school, they joined newly formed ad clubs, and many studied advertising in college and graduate programs. They eat, breathe and tweet advertising, possessing the natural 24/7 Web habits of their generation. Addicted? Definitely.

To finally find something that you’re truly passionate about is the best feeling in the world – and to know that you’re working along side others who feel the same way is even better. So much of my time is about to be spent with graduate school applications and job hunting – which are tedious activities to be sure – but I’m so excited to embark upon a journey where I’ll (fingers crossed) join fellow “Ad Nerds” in shaping brands of the future.


Happy Friday: a Weekly Series of Time-Killers

In celebration of the end of the workweek, here’s a few links to get you (and me) through the day:

1. ‘The 25 Most Epic Ads Ever (That Aren’t Apple’s 1984)

2. The Spice Girls ARE reuniting at the closing ceremonies!

3. In honor of the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt’s “This is Sportscenter” spot.

4. McKayla is not impressed with Aly Raisman’s coverup.


AdLand Boozes with Chicago(ans): Day and Night

By day:

Ultimat Vodka paired with creative agency Amalgamated to offer office workers in Chicago and San Francisco a taste of the good life through some branded partying. The stunt, which has since garnered nearly 2 million YouTube views, had guys dressed in suits pose as window washers and ride up and down high-rise office towers holding signs that read “Have a drink on us” and “Cheers to less work and more play.”

By night:

Australian brewer Coopers, with ad agency kwp!, created a “Life After Dark” billboard – with the help of world-renowned Chicago-based street artist and illustrator Pose. The billboard, only visible at night, was done with luminous UV paint, so it appears blank during the day. Check out a few videos documenting the creation of Life After Dark here, here, and here.


Social Doesn’t Just Mean Media

Love him or hate him, Bill Clinton made a hell of a lot of sense speaking at the Cannes ad festival on June 21. His message was simple: Use your power to communicate to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

In looking at graduate advertising programs, and speaking to professors and students alike, Southern Methodist University’s Temerlin Advertising Institute stands out in this regard. Program director, Dr. Carrie LaFerle, made clear to me that one of the cornerstones of TAI’s program is social responsibility. She truly believes that “the new generation of advertising professionals believe it’s okay to succeed, but not at any cost.” The program instills in its students respect for the consumers they will serve and accountability for the culture they will help shape.

Clinton emphasized society’s need for honest, synthesized communication and Adland’s power to create just that. In a landscape that is increasingly global, enabled by technology, and overwhelmed with choices, communicators’ influence is greater than ever before. Focused messages, good or bad, reach consumers faster and permeate deeper. Advertisers have a responsibility to acknowledge the new socially and globally conscious consumer, and to use their unique tools as a force for social change.

Advertisers shift toward social media has served consumers and brands well – a similar shift toward social consciousness will undoubtedly do the same.

The more I think about it, the more I realize this is actually important to me – there’s too much negativity, too much lying, and too many messages that poison consumers’ thoughts, and too often in the case of women and adolescents, confidence. To be able to make a positive impact by doing something I love? What could be better?