Friday, August 27, 2010

Is Vintage the New Vintage?

Some of my favorite quotes of all time have originated from Carl Carlson, the under-rated social narcissist on the simpsons:

"I am so sick of Oldies Stations-- hey geniuses, how 'bout some NEW oldies?!" --Carl Carlson, The Simpsons

Carl: I don't get it. What's so "great" about this depression?
Lenny: I like how everything is sepia tone. Makes me all nostalgic.

It isn't surprising that a vast amount of advertising last year focused around value. Major brands were forced into price wars; most prominent in low-switching cost industries such as CPG or restaurants. With the media continually bombarding us with messages of high unemployment, high national debt and foreclosures, it was almost a no-brainer that people tightened their purse-strings to save a dollar or two. An induced effect of this bombardment is a consumer behaviour phenomenon called cocooning/anchoring. It suggests that as the prospect of a prosperous future is uncertain to bleak, consumers inherently fall back on brands they know and trust. This makes for a powerful basis for marketing communications. So welcome to the hallmark trend of advertising in 2010; Vintage/Nostalgia.

Maximidia Seminars: Vintage Youtube

Maximidia Seminars: Vintage Skype

Maximidia Seminars: Vintage Facebook

A perfect example of this nostalgia (albeit for new brands) from Moma Sao Paulo (I love how some of the most unique work come from South America)

Everywhere we go today there's bound to be some use of nostalgia marketing, whether it be billboards, clothing designs or store buildouts. When tastefully done, it can actually be quite effective. Coca Cola for example has always been excellent at this balancing act of new versus old. In comparison, Pepsi has taken the opportunity to fully re-invent themselves recently; a risky proposition when consumers are secretly seeking stability and familiarity. It seems to be effective though; I bought this box of Raisin Bran two months ago just because I liked the design of it. I don't even like the cereal.

The only thing riskier than completely re-inventing yourself is pretending to be old and authentic. Heritage is one of the most powerful tools for nostalgia marketing; and many companies and brands are quickly writing or grossly over-rating their ability to be vintage. Consumer backlash is bound to ensue.

Super Soaker: Creek

I remember growing up with Super Soakers, but this ad means nothing to me. Do marketers really expect me to relate to an oil on canvas recreation loosely related to the American Civil War? Personally I think it's offensive to classical art of that time and earlier to represent it in such a way. And since my generation is likely the last to even know where a museum is located, I can't imagine that this is relating to current consumers of Super Soakers either.

Dunkin Donuts logo

Here's another example of misguiding consumers to a "vintage feel". Timothy's was founded in 1975; although the typography is more reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s. The colours used in the typeface are also strikingly close to Dunkin' Donuts. Dunkin' Donuts has however been around since the 1950s.

The last risk of vintage marketing is the associations to cultural stigmas such as the sexist attitudes towards women that was prevalent during the mid 20th century. The above advertisement by BIC (founded around 1945) recently sent much of the social media world aflame. However, even more offensive than long legs with a revealing short dress are the odd new commercials by Mr. Sub; essentially dubbing over old B/W instructional videos:

When I first saw this commercial broad casted live my draw dropped in utter disbelief, climaxing when the secretary is awarded the role of: Vice President of Lunch Selection. To elaborate, the video's title is dubbed "subcretary". I presume it was meant in a humorous tone, but I feel it failed in a galactic fashion. If you disagree let me know in the comments.

This entire trend has been wrongly associated with the wild popularity of HBO's Mad Men; a drama revolving around a (fictional) 1960s Madison Avenue advertising agency. This only aids in re-enforcing the interesting moral fibers of the time, including drinking/sleeping at work, disrespecting women and the "safety" of cigarettes. It stands as a relatively accurate representation of the era, although as is usually the case, consumers take it too literally. This is especially true when marcom is utilizing nostalgia as portrayed in the television show.

As it always does, general trust in advertising is based on two components; responsible and ethical companies and educated consumers. On the latter, consumers must make their own judgement as to what is appropriate and inappropriate. Ads reflecting on cultures and standards of decades past does not make them instantly acceptable and forgivable. For example, imagine if the Mr. Sub commercial was shot in a 21st century style with real actors' dialog. It's not so funny anymore, although it shouldn't have been the first time.

Companies also need to be responsible in line with cultural beliefs of the time, and be honest to their true heritage. In other words; be socially conscious and don't elude to a long history which does not exist. The Journal of Brand Management described it best:

"The key value that has moved to the front and centre of brand image in this time of uncertainty is authenticity, consumers seek the comfort of the real, something they can trust and count on. Authenticity has two meanings: the original and the substantive, things that are honest and are what they say they are." - Ronnie Ballantyne, Anne Warren, Karinna Nobbs. Journal of Brand Management. London: Apr-Jun 2006. Vol. 13, Iss. 4/5; pg. 339

Vintage can however be applied as a style. There's nothing wrong with producing items that reflect that style, as seen in the Fossil store:

Personally I'm not crazy about the whole vintage style. Isn't it about time we get some new vintage?

Apple's Biggest Branding Mistake

By the looks of the malls these days, it is hard to believe that we're still in the midst of recovering from a global recession.

This was the view of Yorkdale Mall today, which as I mentioned in my last posting has become the environment for some of the most interesting consumer behaviour I have ever witnessed. Here's some evidence of this strange phenomenon:

So why is this line-up of willing iPhone 4 buyers an immense branding mistake? The first problem is the control of their brand. I would suggest that Apple has lost control of what it truly means.

Apple is one of the few technology companies that has transitioned from a supplier of cool gadgets to status items. Not to stir up any controversy, but the new iPhone 4 isn't the most technologically advanced phone on the market (although Apple may want you to think differently). It's this status allure that has fueled international demand for the product, which has led to the sub-culture of grey-market distributors.

And where are all these iPhones going? From what I know personally; South America, East Europe and Southeast Asia. These are all markets which currently do not sell iPhone 4s (with the exception of Hong Kong). The grey market phones are trodden around by the wealthy and privileged; making a nice profit for importers and exporters alike.

So where does that leave Apple? In a position very similar to a luxury apparel brand. Their new product releases are scheduled like clockwork; slightly offset from Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter releases. Everything about the device is "beautiful", but not necessarily advanced. It would also appear that design is favored over functionality in Cupertino; haute couture anyone?

But why is this a problem? The profits in the electronics business is no longer in hardware; but media. iTunes's return on investment is miles ahead of the 100% direct cost margin on most hardware. Apple would be lucky to break even on their hardware when it comes to all the indirect retailing costs associated with a direct retailer. Selling music, magazines, books, applications and anything else software-based has been the sustainable source of revenue and profit for Apple since it launched iTunes.

Apple used to be the cool "Mac" guy. They used to be the counter-electronics culture; focusing on being different and unique, and definitely niche. And as they fail to reach this consumer and are by-passed by distributors who they allow to line up hours before the store even opens; they're alienating their most profitable customers.

It would appear that as time goes on, people aren't thinking as differently when it comes to Apple.

The second brand failure is leveraging the line-up. For those companies who are fortunate (and smart) enough to justify people lining up, it's baffling why they don't make better use of those whom are brand disciples or could potentially be one.

Line-goers typically left to their own device will entertain themselves only for as long as their iPad's battery will last. Apart from books, sleeping and arguing over what's the best feature of the new iPhone, there really isn't much to do for 10 hours while in line (from my experience). And yet marketers tremble at the notion of soaring TV commercial prices with ever decreasing audiences. Does anyone else see a gap here?

Why don't companies like Apple entertain these bored yet fanatic consumers while in line? Why does it even have to be considered a line? Why can't it be an experience? I can imagine there being free concerts (broadcasted to TV monitors around the world outside of stores), food, giveaways, webcams between cities and live discussion? If well-executed you could probably sell tickets. This is how Apple can start to shift its brand perception back to being cool and niche to sell profitable media in the long-run as opposed to fashion in the short-run.

But then again, the way people were lining up today for the launch of Victoria Secret today, you'd think everyone was walking around in the nude. They even needed bouncers at the front doors.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Apple's Biggest Branding Mistake - Preface

I feel that it's appropriate that this blog posting is actually being written from the Apple Store line-up at 4am in the morning. The last three weeks have proven to be one of the most interesting consumer behavior experiences I have ever witnessed.

On July 30th Apple released their highly anticipated iPhone 4. The first person in line that day arrived at 9pm the night before. I arrived around midnight; a full 10 hours before anything would be sold; the line was already about 60 people strong. The crowd is a real mix characters, but all fit within three very distinct categories:

1. Die-hard fans: these are the people who actually use the stickers that come with iPods. They will have numerous Apple devices, defend his Majesty Jobs to the bitter end, and who's emergency contact is their local store manager. They're easily spotted listening to iPhone 3Gs and reading Winnie the Pooh and 1984 on their iPads.

A little background: this is where things get interesting. For those unfamiliar with the iPhone 4, they are currently available in numerous countries, however very few are fully unlocked, making Canadian iPhones very valuable to countries where they are not yet sold or are sold unlocked. To avoid dealers, the Apple Store limits purchases to 2 per customer. This has necessitated a breed of placeholders.

2. Placeholders: people paid to stand in line to fill quotas of iPhones for international grey markets.

3. Cash Men: these are the ringleaders of the operation when it comes to placeholders. Typically there are 2-3 of these per store. They each manage a varying number of placeholders; 4 up to 10. They're easily spotted nervously pacing around on their cell phones carrying messenger bags full of at least $10,000-$20,000 in cash in neatly folded piles.

Alongside these groups there is always one leader, usually a cash man who controls The List. It adds order to the line, recording who arrives and in what order. When you aggregate the market situations such as super-low supply, high international demand and a lots of globally-sourced cash, Apple has inadvertently created a new society.

This new "line society" has its own currency (ticket reservation stubs), its own market (the line itself), a leader (the line master), a god (Apple itself), a purpose (to attain iPhones) and inherent laws. The creation of this society was a completely unexpected and is uncontrolled. It will also prove to be Apple's greatest branding mistake of all.