Singles Day: the world’s largest online shopping phenomenon

Happy Singles Day!

Black Friday isn’t here for another couple of weeks yet, but did you know today is actually the largest online shopping day in the world?  And by quite some distance.

It is hard to overstate the scale of the Singles Day phenomenon in China.  Between 2009 and 2013, sales rose by 5,740%.

Last year, Singles Day sales totalled $14.3bn (£9.4bn), making it bigger than Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined.

Early sales figures suggest that 2016 sales are likely to dwarf even those previous records, with sales of $5bn in the first hour of trading alone.

As is seemingly the case with most world-changing business ideas these days, the concept of Singles’ Day was developed by a group of smart young students on a university campus.

In 1993, students at China’s Nanjing university created Singles Day as a way to celebrate their singledom, by organising events and buying presents for themselves. The 11th November was chosen because the date 11/11 represents four single people, or ‘bare branches’ as they are also referred to in China.

The event soon caught on with other university campuses around the country, but Singles Day really took off in 2009, when online retail giant Alibaba began marketing ‘Double 11’ deals to mark the occasion.  Huge price markdowns and low shipping rates created a massive sales surge, and the event has grown in scale and popularity every year since.

Singles Day isn’t just a retail phenomenon, it’s a multi-sensory, participatory, all-singing all-dancing entertainment extravaganza.  The highlight of Singles Day 2015 was a 4-hour TV variety show, during which viewers were periodically prompted to shake their phone to win sale vouchers that were redeemable via a mobile shopping app, and play along with online games offering real life prizes.

And it wasn’t just any old TV variety show.  Alongside a number of Chinese celebrities some worldwide superstars appeared, including Adam Lambert performing his new single, Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood, and Daniel Craig as James Bond.

(Not that Daniel Craig looked entirely happy to be there, in truth.  As John Oliver commented on Last Week Tonight, “I’ve never seen James Bond look so awkward and sad.  And most of his girlfriends have died in front of him”.

The fans absolutely loved it though.  Seats in the studio audience were changing hands for up to $785, and competitions such as the opportunity to buy a Cadillac for 15 cents kept TV viewers glued to their seats until midnight, when the starter’s pistol fired on the largest shopping spree ever seen.  It took just 8 minutes to register $1bn in sales.

This year’s extravaganza is equally star-studded, with appearances from the likes of David Beckham and Kobe Bryant entertaining the crowds.

The amazing success of Singles Day can be attributed to a combination of factors, including:

the rapid growth in China’s middle class, with its increased spending power and attendant rise in consumerism;

– China’s gender imbalance (driven by the One Child Policy leading many families to favour male children), creating a large group of single young men with high disposable income;

– An increase in online shopping due to greater internet access and device ownership.

Mobile shopping is a major feature of Singles Day.  According to Alibaba, which holds the majority share of China’s online shopping market, 72% of total ‘Double 11’ transactions in 2015 were from mobile devices, up from 43% in 2014.

Initial reports indicate that over 80% of this year’s sales will come from mobile devices.

The high proportion of mobile sales is no great surprise when you consider the youthful audience of China’s single population, combined with the immediacy of the timed offers Alibaba has made such a feature of its ‘Double 11’ marketing programme.

Singles Day may currently be the biggest online shopping day nobody’s ever heard of, but that’s surely going to change as Alibaba becomes better known around the world and the sales figures involved generate increasing global interest.

As Tmall’s then-CEO Wang Yulei said in 2014, “future Singles Days will definitely not just be for consumers in a particular region, Singles Day will be for the whole world.”

That prediction hasn’t proved true just yet, but being young, single and comfortable shopping online are not uniquely Chinese traits, so the concept will undoubtedly spread as retailers across the world look to replicate Alibaba’s success.

 

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What absolutely everyone can learn from Leicester City

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Leicester City have won the Premier League.

5,000/1 outsiders; King Claudio’s dilly-ding, dilly-dong; Gary Lineker in his undies; it’s the feel-good sporting story of the year (or decade, or century, or possibly ever, depending on how excitable you are and how short a memory you’ve got).

Jamie Vardy’s having a party, and so are the assorted ranks of hacks and bloggers who are now clambering aboard the Leicester clickbait bandwagon.

Because this isn’t just about football.  Oh no.  There is so much more we can learn from the ‘Leicester fairytale’ (© all newspapers) about all aspects of business, relationships and life in general.

So to save you trawling the internet in search of these pearls of wisdom, here’s my handy A-Z compendium of everything you can learn from Leicester City’s Premier League win:

Art of the Turnaround

Banking Pay

Being Yourself

Business

Church Unity

Cycling

Education (a personal favourite, this)

Hacking

Investing

Leadership

Life Lessons

Management

Management again

Marketing

Meritocracy

Motivation

Parenting

PR

Recruitment

Retail

Small Business

Success

Success again

Teamwork & Togetherness

Wealth Creation

Will to Win

Zero

If you spot any other Leicester-related gems, please add a link via the comments section.

An open letter to Nicky Morgan

Dear Nicky Morgan,

I’m writing to let you know that my kids won’t be at school today.

They’re not sick.

I am though.

Sick of you not listening to the many concerned parents, teachers and education specialists who are very worried about the changes you are making to our education system.  Changes which seem to me more about controlling teachers and turning schools into exam factories than they are about producing bright, happy, well-educated children.

You may think my wife and I are bad parents for keeping our kids off school, given your view that ‘keeping children home – even for a day – is harmful to their education’.

So I’d like to reassure you on two fronts.

Firstly, my children won’t actually be at home today, they’ll be out learning interesting and exciting new things.  They’re actually going on an educational trip to Jodrell Bank Observatory to learn more about space.  My five year-old son loves everything to do with space.  He’s going to wear his astronaut’s outfit, just like Major Tim.  (I do hope having a bit of fun doesn’t hamper his learning).

Secondly, I’d like to reassure you that I’m right behind your campaign to use public buildings other than primary schools for local elections and the EU referendum.  You’re absolutely right when you say we shouldn’t allow the voting process to close primary schools for days at a time, doing untold harm to our children’s education in the process.

Admittedly I haven’t actually heard you say this but I’m sure you must have, right?  Let me know if you need me to write to David Cameron or sign a petition on your behalf.  There’s obviously a media blackout on this important message, so I’d like you to know I’m here to help whenever you need me.

Because I care about my children’s education, Ms Morgan.  More than you will ever know.

I want my children to grow up to be bright, articulate, intellectually curious adults with the skills, capacity and desire to think for themselves and solve whatever problems life may throw at them.

I just don’t believe that teaching 5 and 6 year-olds to spot a split digraph or transitive verb at twenty paces but not worrying whether they enjoy, or even understand, the story they’re reading is in the long term best interests of our children’s education.

Trust me; I will push them when they need pushing, as all children occasionally do.  I will expect their teachers to do the same.

I am also in favour of testing children.

Teachers must know the capabilities of the children in their care so they can manage lessons accordingly.  But the SATs are so hard that teachers can’t modify their lessons according to the needs of individual children.

They’re too busy ploughing through the curriculum at an unprecedented pace, forcing children to work harder and faster, moving onto the next topic before they’ve had chance to consolidate the learning from the last one.

Teachers are getting stressed, and more importantly young children are getting stressed.  How can it be helpful to raising education standards to have bright 6 year-olds feeling so stupid and worthless that they ask their parents to take them back to the baby shop, as one concerned mother reported recently?

It’s heartbreaking.  And it simply isn’t right.

So it’s time to say enough is enough.

Teachers are education experts.  Please Ms Morgan, let them get on with the job they love and perform every day with care, devotion and absolute professionalism.

The message from me and thousands of other concerned parents up and down the country is very clear:

Let teachers teach.

Let kids be kids.

 

Yours sincerely,

A concerned parent

The cycle of England sporting underachievement

And so, as England go crashing out of another major sporting event before it’s even properly got going, a familiar gloom hangs over the country.

This one’s particularly bad, of course, because we’re the tournament hosts and we can’t just sulk and take our ball back and tell everyone else to go home.  But the pattern’s the same.  Always the bloody same.

Whether it’s rugby, or football, or cricket, whenever there’s a major tournament England fans will go through the same rollercoaster of emotion.

Here, then, are the five emotions that make up the all-too-familiar cycle of England sporting underachievement.

Apprehension

We’ve got no chance.

Not with this guy in charge.  Not with the terrible blend of old has-beens and young unproven kids he’s picked in his squad.  What’s he thinking, for chrissakes?

We stuttered through the qualifiers and warm up games, but we’re bound to come unstuck against the big boys when the tournament starts for real.  We’ll be lucky to get through the group stages.

There’s no way we can win this.

Anticipation

We might just win this.

The action’s about to start, and excitement has reached fever pitch.  St George’s flags flutter magnificently in the breeze across this proud nation, the sponsors’ marketing machines have gone into overdrive whipping everyone into a patriotic frenzy, and Stuart Maconie and Rylan off X Factor have just been on telly remembering all those times we were great at sport in the past, when life was brilliant and everything was so much better.

This could just be our year, y’know.

OK, so we may not have the most talented squad in the tournament, but they’ve got grit and determination and the Bulldog English spirit.  Just like those brave boys of yesteryear.

Who can forget Geoff smashing the fourth into the top corner?  Or Jonny’s drop goal, or Beefy’s heroics at Headingley?  Maybe this year it’s that young lad’s turn.

OK, we all know he really only got picked to make the guy in charge look progressive to the rabid press pack, but he has got potential.  This is his time to shine on the world stage.

Expectation

WE’RE GOING TO BLOODY WIN THIS!

One game in, and we’ve hammered our first opponents out of sight.  Yes, they’re ranked amongst the worst nations in the world and some of their team had to take a day off work just to travel to the tournament, but you can only beat what’s put in front of you.  And we did.  Comprehensively.

It wasn’t just the result though, it was the manner of the victory.  The perfect blend of youth and experience in the squad shows real signs of promise.  And the team selection was spot on.

The guy in charge is clearly a tactical genius.

This lot will really take some stopping.

Despair

They were stopped.

We’re out.

The first time we came up against one of the really good teams, and we were found wanting.

Not by much, though.  We weren’t trounced.  In fact, there was that moment part way through the match where it looked like we might just get ourselves back into it.  But then that young lad went and did something stupid, and the opposition took full advantage.

It’s the guy in charge who’s to blame, of course.  What was he thinking putting that young lad into that pressure cooker environment?!  And he must have known the older guys’ stamina wouldn’t hold out at this level.  Idiot.

And here we are again, staring in disbelief at the TV, not quite believing our tournament is over before we ever really got into it.

But it is over.  And it hurts.

Tattered St George’s flags droop limply across the nation.

There are small pockets of real emotion.  Beery, red-faced men work themselves into apoplexy about some perceived injustice that changed the entire course of the match.  Red and white face paint runs down the teary, snotty faces of children too young to remember that this is always how it ends.

But they are in the minority.  The rest of us uphold the great English traditions of the stiff upper lip and the self-deprecating social media joke.

We may be losers, but we’re the best losers in the world.

Optimism

And anyway, there’s always next time.

This tournament came a bit too early for us, in truth.  Ours is a squad in transition, so we were never going to win it.

This isn’t a time for recriminations or wholesale changes.  I mean, the guy in charge has got to go, of course.  And all his backroom staff.  And the chairman who employed them.  And all the players who underperformed (which is most of them, really).

But other than that, no wholesale changes.  It’s important to have continuity.

And we’ve still got the young lad.  Just imagine how good he’s going to be in four years’ time.  We can build the whole squad around him, starting now.

Yeah, next time will be so much better.  We might even win it.

Next time.

Ad-blockers must become a catalyst for change

A lot has been written about ad-blockers over the last couple of weeks.

We all now know that Peace came from nowhere to top the iTunes charts for 36 hours, and was then just as quickly pulled by its creator, Marco Arment.

The end of Peace promptly turned the ad-blocking debate into a discussion about internet morality.  (Surely an oxymoron, if ever there was one?!)

Is it immoral to view content for free knowing that you’re stopping the creator and publisher of that content being recompensed for their endeavours?  Probably.

Are we going to stop people doing it?  Hell, no.  Not unless all ad-blocking products are purged from the market.

So here’s my take on it.  Ad-blockers are a form of consumer feedback.

And the feedback consumers are giving the marketing industry is loud and clear.  Collectively, our work simply isn’t good enough.

Yes, there are exceptions.  I’m sure you can think of a few right now.  But that’s what they are – exceptions.

The majority of online advertising is actually pretty terrible.  Low cost, high volume banners are endlessly churned out, because as long as a tiny fraction of the public click through and buy, the cost-per-acquisition stays low and the agency creates profit for the advertiser.

But what about all the other people, the ones who don’t click, and won’t buy, but are still constantly targeted with irrelevant and intrusive advertising?

What’s the cost of each failed interaction?

When talking about the success of Breaking Bad, Walter White actor Bryan Cranston explains what drove the cast and crew to ensure that every detail of every scene was as perfect as they could make it.

He talks about each little continuity error, each little out of place gesture, each piece of dialogue that a character just wouldn’t say in a particular situation, as a ‘little drop of poison’.

Individually, a little drop of poison is nothing; the audience will accept it and get over it.  But pretty soon, repeated doses of poison will make you sick.  And in TV terms that means you’ll switch over, or switch off.

Well, we poisoned the internet with our cheap advertising, and the public got heartily sick of it.

The rise of ad-blockers is therefore a good time to pause and reflect on where we are as a marketing community, and where we’d like to be in future.

In defining our future we would be well-served to remember the mantra: “brands should serve people, not just serve ads to people”.

It strikes me that in this world of big data and amazing content opportunities, too many advertisers and agencies still seem to be making binary decisions in developing their online ad campaigns..

They either use really smart data-led targeting but deliver woeful creative, or produce wonderful idea-led creative that broadcasts the same experience to everybody, regardless of who they are or what is most likely to appeal to them.

There are very few agencies or advertisers that seem genuinely to be using data to inform the content experience they deliver to people.  Again, there are exceptions.  But they are too few and far between.

With the wealth of data available, and some of the greatest creative talent on the planet, the marketing community should be rising to the challenge so clearly laid down by consumers.

We should be constantly pushing to break down the silos, and finding ways to deliver genuinely engaging, valuable experiences to people, not just lamenting the fact that we can’t spam people to death until they either submit and buy our product or throw their phone at the wall in frustration.

So the question shouldn’t be ‘how do we get around the ad blockers?’

The question shouldn’t even necessarily be ‘what does the rise of ad blockers tell us about the state of people’s relationship with marketing?’

The question we should really be asking ourselves is ‘how can we ally both data-led insight and idea-led content to create meaningful brand experiences people will value?’

Because if we can create meaningful experiences that people will value, we will ultimately build greater value for brands.

A new age of authenticity?

Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership is truly remarkable.

He only made it onto the ballot paper at all because a group of MPs, some of whom cheerfully admitted they wouldn’t actually vote for him, decided at the last minute to nominate Corbyn in order to ‘widen the debate’.

Well he certainly did that!  Even when he made it onto the ballot paper, Corbyn was still a 100/1 outsider with the bookies to win.  But then something truly remarkable happened.

He didn’t just widen the debate, he changed the entire nature of it through a willingness to speak plainly, directly and with obvious passion.  And it had a striking impact.

This isn’t just about Jeremy Corbyn though.  The same could equally be said for the likes of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson.

Across the political spectrum we find the politicians who have most caught the public imagination in recent years are those who speak ‘plain English’ rather than politicobabble, and have a ‘man of the people’ image (albeit very carefully cultivated in at least one case).

Over the last 20 years or so, certainly since the advent of New Labour and it’s media savvy spin machine, modern political communication has become cliché-ridden and soundbite-driven; an exercise in finding ways to avoid giving a straight answer to a straight question in a ‘Westminster Bubble’ parlour game to which only a closed elite of politicians and media know the rules or are allowed to play.

To the party spin doctors this may have seemed like an exercise in great media management, but the net result has been that the language of politics has become entirely divorced from the everyday language of the people the politicians are supposed to serve.

Against this backdrop it’s no surprise that we have seen a growing disenchantment, not necessarily with politics per se – the Scottish referendum turnout, the Iraq War march, or the number of petitions doing the rounds on social media demonstrate that people still care about important issues – but with the politicians themselves.

I’m not saying that the likes of Corbyn, Farage or Johnson are better politicians than their more ‘on message’ colleagues – the relative appeal of their policies is a matter of subjective personal opinion – but they have each found a way to connect directly with the public, which in turn gives them a more powerful platform from which to persuade people to their point of view.

Enemy isn't conservatism

So given we have seen the power of authentic communication in politics are there any lessons for marketers in all of this, or is the term ‘authentic marketing’ simply an oxymoron?

Is it possible to have true authenticity in a discipline where the primary objective in most cases is to maximise sales?

Certainly some people must think so.  A Google search for the term “authentic marketing” yields 6,590,000 results.

But in a cutting response to one advertiser request, director Johan Liedgren wrote “I don’t view the opportunistic call for “authenticity” as a hope for our industry, but rather as an all-time low point for a trade that is no stranger to constantly lowered ambitions for the communication between organizations and real humans”.

Liedgren authenticity

Liedgren goes on to say: “Authenticity would be a short clip of you asking the audience to buy more of your product so you can keep your job and get a bonus.”

Which brings us neatly onto the current campaign for Oasis soft drinks:

Oasis Refreshing Stuff

Maybe we really have just entered a new age of authenticity?

Planner’s reading list additions

In my last post I started compiling a list of required reading for anyone working in advertising or marketing communication.

Since then I’ve had chance to read another book I would definitely add to the list:

The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising by Paul Feldwick.

In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that for anyone just starting out in the industry this may even be the best place to begin, given that it’s essentially a book about books about advertising.  Meta.

Firstly, it’s described as a ‘wonderfully sane book’ by Jeremy Bullmore, and frankly any book for which Jeremy Bullmore is prepared to write the foreword has got to be pretty good.

But more interestingly, as Feldwick asserts from the outset, it’s not a book about ‘how advertising works’; it’s a book about ‘how people think – or assume – advertising works.

So in one very short, enjoyable and easily readable text we get not only a summary of all the key theories of how and why advertising works, but also an explanation of how those theories were developed and popularised.  (Spoiler alert: the evidence behind a lot of the theories we now accept as fact was often built on the flimsiest of evidence to suit the needs of the proponent).

If you’re anything like me you’ll come away realising you know even less than you thought you did, but in a good way. Definitely recommended.

Another book I missed off the original reading list that merits inclusion is:

The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding From You by Eli Pariser.

Written in 2011, Pariser’s view of the computer as a one-way mirror that reflects your interests and reinforces your prejudices is arguably even more apposite today as we move towards ever greater degrees of personalisation and algorithmically generated content.

Following my original post I also received a couple of other interesting recommendations:

Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic by JohnHegarty

Where the Suckers Moon: the Life and Death of an Advertising Campaign by Randall Rothenberg

I haven’t actually read either of these myself yet so I don’t know if they’re any good (who is that Hegarty fella anyway?!), but they were recommended by @yazac and @kitchen_sian, both of whom are lovely, smart people, so I’m sure they’re well worth a look.

Happy reading!

The ultimate planner’s reading list

I have started compiling a required reading list for anyone with a serious professional interest in advertising or marketing communication.

I’m sharing the list in its current form, partly because it may offer some useful guidance or inspiration and partly because I’d like your help in adding to it, please.

What’s missing?  If there’s a book you think should definitely be on the list below, please post a comment or drop me a line via email or twitter.

I’m not looking to produce an exhaustive list – even in the fairly narrow field of advertising and marketing theory there are simply too many books out there for one person to get through – but I do want to summarise the most interesting, thought-provoking and useful texts, both directly and indirectly relevant to the comms industry.

I should point out that I’ve not included any IPA texts on my list, but their reports (click here) are also definitely required reading for any half decent or aspiring planner.

Here’s my list so far (in no particular order).  What do you think?

The ‘Classics’

Ogilvy on Advertising by David Ogilvy

Behind the Scenes in Advertising by Jeremy Bullmore

Truth, Lies and Advertising : The Art of Account Planning by Jon Steel

Perfect Pitch by Jon Steel

A Masterclass in Brand Planning: the Timeless Works of Stephen King

The Book of Gossage by Howard Gossage

 

Advertising & Marketing Theory

Marketing in the Era of Accountability by Les Binet & Peter Field

The Long and Short of It by Les Binet & Peter Field

How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp

The New Marketing Manifesto: 12 Rules for Building Successful Brands in the 21st Century by John Grant

 

Human Psychology & Decision-making

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism by George A. Akerlof & Robert J. Shiller

Herd: How to Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature by Mark Earls

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Thinking, Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Brand Positioning

Positioning: the Battle for your Mind by Al Ries & Jack Trout

The Pirate Inside by Adam Morgan

Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan

Branding only works on Cattle by Jonathan Salem Baskin

Economics & Behavioural Economics

Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist by Tyler Cowen

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren’t in the Industry by John Kay

 

Creativity & Idea Generation

Sticky Wisdom : How to Start a Creative Revolution at Work : by What If? (Dave Allan, Matt Kingdon, Kris Murrin, Darren Rudkin)

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James W. Young

Where Good Ideas Come From: the Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Creative Mischief by Dave Trott

Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon

Lateral Thinking: A Textbook of Creativity by Edward be Bono

(Image credit: the original version of the photo accompanying this post can be found here)

Artificial intelligence: a real concern?

In December last year Professor Stephen Hawking upgraded his communication software system, allowing him to connect more easily with others.  This event was remarkable for three reasons:

Firstly, we found out the new technology is so good he could have had a more realistic ‘human’ voice, including a British accent, but Professor Hawking chose to keep his ‘speak and spell’ voice because he considers it his trademark.

Secondly, Professor Hawking used the publicity around the new software launch to predict that artificial intelligence could spell the end for the human race!

That comment inspired me to write this hilarious joke on twitter, which was criminally ignored at the time:

Stephen Hawking Tweet

I really am wasted on you lot.

It wasn’t just me that was ignored, though.  Because the third reason the launch event was remarkable, is that nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to what Professor Hawking said.

Here’s a clip of the BBC News interview Professor Hawking gave last December:

At the time of writing it’s got just over 170,000 views.  A paltry 170,000 people could be bothered to watch a five minute interview where one of the most famous and celebrated scientists in the world explains how the whole of human civilisation could come to an end within our lifetimes!

Honestly, you should be ashamed of yourself…

It’s not entirely your fault though.  You see our feeble human minds simply aren’t capable of understanding the huge potential of artificial intelligence.

This is you:

Distorted View of Intelligence - 1

And this is you in about 25 years:

Distorted View of Intelligence - 2

All the cleverest people in the world are pretty much agreed that the exponential growth of computing power means artificial intelligence will supersede the human brain well within our lifetime.

The only real questions are when it will happen, and whether this new superintelligence will be good or bad for humankind.  Will it find a way to eradicate disease and hunger?  Will it even deliver human immortality?

“…there is nothing in biology yet found that indicates the inevitability of death. This suggests to me that it is not at all inevitable” – Richard Feynman.

Or will it race straight past us on the evolutionary path, rendering us extinct in the process?

These aren’t, as you might imagine, theoretical questions posed by conspiracy theorists, lunatics and science fiction nerds.  They’re the subject of heated – but entirely well-reasoned – debate amongst the greatest thinkers of our time.

If you’re interested to learn more about Artificial Intelligence I urge you to read the rather wonderful 2-part Artificial Intelligence essay on waitbutwhy.com.

Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here.

Go on, increase your intelligence.  You’re going to need it.

What ‘Bad Jews’ can teach us about good communication

“It is my sincere belief that by being incredibly specific, one taps into something which is universal”.

Casually perusing the theatre reviews page in the Evening Standard last week I came across this great quote from playwright Joshua Harmon, taken from the programme notes for his new play, Bad Jews.

Whilst patently true, Harmon’s maxim rarely seems to be followed, particularly in the world of marketing communication.  Too much mass marketing takes a ‘one size fits none’ approach – attempting to appeal to everyone, whilst actually appealing to nobody.

Maybe it’s the desire not to offend, or the fact that too many ads are designed by committee, all the interesting rough edges having been smoothed away in endless rounds of research, but however it happens a large proportion of the work that finally sees the light of day ends up being bland, uninteresting, and – the cardinal sin for advertising – unmemorable.

Every brand wants to have a genuine dialogue with its customers, and ‘be part of the conversation’.  But most of them are too scared to talk to people on a human level, in the language ‘real’ people actually use in day-to-day conversation.

Some people (such as self-styled Ad Contrarian, Bob Hoffman) take this as a sign that people don’t want to have any form of relationship with brands.  And for the most part this is undoubtedly true.  But it isn’t necessarily so.

Mischief-making bookmaker Paddy Power is one clear exception.  It’s not for everyone, but Paddy Power always provokes a reaction, and that makes it a brand that many people want to have a conversation with, and about.

Because it is one of few brands out there that genuinely has character.  It is edgy and provocative.  Sometimes (often!) they go too far and get it wrong.

But by talking and acting like a real sports fan in the pub, they appeal to laddish young (and not so young) men who comprise a large proportion of the betting audience.  This is an amazing success story in such a commoditised and highly crowded market.

Going back a few years, the Yorkie ‘Not for Girls’ campaign was equally distinctive and controversial.  Byron Sharp uses this campaign in How Brands Grow as an example of focusing on too niche an audience, because ultimately more women ended up buying Yorkies than men.

I see Yorkie more as a triumph for distinctive brand positioning than bad targeting.  Nestle made sure to use mass media that would expose the campaign to men and women equally.  In doing so they deliberately created a strong emotional reaction amongst women, forcing them to actively appraise whether or not Yorkie was for them.

Of course the increasing ability to use data to deliver personalised behavioural marketing should theoretically put an end to this issue of irrelevant and uninteresting advertising.  We know so much about who people are, where they go and what they do that we have the ability to always be incredibly specific with our marketing communication.

The problem is that for the most part creativity doesn’t seem to have kept pace with technology where personalised marketing is concerned.

‘Hey, look at this really cool ad that’s obviously been created just for me’, said nobody, ever.

‘How do they know which websites I’ve been on, and why do they now keep bombarding me with ads for things I looked at once but didn’t want to buy?’ say lots of people every day.

Having lots of data at our disposal is a wonderful gift.  But with great data comes great responsibility.

Obviously we have a duty to our clients to drive cost-efficient sales in the short term, if that is the task at hand.

But we also have a duty to the consumer, to ensure we use what we know about them to deliver interesting, relevant and timely communication in a way they will genuinely value.  And we haven’t cracked that part yet.

For the billions of marketing dollars that are spent every year, most people wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands ceased to exist.

Unfortunately it seems we know everything about everyone, except how to make them care about us.

We’re smart people.  We can change this.  But only if we make data and content work hand in hand, rather than seeing them as discrete choices.