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Tech’s impact on business and culture in 2014

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It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.

Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter's presence at the Oscars last night

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter’s presence at the Oscars last night (click to watch)

The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.

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Whatsapp’s number of active users skyrocketed to 450m in no time, outpacing both Facebook and Twitter (Source: The Economist)

The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,

“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”

One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway, so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it”. It is this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,

“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”

It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.

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In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, one of England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.

A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see.  A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally“. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.

So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.

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Selling Luxury in 2013 – Does brand education lead to monetisation?

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At Cannes Lions tomorrow, Burberry’s Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey will ask “What if ads didn’t have to look or feel like ads?”. In a guest post, Chloé Hajnal-Corob writes about how luxury goods companies are seeking new and diverging paths in order to engage with their customers. Chloé spent time working at a fashion startup earlier in the year, assisting with the launch of a fashion hub for Vine videos, among other things. She is currently placed at Editd, a fashion data insight company.

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This spring, the House of Dior descended upon Harrods in London, one of the world’s premier department stores, for their “So Dior” exhibition and café. Last month, for one week only, Hermès had their “Festival des Métiers”, at London’s Saatchi Gallery. These two events represent a recent trend for providing luxury experiences, and though they are markedly different in some ways, they share a common goal: to drive revenues via brand education.

The “So Dior” exhibition, café and pop-up boutique took over a large designated area of Harrods alongside their usual concessions. Their presence was felt throughout, and Harrods have described the takeover as “a luxury-charged adventure combining French Savoir Faire and British charm”, the premise of which is to showcase the brand’s relationship with the store, and Christian Dior’s personal affiliation with the capital. Zeitgeist and I paid a visit, after seeing the social media hype from opening night. The event did not disappoint. On arrival, we were offered a private tour of the exhibition. What followed was a complete education into the history, heritage and identity of the brand and designers (Christian Dior, as well as Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and now, Raf Simons). The assiduousness and attention to detail demonstrated in the event were striking, and the quality of the experience was exceptional. It stands in particular favour given it was a free event, especially when compared with similar exhibitions such as the recent Valentino show at Somerset House, for which entrance was £12.50. We wondered if Dior and Harrods would set a precedent for luxury experiences where no fee is charged. Enter Hermès’s Festival des Metiers, which has been touring the world in a travelling circus of craftsmen, demonstrating their skills, and charging nothing for the privilege of seeing them. This harks back to how customers at high-end boutiques are treated, but without obvious intent to purchase. We are rewarded for our passion for the brand, not simply our contribution to sales.

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Dior’s exhibition excelled at presenting a linear history grounded in contextual relevancy

What is the ROI for these free events then, when the cost of execution is so high? Both exhibitions come after a lengthy stream of brand “experiences” (as noted in a previous Zeitgeist article) that represent the latest luxury market strategy for driving revenue and footfall to retail spaces, in attempt to allay fears of a mass exodus of shoppers from the street to the website. However, Dior’s CEO, Christian Toledano reportedly told vogue.co.uk at the launch party of the event: “This isn’t a marketing tool… It’s a transmission of Couture”. But these are not mutually exclusive concepts; rather they are means to the same end, and arguably an education into the brand is simply the chosen method of marketing. Indeed, Hermès openly acknowledges the lucrative repercussions these luxury experiences have. An article in the FT cites that the event, in each city, draws around 30,000 visitors, which in turn increases footfall to brick and mortar stores. A twenty percent increase, to be precise, in the week following the festival in Seattle, Washington. In a far more low-key event than Dior, these are impressive figures, particularly given that no attempt at sales was made on the exhibition site. A bespoke, or even generic, selection of products on sale at the event would likely have been very popular.

Both events encouraged significant online chatter, though neither seems to have been particularly driven by the host brands. Dior at Harrods was littered with high impact branded totems, ripe for the social media picking, and as usual, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were filled with images and comments from the event, and now Vine, twitter’s 6-second video app, provided the ideal way to document the experiential nature of the event. It is interesting that Dior made no attempt at harnessing or leveraging the veritable mass of attention the event garnered. On investigation, I found only a limited amount of content around the event on Dior’s twitter feed and Facebook timeline. There was no official hashtag for the event and no evidence (that I could find) of any engagement with consumers who were talking about it. Hermès, though a far more low-key affair, “discreet to the point of invisible branding”, were no less well-represented in the social media space, but were almost equally poor at engineering and engaging with their online audience. The hashtag #festivaldesmetiers seems to have been widely adopted but it is completely unclear whether this was brand-driven, and Facebook interaction was limited to a single status update announcing the event. For brands that exert meticulous control over themselves in the physical space (something that was made patent in the exhibitions), it is strange that they are not attempting to implement this in the digital space, where barriers are borderless and the opportunity for damage is massive. This is a bold (perhaps naïve) move in the current climate, albeit that both events seem to have been highly successful.

It is somewhat ironic that Dior’s exhibition was held at Harrods – an obviously commercial venue, where special Dior products were available to buy – choosing to assert their mission as education rather than marketing. By contrast, Hermès chose an established art space to host their Festival des Metiers, albeit one that is often known for its consumer links, and have clearly acknowledged the potential of education as a means of marketing. Neither space is less appropriate then the other, but both are indicative of the kind of events hosted. Harrods, with its lavish window displays, reputation for luxury and labyrinthine layout, was apt for Dior’s fantastical and grandiose display, not to mention that it was intended to draw on the relationship between brand and department store. The Saatchi gallery’s minimal open space provided a neat backdrop for hosting “a rendez-vous with the Hermès craftspeople”, and apparently, sought to appeal to a younger demographic than perhaps the Hermès customer would ordinarily be. It is appropriate too, to present what can only be described as a fine art and craft, in an artistic space. It’s a notion that rival (and owner of Dior), LVMH, clearly thought worth cashing in on, since they have subsequently launched a similar initiative: the Journées Particulières, which this year will see it open 40 of its ateliers to the public for a weekend.

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Hermès attracted large crowds with its silk screen printing demonstrations

Both Dior and Hermès certainly made good attempts at getting people to engage physically (as well as virtually). The “So Dior” exhibition, and of course the café, were multi-sensorial. Beyond visual aesthetics, short films with headphones were provided, touch-sensitive technology was exploited and food inspired by Dior’s cookbook made for a wholly engrossing experience. Perfume was a key focus of the exhibition, explored from many different angles; not content with simply handing out the usual sticks of paper to smell, Dior and Harrods provided a telephone box (grey and white, in-keeping with brand décor, naturally) emitting one of Dior’s signature scents. Hermès was less immersive but more intimate; the possibility of viewing and interacting with those who create the product (and by extension the legacy), and even partaking in the sewing of scarves or ties, successfully created a feeling of exclusivity and privilege that the event no doubt strove for.

Toledano stated of the “So Dior” exhibition, “We need to explain why and how we do what we do. I want people to understand the passion, the innovation and our commitment to excellence.” In a similar vein, Guillaume de Seynes, great grandson of Emile Hermès explained: “We want to demonstrate that for us, craftsmanship is something that happens everyday.” Both brands sought to educate the consumer about themselves – Dior by making comment on the ideas and inspiration that produce the end product, and Hermès by demonstrating their commitment to the heritage of the brand by maintaining the quality of garments through skill of craftsmanship. Were they successful in their mission? Certainly; both provided real insight and inspiration. In doing so, Dior and Harrods, and Hermès’s Festival des Metiers, created an opportunity to become part of a legacy, and with this, the aspiration to turn something memorable into something wearable.

Microsoft’s ‘New Coke’ moment – On knowing when your customer is dissatisfied

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Microsoft has been trying its hand at a bit of innovation of late in an attempt to raise some of its lost brand equity, and stem the larger market decline in PC sales, which has recently started accelerating. (On a side note, Deloitte have a caveat to these figures, saying the true measurement is in usage, not units).

One of the ways this innovation has come about is in the release of its Surface product, which has interested many but earned the ire of erstwhile manufacturing partners as Microsoft has pursued its own path, making the product in-house. Its new operating system, Windows 8, has struggled to gain traction with consumers. The president of Fujitsu, one of Microsoft’s partners, declared interest to be “weak” back in December last year. The most obvious step-change from previous iterations is the slate screen that greets users upon booting up. On proceeding through this, users then come to a more familiar Windows layout.

In yesterday’s Financial Times, Microsoft said it was preparing to “reverse course over key elements of its Windows 8 operating system”. Envisioneering analyst Richard Doherty was quoted as saying it is the biggest marketing fiasco since New Coke. The only difference being, Doherty comments, that Coca-Cola acknowledged their error three months in, whereas Microsoft is pushing eight months now since launch; Coca-Cola conversely paid more attention to what its customers were saying about the product. “The learning curve is definitely real”, said head of marketing and finance for the Windows business, Tami Reller.

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IDC research tells a discouraging story for businesses relying on PC sales

Today’s FT featured an editorial entitled “Steve Ballmer was right to gamble on change”. Opening with a quotation by Bill Gates, saying that to “win big you sometimes have to take big risks”, the editorial cites Kodak as a primary example of a company that refused to take risk, and ended up succumbing to creative destruction at the expense of trying to protect legacy revenue streams. We’ve written before about Kodak and creative destruction. The editorial calls for a revival of a “climate of creativity” at the company, and certainly that is what Ballmer is trying to instill, very nobly and with good reason. Zeitgeist’s bone of contention is with the following, seemingly logical statement,

“…disruptive innovations are disruptive precisely because the new technology does not appeal to traditional customers. Instead, it appeals to the customers of the future.”

We would argue that Microsoft’s customer base is made up overwhelmingly of what might be considered “traditional” customers. Users who find familiarity with a long-established incumbent, who have no interest in OS alternatives like Linux, Apple, Android or Mozilla. They are not looking for a revolution. By all means change your product, but it must evolve, not look like a completely different way of computing when you switch it on. This point is confirmed nicely by a recent piece in Harvard Business Review, which details how to get customers to value your product more. The author, Heidi Grant Halvorson, describes the importance of knowing the right emotional fit for your customers’ mindset. The article elaborates,

“motivational focus — whether he tends to view his goals as ideals and opportunities to advance (what researchers call “promotion focus”), or as opportunities to stay safe and keep things running smoothly (“prevention focus”). While everyone has a mix of both to some extent, most of us tend to have a dominant focus.”

We would argue that users that prefer Microsoft Windows OS to other systems would strongly fall into the latter category. Change is perhaps inevitable, but Microsoft are choosing a precarious path with such radical changes aimed at a group little interested in such fundamental alterations to the way they interact with such an integral device.

Why brands need to get to the point on YouTube

February 25, 2013 Leave a comment

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There are a couple of things that bother me about YouTube. Leaving aside the angst about the future of the human race that reading more than a couple of comments naturally brings, the first is as a user.

When I’m trying to get my daily dose of Gangnam Style or watch yet another hilarious Harlem Shake video, I don’t yearn to watch an advert first. Nevertheless, it’s a free service and they have to make some money somehow.

The second is as a marketer. Although they are a bit of a pain, when these adverts pop up you can choose to skip them after a few seconds.

Yet because the ads are at least 30 seconds long, they’ve barely started setting the scene before they are bypassed. YouTube themselves say that between 70% to 80% of ads are skipped.

So in the end, rather than enhance the experience and engage a wide audience, the adverts become a frustration for the user and provide no real benefit to the brand. Nobody wins.

Tailoring the message for the medium

For some reason, brands aren’t designing for and exploiting the medium they are using. But as basic as this sounds, it’s not unusual. Early TV ads were essentially radio ads with a still image. Fifteen years ago, many websites were just glorified company brochures. It takes marketers a while to figure out how to get maximum impact from their new toy.

Parallels with Shopper

The same is occasionally true for Shopper Marketing.

Increasingly, brands are wising up to the importance of focusing on the shopper and the lead up to the purchase decision. They’re starting to invest accordingly, seek out specialist counsel and are rewarded with increased sales. However, there are still many brands who still think that a shot of their TV ad on a bit of cardboard is all that is needed to clear the shelves.

Sitting amongst Business Directors, I see the frequent battles they face as well-meaning partner agencies from other disciplines liberally suggest how shopper focused executions ought to look, but don’t want to take any feedback on their own work.

That every media opportunity comes with its own pros and cons, and plays a unique role in communicating brand messages and pushing shoppers closer to purchase, seems like something you would learn on your first day at Marketing School.

While forward thinking agencies can offer ‘integration’ and ‘joined up thinking’, individuals will inevitably show a bias towards their own particular field.

Seconds to Sell

Just like in-store comms, YouTube ads have to get their message across quickly.

So why don’t they?

Well, YouTube’s TrueView system doesn’t charge advertisers unless the ad is watched in its entirety, or at least 30 seconds are shown. To some, this means an ad should be at least 30 seconds long, because otherwise you are paying for something you could have got for free. It might make economic sense, but doesn’t consider the viewer, who should be the primary concern. Just as importantly, it doesn’t consider the purpose of the communication.

Sometimes brands get it right. This environmental campaign from Chile incorporates the ‘Skip Video’ option to encourage users to stop wasteful behaviour. But it is an exception, not the rule.

The challenge to brands using YouTube is clear.

Either sell me your product in the first five seconds, or at the very least, use them to sell me the rest of your ad.

Otherwise, I’m skipping.

When. Cinema. Works.

February 19, 2013 2 comments

“[T]he big screen. That is its natural habitat—the only place, you might say, where its proud and leonine presence has any meaning. Anything more cramped is a cage, as Jon Stewart showed during this year’s Oscar ceremony. At one point, we found him gazing at his iPhone. “I’m watching ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ It’s just awesome,” he said, adding, “To really appreciate it, you have to see it in the wide screen.” And he turned the phone on its side. Deserts of vast eternity, reduced to three inches by two.”

- Anthony Lane, The New Yorker

Film can sometimes be a mercurial medium. Especially nowadays. It encompasses multiple genres, and, like food, is meant for different occasions, for different needs. Of course, sometimes we go to bad restaurants, or order in, and the experience is terrible. Uber-flop John Carter cost Disney a cool $200m, and wasted many a precious dollar and hour for those that went to see it (admittedly few). But sometimes it’s like a great burger and fries – Die Hard springs to mind – and sometimes it’s a sumptuous 6-course meal cooked by a Michelin-starrred chef – Lawrence of Arabia, or All the King’s Men. Film can stimulate us, it can teach us, and it can be a breezy bit of consumption to pass the time, like a coffee at Starbucks. Moreover, as with food, it can be consumed in different places and circumstances. There are times when the right way to watch a certain film is on your iPad in a cramped airline seat. Pure escapism. But cinema has a crucial place too.

It was interesting today, when Zeitgeist went to see a movie, that it was preceded by an announcement showing an empty cinema, covered in cobwebs and dust, bemoaning the death of the medium at the hands of pirates. Its aim was to take the audience on a guilt trip: ‘Why are you illegally downloading films?’ ‘Why aren’t you coming to see more films at the cinema?’ it pleaded. There are a couple of things strategically wrong with this approach. Firstly, what is the principle problem here? Alright, people are not going to the cinema as often as we would like. Zeitgeist remembers in a brief stint working for Fox several years ago that people went to the cinema 1.8 times a year in the UK. The Economist reports that the share of Americans who attend cinema at least once a month has declined from 30% in 2000 to 10% in 2011. The assumption is that people are instead pirating films at home, thereby depriving studios of money (ignoring research that suggests those that pirate are often avid cinema-goers, and optimistically equating every film downloaded to ticket revenue lost). Well, one quick way to address this is to make films legally available – at a sizeable premium – on multiple platforms day and date. We’ve argued this before, and entertainment trade Variety has used our argument for a lead editorial. It should be recognised, that, although the most prominent face of the film industry, cinema is not what makes the studio money; for years the bulk of profits have been made in home entertainment consumption. Furthermore, there are two fallacies here. One is that cinemas make most of their profit from the snacks people buy at the cinema, not the films themselves. If you want to increase margins, there should be a much more prominent focus on food options, and that means offering a wider, more tempting range of food to be eaten, which is then promoted more effectively. The way such snacks are currently promoted – “Let’s all go the lobby” – has not altered for a half century. Lastly and most egregiously, the communication is completely misdirected, talking to the very audience who is already doing what the ad asks them to do. The ad is shown nowhere but the cinema, therefore only people who go to the cinema will be subject to this guilt trip. To avoid feeling guilty, one can avoid the ad by avoiding the cinema. The logic is completely twisted. Negative communications have been shown to be much less effective in influencing behaviour than positive affirmation. So let’s think about a way to promote cinema that goes beyond a highlight reel of what movies are on in a particular season. More robust revenue streams will have to be found soon. Less people are turning out to the cinema, and in foreign markets, which are doing relatively well, a far smaller chunk of box-office receipts go to the studios.

What also played during the reel before the film started was a short film by Disney Animation that has been nominated for an Academy Award, called Paperman (see trailer above). Zeitgeist had watched the short some days ago on his iPhone after coming across it on Twitter, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was exciting and convenient to be able to consume something so quickly after hearing about it. Moreover, it was instantly shareable with the 400-odd people who follow our tweets when we retweeted the link. Seeing it in the cinema today though really reinforced the power of the big screen; the detail you couldn’t see on the iPhone, the great sound, and the shared laughter and enjoyment from those around you. “Grandeur is a far from simple blessing”, writes Anthony Lane in the same article quoted at the beginning of this post, in The New Yorker back in 2008. The pleasure of watching something in the cinema is ultimately an irrational benefit, which can be hard to quantify, but even harder to ignore.

UPDATE (06.12.13): The Economist featured a good article on how cinemas are seeking new revenue streams around the world, here.

On the contemporary art market – Expertise, Marketing and Money

December 18, 2012 1 comment
“If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity.”
- Robert Hughes, 1989

Tom Wolfe, one of America’s greatest living writers, recently had his latest work, Back to Blood, excerpted in Vanity Fair. In it, the author excoriates the miasma of power, money, influence and ignorance that surrounds the contemporary art market. Wolfe describes the billionaires descending on Art Basel Miami as a “raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots”. What has become of art, its pursuit and its collection?

The pursuit of excellence can sometimes can be a quixotic quest, all the more so when dealing with something as ephemeral as art, and particularly with the contemporary art market today. But how does excellence, or authenticity, in art cope with a nexus of questionable experts and highly liquid but bifurcating market, in a world where promotion is all?

Part of this problem resides in the question of expertise, its influence and its value. If one thinks of artists in the period of the Italian Renaissance, the quality of the fresco or sculpture is mostly self-evident in the verisimilitude of the work. Moreover, the media worked with often necessarily involved painstaking, long-term commitment and toil. What artists like Marcel Duchamp began and Andy Warhol perfected was the thought that works of art should be valued by their conceptualism. In other words, not necessarily how much time or effort was put into making an object, or whether it was any “good”, aesthetically speaking, but with more emphasis on the power of the underlying idea – representation – behind the work. “Art can be expressed purely as a thought or action”, wrote the FT recently. This postmodern concept has not evolved since the time of Warhol. Without being able to critique the amount of expertise in the manufacturing of an object, it becomes harder to address the worth of an object, unless you are in the presence of a designated ‘expert’. The situation risks creating an echo chamber of unedifying art that speaks to no-one and is so self-reflexive it loses all meaning. It also allows for an artificial inflation of prices, creating a false market that shuts out all but the ultra-rich, whose tiny but influential numbers can significantly skew the market. One need only look at how much the Chinese taste for wine is influencing global production to see such an instance in action.

Such points were neatly summed up recently by the prestigious art critic and lecturer Dave Hickey, when he announced he was leaving the art world:

Writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01%, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”

The ‘experts’ who assign value to contemporary art objects have come full circle. Rightly recognising that there is art worth shouting about beyond an arbitrary, Westernised canon, it has now gone too far in the other direction. As a brilliant FT article on the subject recently pointed out, “The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination.” Making matters worse, the article quotes gallerist David Zwirner lamenting, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”. All of which leads to a highly fragile concentration of expertise and financial capital sitting with a select few. If we look again at the wine industry, American wine critic Robert Parker was at one time so influential that growers in France began changing their product purely to suit his taste so as to earn a higher rating on his guide. Zeitgeist asked art critic Brian Sewell at a debate earlier this year whether influential patrons such as Charles Saatchi and Francois-Henri Pinault were playing a similar role in the contemporary art world; shifting value perceptions of art and artists according to their personal whim. It helps little when major collectors like Frank Cohen admit publicly that they have “bought a load of bullshit”. The quotation may sound flippant, but it underscores the massive influence the bullshit they have bought has on the broader prices in the art market.

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Auction turnover returns to pre-recession highs… just in time for slowing growth in BRIC regions?

Art adviser Lisa Schiff spoke openly about this recently to Forbes magazine, saying she was “worried that there are a lot of young artists that could really take a nosedive”.This influence is being felt keenly right now with small but highly influential – and influenced – groups of buyers in Russia, Brazil and China. But as the BRIC regions continue to stall, what will happen to arbitrarily in-demand art and artists if these markets suffer further losses or even a sudden shock? Such problems are further compounded by the massive rise and fear of litigation, as previous, bona fide experts able to certify works as being genuine are being scared away by the threat of legal action.

So there’s an expertise fallacy here, one which is not restricted to the world of art. Elsewhere, marketing, something that admittedly has always been part of the selling of art to an extent, is becoming increasingly essential for a successful artist or studio. The Montoya exhibition currently on at The Halcyon Gallery in London represents the epitome of this new trend. Full-page ads in The Economist and 30-second spots on CNBC (see beginning of article) are being taken out for the exhibition, placed seemingly without irony at the feet of the very audience the art seems to be mocking, or at least parodying. It is the increasing lack of ironic awareness that creates an emptiness in the purchase and reputation of some of today’s bigger artists, including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Interestingly, the latter two have both seen stratospheric success that goes beyond the confines of the art world, helped in part by collaborations with luxury goods company Louis Vuitton.

Richard Prince's oft-repeated Nurse motif was used for the Spring/Summer '08 Vuitton show

Richard Prince’s famous Nurse motif was used for the Spring/Summer ’08 Vuitton show

The marketing of art is at its most visible at contemporary art fairs – of which there are now more than 200 annually around the world – mentioned earlier as a subject of Tom Wolfe’s new work. Frieze, which takes place annually in London, is one of the most well-known. It was intriguing to see that this year saw the debut of Frieze Masters, which some saw as an attempt to breathe new life into an event that had begun to lose its ability to surprise. It was also seen as a deliberate attempt to focus attention on more established names in order to avoid some of the volatility the market has seen with newer, less-known artists. So the market isn’t so insular that it doesn’t recognise the need for significant change.

Collecting art is something that few of us can turn into a committed past-time. Moreover, the vagaries of art over the past ten years-plus have been such that only a select few would be able to decipher the worth of a current artist’s produce. The value of their art has been dulled by demographic shifts and concentrations, by overly-excessive marketing tactics and by a reduction and muddling of the nature of what it means to be an expert. Regulation of the sector seems overdue, as conflicts of interest and an oligopolistic marketplace seem to cry out for legal oversight. Some of these problems are not restricted to the art world and it will be interesting to see if a paradigm shift sits on the horizon. The Internet is providing some antidote to this. Recent online-only auctions by Christies – one of ArtInfo’s top ten stories that moved the art market in 2012 – have made the process of bidding for items extremely popular, and small art-sellers like Exhibition A are illustrating there is room for innovation in the industry. Is the art market in an aesthetic and financial bubble, and will it burst? Time will tell.

Ai Weiwei Exhibition A

On motion picture marketing – Star Trek shows the way

December 15, 2012 1 comment

IMG_5503

Zeitgeist was lucky enough to be a guest at the BFI Imax the other day when a select few members of the press, film industry folk, hangers-on and, yes, Trekkies, were shown footage from the Star Trek film to be released next summer, “Into Darkness”. It was a mere nine-minute clip of the film – the rest of which is still under lock and key / being edited under the watchful gaze of J.J. Abrams – but it was deemed enough to hold a Friday morning event around, with a very well-catered brunch afterward. What made the morning special was the presence of two of the stars, Alice Eve and Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as the producer, Bryan Burk. The Q&A session, preceded by video salutations from J.J. and Simon Pegg, had many Trekkies in the audience aflutter and was a nice bit of promotion.

Regarding the footage itself, any excitement at seeing fleeting glances of futuristic shots brimming with portent were somewhat diluted by the fact that the same nine minutes were to be shown from that day before select showings of “The Hobbit”. Which of course means it was also pretty much immediately available on YouTube (if only to be removed, in an understandable but somewhat counter-intuitive move by the studio).

The status quo at the moment is one in which films often have longer life-spans than ever before (especially if more than one iteration is being shot simultaneously a la Lord of the Rings, or the studio making the film falls into financial trouble, as with the last James Bond film, Skyfall). If the production time isn’t longer, the lead-in for marketing certainly is. Disney’s Tron remake, which came out in 2010, was several years in the making. The marketing campaign was three and a half years long. One promotional tactic used was to give away free – but very scarce – tickets to select sneak peeks at the film, several months before its release, which at the time Zeitgeist took full advantage of.

This is not without drawbacks for the studio of course, as early bad press could scupper a film’s chance of commercial success. But in part perhaps recognising the need to constantly remind people of a product, in a society today that values instantaneous media and loves to second-screen, the risk is one worth taking. It’s especially appropriate if the film has a built-in, excitable fanbase, which both Star Trek and Tron do, and you can feed them occasional scraps to keep them satisfied. The TV series Lost, which invited similar nerdy inclinations – and was another brainchild of J.J. Abrams – made a similar move when the studio behind it released tantalising clips on YouTube in an effort to stir interest. Crucially, it also meant they beat the pirates at their own game. All in all it was a nice little bit of promotion by Paramount, creating coverage in media old and new as the stars gave interviews afterwards, and keeping die-hard fans on the slow-boil, ensuring the film remained top of mind while the final product remains a work in progress.

Was Sky Bet’s offer of free money an act of genius or madness?

November 2, 2012 Leave a comment

As many sages have noted, there is a thin line between genius and insanity.

This is particularly true in marketing. And like so many things in our industry, which side of the line you fall on is often post-rationalised.

If your campaign was a success you are a hero and a creative pioneer. If it bombs you are a bumbling fool who simply doesn’t understand consumers.

Credibility is important when proposing ideas. So is rank. Many great ideas will not leave an agency simply because of who did or didn’t propose them.

One example of the guys at the top making a decision and putting their names to it is the New Coke episode of the 1980′s.

It is generally considered a case study in not really understanding the importance of the emotional attachment consumers can have to a brand and giving them something they didn’t ask for.

Nevertheless, to this day there are conspiracies that it was in fact a deliberate act of genius. Despite the main protagonists holding their hands up and admiting they got it wrong.

Given they remain dominant in the soft drinks market and are one of the biggest, most identifiable brands in the world, any damage was temporary.

Money For Nothing

On a smaller scale, late last night Zeitgeist was alerted to an opportunity to make free money.

Somehow, the fact that activating a couple of bonus codes on SkyVegas would allow a player to make a guaranteed £27 in five minutes, began doing the rounds on social media.

In the name of research, Zeitgeist gave it a go and sure enough my balance was £27 better off at the end of the exercise and the funds were withdrawn.

The question is, was this a huge error that is likely to see someone hauled over the coals or a great way to get new signups, as in the long run, the bookie always wins.

In all probability it was the former. The money has yet to appear in my bank account and if it doesn’t it will be proof that it was a mistake.

The ‘trick’ doesn’t work anymore, it was deactivated earlier this morning.

However, Skybet will know the value of a new customer. Perhaps they have identified that one who is online at close to midnight is particularly profitable in the long run.

And so, instead of spending their money on advertising, media and giving all players a standard £10 introductory bet, it is possible that Skybet decided to invest their budget in giving a more active type of customer a bigger incentive to sign up, just before the weekend, confident that they will get their money back with interest.

And if that is the case, then maybe it was an act of genius after all.

Switching Costs and promising the impossible

October 14, 2012 2 comments

“Many consumers remain loyal due simply to the absence of a negative because it is often easier to put up with something that is less than perfect than go to the trouble, and potential expense, of switching”

PricewaterhouseCoopers summed up their findings above in July regarding cell phone and pay TV customer loyalty. In the midst of swirling hysteria over cable TV “cord-cutting”, their survey restated the power of inertia and loss aversion.

In the hysteria that is the US presidential elections, Jon Stewart showcased the FDR video clip recently on The Daily Show. It was used to underline the current predilection Governor Romney has for stating he can not only improve the financial and military strength of the country, but do so at no extra cost to the taxpayer. This has met with puzzlement in the press. Romney has yet to fully describe how he plans to do both these things at once. It smacks of promising the impossible (not that Obama has been much more candid in his own policy details).

In politics, as with brands. If you are asking someone to change their allegiance from one thing to another, said person must consider whether the pros of changing affiliation outweigh the cons. If a brand or political party wants to be that change, they must convince the buyer – or voter – that the switching costs are low enough for it to be worth their while.

This can lead to overpromising, which in marketing can lead to a disappointed buyer and post-purchase dissonance. (Sadly it is less easy to return your ballot and ask to vote again). The ebullience of the sell can ultimately damage the brand. That is why marketers must strive to be honest with the consumer. If long-term commitment to a product or service is what is being sought, hyperbole or a disengenuous call to action can permanently damage a brand’s equity. You just have to think about what makes your product or service truly stand apart from its peers. If this is too much to ask, then its to time to rethink your offering.

Can great creative work save the finance sector?

September 28, 2012 2 comments

“Marketing has always combined facts and judgement: after all, there’s no analytic approach than can single-handedly tell you when you have a great piece of creative work.”

- McKinsey & Co., Measuring Marketing’s Worth

Capitalism has come in for a bit of a knocking of late. Recently, the Futures Company found that 86% thought “big business” maximised profits at the expense of customers and communities (not helped by another recent poll stating 51% of top financial services executives think businesses should just be about making money). The antipathy is not a recent phenomenon and hardly one confined to the fringe. John Maynard Keynes, whose ideas framed modern macroeconomics, said capitalism is “not virtuous [and] doesn’t deliver the goods”. And while there was a short period when such sentiment was only to be found in places like Pyongyang, these feelings are now more pervasive, particularly against the driving force of capitalism, the finance sector. Can marketing help shift perceptions?

From the outside looking in, it would be difficult to say that some of the wounds are not self-inflicted. Multiple fiascos have led to much head-shaking and hand-wringing within the industry. The furore has ceased to abate as politicians score cheap points for fingering the blame on bankers, and lionised institutions like Goldman Sachs suffer massive public relations disasters (including a part ownership stake in a prostitution ring). The manipulation of the LIBOR scheme and subsequent reforms reveal no quick end in sight to a period of immense negative exposure that began with the global recession four years ago.

So the image of finance is indisputably tarnished right now. Marketers are trying to change this, in different ways. Many Western financial institutions have been around for a while; the symbolism of such longevity can serve as a valuable asset for brands. Coincidentally, this year sees Citigroup – while dealing with its turbulent present – celebrate its 200th anniversary. They’ve had a broad above-the-line campaign celebrating their place in history, putting their relative achievements – helping fund the building of the Panama Canal – alongside other important moments in time. Citi also have their eye on the future too, making a concerted push in areas of sustainability, recently managing to become the first bank to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for 200 projects from the U.S. Green Building Council. The question is whether leveraging history and sustainability – both of which arguably convey a sense of trusted consistency, rather than reckless risk-taking – with advertising can help address a serious deficit in consumer affinity for the finance sector. Does it even matter? If we assume banker-bashing is an irrational emotion, and the whole sector is tarnished with the same brush, how much sway does it have over the rational part of our brain that must decide where and how to invest our money?

Several banking brands rely on the prestige of their historical affiliations, and have found themselves no safer from customer ire. It can be hard to seek engaging differentiation in a commoditised industry where the power of switching costs can a play a strong role. A PwC report from July summarises, “Many consumers remain loyal due simply to the absence of a negative because it is often easier to put up with something that is less than perfect than go to the trouble, and potential expense, of switching”. So what else can be done to wake potential customers from this inertia?

It’s interesting to see Morgan Stanley take a decidedly more personal tack, with a new campaign, “What If?”. Shifting focus away from the company as a faceless monolith, the WSJ said the aim is to make the company seem “like your neighborly [sic] stock picker”. The creative itself is beautiful, showcasing professional types with aspects of business and social responsibility framing their translucent faces. It attempts to convey a personalised and considerate attitude that includes but also goes beyond profit-making. It broadly taps into themes in a new book. “Positive Linking”, by Paul Ormerod, sets out to dismiss the outdated notion that people are driven by personal, “rational utility maximisation” and instead claims they are more interested in aiding the network to which they belong, realising this will help them too. This in essence is a slightly less selfish form of capitalism.

“I owe the public nothing”, J.P. Morgan was once quoted as saying. Have times changed much since? The problems with the world of finance are too numerous for this article. The crisis of confidence has begun to have an effect on recruiting, as MBA graduates turn their learned eyes to more reputable sectors. Although it may not seem like it now, customer perceptions of brands within this sector are malleable. Any one that can position itself as an outlier in what is currently seen as a pernicious industry will have much to gain. The tail cannot wag the dog though. If these businesses are to change, they must back up their ambitions with operational changes that reduce risk and ensure profits sit alongside dedication to the broader lifestyle their advertising evinces.

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