In this post we’ll be looking at a variety of firms in the media and tech sector as we examine how their vision impacts on the broader economy.
- Short-termism and misdirection (Amazon and legacy players)
In March, Zeitgeist was privileged enough to attend an intimate dinner (well, fifty guests or so-type intimate), hosted by the CEO of a major media company. Much of his speech during our meal was focused on his relatively pessimistic outlook for global growth. One of the key causes of this, he noted, was firms and their fanatical focus on what is known as “short-termism”.
Much editorial ink has been spilled on this concept, one which is hardly new. The argument being that, because of a public company’s fiduciary responsibility to shareholders – who are becoming increasingly activist in nature – the C-suite in turn must increasingly focus on quarterly activities that deliver fat returns for said shareholders. This, at the expense of a longer-term vision or strategy that creates, for example, more sustained competitive differentiation, better margins or improved products. Indeed, in Zeitgeist’s view, many organisations, particularly those in legacy industries, are caught in a difficult Catch 22 situation; they need to maintain investor confidence in order to keep share prices stable while simultaneously investing heavily for the medium term in order to reinvent their business and avoid disintermediation from start-ups.
Sony is a great example of this We won’t mention any names here of particular examples, of course…
However, what was interesting was that in February, The Economist published an editorial in its Schumpeter section, detailing how “short-termism” was not only a vague term but also misdiagnosed the root cause of the problem. One symptom of short-termism is share buybacks; the article argues that this is more to do with the fact that larger companies are growing more successful (a worrying trend we have touched on before, which puts paid to the idea that digital disruptors are in themselves value-laden orgs). As a consequence of their increasing success, they have more cash than they know what to do with (look at Apple), and so don’t spend it in a constructive way (look at Apple’s acquisition of Beats). These profits, as the article puts it, are “put to no use”. This won’t change unless competition policy improves; that is unbelievably unlikely to happen in a Trump administration.
Of course there are outliers to every argument. Thankfully there is one to be found here in the shape of Amazon. We mentioned The Economist earlier; the company appeared on the cover of last week’s issue, depicted as a fleet of enormous drones from some future time and place. Amazon’s investors seem to be made of an unusual crowd of people with an exclusively long-term outlook. As the article points out: “Never before has a company been worth so much for so long while making so little money: 92% of its value is due to profits expected after 2020“. While nothing seems to be getting in the way of Amazon’s approach for now, regulation will inevitably come into play (though, as mentioned above, perhaps less so in the US), as it becomes an ever more dominant, global force.
- Accountability and Purpose (BuzzFeed, Snap)
While incumbents are hammering out an approach, newer firms are trying to wind their way to going public. News of an IPO for BuzzFeed recently has raised many eyebrows. As the Financial Times pointed out last year, the company has “missed revenue targets in 2015 and halved its projections for 2016 from $500m to $250m”. Not a shining endorsement. Even without its prior performance taken into consideration, its business model is not guaranteed to woo investors, who are not usually won over by ad-supported models, or by firms that make viral videos, which rely on the fickle interests of the masses to make them profitable.
At the other end of the spectrum was the frothiness and exuberance that greeted Snap’s recent, enormous, IPO (albeit, as above, with some skeptical heads). This despite its existential challenges as platforms like Instagram et al seek to emulate what currently sets it apart from its rivals. In addition to this, there has been concern over the opacity of the company’s structure and shareholding rights, indicative of what the FT called a “21st century governance vacuum”. Snap’s IPO was the first ever in the US to issue shares with no voting rights at all. The newspaper elaborated,
By any standard Snap’s governance arrangements are flawed and its directors minimally accountable. Anne Simpson, a leading governance expert at the California pension fund Calpers, dubs this “a banana republic approach” to corporate governance.
Though the worst sinner, it is also indicative of a larger, worrying trend that is particularly common at tech companies (see Google, Facebook and Alibaba). The reason for going public has changed. As the FT points out, the principle reason for doing so now is so that “fresh equity fills the yawning gap between revenue and expenditure”. A lack of investor oversight means that accountability is less prevalent than ever.
On the bright side, some companies are looking beyond simply maximising shareholder returns to see how they can benefit society. Last year, Boston Consulting Group wrote an unusually whimsical thought piece on the impact businesses could have if they imbued themselves with purpose, acknowledging that with globalisation and technology trends, there are sometimes losers. Deloitte worked with the UK government to publish a report (also last year), detailing how businesses with a purpose beyond traditional financial returns – aka “Mission-led” – were more successful than those without.
- Next steps
Such thinking and work needs scaling, and needs to be evangelised beyond the traditional boundaries of Davos seminars. Without it, increasing deregulation and opaque public offerings are likely to hasten the end of an already long-ish period of global economic growth. Media and technology firms of today tend to provide products that are mostly services, i.e. intangible to the end-user but imbued with value. It would be prudent for them to think about where transparency and accountability adds purpose to their vision, structure, strategy and communication.
This week’s purchase of Yahoo suggests Verizon’s strategy department thinks much the same way as myriad other organisations; “size matters”. Whether it’s about minimising risk or increasing economies of scale, such logic has steered many companies to successful tenures. However, there are new trends in the marketplace that make such aphorisms more and more contentious.
It was a couple of years ago now that Rita McGrath wrote about “the end of sustainable competitive advantage”. Prior to this, the arrival of digital was, in general, supposed to have done away with such things. But perhaps the most recognisable face of the digital revolution over the past decade has been none other than Facebook. Facebook has consistently maintained competitive advantage through a savvy use of lock-in via network effects and an aggressive proclivity to buy out any competition (see Instagram, Whatsapp). Users spend about 50 minutes per day across these platforms.
What about organisations outside of TMT? For several years now, Zeitgeist has seen qual data showing the waning power of branding. As we’ve written extensively about in previous posts, this is partly to do with information asymmetry. In the early days of advertising, it wasn’t easy for an average person to be able to know much about a product like Colgate; a brand identity was a quick way to communicate what expectations a consumer should have. Nowadays, almost entirely due to the internet and digital communication, we are able to quickly ascertain what products meet our requirements (what size tube do I need), which are bullshitting (how much whiter teeth?) and which our friends use (still ranked as the most important data point for trying a new product). Companies like Colgate sit in the Consumer Packaged Goods [CPG] category, where most of the world’s most instantly recognisable brands reside. But according to research from Boston Consulting Group, between 2011 and 2015, CPG companies lost nearly three percentage points of market share in the US. Nestle has missed its sales growth targets for the past three years.
Part of what’s hitting the CPG sector is a sustained enthusiasm for “local”. Zeitgeist first saw this trend emerging in 2011 when he worked in a strategic capacity for retailers who were increasingly looking to tailor their store design and offering to the area they were in. This is happening in media too, where local content in the Chinese market is quickly adapting to the pyrotechnics and thrills of imported Hollywood fare, and reaping the rewards. Many of China’s businesses are built on being the home-grown version of x foreign product. Uber’s recent deal with Didi Chuxing is an example of this. Moreover, if you’ve decided you’re happy to pay a premium for a product, it is increasingly unlikely you’ll choose a mass produced one. A real treat would be buying a nice cheese from Jermyn Street’s Paxton & Whitfield, not from one of the thousands of Waitrose stores in the country. Deloitte report that US consumers would pay at least 10% more for the “craft” version of a good, a greater share than would pay extra for convenience or innovation.
Of course, as mentioned earlier, digital has had a profound impact on lowering barriers to entry. From The Economist,
[New entrants] can outsource production and advertise online. Distribution is getting easier, too: a young brand may prove itself with online sales, then move into big stores. Financing mirrors the same trend: last year investors poured $3.3 billion into private CPG firms, according to CB Insights, a data firm—up by 58% from 2014 and a whopping 638% since 2011.
Digital’s impact has also been to dovetail with the trends already mentioned. Consumers’ turning away from brand messaging and interest for local is a quest for authenticity in a crowded market. Rightly or wrongly, no other tactic has proved so successful to communicate a roughshod authenticity as the viral video over the past ten years. New entrants are communicating using different channels but also in different ways, that make incumbents uncomfortable. As pointed out though in an editorial from the FT this weekend, “It is tempting to see these young companies as miracles of branding. In fact, they expose outdated industry structures and offer dramatically more value to consumers.”
Large organisations, sensing the eroding advantage, are responding in different ways. P&G is increasingly focusing on its top tier brands, selling off or consolidating around 100 others. Unilever recently bought the famous Dollar Shave Club, and VC arms are popping up at companies like General Mills (think Lucky Charms) and Deloitte, which like other firms is also thinking about how to avoid disruption.
At the start of this piece we mentioned two reasons that going big could lead to sustained advantage: minimising risk and establishing economies of scale. In our eyes, the former is more at risk than ever, as firestorms on platforms like Twitter and Periscope can eviscerate a brand more quickly than ever; VW’s vast operations have not saved it from significant reputational damage. Economies of scale are also a risky proposition, as The Economist points out “Consolidating factories has made companies more vulnerable to the swing of a particular currency, points out Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets”.
But what about Facebook? At the start of the article we talked about its ongoing rule of the social world, but that definition seems too narrow for what the platform is trying to accomplish. Zuckerberg has talked about Facebook becoming a “utility” as part of a long-term vision over the coming decades. This is interesting given this is exactly what every mobile phone network operator in the world is trying to avoid. Reflecting on Yahoo’s demise last week, the Financial Times wrote that “the Achilles heel of each new wave of technology is that it eventually turns into a utility”. Teens don’t tend to find utilities exciting, and perhaps then it is no surprise that Pew reports declining usage and engagement with the platform from this age group. For Facebook then, commoditisation is as much a risk as disruption by a new entry.
One of the myriad benefits online media platforms provide to brands is that they don’t need to appease the censors that stand between them and a TV audience.
If you want to do something a little risque or simply profane you can upload it, promote it and hope it goes viral.
One example is this video in which Kenny Powers from Eastbound and Down becomes CEO (or rather MFCEO) of K-Swiss. In it the character played by Danny McBride sets about recruiting a number of athletes, including NFL stars Matt Cassel and Patrick Willis, MMA champions Jon “Bones” Jones and Urijah Faber, and super-trainer Jillian Michaels to run various departments within the company and promote the Tubes line of footwear.
Warning! Lots of profanity, probably best listened to on headphones…
“Pretty much every person walking around has a mobile device. It is an accepted medium of communication that consumers are becoming more aware of.” said Bryan Ogle, K-Swiss director of business development, explaining the strategy.
“Mobile is not ancillary but rather complementary to the overall messaging strategies employed during this campaign. Significant visual content was created for this campaign and mobile aids the brand in delivering the content to the consumer.” he added.
Initial reaction to the online content has been positive with the target audience and with more family friendly pieces being filmed for a TV audience the campaign is a great example of a brand maximising the benefits of each media channel rather than simply putting an extended TV ad online.
When some campaigns go awry, it’s often due to external sensitivities that, in the passion of the creative moment, sometimes go unacknowledged. We might question how an agency could have overlooked such a thing, but as we know it is all too easy for groupthink to set in. In October 2009, Zeitgeist wrote about one such gaffe, when DDB made a very hard-hitting and extremely controversial ad for WWF, using 9/11 imagery. It’s important to point out that the real story there was more to do with the painful process of admission that DDB went through rather than the ad itself.
In February, the South African film Night Drive arrived in cinemas. An agency by the name of 1984 was responsible for the advertising in its domestic market. To drum up interest, 1984 decided to take a viral approach and distribute fliers in Johannesburg, offering “the best prices for all your body parts and organs”. Naturally this raised concern, as the fliers themselves looked genuine in an amateur way, with the police treating it as a serious matter. Indeed, earlier that month, elsewhere on the continent in Liberia, The Economist reported on crimes where “body parts such as the heart, blood, tongue, lips, genitals and fingertips, all used in sorcery to bring wealth and power, are removed”. Worse still, members of government were being implicated as they looked for anything to give them an advantage ahead of elections. The agency’s parent company swiftly apologised.
It’s a terribly unfortunate tale that sometimes can happen. Agencies are susceptible to this more often than you might think, and the reasons for this are twofold. Think about what agencies are trying to do in the creation and execution of a campaign. Firstly, they are aiming for verisimilitude, especially if the product being sold (in this case a film), is fictional. Secondly, they are trying to get someone’s attention in a marketplace that is incredibly cluttered; increasingly the message needs to be unique to stand out above the fray, even more so with a stacked, year-round movie calendar.
Indeed, film marketing is therefore one of the places you are more likely to come across viral efforts. Triumphs include The Dark Knight, which won an award at Cannes Lions in 2009, and the campaign for the excellent film Inception, $100m of which was spent on viral efforts. One of the best features of this campaign was the treasure hunt they organised around the UK, releasing clues on Facebook that could lead fans to tickets to the premiere. Zeitgeist covered this in its review of summer film marketing activity last year. By contrast, the viral campaign for this year’s Limitless, however, was not seen as successful. The campaign involved two prongs. Zeitgeist remembers images such as the one above gracing the London Underground trains, with actor Bradley Cooper selling his super-drug, with one side-effect being “death”. It was confusing, but the copy was such that if the reader was paying any attention, they would soon realise it was fake, and that the website was Paramount Studios-affiliated. The film’s other main effort, a video of a man controlling the screens of Times Square with his iPhone, met with initial excitement, then puzzlement when it emerged it was to do with the film in question.
What do we learn then? Well, we learn that there is a very fine line between obscurity and popularity, between prominence and offence. We learn that there is no golden rule, no pieces of a jigsaw to assemble that makes the consumer look up and listen. And always, always read The Economist.
On the way back from Paris two weeks ago, Zeitgeist was treated to a magnificent sunset as the Eurostar sped through the francophone countryside. It occurred to him how much more enjoyable the journey would be if the whole of the shell of the train were transparent, one giant window. Aside from structural engineering issues, this might also pose difficulties with the heat and light from the sun. Nevertheless, those hypotheticals did not give Airbus pause when it announced earlier this week they would be building a transparent plane ready for 2050.
Indeed, Zeitgeist has been thinking a lot about transport recently. In the past several weeks we have written about planes, trains and automobiles. The above spot, via Creative Criminals, for an M-powered BMW is a guilty pleasure, what do you think to its authenticity? These sorts of virals / candid shots / advertisements are becoming increasingly popular – though BMW years ago produced the perfect example – as typified by the below video featuring a tennis player and a suspiciously nice-looking Mercedes. This is not the first time that Mr. Federer has shown off his viral-inducing skills. Could this sort of practice be extended to other brands? How about a blurry video of someone looking remarkably like Gordon Ramsay rushing into the Tesco Express that sits two doors down from his flagship restaurant on Hospital Road for some last-minute ingredients?
One question to ask might be whether the authenticity of the video even matters if it creates and stimulates discussion about the brand. In large part it is the aura of candour that provides excitement to the viewer; ‘this wasn’t meant to be released, you shouldn’t be watching this’, or ‘you are one of a select few who can’. As one blogger notes on a Mercedes forum, speaking to these types of video, “Fake, but I enjoyed every one of them :D”. And that, surely, is the point.
Recently, those boffins over at Leo Burnett came up with an intriguing idea for the low-cost food store Lidl. They invited a prominent chef to cook a meal using food from the store and then serve it aboard a flight to Cancun. Adverblog notes, “Sure, it’s a nice case study, I love the idea… But I’m not sure the effort is worth the result. Creative geeks like us will celebrate the idea, but how many consumers actually were exposed to it?” That’s true; it was only a plane full of people who were exposed to the meal. But the story was followed through in TV spots and recipe books, creating a nice thread of a tale.
Last month in New York, travellers on the subway were treated to a similar gastronomic delight when they were served a delectable six-course meal, in-transit. Both events show how something experiential can sometimes be far more memorable than other forms of marketing. In both these cases, the events involved defying expectations by creating special experiences in spaces that are otherwise seen as ephemeral, rather than being a destination in of themselves.
The Muppets and LCD Soundsystem
Happy Friday! While Zeitgeist is caught in the toil and tribulation of work, insightful articles have been coming off the production line a little slower. Rest assured there are many in the pipeline. In the meantime, please enjoy this video of The Muppets, found via Mashable. Though discovered days ago now, it just about still falls in the realm of the zeitgeist. This is not part of any advertising campaign, so it doesn’t matter a great deal, but it’s really staggering to see just how de rigeur it has become to immediately whip one’s phone out and start recording an event now. Did that media end up on Facebook, Twitter et al.? It’s arguable that things like this hurt the muppets’ brand equity, particularly with their younger demographic (or, more precisely, the over-protective parents of such a demo). Such things though are perhaps not important in the context of watching muppets dance.
Unofficially rocking out here to one of Zeitgeist’s favourite bands, the imminently-retiring LCD Soundsystem, the Jim Henson progeny have of late been recasting themselves as social media gurus, in everything from Ode to Joy with the irrepressible Beaker, to the rather more (again) unofficial take on Kanye’s new “Monster” video. And if you were wondering what “the Church” can learn from the Muppets’ social media savvy-ness…
The importance of having a brand attitude.
In categories where the offering is essentially the same, a brand’s positioning and the way it behaves become all the more important as means of differentiating them from the competition.
One such category is online gambling.
In essence, all of the companies offer punters the chance to stake some of their hard earned cash on all manner of sporting and cultural events. The market is extremely crowded and with sites like oddschecker.com enabling gamblers to find the best odds on a given bet, building loyalty can be difficult.
All of which means that acquiring new customers is essential and online bookmakers must stay front of mind in order to be considered. For brands with large budgets, oft-pursued routes include high profile sponsorship, advertisements and idents.
One brand with a smaller budget that manages to maintain a high profile is Paddy Power.
Their novelty bets, early payouts, refunds and risky communications have helped them carve a niche position amongst their rivals. Ranging from the Last Supper reworked as a casino table to a poster seemingly offering odds on which old lady would be hit by a car to sponsoring Tongan rugby player Epi Taion to change his name to Paddy Power by deed poll for the duration of the the 2007 World Cup, their activities are marked by a rebellious streak and a desire to generate as much free publicity as possible.
Their ability to respond quickly to current events helps keep them in the public eye, the poster at the top of the article greeted visitors to Ireland immediately after they’d been knocked out of the World Cup Play-off by France and Thierry Henry’s imfamous handball. The stategy of capitalising on current affairs is as strong as ever has as evidenced by a couple of recent viral activities.
The first was an opportunist game, turned around in under 24 hours, which invited users to ‘slap’ former SkySports pair Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Capitalising on the furore caused by their sexist comments the game was passed around by football fans and feminists alike.
The second is a great piece of activation.
Following the high profile deadline day transfers of Fernando Torres from Liverpool to Chelsea and Andy Carroll from Newcastle to Liverpool, the bookmaker offered distraught fans the chance to trade their old hero’s shirt for a £50 bet.
Better still, the unwanted shirts will then be given to Oxfam and sent to Africa.
Both activities will have been relatively cheap to implement, but their relevance both to current events and their target audience ensured that they were shared virally, thus saving a fortune in media costs.
Paddy Power’s long history of courting controversy and clearly defined brand personality distinguishes them from their myriad competitors and allows them to continue to engage their audience in such a distinctive style. Each stunt serves to raise their profile in the short term while further reinforcing their brand identity in the long term.
Their behaviour might not appeal to everyone and their stunts often cost them financially, however so long as no one used their £50 wager to bet on a draw after Arsenal went 4-0 up at St. James Park on Saturday, the Irish bookmaker will look back at a couple of weeks of good work courting publicity and living up to expectations.
How great timing can accidently help you become part of a mini viral sensation.
With the news in the UK pretty much exclusively focussing on how the cold weather has brought most of northern Europe brought to a standstill, Zeitgeist was reassured to see that the snow and ice are playing havoc in the US too.
As the out of control cars smash into each other a FedEx van appears and chooses a route that doesn’t involve climbing a hill of ice and manages to continue its journey onwards to deliver Christmas presents.
The truck is only visible for around ten seconds of the two minute clip but subtly shows that while others struggle, Fedex delivers.
This particular clip has already been viewed by over half a million people and other instances and TV broadcasts will boost that number considerably.
And all through the good luck of having a competent driver in the right place at the right time. If the Fedex marketing team haven’t already broken up for the holidays they might even think about buying the rights to the first 30 seconds of the clip and running it as an advert while the weather remains so severe.
Whatever they do, Zeitgeist hopes Fedex identify the driver and give him (or her) a nice Christmas bonus. They might also want to offer jobs to the drivers of the red and black cars who managed to keep calm and deliver a driving masterclass.
Timing it would seem, really is everything!
Sex sells. This much is accepted, but as stated by Jef I. Richards, ‘only if you are selling sex’.
With the weather reminding us that Christmas is coming up, brands are fighting to be considered as great presents. For some, this means appealing not to the consumer but to the shopper.
One brand that has identified the link between musical notes and bra sizes is lingerie emporium La Senza who have launched a Cup Size Choir. The premise is quite simple. Each model represents a note relating to her cup size.
To start with, the girls sing a Christmas carol. After that the visitor can play them and make their own tunes. Users can record their compositions and share them with friends as well as endorse the site via Facebook and Twitter. You can even win a years worth of lingerie!
With men in the market for gifts for their partners the site should help La Senza reach an audience that maybe wouldn’t be regular shoppers.
The ingredients of interactivity and women in skimpy outfits won’t do any harm to the sites attempts to go viral. The idea is simple, relevant to the brand and not crucially not gratuitous or overly demeaning to women.
That might be enough to breakthrough the noise of all the other brands attempting to get your Christmas coins.
Let us know if you manage to make any cool tunes.
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