Drowning the Message in COOL

I’m watching the TV. Watching TV is something I try to do as often as possible – like I try to read all the direct mail I get, flick through all the magazines, listen to the radio when I’m in the car while I’m staring at the bill-boards floating by, on the way to spending most of the day meeting mostly marketers or on the web, wallowing in the work of my fellow marketers (why are there not more names for marketers – accountants have bean counter, money-man, finance consultant etc.?) all the while kidding myself I’m up with trends, in-touch with the most in-touch of the professions. But like all of us, life travels me by; a three dimensional movie, just dispelling disbelief.

On comes another ad. I think it’s another in a long row that feature a tallish, guy in stove pants that cling to his skinny legs. Torn denim painted on. He’s got hollow cheeks covered with downy stubble. His hair flops over his ears, so seventies, so now. His t-shirt hangs off his scrawny frame, almost a bed-sheet on a line. He’s sexy, if you’re into band members or heroin addicts I guess, but as I’m not and I’m just another cynical old marketing guy I see a cliché plucked from the very shallow mental resources of a casting person who’s only other job has been as a law-firm receptionist.

The saddest bit about this, is it’s like the forth one I’ve seen this hour with possibly the same dude in it – or are there four identical young guys that just share the ‘male’ role in 2008’s TV ads?

Now this wouldn’t matter if they were all for fashion brands. Fashion brands don’t want to stand out. They are, after all, trying to be ‘of a fashion’ – to copy each other, to be birds of the same groovy flock. The fashion game worldwide needs a kick up its bum. Talk about not following any of the most basic of marketing rules (like USP’s, brand identity…) There are too few marketers working in fashion.

Nup, it’s for a broad-band connection, or a bank, or a car. I can’t remember. Goes to show you how good the ads are. All trying desperately to look like a ‘youth’ brand – to look savvy, sooo Gen Y.

But they miss the mark and the point.

If there’s one thing Gen Y can pick it’s an ad aimed at them.

‘Hidee Hoy, that guy in the ad is probably about 22. They think they are ‘getting’ me cause I’m in my (late teens, early 20’s, early thirties or whatever) and they think showing someone within 5 years of me is going to make me think the ad is cool’. It therefore is not. Lost customer.

Secondly, they are completely missing the mark from a strategic point of view. The brand might stand for one thing or another. It might be the easiest to open, the quickest to load, the best handling, but the ad is all about looking like Gen Y approves of the ad, not what the product or service does/exists for. Again, lost opportunities across all demographics.

This happens constantly. Invariably because the agency making the ad wants to come across to all their drinking buddies at the local pub/club/ beach (insert your favourite bragging location here please) that they are cool, with-it dudes who like absolutely make Gen Y fashion.

Or they get conned by people masquerading as casting agents that this is the look, (leaving, in essence, the brand values and ‘face’ of the brand to the imagination of a 20 year old stylist who has never seen the market research or for that matter passed VCE) or worse, they tell the casting agents they want to look like such and such an ad…

Or the worst case of the lot? They are trying to second-guess the desires of the board, who are all sadly older than me (can you actually be older than me and breathe?) who think golf is an exciting game and featuring skinny, unshaved guys with floppy hair, is really hip and makes their tired old brand new and fresh again.

Now why am I angry about it? Why don’t I just float along on this sea of mediocrity happily accepting that we should all do the same lame ads, all be aspiring to looking skinny, stupid and hairy?

Because it doesn’t work.

Working is not about trying to appease Gen Y, or impressing your mates at a BBQ. Working is about getting the brand to fire with the punters. Did they buy the spin? Did they buy the widget? Did they buy it at a profitable price? Did enough of them buy it? Are they still buying it?

This is a publication dedicated to maintaining the capacities, respect and integrity of one, and only one profession, and the shit ads I’m referring to above are flying in the face of most of our most basic beliefs. Our most tried and tested professional rules. If ads were about how to kill people, would it not be the responsibility of the doctors or police to rally against them? But we do nothing but laugh about ads that kill off our professional credibility and our customer’s viewing eyeballs.

Why TV?

I’m using free to air TV as an example of cool clichés because it’s still without doubt the most powerful marketing landscape in our world today. It influences all other media. It’s not like Outdoor forces TV to change? (For relevance, where appropriate, insert the web, out-bound emails, games as ads, ads in games, mobile phone ads, need I go on…)

What to do

First of all, decide if you want to do ads that actually stand out against your competitors and will be unique in the market. Ask yourself ‘Have a I seen a story-line/visual/treatment/way of talking like this before? Or is every third ad on TV like this today?

Assuming you have decided to do something different, be a grown-up and do the research to find out how you can take your brand into this arena, then make your ads new and exciting as much for your own sense of worth as for ours, the ever patient public.

Brand Values

If you are already running ads that don’t stand out, get someone qualified to look at the brand as it is now (brand values need mapping, like brand architecture and personality, but that’s another article) and determine what are the brand values you actually need to focus on, and then BRIEF. (If you’re not sure you know how to write a brief that high-lights what those values are and motivates well, write anything on a page that you think matters and let the creatives ask the questions and send something back in their format for you to approve.) Have the agency come back with ads that meet the brief. Not easy.

Open your eyes

Consider what other players in your or similar markets are doing, get some shots that show those looks, then tell your agency to do something completely different. Understand they will want to do the groovy modern look because they like being groovy. This is the trap many talentless agencies fall into – throwing out the brand’s needs for the sake of being cool. Make the agency re-think the brand and it’s place in the universe.

Don’t do sheer dumbness as an alternative

I challenge you to think of a dumber ad campaign that the current Commonwealth Bank ad where they do the big shoot of central Australia and spend all that money (seven helicopters) then lampoon the ad agency that came up with it in the end. Yes it’s talked about, but talked about like “How dumb are the Commonwealth?” The public are laughing deeply at two levels. One, the joke about ad agencies wasting money, sure that’s funny, and two that they actually did spend all that money on a stupid idea…that’s a lot funnier. And I’m supposed to believe I could trust them to look after my money?

Wasting media dollars – No-one remembers you

They ask at the BBQ, and what do you do? You fumble around for a set of words that don’t sound trite, end up with Marketing Manager of a HVPG brand. They say a what? You say we make widgets – you know, the TV ad with the guy in the kitchen… and they say ‘I don’t watch enough TV obviously’…. Whereas if you could say ‘I do the Bigpond ads’ they’d be agog.

You mentioned theory?

The theory is that you should do ads that work for your brand by communicating what it is you do well and simply- stylish, simple ads about benefits told in a memorable way. That’s it for theory.

Downsides of ignoring me

Get this through your head – you can’t let the board decide. You must rally against them, sell them one at a time, have them vote, threaten to quit, anything but let them be the harbingers of taste and content. Your board is made up, in almost all cases, of old men who were drop-kicks at school (think John Howard/Kevin Rudd) who pursued accountancy because it was about money, and if you can’t have cool (ie. get the chicks, get respect) at least with money, you can buy a nice car and a nice house and one wonderful day ruin the plans of the cool guys who ended up in marketing ’cause it was fun’. They are dorks and like dorky things like reading the Financial Review and stamp collecting. Recognise on the basis of that, if your board likes an ad, chances are it won’t work. They do not understand the market. They ain’t in touch with it. And they are a long way from cool. They therefore recognise cool by the way cool dresses at the moment, but do not understand the concept of cool ’cause they never were cool in their entire lives.

The industry doesn’t have a clue

According to B& T, an advertising industry rag some of you may know, there are five key factors for cool –

  1. Self-belief and confidence (I agree with this one)
  2. Defiance of convention (who’s?)
  3. Understated achievement (blows any rapper from being cool)
  4. Care for others (I don’t believe this one – no-one I know who’s cool gives a fig about the rest of humanity)
  5. Energy and sociability (so the guy surfing on his own just at dusk on a warm Bells eve isn’t cool? Cause he’s not at the pub?)

10% cool is OK – what?

There’s a management theory I noticed being pushed on some of those very earnest US based marketing websites that says that if 10% of your ‘offering’ is cool, then that’s OK – about as much as you can ask for. That makes your company cool. That’s like saying, when you are dressed like so wrong for a party – you’re the only one in fancy dress (a chicken suit?) and the rest are in racing attire (business suits and slinky dresses), that if your socks are OK, then you fit in. Talk about out of touch with the real world. No wonder American ads don’t work here. They are made by born-again Christians living in Chicago, having recently moved from Utah, who think sex before marriage is ‘uncool’. Help me….

Avoiding mere fashion in order to make money

Sure, use fashion if helps to create the effect in the short term, or for a one-off, but being a slave to fashion does several negative things for you in a long-term campaign that your agency won’t tell you about, possibly because they haven’t thought about it, or possibly because they are cynically doing it. Fashion means you are almost instantly out of date. Within a few months you are out of season. A few months after that you are last year. A year or so after that you are plain embarrassing. You must re-shoot the ad. Great for the agency, bad for you.

If you must connect with fashion, and often you have no choice, lead it. Do something that people are not used to seeing, whether that’s clothes, locations, personality or core promises. Be ahead of the game. What I mean by that is, if it’s familiar, even feels a bit safe, it’s not what you should do, to be ahead of fashion.

What’s Cool?

Dare a late 40’s balding fat guy tell you what’s cool, but cool is not trying to be cool. Cool is doing what you want to. Not trying – cool people don’t try to get approval from people, they keep to their agenda and do their own thing. Cool people are respected for their adherence to their values and their message regardless of what’s going on around them. They don’t copy. Try-hards copy. Try-hards imitate those they perceive as cool.

Brands are exactly the same. As soon as you put the actor in the cool clothes in your ad, you are instantly seen as trying to be cool. The punters treat you like the dweeby guy trying to make friends with them at the party – trying to be cool. They walk away quickly, like you do from a Tiger Snake.

What makes things cool is cool people using them, not the brand itself trying to be cool. Is Coke cool? I don’t think so. Coke is a drink popular with the over-weight masses out in the burbs. As such a big seller – like the number one SKU in the supermarket, it can’t be cool. It’s so mainstream. That is the case, regardless of what the Coke marketing team tell themselves. Cool in a drink sense, is probably something weird from Vietnam made out of dried beans or something homemade you can’t get anywhere else, because that’s probably what the cool people are buying/drinking. I don’t know exactly what it is this instant for two reasons. One is, I ain’t cool. The other is by the time this magazine gets printed, some 3 weeks after I write these words, the cool people have discovered something else and moved on. Possibly to Yak milk with organic honey…try it with nutmeg and iced vodka.

Simple and to the point works every time.

This is the dream. It can be a reality… sounds so easy doesn’t it? Just get the design team, the marketing department, the manufacturing line, the distribution channel, the I.T. department to do things simply and straight-forward and concentrate on the customer and what they want – it’s not a big task is it? Apple manages it. I’m not sure who else manages it… may-be Nike?

But when you run research on what makes things cool, this is what they always say ‘I want a brand that understands what I want – does it in a simple way so I can get on with what I need to do’. That’s the number one way to be cool in this millennium, and not many of you are working for companies doing that. The cool people use products and services that are of themselves – that do what they are supposed to do, well. They don’t buy stuff just cause it’s trying to be cool.

Cool is connected to enviro

This is also closely related to an environmental, sustainability focus. A lot of the most successful products or services of today don’t seem to be wasteful. They are simple, and seem conscious of the need to pare down, to be re-usable, to be clean.

The only way to be cool is by not trying to be

Like the only way to stand out from the crowd is by not trying to look like them. This is a fundamental principle that all good advertising and marketing follows. Relevance to the issue (the need/the problem) and differentiation from others. It’s like Marketing 101 and many, many ads out there ignore the principle and piss the company’s money up against a wall. It costs you so much more in media dollars if you do the also-ran.

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