Thursday, December 11, 2008

When the going gets tough, the government gets going

Every business has its modus operandi of dealing with the global economic crisis - some lay-off, some freeze hiring, some seek policy support to bail them out and some turn towards government accounts to make sure business keeps flowing.

And it is the advertising/marketing industry in particular of late that is pouncing upon any government or quasi-government account that is out to pitch. A recent briefing for a pitch from a government department drew as many as 45 agencies to attend the briefing session.

Another government tender saw 15 agencies, much less of course, but on any given day it’s a lot more than what is the usual turn-out for a government account.

Some of the ongoing tenders include the Ministry of Foregin Affairs and the family development division of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.

On this trend, one industry insider says: “Welcome to 2009. I am not surprised. It had to happen”. Another remarks: “The situation was almost similar back then during the SARS period.”

The entire uncertainty that looms large over the corporate sector, has made agencies jittery to pitch for some accounts, particularly those in the banking market. Another industry source says, “It’s strange to see even the big ones [agencies] pitch for the smallest government account.”

The pinch is being felt everywhere isn’t it?

Recent lay-offs announced by banks and financial institutions, most of which cover support services like marketing, have undoubtedly had a bearing on the way agencies approach an account. Well, it is a nightmare if you are an agency in the middle of an ongoing pitch and one fine morning you learn that the entire marketing team is laid-off and the pitch revoked.

It will be interesting to see how agencies will behave during the boom that will follow the recession (It has to, it always happens).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bold, provocative and controversial, but going too far?

Sportswear brand Skins has been renowned for its unique and often controversial advertising in the past few years, but recently the brand suffered a massive setback, igniting a question about just how far should marketing push beyond its boundaries?

Last week the Advertising Federation of Australia (AFA) took back its illustrious gold pinnacle award that it gave to Skins’ creative agency The Furnace in 2007. Why? Well as you can read here the award recognized The Furnace’s work for Skins and honored a particular campaign for the compression garments manufacturer which stated that Skins doesn’t pay sports stars to wear their products, sports stars pay Skins for them.

This is the ad:

But last year the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) brought a court action against Skins when it was revealed that the brand actually did pay sports stars to wear its products. Oops.

Last week the ACCC unsurprisingly finally found Skins guilty of false and misleading advertising, and the AFA asked for its award – Australia’s equivalent of a gold Effie – back.

Skins and The Furnace have been doing campaigns that push the limit for quite a while. Here’s another of their efforts.

These ads have been very successful in that they have driven huge sales of Skins' products and put the brand on the world stage.

Now I personally feel there’s nothing wrong with controversial advertising, if it has a point or message behind it. It’s so hard to get cut-through these days and to actually get the attention of consumers, so advertising must be unique and different to have an impact. But there’s also a very fine line that once you cross, you’re in trouble. Making unsubstantiated claims about a brand, like the first Skins ad above, is a no-no.

But the second ad above, shot in LA and featuring a series of African-Americans, is in my opinion, OK, and has an actual message for the viewer. It's not controversial for the sake of being controversial. Sure it’s provocative, but it doesn’t go too far. However, the ad ran into trouble in the UK and US for being deemed as 'racist'.

What do you think? Has Skins gone too far in these ads? Should advertising be controversial?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Brand’s brainstorms bloggers

Brand’s, the manufacturer of a range of health supplements who’s selling point is that they increase brain power, recently organised the first Brand’s Blogger challenge where five well-known bloggers from Malaysia and Singapore competed in a mental challenge.

While the quiz was as run-of-the- mill as it can be, the event garnered much attention and enthusiasm as it involved social media, a marketing move that Isabella Tan, vice president for regional marketing at Cerebos (Brand’s holding company), says helped them engage with their audience.

Inspired by a regional survey commissioned by Brand’s on how Asians in eight countries viewed their mental performance, this was the first time that a team of Singapore bloggers were pitted against their Malaysian counterparts in a series of mind challenges.

Here is what Tan had to say about the challenge and the idea behind getting bloggers to quiz:

The survey revealed that that Singaporeans, compared to the rest of Asia, were relatively less engaged when it comes to undertaking activities that would help boost their mental performance. Comparatively, Malaysians are more engaged than Singaporeans in this aspect.

But Singaporeans, do have a reason to cheer, even if the results of the survey didn’t favour them, they emerged the winners of the first Brand’s blogger challenge.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Is there any loyalty in the industry anymore?

Around half of the marketing, media and communication executives in Singapore barely stay with an employer for more than two years, a new study from Aquent has found.

Steven Pang, Asia regional director of Aquent, spoke to Marketing’s sister publication Human Resources about the Aquent Orange survey, and he nominates a few ways companies can increase their staff retention rates.

The topic is definitely an interesting one and raises some questions.

Is loyalty dead? Or is it just the Generation Y trend to move jobs regularly? What is the real affect of high staff turnover in the marketing, media and advertising industries? And during the downturn, will turnover levels increase or improve?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Musings on Burger King and Borat

Despite the many shocked faces I see when I say I haven’t watched Borat, I refuse to lend my eyes and sacrifice my ears to view a single minute of it. Reading about it is bad enough for me. Imagine having to sit through Mr-Hanging-Balls and camera-crew scour the remote villages of ‘Kazakhstan’ (in reality filmed at Glod, Romania)-- making fools of unbeknownst villagers, have them open their doors, catch them on tape and next overlying the most wretched of fictitious dialogue over what was filmed.

Borat humiliates "Mom", has an Incestous "Sister" and The Man with a Sex Toy Fist

The BIASED me says that the producers and Cohen himself were preying on the lack of knowledge and the communication divide between the natives and him.

So when I chanced upon this campaign named “Whopper Virgin”, by Burger King to market its burgers, I was having mixed feelings. And believe you me, I am a Burger King fan.

According to the website, the ads will document the ‘Virgin’ whopper experiences of people from what I see to be (purely from guess work at the moment) maybe some Eastern Bloc country (dressing and beaded hats), an Inuit community (physical appearance and furry shoes) and a remote SE Asian village from Vietnam/Thailand. Some also get to do a taste test between Burger King’s burger and its bitter rival’s Big Mac.

Not exactly Borat… (At least these people don’t get sex-toys affixed to their body parts and they got to eat something they have never eaten.). I don’t know if this ‘talent’ get paid for their appearance or they are aware that they are being filmed for a commercial.

Anthony Bourdain once lamented that mass tourism was changing the landscape of remote villages in Laos. Somewhat similar in this case, this talent have been brought from the realm of the unknown to know the existence of commercialism - like how some missionaries worked in days of the past, perhaps these natives should feel ‘enlightened’ as they have been touched and duly greased by the oily fingers of fast-food.

My point is this, while many TVCs are scripted and mostly always 'fake', and even though these ‘real reactions and emotions’ bring to the art of filming advertisements to another ‘high’….

Is it considered ethical? Am I over-reacting or is there a tiny inkling of deception and exploitation is this new “adver-mentary” (advertising-documentary) style of speaking to the target audience while ‘connecting’ with them?

As a practioner, is this to you considered acceptable

The ad/film has not been revealed yet and this are just my preliminary thoughts on it. Perhaps it has been tastefully done, with large stroke of humanity and a sprinkle of commercialism.

Perhaps I will eat my words along with a huge whopper and fries.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Bondi blow-up dolls

You have to admire vodka brand 42 Below’s marketing strategy.

They really are unafraid to take risks and are famous for their cheeky and controversial ad campaigns.

Their latest work, by Sydney creative hotshop The Glue Society, sees a group of strange figures who are dressed in white and doing weird installations across New Zealand and Australia. In one of the executions they’ve set up 100 inflatable sex dolls on Bondi Beach.

In other executions, the white-clad group set up a rainbow of plastic chairs in the snow.

They also have wrapped a street of cars with Christmas paper, set up a UFO-style shell in the New Zealand highlands, created a giant coloured snowman in Sydney’s Circular Quay and repainted the roof of a skyscraper. See them at

The installations are all part of a global campaign promoting 42 Below’s “Because we can” brand positioning. The web-based movement is aimed at celebrating those with a spirit of adventure, free thinkers, as well as to honour actions that are done for no reason other than for happiness, intrigue or exploration.

42 Below is encouraging the public to get involved with its own user-generated content, and is offering a US$4200 prize each month for the best submission.

As I said before, the premium alcohol brand has had no problem differentiating itself from its competitors. Being unique is something that 42 Below has spruiked from its early beginnings, as these ads show.

In the space of a just a few years, 42 Below has gone from being a tiny vodka brand based in Auckland to a global player that was snapped by drinks giant Bacardi for NZ$138 million in 2006. And marketing has played a massive role in its phenomal growth.

So does being different ultimately pay off?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Don’t mess with the Dragon

Nokia has released a great viral to promote its N96 phone in China.

Created by JWT Beijing, the ad shows martial arts legend Bruce Lee playing table tennis with nun chucks, and kicking arse. On this from he would have given Forrest Gump a run for his money.

The clip has had nearly 430,000 views on YouTube since 18 November, which ain’t too shabby.

There is also this website - - featuring a fighting Bruce and the phone.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bubble boy

Before he jetted off to fulfill his many other obligations, I managed to catch Y&R Group chief insights officer, John Gerzema for a quick video interview on his new book The Brand Bubble.

The book has been making waves of late, and he even made an appearance on Bloomberg yesterday (I think it was after I interviewed him) as well. I must admit, I haven't read the book cover to cover yet, but I am three quarters of the way through and its given good insight into today's consumer, the market performance of brands, and exposed the true value of brands.

He talks a bit about the book, which he co-authored with Ed Lebar, to Marketing here.

If you want, you can also get involved in The Brand Bubble conversation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lessons from Lenovo

Yesterday, I was at the Brand Couture Congress 2008 where i got to hear Lenovo's chief marketing officer for Australia and NZ, Yu Dan Shi, give a presentation on how to take a new brand from obscurity to a household name in 12 months , i.e. what she's done with Lenovo in the last 12 months.

It was a fascinating story on how she succeeded in building the brand in Australia and New Zealand with a limited budget (in one of her examples, she mentioned how she bartered something like $8 million worth of laptops / Lenovo products with Channel 7 for marketing opportunities during the Olympics).

I asked her a couple of questions on credit crunch marketing.

For more information on marketing during the economic crisis, see our December issue cover story where we talk to marketers and agencies across several markets, and get them to discuss on which strategies work.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Finger lickin' good

It’s rare that you get a piece of advertising that is not only unique but of benefit to the community.

McCann Erickson Singapore has taken this path with a new TVC they have created for KFC, adding in a bit of Xmas cheer.

Generally when you think of the Colonel’s finest, you might not think of helping others, or silence. But this could change with this ad (below).

The commercial was shot at virtually no production cost, as it was shot on a humble handycam, and the money saved from the making of the ad is being donated to the Singapore Association for the Deaf.

It’s a good example of a different creative idea that both is a piece of advertising and supports a cause.

And congrats to both KFC and McCann for doing it.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Building sandcastles in the air?

Ever since talks began on building an integrated resort or Singapore’s excuse, I mean euphemism, for a casino resort - marketers have more than supportive of the venture, as they hope to see more tourism dollars fly in and that they will act as a catalyst for a more a robust local retail and entertainment landscape.

There were two awardees, Las Vegas Sands for the Marina Bay Sands and Genting International with Star Cruises, Universal Studios for the Resorts World at Sentosa. The latter recently announced its intentions to build a Transformers-themed ride, which has been met by a rousing response following the movie’s successful global run.

In fact as the structures become ‘more concrete’, many marketers will be setting their sights to be part of the development. Just yesterday in The Straits Times there was an article on the Sentosa resort’s plans to create 300 fairly senior positions. Marina Bay too held its hiring spree late last month, which saw more than 10,000 responses.

We can be sure marketing hires too would be part of the exercise. So dear HR departments other than drawing up retrenchment packages and handing out pink slips (it seems like a daily affair these days anyway), shouldn’t you be keeping a close eye on your lead marketers?… if not we might be meeting some of them for coffee in Sentosa or Marina in the near future.

Ahhh….with all these talk on investments, hiring and themed rides… Everything sounds all merry and happy in casino-land ain’t it?

But sorry my dears good things don’t come too easy. Las Vegas Sands seems to be in for some trouble. Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire owner who controls 65% of the company was in Singapore recently and was having tête-à-tête sessions with the Singapore government, as the company is suffering a severe cash-flow problem.

Las Vegas Sands, which is set to open next year, had committed the highest development investment of S$3.85 billion. Which means it is likely to exceed S$5 billion in total investment, making it one of the most expensive casinos in the world. Imagine the company’s market capitalization was $49 billion in October last year but as of October 23 this year its value was $3 billion! A value even lesser than what it was to put into Singapore!

So what is to happen now we aren’t sure. Adelson says the show will go on. Would this mean the Singapore Government digging deeper into its own pockets to finance the Sands? Or will the pitch in due time be reopened to find the next bigger better player to carry on the project? Perhaps, but it would be very unlikely that the project will be abandoned completely.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has called for Singaporeans to spend if they can afford to as to stave off the recession, but if print headlines continue their daily runs as ‘bearer of bad news’ its unlikely we’ll see much improvement in consumer spend.

This serves as another chilling reminder to marketers out there that counting chickens before they are hatched isn’t the best business practice to have, while in this case it would mean…Building sandcastles in the air.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The good 'ol days

In case you are working in advertising or marketing and have been living under a rock for the past 14 months, there is a US television program that is a must-see. And finally it has landed in Asia.

Mad Men is set in the 1960s in New York’s Madison Avenue advertising scene, and focuses on the fictional agency Sterling Cooper and its charismatic creative director Don Draper. Mad Men was created by former Sopranos writer and executive producer Matthew Weiner, and similarly has Sopranos-like tendencies – its high quality TV, compelling, intelligent and witty. The show is simply compulsory viewing thanks to its brilliant writing and attention to detail.

For those who haven’t seen it, here’s a quick tease.

The show debuted in the US in 2007, and has quickly become a global hit. It won Emmys and Golden Globes in its first season, and the second season is on is the US right now. Mad Men just launched on FX in Singapore and Hong Kong last night.

You also know you’ve made it to the big time when you’re parodied by The Simpsons.

Mad Men really is a fascinating insight into what some might call a golden period of advertising, and the internal politics and mechanics of a big ad agency. The show is full of smoking, sexism, rampant drinking and has a distinct lack of political correctness.

Which begs the question. What was life really like back in the advertising and marketing scene in the 1960s? And have we lost some of the fun out of the business?

Monday, November 03, 2008

Money-Money-Money-Money, but is that enough?

The US presidential election is nearly over, and it has been a fascinating insight into big brand marketing.

Barack Obama has been spending money on advertising for his campaign like it was going out of style. He has broken records by spending around $600 million on his campaign, according to a story in The Straits Times, and raised in total a record-breaking $1 billion. $207.4 million of that has gone on TV advertising, almost a $100 million more than John McCain has spent on TV spots.

Last week Obama bought a 30-minute slot on three of the four national American TV networks and on three cable networks, right before a World Series baseball game. The move was virtually unprecedented in a US election campaign (apart from Ross Perot’s effort in 1992) and the one-off media buy would have cost the Obama camp roughly between $3 million and $5 million.

And it was by far a huge success, at the very least in ratings terms. According to Nielsen Media Research, the infomercial was seen by 33.55 million viewers, which was more than the World Series game which followed it and more than last season’s finale of American Idol.

That’s scary stuff.

But is it all about money? Is money all that counts, or does substance and a more stylish campaign message go a long way?

Well another thing in Obama’s favour is his slogan or tagline of ‘Change’. Obama has marketed himself as an agent of change and hope, as ‘the Saviour’ and ‘the One’. As someone who is different from the norm and who presents a break from other politicians and bi-partisan politics.

It's something that McCain has struggled to fight against

Obama has a few simple facts to back up his change message – he is young (47) compared to McCain (72), and has a very different background. He is African-American, charismatic and articulate, and thanks to two of these three facts he resembles another former popular Democratic leader in JFK.

So couple Obama’s massive bank balance with an effective campaign message, regardless of actual policies and real ideological differences, and it’s a pretty tough arsenal to compete with.

The Democratic camp has also utilized new media a lot better than the Republicans, with this viral effort one example:

So putting all this together, does John McCain stand a chance?

Well, in a perfect world, marketing would definitely not decide a political election and perhaps not play such a massive role. But as they say, only in America.

In a few days we’ll have our answer.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Ogilvy celebrates in style

You have to love those crazy Ogilvy folks, they really know how to party.
The team at Bold Ogilvy Athens, Ogilvy’s Greece outfit, recently made this tribute to David Ogilvy.

Its in honour of the agency founder’s 60th birthday and is, as you can see, a very “interesting” homage.

Its got in it everything one could love from European pop music – attractive singers, a great sound and catchy lyrics like “David so bold and avid”.

All I can say is bring on Eurovision 2009.

Monday, October 20, 2008

To pay or not to pay, that is the question

The message seems loud and clear – the pitching process has become an unruly battleground in Singapore and needs to be cleaned up. But is bringing in compulsory pitch fees the way to nirvana?

It’s obvious that ad agencies in Singapore are fed up with the pitch process. We explore this issue in this month’s magazine.

Many are clamoring for a mandatory pitch fee system to be introduced, as is the case in Malaysia. But most recognize this drastic measure would have several negative implications.

Smaller agencies may miss out on more pitches, as clients get selective on who they invite to pitches. Marketers may be less likely to take risks, as adding an extra layer of fees on to the advertising structure may mean the end product is of a lower of standard of work.

And more questions emerge – how big should the fee be? Is there a one-size fits all policy, or would the fee depend on the size of the client’s budget? And how would the process be regulated? In many ways the whole pitch fee issue offers more questions than answers.

One way for forward for making pitching more transparent could be to introduce one-day workshops between clients and agencies, instead of 20 or 40 minute presentations.

It’s a process Trinity P3 recently used in Australia for the Vodafone pitch, and its one that has been used in Europe for quite a while. In the workshop marketers and agencies get to spend time together and build a relationship, giving each more of an opportunity to get know each other and see if a partnership would work.

This technique wouldn’t work for every client, but it may work for some. It’s just an idea, and probably an overly-ambitious one, but overall the view seems clear that something must be done to make pitching here a more open process.

What do you think, how can pitches in Singapore be improved?

Friday, October 17, 2008

When a good idea is pushed too far

A great ad can do a lot for a brand, but the over-flogging of that great ad can also do a lot of damage.

The famous Australian “Rabbits” TVC which was created by the agency BWM a few years ago for BigPond, a part of Australian telco giant Telstra, is a good example.

The ad was a hit, BigPond’s brand grew and grew as a result, and the ad is regarded as one of the best and most successful to come out of Australia in recent years.

The two characters were very well received by Australian viewers – the young son, cute and innocent, and the father who is cheeky but endearing. The quote that the Great Wall of China was built by “Emperor Nasi Goreng'' to “keep the rabbits out'” has become a part of Aussie culture, a claim that few ads can make. And the father and son characters have since popped up in numerous ads for Telstra BigPond over the years, like this one

this one

and this one

BigPond did deviate briefly with this one-off effort featuring notorious American rocker Tommy Lee.

But few of the ads since “Rabbits” featuring the characters have managed to replicate its massive success. The latest one, titled “Australian Day”, was another continuation and was launched with much hype, but failed to reach the heights of “Rabbits”.

Now this early this week I was dismayed to hear that the characters from “Rabbits” were apparently to be turned into a feature film. It was revealed earlier this year at Cannes by BigPond group MD Justin Milne that Telstra was considering turning the ad into a TV sitcom.
For whatever reason this hasn’t happened, but now BWM has apparently started work on developing a script for a film based on the “Rabbits” characters.

According to the report “conversations are underway with some of Australia’s most prominent script writers to work on a screenplay”, and BWM has “been approaching writers from Australian classics such as Strictly Ballroom, The Castle and The Dish to garner interest in the project, though some of these have already declined”.

Surprise surprise that those writers have declined. Common sense dictates that they would be flogging a dead horse.

Telstra BigPond and BWM had a great ad with “Rabbits”. It was a huge hit, it’s still very popular and won a swag of awards. But they have to move on it from it now. If they did want to make a film based on the ad, they’d want to be very, very careful to make sure the film is entertaining. The damage a film flop would do to the brand would be immense.

Later this week Telstra backtracked big time and came out publicly flatly denying the film would be made. A Telstra spokesperson told industry magazine AdNews that reports it plans to create a film based from characters from the ad were a BWM “PR stunt”.

For me, that’s good news and a smart play by Telstra.

There’s a very fine line between having a great ad which remains being held in high esteem for years, both by the public and the industry, to many great ads which become far too exposed and over-flogged so that consumers literally switch off when they appear.

Viewers appreciate and enjoy a great 30-second ad, but I don’t know many cinema-goers who get excited or would pay to watch a two-hour commercial.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A groovy kind of road

Yes you enjoy music, you hum to the tunes, and you’ve seen “plastic plants” dance to the beat. But have you seen or rather heard of a singing road?

Let's rock & roll!!

It all started in Japan when a dude named Shizuo Shinoda drove his bulldozer over unlevel roads. Road engineers eventually developed a musical road surface turning cars into ‘tuning forks’ when they travel over grooves cut at specific internals which produce different tones depending on the width between the grooves.

This same technology was used in a little stretch of road about an hour from Toyko, built at a couple of hundred thousand yen as a municipal town’s way of creating novelty to encourage people to visit their home town as it was extremely deserted.

But this ain’t something too new, apparently, it was been done at Disney World many years ago with the intro to "When You Wish Upon a Star" playing as one drove down the road towards the Magic Kingdom entrance; Zip-a-dee-do-da was tried too. According to a blogger at a directory website, the sound was freaking some drivers out hence it was discontinued.

Zip-a-dee-do-da from 'Song of the South'

The ad agency for Torrance-based American Honda, RPA of Santa Monica, decided to incorporate the peculiar music-making method into a Civic commercial that will air nationally in late September.

Perhaps the Americans didn’t think much about the repercussions except for its novelty, Lancaster Town in Virginia had a Civic Road with similarity carved track lines which ‘drove’ to the sound of ‘The William Tell Overture’ at 55 mph, the posted speed limit. It lasted for around 18 days when it was forcefully discontinued as it was “creating too much noise”, residents complained.

This hyper-sensitive little town with its graying population complained to the authorities that it was too loud and they could not stomach the ad campaign for Honda Civic.

To date, these roads have been built in cities like Japan, South Korea and Holland. I suppose I wouldn’t complain if they did anything like such is Singapore. Imagine the roads along Esplanade playing ‘Singapore Town’ [… take a little trip around Singapore town In Singapore city bus…] or along the Padang playing [Majulah Singapura]. Think of all the ad jingles!!

It makes me even more motivated to get my driving license!!

However if you think fuel charges are too high and having music while cruising drives you up the wall. You can always opt for something less noisy, and something that you do everyday and most of the time more than once – one of Hasbros’ most popular product in recent years - ‘The only toothbrush that puts music in your mouth” - Tooth Tunes!!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Make me laugh

When it comes to delivering a social message, government bodies and affiliates are often faced with two options, a) do it through a hard hitting shock tactic type execution, or b) through humor. Which one works best?

The reason I ask is, today Grey sent me a series of TVCs its Melbourne office did for WorkSafe which highlight, in a pretty gruesome manner, the dangers that young people face in the workplace. It's pretty effective in getting the message across, have a look at the one where the kid gets boiled by scalding water.

Stark contrast to last year's well known 'pinky' ads the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) New South Wales did for anti-speeding which we blogged about here. Closer to home, Singapore has also adopted a less gory approach to road safety. This year's Road Safety Outreach Campaign is a complete u-turn to most of the road safety stuff i saw last year in Singapore (especially from the ones shown in the cinema with the creepy and annoying voice overs).

For me, personally, I prefer the humorous ads but shock-ads, done well , definitely leave a lasting impression.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Politics: The great creative inspiration

What is it about politics, especially American politics, that inspires such an outpouring of creativity?

When ever its election time in the US there seems to be a mad scrambling together of all sorts of creative types, who come up with great content aimed at the voting public. In this instance, ad agency Droga5 has worked with comedian Sarah Silverman to make this pro-Obama message.

There’s also been a ton of stuff directed at Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. As you can see, Saturday Night Live has a field day with several skits about Palin. But so has many other groups from writers, actors, comedians and just the public in general. Here’s one, and here’s another.

There’s also been some interesting ads to get Americans to register to vote. Here’s one with Jessica Alba in a Hannibal Lecter-style mask. Other notable efforts include this TVC, which was done during the Democratic nominations and designed to separate Obama from Hilary Clinton.

The other side of this coin is some of the terrible advertising that gets produced during elections. Like this ad (yes, it’s a real ad) for Republican nominee Mike Huckabee and this TVC for Mike Romney.

And there’s also the attack ads, which have become a big part of elections, especially American elections, and are the other side of this issue. Why does politics inspire the best, and often the worst, in the creative community? And is this lacking in Asia and in Asian politics?

Give us your thoughts.

You know something's wrong when....

Mainland Chinese stop splurging! The Hong Kong Tourism Board yesterday announced that visitor arrivals from Mainland China during this year’s National Day Golden Week holidays reached 481,987, a 9.5% jump on the same period last year. Good numbers for sure, but what's got the retail market in Hong Kong worried is that retail sales were worse than expected. It's long been touted that mainland Chinese would be the saving grace for Hong Kong's retail market in this period of financial uncertainty, particularly in the luxury goods market. But apparently not.
The South China Morning Post is reporting that while individual mainland travellers jumped 14%, sales surged less than 5% compared to the same period last year with expectations from store owners significantly down.
"We're a bit disappointed because this is lower than the 10 per cent target," Lau Hak-bun, sales director at Chow Sang Sang Jewellery, said.
The SCMP also says that Oriental Watch store saw its revenue over the Golden Week dropped by about 20% to 30% for its Central shop, although our Tsim Sha Tsui and Jordan shops did better. Maybe it wasn't a Golden Week after all.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Give me your Ideas and I’ll give you my brand...

Brands and corporations have been aligning themselves with student bodies for a long time...offering book prizes, scholarships, exclusive internship opportunities etc… Nobody ever complains as these schemes benefit the students and are likely to influence their job opportunities after gathering these accolades.

In recent years we’ve been seeing more marketers willing to work with schools in several different ways - sponsoring competitions, giving out bursaries etc. Business schools have their sales, branding, and marketing competitions, (Think ‘The Apprentice’ on slightly smaller less glamorous scale). Creative outlets have also been holding competitions looking out for their next protégé.

Mastercard, Microsoft, Toyota, Nestle, Yahoo and Vidal Sasson, to name just a few, are some of the brands out there who are capitalising on young, untapped energy and talent.

Perhaps I am a little to harsh and skeptical here, but I can’t help but wonder if this is the new route brands are taking - capitalizing on students' ideas as a cheaper alternative to consultancy firms.

“Hmmm I could hire a consultancy or an agency to work on my next branding campaign, but why don’t I try to see if any of the marketing, design or tech students out there can create ideas to lift my brand from obscurity? Or even better, get them to develop a programme that will make my new product less susceptible to hackers and the likes?” Executive A thinks.

Executive B continues, “Perhaps they are can be very run of the mill and unexciting but some can be a little more innovative and daring, we don’t have to pay them gazillions, just offer them a prize, an internship, a token sum for their efforts.”

“In fact, I can get a couple of schools to take part in it. Wow!!! Think of the potential of many ideas from students. It’d be like a pitch, free ideas galore!!” Executive C shrieks.

“ And that is not all, we can get publicity too for our CSR efforts!!” Executives A, B, and C chime in unison.

But there's a sliver of truth in it isn’t there… when companies move in favour to support communities and students, other than the fact that the students benefit from the relationship, these marketers are likewise banking in on students’ “eagerness” to be associated with the brand.

Perhaps as budgets get slashed and marketers are told to cut costs, more student activities woill be held across the island as the services of such young, talented individuals are procured for the “simple want for the better good”.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The worst kind of PR

The Chinese poisoned milk scandal just goes from bad to worse. It kind of reminds me of George W Bush’s American presidency, it started off in controversy, took some more big hits and still continues to get worse at an alarming rate.

The complete inability of the Chinese government and the Sanlu Group (the company at the centre of the crisis) to actually deal with the scandal is astounding. The latest installment, according to a story in today’s Straits Times, is that Sanlu had actually asked the Chinese government for help in covering up the crisis. The authorities were made aware of the problem about a week before the Beijing Games began, and chose to sweep it under the carpet.
Apparently they were worried about the scandal ‘tarnishing’ China’s image before the Games, and wanted to “avoid creating a negative influence in society”.

Well they were ‘successful’, on some levels, as they did cover up it during the Games so that China’s first Olympics went off without a hitch. That is of course if you forget the dramas surrounding the Olympic torch and Free Tibet protests, the pollution in Beijing and the attempts to stifle the freedom of world media before the Games started. Yeah sure, the 2008 Olympics were problem-free.

And trying to avoid creating a negative influence in society? Well they’ve failed miserably at that. When babies die, you have your negative influence right there. It’s unavoidable. Child fatalities kind of do that to you. Any sort of cover up of that is simply pointless.

The reaction to the tainted milk crisis from those involved as been pitiful at best. It took the intervention of the New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark to spur the Chinese government in to action. Since then panic has spread, and more milk related products have been pulled from the shelves on a daily basis. The affect on the milk, confectionary and dairy sectors has been devastating, and will continue to be so for months, maybe years to come. The crisis has spread from China to the rest of APAC, and global giants such as Nestle, Cadbury, Unilever and Heinz been tainted.

China has not managed to contain the crisis, or managed to minimize its fallout. Some of this could have been avoided by going on the offensive.

Taking cues from the reactions to other product contaminations in other countries, the Chinese government and Sanlu should have ordered a massive product recall. Before there is a chance to test all the products, get them out of stores, even if some may be OK. The mere question of possible contamination should be enough to pull it off the shelf.

Secondly, there should have been a huge public information campaign to inform consumers of what was happening and why, and to reassure them that the problem will be fixed. At a time like this information is vital, and to stop harming more people and creating more hype you have to get active. But now this is basically too late. 53,000 children are ill and four babies are dead. Consumers in China are enraged, and rightly so, while consumers the world over are skeptical about buying anything that might hail from Asia and be milk-related.

Trying to cover up information that will eventually get out is pointless and very harmful. It is much better to try engage with the community, to work to solve the crisis, rather than trying to avoid it or to point fingers at those responsible.

The damage has been done now, and it’s going to take a hell-of-a-lot of advertising and marketing dollars to put the likes of Sanlu and the other brands involved back to the position they were in before the scandal began.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I was wrong, well not as wrong as Ferrari

I have to admit watching over this past few months the sluggish lead up to Singapore's F1, both from a marketing/sponsorship perspective and a logistics and engineering one, I kind of thought the Singapore F1 might run about as smooth as a Ferrari refueling stop.

However from my spectacularly well located seats on the first corner (thanks to Marketing's good friends at ESPN - see pic) I was delighted to be completely wrong about it in the end.

Apart from the sheer animal enjoyment of being that close to that much horsepower and breathtaking technology crammed into a tiny carbon fiber shell, I think for brand Singapore, along with chief sponsor Singtel and all those who threw their hats into the ring with various sponsorship deals and those who took up hosting options, it was a hugely successful event.

There was no other place to be over the weekend then jammed up against tens of thousands of others from the obsessed perennial fans, like the brave lad who painted his body in support of the US and its great hope, Scott Speed (yeah it's really his name), through to the excitable F1 virgins. But it took me to see some of the footage on the box last night on BBC to realise just how impressed the world was with Singapore's F1.

As for the branding, the Singtel stuff was everywhere and while many suspected it had under-leveraged the lead up to the event itself, the livery on the track beamed around the world was extremely important in establishing the telco as a brand name globally. How useful that is depends on how far over the horizon the telco thinks it wants to scale its business.

But the real winner was definitely Singapore. When you live there the continuous claims that it is a world class city with world class facilities and service become a little monotous (particularly if you have been exposed to the other side of that service imperative). But to see that illuminated track snake around some of Singapore's finest features,the organisational planning that had gone into the trackside event and the ease with which it was seemingly pulled off certainly gets you on board.

Yes there did seem to be an absence of long sighted F1 marketing strategy, but then the stands were full and while the sponsors and government did a reasonable job of trying to include everyday Singaporeans in this major event, the reality is F1 isn't a sport for the heartlanders its a high cost sport that demands of its sponsors large amounts of cash and so investments have to be maximised.

Like the Olympics (which incidentally, according to Mediacorp saw less viewers than the F1 among Singaporeans - 780,000 compared to 765,000 for the Beijing Olympics) its largely watched on TV by the people who live closest to it.

So offering cut priced seats and doing tactical ticket sales marketing isn't really practical, you need premium clients who want big hosting deals. That then, according to a number of folk I spoke to over the weekend is why marketing didn't seem tobe omnipresent in the lead up to F1 - a lot of it was B2B and relationship based.

The success of the F1 will do more to market Singapore as a destination for international leisure and business tourists than any of the TVCs produced under the Uniquely Singapore badge because what makes an international destination is a destination that can host the world and the F1 proved Singapore can.

Of course I can't write about the F1 without pointing out where the organisers dropped the ball, ie the beer tents - the lines were crazy (although not as crazy as those strange animal figurines in the beer tent - see pic - does anyone know what that was about?). In fact I was sitting near a bunch of Aussies who swore they would never come back because it was so hard to get a beer.

Thankfully the first few laps served to both drown out their moaning and distract them from what they were complaining about in the first place.

Thankfully my hosts had wisely sat four beers down in front of me before the race began.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The war for talent is over

I recently came upon the following quote in my readings: “The war for talent is over. It has been won by talent.” (You’ll have to forgive me for losing the great mind who made this statement, I can’t seem to retrieve the document in which I read it.)

Indeed, the war for talent has been won by talent. Throughout the world, more and more companies are facing ever-greater challenges of finding the right talent at the right time. The competition is fierce, the consequences terrifying, the salary-bidding accelerating.

In China, the case is even more so. At a recent seminar, I heard Starbucks China’s main man talk about his employees as the coffeemaker’s number one priority challenge. Not the difficult retail-landscape of China, not its complicated logistics, not the competition from local low-cost chains, not the protection of Starbucks’s intellectual property. Finding and keeping qualified employees, that was his number one preoccupation.

Let’s run through this short thought exercise: Imagine almost half of your total customer base constantly on the look-out for competitive products. Imagine your whole customer base needing to be completely renewed every year and a half. Now imagine the strategy and tactics needed to keep your customers loyal in such a heated market situation. The corresponding communications, promotional and loyalty plan budgets are simply mind-boggling.

Well, I invite you to sit back and take in a few of these astounding figures. Over 40% of all current workforce in China is actively looking for a new job. The average job duration for under 30’s in my stepmother city Shanghai is just 17 months. China needs up to 75.000 world-class quality executives within the next 5 to 10 years, with universities projected to supply only 3.000 to 5.000.

Talent in China is scarce and extremely volatile. Finding it is a challenge, keeping it an even bigger one.

But why am I writing about talent, and the challenge of finding and keeping it, in a marketing forum, of all places? Quite simply, because employees are your brand. They live and breath it, they convey it onto your customers at all imaginable (and unimaginable) touch points. And Starbucks’s number one knows this.

Going about attracting the right talent is less and less the mission of only the Human Resources department. The employee base is becoming a corporate, top-level issue, with cross-functional ways of thinking, inspired by an ever more so marketing talk. Getting the right employee candidates to meet with your recruiters is only possible after a thorough segmentation of the employment market: which types of profiles can you expect to find where, and in which concentrations? How do you interact with them, and attract their attention towards your company in the first place?

Once your recruiter talks with them, all interviewees, both the hired ones and the rejected ones, will return to the employment market and talk with their peers. What will they tell them about their experience at your company? And how will that affect your power of attraction?

Once you’ve conquered a candidate’s heart, and he becomes an employee, how do you keep him? Nurture your employees, like you do your customers. Employees don’t tick to only salaries, like consumers consider more than price when buying your product. Build up a relationship with your employee, like you do with your customers, getting to know him, what motivates him, what frustrates him, what will keep him going strong. And then tailor programs to fit these needs: trainings, career path coaching, team building.

Talent has won, so get it on your side.

Catherine Crevels works for the Belgian marketing consulting firm The House of Marketing out of its Shanghai office.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Emotions all around

All over town, it’s emotions emotions emotions.

At a seminar on branding in China that I recently attended, various speakers from the advertising industry defended and promoted the use of emotional bonding in all brand communications. The general message was to communicate with your consumers on a human level about subjects that are relevant to them- creativity, simplicity, power, status.

The audience was overwhelmed with proof of this statement: an impressive overview of best-in-class examples of integrated, holistic campaigns in which the deeper emotional benefits of a brand were central. Nokia connects people, in all possible interpretations of those words. Sony delivers colour, sound, memories, like no other. Nike uncovers the hidden athlete in all of us, encouraging everyone to just do it. Coke spreads happiness and vitality in a bottle through its vision on the Coke side of life. BMW goes beyond the functionalities of a high performance vehicle, and invites us to enjoy the pure pleasure of driving.

Having spent a significant part of my recent past in multinational consumer goods companies, I too remember the value I attached to the emotional positioning of our leading coffee brand: cosiness and human warmth. We expressed these values through any way possible, always reminding our consumers that they were paying more for our brand because it provided them more than a good-tasting drink and a boost to wake up in the morning.

Looking at the examples discussed during the seminar, one could state that indeed, the emotional branding and strong campaigns of these world-class brands are the basis of their success in China. And building on this statement, we can conclude that also in China, emotions are key, right?

For me, this is the real question that remains: is China ready for emotional branding? True, global, best in class brands are successful in China, and these same brands globally play out their emotional card. But does the same apply to smaller brands, or to domestic Chinese brands?

Talking to quite a few people in the industry, and simply walking around Shanghai, observing shoppers’ behaviour, I’ve learned that for many Chinese, quality, price, value and practicality are the main reasons for purchasing a product. True, any international brand name offers status to China’s new and upcoming consumers, but to go as far as to say that they prefer Nokia’s “connecting” qualities over Samsung’s advanced product features is a leap I wouldn’t dare to take.

Going one step back into the value chain, talking to companies building and fostering brands in China, I notice that they are not talking purely about emotions. It’s about channel strategy, building up a sound distribution system, with logistics that keep up speed, delivering a stable brand promise with the same quality throughout the country, tapping into the sales potential of an increasingly large potential consumer base.

When it’s all about growth in a rapidly developing market, the important thing is to be there, and keep up. Emotions are nice, and crucial to a brand’s essence, but it is only really necessary to communicate about them in mature, saturated markets, where consumers no longer decide with their wallets but with their hearts.

Catherine Crevels works for the Belgian marketing consulting firm The House of Marketing out of its Shanghai office.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Simply the Best

Only the best is good enough in China. On asking a Chinese how many medals China had won 5 days into the Games, the answer was 17. Impressed as I was, I asked my contact how many of these were gold. Gold? Oh, all of them! In total they had won some 40 medals, but apparently only the gold count. That should help to explain the attitude of the heavy weight who recently won bronze, only to throw it to the ground in discontentment. This strategy of course led only to disqualification and a loss of the medal altogether.

The quest for the absolute best also goes for marketing. In our European home base, one of our most popular services is helping companies identify their unique selling proposition and positioning, and to help them differentiate themselves from their competition. Basic marketing strategy, right? Segment, target, position. Be unique.

Not right. Offering to help a Chinese brand differentiate itself will never work. Chinese don’t want to be different, even if it is in a relevant and sustainable way, tailored to a specific target audience. This target audience in turn also doesn’t want a different product or service, tailored to its needs.

Chinese want the best. Simply the best. And if this means copying a great idea, only to make it even better, so be it. As one China-connoisseur once put it, there is no merit to be gained by being innovative.

This helps explain why all premium brands, be it Kohler toilet seats, Garmin navigation devices or Pepsi cola, swear by testimonials for their advertising. Do we see any originality here? Any great consumer insights? Any right-on positioning? No. All we see is repetition of the same great idea, letting a famous person tell the world how good your product is. But who’s asking for originality anyway?

Catherine Crevels works for the Belgian marketing consulting firm The House of Marketing out of its Shanghai office.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sporting rivalry turns cheeky

There’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned sporting rivalry being played out in the media. Especially if the media is newspapers, and especially if it’s Australia and Great Britain going at it. It can get quite ‘clever’ at times, and lead to cheeky creative executions.

B&T Today carries the story of The Daily Telegraph hitting back at British tabloid The Sun’s attempt to poke fun at Australia’s gold medal haul. The Sun hired tray-top trucks in both Sydney and London to boast about Great Britain’s 19 gold medal tally to Australia’s 14, and accompanied by the Tourism Australia inspired tagline “So where the bloody hell were you?” against a back drop of the Union Jack.

24 hours later and The Daily Telegraph responded with its own take on the gold medal standings. The article says a truck has been driving around Sydney with the words “Where the bloody hell were we?” “Above you on the medal tally”, comparing Australia’s 14 golds to the 13 earned by athletes only from England – excluding Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Great stuff!! Too bad Singapore and Malaysia only have one silver medal each which doesn’t leave much room for the papers to poke fun at each other. Unless Malaysia brought up the fact that their Silver medalist was actually a Malaysian and not imported from China

Friday, August 22, 2008

China, the promised land?

China, the land of opportunity. The promised land of retail. The soon-to-be biggest market for consulting in the world.

Be it leading executives of world-class brands, expensive reports by international research agencies, or small-time entrepreneurs venturing out into the world’s biggest developing market, they all seem to agree on one thing: China is the place to be.

With a middle class growing by double digits annually, millions of spend-happy consumers trying out anything new at any price, a youth culture increasingly built on brands, and a growing need to project personal achievement through material assets, China does indeed seem the place to be to bring in the big wins for companies in many industries.

But the question remains how to do it.

Our consulting company came to China last year. After concluding that also for us marketing consultants, China is the promised land, we set up shop in Shanghai and got out our forks and knives, ready for devouring some major business.

Because marketing is the next big thing, right? After being the world’s factory for decades, China is ready to step up the value chain. Beijing is increasing investments in R&D, emphasizing innovation as the way forward, even setting up the somewhat obscure China Top Brand quality label. China is consciously building 200 homegrown brands that are set to conquer the world (much like the country’s top athletes are bred and trained to top all Olympic charts). The next Sony, Nike, Nokia and McDonald’s are sure to be Chinese, and these companies have a long way ahead of them.

So the cake is huge, but how to get a piece of it?

The very first thing I read in different books in preparation to coming to China, is that you can’t just copy a successful business model and paste it in the Chinese environment: it never works. After 6 months in Shanghai, building up a marketing consulting business in an intercultural team, I can truly say that I’ve experienced this learning first hand. In order for something to work, it’s just not enough to “adapt”, “translate” or “Chinese-ize” your product, service or business. You need to throw everything on the table, distill the real essence of your business model, and then rebuild it, taking into consideration the specific Chinese market environment and business givens.

On top of the business-related challenges in redefining your added value towards Chinese companies, are the everyday interpersonal challenges of cross cultural communication. On the surface, modern Chinese life seems very similar to what we know in the West. Under the surface however, the differences are huge. I’ve experienced that the Chinese have another perspective of time, timing and deadlines. A deadline is set and worked towards, but if it becomes clear that the deadline will not be met, it is simply delayed, hence losing all its intrinsic purpose. I’ve also learned that the Chinese are very process oriented as opposed to task- or result-driven. It is the way something is done, the way people interact that is important, not the result that is or must be achieved. The Chinese have a greater appreciation than me for power distance: the boss can never be wrong, can never not know something, and must always be pleased, even if this is impossible. Straightforward reporting and honest feedback become rare luxuries in this context.

It’s clear that there’s no guaranteed recipe for success. The hundreds of self-help books on how to become a millionaire overnight only slightly overshadow the number of titles written around how to be successful in China. But the naked truth is this: it takes courage, hard work, patience and perseverance.

For my colleagues and me, every day sheds new light on the mystery of success in China, and brings us closer to our goals. Let’s hope our hard work and patience will pay off. And in the meantime, you can follow my experiences of living the economic boom in the fast evolving Chinese communism, in a city that for me is the most capitalist I’ve ever seen, where the essence of marketing is ever-changing.

Catherine Crevels works for the Belgian marketing consulting firm The House of Marketing out of its Shanghai office.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Are you compelling?

You need to earn the right to get your consumers out of lurker mode.

That was what Mitch Joel, president for Canadian-based digital marketing agency, Twist Image wrote in his blog which if you haven’t read yet – you should – because he’s one marketer who has a real understanding of the digital space and how to use it.

He describes ‘Lurker’ mode as someone who is on your website, but has not identified themselves, be it through leaving an email address or a comment. So what irked him enough to post a blog about marketers needing to earn the right to get consumers out of lurker mode?

Well I had the pleasure to meet Mitch once at an event in Singapore and after you’ve listened to him give a talk about digital marketing, social media etc, you’ll see how passionate he is about the subject. So when he stumbled upon more examples of traditional media asking consumers for “their stories”, he “shook his head in disbelief” and started typing.

He reckons, and rightly so I might add, that User Generated Content needs to be something so compelling that the people creating the piece of content are compelled to do it.

His advice to marketers:

It's also important to, sometimes, take a step back (and a deep breathe) and ask the toughest question of all: “does anybody care about us that much that they'll take time out of their busy schedule to tell us why?” And the next (logical) follow-up question, “If they do... what will do with it, and how do we honour their efforts?”

Well it isn't rocket science to figure out that there are a lot of lurkers on The Pitch and I can admit that our inability to update the blog regularly has also driven many users away as well. I’ve been trying to update the blog as much as I can, of late, but I think it’s going to take a bit more than that to get the ‘comments’ coming in again. Watch this space, one day soon we’ll start becoming more interactive, adding podcasts and videos and of that.