I was pleased and gratified to read the responses to my previous post on McDonald's recent "Signs" ad (if you missed the original article, you can find it here). The comments were varied and interesting enough that I thought it might be fruitful to parse a few of them in a follow up post.
Reader responses on the merits of the McDonald's ad leaned toward the "agreed with me" response, with many readers agreeing that the ad seemed inconsistent with their daily experiences with the brand. This reader, for example:
"I believe it was Marshall Mcluhan, in his book "The Image Makers" who wrote, "The medium IS the message." The medium, in the case of McDonalds, is much more than any electronic outlets which purvey their message. It is the person behind the counter who takes your order. It's the building and grounds you walk into, or drive through to get your order. It is, in short, all of the people and things which touch you in the course of your doing business with them."
"So many companies forget that culture and brand are intertwined. Ultimately the customer experience dictates how they think about you and with social media channels (unlike in the past) how a customer thinks about you is easily shared and magnified."
This reader thinks I may have coined a phrase:
"Some people believe in their stories, however, they fail to align their behavior with their stories. I guess we have a new term for that type of story - a McStory."
A reader highlights the importance of trust as an essential story element:
"[The McDonald's ad] is a prime example of trying to piggyback storytelling onto a shaky trust platform. Storytelling and content precede trust and contribute to it, but they do not create it by itself. If trust isn't rock solid, stories will undermine it better and quicker than anything else can...Rather than this story, McDonald's would be better served spending its money on addressing the fundamental reasons why people are turning away. Then, way down the track, they can have the luxury of telling stories."
While this reader, a software User Interface programmer, makes a compelling connection between brand stories and UI design:
"I was recently thinking something similar about user interfaces. You can't fix a flawed UI by grafting on another set of pretty pixels, not if the flaws come from not understanding customer needs in the first place. User interfaces today are in many (most!) ways an extension of marketing. We build these huge apps with so many features, and then graft on a navigation scheme that reveals the features in all their snarled, hierarchical glory to make the sales pitch easier. It's UI as slide deck...The culture of "build a feature and they will come" is entrenched."
A few readers wrote in to take McDonald's to task:
"McDonald's...business model does not allow for quality food. Being a publicly traded purveyor of fast food, there is nothing they can do to improve the quality or sourcing of their food.[The company] has forever lost customers who watch what they eat. There is too much information out there."
Other readers, however, commented to defend the company:
"The 'Signs' story shows me how McDonald's views themselves. It's a great company with a great, customer sensitive product line. It was very successful."
While one reader pointed out that the ad was just one piece of the company's rebranding effort:
"While I agree with the importance of holding a consistent line between the reality and the story, this is just one ad of a huge campaign to try and re-build the damaged brand. The company has made it clear that there will be initiatives to transform the fundamentals of the business. This is ad is just the start, so I believe it's unfair to judge the brand on the basis of just this. Let's check back in six months and see what progress McDonald's has made."
One reader accused critics of the ad of taking easy shots:
"I think there are certain companies (Wal-Mart would be another) that are trendy to slap. This article starts by throwing stones: 'more than just purveyors of empty calories.' even the comments attached to this story show that people are not fans of the company, but continue to use it (my kids love the Happy Meals). Maybe this campaign failed because it wasn't very good, maybe it failed because people didn't buy in, but in reality I can make an argument that McDonald's is a sturdy member of [these] communities and offers a product people have enjoyed for decades...not sure why that is a negative-- even if they are not hitting the heights they have in the past."
And finally, a few readers pointed out the obvious point that I missed in the original article:
"This [ad] created questions. But in the end, we watched and are talking about it."
A few readers also challenged me to name examples of companies who are successfully telling brand stories sincerely, consistently, and with resonance. Look for exploration of that topic in a subsequent post. And as always, thanks for reading.
Please enjoy these colorful sea creatures (h/t Kottke):
...meanwhile... from Sandro Bocci on Vimeo.
Have a comment? Email me!
Privacy is overrated
As if we needed any more proof that consumers are concerned about privacy only so long as it doesn't cost them money or time to protect it: The Wall Street Journal reports that AT&T, which tracks users' browsing history through its fiber-optic internet service, allows consumers to opt out of browser tracking by paying an extra $29 a month. Sounds like a deal, right? Not according to the Atlantic's Greg Ferenstein, who reports that few AT&T customers pay for the service. Ferenstein quotes a TechCrunch report to argue that privacy is essentially a 20th Century invention:
Privacy was not an issue in hunter-gather societies, because it wasn't even a possibility. “Privacy is something which has emerged out of the urban boom coming from the industrial revolution,” explained Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf at a Federal Trade Commission event in 2013. "Privacy may actually be an anomaly."
Consumers' apparent disregard for the sanctity of their personal information shouldn't surprise; to paraphrase John Oliver, Apple could insert the entire text of Mein Kampf into iTunes' Terms & Conditions and everyone would still click "Accept." Does our ancient-yet-modern disregard for privacy mean that marketers can just track whatever they want, and sell the data to whomever they want, and skip along merrily down the road? Quoted in eWEEK, technology analyst Ken Hyers cautions that consumers may soon wake up:
"I believe that the balance between information collected and consumers' benefit from this collection, over the last couple of years, has shifted dramatically in online companies favor," said Hyers. "And I believe that there is a danger that the consumer will begin to benefit less from this ongoing shift." We've reached a point, Hyers believes, where "regulations governing how this information is collected and used, including explicit and easy-to-understand information about exactly what is collected, are necessary."
How can marketers continue to collect information while acting responsibly? Best practice in online data management calls for transparency in the value exchange: Make explicit what data you're collecting, and make explicit how the consumer will benefit by giving up said data. Everybody's happy!
As for me, I'm an open book. I'll tell you anything--as long as there's something in it for me.
Have a comment? Hit me up.
The danger of McStorytelling
One of the things I like to do with my free time is to read dense, 2,900-word opinion pieces by McKinsey consultants-- I read them so you don't have to. A particular February 2015 piece by Jonanthan Gordon and Jesko Perrey resonated with me because of its emphasis on the necessity of storytelling in marketing. At Phabulousity , we're big believers in the power of storytelling. I'd argue, in fact, that all of your marketing communications, through every channel and touch point, must tell a sincere, consistent, and resonant story. Fall short on any one of these essential elements, and consumers will dismiss your efforts-- and maybe even take their business elsewhere.
The McKinsey article is predicated on the dawn of a new "golden age of marketing"-- a familiar premise, considering that marketers have been predicting a new "golden age of marketing" since at least the Pleistocene epoch. Amidst the usual nods to big data, the digital economy, and organizational change is a plea to marketers to embrace storytelling. Money quote:
Creativity is important in storytelling, obviously. But creativity is also cheap-- every successful marketing agency can provide it. What's in short supply in marketing today are the elements of sincerity, consistency, and resonance. To tell a believable story, you must balance these elements so the story rises organically from the customer experience, rather than allow an agency to graft on a story at odds with what your customers know to be true.
For an example of a story that doesn't pass the sniff test with consumers, consider McDonald's "Signs" commercial that debuted during this year's Golden Globe awards in the US. In case you missed it, here it is:
Even as marketing reaches new heights with technology-enabled measurement, the importance of the story hasn’t diminished. But ways to tell it are morphing continually as the stuff of storytelling encompasses richer digital interactions, and mobile devices become more powerful communications tools. In this world, creativity is in greater demand than ever.
Many commentators found the ad heartwarming and effective:
While many others found it galling or worse:
On the surface, the ad was well-crafted, telling a clear and compelling story: At McDonald's, we care. We're more than just purveyors of empty calories; we're a part of your community, too. To many viewers, however, something seemed off. The element of the ad that most divided the commentators was, in a word, its sincerity.
No one was claiming that the ad was dishonest, or that the signs were photoshopped or otherwise created specifically for the ad. McDonald's even set up a Tumblr to tell the stories behind some of the individual signs. What the naysayers doubted was the ad's sincerity-- they simply didn't believe that McDonald's cared as much as the ad implied. When the ad aired it set off a tweet-storm, with commentators assailing the company for everything from its wage practices, to the quality of its food, to its exploitation of such national tragedies as 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing. Despite public opinion being evenly divided, McDonald's couldn't shake the perception that a company rife with falling sales and a poor public image had stumbled once again.
My take: The "Signs" add failed not on sincerity, but rather on the elements of consistency and resonance. The ad was sincere; the signs were real, after all, and most McDonald's restaurants are franchises, with owners who care very much about the communities in which they operate. But the ad did highlight the inconsistency of this message, as consumers seldom experience this level of caring in their daily interactions with the brand. And the ad failed to resonate with these same consumers-- particularly Millennial consumers who prefer quick-fresh options such as Chipotle to McDonald's fast-and-greasy fare-- who sensed that the "we care" story was grafted onto the brand rather than rising organically from the way it conducts business.
For a marketing story to pass muster with consumers, the story must succeed on these three fundamental elements:
New media also dictate that marketers relinquish control of the story as digital interactions with customers become more frequent. Customers want to interact with stories and modify them on social media. Following the kinds of story rules that once made board members and CEOs comfortable is no longer feasible. Social-media programs are consuming a larger share of many marketing budgets. A number of major consumer companies are using interaction centers to monitor and participate in social-media conversations as they develop, sometimes including the promotion of discussions on corporate social-media channels.
This quote is on the money. To craft sincere, consistent brand stories that resonate with your customers, start by listening to them. What do they love about your brand? What are the most successful elements of your customer experience? What must you do to improve the experience? Be certain to fix any outstanding issues, and then tell a story that can withstand the toughest barbs from the Twitter-verse. Are we on the cusp of a "golden age of marketing?" Who knows? There's no reason, however, why you can't jump-start your own golden age of sincere, consistent, and resonant storytelling.
Sunday Surrealism: Feb 22, 2015
Backdoored by Lenovo
IT security pros and tech geeks are apoplectic over the news that laptop manufacturer Lenovo purposefully installed malware on its laptops to serve advertising to its unsuspecting users. The program, called SuperFish, contains a security flaw that could allow any knowledgeable and ne'er-do-well hacker to steal passwords, bank credentials, and other valuable information from your laptop while you're scrolling through Facebook posts at Starbucks via their free wi-fi.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the program also monitors your online activity, uploads your personal information to its servers, and injects intrusive advertising on web sites you visit. Many cyber-security experts consider the Lenovo-SuperFish trojan horse to be the most egregious violation of consumer trust since the 2005 Sony DRM scandal. Says cyber-security expert Marc Rogers:
This is unbelievably ignorant and reckless of [Lenovo]. Its quite possibly the single worst thing I have seen a manufacturer do to its customer base. At this point I would consider every single one of these affected laptops to be potentially compromised and would reinstall them from scratch.
Slate's David Auerbach, meanwhile, is flabbergasted that Lenovo risked its reputation for so little apparent reward:
Whatever commissions Lenovo might have received from Superfish must have been paltry… Lenovo sold its soul to the devil and forgot to get much of anything in return. Homer Simpson would’ve made a better Faustian bargain.
Security experts are also less than thrilled with Lenovo's official response to the backlash; the company has defaulted to corporate PR speak, claiming that it innocently pre-installed the software in order to "enhance the user experience." Word to the wise: whenever a company claims it has taken an action in order to "enhance" your "experience," you may safely assume that this action benefits the company and not you.
Recently in Birmingham, England I attended a presentation on cyber-security by a pair of (seemingly) 12-year old hackers who put the fear of God into me over my personal data security. My two takeaways: One, never access any banking, e-commerce, or any other sites that require password entry while connected to an open wi-fi network; and two, whatever your routine for choosing and remembering passwords for your sensitive web sites, you may be assured that it's not good enough. The hackers recommended choosing a password manager tool to secure access to sensitive data. Lifehacker recently posted their list of the five best password managers. Stay safe out there.
The Friday Find: February 20, 2015
This week's Friday Find comes courtesy of Brooklyn-based indie trio The Lone Below. I love everything about this track; it's as if Levon Helm and Van Morrison met in a Memphis bar in 1992 and wrote this song in a back room with nothing but a couple of guitars and a cocktail napkin to scribble down the lyrics. If I could step into a music lab and assemble my version of a perfect band, it would sound very much like these guys. You can learn more about them here. Enjoy!
The American Express death rattle
That sound you just heard is the collective intake of breath from the remaining 57,000 or so employees of American Express as they brace for more bad news. Bloomberg News broke the news this week that a Federal Judge ruled AmEx had violated anti-trust laws by enforcing "non-descrimination" rules at the point-of-sale, which prevent the issuer's merchant partners from asking their customers to use another card. AmEx charges merchants higher interchange fees than do MasterCard and Visa, which the issuer uses to fund its rich Membership Rewards loyalty program. According to Bloomberg's Christie Smythe, US District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in Brooklyn ruled:
The company has “the power to repeatedly and profitably raise” its merchant prices “without worrying about significant merchant attrition,” Garaufis said. “The result is an absence of price competition among American Express and its rival networks...” The rules have also “foreclosed the possibility of a current network or new entrant” differentiating itself by imposing lower fees, he said.
Garaufis has yet to decide on proposed remedies, which could include forcing AmEx to drop its non-discrimination clause, lower their interchange fees, or both. This news comes after retail behemoth Costco announced earlier this month that it would end its exclusive card partnership with AmEx in March, 2016, news which came fast on the heels of the issuer also losing its co-branding partnership with airline JetBlue, which was proceeded by news that AmEx would lay off 4,000 employees this year.
This deluge of bad news has convinced some analysts that AmEx's best days are behind it. Business Insider's Shane Ferro, for example, is calling for consumers to cut up their Amex cards. Money quote:
This lawsuit means restaurants and shops are free to ask customers to use other credit cards (this is in addition to the many that already refuse to accept AmEx). That will put pressure on AmEx to lower its fees to be more competitive with Visa and Mastercard. Lower fees most likely mean fewer rewards for consumers, and, for American Express card members, potentially higher annual fees.
As a result of this series of body blows, AmEx's stock price has taken a tumble. Still, rumors of the issuer's death are no doubt greatly exaggerated. Most analysts have failed to note that AmEx has moved heavily into the coalition loyalty program space, purchasing the Germany-based Payback coalition program and then expanding the program to Poland, India, Italy, and Mexico. The company is rumored to be pursuing coalition loyalty programs in other countries as well. Far from reducing its stake in reward programs, AmEx appears to be doubling down on them. With millions of members earning a common currency among multiple sponsor brands, coalition loyalty programs represent a potentially lucrative base of consumer cardholders.
If I was a betting man-- and I am-- I'd bet that AmEx gets a slap on the wrist that requires it to drop its non-discrimination policy and modestly reduce interchange fees, revenue that the issuer will swiftly replace with modestly higher annual fees. Higher fees may cost Amex a few cardholders, but the issuer's affluent cardholder base will mostly absorb the cost in exchange for those rich rewards. And while I'm not a financial adviser, if Amex's stock price tanks any further, I advise you to buy low.
Greetings from Mr. Phabulous
Hi! Mr. Phabulous here. In my civilian role, my secret identity is Rick Ferguson; if you want to know more about me, you can find my biography here. By day, I'm Mr. Phabulous (pronounced fabulous), marketing guru, public speaker, and Managing Director of Phabulousity, a content marketing firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio. If you want to learn more about how Phabulousity can transmogrify your content marking strategy, then you can step into our office here.
The name Mr. Phabulous brings together two of my great loves: music and movies. Back in my film critic days, I would periodically be asked to name my favorite movie. I always gave the same answer: The Blues Brothers. Not that the Blues Brothers occupied a permanent spot atop my favorite movies list, mind you; rather, I enjoyed the reactions I got when I named that John Landis opus rather than a more respectable choice. After a few years of this, a friend at Miami University in Ohio started calling me "Mr. Fabulous" after Alan Rubin, the trumpet player in the Blues Brothers Band. Here's his introduction in the film:
"Fair enough," I can hear you saying. "But why the Ph? Are you some kind of wise guy?"
The Ph is where my other great love, live music, enters the brand. Live music is my passion. I've been to more concerts than any sane adult should attend. I've rocked out at arena concerts with Boomer-rock legends, camped in the Tennessee cornfields at Bonarroo, and shaken my moneymaker at hole-in-the-wall clubs. Far and away my favorite live act is Phish, an eclectic rock/jazz/funk/bluegrass/blues quartet from Vermont. Using the Ph in non-Phish related situations is a way to insert a secret shout-out to fellow phans. Combine The Blues Brothers with Phish, and you get Mr. Phabulous. That's me!
As for the blog, it serves two functions. One, to get you reading my stuff so you might hire my company, Phabulousity, to transmogrify your content marketing strategy. Two, to serve as a replacement for the dear departed Dish, Andrew Sullivan's blog, which recently ceased publication and to which I was hopelessly addicted. So in addition to covering marketing news and opinion, Mr. Phabulous will also cover culture, politics, religion, music—basically anything that strikes my fancy.
Thanks for stopping by. Stay tuned, and I hope you enjoy the ride.
Rick Ferguson is the author of The Chronicles of Elberon fantasy trilogy. Rick is also a globally recognized marketing expert with appearances in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Fast Company, the Globe & Mail Canada, the Guardian UK, the Financial Times India, MSNBC, and the Fox Business Channel. He has delivered keynote speeches on marketing principles and best practices on six continents. He is also master of time, space, and dimension.