Marketing is about solving problems. Young people aren't buying our cars. Mothers think their diapers are better. The cheaper store brands are eating into our profits. In the course of solving problems, marketers often stumble onto ideas.
Some ideas are sinister, but good. Like in the 1920s, when it was taboo for women to light up, Edward Bernays aligned smoking with the suffrage movement and got marchers to hold up Lucky Strikes as "Torches of Freedom."
Others involve nothing more than a single word (such as Lambert Pharmaceuticals' "Halitosis" that entered the lexicon and drove Listerine sales for decades) or a simple gimmick (like the steam jets behind New York's Times Square billboards that lend that inimitable piping-hot look to huge cups of soup or coffee.)
Times change, of course, but the need for good ideas does not; technology and social mores merely influence how they look, while innovation remains the immutable constant. So what are some of the hot new ideas in 2008? We went hunting and came back with the ones featured here. Granted, this list is hardly comprehensive, and these ideas might not all be right for every brand. But each contains the ingredient critical to any good marketing, cleverness, which solves any problem you've got.
Bright Idea No. 1: Dark Marketing
What's Gone Before: Ads where you could see the advertiser
What's the Innovation: Ads where you can't
Who's Doing It: (so far) McDonald's
Imagine an advertising campaign where the pitch is so covert that the advertiser is all but undetectable. That's the thinking behind "dark marketing," a term that seems to refer to ninja-type martial arts applied to shilling products.
Dark marketing most recently came to light in a New York Times story about The Lost Ring, an Olympics-themed alternate-reality game (ARG) developed and operated by McDonald's. The next month, Wired magazine's Jargon Watch cited Dark Marketing as "Discreetly sponsored online and real-world entertainment intended to reach hipster audiences that would ordinarily shun corporate shilling" and used The Lost Ring as a prime example. (The game is themed around a woman named Ariadne, who awoke with amnesia in a South African corn maze on Feb. 12; it's not exactly the stuff of Extra-Value Meals.)
All this said, Lost Ring is, strictly speaking, not all that dark. The fast feeder's branding in the game was minimal but, according to Jane McGonigal, director of AvanteGame, the Berkeley, Calif., firm that worked with San Francisco's AKQA on the McD's push, "We had the sponsor clearly marked in the game materials. I don't think there's anybody playing this game who doesn't know who makes it."
Perhaps. But according to Tracy Tuten, associate professor of marketing at Longwood University in Farmville, Va., the idea of minimal (or cleverly occluded) branding on ARGs and other nontraditional media such as viral video is gaining traction. "It's better for engagement," she said. "It puts more power on the side of the consumer if he chooses to participate."
Then there's "trans-media storytelling," another facet of dark marketing that refers to a storyline being cleverly divided among online, TV or even books. Case in point: Cathy's Book, a novel released in 2006 complete with phone numbers and URLs interwoven into the text—numbers and addresses that, it turned out, led readers to ads for Cover Girl makeup products. (Watchdog group Consumer Alert urged a boycott of the book, claiming that the seeded marketing disqualified it as a true work of fiction.)
More shadowy marketing: The 2006-07 promo for the band Nine Inch Nails' release Year Zero featured Web sites like iamtryingtobelieve.com, an otherworldly, vaguely conspiratorial-themed site that tied into the story behind the concept album.
If these efforts all sound in some degree like a variation on a puzzle, you're not far off. Despite the sinister-sounding name, dark marketing actually evokes the spirit of gift-giving more than trickery. Said McGonigal: "The whole idea is you want to create something amazing and then get credit for it."
Bright Idea No. 2: Web Serial Branding
What's Gone Before: Viral videos just hawked brands
What's the Innovation: Serial videos people watch like soap-opera episodes
Who's Doing It: Spherion
Chances are, most every professional has worked a temp job at one time or another and, chances are, it sucked. Patronizing co-workers, imperious mid-level managers, the endless refrain "make the temp do it"—all are staples of modern white-collar day gigging. So why on earth would an interim-staffing firm want to actually spotlight stuff like this?
In the case of Spherion, it was actually worse than that. The staffing firm hired agency CJP Communications to create a five-episode miniseries for YouTube that portrayed in graphic, eyeball-rolling, detail just about every 9-to-5 nightmare endured by temporary workers. The drama series (which just wrapped its fifth episode in April) is called The Temp Life. Absurd? Sure, and that's why people watched.
Viral video's nothing new, of course, but Spherion opted for a viral video serial that worked much like a TV drama series. The interlocking episodes, said Spherion corporate marketing director Kip Havel, "allowed us to dive deeper. We explored more scenarios, developed a following. People got to know the characters."
Drawn from the ranks of CJP's own employees, series stars included the superlatively bitchy "Paul," who insults a temp by assuming she can't use a photocopier, and "Nick," the midlife-crisis manager whose delusional visions including making his company "the global leader in synthetic cord and casing solutions for the global footwear market." If you had to put up with these people, you'd probably shoot yourself.
Which is exactly the reverse psychology behind the series. By acknowledging that temping is often a rotten gig, Spherion planted the seed with viewers that it could steer them clear of hellish gigs. "We all know that there are plenty of bad temp assignments out there," Havel said. "So the messaging is that we know, we get it, and Spherion is going to offer better experiences."
Thus far, The Temp Life has drawn 60,000 viewers, and while Spherion doesn't have a hard metric to measure returns, Havel said, "It's apparent this is resonating with viewers." What'll be the ultimate fate of this marketing experiment? Tune in next week...
Bright Idea No. 3: The Fake Action-Flick Pitch
What's Gone Before: Movie previews
What's the Innovation: Movie previews that are actually brands
Who's Doing It: LG Electronics
Even for a public besotted with sexy action/adventure flicks, this one looked like a must-see. For three months, moviegoers who grabbed seats in time for the previews sat wide-eyed over the karate-fueled antics of a sinuous brunette named Scarlet who, they were promised, would star in a new TV series bearing her name. Meanwhile, billboards in Los Angeles and Dubai; ads in People and Rolling Stone; and online banners on Gawker and E! all hinted at a blockbuster flick also starring Scarlet, the smoldering femme fatale with the low décolleté and a mysterious red glint in her eye.
Too bad it was all a hoax.
Oh sure, Scarlet herself was real enough. She's Norwegian actress Natassie Malthe. But on April 28, when the show's launch was to be announced at a red carpet Hollywood premiere, it was revealed that Scarlet, the show, was actually a new LCD TV line from LG Electronics Worldwide. Which made Scarlet, the female action hero, little more than the face of a gutsy viral campaign via Agency.com.
By rights, that red eyeball should have tipped everybody off. The ruby glimmer and the Scarlet name itself were both selected because of the TV casing's signature reddish hue. According to Agency.com CEO Chan Suh, the deception was a calculated risk. After all, LG went to considerable lengths to make a very fake show look very real, including hiring Sopranos director David Nutter.
However, as Suh explained via e-mail, "LG felt that if [it were all] done correctly, the target consumer would benefit and appreciate the twist, associating the entertainment campaign with a positive drive to purchase."
Has it? LG said it's too early to see if its global hoax has translated into TV sales but, by most indications, at least they know consumers took the joke pretty well. Said one online review site: "Kudos to LG for this decade's best pr stunt in the consumer electronics industry."
Bright Idea No. 4: Text Messaging Gets Big (Very Big)
What's Gone Before: Marketing messages texted to your cell phone (zzzz)
What's the Innovation: Text messages broadcast to image-enriched billboards
Who's Doing It: Motorola
Saying goodbye is one of those things that's pretty common in airports. So are billboards. The two wouldn't seem to have much to do with each other, unless you happened to be in the new Sky Plaza wing of Hong Kong International in February. Because two huge, LCD screens over the concourse didn't feature the standard fare of liquor ads or directions to the luggage carousel, but photos of ordinary (if slightly teary) people along with copy like, "Goodbye, mom. I love you."
Cheesy? Don't poke fun yet. Witness Motorola's "Say Goodbye" initiative which, with the joint help of agencies Ogilvy and The Hyperfactory, nudged user-generated ad content one giant, digital step forward.
The logistics: Light-box signs in the terminal check-in area encouraged passengers to take a photo with their cell phone cameras, add a farewell text message to it and then send both to a special number. Within seconds, a computer flashed both image and message onto massive LCD screens (each enclosed by a frame bearing the Motorola logo) big enough to be seen across the terminal floor.
"It was all user-generated content and this was the perfect environment," said Howard Hunt, Hyperfactory's regional business development manager. "People had the time and their loved ones were already standing there."
As an added bonus, departing passengers could choose from a number of custom goodbye messages that had been prerecorded by soccer star David Beckham and pop star Jay Chow, and forward them to loved ones. Those messages ended up in more than 30 countries. (Motorola officials would not comment on the initiative's penetration, though Hunt said, "We know from the numbers of [participants] that there was a good reach.")
"This was a good example of how mobile can be leveraged to aid in brand awareness—anytime, anywhere," observed Laura Marriott, president of the Mobile Marketing Assn. "I liked the viral aspect as well. It was definitely an excellent utilization of space in the airport."
Now, if only we could say goodbye to those checked-bag surcharges
Bright Idea No. 5: PetroMarketing
What's Gone Before: Free this and free that
What's the Innovation: Free gas
Who's Doing It: Just about everybody
When the Tampa-based Sweetbay supermarket chain decided to drum up traffic at its new Sarasota, Fla., location, it had its choice of standard incentives like free food, free delivery, etc. But with crude oil now hovering north of $130 a barrel, Sweetbay's marketers decided there was one freebie people could use more than anything: the kind with fumes.
"The price of gas is just painful around here," said retail marketing manager Taryn Jones. "This is just one way of saying, 'Shop with us. We'll give you more value for your dollar.'" Between May 7 and July 1, customers who bought at least $50 in groceries received a voucher. After racking up six vouchers, they got a card good for $50 at the gas pump.
It used to be that complimentary fill-ups were the domain of auto dealerships. No more. This summer, Callaway Golf was giving away free gas cards with the purchase of select drivers. In the Midwest, customers who opened a checking account with TCF Bank walked away with a $50 gas card. Perhaps most telling of all, the state lotteries in Georgia, Florida and Oklahoma have replaced cash-for-life prizes with lifetime fill-ups of petrol.
Matt Arbuckle, customer service manager at the grocer's Sarasota store, said the initiative generated new and returning customers alike. One customer collected eight gas cards. "It was a challenge for him," Arbuckle said. "He wanted to see how many he could get."
While Sweetbay HQ declined to reveal the exact number of vouchers given out or sales figures, Jones said the promo might soon go systemwide.
Bright Idea No. 6: Lickertising
What's Gone Before: Scratch-n-sniff
What's the Innovation: Hell, why not just eat it?
Who's Doing It: Welch's grape juice
In these days of advertising overload, marketing should preferably engage as many of the other senses as possible. Hence, the growth of experiential marketing in which brands entice people to touch, feel, steal, scratch, sniff, poke, prod... and now, lick.
If that last one sounded more like just ick, think again. As one element of a six-month marketing campaign that led to a 5% sales spike, the purple people at Welch's Grape Juice recently stuck a fully lickable insert into ads it placed in national magazines.
The sealed, sanitary ad technology is the invention of FirstFlavor, a company based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
"To connect to today's Generation X mom, we wanted to shake things up," said Chris Heye, vp-marketing for the Concord, Mass. company. "Welch's had barely ever done print, but we knew it would be an effective way of reaching our target."
The ads featuring the Peel 'n Taste strips (copy: "For a tasty fact, remove and lick") ran in an April issue of People magazine. FirstFlavor executives got the idea for the Peel 'n Taste strips from the lickable wallpaper scene in the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The lickable ads work much like those dissolvable breath strips and are technically not licked at all, but eaten. Welch's marketer Heye was happy with the outcome of the ads, which paid off in press as well as (undisclosed) sales. However, he's still mulling whether he'll come back for seconds.
Bright Idea No. 7: Break-Out Store Brands
What's Gone Before: Store brands
What's the Innovation: Store brands selling outside their home stores
Who's Doing It: Safeway
Private label brands such as Archer Farms (Target) and Essensia (Albertsons) fill an important market niche, giving the retailers that manufacture them a way to capture some of the dollars that would otherwise have gone to mainstream brands. Usually, private labels are reliable, affordable and solid, if not exactly as slick.
That is, until Safeway decided to get uppity about everything. Starting this fall, the nation's third-largest supermarket chain will start selling two of its store brands, O Organics and Eating Right, outside of its stores. The lifestyle-geared labels will appear in school cafeterias stateside and as far away as retailers in Singapore and Taiwan.
In theory at least, Safeway is overstepping the boundaries that private labels have always stayed safely within. Just don't tell that to svp James White. "We don't think about Eating Right or O Organics as private labels," he said. "These brands are rooted in meeting consumers' needs around different lifestyle solutions."
Of course, any brand would say that, but maybe that's the point. Increasingly, with the help of marketing efforts and more sophisticated packaging, store brands do want to be seen as mainstream.
Meredith Adler, a stock and equity analyst with Lehman Brothers, New York, lauded Safeway's distribution ambitions with its private label brands. "It's breaking new ground," she said. "[Safeway's] saying that this is good enough to sell out in the marketplace as a consumer product. That's pretty unique."
Bright Idea No. 8: Mob Rule for Ads
What's Gone Before: The remote control
What's the Innovation: Ads you can actually delete
Who's Doing It: Facebook, StumbleUpon
Imagine if there was another switch on your remote control where you could vote to dump an ad you didn't like. It's not out there yet, but a similar system is in place at StumbleUpon and, to a lesser extent, Facebook.
In Facebook's case, it's merely an experiment that the company initiated in May. As part of the program, a select portion of Facebook users can vote to keep or dump an ad they like (the choice is delineated by a thumbs up or a thumbs down). While Facebook rep Erin Zeitler said there are no immediate plans to bring the tool to a wider audience, "We are evaluating the response to the tool and considering whether to make it more broadly available," she said.
Nevertheless, StumbleUpon has been letting its 5.5 million users vote on ads for about two years. StumbleUpon is a tool that runs on certain browsers that picks content that the company thinks you will like, based on your interests, preferences, friends and other factors. Some of the content is paid ads, which sell for 5 cents an impression.
The catch is, if StumbleUpon users don't like the ad, it will be effectively pulled back from rotation, meaning fewer impressions. If, for instance, an advertiser orders $10,000 worth of ads but no one likes the ad, it may take a very long time to spend the money. On the flipside, a well-accepted ad will quickly rack up tons of impressions. Overall, general manager Michael Buher related that most ads do pretty well under the system. "We track all the ratings of all the content and ads are rated only slightly less than traditional content," he said. "The community is actually very accepting of advertising."
Deborah Aho Williamson, an analyst with eMarketer, New York, agreed that more consumer control over advertising is a positive. "I think ultimately the more feedback a marketer can get about how an ad is viewed by the public the better. That's the whole idea behind Web 2.0," she said.
Bright Idea No. 9: eBay as ROI
What's Gone Before: Expensive, elaborate, mathematical ROI modules
What's the Innovation: Dude, just check out eBay!
Who's Doing It: Papa John's (and probably others who won't admit it)
ROI, schmoi. Oh sure, if you really want to fork over serious bucks for a "measurement matrix" to see if that latest marketing stunt moved the needle, go right ahead. But with the Internets at their fingertips, some marketers (especially those whose branding efforts crank out tons of collectable swag) have found a quick, immediate—and free—way to track brand buzz: eBay.
With 84 million active users and 6 million new listings each day, eBay's a pretty good indicator of what's hot and what's not. "Our data reflect consumer trends," said eBay's pop-culture expert Karen Bard. "Therefore, it can be useful to marketers who are trying to gauge the likelihood of a product's popularity and success."
Case in point: DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda and Columbia Pictures' You Don't Mess With the Zohan generated opening-weekend sales of $60.2 million and $38.5 million, respectively. When eBay number crunchers tallied the auctioned items related to the two films during the same period, they saw the pattern replicated: 263 Kung Fu Panda listings and 97 items sold, vs. seven Zohan listings and four Zohan items sold. Kung Fu Panda had the highest selling item (a $52 Jack Black KFP press kit) while Zohan's swag fetched far more modest prices—such as $14.17 for a movie blow dryer.
Alright, so, statistically precise analysis it ain't. But eBay can furnish a reliable anecdotal indication of a brand's or a specific initiative's popularity. Just ask Papa John's. Last month, the Louisville-based pizza chain used eBay to gauge the success and value of its promotional partnership with Universal Pictures in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. In less than 24 hours, the pizza chain's movie-related paraphernalia (from special packaging to employee hats) started turning up at auction. Papa John's did not return a call requesting comment.
Of course, what's hot gets cold faster than a delivered pizza. With Panda and Zohan virtually forgotten, what's hot now is anything related to Warner Bros.' brooding Batman franchise. A recent search revealed more than 6,000 items for sale under the keywords "Dark Knight"—up 69% from the week before press time.
Bright Idea No. 10: Greenrating
What's Gone Before: Green marketing
What's the Innovation: Green marketing that's certified to be legit
Who's Doing It: Private watchdogs, plus the Fed
With green marketing all the rage, it seems like just about every brand from pickups to potato chips is now making some kind of claim to being an upstanding steward of the planet. But the self-righteous muddle that's resulted has not only threatened to dilute the value of claims like these, it's left consumers wondering how many brands are really telling the truth. So how's a truly green brand supposed to make its case and get noticed by the public? One way is to submit itself to the scrutiny of the public itself.
Earlier this year, a company called EnviroMedia created a Web site (www.greenwashingindex.com) were consumers could post green ads and analyze the veracity of their claims. Visitors can post ads in any format, critique them, then assign a score from 1 (very sincere and accurate) to five (more yellow than green).
The effort's has the effect of not only improving the marketing punch of legitimately eco-friendly companies, it's also cast EnviroMedia as a kind of green police force for the marketing community. "In just 6 months, it's elevated our national reputation in a way that far exceeded our expectations," said Kevin Tuerff, EnviroMedia principal.
Indeed, EnviroMedia's efforts are part of a larger trend of monitoring green marketing across the board. Eco-conscious consumers can also visit www.idealbite.com, which recently developed an annual certification (complete with an official seal of approval) that recognizes brands that can back up green claims such as non-synthetic materials and minimal packaging.
Governments are getting into the act of policing green claims as well. The Federal Trade Commission continues to hold hearings on advertising with environmental promises in advertising as earth advocates clamor for an update of the FTC's "green guides," which have not been altered since 1998. Meanwhile, in California and New York, "global warming scores" will be assigned to 2009 vehicles, quite possibly contradicting marketing claims by some automakers. The implications are clear: Green marketing's still a great opportunity—if, that is, your brand is really green.