09 November 2012

How conservatives and bigots delude themselves - and their followers - about history

I don't normally get political here, but the reaction of some conservatives in the US to the re-election of Barack Obama has been absolutely astonishing, sometimes even to the point of being hilarious. And there's something worth reflecting on about the extent to which a strong belief and identification with a brand like conservatism can completely change the way someone looks at the world. Even undisputed facts, history and science.

As commentator Rachel Maddow puts it, the conservative movement is "stuck in a vacuum sealed, door locked, spin cycle of telling each other what makes them feel good, and denying the factual, lived truth of the world".

Conservative political pundit Pat Buchanan claimed this week that Obama's re-election has "killed White America". And then, in support of that contention and acknowledging that "of course" he thinks whites are better than other people, he claimed that "Anything worth doing on this Earth was done first by white people." Buchanan then cited examples that prove exactly what Maddow says - conservatives are living in some kind of "truth bubble" of their own making.

"Who climbed Mount Everest?" Buchanan asked rhetorically. "White people."

Er, maybe half right at best. Tenzing Norgay (a Nepali Sherpa) was right there on the summit with Hillary, and numerous Sherpas were an integral part of the team that made the first successful ascent.

"Who invented paper?" asked Pat. "White people."

Wrong again, Pat. Papermaking was invented in China and spread through the Middle East to medieval Europe in the 13th century.

"Who discovered algebra? White people."

Sorry, Pat. Strike three and you're out. The roots of algebra can be traced to the ancient Babylonians and the word comes from Arabic. There's even a clue in that the word starts with "al".

02 August 2012

How symbols lose their meaning...

If you've seen much of the London 2012 Olympics so far, especially online or print coverage, you'll almost certainly have seen a pic of a medal winner biting his or her piece of bling. It took me just a few minutes to find the images above; no doubt many thousands of pics like these have been taken already, just a few days into competition.

The origins of the tradition of biting the medal are well known: gold is a soft metal, and biting on a coin (or medal) could establish its authenticity or purity. No doubt the first athlete to do it was making a spontaneous and genuine gesture of amused disbelief ("Wow! Have I really won gold?!"). A few more athletes imitate the first, and it remains something the athletes own. But then the press pack get a hold of it, and the spontaneity and meaning are lost.

Aesthetically, it now almost always looks ugly and ridiculous; many of the medallists look uncomfortable or at best bemused. They are clearly being coaxed by photographers to do it.

But when even silver and bronze medallists are being bullied into making what is now a meaningless gesture, it has clearly lost its meaning and become just another stupid journalistic cliche.

14 July 2012

The trouble with “content marketing”

I had no idea, but apparently I’ve worked in “content marketing” for more than 20 years. Of course, it wasn’t called that when I started my career in a marketing communications agency specialising in one of the most information-intensive promotional contexts imaginable: marketing prescription pharmaceuticals to GPs and specialists.
No-one mentioned “content marketing” when we pitched, developed and published custom newsletters, journals, symposium proceedings and product monographs on behalf of big pharmaceutical companies.
It wasn’t called “content marketing” when we developed and ran third party-accredited case study programs to support the launch of a new class of drugs, or when I sat in a hotel room at an international congress writing overnight newsletters highlighting the important clinical implications of a new multicentre trial, to be faxed to Australian doctors the next morning.
And it wasn’t called “content marketing” when I ghost wrote opinion pieces for business publications or prepared a CEO’s “From my desk” column for customer newsletters.
But these are all examples of targeted strategic communications designed and executed to meet very clear communication objectives, driven by marketing strategy.
Worryingly, much of what I read about content marketing seems to put the current vogue for “content” way ahead of the “marketing” bit. I’ve seen countless blog posts from content “experts” with “10 Great Ideas for Content” and "Tips for Content", as though sheer quantity matters more than purpose and relevance. It's worse still when one of these gurus describes content marketing as a "strategy" in its own right, and claims it's "cost-effective and easy"... without any evidence. And the content marketing buzz seems to value examples of how to generate content over actual case studies demonstrating true marketing effectiveness and ROI.
I’ve learned over the years to be very wary of any new fad that puts a word in front of “marketing”. Marketing is marketing. Buzzwords, new communications channels and marketing gurus come and go, but the fundamentals of marketing remain. “Content marketing” is not a new kind of marketing. At best, it’s about some new communication tools; at worst, it’s putting the cart before the horse.
And I really dislike the word “content”. It carries connotations of a communications space or void that simply needs to be filled, as though a novelist told her publisher “Here’s my 500-page novel, now I just have to develop the content”. By extension, the people who come up with “content” run the very real risk of being seen as merely “content providers”. There’s nothing inherent in the term “content marketing” that gives the content provider (or “Chief Content Officer” – ugh!) credit for having an understanding of marketing strategy or skills in writing and commercial creativity, or that imbues the content with a specific strategic purpose.
As I've suggested above, “content” in marketing is as old as the hills, and not just in areas like pharma marketing. Long before the web and Facebook, FMCG marketers seeking ways to increase the range of customer usage occasions put coupons for recipe books on their packages: every Chocolate Ripple Cake made in the suburbs meant two extra packs of Arnott’s Choc Ripple biscuits sold. Young stamp collectors were encouraged to join the Junior Philatelists’ Club and get the quarterly Stamp News. These are classic examples of what today would be called “content”, but driven by clear objectives that can be linked to real measures of success.
Remember that marketing is about value. If your content doesn’t help you create superior customer value and hence confer competitive advantage, then what’s the point? And if your content is really valued so highly by your customers, then why are you giving it away to your competitors and their customers too?
Moreover, creating and disseminating quality content has real costs or, at the very least, opportunity costs even if you sit at your desk and do it yourself.
Everyone involved in planning, designing, developing and delivering content must know why each piece of content is being created, captured or curated and where it fits strategically. To be more specific, which customers and what customer behaviours is the content intended to influence, and how? And, in a world chock full of content, why should the customer pay attention to yours?
Just because we have new social media to play with doesn’t mean marketers, PR practitioners, “content engineers” or whatever we’re being called this week can ignore the fundamentals of marketing and marketing communications.

09 May 2012

Nothing warm or funny about Dawn French spruiking for Coles

In July 2009, along with thousands of other Melburnians of a certain age, I queued up on a cold St Kilda night to see celebrated British comedy duo French & Saunders at the Palais Theatre as part of their "farewell" tour. The show was a relatively safe "best of" collection of sketches, and the Palais wasn't the ideal venue (far too big for their style of comedy), but it felt like we were there to pay affectionate homage as much as to be entertained.

Never in a million years could I have guessed that Dawn French's next major appearance in Australia would be in a truly awful ad campaign for the Coles supermarket chain's re-vamped "Fly Buys" loyalty program.

I've always thought of Dawn French as one of Britain's more socially-attuned comedians, since her days as part of the Comic Strip working with the likes of Adrian Edmonson, Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle in the 1980s. It strikes me as particularly odd, then, that she would sign on to front a "loyalty" (read "profit-maximizing") program for one of a cosy pair of duopolists whose immense market power and savage pricing policies are widely held to be matters of serious concern by everyone from the ACCC to the National Farmers' Federation and Prime Minister Gillard.

While I don't expect someone like French to keep abreast of issues in Australian consumer economics and and trade practices, I'd have thought that she (or someone advising her) should at least have sussed out the situation with a view to gauging public sentiment and likely audience response before signing on. It's pretty fair to say that Coles is not regarded with the same affection as French is by most consumers... or at least as French was.

And the allegedly humorous scripts for the TVCs themselves - including a FlyBuys teaser and an introduction to the My5 deal - must make them about the unfunniest things with which Dawn French has ever associated herself.

Look, it's not enough simply to put Dawn French on camera and tell her to be wacky and crazy. Her very significant body of work over more than three decades has been based on exceptional comedy writing, but there's none of that in evidence in this campaign. Her delivery just seems manic, as if the director believed that louder and wackier must necessarily be funnier. And her flirting with Curtis Stone completely lacks the qualities she brought to the screen as Geraldine, the Vicar of Dibley (sensitively written for her by Richard Curtis and his collaborators).

And I am really struggling to follow Coles' strategy in choosing to parachute Dawn French in to tell Australians why they should be more loyal to Coles. She's likeable, sure, but just how does a wealthy, successful English woman with a 40-room mansion in Cornwall relate to the average Australian suburban supermarket shopper?

Overall, the whole thing makes me very disappointed. I certainly think no more highly of Coles and its loyalty program as a result of of the ads... and, sadly, I think a lot less of Dawn French for having done them.

The QBrand QBlog rises again!

It's long overdue but, after a period of excessive attention to Twitter, I have decided to concentrate on some lengthier posts here, reviving a blog that had been my main outlet since around 2006.

So here goes. I've greased up the paddles and the defibrillator is charging. Now stand clear...!