Saturday, July 31, 2010

I'm eating Cheezits right now! :-)

Of course, the new hotness in media is Facebook. Every advertiser seems to want to abandon all their other channels of message delivery (TV, radio, print, outdoor, web, sky-writing, sandwich boards, branded T-shirts, complimentary pens with their logos on them) for Facebook. Facebook will change civilization as we know it. There's even a pompous new movie coming out about the birth of Facebook, The Social Network, marking it as the greatest invention since...well...ever. People just didn't know how to connect with each other until Mark Zuckerberg showed us the way.

But I'm old enough to remember the advent of the last medium that was supposed to change everything; e-mail. And the medium before that, cell phones. Hell, I was even alive (barely) during the early days of TV when it was supposed to replace print and radio and movies, but did none of those things. I even remember two cycles of 3D movies before this one, when 3D-ness was supposed to change everything. None of those revolutions were that long ago.

And yet nothing that much changed or replaced anything. Print is still here (in fact there are more magazines being published now than before the Internet). TV's still here. Radio's still here, and booming. Direct mail, which seems more voluminous now than ever.They're all still here. Even e-mail. The geological strata of communications technologies just keeping piling on.

But there is one critical piece of communications technology that doesn't seem to change, though. It's not man-made; it's biological. It's the human brain. This old hunk of protein hasn't changed much since the last Ice Age. And by noticing the content of Reality TV shows, one could argue that it's actually devolved.

The brain is still a highly sophisticated processor of information, and only dimly understood.

Unfortunately for all the nifty new ways to transmit information, the receiver is still operating the way it has for the last 35,000 years...give or take 3 million. From the invention of being able to use the mouth to talk face-to-face to each other, all the way to the invention of technologies where we can "talk face-to-face" to millions of people all over the planet, the same receiver is doing the same processing work it did back when mile-high glaciers were grinding over New York. The inexorable advance of transmission technology doesn't seem to make much difference.

And what have we found out? That basically, human beings, given the power to broadcast their thoughts to the world, aren't very interesting. Like some Neanderthal grunting  "Food goooood," we see that people are still telling us they're eating food right now, or staring out the window, or getting ready to go to a party, or drinking a Machiato Misto. It's depressing that people aren't any more profound, by and large, than my dog, Bob; another highly sophisticated transmitter-receiver.

If Bob had a Facebook account (which is not beyond the realm of imagination since many dogs do--though I suspect they are ghost-written by humans), he would tell us several times a day that "I'm eating right now :-)," "Chewing on a rawhide :-)," "Scratching my back on the rug :-)," or "Squirrel!!!!! :-( "   It would, in other words, be indistinguishable from 99.99% of all the other Facebook posts. Only he doesn't need Facebook to tell the people he cares about of these profound observations. He has highly efficient software to do that; it's always on, never has to search for a WiFi connection, and never needs booting (well, rarely needs booting).

So here's the point (there always has to be one, doesn't there?): It doesn't matter what the transmission technology is--Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, TV, sky-writing, cave-paintings--if the message is dull, it's not going to get through. Look at those cave paintings, for instance. We ooo and aah over the human connection we share with people 35,000 years ago--people not so different from us--and realize that, like us, all they were really concerned with was eating. In their case, eating red meat on the hoof.

Big deal.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Elevator Genie

Here's an old advertising joke. Forgive me, all you other old farts who remember this, but I feel obligated to keep it in circulation. You know, for the sake of the children.

Three people enter an elevator, an art director, a copywriter, and an account executive. On the way up a genie appears to them. "I'm the Elevator Genie," he says, "And I'm here to grant each of you your life's wish."

The copywriter says, "Oh, well, I've always wanted to retire to a little bucolic cottage in Scotland and write my novel, taking long walks with my dog oe'r the heath in the Highlands."

"Granted!" says the Elevator Genie and, "poof," the copywriter disappears to a little bucolic cottage in Scotland.

The art director says, "I've always admired the way Gaugin dropped out of the bourgeois world and went to Tahiti to paint half-naked Polynesian girls. He did his best work in Tahiti. I've wanted to do something like that."

"Granted!" says the Elevator Genie and, "poof," the art director is whisked away to Tahiti to paint half-naked Polynesian girls like Gaugin did.

The Elevator Genie finally turns to the account executive and asks, "And what is your life's wish?"

The account executive says, "We're on our way up to a client presentation in five minutes, and I want those two jerkoffs back here right now!"

Monday, July 26, 2010

That's Mighty Small of You

Today, as I was procrastinating on an elliptical trainer, I happened to hear an old This American Life segment on NPR about a dispute between two ancient advertising legends; Julian Koenig and George Lois...both of early Doyle Dane Bernbach fame. Apparently George Lois (decidedly more famous among us history-of-advertising nerds than Koenig) has been taking credit for coming up with campaigns and even famous headlines he had nothing to do with. This just in. Lois has always been known for that. His primary reputation is for having an ego with it's own gravitational field.

But Julian Koenig, a one-time creative partner of Lois, has been fighting a  running feud with his Voldemort for years. Everyone who knows industry history knows it was Koenig and Helmut Krone who originally conceived the famous "Think Small"  ad for Volkswagen in the early 60s--an ad rated by Ad Age as the best ad ever created. But George Lois has been claiming credit for it to this day; in interviews, in his books, and in documentaries about The Early Days of the Advertising Revolution (which Don Draper is currently not getting on Mad Men).

And it's not just this one ad Lois has been claiming authorship of, according to Koenig and several other eye-witnesses to the contrary, it's the whole subsequent Volkswagen campaign, the "We Try Harder" Avis campaign, and virtually every other idea that Koenig, Krone, and a whole host of other creative genii thought of. Several people are trying to prove that Lois is actually the Shakespeare of the advertising world; i.e. he didn't write any of it.

Think Small, indeed, you're probably thinking. Who cares? It's only advertising. It's not as if Lois was claiming to have written Martin Luther King's speeches, or discovered the Double Helix, or anything truly meaningful in the last half century. It's just a bunch of cute headlines in ads and a bold use of white space. That's all. But it does matter because back then, some truly momentous things were happening in the industry, and it was people like Koenig, and Krone, and Bill Bernbach, and even George Lois who were discovering the principle that creativity could actually sell stuff. What matters is truth. Truth in history.

Lies in history can get us in big trouble. As we've only seen recently; they can start wars; they can kill us.

And I can understand Koenig's indignation, and his lifelong urge to set the record straight. I've had credit stolen from me; learning that campaigns I had conceived and produced were later claimed by people who were nowhere near it. I even once experienced an acutely uncomfortable moment when I was showing my portfolio to a creative director at a respected ad agency in L.A. and he remarked that he had seen the very same work in another copywriter's book a week before, a freelance writer who had evidently helped himself to the morgue at my former agency and presented the pilfered tearsheets as his own work. My work. It wasn't just the flush of anger that someone had claimed credit for something I had done, it was that my own integrity and professional reputation were now called into question...just his word against mine.

But I'm not lily white, either.  I've also acted like George Lois. In my own little career, I've taken credit for coming up with a locally famous campaign called "Seize the Weekend" for a now-defunct sports equipment retailer, G.I.Joe's.  But the actual phrase, "Seize the Weekend" was first uttered by my wife in our living room as we were brainstorming about it. She said it first, I have to admit. I merely yelled, "That's it!" And subsequently took all the credit for it when it was enormously successful. I want to go on record right here for giving her conception credit for those three words. Take that, George Lois.

I know, who cares?

Still, who knows what really happened 50 years ago on Madison Avenue (when ad agencies in New York really were on Madison Avenue)? Maybe it's Julian Koenig who misremembers what really happened (and a host of other people). I doubt it. But it's possible.

At least he got credit for naming "Earth Day."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Never fails

I think there must be a circulating online class called  "How to Interview an Ad Agency." The reason I say this is that during the past three RFPs, I've had potential clients challenge me with the same question: "Can you tell me about a campaign you did that failed?" 

I have to think.      Hard.        Long silence for effect.

"No, I can't."

They've all worked; some better than others, but all advertising ended up bringing my clients more business than they had before they advertised.  This isn't to be egotistical, because, quite frankly, any advertising, even dull advertising, has more of an impact than none at all. There is plenty of experience over the past couple of hundred years to support this. Business schools have even done studies to verify what we all know instinctively; advertising--any advertising--always works. Sometimes there are unintended consequences; sometimes the response isn't a tidal wave of enthusiasm, but word gets out more than if you had done nothing.

That's not to say that asking an interviewee to be reflective about his or her failings isn't a good technique. For one thing, you can tell if they're blowing smoke or being defensive. All good interviewees know to keep a stock story in their pocket for just such a question. And then they make sure that the story of failure is  relative--mine is that my only regret was that I didn't stop the Vietnam War earlier than I did.

But I guess, for advertising, failure would be the difference between a 2% sales increase vs a 20%. Or that the total increase in sales amounted to less than the cost of the advertising.  But in my experience, I've never encountered that. I'm that good. Or that cheap.

And that is egotistical.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Fighting Gerunds of the South Pacific

I've said this before, people: Stop using gerunds as though they were verbs.

If there's anything that makes my teeth itch (besides chewing poison ivy) it's a headline that begins like this:


In the first place, it's not a complete sentence. There's no predicate. "Introducing" (or any "" word) is not a verb; in this case it's part of a noun-phrase which would serve in the office of subject in the subsequent sentence, which would want an actual verb to make it whole; e.g. "Introducing the all new iPhone makes us excited."

In the second place, it's as passive as a cow. Any gerund is passive. It betrays a lack of commitment to what you're saying, like the verbal equivalent of looking down at the ground when you speak, like it's not really you saying it, and, anyway, you could take it back if they don't seem interested...oh, never mind, I'll just walk away; pretend I was never here.

In the third place, since you're being so passive and disinterested, why would anyone else care? Show a little enthusiasm for your own product. And don't think you can just fix it by sticking a bang on the end, either! Put that exclamation mark down right now and step away from it.

In the fourth place, nobody talking like that in actual conversation. Not unless they're trying to mimic a bad Russian accent. Are you a bad Russian? Then no talking like that.

In the fifth place, copywriters who write headlines starting with gerunds are lazy hacks. They give actual, hardworking, creative copywriters a bad name. They make it seem as if anybody could type out a headline if that's all there is to it. So why should they pay us?

Ahh, getting that off my chest.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Not the capo d'astro bar again!

The only reason I'm writing about this tired old subject, the legendary Capo d'Astro Bar story--an object lesson in advertising from the days when Pangaea was the only continent--is that I was brainstorming yesterday with a colleague about an impending pitch, trying to figure out what, if anything, we could say about the product, and I mentioned, "We need a capo d'astro bar."

"A wha...?" he said. I thought he was kidding. I thought everybody in advertising above a certain age knew about the capo d'astro bar story, and knew what the phrase meant in the context of advertising. But, as talented and skilled as he is, I realized he was below that certain age. And then I realized that this tired old fable might die and lose its industrial utility if Poloniuses (Polonii?) like me don't keep the lesson alive. It's my duty to advertising history. Think of the children!

So for the half of my readership who is sick to death of this story, go ahead, roll your eyes and go back to figuring out how Medicare works. And for the other half (Dave), here it is:

Back in the Glorious Days of the Sixties' Creative Revolution (Mad Men, to give you all who were nowhere when Kennedy was shot an historical context), a young, smart-ass copywriter named Bud Robbins was supposed to write an ad for his agency's client, Aeolian Pianos. These were very expensive pianos and seemed to be the choice of many great musicians.  But nobody could tell Robbins why they were so good.  He didn't know why they would be better than any other expensive grand piano, like Steinway or Baldwin. They must have had some secret ingredient that distinguished them from all the others. He asked to visit the factory.

After enduring the usual account executive derision for his need for information (they were busy doing what account executives do on Mad Men--their secretaries, and, of course, smoking too much--and couldn't be bothered with irritating "creatives"), he was sent off to St. Louis for a begrudged tour of the Aeolian Piano factory.

In spite of spending two days at the plant, nobody seemed to be able to tell Robbins the difference between Aeolian and the competition. On getting ready to leave to catch his flight, Robbins asked his guide to wrack his brain one more time and think of any difference, however insignificant.  The sales manager scratched his head and said, "Well,  our pianos are a little heavier; that's why they cost more to ship."

"Why is that?"

"Well, because of the capo d'astro bar." (Here it comes, at last!).

The man invited Robbins to crawl under one of their pianos to look at a heavy, cast-iron bar strapped across the higher octave strings. He pointed out that it was there for the piano to keep its tune after the wood frame started to fifty years. Fifty years. And the only reason an Aeolian Piano was heavier than a Baldwin or a Steinway was this patented hunk of metal. Here was a little technological gizmo, completely invisible, that wouldn't even start working for half-a-century, but would let their pianos outlast any of their competition. Robbins had found his secret ingredient.

This was the reason the director of the Metropolitan Opera said that the only thing they were taking with them from their old home to their new digs at Lincoln Center was their venerable Aeolian Grand Piano--with its 50-year-old capo d'astro bar.

So Robbins started writing and created a legendary ad campaign around the capo d'asto bar, this secret ingredient that made the Aeolian Grand the greatest piano in the world. Steinway and Baldwin would, of course, take issue.

The point isn't one about pianos, or what's better. I have no idea. I can't even play Guitar Hero. The point is that this story became well-known among an entire generation of art directors and writers going to ad school in the seventies and eighties. And the phrase "capo d'astro bar" stood for any unique selling proposition (USP) that a product or service had. It was the one quality that had to be teased out of the client, something they usually took for granted and often didn't even think was that big a deal.  So whenever a creative team would be assigned a new client, they were trained to start looking for the "capo d'astro bar."

Sadly, few people seem to have that discipline any more--or even curiosity about their clients' products. They'll be happy just making vague assertions about quality, selection, value, and passion for excellence, and worry more about including keywords for search engines than whether the thing they're advertising has any special juice. It's good because we say it is, okay? Now just buy it.

But if more advertising professionals remembered the capo d'astro bar--and Bud Robbins--maybe advertising would start to get creative--and good--again. And maybe, just maybe, people wouldn't TiVo past it. Or might even click on it. And when they searched online, they'd search for the brand and not the commodity.

I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Digital Schmidgital

Heard a disturbing story on NPR this morning about how Stanford's engineering school is reducing the paper titles in its library by 85% in order to move to digital and online resources. This is a trend that hi-tech corporations like Apple, Google, Sony, etc. have been pushing--as much as broadcast corporations in the 1950s pushed that other hot technology, television, with the idea that we won't need any other media choices but one...the one they coincidentally happen to be invested in.  Books? Who needs books any more when you have an iPad or a Kindle or whatever? Print is dead (which I think Marshall McLuhan might have said over fifty years ago, but I might be mistaken; he also said "I don't necessarily believe everything I say.").

So what's wrong with getting rid of paper books? They weigh a lot. They take up space. It's a pain to find what you need in them. Only one person can check them out of the library at a time. They become obsolete almost immediately (especially in science and engineering).

The Internet should be to information technology what the printing press was five hundred years ago, or the invention of writing five thousand years ago. There were reactionary complaints about those technological revolutions, too. I recall, for instance, reading a rant of a 4th  millennium Egyptian Luddite (yes, I'm that old) that these kids these days have become so lazy; they don't have to memorize wisdom any more, they just have to look it up when they need it thanks to this new-fangled invention of writing...on paper, no less! Feh! It will be the end of civilization, mark my words, sonny!

Of course, that guy's a mummy now, walking the earth eating souls and spewing locusts out of his mouth...oh, wait, that was a movie (shot digitally).

At the risk of sounding like a five-thousand year-old mummy, I want to make the case for paper books. And paper magazines. And paper newspapers. And the case is choice. I don't like the fact that the only way I can read something is by reading it off of a screen. I love the Internet and digital media, don't get me wrong. But I love books, too. I like having the choice of curling up with a book or a magazine and not a laptop or a pad of any brand. And gauging by the deteriorating WiFi performance of the world lately, a book is far more reliable. A book never needs to be booted up, doesn't crash, doesn't shut down when the battery drains, doesn't require power at all, in fact, doesn't get viruses, and doesn't burn your stomach when you doze off in your hammock.

With books, if you're doing research, you can spread the relevant volumes open on your desk...a "virtual screen" (irony intended) several feet wide. You don't get a headache or eye-strain reading a book. And books don't interrupt your concentration with annoying pop-up characters that chirp, "You seem to be reading a book! Need help?"

Another cool thing about a physical book is that you have tactile feedback of progress while you're reading it. It's so good to feel the heft of the left-hand side of an open book, contemplating with satisfaction how much you've accomplished...or feeling the thickness on the right-hand side of how much more you have to enjoy. With a digital book you really have no idea (except for some abstract, disconnected little bar) where you are in the book. It may be about to end, or it may stretch on to the end of time. And we all know that the little progress bars on computers lie.

I'm old enough to remember the transition from VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray. And old enough to remember the transition from vinyl LPs to CDs to MP3. I still have hundreds of old LPs in my Mummy's Tomb, in fact, waiting for some future archaeologist to unearth. But I've also noticed that there's lately and illogically been a resurgence of vinyl. A whole new generation are rediscovering it. Aficionados assert that the quality of sound from an LP is far better than from the digital "compromise" of MP3. Whatever. As long as they bring them pleasure and they have a choice.

Just as TV did not make movies go away, and radio did not make newspapers go away, and writing did not make wisdom go away, digital media won't make anything before it go away. It will just add to the choices. Unless those choices are taken away from us.

So there, Stanford.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


"Rien" ("Nothing") is supposedly what Louis XVI wrote in his diary on 14 July 1789.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Going off Half-Cocked

"Half-cocked" is an expression that goes back to the days of flintlock muskets (ahhh...good times, good times). Its origin has to do with a technical glitch in which the flint fails to strike the priming pan with sufficient force to ignite the charge and...oh, who cares? What it means nowadays is to do something lamely...with insufficient resolve. And usually prematurely.

So here's how it relates to the subject of this blog, which (I'm beginning to regret) has to have some relevance to advertising, or marketing, or commerce:

An ad campaign that goes off half-cocked is one that has insufficient resolve in its execution. Very often an advertiser, particularly one who hasn't advertised before, will just try out a single, small-space ad in the cheapest medium and "see how it goes." They'll run a spot on cable after midnight. Or a tiny banner on a website nobody goes to, something cheap. And lo and behold, they don't get the response they hoped for. It's as if they bought one lottery ticket at a 7-11 and, oh pooh, came up with squat.

Okay, bad simile. I'll stick with the flintlock allusion.

The advertiser then looks at the weak response from the tentative little ad and concludes, "Advertising doesn't work."

It is true that a campaign that has entertaining creative will do better against one that's dry as powder (come o-o-o-o-on, metaphor!). But there has to be a critical mass of impressions for it to make a spark at all. Much less hit its target.

That's enough musketry. You get my point.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What are you, a comedian?

Everyone who has ever grown up as the class clown, has heard this from some teacher, usually in middle school. And as, a matter of fact, Mr. Feezer, yes, I am a comedian. Thanks for asking.

Since I sucked at sports. And since I was only moderately attractive to the opposite sex (my orientive preference), I found that honing my comedic skills earned me admiration from all my peers, even the jocks, even the opposite sex.

This is what I found out. When you're funny, people are more likely to like you. You make them laugh. Which makes them feel good. Which is a little gift you give them. In turn, they want to give you something not beating you up.

This is an old principle. Homer knew it twenty-eight centuries ago when he "wrote" the Odyssey (though some contend he didn't actually write it, that it was Shakespeare). In a memorable scene, when the anthropophagic Cyclops, Polyphemus, is amused by Odysseus' wit, he bellows "Ho! Ho! Ho! No-Man, you make Polyphemus laugh! Polyphemus like you. He eat you last." (For those of you unfamiliar with the epic, Odysseus used a pseudonym, "No-Man," which unfolds with hilarious consequences later in the story.)

So humor is good. It is very powerful. It can save lives. It can keep you from being eaten. It can also make big bucks.

Humor has been scientifically proven to work six times better in advertising than dry approaches. This is not a joke. I didn't just make this up to make a point. Several years ago I remember reading an article in AdWeek that a study by the London School of Economics found that ads with humorous content did something like 600% better at drawing response than ads that were merely informative. Somebody actually wrote a grant proposal to get money to run this study. That was funny just by itself. But when I read it, suddenly, my entire life and career were justified, and not merely because I had fun doing it. There was capitalist rationale for it.

Funny ads tend to do better than unfunny ads. For one thing, they tend to make you like the advertiser. They've given you something for free; a laugh. That makes the company seem more human. In turn, you tend to want to give them something back, like buying their product (usually beer). It's a quid pro quo. I make you laugh: You buy my product, and you won't eat me (...unless my product is a hamburger).

So, this is why I went into advertising. I am too shy to have been a stand-up comedian outright (sorry, Mr. Feezer, I knew you were counting on me). So I decided to turn it to more indirect, but commercial uses. Writing a blog..., I meant advertising, of course, silly.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

How's not advertising working for you?

Here's a business plan to experiment with. I pulled it off of the Name-On-Request School of Business website:

Step 1. Build a better product, one that the world needs.
Step 2. Keep it quiet.

Would one of you try this out and get back to me how it works?

Better still, I have a pertinent advertising anecdote (and believe me, I've got a million where this came from). Years ago I was working at an ad agency that was trying to help a regional Mexican fast-food chain increase their brand preference. There was a key member on the franchise advertising committee who, ironically, thought advertising was a waste of money. "We did a commercial once," he said, "Didn't work." We were tasked to persuade him.

So we drove out to one of his restaurants in Downtown Metropolitan Gresham to see if we could have a heart-to-heart with the guy. As we entered his store--which, I have to point out, was empty at lunch time--he jumped on us (not literally), "You're here to get me to vote for more advertising. Well, you're wasting your time. People don't need advertising to tell them we have better food than Taco Bell. It's just a fact."

He sneered at Taco Bell's empty and "cute" advertising campaign and complained that they didn't even use real meat in their tacos. He may have been right about the relative quality of his food, but nobody was ever going to know about it. "Because advertising doesn't work."

I couldn't resist pointing out the window to an actual Taco Bell that just happened to be across the street--and so crowded that cars were lined up to pull into the parking lot. "How's that working for you?"

(How often are you gifted with such vivid illustrative opportunities?)

Needless to say, the meeting did not go well. I drew two valuable lessons from it: 1) You have to advertise and you have to do it all out. There's no getting around it. 2) Don't be a smart ass with a client.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, if you're going to advertise (and you should if you're serious about growing or even staying in business), then do it big. Don't run one small space ad in a monthly trade one time and then act disappointed if you're not up there with Taco Bell in brand preference. Do it like you mean it.

Or maybe what I'm really trying to say is, there is no Name-On-Request School of Business website. That was a joke.

It was Harvard.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Customer Service Redux

To continue on this customer service vein, I now want to rant about what I think is a great model for it. I want to praise that other evil corporate giant, Starbucks. I love Starbucks as much as I love the evil Borders. I go there almost every day. And I notice how genuinely happy all the baristas seem to be. They all seem to like each other. And they seem to like everybody who comes in. I patronize a half dozen Starbucks around the city regularly, always order the same thing and they always remember what my order is and usually remember my name. I realize this speaks much more about the pathetic dullness of my life, but now I almost feel bad about ordering something different than my quotidian "vente iced coffee, unsweetened with room," particularly when I see them start to make it as they see me walk through the door.

Here's another reason: I recently went into one of my favorites and they had been talking among themselves and asked if I was, indeed, Tim Robbins. They had been taking bets. Not wanting to diminish the quality of my service, I lied and said, yes, I was Tim Robbins. Then, before I left, and worried they'd start taking me to task for breaking up with Susan Sarandon, I admitted that I wasn't Tim Robbins. But they still treat me like I was.

There are, of course, brand partisans who insist that Starbucks makes crappy coffee. I've heard them called "bean burners" by connoisseurs who really know good coffee from bad. That's not me. I can sort-of tell fresh from old coffee, but that's about it. And since I drink it iced, it doesn't seem to matter anyway. What matters is how I feel when I go into a Starbucks.

Now, of course this is all contrived. It's part of the Starbucks brand. And as such, the behavior of the staff is an ad for Starbucks. In their literal ads I've never seen them talk about their great customer service, they just do it; it's part of their corporate culture. And they know it's not something you can define. If they did try to define it and quantify it, you wouldn't believe it anyway because nobody likes listening to somebody talk about what a great person they are.

Years ago, when I was working on the McDonald's account, they tried to define customer service by launching a 60 second promo. Here's how it went: If you didn't get your order within 60 seconds, it was free. Great idea. Very vivid proof of what service means. But it backfired. Suddenly people were conscious of the clock (they had put up big stop clocks at each register, no small expense in itself), and the staff were under even more stress than before. It was so disruptive of McDonald's finely-tuned operations, and cost so much money in refunds, that they didn't want to talk about it again. Later they tried the same thing with promising a smile and a "thank you" or your meal is free. But now customers knew the smiles and "thank yous" were forced by an oppressive regime, and didn't believe them.

I've had many clients who have insisted that their primary difference, their Unique Selling Proposition in adspeak, is their customer service. They usually do have good service, too. But I've always discouraged them from talking about it in their ads. Because no one likes a braggart. Also there's the reactive thing at work, too: As soon as someone says they are committed to great customer service, you become suspicious, and you start looking for chinks in that promise. Same thing with promising quality. Of course, you're committed to quality. Who isn't? But when you brag about it, it sounds like you're trying to convince yourself.

So, getting around to the theme of this rant...I forgot what it was...

Oh, I know: Actions speak louder than words. That's it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Can I help you?

I want to say a word about customer service and how it relates to marketing. Every retailer knows that customer service is king. That's true (unless you're in Europe, then you can pound sand). But in this country, the company that gives good customer service will rule from on high, like...well...a king. Metaphorically, of course; we're still a republic.

But there's such a thing as too much customer service. The kind that actually drives customers away.

This is what I mean: I went into a Borders Books the other day just to browse. I love books. I love Borders. My idea of a great lunch hour is to spend it in a Borders. I've been a loyal customer both online and in the flesh for years. I know, I know: they're a giant, blood-sucking corporation dedicated to driving little booksellers and their families into the wilderness. But I've liked them. They always had helpful, friendly customer service. And in a bookstore that means a light touch, standing back and letting you linger.

But this time I was hit up by several clerks wanting to know if they could help me find something. This was new. This was irritating. I told each of them, in turn, that I was just browsing--which, come on, is what you do in a bookstore. But they kept hovering. Watching me. Sometimes a new one would accost me, offering to help me find something. (Did they think I was a shoplifter? In a bookstore?) But it put me off and I ended up leaving, not buying anything. Or shoplifting anything, either.

This hovering, overly helpful experience repeated itself over several visits, so I knew there was a new least in that store. The policy seemed to be: Jump on the customer, stay with them until they buy something, and get them out. But all it did was the latter; get me out.

I don't mean to pick on Borders. I've noticed this trend of hovering, pushy floor staff in many stores lately. It's like the Interrupting Waiter Syndrome applied to retail. Smacks of desperation. It makes you feel like the only reason your presence is tolerated in the store is if you're going to buy something--and either buy something or get out. It makes you think, depressingly, that the store manager has got to get his numbers up or he's out. There's sulfur in the air. And your pleasant lunch hour is ruined because now lives are suddenly at stake.

So my advice to marketers, after years of being a marketer myself, and even more years of being a marketee, is to relax. Hang back. Be pleasant. Be ready to help. Be visible. But be in the background. Don't push your customers. And, more to the point, don't push your sales staff. It doesn't help.