Make Your Marketing Useful, Like Samsung and Charmin

Take a Small Chunck Out of Those Billion-Dollar Budgets and Help Provide a Free, Helpful Service

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After about half an hour of staring at the space where a plane should've been, we're granted the announcement we knew was coming: The 3:30 p.m. out of LAX is now the 4:50 p.m., which we all know means it's really the 6-something p.m. There's a brief period of eye-rolling before everyone goes back to their business, which in my case means huddling with a dozen other worshippers around the Samsung totem pole to which our BlackBerries and laptops are attached.

If you have the misfortune to run the gauntlet of America's airports with any regularity, you're all too familiar with this scene and may even know the totem I'm referring to. It's an eight-foot, electrical charging station with a little shelf about halfway up its length where devices rest and recharge. It was Samsung that came up with the idea to pay for and install these life savers, hence having its brand name emblazoned on the side.

There are now more than 50 of them in both LAX and New York's JFK and a bunch in Dallas-Fort Worth, too. Earlier this month Samsung announced plans to bring them to LaGuardia and Orlando, where they'll undoubtedly be the most functional thing about two airports that vie for the title "grimmest travel hub" with Uzbekistan's Tashkent International Airport.

Do I think charging stations sell phones? Unlikely. But they're way more likely to leave me feeling affection for the brand than some mind-numbing airport billboard that has nothing to do with the frustration and boredom I'm experiencing. They're classic examples of marketing as service, a concept worthy of more attention and dollars than it's getting.

Marketing as service is where brands actually give consumers something they want or need. It's also been tagged "brand utility," while WPP's Bridge is giving it a slightly more altruistic, cause-centric slant and calling it "marketing with meaning."

One of my favorite examples came from Metro newspapers in the U.K., which spent some of its launch marketing budget repairing and improving inner-city sports facilities. It was a good way to get the Metro name emblazoned into the very fabric of the cities in question and a clever way to give the brand a bit of "history" within the city.

There are other examples: the oft-quoted Nike Plus and, just as brilliant, the Charmin restrooms in Times Square. But they're too few and far between. Drew Neisser, CEO of interactive shop Renegade, collects them on and is responsible for executing one such program, the HSBC BankCab, which ferries the bank's customers around New York free of charge. But he admits he hasn't been able to find that many and believes that's because "frankly, even if a few people talk about it, too few really get it."

My suggestions: AT&T, for example, how about you spare a few million from the billion you spend shoving your bars in my face, and help the MTA fix its Subway intercoms? Or Citi, how about you take some of the hundred million a year you spend telling us how friendly you are to construct a wireless network for New York? (Hell, I can even see an adaptation of the umbrella in your logo as a wireless signal.) BP, you really want to convince us you're green, how about putting together a borrow-a-bike system in a few U.S. cities, like the ones in Paris, Berlin and Munich?

Don't get me wrong. Consumer affection and interaction can be won through extremely entertaining advertising. But for brands who don't believe their mission in life is to entertain or have tried and repeatedly failed at that exercise, marketing-as-service offers an option that doesn't involve thrusting your mission statement in our faces every time we turn a corner.
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