|Photo: Stephanie Diani|
|Mark-Hans Richer: 'We must end the era of buzz for buzz sake -- and the manic chase for it at all costs.'
That might seem an odd statement from the guy behind the Pontiac "Oprah" giveaway, a press-garnering stunt criticized at the time for being more about noise than numbers. But Mr. Richer was damning in his denouncement of those who make a splash, not a sale, and underscored his case by showing how his innovative adventures in branded entertainment have added up to real-world results.
"Many of you can cite incredible examples of merging content with commerce," said the Pontiac director-marketing in his keynote speech at the event in the Beverly Hills Hotel. "But I'm here today to say that we must end the era of buzz for buzz sake -- and the manic chase for it at all costs -- if we can't turn it into biz."
He was not the first speaker of the day to talk about this being a "golden age" for marketers, an age in which there is no single prescribed model -- "the days of a predominant media model are more over than Kevin Federline's career in commercials," he noted -- allowing marketers to get truly creative with their approaches. "If we aren't conducting radical experiments, trying new ways to engage our targets and adding value to them, then we're not doing our jobs," he said.
From many other marketers, this would have sounded trite or even hypocritical, but Mr. Richer can lay claim to a strong record of experimentation. In fact he used his time at the podium to announce two new experiments: a social-networking site the carmaker is launching with Yahoo, called Pontiac Underground; and a MySpace page that promises to offer rewards to friends of those who buy a Pontiac G5.
But Mr. Richer is a good example of a marketer who is comfortable speaking -- he is outspoken, funny and sufficiently engaging that he might even be in danger of attracting the now-dangerous epithet "rock star" -- and yet determined to make a real impact on his company's business, not just on his own career.
Take that Pontiac "Oprah" giveaway. Sure, Mr. Richer said, he got promotional value of $110 million for the $8 million that it cost him to give away the cars, but that wasn't an end in itself. In addition, he said, the push connected the G6 to women, who were the buyers of 65% of the car's predecessor, the Grand Am. Secondly, the buzz produced sales, with the G6 outselling its predecessor by 75%, selling for $5,000 more per unit and to a consumer five years younger on average. And what's more, 45% of the sales came from customers who hadn't bought from GM before.
The youthful-looking Detroiter took a similar case-study-style approach in outlining the success of his efforts to integrate the Solstice roadster into an episode of "The Apprentice 3." A mere 41 minutes after the show, 1,000 viewers placed orders for the Solstice sight unseen, with no cars on the ground or test drives. Web traffic to the car's site jumped 1,400%. What's more, he claimed, the integration helped blunt the launch of the Mazda Miata, which the Solstice later overtook as the No. 1 selling roadster in America.
Finally, he circled around to the reasons why Pontiac decided to become the first marketer to use TV ads to drive people to type the marque into Google's search box. "Some asked: 'Why did we do this? Don't people just Google stuff anyway? Why waste the breath to suggest doing it on TV?'" he said. Then he flipped up a chart that showed exactly why: a thin blue line showing a perfect correlation between the ads and strong search activity. And the benefit didn't end there: Sales leads from search were three times what Pontiac got from third-party auto-shopping sites.
To critics who might say that none of this counts for much given GM's travails and Pontiac's stagnant market-share figures, he offered this preemptive strike: 2006 was a strong transitional year for the automaker's marketing, with retail sales up in tough markets such as Los Angeles and New York; residual values of GM cars have jumped 34% in the last three years, climbing above Mazda's to the level of Nissan's; trade-ins from Nissan, Toyota and Honda dealers are up about 25%. And, of course, GM has also started to wean itself off those addictive incentives.
Whether you bought his argument on Pontiac or not, Mr. Richer's speech hit a perfect note for the many marketers now operating in the branded-content arena. Five years into the TiVo-driven branded-entertainment renaissance, there are plenty operating in the area, but it is still avoided by many marketers because it lacks accountability.
What the Pontiac brand chief was really underlining was not just the No. 1 issue for branded entertainment, but for any of the new approaches being taken by marketers. He was asking marketers to take the stars from their eyes, avoid commending techniques for their newness alone and start seeing that "experimental" and "results driven" are not necessarily mutually incompatible concepts.
"There is nothing magical about doing deals with Hollywood or with major brands -- it only matters if it works. There is nothing magical about being part of a cool, online community -- it only matters if it works. There is nothing magical about not doing TV ads or doing viral video ads instead -- it only matters if it works," he said.
Finally, as several of the Madison & Vine keynotes have done before him, he came up with a challenge for the marketing world, reframing the Madison & Vine equation as M + V = X. There is little disagreement these days that marketing has to entertain and add value for the consumer to work, so the "M" and "V" are today taken as given. What Mr. Richer wants is for the industry to hold itself accountable for the results of bringing them together. "We must solve X," he said, "the biz that's generated from the buzz. This isn't a tactical discussion anymore -- it's a strategic discussion that centers on generating consumer value and business value."