Letters, March 22, 2010

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Who should be held responsible for 'drinkability'?

RE: "Bud Light's Blunder: Letting Consultants Steer Brand" (AA, March 15).

As someone who has worked on many campaigns from both the agency and consultant side, and has been ready to fall on a sword countless times to challenge everyone to get to the core truth, I can't fathom how someone on this account didn't see the blatant disconnect and step up to challenge the consensus before developing creative. I would not in good conscience have been able to walk out of an executive meeting without making it clear that "Drinkability" isn't compelling, has no emotional driver, and is not at the core of what the brand means to the consumer. Seriously, who would authorize the execution of something that isn't compelling, won't drive emotions, and doesn't connect with what the consumer values?

Core-value branding works, but the consultant in this case didn't drill down to the core value. They landed on "Drinkability" because they were in linear/rational/corporate mode. And what better way to wow the client than to pull a forgotten "core value" right off the label, connecting heritage and key benefit. Seems like a win-win, huh?

Unfortunately, too many people are willing to blindly accept whatever "dictate" trickles down and don't bother to question the validity of the premise or invest themselves in its integrity.

This is a cause for shame in our industry. It opens the door for spectators to broadly crucify agencies and consultants, wastes money, damages brands, and demoralizes everyone involved.

This is a PR article planted by cash-strapped agencies looking to discredit brand consultants. It is peevish and craven.

Creative agencies are terrible at brand strategy, always have been and probably always will be. They are not disciplined. They regularly turn brands into something their creative directors fancy and consumers do not relate with. Don't deny that reality.

This campaign delivered three years of strong growth and one year of decline -- in a deep recession. The success of Bud Light Lime and the blue bottle-shaped cans delivered a big base of volume that was a bit fad-related and a little frivolous. In a recession, it is easy to dispense with lime-flavored beer. It was a victim of its early success.

I agree that "Drinkability" is a fairly nebulous term that added little to the brand and certainly did not warrant four years of repetition.

The brand should have pivoted into a more recession-friendly positioning earlier, which emphasized tradition, authenticity, back-to-basics goodness and acceptability.

Budweiser and Bud Light are and have been the "safe choice" for many consumers for a long time. Emphasizing its role as the "comfort food" of beers would have been the right move ... a year ago.

Despite all that, this story feels like it was planted by A-B's agencies (who are quoted in the article) as a way to deflect blame to the consultants.

If I were A-B, I would investigate and fire those agencies immediately if true. They are not working in their client's interests by participating in this article.

The client approved the work. The buck stops at the client. If they approve a "rational" campaign and ignore what we've known about the category and the heavy user for ages -- that "out of home" beer drinking is a sociological phenomenon laden with emotions -- then why blame agencies and consultants? Who is the steward of the brand? Surely not consultants and agencies!!

By the way, I wonder how much the takeover of A-B and the subsequent severe downsizing has to do with all this. Did the client lose the keepers of the soul of the brand?

Ultimately, while outsiders can provide insights and fresh ideas, the people who have to know and understand the brand the best are those in the company itself. As the article suggests, management consultants tend to represent the rational, logical "head" in the process, and often advertising agencies bring more of the emotional, passionate "heart" (although a good agency keeps an eye on research and metrics as well).

Success comes from a harmonious balance between the two, and the brand manager and marketing executives must know how to align those perspectives in the context of their brand.

So, to brands: "To thine own self be true."

I worked on the client side for over 20 years and truly believe that agencies are at their very best when they simply admit and accept that it's their job to sell great creative solutions to strategic problems. They do not typically excel at developing holistic brand strategies.

I think the agency creative types are really misdirecting their pent-up anger at consultants when it's their confused and hapless clients they are upset with. I can count on one hand the number of account execs or creative people I've met at ad agencies who were truly talented brand strategists (C'mon, admit it, you guys ... did the strongest briefs you ever received come from your best clients or your agency's account manager?) It's just a different skill-set than most agencies hire for because they know their clients are not going to pay them for a strategy (but don't they love it when they can find a client who has a strategy and an understanding of their customer!).

In many agencies, the account people are highly paid referees who are primarily there to 1) keep the creatives and clients from murdering each other and 2) to figure out ways to reverse-engineer the agency's creative solutions to fit the client's strategy in order to make it palatable.

The old saying goes, "If you are a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail." Ad agencies sell advertising. Consultants sell broad-based solutions. Those things don't have to be mutually exclusive. Consultants are supposed to be looking at the universe of potential solutions to a client's business issues. They are typically agnostic about the creative execution, as long as it fits the business and brand strategy and brings results. The client and agency need to agree on creative executions and stop blaming the consultants if they fail at that.

Instead of thrashing against that reality, or denying that some consultants can and do add value, maybe you should ask yourself why all these clients are going to consultants for their strategic needs in the first place. You might like to believe that clients enjoy flushing their hard-earned profits down the drain to pay for stuff they just don't need or could easily get from you, but that's not the case. They only part with their cash grudgingly, when they feel they must. Heck, most agencies are giving away strategic advice for free in order to sell the work.

Again, it's the client's job, in most people's opinions, to create, build and defend their own brand strategy. And yes, sometimes they need objective third-party help. If all clients and agencies were really talented at this, there would be no brand or marketing consultants. Agencies could find ways to fix this problem but they've trained clients over the years not to pay for, or trust, their strategic advice. Maybe because it almost always leads to the same recommendation: BUY MORE ADS!

No difference between sugar and high-fructose corn syrup

RE: "Major Brands No Longer Sweet on High-Fructose Corn Syrup" (AA, March 15)

High-fructose corn syrup has contributed to food choice and value for decades. It is a safe ingredient that is used in many different ways in many foods -- sometimes in very small amounts with a limited effect on total calories. Taking bran cereal as an example, Americans would need to eat 87 bowls in a single day to reach the recommended daily allowance of added sugars from high-fructose corn syrup. For bread, they would need to eat 39 slices. For spaghetti sauce: 20 servings. For salad dressing: 50 servings.

High-fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetener alternative to sugar. Its introduction into the food supply was intended to overcome periodic shortages in sugar availability and resulting price increases (as is the case now). High-fructose corn syrup also avoided the problems posed by sugar's instability in acidic soft drinks and fruit preparations, bagged sugar's handling difficulties and sugar's functional limitations in certain foods and beverages.

Sugar is sugar whether it comes from corn, cane, beets or bees. All are safe and natural. Your body can't tell the difference between them.

Replacing high-fructose corn syrup with sugar? That's like improving your health by switching from Marlboros to Camels.

SXSW isn't looking far enough ahead

RE: Curt Hanke's "SXSWi: All That Glitters Is Not Gold" (AdAge.com, March 15)

Curt, you've captured the malaise, but don't really offer any insight into what's coming next. Of course I don't work sufficiently aggressively to get invited to speak at events like SXSWi, but here are some concrete insights into the future of marketing:

1) The death of frequency means the end of repetition. A revolution that virtually only Apple and Lee Clow are taking action on today. We need to focus on reach and a wide variety of on-message, constantly adapting mixed-media messages.

2) So-called social marketing does not exist any more than "Water Cooler Talk Marketing" works. People are social, marketing is not. What is being called "social marketing" is really PR, and PR should get a bigger slice of the traditional marketing budget. Social-marketing spending is still PR spending; it doesn't equate to "pull marketing" spending, exactly. Switching from "push" tactics and fundamentals to "pull" is what the future of marketing is all about, and if you get that, then you should be shifting the largest portion of your spend to experiential, face-to-face marketing tactics that move the "pull" meter needle most effectively.

3) Free, universal, instant online translation and the rise of global niche brands are happening as we debate what amount to nothing more than red herrings -- and few firms (outside of some small sleeper brands) are thinking about it. The web has no national boundaries and will soon have no language barriers, although culture will continue to have strong influence. Skype is free, and is now video, not merely voice. Global overnight couriers make delivery virtually instantaneous. Think about the implications.

4) ROI metrics, while growing in sophistication and depth, really aren't as important as those the procurement departments and CFO's would have us believe. Our industry just shifted billions in spending to social marketing with ZERO proven ROI. Point is, we can just "get on with it" when it comes to new marketing tactics and blow past procurement with strategically strong arguments, not allow them to preempt or slow innovation.

Those four things are pretty earth-shattering, if you start applying them to your global firm's marketing efforts. They'll require years of change management to implement and make effective, and that's without addressing advertising's holy grail, fully addressable advertising, which the advent of the internet, smartphones and location-based services is about to make real.

CORRECTIONS: In "Life After P&G," (March 15) TBWA Chief Creative Officer Rob Schwartz's title was incorrectly listed as executive creative director. The website for Jim Stengel's June Cannes presentation should be BurningQuestion.com, not TheBurningQuestion.com. The last name of UCLA student Kara Kobak was misspelled Kobaki.

RE: "Treatment for Couple's Pain Makes Laughter Conceivable" (AA, March 15). EMD Serono is affiliated with Germany's Merck KGaA; it has no relationship with Merck & Co.

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