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SearchTHIS: Google on New Listing Guidelines

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Google on New Listing Guidelines Kevin M. Ryan

Don’t say I didn’t warn you about this. Google launched a whole new way to treat (or mistreat, depending on who you talk to) search marketers last Wednesday. Of course, the blogosphere was abuzz with speculation in how the new interaction will take place between user, paid placement search results, and oh yes, affiliates.

If it weren’t for brands with a case of affiliate search Schadenfreude (read: laugh while someone else pays to send possibly qualified traffic into my Web site), maybe this would not have happened. Maybe people just got really tired of seeing too many listings for the same site, or maybe there’s some fallout happening from brand “confusion” litigation discussions.

In any case, I decided to get it straight from the horse’s mouth. I caught up with Salar Kamangar, Google’s director of product management, to discuss the big change at Google and what’s on the horizon for advertisers. 

What is the primary motivation for the new policy?

Quality is the answer. No matter what you may think about search engines and their eternal quest for almighty shareholder equity, when usability and efficiency suffer you may as well flush the whole thing down Thomas Krapper’s invention.

Kamangar had this to say: “The change is tied to the importance of maximizing ad quality. We proved that we could show more diversity, but do it in a way that brings quality to listings and search results.”

Who gets to bid on what and where?

Simply put, when bidding on a keyword or phrase, multiple marketers will no longer be allowed to bid for position against the same phrase in a public forum. Ownership of keywords or phrases will originate around the domain.

In the “Marriott Hotel” search example above, the two top paid listing marketers would not be allowed to play in the same search result space, but who decides which listing appears?
“We will use a normal bidding system in, if the ads have the same visible URL, the only ad that will be shown is the one with highest ranking,” says Kamangar.

But what about existing advertisers, or even new ones? If you accept the assertion that a duplicate advertiser or affiliate listing is not permitted (and therefore can't be seen by user ranking group), then how does Google qualify which listing will hold sway over the search result?

To summarize the ranking process, Google offered the following expanded explanation:

  • A new affiliate advertiser will still be able to compete for an ad impression, even if there is already an established advertiser with the same display URL advertising on the same keyword.

  • Advertisers have the ability to improve their ad rank by making adjustments to their creative and/or increasing their CPC. 

  • If the affiliate has implemented the keyword as a broad match, the keyword will build a historical CTR for terms that may not have other advertisers with a similar display URL competing for the ad impression. This gives the affiliate the ability to improve its ad rank.

  • For new advertisers, we assign a click-through rate to the keyword that is based on the overall historical performance of that keyword.

Google’s ranking system is a combination of investment and fortitude, or money and user preference, if you like. According to the AdWords support page, “your ad is ranked on the search results and content pages based on a combination of its maximum cost-per-click (CPC) and clickthrough rate (CTR). The higher your CPC or CTR is, the higher your ad's position will be.”

What are the identifying criteria for each marketer?

Why, the URL, of course. Before I begin to spout a series of detailed explanations in technobabble, here’s the real world, I-am-a-marketing-not-an-information-technology-guy explanation.

“Domain will be identified according to its root architecture,” says Kamangar. “For example, in “news.google.com” the portion that is before and after the dot is of primary concern.”

Get it?


There will be exceptions to this rule, such as advertisers who use store fronts such as Yahoo! but according to Kamangar the list will be kept under wraps.

All of this is driven by a need for presenting unique content in search results. And, the biggest offenders (or defenders, depending on who’s writing the checks) in the space are affiliates.

How will the interaction with affiliates change?

If you only read my column twice a year, you know that I have some affiliate baggage. Without unloading my luggage into this week’s search vacation, let’s just say the arbitrage scenario will change.

Think of search arbitrage as knowing exactly what a visitor (or click) is worth to someone else and selling it to them while making a tidy profit for yourself. That’s what many affiliates do, and most do it quite well. Affiliates are not stupid. They know exactly how much they can pay and how much a visitor is going to be worth.

But are affiliates simply money grubbing listing mongers?

“There are many cases in which an affiliate can bring value to a user experience and provide useful information,” says Kamangar. “One typical example is one where marketers rely on affiliates to do their marketing [in paid search] for them. The have an incentive to send traffic into the marketer’s site and they understand how to maximize search.”

In the above instance, where a brand has no presence, the affiliate is the only connection to the marketer. The real question marketers should be asking at this point relates to whether or not they should be allowing an affiliate to do that marketing for them, but that is an entirely different discussion.

What other reforms do you see on the horizon?

Other ad quality improvements are in the works. Google has already implemented several enhancements, such as the slightly controversial smart pricing enhancement in which “Google may reduce the cost for a click if that better reflects the value it brings …” Smart pricing identifies pages in which clicks weren’t working.

There is also the ads quality enhancement, which is designed to help broad match get more intelligent. “These implementations are designed to impact meaningful changes for users and advertisers alike,” says Kamangar. “For example, if an advertiser bids on the “Jobs” keyword, results for “Steve Jobs” inquiries will not be returned.”

So what’s next on the agenda? “You can expect to see more keyword technology enhancements,” Kamangar says. “We are applying the techniques we learn in search to advertisements. By doing that, users will keep coming to the site and finding a helpful resource, and advertisers will continue to see the benefit of placement.”

Hyperactive Speculation

If you have been watching paid search evolve in the past three years or so, it might seem like search providers are simply trading best practices and coming up with neato names for each new policy or procedure to avoid litigation. One site does it and miraculously, six months later the other pops off with a strikingly similar policy.

Overture has been enforcing strict policies on search listing or domain competition for some time. Simply put, an advertiser is not allowed to represent itself as anything other than what is represented in site content. Affiliates with a taste for attempting brand confusion via bidding on terms with brand domains were never really a problem for Overture.

Despite the mass speculation on the impact of Google’s new, ahem, procedure, there are still a few things that simply haven’t changed. Smart practices, like steering your brand in the right direction and wearing the white hat -- both in theory and in practice -- will never change.

Additional resources:

Google’s Announcement

The Search Listing Quality Conundrum

10 Tips for Your Affiliate Program 

About the Author: iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.

Ryan serves as Executive Vice President at the search engine marketing specialist agency, Did-it.Com.

Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 

The internet has changed the level of information that clients can gather about you before you even enter the room. In fact, the client may know more than most of the people in your agency about what is going on with your agency.

Many clients are becoming quite savvy about pitches from online agencies. They scour your website, absorbing how you're structured, what clients you have and where your competencies are based. They look at whether you have the ability to service the account locally or will be farming work out across your agency network. They find out where your media and creative teams will probably be located and whether they will be in the same office. They do blog searches on your name, see what accounts you've won, which you've lost, and what the public's perception of those losses was and why. They can find out whether you have a structure based on "centers of excellence," which is another way to say that you are structured for your efficiency, not the client's.
So why do online agencies keep coming in and wasting 30 minutes of precious pitch time on telling the client who you are and explaining your process model?

Be serious. Does any agency really operate by the process model they throw up on the board for the pitch presentation? All the model does is remind every agency person in the pitch how they are supposed to be operating with their other clients, instead of how the work actually gets done. There are a few notable exceptions where the process dictates how the agency produces work. But agencies that are that rigid in these processes often find themselves unable to adapt to differing client models.
The client does not care about your process, only that you have one. As far as the client is concerned, the agency is magic pixie dust. They call the agency. The agency does a scope of work. The client signs. Magic happens. Magic is reviewed and measured. The process repeats.
Bottom line: Stop taking up time telling the client who you are. They know. They invited you to pitch.

Next: Assume you know more about the client

Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 

Why do so many agencies assume they know more about the client's business than the client? You wouldn't go into a sneaker company and tell it how to design shoes, so why do online agencies go to brands and insist on what they could do to improve the product?
Many agencies get excited when researching the client's brand while preparing for the pitch; excited that they are going to discover some unique insight that the client has not thought of. They get excited when they experiment with the client's product and discover nuances about it ("if the product could only do this…"). It's tempting to go overboard when acting on this excitement, but do not fall into that trap.
The client knows who their consumer is, and probably even knows who it should be. On the other hand, your knowledge of how to influence the consumer is what's important to convey. Your challenges are the same as the traditional agency: finding out what the challenges are to consumers adopting the client's brand and its products. It's your job to develop programs to get those consumers in the door. It's the client's job to have a product good enough to have them come back.
Most clients understand the current limitations of their product and the challenges to consumer adoption. They usually have a product roadmap planned for two years out to fix those issues. If possible, ask them what success looks like to them before you present. That will help determine what they believe will help move their brand forward. Does it involve tinkering with their product? No? Then you will have to leave it at that.
Bottom line: Do not recite what, to them, is obvious about their product.

Next: Forget the client's budget constraints

Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 

Know what type of client you're pitching to because budgeting dependencies vary wildly between them.

If you are going to succeed in servicing a wide range of clients, understand that some of their businesses may be incompatible with your pricing model. If you cannot service a particular client or are unwilling to service a client under the budget they have specified, then do not just assume the budget can be expanded to conform to your business model.

If you decide to participate in a pitch, make sure you understand when the client's budget may be pliable. And if you really want their business, determine how you can adapt to service it.

Another question to ask is whether the brand is a traditional one that has gone online or is strictly an online brand? The differences that dictate the budget process within those companies are stark.

A traditional brand, one with an actual, physical real-world product, like say, a sneaker company, has numerous ways it can adjust Operating Income Before Amortization (OIBA) to meet forecasts and run its business. It can cut manufacturing and operating plant costs. It can source another supplier who can provide higher-quality materials at a lower cost. It can shift to just-in-time delivery to shave warehouse costs, purchase in bulk, adjust distribution methods, packaging materials, shipping methods and sales cycles, as well as adjust headcount and marketing expense. All of this goes to the bottom line. That type of monetary flexibility enables more stable, larger retainer-based relationships.
An online brand has considerably fewer ways to do this, and some, especially those in the service industries, usually have only two places to adjust OIBA: headcount, and marketing expense. The marketing budget for an online brand is much more flexible based on the brand's success, but much more rigidly tied to it. Online is held to a higher standard on direct business drivers due to the nature of much of the media and the degree to which it is trackable.

This means that it will usually have much smaller allowances for retainers and a tighter reign on project costs. However, the same flexibility traditional brands have in OIBA adjustment means that there are more diverse places for investment within the company, and thus places that eat up money when performance from an online campaign is contributing to the company's success. Online brands can more easily expand their marketing budgets based on campaign performance.

On the plus side, online brands are usually staffed with marketers who are steeped in internet marketing and technology. It's their business. Often on the traditional brand, although the team of online marketers is very savvy, they exist within an organization that is not. This usually requires longer approval processes, more "marketing by committee" and thus more agency personnel to staff the account.
Bottom line: Not all client business models, and thus budget models, can adapt to yours. Be more flexible and you'll fill those gaps you have in your client roster. Start small with online brands. Start with small teams, small retainers, small projects, and you will structure the account to grow based on their success.
Next: Be oblivious to the client's other agencies

Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 

You know how you find out what other agencies work for the client you're pitching? You ask the client. The client is often more than willing to share who its current agency relationships are with, who services which aspects of the business, and where the openings are.

It is suicide to come in and recite to the client who it is working with without confirmed knowledge. It demonstrates lack of research and immediately positions the agency for failure. Individuals on the client end tend to be very loyal to their agencies. It is much easier for someone to listen to you when you are not stepping on their toes.

Find out who, at the client, is the chief contact for each agency, and then who is actually conducting your pitch. From that you should be able to customize the pitch so that you are positioned as a nice little puzzle piece for them. No one wants confrontation, and no one wants to feel that their agency relationship is threatened. Only from the inside will you be able to avoid encrouching on other territory.
Interactive pitches are often clouded by the looming presence of the traditional agency, with the interactive agency as second-class citizens. Don't feel bad. Interactive agencies used to be fourth-class citizens but are now viewed as essential to most client plans. Seek to understand the dynamics of the interactive side of a client's business.

Learn to play nice with the traditional agency. The traditional agency often sets the overall arch of creative positioning. This is the reason you are a multi-disciplinary agency and why you are often not invited to interactive pitches. It is not that you don't have competencies in interactive, it's that the client cannot send confusing signals to their traditional agency.
Bottom line: If you don't try and prove to the client that you can replace the other agencies not involved in the pitch, you are less likely to cause internal conflict in their decision-making process.

Next: Ignore the RFP

Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 

The pitch document is usually the most important document you will receive when you are looking to win new business. Read it. And after you start working, read it again. Force everyone in the pitch to stop and review whether the path you are going down will be what the client needs, not what you think they need. Those who created the document know a heck of a lot more about their brand, their brand challenges and segmentation research than you can ever hope to learn in the short time you have to conduct the pitch. In that document are the nuggets of platinum to construct your pitch.

First, find out who at the client's business wrote the RFP and whether that person is the final decision maker? You're bound to have questions for this person. But, do not compose a huge list and then fire it off at once. Your exhaustive interest is great, but all it will do is exhaust your client, and you'll never get your responses in time. Fire small quick questions, such as, "Is this the right direction or have you gone down that path without success? Or can you just quickly clarify these five insights that will drive our work? Is this on the right track?"

Be cognizant that they are not there to solve your problems. You are supposed to be there to solve theirs. Be prudent. Make sure your questions will provide real, meaningful direction for your work. Engage your own team in their creation, have one person act as a point person, and then fire away.
Bottom line: Ignore the pitch document direction at your own peril.
Next: Staff the pitch with who is available

Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 

Clients analyze the job postings on your site and across HotJobs, Monster.com and CareerBuilder. Do you have a lot of open positions? This is a warning sign. It signals to clients that your current staff may be stretched thin, and it could be the proverbial straw.

You can fill in all the little boxes on the org chart of who will be servicing the clients account, but they know that 50 percent of the time what is calculated as 20 hours is really a fourth of their 80-hour week. I have even witnessed agency personnel from different offices introducing themselves to each other at the pitch. And this is supposed to be your team?
The people you have may not be the people who are good for the client's account. Staff the pitch with people that you envision as the people servicing the client's account but have back-ups. Your agency may be stable, but staffing at online agencies is sometimes akin to a blind date. You just never know who you're gonna get.

When your pitch includes employees whose "business cards are not ready" and those who won't actually be on the account day-to-day, these are sure signs to the client that you are throwing the team together based on your needs and what you have available, rather than their needs.

Not all teams are equal. There is nothing more disruptive than frequent changes to the personnel on the client's account, and they realize that. Every single change involves someone who then has to spend time learning the client's business and style, and this is time that the client is paying for.
Bottom line: Get your people talking to each other before walking into the room, and make sure that everyone knows their role in the pitch. The client can tell when they don't.

Next: Conclusion

Talk a lot about your agency history   
Assume you know more than the client 
Forget the client's budget constraints 
Be oblivious to the client's other agencies   
Ignore the RFP 
Staff the pitch with who is available 

There are no hard and fast rules for agencies in pitches. You could have the greatest work but not present it right. Someone on your team could say that one thing that just irks the client about their brand. You could continually refer to someone in the meeting by the wrong name or show up wearing or using a competitor's product. That's sure to kill your chances.

You can probably recite the first 10-15 slides of your presentation without a single cue, which is bad. Pitches are art, not science. What most agencies do when they confine it to process and slides is reduce the variance of that art.
If you are successful at winning business, just keep doing what you're doing and ignore everything I've said here. You may not know what it is, that magic you have in a pitch. It could be that the last couple of wins have given you that aura that clients can sense when they're in the room with you. Perhaps it's quiet confidence, without being arrogant. It's the same effect when you are interested in someone across the bar. Confidence is sexy, and no one wants to go home with the ugly agency.
But if you know you've nailed the pitch and just seem to keep missing a win, review whether you are making some obvious mistakes in your preparation. Sometimes what you know is not what you think.

Return to introduction

Sean X Cummings is director of marketing for Ask.com. Read full bio.

Mass collaboration is powering the new economy

It's no secret among iMedia readers that "user-generated content" was a sucker punch to the jaw of the marketing world over the past several years. A fundamental shift has occurred in which brands have become a conversation -- and audiences have just as much of a say in the shape of that dialogue as marketing directors and agency copywriters.

But, that's just the tip of the iceberg.

In their book, "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything," Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams describe a new economy where companies are taking advantage of a new collaborative world to foster innovation and grow their enterprises.

Of course, the UGC and social media titans are part of this mass collaboration. YouTube, Facebook, Pandora, and MySpace are all based on the participation of their communities. This new shift encompasses this trend, but extends far beyond how we entertain ourselves online.

Brands like Procter & Gamble, BMW, Lego, Boeing, and Netflix are all actively going outside their walls to find new ways to innovate and better ways to produce their goods and services. These companies are pioneers of the collaborative economy.

And now, Steve Jobs has taken note.

The brand that gets it: Apple
It almost seems cliché to mention Apple in any article about great advertising. But this article isn't about what's great -- it's about massive change reshaping the future. And Apple's iPhone campaign is all about mass collaboration reshaping the future of Apple.

The campaign is in line with most Apple advertising. The product is the hero. The voice is friendly, clever, and straightforward. The ads simply state that whatever you want or need to do with your iPhone, "There's an app for that."

"There's an app for that" refers to the tens of thousands of applications built on the iPhone API that are available for download in the iTunes store. The vast majority of those apps were not built by Apple.

If you're familiar with the history of Apple, you know that relying on outside sources to fuel innovation just hasn't been the way things were done -- until now. You'd also know that Apple doesn't always do things first. (The iPod wasn't the first MP3 player.) But when it sees an opportunity, it goes after it in a bigger and better way than anyone else ever has.

Apple has seen that opportunity in mass collaboration.

Last year Apple announced it would dump Macworld and instead focus on WWDC, its Worldwide Developer Conference. Why? Because developers create apps.

This is where the driving force will come from that will maintain Apple's leadership in innovation in the years to come. This is a major strategic shift for Apple -- and the absolute right one.

Constant connectivity in an on-demand world

I'm wired. Almost every minute of every day, it seems I am connected. Emailing, surfing, Twittering, streaming, gaming, texting, Facebooking, downloading, chatting -- will it ever end?

No. It won't. Constant connectivity is a megatrend.

More and more, we are relentlessly connected to one another. We weren't when I was a kid. We weren't five years ago. But you can bet we're not going to stop anytime soon.

Why? A new generation is growing up and entering the workforce in droves. The Millennial Generation is the largest this country has ever seen -- bigger than the baby boomers -- and it is the first generation that has grown up with technology and connectivity ubiquitous in their lives. To them, it's all they've ever known.

I am incessantly networked, but I think something's wrong with me. This massive new wave of population has no such hang-ups.

What these people do have are expectations borne of their condition. They live in an on-demand world. They know no other. Want a song? Download it. Want to know something? Google it. Want to tell Susie what Bobby said? Text it. Now, now, now.

The brand that gets it: Sprint
Sprint has zeroed in on this expectation with pinpoint accuracy. It used to be the phone company. But it's no longer selling just phones. It is selling the concept of "now."

The "Now Network" campaign was created for a new product called a mobile broadband card. But it hardly matters. Sprint isn't trying to dominate the mobile broadband card market. It is trying to dominate the space in the consumer's mind where the word "now" lives.

Goodby, Silverstein & Partners -- the agency I affectionately call the "other great creative agency on the California cable car line" -- initiated the campaign online with a microsite at now.sprint.com that featured a mesmerizing array of tiny widgets showing different things that live in the now: top words being used online, current world population, a tiny game of Pong.

This digital experience has been elevated to a brand campaign with TV spots inspired by the online execution. The ever-present "Now Network" message is a consistent presence, diligently working to build a bridge between a constantly connected consumer and the brand that wants to deliver that connection.

Globalization: Making the world a smaller place

Last month, I attended the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) SME Summit in Hangzhou, China. Former President Bill Clinton addressed the crowd. He told us that the world's greatest hope for financial stability and sustained economic growth is a massive shift in wealth from a handful of precariously balanced and self-interested financial institutions to a multitude of small and medium businesses across the globe doing business with one another -- and technology is the accelerant bringing this change to life.

Bill's words. Not mine.

Globalization is an unstoppable force reshaping our society. The world's economies are inextricably linked. Technology has made geography irrelevant. Businesses around the world are doing business with one another and will continue to do so. This is big. This is mega big.

Many Americans have been slow to realize this. The web has given us all access to a whole new world of markets and partners that we can and should do business with. Technology can make every business a global business.

The recession has left millions of Americans out of work, many wondering what their next move should be. Today, they can start their own global business from the comfort of their living room.

The brand that gets it: Alibaba.com
Alibaba.com is the technology platform that is accelerating globalization. (Full disclosure: Alibaba.com is a client of my agency.) It's a website that helps small and medium-sized businesses around the world find suppliers or manufacturers for virtually any product or service they might need. Alibaba.com makes it possible for virtually anyone with a laptop and an idea to find a supplier half a world away to help them build a business. The site has 42 million members, and the company has grown from 18 employees to 10,000 in a decade.

When I was first introduced to Alibaba.com, I went on its website to check it out. I clicked on an interesting-looking button that said, "Submit a buying lead." Three minutes later, I had filled out a form seeking a supplier to produce 2,000 cashmere sweaters (I have expensive taste).

What happened next was amazing. Within 36 hours, I had 27 people from real companies around the world -- China, India, Egypt, Italy, Vietnam, and Bangladesh -- sending me emails offering to produce my sweaters, to send me samples, to be my partner. If I didn't love this agency gig so much, I'd be in the cashmere business right now.

Alibaba.com faced a tough challenge in the U.S. market this year. The brand was a relatively unknown quantity to most Americans, and the very notion of finding a trusted partner halfway across the world was foreign to a majority of small business owners in the U.S.

Alibaba.com introduced itself to the American with a marketing campaign that summed up everything you're able to do on its site:

Find it. Make it. Sell it.

"It" could be just about anything.

The campaign features stories of entrepreneurs that found partners on Alibaba.com that helped them create successful businesses. An integrated brand narrative used TV, print, and online media to build awareness and drive customers to success.alibaba.com where they could watch "mockumentary" videos of the campaign characters telling their stories, delve into case studies of real-life Alibaba entrepreneurs, and learn how they can get started using Alibaba.com for their businesses.

Pervasive distrust in big corporations

Does our economic situation have you infuriated with corporate America? Do you feel like the jerks on Wall Street and the incompetents in Detroit almost destroyed this country's financial system to line their own pockets? Do you trust big banks to have your best interests in mind?

If you answered "yes, yes, no," to the above, you're not alone.

The impending financial doom this country faced a year ago had a tremendous impact on consumer confidence in America, but even greater damage was done to consumer trust. News reports have created a mass perception of banks hoarding bailout money provided to loosen credit markets in order to boost profits and fund exorbitant executive compensation packages. Despite the hope and good faith many Americans have in our new president (myself included), our government appears incompetent at best, complicit at worst.

This has propelled pervasive distrust to megatrend levels.

The impact of this is not limited to financial institutions and automakers. According to Interbrand's annual assessment of the top 100 global brands, the list's total value fell by 4.6 percent in the past year. While brand valuation is a murky science, those are not good numbers.

Yet, in adversity lies opportunity. As distrust reaches near universal proportions, a brand story based on trust can be a powerful weapon.

The brand that gets it: Ally Bank
Tired of being screwed? Now, you've got an ally. Ally Bank.

"Who?" you ask.

You know how Prince became The Artist Formerly Known as Prince?

Meet your new Ally. The Bank Formerly Known as GMAC.

The duplicity of a giant U.S. bank combined with the ineptitude of a giant U.S. car company. I'd vomit if only this wasn't such a well-crafted brand. Here's the brand's elevator pitch (verbatim from its website):

"We are Ally Bank, built on the foundation of GMAC Financial Services. And with that experience we've learned that these times demand change and a new way of doing business. So we're taking banking in a new direction.

That means talking straight, doing right and being obviously better for our customers."

The tag line for the campaign is simply, "Straightforward."

TV spots show a little girl get shafted by a banker-type guy who didn't tell her she could have had a real pony instead of a toy. "Even kids know it's wrong to hold out on somebody. Why don't banks?" the voiceover asks. Good question.

This straightforward, human tone seems to emanate from every pore of this brand. Copy on the website assures potential customers, "We won't deal in half-truths, kindatruths, or truths only buried in fine print."

Even the brand color, purple, screams, "We're not like the other guys."

It remains to be seen whether past associations can be overlooked, but my suspicion is that Ally Bank's actions will speak louder than its words over the coming years. If it really embraces the values it espouses in the way it does business, people will talk about it, and Ally will become a powerful brand. If the brand doesn't, people will talk about that too.

A global sense of urgency to fix the problems of a modern world

When I started this article, I swore I would not write about "going green" as one of the megatrends. It certainly is a big deal, but it's one that has been thrust so far into the limelight that it's no longer an opportunity to differentiate. Being green is a minimum standard.

What do I mean by minimum standard? Take the airlines. Whoever came up with the concept of frequent flier miles had a great differentiator for business travelers. It was so great, that soon everyone else in the industry followed suit and now having an incentive program for frequent fliers is a minimum standard in the industry. Every airline must have one to compete.

Virtually every brand in every category has a green story these days.

But being green is symptomatic of another megatrend that is influencing the world on a massive scale -- a global sense of urgency.

It's no secret to anyone that... well... we're screwed. The planet is falling apart. We've got global warming, pollution, overcrowded cities, not enough energy, we're running out of water, and running out of fish.

But the eco message is just the tip of the melting iceberg. Advances in technology have put fixes to so many challenges within reach. Conventional wisdom now begs to ask: Why wouldn't we take advantage of solutions available to us? Why wouldn't we digitize health care? Why wouldn't we use smart toll systems to ease traffic jams? Why wouldn't we implement technology to make our school systems more efficient?

Today, governments and enterprises around the world are rushing to play catch-up. They sense the urgency. To wise up. To get smart.

The brand that gets it: IBM
IBM has wrapped its big blue arms around the massive sense of urgency that is sweeping the globe with its campaign for "A Smarter Planet."

The campaign overview page on IBM's website sums it up:

"The technology is here.
The people are ready.
The time is now."

This looks far beyond the important-but-limited scope of coming up with new ways to conserve energy or limit emissions -- the subject of so many campaigns targeting the "think green" mindset. In addition to energy, water, and construction, IBM's "Smarter Planet" campaign encompasses solutions for traffic, cities, banking, retail, education, telecom, and health care.

But the campaign is also about aspiration. About fixing things before it's too late. It's optimistic. It's motivating. It's the kind of message that Americans swarmed to when they elected Barack Obama.

And best of all, it's tangible. Which makes it empowering.

"A less expensive energy bill. A package that gets delivered in two days instead of seven. Quarterly school reports available online. Bit by bit, our planet is getting smarter. By this, we mean the systems that run the way we live and work as a society."

This is how IBM is describing its vision for a smarter planet. It's talking about all the different ways to make a difference from a 10,000-foot view and then bringing it down to tangible solutions provided by IBM to make a smarter planet a reality.

Tactically, I think IBM is also doing a great job integrating this message across every advertising touchpoint and using social media to reinforce thought leadership. It's using Tumblr as part of this effort, a powerful, yet simple tool that I personally think has the potential to be the next big thing in social media. Think of the consumable nature of Twitter, but the ability to post and tag anything -- videos, pictures, and prose.

This is smart marketing. I anticipate that many readers of this article are deep into planning for 2010 right now. Before you close that PowerPoint presentation, I advise you to take a step back and ask yourself, "Am I missing something? Is there a bigger opportunity here?"

We live in a time of tumultuous change. That means there are huge opportunities out there, waiting for marketers with the foresight to find them and the courage to act on them. There just might be a megatrend out there waiting for you.

Adam Kleinberg is CEO of Traction.

On Twitter? Follow Kleinberg at @adamkleinberg. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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