Marshall McLuhan's famous declaration that "The medium is the message" has evangelized one of our industry's greatest and most progressive challenges. For the most part, media and creative camps have been able to co-exist almost independently (or mutually exclusive) of one another. The work has commonly suffered because the system is not only self-preserving, but also runs on conflicting business models and ideologies. As medium and message become more and more aligned, and as the evolution of Web 2.0 spawns a new movement in which web applications are rapidly replacing web destinations, media and creative camps need to work together more. In other words, media should win out as an equal partner in creative and product development. All we need to do is look at the work of some of the world's biggest brands and their respective agencies for inspiration.
Say what you will about the creative (and the freakish ability to generate buzz), but Crispin, Porter + Bogusky's work for Volkswagen, Microsoft and, most recently, Burger King speaks to an innovative and well-balanced execution of medium and message. Eliciting taste tests in somewhat natural environments, the "Whopper Drive-Thru" and "Whopper Virgins" campaigns seek to blend what amounts to user-generated content with traditional channels such as broadcast. Online activations have further leveraged buzz around these initiatives and, if nothing else, have optimized search results. More importantly, people are talking about the brand offline, bringing new insights back online -- and the brand is listening.
"Whopper Sacrifice" was an interesting follow-up initiative as it played on the behavioral characteristics of user generation and turned the phenomenon of "acquiring friends" on its head -- before it was shut down, of course. But was this a failure in the end? Just the opposite. Nearly 234,000 Facebook users were "de-friended" in the pursuit of a Whopper. That amounted to more than 23,000 coupons for free Whoppers (the cap was set at 25,000), and participants who deleted 10 friends before the application was closed down still received their coupons via snail mail.
Traditional advocates of "ROI" take note: social media and DM vehicles worked together to provide results that were not only measurable, but that also equated to direct sales.
The real takeaway here is that everything is "user-generated" when you really think about it -- from your TV spots, to your print ads, to your more obvious social media applications and utilities. The question is really whether or not you recognize this collaboration and are willing to combine resources to actually do something with it.
Droga5's brilliant work on The Tap Project for UNICEF -- in which millions of people will commit to using tap water in lieu of energy-wasting bottles -- is a great example of how very little, if any, paid media is being used to create widespread engagement, vis-a-vis real-world experiences that have a higher purpose. And how is this being done? Primarily through social media and good ol' word-of-mouth. This also suggests that discerning tastes and common interest can rule the day, all the while showing potential for profit.
However, there are two sides to this coin. Take Honeyshed, for instance, Droga5's extensive foray into a platform that would "reinvent shopping for the digital generation" (and a project that parent-company Publicis supported for some $25M before it was announced that it would be shut down). The idea was definitely intriguing -- use real consumer voices to create an intersection for commerce and common interest.
The core issue, it seems, wasn't a lack of ingenuity or even technology expertise, so much as it was the development of a solid, multi-channel media strategy. The folks at Droga5 know as much as anyone that "just because you've built it doesn't mean they'll come." Not only did the company not follow its own successes in conversational outreach, but it seems they also slipped into more of a traditional mindset that assumes certain things about our audiences instead of simply asking them what they want or what they think they want before enlisting them to develop content or collaborate on product.
This is precisely why brands like HP, Dell, Starbucks and, more recently, Pepsi, have used microblogging tools such as Twitter to create highly effective consumer feedback loops. According to a recent study conducted by Twittermaven, consumer relationships are quite powerful through the use of Twitter; 60 percent of respondents would recommend a company based on their presence on Twitter, and 80 percent of Twitter users will reward those brands they have key relationships with by being more willing to purchase from them. What this means for creative and media folks alike is that your hard work doesn't have to go to waste -- you now have the ability to complement, even optimize, your integrated marketing efforts.
That said, it will be interesting to see where Pepsi takes its new and existing consumer relationships, particularly with respect to integrated strategy. Its "Refresh Everything" campaign presents broadcast, print and interactive work that is certainly polished, interweaving some interesting historical elements that may or may not actually be relevant to the brand's legacy. Additionally, the brand seems to embrace the idea of "experience sharing", predicated on the notion that we don't necessarily need better messaging, we need better stories and ways to tell those stories. Perhaps one thing Pepsi might be overlooking in this sense is in using social media to better educate its audience on how to actually use these tools in order to tell better stories. This goes beyond the simple use of social bookmarks or encouraging people to upload videos and much further into the concept of developing strong utility. This would entail providing useful tools that customize brand experiences based on personal preferences. And those toos should be promoted not only on endemic platforms (social utilities themselves), but also through the use of traditional channels such as broadcast and print, or even more progressive platforms such as mobile.
Storytelling, then, seems to be the thread that we've taken for granted as proponents of one camp versus another, media against creative and vice versa. Further, the reality is that, nowadays, no type of content or related message can have impact or influence without understanding its potential delivery mechanisms and how it courses through veins of the media landscape, viral or not.
So, here are some takeaways for the taking:
- As media and technology continue to blend more harmoniously, creative is empowered through more innovative methods of expression.
- Conversely, media have the benefit of being closer to the development of measurable touch-points and "micro-messaging," in turn, fostering an environment for targeting and placement that is transparent and based more on consumer collaboration than consumer acquisition.
- Social media can be utilized more as a business solution relating to a return on intent, rather than investment; the current emphasis is on direct sales correlates, instead of brand awareness or advocacy first (which then activates purchase intent).
- Finally, product development will benefit from these closer communication threads and will undoubtedly take on new life within consumer communities; it may not be long before people rely almost entirely on themselves to create and share their own products, using resources licensed from the brand and distribution tools given to them by their peers.
Amidst all the chaos surrounding our global economic collapse, these are actually very exciting times. Adversity will force us to innovate, and empathy will force us to better understand and improve the consumer experience -- a human experience that we build together, and one that can be shared by all.
Gunther Sonnenfeld is a digital brand strategist and independent consultant with specialties in social media marketing and interactive development.