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SXSW: Old Spice and Cultural Relevancy


by Alan Melson 14 Mar 2011

“Congratulations, Your Brand Is About To Become Obsolete.” Or maybe it already has, and you don’t even know it. After all, look at once-proud brands like Kodak who still can’t figure out what happened. What was their tipping point? Massive, mind-boggling success.

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“Congratulations, Your Brand Is About To Become Obsolete.”

Or maybe it already has, and you don’t even know it. After all, look at once-proud brands like Kodak who still can’t figure out what happened.

What was their tipping point? Massive, mind-boggling success.

So sayeth some of the minds at creative agency R/GA, who led a SXSW panel discussion (with the quote that started this post as its title) on how to avoid a similar fate. R/GA has made their name doing out-of-the-box work in the digital world, and the agency’s William Charnock and Andrea Ring said that too many companies (and marketing people) still can’t fully grasp the major reality shift in our culture when it comes to advertising and consumers.

“People now make up their minds about brands using external information, rather than relying on a brand’s own message,” Charnock said. “Brands can no longer rely on a positive perception or history. It’s now all about what we do, and how we provide value.”

It could be argued that history is still somewhat important – invoking a sentimental memory or feeling in a viewer that will help reel them in – but especially among 20- and 30-somethings, getting that value and utility out of a product is much more vital.

For over a century, the companies who controlled manufacturing, distribution and then broadcast airwaves had the upper hand to become dominant brands. But now, scale has failed. Anyone can blog, tweet, podcast, or otherwise get their stuff out there; it’s not that hard to find an audience. These days it’s more about keeping that audience because they find you or your product useful.

The panelists said companies need to stop focusing on history – what’s always worked in the past, what products have always sold best – and stop relying on market research that’s often already out of date by the time it’s completed. The biggest brands fail because they stop innovating when they are at the peak of success, and are scared to try anything that risks failure or derivation from their core product.

It’s not about product, Charnock and Ring say, it’s about purpose. What are you doing that’s new and interesting? Why are you in business? Ultimately, companies must view their customers instead as participants, and “invite them to your playground” to have a fun experience with your brand that makes them want to come back.

An incredibly successful example: The venerable men’s grooming brand Old Spice. After years of solid success with more conventional ad campaigns, owner Procter and Gamble decided to try something different, and hired Portland firm Wieden+Kennedy (known for their groundbreaking work for Nike over the past quarter-century) to remake the brand online.

Isaiah Mustafa as 'Old Spice Guy'

In a lively panel moderated by actress-turned-digital-strategist Justine Bateman, W+K staffers talked about the years of work they put into experimenting with different campaigns and slogans for Old Spice – some on traditional media but much of which was targeted to web viewers. Britton Taylor and Craig Allen talked about how they spent hours in a room staring at each other, writing down slogans on post-its and sticking them to the wall.

In 2010, they finally hit pay dirt with a campaign featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa, in which he greets the audience at the start of each ad with a sultry, “Hello, Ladies.” The resulting videos on their YouTube channel have now been viewed nearly 200 million times, and inspired repetition of popular lines like, “I’m the man your man could smell like.”

Taylor and Allen said the key to the campaign’s success was earning the total trust of the client, which gave them the time and confidence to try a number of different ideas. The YouTube campaign featured Mustafa doing 186 separate video responses to questions e-mailed in by viewers. They produced all those videos over a 56-hour period for less than $200,000 – and the payoff in buzz alone was worth far more for the client (and the agency).

Regardless of the line of work you’re in, it seems the best way to ensure brand longevity is still to keep making things people want to buy. But the method for doing that now seems to be more reliant on constant reinvention – and letting the world know about that reinvention in a way that keeps you culturally relevant.

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