Darwinian AdVolution: Always Come Up Smiling

The many attempts to analyze, define and capture the current 18 to 34 demographic, aka Generation Y, aka Millenials, has been about as entertaining to watch as a greased pig scramble. That is to say, it’s hilarious. We could take the comparison a step further, noting that neither experience is remotely dignifying for the quarry. Universally labeling this generation, which also happens to be my generation, as lazy, entitled and naive has become a common banner for many figures in business and media to march under. Yet scrutineers may have finally gained some significant understanding and acceptance of Millenials, thanks to the ZenithOptimedia.

Last December, the media agency published an extensive study titled “The Pursuit of Happiness,” examining young people’s changing approaches to achieving happiness, and what impact that has on brand interactions. One of the most important takeaways is a brand that makes Millennials happy is more likely to establish long-term customer relationships with them.

In a recent article, AdWeek highlighted three brands that seemed to be taking notice of this data: McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and Dove. Each of these has forgone focusing on their products in recent ads, instead favoring people-centered, optimistic messaging. But just because AdWeek used these three examples together in their article does not mean they have all applied this concept with equal skill or equal success.

Ad. Neanderthalis: McDonald’s

Two weeks ago I entered a McDonald’s for the first time in roughly a year. Don’t judge, I was in a hurry in an area that was sparse on dining options. Anyway, upon entering, I was confronted by a rather confusing sight. Black pleather chairs were set at small modern tables, and the color scheme that once screamed “janitor’s closet” had been replaced with muted pastels. Everything about this restaurant was different from the McDonald’s I had come to know… oh wait, except for the food. It was the same famously bland and artificial meal we’ve all come to know and grudgingly tolerate.

It’s fairly common knowledge that McDonald’s has lost some of it’s security as the global fast food hegemon. Sales and stock prices have taken a hit, thanks in no small part to the fast-casual dining surge changing Americans’ conception of convenient food. The decor change that surprised me was an obvious attempt at manufacturing a similar environment to Chipotle or Starbucks. Yet it does little more than create a disconnect between public opinion and how the brand would like to be perceived.

This brings us to the “Pay With Lovin'” campaign that McDonald’s used as a Super Bowl spot.

Benevolent cashiers, heartfelt human connections and whimsical fun? Not exactly an accurate portrayal of the restaurant chain with the industry’s absolute worst customer satisfaction level. McDonald’s may be spouting joyous platitudes based on the data from ZenithOptimedia’s study, but they lack the first clue as to how that information can be used to build customer loyalty.

The in-store campaign that generated footage for this commercial lasted two weeks. In other words, it was a brief gimmick with no indication of lasting change. McDonald’s needs to stop viewing marketing as a con to distract people from their horrendous reputation, or lack thereof, for quality and service. Reaping the benefits of consumer happiness requires a lot more than a publicity stunt or an interior designer. McDonald’s will need to do away with the disingenuous marketing cons, and its entire business will need evolve to fit a changing market.

Ad. erectus: Coca-Cola

If you read the previous installment of “Darwinian Advolution,” you may remember that I first bestowed the title of Ad. erectus upon American Apparel for their absurdly primitive attempt at managing a Twitter account. A comparison to neanderthals simply would not suffice, so we went further back along the family tree of human evolution for a more appropriate label. Well we have another case deserving of this dubious distinction, and for more Twitter foolishness no less.

Coca-Cola used its Super Bowl ad time to announce an admirable but daunting goal: taking on negativity… on the internet.

Aside from the rather on-the-nose implication that Coke instantly improves any situation, the commercial is pretty enjoyable. It has an upbeat tone and addresses a important social issue. But alas, the poignancy was cut short when Coca-Cola took the party to Twitter with #MakeItHappy.

The basic gist of the social media campaign was people would tweet something sad with the hashtag, and Coca-Cola would turn that unhappy statement into adorable word art. Media blog Gawker was apparently not having any of this Coke-flavored optimism. Using a bot-operated Twitter account, they sent a series of tweets attaching the hashtag to a lengthy excerpt of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” Coca-Cola’s automated campaign took the bait, and began creating images of balloon dogs, bananas and smiley faces with some of the most hate-filled text in modern history.

Seth Meyers and Amy Poelher put it best: Really?! Coca-Cola asked people to send them negative statements… on Twitter… and then decided to leave the rest of it in the hands of a computer program? They didn’t think that a little extra human supervision would be a necessary when encouraging vitriol on the internet? Coca-Cola (with Gawker’s help) sent the message loud and clear that they have a pitiful comprehension of online harassment and negativity. Maybe a soft drink corporation isn’t the best champion for the issue.

Ad. sapiens: Dove

Great, another company thinking they can make Twitter a happier place with their advertising. The spot that kicked off Dove’s #SpeakBeautiful campaign was actually rather similar to Coca-Cola’s. So which genocidal maniac did these guys end up quoting? Not a single one, it turns out, because Dove is no novice when it comes to positive brand messaging.

Right off the bat, it’s unfair to group Dove with the likes of McDonald’s and Coke. For the other two, putting an upbeat, altruistic tone to their marketing was a sharp left turn. Dove, on the other hand, has been in this game for over a decade, long before ZenithOptimedia published their report on millennials. Back in 2004, they encouraged women to think more positively about body image with the Campaign for Real Beauty, and they haven’t looked back since.

Over the years, their marketing has used a consistent subject in a variety of ways. Last year, they focused on the hurdles that mothers and their young daughters face with self-esteem. The year before, they showed how harshly women judge themselves with comparative portraits drawn only from verbal descriptions given to a forensic artist.

A big part of why this strategy has been so successful for Dove is how well its products match its messaging. Obviously, nobody believes that spilling a Coke on your computer will make social feeds appear happier, and I think just about everyone can attest do the disconnect between eating McDonald’s and attaining emotional fulfillment. Dove’s approach is far more grounded approach, telling its audience not to be ashamed of their bodies or appearances and that they are worth taking care of with Dove products.

There’s no confusing the intentions of any of these three brands. They’re not charitable organizations; they want to boost sales, plain and simple. What matters is the level of respect they show for audiences in their happiness-focused marketing. If McDonald’s and Coca-Cola think they can win over a tech-savvy, idealistic generation with Twitter bots or publicity stunts requiring less effort than a flash mob, they need a lot more advice than what’s contained in ZenithOptimedia’s “The Pursuit of Happiness.” There’s an obvious difference between the brands that make people happy and the ones that promise to do so for 30 seconds each year during the Super Bowl.


Brew Talk: Weyerbacher Brewing Company

Should you find yourself passing through the southern edge of Easton, PA, about a mile from the Delaware river and New Jersey state line, you may pass a drab single-story commercial building. You would be wise to make a stop here. No, you’re not stopping to purchase industrial vacuum parts or rent a banquet facility; your true destination is the warehouse behind the street-side offices, home of Weyerbacher Brewing Company.

Among the plethora of craft breweries that I adore, Weyerbacher has a special place in my heart. It was at the on-premise brew-pub that I introduced my family, former Coors Light and Twisted Tea loyalists, to craft beer. With typically no fewer than 14 beers available, including two stouts, two IPA’s, Belgian styles and Barleywines, I would put money on just about anyone finding a beer to suit their tastes. Continue reading

Vikings Season 3: Starting off in Troubled Waters

Welp, time to sit down for another set of rousing adventures on the ‘Floki and Lagertha Show.’ Wait- sorry, I forgot. There are also other characters in the program and it’s actually called ‘Vikings.’ And not a moment too soon, because I was starting to wonder what value History had left to offer the world. I’m hesitant to admit it, but with ‘Vikings,’ History (the patron channel of Nazi fixations, conspiracy theories, and redneck vocations) has for once put its creative license with the past to good use.

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Darwinian Advolution: Tweeting Like Real People, Part II

On Monday I posted this piece focusing on brands’ policies for Twitter engagement. American Apparel’s repetitive self-promotion and total lack of responsiveness was decidedly too primitive for the usual label, Ad. neanderthalis. Thus, in keeping with our theme of hominid species, they were given the rare (and unflattering) accolade Ad. erectus.

Meanwhile, Chipotle’s humorous, relevant and personalized conversations showed the adaptive advantage need for the modern age, winning my praise and the title of Ad. sapiens.

Thinking the matter was settled and the issue sufficiently discussed, I published the post. As luck would have it, however, a bit of Twitter tomfoolery would yield my most laughably awful interaction with a brand the very next day. While this company does not exhibit American Apparel’s absurd arrogance, their efforts to connect with users are still trapped in a bygone age. So, without further ado, I would like to introduce a late player to Darwinian Advolution. Continue reading

Darwinian Advolution: Tweeting Like Real People

Update: The day after I published this post, I was introduced to yet another brand on Twitter that could not comprehend the subtleties of human interaction. You can read about the late entry to this edition of Darwininian Advolution here.

Isn’t Twitter just swell? Sure, it has problems like declining user growth, rampant harassment, and a gaggle of spam accounts. But that doesn’t mean that businesses can’t have one hell of a good time finding ways to engage with customers. With 288 million users sending 500 million tweets every day, listening on Twitter is just as important and useful as talking. Unfortunately, too many brands have mistaken social media for nothing more than a low-cost advertising soapbox. If there was ever been a sure way to fall behind in the game of marketing natural selection, it’s not taking the time to hear what your audience is saying.
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Better Call Saul: A Beautiful, Sleazy Symphony

Two nights in a row of Bob Odenkirk’s fast-talking, litigious antics? Don’t mind if I do. Last night I voiced my thoughts on the series premier, but since the second episode aired the very next night, I had to weigh in just as quickly on how ‘Better Call Saul’ stands with less of that new show smell. So, despite the tremendous effort required to remember to refer to the protagonist as Jimmy McGill, I press on.

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TV Ennui? Better Watch Saul

Read the second part of my review on the two-night premier here.

AMC has a shot at reminding us who brought the new golden age of television to basic cable. With ‘Mad Men’ winding down, the network will need something far more interesting and well-written than ‘The Walking Dead’ to stay relevant. Honestly, if I ever get curious about how the aimless zombie drama is progressing, I’ll stick to the parody Twitter accounts.

My focus tonight is the premier of ‘Better Call Saul,’ which will take us back to the world of ‘Breaking Bad,’ riddled with violence, drugs, and pork pie hats. Hiding my excitement is a lost cause because, like any true disciple of Heisenberg, I’ve dearly missed receiving the weekly devotional at the alter of Vince Gilligan.

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Darwinian Advolution: Canning the Bollocks

In the paleolithic era, Homo sapiens was able to prevail over Homo neanderthalis as the dominant species on the planet. While the neanderthals were larger and possessed more brute strength, H. sapiens were more intelligent and could develop more sophisticated means of survival. The struggle to secure business through marketing communications can be just as brutal. Welcome to the first installment of Darwinian Advolution, a series that will examine both the nimble, adaptable advertisers who will rule the future and their dull, clumsy competitors who are in danger of falling by the wayside. In observance of Super Bowl XLIX, I can think of no better place to start than with the definitive (non-football) winner and loser from the most viewed TV broadcast in America. You know what? Let’s make it even more appropriate for the occasion: Super Bowl beer advertising, here we come! Continue reading

I got off my high horse to enjoy “The Man in the High Castle”

Spoilers ahead, because obviously…

As a general rule, historical fiction make me uneasy. Important as dialogue is, far too many movies, shows and books never realized that to show is better than to tell. Story components that should be alluded to through context are awkwardly crammed into conversation, and you end up with characters in the Great Depression talking about FDR like they’re reading from a middle school textbook. The problem with gratuitous exposition is that it so often comes at the expense of the narrative, if not replacing it completely. So every time I’m about to take in a story set in the 20’s, 60’s or 80’s, my expression is a preemptive cringe.
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Lovecraftian Lessons in Brand Marketing

H. P. Lovecraft’s original sketch of the now-iconic Cthulhu

Horror legend H. P. Lovecraft would have been a total buzzkill at parties. He didn’t like to go out in daylight, was a pretty staunch nativist, and held a worldview that Warner Herzog might find troubling. Yet it’s probably for the best that no one ever brightened up that outlook, since it played a big part in churning out some of the most influential horror and science fiction writing in history.

When I started reading Lovecraft last year, I wasn’t surprised to find I enjoyed the hell out of it. I had heard about his knack for suspense and world-building, and the tales did not disappoint. What did surprise me was realizing that far more went into building Lovecraft’s monumental legacy than simply scary stories. The more I read, the more I saw that this reclusive misanthrope had skills that could have been put to serious use in marketing. Whether he knew it or not, his disconcerting philosophy developed into a brand that enveloped his fiction and himself. Continue reading