Alex Steer

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Long, thin advertising

722 words | ~4 min

I realize I don't talk about ads a lot here. And I'm sort of not doing it now, because this campaign is a deliberate piece of scam work for Swedish energy company Fortum, which won a Future Lion for a design student. It's a sort of advertising what-if.

Two-sentence version: Fortum doesn't want to be a boring energy company so it opens a gym. The exercise machines have generators in so users can export to the grid, and track and share their progress (and others') via various social media gubbins.

You'll notice it seems to be illegal now to make an ad campaign without making a video about how you made the ad campaign, and ideally staying on the right side of the law involves lots of swooshing social network logos overscored by chat about how you executed your creative idea across four hundred different channels, all while riding a horse and cooking eggs. But actually, that's not what's really interesting about this charmingly left-field idea.

It's interesting because of scale.

Last year all the big Cannes Lion winners were activations, some of which were turned into ads. Everyone's take-out was that these campaigns were so striking because of the smallness in space and time of the original activations. Tropicana's 'Sun' originally reached one small village in the arctic circle; Playground's 'Sleepless' was done in one hiking store in Stockholm; Bosch 'Stone Age Meat' was one supermarket on a handful of days. They were all driven above the line to become huge campaigns that lots of people saw, inviting the bigger and more important secondary audience to share in the joy of the moment remotely. But they started as very local, and very time-limited, blink-and-you-miss-it things in the real world.

The Fortum idea isn't for an activation, it's for a business. Small and local in space, but (hopefully) lasting in time. In that sense I don't think of it as an activation, or even a campaign in any meaningful sense. It's a permanent contribution. The difference between doing an activation and running a gym is qualitative.

Ads are short and fat. They're everywhere for a short period of time, pushing a message repeatedly. The things-that-aren't-ads that I'm talking about are long and thin. They're not huge noisy things but they do last, and they're useful, and they're branded. If they lived behind a screen, I'd call them apps, I suppose.

If you like that sort of thing, it's a bit of a challenge to campaign planning. It has to become much more a part of business planning. Running a gym is a serious longitudinal commitment, and a risk. If you stop bothering once you're bored with it, it'll fall apart and people will dislike you for it. A couple of years ago a lot of campaign Twitter feeds fell victim to that kind of campaign-level short-term thinking: a few weeks of feverish updating, then a long sad silence. Long, thin advertising means planning for the long term.

It also upsets the relationship between brands and products/services. Put over-simply, brand positionings are often abstractions of product/service. Nike is all about improving sports performance because it makes sports equipment. IBM is about making the planet smarter because it makes industrial computing systems. BP... never mind.

But in a long/thin world where you make apps not ads, the things you build and run are your communications, and they have no campaign timeline. Naomi Klein was wrong ten years ago when she suggested in No Logo that brands were becoming detached from products and services. The attachment's still there, it just inverts. You make stuff based on who you are, rather than deciding who you are based on the things you happen to make - which seems a far more sensible arrangement to me. On that basis, brand planning belongs as an innovation and business development function as much as in marketing and communications.

Brand planning often begins with ideas of the 'we're a frozen food company and we want to talk about healthy eating' variety. How much more interesting things would get you began, 'We're a bunch of health freaks. What shall we do to help other people be healthy? By the way, we own a lot of freezers.'

# Alex Steer (18/11/2010)