Alex Steer

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Brands, self-delusion and the internet

371 words | ~2 min

This week saw another episode in the endless morality tale of brands underestimating people's capacity for mischief:

Coca-Cola has been forced to withdraw a Twitter advertising campaign after a counter-campaign by Gawker tricked it into tweeting large chunks of the introduction to Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

We've seen this before plenty of times - with McDonald's #McDstories, Starbucks' wall of tax hate, and even another recent example from Coke where people could write what they wanted on a virtual can.

It happens because marketers genuinely believe that people will want to play along with their ideas. Specifically, when the idea involves asking people to say positive things about their brand experiences, to their friends, online, for free.

Coke have, of course, pulled the campaign. What makes this remarkable is the statement that Coke issued in response (my emphasis):

The #MakeItHappy message is simple: The Internet is what we make it, and we hoped to inspire people to make it a more positive place. It's unfortunate that Gawker is trying to turn this campaign into something that it isn't. Building a bot that attempts to spread hate through #MakeItHappy is a perfect example of the pervasive online negativity Coca-Cola wanted to address with this campaign.

To which the simple answer is: no, it isn't.

It is mischief, plain and simple. The same instinct that drives us to draw comedy beards on photographs, or add an 'i' in the middle of a 'To let' sign. It does not require a spirit of pervasive negativity to spot that, when a brand takes what claims to be a social stance, while misunderstanding the social cues around it, there is an opportunity to have a laugh at its expense.

Coke should, in this case, either not have run with the idea, or stuck to their guns. If #MakeItHappy is about turning the worst negativity on the internet into something happy, let it be about that. Don't bail because the negativity is too negative or because you were outsmarted. Be real, or don't bother, in other words.

# Alex Steer (06/02/2015)

Saying yes with data

272 words | ~1 min

Data is good at saying no.

And those of us who work in analytics tend to think of ourselves as the checkers and balancers of ideas. Given a hypothesis, we go and find all its rough edges, all the reasons why it might not work.

That critical faculty is important and powerful. But after a while people get tired of hearing no, and they assume that it will be the answer to any question they ask us, so they stop asking. We risk becoming the footnotes to a poem - maybe important, but distracting, so unread.

This is bad for us, and even worse for the work we're trying to make better. Nobody likes a prophet of doom - so we have to earn the right to be heard when it's important.

Saying yes with data is more difficult. It means thinking about the spirit of every question, not just the letter. If someone asks 'will X work?', and the answer is no, the next question should be, what would?

At our best, we should be using data to prompt ideas, not just test them. That, bluntly, means working harder - exploring the data we have, not just to answer a specific question, but to generate new ones, which identify problems, which spark ideas. There's no quick way to do this, any more than there's a quick way for an art director to know what visual cues will make a brand feel 'contemporary' and 'authentic'. That kind of fluency requires spending a lot of time with our craft. It means being more than the people who know how the database works.

# Alex Steer (30/01/2015)

Why do brands want to be loved so much?

684 words | ~3 min

At the launch of Windows 10 this week, Microsoft's CEO said something rather strange:

We want to move from people needing Windows to choosing Windows to loving Windows.

I imagine we're being asked to think of this as a virtuous progression: from needing, to choosing, to loving. But clearly it isn't. It's a state of affairs that's come about because people manifestly no longer need Microsoft products, and have to a large extent stopped choosing them. Love, rather than being the crowning glory, is the last resort.

So is making people love your brand a good starting point for a market share fightback? (Because this is, after all, a marketing move rather than anything more profound.) The evidence suggests that it isn't.

Even if we get past the fact that people don't think much about brands at all except when confronted with their advertising or considering a purchase, what proportion of a brand's users do you think profess to love it? In brand research speak, brand lovers are what we'd call highly bonded - people who say yes to pretty much every question from 'I sometimes use this brand' right up to 'I would only ever choose this brand', 'this brand reflects me and my lifestyle', etc. For almost all brands, in all categories, these users are a tiny share - enough to make the commercial significance of brand lovers almost irrelevant.

In other words, as a brand, most of your money comes from people who just think your product is fine. People to whom it's fairly clear what you are and what you offer, who think you offer it at a fair price, and who haven't had too many bad experiences with your brand. They are not loyal, most of them also buy your competitors' brands from time to time.

Yes, there are some people who love your brand, and these people are likely to buy your brand much more often. But the strongest differentials in brand love are normally seen in high-cost categories with a low replacement rate - computers and cars, not baked beans and bananas. People who love iPhones don't buy ten times as many iPhones as people who just think iPhones are good. Purchases by the indifferent outweigh purchases by the passionate to a huge extent.

You don't win by inspiring love songs and poetry. You win by being the default setting in someone's mind. You win by being the brand that they reach for on the shelf when they have no time, little energy and no inclination to think about what their brand of dishwasher salts says about them as a person.

Is that depressing? It shouldn't be - it should be a challenge. Because it is a lot harder to become the mental default for millions of people, than it is to become an object of love for a few thousand. It requires more dedication, more creativity, more humanity, and more discipline in creating good products and services that don't let people down, setting a fair price for them, and communicating them to the world in ways that chip through people's enormous busy indifference.

Don't start with love, in other words. Start with earning the right to be chosen, then earning a reputation for being a little better, a little different. Use creative advertising to set the mental fuses that will go off when someone is looking to buy one of the kinds of things you make.

Microsoft have a huge starting advantage here - millions of users who have logged billions of hours of good-enough experiences with most of their products. It's worth remembering that Microsoft is the world's fourth most valuable brand (source, pdf). But they also have the huge challenge that we spend a lower proportion of our time with their hardware and software than we used to. Assuming they can get back to making great products, the first marketing challenge is not to create love - it is one again to create habits.

# Alex Steer (24/01/2015)

Theoretical languages and practical flaws

131 words | ~1 min

Wired has a bizarre piece about some computer scientists who think they've invented a general-purpose programming language that overcomes the flaws of all the others:

Bezanson had recently made a study of [programming] language design, and had come to the conclusion that the tradeoffs inherent in most languages were avoidable. “It became clear that a lot of it had been designed haphazardly,” Bezanson says. “If you started from the beginning, you could recreate the things that people liked about those languages without so many of the problems.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Good to see contemporary computer scientists repeating the errors of 17th-century clergymen. Certainty can be a terrible thing.

# Alex Steer (19/01/2015)

The Times Unquiet Film Series

233 words | ~1 min

Today's Campaign has a great profile of one of my clients, Nick Stringer at News UK, and the brand campaign for the Times, the Unquiet Film Series, that we've been leading the data planning on. (The strategy and creative is by Grey.)

The whole piece is worth a read for a glimpse into a brand that's firing on all cylinders. But I'm particularly proud of this, which comes from our work at Fabric, measuring the power of a brand campaign for a business that depends on subscriptions.

The films are designed to act as brand campaigns. Although they are just as likely to resonate with advertisers and readers, the primary objective is to help News UK attract subscribers by providing a flavour of The Times and The Sunday Times outside of the paywalls erected in 2010.

Response to the work is said to have been far better than anyone could have hoped for. It is claimed that people who arrive on the News UK subscription page after having seen the Unquiet Film Series are twice as likely to become members. Those who have watched two or more films are found to be about ten times more likely to complete the subscription process.

Take a look at the films - they're beautiful, powerful and effective - here.

# Alex Steer (15/01/2015)

Children's dictionaries are a lesson for us all

226 words | ~1 min

Everybody is once again up in arms about the decision by the editors of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to include a batch of new-fangled technology words, supposedly at the expense of good old-fashioned words from nature. This, from the piece linked above, gives a taste of the bile:

“A” should be for acorn, “B” for buttercup and “C” for conker, not attachment, blog and chatroom, according to a group of authors including Margaret Atwood and Andrew Motion who are “profoundly alarmed” about the loss of a slew of words associated with the natural world from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, and their replacement with words “associated with the increasingly interior, solitary childhoods of today”.

I disagree strongly with this as both an ex dictionary editor (disclosure: I worked on the OED) and as someone who now works in communications.

The point of a children's dictionary is to help children find the meanings of words that they encounter in daily life but whose meanings they might not know. The words are chosen using a corpus of texts, from books to blog posts, that children actually read. They are not designed to make adults feel warm and fuzzy, or to make political points about the nature of childhood.

Design for your audience, in other words, and be honest.

# Alex Steer (13/01/2015)

Products: be amazing or be unfinished

335 words | ~2 min

Like others, I was sad to hear the news that Berg is shutting its doors. For as many years as I've been idly following their progress, the London-based data and product design studio have been making interesting and beautiful connected objects and experimenting with data in interesting ways.

I don't know the situation at Berg, but their final blog post struck a chord:

We've not reached a sustainable business in connected products. But... I'm proud of this British Experimental Rocket Group.

It's very difficult to make digital products work, sell and sustain. There's a very large graveyard of failed projects, because most are less useful than their inventors think. It's hardest of all to make those that are elegant, beautiful and a delight to use. The upfront effort - the sheer volume of educated guesswork you have to do - to produce something that is beautiful at its first version is almost impossible. It's why the world is littered with ugly, unrewarding software.

Being amazing is hard, and Berg tried to be amazing. The alternative, though, is not necessarily to be mediocre. There's a third option - it's to be deliberately, openly unfinished. Build products gradually, and involve the people that you want to use them regularly, and what you lose in awe you will gain in forgiveness and acceptance. Involve people who are good at design, to make sure you continue removing everything superfluous while you grow and change, and you may even end up with something that generates both amazement and love.

It's difficult to avoid the temptation to busy away behind the scenes, and launch with a flourish and a ta-dah. But most ta-dahs are damp squibs. The chances of you being amazing first time round are almost zero, so work in a way that lets you keep talking to people, make corrections, and get better in public. If the British Government can do it, you've no excuse.

# Alex Steer (10/01/2015)

Why standards beat processes

328 words | ~2 min

Lots of agencies have processes for planning advertising. Often, they have extravagant adjectives attached to them. They are 'proprietary', 'unique', occasionally even 'groundbreaking'. They usually involve geometric shapes in unusual combinations, or carefully templated Word documents.

The distinctions between those processes are, as you'd expect, more or less meaningless. They typically involve understanding the challenges facing the business, the behaviours/needs/barriers of the users or audience, and the existing positioning of the brand in those people's minds, to arrive at some sort of imperative for the advertising. (Usual caveat: by advertising, these days, I mean any sort of branded communication or service.)

These reminders are useful, and they increase the chances of good work being done - but unique they are not, nor are any of them uniquely effective. This is because the most important differentiator in developing advertising isn't what the steps in the process are, but how they are carried out.

Small teams, working together, talking often, iterating every day, getting regular feedback, lending expertise, being honest, testing out ideas. The standards of collaboration we apply to each step. All the learning on effective delivery suggests that sometimes the best processes involve doing the same thing over and over in short fast cycles, together, getting it progressively more right.

But even more important than these are the things that happen between each step of whatever process we follow. The check-ins, the reviews and measurements that tell us whether we are on the right lines and whether the direction we're taking is worth pursuing. It's not easy to say 'no' to something you've all been working on, but sometimes it's vital. These standards of judgement stop us from going astray.

Together, standards of collaboration and judgement get work out the door faster, and make sure it's on track. They depend on co-operation, humility and generosity with ideas and time. That's a bit harder than pinning a Venn diagram above your desk, but a lot more rewarding.

# Alex Steer (10/01/2015)

Practise what you tweet

108 words | ~1 min

Today I got a spam tweet from a company that does A/B testing. It read:

@alexsteer If you're interested in A/B testing, would you like to follow us?

I declined. Then I looked at their Twitter feed, and saw that they'd sent the same message to lots of other users.

Using the exact same words.

Surely, if you work in A/B testing, you mix it up a bit?

Branding consultants who talk in corporate speak. Social agencies who repost banal links. CRM companies who get your name wrong in the email. Weird how we drink our own kool-aid but don't eat our own dog food.

# Alex Steer (03/12/2014)

Black boxes

347 words | ~2 min

This post by Faris Yakob got me thinking with this side thought:

My concern is that the advertising industry is in danger of being taken for a ride by the same people who have destroyed trust in banking.

I think the ad tech industry is currently repeating a lot of the mistakes that the financial industry made a decade or so back. And look how well that played out for us all.

It's hiring a lot of people with backgrounds outside of marketing, with specialist skills in statistics and software, and setting them interesting challenges around measuring and optimising the performance of ads and media bids. All of which, when done properly, makes the industry smarter and better informed. The problem comes when those skills aren't balanced with a knowledge of what that industry is trying to achieve in the world. Then you get what you saw in finance and what you're seeing in advertising - solutions that trend towards the things developers can do most simply, and the things they find most interesting, rather than what's most important. And you get a lack of proper oversight and understanding from the people who commission and sell those solutions. The result is a lot of black box algorithms and snake-oil tech that neither the buyers nor the sellers can explain. And that creates a classic market for lemons.

Advertising needs smart planners and smart technologists working together: using strategic thinking to understand what ads really need to achieve, data analysis to see if they're achieving it, and technology to help them achieve it better. And even if the 'how' of the details is specialist, the 'what' shouldn't be. No part of the process of making, distributing or measuring advertising is so complicated that you can't explain it to a moderately well-informed person.

You should know what you're buying, basically - what it's meant do, and whether it does it. Anything else is not just pointless, it's risky.

# Alex Steer (02/12/2014)