Zombie epidemic infects adland

December 1, 2012

imagesI’m deeply indebted to the international Epica creative advertising awards – on which I served as a juror – for giving me nightmares. Every year, the awards betray certain cultural themes – performing dogs, hyper-animated babies, whatever – that have successfully invaded the collective unconscious of the creative community. This year, alas, it is Zombie Apocalypse, in which an epidemic number of the flesh-eating undead manage to bring society as we know it to its knees.

Here’s one particularly absurd example of the genre, which didn’t in fact make the prize-grade. It’s called “CPR makes you undead” and hails from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. Yes, you read right.  The premise? You’re a survivor in a post-Apolcalyptic landscape and you have a cardiac arrest – after, as it happens, catching sight of an army of hungry Zombies coming your way. Well, who wouldn’t? But wait, here’s the twist. The Zombie is your friend, the one who calls 911 for a (non-existent) ambulance and proceeds to carry out emergency resuscitation. After all, what use are you to a Zombie if you’re actually dead?

“Regardless of age, everyone can benefit from the lesson embedded in humor in the video,” H&SFC director of health promotion and public affairs Mark Holland tells us, “As zombies covet only the living, they need to move quickly to bring cardiac arrest victims back to life. We all should do the same.” He truly is having a laugh isn’t he? After watching this, you might prefer to be dead.

Have no fear, though: civilised society is fighting back with every manner of golf club, fishing rod, tennis racket and football that Norwegian sports equipment supplier XXL can furnish:

This commercial (my thanks to Messrs Stephen Foster and George Parker; I’m assured it’s a direct rip-off from Shaun of the Dead) has just been banned on Norwegian TV prime time after a Facebook campaign of vilification. Apparently, it’s “stupid and provocative”. Not to mention derogatory to the human rights of zombies. If they have any.

Most disturbing by far, however, is this gory viral for ZombiU – a survival horror video game which leans heavily upon the freeze-frame reveal technique used with such great effect by Philips’ “Carousel” Cannes winner a few years back. “ZombiU” won Ubisoft, which edited it, a gold in Epica’s Animation category. Arguably it’s most haunting element is the soundtrack…

Happy dreams everyone. And more on the other Epica winners anon.

Carnival’s carelessness over the cruise ship Concordia is costing the sector dearly

February 3, 2012

If only it were possible to blame the whole Friday 13th disaster on Captain Schettino’s recklessness, Carnival – ultimate owner of the Costa Concordia – would surely have succeeded in cauterizing a brand crisis of epic proportions.

No one could have moved faster to pin it all on human error. The holding company of Costa Cruises chose its target well. As scapegoats go, Schettino is a pretty egregious one: less Captain Courageous than Lord Jim aboard the steamship Patna. Once having foundered his ship, he assured his place in infamy by abandoning it before many of his passengers.

At first, Carnival’s corporate strategy worked. Cruise bookings only shivered in the wake of the disaster – most people seeming to accept that the shipwreck was a unique occurrence. Only later did some awkward questions begin to bubble to the surface. For example:

  • How come, if Schettino was such a clown (he apparently had previous, non-lethal, form), that Costa entrusted him with the destiny of over 4,000 souls? What of the calibre of other Costa commanders?
  • How come, almost 100 years after the RMS Titanic disaster, an identifiably similar set of circumstances managed to overwhelm another “state-of-the-art” and “unsinkable” cruise ship? In both cases, the ships quickly succumbed to what should have been a containable collision; the emergency muster procedures were shambolic; and the lifeboats – of which there were not enough – wouldn’t launch properly. Perhaps the only real difference is that Captain Smith chose to go down with his ship. Not unnaturally, marine engineers have called into question the inherent safety of what, in effect, is a high-sided floating hotel whose design is heavily influenced by commercial imperatives.

I mention these things because what was formerly a crisis affecting billionaire Micky Arison’s cruise operator (admittedly the world’s largest, encompassing such brands as Cunard and P&O) has now clearly spilled into the sector as a whole.

Only this week, Carnival revealed that fleet-wide booking volumes declined “in the mid teens” following the disaster. Just as ominously, Royal Caribbean Cruises, the world’s second largest cruise operator, has reported that Q1 earnings could be up to 60% below expectations due to the fall-off in bookings. This during the so-called “Wave season”, the most active booking period of the year.

No doubt the cruise ship will re-establish itself in time as one of the statistically safest ways of taking a holiday. But not before a few more waves from this disaster have swamped the bow-deck.

Note on the image. It just proves (as I used to say when smaller-scale mishaps like this visited Marketing Week) the integrity of the editorial team. Clearly no conversation whatsoever had taken place with the commercial people. But for this to happen to the Belfast Telegraph, of all titles..! Its offices are only a stone’s throw from the Harland and Wolff shipyard which built – the Titanic. You’d think they would have learned from experience.

TUI knocking campaign enables reeling Thomas Cook to roll with the punches

December 2, 2011

Jeremy Ellis, marketing director of TUI Travel, must be feeling pretty pleased with himself. Not only has he emerged, after 20 years in the wings, as the new brand-meister of Thomson Holidays and First Choice. He has also managed to land his principal rival, Thomas Cook, a satisfying punch below the belt with his first fully-fledged ad campaign.

Whether it’s a knock-out blow remains to be seen. But “knocking” it certainly is. And for that reason it’s attracting all the wrong sort of attention in the financial press, which is savouring the prospect of a second-round comeback from punch-drunk TC.

Knocking copy – the art of negative comparative advertising – is fairly unusual outside budget airlines and politics (which doesn’t, in any case, obey the usual advertising regulations).

And for good reason. It’s fraught with potential legal difficulties, and not many advertisers are robust enough to live with the consequences of an onslaught from the livid victim.

Of course, TUI doesn’t admit to the campaign being knocking. That would be to concede grubby, tactical opportunism. No, “This advertising campaign was meant” – and here I quote from the FT – “as a brand reassurance message and to clarify any confusion between the two separate companies.” And what confusion might that be? Well, “In the past there has been consumer confusion between our brands and our competitors’.” Of course there has: Thomson and Thomas Cook, they’re so alike, aren’t they?

Luckily, TUI has now been able to come up with some clear brand differentiation for the first time: ‘we’re the financially solvent ones’. As a USP it’s quite compelling, in its way.

Here’s the print ad run by Thomson: “Another holiday company may be experiencing turbulence, but we’re in really great shape.” And here’s the copy that featured on the First Choice website: “No worries about your holiday AND no worries about what you’re spending… Unlike a certain holiday company we could mention, you don’t need to worry about the way we run our business.” Ouch!

As is well known (see my earlier post), Thomas Cook has had a few tribulations this year: the Arab Spring for example, and the further collapse of its holiday market in France and Russia. All of which has resulted in 3 profit warnings, the ejection of its chief executive and the very public and humiliating supplication of its banks for £200m-worth of financial sticking plaster to bind the wounds until Spring 2013. Oh, did I mention the collapse of its share price to penny-status, overnight?

Nevertheless, Thomas Cook won’t be taking this particular drubbing, from its main competitor, lying down. It has reported the First Choice ad to travel trade body and regulator ABTA (though not the Thomson one which, bizarrely,TC’s interim chief executive Sam Weihagen earlier called “a very good ad”).

Ooooh, you say, and what are they going to do about it? Well, according to the ABTA code (Clauses 6B and 6L) no member may bring the industry body, or other members, into disrepute; nor may they make representations about the financial status of other members. Theoretically, contravention of the code can lead to expulsion from the organisation. While we’re there, I suspect Thomas Cook could also seek redress from the Advertising Standards Authority, under the CAP clause dealing with “denigration” of a competitor.

But it probably won’t; and nor will TUI be expelled from ABTA. A smack on the wrist is the worst it is likely to endure: the prospect of the UK’s biggest tour operator being ostracized by its trade body is frankly preposterous.

Nevertheless, I think TUI may have overreached itself, and for this reason.

Thomas Cook’s response to its crisis has not so far been well received, particularly by the travel agents on which it depends for much of its UK trade. The company recently ran its very own “reassurance” campaign, the key element of which was a one-off £170 saving (170 years old, geddit?) on 2012 holidays. For which read: more discounting in an industry where margins are already reduced to the bone, more undercutting of agents’ commission and, quite possibly, irresponsible dissipation of the recently acquired £200m bank loan.

Whether this perception is fair hardly matters. The point is it may well be reversed by TUI turning Thomas Cook into a maligned underdog. To Brits, if there’s one thing worse than bungling incompetence, it’s smug triumphalism.

Sooner or later Ellis may find himself smiling on the other side of his face.

Strong headwinds will not prevent Sir Stelios from attempting take-off

September 28, 2011

Pride comes before a fall. No sooner had Easyjet smugly congratulated itself on an intoxicatingly funny parody of BA’s latest ad campaign (To Fly. To Savesee post below) than its fractious founder and biggest shareholder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannu, spoiled all the fun with a headline-grabber of his own.

I’ve heard many reasons over the years for launching a new brand, most relating at least tangentially to a perceived gap in the market, or even market in the gap, with the prospect of profit – however evanescent – somewhere in the equation. But never one based entirely on spite and paranoia.

Yet this is what the board of Easyjet would have us believe; it took the initiative in disclosing that Stelios was plotting a rival airline, Fastjet, after fruitlessly engaging in years of guerilla warfare with the company he once set up.

Most commentators take the Easyjet line: that Fastjet is no more than an audacious, if alarming, bluff – a way of continuing Stelios’s war with the Easyjet board by other means, in order to extract extra concessions. And it is true that there seems no more present substance to the threat than a red-washed website and a brand name, not even trademarked.

On the other hand, never underestimate the power of the irrational. Especially when it is deployed by a gifted and demonically driven entrepreneur. Civil aviation may be wracked by recession and rising fuel costs; it may be saturated with low-cost airlines. But that does not necessarily mean Stelios’ bluff  will be called. He probably has the family resources to remain “irrational” long after others have ceased to be solvent. Where most (especially left-brain City analysts) see sector cul-de-sacs, entrepreneurs see opportunity (step forward Philip Green, Richard Branson and a host of others) and are prepared to back a hunch.

Besides, it may not be a new airline he is planning: merely a radical repositioning of an existing operation. As Paul Simons – who knows a thing or two or about airlines; he’s even tried relaunching one – points out, there are still market segments other than the low-cost sector worth targeting, particularly at the upper end of the social scale.

What, however, makes me reasonably confident that Fastjet is not simply an extravagant corporate warfare stratagem is the irreparable loss of face involved if it were revealed to be so. That really would make Stelios look like a spoilt rich kid who has thrown all his toys out of the pram.

For that very reason Easyjet and others should be wary of writing off Fastjet as an empty threat. The project may target a different sector of the market, it may well fail. But one thing we can be sure of: it will cause competitors some unwelcome turbulence if it ever heaves itself off the runway.

Thomas Cook – great brand name, shame no one knows what is stands for any more

August 6, 2011

Are tour operators, even – or especially – well-branded ones, ever fit businesses for public ownership?

The recent martyrdom of Thomas Cook chief executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa in the wake of 3 profit-warnings in 12 months, an increasingly intractable debt burden and a pulverised share-price might seem an eloquent-enough reminder that the answer is no.

If there is one golden rule with the City it is this: never disappoint. Serial disappointments lead to serious disenchantment. And serious disenchantment means penny-share status.

Yet tour operators are custom-made to disappoint. Just when they appear to be getting it most right, they are almost sure to be going badly wrong.

The first difficulty is that theirs is a market of extraordinary predictive complexity, requiring them to contract in advance for an indefinite number of flights and rooms in diverse foreign countries. In doing so they must take account of the cycle of the economy, the fluctuating cost of aviation fuel and the volatility of the foreign exchange markets.

Small wonder that, in attempting to combine the skills of an economist, a commodity specialist and a foreign exchange dealer, they often screw it up, even in the good years.

Second difficulty, most good years aren’t that good. Somewhere, somehow, nature is usually plotting to skew the best-made predictions of man, whether in the form of snow, volcanic ash, earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis. And where nature fails to surprise, you can be sure that man himself will step into the breach with some unspeakable act of terrorism or, to take a contemporary example, seismic political upheaval (step forward the Arab Spring). As if that were not enough, add sudden and unpredictable worldwide financial panic to the brew and stir.

Third difficulty: tour operators like Thomas Cook inhabit a low-margin, saturated market in which too many are scrabbling for too little reward. Why this should be the case is never entirely clear. Perhaps because the entrepreneurial barriers to entry are too low, perhaps in part because of the destructive, levelling effect of the internet. Whatever, the sector is characterised by businesses which seem in perpetual financial crisis. And which sometimes – as in the case of Harry Goodman’s ILG , number two in the UK market in 1991 – go spectacularly bust.

In this Darwinian struggle for survival, branding – despite the hundreds of millions of pounds annually spent by the industry on projecting a “trustworthy image” – comes a distant third to operational efficiency and febrile sales performance.

Thomas Cook is a good case in point. Arguably, it is the best-known package holiday brand in the world. Certainly it is the most venerable, with roots that stretch back to the temperance movement in the 1840s, the heroic attempted relief of General Gordon at Khartoum in 1884, and the exoticism of the Orient Express in the 1890s.

But what exactly does that brand stand for today? Is it British? Is it German? (The London listed company is majority owned by a German mail order group, Arcandor.) Is it Louise & Jamie Redknapp taking their annual vacation? Is it a lumbering UK mass-market organisation struggling to add a slick upmarket feel to its specialist international operations?

The brand is all and, confusingly, none of these things. It has been held hostage to a desperate struggle for corporate survival whose twists and turns over the past few years resemble a kaleidoscope on speed.

The complexity of its recent corporate history and ownership may be gauged from this Wikipedia page. But the important point to fasten on is Thomas Cook’s 2007 takeover of My Travel – another listed company in deep financial trouble. My Travel bought Thomas Cook market share, but at a fatal price. It was a pile-it-high-and-flog-it-cheap inventory – and a muddled and indebted one at that – just when Thomas Cook should have been moving in a different direction, towards more defined, upmarket offers.

Unfortunately for many Thomas Cook marketers, they are not to be given a chance to do their stuff. All this inept hand-to-mouth corporate engineering designed to keep the City and shareholders happy will shortly come home to roost. The company must now embark on a Draconian strategic review (for which read bloodletting) if it is to avoid falling into the clutches of the private equity gang. Guess who will be near the top of the sacrificial pile, marketers?

Facebook in decline? It’s a matter of trust

June 22, 2011

The trouble with urban myths is they have a habit of gaining credibility if enough people retweet them. No, not the one about Jemima Khan and Jeremy Clarkson. This one is practically cosmic in its significance. Facebook, they say, is perched on the edge of vertiginous decline and will never make the 1 billion users its avid investors are banking on for an IPO.

The rumour appears to have begun with a plausible article, whose headline says nearly everything you need to know: ‘Facebook sees big traffic drops in US and Canada as it nears 700 million users worldwide’. I don’t want to become entwined in a discussion which has all the nit-picking allure of a symposium on the Arian heresy conducted by the early Roman Catholic church. So I won’t. The gist is that Facebook’s tsunami-like growth in developing countries conceals an actual audience decline of 6 million people in the USA during the month of May.

So far as the statistics are concerned, they seem to have been robustly rebutted by Henry Blodgett over at Business Insider. His distilled point is that the so-called decline ignores mobile use, which in fact increases steeply as high school kids and students pack up for the long vacation. So investors and advertisers can relax. There’s no decline at all, just a bit of a hiccup.

Whatever, it’s started people thinking – and many of these people seem to be older-profile Facebook users. A poll conducted by OnePoll among 1300 UK users for Marketing magazine reveals that a majority of over-45 year olds are considering exiting from Facebook. Youngers ones aren’t that chuffed either – more than a third said they had thought of quitting recently.

This may indeed illustrate Facebook fatigue, but more likely reflects growing alarm about Facebook’s perceived abuse of privacy (58% said they were unhappy about Facebook’s use of personal information).

Either way, Facebook should be concerned (although it says it is not). Forget the statistics. What matters here is engagement. As growth inevitably slows in the more advanced economies such as the USA and Britain, so Facebook will have to expend more effort on creating greater dwell time, by launching new and more useful tools. Alas, these tools come at a certain cost, if they are to be of use to advertisers – they involve ever-more sophisticated manipulation of personal information.

Tesco’s Clarke charges into our living rooms with Blinkbox IPTV acquisition

April 21, 2011

Tesco’s new chief executive Philip Clarke is all too aware that some of the old retail magic has faded. He described the core UK business’ performance, in his first set of financial results, as “below par on any metric”.

So what’s he going to do about it? One solution is strategic diversification into areas with better growth and margins. The foray into the second-hand car market, with tescocars.com, is a case in point. Potentially much more significant, however, is the acquisition (for an undisclosed sum) of 80% of Blinkbox.

Blinkbox? It’s a UK-based film- and TV programme-streaming website service with a catalogue of about 9,000 films which boasts over 2 million visitors a month. Sort of like iPlayer, but more ecumenical in its approach to content and, by the way, you pay £2.99 per rental item and £6.99 for a download.

And the significance of this is? The “assault on the living room” is being touted as the next big thing in retail. In the United States, it already is. Netflix, a DVD and streaming rental business set up in 1997, is now a stock market phenomenon. Last year, its value soared 33% to $12.5bn (£7.65bn). And it’s easy to see why: $161m profits on revenue of $2.2bn, and over 20 million customers who pay a flat monthly fee for the privilege of receiving its video-streamed and DVD catalogue.

Symbolic of its waxing market power, Netflix recently moved into the original content market. Spectacularly, it outbid the US TV networks for the right to remake Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards, with Kevin Spacey in the lead role of the Machiavellian FU.

But that’s over there. As yet, Netflix has no European presence, which leaves the UK market wide open to exploitation. The nearest thing here is LoveFilm, which was bought out by Amazon at the beginning of this year (valuing it at £200m). It was set up in 2003 with a subscription-based DVD rental-through-the-post service, and diversified into video-streaming last year. It has just concluded its first major content deal, which involves distribution rights to 50 Disney films.

The UK may be behind the in-home entertainment curve, compared with the USA, but Tesco’s Clarke has every reason to suppose it will soon catch up. Rapidly expanding broadband width provides the pre-condition. But someone with deep pockets, an unrivalled national customer database and a visceral understanding of distribution will provide the wherewithal. That someone could just be Tesco.

Original programme content, however, will have to wait.

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