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Nokia, Microsoft and AT&T hold their breath for Lumia 900 smartphone launch

April 9, 2012

Like me, perhaps, you missed one of this year’s most critical product launches. That’s because, for reasons still not entirely apparent, it took place on Easter Sunday.

Never mind that though. All the most influential tech reviewers are agreed: the Nokia Lumia 900 is undoubtedly one of the finest smartphones money can buy, with its big, 4.3in screen, intuitive operating system, 8 megapixel rear camera and VGA front-facing cam, not to mention 4G LTE data capability. And at the astonishing price of only $99 (terms and conditions apply, 2-year contract only, sorry rest-of-the-world, you’ll just have to wait and see…), it looks like a snip.

But will it be? The Lumia’s significance lies not so much in it technological prowess as who’s behind it.

This may be the first and only chance for Nokia, Microsoft and AT&T to break the iPhone’s increasingly assured stranglehold over the sector. Nokia, once hailed the world’s leading mobile phone manufacturer, has so far made almost no impact in the dynamic smartphone sector dominated by Apple and Google/Android. Microsoft, developer of the admired but definitely connoisseur-only Windows Phone 7.5 operating system, has so far lacked a suitable vehicle to gatecrash the market. And AT&T, the US carrier with sole Lumia launch rights, is playing a desperate market catch-up game with its rivals Verizon and Sprint Nextel, after earlier losing exclusivity over US iPhone sales.

Little, apart from that quirky Easter Sunday launch date, is being left to chance. And with some of the world’s powerful brands behind it (AT&T, for instance, is America’s second biggest advertiser) it seems hard to conceive of abject failure. AT&T alone is spending $150m through BBDO on the Lumia launch campaign – more than it ever spent on the iPhone. And there has been much hullabaloo in Times Square with a spectacular live event – watched by “tens of thousands of people” and videoed on Facebook – featuring 60-foot CGI-generated waves which cascade down a building.

If only smartphone marketing were simply about price, position, product and promotion, the Lumia 900 would have a field day. Alas, it’s also about apps. As a leading member of the tech commentariat David Pogue, of the New York Times, points out:

The Lumia 900 is fast, beautiful and powerful, inside and out. Unfortunately, a happy ending to this underdog story still isn’t guaranteed. Windows Phone 7 faces the mother of all chicken-and-egg problems: nobody’s going to write apps until WP7 becomes popular — but WP7 won’t become popular until there are apps.

And it’s anyone’s guess when that might be.

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Just Lovin’ It (Not) – Part 2. McDonald’s chokes on its social media initiative

January 26, 2012

When will brands with a corporate reputation problem finally realise that social media – whatever its siren attractions – is not for them?

Not yet, as evidenced by the so-called “McFail” initiative. Last week, McDonald’s (yes, the Brand the World Loves to Hate, see my earlier post), bought two “promoted tweets” – Twitter’s answer to generating advertising revenue. The aim, apparently, was to persuade McDonald’s customers – those presumably with an excess of serotonin in the bloodstream – to share their happy-clappy experiences with the world.

Surprise, surprise, the clickable Twitter “hashtag” McDStories was (all too easily) purloined by mischievous malcontents. Very soon, instead of reading about McNuggets like Grandma used to make them (not), we were subjected to tsunami-force tirades on alleged animal-welfare abuse, wage slavery, food poisoning induced by McD fare and graphic descriptions of the bodily symptoms that accompany it.

By about 1400 hours Eastern Seaboard Time, D-Day, Operation McDStories had been ignominiously aborted. “Within an hour, we saw that it wasn’t going as planned,” explained a baffled Rick Wion, McDonald’s US social media director. “It was negative enough that we set about a change of course.”

Too right, Rick: a 180 degree one, to avoid losing your job.

Before you ask what planet Rick and his McD chums live on, let me explain: it’s the same one inhabited by the folk at Dr Pepper (owner, Coca-Cola), Nestlé, Wendy’s and Qantas. All of these brands have, at various times, lived under the narcotic delusion that social media is a marcoms nirvana utterly divorced from the everyday travails of brand management – and experienced brutal cold-turkey on discovering it is not.

When they go well, social media campaigns are a dream: they inexpensively capture the zeitgeist. But the gains are purely tactical, while the reverses, however infrequent, tend to have asymmetrical, strategic consequences. Why? Because negative high-profile media coverage brings the feckless actions of Rick and people like him to the immediate attention of their CEOs, for all the wrong reasons. If McDonald’s chief Jim Skinner was previously unaware of Wion’s existence, he is no longer. #McDStories has, with one fell blow, managed to poleaxe Jim’s precious Good News story: burgeoning corporate growth in Q4. Not great for Rick’s career advancement, I suspect.


Julie Roehm – marketing’s femme fatale

January 17, 2012

So Julie Roehm, femme fatale and arguably the only larger-than-life personality left in marketing, has managed to land herself a proper job again – as VP marketing at global software company SAP.

Unlike Jodie Fisher, the “marketing consultant” who brought down HP CEO Mark Hurd, Roehm really is a high-profile marketer. Glance at her CV (conveniently at hand on LinkedIn) and you will see that the past 5 years positively teems with starry advisory roles. Look a little further down the list, and you will note that she has held down some pretty senior marcoms appointments too, at Ford, Chrysler and Walmart. No trumped up “meeter-and-greeter”, no former reality-TV starlet, no bimbo she.

One thing – apart from the bottle-blonde big hair – that Fisher and Roehm do have in common, though: they are both tireless self-publicists.

To give the flavour, here’s an extract from Roehm’s personal website, written by an uncritical admirer at Hallmark:

You immediately know she is courageous, brave, in command.  When I tell her this, she smiles that trademark Roehm smile, mix of fine intuition, confidence, fierce focus and remarkable intelligence.  “Fearlessness is like a muscle.  The more you exercise it, the more natural it becomes to not let fears run you…that’s a favorite from Arianna Huffington.”

Clients seek her because she’s a warrior with a guru-like ability to feel and predict what makes consumers need, not want.  Believe, never doubt.  Buy, not browse.  Rev up, not idle.

Notoriously unafraid of controversy and a good, clean fight for the right, Julie is an intrepid, yet infinitely calculating innovator.

Strip away the cringeworthy, obsequious tone and you can see why Julie would be highly attractive to an otherwise successful client suffering from lack of image self-esteem; and, equally, why she might be a bit of a nightmare to work with.

The “notoriously unafraid of controversy” bit refers, of course, to the only reason Roehm is known this side of the Atlantic. Her last full-time marketing job was as senior VP-communications at Walmart, from which she was ignominiously fired after 9 months. Walmart’s idea of conduct unbecoming might seem absurdly straitlaced in this part of the world. Nevertheless, Roehm was well aware of the risk she was running when allowing herself to be so extravagantly lionised by the Draft FCB top team flaunting their (oh so temporary) $600m account win; and even more so when she engaged in an “inappropriate” email correspondence with her sidekick Sean Womack.

Roehm simply doesn’t know what reverse gear is. Absence of fear stood her in good stead during her marcoms years in the motor industry, where some saucy ad ideas – like men standing around in urinals talking about the length of their trucks – actually managed to shift metal. But it ended up making her more “famous” than the brand she represented. After the Walmart episode she was unemployable for 5 years, though she made a good fist of going freelance.

Will things work out better at software infrastructure company SAP AG? Leopards and spots come to mind. SAP ought to know what it is doing: Roehm has already worked there as a consultant. Then again, the same could probably have been said of Walmart, with which SAP shares some repressed, correct, organisational values. I also wonder whether La Roehm’s personality is too big for the fishbowl world of B2B – a source of potential frustration for both sides.

Of one thing we can be tolerably certain, though: existing ad agencies need to be on their creative mettle. Watch out Ogilvy, which has held the global $100m SAP account since 1999. A review is sure to be on the way.


McDonald’s – the brand the world loves to hate

January 9, 2012

Just lovin’ it? You may be, but you can bet they aren’t. No matter how hard it tries, the world’s biggest restaurant chain by revenue simply can’t strike the appropriate note in its advertising campaigns. In place of plaudits, it invariably earns brickbats.

Now why is that I wonder? Well it’s not the calibre of its marketing people that is the problem. Compared with most global corporations, and certainly most international retailers, McDonald’s puts great store by talent. It attracts people like Jill McDonald, UK CEO and a shoo-in Marketer of the Year in most annual polls. Again against the grain, McDonald’s believes in advertising creativity. Can you remember who does Wal-Mart’s advertising? Neither can I. But I do recall that McDonald’s has retained, in turn, Leo Burnett and DDB.

Here’s DDB’s latest US offering. It’s an apparently inoffensive slice of life campaign, featuring farmers who supply McDonald’s with their beef, potatoes and lettuces. It won’t win any creative prizes, but it’s professionally produced and does a job in stressing an increasingly important element in consumer decision-making: the integrity of provenance.

Pulse and respiration still normal? I’m surprised. Because these ads have created near apoplexy in the USA. Apparently, it’s not what they say (which appears to be accurate enough) but what they leave out that should shock us to the marrow. By means of soft, bucolic imagery, McDonald’s has fooled us into believing it is part of a “farm to fork” movement transporting wholesome vegetables and prime beef cuts directly to our local fast-food outlet. Whilst – wouldn’t you just know it – skilfully omitting all mention of the wicked middle-man who, by perverted alchemy, buys up all this wholesome produce and slices and dices it into the fatty fries and bloating burgers that we more naturally associate with McDonald’s. A case not so much of Golden Arches as Arch Hypocrite.

Far be it from me to defend the fast-food industry, but isn’t this criticism a little harsh? Not, it seems, when the ad campaign emanates from The Great Satan – seducer of little children, agent of obesity and chief representative of all that is most reprehensible about international capitalism.

Given such an unsavoury reputation, you might think McDonald’s on safer ground with this lightly amusing piece of comparative advertising, which pokes fun at its rival Burger King. Small boy in a playground despairs of ever tasting his beloved McD Fries because they always end up being filched by his bigger brethren. Then he hits upon a novel and successful stratagem: hide them behind a BK bag, and nobody will ever want to eat them –

The ad – not unreasonably – won a bronze in the recent Epica Awards. But maybe because it was produced in Germany, it also created a major sense of humour loss, which resulted in humiliating retraction:

“McDonald’s has broken the rules of comparative advertising by degrading the Burger King brand in the TV commercial ‘Packaging.’ McDonald’s and Burger King have agreed that [the spot’s] distribution and broadcast … will be stopped,” said a statement from Burger King.

Apparently, the agencies responsible for the ad, Tribal DDB and Heye & Partners, had put it out on the web without seeking permission from their client. It has since attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube.

At least McDonald’s is popular with someone.


Why Victoria’s Dirty Secret is giving Fairtrade a bad name

December 17, 2011

Burkina Faso? No, wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue – know that name, it’s been in the news hasn’t it? – Tunisian singer or something …

Wrong. It’s a small, landlocked country, dirt-poor, situated in the upper-Volta region of West Africa. And the only reason it has been in the news recently is because it is giving global lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret a bad name. By implication, it has also managed to raise profound questions about the wisdom of the Fairtrade concept.

How so? A recent exposé by Bloomberg’s Cam Simpson has revealed that Victoria’s Secret sources its cotton from plantations where child-workers, some as young as 6, are subjected to serial abuse, including routine physical beatings.

Still worse for the glossy lingerie company that has up-and-coming supermodels such as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Candice Swanepoel clamouring to be on its books: Victoria’s Secret has in the recent past been actively boasting about its do-gooding activity in Burkina Naso. In 2008 it launched a lingerie line that made specific mention of the fairtrade deal: “Good for women. Good for the children who depend on them.”

Here’s the glossy brand surface:

And here’s the grimmer underlying reality.

In fairness to Limited Brands, the company that owns VS, it seems to have been conned along with everyone else. Its fairtrade programme was brokered in good faith with the National Federation of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso and arguably it has managed to produce a few tangible improvements for a labour force used to working for $1 a day, such as new school books and artesian wells.

But that’s not really the salient point of this story. The Victoria’s Secret scandal is one of a number gradually unravelling the skein of public goodwill towards the Fairtrade concept. Nike has never quite recovered from an exposé over 10 years ago of it use of sweatshop child labour overseas. More recently major retailers such as Macy’s and Costco have been accused of knowingly using “dirty gold” for their jewellery.

At very least these stories reveal a woeful lack of micro-management on the part of companies signing up to Fairtrade pacts; at worst, outright cynicism. Either way, the public is getting tired of the excuses. This reaction from Tom Mackendrick at RAPP rather sums the situation up:

It has become increasingly difficult to purchase anything and know how it was made, who was involved and if anyone was exploited. I suggest that buying American, although difficult, is one way a consumer can usually be sure of fair working conditions. Until then, consumers will continue to research and expose. Brands need to “live in the culture” and understand that they are culpable for their actions…especially in their striving for cheap labor and products.

Quite so. No member of the public wishes to feel that he or she is an unwitting accomplice of neo-colonial exploitation. On the other hand, buying American, or British for that matter, is not the solution. Yes, there might be a trade-off between higher prices and a cleaner conscience. On the other hand, shutting our eyes to “Third World” poverty is not going to make it go away. Fairtrade, as a principle, is admirable: what’s letting it down is the practice. In reality it’s very difficult to be “fair” in $1-a-day countries where simply staying alive is an unceasing struggle. Ought ‘doing good’ be limited to safe, bland and frankly unmemorable corporate CSR initiatives? Or should it involve something altogether more ambitious – taking risks, getting your hands dirty from time to time and paying the inevitable penalty for trying harder? It’s a poser.


Nation shocked to its marrow by sexy Marks & Spencer lingerie ad

November 30, 2011

Warning to all advertisers: the merest suggestion of female carnality in a public place will now be punished by a rap over the knuckles from the Advertising Standards Authority.

The regulator has holed a second high-profile brand below the waterline. Last week it was Unilever’s Lynx. This week it is – wait for it – Marks & Spencer.

M&S corrupting our youth? That bastion of frumpy, middle-class, Daily Mail-reading Middle England? Whatever is the world coming to? Next, they’ll be banning mince pies.

And yet, there it is in black and white, in the ASA’s official rescript: M&S is “socially irresponsible” because it has plied us with a “sexually overt” ad.

The ad in question is one of two which ran on bus-sides during September, featuring models sporting M&S’ most gossamer lingerie – and little else. To forestall complaints about gratuitous sexiness (unsuccessfully as it turned out), M&S decided to gloss the posters with a “filmic” finish – ie, it blurred them slightly. The ASA conceded that the context was relevant to the sector (how else do you display lingerie on a poster – on a washing line?). It also acknowledged that M&S had taken considerable care not to make the models’ poses too provocative. But it drew the line at one particular execution:

We considered that the pose of the woman kneeling on the bed was overtly sexual, as her legs were wide apart, her back arched and one arm above her head with the other touching her thigh. We also noted that the woman in this image wore stockings.

Shocking, a glimpse of stocking. You have been warned.

Mind you, it’s probably time someone brought M&S to book over its increasingly licentious conduct. Not a Christmas seems to go by these days without saturation scheduling of M&S’ most sexy models parading their underwear on our television screens.

If only M&S spent a little less money on its models and a little more on tarting up its far from glamorous interiors, perhaps we would all have less to complain about.


Unilever gets dressing down for smutty Lynx ads, but ASA needs to widen its aim

November 23, 2011

It’s official: we, or rather our children, have been seeing far too much of Lucy Pinder’s ample cleavage, and it’s got to stop.

That is the verdict of ad regulator the Advertising Standards Authority on the latest Lynx online and poster ads, which show the glamour model in assorted demi-nues poses.

Whether in reality La Pinder, who routinely appears topless in a variety of newspapers and magazines freely available to all, is corrupting the nation’s youth by testing the power of Lynx’s anti-perspirant control remains highly debatable. But the fact is Unilever, owner of the Lynx brand and generally deemed a responsible advertiser, has clumsily transgressed one of the great contemporary pieties: the need to protect our little ones from the merest taint of precocious sexualisation.

This was a slow-motion accident waiting to happen. Lynx is inherently laddish. It self-consciously appeals to the sort of young male (17-27 years old) who avidly devours exactly the kind of mag in which Pinder tends to appear topless. Yet the difficulty for Unilever is not primarily the positioning of the brand – although its treatment of women as blatant sex objects does sit increasingly oddly with the infinitely more respectful approach adopted by Dove, also a Unilever brand. It is in the sloppiness of the media placement: a case of creative strategy being highjacked by the media buying/planning agency.

As a result, Unilever has become the first high-profile casualty of the David Cameron-endorsed Bailey Report, which strongly recommended protecting young children from just this kind of commercial “smut”. One key proposal was that there should be a clampdown on erotically-suggestive posters. And yet Unilever and its agencies wilfully went ahead with the idea. Despite the fact that, after pre-vetting, the ASA’s CAP Copy Advice unit had already cautioned the ad was likely to be banned.

Less obviously culpable, perhaps, is the placement of the online ads. That they have also been banned suggests you simply can’t be too careful these days when posting ads in such apparently child interest-free zones as Yahoo and Rotten Tomatoes.

I won’t say the ASA zealously hit the wrong target in singling out Lynx, because it didn’t. But let’s face it, when it comes to taste, decency and the issue of inappropriate commercial intrusion, the regulator needs to broaden its aim.

Take a look at this Littlewoods Christmas commercial (produced in-house) which is creating quite a furore on Facebook:

To quote from Marketing Magazine, which ran the story:

One [Facebook] commentator said: “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it is too irresponsible to allow. It promotes copious spending, which is what started this damn credit crisis – people spending money that they haven’t got because they felt the need to compete with the Smiths, or buy love.”

Another commentator said: “What a great example to kids to know that what makes a mother a good one is how much over-expensive bling she buys them at Christmas.”

Quite. Corrupting our kids isn’t simply a matter of prematurely exposing them to seamy sex.


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