John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
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April 2009

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April 30 2009
A major local promotion giving away a dream wedding folds after several major sponsors withdraw their support and not enough participants register for the contest. Here’s the story, from The Fallbrook Village News (Fallbrook, near San Diego, CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

The article reads like a litany of things that can go wrong with a group promotion. The intent changed. The economics of the promotion shifted. The sponsors got small-minded, overlooking the potential profit from out-of-town guests, and also selfish, preferring to fund their individual marketing efforts rather than the group promotion. Perhaps the latter was a reasonable marketing decision, given the economic climate and its effect on weddings, but I wonder about the former. There was even the bizarre decision made to charge contest entrants $50 per entry, at a time when brides-to-be were scaling back their budgets and plans. $50, heck, that’s the flowers for some weddings, nice ones, too.

So now, Fallbrook is the destination that couldn’t even give away a wedding. That’s a pity, because there’s a lot about Fallbrook to like. Especially in recent years, after the community’s largely successful efforts to re-brand after being put on the national map as the hometown of white supremacist leader Tom Metzger. Perhaps, since Metzger left town a few years ago, there hasn’t been anything strong enough to pull everyone together again.
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April 29 2009
Oops! I guess my line about poleaxed pigs on ice wasn’t exactly politic, given the swine flu almost-a-global-pandemic. Still, some silliness arises from the U.S. pork industry’s attempts to rebrand swine flu as, well, anything but that. Here’s the story, from Ad Age:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I don’t know. H1N1, what is that, a laptop? A Hummer?

I think the message should be about education, not about some finger-in-the-dike approach to renaming something that already has a name. In the old days, such a renaming might have happened behind the curtain, and pop culture would have followed. With today’s transparency, though, it might not even have been worth lobbying for a change.

Here in San Diego, there’s already talk that our local economy will benefit as cruise ships divert from stops in Mexico to the Port of San Diego.
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April 28 2009
Major consumer brands are dropping and skidding like poleaxed pigs on ice. Here’s the story about the demise of automobile brand Pontiac, from my hometown newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

The concept of corporate brand hegemony along the lines of General Motors is not in itself an untenable structure. What made it untenable, was a long series of mistakes in management and governance.

The fundamental need still exists for GM legend Alfred P. Sloan’s “A car for every purse and purpose.” The stumbling block, is that the entry-level field got dominated by non-GM products: imported cars – first from Japan and Germany, now from Korea, India, and Mexico. GM’s original entry-level marque, Chevrolet, abandoned the field with non-competitive vehicles and quick-fix profit-taking, while GM itself struggled to launch not one, but two low-end brands, the short-lived Geo and the soon-to-be-sold Saturn.

This brand mismanagement wasn’t evident only at GM. Chrysler eventually shuttered its Plymouth brand, evidently not quite knowing how to differentiate Plymouths from equivalent Dodge models, which themselves suffered as the Chrysler brand drifted downmarket. I remember a time when massive, gracefully sculpted Chrysler New Yorkers and Imperials vied with senior Buicks, Cadillacs, and Lincolns. That image seems almost ridiculous today.

Yet, this entry-level field is where there is the most opportunity going forward through recessionary times. China sees it so, as does India. Will the nation that gave the world democratized automobiles and put the common person on the road abandon that leadership? It’s as if our current crop of MBA marketers are missing an important piece of the puzzle, a piece that used to be practiced so innately that perhaps it was never felt worthy of formal study.

Here is what I think is the crux move: an entry-level brand doesn’t need branding as much as it needs sales. The sales are the branding, and the more widespread and common the sales, the stronger the brand. And, I think that’s likely true across most product categories, from cars and computers to coffee and cleansers.

That’s easier said than done. It requires a reallocation of resources from the front end of the marketing process, to the back end – the grunt work of distribution and retailing.
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April 21 2009
The tough economy has advertisers getting back to basics in more ways than one. Here’s a story about the renewed ad push behind ordinary staple items, from the Associated Press via
Advertising copywriter blog link

I don’t know. As an advertising professional, this seems like a sound bet. But as a consumer – and the primary grocery shopper for a family that includes two kids – very few of the products being hawked have made our shopping lists. Kool-Aid, soda, Spam, Dinty Moore, Hamburger Helper? (A great line, from National Lampoon’s Vacation: “I don’t know why they call this stuff Hamburger Helper. It does just fine by itself, huh?” – Cousin Eddie.) For about the same cost and time, you can whip up something fresh that isn’t loaded with salt, processed sugars, and chemicals. And that’s the other shoe that’s waiting to drop on marketing processed foods like Hamburger Helper and Kool-Aid as recession-beating staples: the fact that most convenience foods can be replaced with healthier alternatives at similar price points.

Butter, unlike the other items, is a true staple. I always have several pounds in the freezer for baking and cooking. But there, the competition comes not just from name-brand margarines and butter alternatives, but also store branded products. I, like many consumers, am brand disloyal. Also, baking cookies from scratch, or even from a mix, takes more time and energy than doing heartless whomp cookies (you know, where you whomp the tube on the edge of the counter) or ripping open a package of Chips Ahoy. (What is that unique flavor of Chips Ahoy, by the way? It’s kinda good, in a weird way, but it ain’t chocolate chip cookie flavor in the same way that a Big Mac doesn’t really taste like a hamburger. But I digress.)

So, oddly enough, I wonder if there’s a more-lasting recession-driven opportunity in the branded convenience treats than in the branded convenience foods? In other words, will Kool-Aid and Oreos outlast Hamburger Helper and Spam as post-recession profit centers, and is the margin enough to warrant a bigger marketing investment now? Just a thought.
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April 20 2009
I just received my DVD set of the P.G. Wodehouse series Jeeves & Wooster starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, so that’s probably what drew my eye to this story on BBC News about search engine Ask resurrecting its butler character and reverting back to the Ask Jeeves brand:
Advertising copywriter blog link

You’ve heard of market corrections? This is a marketing correction, undoing something that should never have been done in the first place. In the Ask Jeeves brand name, there was a warm, sure, human touch that was lacking in, say, Go Mamma or Dogpile or Yahoo. Or, for that matter, Google. By becoming “Ask,” Ask Jeeves abandoned an essential part of what made it different, which was no way to compete.

The problem is, unless there’s more to this change than is revealed in this story, it’s probably too late. The name change, yeah, that’s nice. But the user experience has moved on in the past few years, plus everyone now knows (thanks to Google) how to put together a search string. Oh, the opportunity to beat Google is out there, somewhere. But being different isn’t enough; you have to be demonstrably better.
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April 16 2009
In-store marketing is growing, and will likely continue to do so as the economy sputters and pitches. Here’s a quick, useful (albeit typo-riddled) how-to from Brandweek:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I’ve long been a huge believer in point-of-purchase marketing pieces – shelf talkers, cart signs, posters, counter cards, table tents, even product packaging itself. These are all highly economical ways to achieve what I call interceptive marketing.

With interceptive marketing, your potential customers are already at the purchase location. They’re already prepared to buy something, just probably not your product. Your marketing message has to interrupt their routine buying process and shift the purchase to your product. You intercept the sale.

This is where a lot of point-of-sale materials fail. Most marketers seem to approach shopper marketing as branding or image-building or reminder tools rather than advertising or sales tools. That’s a mistake.

And the place this mistake is most-often made is right there at the top of the list. Shopper engagement can’t be a result of shopper marketing unless that engagement was part of the strategy from the get-go by getting out, hitting the aisles, and talking to shoppers. You can’t create relevant advertising in an ivory tower.
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April 15 2009
How we use language reflects the world around us. Here’s an interesting look at the popular language of the economic downturn, from my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

As an advertising copywriter, language is an essential tool and it pays to keep up with the latest fads. I think it demonstrates linguistic fluidity when the meaning of “subprime” changes within our lifetime, from implying a risky deal to a preferential relationship and back to a risky deal. The concept of toxicity applied to assets is a potent metaphor, and also a great use of language.

Key quote, from local author and “A Way With Words” radio program co-host Martha Barnette:

“Humans are endlessly creative, which is why we have language in the first place,” she said. “We love to play with words.”

Using such au courant words in advertising copy, though, carries some risk. Nothing’s more outdated than yesterday’s buzzword. That here-today-gone-tomorrow transience makes them, perhaps, better suited to more transient (and changeable) forms of marketing communication: email campaigns, telemarketing scripts, PR, and even, to a limited extent, website copy. Some of the words with more weight to their popularity might be useful in ads. But, despite the temptation to be relevant, I wouldn’t build an ad campaign around them. And, I’d avoid them in tangible marketing materials like brochure copy.
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April 14 2009
It arrived! My very own premiere edition of Mine: My Magazine, My Way, the Lexus-sponsored personalized magazine that aggregates content from my very own choice of Time publications. If you want your own personalized copy, here’s the link:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I mentioned this back on March 18. Based on the execution of the concept I was able to see, I dubbed it a misfire. But that was, of course, a from-the-hip, premature observation. And now that I’m holding the magazine in my hands, um, yeah, it’s a misfire.

I have not seen such a ham-fisted attempt at personalization since the last really bad personalized junk mailer that I pushed through the shredder. Seriously, here’s the copy for the personalized ad on the inside front cover, allegedly aimed right at me based on my choice of aggregated content:

The all-new 2010 RX has been reinvented with you in mind (just like the magazine you’re reading). With more usable cargo space for bags and bags of new shoes, and an available Heads-up Display for keeping your eyes on the road because the 101 can be tricky on your way to Napa Valley.

And this one, from the next page:

We know how much you love trendy handbags, and with our available voice-activated Navigation System, it’s easy to locate the best boutiques near San Diego.

And yes, they actually made the “personalized” bits stand out (or fade back), as if it’s the Lexus version of frikkin’ Mad Libs. How the heck did they draw those conclusions? The last time I drove the 101 was well before kids because the 5 is quicker and more direct. And shoes? Trendy handbags? Napa Valley?!

Big huge problem #1: there wasn’t enough variety in the content choices. Choosing five out of eight rapidly declines into least-worst options which throws a monkey wrench into data mining efforts. In this case less might have been more; a choice of three out of eight might have produced some useful data.

Big huge problem #2: the choices didn’t appear to affect the content drawn from other choices. Look: someone who chooses, say, Sports Illustrated, Golf Magazine, and Food & Wine should be served different Food & Wine content than someone who chooses Food & Wine with InStyle and Travel + Leisure. It needn’t be a hugely complicated algorithm, but it required someone to actually think of the consumer. Nope, nothing here but cut-and-paste.

Big huge problem #3: they sent the wrong mix. As I mentioned last month, Money was my first pick; it was replaced in my very own personalized Mine magazine with Sports Illustrated, which was the magazine of least interest to me. Although this might be nothing more than a glitch, it also doesn’t bode well for the executional capabilities of this newfangled infrastructure.

Big huge problem #4: they didn’t collect enough data up front to make a real stab at personalized content. “Bags and bags of new shoes?” Boxes and boxes of camping gear is more like it, along with room for the kids and the dog.

Mild problem: the front cover, which coulda-shoulda been customized, wasn’t, an opportunity lost.

Mild problem: the wrap, which coulda-shoulda been customized, also wasn’t, another opportunity lost. So suddenly, those Lexus ads are looking a lot more like, well, ads.

Mild problem: the Capitalization Of Amenities in the ad copy made the brand voice pompous and self-important, even more so in contrast to the magazine title in all lower case with a precious period.

That said, the magazine contained three articles that captured my interest and my readership: one about the view out airplane windows, one about custom-made blue jeans, and one – a surprise from Sports Illustrated – about soccer. Also, I really liked the feature-heavy approach: no columns from journalistic “personalities,” just meaty stories.

You could argue that I’m not the target market for the Lexus RX, and you may be right. But come on, the people in the target market certainly don’t have lower expectations. I’d have to say that those expectations aren’t going to be met with this iteration of personalized content.
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April 13 2009
I have two interesting stories today related to advertising and creative. First up, is this piece about marketing PCs, from Business Week:
Advertising copywriter blog link

There’s more than the economy to blame here. First, the PC market is a mature market, with all the challenges that throws up. There’s also the rise of increasingly viable Microsoft alternatives, plus an emerging division between the traditional desktop/laptop market and the netbook/PC-enabled mobile device market. Finally, retail spaces are opening up even as retail outlets close down, because hungry stores are looking for ready-made traffic and profit centers.

The key touchpoint though, for the brand and the sale, remains the staff-to-customer interaction. I wrote sales training materials for HP as part of a team that understood that to engage the customer, the company’s first task was to engage the retail sales staff. That seems to be the missing piece here.

My next story has to do with blogging about products, flogging those products, and some pending regulation by the FTC. Here’s the story, from ABC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Is blogging advertising or journalism? So far, the courts have refused to extend shield law to private and commercial bloggers. If commercial blogging is advertising, a line that’s increasingly hard to discern, then its First Amendment protection is limited.

And, as pointed out, if the FTC begins to regulate product review blog sites as commercial communication, the companies will either comply, revealing the handlers behind the curtain, or turn to alternate channels. At which point the question becomes, will the audience follow?
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April 10 2009
Consumer spending is up, sortakinda. Here’s the story, from the Associated Press via my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Retail sales were down, but not down as far as expected. So that, these days, is being interpreted as good news.

My big question is this: what about store traffic? Is this a case of converting more customers who are already window-shopping or buying, or a case of attracting more customers? This is an important strategic point for marketers. Another big question is: how much of this can be attributed to pent-up demand? After all, there’s only so long you can go before you need to restock the pantry or buy a pair of shoes.

Oh, and another significant point is buried way at the end. To what does the retail analyst attribute Old Navy’s nascent success? A national TV ad campaign. Well, how about that. Through good times and bad, advertising works.
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April 9 2009
The recession is a sprawling issue, and here’s an appropriately sprawling look at it, focusing a lens on a single town, Elkhart, Indiana. Here’s the entry point, from’s NewsVine:
Advertising copywriter blog link

This reminds me of an old Life magazine photoessay, only using the Internet to deliver multimedia content, greater relevance through interactivity, and more immediacy. It is very cool. The archival stuff from the early 1970s is an eye-opener too, should anyone believe that recent events are completely novel to the human experience.

But here’s the reason this is important for advertising creatives: these people, these people of Elkhart, Indiana, represent, for the most part, the primary target market for most of the stuff we’re flogging, from shampoo and pet food to potato chips and compact sedans to vacations and investments. So read their stories. See their pain? Not enough. You have to feel it, even (especially!) if you’re fortunate enough to live relatively unscathed by the economic slowdown.

If you can’t feel it, you’re not close enough to real people to write real ads.
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April 7 2009
Let’s call this one Data Mining Gone Bad. I just received this promotional postcard from my cable/Internet provider (you can click on it to see it larger):

Somewhere along the line either I checked a box marked “Pacific Asian” (not likely; I usually “Decline To State”), or there’s now an algorithm to analyze and sort last names by likely ethnic background, or someone manually sorted me into an ethnic group without my knowledge. To their credit, my last name is of Japanese origin, and that is Japanese (as near as I can tell) on the mailer. That alone is pretty sophisticated, because someone of Korean ethnic background might also check the box marked “Pacific Asian,” but Korean written characters are quite different from Japanese written characters. Also, the color scheme here, the models, the whole design of the piece – it all looks very much like other Japanese marketing materials I have seen, right down to the repetition (notably the bit in the colored blocks and the line right below it).

But I digress. The point is, no matter how cleverly this particular data point was derived, the result was a mailer that’s completely incomprehensible to the recipient.

I went to Japanese school (nihon-gakko) every Saturday for maybe three years, starting when I was about nine years old I guess. My friend Larry and I would sit in the back drawing cars and making up specification sheets and brochures and ads for the cars. We had a whole fictional car company. We traded the brochures and ads for pieces of origami paper, from which we made more car brochures and ads. I can’t speak for Larry, but I learned very little Japanese.

And, as to this just-arrived triumph of data mining and target marketing? Whatever the offer is, I can’t read it.
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April 6 2009
Can anything be as irritating, cheesy, cornball – and effective – as a relentlessly energetic television pitchman? The recession has more companies looking to deploy direct response techniques, and here’s a look at two direct response TV masters, Billy Mays and Anthony Sullivan, from Fortune via
Advertising copywriter blog link

I’ve loved this approach since I was a kid, watching Ron Popeil churn out product after product, spot after spot on fringe-time and late-night television. Read the article for the profiles and the history of direct response hawking. But wait, there’s more!

What I’d like to add, is simply this observation: nothing has changed. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The same approach continues to work, because human behavior is fundamentally the same as it was five, twenty, fifty years ago. It’s easy to get dazzled by the latest marketing communication tools – social networking being the current technique du jour – and overlook the basics. And if the basics aren’t in place, then throwing more tools at the problem only increases noise and broadens the reach of the failure.
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April 5 2009
Oh, this is so geeky and dumb it’s brilliant and wonderful, just the thing for a Sunday. Ben Heckendorn has hand-built a Commodore 64 laptop! Here’s how he did it, from his blog:
Advertising copywriter blog link

This is the first technology-related device I’ve seen in a long time that actually inspires my affection. My current desktop computer and laptop are appliances; if they died tomorrow I’d replace them without much thought other than irritation because I did a forklift upgrade just last year. The desktop is a Compaq and the laptop is a Dell, but what does that say about their brands if they inspire no emotional response?

Some of this might be sheer nostalgia. My first ad agency job had me writing on a Commodore CBM 8032. And, I owned the portable “business” version of the Commodore 64, the SX-64, and for many years it was my primary business machine. I used a word processor called Paper Clip that was in a cartridge, so you just turned the machine on and  the program was ready to rock. No boot up time! My modem was something like 2800 baud, which was screaming fast, and my CompuServe email address had five numbers. Too bad I lost that email addy somewhere along the line, probably when making the switch from Commodore to an IBM platform (which happened quite late because I really liked that Commodore), or maybe when I moved from my apartment into my first house.

What would you call this? Victorian techno is steampunk. This is 80s retro techno. Electropop? Anyway, the authentic 80s detail in Heckendorn’s creation is just incredible; it’s as if Commodore really came out with a laptop computer 25 years ago in some alternative reality. Alternatech? It has the Commodore brand DNA in it; even though it never existed, I recognized it immediately as a Commodore. It doesn’t look like an Atari or Tandy. That’s branding! I can’t use this thing, but I want one!
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April 2 2009
I’ve got two quickies today. First up is this story about Guiding Light, the longest-running drama in history. It is being cancelled by its sponsor, Proctor & Gamble. Here’s the story, from the New York Times News Service via my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Guiding Light began in the days of radio, when soap operas were truly media vehicles for selling soap. In the intervening 72 years since inception, the show moved from radio to television, from network to network, always staying current.

Unfortunately, the powers behind the program didn’t realize the potential – and the threat – of the internet until it was too late. The show should have jumped to net-based minisodes a long time ago; it could have been a trendsetter, but instead fell more and more behind the times. Kind of sad, that, especially considering the show’s declining but still potent brand equity and the enormous resources of P&G. I suppose there’s some hope being held out in P&G’s statement that it’s looking into ways to continue the show, and I would suspect that some form of netcasting will at least be taken into consideration.

Next up is this story about the rebranding of two local Hard Rock Hotel nightclubs, also from the San Diego Union-Tribune:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Beyond changing the names of the clubs, what’s important here is that “intensive customer-service training” was a key component of the rebranding scheme. That’s an essential piece of branding that’s too often overlooked in the hoopla over naming and logos and design and slogans. But, once the customers arrive, it’ll be the most important branding touchpoint of all.
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April 1 2009
The web-based print publishing thread continues, with this re-launch of Life magazine online, a partnership between Time Inc. and Getty Images. Here’s the story, from eConsultancy:
Advertising copywriter blog link

This seems like the right idea at the right time. Life, which shut down nearly a decade ago, remains a strong brand. The content is there, along with a steady stream of fresh content and the ability to digitally tag, sort, and categorize it all. And now, with the ever-increasing reach of broadband internet connections, a high-resolution, photo-intensive online property like Life finally has an environment in which it has a chance of thriving. Very cool!
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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