John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
May/June/July 2015

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July 7 2015
Here’s a story about the future of that reliable old advertising form, the poster, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Posters will become irrelevant when graphic design becomes irrelevant. That is, never.

I find it hard to believe there are media-savvy people who believe that the internet can kill off the poster. Different audiences, different purposes. And very different spaces. There’s a there in a poster, a there that’s not just the sense of a place but is the place itself. And that there-ness can’t be created in social media. The very act of being on the spot to see a poster is part of the poster.

Also, media tends to be cumulative. New forms don’t kill off old ones; instead, they co-evolve.

That may be partly because, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, we innately filter new information through old patterns of thinking. Placing the new within an historical hierarchy lets us grasp it quickly. But it also curtails a new medium’s development by forcing it, in its infancy, into existing lines of work.

We don’t get the full-blown new media experience because by its very newness it can’t exist independently. Instead, we get a weakened version of new media, one hobbled by being chained to an old model.

Mature media is actually better placed to integrate the new than vice versa. That’s why I look forward (or, in McLuhan’s view, move forward while looking backward) to a renaissance of posters as designers and advertisers build deep interactivity and personal specificity into their concepts.

It’s an exciting time to be in advertising!
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July 3 2015
This is a fantastic example of why outdoor remains a relevant advertising medium. A billboard for Carlsberg beer, placed in the city of London, actually dispenses beer. Here’s the story, from
Advertising copywriter blog link

Logistically, I wonder how they managed distributing and collecting all those half-pint cups. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of dispenser, which leads me to suspect that that was another job of the on-site ID inspectors/marketing reps.

Despite the ad-like format, this is a free-sample kiosk, which makes this promotion not advertising. But I like how the message works with the medium to become a circular meta media message: it’s an ad that’s a promotional giveaway that turns into a social media platform and publicity. And, by interacting with the ad and the promotion, the audience becomes part of all four. This generation is media-savvy enough to appreciate that kind of sophistication.

The medium is more than the medium or the message or the other medium. It’s also the audience. Cool!
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July 1 2015
Today is the 36th anniversary of the death of radio. Remember that? No? Well, it started with that 1980s icon, the Sony Walkman, which was introduced 36 years ago today. Here’s the story, from Mental Floss:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Despite the focus on its size and appearance, the remarkable thing about the Walkman was its sound quality. Most people at the time had never listened to music through stereo headphones. Sony combined a stereo processor and headphones in a portable device, creating a genuinely novel sound experience for the masses: music that seemed to emanate directly from inside the listener’s head.

Culturally, though, the Walkman’s impact was even greater. At the time, listening to music was a social experience, perhaps a behavioral carryover from the golden age of radio. People gathered to share the latest albums, and stacks of LPs would be thoughtfully arranged to be played in a particular order. The Sony Walkman turned music into a solitary pursuit, while the mixtape created the personal playlist based on singles instead of albums.

And that brought out hordes of would-be Cassandras, who forecast the end of radio. After all, now that people could stream their choice of music, commercial-free, directly into their heads, surely the end was near for radio.

Yet, here we are, 36 years later, and radio – in broadcast and streaming iterations – remains strong and relevant, co-existing quite collaboratively with today’s personal music players.

It’s worth glancing at the reasons why, because they’re much the same reasons any other content channel stays relevant. First, it delivered immediacy, in the form of up-to-the-minute content in real-time. Traffic. Weather. News. And not just sports scores, but play-by-plays. Radio broadcast what was happening as it happened; something no pre-recorded content could achieve.

Second, and somewhat oppositely, it delivered curated content. Program directors and DJs screened thousands of demos, choosing fresh tracks and developing new shows they thought their listeners would like. Despite the influence of corporate money, the selection process cumulatively worked to create and ride trends.

Third, radio enabled interaction, through contests, call-in shows, and other audience-participation schemes. That ensured that communication, despite the broadcast medium, went both ways, while also increasing audience involvement in both the message and the medium.

Fourth, all of this made radio a highly profitable advertising medium. Fortunes were made, not just among those who controlled the channels but among advertisers. Especially those savvy enough to make the most of the medium’s immediacy, relevance, and interactivity.
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June 29 2015
Just a Monday quickie to point out this article, from BBC News Magazine, on cultivating empathy:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Empathy is the single most-important quality in creating effective advertising, yet it’s the quality most lacking in most ad campaigns. There’s an emphasis on cleverness over relevance, snarkiness over sympathy.

Which is fine, actually. Because it turns this simple human trait into something of a secret weapon for those of us who cultivate it and use it in our work. Ha!
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June 26 2015
The ruling today by the US Supreme Court upholding the rights of all Americans to marry the person they love has turned into a marketing juggernaut for b(r)andwagoneers. Here are two collections of attempted memes so far, the first from BBC News and the second from Gizmodo:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

Brands for the most part have whole-heartedly embraced the ruling, and logos across the net have been churned out in rainbow-flag livery and blasted out on social media. That’s the easy part.

The hard part, though, is saying something of substance. However, that part is the heart of memorability for brands. No one’s going to remember one out of the thousands of rainbow-festooned brand icons, tweets, and posts, unless it connects to something deeper than an exuberant flash of celebration. Relevance – in life as in advertising – goes beyond borrowing someone else’s movement and imagery; a brand must bring something of itself to the discussion.

So, while there’s probably no harm in taking that quick easy shot while the momentum is there, it pays to let the copywriters work long enough to come up with something better than a boilerplate statement supporting diversity, or opportunity, or even love. Those messages are the ones that might just make a difference, because they’re not memes; they’re real.
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June 23 2015
Dated tomorrow because it is there already, comes this story from BBC News (or is it from StoryWorks?) about a German revenge prank that went viral before being uncovered as a publicity stunt on behalf of the German Bar Association:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The PR stunt used eBay as the bait (where the auctions were real, with proceeds donated to charity), YouTube as the hook (where a video of a man slicing up possessions with power tools racked up over six million views), and the news media to deliver the message (raising awareness of marriage and divorce law). Not a bad result on a shoestring budget!

It’s been a while since I’d read about someone using eBay as a lead generator, something I’ve played with to good effect on a much smaller scale. But I’ve only rarely met clients who buy off on such a media tactic, despite the wide reach, easy targeting, and low cost of entry. Now, perhaps, we’ll see a resurgence of using existing channels of digital connectivity to achieve something beyond the public purpose of the channel itself. That’s when media becomes hot, in the Marshall McLuhan sense of the word.
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June 22 2015
BBC, the global news provider, has come out of the closet with a consolidated and rebranded division dedicated to content marketing and partnerships. Here’s the story (which does not turn up on the BBC’s own website), from The Drum:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The new division, StoryWorks, will be set up as BBC Worldwide’s in-house creative agency, and will develop branded content, partnered content, and sponsored content. Think of the Top Gear format, for instance, repurposed for different market segments (home! fitness! food! lifestyle!), each show carrying a payload of more or less brand-crafted content, but without a TV commercial’s underlying truth that viewers know who's paying for it.

Content marketing has been going on for a lot longer than “the last few years,” as the article says. Indeed, many principles of propaganda content marketing are embedded in the very heart of advertising. Every generation reinvents it, along with the requisite buzzwords, but its roots go back centuries. Many argue, for instance, that Shakespeare’s history plays are content marketing on behalf of the House of Tudor. Then, as now, the lines between channel, creator, and sponsor are blurred to the point of invisibility.

As to BBC Worldwide’s new shiny object: although my mantra is to own the channel, instant relevance to an audience is nothing to sneeze at. I think the most-successful marketers will be those who manage to do both.
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June 19 2015
Retail grocers are coming back! No they aren’t! Two different looks at the American grocery market, one side from today’s Business Insider and the other from yesterday’s Bloomberg Business:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

Some grocers are seeing an uptick in the sales of premium branded items, including higher-end deli meats, coffees, and artisinal foods. Meanwhile, A&P, America’s oldest grocery chain, is teetering on the brink for the second time in five years.

I think a major part of the problem comes with age. With the rising costs of health care and pensions, along with ongoing costs related to labor and real estate contracts negotiated during boom times, older companies have massive liabilities that comparable younger companies simply don't have. Looking down the road 50, 80 years, I’m not convinced that Google, say, is any better positioned to weather the aging of its workforce and the increase of its retiree load any better than was General Motors or A&P.

But I also don’t think marketing can go entirely unimpeached in this affair. That people will pay for premium brands is borne out by the first article. Of course, premium grocery items are a scalable splurge: you can splash out this week and pull in the horns next week, without knocking the budget or the pantry completely off-kilter. However, branding is a key part of what makes those products both visible and desirable.

So, where was A&P’s brand in all of this? What did it stand for? That’s the other problem unique to old, iconic brands: they can get bogged down in their own history. Initially a product brand, A&P almost immediately became a retailer in the early days of mass consumerism. It grew into America’s first grocery chain, with a vertically integrated business model that was so successful it had to shut down part of its supply chain to prevent being broken up as a monopoly. It developed the first national radio program and used it to promote its stores and house branded products. It led the self-service revolution, transforming the way people shopped. It built some of the world’s first supermarkets, helping create the suburbs.

But, after over a century and a half in business the innovation seemed to ran out.

I don’t think that always has to be the case. 150-year-old companies can remain relevant – look at Cigna (1792), Jim Beam (1795), and Colgate (1806). Two thrived through constant innovation. One thrived through constant focus. But all three thrived through constant marketing.
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June 17 2015
Kinds sorta continuing the neuroscience thing earlier this week, here’s an article about how people interpret visual information, from Fast Company:
Advertising copywriter blog link

When my kids were babies, I was fascinated with how they could identify a strange dog as a dog, despite the new dog having a very different form and behavior from previously known dogs. There seemed to be a conceptual link that transcended physical form or representation – unprompted, they could unerringly identify a dog whether it appeared in a photo, video, drawing, or real life.

With my second kid I actually tried to find out how. I sat with him one morning and drew varyingly simple representations of dogs mixed in with similar drawings of other animals, to see if I could unlock what he understood as the essence of dogness. I never reached any conclusion, aside from the false one that I could draw animals.

My kids are now teens; yesterday the older one bought himself a digital camcorder for a summer project. After two failed attempts to get the camcorder to recognize the memory card he asked for help, and I quickly figured out the problem. The memory card was inserted upside-down.

And one reason it was upside-down, was that the instructions had pictures of two types of memory cards. To tell one type from the other, one had to read the text labels. So what appeared to be a simple, one-step visual instruction in fact required the integration of two kinds of information, visual and literal, as well as the deliberate discarding of half the instructions. Oddly enough, had the instruction for that step appeared more-complex, it’s highly probable that he’d have automatically integrated both types of information and gotten it right; it was the apparent simplicity that tripped him up.

But then, being a copywriter, I probably tend to be drawn to words first, or at least assign them a higher value than other people. So I spotted the little text labels immediately, in the same way that I erroneously spotted a duplication in the article’s visual instruction for coffee making. I think the difference between the Caffe Latte and the Cappuccino might have been clearer had they been laid out next to each other horizontally instead of vertically, making the different ratios more immediately apparent. Others, though, may see it differently.

Which prompts a question: how do you proofread for visual language?

This is important stuff to figure out. I think the best ads are visually driven, because seeing is a more-primal process than reading. Visuals simply offer a more-visceral way to connect. When the copy builds on the visual, communication on a profound scale can take place in a flash. And that, folks, is an ad.
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June 15 2015
This is your brain on Coke. The brand. Here’s a look at the neuroscience of branding, from TNS South Africa via
Advertising copywriter blog link

Branding is real and measurable. But it’s surprising just how deep brand preferences lie, and how transient they are thanks to the wonderfully dynamic nature of the human brain.

Actually, advertising lands pretty far down on the list of brand preference influences when compared to personal experience and popularity. Still, as a marketing tool it’s both scalable and measurable, so, in a practical sense, it makes sense to advertise.

But the research also lends scientifically derived credence to marketing approaches that leverage personal experience and popularity. Sampling, for instance, when delivered in a way that promotes the brand over the free-ness of the sample itself. And, those millions of direct-response ad headlines that start “Join the” and “Who else wants a” and so on. We’re social animals; where the crowd goes, we tend to go, with most individualists orbiting at distances not too far from the center of mass.

And now for something related but different. Marketplace reporting on the Coke vs Pepsi rivalry misses a bigger point: the use of social messaging by both sides to promote the false argument that the choice is a binary one. Of course, it is not. There are other choices, including branded products (such as other sodas, energy drinks, and bottled water), commodity products (such as tap water), and products with feet in both camps (such as milk). But news about Coke and Pepsi will continue to marginalize alternatives, further strengthening the underlying false premise.

That’s how popularity builds on itself. And, as I've said for decades, market share is branding.
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June 11 2015
Global confectioner Nestle lost its battle in EU courts to trademark the shape of the KitKat bar. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Look and feel are important elements of product design. That’s how a company like Apple, to point to one of the world’s most-adept firms at protecting design elements, successfully transmits its brand through elements that should be easy to copy, but somehow aren’t.

It’s worth noting that rival Cadbury, which opposed Nestle’s trademark application, doesn’t market a similarly designed product. It just apparently wanted to be free to do so. And now it is. Just as Nestle is free to produce chocolate bars with Pantone 2865c purple wrappers.

But the chance of either event happening is remote. This is one of those cases where practical market realities provide protections fully equal to those won (or lost) in court.
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June 9 2015
The problem with focus groups and survey-based studies, is that they may not reflect real life. Here’s a story about how research led fast food companies astray, from Business Insider:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The problem lies in what I call aspirational studies: studies designed to extract an audience’s hopes and projections as opposed to looking at hard sales data over time. You know what I mean. Questions like “what characteristics do you look for in a banking institution?”

In this case, clearly stated preferences for things like customization and ethical sourcing of ingredients were utterly trounced by budgetary considerations. But no one is going to put that as an answer on a survey card.

The good thing about such studies, is that a well-structured one can deliver predictive results. The bad thing is that very few are well-structured. Most emerge from a marketing organization instead of a research organization, and either way the results are subject to intense bias in interpretation to validate steps already proposed or taken.

I think the best research is grounded in what people do, not what they say. Because, in the end, I'd rather generate sales than memes.
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June 2 2015
Tech firms are competing with ad agencies for creative talent, including copywriters (or, “content creators”) and designers. Here’s the story, from
Advertising copywriter blog link

This trend is, no doubt, a good thing for the tech firms, or it wouldn’t be gathering momentum. But is it a good thing for the creatives?

I think the opportunity is the same as going in-house with any other client-side business: the environment tends to foster insularity, which often diminishes creativity. There’s nothing innately more-creative about technology than, say, insurance. Both industries require content. Both can deliver a steady paycheck. But neither alone offers the chaotic variety that is life in advertising.

Moreover, the more the business succeeds, the more circumscribed the work becomes. Contrast that with ad agencies and design firms, where increased success tends to attract a more diverse workload and a broader portfolio.

I think it comes down to whether you thrive on linear growth or lateral growth. As for me, I've always been a bit off-kilter. And that’s why I’m quite happy to remain a freelance advertising copywriter.
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June 1 2015
What’s the ROI on strong branding? A strong brand. Here’s an attempt to put numbers to the value of branding, from The Partners, Lambie-Nairn, and Millward Brown via Popsop:
Advertising copywriter blog link

What’s being measured, though, is “brand value,” not sales or market share or profits. So what’s being called a return on investment seems to me to be a measure of intangible values based on subjective analysis expressed in monetary units. In other words, what the study shows is spending money on your brand adds value to your brand. Sadly, I don’t think it proves anything about whether branding is of greater or lesser importance than advertising because it connects neither to the real goal, which is profitable sales.

The thing is, I believe in branding. It’s big and important and all too often done wrong by people who ought to know better. But ultimately, the point of marketing something is to sell that something. A strong brand makes that task a lot easier and more cost-efficient, but so far no one’s done a double blind test demonstrating the financial worth of a brand’s relative strength in helping its advertising achieve its goals.

So ROI on branding remains nebulous. And I had such high hopes.
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May 27 2015
Advertising is full of surprises, not all of them good. In the mail today, came two near-identical mailers from the same direct mail house.

One mailer is for Vons and the other is for Albertsons. But it hardly matters; in two quick strokes the brands were reduced to commodities.

Now, you’d think someone at the mailing house would have thought to stagger the drop dates by even a day. But thoughtful media planning, especially by media companies, could never really be counted on.

So what can we learn from this? That both stores have identically fresh-from-the-fields blueberries? That their in-store bakeries could be twins? That one has a more-persnickety legal department?

Valuable lessons all, I suppose. But I think the real lesson is to never trust canned creative.
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May 22 2015
The San Diego Union-Tribune, my hometown paper, has been sold to a media conglomerate that includes the Los Angeles Times, ending decades of local ownership. And the first noticeable effect? The masthead changed.

Here’s the story of the Union-Tribune's brand evolution, straight from the horse’s mouth:
Advertising copywriter blog link

So the “UT San Diego” branding is giving way to the paper’s roots as the “San Diego Union-Tribune.” The typography isn’t completely lifted from the former logo though. In what could mark a political shift, the period that used to quietly communicate the brand’s conservative finickiness has been just as quietly dropped.

The article contains another subtle but probably even more-significant shift in how the former owner is named, but noting it may be for locals only.

Next up: local layoffs, although those, of course, haven’t been announced. Yet.
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Backwards in time to July 2014

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