John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
May 2011

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May 31 2011
What’s the key brand differentiator between Groupon and its many imitators? The copywriting. Here’s the story, from the New York Times News Service via The Bulletin (Bend, OR):
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Groupon’s editor in chief says, “We’re mixing business with art and creating our own voice.” That’s as good a definition of branding as any, and better than most. So many brands focus on the visual side and never develop a unique voice, and there’s where their branding fails to strike or to stick as hard as it could. This is the power of copy.

Here’s another great line about advertising copywriting, this time from an editor/fact checker: “Groupon, like theater, is all about text and context.” See, these guys get it. It’s like I’ve always said, advertising is performance art, with ROI.

And, as for developing funny concepts that sell? Here’s a Groupon senior editor, on teaching new writers The Voice: “Inspiration is a bunch of hooey,” Holmes says. “You can teach someone how to put together things that are funny.” In other words, what matters is the process.

The process in this case, though, reminds me a lot of Leo Burnett’s infamous creative review committees, which Leo Burnett himself once likened to being nibbled to death by ducks. It’s worth noting that the editor’s copy change is not an improvement and is, in many ways, even farther off-track.

Still, the layers of effort that go into writing the ad copy for every deal, combined with Groupon’s near-unstoppable force in branding, localization, and retailing, stand as powerful evidence that you can build brands and sell stuff using just the power of words. If those words also have a voice.
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May 30 2011
Here’s a holiday quickie to point out this article, from MSN Slate, about recent studies showing that counterfeit branded luxury products may help sell authentic merchandise:
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The idea here is that the counterfeits serve as better entry points to the brand than the original brand’s own entry-level products. Here’s a giant snip:

“When most people think about the effect of counterfeits on legitimate brands – and when brands themselves litigate against counterfeiters – they focus on the ‘business stealing’ effect: Every fake Prada handbag represents a lost sale for Prada. But a dirty little secret is that Prada rip-offs can also function as free advertising for real Prada handbags – partly by signaling the brand’s popularity, but, less obviously, by creating what MIT marketing professor Renee Richardson Gosline has described as a ‘gateway’ product. For her doctoral thesis, Gosline immersed herself in the counterfeit ‘purse parties’ of upper-middle-class moms. She found that her subjects formed attachments to their phony Vuittons and came to crave the real thing when, inevitably, they found the stitches falling apart on their cheap knockoffs. Within a couple of years, more than half of the women – many of whom had never fancied themselves consumers of $1,300 purses – abandoned their counterfeits for authentic items.”

Granted, the test sample was tiny, and I’d argue that the owners of fake branded products are already inclined to view the real things as intensely desirable no matter how they’d classify themselves on questionnaires. But the findings were significant in that more than half the owners of fake products bought genuine products within a few years.

Another study showed as counterfeit sales rose, so too did sales of the authentic brands’ top-end products. Again, that’s not a perfect finding – a rising economy, like a rising tide, lifts all boats. But desirability is desirability, and it’s worth noting that the product category that suffered was the original brands’ low-end products.

Although there’s a huge market for inexpensive Kias, almost no one wants to own the cheapest Mercedes. It’s a self-regulating reaction, which is pretty much what one would expect in an ecosystem model of commerce.
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May 24 2011
Despite the known risks, marketing and celebrities can be a potent partnership. Using a celebrity name and status to give cachet to a commodity item delivers proven ROI, even in a recession – or, perhaps, especially during a recession. Here’s the story, from the Australian School of Business via the Business Spectator (AUS):
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The numbers are impressive. The Jessica Simpson Collection is headed for a cool billion dollars in retail sales next year. Department store Kohl’s makes nearly half its sales from “exclusives.” You can’t beat a celebrity-branded label for instant recognition and desirability. And, as for marketplace longevity, Kmart’s collaboration with Jaclyn Smith has lasted over 25 years, an eternity for a fashion brand.

The lift doesn’t always apply to in-house private label brands, which lack the name recognition – and therefore the giftability – of celebrity-branded merchandise. Of course, there are classic exceptions, such as the Sears house brands Kenmore and Craftsman, iconic brands that have survived egregious overextensions into nearly nonsensical product categories. On the other hand, you have the Sears house brand Roebucks, which has, off and on, tried to be a value-oriented line of clothing and shoes without much effect.

I still think, in the long run, it’s better to create your own brand than to draft off someone else’s. Kenmore and Craftsman could have relevance 50 years from now, decades after Jessica Simpson has faded from public memory. Granted, those brands were built during an era of relatively cheap mass media, in a social atmosphere that valued ubiquity over uniqueness. However, I think that era is back, thanks to social media.

Whether or not you harness celebrity power, branding discipline remains the same. The tools, though, are always changing.
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May 23 2011
In this socially connected age in which everything is shared, from thoughts to bikes, what happens to intellectual property rights? Are they even relevant any more? Here’s a look at both sides of the issue, in light of that widely distributed snapshot of the last Space Shuttle launch, from Red Tape Chronicles on MSNBC:
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Two things stick out. First, many sites dedicated to content sharing contain land mines tantamount to theft. Photo-sharing sites, for instance, typically obtain full rights to all uploaded photos as part of their standard terms of use. So, while the original creator may retain copyright, the sharing site has more resources to throw at monetizing its user-provided content.

That this isn’t seen as entirely a bad thing brings up my second major point: many of these content creators don’t seem to care that their work may be making money for others with no direct financial renumeration for themselves. They see the value purely in the connections that stem from having created popular content. This is interesting because it demonstrates the rising value of social currency. People aren’t so much cashing in on their 5 minutes of fame as they are leveraging those moments forward to cash in long-term, through friendships, jobs, and other opportunities that arise as a result of their sudden acquisition of a broader social network.

If social currency carries weight comparable to simple money, there are some interesting opportunities for media and advertisers, particularly those in universes already saturated with financial incentives.
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May 19 2011
Every brand wants to be Apple. Even retailers. Here’s a rose-tinted puff piece describing how Apple Stores “changed” the world of retailing, from USA Today:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Apple didn’t throw away the retailing playbook. It carefully studied classic retail marketing and put those plays into action. It executed a classic niche retail strategy, and followed through with a relentless focus on creating a branded customer experience.  Every consumer touchpoint practically vibrates with the Apple brand.

The fact that other retailers don’t seem to do retail as well as Apple is primarily the fault of those other retailers.

Also, due credit should be given to pioneers in computer retailing. Apple would have had a much tougher slog penetrating the retail world had the ground not been softened by the likes of Gateway, IBM (remember stand-alone IBM PC stores?), and even old-time tech retailer Radio Shack.

As I said, every brand wants to be Apple. But very few want to put in the years of disciplined branding, backed up by the continual release of cool, useful products and customer-focused service.
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May 18 2011
New research confirms that ads bring to mind well-known competing brands. Here’s the story, from New Scientist (Boston, MA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

The stronger the competing brand, the stronger the false connected memory.

Jane Raymond, professor of experimental consumer psychology at Bangor University (UK), noted that advertisers “try to make their ads tightly linked to something that makes their brand distinctive and not widely associated with others in that category.” (e.g.: Insurance + Duck = No one but Aflac.)

In other words, science can prove there’s a real competitive advantage to distinctive branding and a real competitive liability to brand parity. Unfortunately, the research also seems to prove the scarcity of effective branding in advertising today.

I think this result, such as it is, is caused by marketing people too often reacting instead of creating. This brings about two somewhat contradictory characteristics. First, the tendency to follow the past rather than innovate in marketing methods, media choices, or messages. Second, the tendency to change direction with every shift in the breeze, spitting out superficial changes like new slogans and new looks.

It is possible to maintain a consistent brand in an atmosphere of constant reinvention. Look at Apple or Google, for instance, or Virgin.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting that in this media-saturated world, the loudest voices are still the tiny ones in each person’s head.
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May 17 2011
From MediaBistro’s Twitter Resource comes this piece on the results advertisers are seeing with Twitter ads and “promoted tweets:”
Advertising copywriter blog link

It should come as no surprise that smaller businesses achieve better ROI through their own, non-promoted tweets and mining their existing networks than through reaching out through Twitter-based ad campaigns. A small company’s followers represent a tightly focused, highly receptive target audience; it’s the kind of audience large companies would love to have but can’t, so they compensate by doing social media-based ad campaigns. What’s happened here is that the communication model has trickled up, which is cool but also the basis for a lot of misunderstanding about how different-sized enterprises should be using social media channels.
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May 16 2011
Here’s a great collection of videogame marquee art, from Kotaku Australia:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I love point-of-purchase. And, what more competitive, cluttered, noise-filled environment could there be but an arcade? And, as the article points out, the video technology of the 70s and 80s left a lot to be desired, so the lighted sign on top of the game had to do the heavy lifting when it came to separating teens from their quarters for a first play. Add to that the fact that there was no dedicated media channel for gaming, and hot games spread by word-of-mouth unamplified through social media, and it all adds up to a situation in which the primary marketing tool was POP.

I think this stuff is fantastic. The best examples tell stories that invite you into the experience. As a group, they may not be iconic (yet), but they’re part of a global cultural and linguistic heritage. Videogame POP shares a lot with the outdoor advertising created during the expansion of the American highway system, billboards being another popularly maligned medium that’s just now becoming appreciated as industrial art and a social time capsule.

Maybe I’m just in a 1980s sort of mood. Sunday afternoon, my wife and I went to see MixTape at the Lamb’s Players Theater downtown. It’s a musical revue of 80s pop music. And, although I loved the show, it was a reminder of just how on the fringe I was during my school years. I kept waiting for a song by the Dead Kennedys, Gears, Motels, Ramones, Rough Trade, Slow Children, or even Talking Heads, Clash, X, Pretenders, or Devo. Nope.

I never thought of myself as a punk rocker. But I guess I sort of was, at least in one of my major musical tastes (the other one of which was – and still is – 40s big band swing). Anyway, it’s fun rocking through my 80s playlist now, because I get to hear my peanut gallery occasionally complain, “could you please turn that down?” Ha!
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May 13 2011
Happy Friday the 13th! Today I have a deeper look at the tempest in a teacup that spun up earlier this week, over the disclosure that Facebook (gasp!) paid a PR firm to attack Google on the issue of online privacy. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Despite how distasteful it may seem to go negative, the reality is that negative marketing works. It works because humans are conditioned to be more averse to pain than attracted by reward. It works especially well when deployed by an underdog against a large, clearly defined target, and brands don’t come much larger than Google.

Another thing that works, is aggressive marketing. Defensive marketing can work very well when the objective is to hold existing turf, but to gain market share it’s axiomatic that you have to push. Combine aggressive marketing with the proven effectiveness of going negative on some level (usually sub rosa), and you have, oh, just about every well-integrated campaign that’s ever run.

I think this whole brouhaha is really about news media feeling either duped into or complicit in delivering Facebook’s messaging.
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May 12 2011
In this feature article, the BBC looks at the future of broadcast television:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Once again, the internet gets blamed for the impending death of an industry.

It seems to me that the internet in this case is simply another delivery vehicle for the same content, right down to the advertising. Yes, on-demand viewing as a feature is being driven primarily by those with fat pipes: cable companies and broadband internet providers. And, although those two entities may seem to be in competition, the fact is that in many regions they are the one and the same. Media consolidation has already happened, outpacing media academics.

My own household is a prime example. Whether I watch a program on TV or online, Cox Communications gets my business. Its challenge, as people shift from TV to online viewing, is one of resource allocation as much as market penetration.

The other thing that goes largely unmentioned, is that TV consumption can be broken into two distinct categories: news and entertainment. On the news side, you see more and more people turning to online resources for news, both large (event coverage) and small (up-to-the-minute, on-demand weather forecasts). Indeed, the internet is driving the evolution of news organizations. On the entertainment side, you see mainstream programming – TV shows and movies – moving online. One could almost say that television is driving the evolution of online entertainment by providing the brands and the ready-made audiences.
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May 11 2011
And now for something completely different. Here’s a fun look at current logo trends, from Flavorwire:
Advertising copywriter blog link

If brown is the new black, roundy is the new edgy.

Most of these trendy logos are destined to vanish into the mists of time. I found myself noticing, though, the ones that stood out were those with a strong visual foundation separate from the executional concept. In other words, the logos that most closely connected the execution with the concept (normally a good thing) were the same ones I thought would end up feeling the most dated in the least time.

Strong design, though, does stand apart from execution. Take Apple or Google, for instance, two of the world’s most valuable brands (Ad Blog, May 9 2011). They could tweak their logos in any of the ten trendy ways and still their brands would shine through. Yes, much of that could be put down to sheer frequency, and, in Google’s case, the company’s long history of tweaking on its logo. So perhaps that’s the underlying trend: design isolated from execution, allowing the core concept to be continually refreshed.
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May 10 2011
Unexpected Outcomes Dept.: Among the bits of information emerging from the assault on Osama bin Laden’s headquarters, is the revelation that the compound’s residents had a taste for Western packaged goods brands. Here’s the story, from The Daily Beast:
Advertising copywriter blog link

While the presence of Vaseline and Nesquik could be explained by the sheer global reach and dominance of those brands, the deliberate purchasing of Coke and Pepsi products is intriguing. I don’t think it shows brand agnosticism, though. With that many people within the walls, I think it shows that seemingly competing belief systems – er, brand preferences – were accommodated. At least as far as soft drinks, anyway.

Even the combative bin Laden tried to be neutral when it came to the cola wars.

But, what if he had attacked us using the very tools of American capitalism? What if he had salted his data with implied endorsements of certain branded products? For example, Toyota is clawing its way back after its recall crises, so perhaps an email chain debating, at length, an order for several dozen Toyota pickup trucks could monkeywrench its recovery and put American jobs at risk. And, more likely, implied business dealings with companies of various nationalities could foment distrust among allies even if word never got out.

The tools of information – and misinformation – have never been less controlled. Or, more biased toward the opportunistic.
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May 9 2011
Millward Brown has released the results of this year’s brand valuation study. Google, previously the world's most-valuable brand, has been supplanted by Apple, which has been a rising star since its entry into consumer electronics just a few years ago. Here’s the story, from MSNBC:
Advertising copywriter blog link

And, more-important, here’s a link to the full report as a PDF:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The top 20 brands, according to the report, are Apple, Google, IBM, McDonald’s, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, AT&T, Marlboro, China Mobile, GE, ICBC, Vodaphone, Verizon, Amazon, Walmart, Wells Fargo, UPS, HP, Deutsche Telekom, and VISA. The report says the top 100 brands combined appreciated by 17%, to $2.4 trillion. So much for the argument that branding lacks trackable value. However, you have to set that against an overall growth in market valuations, period, despite continued recessionary pressures (pressures which, prematurely I think, are being declared past). Also, the valuation methodology, while probably the most-comprehensive out there, leaves room for making subjective judgments about how much a brand contributes to the growth of both sales and market value, and may tend to inflate the results of volatility in certain sectors (such as luxury goods).

Still, it’s well worth downloading the full report. I printed it out, in fact. I think the real value here is in spotting or confirming trends, like the growing power of non-Western brands and economies, and broad shifts in consumer behavior (such as the rise in demand for mass customization). For example, this may be the first time that the Top 20 Brandz list has included brands that many Americans might not know.

I like the term “hygiene factor” as it relates to environmentally sensitive practices and features in brand and product differentiation. That seems to nail the somewhat awkward relationship we have with going green; we prefer it, but not so much as to pay a premium or suffer inconvenience for it, and when we do it we like to be acknowledged publicly. Hence the rise in conspicuous eco-purchases like the Toyota Prius and high-fashion reusable shopping bags, and the hard slog faced by brands offering relatively inconspicuous eco-purchases such as organically grown fiber apparel and green household products.

Some of the report’s recommendations, though, leave out important elements. For example, in the rush to move from an advertising model based on share-of-voice to one based on share-of-conversation, it’s easy to overlook the extent to which share-of-voice drives share-of-conversation. As I’ve said (in ads, by the way), potential customers can’t talk about you until they hear about you.

The exciting thing is, today there are more – and more-engaging – channels through which to be heard.
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May 5 2011
It’s been over a year since Domino’s Pizza launched its reformulated pizza with ads that denigrated the previous product as “cardboard.” The campaign played out in traditional and social media. Here’s a look at how it fared in the real world, from Time magazine:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The results show a 9.9% increase in same-store sales in 2010, with net income up 10.6% for the first-quarter of 2011 – all in a down economy and facing increased competitive pressures. So, the campaign was a resounding success. Truth, it seems, is an effective sales tool. And this is news?

I’m reminded of legendary copywriter Bernice Fitz-Gibbon, who said, “A little bad makes the good believable.” Or, John E. Hopkins discussing ad copy with a client: “Let's try honesty.”

In my Ad Blog entry shortly after the ad blitz began, on January 11 2010, I wondered if backing away from the position of guaranteed delivery time was a defensive move given rising gas and insurance costs. It’s now apparent that Domino’s intended simply to fight the same position with an improved weapon.

This will go down as a classic marketing case study and a how-to guide in how to repair and re-launch a broken flagship product.
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May 4 2011
What’s in a name? A lawsuit, if the name is “sugar” and the question is whether an extract refined from corn has the same rights to the name as an extract refined from beets or cane. Here’s the story, from Farm and Dairy (Salem, OH):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Sugar seems to be in the air over the past couple days.

In a nutshell, corn processors would very much like to rebrand what is now called “high-fructose corn syrup” as the more-natural-sounding “corn sugar.” This move is a defensive one by corn processors; they’ve seen their commercial sweetener market share plummet since some studies linked high-fructose corn syrup to a host of modern ailments. Rebranding is an essential first step in the rehabilitation of the product category.

The lawsuit alleging false marketing is also a defensive move by sugar farmers and refiners. They have two dogs in this fight: first, reinforcing differentiation among sweetener products, and second, maintaining control of a growing market share. It’s notable that C&H, a processor that has traditionally touted the superiority of its “pure cane sugar” product, is in bed with two large sugar beet processors.

And that brings up the semantic argument that the corn processors will no doubt use: if sugar – in the technical and legal sense of the word – can be refined from sugar cane and sugar beets, why not then from sweet corn? Let the food chemistry battle begin! But really, it’s a fight for the hearts and minds of consumers.

If nothing else, this is a good example of marketing via the court system. A clear, high-profile win by either side could be the impetus needed to either revive or destroy the high-fructose corn syrup industry.
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May 3 2011
I saw this in today’s newspaper, and just had to point it out. To commemorate 100 years of service, the San Diego Ad Club released a list of San Diego’s top 100 brands. Here’s the story, from my hometown San Diego Union-Tribune (CA):
Advertising copywriter blog link

Two things struck me right away. First, San Diego is home to some major national and global brands, including Sony, Qualcomm, Bumble Bee Foods, Jazzercise, and WD-40. Take San Diego off the economic map, and you lose a lot of innovation, productivity, and revenue growth.

Second, the vagaries of brand memory are strange. For instance, PSA, a long-defunct regional airline, made the list but Spreckels, still a brand name in sugar, did not. At first I considered that Spreckels was snubbed because the local family had been bought out and the brand – still operating in California – is now owned by the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative. But if that were so, then Buck Knives, now based in Idaho, shouldn’t have qualified either. Of course, Buck’s move from San Diego (2005) and PSA’s merger shutdown (1988) are both much more recent than the Spreckels buyout (1963). Still, given the number of regional and local brands on the list, I’d have thought there’d be a place on it for the man who helped built the city. There you have it: further proof that branding is ruthless.

OK, third, I couldn’t quite resist making a quick mental tally. I found that I’ve done advertising work for about a quarter of the top 100 local brands. Hey, no wonder they’ve thrived! Ayup. It’s always an honor – and a responsibility – to play a small role in helping nurture and enhance an established brand, especially in these rapidly changing times.
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May 2 2011
Augmented reality is making waves in out-of-home advertising and marketing. Here’s a look at one effort, for a deodorant, that went viral, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Although the campaign was more of an video overlay than authentic augmented reality, it demonstrates where things are going with interactive digital technology. Especially in places where you can gather the critical mass of people needed to speed things along to established social media channels.

I think true augmented reality, though, will play out more as a critical element of in-home marketing rather than out-of-home advertising. The ability to try on clothes or play with a new camera, all through AR and your home computer, is where the technology will achieve the ROI it needs for widespread acceptance.

So, despite the tool’s obvious potential for advertising and marketing, I think the driving factor in uptake will be at the closest consumer touchpoint: sales.
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Backwards in time to April 2011

My experience as a copywriter.

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Advertising strategy and other lies
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Long John Silver on writing ads
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Napoleon’s advice to entrepreneurs, Part I: starting the enterprise
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The ART of repurposing marketing copy (Or, why you shouldn’t use brochure copy as web content)
The economy (and what to do about it)
The Tightwad Marketing project
When you should consider hiring a freelance copywriter
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
6877 Barker Way
San Diego, California

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