John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
(619) 465-6100
Ad Blog: news and views about advertising, branding, marketing, and copywriting
June-December 2016

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November 2 2016
The 2016 presidential campaign may mark a new low in public discourse. But it has also marked a significant departure from normal campaign spending. I have two seemingly contradictory stories, both from The Drum. The first looks at presidential campaign spending. The second purports to look at online advertising:
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The first article reflects the new reality of advertising: that a brand’s online presence is of growing – probably dominant – importance in achieving retail results. Social media gurus will trumpet that as a victory over traditional media, claiming second-hand credit for influencing the outcome of a major first-world election.

Of course there’s more to it than that. Globally, we’ve seen a rise in social media isolationism, in which the universe is reinvented around each individual. Far from bringing people together, social media is evolving into a tool for driving and keeping tribes apart, and that’s how brands use it. We give China and North Korea and Burma and Saudi Arabia grief for censoring the internet, yet we do it every day for ourselves.

But the point I want to make is this: political campaigns by their nature reap vast numbers of very temporary volunteers and unpaid touts. So: First, don’t expect the typical brand to be able to tap into the sheer mass of enthusiastic social media ambassadors enjoyed by the typical neopolitical figure. Second, don’t expect the typical brand to reap the volume or speed of results obtained by the typical neopolitical figure; it takes a dedicated team and a significant long-term investment in the message to even make a dent in the noise. Third, don’t expect as much outreach as penetration; the nature of Social Media 5.0 is, ironically or predictably, one of increasingly divergent, culturally isolated tribes.

The second article is actually a teaser for an upcoming webinar. It bemoans the fact that research proves most online advertising is not seen.

First, the research is about online advertising only, not a brand’s overall online presence encompassing, among other things, the brand’s website, third-party sites, and use of social media.

Second, there’s a proven way to increase an ad’s viewership: better creative. Big-data microtargeting has gone about as far as it can in fueling the easy creative shots. Now the standard is higher but marketing creatives haven’t caught up to the consumer. Format and execution matter, sure, but the key to getting an ad seen, online or off, is great creative. That much, at least, hasn’t changed.
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October 21 2016
As we head into the consumer spending season, news headlines are already forecasting gains and losses. Here’s a look at one seemingly gloomy prognosis, from Reuters via MSN Money:
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OK, first read the article, about malls losing money. You have this snip:

The blame lies with online shopping and widespread discounting, which have shrunk profit margins and increased store closures ...

Followed by this quote from Howard Davidowitz, chairman of a company providing consulting and investment banking services for the retail sector:

“When there is too much, and we have too much, then the only differentiator is price. That’s why they’re all going into bankruptcy and closing all these stores,” Davidowitz said.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’d wanted to do a post about the value of differentiation back in the summer, after returning from a family vacation to Berlin and Paris, but now will do fine. There’s a key factor the analysts often miss: branding.

And I mean meta-branding, which is actually the only kind of branding there is; anything less – labeling or awareness or recognition – are steps on the path to being a metabrand. Aeropostale was a brand, but Apple is a metabrand.

When we were in Paris, we made a pilgrimage to the legendary bookshop Shakespeare and Company. And we naturally bought books.

Now, despite the bins and racks and shelves of used books at knock-down prices outside (one day I will go with a spare suitcase just to bring home books), Shakespeare and Company is not a discounter. Far from it; all the books we bought were at full retail price. In Euros. Most are available in the U.S. for less, although perhaps not so easily obtained in identical editions.

We bought them because, as souvenirs go, they’re practical and economical. And – and this was a big part of the appeal – each book was hand-stamped at the register: “Shakespeare and Company/Kilometer Zero Paris.” The paper Shakespeare and Company bookmark was a bonus.

Can a rubber stamp and a paper bookmark add that much value? Yes, sorta. But, the purchase really wasn’t about the stamp, or the bookmark, or even the book. It was about the experience, steeped in an authentic, colorful history. Shakespeare and Company may be small, but it’s a metabrand, and that made the books – a commodity product nowadays if ever there was one – a bargain at full price.

Amazon isn’t a huge threat to Shakespeare and Company because, in some significant ways, they’re not even in the same business. Plus, Amazon is not a metabrand. (Yet. More on that in a bit.)

All of which is a neat segue into the second half of that Reuters piece: the video from CNBC. The video, an interview with Steve Sadove, former CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue and former National Retail Federation chairman, gives the opposite impression. (Here’s a direct link to the video, dated August 16 2016.) Sadove says the retail industry, and particularly retail property owners and investors, may be in a time of change, but that the future looks rosy. More-immediately, he predicts “blow-out numbers” for the holiday shopping season. If true, that would be very good news for retailers.

Three key takeaways from that interview. First, the biggest growth opportunity lies with smaller companies. Nothing new there; growth sustainability typically slows with size. Second, mall anchors will continue shifting to non-retail use: fitness centers, health clinics, and the like. You may have noticed those changes taking place over the last five years or so.

The third takeaway loops neatly back to what I’ve been saying. At about 2:23, Sadove points out the problem with the vast majority of retailers: they’re nothing special. Consumers are buying, he says, but “... they want unique stuff, they want differentiated product, they don’t want the same stuff everybody else has.”

That’s true not just of product, but of place. Take my book from Shakespeare and Company. I probably could’ve bought the same edition at any chain bookstore in Paris for less money. But I wouldn't have wanted to. And that points to a key benefit many retailers overlook. Because one big area in which online lags behind brick-and-mortar is the immersive shopping experience.

That’s why Amazon, despite its innovation and expanding reach into the lives of its Prime members (free two-day shipping, streaming TV and movies and music, book borrowing, photo storage), still isn't a metabrand. That probably worries Amazon not a whit. But there's a lesson here for retailers and their dependents.

Sears is a terrific example of a company that achieved metabrand status and lost it. For decades, Sears stores and the Sears catalog were the backbone of retailing across the U.S. More than being a proto-Amazon, Sears connected the nation culturally. You could argue that it reduced differentiation and homogenized culture from coast to coast, and that would be the obvious flip-side view of events; nonetheless, its importance on every level is almost impossible to overstate. I think Sears may have been the world’s first metabrand.

That Sears is a metabrand no longer might be seen as an opportunity for someone else to fill the vacuum. Like, perhaps, Amazon.
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October 18 2016
Remember Jennicam? Between 1996 and 2003 it created the first online reality star and set the course for millions of individuals and businesses seeking to be the next big thing on a brand-new thing called the Internet. Here’s the story, from BBC News Magazine:
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I remember tuning in occasionally – this was in the days of dial-up and Netscape Navigator and metered connections – and marveling at how amazing it was to watch a place several hours ahead of where I was. She was rarely in view, but sometimes things would happen. Look! Fresh flowers! A cat! That looks like a tag hanging from that sweater! (Is it a sweater?)

I always wondered what happened to her, and figured she vanished into some non-tech career, maybe even sales or marketing. So it was a surprise to learn that she’s working as a programmer.

What’s interesting is that today’s high-def moving images, relative online transparency, and drive to monetize popularity all detract from the mystery of the experience that was a key piece of Jennicam’s appeal. It was cool in a fresh way that most new efforts lack.

Similar but different are the traffic cams that attract fans who revel in sightings of red trucks or people in plaid shirts. It’s like online bird-watching, really, and, in its own way, nearly as relaxing. But there’s minimal connection. And connection is what advertising is all about. There may be a fun opportunity in there for a car brand, or maybe a maker of plaid shirts. Or would that just ruin it? Yeah, probably.
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June 24 2016
The stunning news of the UK voting to leave the EU has put a hard spotlight on the rise of provincialism and the defeat of multi-national unity. The increasing political clout of UKIP in the UK and the National Front in France point to further Balkanization of global society still to come.

A few months ago, European commentators were quite fond of expressing bafflement at Donald Trump’s candidacy. Recent events give that the lie; they know very well what happened, because they themselves played a significant role in their own breakout star.

And maybe I’m just sick and tired and in need of a vacation (which I’m actually hours from going on), but I think advertising is to blame.

I mean all of us. Me. You.

Because we’ve conditioned our fellow human animals to make decisions in the blink of an eye, using our prodigious know-how and creativity to create one fragment of an ever faster-spinning kaleidoscope of momentary impressions that we believe make a difference in brand development and sales growth. Maybe it’s that belief that has made it so.

Thoughtfulness has vanished from advertising, replaced by pre-digested memes. Indeed, highly lauded marketing campaigns have been based on what could be distilled into 140 characters.

And social media, instead of bringing people together, now divides us into increasingly isolated tribes. We follow those who agree with us. We unfollow those who don’t. All incoming information reinforces our beliefs. There’s us and there’s them: the outsiders, the enemies of sanity and reason. Never mind that there’s very little reason going on here.

Coke vs Pepsi. Newcastle vs Sunderland. Conservatives vs Liberals. As practitioners of branding we’ve not only promoted such schisms, but we’ve proclaimed them victories.

Well, this is our harvest. Through branding and relentless and ever-shorter advertising messages, we’ve created a world of faux individuals, each convinced of and defined by his or her own beliefs and almost incapable of working with non-believers toward a common goal.

That may be because – also thanks to our art – people have lost the ability to see commonality. Through big-data-driven micro-targeting and personalization, marketing has moved the goalposts closer and closer to each individual. So a Coke-drinking, conservative Raiders fan has simply lost the ability to see common ground with a Pepsi-drinking, liberal, Jets fan on an issue like the nation’s economy.

If I pause to take a breath, I can step back and realize that all this is nothing new. Back in 1965 the Rolling Stones sang “I’m watchin’ my TV/And that man comes on to tell me/How white my shirts can be/But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me.” But in ’65, people were coming together to end a war, extend civil rights, and become a global community. In a bitter twist, the song has gone from satirical protest to cognitive reinforcement.

It’s time to step back from the brink. While our industry still remembers how, we should use advertising to popularize hope over dystopia and build a broader sense of belonging. Our work should foster dialog instead of dogma, collaboration instead of corroboration.

We’ve done it before. Come on, who’s with me? I’d like to teach the world to sing.
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
6877 Barker Way
San Diego, California

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