Red Bull Red Bull Red Bull

Dear Red Bull,

Pure gold. And I’m not talking about what’s in the can.

I admire you.  As an entrepreneur in the energy product sector, to me you are the lone beacon of inspiration.  Red Bull represents a brand that cared thoughtfully about branding itself, impeccably about image, and relentlessly persevered through tough times to establish a new product category. Since then, you have come to symbolize not a syrupy, sugary beverage, but a philosophy. While few action sport athletes actually consume your product when performing their feats, you have become the facilitators of their world  independent of the product you produce. Your brand makes you an enabler, transformer, and ultimately, the largest brand pushing extreme athletes to put the bar higher.

But there is a problem with how you have come to present your brand.  Odd as it sounds, you let yourselves get too big.  Not in terms of real size. In terms of image.  Diluted image.  For the longest time, you were the awesome guys down in the dirt with those whose potential you believed in and supported.  Now you are a logo that throws around a bottomless pit of money and prompts athletes to wear red bull paraphernalia in ‘x’ number shots during a competition.

Once a valuable object. Now just an object.

I was watching the Winter X Games back in January.  During one snowmobile race, I saw your logo more than 30 times in one 3-minute race. Every banner, course obstacle, snack stand, and human being is plastered with Ra Ra Red Bull!  It is numbing.  An utterly overexaggered yet underwhelming blast of superfluous branding that is about as ineffecively and ridiculously overstated as this long rambling sentence. It negates the presence of your brand in the same way that seeing the same commercial 15 times on one hour does.

I remember a time when wearing a red bull hat meant something.  It meant you were the cream of the crop; a member of an elite few who’s quality and potential was enough to win a sponsorship from Red Bull.  In the outdoor sport world, this was sacred.  That was the power of your brand.  You didn’t buy a Red Bull hat. You earned one.  From this position, you were better able to facilitate and inspire.  It felt genuine.  People looked up to that and the masses wanted to buy Red Bull in part because of that.  It was so cool.  A brand that wasn’t all brand-y.

I think there is a Red Bull logo missing somewhere...

I think there is a Red Bull logo missing somewhere…

Now every upstart with $20 can buy a hat (and they will), every athlete you see is sponsored by either you or a competitor (even if they aren’t that great).  While you are still facilitating amazing feats of human accomplishment like jumping out of a balloon from the stratosphere, it seems more because of ‘money that can’ than ‘belief that enables’.  When you smack your logo on everything with a surface, it seems overstated and corporate.  You are better than that. Your brand use to be built on discretion.

Of course, I cannot deny that what you are doing works.  You make money this way.  Many will look at my criticism and think I am silly.  But I think you can find a balance without oversaturating yourself.  Being cool is a tough thing to do, and sometimes it is by being restrictive.  To make your logo valuable instead of mind-numbing.  Your brand has the power, through its philosophy, to be truly special.  Elite.  It isn’t the easy way to be a brand, nor is it the common way.  But it is, in my view, the best way for you to maintain the deep meaning your brand has for the world you transformed.



Who is this Google person, anyway?

Last week I watched a presentation by Ben Malbon, the Managing Director of Google Creative Lab in New York City.  Standing before us, he clicked through an immaculate powerpoint that addressed Google’s approach to ideas – how they are generated, how they grow, and how they ultimately become (if good enough) a product or service with the potential and intention to change the world.  And how they are marketed.  I left the presentation feeling a good deal inspired.  I had to ask myself, what can marketers learn from Google’s success and from people like Ben?

In his presentation, Ben made a number of points that resonated with me both as a consumer using Google and a marketer observing Google.  The main point I will be talking about: Think Big but Be Humble.  This has always struck me as an admirable quality of the Google brand; a personality of sorts that makes Google feel less like a corporation marketing to a consumer and more like a bunch of personable nerds who hang out trying to figure out how to solve some of the world’s problems.

A shared respect for immaculate simplicity.

A shared respect for immaculate simplicity. Different personalities.

In the world of business, why is being humble – or personality itself – important?  The product or service is what truly matters, no?  Yes and no.  Companies are becoming more interactive. There is less talking to a customer and more talking with a customer.  It is instant, digital, and dynamic.  Because of this, personality is everything, and Google, if a human being, is definitely a pretty cool, humble, interesting fellow.  The other side of this argument is that while humility on the surface builds trust and rapport with a customer base, in Google’s case, are they really actually humble, or just great at wearing a mask?  It is a hard question to answer, and Ben certainly argued that humility is a core Google quality from internal idea drafting to finished product.  Ben himself came off that way, and that is quite revealing.

What is an example to the contrary?  Dare I mention Apple? In my mind, Apple has always been an odd brother of Google.  Both are trying to take over the world with dashing branding that covets a minimalist aesthetic and, at the end of the day, provide a product superior to the competition because of a effective understanding of what people both want and need.  Both see their respective brands as being routed in transformative Big Ideas.  However, I feel Apple has lost the personality battle, for now.  While Google is personable, humble, and outgoing, Apple is more cocky, forward, and assumes their awesomeness is inherent as represented by their popularity and the cunning use of aluminum.  Humility was never part of the game plan.

More than what it actually says, what does this say about Google?

More than what it actually says, what does this say about Google?

Google’s personality emphasizes sharing and freedom.  Ben proclaimed that the best moment for Google marketing was when they were able to help the Dalai Lama wish Desmond Tutu a happy birthday via a Google Hangout when the South African government refused to issue the Dalai Lama a visa.  Apple and their innovation is quite far removed from this philosophy, and their personality is far less intimate.   The irony for us as a consumer is that Google  at the end of the day is a corporate entity that knows more about me than anybody should rightfully have access to.  But I love Google (and need Google) anyway.

So in the end, what did I get from all this as a marketer and a consumer?  Google’s unique blend of humility and a genuine lust for curiosity and innovation make them stand out because I want to feel they are doing the right thing for the right reasons.  Marketers and innovators who want to convince the world and themselves they are making a difference can benefit greatly from Google’s immaculate creation of and belief in their brand personality.

The Vending Machine Approach to Being Social

Coca-Cola has had a long time since its creation in 1886 to become one of the world’s most engaging companies.  The iconic brand has evolved to be something far more than the producer of a dark-brown, bubbly beverage potent enough to turn a dirty penny clean.  It is now a facilitator, an engager, and a philosopher compelling it’s audience to interact both with each other and the company itself.  All through the clever use of a vending machine.

Open_HappinessFormerly an object whose only potential for engagement was the hope of finding unclaimed change or, if extremely lucky, a beverage or snack, the lowly vending machine is at the core of Coca-Cola’s blossoming attempt to be both social with customers and spread a brand philosophy.  The vending machines, in all their forms, are part of an extended multiyear campaign called ‘Open Happiness,’ and the result seems to be just that.

The ‘Happiness Machine,’ which occured in 2010, was inserted in an unassuming college campus and proceeded to dispense both multiple Cokes at once, pizzas, balloon animals, and a wide variety of other entertaining objects.  Most emphasized sharing with both friends and strangers, and the meaning was stupefyingly obvious: give and be happy.

The ‘Happiness Machine’ was only the beginning, and in the following years they proceeded to make machines that required people to dance in public places.  In 2012, they created a ‘Friendship Machine’ that required teamwork with another person to get 2 Cokes for the price of 1, as well as a vending machine that would not take payment in money, just hugs.

Ok, ok, you get it.  But the beauty is that their idea is so powerful and clear, using 2 short paragraphs to describe it seems like overkill.  This is the kind of interaction that sticks, like a friend with a memorable laugh and a sense of humor.  Coca-Cola understands how to get people to engage in the brand philosophy right in front of where the product is received.

Significantly enough in today’s digital day and age, this effort to be social is not just through social media.  It seems hard enough to find a company that goes beyond the screen to engage people, given the fantastic online resources they have at their fingertips.  Of course, Coca-Cola made sure these events spread like wildfire through social media channels after the fact, but the gesture started as a simple real connection that got people to interact with each other.

Beyond the Open Happiness campaign, Coca-Cola is making a far broader effort to be social as a company beyond social media.  Live Positively is a sub-brand that has allowed them to truly invite people around the world to participate with Coke in a variety of ways.  When you visit their website, the first tab says ‘Get Involved’, and not in the ‘follow us on Twitter’ sort of way.   You can share volunteer experiences you have had, join the Civil Action Network, whose job it is to “provide information to the Coca-Cola family about national, state, and local issues that could affect” Coca-Cola, or find out more about various other social programs.

Other companies should pay close attention not only to the power and simplicity of Coca-Cola’s brand, but to their ability to put the money where their belief is.  A brand philosophy may not be inherent in a product or service, but it can be fostered through meaningful social engagement that is both physical and digital.  In Coca-Cola’s case, it is handing an 18-year-old college student a 6-foot-long sub sandwich through a vending machine to be shared amongst friends. With a side of Coke, of course.

The Next Big Thing Is Here. Again.

The phone market is frustrating.  So is technology.  Follow your temptation to buy the next shiny, slimmer, bigger (or smaller) symbol of the future, and you inevitably are left with something that is obsolete by the time you turn it on for the first time.  Then it is on to the next thing.  If you hold out, you are old fashioned. If you don’t, you are forever throwing money into a black hole of marginal progress.

samsung galaxy SIII billboard NYC

It is like this. Everywhere. A true advertising Blitzkrieg.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise that when Samsung, through the services of the California based ad agency 72andSunny, launched a campaign called “The Next Big Thing is Already Here” to launch Samsung’s (momentary) new competitor to the iPhone 5, the Samsung S III, I reacted with a disdainful scowl.  They certainly succeeded in forcefully grabbing my attention: the campaign is literally unavoidable in cities like Boston, where seemingly every billboard and tv commercial spot was bought up in a massive near-Roman scale campaign to unseat Apple as the king of all things cool and shiny.  They even got LeBron James to testify.

I was frustrated at the very core of the big idea behind the campaign – The Next Big Thing is Already Here – which to me seemed to contradict itself as it is being said.  After all, the Samsung S III already looks obsolete compared to whatever phone Samsung will be releasing and promoting a few months from now, leaving all of the owners of the S III feeling like senior citizens at a rave (perhaps that is a slight exaggeration.)

But after thinking about it, I have decided to take a small step back, stop being a grumpy old man, and look at the campaign a little more closely.  After all, Ad Age recently deemed 72andSunny to be the ad agency of the year largely in part to their  work for the Samsung S III.  If Ad Age held it in such high acclaim, was I missing something?  Perhaps.

Samsung, as do all phone companies not named Apple, has a big problem. They are not Apple.  The objective: take on Apple and wrestle market share from Steve’s cold dead hands, away from an almost cult-like but massive audience eagerly riding on the perpetual bandwagon of anticipation regarding what they would themselves probably describe as ‘the next big thing.’  So  72andSunny decided that a killer, effective big idea – one that hypothetically could take Samsung as a brand into the future – is simple: form your own crowd. Go your own way.  As ad age described it, “stand out, rather than being one of Apple’s sheep, blindly following the flock.”  The risk is obviously in that Apple is a very popular brand. However, 72andSunny are on to something that is basic, but brilliant.

Eventually, when something becomes too mainstream, too popular, too saturated, the wave of it being cool and new subsides, and people want out.  People who once followed blindly are more liable to be tempted by the next movement of cool.  Samsung’s video ads, which aired right when the people were eagerly anticipating the iPhone 5, effectively poked fun at the masses of people chomping at the bit for then next Apple gizmo, even though it is clear that drinking the Cool-Aid has jaded their ability to see that the iPhone has inferior technology.  In the commercial, seeing Samsung S II (or S III, I lost track of which phone they are actually talking about) and the cool people not standing in line who own then, illustrates to the masses just how lame they are.

While Samsung’s print ads are utterly flat (the headline all alone beside a picture of yet another phone made me dislike the campaign), the video content mocking the hordes of the Apple obsessed truly drives home the big idea much more effectively and illustrates its potential.  The idea is far greater than the phone. It is hopefully Samsung’s new philosophy and reflects a natural sentiment shared by many who do not want do not consciously want to be seen (or see themselves) as sheep.

However, I have one final gripe.  As soon as I fell in love with the big idea, I realized something.  Aside from the tagline and a few commercials mocking iSheep, every other commercial for the Galaxy S III (and their other phones) has completely lost touch with the big idea.  Case and point:

I’ll admit, the commercial is funny.  But where is the big idea? You can share videos if (and only if) somebody else has the same phone as you? For the next 2 months until the next phone comes out? Big whoop!  All that is special about Samsung’s approach to being unique and not following the crowd is lost.  I hope they find a way to get it back.

Throttling Up the Future of Brand Engagement

Forget online ads, twitter contests, and billboards.  ‘Try-to-be-inspire’ commercials with dramatic soundtracks and a grand message about the future of humanity and how brand ______ is taking you there.

How would you like to enter a room and put together a jet engine?

That sounds more fun.  And that is exactly what GE decided to create in their experiential marketing campaign, ‘Throttle Up.’  In promoting a new line of amazing-forward-thinking-super-technologically-advanced line of jet engines that make planes stay in the air somehow better than the status quo for reasons you don’t understand, GE decided to bring exactly what distances their technology from the average human being – i.e., the incredibly sophisticated nature of their engineering – down to earth. They are letting you be the engineer.

But the Throttle Up campaign does not take place in a GE lab or digitally via an app.  It is in a dark room in a warehouse near New York harbor and involves fiddling around with a life size, 20 foot long 3D hologram projection.  Using state of the art motion technology, users are able to use hand gestures to construct, from a sum of thousands of individual parts, a full GE jet engine to its completed entirety.

It is an ultimate erector kit for adults that successfully merges engagement, excitement, and discovery with a brand in a way that is actually fresh.  It is digital, but new.  Complex, but accessible.  And far more than any ad could ever do, it enables people to not only think, but truly uncover for themselves, that what GE is doing is actually quite awesome and something to get excited about.

Throttle Up is the perfect example of where experiential advertising and marketing are moving – and must continue to move – into the future.  This future is dark and digital.  We, the consumer and the public, are more desensitized than ever.  Our eyes have seen it all, every day, on every device.  Impress us. Show us there is hope. Make us believe in creativity.

People lined up for two hours to tinker around with GE’s jet engine, which is more time than people are willing to wait for just about anything these days.  The experience – featured for 5 days during New York City’s Creative Week – generated a massive social media explosion and got people talking excitedly about GE.  GE understood that the future of communication lies in showing and not telling.  By showing, you generate buzz and marketing in more traditional channels without creating most of it by themself and waiting for people to react.  Many brands believe their own worth and message to be a forgone conclusion when now more than ever, it is quite the opposite.  GE is the dude who makes everyone believe he is awesome because he earns everyone’s awe rather than that lame guy who overconfidently proclaims his awesomeness and expects people to listen.  While this distinction makes a lot of sense and seems obvious, it is remarkably a mentality that is just catching on.  As ad agencies such as BBDO (who were behind Throttle Up), companies, and digital creatives look forward, the creation of such badass experiences as putting together a holographic jet engine serve not only as a strong benchmark for what is possible, but what is a minimum expectation, for brand engagement.

Watch the Throttle Up video: