Exotica And The New Paradigm
March 8th, 2010 was a special day for both the advertising industry and social media users in Lebanon. Were it not for the sake of avoiding hype, I would have gone as far as calling it ‘historic’, for that day marked a new era of relationships between local brands and their audiences.
On March 8th, 2010, billboards carrying Exotica’s Mother’s Day campaign changed faces, not in response to the whims of disgruntled traditional media, nor to the disagreement of a sell-you-conservatism politician, but in response to the honest, candid, and real time feedback from social communities (namely Twitter) and the Lebanese blogosphere.
The whole story began when Exotica launched an early campaign for Mothers’ Day with the two executions above. The imagery of exaggerated traits caused wide controversy among the public, and that reflected on discussions on social media platforms. I personally liked the campaign. I thought it had the DNA of quirkiness and originality that Leo Burnett has consistently married with the Exotica brand throughout its 15 years of handling the account. That, however, might have been more of a professionally myopic opinion, for the majority of people didn’t appreciate it to say the least, and were quite vocal about their resentment. In advertising, the audience is royalty: an egotistic, high-maintenance queen with brisk taste, overloaded with choice, and highly demanding servitude. Something like the Red Queen in Alice In Wonderland really. Corporate ego has no place in its court, as it translates immediately to corporate self-flagellation (for strong brands) or corporate suicide (for weaker ones). Even for a brand as engrained in the nation’s Share Of Mind as Exotica, that was an uncomfortable situation. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a post on Maya Zankoul’s blog that highlighted a yet undiscussed aspect of the campaign: the fact that it supplanted the Lebanese obsession with physique. As usual, Maya’s post went viral with 879 viewers taking note of the cartoon-rendered disenchantment. That brought the situation to a tipping point and instigated a first-of-a-kind move in the history of advertising in Lebanon: Exotica and Leo Burnett took note and actually changed the executions. The new ads (below) were a milder, more socially correct executions of the same concept. ‘Bad’ transubstantiated into ‘Unique’. Large noses morphed into a palette of freckles. Mom was to be thanked for everything, no affectionate tongue-in-cheek included. To no one’s surprise, that move was highly welcomed, with 250 tweets circulating only 12 hours after the billboards change.
Everybody understands what that means in terms of audience empowerment, so I will not bore you with a parrot melody. I just want to underline what that means for the other side, i.e. brands and their advertising agencies. Advertisers constantly struggle with what’s upstream and downstream of launching a campaign: that is prediction, and measurement. For serious advertisers, prediction so far called for sets of limited focus groups, and measurement for sterile statistics like Gross Rating Points (GRPs). Focus groups do reveal interesting insight on consumer attitudes and tastes, especially if married with trends analysis. However, they remain limited by their budgets and the relatively low number of participants, regardless of how relevant those might be. GRP presentations on the other hand are the perfect napping opportunity for sleep-deprived clients. That only does them justice for clients rely on the figures that matter, a.k.a. rise in sales after a campaign. Now as it happens, clients that choose to spend on focus groups and demand statistics remain limited in our mostly SME-driven economy with its low advertising budgets. In reality, most clients opt for non-analytical approaches to advertising planning and consequently find themselves bound to a set of pre-defined advertising formulae (choose from among the following):
1-Poseidon is back
2-Miracles happen, butter for 1000 L.L.
3-My kids love this cheese and I’m not planning on rearing future Tenors (variation: My kids are the impersonation of evil and this detergent is the only way forward)
4-I am so impossibly snobbish / Re-defining luxury
5-The rhyme game (Swiss Granola? Oh-La-La!)
7-Lots of cheap, unjustified sex (of course)
Put aside the brave and serious advertisers, most local clients fall into the cliche commandment ‘I know my market better than you do, now just execute my brilliant idea’. Account Directors, who’ve developed the holy grail of client servicing (i.e. diplomacy and patience), and Creative Directors, still never developed anything and plotting the next mass client murder, usually have very little to counter-argue with (logic and common sense are overrated). Consequently, what we end up in our advertising landscape is similar to Lego sets for 3-year olds: predictable, uninspired flatness.
The reason the Exotica incident is so significant is that it demonstrates that a total reversal of all the above is possible. Social communities provide advertisers -with or without budgets- a well of insight so significant that it throws the old advertising paradigm with all its shortcomings behind. Even if a brand is not lucky enough to be talked about, brand managers can still identify consumer attitudes and preferences, general or related to certain product /service categories, by listening to the conversations happening on Twitter for example. They can use a comparative approach to understand and build on the communication experiences of their precedents. Who needs focus groups when you have people talking about their situations or aspirations in real time, all the time, and in unlimited numbers? And who needs bland quantitative measurement when community feedback provides full qualitative measurement? This of course is applicable provided that planners are able to forgo strict demographic or psychographic correlation, but this is always possible in the case of offerings targeted at wide audiences. In the worst case, it remains a more viable planning strategy than client heuristics, and it surely lends itself to more differentiated, more relevant, and more original communication.
This also means that advertising agencies have no more excuse for continuing to pump one banality after the other. Stubborn or opinionated client? Now is your chance to fight back, and to prove with actual words taken from the mouths of the people, that your client’s common sense is not so common after all. Jaded creative director? Doesn’t work anymore, for significant and recordable community badmouthing will not exactly propel his career. If you’re daring enough, you can go as far as involving social communities in choosing among alternative campaign concepts.
And as you take your clients to the social well, remind them of the new rules of the game: honesty, integrity and transparency. Opening up to social communities is not exactly like going to party. People don’t feel compelled to throw niceties at you. You have to earn them instead. Brands that listen to or engage with social communities have to be ready for occasional negative feedback, and to be equally ready to address it. That might seem tricky, but in the long term is a healthier alternative to listening to subordinates and friends telling you how great what you’re doing is. This gradual rapprochement between brands and social communities ushers a much bigger brand-audience co-operation paradigm. Flirting with audiences through communication prepares a brand for a deeper and more committed relationship later on, one that goes as far as letting the audience take control of product or service design.
Meanwhile, Twitter & Co. probably remain the most potent touchpoints for customer voice you’ve ever known, feel free to use them for people love to share, but please, please, spare us Poseidon and the miracle butter!