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!

  1. A few weeks ago, I blogged about the billboards for the Audi Rewards program, which I found a lot more offensive than the Exotica ads. In one, a woman is shown winning a blender, and the other, a hair dryer!! Such chauvinistic imagery is so insulting that I’m really surprised no one else has complained. As an Audi account holder, I sent in a letter of complaint, which of course went ignored. I’m happy to hear that Exotica listened to complaints and made a change. Maybe Bank Audi will take notice and follow suite!

  2. You totally hail Twitter and Co as the litmus leaf for the “righteousness” of Exotica’s campaign without providing any sort of quantitative idea of the “reaction” the ad received! To start with please provide some answers to the following questions: how many people REALLY use Twitter in Lebanon? Within this Twitter community how many vehemently rejected the ad? What categories those who did really represent? My point is you need to water the whole thing down.
    First you say that you personally liked the ad but that the majority in the Twitter community (whatever numbers this represents) didn’t. With this numerical democracy type of approach you justify that the advertiser should subject to the complaints of this group. Again if it is really about numerical democracy then relying on the Twitter community’s reaction cannot reflect in any way what people here in Lebanon felt about the ad.
    And then there is a lot of points that you did not raise in your article. What the controversy around the Exotica ad (and I am not talking here about the few active Lebanese Twitterers) showed in my opinion is that the Lebanese are not ready to see women with big ears and big noses on their ad billboards. That their sense of esthetics is conservative. You look at the second set of ads and you feel warmth and cuteness. The first set of ads is deranging. It makes you question the complexity of your relationship with your mother. And this is powerful. In my opinion, Exotica was defeated in its attempt to create controversy and question social values… So what exactly are you hailing?

    • Raed:
      1- Re. quantification: It is very difficult to quantify the reaction on Twitter a posteriori, unless you want to invest significant time going through all the tweets that were sent, which is not the scope of a blog post. Searches for #Exotica or #campaign or any combination of these are not always reliable. Anyone who’s been following the discussions on twitter and the posts on the Lebanese blogosphere would agree that the reactions to the campaign were negative.

      2- Re.perception/controversy: the focus of the post is NOT to analyze the nature and psychological motives of the public reaction, but to argue that brands can and should rely on social communities for guidance in communication tactics. So this is simply hors sujet.Given the size limitations of a blog post, you really cannot afford to have a plethora of focuses.

      3- Re. numbers and representation: Twitter users in Lebanon are limited (compared to e.g. facebook), you can even argue that they’re not very heterogeneous psychographically, but this does not exclude the fact that an overwhelmingly negative reaction can be considered representative. In market research terms, Twitter users are much more numerous and much more diverse than say focus groups participants. If you can rely on focus groups or on post-campaign qualitative research, then you can definitely rely (better) on Twitter.

    • Raed,

      Exotica’s advertising team is primarily targeting the Lebanese online community. What proves it is their previous campaign “missed opportunities” which was actually related to a blog: ivysays.com, though very few know this. They are taking online feedback extremely seriously, and regularly meet with bloggers to get their feedback about their campaigns. Also, the reason they changed their campaign is not ONLY because of Twitter, but of all online reactions: blogposts + lots of comments on the posts, Facebook comments on the blogposts, and last but not least, Twitter reactions, which this time were very negative, and viral. To give you an idea, the Lebanese twittersphere is about 500 people who are essentially the target audience of Exotica rater than regular highway passers-by, that’s why it is not about the number of people on Twitter, but the percentage of them who are Exotica’s target market. People on Twitter can afford Exotica flowers. This is the image they want to project.

      On the other hand, what was criticized in their initial campaign, was NOT the visuals, but the *copy*. A big nose is perfectly fine, as long as it is not labeled “BAD”. A change of slogan, keeping the same visuals, would have worked perfectly fine. The initial visuals do no question social values, they make a bold statement and they stereotype certain physical looks, which, in my opinion, is not acceptable.

      Hope this answers your questions! 🙂

    • Raed,

      I think the essential question is not HOW MANY people use Twitter in Lebanon, but WHO uses Twitter in Lebanon. And if you ask Exotica’s creative team, they will tell you that people who use Twitter happen to be their main target audience. What proves it is their latest “Missed opportunities” campaign, which cannot be fully understood if you don’t check the related blog: ivysays.com, but few know this. Exotica’s creative team regularly meets with bloggers to get their feedback about their online presence/strategy and campaigns. Besides, it is not only Twitter reactions that changed the campaign [though they were many and extremely negative], but also the blogposts written about Exotica, the many many comments written on the posts and the Facebook comments on the blogposts. If you collect all this, you will get a pretty large audience [~ 1000 people]. Regarding the Lb twittersphere I guess we are about 500 people.

      On another note, the issue faced with the first campaign was NOT with the big nose/ears but with the copy that accompanied them. Having a big nose is OK! But not when you label it as “bad”. A simple change of copywriting would have done it for me. However they decided to also change the visuals while they’re at it.

      Hope this answers your questions!

  3. 1- You are trying to prove a point so you DO NEED to spend some time trying to show how intense the discussion was! Plus “negative” does not tell us anything about the debate that was going on! What does negative mean really? What were twitterers saying? This should have been the bulk of your article instead you have it truffled with fancy words and theories. After reading the story I honestly have no idea whatsoever why the social media gurus were angry at Exotica and why the company decided to remove the ad!

    2- Again size and limitation cannot be an argument to justify why your article misses the real point. If your intention was to prove that companies should listen to online communities, you failed to provide how online community is a gauge. By choosing the example of Exotica as your main focus you misled the reader that you were actually going to talk about the nature of the controversy. And to say the least your blogpost was far from short! My point is it focused too much on the fancy aspect of advertisement and failed to speak in common simple language!

    3-Again PULEEZZZZ tell us what is NEGATIVE FEEDBACK! Is a brand’s purpose to be patted on the shoulder for a good advertisement? Why is negative feedback that actually drives people to think and reflect on their social values a factor that should lead the brand to tone down its language to sound boring and conventional. Exotica positioned itself through its ads as a trendsetter. Lebanon is clearly a society that is obsessed with looks and plastic surgery. Challenging this idea and image even if indirectly was for groundbreaking! Unfortunately we proved not ready as a society for this sort of debate!

    Again even if this is not the point, by focusing only on the reaction of twitterers (which I insist is ill-defined in your article) you have overlooked all sorts of other feedback that Exotica have got from different sources and that might have influenced their decision to change their campaign.

    • ‘The real point’ is the writer’s decision, and that basically boils down to his perspective on the matter. Since I’ve already explained my perspective in the previous reply, please tell me how I failed to prove my point. If the fail is in failing to give an overview of all the tweets that were sent, then again this is not the scope of a blog post (vs. academic research or a feature article), especially that mine is already too long. You’re more than welcome to supplant this by doing your own retro-research, especially that you haven’t been following this conversation on Twitter. This will also give you a better feel of what ‘negative’ feedback is.

      Also please tell me how I ‘mislead’ the audience by implying that I’m going to talk about the nature of the controversy. ‘The new paradigm’ in the title is the new paradigm of marketing and brand-audience relationships, and this is precisely what I spend the second half of the post on. What in the title or in the opening paragraph made you think that I’m going to talk about the nature of the controversy?

      And yes, the post IS focused on the advertising aspect, that is the whole point. Whether it’s common language or fancy jargon is really relative to each reader’s standards.

  4. Thanks Maya for your convincing answer. I am not waging a war against the online community and social media which I do actually use like anybody else. I guess Raafat did explain to me what his whole point was. But I still think that there was something else very interesting happening in the advertisement world in Lebanon that was being ignored. Yes the choice of words might not have been judicious in the first campaign but the second one is so much duller ! I am really disappointed!

  5. If you go to Ads Of The World website (http://adsoftheworld.com/) you see how many superb creative concepts never make it to the public because they’re killed by the client, you’ll be even more frustrated (check the ones from Lebanon). Social communities (Leb Twitteratis for e.g.) can actually support interesting/unconventional concepts (before launch) if ad agencies choose to involve them in the process.

  6. The more I think about the first ad, the more I am convinced that it presented the opportunity to move advertisement in this country to a different level.
    Maya, the ad itself did not really tell us what the good was and what the bad was. It left it to people’s own judgment. Singling out the big nose as the bad is an choice one makes based on the collective unconscious of what is good and bad. In a way, the ad was driving people to think if a big nose is really such a bad thing? I would have preferred to see real people with real big noses though rather than photoshopped exaggerated images.
    Beyond that, I think it presented a mother/daughter relationship as a complex one, unlike the second ad which is presenting an idyllic, boring and conventional image of this relationship, something that ads have been doing for ages.

  7. Hey Raafat,

    I saw your comments about our iPad competition being a bit primitive… Would love to hear your feedback on how to make it better!!!

    Hope to hear back,

    Alex Azzi
    bey3.com classifieds

  8. Hi Alex,
    How can I contact you?

  9. Well, the point is that the strategy used in campaign, have a lot of voices -happy and ungry- so I think it works.
    My nose is big, and I happy with. So the firts time I watch this advertising, I said.. thats good now the big nose will be portrait =)

    Well, I think that the advertising desing could tell us motive to get laugh…


  1. March 15th, 2010

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