Be Smart, Be Strategic, But Above All, Be Remarkable

toby-keith-goes-crazy-on-peter-cooperDespite not knowing his music, I often quote country star and Ford truck pitchman Toby Keith when presenting to clients, specifically his brilliant line “If you’re middle of the road, you’re just stuck in traffic.”

That’s more than just a philosophy or opinion; today it’s a proven fact.  A must-read article in this month’s issue of The Economist outlines our radically-evolved entertainment consumption habits.  Television is dead…except it’s not (despite the proliferation of cable and satellite choice, the Wednesday “American Idol” averages 16.5m households).  The music industry is finished, except Billboard disagrees (album sales are down nearly 20% but sales at the top of the charts are slightly up).  No one goes to movies anymore…except they do (“New Moon” earned more in one day than any movie ever).  No one reads books…and yet bestsellers move more volumes today than ever (take Dan Brown…please).

And that’s the key word: best sellers.  Rather remarkably, we live in a time of both the long tail and the blockbuster.  Chris Anderson’s famous prediction of the explosion of niche markets as demand for media migrates from the head of the distribution curve where a few products dominate sales back to the tail where a great many can sell modestly has definitely come true.  And yet simultaneously, the mega productions at the other end of the spectrum have grown as well.  The reason for this may be as simple as society’s ingrained desire for shared experiences or as modern culture driven as the hypothesis that when offered so many choices, we will opt for the popular ones as the best investment of our all-too-scarce time.  That explains why albums ranked between 300 and 400 and television shows below the top ten struggle to survive—there are just too many better options immediately available to suffer through Two and A Half Men for a half hour, hoping something better comes along.

Hits and niche provide today’s power markets, which can be very exciting.  Unfortunately, most advertised products live—or historically have lived—in the vast middle: not too too either way, just pleasantly widespread and accessible.  But to maintain health in this new market, brands and their brand managers need to radically re-imagine their vision for the product.  Stay too broad and you are open to creeping parity from higher-value alternatives.  Hold to your historical marketing methods and brand voice and you grow easily lost in the hue and cry of a highly distracted market perpetually searching for the new thrill, the new idea, the new new thing.

Even if you can’t move entirely to the edges, every brand can and should make forays there in hopes of influencing opinion leaders and spurring word of mouth.  But those communications will have to be more singular, more engaging, more remarkable.  The comfortable idea is rarely viral.

For many, that’s a scary thought.  And these are scary times.

But it’s also an awesome thought.  Because these are exponential times.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

International Symbol or Visual Puzzle at the Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher

I missed two blog entries last week due to an annual golf trip to Ireland.  This year, we went to the West, in County Clare and the Galway area.  After playing a gorgeous round at Lahinch and before an unbelievable plate of stew at Gus O’Connor’s pub in Doolin, we stopped briefly at the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher.  Standing on O’Brien’s tower gives you a 700 foot vantage point on Galway Bay with the Aran Islands barely visible out in the Atlantic.  It’s a spectacular spot and thanks to both our tour guide Tim and Wikipedia, I learned that it served as a backdrop for The Princess Bride, the latest entry in the endless line of Harry Potter movies, and even the hazy cover art for U2’s recent album, No Line on the Horizon.

CliffFall

Sign #1

Along the walk up, the tourist bureau posted a series of warning signs.  It may be true that much like Scotland, Ireland and the United States are two cultures separated by a common language, but really, a few words may have been in order to help clarify the meaning of these imaginative, if over-reaching symbols.

They started simply enough with Sign #1: a triangular-shaped warning that sprinting along the edge may cause both damage to the cliffs and an ungainly posture.  Indeed, this simple visual messaging would easily translate for visitors from most any culture around the world.

Sign #2

Sign #2

Sign #2 however, began the descent into indecipherability.  It could mean ‘please don’t kick the oversized black piano keys’ or perhaps ‘no hurdling gravestones.’  Maybe it means that ‘climbing shipping boxes of framed paintings requires two hands’ or perhaps even something as prosaic as ‘no dancing too close to obstructions of any sort,’ but that seems unlikely given the Irish proclivity for enthusiastic if ungainly dancing.  No, Sign #2 remained something of a mystery to our group, but whatever it warned of, apparently we were able to walk away unscathed and apparently, without egregious violation.

Sign #3

Sign #3

Sign #3 though totally lost it with the implied intent.  ‘No hovering at altitudes higher than the local birds’?  ‘No walking on flaming coals while littering candy wrappers’?  ‘Beware of fire gulls’?  The possibilities for misinterpretation seem limitless and would require someone with expertise in a made up academic discipline like “Symbology”–that’s right, I’m talking to you Robert Langdon and you too Dan Brown–to interpret the meaning of the graphic artist here.

Then again, take another look at the top picture.  See all the non-cushioning layers of shale and sandstone that might provide only a harsh and temporary break in any unfortunate fall over the nearly vertical cliff face that ultimately ends in the frigid crashing sea hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of feet below?  Taking that perspective, it seems Nature already provides all the warning labels one might need to keep all but the most determined visitor from tumbling off.  That’s keeping it simple…

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79