Social Media Outrage: The Case for Embedding Anthropology

In a noisy trend seemingly endemic to today’s social media, the outrage machine cranked up again, this time against haircare brand Shea Beauty. The trigger for online scorn and trending hashtags like #SheaMoisture Apology is this seemingly-innocuous ad:

Okay, pretty young models pouting about hating their hair–what’s the problem?

The problem is simple: Shea Moisture was built as an African American brand. This market became its first loyalists, helping the brand gain more attention and grow to where it now has a presence in mega-chains like Target.

But this ad features three white young women and one very light skinned bi-racial one. At least until the end tag where more women of color appear in small sections of a graphic collage. Reading the comments on YouTube, it’s clear that Shea Beauty loyalists took immediate notice, and deeply resented it.

When social firestorms happen, I can’t help wondering if I would have made the same mistake. Yes, any creative would know the company is black owned. And that the core audience is also African American. But since clients approve, and often dictate, casting decisions, the issue is probably less about a dumb, subjective creative call and more about a strategic brand desire to ‘expand the base.’ Shea Beauty and their agency no doubt had nothing but the best intentions from a marketing perspective, along with data highlighting a market expansion opportunity with blondes and redheads.

And that’s exactly why I favor anthropology over planning. Anthropologists focus on audiences, not brand metrics. They study the people you hope to reach: their values, their economies, their rituals and sacrifices. Anthropology focuses on what aligns and motivates people, which is crucial now that marketing is a two way dialogue.

Research and planning inevitably focus on the advertiser’s wants, but brands no longer control the conversation. Using anthropology to better understand your audience protects you from becoming the worst kind of person in any social situation: the one that only talks about themselves.

Actually, if they listen, Shea Beauty’s audience even gave them the answer to the issue. YouTube commenter Lorietha Causey said this about the cut:

“why in the commercial they have a woman that looks bi-racial and then the other women are white and then at the end they show a background of different shades of women. I feel the ending should’ve been the beginning with of them having a say on the product.”

That’s a solid re-edit idea. And if they’re smart, Shea Beauty will listen to their loyalists, get back into edit, and fix this now; which is another advantage of our iterative digital world.


In An Imperfect World, Intelligent Iteration Is A Crucial Skill

Picture 2Eighteen years ago, photographer John Terence Turner created this instant classic for Nike.  The shot captures a lone runner mid-stride in one shaft of light amidst the shadowed canyons of Seattle and features the brilliantly understated caption, or perhaps even encapsulation: “There is no finish line.”

I flashed back to this visual after listening to Mark Earl’s August 11 video clip on “3 Minute Ad Age.” Mark is now an author but as the ex-Head of Planning for Ogilvy London and Europe, he has some very intelligent viewpoints on marketing in this social age.

Primarily, he questions the wisdom of advertisers’ perpetual quest for “The Big Idea.”  Mark believes that it’s unrealistic to expect a single creative concept will span the incredible diversity of viewpoints in a global marketplace.  Life isn’t just multiple choice, it’s multiple solution as well.  So why should we place one big bet?  Wouldn’t it be smarter to lay down a number of little bets?

Scientists refer to the latter as ‘the iterative method’ while those of us who were liberal arts majors might be more inclined to just call it ‘common sense.’  How valuable would it be if we could get over our industry-wide predilection for polishing and instead, crank up the production machine and generate a number of good ideas, with the caveat that once we produced and shared them, we’d analyze their in-market impact?  We could test for things like sales results, engagement and favorability.  More importantly, we could then try to assimilate those results into actionable guidelines for future work.  It’s the equivalent of firing a cannon, seeing where the shell hits, and then making incremental adjustments to bring each subsequent shot closer and closer to your target.

Learn and apply: it’s a simple notion really.  Unfortunately, it’s far less simple to be honest about what we learn and disciplined with subsequent applications.  But we can try.

Because as the ad says, there is no finish line.  If there were, the Nike brand would still be about exhorting yourself toward physical self-improvement instead of evolving to the culture-shaping dynamo they’ve become.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

B-G-B (Bonus Guest Blog): The Lost ‘Process’ of Creativity

LanceBGBGuest Blogger: Lance Hill

As a Director of Account Planning, Lance Hill works on briefs and stuff, with a decided focus on the ‘and stuff.’  Lance’s relentlessly inquisitive mind may be a by-product of his fascination with philosophy; he’s long exemplified how a good question is always far more interesting than the right answer.  Sartorially, he is a sneakerhead, with a pair of kicks for most every occasion.  With time at the Forbes Group, Brann and Barkley, Evergreen & Partners, Lance brings a rangy perspective to his work.  Texas A&M remains close to his heart, though practically-speaking, it’s inked onto his calf.  Oh, and he’s pretty deadly at Halo too…  

One of my favorite parts of the family vacations we used to take was the random stuff we found along the way.  I travel quite a bit today for work, but these trips are always based on a “get from A to B as fast as possible” mentality.  I’m glad my Dad never thought this way or I would have never seen the World’s Largest Peanut in Georgia or the countless other random precious memories in my head.  Lance1

Wandering around a bit has always been a good thing for the spirit, the mind, and the body.  The Native American and Aboriginal cultures were strong believers in this.  It’s quite sad that it has been lost by most people.

Truly creative people not only see the value in wandering, they practice it daily, even if only in their mind.  Trying to force creativity into a straight line, into the “get from A to B as fast as possible” mentality is not only wrong, it simply doesn’t produce results anyone really wants.

I’ve been trying to allow for this when writing briefs.  Originally, an exceptional brief was a clear picture of where you were and where you needed to get to.  But along the way, we forced the path itself into the brief as well.  The “big idea”, “the single most compelling thing”–you know the drill.

Worse, this kind of prescriptive direction all-too-often creates the dreaded “it’s off-brief” client reaction, particularly to great ideas that nail the problem and achieve the desired point, but in a different (and often better) way.

Lance2Imagine if Leonardo Di Vinci hadn’t painted over his original version of the Mona Lisa as a portrait of a very tense pregnant woman.  What if Wilbur Wright had turned to Orville and said, “yes it flies and I can control it, but it looks nothing like our original design.  Time to re-brief.”

Yes, we all have to move faster in today’s industry. Great creative ideas can still be had in that time frame.  Just agree on where you are, where you want to go (what success looks like), and let the creative minds start to wonder.   It’s the only way the creative process can really work.

Lance3So how do you draw up and rationally show the creative process?  You don’t.  Two men have nailed, in my mind, the true articulation of the creative process in describing how their agencies work: Dan Weiden’s “Show up stupid every morning” and Brian Brooker’s “Come up with a good idea and then throw it away”.   From what I’ve seen, coming up with great creative is really that simple of an approach and incredibly hard to do.  Both embrace the chaos and the wondering inherent in the mind’s formulation of something truly creative.

Planning as a discipline is supposed to help this process, not get in the way.   So why do our briefs so often try to force creative into a pre-determined path?

By Lance Hill, Account Planning Director, Element 79

An Environmental Imperative for Advertisers: Protect Our Fragile Social Network Ecosystems

It's Not Just a Social Network: It's A Natural Habitat    

It’s Not Just a Social Network: It’s A Natural Habitat

I don’t know Alan Schulman, the Chairman/Chief Creative Officer of U.DIG > The Digital Innovations Group.  In fact rather oddly, I couldn’t even find a website for U.DIG.  That said, I did find tons of leads into Alan because he’s one socially networked animal: LinkedIn, iMedia–he’s all over it. His considerable digital credentials and creative background nicely inform this incredibly insightful piece he posted today for Video Insider.  Alan takes our industry’s current fascination with social networks and makes one very simple, incredibly salient point: people don’t want advertisers mucking up their social networks with banners ads, contextual messages, and all sort of other sales pitches.

Analytics and insights? Fine.  Blog scrapings?  Sure.  But actually intruding on these conversations with our brand messages?  That’s like paving the Serengeti: it’s entirely possible, but you’d ruin it.  Sure, brands have created a couple of clever little distractions and pages here and there in FaceBook.  Advertisers have also leveraged YouTube and Flickr in a few interesting ways.  But the best of those creative platforms have been opt in–not forced viewings.  Buttons, banners and pop ups started polluting the MySpace platform years ago and now they’re creeping into Facebook.

Quite rightly, Alan identifies social network communities as fragile creations–easily spooked herds that our very presence threatens to destroy.

Given this, the best social networking strategy for brands and agencies is fact-finding.  Social networks provide unfiltered, real-world, twenty-four/seven activity for smart planners and research analysts to mine.  If we protect these habitats, we can listen and learn about authentic opinions and values in ways that will inform our selling efforts in other, more selling-appropriate environments.  After all, social networking activity makes for a lousy sales aperture: people just aren’t in a buying mindset at those times in those places; they are talking with friends, trading information with colleagues, playing and bonding and sharing. Intruding on their personal relationships with our brands and messages will only alienate them…and marketers tend to agree that alienating your audience is a pretty lousy idea.

Instead, much like a nature photographer who stalks big game in a wildlife preserve with her camera, we should limit our hunting in these rich human ecosystems to listening, note taking, clipping and cutting and pasting.  Let’s consider a social network a resource, not a platform. Compared to the hapless artificiality of the tired old focus group, social networks contain natural conversations between like-minded people.  These are organizations built solely on shared interests or common values where members freely share opinions, ideas, and simple conversation.  Adopting a ‘leave no trace‘ approach by advertisers guarantees our social networks will remain incredibly valuable.

And naturally sustainable.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Maybe We Should Leave Copernicus Out of Advertising

Just Your Typical 16th Century Heliocentric Mad Man...

Just Your Typical 16th Century Heliocentric Mad Man...

Ten to fifteen years ago, some very smart leaders in the advertising industry drove a Copernican shift; a conscious move away from a well-established mindset that put client brands at the center, to one that put the consumer at the center.

The thinking was that brand efforts should revolve around the consumer, with their needs as paramount to all brand decision-making.

It made a lot of sense.  And with regard to many aspects of advertising, it still does.  For instance channel and media planning must put the consumer at the center of all of their efforts, insuring our messages reach their chosen audiences.  Similarly, R&D and new product innovation works far more effectively when serving a strategic intent.

But yesterday, I was discussing the relative merits and challenges of converting the agency to a position centered around brand stories with Lance Hill, one of our creative planners.  In the midst of our conversation, he suddenly stopped, cocked his head the way a German Shepherd might when it catches an intriguing scent, then mused “If we commit to brand stories, then we can’t put the consumer at the center–the center must be the brand if we want our stories to be authentic.”

That’s heresy!  Outrageous!  And of course, entirely correct; brands that pretend to be something they are not in hopes of tapping into some perceived zeitgeist are the equivalent of politicians who swing through the Southern states and suddenly add “y’all” to their vocabulary.  It is dishonest, over-reaching and false.

The best brand stories are authentic: deeply so, with all the idiosyncracies and quirks of the people behind them.  So in honor of Lance, who coincidentally celebrates a birthday this weekend, let me direct you to one of his favorite brand stories: the Adidas/Run DMC story told by Reverend Run himself.  Fascinating, profane, illegal…and unflinchingly honest.  It’s far from my story, but four pairs later, this is my brand.  Enjoy.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A Whole New (Planning) Mind…or…Fun With Context

The best planners demonstrate what Daniel Pink coined “A Whole New Mind”; they pull together seemingly disparate ideas to reveal something new and imminently useful. Sure, planners still turn to old standbys like syndicated research, but the most inspiring and creative ones comb all sorts of digital sources for insights. (On a separate note: can we finally please kill focus groups?  That methodology is sooo over…)

Not Actual Size

Not Actual Size

The vast amounts of user generated content on the web provide easy entry into the personal lives, interests and values of various people.  Sites like Flickr and YouTube hold a wealth of visual information, much of it within innocuous background detail, letting us inspect homes, offices, desks–even purses.  Since few people activate their security settings, Facebook and MySpace provide detailed troves of personal opinions, such as which TV shows they like, and which they claim to be ‘fans’ of. Comb and you quickly learn who mentions you, plus what else they are twittering about, who they follow, and in turn, who those people follow.  Even something like Pandora can be illuminating: anyone who has ever shared a dorm room knows musical tastes reveal inordinate amounts of deeply personal information.

Handled clumsily, this is all merely deck-clogging data.  Considered creatively however, an insightful planner can extrapolate meaningful human truths to shore up one very critical aspect of every brand story: the context.  When planners draw fresh personal insights from these unfiltered sources, they guide creatives and insure the brand stories they craft will be deeply relevant and meaningful to their audiences…that they will gibe harmoniously with their lives.

After all, while most people like stories, everybody loves stories about themselves.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79