Marketing Face-Off: A Perspective

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What do professional hockey and brand marketing have in common? Call it desperation.

In a frantic bid to win back fans, the National Hockey League announced a number of changes in 2005—changes that they hoped would make the game more competitive, more memorable and ultimately more engaging for consumers. They weren’t alone in their quest for “more”, however: A similarly desperate bid came out of the marketing world, where brand marketers took a shot at a number of innovative approaches in 2005, ranging from branded entertainment to blogs, alternate reality games to consumer created content.

While the lasting effects of these changes may not be clear for some time, what’s become obvious is that 2006 will be the year of the face-off—in marketing, anyway—as the traditionalists hold on to the tried and true, and the innovators continue to shout, “change or die”.

Before we skate into predictions for 2006, let’s do a reality check on 2005. Exactly 12 months ago, I ventured out onto thin ice suggesting that CMO’s would lose their jobs, pop-up stores would be all the rage, direct mail would ignite as email tanked, and discounting would dominate retail as the economy slowed. I even went so far as to suggest that a select group of marketers would demand and get ideas—really big ideas—that slid gracefully between the offline and online worlds.

Sure enough, a few high-profile CMO’s did get pink slips, and several engaging pop-up stores did pop up (like the Self Center and Soave’s Salons). Direct mail did indeed continue to grow as email open rates continued to drop (down 24% vs. 2004). Discounting dominated at least one major retail category, automotive, as “employee discounts” propped up Detroit’s sales efforts. And finally, a few really big ideas, like Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, emerged with great fanfare, forcing other marketers to ask, “Why didn’t our campaign do all that?”

Looking back, it’s obvious that 2005 was a year of real experimentation for a few, courageous marketers. Big TV buyers hedged their bets against commercial zapping DVRs by shifting traditional TV dollars into product placement and so called, branded entertainment properties. Even modest-budgeted brands like Lamborghini and Marquis Jets raced into the product placement arena to gain attention. Others tapped into the blogging phenomena, creating their own (GM’s Fast Lane blog http://fastlane.gmblogs.com/) and advertising on others (www.gawker.com). Alternate reality games like “I Love Bees” and Audi’s “Art of the Heist” caused as big a buzz among marketers as it did in the trades. And consumer created content, like the Converse gallery, became all the rage as pundits suggested that marketers needed to relinquish control of their brands to customers.

Now, however, it’s time to look ahead. And from my perspective, 2006 promises to be an exciting year, one in which you can expect to see an ever more heightened consumer sensitivity from the marketing world in general. More and more marketers will undoubtedly yield to “brand democratization”, finding ways to involve the consumer in their marketing programs. While this is theoretically a good idea, those who hit the puck in an unexpected direction will be the ultimate winners. Copycats to the Converse “gallery” (and there will be lots of copycats) will find themselves attracting smaller and smaller audiences—much like those who tried and failed to replicate the success of BMW films.

In 2006, expect blogs to be standard items in the marketer’s playbook. Corporate blogs will continue to proliferate. Some will earn kudos for their honesty and informative nature, while others will be recognized as blatant, homogenized propaganda and ignored. Content blogs (such as www.AfterHoursCity.com) will deliver “street cred” for marketers smart enough to create their own slice of aggregated info and brave enough to let the consumer-generated content run unfiltered.

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