Here comes Krampus

When I told a friend and colleague about Krampus a number of years ago, before the legendary creature had captured the hearts of the world, I received an earful about the damaging nature of such a myth. I learned that Krampus was, it turned out, as bad as violent video games, eating too much salt or drowning kittens. The thing is, I already knew about Krampus. I’d grown up with Krampus (thank you to my grim, German ancestors). And while I’m sure there are people who would dispute it, I turned out reasonably undamaged by the tradition.

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For those unfamiliar with the legend, Krampus is a demonic creature recognized in many Alpine countries. Krampus, with his horns and great lolling tongue, accompanies St. Nick during the Christmas season, punishing bad children – but lumps of coal are not part of his repertoire. When the Krampus finds a particularly naughty child, he stuffs the child into his sack and carries the frightened child away to his lair, where he presumably makes the child the centerpiece of his Christmas dinner. Krampus is a representation of the fear of winter. He is a harsh counterpoint to the perfect kindness of Santa. He is, in a sense, an answer to the questions children have about the inexplicable selflessness of a bearded gift-giver they have never met.

But is Krampus really so horrible? Will he really lead our children to lives of sin and an unrelenting fear of the dark? I hardly think so. Yes, Krampus is frightening, but regardless of what we want to believe, children are remarkably adept at distinguishing transitory, entertaining fear from the real thing. Krampus is indeed frightening, but he is also cartoonish. There is increasing data, for example, to support the idea that children are decidedly capable of distinguishing cartoonish violence from the real thing. So too with traditions like Krampus.

On the surface Krampus doesn’t have much to do with marketing. When you take a step back, however, it means that there are opportunities to embrace strategies that speak to the darker side of marketing and s

ets the stage for building brand affinity from Halloween through Christmas. The lines between the holidays are increasingly blurred and simply assuming that one cultural norm fits neatly into a single campaign pillar is a lost opportunity. Holiday shoppers no longer wait until Black Friday or even the month of November to get started. To get ahead of this holiday season, smart businesses must consider their marketing kick-offs much earlier. This makes Halloween an excellent starting point for the holiday season in its entirety, tying the fall-to-winter holiday continuum together. Krampus and similar spooky figures associated with the holiday season are, arguably, a better fit for Halloween, so why not use them as a connecting thread?  Ultimately, this leads to a more cohesive experience.

And that’s what marketing is all about: providing an experience. Why do I put up with getting nauseous riding roller coasters? Because my kids love the experience.  Why do people, young and old, love to watch horror movies?  For the experience of being spooked. Halloween marketing is built around providing some type of experience, but it needn’t begin and end with Halloween. Why not build continuity and extend the brand’s story? A brand story is more than content and a narrative. If you don’t have a story you are just another commodity in a season inundated with messaging. A replaceable cog in the consumption machine. By tying everything together, you capture people’s attention for the entire season, not just fleeting moments.

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You Are What You Brand

It sometimes seems lost on people, but consumers have begun to face an important problem: the increased uncertainty about various product attributes. This arises from various asymmetric information consumers have access to, regarding a specific product. Consumers tend to assess certain product attributes in a holistic manner rather than a case by case basis – bigger, faster, longer may still sell low-interest items, but it is increasingly losing its traction. Consequently, both extrinsic and intrinsic factors have to be accounted when trying to differentiate a product from its competitors. And therein lies the central distinction between products, campaigns, etc. and brands. Brands are bigger, richer, and drive us to act without always know precisely we we’re doing it. Brands can potentially play many different roles in the consumer decision process. That opens up a range of deeper questions about the role of a brand in the cosmic sense. How brands help us construct and reflect our identity is one way to think about it – and it’s a damn fine way, at that.

Often, consumers will choose a brand that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each consumer at an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, consumer choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of an individual social identity For example, a may choose to buy a pair of Doc Martens as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the buyer considers himself a post-punk soccer mom the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Each individual lifestyle reflects a person’s values, life vision, and aesthetic style. It also reflects a shared set of ideologies, collective style, and sense of belonging.

Marketers tend to use brands to differentiate a company’s products from competitors and to create a sense of superior value to customers – this is frequently done by talking about product attributes. The most important step in creating and delivering a superior value to customers is by adding meaningful brand associations that create value beyond the intrinsic characteristics of a product. One of the most important characteristics of a brand is the self-expressive function, meaning that value goes beyond the immediate benefits of your stuff and imparts a sense of psychological and social well being. Brands have the power to communicate valuable information and can be used and perceived in many different ways by consumers, people with similar beliefs, and those closest to us. In other words, brands reflect our identities and a lot of folks tend to use brands as a mean to express their identity and lifestyle. Indeed, this is becoming more prevalent as peoples seek to break down the paradox of belonging to something bigger than themselves while aspiring to the American ideal of hyper-individuality.

In addition to serving as an external signal, brands can be used to create and confirm a consumer self-concept and unique identity. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both his own and people’s perception about his desired identity. As a result, people use brands to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In particular, consumers tend to prefer brands that are convergent with their perceived ideal identity. As a result of that self-expression, a predilection for a certain brand is the result of only sociological factors because a person’s need for self-expression is the result of interactions with other members of the community. In other words, brands are used as a mean of expressing their own identity, brand predilection is the result of intrinsic factors, and brand preference is the result of extrinsic factors. What that means is that a successful brand must have a strong degree of resonance with both consumer personal identity and socio-cultural identity.

As a consequence, consumers’ needs for self-expression can be satiated not only be using certain brands but also by other available means of self-expression. This is particularly important when analyzing the correlations between brands and lifestyle because the lines between personal identity and everyday doings are becoming more blurred. Products are just things, but brands become beacons.

Why does it matter? It maters because brands can be used to create a unique social identity for each customer. Brands are more than just instruments of hedonic experiences because they have the power to harness and channel specific hedonistic desires in expressing a bigger sociological and psychological construct such as lifestyle. And this is where data and linear thinking fall flat (you just knew it was coming). Data get at the what and the why, but they don’t get at the richer aspects of the human experience, the why behind the what. Quantitative information isn’t relevant if it only gives you have the picture – the Mona Lisa can be broken down into its constituent parts but that doesn’t explain why people will spend hours in line for a glimpse at it. A John Deere cap does a great job of keeping the sun out of your eyes and that can be quantified. But those same data points can’t explain why the brand resonates with Midwest alternative kids to such a degree.

The answers lie in rethinking how we address brands and branding. By expanding the brand conversation to one of identity, longing, identity it allows us to penetrate the white noise and reach our consumers, turning them into advocates.

 

Making Tech Sexy: Share of Culture and Building Brands

The old advertising model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which used to be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. And this is where brands are taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to be part of a tribe. A

 How it relates to the creative process

We are not focusing on complex cultural concepts just for the sake of making people smarter. That’s completely useless if you can’t do anything with it. As such, we take the insights we uncover and integrate them into a creative strategy by asking questions such as: “What are the cultural forces and tensions that are acting on the consumer to influence how they perceive value?” or “What are the conventions or the categories that you may or may not want to disrupt?” The answers to these questions build a proposition to bridge between research findings and creativity that illuminates a new pathway to growth. Through that proposition, we are able to connect greater meaning to brands and grow share of culture. If you can understand the domain of culture, and actually use that understanding to build a strategy, you can increase relevance. Starting with a focus on cultural insights ultimately leads to looking at a problem from different perspectives.

Why do we take this particular approach? Because at a fundamental level we believe that when people make a purchase, whether it be a home, a new gaming system, a vacation package or whatever it is, they are actually using that product or service to add meaning to their lives. The meaning that has been created in the goods and services that everybody buys are not intrinsic to those goods and services, it’s actually our culture that says a diamond has more value than a ruby, and gold has more value than silver, an Apple mobile device has more value than a Nokia or what have you. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choice they’re making is actually very important to them. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to do the right thing by those consumers, who are choosing a certain product in order to craft their identity. That means there are really no boundaries for clients and the emphasis becomes one of solving a problem rather than executing on a task. And quite simply, that sets up a brand for meaningful creative work.

Putting It Into Practice

So, what does all of this look like? Let’s take you through an example. BaM was asked by Microsoft to quickly come up with ideas for Windows Gaming’s VIP party for Gamescom in Cologne. Gamescom is the video game industry’s largest European event, with well over a quarter-million visitors and thousands of journalists, all looking to see advances in gaming technology. In other words, this is a very big, very visible event. And as with all such events, people are there to learn but also to have a good time, which of course means parties. But while Windows is a major platform for development and is home to a huge audience of PC gamers, it isn’t necessarily seen as the sexiest of brands. Windows needed two main things; 1) ideas to create buzz at the event and 2) a way to get VIPs to their party. Equally important, this was the event where Microsoft would premiere the auto racing game Asphalt 8, it’s newest release for Windows.

So, we began asking a very basic question. What makes a party meaningful? Through a series of interviews and recounting our own experiences with parties in a narrative-based brainstorm, we came to a very basic truth – a party is just another event, but a destination people want to actively be a part of. It creates a sense of excitement and suggests the promise of stories to come. For the attendee, a destination is something special, something tailored, something to live on after the drinking and dancing are done.

The next step was to gain a richer understanding of developer culture by thinking about them as a “culture of practice”. Culture of practice generally refers to the manifestation of a culture or subculture, especially in regard to the traditional and customary practices of a particular ethnic or other cultural group. In other words, what commonalities could we uncover in the developer tribe that we could speak to?  Two key insights bubbled to the surface. First, there are close links with driving culture in that machines are points of fascination. But the machine itself isn’t enough. They want to understand it, test it, experience what it can do. Design, how quickly it reacts, how it performs, etc. factor into a love of technology – it isn’t about the parts that make it up, it’s about the sum total of the experience. Second, developers have in the past been often overlooked at events like this. They are important and people listen to them, but once the technical discussions are over they have traditionally been relegated to the “geek” corner. Not anymore. Look at the two classic characteristics of geeks: social ineptitude and obsessive devotion to some pursuit. They’re neither social climbers nor rebels, because they are indifferent to how the world sees them. But those days are, in many ways, dead and buried. Cory Arcangel is a Damien Hirst­y hipster artist. Joss Whedon is not a geek but a talented hack writer in the tradition of Ben Hecht, capable of synthesizing junk culture in clever and knowing ways. The point being, developers are as much artists and rebels as anyone else. And they deserve recognition for it.

So, what if we paired the love of the machine with the cool factor of “geek culture”? Almost all of these developers are deeply familiar with the supercars in driving games like Asphalt 8, but how many have actually been in one? What if we created a taxi service involving high-end, high-performance cars? Even if our VIPs didn’t have a strong fascination with these amazing machines, they would jump at the opportunity to be in one. It spoke to the love of performance and technology, but also the sheer bad-assery of the design.

Knowing our venue was several miles from the event, it also provided an opportunity to do more than experience a pointless two-block ride – it let the passenger really feel the car. We found an incredible rental vendor and drivers to ferry our VIPs in Lamborghinis, Audi R8s, and Ferraris – the sort of things you might be familiar with if you were eagerly awaiting the next release of Asphalt.

The next step was to create awareness. Rather than sending an email or note that might never be seen, BaM created exclusive key cards, each featuring different 8-bit party icons for partygoers to present at the door. But for our select group of VIPs, we created cards featuring an illustration of an 8-bit car with handwritten phone number. Dialing that number landed them a ride to the club in our supercar taxi service. This did more than just get you to the event. It created a sense of exclusivity for the passenger and curiosity for the onlooker. It created buzz. Suddenly people were asking, what cool thing does Microsoft have going on and how do I get in?

Party Time

The cars and the buzz were great, but the party had to pay it all off. And this is where details matter most. BaM gave the club’s drink menu a redesign with retro-gaming themed names like Castle Key, Magic Elixir and Combo Move. The staff wore shirts featuring 8-bit artwork that corresponded to the drinks they were serving. And partygoers had the chance to play a sneak preview of Asphalt 8: Airborne on Surface tablets that were walked around by the staff.

Coolness is defined in many ways by the company you keep. In this case, the party did more than attract our guests. It produced both gatecrashers and a visit from the polizei – nothing says “successful party” like people from other organizations, like Google, trying to get in and the police showing up to manage the growing crowd outside the building.

Take Aways

Great story, yes, but why does it matter? At a practical level, we were able to demonstrate that Windows provides outstanding game quality. In other words, we were able to change perceptions about the brand (Windows is, it turns out, kind of cool) and the products. We did more than just make the case for the platform and the game, we generated increased interest and share of culture.

It also opened up new venues to sell games. By proving the products in a very public way, we could exploits Windows’ tremendous reach. We’re largely outside the App Store/Android battle. By demonstrating what Windows has to offer, it allows developers and designers to broaden their market, thus providing Microsoft with new partners, products, and prestige.

Finally, at a broader level we were able to start shifting perceptions of Microsoft and Windows. Added to the successes of the Surface Pro, the exclusive use of Windows products in DC universe programming, and an increasingly user-friendly operating system, this event helped the company capture a greater share of meaning in the broader culture. It helped move the conversation from moments of advertising and marketing, to part of a deeper, positive undercurrent. In other words, it helped capture a greater share of culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shades of Blue: Marrying Art and Science

When chemists at Oregon State University4.jpeg discovered a brilliant new blue pigment serendipitously, they were not thinking about
creating art. But in a true art meets science moment, an applied visual arts major bean using the blue pigments in her artwork as part of an internship in Subramanian’s laboratory. This was also her first foray into the world of chemistry. Human history is filled with examples of innovation that occurred at the juncture of art and science, whether it’s as profound as Leonardo da Vinci’s explorations of anatomy or as mundane as liquid nitrogen ice cream. The point is simple – creative inspiration, whether in product development, advertising, or any other activity, is a matter of rethinking how we look at a problem.

Driven by CEOs that want to see ROI and engagement for every cent spent versus the equally valuable but often nebulous idea of “brand impact,” campaign and branding initiatives can be particularly challenging for CMOs today. Seemingly competing world views clash in large part because we take a binary position – it’s an either/or mentality where art and science are somehow in conflict. But is that fair or is it a modern construct? Are art and science so divergent or have we slipped into a lazy pattern of thinking.

Brands that want to take advantage of the intersection of art and science can start by simply acknowledging the fact that creative and metrics are not mutually exclusive concepts. By blending these two components of the creative process (and yes, science is a creative enterprise) and giving them a common goal to work tow
ards, we see focused innovation. We see new expressions of a common undercurrent.

Blending art and science is about collaborating in ideas generation: the inter-relationship is critical, you can’t have one thing without the other. Code or data are
just a bunch of numbers without the art. A visual masterpiece that produces no action is inspired but not inspiring. Science enables us to be more creative, and creativity allows us to get the most out of our data. But consider “the multiplier effect”. If either the data or creative are bad, the idea will fail. Or worse yet, if they work alone, without the cross-pollination that happens when different ways of experiencing the world come together, then the result can be flat out detrimental. It’s not one or the other that we need, it’s both. It’s not science plus art equals results, it’s more science times art, so a zero for either means failure.

That is where the interesting ideas are – at the intersection of exploration. The future is all about ideas connecting. Those who can bridge art and science will be in demand, will be powerful. If our ideas are going to change hearts and minds, then we need to find expression that can move freely between the boundaries of art and science.

 

Politics, Protest, and Branding

It’s not just individuals choosing to make a political statement these days. The list of brands stepping forward to voice their concerns over President Trump’s Image result for protestpolicies is growing (we can assume some will show support but I have not seen these yet). The act of creative protest is being seen by many brands as an opportunity to take a stand for what they believe in and share their identity with the world. But is a political protest the right place for brands? Is it genuine or opportunistic? And from an economic standpoint, is it wise?

As with everything like this, the answer is complex, but it comes down to internal branding, culture and employee engagement. These tech firms issued statements to reassure their own people that they care and are taking action. That internal action then flows through to an external brand perception and consumers see the brands they use and buy doing something that resonates.

In my humble opinion, brands don’t really have a choice in whether to be involved in protest now. Nearly everything is politicized in the current environment.  And as people are increasingly buying things based on what aligns with their own social values, it’s almost impossible to remain on the sidelines.

A brand can get involved in politics, but it’s a risk since people care deeply about social and political issues. Brands can make it seem like they’re taking the issue lightly. They can portray to great a sense of gravitas. That runs the risk of a brand appearing like it’s seeking attention rather than making a firm commitment to a set of values. So, when venturing into a politically-charged branding effort, campaign, etc., you’ve got to judge the climate and how the brand’s involvement will be taken, both by its most ardent supports and its detractors. Brands will get dragged into political debates, whether they like it or not, so it’s wise to get in touch with the audience, understand what matters to them, and be on the firm ground with their support. So long as it’s done from a place of authenticity, it will work.

Consumers are increasingly buying into the ethics and points of views of brands and the organizations that produce them which means there is a role for brands in political milieu. It’s wrapped up in marketing and brands with purpose. Add to this that social media has required brands to be current and conversational, and the conversation of the moment is the tectonic changes in politics, media and society.

However, not all brands should be diving into the political fray. Using something as sensitive and incendiary as the now infamous “alternative facts” comments of the administration to sell products won’t go down well in some camps. Not all brands will have permission to do so. Like it or not, history and audience affiliation shape what a brand can realistically do. If a brand belittles or trivializes something important, then that is a mistake.  But if there is a connection to the cause in some way, like Tecate’s obvious association with both Mexico and a segment of the US population that is increasingly welcoming of other cultures, then protesting the wall can amplify the protest sentiment of their target audience and build its value and connection.

In the end the best brands, those we feel a deep connection to, are those that stand for something. They are the ones that people are attracted to (or avoid). They have meaning in the broader cultural dialogue. For better or for worse, brands are stepping up and become symbols that drive beliefs – and actions. People seek out brands who fight for the things they care about. Getting it right and capturing your share of cultural relevance is simply the way of things in a politically charged world.

 

PREFUNKING: Ethnography, booze, and neon drink

First Published in Peeps Forum:

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that caught the attention of twenty-somethings. They were the people in the know; tattoo chic, experimenting, and bringing trends to life, not the people on the cutting edge of what is cool, but not the late comers to the subcultural party. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Sparks was bought by Miller Brewing in 2006, but for all its success, Miller’s initial marketing campaigns fell flat. Sales, though strong, remained essentially unchanged from one year to the next. While the success of Sparks was tremendous, they hadn’t a clue about the people drinking it. There was plenty of data about the age group, but when it came to the lives and habits of the consumers, they really didn’t “get” them. Despite all of the traditional marketing data they held in their hands, Sparks was shaping up to be a puzzle they couldn’t solve. And so they reached out to ethnographers to get at the heart of the matter. What was it about this drink that Miller just didn’t quite get? After spending millions on the product, Miller was decidedly keen to get to the bottom of this mystery.

SHAPING THE CAMPAIGN

Initially, Miller had relied on a traditional campaign strategy – images of people at fairly tame social gatherings, savoring Sparks the way one might savor a beer after a long day at work, focusing on flavor. They even considered changing the formulation of the drink to offer an array of flavors that weren’t so dramatic, packaging the cans in twelve packs for sharing and easy storage, and mimicking other beverage producers with on-premises promotions that emphasized flavor and direct competition with the Red Bull and vodka crowd. In the end, Miller chose a different route, based on what came out of the fieldwork. The strategy focused on the one thing that made Sparks special; its sheer absurdity and embodiment of sanitized rebellion.

Sparks was defined by its users. They felt a large degree of control over it and a deep appreciation for the fact that its ingredients simply weren’t meant to go together. Sparks represented a categorical frame that defied convention and the campaign we helped them develop reflected that. The focus moved away from traditional advertising and competing directly with the competition. Instead, the strategy was to become a presence at transitory events such as raves, mutant bike rallies, skateboarding competitions, music festivals that weren’t in the mainstream, but not so far outside the norm as to be overlooked. Event were chosen that reflected a sanitized sense of rebellion. Photo-bombing was encouraged and recipes were shared. One Brooklyn kickball team took it upon themselves to use the Sparks can as their mascot, shooting it “doing things” before every game, which led to competition between teams for posting the best shots.  One woman and her roommate gave the world their recipe for a Sparks float. While the drink is interesting, having had a couple of Sparks before trying it helps with the flavor.

The other central aspect of the campaign was to focus on small, stop-and-go liquor stores and groceries, rather than worrying about what happened at the bar. Bars are about projection of sophistication, group affiliation, and building group identity in a closed environment with certain social rules. Sparks was all about the individual drinking it and being part of a group activity defined by being temporary and over the top. The places where Sparks was consumed were about mutability and liminality, which fit right in with the places it was typically bought. Finally, the product itself saw no change. Making it taste “good” defeated the purpose and devalued the drink. It was one thing to introduce Blackberry Sparks, but quite another to mask the strange, chemically flavor notes that made the drink cool. Equally important to keep the unusual flavor, changes to the packaging were made to reflect its utility, giving it greater symbolic credibility and making it something you could show off to your friends and strangers.

All of these elements came together to ignite a simple idea: Sparks isn’t something you drink so much as it was something you used, whether for the obvious physical effects or to set the stage to an evening (or, less often, a day) where abandonment of social norms was the rule.  This meant Miller had to embrace greater risk and deviate from its normal operating procedures. They couldn’t stick with a brand image that was intentionally subdued. They could focus on the middle of the bell curve, but had to embrace the people who were setting trends. It was a gamble, but one that paid off. Under the new campaign direction, Sparks saw sales and awareness increase 20% after having been stagnant for well over a year. So how did we get there?

GETTING DIRTY: PREPARING AND PLANNING

Everything begins with a solid methodology. Defining our target was based on Miller’s data, but went beyond basic demographics, the reason being twofold. First, traditional segmentation is often, if not always, too restrictive and not designed to reflect the fact that people are social creatures, not individuals who function outside of cultural realities. In other words, while we like to think we’re individuals, we are products and shapers of our cultures and context shapes how we think, act, and believe. Rather than going after individuals, we designed the research to focus on cultural groups and settings.  What are the situations in which drinking is occurring? How do we type different drinking situations? How do they change through time? How do people outside the target segment reflect and shape a given context? Treating the moments in which interactions occurred is if they were also the sample allowed us to look at Sparks from a different angle, not just from the position of product and/as person.

Once we began defining who we would use as our person of entry into a given setting and thinking through the possible drinking contexts we would need to see, we began the process of developing field teams and determining where geographically we would go. Developing field teams involves more than simply picking out observant individuals with a knack for interviewing and conversing with strangers, it meant taking time to reflect on strengths, individual psychologies, and interpretive skills. Taking more than two ethnographers into the field is, in my estimation, a mistake but the same can often be said about taking a single ethnographer. Having more than two people simply makes the situation awkward and leads to a lab-rat situation where people are more concerned with feeding you what they think you want to hear than letting you into their world for a time. This was extremely important for the Sparks work because we wanted an “inside/outsider” approach; someone the participants could teach and another they felt comfortable bringing into the group. By having two sets of minds with different views and backgrounds, it’s easier to triangulate observations and determine what is interpretive bias vs. what’s actually going on. Individually, what we learn may look very different, but together we start to see patterns emerge.

Deciding the locations of study was, perhaps, an easier task. Sparks had a fairly finite range of consumption – the hipper parts of town. Initially, the client wanted us to focus exclusively on their three largest markets, New York, Chicago and LA. We, however, thought that while these were certainly legitimate, the cities were limiting. The reason is twofold. First, if were going to grow the market we needed to see what was happening in places other than the Big 3. Second, if the defining characteristic of the Sparks buyer (and potential Sparks buyer) was being part of a cool group, we needed to see how that was defined in cities other than the top trend setters in the US. All this guides the decision about the field sites we choose. In the end we settled on the New York metro (primarily the Williamsburg area, but also the Lower East Side, Harlem, and Greenwich Village), Portland (smaller population), Austin (college town defined as a bastion of weirdness in an otherwise conservative state) and Atlanta (emerging as a major music hub at the time). With the planning and prep out of the way, and with the blessing of the client, we were ready to go.

HEADING INTO THE FIELD

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process.

So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town, so to speak, as they engaged in any number of activities. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research. One of our key informants had us meet in her Williamsburg apartment the night she was throwing a party. Much to our delight, nearly everyone attending had a couple of cans of Sparks with them, along with a six pack of something else, usually an import. The six packs went in the fridge or on the fire escape, it was a brutally cold winter, so people took advantage of the situation, but the cans of Sparks stayed with the owner. What we discovered was surprisingly simple – one can was used to kick start the evening and the other was downed at about midnight or 1:00 to keep the party going. Functionally, the product was all about what several participants called the “pre-funk”.

But Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. And more importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something more than a casual get together. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview. We had to be in the moment.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. For example, what do you do when it turns out a recruit doesn’t fit the sample defined by the client segmentation? You can, of course, always walk away, but you run the risk of missing a moment that would otherwise be overlooked. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. Marco clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became a something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

HEADING HOME: MOMENTS OF INSIGHT

After leaving the field the hard work begins. Literally hundreds of pieces of information from different field teams have to be synthesized into a meaningful set of patterns, and the final output can be large and daunting.  That works well if your goal is academic, but when all is said and done, our clients are looking for direction and specific ideas on which they can act. In the case of Sparks, several key conceptual points bubbled to the surface. The first was to capitalize of the idea of function vs. connoisseurship. Sparks has a fairly clear purpose of establishing a physical state vs. status. Unlike, say Oban (seek it out if you’re unfamiliar), Sparks does not convey taste or knowledge about culinary matters. It does convey knowledge about being part of the inner circle of cool.  Above all else, Sparks functions as a means of kicking off the night and gives the drinker license to behave in unexpected ways. Second, Sparks has an undertone of humor to it. Throughout the research, participants talked about the cartoonishness of the drink – the “absurdity” of the battery-like can, the color, the very idea of combining malt liquor and an energy drink. Sparks was a manifestation of incongruity in beverage form, bricolage in a can.  Not surprisingly, urban myths and folklore about Sparks were in ready supply. For example, more than one participant told us, “If you drink more than three you may die”. Another told us that if you leave a glass of it out overnight, it would eat through the bottom, though they had never tried the experiment themselves. One participant firmly believed that if taken to a picnic, Sparks would be the only item ants would avoid. None of it was taken all that seriously, but that simply added to the fun. The brand’s very absurdity was a major strength.

Finally, Sparks tied in with symbols of youth. It signified rebellion and a lack of inhibitions. It also represents a sense of abandon where mortality is challenged. Almost everyone we spoke with commented at some point that they would stop drinking the stuff before they were thirty. As one participant said, “I know this stuff is killing me, but I’m still young, I have time.” Sparks tempts fate, it reifies the drinker’s youth and briefly puts them in opposition to the larger culture without having to commit to a permanent state of rebellion.

All of this led to a number of clear recommendations, some of which flew in the face of what the data and the focus groups said. First, it was extremely important to keep the flavor funky. Tasting strange, like the color of the drink, gave it credibility. Tasting strange solidifies it as a symbol of absurdity, making the drink a publicly displayed symbol of their “inner cool.” Second, Miller had to rethink packaging. Like the flavor, the can itself is a symbol drinkers use to let others know that social norms are fluid while drinking it. But this is not a drink you share. You only drink 2-3 in a night, which meant six packs are useless. It’s all about grab and go, not something you stockpile, savor, or sip with friends. That means designing two packs and three packs. Third, the brand had to accept that on-trade is not where success lies, at least not initially. Cans in a bar are unacceptable, unless the product is seen as a throwback drink (i.e. retro beers, etc.). On the surface, Red Bull and vodka might not appear that dissimilar from Sparks, but what they convey in a bar is vastly different. Cans are acceptable in public space when it is truly public. Finally, Miller needed to rethink traditional media. Because of an inherent distrust of advertising, the rise of social media, and word of mouth being the most trustworthy means of communicating “cool”, print, radio, and TV had little relevance. Live events and being in unexpected places, such as sponsoring a last-minute street party or having a presence at a mutant bike rally, adds credibility and cache to the brand. Sparks, unlike the other products in the parent brand’s suite, needed to break away from everything the company was comfortable with. Indeed, it needed to work in opposition to it.

THE SAD DEMISE OF SPARKS

Unfortunately, for all its success, Spark has faded into the background, the reason being that all the “good stuff” was removed, stripping it of the very things that made it work. In September 2008, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, sued MillerCoors (Miller Brewing and Coors had merged the year before), claiming that its Sparks alcoholic beverages that include caffeine are a health hazard. Next, Congress began a probe. But the suit never made it to court. Three months later, at the behest of San Francisco and 13 states, distributor MillerCoors  buckled and announced it would remove the caffeine and other energy-drink ingredients from its Sparks line of energy drinks, and would change its marketing campaign. With the ingredients gone, Sparks simply didn’t have a campaign or a product that mattered. The drink still exists, but the brand has fallen into the shadows of the broader MillerCoors portfolio as sales have declined over time.

For better or for worse, the work we did increased awareness, market share and sales. Unfortunately, it also helped put the brand squarely in the crosshairs. Had Sparks remained quietly in the background, it might not have garnered the ire of watchdog groups. The drink was representational of the people who drank it: outsiders, rebels, people who are often seen as a threat by the standard order. Sparks, like heavy metal or punk in the 80s, was more than a potential health hazard, it was a threat to the status quo. By bringing it into a more accepted space, it challenged what drinking “should be”. And so, Sparks became a target as it grew in popularity, and ultimately was undone by the very factors which had driven the marketing campaign that had made it so successful.  Even so, what the client and our team learned from the research done on this project continues to be used to this day, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the greatest compliment a project can receive.

 

Bless the Weirdo: Creativity and Innovation in Advertising

Peculiar is good, don’t let anyone tell you anything different. Having a skewed take on the world isn’t what you always want or need, but it is important to have free thinkers, dreamers, and mad geniuses in the company mix if you want to break though the play-it-safe realities of most businesses.

Back in the day David Ogilvy wrote a memo to his managers spelling out the characteristics he believed were central for the ideal candidate. “The person is ambitious. The person works harder than their peers—and enjoys it. The person has a brilliant brain—inventive and unorthodox. The person has an engaging personality. The person demonstrates respect for the creative function.” In other words, David Ogilvy was asking for someone dynamic, smart, and creative. Well who isn’t? But to me, the key words here are “unorthodox” and “engaging”. And whether you’re in advertising, product development, or probably any field for that matter, these two words set the stage for meaningful innovation.

The reason I say this is because take together they suggest an ability, and deep-seated need to break through boundaries and look at the world in an unexpected way. In an Ad Week article that appeared this week (and inspired my thinking), the authored phrased it this way: The person is confidently peculiar. And while I love and embrace this idea, it warrants a little deeper examination.

Regardless of the industry, but especially in advertising, lip service is given to the idea that collective thinking should be “inventive and unorthodox,” but it’s not always the case. Indeed, it rarely is. It’s a given, we assume, that people’s diverse points of view, training, interests, histories, and cultures result in original work. But sometimes that work needs to be influenced by peculiarity due to fear.

When we’re faced with the need to live in the question, most people, creators included, experience anything from unease to abject fear and paralyzing anxiety. From a purely biological perspective, acting in the face of uncertainty stimulates a part of the brain known as the amygdala, which is a primary seat of fear and anxiety. That sends a surge of chemicals through our bodies that makes us want to run. So when we start really letting the creative juices flow, we shut down or limit ourselves to staying within psychological and social parameters that are safe.

Additionally, we’re trained to be risk averse. Frequently, the people with power are in power because they are good at process. It’s their job to mitigate risk. And innovative thinking is the definition of risk. What that means is that when you really push the boundaries, you run the risk of being wrong (at least in the eyes of the people who often control your fate). Being wrong and the fear it creates stops us from embracing those strange ways of thinking that help us believe we can break boundaries, invent the next light bulb, and change the world. The result of all this discomfort and fear is that we often exclude the most inventive from the conversation and fall back on what we already know.

Which brings us back to the two words I mentioned at the beginning: “unorthodox” and “engaging”. By unorthodox I mean will to break with tradition, with social norms, with standard practices. These are the people who frequently drive PMs and Account people batty, but they’re necessary to challenge the status quo. Partly it’s to help break through the noise in the moment, but the unorthodox, the half mad, create a liminal state. When a person is in a liminal state, she or he is betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.  Their roles in the cosmic order are ambiguous. The result of turning the world on its head for a brief time is to create a “realm of pure possibility” and structural invisibility. The unorthodox position creates a challenge to one’s self and sets the stage for more creative thinking.

Engaging means more than fearlessness and confidence. It means being able to captivate. Without a sense of security in their weirdness, these personalities would suppress the very thing that makes them interesting. But given the chance and space to embrace and even enhance their oddity, these characters are able to inject it into any particular creative pursuit of their choosing. This is what makes the story sing and gives life to the unorthodox approach to solving the problem at hand. Engaging doesn’t just mean entertaining, it means convincing, transformational, and true.

Put together, these two characteristics lead to re-envisioning the world. Because people like this stand somewhat outside the norm, they serve as catalysts and gateways to a creative space we’re often afraid to go. Keep the peculiar, the weird, the unrelenting close at hand. You may not see their value in a clear-cut way but the pay off can be seismic.