Taco Bell PR Lessons?


Danny, over at the always entertaining Beyond Madison Avenue blog , points us to Taco Bell's latest PR effort following the E-coli scare that involved some of its restaurants. If you haven't seen the TV spot, it features Greg Creed, CEO of Taco Bell, standing in one of his restaurants, apologizing for the E-coli outbreak and reassuring viewers about the safety of Taco Bell restaurants.

(To watch the spot, click here, select press releases from the "our company" tab at the top of the screen, and click on the video button at the top right of the screen.)

When I first saw the spot, I was a little torn. On the pro side, I thought it was great that Taco Bell engaged in a dialogue with their customers and addressed the issue head-on: We're Taco Bell. We screwed up. We fixed the problem. We've been cleared by the CDC. Life is good again.

I also liked the fact that they put a face to the brand. But that initial feeling was short lived:

1) The spot was cheaply made. It looked like something my local cable system would put together for a local restaurant. I expected more from Taco Bell. -3 point.

2) Don't put the president of the company in your spot unless they are charismatic, photogenic, and immediately likeable. Most of the time, you're better off using a spokesperson, model, or actor who can project just the right screen presence and get the point across. -1 point.

3) Putting the president of the company in a spot like this one is also a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it shows that the negative situation that you are trying to dissipate is being delt with. (+2 points.) Unfortunately, it does nothing to dissipate the situation. If anything, putting your top exec on TV if he/she isn't always a media darling, makes the situation seem perhaps worse and serious than it was. -2 points.

4) People want to be reassured by someone they are naturally inclined to trust. The more culturally like them that person is, the more likely it is that people will trust him/her. I am pretty sure that most people had no idea that Taco Bell's president was foreign, and this was probably not the best time to find out. Whether we like to admit it or not, a foreigner reassuring the masses that his restaurants are safe isn't as effective as letting one of their own do so. (Or someone who looks and sound like one of their own.) Note: Before you start sending me hate mail, please remember that I am foreign, and therefore pretty much incapable of being xenophobic while living in a country that is not my own. (Just keep those pesky Canadians away from me though.)

But seriously. It's true that we tend to naturally place more trust in people who look, sound and seem like us than... strangers. It's just science.

5) Using the words "E-Coli" and "CDC" in your spot are a surefire way to get people's attention, but those are the words that will stick in people's minds. Unfortunately, Taco Bell was still in crisis mode (which was an internal operative mode) while the rest of us were not. Tip: Don't use crisis words when the crisis is over. Using more positive words that focus on safety, flavor and experience would have probably been a little more effective in helping everyone mentally transition to "things are back to normal" mode.

6) Danny makes the point that the spot was aired after the Taco Bell E-Coli story had started to fade from the news. The outbreak was kind of a non-issue. Again, Taco bell was still in crisis mode while the rest of us were already beyond it. The timing of the spot made it seem that the crisis was still ongoing - despite the fact that it marked the official "it's okay to eat here again." For reminding us of something that wasn't really in our minds anymore and extending the duration of a black eye for their brand, Taco Bell loses another point.

7) Did I mention that the ad looked cheap and bleak?

I'll let Danny have the last word:
I don’t claim to be a PR guy. I don’t eat at Taco Bell if I can help it. And I was aware of the outbreak when it was reported recently. But somehow, this apology didn’t sit well with me. It was yesterday’s news. It was forgotten. And now I have the president of the company helping me re-associate Taco Bell with E. Coli and the Center for Disease Control. Seems to me that Taco Bell has resurrected a dead horse simply for the sake of killing it again. And then kicking it.


Getting Your Bearings in 2007


I hope everyone had a very merry Christmas this year. The holidays aren't over yet, but since not everyone is on vacation right now, I should at least try and post a few more times before we all turn the page on 2006.

As always, I start my day with a couple of quick glances at my favorite business/marketing blogs, and I found this gem today on Mike Wagner's Own Your Brand blog. Since a whole new year is right around the corner and many of you still have four or five months before the big spring releases and trade shows, I found this post extremely a-propos. Check it out:

“In a few minutes you’ll be finishing lunch and heading back to work for the balance of the day. 2007 is just around the corner - 2006 is all but a memory. What will you face when you walk through the doors?

"Will your top salesperson be asking, for the tenth time this week, for you to consider lowering prices for 2007?

"Will you commit to another newspaper ad or radio spot announcing discounts, sales, or rebates?

"Will your CFO ask you to take a look at the P&L for the last quarter to be sure you’re fully aware margins have shrunk again?

"Will you scour your company’s efficiency report hoping your operations manager’s found another way to cost save?

"Will your Director of HR stop by long enough to tell you that one of your brightest, best, and most creative employees is leaving? And will you wonder out loud, “Why can’t we keep good people?”

"Will yet another customer compliant be routed to you because you’ve got front-line people who just don’t care?"


If you've answered yes to any of these questions, chances are that you should also be answering yes to most - if not all - of these questions.

(And thus begins the downward spiral.) Seriously. If this sounds like your company, you need to stop and figure out how to get yourself out of the hole you've dug for yourself right now.

Not a year from now. Not when things settle down a bit and you have more time (that will NEVER happen). Not when your big project is over.

Right now.

Think of it this way: If you ever watch the Discovery Channel, - especially on Friday evenings - you're probably familiar with the survival shows that either recreate stories of survival in the wild, or let you follow intrepid hosts all over the globe so they can put themselves in the position of a lost tourist or hiker just to show you how to survive your next accidental stranding. Invariably, in each of these shows, a moment will come when the people who have gotten stranded realize that they are lost and that they need to get their bearings before moving on. Not doing so, continuing to move in a direction that could be the wrong one, could prove fatal.

As an executive, think of the warning signs Mike mentioned above as indicators that your company has gotten a bit lost. That you've zigged when you should have zagged. That if you don't adjust your course quickly, you will continue down the wrong path.

Just as stopping to get your bearings at regular intervals is something that is essential to your survival in the wild, it is also essential to your survival in the business world.

And by stopping to get your bearings, I don't mean just making sure that sales quotas are where they should be. There are other questions to ask, and many of them should be asked of your customers - or your competitors' customers. What do you like about us? What don't you like about us? What do you like better about us than other companies that kind of do the same thing? (It's a trick question.) What do you like better about us this year than, say, three years ago? What do you like less about us this year than three years ago? What's the one thing you would like to see us do this year? (Hopefully, it won't be "lower your prices.")

You don't have to actually ask. Surveys aren't always all that great. But you have to know the answers to these questions. You need to have your finger on the pulse.

You also need to know where your company wants to be and needs to be this time next year. And three years from now. And eight years from now.

There are plenty of other questions you need to be asking in order to get your bearings - like, what do we need to do to move the conversation away from price? Not next year, but right now.

Every company is different, and so getting your bearings comes with a whole specific set of questions unique to your own company... But Mike has a set of questions that work for pretty much every company out there - including yours. They are:

What is our creative difference? This is where you take a long hard look at your organization or business. Will you see sameness, better sameness, or something that makes you authentically different? If you don’t see lots of ideas, creativity, and real difference, you’ve got big-time work to do!

What do we promise our customers? Most people don’t realize they haven’t a clue what their non-negotiable promises are to the marketplace. This is where marketing and sales go off and do “their thing” - which often means defaulting to low prices. Gee, that’s original!
What makes us relevant - right now? “NOW” is the operative word – don’t live in the past by caring about what made you relevant years ago. Prepare to be humbled. Staying with this question often shows leaders just how much they’ve lost touch with the marketplace.

Can we hear and tell the truth within our organization? Jim Collins calls this part of the conversation “the brutal facts”. His research demonstrated no one attains greatness without embracing them. Have you hugged your brutal facts today?

Do we have zombies working for us? You already sense your people don’t care - this is where you find out why. Don’t end the meeting until you know why they should care. Make another pot of coffee and stay with this one!
And this is why I enjoy Mike's blog so much.

Start the new year right. Turn off the auto-pilot. Get your bearings. Forge on ahead armed with the knowledge that you know where you're going, and that you know how to get there.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. :)


Keeping it fun.


I am so swamped this week (again) that I barely have time to write anything. I don't mind being that busy, but I do miss posting here daily and spending some time reading other blogs.

That being said, there's busy and then there's busy... and then there's the kind of busy that's busy but with the kind of rhythm that makes it seem less... busy.

Know what I mean?

Okay. Maybe not. Let me try this again:

Last week, I was insanely busy. The sheer amount of work to be done, the meetings, the deadlines, the proposals, the presentations, all of these things were like a hundred tennis balls bouncing around me, and I could only catch or manage a handfulof them at a time.

This week, I have the same amount of work (more, actually), but it seems that the hundreds of tennis balls are all coming at me from the same place, and as long as I stay focused, I can handle each one of them before they start bouncing all over the place.

Rhythm. Groove. Zone. Whatever you want to call it, when you're in it, life is good.

It's kind of like standing in the eye of the storm.

I wouldn't exactly call it peaceful, but it's definitely fun and zen and exciting all at the same time.

And the work we're doing seems kind of easy. Everything is flowing pretty well. Answering calls, returning emails, scheduling appointments, getting prepped for our shoot tomorrow, meeting with a couple of clients, delivering proofs, heading over to the kids' Christmas pageant in thirty minutes, doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, rescheduling calls, preparing proposals...

Tennis balls bouncing right into the center of my racket.




Smooth like butta.

Someday, someone will explain to me (in a way that even a five-year-old can understand) the mechanics behind that rhythm. Behind being "in the zone."

I'm sure it has something to do with Alpha waves and chemical receptors in the brain.

I'm sure that some people are better than others at getting into that mode.

Professional athletes. Artists. Soldiers. Brain surgeons.

Maybe soon, I should take the time to write a whole series of posts about why some organizations, companies and brands can get into the zone... and others can't. Or won't.

Cool stuff.

Gotta run. Have a great Tuesday. :)


I used to secretly envy the kids I grew up with - and shared classes with in college - who knew that whatever they did, whatever they studied, they would end up going to work for their fathers. Yep, little Johnny didn't have to work all that hard or take too many chances. After a few years of playing around and maybe getting an internship or a cushy job at one of Daddy's fraternity buddies' businesses, he would get a nice little management track spot at the family Inc.

More than half of these kids grew up to do just that. At 28, they were managers or vice presidents of this and that, driving their second or third Series 5 BMW's, and golfing every Friday afternoon with their father's friends' sons who followed the same path. Their names weren't Bufton, Virgil or Duke, but they might as well have been.

Yeah, I secretly envied them. I also despised them and everything they stood for, which... I suppose is kind of the same thing on some level or another. But yeah, I envied them. I envied them for having it so easy. For never having had to be completely on their own with zero support - financial or otherwise. For never had to spend a single day out there without a safety net. For never having had to suffer having to drive a car that burned more oil than it does gas. For never having had to work 80-hour weeks because they had to.

I envied them for never having had to do anything but show up and claim their prize: The cushy job. The cushy salary. The luxury car good old Dad can write off on his taxes. The right house in the right subdivision. The country-club membership. The ridiculous amount of free time that comes with the kind of job you know you can't get fired from. The six-figure wedding reception. Keys to the condo in Key West or Sardinia or the loft in NYC. The feature in The Greenville Journal.

I admit it. I was kind of jealous. Not much, but a little, yeah.

Perhaps more so because I could have had that life. All I would have had to do was pick up the phone and call dear old dad and trade my huevos for a suitcase full of cash and the keys to the kingdom.

All I had to do was convince myself that I would rather be comfortable and safe than actually make something of myself.

All I had to do was pretend that I would ever be proud of a life handed to me on a silver platter.

For whatever reason - or boxful of reasons, I didn't choose that route. I guess I needed to prove something to myself. I needed to test a few things out.

More than anything, I wanted to know if I could stand alone, on my own two feet, a stranger in a strange land, and start from scratch.

I was always the curious type.

It will have to be a discussion for another time, but let's just say that my parents completely embraced my decision to go off on my own. My name was scratched from the family tree. My photos removed from the family albums, thrown into a pile, and burned. My Star Wars actions figures and TinTin collections were boxed up and given to the poor. My bedroom was boarded up, and the door bricked over. "You want to go off on your own," they asked, not really asking, "okay. You're on your own."

Three days later, I was on a plane.

The only money I came to the US with was my leftover pay from the military - once I had paid for my cab ride and bought my plane ticket, I had about $1400 and change to my name. I arrived here without a job offer. Without even a green card (it took six months to finally get it). I had a car and a few boxes of clothes and books in storage. I had a college diploma. I had management experience from having been an officer in the French Navy's Marines. Stepping off the plane might as well have been stepping off a cliff with my eyes closed.

My parents, staying true to their ultimatum, didn't really speak to me again for over a year.

Ah, the French. We're kind of funny that way.

Thirteen years later, even with two awesome kids in tow and thirteen great years of marriage (to the day), with four terrific jobs behind me and almost two years into turning F360 from a silly little collaboration project with a friend to a viable company with clients all over the US, they still won't speak to me much.

All because I didn't choose the path that they had envisioned for me.

It doesn't matter how many award-winning products I help design, how many successful marketing projects I add to my portfolio, how many magazine covers or catalogs I shoot, how many of my photos end up on gallery walls, or how happy it makes me to keep getting better at all of this stuff with every passing day. I didn't follow the path they wanted. I guess they didn't get to brag me up the way they had dreamed they would.

Our son, the lawyer. I think he's in New York today. Or maybe is it The Hague? Wait... Maybe Bahrain. It's hard to keep track. He stays so busy, you know. Maybe if I call Estelle, his supermodel girlfriend, she'll know.

You would think that I skinned their cat alive or something.

But here's the thing: While it hasn't always been peaches and mint juleps, overall, it's been good. Hell, it's been great. And I wouldn't trade a second of it for the world.

Every challenge, every obstacle, every unexpected kick in the nuts, every terrible moment of self-doubt, every second I spent staring down into the abyss has been a gift. A tremendous learning experience. An opportunity to find out what kind of person I am.

And what I've found is that the harder the climb, the more rewarding the summit.

Looking back on the last thirteen years, I can now tell you with absolute certainty that perseverance always pays off. That having the huevos to put yourself out there and take chances always pays off.

You just have to be cunning. And patient. And a little nutty.

No, I didn't turn out to be the superfly international lawyer that I could have been. That my parents wanted me to be. I haven't made my first million yet. I don't own a jet or a cabin in Vail or a villa in Provence. I am not the thing that my parents dreamed I would be. And believe it or not, it's a hell of a relief.

I would hate to have gotten there so quickly. So easily.

I would hate to have had to follow other people safely to the top, only to find out someday that I climbed the wrong mountain.

More to the point, I would hate to get safely to the top of a nice, pretty mountain, only to have to sit there and watch a ragtag bunch of real Alpinists climb the real mountain in the distance, on guts and heart alone, and find myself wishing I'd had the huevos to go where they were going.

Yeah, maybe I've found myself envying those kids I went to school with, but with every passing day, with every new inch of success underfoot, that envy is fading. Fast.

I like to keep the journey at least as interesting as the destination. It works for me. It makes for interesting stories. It makes for great friendships.

And all in all, it's just good business too.

F360 just signed three new clients this week. We just took on four new projects with existing clients. We are growing. Our bills are paid. We're buying new gear soon. We are starting to get calls from companies so large, they actually exert a gravitational pull. We might even have to start hiring some new blood in 2007.


Who would have thought?

Thirteen years ago, stepping off that plane, full of piss and vinegar.

Happy Anniversary, Honey. I could have probably done it without you... but it wouldn't have been any fun. ;)


Fear and Loathing in Advertising?


Echoing the discussion that started a few days ago in the comments section of my Advertising & Response post (scroll down one or two posts), here is something I found on Jeremy Fuksa's The Martini Shaker blog this morning. It speaks to the sensitivity of American audiences when it comes to advertising:

I was enjoying some drinks with fellow Kansas City Ad Club members last night and we were talking about ads that were being perceived as being offensive... in particular the wildly popular “Caveman” campaign from Geico.

Yes, at face value the campaign is about how the cavemen feel that they are being discriminated against and being made fun of. But, you might be interested to know that real-life groups feel that these cavemen are representations of them. There’s suggestion that with the Taliban-esque beards and the fact that they are “cave” men, these spots might target Muslims. There’s a suggestion that homosexuals are the butt of the joke because the cavemen dress well, enjoy the finer things in life, and of course, there was the spot at the restaurant where the two cavemen were together...

Now today, we have the news that a recent “got milk” bus stop campaign that exudes the scent of freshly baked cookies was pulled because special interest groups argued that the smell of the ad was offensive to diabetics, obese people, and the homeless.

And you wonder why both clients and agencies in North America get gun-shy about pushing the envelope with the creative.

You know what? I used to share an office with a co-worker who found the TV show "Friends" offensive because it was way to overtly sexual. She also found most advertising too sexually suggestive.

Two words for people like her: Grow up.

If you feel like getting up in arms about something real, start with the daily death toll in Africa due to famine, war and AIDS. If that doesn't offend your sensibilities, look at how little is being done to try and save lives there by countries, organizations and people of influence who could really make a difference. That's something worth being genuinely offended about.

Well-dressed bearded cavemen in a funny insurance ad are not.

I won't go as far as to suggest an unapologetic shock-visual approach like Benetton's in the eighties and nineties (which didn't make any sense whatsoever given the company's image and success... but worked surprisingly well, at least for a little while), but if your brand wants to be a maverick, if it wants to inspire the bold, the rebels, the fringe dwellers (basically, the early adopters and influencers), you have to be willing to take chances. That means running the risk of offending people who have nothing better to do than be offended about everything and nothing.

Assuming that your ad wasn't purposely offensive and/or in very bad taste, there are two approaches to dealing with offended folks:

The first - Cater to the crowd you are trying to create a dialogue with, and don't worry about the prudes who just want to make noise. Imagine yourself being asked to comment about special interest groups who might have complained about your campaign. It shouldn't be more than a shrug, a friendly smile, and something along the lines of "we don't expect to be everyone's cup of tea. That's okay. I'm sorry these people have nothing better to do than complain about nothing."

Or maybe "Frankly, we're flattered that group xyz noticed our ads. All this time, we thought they were too busy burning books to even watch TV. That's great news."

Okay... never mind.

The second - Use your detractors' fervor as a boost, much like the marketing folks pushing "Black Christmas" did in their latest TV spots. Quick background: "Black Christmas" is a violent horror movie opening on Christmas Day that takes Christmas and turns it into something dark and evil. Christian and family groups are up in arms about it, as expected. In just its second week of TV spots in the South East, the trailers have been modified to address the complaints. Now, the voice-over intro goes a little something like this: To the people who are offended by a horror movie about Christmas... You haven't seen anything yet! In other words, if your product or brand is aggressive, be aggressive. If part of your appeal is shock value, embrace the fact that you're going to shock people. Make a stand. Have fun. Be a rebel. Be Manson. Be Zombie. Be Craven. Be Thompson. Be Palahniuk. Be Maher. Stand for something, and challenge your detractors. Invite dissent. Invite controversy. If you have the huevos, become controversy. It isn't for everyone or every product or brand, but if anything, at least people will know what you stand for, and there's a lot to be said for that. However small it may be, as long as youare good at what you do, you will attract a pretty rabid fan base.

The last thing you ever want is to be so PC, so vanilla, so boring and tepid that you will end up kind of appealing to everyone and no one in particular. Or appealing to some for no other reason than you're... comfortably average. You don't want to be the soft nameless middle. The good enough. The okay. The somewhat mediocre but safe.

If you missed the link a few paragraphs ago, check out this little piece on BrandChannel.com. (Don't worry, it's super short.) If you don't believe that bold can work for any brand as long as it embraces bold, you may change your mind. Sure, the more shocking the campaign, the shorter-lived its effect will be, but there are great lessons to be learned from the Benetton example.

Just get ready though, because bold is always going to rub somebody the wrong way. Especially in the US... or in... Iran. Heck, just about everywhere except Scandinavian countries, where people don't seem to get offended much. Maybe they know something we don't. Or maybe they aren't a bunch of pampered little overfed babies with nothing better to do with their free time than get caught up in prepackaged, self-serving dramas.

We're really starting to turn into a bunch of wusses. And for no damn good reason.


My phone doesn't ring on frozen mountaintops.


The telephone: Great invention, but it is driving me a little bit crazy this week.

When it just sits there and doesn't ring, that's usually not a good sign. Basically, a silent phone is telling you that your friends have given up on you, that your clients are doing business with someone else, and that you haven't really done a very good job of letting potential clients/customers know that you exist. Or that you're worth their time.

A silent phone is not a fun thing to be around.

But then you have weeks like this one, when my phone keeps ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing. And ringing. Every time I hang up, it starts ringing again. Hell, it rings even when I'm on the line with someone - so I have to either put them on hold to ask the new caller to hold, or let the new caller go to voice-mail.

Invariably, as soon as I check my voice-mail, the phone rings again.

Every time I check my email, the phone rings again.

As soon as I pour myself another cup of coffee, the phone rings again.

As soon as I drive uo to a client meeting, the phone rings again.

As soon as I finally get into a groove (actually... you know... doing work,) the phone rings again.

Don't get me wrong: Having your phone ring off the hook all day is a good thing. Hell, it's a great thing. A year ago, when I left the corporate world to go full time on this little 1-2 year experiment with F360 and BrandBuilder, I wondered if my phone would ever ring.

And for a while, it didn't ring all that much.

That was scary.

As with any business, you have your busy times and your less busy times. The manageably busy middle is a great place to be. It's balanced. You can have a life. You can take the time to do great work. You don't have to worry about missing deadlines or paying bills or letting small things fall through the cracks.

But then you have the crazy phases like this one when you're hot (or... your competitors are busy and you're plan B... or C... or D) and you actually have to turn projects down.

I hate it, but there are worse problems to have.

The thing that drives me crazy though is the constant interruption.

We aren't big enough to need a full time secretary to field calls for us... so what's a small company like ours to do?

I was pondering that very point (as my phone rang AGAIN) about ten minutes ago, when it suddenly came to me: It's time to revamp the old concept of the answering service. I want to be able to turn off my phone (especially my cell phone) and have calls go to a friendly, professional, cool voice that reflects the personality of my company. I want a live person who sounds educated, friendly, competent, and in a good mood. A British accent won't hurt, but that might be a little too... James Bond or something. I want someone who will represent my company and be an extension of our brand (for lack of a better term). I don't ever, ever want any calls to go to voice-mail anymore.

Let's face it: Voice-mail sucks.

I just don't want to have to pay someone like this full time, because that's just not feasible for a company as small (purposely or not) as F360. I couldn't possibly pay them what they're worth, and they would get kind of bored working just for us. (I did mention the thing about F360 wanting to stay small, right?) I'm sure that THOUSANDS of companies and consultants are in the same boat.

So why not - being repetitive here - breathe new life into answering services?

The beauty of this is that two well briefed "operators" equipped with the right technology could easily take care of 5-10 companies each, spreading the cost around - making it affordable for everyone. A company like this could start small if need be, and grow as needed. Simple enough.

But the trick is this: What I want can't be on the level of a typical call center. The quality of the operator's voice, their level of professionalism, and the entire experience has to be top notch. It has to be the complete and total opposite of the downward trend that call centers have been adopting in the last few years. (Don't get me wrong - exporting call centers to countries like India, creating jobs for people and saving money in the process has its merits, but this type of answering service can't and shouldn't be done on the cheap.) I don't want someone whose command of the english language is horrible. I don't want someone who sounds like she smokes three packs of cigarettes a day and whose car is seven shades of bondo. I don't want minimum wage or someone who will be gone in a month.

I want Elizabeth Hurley or Jude Law.

What I want is for my clients or potential clients to be pleasantly surprised by the experience and be well taken care of when I am too busy to take their call.

If there already is such a service, let me know how to get in touch with them.

If not, it might be worth a closer look. I know a way to make this happen. (Investors: Hint. Hint.)

Have a great Wednesday, everyone.

(And yes, my phone is ringing again, right now.)

And in related news: click here.


Advertising & Response


Okay, I'm quasi-back from a self-imposed break from blogging. I'll be completely honest and tell you that although I've missed this little blogging world (and probably wrecked my Technorati standing all to hell), the break has been nice. It's kind of refreshing to be able to enjoy marketing, advartising, business and branding for a few weeks without feeling obliged to comment on it.

But hey, it's almost Christmas time, and advertising is hitting hard already, so I figured it was time to come out of hiding and start throwing in my two cents here and there again. To get us started, the Living Brands blog points us to this great little bit by Robert Heath (a lecturer at the Bath School of Management):

"Advertisements with high levels of emotional content enhanced how people felt about brands, even when there was no real message. However, advertisements which were low on emotional content had no effect on how favourable the public were towards brands, even if the ad was high in news and information".

Not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but you know what? So many agencies and clients still get this wrong that it is worth repeating and repeating and repeating.

Unless you are an anal-retentive geek who gets his rocks off by spouting out the most arcane specs that even your other geek friends don't know like the backs of their hands - in which case, by all means, let the facts and nothing but the facts rule all advertising - EMOTION rules.

And by emotion, I don't just mean "make people laugh."

I mean connect with them on an emotional level.

Inspire them. Make them dream. Remind them of their childhood. Remind them of their dreams and aspirations.

Sure, if advertising's role is mainly to create awareness, who cares, right? Well, there's awareness, and there's awareness that lasts.

The key isn't just to come upwith a gimmick either... Unless the gimmick is so strong that it will quickly come to carry the banner of a brand (like Verizon's "Can You Hear Me Now" tech, or Nintendo Wii's two traveling ambassadors "Wii want to play.").

Speaking of the Wii TV advertising, excuse me in advance for saying so (some of you will cringe at the thought), but I think that the concept is brilliant. The two Japanese guys kind of remind me of (NBC) Heroes' Hiro and Ando, only a little more playful, and with a cooler car. Even he little bow that the ii in Wii does at the end of each spot is smart.

What does this have to do with emotion? Simple: The concept of the Wii console is fun. and the ads do an excellent job of conveying that through a quick but effective sampling of the brand and product experience.

Other emotional connection winners over the years have been Nike, XBox, Coca Cola, Levi's, Volkswagen, Jaguar, Gatorade, Kodak and hp, among others.

Emotional connection losers over the years make up the bulk of TV advertising today... like pretty much all of your locally produced ads, most car companies, most restaurants chains, and most recent theatrical releases. I'll also add The Gap to the mix (they haven't had a decent ad in years), and almost all of the ads for home products (detergents, soaps, shampoos, vacs, kitchen items, etc.). Sad.

But... Olivier, how do you establish an emotional connection with a small tub of margarine or a roll of aluminum foil?

That's a question best answered by your most hardcore customers, your ad agency, or someone like me. It's actually not that difficult. Unfortunately, way too many CMO's and ad execs don't do the real work and settle for the same, tired, easy touchpoints.

And please, if anyone else creates an ad for a razor company that turns a razor into a spaceship or a fighter jet or any manner of poorly designed "futuristic" technology that wouldn't impress an eight-year-old, let them be kicked out of the Advertising world forever.

All you have to do is look around and be playful. Everything you need to create engaging, emotionally potent ads for every type of product is right there for the taking.

Have a great Monday, everyone.


Talent vs. experience?


In last month's Fast Company, K. Anders Ericsson - professor of psychology @ FSU - gave his two cents on talent vs. experience, and it went something like this:

"The traditional assumption is that people come into a professional domain, have similar experiences, and the only thing that's different is their innate abilities. There's little evidence to support this. With the exception of some sports, no characteristic of the brain or body constrains an individual from reaching an expert level."

Interesting. Only... that initial assumption is ridiculous. Everyone is the product of a completely unique background. From education and culture to professional and social experiences, everyone comes into a professional situation with a very specific package that is unlike anyone else's. I know that the scientific method likes to draw data from a homogenized group of subjects, but creating an artificially homogenized group based on a convenient and unsubstantiated assumption is not a good way to start off this kind of study.

I would have been a little more impressed with Dr. Ericsson's opinion if he had just started out with an admission that scientists haven't quite figured out how to categorically identify and map out the parts of the brain associated with this thing called talent.

And although I can't prove that talent is real anymore than I can prove the existence of gravity, or that Chicora Alley's crabcake sandwich is impossibly delicious, I know that these things are indeed facts.

I know talent when I see it. We all can. Talent is real. The kid across the street who starts fixing cars when he's seven and seems to have more of a knack for being a mechanic than guys who have been fixing cars for thirty years has it. The guitar virtuoso you roomed with in college has it. The painter girlfriend who now works as a graphic designer for one of the country's top media companies has it. The kid who used to sell lemonade in his front yard and who now runs hedge funds has it. The Marine sniper who picked up a rifle one day and made a bullseye with his first shot has it.

Talent is by no means alone an indicator of success, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that it is real. Some people can just pick up a camera or a paintbrush or a calculator and do amazing things that 99.9% of the population couldn't do well even after years of hard work and dedication. Talent makes you naturally good at something. What you do with that talent is up to you, but all in all, it's that simple: You're going to be good at something simply by virtue of the fact that you have a natural ability that most other people don't have.

Whether Dr. Ericsson agrees with this or not, whether science can prove it or not, our brains and bodies are configured in such a way that we are naturally good at some things, and not all that good at others. It has nothing to do with experience or practice. (Sure, experience and practice can make us better, but the ability was already there to begin with.)

My wife and daughter can remember song lyrics after hearing a song just once. My son has a photographic memory that borders on mutant superpowers, and the hand-eye coordination of a cyborg. One of my best friends plays seven musical instruments better than most professional musicians play just one. Another can sing like a rock star and has more charisma than George Clooney and Brad Pitt put together. My sister speaks six languages fluently. She is completely self-taught. My father, who didn't study finance or business is a genius when it comes to making money. Some of my Hincapie Sportswear teammates were born with the ability to train and race harder and faster than most people on the planet. Most of the designers and design engineers I have worked with can turn impossibly complex concepts into working models in just a few days. Talent is out there, and although I can't prove that it exists (not scientifically anyway), I know it is absolutely real.

Lack (or absence) of talent is also VERY real, and it is everywhere: There was a Captain I served under (briefly) in the Fusiliers Marins who systematically made wrong choices during tactical exercises. Seriously. Statistically speaking, the guy should have accidentally made a few good decisions once in a while, but he never did. Uncanny. There was also the VP Finance at a company where I worked who couldn't grasp simple cost accounting concepts and had trouble using a calculator. There's the "professional" photographer who has been in business for thirty years here in Greenville who can't shoot a decent photo to save his life... but thinks he's the shizzle. There's the really lousy graphic designer who has been producing the same horrible crap for the same company for twelve years, and there's her boss who has been there even longer but still thinks she's awesome. There's the copywriter I know who couldn't sign his name without using spellcheck... and would still get it wrong if he did. There's the emergency room doctor we ran into a month ago who can't tell the difference between someone with a kidney infection and someone passing a kidney stone, when all she had to do was read the results of a urine sample. There's the other doctor who couldn't find an obvious fracture on an X-ray a few years ago when a training ride on a rainy day caused me to reacquaint myself with the hard, unforgiving world of asphalt. (Hint: Those ribs that look like they're broken? Yeah, those. Okay. They look that way because they're BROKEN.) There's the agency principal and industry veteran I met a year ago who couldn't come up with a single creative thought if her life depended on it. The list goes on and on and on.

Without some degree of talent, getting good at something can be pretty tough. In some cases, it may be completely impossible. (I practiced my basketball skills 2-3 hours a day for three years and never got any better. Trust me: Sadly, sometimes, hard work alone doesn't cut it.)

per Dr. Ericsson:

"Just because you've been walking for 55 years doesn't mean you're getting better at it."

Time on the job doesn't necessarily mean much. It also doesn't necessarily have anything to do with "experience" either. Here's why: There is a point where you just aren't going to get better at performing the same surgery, building the same widget, or extrapolating data unless you add a little something to the mix. Unless you branch out. Unless you ask "what if." Unless you experiment a little bit... or a lot. Unless you have the talent to do so.

According to the good doctor, what separates elite performers from other folks with simply "lots of experience" is this:
"Successful people spontaneously do things differently from those individuals who stagnate. They have different practice histories. Elite performers engage in what we call "deliberate practice"- an effortful activity designed to improve individual target performance. There has to be a way they're innovating in the way they do things. (...) In general, elite performers utilize some technique that typically isn't well known or widely practiced."
Based on my own (limited) experience, he is absolutely correct: Elite performers are the folks who can't help but find ways of doing things better. They're the ones who develop new techniques, or perfect existing ones. They are the innovative, adaptive commandos. The agents of change. The trailblazers. The pioneers. They rise to the top of their professions or help pave the way for future generations of professionals because it's what they do. Because it's in their genes.

Trust me on this: Talent is a big part of the equation, regardless of the discipline. People without a natural talent for innovation cannot innovate, no matter how long they've been on the job. Same with musicians, artists, military strategists, engineers, designers, and just about every profession. Even in manufacturing, you can observe assembly line workers and spot the ones who have a natural ability for putting stuff together, and those who don't.

What made Picasso and Dali so damn good?

What made Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan so good?

What made Steve Jobs and Bill Gates so successful? Did these two guys have thirty years of experience under their belts when they launched Apple and Microsoft, or did they have talent for innovation, insight, and business?

Experience helps you avoid costly mistakes, sure. Experience helps you navigate otherwise uncertain waters because you've already been there. Kinduv. Experience can help make you more efficient. It also gives you a certain measure of confidence. One of the great benefits of experience is a thick rolodex and a wealth of knowledge.

Don't get me wrong: I don't want to imply that experience isn't important, but at best, experience is a facilitator, while talent is a catalyst. Talent, not experience lays the foundation for innovation. For exceptional work. For everything remarkable to happen. No question.

In a perfect world, you want a healthy mix of talent and experience in your organization or project team... and in individual team members. But given the choice between staffing my organization with "experts" or talented visionaries who just got out of school, guess what? I will pick talent over experience every time.

Think about sports.

Think about design.

Think about art.

Think about business.

I'll give you a smple example: I know these web designers. One company has designed a few dozen websites. They're still pretty young, haven't been in business for 30 years, but their work is second to none. They have more talent than they probably know what to do with, and they rock. The other company approached me several months ago, and their line was this: We've designed thousands of websites.

Wow. Really? Thousands?

Yeah. Thousands.

Intrigued, I checked some of their stuff out. It all sucked. Their best work was mediocre at best.

Talent vs. experience, in a nutshell.

Sure, it's kind of a simplistic way to look at things, but the question of one versus the other forces us to make some concessions here.

The point is this: I've worked with folks who only brought experience to the table. I've worked with folks who brought only talent to the table. The first didn't tell me anything I didn't already know. They didn't solve any problems. They didn't get anything done that was worth talking about. They were invariably the guardians of the status-quo. The talented ones brought new ideas to the table. They brought new ways of looking at problems and dealing with them. They brought enthusiasm and great instincts.

More than anything, they always asked the right questions. The experienced guys didn't.

Why is this important? Because talent brings with it a much more effective learning curve than hard work with no talent.

The verdict:

1. Experience can be gained. Talent can't.
2. Talent, by its very nature always accelerates experience.

Check mate.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Feel free to disagree... if you dare. ;)

Have a great weekend, everyone.


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