Category Archives: Marketing / PR

I’m a celebrity, let’s exploit a penguin!

It’s Christmas season again. You can tell this not by the fact that advent has begun, which it hasn’t yet, but because every major retailer in the country has released their Christmas advert. The reality TV shows are also everywhere, counting down to a Christmas finale of no doubt epic proportions, where an idiotic Irishman will declare that someone who is tone deaf is the greatest singer since Arion, two little Geordie’s will crown a non-celebrity king or queen of the five star jungle and some moody blokes in black ties will say that a dance that none of us have heard of was sequin-tastic.

And whilst I am trying to control my undoubted excitement and hoping that Santa Claus doesn’t fall out of his sleigh, I will change the channel in the hope of finding something more educational for my daughters to watch. My hope will be to find something that is more stimulating than the mind-numbing anti-entertainment that now makes up weekend prime time programming. Of course my daughters won’t care, they will only have eyes for the iPads, browsing for the toys we haven’t bought them for Christmas and then not talking to us for a week because we clearly don’t love them.

Every year is the same. Whilst the rational people use advent as the earliest opportunity to even start thinking about Christmas, the rest of the world starts to get ready just after Halloween. This is the reason I can now read my book at night by the light of my neighbour’s Christmas lights, which could also double as the approach lights for Heathrow. I can hear the whirring of the electrical meter from down the street. But on the plus side Southern Electric shares are going up in price by the hour. We’ve got to get out of this recession somehow. I’m fairly sure though that he has paid for the lights with a Wonga loan!

Don’t get me wrong, I really like Christmas, I like to ‘do’ Christmas and have a merry old time. I like my children to think Christmas is magical and all that, because those memories will stay with them forever. But what I don’t like is that it seems to last for three months now, it is shoved down our throats from all angles and that underneath all this false merriment everyone is basically miserable and moans about everything.

Take TV adverts. John Lewis has for years now been producing high end adverts especially for Christmas. It has become a spectacle that people wait for with baited breath. And on the day the advert appears social media goes mad for it. Last year’s was a touching animation about a bear, accompanied by a mediocre Lily Allen cover of a well loved Keane song. The year before was an equally heart wrenching tale of a snow man and snow woman. The nation universally shed a tear for a wonderful piece of storytelling. This year’s is no different. Monty the Penguin is a visual masterpiece that cost them £1 million to produce and tells the lovely story of a boy’s lonely Penguin in desperate need of more penguin companionship.

But this year John Lewis doesn’t have the monopoly, almost every major brand has cottoned on to the ‘Christmas Epic Advert’. They want a piece of the action and so the marketing boffins have been scratching their heads since Easter to work out what story they can tell that’ll get us all crying. No doubt they’ve been out experimenting, taking candy from babies and poking dogs with sticks to see what is most touching. Well maybe not, but it would seem that Sainsburys probably should have done that, as they wouldn’t have got as much backlash as their Christmas advert seems to have stirred up.

This year, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War, they have produced an advert that dramatizes the legendary Christmas Truce that took place in 1914. Their treatment is a sensitive, understated and yet very thought provoking tale of two soldiers, one German and one British, who venture out into no mans land and meet in the middle to offer seasons greetings. A football match ensues and there is much merriment, until the idyllic scene is shattered by distant gun fire. The advert ends with the German having a blue wrapped chocolate bar from the Brit, and the Brit a biscuit from the German. But barely had the advert finished than social media was going mad with complaints of outrage. How dare Sainsburys exploit a conflict where millions died in order to make profit? OFCOM say they have received hundreds of complaints about the advert.

So let’s put this into context for a moment. Sainsburys has worked with the Royal British Legion for over 20 years, and made this advert in conjunction with them. Bearing in mind the significance of the anniversary on which this has been released, it is unlikely this wasn’t discussed in some detail on more than one occasion over the last year or so. During that period of planning, which would have been quite in depth for a production of this level, one presumes that some of the members of that organisation, who are uniquely qualified to have a view on such things, might have mentioned if they thought this advert was in bad taste. Presumably no one did because Sainsburys went ahead with it and have also released additional footage about the making of the film as well.

And yet they are apparently exploiting the memory of the war. And yet funnily enough I don’t remember seeing British soldiers strolling across no mans land with hands full of supermarket products. Or the hun coming in the other direction armed to the teeth with toiletries and wearing orange overalls. One assumes the same people who are throwing these accusations around on social media were quite happily chuckling away when they were watching Blackadder, or taking their photos of the poppy display at the Tower of London, which has no doubt enjoyed increased revenues as a result. Exploitation? No. The only product Sainsburys actually displays in its advert is a retro styled chocolate bar in a blue wrapper and, whilst plastering the advert with “Live Well for Less”, their motto, would have been a gigantic an error of judgement, all I remember is simple logo on black of equal weighting to that of the Royal British Legion. Those who are mortally offended that they are peddling their retro chocolate bar in this manner may like to know that the proceeds of the sales of those particular bars are going to the Royal British Legion as well and not into the pockets of Sainsburys executives. No wonder everyone is so annoyed, they really do have a nerve don’t they? How dare they donate money to a veterans charity at Christmas!

The problem is that at Christmas these sorts of stories come out because this is the time of year when we start to take stock of what we have. Lets get one thing straight and do away with the naivety here, all adverts are exploitative. They are designed specifically to make you do something that you would otherwise probably not consider doing, that is the point. This is the reason that in Sweden advertisers are banned from showing adverts during childrens programming. So what is worse, emotionally manipulating someone year on year and dressing it up as a sweet little story about penguins, or showing a well put together and rather touching dedication to those brave men and women 100 years ago, whilst raising money for that charity? If that is exploitation then exploit away because those charities need all the help they can get.

And for those who feel the need to sling accusations at the morally corrupt big wigs at these companies, I ask you to do this. Drag yourself off the crumb encrusted sofa for more than a few seconds, block out the sounds of the morally extinct, obese wastes of oxygen on I’m An X Factor Get Me Dancing and look a little deeper at what is going on. The reason you consider this exploitative is because you feel the need to defend something that you only have a passing attachment to, so that you can take a moral high ground. Your complaint is that a company has produced something for profit, using imagery of something abhorrent. But what they actually did was show a moment of compassion that highlights an extremely important and under discussed moral issue of the war. That both sides were human. They did this as a dedication to those who fought, on the 100th anniversary of a war that we all pledge we will never forget. And they did it to sell the only product they actually feature, for which the proceeds go to help a military charity. Of course they are trying to make profits but so are all businesses. I’m sure if this had been produced as a short drama you’d all love it, but that production company didn’t do it for free either! Or of course you could just sit back on the sofa and smile at the little boy playing with the toy penguins and forget all that morally important stuff. Now where are my ten million watt Christmas lights, I want to be seen from space!


Are social media features helpful or just gimmicks?

One thing that we all appear to love on social media sites is being able to get involved with something. Whether it be the ‘Like’ buttons on Facebook, the ‘Retweet’ option on Twitter or the new feature on LinkedIn that allows you to endorse skills for your connections. But as fun as these little features are, what do they actually tell us? Are they an indication of popularity or approval or are they simply misleading and really showing that users like to be involved and so click them without  thinking through what they are associating themselves with?

I will give you an example; on LinkedIn I regularly receive endorsements via the new skills feature, and most times when I log on I will issue a handful of them as well. The way I approach this is that I select the ones that I really feel apply, as if I was giving a reference, so if a good developer I have have previously worked with pops up with HTML as an option then I will happily click to endorse. On the flip side, if a mediocre designer pops up I won’t endorse their design skills. My view is that if you wouldn’t recommend them to someone else then you shouldn’t endorse their skills. But is this how other people are using this feature? Well quite simply put, no.

To give another example; also on LinkedIn recently I received a notification that I had been endorsed for my CSS skills. This came as a bit of a surprise as I am not a developer and although I can fiddle around with a bit of HTML I am certainly not someone who would be recommended for his skills in this area. On closer inspection what was even more surprising was that the person who had endorsed me was a developer I have previously worked with, who is more than well aware that I do not possess these skills. What does this tell us about how people generally use this feature? It suggests that they do not actually look at what they are endorsing and therefore the validity of endorsements on LinkedIn becomes minimal at best.

But why is this concerning? In the not too distant past I went for a job interview and it was made known that my LinkedIn profile had played a significant part in the pre-interview preparation they had done. What I found particularly galling was that at the time I listed my Freelance Photography as one of my jobs, because it is relevant to my professional skills. This became a particularly significant line of questioning as something that they saw as a risk to their business if they hired me. In that particular situation there was nothing fabricated about my profile, it merely showed that as well as my main job I do a freelance job. So if LinkedIn is becoming a tool for recruitment how will the inaccurate endorsements skew opinion for or against a candidate?

Another problem with these features is that Social Media is hard to measure in terms of success. A lot of companies measure their success based on Likes, Shares and Retweets. But if user engagement is anything like LinkedIn’s endorsements feature then this could be misleading. I regularly see on my Facebook wall that people have liked a whole myriad of random companies, some of which they probably wouldn’t ever actually buy something from but liked the pictures, or perhaps their friends liked the company first and so they followed suit.

The ‘Like’ feature on Facebook is a particularly misleading one. It is incredibly common for someone to make a comment on Facebook that provides sad news or misfortune. In that situation the last thing you would normally do is ‘Like’ the comment. If a friend told you that they had cancer you wouldn’t respond by saying “I like that” would you? And yet on Facebook dozens of people will do this and only the savvy few will actually comment and saying “I won’t click Like, because it doesn’t seem right”. It seems that we have an impulse to associate ourselves with other people and their content, in order to connect ourselves and feel a part of it.

The problem for marketeers is gleaning some sort of meaningful statistics from these sorts of engagements. Endorsements, Likes, Retweets and the vast collections of other features out there do offer us one thing, an indication of engagement with users. But this shouldn’t be confused with approval and it shouldn’t be translated into some sort of sales potential. the big problem with Social Media engagement is the common misconception that these platforms offer a direct channel for sales. They don’t! Instead what they offer is the chance to build advocates of brands. There is nothing wrong with getting 1 million followers on Twitter or 1 million likes of your page on Facebook, but this shouldn’t be translated into 1 million potential sales opportunities. A lot of those will be there because of the group mentality to follow, lemming like. What this does mean however, is that there is potential for 1 million users to see your content and be influenced by it. Giving them a reason to see that content and engage with it regularly is the first step in creating advocates of them, and that means that your brand is likely to start resonating with them when they are not viewing your content as well.

In the end Social Media is about networking, not about selling, and understanding the mentality behind this is key. People use social media sites to feel close to each other, to have conversations and to feel involved, not to be sold to. This is invasive and we, as users, don’t like our personal space to be invaded. The industry is trying shift the focus of social sites to allow selling to take place. Advertising is creeping in all over the place, but there is a lot of disapproval from users for this. The social media fad may dip or it may retain its strength, but the sites that will succeed with users will be the ones that maintain the social feel and try to hold back the sales element. Unfortunately this is at odds with the business needs of the companies who build the sites. A cold war is churning away and it will be interesting to see how it is played out. Until then, get sensible with your social media and value your users…they will value you in return.


I recently read an article in the BBC news, written by a New York journalist, about the use of puns in naming conventions. The general gist I took from it was that it wasn’t a great thing, although apologies to Sally Davies (the author) if this wasn’t her intention – and I don’t think she necessarily shares the negative view of puns. But it did start me thinking a bit more about this. You see, it is clear that we English like a pun based name or two. Word play is wealthy fodder for our British sense of humour. Indeed, I remember one particular 4 hour drive from Chester (Cheshire, England) to Reading (Berkshire, England) where my colleague and I got on to the subject of cow jokes. This quickly descended into an hour of relentless word play puns that probably demonstrated my low standards in comedy more than anything else. But nonetheless it was a couple of hours of enjoyable British fun.

There is no doubt that the British sense of humour is geared towards word play, and I don’t think it is limited to us Brits either. In her article, Sally Davies mentions a number of examples of pun related naming conventions; ‘Fish & Sip’ for a coffee and seafood place and ‘eyediology’ for an optician. Of course most people are familiar with the coffee shop ‘Central Perk’ from the sitcom Friends. But this has spread to the online world as well. Pinterest is a good example, where the principle of the site is implied in the play on the word ‘interest’. There are countless examples of this sort of thing out there, the app store is full of them.

The Merchant of Tennis The Cod Almighty

But why do we use wordplay? Well the simple answer is because it makes something more memorable. It makes a name standout from the others in the crowd. It adds a new semantic level to a name that triggers some sort of response in us, either emotional or humorous, that means we remember it. This technique also often means that the function of the place or site is also implied in the name and that serves to tell us a little more about the thing than we would otherwise know. And that is why it is useful. Take a company just down the road from where I work, Tibco. There slogan is “The power of now”. I drive past them everyday but I had no idea what it was they do because I cannot glean anything from their name. One day I looked them up and it turns out they produce real time event enabled infrastructure software. Now I know this “The power of now” does seem to make a little more sense, but it was only out of pedantic curiosity (and writing this article) that made we look them up. There was no natural curiosity, no inclination or implication about what they do and it didn’t trigger any sort of emotion in me (other than indifference).

Word play puns are part of our sense of humour, and they therefore serve as a great thing for us to consider when thinking of names for apps, services, software or even brands. It makes things more memorable, even if it isn’t funny, just practical. Twitter has made it’s own name mean something and now we all know what it means. Facebook implies an element of what it is in its name. Google is the one that shows this sort of approach the best. It is a wordplay from the mathematical term ‘googol’ meaning  a number that is equal to 1 followed by 100 zeros and expressed as 10 100. For a company based in data it was a logical name choice. But now the noun has become so much more:

verb (used with object): often lowercase  – to search the Internet for information about (a person, topic, etc.): We googled the new applicant to check her background.

verb (used without object): often lowercase  – to use a search engine such as Google to find information, a Web site address,etc., on the Internet.

Of course it was no coincidence that Microsoft chose the word ‘Bing’, already a noun with onomatopoeic value, for their search engine , no doubt with the hope this too will become a verb. I suspect they will struggle to have the same success.

So what is my point? Mainly that the name of something is all important these days. With competition on and off line being higher than ever before having a strong name that works on more than one level is a great way to stand out of the crowd. This seems especially important in the app world, where having a ‘zingy’ name will be the difference between a lot of downloads and shares and disappearing into the ether, never to be heard of again. Of course this doesn’t take away the focus of developing something that is well thought through and designed.

In the end I love names that have multiple meanings and particularly ones that make me smile. They appeal to me, like they do to a lot of other people, and make me more interested in finding out more. Make someone smile and they will value you, but make sure that once you have them hooked that the service behind it is just as appealing!

Twitter – more network media than social media…

For a long time there has been debate as to whether ‘social media’ is the correct term for the online sites such as Facebook, Twitter and the like. I recently experienced the true power of social media and would tend to agree that it goes beyond ‘social’ media. I would describe it as ‘network’ media and this is why.

For a while now I have been mulling over an idea for a new app. I have the skills myself to plan, design and write the specifications for the app, but not being a developer I need someone who I can work with to do this. Having plenty of people I know, and have previously worked with, who are developers I thought that I would send a tweet (which will automatically then publish to my Facebook wall) asking “anyone out there in my network per chance a tame iOS developer? I have an app idea and looking for someone to dev it for me. Get in touch.” I sent this yesterday (10th January 2013) and the intention of my message had been to elicit a response from people I knew, but the key word I had used was ‘network’ and that took on a whole new meaning over the course of the following 8 hours.

Within an hour I had received tweets from 3 freelance developers, none of whom were followers of mine or people I followed. I also did not know them through Facebook. As the day continued I received further contact from people offering their company or themselves as a possible developer of my app project. This escalated to the point where by the end of the working day, only a matter of 4 or 5 hours after I had posted the tweet, I had been inundated with people offering development services and not one of them was someone I knew, followed or was following me. The power of Twitter as a networking tool was really beginning to show, whilst Facebook had shamefully failed to deliver a single response). Nonetheless, this was useful. I opened a dialogue on Twitter with a  couple of the more promising developers and passed them my private gmail account to continue the conversation.

But then things started to get a little bit uncomfortable. In logging in to my privately owned domain, where I reserve an email address for non-spam type personal things, I found an email waiting for me from another Indian based app agency, quoting my Tweet in the subject line. I try to limit the use of this email for such things so I immediately wondered where they had got this from. I responded and asked some pertinent questions about their service, experience and rates and also queried where they had got my email address from. It was beginning to feel a little bit like being stalked but as a savvy digital operator I wasn’t that concerned and as I got into the car to drive home that day I reflected on the merits of Twitter as a networking tool as well as a social tool. And then my phone rang…

The voice that greeted me on the other end of the phone was a charming and very well spoken Indian woman who said that she was one of the business development managers at an India based app development house. She asked if it would be convenient to chat with me about the requirements for the app I wanted to develop. I politely asked if she could email me through some examples of their work and their rate, expecting her to ask for my email address, but instead she thanked me for my time and hung up. By the time I got home (a 45 minute drive) an email from her was awaiting me. So she already had my email address as well, albeit my google one rather than my private one.

Today I have received further contact from other people, freelance and agency, offering to help me. They have been based in Los Angeles, New York, India and Sri Lanka and the list continues to grow. Because they have my google email I have also had a gtalk request from one of the Indian freelance developers. One of the agencies has also re-tweeted my comment, opening up the network of people who will directly see my comment even further, let alone those who will see it based on a word filter – which the original contactees must have done. The world really is networked and ready to respond.

What is quite amazing about this experience is the willingness of people to contact someone across this medium. From one comment I have received dozens of responses and none of them are people are know. What is even more amazing is the amount of people who have contacted me directly having seen the tweet, rather than via Twitter, as they have gone to the effort of searching for my email. In one case it must have been by going to one of my websites and pulling it from there. Some might find the whole experience a little intrusive, especially if they had meant the tweet to be strictly for those who know them as I had originally intended. For me, however, it highlights a whole new possibility for networking and finding people who can help me push forward a development. In the space of a couple of hours I had achieved more than a recruiter would have done for me in 2 weeks, and more importantly it was all free. Even better, I didn’t have anything lost in translation in terms of my requirements as a non-technical recruiter wasn’t the one talking to them.

Having had this experience my eyes have been opened a little more to the power and usefulness of Twitter. There are a couple of things to take from this, most importantly how easy it is for someone to find your contact details. If you don’t want them to have an email address then make sure it isn’t listed anywhere as these people are persistent. The second is that if you are going to put a message like that out there, expect to receive this kind of response. As this sort of thing develops I anticipate it will become harder to sort the wheat from the chaff and new ways will need to be found to allow people to eliminate ‘spam’ responses. But for the time being I urge people to see the power of network media, for that is what it is. Don’t forget, we are all linked by 6 people or less. Social is out…networking is in!

(P.S. It is still shocking that none of my colleagues want to earn any extra cash, as none of them have responded!)

Twitter Marketing Campaigns…do they work?

A slight break for Christmas and New Year and back today with a relatively short one today, focusing on Twitter Marketing campaigns.

Leading up to Christmas Tesco launched a Twitter campaign for people to win a voucher to claim a chocolate bar. All you had to do was Tweet #PullACracker to a friend and then Tesco would tweek you with a link to an interactive cracker pull, which would award one of you with the voucher. What a great idea with all the hallmarks of a good PR campaign. It was simple, easy to do, effective and entertaining and it wasn’t surprising that my twitter stream was a live with these hashtags within minutes. It was really pleasing to see a brand like Tesco engaging in the social media space in such an innovative, simple way and I couldn’t see any way this could backfire.

Roll on New Year’s eve and unfortunately it all went a little bit wrong for a friend of mine. She took her voucher into her local store in Sidcup to claim her chocolate treat. This is where it all went a bit awry for her because as she presented her voucher the till worker looked at her blankly. It then got worse as they accused my friend loudly, in front of other customers, of faking the voucher and that they hadn’t heard of this campaign at all. She left the store very quickly, red faced and rather angry.

To give Tesco their credit, she tweeted this and they immediately responded to her to get further details and to report the incident. The problem is that this is now all happening in the very public Twitter platform and undermining the good PR that was initially gained from the #PullACracker campaign. Unfortunately for Tesco the issue here was that the internal communications clearly failed and therefore a brilliant initial campaign was let down by the supply chain part of the process. This is a great pity as otherwise this would have been a standout example of best practice in Twitter marketing. Most people will now, however, take the negative view and highlight again the issues with using social media as a promotional platform. I disagree as this could have happened even if it was an offline campaign and in this case Tesco were let down by a particularly stupid member of their staff.

With a few tweaks Tesco would have hit the jackpot. I don’t know how other people got on with this campaign but no doubt it was generally a success. Kelloggs recently released a Twitter campaign for their new crisp line that was a masterstroke. They opened a pop up store in London as a place where people could drop in and get a free bag of the new crisps as long as they then tweeted about it (which they could do from the shop). It didn’t matter what their tweet said as long as they said something. And then they laid on the gooey fluffy top notch customer service to anyone who walked through the door. What happened? Well unsurprisingly they received a huge amount of positive and free advertising from people who came and got their free bag of crisps. What Kelloggs did perfectly, but unfortunately Tesco just feel short of the mark on, was that they made sure the whole end to end experience was top notch. This is the key to any marketing campaign…consistency of experience.

What this does show is that, unlike the perception, social media is a hot bed of opportunity if people are willing to actually think through the campaign. There are plenty of ways to make the multitude of sites pay off for you as a brand, as long as you take it seriously (both from an external and internal point of view). We just need to get out there and put some more of these campaigns together to prove that there is value to be got from these sites.