Thursday, March 19, 2009

Content: what role should a brand play?

On Wednesday, I was part of a That's Advertainment panel discussion at AIMIA's V21 conference in Melbourne. I have to admit to really enjoying the experience of tossing around thoughts with three smart folks in Christy Dena (cross media storyteller and University of Sydney PHD student), Matt Houltham (Publicis Digital) and Frankie Ralston-Good (Naked's Melbourne MD). I thought it was a pretty vibrant discussion that happily bounced us around the brand entertainment space.

One thing that really resonated with me was an analogy Frankie used to illustrate the different ways that brands can utilise content to engage audiences. She argued that we're still applying old world thinking to new ways of doing things without necessarily "understanding that eco system and the role a brand should (versus could) play in that scenario".

Here is an excerpt from thoughts Frankie shared at the conference (inspired by a previous conversation she had with Brett Rolfe)

What we actually need to do is to think in different ways about brands and our interactions with people. As an example, imagine our consumers as a group of mates sitting around a camp fire sharing ghost stories. As a brand, how do you get involved? Are you a newcomer that sits down and joins the conversation? The fire that keeps everyone warm? Perhaps even the space in which everyone sits? Are you actually the story that is being shared? Or could you be the memory of the night's events that gets passed around and repeated in the days that follow?

If we don't develop new ways of looking at content, its creation, its consumption and distribution we will continue with a hit or miss approach. We know how badly things can go when brands and their advisors pick the wrong place to be. And if I may return to my camp fire, we should always consider the understandings and beliefs consumers currently have about us before we do anything. If a stranger turns up in the middle of a wood, and starts talking randomly about ghosts we are more likely to reach for a weapon than invite them into our tent.

p.s Thanks to Debra, Karla and Kylie from Ish Media for putting together an entertaining panel and awesome video presentation

brand entertainment: a bit of a stink?

I was in a meeting last week and someone mentioned they think brand entertainment in this market still has 'a bit of a stink around it'. 

We were talking in the context of television and in a way I think he's right.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Harnessing social media flash-fads

Into the Wood series part #2. Brett Rolfe - colleague, friend and inspirational t-shirt guy - imparts some wisdom on the topic of flash fads

Flickr: thenoodleator

Alright, who's old enough to remember 'All Your Base Are Belong to Us'? Back in 2001, AYBABTU was one of the first 'internet memes', fads based on creating, sharing and remixing content around a specific idea or theme. Since then we've seen everything from dancing hamsters and leet-speaking cats to Diet Coke+Mentos cocktails and the comeback of the most exciting and dynamic musical genius of recent times.

Digital media and the internet have provided us with easy means to make our own digital content and remix content from other sources. The advent of online communities and social networks has dramatically increased the ease with which we can share this material.

These technological facilities have fuelled our passion for participative fads. Driven by the desire to share rituals, to have a sense of belonging and purpose (however transitory and apparently superficial), we seek out new social content and forms of social play. The speed with which we can discover and exploit novelty has increased with each new form of social technology, compressing the adoption curve until we now move from inception through cool to lame in a matter of weeks if not days.

The integration of creative facility with social connection in digital platforms like facebook, MySpace and flickr allows anyone to spark a social fad that might be picked up and spread to social circles far beyond their own. Some time back it became all the rage to tag inanimate objects as your friends in facebook. More recently flickr and facebook have become home to a plethora of fake album covers created based on a simple random process. If you feel the urge to share a little something of yourself, you might alternately like to upload a photo of the books you keep beside the bed.

The important thing about each of these flash-fads is that not only are they interesting to participate in passively (are people actually still reading Nicholas Negroponte, at bedtime no less?), they are almost as easy to participate in actively. Perhaps the most challenging thing is to identify those things that have not yet climbed to the dizzying heights of fad-dom, and predict which have the qualities that will capture the imaginations of thousands of followers. In a recent glimpse into a facebook profile (hi Greer!), I stumbled across a remixed Mr Men graphic where you can tag each character as one of your friends... I'd never seen it before, but watch this space.

These faddish spaces provide a rich, fertile territory that is reminiscent of Barthes' notion of a ‘writerly text’, constantly open to interpretation and engagement. It is little wonder, then, that they are so appealing to communications professionals looking for vectors through which to deliver brand meaning. Those who remember cherishing their Coke yoyo will appreciate how powerful a tool these trend-based vectors can be. But what role can (and should) a brand play, in this environment? Where are brands welcome (and even invited), and where will their involvement be perceived as intrusive and unwanted?

There are perhaps three different points that a brand can become involved in a flash-fad, determined by what point the fad is at when the brand engages. Asking which point a brand should become involved is an important question, as different brands have different appetites for innovation. As Grant McCracken discusses in ’Flock and Flow’, some brands thrive on the cutting edge of trends, others are more at home with the mass consumption of the late majority. Misunderstanding the nature of a brand, or leaping onto a flash-fad at the wrong point can be detrimental to the image of the brand and its relationship with consumers.

For most brands, the most obvious approach with flash-fads is 'jumping on the bandwagon', getting aboard a fad-in-progress, and riding the wave to mass popularity. The challenge here is timing and brand fit - if you can locate a suitable trend, the window of opportunity is often narrower than marketing departments need to deploy a campaign. More ambitious is creating your own fad, wading into the murky social waters and sparking your own outrageously successful participative trend. History does not record the many (many) failures, but examples like Burger King's Simpsonize Me show that it can be done.

An interestingly post-modern twist is the option of critically re-interpreting (or remixing) a trend that has already moved through the innovation cycle. Public imagination was captured by Improv Everywhere's mass performance happening Frozen Grand Central. The act was clearly the inspiration for the less-than-inspiring promotional stunt for the launch of M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening in Australia. That effort felt derivative, and in every way 'less' than the original. A much more engaging spin was T-Mobile's tongue-in-cheek dance commercial which remixed and responded to the original in an innovative and imaginative way.

With the creative and connective power of digital technology only likely to increase, it seems inevitable that flash-fads will become more common, faster, and more highly refined. The rewards for brand successfully engaging with these trends are real, but they are limited by the difficulty of meshing with unpredictable social mass behaviour, and ultimately by the speed with which such fads will fade from social consciousness.

Brett Rolfe is the Digital Communications Director at Naked Communications and writes his own blog at

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

User generated campaigns are only as good as the ideas behind them

Recent campaign launches from Samboy, Doritos, and Subway have stimulated quite a bit of chatter about the merits and downfalls of this style of campaign. Accusations of boring, lazy creatives, and scoring bigger agency resourcing budgets have been some of the criticisms levelled here.

I think these examples show a willingness to experiment, and to try something different.

But at the end of the day, this style of campaign is only as interesting as:

1. the idea itself - how compelling is it? what value does it offer?


2. the people you engage


3. the way you enable their involvement


4. the way they respond

Using social media isn't interesting. But ideas and people are.

Remember the whole world is your creative department. But give 'em something interesting to play with.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Clap Me Happy

For the very first post in the Into the Wood guest series, Annik Skelton goes undercover to review one of the biggest entertainment brands in the country.

Hope for my arse

Hillsong Church in Sydney sure knows how to draw a crowd - 20,000 per week to be exact. Growing up around Norwest in the late nineties, I was frequently urged by my Hill-Singing schoolmates to join them at youth group every Friday night or attend a Sunday service. At first I refused because I preferred to spend my weekends drinking with boys, then later in life I had a reputation to preserve. Besides, if I wanted to watch people swaying with arms outstretched and delirious expressions on their faces, I’d just go to Parklife.

As a kid, I attended a small traditional Anglican church in Northmead. But after fourteen years, I got bored and left. I disagreed personally with certain fundamental points of the Christian faith and quite frankly, I had better things to do with my time, like shoplifting. I didn’t believe enough to practise Christianity outside of church, and the services weren’t interesting enough for me to attend simply for the sake of it. Maybe they just weren’t trying hard enough to engage me?

Eight years later, I decided to check out the most notoriously entertaining church around – Hillsong. On Sunday night, my friend Julia and I headed North-West and pulled into a carpark buzzing with unusually good-looking, smiling people.

Straight ahead for the kool-aid?

“Welcome to church!” a man greeted us as we entered the building.

“Okay,” I replied as we made a beeline for the gift shop. Here we browsed the books, DVDs, stationery, and impressive selection of Hillsong music. I considered making a purchase, but then I figured I could just take a $50 note and wipe my arse with it.

Actually, it was roughly 5:50pm

“PLEASE MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE AUDITORIUM WHILE THERE ARE STILL SEATS!” a voice boomed overhead, interrupting our shopping.

Inside, there was a mad scramble for seats. We shuffled down several rows, only to find that most of the chairs had been “reserved” with a bible, a jacket or a handbag. We pushed them onto the floor and sat down while the ushers weren’t looking.

Our father who art in heaven, guide me to a fricking seat...

The stage was lit up like a KISS concert, with four wide-screens above, and then additional screens placed throughout the higher seats on each side of the auditorium. Smoke machines billowed around the stage and several hundred young people stood crowded up the front. As Brian Houston walked towards the microphone, the room erupted with cheers and applause and immaculate orgasms. He smiled and informed us, “You have brought the presence of God here with you tonight.” I was pretty sure the only things I’d brought were a notepad and a packet of cigarettes, but whatever.

It’s the Holy Spirit! No wait, it’s just $100k worth of stage lighting.

Brian proceeded with his introduction, his voice gradually gaining speed and volume as one of the keyboard players added some dramatic strings in the background. “Tonight people will be healed. Tonight people will be touched! TONIGHT PEOPLE WILL BE SAVED!
The band hit it and we were away. I took a lot of notes throughout the service. Below are some points I jotted down about the presentation and format of the service:

1. Music – I counted nine songs during the 90 minutes before I bailed. During each song, they killed the house lights and brought the focus in on the stage where 20 odd musicians were spread out. The strobes and smoke machines kicked in and the screens showed a black & white live stream of the band members. The lights were carefully themed for each song and emphasised the music’s intensity impressively. For the final chorus, the camera zoomed in on the main singer’s chiselled face through the raised hands of those in the “mosh pit”. All very MTV. Hillsong has cleverly emulated pretty much every element of the soft-rock music industry. And holy shit, the kids love it and want to buy their records!

2. Tithing – this was opened by a cute little anecdote about the joy of giving (10% minimum, please, and we will accept various forms of payment including your first born child.) Again, the strings built tension in the background and the lights were dimmed and brightened in accordance with the speaker’s intensity.

3. Fodder – some cool videos were shown of “Church News” and “Church Life” describing upcoming events where we were urged to bring friends and family. Fuck, even I wanted to go to some of this stuff. They’ve got break-dancing and live album recordings and celebrities and free stuff. All you need is a hip flask of vodka and you’ve got yourself a pretty sweet Saturday night! Between each video, we were shown ads for Hillsong products or services. Because there wasn’t enough Hillsong branding around already.

The toilets in God’s house never run out of paper.

4. Speakers – each speaker used the same techniques to get the crowd hyped up. Sentences were heavy on verbs (empowerment) and abstract nouns (attainment), with constant mentions of eternity (where do you want to spend it?) Repetition is the key. Repetition is the key. They were fascinating to listen to as they gained momentum and intensity. I found myself wondering where it would end... Would Brian Houston’s head explode, splashing glitter and long-dead brain cells on those in the front rows? Would the devoted crowd, high on joy and conformity, lose control of their pent-up teenage lust and trample each other to death in a rush to get to the stage and touch Brian? Unfortunately, no.

5. Open prayer – okay, this was when shit started to get a bit heavy. The lady who introduced the open prayer time kicked things off by speaking to us in tongues. Apparently I was the only person who was bothered by this, as everybody else jumped up and reached out and started yelling and chanting and rambling in various languages. The lady in front of me was swaying and murmuring feverishly as she hugged herself. The boy next to me was on his knees with his hands clenched into fists high above his head, shouting “FOREVER YAHWEH!” I was playing Spider Solitaire on my iPhone.

I hope nobody notices I forgot to put on deodorant..”]

At no point during the service did I glean any learning of the Bible or the Pentecostal beliefs. I began to wonder what the whole point of the service was, other than the odd $50k I estimate were paid in tithes and listening to a pretty decent band. Every part of the night was structured with the intent to keep eyes on the stage – even the brief Bible reading involved dramatic background music, red lights and smoke machines.

As I walked out the door, a man stood at the microphone (strings in background) and shouted out:

“You didn’t come to a performance tonight! You didn’t come to a concert tonight! You didn’t come to a show tonight! You came to a CELEBRATION of GOD!”

Celebrate my arse.

You can find more storytelling goodness from Annik over at Hide & Neek