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Monday, January 25, 2010

This is What the Apple Tablet Will Be

It's one day 'till the piece of plastic that changes the world: Apple Tablet (or iPad or Slate or Slut or whatever). What will it be? What will it do?

Best Guesses from THOSE WHO KNOW about what the Apple Tablet will be and do:

-A "light" netbook, meant to compete (and blow away, 'natch) the Asus eee, etc. of the subnotebook world.

-A hotspot hopping device, with WiFi but also 3G mobile service (if you want to pay for it).

-For the main uses of portable "computing" (should we even use that word anymore?): Web-surfing/comms (Facebook/Twitter/Email) and video.

-Meant as an entry into the eReader space. But UNLIKE the eReaders, it is not simply a 1-function device. The Apple Tablet will take care of most of your mobile entertainment and communications needs.

-Not meant to replace an iPod Touch/iPhone (won't fit in your pocket or make calls, except on Skype)

-Not meant to replace your desktop or laptop pc. You wouldn't use the Apple Tablet to do hardcore word processing, gaming, or design.

Before I was thinking: I have a big-ass screen iMac, a MacBook, 3 iPods. I resisted the temptation to buy an iPhone (I'm not a big fan of purported "all in one" devices).

Now I am thinking: If this thing is (as rumored) to be SIGNIFICANTLY less than $1000, such as anything approaching $500 bucks, I may just have to get one.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

McDonald's Steamy New Ads

Every once in a while, a BIG traditional marketer likes to step out of their comfort zone and do something "edgy." It is unfortunately often just a one-off: maybe there were a few bucks left in the marketing budget, maybe some "youngster" at an ad agency said "hey man, this will be really cool. Let's get some street cred!"

So the latest of the big guys to "think different" is McDonald's, not a marketer that does much to think outside the bun (zing!). What we see here is an execution by Cossette, a Vancouver, Canada shop. They've re-thought the traditional bus shelter/outdoor placement, by doing something interesting and dynamic. To tout McDonald's coffee-sector awakening (they are pulling out ALL the stops to challenge Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts), we are given a bus shelter ad for coffee with "steam" at intervals showing how nice and steamy a cup of their Joe could be. It works great contextually. In the winter, at a bus stop, who ISN'T thinking they'd like something hot to drink?

Personally I think this is pretty cool. It would be AWESOME if they could somehow do a version that emits a freshly brewed coffee aroma. Who doesn't love that?

Of course, this isn't the first time someone's tried to shake up the tired outdoor space with something new. A couple years ago, a jeans brand put real pairs of their jeans in shelter ads. Another time, a local lottery stacked cash inside a shelter ad. Famously, I remember the FANTASTIC "smoking" billboard in Times Square. It advertised some brand of cigarettes and it always delighted me as a kid (I'm sure I wasn't the only one) to walk past and gaze up at the "smoke" coming from the sign.

So, does this steamy signage signal the vanguard of an edgy new approach for McDonald's or is it just a glitch and will it be business as usual for the burger giant? We know that some other fast-food players have been upping the game recently. There has been the weirdness of the Burger King "King" campaigns and now we have all the buzz Domino's has gotten for the "We suck" approach. Watching to see what happens.

Thanks for reading.
-Jonathan Gardner

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Communications Lessons from Mark McGwire and Richard Nixon

We've all seen TV "confessionals" as part of a media strategy: Bill Clinton's, A-Rod's, Mark Sanford, Jim Bakker, et al. Now comes Mark McGwire's all-out media blitz Monday in which he admitted using steroids to enhance his game.

Since the dawn of the TV age (and probably earlier, but I'm lazy to do the proper research), the idiot box has been viewed as a useful platform for addressing concerns, silencing critics, apologizing for wrongdoing, etc.

Richard M. Nixon famously used the then new medium (the "Checkers" story) to dispel corruption rumors and build public support that would force Eisenhower to keep him on the ticket.

Recently we saw South Carolina governor Mark Sanford attempt to use TV to very publicly get a handle on a messy personal life. First, he held a press conference to talk about how he lied about going hiking, but was with his mistress in Argentina, then he (mistakenly) KEPT going on TV to ramble on about his misdoings and have a meltdown.

The difference here, now, with a case like Mark McGwire, is that it's all being VERY carefully stage-managed (WHO or what was in control of Sanford?). As the New York Times notes in a great, behind-the-curtain story (a piece that was surely managed by the McGwire PR team) about the PR strategy:

The one-day plan — coordinated over the past month by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs a crisis-communications company, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who recently hired McGwire as their batting coach — contrasts with last year’s roll-out of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission.

In this case, it looks like maybe the strategy will work. Why? EVERYONE has known forever that McGwire used steroids. So the "news" that he is admitting it is NOT a big deal. There is no "wow" factor here. He was properly coached to be very contrite and emotional about the admission.

But the pitfalls lie along the road of contrition: He COVERED up wrongdoing. It's not the crime that gets you but the obfuscation.
Nixon stands as a interesting example of a communications strategist and what he did/or could have done. There is a great quote from the Oliver Stone film "Nixon" that sheds light on crisis communications and the art of public confessionals:

H. R. Haldeman: Eight words back in '72. 'I covered up. I was wrong. I'm sorry'. The American public would have forgiven him. But we never opened our mouths, John. We failed him.

Since we all knew McGwire did steroids, that aspect doesn't much matter. Note the A-Rod example. We don't really care. Regardless of the Times saying that A-Rod's confessional was rolled-out differently, there are different factors here. A-Rod is a beloved Yankee. We can all get past it. He has built up (and continues to increase) his personal capital with the public over the years and we can forgive him.

Communications, marketing, branding, all things at work here -- all revolve around TRUST. Trust with the consumer, which in the case of sports is a BIG group: basically the entire audience who watches or cares about what Mark McGwire (and in some sense, baseball in general) is doing. Do we trust McGwire? Has he built up the trust capital with the public over the years? Is he a "beloved" figure?

The crisis communications approach at work here is about restoring and enhancing trust with stakeholders. The messages: Trust me, I fouled up, I'm sorry, I know it was wrong, I will never do this kind of bad thing again.

The trick has always been to say "I'm sorry" and do it quickly and earnestly. Mark McGwire has done it a little late in the game, but we'll see how this affects his own legacy.

Thanks for reading.
-Jonathan Gardner

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Apple Pwns a Category it Hasn't Yet Entered

Poor little old Microsoft. Do you remember them? They're a company that - wayyyy back - was considered "innovative," basically for stealing GUI ideas, etc. from Apple. They had a product called Windows 7 that they REALLY tried to make people care about. NOW, we know our Apple friends are probably going to announce a tablet/slate computing device (iSlate) or whatever. So, what do the ham-fisted over at Microsoft do? They announce today (at CES, a show that's beyond irrelevant at this point) a TABLET pc with partner HP (remember them? before they were known for only making generic printers and pcs?). It's basically a weak attempt to get their "me too's" and make some marketing noise before Apple steals everyone's thunder. On another point, isn't it interesting how a company like Microsoft is being seen as a "me too-er" for announcing a product BEFORE Apple (even allegedly) is going to market their own? This is a whole area worth delving into. The fact that Apple has now positioned itself to be the leader in categories it hasn't even yet entered. Or, at least pwns the "mind-space" (Apple pwns our mind grapes?) That's some brand!

There's a story on this at the Huffington Post (it's pretty amusing). The best part:

Tablet-style computers that run Windows have been available for a decade [ED: and NO ONE has cared. You had 10 years to do something!], but HP's new machine is bound to draw extra attention thanks to expectations that Apple Inc. will launch a similar device later this month.

Apple, notoriously secretive about upcoming products, has not commented on the matter. But given the iPhone's success, which propelled competitors to come out with copycat touch-screen phones and centralized "app" stores to sell add-on software, all eyes are on Apple to define what a slate or tablet-style computer should look like and how it will be used.
Anyway, go give it a read. Spend 5 minutes contemplating the great, bloated companies involved in this. Pretty soon they will be completely forgotten.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Great Chinese Social Media Challenge

An interesting post on the "year ahead" (yes, like me you are probably getting sick of year-end wrap up/year-ahead prediction pieces) in social media on Marketing Profs. One of the predictions posits the possibility that one of China's top social networking sites, such as QZone, will make a play for U.S. audiences.

5. The year of the Chinese social network
We talk about Facebook’s China strategy, but what about QZone’s American strategy? The Chinese social network QZone is by some counts (though the data is a mess) larger than Facebook. They are more innovative about monetizing traffic. It is not far-fetched to imagine QZone launching a play in the U.S. And you can bet you’d be reading a flood of articles and blog posts imploring you to open your QZone accounts. There are 112 million Chinese who manage an active social profile, vs. under 60 million Americans. At some point, we may well be taking our social networking cues from Shanghai, not Silicon Valley.

While this is a nice idea, I really don't see this happening for a very long time (if ever). Here are some reasons:

1. The user experience and expectations of a Chinese audience is VASTLY different from what we expect in the U.S. For a test, try for yourself. Play with Yahoo China and Yahoo Taiwan for a little while. Then go back home and look at Yahoo U.S. Notice the differences? The Chinese sites are rambunctious, and let's say "noisy" to say the least. Chinese consumers are used to being stalked by advertisers and inundated with commercial noise. This doesn't play with a U.S. audience.

2. Do you have any friends on Facebook based in Greater China? Take a look at their status updates, what they are "fans" of, the pics they post and the games they are playing. There's a lot of astrology, fortune-telling, love story and posing with food. Chinese users (especially those in Taiwan) have taken to Facebook in HUGE numbers very recently. Why? Chinese developers created apps and games that appeal STRICTLY to the local audience. Spend enough time exploring this and you'll see that these users have created basically a parallel world or ghetto within Facebook proper. There's not a lot of Mafia Wars and joining causes in this universe, it's more "tending to your aquarium."

3. Has there EVER been a non-product-related Chinese brand success in the U.S.? There have been few Chinese brands that have even "made it" on these shores, perhaps Haier (Chinese white goods),  HTC (Taiwan mobile phone OEM), and Acer/Asus (Taiwan netbooks). Content or "soft" products and services? OK, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" was a success. How about a China-created user experience/online company? Can you name any? Why would this be? It will most likely be a LONG time before Chinese content/service companies are in an economy that is mature enough to support the development of leading global brands. And, as the MANY missteps by Google, Myspace, Yahoo, et al, in Asia show, it is VERY HARD to build a global platform that can catch on like wildfire regardless of cultural roadblocks/preferences.

We live in an open society and have created some unique online/social experiences that with a lot of work can make some waves overseas. The restrictions on content/access, etc. in China are a huge burden for companies doing business there; conversely, a Chinese company doing business in the U.S. will come from that mindset, presenting challenges.

If a Chinese company, such as QZone, want to make headway in the U.S., they will be smart to take a few lessons from the pages of Facebook and A. Open their platform to U.S. developers; B. Open local development/sales offices; C. Encourage the "foreigners" here in the U.S. to create organic "societies" much like the Chinese ghettos on Facebook, and; D. Don't even think of trying to restrict content.

Thanks for reading.

The Nexus of Nexus One Wrap-Ups

The folks over at PR Newser have a really good summation of the major PR push that was the Google Nexus One Android phone launch.

The recap has one curious bit, it says: "Google's PR peeps didn't go through the trouble of web-streaming their own news conference, while arranging for on-site attendees to record wirelessly, to ensure optimal site lines and audio."

This is a bit odd. I watched some of the streaming news conference on Ustream which has become a powerful tool in communications. The Ustream feed was streamed by someone else. So the question is, why didn't Google stream it themselves?

Perhaps, the thinking was that there is nothing to HIDE so why not let someone else take charge of getting the message out and "owning" it on Ustream? I'm a big fan of companies taking ownership of their message and controlling their own media. Ustream is a great way to do this. But with all the platforms that Google already owns (such as Youtube), it IS interesting that they let someone else do this.

Anyway, the PR Newser piece is a great layman's case study of one event in our consciousness and the communications strategy behind it. Looks like the battle with Apple and the iPhone mafia is ON.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Wherefore art thou, Weber Shandwick Korea?

A few months ago, Weber Shandwick (not sandwich, SHANDWICK) made a "pledge" to open an office in Korea before they end of the year (2009). You can read about their promise (now broken) here. For whatever reason, they have never had a presence in one of Asia's biggest markets. Realizing their misguided strategy, they poached a guy named Tyler Kim from Edelman Korea. Tyler's a good PR guy but maybe this assignment was too much for him? Or was it too difficult for Weber Shandwick to handle? They have NOT been doing too well in Asia recently, that's for sure.

Anyway, they made this pledge more four months ago and yet, they still have no Korea office listed on their website, only an "affiliate" (In marketing-speak this is a local office that you farm work out to because you are too cheap or poorly managed to have an office there. You tell your clients, "sure, we have a great local team" when you've probably never even met them and have no idea of their competency or lack thereof). Based on experience, it is REALLY not that hard to get at least a small presence up and running within a few months. Perhaps this doesn't bode well for them.

In the marketing game we believe in something (maybe there are other things, but this one I'm sure of): under-promise, over-deliver. It means, for example, you say "we'll have our Korea office open within 6 months or so" and then you have it open in 5 months and everyone is like "wow, they did better than expected." This is why (et al) tells you the stuff you ordered will arrive in 7 days and they get it to you in 3 days. They know it will impress you, it will make you happy. There is only backlash if you do the opposite: over-promise, under-deliver. If had said you'll get it in 3 days but it takes 7 days, you'll be pissed off. If a PR company says they'll be open by the end of they year, and they're not, people start to question their integrity and their ability to deliver.

HOW is a prospective client of Weber Shandwick Korea to believe ANYTHING they say? Looks like they need some lessons in the basics. Remember guys, UNDER-promise, OK?

Thanks for reading.

PR Firms Gone Wild: Ethical Lapses Oveseas

This may be an incongruous-sounding topic: PR firms and ethics. Before you say "wait a minute, that's like military intelligence, fer chrissakess," hear me out. The large PR firms (Edelman, Hill & Knowlton, Burson Marsteller, Weber Shandwick, et al.) spend MUCH time these days talking about how ethical and transparent they are. They all throw lots of info up on their websites about how ethical they are. They make lots of sounds about "building trust" and all that hoo ha. AND THIS IS what they tell their clients to do. CSR, transparency, all that hoo ha!

The PR guys REALLY dedicate lots of effort to this after they get caught in a MAJOR ethical lapse, such as Edelman with the Wal Mart fake blog thing.

ANYWAY, they SAY they believe in the "highest standards" and ethical b.s. HOWEVER, based on my experience, they fall very short on this front OVERSEAS. It's as if once outside the confines and borders of the U.S., these firms and their minions go wild.

The big firms, and many others (in PR, marketing, advertising, etc.) have EXTENSIVE operations in Asia. It was there that I had experience working in a senior-level capacity with them. It was SHOCKING how little attention was paid to acting ethically (or simply appropriately) in Asia, while the HQ and leadership back home would pay lip-service to acting responsibly, transparently or (insert meaningless "value" here). While I'm not sure if these firms are violating the letter of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, they may be acting without regard to the SPIRIT of the law governing the behavior of American firms overseas.

The following are some examples witnessed of bad behavior by PR firms overseas. I'll leave it up to you to judge whether the situation described was unethical, immoral, distasteful, or simply just inept:

1. Making an under-the-table cash payment to officials of a state-owned internet service provider in China. This was to keep service "running" on behalf of a major U.S. beverage manufacturer doing an event there.

2. Making payments to a "middleman" to arrange meetings with the top officials of a state-owned company. It was understood that some of these funds would go in the pockets of the officials.

3. A manager at an Asian office of a U.S. PR company created a hostile work environment, akin to something out of the Tailhook scandal. The regional leadership was made aware of the situation through written communications and did nothing about it, save promoting the individual. In this case at least,  the inept regional head was eventually replaced.

4. A supervisor at the overseas office of a U.S. PR firm channeled a contract to build a website for a client (a tourism bureau) to a family member.

5. The CEO of one of the largest U.S. PR firms was asked about a recent article about corrupt media practices in China. The CEO avoided the question. Leadership of the company (heads of Asia offices for the firm) strongly criticized the questioner for bringing this up. Much like the Wizard of Oz, they didn't want the curtain pulled back.

6. U.S. PR firms routinely provide "taxi money" to journalists in China and other countries, in exchange for attendance at press conferences, briefings and other events. These envelopes of up to US$200 are ostensibly for covering "transportation."

These are but a few examples. It is interesting to try and understand WHY this happens.

There is to some degree an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude among the HQ leadership at these companies. As long as the overseas regions continue to deliver results, they are pretty much left on their own. While for most firms, Asia-Pacific only delivers 8%-12% of global revenues, their operating margins are high (due to lower labor costs, etc.). MANY firms, not just PR firms, function this way. "Just deliver, don't cause a major scandal, and carry on."

Some of these Asia offices are run by long-term expats. Many of these folks are Brits/Aussies who have been in Asia FOREVER and have gone "tropo" (as the Aussies like to say) or have "gone local." The local markets often have few or any ethical standards for PR firm/corporate behavior, let alone ANYTHING resembling U.S.-style workplace harassment rules. It can be very tempting for a foreign boss, given a fiefdom in a far-off land, to act like an emperor. Just think of the line from Apocalypse Now: "Out there with these natives it must be a temptation to be god."

At the same time, there is also a lot of pressure among the local office leaders to JUST DELIVER. Get revenue, build the pipeline. If you are a foreign manager or a local who is running a country or city office, this is your NUMBER ONE concern. How much are you really going to be thinking about ethics when your regional president is screaming at you to increase your revenue?

We'll continue to explore this issue further. Feel free to share your examples of PR firms gone wild.
Thanks for reading.