CHINA: THERE AND BACK AGAIN

photo-19

“I am interested in investigating what is extraordinary in ordinary life (for instance habit) and in looking at the ordinariness of what might be thought of as extraordinary.” ~ Ben Highmore

Although it’s now approaching two weeks since I left Shanghai for Boston (via UA858 to San Francisco), it’s becoming rather obvious that I’m yet to fully unpack – mentally and otherwise – from my trip to China. While I may have thankfully regained a semblance of some regular sleep-wake schedule, my unexpected tendency to respond courteously to Bostonians with “xie xie” or, better yet, my newfound reluctance to part with a dollar (see dollar-renminbi exchange rate) might be more indicative of a slow reassimilation into American culture.

I also recognize that “unbelievably amazing” is an honest, albeit inadequate and perhaps overly romanticized response to “How was your trip?!” – a somewhat loaded question, which I suspect will be asked of me for several weeks to come as I settle back down stateside. Thus, in order to further reflect on my experience in China, over the next few days (and even possibly weeks) I will be retracing my footsteps around Shanghai (and Beijing, briefly), highlighting noteworthy cross-cultural interactions (as well as some infractions) and dissecting both the ordinary and extraordinary in these experiences.

While this approach is admittedly a departure from the standard writing style often employed here on the blog, my hope is that this series of retrospective writings (à la Jan Chipchase) will provide a deeper look into my experience in China. Keep in mind, this is not intended to serve as a definitive guide to the Chinese experience (Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words has much more value to offer in that regard), but perhaps an attempt to demystify and deconstruct a culture  often perceived as remote and unfamiliar.

***

The picture above on Rujin Road (No. 1) was among the first set I took in Shanghai while riding in the cab from Pudong Airport to my hotel. It’s not immediately obvious, but the lady on the far right is wearing a face mask – an unintentional “Welcome to China” message of sorts. Although the air pollution in Shanghai is hardly as severe as Beijing, it’s not uncommon in public areas to see Shanghairen (“people of Shanghai”) wearing face masks – some more practical than others

SOCIAL MEDIA: A SPRINGBOARD FOR MARKETING INSPIRATION

Social Media can be a springboard for marketing inspiration, but is your brand turning these ideas into marketing gold or gimmick?

It’s no secret that the digital space provides brands with the opportunity to experiment with new concepts and analyze the impact of their marketing message before investing in other marketing and communication channels. In fact, some of the most memorable integrated marketing campaigns of late have started out online before spreading to traditional marketing channels like TV and print. One such example is the “Smell Like A Man, Man” campaign for Old Spice, as revealed by Dan Wieden in an interview with ThinkTV.

However, several brands are moving beyond simply using the digital space as a marketing laboratory, and are now getting marketing inspiration from ideas born online. Last year, the NSPCC (a UK children’s charity) employed the format of the then-popular “Sh*t People Say” parody videos for their child abuse awareness ad, and this year brands from Pepsi Max to Central Auto Team have created TV ads inspired by the Harlem Shake meme.

This trend of drawing marketing inspiration from the digital space persists. In particular, in the last few weeks I’ve come across two out-of-home ads in Boston inspired by ideas popularized within two distinct social media communities; Tumblr and Instagram.

1. Bushmills Irish Whiskey

223562_517076785009623_1265807132_n

This outdoor ad for Bushmills Irish Whiskey – which, until very recently, was posted on the billboard at the intersection of Commonwealth Ave. and Harvard Ave. – looks like it was pulled right from a post on Tumblr. The ad pays homage to the quintessential grid/knolling style featured on countless tumblr blogs today. This particular style has risen to near-iconic status on tumblr as a result of sites like Things Organized Neatly and the ongoing Essentials series by Hypebeast, so, in retrospect, it was only a matter of time before it found its way into mainstream marketing and media.

Although the ad is obviously strongly influenced by the grid style popularized on tumblr, it cleverly incorporates key elements of Bushmills’ brand story: the shamrock is used to represent Bushmills’ Irish roots; the gloves and hammer symbolize the brand’s commitment to being handcrafted the same way for centuries; and the oak casks and metal spigot allude to the whiskey distillation and aging process.

2. Merrell M-Connect

Merrell Connect3Merrell Connect1 Merrell Connect2

Merrell is currently using these ads on the MBTA Green Line trains* to promote its M-Connect collection of barefoot running shoes now available at various City Sports stores in the Boston area. Unbeknownst to some MBTA riders, the stereographic projection style used in this series of ads was popularized on instagram through a photo app called Tiny Planet.

As the name of the app suggests, Tiny Planet turns photos into spheres to make them look like small planets. Although the Tiny Planet app has been on the market for at least two years now, it’s still a niche app for photography enthusiasts and is really only popular within the instagram community, so I was quite surprised when I initially saw these Merrell M-Connect ads while waiting for the train at Boylston Station.

Unlike Bushmills, Merrell doesn’t really incorporate its brand essence into this series of ads beyond featuring its logo on each tiny planet. Although perhaps unintentionally, this creates the perception that this series of ads is simply a rip off of tiny planet’s signature stereographic style – as opposed to being inspired by it. And as the age-old saying goes, marketing is all about perception.

Ultimately, while it’s important for a brand’s messaging across each marketing or communication channel to resonate with its customers, it’s also equally important for brands to strike a balance between participating in current cultural conversations and staying true to their brand story. Taking this insight into action can make the difference between marketing gold and gimmick.

###

*Out of curiosity, I went back to Boylston Station last week to see if Merrell was actually advertising on all four branches of the Green Line train. Within a 60-minute time frame, only eight of the Green Line trains that stopped at Boylston featured Merrell M-Connect at City Sports ads: four were D line trains; two were C line trains; and one was an E line train.

In an attempt to determine why Merrell advertised more on the D line, I later cross-referenced the addresses of the City Sports stores in Boston with the D line route map. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any correlations there so it still remains unclear why Merrell advertised primarily on the D line trains.

CREATIVITY IN SOCIAL MEDIA: INSTAGRAM AUCTIONS

Social media as a channel for communication and collaboration is constantly evolving. In particular, savvy digital consumers are always quick to explore new ways to use various social media platforms to meet their individual needs, ultimately creating unique experiences within their online communities. These inventive uses of social media can sometimes inspire ideas for new features and even entirely new platforms.

An example of a creative use of social media I’ve recently come across is by Edmonton-based fine artist Glen Ronald on instagram. In recognition of his relatively strong following on the free photo-sharing program/social network, Ronald has taken advantage of the opportunity to sell his original drawings and paintings to instagram users by intermittently holding auctions right on his profile.

While eBay still exists as the leading online auction website, I would argue that in this particular circumstance instagram provides a much more personal space for Ronald to interact with prospective buyers and fine art enthusiasts alike. In addition, instagram offers an equally (if not more) instant response, since consumer engagement happens in real-time.

Although I doubt that instagram will introduce an auctions feature in the near future, Ronald’s distinctive use of the photo-sharing program certainly raises an important question about the core needs social media users hope to fulfill through their digital experiences. Ultimately, social media platforms (and brands operating in the digital space) that are aware of, and more importantly, remain responsive to these needs will succeed at delivering better digital experiences for consumers.

THE RETURN OF MICROSOFT

Microsoft is making a huge comeback. The software giant has been going through a rebranding effort of late; updating its logo for the first time in 25 years in an effort to streamline its brand experience, and attempting to challenge Apple even further with the continued expansion of its retail stores. Now Microsoft is unleashing an onslaught of ads to promote the release of its latest operating system, Windows 8.

Sure Microsoft always rolls out a robust marketing campaign to support the launch of each new operating system, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s something quite different this time around. In particular, with this ad promoting the Windows 8 picture password feature, it’s obvious that Microsoft went back to the drawing board with a strong focus on reimagining its most popular products, and delivering fresh product marketing ideas to go along with them.

After some problematic product launches in the past, it appears the Microsoft team now recognizes that marketing is only truly successful when the brand and product experience is equally as innovative. Only time will tell if this wave of product launches and colorful advertising will translate into increased sales for Microsoft, but it’s certainly great to see the software giant taking a bold approach to its marketing communications efforts.

THE NEXT BIG THING IS ALREADY HERE

The common expression, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down” might resonate strongly in the real word, but it certainly doesn’t hold as much weight in the world of marketing. A prime example can be seen with the ongoing “The Next Big Thing” campaign by 72 and Sunny for Samsung’s Galaxy S III smartphone, which pokes fun at Apple and iPhone users.

Although Apple achieved a record number of sales with the recent release of the iPhone 5, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there isn’t a great deal of difference between the iPhone 5 and it’s predecessor, the iPhone 4s. As a result, Samsung has been quick to capitalize on this setback by taking advantage of the opportunity to promote the Galaxy S III, albeit mocking iPhone users in the process.

One of the most innovative features on the Galaxy S III is S Beam, which allows users to instantly share all kinds of media by simply placing two Galaxy S III smartphones back-to-back. Although Apple certainly boasts higher brand value than Samsung, the ongoing “Next Best Thing” campaign is a brilliant strategy on the part of the Galaxy S III maker to take further bites into Apple’s market share, or at the very least change the current cultural conversation around the smartphone category.

BONUS: While Samsung is poking fun at Apple and iPhone users in North America, the Galaxy S III maker is taking a much more comedic approach in South America with the ongoing “Saved By TV” campaign by Mayo Draftfcb.

IS BRAND LOYALTY DEAD?

Brand loyalty is dead, or at least that’s the conclusion Bobby “Hundreds” Kim, Co-Owner and Creative Director of LA-based streetwear brand The Hundreds, came to in a recent post on instagram. While Bobby Hundreds is a key influencer in the world of street culture and urban fashion, he switched focus to the consumer electronics industry and spoke candidly about his recent experience with one of the world’s most beloved brands, Apple.

In particular, after years of being accustomed to the “sensation of cool design, innovative features, and of course, progressive technology,” his disappointing product experience with both the latest iPad (with retina display) and iPhone 5 resulted in a brand switch to Samsung.

Bobby Hundreds’ experience mirrors that of many customers today (myself included) when brands fail to meet consumer expectations. After 4 years of being a proud BlackBerry brand loyalist, I recently made the switch to Apple due to a repeated decline in product quality standards in Blackberry smartphones.

Up until recently, if anyone told me I would leave BlackBerry for any other brand I would have been hard pressed to believe it, but when even the most beloved brands repeatedly fail to meet consumer expectations they leave us with no choice but to seek out competing brands that at the very least maintain, if not exceed, their promise to customers.

Brand loyalty assumes that people buy from the same company over and over because they believe that company makes superior products (Stuart et al 2006: 142). However, as evidenced by my experience with BlackBerry and that of Bobby Hundreds’ with Apple, once levels of consumer satisfaction fall below acclimated standards, there is very likely to be a change in brand preference.

Brands are facing a new age of fickle consumers who are constantly in search of the next best product or brand experience. As such, the traditional idea of wooing consumers as early as when they’re toddlers, and cementing brand loyalty for a lifetime is hardly an effective or sustainable brand strategy.

Brands owe it to their customers to keep pushing the envelope, always staying a step ahead of expectations, because as a recent Interbrand article on the future of brand building points out, “purchase decisions are becoming more fluid, better informed, and dynamic.” An internal failure to innovate, or simply poor product or brand experience, is a problem that even the best marketing won’t solve.

Brand loyalty isn’t dead, but it’s certainly a concept that needs some rethinking and rekindling. Brands need to give consumers a reason to believe in them; as with any relationship, trust must be earned and maintained. As Seth Godin plainly puts it, what’s needed today is brand humility:

“Brand humility is the only response to a fast-changing and competitive marketplace. The humble brand understands that it needs to re-earn attention, re-earn loyalty and reconnect with its audience as if every day is the first day.”

Despite his earlier remarks, Bobby Hundreds’ comment at the end of his post, particularly about missing his BlackBerry smartphone, actually reveals that brand loyalty can in fact be re-earned, and is quite frankly desired by consumers.

MORE THAN A PAIR OF JEANS…

The ongoing “Go Forth” campaign by Wieden + Kennedy for Levi’s has played an instrumental role in enabling the brand to reclaim its iconic status in the US within the last few years. In particular, the latest spot in the series exemplifies how brands ought to communicate with consumers today.

Rather than attempt to tell its own story, here Levi’s makes a conscious decision to tell the story of its customers. While admittedly a bold move, this strategy strikes up a more personal conversation with Levi’s customers. It resonates, it works, and here’s why.

Consumers today are all too familiar with brands hurling mass marketing messages at them, and quite frankly they are tired of it. They see through it like clear glass. Consumers want to know that brands understand them; their beliefs, desires, fears, and aspirations.

In a recent article marking the launch of the Best Global Brands 2012 Report, Jez Frampton, Global CEO at Interbrand, addressed this shift in consumer attitude and highlighted the new challenge for brands today:

“Today’s customers are skeptical, vocal, savvy – and have everyone competing for their attention… In order to succeed, brand owners must become more sensitive to the needs and desires of informed and discerning customers who demand high degrees of engagement – and consistency.”

With this “Go Forth” spot, Levi’s is boldly accepting the challenge. By cleverly integrating itself into its customers’ story, Levi’s is able to communicate in a way that connects, empowers, and inspires. Ultimately, this enable’s Levi’s to stand for more than just pieces of denim sewn together, but as Jez Frampton says, “a living business asset”, woven into the very fabric of its customers’ lives. Or better yet, as the narrator in the ad proclaims, “It’s the thread in your seams that’s tied to your dreams.”