Friday, March 14, 2008

New (In a Highly Derivative Way)

"New." It's a small but powerful word, isn't it? Used in a violator on packaging, "new" attracts attention and encourages purchase. In print and TV ads, the word "new" (hopefully) gets you to stop what you're doing and pay attention to an innovative feature or product. And online, "new" creates buzz and virality.

But the word "new" as used (or overused) by marketing agencies when speaking to clients is a pet peeve of mine. That may seem odd, since I'm an experiential and interactive marketer and these are "new" marketing disciplines. But are they?

On this blog, I'll often draw distinctions between Experiential (XM) and traditional marketing, but I'd be the first to admit that XM is less defined by its newness than by the fact it is a freshly understood field getting more attention due to the challenges of reaching advertising-averse consumers in a world crowded with marketing messages.

I can think of two excellent examples of XM in the 19th Century, and I'm sure you could offer even more examples that date back much further:
  • In the 19th Century, what were snake oil salesman except Experiential Marketers? They set up shop in a new town and gave a show that attracted attention. They were superb performers who captured imaginations and promised amazing cures to ailments. They were also mostly scam artists who had to get in and out of town quickly enough so as to avoid the law, or worse yet, angry and armed customers.

  • A more positive example of XM in the late 1800s and early 1900s is the circus parade. With few entertainment options in the growing American heartland, the arrival of a circus was a huge event. To create buzz, advance teams wallpapered towns with posters promising exotic and death-defying acts. Soon after, a circus train would pull up, and while some of the circus team busied themselves with erecting tents, others would quickly organize a parade of exotic animals and performers to march through the center of town, thrilling children and adults who would hurry to tell friends and families of the wonders that awaited. (This example includes not just XM, but also sampling and viral marketing!)

While new tools, technologies, and media have rapidly evolved in recent decades, human needs, wants and emotions are really unchanged. Occasionally, something truly "new" comes along, but the majority of new ideas shouldn't be ones that create or imagine new things for consumers to do but provide improved ways for humans to do the things they've always wanted to do.

A famous interactive marketing example is the CueCat. Around 2000, someone thought it would be a good idea to embed barcodes into ads so that consumers could scan the ads and immediately view on their PC more marketing information about the product. Consumers would accomplish this using a cat-shaped barcode scanner, the CueCat, each of which had a unique ID permitting marketers to track individuals' interests.

Hundreds of marketers got excited. Thousands of CueCat-enabled ads were produced. And few consumers cared. The idea crashed and burned quickly, and years later one could find millions of CueCat devices being dumped on liquidator sites for just 30 cents apiece.

The failure should've been easily predictable with simple consideration for what consumers traditionally want and need. First of all, they want to control their relationship with brands, not have marketers control it. As a result, it's no surprise that the tracking of individual's CueCat scans was highly contentious with hacks for disabling this feature offered on the Internet. A breach of CueCat's database that compromised thousands of consumer records didn't help, either.

But the problems with CueCat were greater than just privacy concerns. All one needed to do is understand how people interact with and want to interact with print advertising. First of all, how many of you read magazines while sitting in front of your PC versus in a comfortable chair or on a plane, train, or bus? If you see an interesting ad, you can go to your PC and surf the Web. Chances are you might seek out reviews, ratings, and other third-party information, and if and when you want information directly from the brand, being a capable and smart consumer you can enter the domain name to reach the product site.

So, what was the benefit of CueCat? It was intrusive, required more hardware and wires to clutter consumer's desks, provided no additional benefits, forced consumers to install software on their personal computers, and violated privacy. Why would anyone go to that trouble just so marketers can have an easier time getting advertising messages to them?

Hindsight is 20/20, but so can be foresight for careful and smart marketers. "New" ideas based on traditional human needs and desires are gold, but innovations without that foundation are solutions in search of problems.

No comments: