Sunday, November 29, 2009

The relevance of "Bauhaus"

New York’s MOMA has currently an interesting exhibition of the “Bauhaus” schools, focused on its most important years from 1919 until the early thirties. The “Bauhaus” school of design, architecture, and much more has had a huge influence of a lot of art forms over the last 90 years. Rereading some of its core principles in a few recently published articles (from Artforum to the New York Times to the New Yorker), I was amazed by the absolute contemporariness of its ideas.

One of the Bauhaus core principles is the end of separation of the “Werkmeister” (the skilled craft expert with a deep understanding of materials and production techniques, who ultimately produces the art piece) and the “Formmeister” (the conceptual expert who comes up with the idea and the concept of the art). The Bauhaus thinkers detested this separation between the highly regarded thinker and concepter (Formmeister) versus the more hands-on, poorer paid executer of someone’s ideas and concepts (Werkmeister). This separation of form and production/technology hindered the creation of true art concepts according to the Bauhaus school of thoughts. Bauhaus had even its own course for any new students called “Vorkurs” (Pre-Course) with the focus of dissolving the distinction between these two masters. In 1923 it was called “Art and Technology: A new Unity”. This principle could not have more relevance for today’s marketing discourse, it might even worthwhile to design a new marketing centric “Vorkurs” for most marketing organizations.

A few months ago I wrote about the trend that successful digital organizations integrate the technologist/producer closer into the traditionally defined creative team of the copy writer and art director. It seems that the Bauhaus founders understood the danger of being too alienated to the ultimate means of creation. Interestingly enough, most famous painters have always closely held control of the production of their master pieces, even in cases where they delegate some of their executional work to students who work in their atelier.

And in today’s marketing world, technology (as the ultimate way of production of marketing programs) is becoming more and more central to any marketing idea. To complicate this Bauhaus principle which I fully support, we can witness a strong commodization and outsourcing of production technologies and work, primarily due to lower labor costs and more repetitive and non differentiating production cycles (who wants to create and quality ensure a simple Web Banner?).

The reasonable way forward of combining the Bauhaus principle with today’s reality of cost pressure is the separation of innovative technology and production ways that should be closely held as part of a newly created marketing team, including the “Werkmeister”, from the repetitive way of mass produced elements of a marketing program that does not require neither the attention of the “Formmeister” nor the “Werkmeister”.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Misunderstood Social Media

Over the last months I have read quite a few white papers from agencies that postulate the rise of Social Media Marketing and the decline of TV advertising. Two of these white papers were “Fluent” from Razorfish and Insights that Incite” from DDB. I have a lot of respect for both agencies, especially for Razorfish’s annual publication about the state of Digital Marketing. I was not surprised that both white papers make an argument that Social Media is becoming more important because consumers value and trust recommendations by “Friends and Family” more and more while the trust and belief in TV advertising is on decline.

Both papers present proprietary research that supposedly supports this point of view. Unfortunately none of the published data points validate this hypothesis in any kind of form. Razorfish “Fluent” does not show any single relevant data point or any strong more holistic research evidence that support the hypothesis that Social Media Marketing is becoming more important at the expense of TV advertising (it shows other interesting data points though). DDB’s white paper inserts a chart about channel preference that clearly does not support the outlined point view (Page 4). The chart from Nielsen’s Global Online Consumer survey compares channel importance from 2007 to 2009. The chart merely reflects that TV remains the 5th most important influence source whereas recommendations by friends and family remain the most important. The author did not explain that the overall increased baseline of channel importance across all of them except for print has increased roughly the same percentage points since 2007.

I don’t assume that it is a malicious misleading representation of research data but a blind spot behavior by believing so strongly in a particular point of view that any data seem to confirm your own hypothesis. More importantly I believe that both arguments miss a critical element in the discussion of the importance of Social Media and related Marketing activities. The “channel” recommendations by friends and family were always one or the most important influencer in purchase or usage decisions. There might be slight increase in importance over the last decade but the true disruptive factor is that nowadays marketer can observe in real time these recommendations by friends and family. Before, marketers did not know what occurred in this channel (except by asking consumers), now one can not just observe but also try to intersect or stimulate a certain behavior in these previously private moments of making a recommendation. The key disruptive factor is that previously CLOSED networks of friends and family are becoming nowadays OPEN networks with all its benefits (for marketers) and drawbacks (privacy concerns). This is the real change, not the sudden importance of recommendations by friends and family.

I always applaud meaningful proprietary research within the agency community, but if it does not clearly support your own hypothesis than it might be wiser to rethink the original hypothesis and formulate a new data driven one. Both paper’s argument that Social Media Marketing is becoming more and more important is correct, but both white papers have misread the reason for its increased power.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marketing the Kindle

I am a big fan of Amazon’s Kindle. And I definitely believe that the future of ePublishing is a bright and interesting one. Lately I am trying to conceptualize the first relevant Kindle marketing application for some of our clients but this initiative will be addressed in another post. This post describes an interesting encounter I had this week.

On a flight back from New York on Tuesday this week I was sitting next to a well dressed business person. We started talking; he was clearly an articulate and smart professional, working for a large consulting company. We discussed all the benefits of traveling with a Kindle, the version differences between the Kindle 1.0 and 2.0, and more Kindle related small talk. After a while we both took out our Kindles and started reading. Normally I like to know what people are reading, it might trigger a question and a renewed conversation. And it always adds to the character of a person that you are sitting next to.

But it is impossible to do this character-book association game with the Kindle, so I just asked politely what he was reading. He replied that he was immersed in Laurence Lessig’s last book (Lessig is one of the smartest open source thinker around), since he was interested in the limitation and disadvantages of copyright legislation. I expressed my admiration for Lessig and we continued reading both our Kindles. After a while he got up to go to the bathroom but he left his Kindle on his tray, facing my seat. Just looking at the open page on his Kindle, and reading a few sentences, it was easy to decipher that this was not one of Lessig’s book but a book about adolescent vampires and their challenging love lives (most likely one of the Twilight series). When he returned to his seat I was polite enough not to start a conversation about the challenges of blood thirsty vampires in sun trenched places like Arizona.

This episode triggered a brief research project over the last days. I was looking for differences in genre and “sophistication” of physically versus electronically sold books at Amazon. My hypothesis is that people feel freer to buy more books that don’t have any social currency value when they can buy a book electronically versus buying it in its physical form. The Kindle killed the signaling effect of intellectually challenging books, so quite a few people might think that they don’t have to pretend anymore. Unfortunately I was not able to get quantitative data validating or refuting my hypothesis but a brief survey in a circle of friends and colleagues confirmed my thinking. It is less about reading fewer intellectually challenging books but more about buying and enjoying books that have less perceived social value.

I will not claim that the Kindle is a culture destroying device, it rather spurred me to a new marketing idea that Amazon could use: “Kindle – Only you know what you are reading”. It could give a big boost for trashy novels of all genres.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Marketing in South Africa

Spending a few days in Johannesburg, South Africa, this week, I was intrigued by three core observations that I was able to make, mostly through discussions with brand marketers, advertising colleagues, and trade journalists:

  • The quality of the strategic thinking of the senior marketers that I met parallels the top marketing countries in the world. South Africa can be proud of having outstanding strategic thinkers in its marketing communities. The key hurdles of elevating the sophistication of the marketing discourse even further in the right direction seem to be twofold: The lack of trusted and cost-efficient accessible marketing data and insufficient and reliable Internet bandwidth. Both issues should be addressed by the countries leading marketing organizations, since a lack of improvement could seriously hamper South Africa’s currently advanced place as a top marketing leader.
  • The lack of sufficient and consistently strong Internet bandwidth hampers quite a few marketing innovations. Using the Internet in South Africa reminded me of 2002 or 2003 in North America due to its slow Internet connection. One, used to today’s high Broadband penetration in North America and Europe, easily forgets how dramatically different the Internet usage with slow speed is. The government spends rightfully quite a lot of investments on physical roads in preparation of the 2010 Soccer World cup. But one needs to ask if there is sufficient investment into Internet bandwidth. Should the government spend an available $100 million for an additional road or for extended Internet bandwidth? There are quite a few good arguments that Internet connections could provide a better investment choice to increase the wealth of a nation and spur development for the underprivileged than an incremental physical road.
  • South Africa could become a great test market for piloting and prototyping brands and product solutions for a market that has two highly diverse income segments: 20% of the population as part of the upper middle class with a good income base and the rest of the population with a significantly lower income level, any strong and large middle class is lacking. South Africa has roughly 45-50 million inhabitants with less than 5 million taxpayers. It has a similar population structure as China or India but on a much smaller scale. The challenges of successfully promoting a brand with the need for such a significant brand stretch could be well experimented and piloted in South Africa with all the key results extrapolated to some of the largest nations of the world.

South Africa seems to sometimes struggle with finding its identity within the global marketing community, but there is much to be proud of and more opportunities than most believe. South Africa remains a fascinating creatively talented and increasingly strategic deep marketing community that should be on the radar of every curious marketer. It’s not just the upcoming 2010 World Cup that should motivate a visit.