Advertising In Echo Chambers

During last year's election season, we heard pundits and politicians bemoan the effect of algorithms on what news we see, serving up content that reinforces and echoes choices and preferences we've demonstrated through past behavior. Because I happened to watch the Billy Bush bus video, does that make me a Trump supporter? Or if I happened to get click-baited into watching a shark video, does some data engine tag me as an Animals Attack! fan? The answer to those questions appears to be, largely, "yes" and therein lies a problem for our society (we are confined to a machine-determined perspective) and for practitioners of CPG marketing. Is media fragmentation making it harder and harder to create broadly popular CPG brands?

As an agency consultant to CPG clients, I love our relatively newfound ability to hyper-target just the people we want to reach through social feeds. But as I confessed to a friend outside the industry, I sometimes miss the old days when the TV spots we created were often water cooler conversation or better yet, SNL parodies, because they were part of the broader culture.



In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell illuminated the concept of virality, or how one sick person can generate an epidemic. Or how a mature brand like Hush Puppy shoes can be reignited like a wildfire. As CPG marketers, we used to both buy and create our way into water cooler conversations. Big budgets got you eyeballs. Big ideas got you talked about. And in the early days of social media, agencies all got client requests for social videos that would "go viral" (got any flash mob concepts in your closet?). Once Facebook became a pay-to-play medium, a lot of that shoot-for-the-moon silliness went away. Big budgets once again get you eyeballs. And it's still true that only great creative gets you talked about and remembered.

CPG marketers had 4 of the 10 most-viewed ads on YouTube in 2016. These included Skittles’ The Portrait with Steven Tyler at 24.2 million views, Always’ #LikeA Girl - Keep Playing at 27.8 million views, Mountain Dew's Puppymonkeybaby at 27.8 million views, and Knorr's #LoveAtFirstTaste at 60.4 million views. The Skittles and Mountain Dew spots were Super Bowl commercials running at :60 and :30 respectively, and each used the broad and quirky humor that plays well in that TV event (and the puppy, monkey and baby videos that are most watched online). 

The Always and Knorr ads, at :60 and 1:80, respectively, each show an understanding that their brands have to earn both viewership and shareability by more than a quick laugh. Always tethers its brand to a social issue — the loss of confidence in young women during puberty — when they are also developing brand relationships with feminine products. And urges girls to keep playing sports even when society may suggest quitting. 

Knorr inserts itself in the minds of millennials with whom it wants to establish brand consideration by asking, "Can flavor help you find love?” Individual men and women are first asked about their relationships, and then paired up and given the challenge to feed each other. And, yes, flavor appears to help them find love. 

Each of these brands has "not just joined, but added to the cultural conversation" as described by Kate Sanford, managing director of YouTube's global ad marketing. And in doing so, they've created brand stories much bigger and more compelling than their products. Isn't that what branding is really all about?

These brands show us that even in an age of hyper-targeting, it is still possible (albeit tougher) to be broadly popular by earning viewers, and brand fans, beyond the buyers of your category. That's breaking down the limitations of the media and advertising echo chamber. Just as a great politician reaches across the aisle, around the world and over time with content that doesn't just play to the base (e.g., "Ask not what your country..." or, "Mr. Gorbachev...") today's great CPG ads will work first for their immediate audience but then ripple out like the proverbial stone thrown into the pond, to resonate with concentric circles of new fans. This kind of echo chamber-breaking success requires the same thing great advertising has always required - the willingness to think big, and the creativity to tap into the human condition with true insight.

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