Commentary

What Are YOU Doing Here?

Coming into my junior year in high school, I recall getting slotted into an Honor's English class after years of being consigned to the standard tracks. My previous teacher spared me from another year of rereading Edgar Allen Poe, a common curricular ploy used to raise the interest of the potheads in the back of the room. He must have seen some glimmer of intelligence in me, or at least he bought into the pretentiousness of a brooding 16-year-old who seemed to live in his copy of "Gravity's Rainbow." Anyway, there I was, until then a middling performer, thrust into a class of "honors kids" who seemed to have floated above the rest of us for years. These were the kids who slid along the "good college track," who played chess not checkers, who listened to progressive rock like Yes, Moody Blues, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (perhaps the Thomas Pynchons of music). Well, that is what passed for middlebrow in 1975.

On the first day, one student met me with a blunt, withering greeting. "What are you doing here?" Apparently, according to this privileged clique, someone had made a mistake. This simply was not the right context for the long-haired, anti-authoritarian they had known for years. 

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I only bring up this bit of dark high school trauma because I wonder if mobile users bring something of this attitude to advertising on their phones. Are consumers starting to recognize the presence of familiar brands on their handsets -- but left a little puzzled about what they are doing there?

Mobile entertainment company Limbo released the Mobile Advertising Report the other day, filled with all the usual survey results that show tremendous progress in the field. This quarterly research of a 1,000 person sample found that 82 million U.S. mobile subscribers say they recall seeing a mobile ad in the last three months, up from 78 million in the last survey. The most striking improvement, at least from a marketing perspective, is the increase in brand recall, with 41% of those who recall seeing a mobile ad being able to remember at least one brand. This is up from 34% recall last quarter.

All of this makes some sense. As we have been recounting here in recent months, the creative executions on our phones really have gotten better, more deservedly memorable.

Buried down at the end of Limbo's report was an odd result that I would have put on top. Users showed the highest recall for mobile ads by the carriers themselves -- and then by mobile service and content providers like mobile ringtones, games, dating, etc. This is understandable until Limbo discusses who takes up the rear. "There was a long tail of brands receiving very low recall scores, including NBC, Yahoo!, MSN, Lincoln, United Airlines, Nissan, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, ESPN, AOL, Nike and Overstock.com."

Without further details, and a host of follow-up questions, it is hard to make hard conclusions from this startling finding. Sure, you expect contextually relevant ads to register more immediately with a user, and certainly to attract more of a direct response than a branding campaign. And arguably, there simply are more mobile service ads filling up the inventory. But most of the banners I have seen for these companies are un-branded "bonus ringtone" come-ons or involve a fragmented array of mobile brands that hardly seem memorable. The suggestion that high profile consumer brands are trailing behind upstart no-names in brand recall seems counterintuitive.

I am sure that each of these major consumer brands has post-campaign studies demonstrating some kind of positive brand lift from their mobile efforts. But in the larger scheme of brand recall and consumer attitudes towards mobile advertising, I wonder if the users are left with the same question my snarky classmate offered in Honors English: "What are you doing here?"

After all, the mobile deck is a kind of hyper-personalized clique of one. If a brand isn't there to help us make contact with one another, the primary job of the phone, then at least it can help us make the phone look and feel more like our own. In this scenario, the phone is a very private party of friends and colleagues -- and the sponsor is the next-door neighbor who shows up just because he is, well, always around anyway, not because he mixes well here. 

Unlike the Web, the phone is not a primary research tool. A car or packaged-good brand clearly belongs wrapped around our content online because in many cases we are in a task-oriented research mode. Is this true on the phone? In a conceptual way I have appreciated some of the deep mobile microsites I have seen lately from the auto advertisers. They are filled with lush imagery, good detail, and even some mobile assets. These are the ads that I recall on phones, but my agenda as a media critic is different. Are many consumers seeing these well-made campaigns and still left wondering (to mix up my classmate's emphasis a bit): "But what are you doing here?"

Like a chin-stroking, Pynchon-loving fop from Honors English, I can only speculate wildly from Limbo's little research nugget. But the findings suggest to me that even the most recognizable brands on the planet still need to make a mobile case for themselves. Maybe it is the same questions asked with three different emphases:

Why these brands? What are we doing here?

Why on this platform. What are we doing here?

And what benefit are we bringing to the audience? What are we doing here?

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