Commentary

Brands: What Are We Doing Here?

"What are you doing here?"

"Dad, stop staring at your phone and talking to it. It's creepy."

"But that's sort of my job."

"Yeah, like I said."

As we watched "Dark Knight" for the third or fourth time in my household this holiday season, my mind strayed back to work and how mobile advertising was holding up as Q1 plans and budgets started kicking in -- or not. To be sure, watching "Dark Knight" in tight rotation in high-def is a damn sight better than the old days of wearing out my daughter's "Barney in Concert" VHS tape in a day or two. But there is only so much Heath Ledger lip-smacking delivery a dad can endure, anyway.

Of course, mobile advertising on major Web sites is not much different from the mind-numbing repetitiveness of kid-vid. A limited number of major campaigns seem to be out there at any one time, and many publishers have single sponsors bolted into all of the inventory. As in my own home, media frequency capping does not seem to be a priority right now.

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But as I danced across the brand campaigns and their mobile landing pages, my opening question kept emerging: Why is this brand here? A number of companies like P&G and General Mills are making lovely banner and landing page combos that indicate a new seriousness to mobile. But their mobile functionality still leaves me a bit puzzled.

A high-profile Vicks DayQuil campaign lands me on the nicely done "Vicks Mobile Index." It has profiles of major Vicks products, an interactive poll for finding what product I need, a flu map for my area and an SMS sign-up for receiving local weather forecasts and severe weather/flu alerts. Maybe I am being difficult, but isn't this precisely what I would expect from a decent desktop Web page? Aside from the obligatory alert sign-up, is there anything that speaks to my needs as a mobile user? Has the brand found a way to connect with my out-and-about circumstance? Or, is it good enough simply for the brand to extend its presence to all touch points, whether or not it adds value to my mobile experience? Make no mistake, there is a real effort here to connect the dots of the Vicks brand with mobile alerts on weather and flu, but you can feel the strain.

To be sure, the Vicks campaign is trying to find a rationale for its mobile presence, but some campaigns are notably dial-tone deaf, seemingly unaware they are occupying a particular platform. People.com's mobile Web site is running banners for Caress body wash. The banner itself has no call to action, so I am unsure what is supposed to pique a user's curiosity. And the landing page is a barren descriptive paragraph of the product -- no store locator, no discount offer, no payoff. Even worse, a current U.S. Navy banner campaign simply has the Navy logo on the creative, and the landing page offers no copy to speak of, no "It's an Adventure" come-on. In exchange for clicking on an ad that tells you nothing, the user gets two click-to-call links, one of which is for a Navy video. Huh?

There are a few issues swirling around at once here, and I won't pretend to know the answers to most of them. First, does a brand need a mobile identity, per se? Does its mobile presence need to be expressly mobile? Some promotions like tune-ins require little overt rationale because the ads themselves are mobile reminders during the day. But other brands seem to struggle to find a reason to be on the phone. Arguably, phone browsing is replacing the Web for some of us in some categories like headline scraping, sports scores, weather, etc. When someone asks me for the weather forecast or the state of the Dow, my reflex now is to reach for my phone, not to find a desktop PC. With this in mind, then it is sensible for advertisers to recapture those lost Web impressions and seek simple brand exposure on handsets. You're there because I am there. 'Nuff said.

Brand ubiquity is a good enough reason for some advertisers to be on mobile -- but is it good enough for users? If the handset is so personal, if bandwidth and speed are so precious, and if handset real estate is so limited, then isn't it reasonable for users to ask of a brand, "What are you doing here?" Is there a reason why you are reaching out to me in this context? Do you have something to say that is of value to me here and now, away from my desktop? Are you recognizing the situational difference between me seeing your brand on my desktop and on my handset?

The Web, we know, is a lean-in, interactive, task-driven, research vehicle, most of the time. Mobile Web? Well, we aren't quite sure yet how we and the technology will evolve on this platform. But we do know that the baseline relationship with our phone is conversational. So, an understandable response to an ad on a mobile Web site may be, 'Why are you talking to me?' If you think I just kill time on the data channel of my cell phone, then give me something interesting to kill time with. If you think there is a way your brand is especially relevant during the day, on my handset, then please tell and show me. If you can save me money in the store on my way home, then please do hand me a coupon.

We talk so much in marketing about offering people a "value proposition," but on mobile I think we need to start thinking about the "value obligation." You are on my phone. Tell me why. And don't think for a second that it is enough to leave implicit that your advertising, any advertising, deserves to be there in any form just because it underwrites my free content. That is not enough.

"Dad! You are scolding your phone. Don't be creepier than the Joker."

5 comments about "Brands: What Are We Doing Here? ".
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  1. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC, January 6, 2009 at 2:30 p.m.

    Steve - your best article ever.

    I wish that everyone - not just businesses, not just consumers, not just carriers, not just people in the US - but that everyone would read this article.

    It would make this social change much more instant and engaging.

    Let's face it.

    No matter where you're coming from or where you live or what you're doing, until something better comes along, we're all going ot have this device with us and, as my company believes, in addition to everything else, it's all about preference.

  2. David Peterson harvey from The Hidden Art, January 6, 2009 at 5 p.m.

    Great post, simply great! I love the resonses, too; it's not just this avenue but also many other forms of media. The questions "Why are we here?" and "What's the tie in?" should be understood by any first year marketing student. Why do large companies, in their efforts to fill any and all advertising niches, forget that.

    Regardless of their rationale and their campaign, why not take a little extra time to brainstorm and tailor the mobile part of the campaign specifically to interest mobile users? Brilliant in its simplicity; any freshman could tell them they need to do this, yet they forget time and time again with all sorts of media.

    Thanks for your thoughts. They are worth taking the time to read.

    Warmest regards,
    David Peterson Harvey
    Managing Director
    thehiddenart.com

  3. Tamara Gruber from Crisp Wireless, January 6, 2009 at 5:48 p.m.

    Steve,
    This seems to be on everyone's mind, is mobile better suited for branding or direct response? (see similar article over on Ad Age today http://adage.com/digital/article?article_id=133579). I agree with Crisp's Michael Weaver's recent article on Mediapost at http://www.mediapost.com/publications/?fa=Articles.showArticle&art_aid=96765 suggesting that mobile can be both. I also still insist that mobile is not a stand alone channel but can be a very powerful delivery/response and brand awareness channel as part of a larger campaign.

  4. Chris Carpenter from Genral Mills, January 6, 2009 at 6:03 p.m.

    Great post Steve! There's a part of me that wants to applaud the companies that are diving in head first, but my concern is that the expense and lackluster results these efforts produce are going to turn the big brands away from the channel.

    Until brands (and their agencies) start to understand that they need to provide value through utility, content, fun, etc., we'll be swimming in campaigns we all scratch our heads at.

    Only point I might disagree with is that it may be OK for a brand to "just be there becasue it underwrites my free content", as long as the context fits the brand and the brand tailors it's message to the context. Everyone's got to start somewhere.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 6, 2009 at 7:38 p.m.

    As tens of thousands continually lose their jobs, the value of downloading anything beyond an absolute necessity becomes
    frivolous. There's the rub.

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