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February 4, 2010

Negative Space Marketing: Stand Out By Dialing It Back

This is a blog post about negative space. But, it's not about negative space as a design technique. It's about the idea of negative space as a way to differentiate your marketing communications in an overly crowded marketplace.

Every day we encounter hundreds of brands, all vying for our attention. Brands are shouting at us from bus stops, while we're at the urinal and from over designed flyers that are stuffed on our cars. TV commercials are interruptive by nature -- turning up the volume merely to get our attention. Banner ads flash, play video and kick in audio the second you get to a site.

Luckily, humans are great at adaptation. In response to these encounters, we've developed filters that help us block everything out. We've developed selective vision, and selective hearing. We're experts at ignoring.

So what actually gets noticed anymore? Marketing that doesn't try so hard -- that's understated, respectful and has value. Seth Stevenson of Slate recently referred to it as the soft sell approach. Coke's David Butler aptly described it in an older interview in Fast Company as well (Hat tip to the IQ Interactive blog for reminding me about the fast company article.):

As life gets visually noisier, brands that dial back to their core essence stand out by contrast

So next time you're creating a new marketing execution, think about dialing it back a bit. Give an overloaded mind a place to rest and focus. You might just get their attention in the process.

February 3, 2010

When Being Difficult Has Its Benefits

In a recent Boston Globe article Easy=True, Drake Bennett examines the psychological effects of cognitive fluency and disfluency -- how people react to things based on how easy or difficult they are to process. Bennett concludes that humans "are suspicious of difficulty, but perhaps we can learn to use that."

Marketers have much to learn from the findings that Bennet explores. While usability experts have long practiced the art of making things easy, there's also much to learn from making things difficult or less familiar (familiarity plays a vital role in the ease of processing).

When answering questions posed in less legible font, people answer more honestly. When products are less familiar, they are perceived as more innovative. Crisp, light writing may be easier to read, but the content of dense writing appears more complex, even if it isn't -- a clear benefit for anyone trying to leverage a position of thought leadership.

"Fluent things are familiar, but also boring and comfortable" says Piotr Winkielman. "Disfluency is intriguing and novel. Sometimes you like comfort food, like when you’re sick. And usually you want to try something new when you’re more comfortable."

These findings reveal to marketers the importance of the customer's psychological state. Will the product be ignored if it's too unique, or will it be the recipient of adoration for breaking outside the box? Will users enjoy this cunning feature on the website, or will they reject it as unfamiliar?

The answers to these questions largely depend on how bored and comfortable people are with their current options. In a boring and comfortable space, a bit of disfluency can go a long ways towards appearing as a fresh alternative. On the other hand, in rapidly changing spaces, people are less receptive to radical design approaches.

Rather than focusing solely on making things easy to use, marketers and designers need to be collaborating to gauge the market. Are they ready for innovation or are they hungry for consistency? How much of the unfamiliar and difficult will they embrace, and when is too easy too boring?

February 2, 2010

We're all in grad school now.

I was reading Brains on Fire's company blog yesterday, and they were taking about the process of interviewing a new employee and setting expectations. The discussion struck me. It's something that I try to communicate to our employees.

So, yesterday I had an interview. (Yes, we are considering a new hire and that feels good.) And when I asked this smart, bright lady if she had anything she wanted to ask me she replied, “What do you expect of me? What are your expectations?”


I told her we are all in grad school now. Exploring new ideas. And the learning you choose to do every single day of your life is completely self directed. You’re driving the ship and collecting ideas and inspiration every single day. Read. A lot. Write. A lot. Think out loud and share with others. Even when you aren’t sure you’re right.


We live in a world that's changing faster than ever before. Culture comes and goes. It's not just the news cycle that's sped up, the amount of information that's available has grown exponentially. Everything you need to learn is at your fingertips. All it requires is commitment and practice. The ability to process, learn and digest information is natural. It just requires the re-awakening of your own curiosity.

It's no longer enough to "Know Your Strengths", and build on them. You have to work on your weaknesses. You have to round out your rough edges, and sharpen the dull blades. If you don't work on your weaknesses, they become even more pronounced. Atrophy sets in.

The challenge to someone looking to succeed in today's world is to push your limits. To learn, and to grow. Each day and every day. As Robin so eloquently stated, all I ask is that you treat every day like grad school.

February 1, 2010

How Three Brands Took Stale Ideas and Created Something Awesome

No brand is completely unique when you abstract their message or offer; it's sexy, efficient, cost-saving, fun, reliable...and the list goes on, but we've seen them all before. It's not surprising then that most people are bored by advertising: it's all unoriginal. So, how do you stand out?

Below are just three of our favorite recreations of otherwise boring, unoriginal ideas. They each take something that at first appears completely uninteresting (a story about brand history, a coupon, and a pitch on product quality) and make it unforgettable through the power of creativity.

It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It

When it comes to brand messaging, heritage and history are old-time favorites; at one point or another any brand that's been around long enough to have a history will try to take advantage of it. The downside is it's been done before, and if you go down that road, you'll be admitting that you don't have anything unique to say.

Or do you?

This short film for Johnnie Walker whiskey is an excellent example of a unique, well-executed piece of creative that's based on the same old story of brand history.

Many brands try to be too many things, often leaving brand history as a sidenote tacked on at the end -- founded in 1869. Ten strong messages might be better than one, but most of the time the strength of ideas the brand can build around are diluted in strength as they increase in number. Johnnie Walker picked one message, allowing them to focus everything -- setting, script, casting, and camera style -- towards that message. The result was a home run.

The lesson? It doesn't matter if the best message for your brand starts out sounding like someone else, as long as you say it in your own way.

How To Make A Coupon That Isn't Boring

About a year ago, Crispin Porter and Bogusky launched the most remarkable social media campaign to date. With the campaign's goal in mind -- driving whopper sales -- a coupon made sense, but Whopper Sacrifice was more than a coupon, it was an experience.

In reward for the small task of removing 10 Facebook friends using the Whopper Sacrifice Facebook application, users were able to appease the whopper god enough to earn a free burger.


In the end, Facebook banned the application, but not before 234,000 friends were sacrificed for the sake of a free whopper. While Whopper Sacrifice is an important campaign to remember for several reasons (it exhibits a keen understanding of the customer, a more advanced use of social media, and a great sense of humor,) for this discussion it's enough to point out that at it's core Whopper Sacrifice was a simple coupon -- a short activity in exchange for a free burger. It's refreshing to think that next time you want to drive sales you can still rely on the good old coupon strategy and not come off as boring or stale.

A Slogan Worthy Of The Brand

Like building a brand message based on rich history, trying to sell a product on it's quality isn't exactly a fresh idea. Enduring, long-lasting, and reliable all go in one ear and out the other. People here these words as advertiser speak that translates into "just like everyone else".


A great example of both a rich brand history and a creative approach to delivering a unique selling proposition, Saddleback Leather Company doesn't just sell long-lasting bags; they sell bags that "they'll fight over when you're dead" according to their slogan.

It's a unique message for a fittingly unique selling proposition. Lots of people might make quality bags, but only Saddleback makes bags with a 100 year guarantee. In order to successfully portray their competitive advantage they need to be creative in their delivery. A slogan like "reliable leather products since 1999" would be the kiss of death to a brand like this. "They'll fight over it when you're dead" is the breath of life.

The power of creativity to take something old and unoriginal and make it fresh and fascinating is the driving force behind successful campaigns like these, but these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. If you know any ads or brands that have done something similar, feel free to share them in the comments or send us a tweet.

January 25, 2010

My Favorite Newspaper Lede, Ever.

Gabriel García Márquez is a master of fiction, but what most people don't realize is that he started as a journalist. But, he wasn't your standard run-of-the-mill writer. Below is a lede to an article he wrote for El Espectador about a remote part of Columbia. After reading an intro sentence like that, is there anyway you wouldn't continue?

Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.'

—Gabriel García Márquez, El Espectador