Dear CMO: Remember the days of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, where Marlin Perkins would show us the cruel world of the African savannah from the relative safely of his helicopter, always in his immaculately clean, pressed and pleated khakis, while his assistant, Jim, would be wrestling with the python on the ground? Poor Jim.
We’d all look forward to the two or three times in the 30-minute show where Marlin would manage to segue awkwardly from migrating wildebeests to your need for insurance. Those were the days of branded content. Create 22 minutes of unique programming, sell off 12 0:30 second spots to others to pay for production costs, and keep four 0:30s for your own brand. Good business model.
Now, the Geico cavemen apparently are getting their own TV pilot and we are promised a movie about the Burger King “King.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Sure, Marlin was funny, but he was as genuine as the day was long. Now, we have kitsch instead of class. We have pop culture celebrity instead of authenticity. As we careen down this path of substance-free marketing like a Hollywood B-lister on Mulholland Drive, do any of us get the feeling that someone needs to grab the wheel?
Let’s make something up, just as an exercise. I haven’t thought this out, so don’t hold me to it, and your participation is appreciated. If we looked at branded content and decided to do something, what would our priorities be?
1. It would have to be entertaining, otherwise no one would care.
2. It should strengthen the brand in the eyes and hearts of the target.
3. It must have legs – not a one-off idea, but something that can evolve, grow, and continue to be a positive influence on the brand over time.
4. It must carry its own financial wei
These priorities are important. The first, the entertainment factor, is all important; without it, everything else fails. Second, the brand impact, is equally important but second in line; without it, you’ve merely diversified into television production for its own sake. If that’s what you want to do, fine, but acknowledge that it has nothing to do with your brand. Go hire a VP to run it and leave it alone. Third, longevity, is important for any long term positive effect it will have on brand support and financial impact. Last, it has to make money. Period. Words to live by.
Of course I haven’t seen the strategy for either the Caveman or the King. But here’s the educated guess. They will be putting all their eggs in the first basket without a care in the world for the others. The Caveman and the King could be entertaining; for how long is a question of the quality of the writing, isn’t it? I’d be hard pressed to put money on them scoring big on the brand engagement side, as neither has anything to do with their respective brands other than the coincidence of their appearing in their respective brands’ television spots. Not much about angst-ridden cavemen speaks to the needs of insurance; and the King, well, he doesn’t speak at all, does he?
If you were walking into Geico and pitching them on a branded content strategy, what would you be presenting? How would you be approaching the strategy to nail down all four points?
An admission is in order. There’s a reason I’m not a “creative.” But here’s how I’d approach the assignment:
Start with McKee’s Negation
“Real life, on film, is dull,” says Robert McKee in his seminar on STORY and screenwriting. How many times have you seen the “office guy” pumping his fist in the air because he just got his first big sale? Don’t you hate that guy? I do, too. Show me the “office guy” after he’s successfully used your product time after time and success is no longer unexpected. Take me to the extreme, where you’ve gone past your current value, through contrary and contradictory values and arrive at the negation of the negation — the extreme condition beyond which you can’t go.
* Current Value: “I need insurance” means “I fear the uncertain.”
* Contrary Value: “I understand the fear the uncertain.”
* Contradictory Value: “I no longer fear the uncertain.”
* Negation of the negation: “I am free of the fear of the uncertain and I can start living my life without fear.”
* Africa: life in the wild. This is the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom creative. And there seems to be an almost insatiable appetite for shows about what happens ‘out there,’ so let’s not dismiss this one as usable. If you’ve seen shows like, “Lion Battleground,” you know what I mean.
* Spiders: What am I irrationally afraid of? Sounds like “Fear Factor” to me.
* Mugger: What am I rationally afraid of? “It Takes a Thief” is a good current execution, but what are we really a afraid of? Being physically attacked. Does this mean there’s room for “It Takes A Mugger”?
* Bull riding: what would embody the fear of the uncertain in my current context? Not that I actually ride bulls, but I know people (who know people) who do. “Dangerous Jobs”? Someone call Mike Rowe.
* Sierra Leone: what would embody the fear of the uncertain outside my current context? “The World’s Most Dangerous Places.” Have you read the book? Someone call Robert Pelton Smith. If you can find him. And assuming he’s still alive. Check time zones, because he’s probably in the Pakistani hill country right now.
Concentric circles, spokes and hubs:
Start with insurance in the middle of a bubble. Then start drawing spokes outwards with everything that makes sense to connect one degree away from it. What do you come up with?
* Exotic insurance: think Lloyds of London and the most unusual or extraordinary insurance situations possible.
* Financial health: important but frankly a bit dry. Dull?
* Personal health: ditto.
* Public health, here and internationally: possibilities, but smacks of a Sally Struthers infomercial. Pass.
* Cars and safety: cars are fun, aren’t they? Maybe.
* Technology and safety: ditto again. People like cool stuff.
* Family life: depends where you go with this one.
Do these spokes make sense to you? Add more. Then draw spokes off of these. And repeat. Until you’re done. You’ll know when.
Insurance companies have lousy reputations for service. Worse, many have refused service to those most in need, from anyone in the Central Coast of California (fire insurance) to Katrina victims. How do you counter-act these brand perceptions (let’s assume we’ve already delivered the stern lecture on just improving their service levels)? How do you then pre-empt the negative image?
Putting all the wood behind the arrow:
And now we have to acknowledge the money and effort that’s been spent already. You’ve got your lizard. And your cavemen. Not to mention your ‘real people, real actors’ campaign. Not that having three completely brand campaigns is wrong, or anything. At least no one’s confused, thank goodness. How do you leverage what’s in place?
* * *
So where does this leave us? With a lot of creative bits and pieces, which is great. I’d start connecting the dots to all of the above. I’d look at drama and reality based executions. I like the idea of getting Pelton Smith and a half a dozen of his compatriots at the Black Flag Cafe walking across the border of Leftfootistan with a towel around their heads interviewing cannibals and guerillas as a repeatable show, using vlogging and other forms of user-generated content to fill in the blanks, but I’m a guy and I may not represent the rest of society.
I’m sure you could come up with a handful of executions given the grist above, too. But the point is this — each (all things being equal) must be entertaining, deliver on the brand, have legs, and be in a position to make financial sense. And that’s the assignment, isn’t it?
Finding ourselves brand hijacked by a duck, or a caveman, or a lizard is all fine and good, unless your mascot fails to deliver meaningful brand impact. When it doesn’t, you’re paying for entertainment and not selling stuff. If you’ve decided to become a television producer, of course, congratulations, but on the off-chance you haven’t and you’re still on the hook for growing your day job I’d suggest you refocus your attention and priorities, as hard as that may be, on your brand.
I spent the better part of 15 minutes putting the above together, alone. If I had three smart people, two hours and a big white board, I guarantee you we’d come up with a rock solid strategy that would wow the pants off of any brand steward.
And so could you. Most of the above are reality-based, frankly because they’re easier to come up with very quickly. Drama simply takes a bit more thought and a lot more creativity. Don’t make me admit my shortcomings again.
So connect the dots. It’s harder work but the results speak for themselves.