Welcome to the ninth edition of Bullshit or Brilliant™!
Each month, we look back and thoughtfully pluck two things from across the marketing, business, or advertising universe: one that we thought was bullshit, and one that we thought was brilliant. It may be something that happened that month, or a different era altogether.
💩 BULLSHIT: THE DECLINE OF PORSCHE CREATIVE (AND THE SLOW DEATH OF GOOD COPY)
Once upon a time, Porsche ads looked like this.
Now, they look like this…
Sigh. A brand that was once the vanguard of daring, attention-demanding creative succumbed to the uber generic ‘car-driving-through mountain-REALLY-quickly’ ad trope. We aren’t the first to point out that almost all car ads are cliche beyond comprehension. There are cars. There are mountains. Did we mention there are cars?
Large d’oh. Join us in exploring how Porsche’s creative got so boring.
The tyranny of the tiny tagline
Many of the world’s best taglines are masterfully punchy. Nike’s ‘Just Do It’. Obama’s ‘Yes we can’. Apple’s ‘Think Different’. As with most things in life, with the good comes the painfully terrible. And as with slides and not penises, conventional wisdom dictates ‘smaller is better when it comes to taglines. The result is a glut of underwhelming, stunted lines that are about as compelling as your average paper straw.
‘Dare Forward’ is an excellent example of the tyranny of the tiny tagline. Or maybe you confused Porsche Macan’s tagline with Cadillac’s ‘Dare Greatly’. Skoda encourages you to ‘Follow your Different’. Toyota tells you to (gasp!) ‘Start your impossible'. If the waste industry could recycle at the same rate as advertising - global warming would be a blip in the rearview!
…So here’s some non-conventional wisdom - take as long as you need to say something interesting and stop trying to make a sentence with two words. Also, dare in whichever friggin way you please.
How did we get here?
Simple. An unbridled, tunnel-visionesque infatuation with precision targeting. ‘Right product at the right place at the right time’ entered the advertising lexicon like a mind virus. The last decade in advertising could be titled ‘Programmatic: A love story’. Countless VC dollars were spent on digital advertising mechanics.
Correspondingly, a distinct lack of obsession with good creative ails the industry. Case in point - this month, research from the Better Briefs Project revealed only 10% of creative agencies agree ‘the briefs my client writes provide clear strategic direction’. It’s anyone’s guess as to why, but ours is that marketers are too busy pissfarting around staring at CPC, ROAS, and follower count.
Only a teeny scintilla of adtech investment flows toward startups that aim to improve the actual ads themselves.
Can the real copywriters please stand up? Remembering the lost art of copywriting.
Every industry contains a finite amount of energy. In advertising, the misguided obsession with precision targeting steals attention from many things. What tops the list? Arguably, copywriting.
In the Mad Men era, the primacy of print and radio meant copywriting reigned supreme, but the modern world is a dizzying flurry of images and screens. Modern media habits and the crushing demands of the content beast mean writing is often an afterthought. There’s more than ever to write, but less time than ever to think. Couple this with relentless cost-cutting, and provocative copywriting finds itself in peril.
Have we succumbed to the sterile optimization claptrap extolled by Silicon Valley’s most personality-less? Why does everything look and sound the same? The excellent copywriter Vikki Ross found 66 examples of ads using the term redefined/reimagined. Sixty-six! The devil’s number!
It was back in 2012 when this R/GA employee noted responses to briefs from final year ad school students sounded like pre-canned regurgitations. A sea of “But wait! There’s more” and “Why not pop in and try [x] today?”
Here’s an idea, direct even a small portion of the precision targeting mania toward tools that help creatives make better creative. And teach the kiddies to write. BUT! Creativity can’t be taught, guided or honed, I hear you cry. That is hogwash. Companies like Adobe and Procreate changed the game for visual creatives, giving them tools to create previously impossible, visually seductive things more quickly and easily. Smaller players like Wipster streamline the creative production and approval process. Hemingway forces writers to write clearly and expressively with helpful, constructive suggestions.
If humanity can build giant, underwater sea cables to make the internet function, we can figure this one out. The last decade was defined by optimizing targeting to death, let’s hope the next will represent a boom for tools to help advertisers and creators make striking creative. And no, not just for AI tools that robot-write to meet gluttonous content demand.
Death to design by committee: How to push for great without diluting ideas…
Impotent creative and hum-ho execution smack of one phrase bound to make creatives everywhere shudder - design by committee . What starts as an idea with potential dies in endless rounds of creative review. It all begins when 20 people show up to a meeting late and unprepared because, you know, that’s how we show we’re busy, important people.
“Can everyone hear me?”
“No, you’re on mute Cheryl.”
Then, everyone asks ‘what’s this meeting for?’, then proceeds to give their opinion, because if you’re in a meeting you have to assert your opinion to justify your presence.
Anyway, to help you avoid this final ring of Dante’s inferno we assembled dos and don'ts throughout the creative process. Take notes or wallow in the mediocrity of tepid creative. (If you have any dos and don'ts of your own, we’d love to hear them!) We’ll share and credit you on Twitter.
Closing caveat: Porsche is actually doing great!
Porsche enjoys significant growth in key markets, and the Cayenne is one of the most successful cars they’ve ever made. But, we’d argue this is due to two things: 1. Significant, bold product innovation → Ballsy, the counter-intuitive introduction of SUVs in the Porsche Cayenne and Taycan, which, according to some, was really fucking stupid (JP Castlin noted this in his excellent newsletter - you should subscribe). Robert Farago - an auto fanatic and author of ‘The Truth About Cars’ said “Porsche has no more business building an SUV than McDonald’s has serving burgers by candlelight”. Goldman Sachs said the car would “push Porsche’s credibility to the absolute limits”.
2. Porsche rides a wave of success built by brand equity long ago. If Porsche had virginously entered the market with the afore-pictured creative-claptrap, no one would know what a Porsche is. Go forth and dare as sporadically as the infamous wonkavator!
🦁 BRILLIANT: TRADER JOE'S 🎁
Trader Joe’s is heaven on earth...if there’s a happier place, I don’t know it. Employees are bubbly and wear Hawaiian shirts. Snacks are tasty and cheap. Packaging is weird and wonderful (so weird in fact, that a viral TikTok video theorized “trader joes isn’t real. Trader Joe’s dropped in from an alternate reality. If we all took a little more time to start at Trader Joe’s products, we’d realize it looks like aliens trying to interpret human grocery items”. Birthday cake popcorn? Chocolate hummus? Lavender blueberry milk? Here for it!
Today we’ll look at some of the counter-intuitive moves behind the brand’s cult-like following.
Foreword: The importance of fame
Like everyone in LA, brands must seek fame. Why? Customers choose brands that a) they know and b) that come to mind when it matters most. Fame is the common thread successful brands share (and Trader Joe’s is no exception). Some we love (Nike is famous and widely loved). Some we love to hate (Facebook is famous and widely-despised). There’s no one road to fame. Some brands advertise significantly more than their peers. Some game PR to generate a sea of headlines.
Here’s the inimitableAd Contrarian on why fame’s important to brand success:
“Fame is a tremendous advantage in business. If your brand is famous, retailers are far more likely to put you on their shelves, distributors are far more likely to pay attention to your calls, consumers are far more likely to buy your product, people are far more likely to serve your product to their guests, people are far more likely to wear hats with your name on it, important people are far more likely to invite you to lunch, answer your emails, and meet you for a drink. And smart people are far more likely to want to work for you, be your lawyer, or sit on your board.”
If ever there was a brand that marched to the beat of its own ukulele to achieve fame, that brand is Trader Joe’s. Let’s take a look under the wacky hood.
TRADER JOE’S QUIRKY PATH TO FAME: ZAGGING WHILE OTHERS ZIG
‘When everyone zigs, zag’ is an oft-quoted quote in brandland. Though brands rarely heed the advice, behaving distinctly is a power move in an industry of lemmings. Laid-back California culture birthed Trader Joe’s in 1967. Fittingly, founder Joe Couloumbe grew up on an avocado farm. Since then the brand’s evolved into a notorious leader in both customer satisfaction, employee engagement (in contrast, Amazon barely lets its employees take a piss), and sales. Fortune magazine estimates its sales per square foot to be $1750, the highest in the US and more than double that of Whole Foods. Flying in the face of modern business dogma, Trader Joe’s does not hoard endless customer data. The brand never has sales, coupons or discounts, opting instead for everyday low prices. TJs products aren’t sold online, and the brand was very late to the social media game. Its Instagram only launched in 2017. Unsurprisingly, the brand is not on TikTok. (Its fans are though, some Trader Joe’s focused accounts have 1M+ followers)
CREATIVITY, BUT HOLD THE ADVERTISING
…And in perhaps its most interesting non-traditional move to people reading this newsletter, Trader Joe’s barely engages in paid advertising. The brand produces its famous fearless flyer catalog six times a year and occasionally sends an email newsletter. Its biggest marketing expense is sampling. “...a lot of people don’t know our biggest marketing expense we have at Trader Joe’s is actually just letting people try our food,” says Marketing VP Tara Miller. Despite the dearth of advertising, Trader Joe’s is the 2nd most popular US grocery store and a top 300 most popular brand overall. Side note: 7-Eleven is the most popular US grocery store. What is wrong with people?
HAPPY EMPLOYEES, HAPPY LIFE
It’s not just advertising, social media, discounting, and e-commerce where Trader Joe’s bucks the trend. Well-trained Trader Joe’s employees actually like working for the brand. Why? The friendly grocery chain adopts a strangely humane approach to how it treats staff. Trader Joes’ quirky, desirable products are bolstered by a suite of happy, competent employees. Employees are so central to the experience, in fact, that the company self-limits the speed at which it rolls out new locations. It knows the right people aren’t so easy to find. Why are these people so damn happy? Well, they receive proper training. They’re eligible for a raise every 6 months (and that’s on top of an above-average starting salary). Shifts are structured to prevent boredom, and teammates receive a generous store discount. The result? Over 10% of employees have worked at Trader Joe’s for more than a decade.
PRODUCTS WITH PERSONALITY
The average Trader Joe’s stocks 4000 products, where other grocery stores typically house 50,000. The company was doing ‘drops’ before they were cool. Products rotate in and out due to limited space, much to the dismay of brand fans, the most intense of whom enjoy blogging, sharing, and obsessing over new entrants and old favorites.
In contrast with Porsche, Trader Joe’s is a brand that invests in the value of expressive writing. Silly, striking words carry the brand’s personality on everything from store signs to the Fearless Flyer to micro-wording on the products themselves. Words matter! All of these offbeat moves - from quirky products to exemplary service to investments in packaging and copywriting get people talking. These are the unconventional decisions that drive the brand’s formidable fame. The result? Word-of-mouth so fervent this parody video is only just a little exaggerated.
A word of caution
Neglecting advertising to focus on fabulous and quirky sounds great in theory, but Trader Joes’ approach is an anomaly. Interesting low advertising examples exist (Tesla, CostCo, Zara), but they are the exception, not the rule. Though their existence begs the question, what if more brands did reallocate some ad dollars to things like better customer service, more interesting products, and happier employees.
A Trader Joe’s or Tesla-like approach is only possible where brands have strong positioning, a differentiated brand, and a creative approach to how they’ll do the work of advertising, without paying for advertising. The fame’s not gonna make itself. As Bob Hoffman, the Ad Contrarian points out, advertising is still the most surefire way to achieve widespread fame.
WHICH WAY TO BRAND SUCCESS? Choose your own adventure...
There are many roads to brand success. Marketers are an argumentative bunch, so there’s no shortage of discussions around which road is best. #1 - Brand purpose disciples sit on one side - brand purposers start with why and often believe a brand should aim higher than profit. This month, revered researcher Peter Field released a report arguing there’s a strong case for purpose-driven campaigns. Lord Ritson, Sharp, and Farquad, long-term critics of brand purpose (ok, not Farquad) hit back at the methodology. Many argue brand purpose is hogwash. No more than Sunday confession, a moral purification ceremony for marketers who believe selling is a sin. #2 - Then there’s the brand lovers - those who argue brands must create an overwhelmingly positive emotional response from customers. This doesn’t necessarily need to be connected to a higher purpose. #3 Finally, Byron Sharpists argue it’s all about mental and physical availability - ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ not much. Actually, most purchases are emotionless, transactional, and relatively automatic, they contend. Success flows to brands who are in the mind and available at the point of purchase.
Some argue brand love is about chasing loyalty, we’d argue true loyalty is like a unicorn. Gorgeous in theory but tough to find. Our take, true love is an elite outcome reserved for the most disciplined of brands. Most will never get there. It’s a worthy goal for some, but not a prerequisite for success. Those who arrive at brand nirvana enjoy a special type of insurance. They’re more resistant to blunders. They weather recessions. They come to mind first. Case in point - YouGov research revealed negative press has little effect on Trader Joe’s brand. Which resonates most strongly for you?