"Retargeting Ads" cartoon
Retargeting has taken the advertising world by storm. No longer do advertisers have to hope that an audience they want will be found at a particular publisher. They can chase audiences everywhere based on some signal of intent, independent of publishers. Not even Waldo can hide.

The problem of course is that ad stalking can be creepy. It’s creepy not just because the ads are persistent, it’s that the ads are tone-deaf. They don’t take any context into account.

Browse a red-and-white striped sweater and ads for that red-and-white striped sweater will stalk you across the Internet. Even if you already bought the sweater somewhere else. And even if you browsed the sweater on a lazy Sunday and are now reading a business article on a work day and aren’t in the mood to shop. The sweater ad won’t leave you alone.

As John Battelle put it recently:

“Fast-forward to today, and programmatic has torn audience away from its contextual roots. Using programmatic tools, a media buyer can identify almost any audience segment they want with pinpoint precision – down to the exact cookie or data segment that matches a customer target. And for various reasons, including price, those audience members are targeted mainly on who they are, independently of what they are doing. Put another way, we buy audiences, but we aren’t buying the show they’re watching – we’re ignoring where that impression is served.

“This is nuts.

“After 20 years of chasing click through rates as a core metric for branded display advertising, we’re finally realizing that CTR is a race to the bottom. The ecosystem optimizes for clicks, and we lose the value of branding in the process. We’re making a similar mistake with audience buying. Exercised without context as a key signal, it’s a bad habit, one we need to change if we’re going to build brands using programmatic media.”

Stalking audiences with retargeting is done in the name of more relevant advertising. But we’re in an awkward adolescent stage of understanding what messaging is truly relevant. To be really relevant, messaging will have to factor in context.

Advertisers will have to think outside the cookie.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"Truth in Advertising" cartoon
Jerry Seinfeld recently recently started a harsh, but funny, rant about advertising at the Clio awards by saying, “I love advertising because I love lying.”

He went on to say “I think spending your lives trying to dupe innocent people out of hard-won earnings to buy useless, low-quality, misrepresented items and services is an excellent use of your energy.”

It got me thinking about truth in advertising. Some advertisers may have earned their reputation as snake oil salesmen. But I think that consumers get the last laugh. The better that marketers get at breaking through the clutter, the better consumers get at ignoring any message that marketers send their way.

The real truth in advertising is that most advertising is ignored altogether.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

our startup idea


"Our Startup Idea"
It has never been easier to start a business. The infrastructure is in place to get businesses going for lower investment than just about any time in history.

Yet that doesn’t mean that every startup is worth starting. There is a skewed sense of reality (particularly where I live near San Francisco) that capital seems to reward startup ideas for very low levels of validation.

Many pitches are structured around trying to be the next (insert successful startup here) for (insert category here). I understand the appeal of framing new ideas around successful models. But I crack up every time I hear a startup described as “the Warby Parker for” everything from men’s socks to headphones to active wear to art framing to furniture. This week’s cartoon was partly inspired by Vooza’s hysterical take on an entrepreneur trying to invent the next “Like Uber For” mobile app.

In the startup bandwagon, companies sometimes miss the marketing basics. One of the basics that I think gets missed is understanding your customers. There is a sense in startup culture that if you build it, they will come.

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic recently while illustrating cartoons for a new book called “Talking to Humans: Success Starts With Understanding Your Customers”, written by Giff Constable (CEO of Neo) and edited by Frank Rimalovski (Executive Director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute). It’s a short handbook on how to talk to customers in the earliest stages of a startup to validate and shape the idea. You can download the PDF for free or find Kindle and Paperback versions. Here’s one of my cartoons from the series.


Startups sometimes place more emphasis on what might sound good to investors than on actually validating their idea with customers. I’d love to hear your thoughts on startup ideas worth starting.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"social media marketing"
Last week, the new social network Ello sparked a tremendous amount of attention with its promise to become the Anti-Facebook. Ello is now receiving 45,000 hourly requests to join, based primarily on a short manifesto on advertising and social media:

“Your social network is owned by advertisers. Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold … We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate — but a place to connect, create and celebrate life. You are not a product.”

Whether or not Ello becomes a real player, this sudden backlash reveals an undercurrent that is important for all marketers — many people are sick of how advertisers act in social media. That’s because brands typically bring an advertising mindset to social media. I think this is a potential wake-up call that brands need to earn their place in people’s lives.

Ello may be anti-advertising, but it is not anti-brand. Some brands such as Netflix (and ironically Adweek) already have a place there. Ello won’t change the bad habits of brands in social media. At the moment, a Netflix post on Ello is the same as a tweet, but it will be interesting to watch as brands scramble to figure out their identities on Ello and how they communicate in a community that shuns advertising.

Any social network is only as powerful as how you use it. The default mode for brands is to shout louder to gain attention, rather than engage deeper to gain a relationship. This social media backlash creates an opportunity for marketers to question how brands connect with their audiences.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Ello or social media marketing in general.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

new and improved


"New and Improved" cartoon
If a brand has to shout that it’s “new and improved”, it’s probably not all that new or improved. “New and improved” is the easiest and lamest of marketing claims. Marketers use it to create new spin on an old brand, but it’s often not much more than label-deep. It’s the least interesting marketing lever to pull.

I was struck by this quote from HBS Professor Youngme Moon’s classic book on marketing, “Different“:

“In the 1960s and ’70s, the words “new and improved” really meant something to people; today, those same words don’t mean much at all … In category after category, it has become apparent that competitive differentiation is a myth. Or to put it more precisely, in category after category, companies have gotten so collectively locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate—which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another. Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become.”

If coupons are what marketers do when they run out of meaningful marketing ideas, “new and improved” claims are what marketers do when they run out of meaningful product ideas.

Consumers know this. They know how to tune out the cacophony of me-too marketing claims. It’s easier than ever to ignore undifferentiated marketing.

One of the more bizarre trends I’ve noticed is to use “new and improved” packaging to cover up an inferior product offering. ABC News recently showcased a range of brands that distracted shoppers with “new and improved” labels from shrinking product sizes. It includes this quote: “Whenever a manufacturer says ‘new and improved’… maybe they’ve taken out some ounces.”

The most egregious example I remember of dubious “new and improved” claims was in the US yogurt category a few years ago. One of the brands downsized their product from 8 ounces to 6 ounces, but kept the same price and packaging size the same so that there was now 2 ounces of air below the lid. The “new and improved” benefit? The package now promised “room for your favorite mix-ins”. It was framed as an “improvement” to exchange yogurt for air.

More than ever, I think there’s an opportunity for marketers to think beyond new and improved. We should challenge ourselves to deliver something that is genuinely meaningfully unique.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

product bundles


"Product Bundle" cartoon
“There are only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is to unbundle,” Jim Barksdale said 20 years ago at Netscape. I was struck by a recent HBR interview with Jim and fellow Netscape alum Mark Andreessen about the role of bundling and unbundling in business.

Cable TV providers of course get the most attention for product bundles that rankle consumers — forcing everyone to subscribe to the same long tail of TV channels, when all a particular subscriber might want is a handful of channels.

The Cable TV incumbents have long resisted any changes to the status quo, but, increasingly, consumers are finding ways to “cut the cord” through unbundled season downloads from services like iTunes, creatively re-bundled services like Netflix and Hulu, or non-TV entertainment like YouTube. Verizon responded to the cord cutters with an announcement this week that they will offer an a la carte TV service by mid-2015.

This friction between bundling and unbundling underlies many industries from media to software. The evolution in the music industry from 45s (unbundled) to LPs and CDs (bundled) to single-song downloads (unbundled) to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify (bundled) is an example the constant change under many industries.

At the center of any of these shifts is what is better for consumers at the time. Incumbents often stubbornly resist the shift, focusing aggressively on trying to keep things as they are, rather than offering a better solution. You can only sit on the other side of what consumers want for so long. This dynamic create a lot of opportunity for new businesses, and the classic breeding environment for challenger brands.

As Jim Barksdale says in the HBR interview, “Of course, you always are bundling and unbundling. You can’t stand still.”

Here’s a cartoon I drew last year on “standing still”. I’d love to hear your thoughts on bundling and unbundling.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)


Brand teams are quick to rebrand when they hit a rough patch. But they sometimes forget that a brand is more than a company name, logo, tagline, or ad creative. And that a shiny new brand identity won’t automatically solve all of the problems of the business.

The marketing world is littered with failed rebranding initiatives (from the Gap to Tropicana) that illustrate one simple truth about branding. A company doesn’t own a brand. It’s consumers do. Giving a brand a new coat of paint (or dressing it in sheep’s clothing) won’t change consumers feelings and expectations of a brand.

The RadioShack brand has been fascinating to watch over the last five years. If ever a brand needed a rebrand, it’s RadioShack. The Onion wrote a funny piece a few years ago titled, “Even CEO Can’t Figure Out How RadioShack Still In Business”, which included these funny, but telling, quotes:

“Even the name ‘RadioShack’—can you imagine two less appealing words placed next to one another? What is that, some kind of World War II terminology? Are ham radio operators still around, even? Aren’t we in the digital age?

“Every location is full of bizarre adapters, random chargers, and old boom boxes, and some sales guy is constantly hovering over you. It’s like walking into your grandpa’s basement. You always expect to see something cool, but it never delivers”

RadioShack is a tale of two rebranding initiatives. In 2009, they tried to force a new colloquial nickname, “The Shack” on the same tired old store. They put much of their $200mm ad budget that year into TV and digital ads to introduce The Shack. It wasn’t based on any consumer insight. No consumers called RadioShack “The Shack”. And they didn’t change their inventory or the stores themselves. It was a huge flop and the stock has lost 95% of its value in the past 7 years.


This year, they’re trying something new, rebranding while staying true to its roots. Their CMO Jennifer Warren shared a little detail in a recent FastCompany article called “How RadioShack Got Its Groove Back”:

“When we started talking to customers to see how to remake RadioShack, what we discovered was whether they loved us or hated us, they still had a lot of passion for the brand. For the people who hated it when RadioShack started focusing on smartphones, they still had positive memories of RadioShack from the ’80s as this place where inventors and makers got their start.”

RadioShack is taking advantage of the maker movement to re-concept stores around their maker heritage — with 3-D printers, robot sets, and meeting space for DIY types. So far, this is primarily revealed in a few concept stores (and last year’s Superbowl ad, “The 80s Called; They Want Their Store Back”), but it will be interesting to see how the rebrand continues to unfold over the next year. This time, they’re not trying to be something they’re not.


“Historically, RadioShack has been the MacGyver for MacGyvers, the place where makers who know how to do 80 percent of what they want to accomplish go to get the next 20 percent. So that’s what we’re trying to get back to. The only difference is that everyone is a MacGyver now, which means we’ve got to step up our game.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on RadioShack and rebranding in general.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

Marketers are increasingly pushing for “transparency” and “authenticity” in their brand communication. But, for many brands, this is surface-deep. They want advertising that makes them look authentic and transparent without actually being authentic and transparent.

Filmmaker Johan Liedgren wrote a snarky satirical open letter replying to a request to produce “authentic” looking commercials for a brand:

“I count no less than 14 instances of the word “authentic” in the brief. Counting synonyms like “real,” “true,” “genuine,” “not fake,” and “actual,” the tally rises to 28 … I don’t view the opportunistic call for “authenticity” as a hope for a our industry, but rather as an all-time low point for a trade that is no stranger to constantly lowered ambitions for the communication between organizations and real humans. Why? Because you don’t really want authenticity.”

The more you have to shout about how authentic your brand is, the less it probably is. Much of authenticity advertising is authenticity washing. It’s boasting about authenticity without really practicing it. Practicing it requires far more of the organization than the marketing department.

Scott Monty at Ford Motor wrote an interesting article earlier this year about transparency and authenticity in business, focusing on a case study from McDonald’s Canada.

McDonald’s faced an online rumor that its Chicken McNuggets were made from “pink goop”, along with a photo circulating on the internet claiming to show the process. Rather than combat the rumor with a faux-authentic commercial of chicken farmers in a bucolic setting, they filmed their entire supply chain and manufacturing process and shared it step-by-step. So far, that video has been seen nearly 4.4 million times. This was all part of a McDonald’s Canada program called “Our Food. Your Questions” that has answered 20,000 questions from consumers with this level of candor since 2012.

This program may be transparent, but does this lead to authenticity? McDonald’s after all was the target of Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me 10 years ago. They’ve struggled with an authenticity gap, which is why consumers believed the “pink goop” story in the first place. But the McDonald’s brand in Canada saw a 60% increase in brand trust as a result of this program. That’s an important step in the right direction for the brand.

McDonald’s Australia launched a related program called “Track My Macca” that let’s you track all of the ingredients in the food you’re about to eat, using the GPS from your phone to track a particular McDonald’s outlet, a QR code on the food packaging, and the time you received the food to tell you the origin of each ingredient, from the lettuce to the farm that supplied the beef.

That story reveals the potential that many brands see in advertising with transparency and authenticity. But it also shows how it requires much more than a marketing comms campaign. It takes the full organization. Consumers can see right through shallow marketing spin and authenticity washing. To work, it has to go deeper.

Transparency and authenticity require far more than a brief to an agency. I’d love to hear your thoughts here.

Here’s a cartoon I posted on this topic last year.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)


"Ice Bucket Challenge" cartoon
No sooner had the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge started trending than social media marketers were trying to reverse-engineer it to figure out what made it go viral. It’s been dubbed “the viral event of the summer”. I’ve seen several write ups on how brands can apply the lessons of the Ice Bucket Challenge to their marketing and create the “next” ice bucket challenge (but to benefit their brands rather than a worthy cause like ALS).

Samsung even went so far as to literally replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge. But instead of raising awareness of ALS, they hijacked the stunt to show that the Galaxy S5 is waterproof, challenging Apple and Nokia to pour ice water on their phones too.

The marketing response to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge reminds me of the marketing response to the 2012 Kony video. It’s tempting for marketers to think you could just add a “Kony” or an “Ice Bucket Challenge” to any marketing plan, as if “going viral” were an outdoor media buy or an FSI.

This is a reflection of the one-hit wonder mindset that many brands have with social media. I think that marketers who launch a single campaign with the intention of it “going viral” will be disappointed. The better strategy is to create a consistent stream of content over time, some of which may go viral.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge worked precisely because it wasn’t engineered from the top down by marketers. It worked because the campaign originated with and was run by participants. The job of the ALS Association team was to amplify and fuel it when the magic happened, not to architect it. It also started small, without heavy-handed expectations that it would drive results.

Here’s a cartoon I drew on this topic inspired by the 2012 Kony video.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)

"Go Viral" cartoon

"Product Placement" cartoon
Product placement has been around since the early days of entertainment, but it feels like we’re in an awkward adolescent period, weird growth spurts and all. As the entire nature of entertainment shifts and viewers can more easily tune out commercial breaks, marketers are leaping more than ever into the shows themselves.

Sometimes the results are really obnoxious, like this Bones episode where the characters literally pause a murder investigation to marvel at the parking feature of their Toyota.

In other cases, the brands can help add to the story line. There’s a good Adweek article last week on how reality shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race integrated Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority and Absolut Vodka.

As RuPaul put it, “The integrations allow us to advertise things in a way that’s sort of a soft sell. We do it in a way that’s clever, that doesn’t really offend the intelligence of the viewer. We have fun with it in a way that we know what we’re doing, they know what we’re doing—and we make it an adventure.”

When I worked on the Haagen-Dazs brand 10 years ago, we dabbled in product placement and product integration. We had a product placement retainer to proactively place ice cream containers in TV shows and movies. Our product placement agency used an elaborate media calculation for the value of those impressions: length of time on screen, how integral the product was to the scene, how much of the logo you could see, etc. It got to be pretty ridiculous. I remember they put a quantified media value against a split-second cut of Cameron Diaz opening a freezer, and if you paused the movie, you could briefly see the burgundy package color of a Haagen-Dazs pint.

But then we had a chance to pitch a reality show to the Food Network to create the next Haagen-Dazs ice cream flavor. We put together a whole contest with video submissions from contestants, flew the finalists to our R&D lab to make flavors by hand, and had panels of judges narrow down the winning flavor, which we launched as our next flavor. The Food Network liked the idea so much, they expanded our pitch from a one-hour to a two-hour special, and they didn’t charge Haagen-Dazs anything because they saw it as a show, not an infomercial. They ran the final show over 10 times and it had a huge impact on the brand.

I remember in the midst of filming that my marketing instincts sometimes got in the way of telling the story. We had marketing signage with huge scoops of ice cream with our marketing tagline that I kept trying to drag into the background of the shots. At one point, the producer pulled me aside and told me I had to know when to stop marketing.

Storytelling is all the rage, but marketers are not naturally great at storytelling. Sometimes we have to learn when to stop marketing.

It will be interesting to watch how product placement evolves. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away a signed cartoon print. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. Thanks!)