The ‘new normal’ is just another bullshit line marketers have swallowed

Marketers should be as wary of those predicting the marketing world is about to change forever as they are of people who thought Oreo’s Superbowl tweet was the future of marketing strategy.

Do you remember 2013? It was an odd, strangely compelling period in marketing history. The emerging attraction of social media was readily apparent but the apparatus through which marketers used this emerging channel to send commercial messages was still in its infancy. On the one hand we had billions of users, on the other relatively little idea how to harness that attention for branded use.

At the epicentre of all of this was the famous ‘Oreo Tweet’. During the Super Bowl that year there was a sudden, short loss of power at the Superdome in New Orleans, where the big game was being played. As the stadium descended into darkness, the 15-strong social media team Oreo had assembled for the event sprung into life.

“Power out? No problem,” the team tweeted via Oreo’s brand account. “You can still dunk in the dark.”

The next day the whole marketing world, and I am not exaggerating, went apeshit about Oreo and its ‘dunk in the dark’ tweet. The Wall Street Journal concluded that Oreo had “culture jacked” the Superbowl. Both Wired and CNET concluded that Oreo had “won” the Superbowl versus the big-budget, old-fashioned TV advertising options on the night. The Washington Post asked: “Can Twitter replace the Super Bowl ad?” Business Insider called it the “tweet that was heard around the world” and noted that the message had been “18 months in the making”.

I spent about a week trying, and failing, to see what all the fuss was about. It was a nice, cheeky bit of promotion but on every possible metric – starting with reach, moving onto engagement and then ending in impact – it just looked tiny to the point of redundancy. I just could not square the orgasmic responses that were coming out of the marketing world with the relative nothingness of the actual tactic itself.

A week later I wrote an entirely unpleasant column in the big Australian business magazine of the time, BRW, suggesting that the whole thing was wank. I went through all the numbers I could guesstimate or get my hands on and concluded the tweet had reached about 0.2% of Oreo’s target market.

I pointed out in my column that the tweet itself was not a bad thing, just mostly a waste of time, and concluded that the real problem was not Oreo or the marketers at Mondelez but “the lazy journalists and social media pundits who have hoodwinked a generation of marketers into believing that social media is far more potent than it really is”.

I just could not square the orgasmic responses that were coming out of the marketing world with the relative nothingness of the actual tactic itself.

Seven years on and the disarmingly honest digital marketer Jerry Daykin recently scratched my ancient itch by publishing a brilliant and brutally frank assessment of that infamous Oreo tweet. It’s an important perspective – albeit one that is almost a decade late – because Jerry was a senior digital marketer at Mondelez when the ‘dunk in the dark’ tweet was created.

Daykin is fantastically honest about the tweet, concluding that its impact was ridiculously overstated. “Go ask some random Americans on the streets who don’t work in advertising about the dunk in the dark tweet,” he suggests in the LinkedIn article. “You’ll be doing well to find anyone who knows what you’re talking about.”

I strongly urge you to read his whole post on LinkedIn, not just because it confirms what I had suspected all those years ago, but because it does a splendid job of also delineating something that needs delineating more often: social media and digital advertising.

I appreciate the Venn diagram of these two concepts remains inextricably connected, but the differences are also very significant. The former was organic, personal and usually pointless for most brands who engaged in it. The latter was impactful and – if we are honest – not as enormously different from the traditional model of advertising it is still falsely presented as replacing.

Marketing’s anti-history rhetoric

As Daykin acknowledges when he discusses his own discoveries working with the Cadbury’s team: “We’d learnt that this new digital space played by remarkably similar rules to the old marketing world.”

And that last part is important. Because if you look back at the very large amount of shit I was given for even suggesting that Oreo’s tweet was pointless you would see a recurring theme. I was not just wrong, I was wrong because I was trying to look at social media using the ‘traditional’ perspective of advertising and communications. That communications paradigm was O.V.E.R.

I remember giving a talk a few weeks later in Melbourne, running through my numbers for Oreo’s tweet and comparing it to some of the TV ads it had “beaten” on Superbowl night. I can still recall the howls, and I mean howls, of laughter that my presentation generated. Marketers could not believe what I was saying.

Such was the opprobrium my anti-Oreo article garnered, if I hadn’t been such an arrogant, argumentative prick I probably would have doubted myself. It was the first time my age was used against me. I was too old to understand the new approach to advertising. I could not see the way social media worked on different rules because I came from the 90s. That was then, this is now and the two were totally different.

This anti-history rhetoric is all too common in marketing. We are a century-old discipline desperate to burn everything we have discovered, established and applied because a teenager somewhere in Ohio has invented an app called ‘Flappo’.

The nonsense of social media was sold to marketers on the basis that the old rules no longer applied. It was the same reason virtual reality was always going to work, no matter what the data said – this was a new technology with new rules attached. Or why the disgraceful business of programmatic gets away with grand, global fraud on a weekly basis. It’s the future, man, and the old checks and balances cannot be applied because they no longer work.

The old rules still apply

A special mention here to branding guru Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom has written a lot of books about branding and last week expounded on his latest theories in an article for WWD. I encourage you to read his column, pretty much for exactly the opposite reasons I promoted Daykin’s writing to you 10 paragraphs ago. Where Daykin is enlightening, Lindstrom is likely to misdirect you to bankruptcy. It is nonsensical stuff. Dangerously nonsensical because it encourages companies to do exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time.

Lindstrom predicts that as a result of coronavirus we will be “facing a complete change of consumer expectation and behaviour”. Once lockdown ends the world will be a very different place. “When we’re released,” Lindstrom warns, “everything will be different. We’re not going to travel, eat, shop, or exercise the same way…perhaps forever.”

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