Last night, I thoroughly enjoyed a branding ritual that my family has been celebrating for years. I met up with a large group of family members and took in the midnight showing of “The Hobbit”, after a multi-generational meal at one of our favorite local Tex-Mex restaurants, El Fenix.
It’s hardly the first time we’ve gotten together for a midnight movie — we’ve been doing it for nearly two decades as screen (and book) franchises like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, Twilight (just the first one), and others captured our attention. I’ve written about the fact that our willingness to buy tickets ahead of time, wait in long lines, and show up groggy and sleepy for school and work the next morning is a testament to the amazing content marketing skills that get us hooked on the “critic proof” movies long before they hit the screen.
The Hobbit has captured 76% of all online movie ticket sales over the last month, and you can bet that there’s a good percentage of those sales going to people who aren’t hard-core Tolkien fans. One of my grandsons who joined us for the movie last night has never read the books, and thought the Lord of the Rings was “ok”, but not great. So why did he show up to wait in line with us last night? Because, he said, “I belong to this family, and this is what we do.” (At the end of the movie, however, he was the one who exclaimed, “That’s it??? I want to see the rest!”)
But I’ve realized recently that there are other branding rituals that transcend marketing in ways I hadn’t realized until I started looking for them. For instance, 10 months of the year, there are products you won’t find in my pantry — but when Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, they’re always on my shopping list, whether I have a plan to use them right away or not. (Canned French’s Fried Onion Rings, Eagle Brand Condensed Milk, Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese, Bama Red Plum Jelly, etc.)
I’ve tried not buying them a few times, but my family will have none of it. It isn’t Christmas, my son says, without Jelly Cookies with sour red jelly in the center, and you CAN’T have a holiday meal without traditional dishes. But how did these things get so “traditional” anyway?
The green bean casserole that’s found on so many holiday tables — the one made with mushroom soup and canned onion rings — is younger than I am. The “traditional” recipe was created in 1955 by a marketing team charged with selling more Campbell’s soup products. Yet, a couple of generations later, it’s enshrined in the holiday pantheon of recipes right next to many recipes that are many decades older.
How? By repeating it year after year, and consistently claiming that it was the must-have holiday side dish. Campbell’s advertises it, offers mechants incentives to put the ingredients together on store end-caps, and publishes gorgeous photos of the dish year after year. The marketers have added new communications channels as time has passed: the casserole has its own social media campaign and Twitter hashtag.
But it’s still promoted in all the traditional media, too — TV and magazine ads, on the backs of soup cans, in press releases and recipe books and on TV cooking shows. They’ve just added Internet banners and social media to the marketing mix.
The truth is that great marketing campaigns are often so subtle, and repeated so often that we forget that they’re marketing campaigns. And that’s the secret: we as consumers agree to pretend that we’re part of the “team” instead of buyers being sold a product.
No one does it better than Peter Jackson. The “leaked” advance clips for The Hobbit had the fans clamoring for more. They started nearly a year ago, and they continued right up until the day before screens around the globe started showing the film in “wide” release. For a year before the movie hit the screen, Sir Peter dribbled out a series of video blogs, still photos, clips, and dozens of movie trailers and commercials — usually repeating a few scenes, but each one also introducing tantalizing new images the fans hadn’t seen before.
That smart marketing helped to create a “critic proof” movie sure to sell tickets regardless of cricism of the high frame rate or any other negative comment written about the film.
The package goods industry — especially the food industry — is good at this kind of long-term branding, too. From products you can only buy at certain times of the year — Count Chocula cereal, McRib sandwiches, White Chocolate Covered Oreos — to “traditional” recipes that get splashed across newspaper, television, and magazine pages year after year, the food industry makes us feel as if we’re missing out on something important if we don’t put THEIR brand of goodies on our family’s table at Christmas or Thanksgiving.
An industry that isn’t very good at it, however, is the technology and software industry. With a very few exceptions like Apple, most technology companies practice what I call “magpie marketing”. Maybe it’s because it’s a young industry where older, more experienced people are scarce — we made our money, cashed out, and moved on instead of staying around. (Again, with a few exceptions like Microsoft and IBM.)
But the reason doesn’t matter. Because technology marketers seem to have a kind of attention deficit disorder when it comes to consistency and long-term branding, their customers do, too. Marketers in the tech industry could take a lesson from the canned goods and movie marketers.
Finding ways to make the “old” product into a part of our customers lives means generating long-term revenue, and building a brand that isn’t dependent on the latest version’s success. Yes, product innovation is vital for a technology company. But so is brand loyalty and consistency.
Repetition seems to be anathema to many of my younger colleagues in technology marketing. They’ve forgotten — or never learned — the basic rule of marketing that delivering the same message over a long period of time is the key to changing something from an impulse buy to a necessity.
It must work. I mean, who actually likes that heavy green bean casserole that turns up on holiday tables every year?