What’s the message of social media?

January 1, 2011

As Marshall McLuhan one said, “The medium is the message.”

If he were alive today, what would he say about social media?

What’s the message of social media? And are companies usi ]]>

I wonder.

Recently, the One Club for Art and Copy in New York named 10 digital campaigns as the best in their field in the past decade.

The big winner: Burger King.

Two of its campaigns, “Subservient Chicken” and “Whopper Sacrifice” both by Crispin Porter & Bogusky, were in the top ten.

That’s not surprising. Burger King is also a big winner in the advertising trade press which has avidly covered its innovative campaigns.

What the coverage has missed, of course, are the results of all this innovation. And the results are not good.

Here are the percentage gains in sales-per-unit in the past decade of the seven large national hamburger chains.

1. Whataburger . . . .  77 percent

2. McDonald’s . . . . . 47 percent

3. Jack in the Box . .  36 percent

4. Carl’s Jr. . . . . . . .  24 percent

5. Wendy’s . . . . . . . . 22 percent

6. Burger King . . . . . 14 percent

7. White Castle . . . . .  0 percent

In addition to falling behind the big national chains, Burger King is also losing ground to a number of smaller, “hot” hamburger chains.

Last year, for example, Burger King’s average sales-per-unit fell 3 percent, while Five Guys Burger and Fries was up 14 percent.

And Five Guys is expanding faster than any other fast-food chain. Last year, the chain increased its number of units by 45 percent. (Burger King increased its number of units by less than 1 percent.)

Don’t get me wrong. The two Burger King digital programs deserved the awards. Individually considered, they were great advertising campaigns. But as Bill Bernbach once said, “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster.”

A great ad campaign will also make a bad marketing strategy fail faster.

What should Burger King’s marketing strategy have been? And what is the role of social media anyway?

The first global medium.

Unlike newspapers, magazines, radio and television (which are primarily regional or national media), the social medium knows no borders. It’s free to travel around the world as easily as it is to travel around a country.

The consequences are enormous.

Each new medium, according to McLuhan, is an extension of ourselves. “The social consequences of any medium . . . result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs.”

That’s certainly true for the Internet and its many manifestations.

In promoting the telephone, AT&T used to say: “Reach out and touch someone.” Today, we use the Internet to “Reach out and touch a lot of people.”

From word of mouth to word of fingers. Instead of reaching out and talking to someone, today you reach out and communicate with many. That’s the new scale introduced into our affairs.

But what’s the message or social consequences?

It’s “homogenization.” Or in McLuhan’s words: “With instant electric technology, the globe itself can never again be more than a village.”

A monolithic world is a happy hunting ground for brand builders. Imagine seven billion people all eager to adopt the latest, hottest brand.

We are entering the golden era of global branding. Some examples.

Today, we have global motion pictures, global books, global product brands, global hotel brands, global accounting firms, global advertising agencies. Even global advertising campaigns. (McDonald’s “I’m lovin’ it.”)

In xenophobic Japan, for example, eight of the 20 most-popular consumer brands are now American brands.

What’s happening globally is also happening nationally. The country is becoming less different and more monolithic. Driven by media generally and social media specifically, it’s a trend that is bound to continue for decades to come.

Forget about fragmentation and market segments. To be successful in the long run, a brand needs to narrow its focus, not to broaden it. In particular, a brand needs to resist the temptation to develop different products for different market segments.

What will drive social media chatter?

That’s the question the brand’s owner should be asking. What single, unique idea can we develop for our brand that will capture the imagination of the public and drive social media chatter.

Ask yourself, is a 140-character Tweet (28 words or so) big enough to hold your positioning statement along with an endorsement of the sender? And is it unique and different enough for anyone to bother tweeting?

You should buy a Chevy because Chevrolet runs deep? I don’t expect too many Tweets like this one.

Years ago, a company worked with its advertising agency to develop a marketing strategy to use in all of its external communications: advertising, sales promotion, direct mail and PR. Too often, the result was a grandiose statement that warmed the hearts of the company’s management but did little to penetrate the minds of consumers.

“Excellence for all.”

“An American revolution.”

“The heartbeat of America.”

“Genuine Chevrolet.”

That’s not the right approach. In a monolithic world driven by social media, you need to bring your positioning statement down to earth. You need to make it specific and tangible enough to get consumers excited. And then you need to say it with words the average person might use.

Suppose you were setting up a shoe store on the Internet. The usual approach is to first decide what segment of the market you want to appeal to. Men, women, children, etc. Then to decide whether to go upscale, downscale, or perhaps somewhere in the middle.

That’s not what Zappos did. Instead, they tried to find an idea related to shoes that would catch fire on social media.

What’s stopping people from buying shoes online? They might not fit and then the consumer would have to go to the expense of sending them back.

“Free shipping. Both ways.”

I can’t image an established company buying an idea like this. It’s too simple, too costly and too easily copied by competition.

It’s also brilliant and, in my opinion, it’s the single idea that in a decade turned an Internet startup into the largest online shoe seller. And last year turned a number of entrepreneurs into multi-millionaires when the company was acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion.

Yet “free shipping, both ways” was barely mentioned in CEO Tony Hsieh’s new book “Delivering Happiness,” a book that has been on a top-ten list at The New York Times for 27 straight weeks.

“Free shipping, both ways” is mentioned casually three times and the first mention is not until page 127 of a 253-page book. Nor was “free shipping, both ways” important enough to make the book’s seven-page index. What does make the index is the evolution of the Zappos brand promise.

1999 . . . “Largest selection of shoes.”

2003 . . . “Customer service.”

2005 . . . “Culture and core values as our platform.”

2007 . . . “Personal emotional connection.”

2009 . . . “Delivering happiness.”

(Management tends to take a down-to-earth concept and bury it with a layer of abstraction, turning “the ultimate driving machine” into “joy.” And “free shipping, both ways” into “delivering happiness.”)

What will the thousands of management people who read “Delivering Happiness” take away from the book? Something that most of them already believe. That the way to build a big, successful brand is to deliver the best possible customer service.

“And then all we have to do is to tell prospects about our wonderful customer service.”

“Free shipping, both ways?”

“We can’t do that. It’s too simple, too costly and too easily copied by our competition.”

Back to Burger King.

After a decade of award-winning advertising, how does Burger King rank among the seven large national hamburger chains? In average sales-per-unit, they’re in last place.

1. McDonald’s . . . . . $2,224,700

2. Whataburger . . . .  $1,665,000

3. Jack in the Box . .  $1,406,000

4. Wendy’s . . . . . . . . $1,344,300

5. White Castle . . . .  $1,307,100

6. Carl’s Jr. . . . . . . .  $1,266,400

7. Burger King . . . . . $1,225,400

What should Burger King have done? In a monolithic world, you need a monolithic message.

What in the world was Burger King fooling around with subservient chickens anyway?  A better direction, in my opinion, would have been a cowardly cow.

If you want to be a strong No.2 brand, you need to be the opposite of the leader. As McDonald’s expanded its line, Burger King should have gone in exactly the opposite direction. Narrow its line.

And with a name like Burger King, the obvious strategy was to focus on “burgers.” (Look at the success of Whataburger, up 77 percent in per-unit sales in the last decade. Once in last place among the large national chains, Whataburger is now second only to McDonald’s.)

Several decades ago, we worked for Burger King. At the time, the new CEO said to me, Al, you’ll be a hero if you help us solve two problems.

“What are the two problems?”

“Breakfast and chicken.”

Wait a minute, I said. Let’s go outside and look at the sign. What does that sign say? I think Burger King should focus on “burgers.”

Over the decades, Burger King has had three great burger campaigns.

“Home of the Whopper.”

“Have it your way.”
“Broiling, not frying.”

Any one of these, continued over the years, would have made an excellent campaign for the brand.

A monolithic world demands a monolithic brand with a monolithic message.