Brand presence online can’t be bought. It has to be earned.

Issue 16 | September 2010

By Alec Brownstein

The Internet is a great equalizer. To visit a site, you type letters and numbers into a browser, whether you’re visiting a 100-year old brand’s multi-million dollar homepage or a free tumblr blog started last week. (Increasingly often, it’s the blog that gets more eyeballs.)  That means that whatever page your brand puts out there is competing on equal footing with all the other pages on the internet, a number which grows by 7.3 million sites every day.  That’s a lot of competition.  Oh, and in case you just thought you’d run banner ads on sites that people actually visit, remember that there are 851,121 people every week downloading a program that completely blocks them.  And that’s just on Firefox.  The most downloaded Extension for the Chrome Browser is also AdBlock Plus.

So what does this tell us, other than the fact that lots and lots of consumers really don’t want to see our ads?  I think it tells us two important things.  First, consumers can no longer be intruded upon as they navigate the web.  Second, it tells us that consumers are willing to go to the trouble to search for and download a 3rd party piece of software that they find useful.  (Unfortunately, the software they’re downloading happens to negate much of what we do.)  So as marketers and advertisers, how can we use this information to convey our brand’s message?  What do we do now?

I believe that to build a successful online presence in the AdBlock Plus web world, we have to earn it.  This means two things:  First, we must enhance, rather than intrude upon, the user’s online experience.  Second, we must create fun and useful content that consumers want to see, instead of content they want to avoid.  That means that when you’re coming up with stuff to put online to promote your brand, don’t create content that sucks.  Nobody wants to navigate away from fantasy football research or watching a baby panda sneeze to spend time on your brand’s micro site watching heavy-handed webisodes about microwaveable pizza or drinkable yogurt snacks.  It’s just not going to happen.  Too many brands and agencies think that just because they put so called “viral videos” online, people will watch them.  They won’t.  Not when there’s much better stuff out there to watch.

Side note: On the subject of webisodes and web videos, can we all stop saying that we’re making viral videos?  We’re not.  We’re making web videos that we hope will go viral.  We can help them go viral by seeding them, promoting them to bloggers or paying to have them featured on video websites.  But saying that you’re making a viral video is like saying that you’re writing a bestselling novel.

I believe that a lot of brands and their agencies try to transplant old school TV road block advertising to the internet.  They come up with a message, focus group it, put it into an ad unit, and blast it out onto the web with the assumption that people will have to see it to get to the content that it’s adjacent to or interrupting.  Sure, it’s nice if the ad is good or interesting, but it doesn’t really matter because consumers will have to see it whether they like it or not. We figured out a few years ago that this doesn’t work anymore for TV.  People have DVRs and will fast forward our precious, focus-grouped messages.  Although, it does seem that some advertisers are holding out hope that consumers don’t have a DVR, or if they do, that the batteries in their remote are dead.

Side note: Focus groups may measure a brand’s messaging in an ad, but they can’t measure whether people will ever actually see the ad.  Putting twelve people who have nothing better to do on a Tuesday afternoon into a windowless room and making them watch your ad can only tell you what consumers who lock themselves into windowless rooms and watch ads think.  If you want to know whether they’ll actually watch your ad in the real world, you have to add cell phones, computers, kids, dogs and a remote control into that windowless room.  With all of that in there, if they still choose to watch your ad and get your brand message, you’ve made one fantastic ad.

On the internet, everyone has the means to skip your ad.  It’s called a mouse.  And by applying pressure with the fingertips to said mouse, people can navigate away from whatever it is you want them to see. Since your content is so much easier to skip online, you can’t just upload your TV commercials.  Sorry.  Because unless your commercial is awesome, nobody is going to choose to watch it.

But don’t despair.  Just because there are so many barriers to getting your message across doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  As much thought needs to be given to the way you deliver your message as is given to what the actual message is. I believe that the trick is to align what you want people to see with what they actually want to see, and do it in a place online that they actually want to be.  For example, with my Google Job Experiment, I knew that creative directors would be on Google and I knew that they’d want to see search results about themselves.  So I enhanced that experience by creating a targeted keyword ad that spoke directly to them and humorously chided them for the (egotistical) thing that they were doing at that exact instant.  It was funny and it was novel.  And it got through to a group of people that are even more cynical about advertising than I am.

Another example of a brand breaking through all of these obstacles is Old Spice.  Wieden + Kennedy did it by creating something that people actually wanted to see with their fantastic TV campaign, “The Man your Man Could Smell Like.”  It was hilarious and fun.  It was the type of commercial that people who generally fast forward through commercials would stop to watch.  And because the commercials were so good, when they put them online they became (legitimate) viral videos. Then, W+K took it a step further by customizing the TV campaign to social media.  The actual character from the commercials began posting YouTube video responses to individuals who had talked about him on the web.  But the true stroke of genius was targeting video responses to influencers on Twitter.  Lots of brands target these influencers, but W+K did it in a novel, funny way by having the actual character from their wildly popular commercials reach out to them by name.  It made these influencers feel important and it made them laugh.  So of course they were going to pass that video on to their followers. And when their followers duly clicked the link, they liked it and passed it along to their followers.  Why?  Because the videos were damn good.

Overall, if your ad contributes to consumers’ online experience, rather than distracting from it, they won’t be so eager to avoid it.  And if your ad doesn’t look or smell like an ad, people might not realize that they’re supposed to avoid it.  Here’s a simple litmus test for online messaging: Look at who you want to talk to, think about where and how they spend their time online, and then ask if your brand’s message and positioning enhances and improves their online experience.

Side note: I hate pre-rolls.  When you go to a website and you get a splash page with an ad that has a button that says, “Click here to skip this ad,” does anyone not press that button?  And if there’s no skip button, I’ll open another browser window and do something else until the ad is finished.  I will not be strong armed into looking at your message.

If you want consumers to go a step further and actually take action by downloading a branded piece of software or iPhone or Android app, it better be damn useful and/or fun.  In order to have their very first interaction with your software, consumers have to open a browser or iTunes, then search for your app, then download your app, then install your app, then turn on your app.  That’s a lot of time and work, so that better be one kickass app.  I can’t tell you how many brand’s apps I have seen that just tell people the location of their stores.  Your phone’s browser can do that.  Why would I want to go through all that hassle for a redundant app?  You can count the number of companies with your fingers (and maybe toes) that have evangelical fans who will ravenously consume and download whatever they put on the web.  And the reason their fans are so evangelical is that the stuff these brands put out there is always so cool and so useful and so non-crappy.  In other words, worth downloading.

Side note: The best 3rd party software (and hardware) I’ve seen is Nike+.  It’s useful, elegant, and it actually enhances your online experience and your workouts.  And it’s totally seamless with and reinforces Nike’s positioning.  The stupidest app I have ever seen was in a pitch for a luxury car company. The app let you check the inventory of the dealerships you were driving past, as if buying a $80,000 car would happen on impulse after seeing that they had stock of a color you like.  Is there anyone who actually needs that app?  Not surprisingly, the agency lost the pitch.

Agency people (usually people from the creative department) have been saying all of this for years.  We’re constantly banging the drum about how important good creative work is.  In the past, people might have said that we were making a self-serving argument.  But in our digital world, creativity in both a brand’s messaging and the way it’s delivered isn’t just a nicety – it’s a necessity.

Alec Brownstein is an advertising copywriter and director in New York City.  Early this year, he created "The Google Job Experiment" which won numerous advertising awards including a Cannes Lion, a Clio, and Gold at the One Show.  It also landed him a job at Young & Rubicam, New York, where he is currently employed.

In his free time, Alec blogs for The Huffington Post and is the co-author of several bestselling comedy books.  His work can be seen at

When top creative directors Googled themselves, they found an ad there from Alec.

It won him a Gold at The One Show among several other awards – and it got him a job with Y&R in New York

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