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Building Brands, One Act at a Time

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Most people agree that the current economic calamity is severely challenging usual models of doing business. While industries such as housing, financial services and automobiles are being reborn on a large scale, our discussions of change in advertising are mainly nibbling at the margins of change. We talk about the rise of tactics like social media and mobile, or complain of more push for ROI. However, a sweeping new approach to advertising is already here. And while some fail spectacularly with the traditional approach of new equity campaigns, others are quietly carving the next industry evolution.

For decades these pages have detailed the historic approach to brand turnarounds. The CMO leaves to spend more time with his family, a new change agent is brought in and the old agency barely has time to say hello before it's sent packing in favor of whatever firm presents the sexiest spec ads. Soon, a shiny new TV campaign is launched, often featuring well-known celebrities and a fresh tagline.

Recently we have watched this model play out on some of the biggest brands in the business. Gatorade reacted to competitive pressure by launching the "Got G?" campaign with the help of dozens of big-time athletes. Microsoft paid Jerry Seinfeld $10 million to create the "ad about nothing" to fend off Apple. Honda tapped shills such as Danica Patrick for a series of documentary films celebrating "The Power of Dreams." Ask.com's new CEO, Jim Safka, bought a quirky campaign aimed at "injecting some emotion" into the search category.

Alas, despite the hope, hype and hundreds of millions of dollars in time and media, none of these campaigns have caught on. Gatorade is back to the drawing board after watching share drop 6 percent through the first six months of 2009, per PepsiCo's Q2 earnings announcement. Honda's sales in July 2009 were down 17 percent from the previous year, and have only rebounded lately thanks to the federal government's "Cash for Clunkers" program. And Ask.com continues to cede more of its slim search share.

While this tired playbook is on its last legs, other companies in these same categories are finding success with an entirely different approach. Red Bull continues to gain ground by hosting sports and entertainment events around the world. Hyundai's Assurance program, which offers protection from lost jobs and rising fuel prices, drove record share and profit -- despite its Super Bowl ad finishing second to last in the USA Today ad ranking. Apple's iPhone campaign is a series of helpful guides to apps for topics like small business management. Speaking of apps, instead of providing more syrupy feel-good fodder, MasterCard recently launched a Priceless Picks iPhone app, which helps people discover and share meaningful stores, restaurants and activities in their home towns.

There has never been more competition for the attention of customers, and they have learned to ignore the thousands of ad impressions that they are exposed to each day. The economy has made them even more value conscious and advertising skeptical. Our only way to win is by creating advertising that earns and rewards their attention.

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