Go Fish

The latest phenomenon to hit reality TV is, thankfully, something a bit more substantial than Jersey Shore. MTV’s Catfish follows people who have dated on the internet, but never met in real life. The term ‘catfish’ refers to one or both of the parties creating a false persona online, pretending to be someone they are not.

The idea of documenting these individuals originated with the 2010 documentary of the same name, which followed several couples who had been together for years before meeting face-to-face. The practice is becoming increasingly commonplace on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, with motivations ranging from the need to feel wanted or appreciated to harassing others for fun. To some degree, everyone puts up a façade online, but we are learning that the problem runs far deeper than white lies and playful misdirection.

In our modern world, technology has made us more connected, but ‘catfishing’ is an example of how many members of society have responded by actively distancing themselves from one another.  It turns out creating a fake identity online is incredibly commonplace; some sources estimate that there may be as many as 83 million fake Facebook accounts. With the large majority of the world’s personal and professional communications now occurring online, one has to wonder how many catfish we interact with every day.

Hook, Line, and Sinker

Just last month, the story of Notre Dame standout linebacker Manti Te’o and his involvement in a catfish-style ‘hoax’ brought the scenario into the spotlight. Even the Heisman Trophy candidate, with the full attention of the media, was unable to avoid the perils of this bizarre trend, exposing some serious implications of placing trust in an online persona.

Thanks to the TV show and the Te’o saga, Americans are gaining a far better understanding of the risks involved with shifting our everyday interactions into the online space. For businesses, evaluating this new lay of the land in social media has become an important part of the agenda, as marketers spend valuable budget distributing messages to millions of social citizens who may not be who they say they are. Discovering who the audience really is, behind the mask, will help businesses avoid falling victim to the same mistakes as those who were baited and hooked before.

Take Chances, Make Mistakes

Pop star Beyoncé caused a bit of a stir when she was alleged to have lip synched ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at the Presidential Inauguration ceremonies on Monday, January 21. Just 13 days later, she found herself on one of the world’s biggest stages at the Pepsi Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show, making a resonating statement in favor of her incredible talents.

The Thursday before the big show, Beyoncé opened a pre-Super Bowl press conference by belting out the anthem with both finesse and emotion to hush her critics. She addressed the controversial inauguration performance, noting that she only utilized a backing track, a very common practice for high profile musicians at special events, in order to ensure a great performance under ‘difficult conditions.’

Then, on Sunday, during halftime of an exciting Super Bowl matchup between the 49ers and Ravens, Beyoncé put on a show to be remembered, singing and dancing with an incredible energy that clearly demanded a special talent. Without resorting to any tricks or shortcuts, her vocal performance was an absolute stunner. There may not have been as many surprises or twists as some other recent halftime productions, but simply put, she dazzled.

In the digital age, the rules and definitions of celebrity and stardom have certainly changed a bit. With so many more media channels available to us than 20, 30, or 50 years ago, it does not necessarily take as extraordinary a talent to rise to fame. On the other hand, the figures who reach the very top are even more prolific than their predecessors. Our expectations of a star, or someone who is at the forefront of any discipline, for that matter, are that we will witness flawless performances each and every time.

Just two Super Bowls ago, Christina Aguilera famously botched the lyrics of the national anthem singing live before an audience of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. On the biggest stage possible, it seemed like a disaster for the diva. One might think such a nightmare would wreak havoc on her career, but instead, she chose to admit her faults openly, and was highly praised for her authenticity and honesty in performing with no safety net. With so many stars turning to pre-recorded tracks to avoid such mistakes, Aguilera showed that she was dedicated to giving the people her best, whether or not it was absolutely perfect. It turns out the latter practice is far more valuable to fans than the former.

With her genuine performance at halftime on Sunday, Beyoncé has now righted any wrongs and reaffirmed her status in the upper echelon of our celebrity culture. Leaders in other fields, like business or politics, should take away a fresh understanding of the value of taking risks, making mistakes, and avoiding the ‘safe play’ in order to truly shine.

The Cost of Forgetting Who You Are

In the summer of 2012, we learned of turmoil at JC Penney following the company’s unveiling of a completely overhauled strategy. After a devastating sales year, JC Penney is announcing that they are bringing back the sales campaigns that were scrapped in an attempt to rebrand and reposition the once proud and venerable department store. Initially, Michael Francis, the former Target executive behind the change, sought to add customers and steal away business from competition, rolled out the new strategy shortly after taking the CEO in October 2011. Despite the forward-thinking plan to eliminate the roughly 600 sales and discount coupons that the company used to lure customers into their stores every year and replace them with everyday low prices, the strategy failed on many levels, causing profits to plunge and Mr. Francis to resign.

The pricing strategy was a key element in the companies plan to reinvent the department store from the ground up by adding new up-scale fashion lines and in-store boutiques, replacing the stores traditional rack, upon racks of clothing. The results of the new strategy led new CEO Ron Johnson to once remark, “Our sales have gone backward a little more than we expected, but that doesn’t change the vision or the strategy.” Really? For the first nine months of its current fiscal year, JC Penney lost upwards of $433 million, with total sales dropping 23.1 percent. Analysts expect losses at similar negative levels in the fourth quarter and total sales plunge of 25 percent for the year. Coupled with intense market scrutiny concerning the company’s overall financial health and stock performance, the strategic miss has produced a landslide that will be difficult to turn away.

In addition to adding back an undisclosed number of sales events, JC Penney has now decided to add tags or signs on much of its merchandise showing the manufactures suggested retail price in comparison to its own, an effort to help shoppers recognize savings. Considering the level of sophistication of today’s savvy, price smart consumers it may be a miscalculation to assume that shoppers will identify a manufactures suggested retail price as anything other than an arbitrary number, rather than a basis for establishing a product’s real value, perceived or otherwise.

Johnson expects his company to return to growth sometime in 2013, but in a shrinking economy and increased competition it is hard to believe that merely tweaking an already badly failed marketing strategy will produce new growth anytime soon. To lure customers back, JC Penney will need to offer customers features, benefits, and new incentives that they are not currently getting from the competition. Otherwise, why should they return?

Whether the new JCP can come ‘back to life’ for customers or simply succumbs to its missteps is yet to be determined. Either way, it is clear that in an attempt to reinvent itself, JC Penney has forgotten the best attributes of who they were in an attempt to be something they weren’t meant to be. The entire experience has demonstrated the importance of strategy – real strategy. Understanding customer’s motivations, behaviors and brand reputation is critical in shaping a relevant strategy for the business. Otherwise, those companies who fail to recognize this value will pay the price.

A Less Than Super Sunday

Did you know there was a football game played Sunday night in New Orleans? The Super Bowl matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the winning Baltimore Ravens turned out to be highly competitive and compelling until the end, keeping 200 million televisions locked on CBS’ well-managed but unremarkable broadcast. But notwithstanding the action on the field, there were plenty of other highs and lows for viewers along the way. The great deal of buzz surrounding the pre-game, halftime show, and especially the beloved blocks of advertisements overwhelmed the stature of the contest this year.

The #BrandBowl, originated four years ago by advertising agency Mullen and now managed by boston.com, tracks positive and negative feedback across social media in real time when a new advertisement airs – a reasonable measure of an advertiser’s overall success or failure for their million-dollar budgeted works. Here is how the feedback of millions of social citizens breaks down:

As usual, humor was the focus of a majority of the ads. Winning ads from Taco Bell (Viva Young), Audi (Prom), and Hyundai (Team) hit the mark, as did Doritos (Goat 4 Sale) a fan-sourced creation from the snack maker’s annual Crash the Super Bowl competition. These ads struck the right tone and injected the right level of humor into the lineup to connect with the audience at home. Volkswagen’s (mildly controversial) feel-good ‘Get In, Get Happy’ spot was also a big hit, accomplishing just that; it made audiences feel good, propelling it to the top of the BrandBowl rankings.

Unfortunately, there was more than the usual share of disappointments this year. M&Ms fell short of last year’s triumphs, Budweiser focused too much attention, including the coveted first advertisement, on a new, not-so-exciting product offering (although the King of Beers was redeemed by a terrific addition to its Clydesdales canon, more on that in a moment), and even Coca-Cola, arguably the world’s most beloved brand, failed to deliver with its social media-driven ‘Chase’ campaign, which didn’t really engage the masses at all.

GoDaddy.com’s first ad was a disaster, toeing (and likely crossing) the line of decency, turning the large majority of viewers off. GoDaddy’s ‘uncensored’ ideas have certainly brought the site a lot of attention over the years, even if it has been largely negative. This year’s efforts definitely made a negative impact on the brand. It felt as if this was the nail in the coffin for this campaign, and hopefully, it is time to close the door on this chapter in advertising.

Instead, we would love to see more ‘serious’ efforts – like those from Dodge (Farmer), Jeep (Coming Home), and Budweiser (the aforementioned ‘‘Brotherhood’) that stole the show and really won the day. Humor is a good thing, and has carried Super Bowl advertising for a generation, but these rare and powerful ads we have seen over the past few years have shown that injecting some gravity can go a long way (consider the timeliness and impact of ‘Halftime in America’ last year). Not every brand can pull these ads off, but we are clearly witnessing a shift in tone as viewer attitudes dictate the direction of our advertising culture.