Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Digital Playgrounds of the New World

Child's Play and Advertising

Quick! What do you remember about Saturday or Sunday mornings when you were a kid? Chances are, if you grew up in the 70s or later, Saturday and Sunday morning meant cartoons. And while a weekend sunup might have meant cartoons for you, it meant direct-hit, targeted marketing for toy and cereal companies. Bernard Loomis is known as the man who invented Saturday morning because, as CEO of Mattel, the manufacturer of Hot Wheels, he launched the Hot Wheels television show. This flawless blurring of TV show and commercial was a revolution of positively epic magnitude in marketing terms. Imagine getting a consumer's exclusive attention for 30 straight minutes today! Very good luck.

But a few weeks ago on a rainy Saturday morning, I noticed a fascinating experience at my former senior colleague’s home. His three kids (all under 7 years) and their two equally young cousins were huddled around one of the many computers at his home. The living room was completely vacant and the television was switched off. Lazily sipping a fine Nescafe blend, I asked them why they weren't watching cartoons like good little kids.

The collective force of annoyed looks was scornful. "We're playing games with other kids online." Pointing excitedly to the ever-changing screen, my friend’s daughter said, "See, if you want to chat, you type your message here. Look, I'm talking to a kid in Austria while we play." "Whoa," I thought, "After these messages, we won't be right back!"

I was intrigued. Multi-user web gaming isn’t breaking news to me, but it dawned on me that yet another precept of marketing had been rendered dead in the water by the Internet. Man, I just love that!

I sat down in the empty living room with my favorite cup of hot coffee and stared out the window, past the darkened television to the distant wet sky, and wondered just what, exactly; Bernard Loomis would do in this situation.

Marketing is shifting swiftly these days, and technology-driven opportunities are numberless. Just look at the frantic promotions that those sprawling mega-malls are employing to keep people off-line. Or checkout Airtel’s new Facebook promo, the telecom leader in India has a new promotion with Facebook that offers consumers free access to the Facebook’s mobile site in vernacular languages on their phone, a first of its kind in the world. Seems like kind of a stretch to me.

Everywhere you look, big brands are in trouble. Kelloggs, McDonalds and Ford are all examples of big brands having difficulties adapting to the new consumer-driven web economy. Back in 1969 when Bernard Loomis came up with his brainstorm, the brand was the central focus. The thinking was that if you create a popular brand, customers would flock to you. But now, consumers are more concerned with the future of their brands than the history of the brand. Yikes. This turns traditional packaged goods marketing upside down.

Then again, every fit of disorder and change presents new opportunities for those who are willing to apply some energy to their interpretations. We know that kids have moved from in front of the TV to in front of the computer, from passive viewing to active real-time interactions. There's an exchange going on, and the challenge for marketers is figuring out how to meaningfully join in and capitalize.

For Bernard Loomis, that meant creating a TV show based on his product. For today’s marketer, it might mean creating something completely new that delivers exactly what tech savvy kids are asking for these days. Poke around the Cartoon Network website and you'll see what the little kids are doing today.

So if you're a marketer experiencing that nauseated deer-in-the-headlights feeling brought on by out of control change, I encourage you to remember that chaos breeds opportunity. And if you think about it the correct way, you just might find that opportunity waiting to be knocked online (and also offline).


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