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January 2014
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March 2014

Can't anybody here play this game?

Casey stengelThat's a Casey Stengel quote, though I really stole it from Allan Sloan, who used it in describing AT&T when I worked there. (Sloan thought it so apt, he used it as a headline on two columns.)

It was appropriate then, and I think it applies now in describing the state of much of the writing about the "new media."

New Yorker writer George Packer describes such writing as "opaque."

And I think he puts his finger on the cause -- it's pretty much endemic, he says, "whenever journalists write about anything having to do with technology, as if they’ve become captive to the assured, technical-sounding, empty language of their beat—as if they need to use its language in order to be taken seriously in that world, and to hell with the old-fashioned, outdated virtue of clarity. Surrendering to jargon is a sign of journalism’s dismal lack of self-confidence in the optimized age of content-management systems."

If journalists have difficulty breaking free from the jargon of the technology "space," to used just one of those words, what hope is there for PR people whose salaries actually depend on the marketing and engineering managers who spew it? 

How self-confident was the PR person who penned this headline, taken totally at random from BusinessWire? "Automated Capacity Management and Solid-State Solutions are 'Must-Haves' for Strategic Capital Markets Data Storage Infrastructures."

I rest my case.


Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer

Fear;ess FlyerA great example of branded content landed in my dead tree mailbox the other day. Trader Joe's Fearless Flyer is published every now and then by the grocery chain of the same name. 

The Fearless Flyer (get it?) looks like it was put together by stock boys with access to Victorian era clip art and a word processor. 

My copy ("Always free and worth every penny") ran to 24 magazine-sized pages of very cheap-looking paper. ("Printed on 100% recycled paper with soy-based inks. For mental consumption only," it says in tiny type along the spine.) 

The soy ink apparently comes in three biodegradable colors because the flyer is chock-a-block with stories printed in red, blue, or black. Some stories are circled with a think line of the same color. "Gluten Free Mac & Cheese" warranted highlighting; "Gluten Free Greeting Cards" didn't.

The chain itself describes the Flyer as a cross between Mad magazine and Consumer Reports. But it's really much more.

Flyer issueIt's a semi-private communication with the chain's cult-like followers. And it's just what they would expect. 

Not only does it announce that it's selling Organic Tomato Basil Sauce for "Just $2.29!" as any grocery flier would, it describes just how it's made -- "simmered in small batches to bring out the bright flavors of the fresh ingredients" exclusively for Trader Joe's.

There are also short articles on subjects like Poutine, "a mess of good things" from rural Quebec, 4 Kouigns Amann, "a classic French pastry" that is "the darling of the food scene right now," Pa Jeon, scallion pancakes made especially for the chain in South Korea, Quince Paste, made for the chain in New Zealand, and Barramundi Fillets, a mild white fish native to Australia, but grown just for Trader Joe's "in low- density farms, on sustainable feed, with the utmost consideration given to cleanliness and sustainability."

The flyer also advises on the history and correct pronunciation of its "carefully cut camembert (that's cam-em-BEAR)" and the difference between a serum and a lotion or a cream ("Boy, are we glad you asked that question.).

Add National Geographic to that mix of analog publications. 

Plus, on page 13, there's a pre-printed shopping list of all 87 items mentioned in the flyer, organized by department and cued to the page on which they're described. Ever helpful, if quirky, the editors also provide space on the list for "Things You Don't Need."

It all works for some reason. (There's also an electronic edition, with the same steampunk graphics, but it doesn't have the same tactile, low-rent quality as the print version.)

The Joe in Trader Joe's hasn't been around since he sold the business to a German retailer back in 1979. But all the store's "crew members" still wears Hawaiian shirts just like he did, and the in-store signage still has the vibe of a South Seas trading post.

It's a company that knows what it is and what it stands for. And it communicates that character by exercising it, not by advertising. It hires extroverted people to staff the stores (want to wear a Hawaiian shirt year-round?), stocks a fraction of the groceries the big chains do, but compensates by offering products unavailable anywhere else. About 80% of its goods are private labled.

In fact, a lot of it sounds like it came straight out of the cargo hold of some world weary vessel that just washed up on the beach.

All of which gets to the essence of effective branded content -- it reflects a brand's character and higher purpose, the fundamental reason it's in business and the unique approach it takes to fulfilling that purpose. It's a customer service, not an ad.

Higher purpose doesn't have to be high-falutin', but it does have to be deeply rooted in customers' needs, aspirations, and values.

Trader Joe's customers care about low prices, organic and sustainable products that are sometimes unusual and almost always unique (e.g., miso ginger broth from Japan, botantical foaming hand soap, and organic coconut sugar). 

That's what Trader Joe's is all about, from its inventories to its pricing. And even its occasional Fearless Flyer.