October 23, 2005

"bernbach was wrong"


Two weeks ago I was in Germany, speaking at the Word Of Mouth Marketing Conference.

On Day Two of the event I gave a small speech, entitled "Bernbach Was Wrong". This is what it basically was about:

Bill Bernbach, the founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, famously quipped back in the 1950s:

"Word of mouth is the best medium of all."

-quoted in Bill Bernbach Said (1989), DDB Needham Worldwide.

Later the equally reknowned David Ogilvy paraphrased him, to wit: "The best advertising is Word Of Mouth".

From these quotes came the current holy grail of the advertising industry, known in the business as "Word Of Mouth".

With traditional TV and print advertising in meltdown, suddenly the ad industry is trying to jump on the W.O.M. bandwagon in the hope of saving their jobs. "Yeah, yeah! We'll make advertising that creates word of mouth! Yeah, yeah!" etc.

So suddenly we're deluged with crazy stunts designed to generate word of mouth. Turning up in Times Square and spraying people with blue paint. Using bad language. Turning up the volume on sexually charged imagery. High-impact stuff. Attitude City. Whatever.

The amusing thing is, Bernbach was wrong.

Because the best advertising is not word of mouth. The best advertising is "Disrupting Markets".

What does disrupting markets mean? It means going into a market and changing the rules of the game.

Here's some examples:

Henry Ford disrupting the idea that automobiles had to be expensive luxury items only for the very well-off.

Starbucks disrupting the idea that fast food (or fast coffee) had to be served in depressing environments with orange and yellow furniture and flourescent lights that made you want to flee them within 10 minutes.

Harley Davidson disrupting the idea that bikes had to be cheap and Japanese.

Apple disrupting thre idea that computers had to be large mainframes. iPod disrupting the idea that people wouldn't pay for downloads. Linux disrupting the idea that software is something you have to pay for [Thanks to cyberrigger for suggesting that last one].

Starbuck's is a very interesting case to me. For instance, instead of getting talked about by spending $100 milion on a hip n' edgy advertising campaign, they invested the money instead in giving their customers wifi. And this was very early on. And people talked about it. A lot. And lots of people started checking it out. And a lot of coffee was sold.

I can just hear some typical marketing meatpuppet objecting to it in the brainstorming session:

"But we don't want them talking about wifi! That's borrowed interest! We're not a tech company, we're a coffee company! We want them talking about the great taste of Starbuck's coffee goodness!"

No, actually, you moron, people don't want to talk about frickin' Starbuck's coffee goodness. People want to talk about wifi. So give them good wifi and you will be mentioned in their conversation. Don't try to change the conversation, try to improve the one they're already having.

The trouble for Madison Avenue is no client is going to pay them x-million for suggesting, "Hey, maybe you should give your customers good wifi." So the have no incentive to think that way. They only have an incentive with ideas like, "Hey, maybe you should spend $100 million on buying hip n' trendy TV ads, based on an idea one of our creatives ripped off some obscure Lithuanian animator..."

Their thinking is deliberately limited by their money-burning business model.

Like I said, Bill Bernbach was wrong. Sorry, Bill.

Posted by hugh macleod at October 23, 2005 7:29 PM | TrackBack

Isn't "Disrupting Markets" simply another (albeit more clever) way to get word of mouth?

Posted by: Jeroen at October 24, 2005 10:54 AM

I still believe in WOM (I do not like this acronym, but blame it on a marketing paper at the 200 level), but not literally. A message could spread like a rude joke on email. There are enough people who forward messages, and granted, the more disruptive ones usually pass the test. In other words, a joke that is only mildly funny wonít; a joke that is sufficiently rude will. Similarly, WOM in marketing depends on how great the original product is and if the right channels are being tapped. In essence, Bill and Hugh are right: letís talk about disruptive WOM! And Iím a bigger ad-sceptic than Hugh is.

Posted by: Jack Yan at October 24, 2005 11:01 AM

Just as an aside, TV ratings are actually on the up again, after several years of sliding.

The magic of 'Desperate Housewifes' I believe.

Posted by: Andreas at October 24, 2005 12:05 PM

They're still ignoring the commercials, Andreas.

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 24, 2005 12:15 PM

Your Starbucks must be a special place; in mine, you still have to pay for WiFi.

It would have been more disruptive if they had actually offered free WiFi from the start. Now that Google is considering disrupting that market, Starbucks will have to re-consider their "pay-to-play" arrangement with T-Mobile.


Posted by: Stephen Pierzchala at October 24, 2005 12:15 PM

Duly noted, Stephen. Thanks. For some reason I thought they had free wifi in places over there in the USA. Mea Culpa.

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 24, 2005 12:32 PM

Free licensed software such as Linux
disrupts the idea that you have to pay for
software licenses.

Posted by: cyber_rigger at October 24, 2005 1:17 PM

Harley Davidson disrupting the idea that bikes had to be cheap and Japanese.

The Japanese themselves disrupted the cosy British notion that each bike had to be expensively handmade by skilled unionised craftsmen.

Posted by: daen at October 24, 2005 1:26 PM

Exactly, Daen. Disruption is an ongoing process.

Posted by: hugh macleod at October 24, 2005 1:58 PM

You're both right (sort of) - knowledge of disruptions are spread by word of mouth because they're dependent upon changing worldviews.

In the same vein see the piece on branding blogs in today's NYT

Posted by: john at October 24, 2005 2:44 PM

makes me wonder if blog are not word of mouth: next generation!

just look at your own "english cut"!

Posted by: pheloxi at October 24, 2005 5:03 PM

Brilliant post Hugh, I think were most advertising fails is that it only attempts to bring attention to something, were as today relationships need to be built. I am a big believer in ďAs long as you adhere to marketplace conventions you can never out perform the market. Perpetual disruptions. I spent the last two years visiting agencies in the US, London & Amsterdam, most of them still want to solve problems with a 30 sec TV spot, they think in terms of media for solutions, rather than understanding the issue at hand and then devising a solution. People are going to talk; give them something to talk about or join their conversation. Thanks for the inspiration.

Posted by: james torio at October 24, 2005 5:45 PM

I know I'm one to get hung up on the meaning of words, but I digress.

"Market disruption" is not advertising. It's marketing maybe, more likely it's good old-fashioned product development and innovation.

Bernbach was correct. WOM is the best advertising. However, I doubt the legendary ad man could have imagined the lengths we'd go today to buy/manufacture that buzz. When Bernbach said what he said, I believe he meant the best advertising can't be bought.

Posted by: David Burn at October 24, 2005 7:32 PM

David, I think you're mostly right about Bernbach, but there's a key distinction that needs to be made, and his statement got the distinction backwards.

It is true that the best advertising is word of mouth.

However, it is not always true that word of mouth is the best advertising.

Why? These are categories, not single things. Some word of mouth "advertising" is, in fact, the best possible advertising. A lot of it isn't. And thus it's false to assume that getting the best advertising is simply a matter of getting word-of-mouth -- one also has to get people talking about your product in ways that actually help your market, and that's a lot harder than just getting them to talk.

Where Hugh's comment comes in is that disrupting the market -- in a way that benefits the customer, mind you! -- is a thing that gets lots of word-of-mouth in ways that are very good for advertising.

Posted by: Brooks Moses at October 24, 2005 7:55 PM

hugh is right. and interestingly, some of Bill Bernbach's biggest successes (the VW beetle, avis) were merely a reflection of market disrupting ideas.

Posted by: teeveedubya at October 24, 2005 8:50 PM

Brilliant post, you made my day!
I more than agree, disrupting the market, is the best way to get attention and it is soo refreshing for all of us, the customers!

Posted by: Nan at October 24, 2005 10:35 PM

I remember a long time ago you said something along the lines of "An idea doesn't have to be big, it just has to change the world" and see a similarity here. This has stuck with me and it was why I started 365films.com - an idea to change how we access films

Posted by: Tim Clague at October 24, 2005 11:58 PM

Oh brother, Starbucks is trendy, big city, social and hip. That's what made it. It doesn't play in rural America however. Only geeks, (or the rare overworked biz exec) care about WiFi. Marketing is a PACKAGE, good coffee, good setting, market-bearing prices, trendy people, good customer service, unique items. You can FOCUS on one area, but you need all to succeed. Why do people pay too much for Starbucks coffee? It's good, it's unique and varied and not something you can get elsewhere. Varies by region, but a real good cup of Coffee from a Truckstoppy Diner, and it's hard to go back to the oversweet-syrupy candy coffee of Starbucks, but that's just me.

WiFi? Limited audience at best, don't people do demographics anymore? Geeesh. Man, keep this guy away from the Advertising Budget.

And why do people always cite Starbucks? And not some manufacturing tech company? Easy, it's the only thing in their limited nose-level view. I am tired of the Planet Hollywood fast-growth Neo-Boomer Yuppieifed Techhead Starbucks case-studies. Gawd. They used to say that about Krispy Kreme before all the fraud, embezzlement and other troubles. Heh. And another thing that has me confused, Starbucks co-opted the 'CoffeeHouse spirit of the 60s' to become a big corporate mindless churn-machine. And yet all the peace, love and understanding Tech Hippies still welcome it with open arms? Figures. Always was a hollow movement, from faux save-the-world protesting to Beemers and 10+ WiFi'ed gadgets. Die Yuppie Scum Die. :)

Posted by: Christopher Coulter at October 25, 2005 10:23 AM


Do you read Romenesko's Starbucks Gossip?


Posted by: David Burn at October 25, 2005 7:53 PM

Booyah! Right-on.

It all goes back to the idea driving the business. Word of mouth without something relevant to discuss is pointless. Advertising without something worth selling is at best entertainment. (At best.)

Too bad Starbucks still charges for wifi, though. If Panera and Atlanta Bread Company can offer it for free (with great coffee AND great pastries), Starbucks ought to be able to respond.

It was never about the coffee. :)

Posted by: Olivier Blanchard at October 26, 2005 1:19 AM