Why You Need to Hustle Content: A Lesson from The New York Times Innovation Report

Innovation

The recently leaked New York Times Innovation report has become required reading because the document provides a candid snapshot of a legendary brand struggling to embrace the realities of running a business in the digital era. In unsparing language, the internal report indicts The New York Times for failing to master “the art and science of getting our journalism to our readers.” I believe The New York Times Innovation report offers many lessons for content marketers regardless of your industry. Among those lessons: it’s not enough to produce great content. You have to be a content hustler, too.

Content hustling means sharing an idea across multiple distribution channels ranging from a brand’s website to its social media spaces. Content hustling requires companies to empower employees to act as brand ambassadors, relying on their personal networks to share corporate thought leadership. Essentially The New York Times takes itself to task for being a woeful content hustler.

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Whitney Houston’s great comeback

Whitney Houston was a fading musical star when she died suddenly on February 11. Within the past decade, her moments of glory – a Top 10 single in 2001 and a chart-topping album in 2009 – were infrequent and overshadowed by embarrassments such as her short-lived reality TV series with Bobby Brown. But upon her death, she became hot again. As The New York Times reported, her music “rocketed back on the charts and radio,” with a nearly 60-fold increase in album sales and 2.4 million streams of her songs on Spotify (up 4,000 percent from the day before her death was reported). Houston is not the only star whose death has launched a second career, with Amy Winehouse providing another recent example. Which begs the question – why?

I think the answer is this: artists like Whitney Houston become brands for their audiences, and brands have indefinite shelf lives. The content they create – in Houston’s case, music – is but a small part of their brand persona, which is perpetuated through news coverage of their lives (whether positive or negative) and chatter on social media (Houston’s death was reported initially on Twitter). And, as well stated by Business Insider, when stars die young, they seal in our minds an all-important element of any brand: their visual identity, forever preserved the way we remembered them (unlike say, Mick Jagger, who destroyed his own brand as a sexual icon by simply growing old).

When Amy Winehouse’s death triggered her own career comeback, I asked a similar question. I uncovered the following answer from blogger Ryan O’Connell – an analysis that rings true as I consider the rebirth of Whitney Houston:

In American culture especially, we worship celebrities. They’re our version of royalty and I suppose that’s why we take celebrities’ deaths so personally . . . Americans love to tear celebrities down . . . and then we love to bring them back up. We love a comeback even more than a downfall. And what’s perhaps most tragic about Winehouse and the reason why so many people flipped out over her death is that she never got her happy ending. We were never able to rehabilitate her and put a bow on her next album. That’s what we wanted most of all, right? To see her happy and healthy? But it’s hard to tell if those wishes were ever genuine. It’s hard to discern whether or not we truly gave a shit about Amy Winehouse or if we just needed her to fit the typical celebrity narrative.

Like any brand persona, Whitney Houston’s belongs to her audience to shape as we see fit. In a provocative Slate article, “Who Killed Whitney Houston?” J. Bryan Lowder even suggests that Houston played the role of troubled diva that her audience expected of her. “If the public bears any responsibility in this case, it’s in not admitting that a peaceful, well-adjusted Whitney simply wouldn’t have worked,” he writes. “We didn’t just enjoy watching her fall apart; we required it as a condition of our allegiance. And, like any good diva, in the end, she delivered.”

Today she’s delivering by assuming another role the public loves from a brand persona: the great comeback. Had she lived, it’s unlikely she could have fulfilled this role. Her once pristine voice was ravaged by drug abuse, and her recent live shows had earned her less-than-stellar reviews in the United Kingdom and Australia. But now that Houston is gone, her audience need not be distracted by such inconvenient realities. Her comeback belongs to us to create as we see fit.

Mercedes-Benz USA creates luxury online

In earlier blog posts, I’ve discussed how Razorfish clients like Intel, Mattel, and MillerCoors are making bold product launches amid the recession.  All along, Mercedes-Benz USA has been doing just that.

Case in point: as announced recently, MBUSA has launched the 2010 E-Class automobile with the support of a major online/offline marketing effort managed by Merkley & Partners and my employer Razorfish.  In doing so, MBUSA has stayed true to its brand and avoided the temptation to compete on price during down times.

As Steve Cannon, vice president of marketing for MBUSA, told The New York Times, “I’d rather tell our brand story, our innovation story, our value story, than join the chorus of everyone else that’s screaming ‘sale’ — that’s about the only message that’s out there right now.”

And the entire marketing campaign, “Everything We Know, Everything We Are: This Is Mercedes-Benz,” reflects the Mercedes-Benz reputation for innovation and a first-class automotive experience.

The digital experience shows you what MBUSA has in mind rather than hit you over the head with the message.  For instance, the online advertising uses cool CGI-enhanced videos including 3-D homepage takeovers of nytimes.com and wsj.com.  Normally we associate CGI with the innovative minds of Pixar.  By employing CGI in its advertising, MBUSA ups the ante for state-of-the-art digital advertising.  (Also demonstrating innovation, MBUSA and Razorfish employ the new Online Publishers Association standards for the ads).

As reported in ClickZ, the ads expand into super-sized web pages with an E-Class coupe bursting out of a 3-D version of The New York Times front page, backlit by a city under a night sky.  You can also rotate the car for a better look.

I like what Razorfish Client Partner Pat Frend told ClickZ “We used CGI to create those compelling environments to tell about those features in ways that are easy for users to understand, and in ways that are also beautiful.”

MBUSA understands that making luxury auto features easy to understand is not the same as dumbing down a product for consumers.  Rather, the technology actually increases the wow factor and draws the consumer into the world of MBUSA.

Razorfish also helped MBUSA create a special E-Class section of the MBUSA website, which also features CGI-enhanced videos.  And in another nod to innovation, MBUSA is using mobile web applications to target consumers using devices such as iPhones.  You can also view the E-Class autos on YouTube.

The online ads launched July 1.  Check them out and let me know what you think of them.

MillerCoors: a bold product launch in a recession

Recently Christine Overby and Shar VanBoskirk of Forrester Research speculated that a recession is the best time to innovate — a theme of the 2009 Razorfish Client Summit and a position taken by BusinessWeek and WIRED.  MillerCoors is the latest example of a company that proves the point.  Rather than retreat during recessionary times, MillerCoors is plowing ahead with the launch of a new product, the cold-activated can.  And my employer Razorfish is helping MillerCoors through a bold digital marketing campaign.

As reported by Stuart Elliott in The New York Times, at the heart of the campaign is a playful website, the “National Glacier Tracking Center,” that allows you to follow the progress of a dramatic cold front in the Rockies that causes (make-believe) glaciers to break free and launch themselves across the United States.  You can follow the paths of the glaciers as they work their way to major U.S. cities in time for the launch of the cold-activated can on May 15.

The message: Coors Light is pretty freaking cold.

But the microsite is just part of the effort.  Content from the site will also be reproduced as banner ads on properties such as ESPN.com, Pandora.com, and Weather.com.

A glacier menaces Manhattan

As Razorfish Creative Director Tim Sproul mentions to Stuart Elliott, the campaign is all about making an emotional connection with the consumer.  Rather than explain the innovation behind the cold-activated can, the campaign uses humor to associate Coors Light with a refreshing break from the heat.  It’s an approach that Razorfish has employed many times for MillerCoors — for instance, the creation of a comedy video series, Callin’ It a Day, designed to raise brand affinity with young men of drinking age.

MillerCoors has something in common with Intel.  Both companies have worked with Razorfish to launch new products during a recession — the cold-activated can for Coors, and the Core i7 microprocessor for Intel.

Who says innovation has to wait until an economic turnaround?

Coors embraces Social Influence Marketing™

A May 28 article by Stuart Elliott of The New York Times and a June 8 Associated Press article mention how Coors Brewing Co. has embraced Social Influence Marketing — or employing social media and social influencers to meet the business and marketing needs of the enterprise. As discussed in this blog post, the effort has not been without controversy.

As reported in The New York Times, the Coors Light brand, working with my employer, Avenue A | Razorfish:

  • Launched a MySpace page to strengthen its brand relevance among males aged 21-29. The MySpace page isn’t just another destination plastered with ads. The page provides downloadable widgets such as a Happy Hour Locater that you can use to find bars in your zip code that serve Coors Light, and an “Excuse-o-rator” that generates random excuses to leave work early to celebrate happy hour.
  • Created a viral video, the “Perfect Pour.” The video, posted on YouTube, is a humorous stunt — intentionally and obviously doctored — in which beer drinkers seemingly pour beer flawlessly from the new Coors Light vented wide mouthed can into a drinking glass from impossible angles and locations like behind one’s back or from the top of a roof. The video comes in two versions, one at a party, and the other at a bar.  Since their launch on April 8, the videos have been seen more than 400,000 times.

In both instances, Coors isn’t employing social networking sites and YouTube videos to embrace social media for its own sake. Rather, the company wisely employs social media and the power of viral marketing to achieve two business objectives: build brand with Gen Y males of legal drinking age and promote the vented wide mouth can.

Since The New York Times discussed the efforts, some bloggers have expressed disappointment and even shock that Coors did not disclose the fact that the “perfect pour” videos were actually the work of an agency. The implication is that Coors deceived consumers by not disclosing its role or that of Avenue A | Razorfish.

At the risk of sounding like an apologist, I disagree with the criticism, but I’m also interested in your opinion — should Coors have been more transparent in the effort or not? Here’s my take:

  • How many people seriously believed those perfect pour stunts were the work of amateurs? The opening disclaimer (“this video should not be viewed by anyone under the age of 21”) should be your first clue right off the bat that this is no amateur effort. And it’s obvious from the comments posted on YouTube that most viewers were in on the joke from the start. Some were even critical of the video for not being even more imaginative.
  • Coors is simply tapping into the engaging and social nature of the digital world by providing an entertainment experience. Experiential marketing is all about engaging consumers instead of pushing messages at them. The branding comes through in the obvious product placement of Coors Light and the conversational references to the wide mouth vented can throughout the video. I would argue that Coors revealing its role more obviously would be like a magician explaining a magic trick in the middle of a performance, thus spoiling the fun.

For another perspectives, check out this post from Launch Squad.

I’m interested in your reactions.

Coors embraces Social Influence Marketing™

A May 28 article by Stuart Elliott of The New York Times and a June 8 Associated Press article mention how Coors Brewing Co. has embraced Social Influence Marketing — or employing social media and social influencers to meet the business and marketing needs of the enterprise. As discussed in this blog post, the effort has not been without controversy.

As reported in The New York Times, the Coors Light brand, working with my employer, Avenue A | Razorfish:

  • Launched a MySpace page to strengthen its brand relevance among males aged 21-29. The MySpace page isn’t just another destination plastered with ads. The page provides downloadable widgets such as a Happy Hour Locater that you can use to find bars in your zip code that serve Coors Light, and an “Excuse-o-rator” that generates random excuses to leave work early to celebrate happy hour.
  • Created a viral video, the “Perfect Pour.” The video, posted on YouTube, is a humorous stunt — intentionally and obviously doctored — in which beer drinkers seemingly pour beer flawlessly from the new Coors Light vented wide mouthed can into a drinking glass from impossible angles and locations like behind one’s back or from the top of a roof. The video comes in two versions, one at a party, and the other at a bar.  Since their launch on April 8, the videos have been seen more than 400,000 times.

In both instances, Coors isn’t employing social networking sites and YouTube videos to embrace social media for its own sake. Rather, the company wisely employs social media and the power of viral marketing to achieve two business objectives: build brand with Gen Y males of legal drinking age and promote the vented wide mouth can.

Since The New York Times discussed the efforts, some bloggers have expressed disappointment and even shock that Coors did not disclose the fact that the “perfect pour” videos were actually the work of an agency. The implication is that Coors deceived consumers by not disclosing its role or that of Avenue A | Razorfish.

At the risk of sounding like an apologist, I disagree with the criticism, but I’m also interested in your opinion — should Coors have been more transparent in the effort or not? Here’s my take:

  • How many people seriously believed those perfect pour stunts were the work of amateurs? The opening disclaimer (“this video should not be viewed by anyone under the age of 21”) should be your first clue right off the bat that this is no amateur effort. And it’s obvious from the comments posted on YouTube that most viewers were in on the joke from the start. Some were even critical of the video for not being even more imaginative.
  • Coors is simply tapping into the engaging and social nature of the digital world by providing an entertainment experience. Experiential marketing is all about engaging consumers instead of pushing messages at them. The branding comes through in the obvious product placement of Coors Light and the conversational references to the wide mouth vented can throughout the video. I would argue that Coors revealing its role more obviously would be like a magician explaining a magic trick in the middle of a performance, thus spoiling the fun.

For another perspectives, check out this post from Launch Squad.

I’m interested in your reactions.