Earning Brand Respect: 6 Companies That Get It

Equipped with an array of social media tools that amplify their collective voice, today’s customers have arguably become the savviest ever, working together to get what they want out of the marketplace.

Connected and more aware, brand audiences have grown increasingly suspect of the kind of overt sales pitches found in most direct marketing campaigns—or any hawkish outreach that appeals to them as simply a “consumer,” instead of an individual of many interests, tastes, and passions—eroding the impact of the tightly controlled advertising campaigns.

“I believe we are living through an amazing revolution,” said David Jones, Global CEO of Havas and Euro RSCG during his May 12 keynote address at the Mashable Connect 2011 conference. “It is what I call the Social Revolution, which is every bit as significant as the Industrial Revolution, and I think in a hundred years time when kids are at school—if they still go to school—they will learn about the Social Revolution as we learned about the Industrial Revolution.”

As part of that revolution, Jones explained, brands are experiencing a shift from image being everything to reality being everything. “We are living in a radical world of transparency today, and in this world of transparency, you can no longer hide.”

The Grass Roots Growth of Transparency

For a good while, it was the bloggers who understood this idea best. Forming an organic network of trusted tastemakers and curators, blogs quietly helped move the needle of customer empowerment while the big ad agencies were busy planning their annual trips to Cannes. Equipped with a sharp point of view and lower cost, home-made-style video, bloggers and YouTubers pioneered a new underground celebrity classification within the various niche audiences and micro-communities they serviced online. Meanwhile, most big companies continued going through the motions with their usual big budget media buys and traditional approach to metrics.

No longer. In the last 6-12 months, the shift towards brand video entertainment online has clearly arrived as a staple of corporate marketing strategy—accompanied by the realization that companies can no longer buy their way to brand affinity. Rather, they have to earn loyalty with interesting, relevant content and a commitment to openness and transparency.

Advertising agencies, meanwhile, have not only recognized the trend, they’re leading the movement, shifting creative resources and client recommendations into the brand entertainment space. Ironically, these agencies are often employing the same type of genuine, honest content pioneered by those bloggers and YouTubers whose focus was always, first and foremost, to add value to their respective communities.

Six That Get It

There are several great examples of brands stepped into the new world of transparent marketing. These are companies that have made a conscious effort to relax their grip on the outgoing message and put faith in the idea that when you genuinely appeal to the sensibilities of your brand audience, they’ll respond in kind—and maybe tell a friend while they’re at it.

When it comes to transparency, genuine entertainment, and a willingness to loosen the reins, here are six companies that get it:

1. Denny’s Restaurants

Denny’s new web series, Always Open is a hilarious original talk show filmed in a working Denny’s restaurant, hosted by comedian David Koechner, of Anchorman and The Office fame. Each episode features and three-minute chat in a Denny’s booth between Koechner and some of the hottest comedic actors today including Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Will Forte and Kristin Bell. The pair engages in a freewheeling, unscripted conversation while they nosh on a Denny’s lunch or breakfast. Denny’s is producing the series in partnership with Arnett and Bateman’s digital content and production studio, DumbDumb, with episodes widely distributed on a number channels, including Dennys.com, CollegeHumor.com, and DumbDumb.com, plus the Denny’s YouTube and Facebook sites.

The show adds texture to Denny’s newest campaign, “America’s Diner is Always Open” creating new connections across the online video spectrum to the Denny’s experience of a warm and welcoming place where friends and family gather and feel comfortable opening up. The “open up” theme is certainly in play during the Silverman episode, which manages to seamlessly incorporate a conversation about a particularly uncomfortable sexually transmitted disease in between bites of a Grand Slam breakfast. It’s hard to imagine promotion of that kind getting past brand censors in a previous advertising era. Further emphasizing Denny’s commitment to transparency and openness the new Denny’s website includes a section called, appropriately, “Denny’s Opens Up,” sharing the number of Facebook fans, breakdown of male vs. female fans, and an “open forum” for sharing opinions.

2. Alamo Drafthouse

The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, has taken the idea of transparency to the extreme, much to the delight of its movie-loving target audience. With five locations in Texas and Virginia, The dine-in theater chain/drafthouse has created an experience where movie lovers go to take in classic movies over dinner and a beer. There are a few important rules, however, which the theater takes very seriously.

One of those rules mandates that patrons do not answer calls or text during movies, as the company believes—quite passionately it turns out—that the phones are an unpleasant hindrance to the cinema experience. When a woman was recently kicked out of the theater for breaking the phone rule, the frustrated patron left an angry, expletive-laden voicemail expressing her extreme displeasure with the theater’s actions and rules.

So how did the Alamo Drafthouse management respond? Instead of adopting the usual “customer is always right” position, the theater used the bitter voicemail rant verbatim in a video they posted to their YouTube site to demonstrate their 100% commitment to a phone-free cinema experience–complete with a nose-thumbing “thanks for not coming back to the Alamo Drafthouse, texter!” signoff.

The video has gone wildly viral in just a few days, garnering almost universally sympathetic response along with significant press coverage, providing yet another example of Havas CEO Jones’ theory about the shift from image to reality. Please note: The Alamo Drafthouse has kindly provided a bleeped version for those who prefer their rants clean and expletive-free.

3. Domino’s Pizza

Few campaigns have been as controversial as Domino’s “Pizza Turnaround” initiative, launched a little over a year ago. The ads feature Domino’s executives admitting to the “cardboard” taste of their pizza and their pledge to fix the problem. Domino’s decided to take the risky step of incorporating the negative feedback into their campaign to “reinvent” their pizza, changing ingredients, and focusing on quality.

As part of the aggressively transparent approach, Domino’s launched pizzaturnaround.com, including a video “documentary” that showcases the campaign from inside the company featuring CEO Patrick Doyle himself often providing the harshest assessment of the old Domino’s pizza. The site also includes a live Twitter feed, links to their Facebook and You Tube sites, and other video from the year-long turnaround, as well as encouragement to customers to continue to post comments and provide feedback as to how they can improve the quality of pizza.

The result? Domino’s Pizza Inc. reported a double-digit sales increase in sales as the campaign for its reformulated pizza continued to drive traffic, TV and news coverage and social media word of mouth.

4. Red Baron Pizza

This series of webisodes feature the comedian Howie Mandel demonstrating how Red Baron pizzas cost less and taste as good as delivery pizza. While the Red Baron episodes don’t push the envelope quite like the Denny’s series and perhaps aren’t as daring as Domino’s “we weren’t worthy” approach, Red Baron still earns kudos for its fresh approach and willingness to push the boundaries of ad content. In each show, Mandel randomly stops by the house of a family or group of friends with Red Barons in hand, then order from a local delivery chain. Mandel riffs off the cuff with his hosts, touting the benefits of Red Baron over delivery, and often with the unsuspecting pizza delivery drivers, too, when they eventually arrive.

The six webisodes, each 3-4 minutes in length, are mostly targeted to the
The Red Baron Facebook page, which now has approximately 100,000 followers. A new episode airs each week through June 15.

5. TomTom HD Traffic

TomTom’s new global campaign focuses on drivers “breaking free” of traffic jams by using TomTom’s navigation devices and HD Traffic service. The centerpiece of the spots is the catchy 1984 Queen anthem, “I Want To Break Free”, which TomTom licensed for the spots. A series of nutty sketches exclusively written and performed by comedy veteran John Cleese features the Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star battling against the traumas of tedious traffic jams.

Despite Cleese’s rightful designation as a comedy God, the best part of the promotion might actually be the karaoke-style singing contest TomTom launched in conjunction with the campaign, where people can record and upload their own stuck-in-traffic Break Free videos via the TomTom Facebook page for the possibility to win daily or weekly prizes, or a Grand Prize “Break Free” vacation. Viewers can Like TomTom to watch the videos, or watch on the TomTom YouTube channel, where viewers can see a mixed bag of performances, including this particularly impressive looped video . Overall the campaign is playful and humorous, with genuine, home-made personality.

6. The City of Grand Rapids, MI

OK, so this example is a bit different than the others, but the power behind the message is the same.

After an article posted on Newsweek’s website identified Grand Rapids, Michigan as #10 on a list of “U.S. cities most in decline,” the city struck back with a vengeance. Thousands of city residents joined together in an unprecedented show of unity for a music video that also featured police officers, fire engines, fireworks and a helicopter, all lip-synched to a live version of the classic Don McLean tune, American Pie.

Clearly, the elaborately staged video has stuck a chord with viewers. Film critic Roger Ebert called it the “greatest music video ever made.” It has received coverage on all the major U.S. news networks and a slew of international newspaper mentions. It has close to 3 million views on YouTube. Comments about the video capture the essence of the video’s success: a heartfelt and honest affection by the video participants for their hometown of Grand Rapids.

  • “What a great piece of artistic work. Grand Rapids may be in economic difficulty, but you all are hanging on and strutting your stuff for the whole world to see. Love this video. Love to you all from Idaho.”
  • “Hello from Scotland. Wonderful job. Knew nothing of Grand Rapids until I watched this right through. GR on the to-do list :)”
  • “I wish EVERY American City had as much pride as Grand Rapids, MI. Dying city? Looks like you have more life than the rest of us … come on America … are you willing to do something like this for YOUR city? GO GRAND RAPIDS !!!! All Love from Two Rivers, WI”

“[The video] is resonating with local communities,” said Scott Erickson, one of the video’s producers. “It’s a love and a passion. That’s what people are really connecting to.”

Indeed, as these companies (and one mid-sized city) have discovered, it is love and passion—and other genuinely presented emotions like laughter, honesty warmth, and even a little crankiness—that will always stand out and inspire a real connection.