The Cult Marketing ethnography team has been on the road for months delving into America’s consumer subcultures in search of information and insights. We get many questions about how the ethnography research process works. So, here’s a glimpse at a week in the life of a Cult ethnographer.

Day 1, Charlotte, NC: The two Cult field teams are greeted by snow in Charlotte. Usually not a problem for the teams, but Charlotte is completely unprepared for snow. Except for the main highways, the streets are not cleared and quickly turn to ice. Team #2 goes on an interview in the boonies, follows the GPS to a dead-end road that looks like something out of Deliverance. They get stuck on an ice patch near a secluded, run-down shack with a “Trespassers Will be Shot” sign on the front fence. They eventually made it to the interview and had fun with a big, burly, engaging guy with the name of Ashley.

Day 2, Charlotte: Team #1 drives 50 miles through the snow to visit a really cool outdoor store in the middle of nowhere. If you like the smell of guns, you’d love this place. Got some great insights from the store owner on the decision-making process for outdoor and work apparel and footwear. That night, we begin the data download process. We have new hi-tech cameras with 120 gig hard drives. No more video tapes. We are able to download the interview video files online so our analysts can start processing information right away. Isn’t technology cool?

Day 3, Houston, TX: The Cult team #1 finds itself in a terrible neighborhood. The team is questioning whether or not they should go into the house for safety reasons. The neighborhood appears to be a drug dealer’s paradise. [Cult prefers to send teams of two into the field for safety reasons – usually a male and a female.] After some discussion the team knocks on the door and is welcomed by the research subject, a well-educated, articulate, fanatical brand person who ended up to be a great interview. Team #2 is conducting a shop-along in a mom-and-pop store in the Houston burbs when they find out that their rental car was sideswiped by a dually truck driven by a man with one arm and a prosthetic hook. His honesty is appreciated. Later that night the teams compare notes at Beavers Ice Haus, an upbeat gastropub.

Day 4, Houston, TX: Superbowl Sunday! The teams got in two interviews each. One of the team #2 members is allergic to dogs, so naturally every house she goes into has one, including a 3-legged dog that had its leg surgically removed due to cancer. The interviewee tearfully accepted the incentive check and said it would go to chemo treatments for her beloved golden retriever. Both teams finished early enough to watch the Superbowl game from a pub downtown.

Day 5, Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis in February is interesting. People here love the winter activities like ice fishing, snowmobiling, and skating. The high temperature was 7 degrees. There were scenes right out of Fargo, but in general the people of Minneapolis are as happy as clams. One young interviewee was excited too be going out later at night to shoot coyotes with his buddies. We learned that you must wear white winter gear and have a clear night with a prominent moon.

Day 6, Minneapolis: After a fascinating interview with a large, energetic woman with a classic Minnesota accent, we were invited to join her ice fishing. We had to run to the airport, but it would have been fun to check out. People have ice fishing houses with heaters, beer coolers, TVs, and plush chairs. It’s like a living room on ice. Maybe next time…

Day 7, Las Vegas, NV: The teams split up. One team went home to Columbus to start working on the key strategic insights; the other to the desert to attend a big trade show. One of the challenges of ethnography is packing for 10-day trips that include frigid temperatures and desert sun. Maybe our next project will be for a luggage company?

Avatar passed the $1 billion in global ticket sales mark only three weeks into release. Pretty damn impressive by any standard. What is the big secret here, the $150 million marketing budget or the amazing word-of-mouth generated by the movie experience?

If you look at movie marketing, many major financial successes are the result of major marketing pushes. But the formula does not always hold. Paranormal Activity was the latest success story in the no-budget, word-of-mouth social media camp to blow the doors off. Made originally for $15,000 – including $500 payments for the two leads – the movie has now grossed an estimated $141,000,000 worldwide as of January 1, 2010. Other box office smashes in the low budget category are The Blair Witch Project, made for $60,000 with $249,000,000 in receipts worldwide, and Napoleon Dynamite with $46,000,000 in receipts on a $400,000 production budget.

Avatar, by comparison cost a reported $400,000,000 to make and market. Of the $1.018 billion in ticket sales, two-thirds were from foreign sales.
Avatar is an anomaly. According to movie distributor Mark Cuban, the average film loses $8 dollars on every opening-weekend ticket sold – Avatar only lost $2 for every dollar in revenue. But here is a statistic to blow your marketing mind: Avatar opened with an average take of $22,313 per theater, and Paranormal Activity – with its tiny budget – averaged $25,813 per theater the two weekends before Halloween.

The financial success of a film is almost always about the quality of the movie, good reviews, buzz, viral, W-O-M, PR, and a whole slew of non-traditional (read non-paid) media. In other words, a holistic marketing approach, the stuff many traditional ad agencies hate.

So back to the original question. Was it mass marketing or W-O-M? Let’s hear what you think.

Other trivia:
Highest ever: Titanic ($1.8 billion, of which 67% was international)
Highest for an ‘R’ rated film: Passion of Christ ($612,000,000, 40% international)

The beer category is a lot of fun. You can try all kinds of goofy stuff to get attention. While I’m not sure there is an actual strategy for most beer ads, who but an old-school ad planner actually cares. The ads are often funny and entertaining which is half the battle.
Now let’s admit, there is also a lot of stupid beer ads, most recently the Coors ads with coach quotes being taken out of context. Lame, don’t you agree? I won’t be drinking that battery acid any time soon.

So, it is with pleasure we recognize the fresh new approach from Dos Equis. It features the exploits of “The world’s most interesting man.” Most of the copy is really nice, and some is close to being brilliant such as, “He lives vicariously through himself” and “He once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels.” I also like the closing appeal to the some-time beer drinker “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”

Will it work? Unscientifically, this Hemingway-esque character really appeals to men. Women, on the other hand don’t seem to get it. Probably OK given that men must be the target audience.

If you agree that one of the goals of advertising is to make the target audience feel good about a brand, then Dos Equis got it right. I was on a beer run with a guy that sells pizza ovens (not an ad guy) and he said. “Let’s get Dos Equis and support interesting advertising.” Wow. That’s a powerful endorsement for good work.
Ad peeps, no matter the category, there is always a way to do some good work. Stay thirsty my friends.

We have a good friend who happens to be a prominent heart doctor who loves to sent us European TV ads. Why does he love these ads so much? Because Europeans run ads that are funny and brilliant and often quite effective in appealing to their target audience. They represent interesting and memorable work. The catch is, they are also very edgy in many cases.

These edgy ads would cause the American conservatives to freak out and whip the media into a frenzy. The FCC would ban the ads and fine the advertisers and everyone would make a huge deal out of it. The Supreme Court is still in the process of making a decision on the Janet Jackson “Wardrobe Malfunction.”

So, since we can’t run ads in the U.S. that contain questionable language or show any restricted part of the human anatomy, we rely on the British or the Dutch to produce the type of ads that many U.S. firms would love to make. Virtually no American company would take the chance and expose themselves to the threat from Big Brother, the FCC.

Due to the threat of censorship, fines, legal issues, complaints, and media attention, we argue that no American company wants to do edgy ads. In fact, just the concept of discussing the topic might cause American companies to shy away from an agency.
Let’s throw the big question out to the Cult Marketing blog readers for discussion: If Cult posted interesting, yet edgy, Euro ads on this site, do you think it would it diminish our agency’s ability to attract or retain national clients? Thoughts are welcome.

There is much speculation concerning the spending habits of the American consumer post-recession. The question is, will this recession cause a permanent change is consumer behavior, or is this spending conservatism a temporary hiccup in the long standing American tradition of extravagance? Of course, we at Cult Marketing have the definitive opinion.

Americans love to spend money. Pure and simple. Any current consumer spending restraint – while glazed over with threats that “this is the new me” and other well-meaning sentiments – is temporary. How do we know? Let’s explore a few questions.

Do you like to fly first class? Do you own a Blackberry or an iPhone? Will you continue to go to a stylist to get your hair colored? Do you enjoy going out for dinner with friends? Would you like to go to an exotic location for a vacation? Do you drink Starbuck’s on a regular basis? Do you have HBO?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you like to spend money. If you like to spend money, you will eventually spend money, because people do what they want to do. Need has nothing to do with most American decision-making. It’s all about want. We agree on that?

Here is another tidbit. Pollsters have asked Americans if their spending habits will change permanently. Many have said “yes.” According to a NY Times/CBS News poll, 47% of the population said they would permanently spend less. Of course, the other half said they would return to their pre-recession spending habits. Flip a coin. It’s stupid to ask the question in the first place because no one knows the answer. It’s all speculation.

Here’s what we at Cult Marketing think. You’re going to spend money eventually, so you might at well start now and stimulate the economy. It will make our jobs as marketing people a lot easier. Then we can make more money and spend it. Then our clients will spend more money. Then we can make more money. Then we can spend more money. You get the picture? Do something good for yourself today, spend money. It puts a whole new spin on the concept of “pay it forward.”

Bob Garfield wrote a lead piece in Advertising Age documenting the collapse of the traditional media model. He noted the demise of major media powerhouses like The New York Times, WSJ, San Francisco Chronicle, the Tribute Co., Clear Channel and many others. He addressed the difficulty with reaching consumers with the rise of DVRs, satellite radio and the iPod. He pined over the lack of control we all have over brands as consumers have taken the reins. The piece officially signaled the dawn of a new era in advertising.

Unfortunately, industry guru Bob was only four years late!! Cult Marketing wrote that story four years ago when it issued the Cult Manifesto and distributed it to every major news outlet in the country. Not one published it. Our only pleasure is in being right. Want a copy, send us an email.

Trout & Ries coined the term “Marketing Myopia” in their landmark book Marketing Warfare. They pointed out how the railroad industry thought of itself as being in the railroad business rather than the transportation business. Seems like advertising agencies think of themselves as being in the advertising business not the customer development business.

“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” – from the Robert Burns poem, used for a novella title by John Steinbeck.

In marketing parlance, it means: sophisticated marketing plans undermined by an ill-advised comment from an associate. The perfect retail design butchered in the field. Product failures. Lousy service. Et cetera.

There is a corporate vision and then there is street reality. This gap is what we call the Steinbeck Factor. It has frustrated the corporate world for years. So, how do you fix it?

Cult Marketing has a process we call Cultification, defined as: The process by which a brand is optimized at all touchpoints in order to create customer fanatics.
The first phase of the cultification process solves a major piece of The Steinbeck Factor – understanding what really goes on at the consumer level. Cult has created a propriety method of assessing, measuring and evaluating the critical factors that undermine and weaken your brand. You can’t fix something if you don’t know it’s broken. These insights are then converted into actionable strategies, tactics and ideas for all the touchpoints that impact the consumer.

Give us a buzz and we’ll give you details on how we do it. 614-318-8012.

I suggested that Ford was toast in a blog from 2006. Now add Apple to the list. One of the great cult brands in history is turning it’s back on its core (excuse the pun) customers and pulling out of Macworld next year. Steve Jobs is not giving the keynote address. Philip Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing is. Wow, can you feel the excitement?

Imagine if Harley pulls out of Sturgis because it is not cost efficient.

Brands are all about connecting emotionally. No one connected more emotionally than Apple fanatics that stayed with the company when no one cared. These are the people that go to Macworld. I believe this marks a sad day in Apple’s history.

The debate between edgy and inappropriate creative has been hotly disputed over the years. Is any PR good PR? Does awareness of any kind justify the means?

It’s well known that most of the corporate world has suppressed the edgy type of creative that agencies love. It’s pretty rare that a client says “more cowbell.” A ton of bold and brilliant concepts that have landed on the cutting room floor.

We suggest that the time has come to change the way companies (or weak agencies) think about creative for a number of compelling reasons.

Reason #1: Without awareness, you just wasted your media dollars.
While this is pretty obvious, it is not often embraced. Companies are often content with bigger media budgets and lousy or lukewarm creative. It’s like the old joke “The food is terrible here. Yes, and the portions are so small.” For some reason more bad stuff has been acceptable.

Reason #2: The fragmentation of the media mix
We all know that consumers are zapping TV spots, self-editing with DVR/TiVo technology, listening to commercial free Sirius/XM radio and spending more time in the digital space. Creative needs to be targeted and emotionally engaging enough for people to want to watch it.

Reason #3: Big budgets do not equal good work
We would argue that the reverse is true. Too much of a grandiose TV or print budget gets agencies thinking in a different way. Big locations, special effects, etc. All sizzle, no steak. In today’s economy, it’s actually irresponsible. Ask the Big 3 in Detroit.

Reason #4: The Einstein Theory
Albert said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them.” We call this creeping incrementalism. Try something or someone new.

Reason #5: Loosen up and have fun
What is the worst that could happen? Let’s take a page out of Branson’s book and re-think everything. Create something someone will love, not something no one will hate.

Is it possible to create a viral campaign and measure its impact? We’re about to find out with an experiment in action called Shake the Curse.

Background: When the Columbus Blue Jackets came to town, the excitement levels were off the charts. There was buzz everywhere, the team had years worth of sellouts, and ESPN voted Nationwide Arena the best experience in all of major sports. Now, in 2008, the team is at the bottom of the barrel in attendance, and the in-arena experience is very quiet and almost somber. So what happened and how do you fix it?

For one, the team has been terrible since the beginning, having the worst record in the NHL over the past 7 years since its inaugural season in 2000. Two, the quirky, self-deprecating, funny marketing that was produced in the beginning (by my former agency) has turned into a fairly well produced but completely non-engaging effort called “Carry the Flag.” It absolutely does not connect with the fans on an emotional level.

Cult Marketing decided to take matters into its own hands. We initiated a viral campaign called Shake the Curse. The idea is to give fans something to latch on to, something to believe in.

Here’s how it works: We presented the notion that the CBJ is cursed and therefore cannot make the playoffs. We blame various insidious things such as the fact the arena was built on a state penitentiary site. So, how do you break the curse?
STCurse.jpg

We hired a spiritual releasement specialist to exorcise the evil spirits from the arena. We engaged in several cleansing rituals, created a web site (ShakeTheCurse.com) and created a method for shaking the curse which includes blue wigs and shakers. Instructions, viral videos, results and a community site are all online. So far, the team is 4-2-1 since the campaign started on November 5.

Can the effort go mainstream? Check back and see.