Innovation & Design

Rebels with a Marketing Cause


The authors of the new book Punk Marketing talk about the emergence of advertising that rejects tradition and embraces edgy attitude

Punk-rock impresario and Sex Pistols producer Malcolm McLaren once said, "Punk was just a way to sell trousers." The quote appears, appropriately, in a new book, Punk Marketing, by Richard Laermer, chief executive of public-relations firm RLM PR, and Mark Simmons, a marketing consultant and former executive at hot ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

The duo defines punk as "an attitude of rebellion against tradition" and the genre of punk marketing as "a new form of marketing that rejects the status quo and recognizes the shift in power from corporations to consumers." They apply the term to any type of ad or marketing campaign that defies traditional tactics—think consumer-generated ads that spread via YouTube or guerrilla-marketing stunts such as the Cartoon Network's controversial electronic displays that were mistaken for bombs by Boston residents last month (See BusinessWeek.com, 02/09/2007, "Guerrilla Marketing Gone Wild"). The book, which is perhaps not as rebellious as the snappy title suggests, is best seen as a neatly organized time capsule of late-2000s marketing and ad strategies.

While Laermer and Simmons christen today's newest forms of advertising "punk," giving them an air of youthful edginess, the authors also place current ad trends within the context of media history.

For instance, Laermer and Simmons point out that in the 1950s, marketers created TV shows to push products. So the current trend of company-produced shows serving as ads, such as those promoting Unilever's Axe body spray on MTV, aren't really a new concept. The authors also argue that the remote control, rather than TiVo (TIVO), delivered the first blow to TV ads. By allowing consumers to switch stations during commercial breaks and skip 30-second spots, the remote forced marketers and ad executives to come up with imaginative ways of capturing consumers' attention.

Taken together, their anecdotes show that truly original, engaging, and—most important—surprising ads will always prevail, whether they're labeled "punk" or not.

The book features the occasional dubious prediction, such as "someone will make a bundle in the next few years with $100 Qwerty keyboard accessories that can be connected to phones." (The idea, presented in a footnote, seems unlikely, as consumers are growing more and more comfortable thumb-typing on small keys.) But the elegantly designed book, illustrated with pencil drawings, offers a spunky snapshot of today's trends. BusinessWeek.com's Reena Jana spoke with Laermer and Simmons about how they coined the phrase "punk marketing," and real-world examples of it, both from the pages of the book and beyond.

What do you mean by the term "punk marketing"?

Simmons: I was a teen in the 1970s, and in 1977, punk was such a breath of fresh air. Marketing needs that same breath of fresh air today.

Laermer: In the States, the whole idea of punk was "stand up and slap people in the face…."

Simmons: And punk marketing is about always having a fresh ideas. We see a need for a punk attitude now.

Laermer: Hence this book. We want people to use it. And that also means making notes on the pages and submitting suggestions to our Web site [www.punkmarketing.com].

What campaigns exemplify punk?

Laermer: Here's an example. I'm not a fan of chain restaurants. But I saw a print ad for Outback Steakhouse in USA Today recently. It featured a picture of a red chili pepper with seeds falling out. It looked succulent. The seeds were shaped like boomerangs [the restaurant's logo]. In tiny letters, there was a line: "Our seeds aren't shaped like boomerangs, but we thought this was funny." I would call this punk, because it's not what you expect from ad copy.

What about, say, Apple's (AAPL) "I'm a Mac" ads. Those certainly have a cheeky attitude.

Simmons: All of Apple's ads tend to work, simply because its products are so good. So their ads fall into place. We're not talking about a difficult brief for the ad executives.

Laermer: I have some criticism of Apple, though. I think they're not looking at the big picture, beyond the ads. I use Apple products, and now I get so much spam from Apple. I wouldn't think Apple would send out a lot of annoying spam. By sending out the spam like everyone else, Apple's not as cool as it seems in the ads. It almost seems like a separate company doing that.

You discuss how companies successfully use blogs as marketing tools. Give us an example.

Laermer: Netflix (NFLX) has a good blog, by [Chief Executive] Reed Hastings. I like reading about upstart companies taking over. You feel like you're part of an inclusive society. But I'm shocked that Jeff Zucker [chief executive of NBC Universal] hasn't blogged more. He's articulate and angry. That's a great voice for blogging.

Simmons: It suggests that he doesn't understand the online world.

Speaking of the Internet, what fresh sites do you recommend paying attention to?

Simmons: Joost, by the guys who first did KaZaa and Skype (EBAY). I'm amazed by what they're starting to do: putting TV, with shows and ads, on the Internet. Others are trying to do it, sure. But Joost is all about simplicity and content. It allows marketers to target individuals really specifically by location and offer them tailored marketing messages. And it has way less ads than traditional TV channels, just a couple of minutes an hour.

That means a more compelling viewer experience. That it's subtle and highly targeted is a marketer's dream.

Laermer: I'm watching an online network called xy.tv. It's a promotional tool for brands like American Express (AXP) to show off their products and services with instructional videos that show people using them. These shows are sponsored by companies. But xy.tv creates the content.

Consumer-generated ads are gaining a lot of attention. Do you think they're just a fad?

Simmons: Totally. We won't see them during the Super Bowl next year. What's long lasting about consumer-generated ads is the broad idea that companies and agencies now need to involve consumers more. If they don't invite consumers in, the consumers can now create and distribute parodies and their own ads anyway.

Laermer: It's important for companies to embrace criticism and play along when they see consumers making fun of their products.

Simmons: Even if consumer feedback is negative, it can be great. It allows a company to learn about its own product. If you can say, "We heard and we listen. So give us another chance," consumers might even trust the brand more.

What are the punk-est ads you've ever seen?

Laermer: There was an ad for Carleton cigarettes that was brash and straightforward. The campaign said something like "Try our cigarettes. You'll really like them."

Simmons: My favorite punk ads were an outdoor campaign in Australia, advertising beef. The ads said, "Buy more beef, you bastards." Funny. To the point. And unexpected.

Laermer: I also liked a recent Chevrolet TV ad that ran during this year's Grammy Awards, featuring different pop songs about Chevy cars. I liked how it made you think of the brand's cultural legacy.

That ad actually sounds pretty mainstream. In your book, you predict that all ads will one day be "punk." If that happens, won't your conception of "punk" lose its meaning?

Laermer: All good marketing and ad campaigns keep people guessing. So in that sense, all good campaigns are punk, as we define it.

Simmons: What we mean is that the current establishment will change in the next few years and adopt today's punk strategies. But there's always a need for fresh attitude to challenge those ideas. And that's punk.


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