How Old Spice reminds ad folk what they forgot

Last week Tim Leberecht of Design Mind suggested the future of advertising may soon be defined by transformats. He used the Old Spice television and twitter sensation as the best demonstration of this new dynamic. Here’s how he explained transformats.

Transmedia: Transformats use a multi-modular presentation of narratives that extends the story across various media and allows a social web-enabled “audience formerly known as the audience” to participate in the story development. In the case of Old Spice, it went full circle: from YouTube to Twitter and back.

Transcendent: Transformats transcend not only the original medium but also the original story, creating new meaning beyond the conceived plot. In the case of Old Spice, the main protagonist was given a life on its own and the power to directly interact with members of the audience. Thus, the story became an open-ended conversation, and the initial message faded amidst a chorus of issues (user-)generated by the cultural fabric of the social web.

Transformative: Transformats advance marketing best practices and lift the state-of-the-art. Key here is that the design of the marketing program itself is the story (see meta-marketing), or at least an integral part of it. Case in point: The majority of coverage on the Old Spice campaign heralded its innovative quality, and many stories were background stories that shed light on “the making of.” Perhaps that’s the most powerful thing about innovation, from a marketing perspective: True innovation always is a story in and of itself.

What Tim does very well is break down the various levels on which the campaign operated but I fall short of calling it a new paradigm for marketing. Here’s why:

1. IT’S SIMPLY SUCCESS: It’s easy in this early stage of social media rollout to confuse technology with change. Yes, the Old Spice campaign did play better than any other campaign across traditional and social media but the use of twitter in the campaign does not make it a new format. In my mind its simply a demonstration of marketing success. Any strategically sound and well executed campaign translates across many media creating an echo chamber for the brand. As I have often said, social media is not an end in itself but just another tool through which sound strategic and creative work is to be funneled. As such, I think Old Spice is an extraordinary and duly praised success, but not a new phenomenon.

2. SOMEONE ACTUALLY LISTENED: For decades advertising has operated on the conceit that brands and consumers are in dialogue while in truth brands and their media companies held a monopoly. Thanks to social media that conceit is now true. What’s more, the polarity of the conversation has reversed with consumers often driving the conversation. The Old Spice campaign was a wonderful demonstration of listening – just check out their Facebook page where Isiah answers questions personal questions via video. As I have said before, the future brand success will be determined by ‘the quality of listening’. In this case the personalized tweets by Old Spice not only showed the brand was listening but compelled the twitterers to share the brand content again.

3. RULES DON’T APPLY: I am always hesitant to categorize or pigeonhole any creative exercise because it seems to stifle the creativity that made it so wonderful in the first place. It’s almost as if we want to own it, bottle it and take it to market. Successful advertising campaigns never worked that way. They simply took on a life of their own. This is more true than ever now with free-flowing conversations driving brand awareness across the web. In my mind the real trick here was to thread a needle that has always existed. How to define that intersection between what people think of a product, what’s happening in the category and what’s going on in pop culture at large. Pull that off and you’re destined for a hit. But what form that will take is different every time and no amount of labeling will make it repeatable.

Marketers and brands are facing challenging times. Not only must they surrender a some brand control to consumers but they must also embrace the fact that there is no formula or silver bullet in this nuanced and fractured consumer marketplace. Advertising’s history is replete with ‘me too’, formulaic campaigns that went nowhere. And it would be such a pity to constantly reduce the art and science of advertising to science alone. In short, the future of advertising is just as it has always been. Be human. Trade in emotion. Listen well. Get out of the way.

What do you think? Is Old Spice the new marketing? Or more of the same done darn well?