–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Back in the ’70s, National Geographic ran a story on Boston firefighters.

The writer mentioned a barb that a fireman tossed his way. “Ya gonna do another silver jets piece, huh?” Adding sarcastically, “Ya know: silver jets of water piercing the dark sky as they bravely battle the inferno…”

I owe that firefighter a debt. Since I read his diss, Silver Jets has been a mental caution sign against veering too far into the preciously romantic. (Well, most of the time, anyway; all us writers occasionally succumb to the siren’s song.)

Which brings me to Moen’s Silver Jets moment: creative work driven by its presumable campaign premise, “It’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

The Moen website has lots of solid information. Most of it is presented well and unambiguously. That’s a good thing, since we generally want only three things from our faucets: style, function, and reliability. Everything else is on the margins.

And yet, even in commodity markets—and maybe especially there—the urge to creatively distinguish the company runs strong. Channeled and managed well, it can produce good outcomes.

But when the primary focus shifts, unnoticed, to the creative idea from the business objective, you can wind up in Pittsburgh when you intended to go to Minneapolis.*

Here’s how I think that happened at Moen:

  • They wanted a new campaign to distinguish the company.
  • Someone(s) got the idea to “celebrate water.”
  • That led eventually to the premise that “Water designs our life.”
  • That led to some excited creative exploration casting water as the unsung hero/benevolent star of human existence.
  • That led to casting Moen as the combination of Alexander Graham Bell and Frank Lloyd Wright when it comes to water.
  • That led eventually to the campaign theme: “Water designs our life. Who designs for Water?”

(Spoiler alert: Moen’s answer: “Moen designs for Water.” Actual answer: Every company that makes something related to water.)

And that’s where Moen’s creative juices really go Silver Jets. Some examples sprinkled throughout Moen’s website:

  • “With 1.5 trillion gallons of water running through our faucets each year, we feel a tremendous responsibility to make sure every one of your interactions with water is a meaningful one.”
  • “Moen products don’t just make you look smart; they leave you feeling inspired.”
  • “As a company we’ve given over to the power and beauty of water. Throughout our history, we’ve learned to respect and honor it. So that makes us a company that not only celebrates water, but that also happens to make faucets.”
  • “Throughout history, water has shaped the world we live in—where we gather, what we do on the weekends and what rooms we make room for. So it’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

Those are some major-league Silver Jets. They speak to lofty aesthetic. They paint glowing watercolor images. They demonstrate what happens when marketing and creative exploration become unmoored from reality and business objectives.

Last, for now, here’s a piece of SethGodin-bait: Predictably, Moen’s creative drift inevitably culminated in a gorgeous, high-budget, 60-second art film designed to…well, you tell me. You can see it here, or by clicking on the “watch the film” link on Moen’s site.

Where did it all go sideways? Around the fourth bullet of the process described above. Creative freewheeling is a necessary part of producing good work. But so is having at least one person keeping an eye on the compass and able to trim the sails.

* Heading north on the Mississippi River will bring you to Minneapolis unless you lose focus and get sidetracked onto the Ohio River, which will bring you to Pittsburgh.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

I try to focus my commentary on good creative work. Otherwise, I’d be posting multiple times a day because there’s so much mediocre or outright poor work.

But today, I can’t resist

Moen’s running full-page ads for its new Flo product. On a field of irregularly scattered, different-size circles filled with ones and zeroes—”digital” water, get it?—the headline reads We Hacked Water (So It Can’t Hack You).

Huh?

The body copy is equally puzzling:

“…While [water is] seen as a vital resource that powers life, it’s also a network in your home that can be programmed. Introducing Flo by Moen, a revolutionary device that takes smart home technology to water with the first-of-its-kind whole home water supply control system. Intuitive design gives you the power to control, conserve and secure your water to protect the things you love.”

Okayyyy… So nefarious characters may hack into my water pipes and open the floodgates of my faucets? Or add some unhealthy stuff to my water so it “hacks” me, like security consultants say could happen to municipal water-treatment plants?

Since that doesn’t make any sense at all, I knew I had to DuetsBlog about it, and so headed to the Moen website.

Turns out that Flo is a control valve that detects whether there’s a leak somewhere in your home’s water system. Via smartphone (of course) it notifies you if it detects one. Moen notes some pretty good reasons why this might be a good idea.

In fact, the website offers a lot of good nuggets that you could use to build a compelling argument. So why on earth would Moen and the creative team go with such an opaque and confusing storyline, especially when introducing a unique and useful new product line?

I suspect a couple of factors diverted them.

Elsewhere on its website, Moen’s trying to chart new marketing waters with a lofty corporate story about being a company that has “given over to the power and beauty of water…[and] that also happens to make faucets.” (Commenting further on this is a subject for another day.)

Since they apparently want to be seen as the spiritual lovechild of water and more than just a fixture manufacturer, leading with the practical value of Flo isn’t hip enough. Rather, Flo advertising needs to signal that Moen’s in step with the brave new “smart” world.

And that leads to seductive creative ideas that make sense only when you know how they got there. I’m certain that everyone involved thinks this ad nails it because they know what they intend to communicate. Meanwhile, many of us scratch our heads to try to figure out what they heck they’re talking about.

Contrast that with this on the website: “Runs daily tests to ensure your home plumbing network is running efficiently. Continuously checks for leaks and potential vulnerabilities in your pipes. Automatically shuts off water to your home in the event of catastrophic failure.”

Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes, the best campaign is one that just says it plain.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

It was festival time in Italy when I passed this food truck at an Abruzzo village’s celebration. I understand a little Italian (and speak even less), so what initially caught my eye was the crowd and the fun-loving couple serving up the goodies.

I knew that “Amici delle” on the sign and t-shirts means “friends of,” but didn’t know what “Fregne” means. Turns out, it’s the name that Elena Iannone gave to her special take on a type of Abruzzo pastry that she and her husband sell from the truck.

Only later, when I was gazing at the photo, did I spot the clever warning on the sign in the bottom-right corner of the case:

“Gli amici delle ‘Fregne’ declinano ogni responsabilita da un eventuale dipendenza!” (Loosely: Friends of the “Fregne” take no responsibility for you becoming addicted!)

How’s that for a not too subtle boast about the quality of your tasty pastries?

Not content with that, though, the Amici take it further. The offerings have names like Exotic, Delicate, Greedy, Widow, Kinky, and a few others that hint at the meaning of Fregne, which none of my Italian dictionaries defines. Suffice to say that the jovial Elena has both a sense of humor and a marketing instinct.

Most of the time when we talk about marketing and advertising campaigns, the subject companies are well-known, at least regionally, and often nationally or internationally. But lots of little one-offs, like the Amici delle Fregne, produce creative, consistently on-brand approaches that are qualitatively right up there with the big leaguers.

And like the big leaguers, when your marketing is good, your product better live up to it. Based on what I saw that night, when the Amici were happily handing over a steady stream of Fregne, they more than deliver on that front.

Throughout our nearly decade-long journey and exploration called “DuetsBlog,” we have been blessed and we remain grateful to have met so many incredible new friends along the way.

Next Tuesday, we have the remarkable privilege of publishing here on DuetsBlog an interview with Seth Godin, a generous person, overflowing with thoughtful insights and valuable perspectives.

In the meantime, many thanks to Fred McGrath for his interest and generosity in sitting down with me to capture a conversation about DuetsBlog, editing our discussion in 3 videos, here’s the first:

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Every now and then, I find pearls floating in the tide of print advertising. These two, for example.

First is the Kiton ad, one of a series the company is running. I liked the whole look and feel of it right away, but didn’t know anything about the company.

I like it even better after doing a little research and learning that Kiton prides itself on its fabrics and the quality of the clothing it creates using them.

These ads work on multiple levels. First, they stand out both for their striking simplicity and for the visual puzzle: why the red dot covering the head? (At least, it’s red to my color-challenged eye.)

Beyond that, the more you look at one of the ads, the more attention to detail you see. There’s deep creative thought behind these.

More important, the first ad you see imprints visual clues that unmistakably identify every subsequent ad you see as a Kiton. In the sea of luxury-good advertising, you too often have to glance at the company name to see whose ad it is.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the big creative questions is, “How can we indelibly link the company or product name to the creative idea?” Kiton’s campaign achieves this, not least by linking the red-dot head with the red dot on the Kiton i.

Incidentally, the dot over the head probably has an additional benefit for Kiton. Rates and residuals for models vary depending on the image used. Because the Kiton models are unidentifiable, their rate is likely lower than if we could see their faces. Small change in the larger scheme of things, but a benefit for Kiton nevertheless.

The other pearl is this ad for the Omega Seamaster Diver 300M. In case it’s not clear, the tuxedoed Daniel Craig is up to his chin in water. It’s a great visual that pays off the promise that the watch “will take you from the bottom of the sea, to the center of attention, and the top of the world.” Form and function married with fashion illustrated by a brilliant concept.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Recently, I came across a snappy-looking website with unconventional design for a small consulting company. It’s cleverly done, easy to navigate, and appears to have good information.

I say “appears to have” because there’s one slight problem: it’s challenging to read it. The design motif has small white type on large circles that are color-coded for the different sections. You have to be very motivated to read more than a few paragraphs on some of those circles.

It reminded me of an anecdote related by a writer colleague that occurred at a design staff meeting. The creative head held up a print piece the group had recently produced, and asked, “What’s wrong with this?”

Lots of designers chimed in with thoughts, each of which she dismissed with a “Nope.”

My colleague, who was the only writer in the room and had known right away what the problem was, finally spoke: “You can’t read it.”

“Right!” said the design chief.

Like the website, it was an interesting design and looked good. But as often happens, the designer(s) saw text as simply a design element and failed to remember that the copy needs to be readable, too.

Vampire video falls into a similar trap. It starts out as a good idea for communicating marketing information. But somewhere along the line, both the creative team and the marketers get seduced by the idea itself, and lose sight of the communications objective.

You usually wind up with a really well-produced video that’s interesting and even fun to watch—so much so that the original marketing objective has inadvertently taken a distant second place to the idea.

So how does this happen? Whether we’re predominantly on the visual or the writing side, even the most pragmatic among us chose this career because we love the creative part of the business.

Most marketers do, too. As one once told me, “You guys get to do all the fun stuff.” (Hard to remember that when it’s midnight and you’re still banging away to meet an 8 a.m. deadline.)

When solving communications problems with creative ideas is your stock in trade, it’s no surprise that some of those ideas will sweep you down a very different pathway than the one you set out for. It’s a seduction that we need to be continually on guard against.

Of course, neither showcase design nor vampire video has ever occurred in any of my projects. (Cue the trombones.)

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Awhile ago, I wrote about how casting decisions almost always make someone cranky. Lately I’ve been seeing lots of commercials that speak to the flip side of the crankiness factor.

Creative teams are always on the lookout for ways to connect with the zeitgeist. Most of the time, if you see a “hip” reference in an ad, it’s already gone mainstream and it ain’t hip anymore.

But advertising can move the social needle and get more people to migrate their views from the fringe of the bell curve into the big bulge of it. The more we’re exposed to an idea, circumstances or conditions, the more we tend to accept them as within the norm.

Case in point is the increasing portrayal in advertising of nonconventional families and pairings.

The first time or two some people see this, it can be jarring for them. But for the majority of people, I venture, this reaction fades over time as the imagery becomes part of the mainstream. I think one result is that while an individual’s feeling about, say, mixed-race couples might not change, regularly seeing nonconventional portrayals helps move people closer toward at least tolerance, if not acceptance.

Incidentally, despite the popularity of nonconventional casting in ads, there isn’t some vast coordinated conspiracy at work here, though some may suspect that. The advertising/communications community isn’t monolithic, except in its desire to connect with target audiences and to appear tuned in. That means independently latching on to the latest nifty trend.

So how do you “authentically” ride a social trend? In a word, subtly.

Here’s an example:

Years ago, we did a marketing video that included a planning session in a typical conference room and featured a half-dozen people representing various departments and responsibilities.

One of the actors we cast was a young woman in a wheelchair. The crew made two shots of her delivering her lines; one where the wheelchair was obvious, and the other, where only elements of the chair were visible and not immediately noticeable.

I told the editor to use the second shot.

“But don’t you want people to see that she’s in a wheelchair?” the producer asked.

“Not obviously so,” I replied. “The idea here is for the audience to focus on her and what she’s saying. The power of the wheelchair is that you don’t see it right away, if at all, and that it’s irrelevant to a person’s ability to contribute and be good at the job.”

The point? When nonconventional casting is not the star of the show, advertising can influence attitudes as well as sell product. When you make it the star—”look how hip we are”—you’re more likely to irritate people rather than influence them.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Admit it, when you saw the headline, many of you finished the jingle featured in Farmers Insurance TV commercials.

Farmers has a great campaign going. Geico has a good campaign going. Both are entertaining. First, Farmers:

Their “Hall of Claims” series, developed by RPA, showcases weird situations that Farmers has paid claims on. RPA’s latest iteration on the “University of Farmers” campaign is terrific. It has a catchy jingle and a catchy tagline, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

Right off the bat, every ad is unmistakably Farmers, from the opening shot of the set to the friendly, matter-of-fact delivery of spokesman J.K. Simmons. A consistent and long-term campaign, it always offers fresh interest.

Geico’s ads, developed by the Martin Agency, take a different tack. You don’t know whose ad it is until the payoff line hits partway through, like “Casual Friday at Buckingham Palace? Surprising. What’s not surprising? How much money [particular customer] saved by switching to Geico.”

The Farmers “Hall of Claims” ads are stronger than Geico’s “Surprising” series for a couple of reasons:

First, Geico’s creative doesn’t relate specifically to insurance the way that Farmers’ does. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a weak campaign, but it does mean that they need to hammer harder and more often to establish the connection.

Second, there’s no immediately discernable Geico style since the scenarios are wildly different from one another. That raises the odds that, except for the more intriguing scenarios, someone will skip or otherwise tune them out with nary a thought of Geico. It’s also a factor that other companies are running campaigns that use the same “surprise” approach. That makes the competition for mindshare that much harder when there’s no obvious or intuitive link to the advertiser.

Our personal favorite Geico ad is Casual Friday at Buckingham Palace. As we fast-forward through commercial breaks, we’ll actually stop at that one to see it again. Funny stuff, well written and brilliantly acted.

Now compare that to any Farmers ad of the weird things they’ve insured. The difference is that one is entertainment sponsored by Geico, the other is indelible proof points, unforgettably Farmers, presented in an entertaining fashion.

That’s the difference between a great campaign and a good one. I like them both.

I’ve been meaning to write about a TV commercial for a while, but I keep forgetting to do it.

Perhaps I need the very product being advertised in the commercial, because what gained my attention was the clever tagline following the brand name: Prevagen. The Name to Remember.

Given the goods being sold, it struck me as a clever play on words, literally descriptive, but figuratively not, so the double meaning allows it to be registered without acquired distinctiveness:

Prevagen (apoaequorin) is clinically shown to help with mild memory problems associated with Aging.

I’ve never tried it, but since I’ve seen this ad more than a few times, I’m left wondering if I’m within their target market? So, I know I’m AARP eligible, but I can’t recall if I’m really a member.

Yet, I’m left wondering why the Prevagen folks haven’t sought separate registration for the tagline, standing alone, apart from the Prevagen brand name, as their specimen of use shows.

I don’t know, maybe they forgot?

Aaron Keller of Capsule noted, in another context, that “memory decay is abhorrent” for brands.

Anyway, going through this exercise has reminded me that we need to submit evidence of our continued use of this clever tagline — that I think I designed myself — for our legal services:

If You Want to Protect Your Name Remember this One®

And, when I search for the word “memory” on Ron Coleman’s Likelihood of Confusion® blog, this gem keeps coming up, perhaps the repetition exists for those with “mild memory problems.”

You might be wishing I’d be done by now, hoping I’ve disremembered what’s next, but I’m really feeling it currently, and our friend James Mahoney, has provided me with a hot tip that Tom Rush, American Folk Icon, will be performing at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis later this week.

You guessed it, or perhaps you’ve never memorized Rush’s hits or play list, but he’s the guy who has his Remember Song on YouTube, currently showing over 7 million views.

And, there’s more, before I omit something else, our friend Seth Godin also has weighed in on the subject of memory, I’m sure he hasn’t forgotten this one, nor has Nancy Friedman for that matter.

The good news is, as John Welch — from the TTABlog — reported way back in 2007, thanks to genericness, it would appear that anyone could sell card games called, you guessed it: Memory.

Apparently though, times and circumstances have changed, or the Rhode Island decision John discussed was not the final word, or perhaps someone simply failed to remember, because Hasbro, in fact, still maintains federally-registered rights in Memory for a card matching game.

Oh, by the way, back to our federally-registered tagline, searching the USPTO database for marks with both “name” and “memory” yields surprisingly few live ones, so broad rights, right?

Well, I’m not making this up, but as it turns out, there is presently a trademark fight, between two law firms, going on now for nearly five years at the TTAB and in Philadelphia federal district court, over the claimed mark: Remember This Name. Well, imagine that, and then commit it to memory.

Larry Pitts & Associates, P.C. is arguing that Lundy Law’s claimed Remember This Name mark is generic, and part of the public domain for anyone to use, oral argument is likely in January 2018.

There might have been more I wanted to say on this subject, I’m not sure, but I’m thinking that this has been plenty for a pleasant stroll down memory lane, at least for now. Do you agree?

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Recent travel on Aer Lingus and a perusal of The Boston Sunday Globe brought two very good ads to my attention.

The first, which ran in the Aer Lingus on-board magazine, is a terrific marriage of great concept and excellent execution plus situational relevance: you’re on a plane on your way to Ireland.

As a writer, I love the spot-on call to action in the headline. As a visual communicator, I love the clever blending of the windows (how do people come up with these ideas?!). As a creative director, I love the combination of a smart team working in tandem and hitting the target dead-center.

Bottom line on this one: Even if it’s not the first thing you do, a visit to EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum gets on your radar and likely becomes a new-found option.

Moving on. So, nobody reads long-copy anymore, eh?

This ad for Needham Bank caught my eye for its sheer flaunting of convention. It’s got lots going for it: A headline that doesn’t look like a headline (the Goliath graphic), opening copy that quickly establishes the premise, sequential subheads that tell the story, and well thought-out, well-written copy that fleshes out the story the subheads outline.

This combination led me to read the darn thing, despite not living close enough to Needham to be a prospect even if I were in the market for a new bank.

The only quibble I have is there’s no contact information. A website address and a phone number would have put the cherry on top. As it is, interested people have to be motivated enough to seek that information out themselves.

One final point, and it’s an important one, is to pass along atta-boys not just to the creative team, but also to whomever in the bank had the courage to approve the concept and the ad. Often we hear that clients want to do something different, to stand out from the crowd. And nearly as often, they get cold feet when we give them an option like that.

But this ad proves that when you have the goods, and you have the guts, you get the glory. Needham Bank reports that the ad response is exceeding their expectations.