Building brands is more than “making the movie”

I’ve just finished reading Dan Lyon’s hysterical account of life in the Silicon Valley start-up bubble: “Disrupted”.

As a long-standing Newsweek staffer, Lions spent many years reporting on the tech explosion. And then he decided to join it. HubSpot, a Boston start-up, was flush with $100 million in venture capital. They offered Lions a big stack of stock options to be their "marketing fellow" (?) so how could he resist? He took a seat on his “bouncy ball” chair and hung on for the ride.

HubSpot was like a cult: committed to making the world a better place ... by selling email spam. The office was a bizarre hybrid between a frat house and a religious sect.

“The party began at four thirty on Friday and lasted well into the night; "shower pods" became hook-up dens; a push-up club met at noon in the lobby, while nearby, in the "content factory," Nerf gun fights raged. Groups went on "walking meetings," and Dan's absentee boss sent cryptic emails about employees who had "graduated" (read: been fired).”

As well as an uproarious tale of his rise and fall at Hubspot Lyon’s book is a trenchant analysis of the start-up world. “A de facto conspiracy between those who start companies and those who fund them. a world where bad ideas are rewarded with hefty investments, where companies blow money lavishing perks on their post-collegiate workforces, and where everybody is trying to hang on just long enough to reach an IPO and cash out.”

Disrupted is a gripping and definitive account of life in the (second) tech bubble. Cynics will guffaw as Lyon’s dissects the craven opportunism of a new generation of upstart entrepreneurs, “wantrepreneurs”, fad-chasing venture capitalists and good old-fashioned con men, running companies with no business model, that provide no end utility to anyone, but which succeed in syphoning large sums of money off for their founders.

As Lyons observed on Radio 4 earlier this week: “There’s a whole ecosystem of companies that have never made a dime of profit but which have massively enriched their owners. Twitter has never made a profit but the founders have become billionaires.”

With so much easy capital available to fund tech start-ups, nobody needs to raise any hard-headed business concerns about customer benefit, competitiveness and profitability.

When Lions questioned the lack of commercial rigour at Hubspot, he was rebutted: “We’re making a movie here”.

It seems to me that this “making the movie” attitude is ingrained in the whole online culture, frequently tending towards vain self-gratification at the expense of anything more useful. I was struck by the recent spate of “challenge accepted” posts in social media. The premise is simple: you post an arty black and white self-portrait with the tag “challenge accepted” to help fight cancer.

Hmm, so how exactly is this helping to fight cancer? There’s no mechanism to raise money for research or treatment. So it’s not clear how any of this is achieving any substantive advance in the battle against this appalling disease.

“Yes, but it helps to raise awareness of cancer!” I hear you say.

But then, can there really be anyone on social media who has hitherto been unaware of cancer?

The initiative has taken off and gone viral, with tens of thousands of such images appearing. But surely ‘challenge accepted’ is little more than an excuse to spend a few minutes preening yourself in front of the camera before getting back to real life. If you wanted to do something useful, the time could have been better spent clearing a few choice items out of your wardrobe to donate to a cancer charity shop.

But when it’s so easy to go online and play at being a celebrity in your own bathroom, nobody needs to raise any hard headed practical concerns about whether this really helps to fight cancer.

“Challenge accepted” panders to individual vanity and offers self-gratification. But this monochromatic attention seeking performs no useful function: Making the movie.

And that leads me to the subject of online marketing.

Car brand Volvo, and its ad agency Grey London, recently launched LifePaint, a reflective safety spray to be used by cyclists to make them more visible to cars at night. Sounds like a brilliantly simple, and worthy, proposition, as part of Volvo’s wider campaign, emphasising the brand’s safety credentials.

The message seems clear: “Volvo cares about cyclists as well as car drivers.” And the campaign film has apparently received over three million YouTube views. All this without the kind of hefty media spend one would need behind a TV campaign.

Sounds great. The trouble is this: You try buying a tin of LifePaint and see how you get on. Campaign PR claims that the product is only available in a limited number of selected cycling outlets in the UK. That much is certainly true. I couldn’t find it anywhere.

So what’s this product really doing for road safety if you can’t even buy it?

With the recent growth in the popularity of cycling among middle aged men, there could be some useful audience crossover here. But those YouTube views are unlikely to exploit it. YouTube’s core demographic covers younger audiences up to age 44. Not a segment that’s typically in the market for large family cars with a premium price tag - the entry level V40 starts at £20,255. (Perhaps the plan was to persuade youthful BMXers to start saving up from their pocket money…) Anyway, I’d be surprised if all those YouTube views have had much impact within Volvo’s core target audience of affluent 40+ men. I count about twenty keen “middle-class-middle-aged” cyclists among my friends. But when I asked, only two of them had heard of LifePaint.

For the LifePaint project, Volvo and Grey collaborated with Albedo 100, a Swedish company who already made a brand of reflective spray paint, called Invisible Bright. So LifePaint wasn’t even an idea that originated in Volvo’s product development labs, or Grey’s creative department. It was a piece of existing technology that was appropriated to be the centrepiece of an ad campaign.

As the facts emerge the LifePaint project starts to look like a marketing stunt, or worse, a form of scam ad created just to earn awards. (And the campaign did scoop a D&AD pencil at the 2016 awards.) Like the spray-on product itself, the LifePaint project has glowed brightly in the night. But is it nothing more than a temporary veneer, designed to get its wearer noticed, then wash away?

Nils Leonard, chairman and CCO of Grey London, said in the press release. “Our job isn’t just to advertise our clients, it’s to help them make a positive impact on culture. With the creation of LifePaint, we’ve turned Volvo safety inside out, giving it away to the most vulnerable road users. What more positive action can a brand take than to try to save lives?”

But is there any substance to these claims? Is it churlish to ask?

When it’s so cheap to create an online splash for your client, win awards and generate countless column inches of media attention (to which, I concede, I have just added) perhaps nobody needs to raise any hard headed marketing concerns about whether this really promotes road safety, let alone drives sales or raises brand awareness.

So I’ll leave it to readers to decide: is the LifePaint just another example of using the relatively inexpensive online space to “Make the movie”?