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When it comes to brand-building timing is everything. Just ask Scott Adams

A tragedy occurred in Gilroy, California at its annual garlic festival when at least one gunman killed three people and wounded fifteen others. Gilroy police shot and killed the shooter within a minute of it starting. As of now, a manhunt is under way for any other accomplice or accomplices. At this time no motive is clear. I mention this because it is now thirteen hours after the fact. Despite our belief that answers to all our questions come in real time, offline, this is anything but the case. One must never confuse a Twitter hashtag info dump and the maddening rush to be first with actual facts, as the two almost never correspond, especially when in the first few hours and even days of a horrific tragedy happening.

While the tragedy was occurring, and while it was presumed it was a still active shooter situation, Scott Adams used the opportunity to promote his startup app WhenHub Interface

After predictable backlash occurred, he explained the Tweet's intention less than a half-hour later.

Predictably, the media outlets who specialize in outrage ran with this story including Mediaite, The Daily Dot (who used a particularly ghoulish looking photo of him in their story) and Gizmodo who filed their story under the darkly cynical "Uber, but for monetizing horrific mass murders on the blockchain."

Feeling the need to discuss his intention this morning, Adams held his usual morning Periscope which was part explanation, part WhenHub infomercial, a clarification of sorts and what I call an "if" apology, as in "I apologize if anyone directly impacted by the tragedy was offended."

The Periscope itself is a fascinating look into Adams' thinking. It is, like all of his Periscopes,  informative, reasoned, measured, and sometimes entertaining. Adams is known to many people as being the creator of the comic strip Dilbert. But he's also a speaker, author, blogger and since the election of Donald Trump, a punching bag by many who believe he is praising the President's persuasion techniques. 

Adams talks a lot about persuasion. He also talks a lot about talent stacks, a phrase he coined which is essentially the idea of combining a bunch of different regular skills in such a way that you become extraordinary. In other words, if you have amazing presentation skills, strong copywriting and the ability to write a strategic killer brief, you might be a unicorn in the ad industry.

No doubt, Adams has quite the talent stack to achieve his level of success. The art of timing and understanding what it takes to build a brand are, in my opinion, not part of his talent stack.

Further, there is no doubt the level of backlash at Adams' Tweets could be considered at least in part coming from trolls or by those demonstrating fake outrage. Whenever a person has less than 30 followers, no avatar and only recently created an account, that it is a good indication. These accounts usually make up the bulk of a Buzzfeed outrage article. 

Still, there must have been enough momentum for Adams to want to discuss it on his morning Periscope. It is nearly an hour long. I am not about to quote it all. Nor am I going it take it out of context. I do want to address what I see are some glaringly obvious mistakes he is making from my talent stack of being in the advertising industry for eighteen years.

Early on in the Periscope, his rationale for Tweeting/promoting his app was as follows: "Hey it doesn’t look like the news is getting to me as quickly and as efficiently as it could. Hey, I’ve got an app that could solve that. Maybe this would be a good time to remind people.”

A more apropos term for "reminding people," would be "creating awareness." I have no idea how many people are active users of WhenHub, or how many people have downloaded the app. But its Twitter handle, has fewer than three thousand followers. While today's coverage may drive people to learn more about it, it really wasn't on my radar. And since I'm in advertising, I tend to keep up with culture, especially anything that might suggest burgeoning demand. On this level, one could argue Adams has succeeded in creating awareness, even if the publicity is largely negative for now.

He then explains WhenHub's use. This is something he does quite often as any marketer would, making the point succinctly, using more or less the exact same language so it sticks in your brain. It is, as he says ". A tool to gather information in an efficient way." And that WhenHub is "For all kinds of situations where someone could charge for their time as an expert, or witness or citizen journalist or what have you."

While he takes pains to clarify in great detail how the app works and how it is monetized, he suggests that people probably would not choose to monetize their expertise when talking with journalists on CNN or Fox or whichever outlet they choose to speak to, and that even if they did, the amount of money WhenHub would receive from it would be negligible.  

That's one of three assumptions on Adams' part. Unless there's some way of vetting the people in real-time who are claiming to be experts during a mass shooting, there will almost certainly be people who take advantage of this situation, just as there are people who set up GoFundMe sites who have no intention of giving the money to charity. There are also celebrities who sell their baby pictures to People magazine or photos of their weddings or sex tapes. A certain segment of the population will gladly monetize anything whether they are famous or not.

Adams actually sees no problem with an expert charging for this information within reason. If as he suggests they’ve already talked to the police and mainstream media for free or what he calls doing their duty, then they might want to charge other outlets as an incentive to keep discussing the same thing over and over again.  I would love to live in a world where this doesn't occur, just as I would love to live in a world where mass shootings don't occur. But this is the world we live in.

Which brings me to Adams' second big assumption. Later in the Periscope, he further defends his App and the monetization of tragedy by pointing out the hypocrisy of others who have no problems watching news stations who obviously monetize tragedy.

“...the only reason that they (the trolls) know that this tragedy happened is because they saw it on a for-pay news platform. Every person who knows that there was a Gilroy tragedy...all of them...they all heard it from a news organization that charges money, in a sense because they make money on advertising,  so there’s no such thing in our world as a news organization that doesn’t make money…. If you give them a pass and come after this additional tool a tool that can simply be used to gather the information that everybody wants in a little more efficient way…that’s all it is. A tool to gather information in an efficient way.  If you are complaining about one of the tools but not the others, you don’t have a credible complaint. You have a lifestyle entertainment complaint."

While in theory, he may be correct that WhenHub is indeed a very similar tool to gather information much like CNN and Fox News and The New York Times, I have news for you: The New York Times started in 1851. CNN started in 1980, and the Fox News Channel started in 1996. Those three brands have been around for 167 years, 39 years and 22 years respectively. Irrespective of whether you like them or think they are agenda-driven or see them now as "fake news," they have stood the test of time. It's the reason 'All the news that's fit to print," and "Fair and Balanced," have entered our lexicon.

WhenHub is a startup app that I think is less than five years old (judging by when it joined Twitter) but regardless, it is still in its brand-building and awareness phase. Case in point, I downloaded a screenshot from the app store and even putting it in this article I would be hard-pressed to describe to you the logo let alone their color palette or typeface. It is a bit presumptuous to equate a startup brand very few people have heard of with longstanding news sources or a social media service that has 321 million monthly users.

The problem is that it is hard to separate Adams from WhenHub the brand. That level of charismatic head might work if you are Apple during the Steve Jobs-in-his--do-no-wrong years, but there were years of brand building and ingraining a public perception way before the black turtleneck became the de facto rock star/figurehead for the company. And for everyone who still worships at the Apple altar, there are tons of people who despise the company for being arrogant.  

Which brings me to my third point. Good or bad, people have emotional attachments to brands. The toothpaste you used in childhood. The smell of Mccormick's cinnamon in your pumpkin pie. Gum packaging. Even once defunct brands like New York Seltzer come back after a twenty-year hiatus to strong sales due because of brand affinity. All I know about WhenHub is what it does. Not why I should care, or why I should have an emotional attachment to it. And that is simply not enough. if WhenHub were a car brand, it would be going against BMW (Performance) Volvo (Safety) Mini (Fun) Toyota (Economical) and even Tesla (Green.) I have no idea what ownable word it would use in that situation, just as I have no idea what its ownable word is in reality.

Adams casually dismisses nearly everyone who responded negatively to his promotional Tweet last night as being "trolls." 

 "Here’s my take on this situation: I don’t consider that people were complaining to be genuine. They will tell you they were outraged, but it’s not the real kind of outrage where you’ve done anything that’s absolutely wrong….if you imagine I have bad intentions well there’s something wrong with you. What bad intentions do I have? 

For those of you saying 'Scott, you grifter, you’re using this to get attention for your app'—Obviously. Yes. That’s one of the things. It’s not the only thing. It gets attention for the app which is useful for the public. it’s not really a crime to inform people about something that might be useful to them. So I don’t apologize about telling people that there is a useful tool that would be good in this situation. "

I can safely say I am not a troll and was legitimately upset when I saw the tweet. Not only for the obvious reason that it might be identified or misconstrued as being tone-deaf among an audience that is all too ready to jump on the outrage train, but because I am watching a spokesman who prides themselves on the art of persuasion communicate in a way that doesn't seem to understand or ignores how consumers react to brands. I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt strongly about this, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who chose not to engage with Adams or the brand for that matter. Thiis is true of all brands. People don't always grab a microphone when they vote with their wallets or their feet; sometimes you just silently walk away.

Obviously, WhenHub is Adams' brand. It's his right to promote it however he wishes or deems appropriate, even if that means promoting it during a mass shooting. This is also true of any brand who wants to assert itself in a timely manner, like Nike or Levis or Dove.  But if I had WhenHub as a client,  I would sit them down and suggest that because they are still a nascent brand, they might consider focusing on building brand affinity as much as just promoting its usefulness. Lots of things are useful. But with so many similarly useful things all competing for my attention, there are better and smarter ways to stand out.

I would also go on to explain that WhenHub is not CNN. And that while CNN might tweet something like "For live coverage of the Gilroy massacre, tune in at 9 PM," they most certainly wouldn't say "CNN is a great place for tuning in to dire situations including mass murders like the one occurring right now." 

The differences in those two tweets might be subtle, but when it comes to branding, they make all the difference in the world. 

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Anonymous Adgrunt's picture
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AnonymousCoward's picture

With all due respect...nah who am I kidding. the guy's an unrepentent schmuck.

J Dilla's picture

This is too nice an article for such a POS. No matter how he tries to spin it, he is literally using dead bodies to promote his app.

Dabitch's picture

I just checked some other articles to find reactions, here in SFGate you'll find some choice comments:

“Not many people would see the upside to a mass shooting and the death of a six year old as clearly as you have, much less promote their business to benefit directly from it as you have. Unforgettable,” tweeted San Jose resident Robert Taylor.

“Scott Adams and the magic of turning active shooters into active users,” said Khalil Bey in San Francisco.

Tom Siebert's picture

I customarily appreciate this guy--he's smart, funny, cuts to the heart of the matter--but this was a step past a misstep. His inability to see himself self-critically, along with what appears to be an inclination to double down when he should be apologizing, could lose him the Jordan Peterson crowd quick.

Juan T.'s picture

The fact that he can't admit he messed up makes me think less of everything else he does and says.

Justin in the corner office's picture

Twitter, periscope and all other social medias always promise to be the place for brand building on the cheap by anyone, but opportunist missteps like this are exactly why one should leave it to the professionals.