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Image courtesy the Matchbook Museum

Image courtesy the Matchbook Museum

As the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The advent of smartphones has fostered the idea of putting brands in the customer’s pocket.

Or has it?

In my usual puttering around the recesses of the web looking for I-don’t-know-what, I ran across the Matchbook Museum–an online gallery of old promotional matchbooks. For those too young to remember the days when physicians endorsed cigarette brands and everybody smoked (or those who haven’t watched Mad Men), it was common for businesses to give out matchbooks imprinted with their logo and some sort of brand message.

In poking around the Matchbook Museum, I found a brand I recognized: Kroger, a supermarket chain located in the Midwest. Their entry in the canon of carcinogen-inhaling enablement can be found here, encouraging customers to “strike a friendship with Kroger” and promoting their “Top Value” coupon stamps.

The idea behind promotional matchbooks was simple: every time a customer went for a match, they were presented with a company’s logo and a brief marketing message. This constant branding exposure implanted that message in their subconscious, much the way billboards, print ads and other traditional media advertising would. Kroger’s message was more warm and fuzzy than most: “Strike a friendship.” In addition to the clever double-entendre (“Strike.” Matches. Get it?), they were more than just a place to buy groceries: they were your friend.

Nike True City

Fast-forward half a century to a time (right now) when even 10-year-olds on the subway have an iPhone, Blackberry or some other digital communication device glued to their hands. Companies are seeking newer and ever more inventive ways to establish personal relationships with consumers. We even use “friend” as a verb, thanks to social sites like MySpace and Facebook.

Nike has updated this model with their “True City” app, which provides hyper-local, real-time information (currently available in six European cities, presumably with American markets to come). The app essentially competes with services like Yelp with crowdsourced information and recommendations on bars, restaurants, music and more–and of course tries to sell Nike shoes and apparel.

The argument of whether or not users want recommendations from an athletic shoe company on the closest place to get the best martinis is almost irrelevant. What they’re attempting is to connect fans of their products by enabling them to share lifestyle tips with each other. Who better to recommend the best chicken wings in your neighborhood than people who like the same shoes you do?

Again, the idea here is simple: put your brand in a customer’s pocket. Just like a grocery store chain has almost nothing to do with smoking a cigarette or lighting the pilot on your stove, an athletic shoe company is hardly related to attending a DJ night at the local nightspot. But the notion that the company is your ally in making your lifestyle choices and altruistically wants to bring like-minded people together–complete with push notifications–is the real power play.

In short, the technology has changed, but the message is the same. Companies are putting their brand in people’s faces at every available opportunity, and we can look to the past for inspiration in building the future of marketing.

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