Saturday, May 31, 2008

Historic 4-letter word in The New York Times

Did you notice it? The most historic word in the history of newspapers? It was there on the front page, May 31, 2008. I saw it in the story on the collapsed crane killing two workers. Right under the picture of devastation was the line, “More coverage at”

This four-letter word – “more” – signaled the final capitulation of the American newspaper to the fiendishly richer medium, the internet.

What Times editor wrote that line? Was he or she sad? And what was the rationale? “I… guess we’re duty-bound to... point out that news on this quaint sheet of paper is already hours old when readers see it. A torrent of fresh words and images will enrich their understanding of this event… So we should send readers to our... you know, our web site thing... to get... more coverage.”

MORE COVERAGE? More coverage – somewhere else – somewhere other than the lead story of the “Late Edition” of The New York Times? That’s history.

Now, I know it is ancient history. The Times is by now a modern, multi-media, content-generating enterprise. It’s a “media brand” – which is still relevant, right? – not a few sheets of inked-on paper.

Nevertheless, newsprint’s demise has never been so poignantly expressed as when the ink-stained newspaper staff sends customers away from a front page story.

There is MORE coverage on your laptop – beyond what our highly skilled copy editors – and typesetters! – and cub reporters – and beat reporters – and city desk executives put in this NEW YORK TIMES that you just bought. There is more coverage at home on that cheap machine mass-produced in a country where people still smoke cigarettes in restaurants.

“More” suggests “of greater amount, number or degree” – but also “of greater importance.” What a short – and wickedly cruel – four-letter word.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The biggest, the best

A full-page ad in today’s NY Times addresses GENTLEMEN and promotes Cigar Aficionado. A gallery of magazine covers – Fidel in 1994, Michael Jordan in 2005 – recalls the magazine’s celebration of proud celebrities holding fat cigars.

But note the change in emphasis… In the 1990s this was CIGAR Aficionado. In this decade it’s cigar aficionado. The cigar-ness of the brand has shrunk. The word fits above the A in aficionado. The word aficionado is huge. The sense of passionate appreciation for any and all indulgences has swelled.

The brand's scope broadened over the years. Once it was about cigar as subject and as emblematic crow-bar into a patently masculine world. Today, the brand seems to promise a richly indulgent life with cigar as minor prop. “Live life to the best,” men are exhorted. “Eat and drink the best.”

Is this the men’s equivalent to the women’s magazines that fill supermarket racks and clutter coffee tables? Does cigar aficionado tell us how to cut those abs, satisfy women and shop for the best tux? Heck, I hope the magazine goes all the way: How to cut in line, get free parking and make the other guy feel like a loser… while eatin’ the thickest steak.

The symbolism of cigar, wealth and masculine aggression is a tried-and-true basis for a brand. There was a big-time 1930s labor boss who was tweaked by the press for smoking expensive cigars. “Boys,” he said in a puff of blue smoke, “nothing’s too good for the working man.”


Monday, May 12, 2008

Hillary / Barack - The pronoun is the brand

I hear Hillary Clinton speak on the eve of the West Virginia primary – and Barack Obama, too. There is little I can add to the oceans of punditry swelling and rolling over this primary campaign. Dare I call it endless? What a tired observation. Should I dissect and compare the “Hillary brand” with the “Barack brand”? I’ll spare my visitors all but the sparest of observations, which is this: The key to understanding this primary struggle and the ultimate victory of Obama over Clinton lies in the pronouns. Hillary is about I and you. I will do this for you. I want you to go to my website. You are in trouble and I will help you. I will fight on and on… for you. I – it’s very much about what I am, have been, will do – am here for you.

Barack Obama tapped into the secret of the better pronouns… He modestly eschews the first person in his style and bearing. He embodies the references to them, the ones America must care about and whose time has come. And of course, he vibrates with the most powerful of all political pronouns, we, the we who can finally make it into power and change how politics works.

I’m not speaking of the words themselves, not literally. Surely Hillary has said we and Barack has used I. I’m talking about what the two candidates stand for, what their respective stories embody. The Hillary brand is the story of a smart, dedicated individual climbing to the top. It is the essence of the assertive ego. Barack’s story – as perceived by the nation and world – is about a man who represents a community, a people, a turning point in American history, a we-ness that trumps the blatantly assertive ego in our political culture.

Barack is effortless, an empty vessel. We are asked to pour our feelings into Barack as he rallies us with calls to cast off the past. Hillary is pleading for us to help her… and in return Hillary promises that she will help you. Barack presumptively stands for moving us forward. She talks to you. He speaks of them. She is I. He is we. And therein lies the difference in their brands… and in their destinies.


Honor the humble tag-line

A friend of mine – author of ten books – greets me with a disdainful, “So, come up with any great slogans lately?” He was referring to writing tag-lines – a job scorned by pointy-headed intellectuals and brand strategists alike.

The top brand strategy firms don’t feel comfortable coming up with tag-lines. Just the phrase “coming up” with anything sounds like an activity handled on a coffee table while watching TV. Hey, let’s come up with a theme for this year’s prom.

To strategic consultants, making up tag-lines is the work of people hired for being “creative,” the guys in earrings who fidget during meetings. Compared with perfecting a brand strategy, developing tag-lines is cheap and gaudy… strictly Vegas.

One thing is clear: Clients love them and need them. Where would Nike be today without “Just do it”? Or Intel without the simple, preposterously self-referential “Intel Inside”? In client-ville, tag-lines rule. Like this one, just revived...

When I hit on a great line, I revel in it. I lie under the trees and picture the words floating across the sky. There was a software company that created a system for rationalizing all the documentation for import-export processing – all the bills of lading, freight statements and customs forms went online, saving global traders billions of dollars. My line for their promise: “Move goods. Not paper.”

Tag-lines appear out of nowhere. A not-for-profit client of mine was promoting a dance program for adults. The fiery marketing lady told me she had the urge to accost women in the street and demand, “Why aren’t you dancing?” I stared at her. My work was over. That was her tag-line.

Some of the best lines are left on the cutting room floor. A medical device company was skittish about adopting this gem: “The science of miracles”… Our clients thought it might be seen as promising divine intervention.

A great metropolitan library rejected this poetical and strategic masterpiece: “Free ideas for a free society.” Sounded like right-wing propaganda to focus-group participants. Are we really a free society when our government suppresses information? I know a screen-writer who hates focus groups. I can understand why.

How about this line for a Middle Eastern bank: “Global mind. Arab soul.” Shortly after submitting that line, our team was fired.

Tag-lines are no substitute for a solid brand strategy and excellent service. No matter how beautiful the fabric, a neck-tie alone can’t make a tasteless jerk come across as a well-dressed gentleman.

A tag-line is by nature light, ephemeral, evocative. Crafting one is like doing a watercolor, not an oil painting. Just kiss the paper with your brush and the color glistens… and then runs… and then gets absorbed. You may only have one shot at it.


Saturday, May 3, 2008

Grand Theft Lite

Conan toned down the violence. Check this out:


Friday, May 2, 2008

License to do what they want

What’s the hottest brand on the planet? Let me tell you about it… Customers line up around the block for its products. Some people are horrified by what the company does and condemn its management. Authorities want to ban or restrict what it sells. But they fail – giving the company more notoriety – which emboldens its leaders to take greater risks, to the delight of customers and the outrage of critics.

Says a customer, “The further out the products, the more loyal its fans.”

Bigger, envious competitors are on the prowl to take over this brand. One giant has offered $2 billion, which makes loyal customers cringe. They don't want the smaller, edgier outfit submerged into the boring corporate ocean.

Know the brand? It’s Rockstar Games, owned by Take Two Interactive. It is revered by young video game players who pounced on Rockstar’s latest title, Grand Theft Auto IV.

Rockstar’s formula is a seething mix of vicarious violence, satire and moral ambiguity. Lesson in brand success: It helps to have sensible, concerned adults trying to outlaw what you do. My teenage son explains: “Once Rockstar had an image of controversy, people trusted them. It’s like South Park. Companies who push the envelope and get away with it have a license to do whatever they want.”

How good is “Grand Theft Auto IV”? “Awesome!” (What else could it be?) “It got the highest score on the most critical website – a perfect ten in every category – never been done before.”

Brand marketers: Do you see the essence of this brand’s success? First, the product is brilliantly designed. It plunges gamers into a dangerous, murky world where they want to do good but, darn, they’re just sucked into doing bad – usually harming others. What could be more awesome than that?

But the key to having fiercely loyal customers is the company’s own story line – an untamed rebel is pursued by a self-righteous establishment… and prevails. Highest ratings! Ten out of ten! It’s a story young gamers will line up to be part of.

A columnist who decries the violent thoughts stirred by games like Grand Theft Auto quotes a boy who got into trouble at school. “When I went home, I started playing Vice City and got a tank. I ran over everybody. And I smashed a lot of cars and blew them up." The columnist has “only one word to describe parents who would buy this game for their children: Disgraceful.”

I’d like to note that I did not buy this game for my son. Not at all. He came at me when I was off guard, hit me with a soda bottle, took my cash and bought the game while my scalp was being stitched up. I figure the incident only adds to Rockstar's mystique.

Hey, if you’re really controversial and young guys applaud, you have license to do whatever you want. Does your brand have a story like that?