Sunday, June 29, 2008

Book review – Powerlines (2008)

“If the Pilgrims had killed a cat… then what would we be eating on Thanksgiving?” That line isn’t in Powerlines, a book by Steve Cone on slogans, quips and one-liners. But this one is: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.” – and hundreds of other phrases and slogans you're probably heard.

“Rain, rain go away” is in here, as are: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.” “Keep cool with Coolidge.” “Veni, vidi, vici.” “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” You get the picture. It’s a Bartlett’s Quotations re-shaped by a nervous, opinionated advertising guy who loves language.

This is a harmless, sometimes amusing compendium of memorable lines – from ads, movies, and political campaigns. It’s useful to see these “powerlines” all in one place. It’s good to be reminded that a mortal human being wrote these potent words to describe Fed-Ex’s brand promise: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.”

Cone lists the top commercial powerlines – led by De Beers’ “A diamond is forever.” He believes that AT&T’s “Your world. Delivered.” is among the worst. He lists the best state taglines (New Hampshire’s “Liver free or die” is the favorite) and the worst – Iowa’s “Life/Changing” deemed the worst state slogan of all time. “It must be Maine” is a close second-to-worst.

He cites classic television ads and jingles. “Melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” Promotional lines from movies and familiar moments from movies. It’s like a written digression into, “Remember the scene when…?”

The book is filled with breezy historical tales… It leaves the impression that the slogan “The war to end all wars” made America’s entry into WWI acceptable to the masses. Much more complicated.

The book’s advice is sensible – when creating a tagline or slogan, don’t overreach, be honest, capture the essence of a compelling story, and be mindful of the rhythm and sounds of the words.

What’s the point? That words have motivating power. That powerful lines crystallize emotion and opinion. That we, as a culture, share memories expressed in startling statements. That by love of a subject, diligent work, and a catchy title, almost anything can be packaged as a book.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Toward a more digital nomenclature

Do kids playing baseball run the bases and slide into home plate? Not any more. Give me a few secs to explain. I was shooting baskets in the park this evening, and in a nearby field was a squad of eleven- and twelve-year-olds shagging flies and taking grounders. The kids were coached by a leather-lunged guy who had trained them to call out the bases to where the ball was to be thrown. When I was a kid in Texas, we used to yell to the outfielder, “Third base, third!” or “Throw home!” Well, these kids are taught to shout a number – “Three!” – and the outfielder grabs the ball and throws it to third base. The weirdest thing is to hear the call to home: “Four, four!” They’re throwing to “four” – not home plate. So baseball nomenclature is becoming completely digital. I guess you could imagine a day when your glove is a five and a chipped tooth is one of your thirty-twos. To me, all coaches seem like big zeros. This guy’s assistant was a half-wit. It got dark and they all piled into their SUVs and drove four.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Brand Botch – (first in a series)

Sometimes brand consultants botch things badly. They recommend something silly, and the client cheerily goes along with it.

For example, take the slogan for CSX. Know what they do? Here’s the company's description. Our "principal operating company, CSX Transportation Inc., operates the largest railroad in the eastern United States with a 21,000-mile rail network linking commercial markets in 23 states, the District of Columbia, and two Canadian provinces." Very solid company. Operates railroads. Blunt, no-nonsense guys with chiseled chins and crinkly grins.

So, know what their brand slogan is? “How tomorrow moves.” That's right.

I can’t tell you how many times I nearly drove off the road when I heard that slogan. “CSX… We're how tomorrow moves.” Really? First, tomorrow doesn’t, can’t and won’t ever “move.” It can't run, jump, dance, do sit-ups or bake cookies. Tomorrow just happens.

Second, if CSX is implying that railroads are vehicles of the future, they might be reminded that railroadin' has been around since the early 19th century and is pretty well associated with the past.

Saying that your company is about the future doesn’t mean that we'll dismiss history. They don’t have to say, “CSX… The ol’ faithful iron horse your grandpa relied on to move fence posts.” But they might try to think of something that doesn’t evoke Star Trek.

It's possible the guys in the coal tender thought up the slogan. But I suspect the mind of a coffeed-out brand consultant.

By the way: This is first in our series called Brand Botch. I can confidently predict it will be a long-runner. Don’t miss it. And feel free to add your own contenders.

brandsinger... "How tomorrow moves" (Why not? it's just as relevant for me to say it.)

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Destination branding gone terribly true

See the poignant account in today's Wall Street Journal of the flood's destruction in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. This line caught my attention:

"In recent years, city leaders have worked to revitalize the riverfront. They've secured private and public investment to rebuild the area, and have held special events downtown hoping to attract new businesses and new customers. And they proclaimed 2008 the 'Year of the River.'"

I hope - with all my heart - that the people of Cedar Rapids make next year a time of reflection, recovery and renewal.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Logo un-chic – Words from our guest blogger

Our friend and colleague Jerry Kuyper – renowned corporate identity designer – shares this excerpt from a forthcoming interview.

What, in your opinion, makes a logo successful?
Kuyper: Understanding the business objectives and brand strategy criteria are the main ingredients in successful logo design.
Strong, unique, memorable, flexible and enduring.
Saul Bass used these five fundamental attributes as criteria for all logo design when I worked for him 25 years ago. I believe each attribute is as important today as then. As a final ingredient I would add creating a positive emotional response with the key audiences.

What's the one trait you'd advise logo designers to avoid?
Superficial glowing, shiny, metallic renderings being used to hide weak or non-existent concepts.

Name a logo that has horrified you with its awfulness, and explain what makes it such a spectacular failure?
In my opinion, the Verizon logo is one of the worst because it tries to do too much and ends up doing very little.
The logo uses two red graphic elements (the check above the name and the altered z) which compete for the viewer's attention. Neither element provides much in the way of communication.
To know what to leave out is art -

Bueno. Thanks to logo-meister Jerry Kuyper for allowing us to preview his insights. The entire interview appears in London's Digital Arts. I don't have a least favorite logo. I do, however, have a least favorite sibling.


A name you can count on

Buried in today’s account of two former Bear Stearns managers being arrested for fraud was the name of their collapsed hedge fund. Did you catch that product name? It’s in this sentence from the AP:

Barclays accused Bear Stearns of knowing for months that certain assets in the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Master Fund were worth "far less" than their stated values.

Now let’s get this straight. Barclays bankers put money in something named the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Master Fund – and now they're claiming they were mis-led?

I think you have to be REALLY talented to mis-lead anyone with a product named the Bear Stearns High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Master Fund. Jeepers, the name itself has deception plastered all over it.

Lesson: Sometimes a product’s problems are as plain as the pie on your face.


Monday, June 9, 2008

Old frontiers in copywriting

I can’t say that “Pioneering new frontiers” is an electrifying tagline, but I will say that featuring Warren Buffett on gigantic rolling billboards is solid brand marketing.

University of Nebraska is flaunting its multi-billionaire alum in a campaign that speaks to the demands of students and parents. These customers want to know if paying thousands of dollars to spend time at this place is worth it. Buffet assures them it is. And when it comes to investing, he’s credible.

Marketing a university education is a tough business. Competition for customers is fierce. Not every one of the 4000 or so universities has the knack yet. Looking at college taglines is a bit like picking over the white socks at Marshalls. You’ll find a pair that fits, but it won’t get you a date.

Despite the need to reach and motivate America’s emotionally on-fire teenagers, many colleges simply resort to conventional nagging of the young. “Never stop questioning,” intones Binghampton University. “Work toward greatness” urges Pace. Utica College simply offers three big-sounding nouns: “Tradition. Opportunity. Transformation.” followed by a registration mark – ® – in case you had any notion of stealing this gem.

The people who adopted these lines have heard too many commencement addresses.

There is a reason “Invent the Future” was chosen by Virginia Tech in 2006, used earlier at University of Nevada at Las Vegas, and used, in variation, by Dow Corning, which promises to “help you invent the future.” It’s because the phrase sounds stirring and visionary. But any college or company engaged in R&D might like the line and try to use it.

It’s difficult to come up with something original, if that’s the goal. More important is capturing the spirit of the university in all communications and marketing – and creating a true brand.

Of course, the University of Miami simply capitalizes on its single greatest brand pillar – its location. This institution sent out mailings that none-too-coyly promised an enjoyable four years: “University of Miami: The difference is Miami.” Mmmm. You can almost smell the cocoa butter from here.


Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Obama brand essence

My point – several posts back – was that Obama – as brand – is about them, the people, or it, the moment, while Hillary Clinton – as brand – is about me and you ("I am fighting for you. I will never let you down." "More people have voted for me." etc.). Her brand essence is first person. His is third.

The front-page profile in today's Times illustrates the point: Obama "trains the eye not on him but on his crowds. 'I love when I’m shaking hands on a rope line and'— he mimes the motion, hand over hand — 'I see little old white ladies and big burly black guys and Latino girls and all their hands are entwining. They’re feeding on each other as much as on me...It’s like I’m just the excuse.'"

Thus, even when the scene is adulation of "me," Obama instinctively sees and reflects on "them." This orientation is the essential power of his political brand.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

New media network 1858-style

Barack Obama – as political phenom – has stirred comparisons to Abe Lincoln. Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer of comparable age, experience and skinniness, burst upon the national scene in 1858 in the intense verbal combat with Stephen A. Douglas.

There is this additional similarity: Just as Obama deftly uses the internet to disperse favorable news and raise money, so Lincoln used the new media of his day to advance his cause.

Allen Guelzo, of Gettysburg College, notes in his riveting new book on the Lincoln-Douglas debates that over the course of the seven debates in seven towns, Lincoln kept his eye on the larger national audience, which he reached via the new media of 1858.

Here’s how it worked: Stenographers used a new phonetic shorthand to take down every word of the verbal battle, filling pages of transcript right up to the moment of the first train for Chicago. One fellow caught the train, converting notes into text while riding through the Illinois countryside. He arrived, and typesetting began. When the debate ended, the note-taker himself hopped the next train and prepared the rest of the text for typesetting. The entire transcript was often available for the morning edition.

The information network of the day was telegraph – which Guelzo says boasted 50,000 miles of wire. Using this system, the New York papers offered the debate texts in three days.

Lincoln began to understand that he was addressing a national audience. He varied his argument, launched new attacks each time, and built from debate to debate a powerful case for keeping slavery out of the Western territories.

Douglas – speaking to each new crowd in each new town – stuck more closely to his argument from debate to debate. He wanted each crowd to hear his strongest case.

Lincoln saw the debates “as a newspaper serial,” Guelzo writes. “He had no need to repeat himself in each debate town, because he counted on audiences in one place having read the texts of the debates in the others. This induced Lincoln to treat the debates as cumulative and move on in developing new arguments as the debates themselves developed.”

Thus Lincoln made a richer, more persuasive case to the national audience. He lost the Illinois senate race, but thanks to his Barack-like use of new media, he built a national reputation and won the Presidential election of 1860.