Thursday, July 31, 2008

Postscript on Lawn-Boy drawing fire

I can't let this drop. The tale of man shooting mower is laden with lessons. If your brand promises an experience (engine that starts) but fails to deliver (doesn't start and can't cut the grass), then your brand could suffer the fate of Mr. Walendowski's Lawn-Boy. In the old days, the company would have sent a PR guy to the house to paint over the logo before the story hit the news.


McCain: Branding genius

Great brands just say no. They say no to diversions, dilutions and digressions. They say no to any crumb, color or concept that does not fit the brand essence. Great brands have ruthless focus, like BMW which will not make you a suburban family van or Goldman Sachs which deigns not to sully its name by pitching penny stocks at Sam’s Club.

Now, if a great brand has focus, can there be an unpredictable, all-over-the-map maverick as brand? If you can imagine a buttoned-down, business-like Mitt Romney, can there such a thing as a totally off-the-wall loose canon political brand?
The Washington Post – that veritable think-tank of branding lore – announced that John McCain recently rambled through a town hall session “and showed little appreciation for the art of ‘branding.’”

No appreciation for the art of “branding”??? I’m not so sure. John McCain is breaking new ground in the art of branding. His rambling reversals and surprises make him the shock-jock of branding. He is the shake-up-the-bourgeoisie beatnik of branding. He is the take-your-brand-and-shove-it guru of brand strategy. He is the two-by-four-seat-of-the-pants Home Depot plywood department of brand engineering. He is the Heinz catsup of the Tomato Sauce School of Branding.

In short, John McCain is so completely off brand, off message, out of voice, without a coherent strategy, that he’s oddly ON BRAND. His “brand” (yes, in quotes! such a dirty word at the Washington Post) is actually anti-brand. No clear message, no promise, no brand voice… No brand consistency whatsoever. First ever. Sheer genius.

Now, of course, this strategy will result in a crushing loss in November… unless… unless he’s on to something.


Sunday, July 27, 2008

O Canada banks (OCBs)

Watching the 2008 RBC Canadian Open piqued my interest in how Canada's five biggest banks are presenting their brands. Not well is the short answer. The romantic old banking names – Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto Dominion, Bank of Montreal – have been disappearing, replaced by harsh, cold initials.

We understand the reasons, of course. Royal Bank of Canada is no longer royal, a bank, nor strictly Canadian. In becoming a diversified fin serve company, the organization understandably moved to an RBC-dominated brand architecture. Similarly, Bank of Montreal puts BMO in front of its businesses, and all Toronto Dominion names begin with that brusk and ubiquitous TD. The practice accommodates non-bank services and each institution's proper role in the world's capital markets.

But at what cost? One casualty is promotion of Canada as a brand. That vast, cold, sparsely populated nation has a rich culture and history. Its spirit of nationalism fends off Yankee encroachment and waxes and wanes amid the internal tensions of a bi-cultural society. What better way to carry the nation's brand across the continent and globe than in thousands of financial facilities and via millions of financial transactions?

Instead of being reminded of Canada, the world sees RBC, TD, BMO and CIBC. Only Scotiabank's brand projects the flavor of its native land (originally Bank of Nova Scotia)... and the heritage of being a bank.

Banks do – have done – will do – a lot of good in the web of commerce. It's not bad to have "bank" in your name. Or America. Or New York. Or Montreal. Or Canada.


Lawn-boy brand under fire

The news of a Milwaukee man shooting his lawn mower resonated with consumers who deal with frustrating products. My own laptop would look like Swiss cheese if I followed the logic of Keith Walendowski who explained that it was his yard and his mower, so he had a right to shoot the thing.

According to company literature, "The Lawn-Boy brand has a long-standing tradition of making it easy for homeowners to care for their yards." The Lawn-Boy mower "has been revered for its quality through the decades," and sometimes is
passed from one generation to the next. Well, not this particular one.

The episode is a reminder to brand managers not to become complacent about product quality or hyperbolic about claims of excellence. You have to be particularly careful if your marketing pitch contains bullet points or your products are sold at Target.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Picture-perfect branding in Berlin (Guest)

Note to community: We're honored to have guest writer Ernie Mills share his insights. Ernie is a communications consultant, superb writer for hire, and former operative and mass-mind manipulator for the Republican National Committee in Washington.

Ich bin ein Campaigner!
Barack Obama's speech in Berlin was a little long and a bit too nostalgic for the Cold War clarities and polarities. Some phrases sang out ("History has led us to a new crossroad, with new promise and new peril"), and others echoed Lincoln at Gettysburg ("Now the world will watch and remember what we do here – what we do with this moment").

Not all was perfect. At one point we needed to play mental Twister to keep up the verbal contortions ("The terrorists of September 11 plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil"). And yet again we were thumped with the humble-beginnings shtick ("My father grew up herding goats in Kenya").
Nonetheless it was a fine speech and perfectly on-brand. As Brandsinger pointed out last month, Barack Obama is the candidate of "we." In fact, he used that word 58 times, while uttering the word "I" only 10.

However, nothing he said could bolster his brand more than the physical set-up. It's no coincidence that every major newspaper in America carried virtually the same photo. That is, you see the back of a man in a dark suit, contrasted against a sea of adoring faces. The face of Obama himself is nowhere to be seen. He is literally one with the We.

So the brand-building award goes not to the speechwriter, but to the advance staffer who realized that the best location for top photographers would be on a platform behind the stage! As any designer will tell you: if the image is strong enough, the FPO copy will work just fine.
- Ernie Mills

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The promise to transform

I squirm whenever I'm around someone who promises to transform people or companies. The verb transform may seem innocent enough – meaning simply to change one thing into something else. But for me it projects the unsettling aura of religious fanaticism or the threat of turning men into frogs. Worse, it presents the likelihood of flat failure to transform anything other than a richer customer into a poorer one.
That's why I counsel clients against promising to transform their customers. Sadly, it's a popular brand promise, bespeaking the limited impact of my advice. There are books about transforming your business, a website, promises to transform your body and your backyard, and last year a Mountain Dew "transform your summer sweepstakes." 

Today major, reputable organizations promise to transform their clients the way companies promised "solutions" in the 1990s and "client advocacy" in the early 2000s. Transformation is in vogue. CA promises to transform IT management. The Art Institute of Chicago offers art that transforms. ArcelorMittal, a maker of steel products, is engaged in "transforming tomorrow" no less. I suppose we're all changing tomorrow by what we do today, so the claim is not philosophically ludicrous. On the other hand, if this company, which recently revealed that "we believe in boldness," is deliberately conspiring to change tomorrow into something else – like yesterday? or ball-bearings? – then I think the rest of us ought to have some say in the matter.

Finally, Alcatel-Lucent, the struggling provider of infrastructure hardware and services, is "transforming your business" and "transforming communications for a world that's ALWAYS ON." A recent press release explained that "Alcatel-Lucent will showcase its integrated approach for end-to-end transformation, which is based on a comprehensive portfolio of innovative solutions designed to help service providers benefit from new and existing business models that exploit the ability of advanced broadband networks to deliver profitable growth." 
Okay. My hope is that the Alcatel-Lucent team will seize this opportunity to change their language from buzz-words into a simple brand promise that doesn't sound like it was written by a human being transformed into a parrot.


Monday, July 21, 2008

Is summer a brand?

Everything is considered a brand these days. Why not summer? It has the characteristics of a brand: Brand attributes – heat, long days, short pants, time off. It has a brand's personality – smiling, casual, fun-loving, deeply nostalgic. It has its own sounds (katydids in the afternoon), sights (fireflies at dusk) and smells (sea salt or cattle feed lots, depending on where you live). The only reason that summer would not be considered a brand is this: No one is actively measuring and managing its brand value... There are no brand consultants for summer... No publicists... No logo designers... Summer just happens, and no one is in charge of it... but you. 

Happy summer.


Brand clusters

Something called the League of Conservation voters has endorsed Obama and is offering a free iPhone for the best new slogan in support of their candidate.  In that one sentence I have a "brand cluster" – which is a gaggle of themes drawn together in a single proposition dripping with manifestly related values. Conservation, Obama and iPhones seem to go together. They evoke a longing for new policies and a sense of personal enlightenment. If you see an Obama sticker on a car driven by an iPhone user, you would feel comfortable chatting with the driver about recycling grocery bags. It's a cluster of seemingly related values. "Change"... doing good... networking...  

Now, if I had said that the League of Conservation voters was offering a free shotgun for anyone creating an ad for the Bush Presidential Library, I would not have a brand cluster. That would be a brand soup-of-leftovers. If I had said that the shotgun was offered by the League of Conservative voters, I would be returning to what might be seen as a proper brand cluster. 

This is a realm of crude market segmentation and stereotyping. But brand clustering can be useful by establishing associations favorable to your cause. Consider promoting Masterpiece Theater, whose viewers are in their seventies, on average. If your task is to broaden viewership, you might create the following brand cluster: Masterpiece Theater logo pictured in a TV-screen as part of a triple-pay communications package (cable, phone, internet) advertised on the back of a ticket for the Boston Symphony. 


Friday, July 18, 2008

Just sign here

Signing their names is not always easy for large, complex organizations. GE long ago decided that everything from light bulbs to jet engines would be labeled GE. But even GE had to concede that NBC Universal needed its own identity. 

When organizational relationships become complicated, some companies figure out a simple, communicative approach. Others botch it. 

What do two hospitals do when they merge? Here is a modest approach from real life: 
"The Hospital of Central Connecticut was formed with the Oct. 1, 2006 merger between the former New Britain General Hospital and Bradley Memorial Hospital in Southington, which had long and proud histories of caring for their communities. We continue that tradition today as a bigger, stronger hospital." 

The corporate signature is fairly straightforward and descriptive. 
Now, what happens when you have a blending of illustrious academic departments, brands and donors? Well, unless there is a coherent strategy, you might wind up with this:  
Four levels of brand information without any hint of who does what for whom. My advice: These folks should hire a team from a good business school to sort it all out. 


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

This InBev's for you!

Does foreign ownership of Anheuser-Busch dull the luster of the Budweiser brand? It shouldn't. 

It shouldn't because it's just a matter of stock ownership, right? 
It shouldn't because the new owners are Belgian – real beer people who own Stella and Beck's. It's not like Bud got bought by the French. 

Foreign ownership shouldn't harm the Bud brand because every beer drinker – 
no matter how marinated – knows that globalization blurs every industry into a tangle of cross-border partnerships, right? 

It shouldn't matter because the newly combined company is called Anheuser-Busch InBev and has Bud as its "flagship brand." Right? 

So it shouldn't matter that Bud is foreign-owned. It shouldn't... But it does! C'mon, of course it does! 

Consider the American ballyhoo associated with Bud – the New England winter scenes, the Super Bowl ads, the Busch family testimonials, the St. Louis roots. Being American is part of the brand's (now eroding) essence. 

Picture a long row of tall Buds lined up on a Montana bar. Now that a Belgian company owns Bud, any rugged individual cowboy can – with absolute impunity – switch his brew to Corona – and no one will dare question his brotherhood. Plus, this guy may get around to drinking a Sam Adams and finally discover the taste of good beer. 


Saturday, July 12, 2008

Brand image of golf

A columnist in Golf Magazine mocks the experience of watching golf on TV… all those commercials directed at sexual failure, urinary problems and other cringe-producing ailments. They project an image of decrepitude!

It’s a good point. A golf match interrupted by such commercials leaves the impression that golf fans are old guys worried about their, er, shafts when not focusing on their putters. BusinessWeek (5.26.08) notes that participation among casual golfers fell more than 7 percent between 2003 and ‘07. Companies in the BusinessWeek/Golf Digest golf-stock index declined 15.5% over seven years vs. the nearly 11% gain in S&P 500 stocks.

Golf may be in decline – and its image of stodginess cannot be ignored as a factor. Improvements in any sport’s image must cut across, and permeate, the entire experience – from playing the game to seeing the ads.

For golf, I would recommend the following three-pronged approach:
1 Make the game easier and more beginner-friendly. Expand the hole from a few inches to three feet in diameter. There would be more hole-in-ones, fewer three putts and faster play. The ball should be bigger too – more like a tennis ball – so that it’s easier to find in tall grass.
2 Introduce Disney-style themes. Why should every course be the same 18 fairways of green grass and yellow flags? An eco-park would have deer and windmills. An urban nightmare would resemble Grand Theft Auto, with thugs lurking behind twisted cars to steal your balls. Let Hooters sponsor and design a course – and Hanna Montana – and Martha Stewart.
3 Exclude sponsors and advertisers who taint the sport’s image. To grow, golf should be about youth, not retirement options. Any company marketing products for sexual dysfunction and urinary pressures would still be able to reach their buyers during the CBS Evening News.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Environmental decay

Driving across Connecticut on I-84, one has time to reflect on mankind's interaction with the environment – the roaring trucks, the hawks on telecom towers, the commercial slogans that dot the roadside. One billboard always distracts me for a few miles... It proclaims the cheerful promise from People's United Bank: "Everything starts with you."

I wonder why – at PEOPLE'S Bank – everything doesn't start with people. Then I wonder if there is any other possibility. Could everything start with someone else? How about the neglected other guy? We are bombarded by these fatuous claims – clear signs of an environment in decline. Along the roadside. In our minds.

Friday, July 4, 2008

USA – World's greatest brand

Brand attributes – Vitality, progress, optimism
Brand personality – Youthful, faithful, driven
Brand messages – Last best hope, city on a hill, land of the free, home of the brave

Brand essence – Freedom

Happy Fourth of July