Saturday, August 30, 2008

Sarah Palin revives Republican brand

Ah, differentiation – the Holy Grail of branding – the clear and compelling difference we all seek. Differentiation is the magical sense that a thing is “in a class by itself,” the smiling, winking understanding that after this leader burst on the scene, “they broke the mold.”

Until Sarah Palin was selected, the Dems monopolized the imagery of the down-to-earth and every-day. Hillary “found her voice” when downing straight shots in working-class bars. The Democrats – party of working-class iconography by heritage – gagged on the brie-eating Obama until Biden renewed their street creds with his Irish-Catholic image of scrappy guy from Scranton and lunch-bucket constituency.

Now Sarah Palin confounds this imagery. She blurs the perceived gap between every-day Democrats and out-of-touch Republicans. Sarah Palin came from unremarkable background and serves macaroni and cheese to a hubby and five kids. She gives Biden, with his paunch and red tie, trouble saying that Republicans don’t hear Americans’ worries “around the kitchen table.”

This campaign will be a non-stop struggle to stake out meaningful differences via cheap shots and crude tactics. The Democrats have the easier time of it with this story line: The last eight years have been horrible. Bush is a nincompoop. A costly war and flagging economy comprise a solid case for change. The subtext is first African-American candidate and legions of (what my cousin calls) pants-wetting young supporters flocking to mystical cries for national renewal.

The Republicans – until Palin – have been all over the map in promoting their candidate. Now – with Palin – they are still all over the map, but they have a potentially powerful, differentiating case. Palin makes possible this winning brand story:

1 We are the same – same as you. Military brat and veteran McCain, and beautiful home-town Palin, fertile mom, and firebrand political reformer a la Jimmy Stewart and Mr. Deeds.

2 We are different – different from them. Different from Washington politicians (McCain as “maverick,” Palin as backwoods reformer). Obama is a wonk from Harvard, Biden a career Washington wind-bag and hack.

3 America is number one. The country is not in shambles, and Americans do not need or want to be like everyone else in the world. Though we screw up (Iraq) or over-reach (mortgage-backed bonds), we do so for constructive reasons. If we do wrong (racial prejudice), we correct it.

The potential winning line of this campaign – McCain to Obama:
“If you think America is a sad, declining, unjust country, just look in the mirror. You yourself are living proof of our greatness and justness as a people.”


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Hillary brand repositioned?

Our wise friend and pesky critic Jay Livingston recalls my view that Hillary's brand is about Me and You and Barack's brand about Us.

But is Hillary being repositioned? Livingston wonders aloud... He writes:
You're the one who sensitized me to this Me and You, not Us. But Hillary must have been listening. She said: "I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me, or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him?" As a liberal blogger put it: "It doesn't take much of a step to hear 'just for me' as 'just for yourself.'" That's an interesting extrapolation of the I/You idea.

Thanks for that, Jay. In the view of brandsinger (who is a third-person type of singular guy), Hillary's performance (magnificent it was!) continued to shine the spotlight on the relationship between Her Own First Leader's Person and Your Own Recipient's Second Person. Obama has that PERSONAL magic, yes, but he (or should we write He?) stands for the Glorious Yearning Masses of the Expectant We.

As for McCain, please see my earlier post on his shoddy, all-over-the-map brand strategy. His campaign has been a display of ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants, one-off-ingness. His brand pronoun is obviously It... as in, amazing that It is still with us. Incredibly delightful is the prospect that – despite every strategic mis-step – It might win.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Taglines across America

Zooming across America, one encounters a garish mark of branding mania: Taglines on trucks.

Here I am, barreling down I-81… passing an 18-wheeler blasting fumes from both stacks… and I see along the trailer’s side, “Dedicated to your commitments.” What th…?

Just as my head clears, I pass another truck plastered with the phrase, “The Road to Success.” Is this a highway or the cutting room floor?

A hundred miles later, I cringe on reading “Delivering Your Future” on a silvery truck. Delivering my future? What could be in that thing, tea leaves?

Hours pass. Things came back to normal. A doughnut. A few laughs with the family. Then out of nowhere rolls the proclamation of a company named Averitt: “Our driving force is people.” No more, please. Car-sickness might ensue.

And so it went… all the way from NYC to Chattanooga. Trucks from Advance Auto Parts offered this gem: “We’re ready in advance.” Ready in advance? How about ready in advance BEFOREHAND?

It was a longer trip than I expected. A monster roared by on my left-hand side. “Delivering quality service by the truckload.” Well, SOMETHING was being delivered by the truckload.

My advice: Don’t read the sides of trucks on an empty stomach: “Improving your view of the world” might disrupt digestion. Or, from a mattress hauler, this blast of hot air: “Our passion is sleep because your passion is life.” Hack writers long dead shudder in their graves.

Poor truck drivers – hard-working souls trying to stay awake and make a buck – are forced to steer perfectly functional vehicles across America announcing that they are “Delivering supply chain solutions to the food industry.” The Brotherhood of Teamsters should end this embarrassment.

Instead of these slogans, every driver should have a flapping banner with gigantic letters that read: “My owners paid someone to paint words on my truck so they can brag at the country club that they invested in their brand.”

Some clever freight company ought to try this line: "We haul stuff long distances efficiently and safely." Now there's a distinctive brand promise.

(from along the Interstate) brandsinger

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ted Rall's take on creative ideas

The cartoonist Ted Rall is an evil genius – bitter, brilliant, unbridled and unashamed. He once depicted an embattled George Bush praying for another 9/11 so that his political fortunes would rise.
Today's installment from Rall is more benign... but wickedly on point. This is ONE panel of four.
Those of us who live by our "creative ideas" can take heart... until panel four.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Searching for an honest brand

As I turned a page of BusinessWeek, I came upon a lavish ad for Citi and my heart sank. What a lousy, impoverished business we’re in, we brand marketers. Consider the fussing that went into this brand, the millions spent on design (what was that little red arc about? Oh yes, Citi once owned Travelers’ umbrella, got divorced and retained the red… oh, never mind). And the tagline – “Citi never sleeps.” Wasn’t that once – years ago – a reference to the bustling New York roots of Citibank... or was that when it was First National something or other? Whatever. Now it’s just “Citi,” like Madonna or Batman.

Hey look, maybe that thing over there is the tagline, that “Dreams” linked by another red arc to “Realities.” It can't imply that sweet dreams become harsh realities, but does it mean… sorry, like you care.

And check out that body copy: “At Citi, we work around the world and around the clock (and around my neck and around the block… with a hey diddle diddle) providing our clients with innovative thinking and new…” Yes, very innovative. Citi recently had to re-purchase umpteen trillion worth of innovative securities that apparently turned out to be new to the concept of prudence. Oh the humanity! “It’s this unparalleled combination of global experience and local insight…” There’s a nifty phrase… I once tried a line for an Australian bank – “World of differences. World of strengths.” Not used by the client. If I had only thought of “global experience, local insight” I’d be a rich man – though in a business that often seems bankrupt of authentic brands.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

The profound art of motivating people

This poignant little film celebrates all you talented communicators out there. 

It's circulating across the web - and if you haven't seen it yet, you're in for a treat.


Friday, August 8, 2008

People Art in Beijing

It’s common to hear this lament: Our culture has subordinated ideas and values to the power of media delivery systems. Columnist David Brooks explains it as “the means of transmission” replacing “the content of culture as the center of historical excitement and the marker of social status.” My innkeeper on vacation says sadly that “it’s all about media these days…” as his voice drifts off. The medium has become the message, as proclaimed a generation ago.

I’m not convinced that vapid content on a flashy device trumps valued information scribbled on a matchbook cover. These words have power even if in faded pencil: “Hi Ho Motel, rm 221, bring ice”

You might point out that media and message are tightly entwined. The proof lies before us with the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. The message lay in the medium – the grandiosity of a human-being-water-color delivery system.

I watched – jaw aflap – as thousands of limber, black-haired Chinese undulated in unison to the world’s worst music. I experienced a new medium – People Art – featuring people as paint mixed around and set in motion to the ecstatic dictates of an uber-state.

There was message in this mad attempt to be God to thousands of citizens – to overwhelm the puny individualism of millions. Using synchronized humans as the medium, Chinese directors drove home the prediction that utopian harmony is heading our way. To the Western mind, steeped in seeking the precious uniqueness of every soul, the Beijing extravaganza was medium in service of an alien message: You lose, Western individualist. It was Orwellian Disney raised to the nth power on a harmonious stage filled with tiny colored pixels – one of which is you.


Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Brand experiences: Late trains only get later

The grand old train stations – 30th Street Station in Philly, Grand Central in New York, Union Station in D.C. – get grander by the day. They wear their years nobly, like old apple trees. No, I'm not going to gush nostalgically about train service. We don't lapse into verses of "City of New Orleans" here at brandsinger. But we do applaud brand experiences that live up to their promises. Sunlight through the trees on a speeding afternoon train IS ITSELF worth the fare price.

"Ask me how I am," I tell the conductor – a big man, black, crisp and confident in his regulation white shirt. "Okay," he says, "how are you?" "I'M LATE," I say loudly. He looks at me – unthreatened. This man has GENERATIONS of conductors backing him up and validating his role. "We're aaaaall late," he says smiling and opening his arms to the passengers around us. He punches my ticket with that little metal thing – isn't it a beautiful sound? – that unique click, with the tiny flake of ticket raining down?

"Will we make up the time?" I ask. "Nope," he says. "Late trains only get later." A bit of conductor wisdom. "A late train has to move aside to let the trains that are on time slide by," he says... and moves on.

Friends, in my view, Amtrak service can NEVER be bad. Today I'm going to be a full hour late getting into New York. So what? I'm whooshing along with a band of weary workers and excited children lurching and swaying and pushing forward – relaxing the way passengers did in the days of my father and his father and President McKinley.

"Ladies and gentlemen, TAAARRRENTON will be our next stop!"

Oh, I should mention... The train's lateness made me miss my drink with my friend Liz who has good reason never to speak to me again.


Saturday, August 2, 2008

Did the Nazis perfect branding?

The short answer is, yes. When it comes to creating a single brand voice embracing all touch-points in a coherent experience, Hitler’s team were evil geniuses. Of course, they had a tactic unavailable to modern brand managers – they controlled their Nazi brand by means of mass murder.

But the question at hand is, does Hitler’s mastery of branding taint today’s salaried drones working in corporate marketing to build brand loyalty? Is branding itself “vile”? This beareth discussion.

We are provoked by today’s Times review of Steven Heller’s book IRON FISTS: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State. The review opens: “How did a practice as vile as branding become so valued, indeed, the very mark of value?” While the reviewer dances around the issue of whether corporate branders are tainted by their link to Hitler, he does enjoy ascribing that view to Heller.

The book’s thesis is that the totalitarian villains of the 20th century were masters at what we all muddle along doing in a more benign way: Develop brands. The author is quoted as writing that, “the design and marketing methods used to inculcate doctrine and guarantee consumption are fundamentally similar” to those of, well, you and me.

The book links Hitler’s (and Stalin’s, Lenin’s and Mussolini’s) totalitarian art and pageantry to today’s purveyors of toothpaste and soap. “Heller, by means of unsettling images and shrewd analysis, amply restores vileness to branding,” says the reviewer.

Can I dispatch such a provocation in the space of four hundred words on this blog? Nay, give me a mere three bullet points to do so.

First: The term branding – once confined to cattle or to consumer goods wrapped in foil paper – is now accepted as the act of using multiple messages and means – to sell anything, even an English Department. Oh, English Departments aren’t very good at branding, because they clumsily lose a lot of customers by making six volumes of Jane Austen a mandatory part of the brand experience.

Second: That Nazis were branding champions – with their logo, torch-lit parades and snappy salutes backed by the promise of Aryan supremacy – is a commonplace idea. But they were also good at building roads and jet planes. Shall we consider these vile as well?

Finally: Branding on a continental scale a la Nazi Germany was made possible by the 20th century technologies of mass propaganda and mass brutality. But on a more limited scale – in frontier political campaigns, for example, branding has been around for generations.
Did you know that 1830s congressman and Alamo fighter Davy Crockett branded himself in a book about his exploits and philosophy? He had the iconic coonskin cap and trademark long-barreled shootin’ iron. Ol’ Davy even had a tagline. “Be always sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Not much when compared with the lyrics to Deutschland Uber Alles sung by blonds in shiny jack-boots. But branding it was.