Tuesday, March 31, 2009

David Brooks, brand guru

David Brooks, New York Times columnist extraordinaire, normally comments on politics and social trends. Today's column – "Car Dealer in Chief" – is coded wisdom on branding.

"Some companies are in the steel business, some are in the cookie business, but General Motors is in the restructuring business. [Hidden brand wisdom: Your day job is your brand] For 30 years, G.M. has been restructuring itself toward long-term viability. For all these years, G.M.’s market share has endured a long, steady slide. But this has not stopped the waves of restructuring. The PowerPoints have flowed [Brand wisdom: Consumers can't drive great presos] , and always there has been the promise that with just one more cost-cutting push, sustainability nirvana will be at hand. [Brand wisdom: A promise made is a debt unpaid] There are many experts who think that the whole restructuring strategy is misbegotten. These experts think that costs are not the real problem. [Brand wisdom: The path to a great brand is not along a smoother supply chain] The real problem is the product. The cars are not good enough. The management is insular. [Hidden wisdom: Character is brand destiny] The reputation is fatally damaged. [Brand wisdom: Reap what you sow]

Exposed wisdom: David Brooks is – unknowingly and inadvertently – one bleedin sharp brand guru.


Friday, March 27, 2009

O Alberta

Our friend Todd Merriman directs us to the new branding program for the Canadian province charmingly named Alberta. For a painstaking examination of the Alberta logo, check out Brand New – which is a dynamite branding site frequented by the planet's greatest convocation of logo-nerds.

Click on the Alberta brand movie to experience the world's most fulsome cliches about creativity and achievement.

And then, while you're in a Canadian state of mind, think back to any time you might have seen a car bearing a license-plate from Alberta. Can you picture the car and the plate? Can you read the little tag-line there on the plate? Can you recall the startlingly romantic words? I know them well. They read: "Alberta – Wild rose country." 

I don't know about you, but I say screw creativity and achievement. I long to be in wild rose country.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Rhode Island College brand

I was minding my own business when I came across this: “Rhode Island College has a new slogan and logo.”

…followed by: “RIC President Nancy Carriuolo says the fresh design will be part of the school's new advertising and promotional campaign.” I was snoozing along until I came across this flapping red flag: “And it was all done without spending a penny on outside consultants.”

Whaaat? No consultants? I kicked our old heating vent into silence and read on. It was noted that “there are firms that focus on images and slogans and charge hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop them” and that “In keeping with her theme of new leadership and vision, RIC President Nancy Carriuolo formed an 8-person branding committee using in-house staff.” The committee managed the process and selected this:

Oh friends, I wanted to love it. The story is so touching. Brassy little college eschews the ghastly, over-paid consultants and goes it alone with – a COMMITTEE! No dashing, smooth-talking brandsingers for them. We can do this IN-HOUSE. These are bad-news bears… feisty underdogs… avenging nerds. Go you little college go! Find your slogan… It’s in the dictionary... We just have to get everyone involved… have a process… piece it together… I see Inspire… it starts with an I – which goes perfectly with Island… and we’ll need a logo… so pass around the Crayolas and tablets… Okay, who is for burnt umber – hands please! We all have to feel good about it… and then… we’ll ask our committee to choose the type-face… All in favor of sans-serif!... Do we agree that it looks clean and modern? and then… we can get consensus on which word goes up-and-down and which one goes left-to-right… People, please! If you can’t decide by 3:30 we’ll have to hire a consultant!

Dear friends, I did want to love the fruits of the committee’s labor. I often despair at the high prices consultants charge for mediocre work. I wanted the gutsy guys in this little state by the sea to reach out, inspire one another and connect with the spirit of Prometheus or Athena and not with Gerald Ford or Katie Couric. But friends, try as I might to be smitten by their logo and “slogan,” as it’s called, I cannot in good conscience (sorry to lapse into cliché) say about any of it a single, solitary good word.

To prove that my scorn is not baseless, professional pride and protectionism, I give you the first two lines from RIC “about us":
RIS is “located on a 180-acre campus in the Mount Pleasant section of Providence” a “location” that “combines easy access to the benefits and resources of the metropolitan area with a suburban atmosphere.” And lo! for more inspiration read on “about us”: “Rhode Island College has undergone expansion in recent decades” ready for this? “at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.”

You need a true understanding of who you are – beyond “located on a 180-acre campus” offering metropolitan and suburban amenities. You need to identify and express what you and only you offer the world. It is there within your hallways in the laughter of your students and the wise words of your staff. You are a unique place with eager, talented learners and caring, knowledgeable teachers. You need to throw away your logo and slogan and hire – for peanuts compared with what you will get in return – someone who can plumb the depths of your institutional soul and find words and pictures that will help you and the citizens of your tiniest of states come up with – and realize – the biggest of dreams.


Wall Street brand devalued

This from our globetrotting friend Jay Livingston, who blogs at http://montclairsoci.blogspot.com:

Hey Brandsinger,
These ads have been in the Paris metro for a while.
But I wonder if the name "Wall Street" now has a different aura or connotation or whatever you brandistas call it (mystique? Gestalt?). I would also think that the content of the vocabulary lessons at Wall Street English have changed somewhat and now include words like bailout and phrases like "nobody could have known."

Thanks, Jay. "Wall Street" has lost its mytique, we are sure. I think the next time this ad runs in the Paris metro it will be re-worded along these lines: "Yes! I speak in terms of community organizing English!"


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

New York Life – “Built For Times Like These”

Everyone is hysterical – friends begging, stocks plunging, progressives drooling, conservatives barking and banks folding like cheap suits. For relief, Brandsinger took a walk on the tame side: I had lunch with my old friend Steve Rautenberg, the top communications and marketing officer at New York Life.

That’s right, New York Life, the big, old, boring insurance company. Why not? Vanilla is good sometimes.

So I strolled into Steve’s plain office in Manhattan and was warmly greeted by Mr. Rautenberg, friend and one-time boss. He was wearing a conventional silk tie and blue suit – just like the old days when he bossed me around at Chase Bank. Looked like the same suit, come to think of it. We went around the corner for chicken tikka and mango chutney – over which I heard the tale of the world’s most boring company. Of course, New York Life's lack of drama stands out when Met Life’s stock has dived to $15 (from $65), Prudential’s has caved to under $14 (down from $90) and AIG has imploded to… well, dust.

New York Life’s credit rating is… get this, TRIPLE A. Its losses last year were… well, there were hundreds of millions in PROFITS!... New York Life’s plea for government aid was particularly eloquent: No plea. No aid.

The joke around New York Life, according to Steve, is that while other companies boasted of their PHDs and vast server farms to dynamically hedge risk, NYL had a simple risk management strategy: investing a monster chunk of assets in BORING TREASURY BONDS. They didn’t need no math genius to interpret the Gaussian copula. They put their money in safe investments – such a quaint idea. More vanilla ice-cream anyone? Like a glass of milk with that?

In short, New York Life’s brand is golden. The company’s marketing – under the apt theme “Built For Times Like These” – hammers home the blunt, dull reality of enduring strength founded on tiresome principles like boring old prudence, pathetically tedious integrity and yawn-inducing adherence to diversified investing.

While the world is gripped by hysteria, New York Life is just one monotonous tale of long-standing solidity, strength.... and… stabili… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.