Monday, December 28, 2009

Harley the Hog: Once Harrison the Highbrow

Not many symbols of macho intimidation have their origins in baskets of potpourri, but that's about the case for Harley rrrrraaaahhhuuummbubbbbubblebubble Davidson. Once a dainty scooter on which big brother transported the pharmacist's daughter, Harley Hogs are now firmly planted in our culture as machines on which young rebels risk their lives and sweaty old guys rest their butts.

These vintage ads come from our friend Jay Livingston who copped them from a website called Sociological Images. Yeah! We've got to start hanging out there! Who knows, we might find a rare photo of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano actually doing something to shut down terrorists.

Of course, here's how Harley-Davidson is positioned today. Looks like the target customer is a fuzz-ball cradle-robber. Clearly this brand has come a long way from the time it served as a complement to argyle sweaters and pic-nics.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Post-Christmas meditation on writing

“But it is well written.” These five words follow a critical comment such as, “The characters were thin and the plot was a cliché.” Then comes the line, perhaps after a frown, “But it was well written.” An unwatchable two hours of wretched film-making – but so well written!

People think of “the writing” itself as a distinct element of a work of art – as if writing were a separate line-item like set design or catering. This tendency is the product of our age of specialization. There is one team responsible for programming, another team for historical accuracy, a nutritionist, of course – oh, and writers.

The writing, however, cannot be separated from the rest of the production.
There can be no excellent writing if the people come off as cardboard and the plot makes no sense. How can dialogue be praiseworthy if spoken by characters who are not believable – or if not representative of an idea or force that is relevant to the production’s purpose? Writing serves the artist's concept and shapes it. Writing cannot be extracted from it and examined separately any more than milk can be taken out of a hot latte.

The same holds in business – and in life. Words are actions and actions speak as if with words. There is no “We shall never surrender” without Churchill the wartime leader embodying a policy of national defiance. There is no “Just do it” without the flashy shoes and the mystique of champions. The words “You are under arrest” come inextricably linked to the act of cuffing a suspect.

In the day-to-day life of business we come across examples of polished, picked-over prose… found in a piece of communication that has no definable purpose. Can a press release that has no strategic reason for being and no defined audience be well written? Only if you could deem a sauce spectacular if served on a plate with nothing to go with it.

Writing is the expression of a project and the project itself, the idea as well as the means for conveying the idea. Writing is not a removable part of something. It is the something.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fragility of brand value

Brand valuation. The very phrase makes some clients weak in the knees. "You can tell me how much my brand is worth in US dollars?" Yes. Weakness spreads from knees to hips to throat.

Or so I am told. That never happens to my clients. Because I have never had a reliable way to value brands. In fact, I have always doubted and derided models that tell you how much a brand is worth. Remember the old line about McDonald's? Burn down every store around the world and the brand name alone would be worth billions. That's a pretty rough way to treat a client in order to get at brand value.

My beef against purported means to value brands is that brands themselves are fragile and evanescent. A name like Enron or Arthur Andersen might seem to be worth billions one day and then, poof, with one damaging revelation, be worth less than an empty Dr. Pepper bottle. What kind of "value" is that?

Or take Tiger (and you can, now). A month ago his biggest branding problem was that Nike owned the TW logomark and his brand portfolio was a mess. Just the kind of problems that highly paid brand consultants love to tackle. Then a couple of weeks ago, he has a little spat with his wife, and poof. Suddenly Tiger's brand inhabits empty-Dr.Pepper-bottle-dom.

Oh, we can define a brand as an "intangible asset," sure. As such it should yield to a method of numerical valuation. But how lasting or useful is such a number? For me, a brand is a fragile little flower petal in the meaty hands of a tow-truck driver. One slip and poof, down goes your value.

Our Chase CEO Bill Butcher used to say, "Today's peacock is tomorrow's feather duster." A perfect scenario for a highly valued brand heading for trouble. Cock-a-doodle-do... then poof.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Brands for the working man

Naming a company is hard enough – but in our age of networking services, software solutions and obscure specialty firms – just understanding a company is tricky. What would you call a company that helps corporations rationalize their internal information flows? What do you call a company that puts transnational import-export documentation online? What do you call a company that helps marketers leverage insight into patient motivations to ensure compliance with drug regimens?

One thing is sure: No one in these companies gets dirty fingernails. So let's tip our hard hats to the straightforward brands that serve the working man. Like Craftsman, the tool company. Love their slogan – I mean, I give a laconic "yep" to their slogan, "Trust In Your Hands."

And let's give a shout-out to the body armor expert elegantly named – I mean bluntly named Second Chance. That's a straightforward promise for you: Our body armor stops bullets and gives cops a second chance to live.

And let's not forget that pumice-powered soap from the 19th century – Lava. Once shown in ads punched forward by the grimiest mitts you ever saw.

What would you call a company that hauls broken particle board and twisted metal out of a demolished building site? Dainty Rubbish, of course! Manly men are not without a rough-hewn sense of irony.

And those manly men and courageous women fighting in Afghanistan need clear, inspiring names too. What would you call a violent military thrust into enemy-held territory? Call it something fierce and purposeful. Like "Angry Cobra."

Craftsman Tools, Lava Soap, Second Chance body armor, Dainty Rubbish, Operation Angry Cobra. A salute to them all. Nothing virtual and obscure. Real brands for real men. Cut these brands and they bleed.