Sunday, March 28, 2010

Buckingham the PR Genius

We think of public relations as a 20th century profession, though we know that trying to lever the public will goes back centuries. The Declaration of Independence itself was written to rally public opinion to the controversial cause of American Revolution.

I see the birth of public relations in Elizabethan England as reflected in Shakespeare, starting with Marc Antony’s fiendishly manipulative speech to the Roman citizens after the gang-stabbing of Caesar. “I come to bury Caesar not to praise him” and all that posturing was Marc Antony’s calculating way to stir up public rage against the stabbers.

My favorite example of PR men in silk tights and woolen doublets is a little scene at the end of Act III in Richard III. Which Richard was the Third? You remember the guy who murdered ruthlessly to attain the English crown and lost his kingdom when he couldn’t find a horse? Well, I simplify somewhat, but the scene I care about is the one in which Richard (still only Duke of Gloucester) and his henchman Buckingham bamboozle the public with strategies straight from the book of Richard Edelman.

The scene begins with Buckingham returning from his attempt to fire up the citizens to name Richard king,

GLOUCESTER How now, my lord, what say the citizens? 

BUCKINGHAM Now, by the holy mother of our Lord,
The citizens are mum and speak not a word. 

Citizens mum! A PR man’s nightmare.
So Gloucester asks if Buckingham made all the points they discussed, and Buckingham says, yes, I spoke of “your victories in Scotland, your discipline in war, wisdom in peace, your bounty, virtue, fair humility, indeed, left nothing fitting for the purpose untouched or slightly handled.”

BUCKINGHAM …And when mine oratory grew to an end, I bid them that did love their country's good cry 'God save Richard, England's royal king!' 

GLOUCESTER Ah! and did they so? 

BUCKINGHAM No, so God help me, they spake not a word;
But, like dumb statues or breathing stones,
Gazed each on other, and look'd deadly pale.

Okay, so round one goes to citizen apathy.
But these noble PR geniuses have another trick up their puffy sleeves. Buckingham – turned Edelman-like strategist – advises Gloucester to show the world his devout and pious side. He arranges to have Gloucester be seen in a sort of spiritual retreat in plain sight.

BUCKINGHAM And look you get a prayer-book in your hand,
And stand betwixt two churchmen, good my lord;
For on that ground I'll build a holy descant.

And then, in a bit of shrewd stagecraft, Buckingham counsels Richard to play hard to get.

Be not easily won to our request:
Play the maid's part, still answer nay, and take it.

Does the strategy work?
You’ll have to read the scene yourself to savor the dark comedy of Elizabethan public relations. But rest assured that Buckingham and Richard’s play-acting would make any modern practitioner blush with pride.

Richard plays his part crudely but well, pretending to be at prayer and dismayed by Buckingham’s loud entreaties to take the crown. Richard even cries out, “Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?” – delicious hypocrisy from one who has murdered his way to be next in line.

Finally, in a wonderful bit of slapstick, Buckingham nearly gives up trying to persuade Richard and walks away! “And in this resolution here we leave you… Come, citizens: 'zounds! I'll entreat no more.”

Whereupon other lieutenants get nervous and call Buckingham back, and Richard, saying that he is “not made of stone,” accepts the crown.

What a display of public deception and mass manipulation.
Not fair to call it public relations? Not true to modern, professional standards that would never brook such crude theatrics to help a client to the brass ring? As Richard (the III, not Edelman) might conclude: "Uh, ahem…Come, let us to our holy task again.”


Saturday, March 6, 2010

Is Spring a brand?

Spring is the morning of seasons. It’s the bacon and eggs time of year. It’s the season that summons you to make lists, shake out the kinks and test the muscles.

As a brand, spring promises clear value: Promise itself. That’s right, spring promises promise – and delivers.

Spring comes with a glorious portfolio of product brands, like the best-selling Robin® and the traditional Lilacs Out of Dead Land®. Other products are Cardinals Singing®, Warmer Days®, Rising Sap®, Freshly Turned Earth®, and Budding Buds®.

The Thunderstorm® is a favorite with lovers but is not available until April.

Spring’s products are sold separately and come wrapped in chilly mornings. Over the course of six weeks each one bursts forth to express its own colors, sounds and fragrances.

Every now and then a Spring product has to be recalled – for example, Warmer Days® – a troublesome thing that seems to have starter problems. I remember one set of Warmer Days® that came with a yellowy sun and green trees waving in the breeze. But gee, it didn’t work at all, especially in the shade. I was sorry I wore shorts when I tried it out.

I complained to Spring management about the faulty Warmer Days®, but I only got back a form letter. The letter promised me better Warmer Days® if I just put it on my list and showed patience.


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Nomenclature: Product hierarchies

Brand consultants love the term nomenclature – the study and systematizing of names. In a field known for expensive slide presentations and vulgar sloganeering, throwing the term nomenclature around sounds positively scientific. I confess to having said nomenclature a few times in meetings when I wasn't really sure what was going on but wanted to preserve my status as a key player. I once mentioned nomenclature in a discussion of implantable heart defibrillators and the client extended our engagement for three months. That's an exaggeration. But I did mention nomenclature in a restaurant and the waitress asked for my phone number. Okay, that's not true either. But this is true: If a man says the word nomenclature in a foreign accent when pointing to the ladies room, Americans will nod in agreement.

Alright, that's not likely and we're getting off the subject. This is a fact: A Nissan Maxima is the maximum value available in a Nissan car – the max, as the name implies. Except if you have the dough to afford an Ultima – which is, as the name conveys, the ultimate driving experience money can buy. Now, in the toniest neighborhoods, it is known that Nissan offers to special customers a hand-crafted machine called the Altima – which, for those who studied Latin, denotes the highest level car on the market. And that's the Nissan line-up – also a clear illustration of the underlying principles of nomenclature. It's the perfect marriage of naming with driving. Maximum to Ultimate to Highest. This elegantly rational hierarchy was hammered out by people who use the word nomenclature as casually as you might talk about carbohydrates.

If you want to rub shoulders with nomenclature greatness, however, you need to put on shades and cast your eyes on this work of art. It's the price list for space about the Louis Majesty cruise ship, one of the finest and safest vessels plying the Mediterranean Sea. For nomenclature sophistication, no one touches the Europeans.
The beauty of this system – so painstakingly designed – is that anyone can quickly see that for an extra 30 bucks you can upgrade from an Inside Premium Stateroom to an Outside Standard (Obstructed View) – which is pretty darn posh. I would be willing to ship aboard the Louis Majesty just for the chance to master the cabin-naming and pricing system so that the next time I'm in an important meeting I can bring it up.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Brandsinger Work Avoidance Chart

The instinct to avoid work seems to be primeval, living in us deep down next to the love of soft grass and train whistles. The instinct to avoid work can be overcome, of course – for example when someone tries to drag you to a Julia Roberts movie – ah, then sorry, work we must. Under the gun, y' know.

A sense of duty and professional pride can drive us to shake off distractions and get to work. But even when working assiduously – tapping away, frowning, remembering to hit "save" – one might be immersed joyfully or submerged joylessly depending on the nature of the work.

For brand consultants the work falls into fairly neat quadrants as pictured in figure 1. You battle hard to overcome work avoidance down in the lower left... and find the sweet spot there in the upper right.

I've reviewed my own activities over the past month and identified specific challenges that fit within the quadrants.

The request to critique and improve someone else's work doesn't feel like an obligation at all. Whereas sorting through a complex brand architecture is such grindingly hard work that... well, what's Julia Roberts in again?