Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Stars 0, Stripes 1.

I’m not much of a stick and ball man, but I couldn’t help enjoying the kerfuffle around Johnny Damon’s defection from the Red Sox to join the hated (in Boston, anyway) New York Yankees last week. As skaters circled the ice at Rockefeller Center and the Empire State building glowed red and green, the big photo op in the city so nice they named it twice was Johnny getting his hair cut.

Because, if you’re going to be a Yankee, you can’t sport hair that touches your collar. And no earings. And no beards. Those pinstriped jerseys must be done up to the top button, and nobody gets their name on the back. Not even Johnny. Because no man is bigger than the Yankees. They call it The Code, and the infamous George Steinbrenner enforces it with fierce, fascist consistency. He’s been called baseball’s Hammurabi and other less interesting names, and you get the feeling from some sports writers that, even if they admire his intentions, they think he’s a bit of a loon.

Steinbrenner’s not a loon. He’s a brand manager.

Brands, you see, are basically entropic in nature. As concepts, they rarely get more pure and strong over time. Instead, they slowly decay, casualties of opportunism, careerism, greed, cynicism, corporate chicanery, neglect and direct mail advertising. For a brand to continue to mean something, it doesn’t need creativity and inspiration and fresh thinking. That kind of nonsense is death to a brand. What it needs is an iron fist wielded by a papal authority that believes no amount of innovation can eclipse a founding purpose. Steinbrenner gets this.

There’s a famous story that illustrates the point amusingly (feel free to steal this. I did): Some years ago, a hirsute Lou Piniella confronted Steinbrenner during spring training at the Yankees’ complex. Piniella wanted to know, since Jesus had long hair, why couldn’t he?

Steinbrenner said, “Lou, you see that pool over there?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Piniella.

“Well, when you can walk across it, you can wear your hair any way you want. Until then, you’ll do it my way.”

Testify, George.

You own one of the greatest brands of all time. It’s part of the fabric of American history and mythology. It’s known and admired by people who aren’t even interested in what you have to sell. Which, by the way, isn’t much beyond the brand and a license to play a silly kids’ game when the weather’s nice. That, sir, is some hella tight brand management. That, sir, is inspiring.

I’m going to remember this the next time some wet-behind-the-ears MBA decides to make his personal mark on a brand of mine. Bust a Steinbrenner on his pinstriped posterior. Give him some old time religion. If you ask me, what good brands need right now is a little less innovation, and a little more smiting.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Season's greetings from the Ministry of Truth.

This year, the holiday rush to find stuff to buy has more often than ever before put me face to face with the all-powerful unseen hand that guides much of the world’s commerce these days. It’s brand so ubiquitous and definitive that it has become a verb, so omnipotent that it has suits quaking from Madison Avenue to Hollywood.

These guys even read your email.

They read your message board posts. (They even read this blog. Hell, they OWN this blog). Not only do they know where you live, they also probably have a satellite picture of your house. They can single-handedly decide who and what matters in popular culture. They have pretty much all the money, and a plan to get the rest of it.

And we just love them to bits.

In fact, a survey reported in the Wall Street Journal this week said that Google enjoys the third best corporate reputation on the planet, behind pre-Cambrian titans Johnson & Johnson and Coca Cola.

It’s an astonishing testament to the power of good intentions to engender benefit of the doubt. Google’s well-publicized mission statement is “… to organize the world's information and make it universally useful and accessible." Somehow, we know this. We see it as a noble task, too. A mitzvah.

I mean, who doesn’t want to know things? Everybody wants to know things, cupcake. Answering questions is the biggest consumer market there is. And so, as we did with, say, President Bush’s war on terror for a while there, we forgive a few broken privacy eggs and the unseemly concentration of power.

As a brand guy, I stand in awe. With this much benefit of the doubt in the bank, a brand could get away with pretty much anything. Imagine how you’d feel about WalMart going through your garbage and you can see my point. But, in the words of Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility. They can read my email as long as they find me the best price on snow tires or explain why the cat only barfs on the expensive rugs.

That’s the deal, Google. Remember, you’re not the only game in town. I’ve got teenagers.

They know everything.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The emperor's new brand.

Excuse me if I don’t feel threatened by the current crop of unbrands, antibrands and nonbrands.

Ever since Naomi Klein had that spiffy logo designed for her big, scary book, antibrand branding has become both high art and perversely Zen-like proof that brands are inevitable. Which, if I may say so, is a rather clever segue to Muji, arguably the cleverest and most dedicated unbrand of them all.

Here is where you may need to pretend, as I did, that you know all about Muji. In fact, only the most painfully hip, fashion forward types are truly familiar with this brand. The name translates, the company claims, to “No Brand Quality Goods”. They are a sort of Japanese IKEA, with a little American Apparel thrown in. Carefully designed, achingly minimalist household goods, clothing and accessories (the CD player is to die for). 285 stores in Japan, the UK and Europe where, as you may know, everybody hates brands.

There is no louder way to declare that you are immune to marketing than to shop at Muji.

Except that, um, it has a logo. And stores. And a distinctive aesthetic. And copyrights. And social meaning. And they’re charging seventy bucks for a paper table lamp and six for a wooden spoon.

Sorry, but that’s a brand, baby. You can’t fool me.

I mean, does anyone really think the following conversation has ever taken place?

“Yo, nice lint roller. Where’d you get it?”

“Noplace.”

No. If that’s your lint roller, you’re going to find some way to answer, ‘I am so transcendentally cool that I bought it at an exotic Japanese department store that you have not heard of and by the time you do, my mainstream consumer friend, I will have moved on to something even more obscure, difficult to understand, and strangely desirable. Speaking of which, have I shown you my pumice stick?’

And good for you. If you can’t occasionally use a brand to make other people feel inadequate, where’s the fun in conspicuous consumption? So Muji’s secret is safe with me.

Bit like this blog, come to think of it.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Dolphins at the door.

So the Writer’s Guild of America is in high dudgeon over being asked to write branded products into movies and television shows. They object to what they call “hidden advertising”, and they’re threatening to go to federal regulators about it if the industry doesn’t adopt a code of conduct to govern the practice. (Oh, and they want a share of the advertising revenue generated, too. Hey, this is Hollywood. )

For the record, I sympathize. Anyway, I think the idea of camouflaging advertising in entertainment is ludicrous, and approximately as subtle as Chevy Chase’s land shark pretending he’s delivering pizza. The whole debate sells brands short for their power as culture, and sells consumers short for knowing a land shark when they see one. People aren’t buying it. And they aren’t buying it because they know the difference between a brand that authenticates a fictional place and time and one that’s just a parasite to it.

James Bond in an Aston Martin? Most natural thing in the world. James Bond in a BMW? Bought and paid for.

A Coke sign in Times Square? Yup. Coke cups in front of the American Idol judges? Gimme a break.

A scene in a diner with no Heinz ketchup bottles? Not even in the movies.

And Apple can only dream of having the market share they appear to enjoy in Hollywood’s parallel universe, where every dorm room, legal office and trendy apartment seems to have one of their pretty computers smugly glowing in the corner.

I think we know exactly which brands matter culturally and which don’t. And I think we know exactly what authenticates a movie scene and what doesn’t. And I think we see every effort to force either of those things for what it is. Coke just looks desperate, and Simon Cowell looks like, well, like a whore. Meanwhile, ‘the real thing’ somehow ends up losing a little of its authenticity every time that guy takes a sip.

Remember the sketch where the land shark is denied entry after claiming to be a plumber, a flower delivery man, and a plumber again? Confronted, he denies that he’s the shark, claiming instead to be a dolphin. Like all his ruses, it works. But only once. There’s a lesson in there. That Chevy Chase is a keen observer of the human condition, alright.

Hey, wait. CHEVY Chase? You don’t suppose…

Friday, November 04, 2005

Crouching trademark, hidden lawyer.

This is so cool. Guess who said this: “Everyone just wants to make some profits from the name, totally regardless of [our] integral image…”. It’s from a news story about trademark infringement and brand appropriation.

Louis Vuitton? Burberry? Prada? Nope.

It’s the Shaolin Monks.

The 1,500 year-old Buddhist monastery where kung fu was born is mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. From video games to rap artists, popular culture has been helping itself to the Shaolin brand for awhile now and the monks are worried that it’s going to start messing with their image. So, they’ve set up a corporation to manage the brand and have an army of lawyers registering it in 100 countries around the world. Kind of like Mickey Mouse or the RCMP.

You know what? I actually think this is a healthy thing. Great brands are fun to have around because they have authentic cultural meaning. If petty thieves try to steal that meaning to make an easy buck, and then they find enough consumers unwilling or unable to tell the difference, that meaning gets devalued and then lost altogether. And then what? What if we burned through every authentic brand this way until there was none left? For one thing, we’d all be a lot less willing to pay premium prices when we buy things. Which would force marketers to find cheaper ways to make them. And we all know what happens then, right, Naomi?

Got your back, Shaolin guys. I’ll stand up for any brand that stands up for itself. And I have nothing but contempt for the consumers who patronize the frauds.

The Shaolin are not the only society that is protective of its brand, of course. For example, along with a more traditional copyright statement, this from the web site of the Oakland chapter, Hells Angels: “We will not tolerate someone attempting to intimidate and bully or profiteer by pretending to be us.”

And I heard they don’t even bother with lawyers.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Hunting wabbits.

I’ve always believed that, as predator/prey relationships go, marketing is a fair fight. We brand types have money and entertainment and cleverness on our side, and consumers have common sense and cynicism on theirs. And the hunt continually improves both species: The cleverer we get, the more cynical they get, and vice versa. More than level, the playing field actually tips a bit in their direction because they can always say no. There have been times, in fact, when I’ve felt more like Elmer Fudd than Wile E. Coyote, whose prey was mostly lucky and barely sentient.

I hated that freakin’ bird.

Anyway, so this whole neuromarketing thing gives me the heebie jeebies. Science has offered itself to business to help us do for consumers what trains and breech loading rifles did for buffalo. Lurid images of people having their brains scanned while they look at pictures of political candidates or bottles of beer fill academic research grant applications like so much porn. And a certain breed of marketer drools in anticipation of the long overdue end of imagination and dialogue in the process of selling things.

Controlling people’s minds. Yeah, that sounds ethical. Fun, too.

Here’s why it will fail: People aren’t just creatures of their urges. If they were, beer would cost more than a buck a bottle, and nobody would ever sell an Abdominizer ever again. We’ve got consciences, cerebral cortexes, superegos or whatever else your particular preference in social science tells you is the sensible part of being human. Not that it always wins, but it’s always there, putting up a fair fight against the wicked id.

Besides which, the neuromarketers have gone and told everybody what they’re up to. Duh. Now they’ll be on guard. Even stupid marketing will be assumed to be masterful manipulation. Nobody will believe anything anymore. Good luck trying to sell anything then.

And if it does work? I’m out. Take the Bimmer, take the Rolex. I’m not trading my black turtleneck for a lab coat. Give Wilson Bryan Key my job. If that crackpot turns out to have been a prophet, I’d rather starve.

Neuromarketing. Man, I’d love to hear Elmer try to pronounce that.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Imbibo ergo sum.

What ever happened to Molson Canadian? Remember when they stood astride the beer business in this country like a colossus? They were Canada's Bud. The alpha and omega of beer culture in this country.

Here's the story as I remember it: Molson built the Canadian franchise by being where beer is. If you could think of a place where beer belonged, Molson made sure that Canadian was the brand you pictured there. There was hockey, and then there were bars with girls in them, and then there were concerts. And then, having planted their flag in every inhabited corner of the beer experience, they started to make up new ones. The internet, rock concerts north of the arctic circle, that kind of thing. They colonized and evangelized, and it all reached its apex with an ad campaign that branded not just the beer but the feeling of being where the beer was, the existential yawp "I am.” A battle cry for the plaid flannel Cartesian in all of us.

And then, in an effort to top it, some well meaning, espresso-addled ad agency prodigy lit upon the obvious:

"I am.”

“Canadian.”

“Hey, wait... I am Canadian!" Remove the period, make it one sentence, high fives and off to lunch.

The incredible shrinking beer brand announced its decline with a famous and culturally important ad campaign (okay, it was an ad) purportedly called "The Rant", in which a defensively whinging young Joe Canadian protests his nationality, presumably in the face of advancing American cultural imperialism. It struck a nerve. By gum, that guy is right, we all said. We are Canadian. High fives and off to Tim Horton's.

Joe neglected to mention beer in any substantial way. In fact, the whole thing was a bit serious-minded for beer, however culturally relevant. More of a rye moment, really. In needlessly reminding us who were are, Molson had generously given its brand back to the nation. It had camouflaged its name behind the vastly larger and more important idea from which it drew its inspiration. Poof. Gone. The problem, you see, is that we were eloquently reminded that Canadians are people, not beers. You and I can't actually HAVE Canadians in our fridges.

That would be, like, cannibalism or something.

Today, Molson Canadian, culturally at least, stands astride the beer business like a washed up AHL defenceman eking out a living as a WalMart greeter. I hear they're even giving it away, having ingeniously figured out how to stuff four extra bottles into the box for the same price. Tragic.

I’m just relieved that it was Molson that pulled this stunt and not Labatt with their Blue brand. What Molson did for nationalism, Labatt might have done for chronic moodiness instead.

Nobody would wear that t-shirt.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Leaving home without it.

Speaking of mysteriously awesome brands, I miss my Platinum Card.

I cut it up and sent it back to American Express a few months ago when it was turned down for the umpteenth time by a merchant who didn’t like paying their vig. I’d been feeling stupid about having it for years. Paying an annual fee to carry it around, all the while knowing that I had to carry a second card just in case. I didn’t even feel special anymore: They say right out loud on their web site that you only need to make $60,000 a year to qualify. That’s an average household income, give or take a big screen TV. No status, no special treatment, no end to the junk mail, and no guarantee you’ll even be able to use the damned thing.

And yet.

That bad boy used to shine out of my wallet like a mighty beacon of plutocracy. Whipping it out in a restaurant would capitalize the ‘s’ in ‘Sir’ faster than you could say Karl Malden. The envious sidelong glances at hotel check-ins were to die for. If you had one, it was evidence that there was more to you than mere means. You might actually be somebody.

I guess brands can invent their own mythologies, and few have ever done a better job than American Express did. Decades later, it lingers: The great ads, the rumors of the card’s ‘no limit’ omnipotence, and the seminal question, “Do you know me?” Pure gold. Or platinum. Undimmed by the ruthless gutting of its original value proposition. A hall of famer for sure.

American Express, alas, does not know me, as it turns out. A few weeks after I canceled my Platinum Card, they cheerfully advised me I’d been pre-approved for a Gold Card. Straight into the shredder.

Still, I thought wistfully afterward, they do have that cool new ‘Do you know me?’-redux ad campaign with Robert DeNiro and Kate Winslet and Tiger Woods. I bet they get respect in restaurants. And I heard there’s even a black card, now… look, AmEx, call me and we’ll talk. No hard feelings.

It’ll be just like old times.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Deere in the headlights.

Picture this.

The year is 1947. A young Marlon Brando and a group of similarly dangerous looking thugs descend on bucolic Hollister, CA, terrorizing the townspeople with the menacing rumble of their riding lawnmowers.

Around and around they roar, neither bagging nor mulching. Innocence is lost. Ground cover will never feel safe again. A legend is born.

Never happened, right? Not for real, not even in the movies.

Then why in thunder is that kid coming out of an HMV in the heart of the nation’s largest city wearing a John Deere t-shirt? I’m pretty certain that he neither possesses nor aspires to own a combine or backhoe. Somehow, John Deere seems to have been anointed the Harley Davidson of our time. It’s become one of those rare brands that have graduated from being an adjective to being a noun. And it seems to have been thus elected without the benefit of a myth. In the branding world, that’s like getting sainted without having pulled off a miracle.

So detached from agricultural equipment is this brand that you can find it on ebay today in 1305 categories, from window treatments to wedding apparel (Harley is still ahead at 2208). So potent a counterculture statement is this brand that a high school in Towson, MD, was rumored to have sent students home for wearing the terrifying t-shirts a year or so ago. Breathtaking. Not even Richard Branson has got away with sticking his brand on so many products without losing his street cred.

However it happened, I find myself ambivalent about what it means for the world if somebody figures it out. On one hand, I dread the apocalyptic chaos that would ensue if every brand could be stuck on everything. On the other, I’m kind of in awe. Moline, IL, may not have a myth, but it surely has its miracle.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Achtung, baby.

So I finally get around to taking my sweetie on a long overdue honeymoon. We’re flying Lufthansa, and I’m stoked. This is one badass airline brand, just reeking of cool Teutonic competence and discipline. After flying the sad little public utility that is our country’s flag carrier, I’m looking forward to seeing how the big dogs do it. All across Europe I gush to sweetie about Lufthansa’s seamless brand presentation. The flight attendants are straight from central casting: Precisely matching Aryan blondes in precisely matching natty navy suits and splendid hats. The plane is right out of a corporate brochure, with grey leather seats trimmed in exactly the right Lufthansa-yellow piping, part of a corporate visual identity they’ve doggedly stuck with since the middle of the last century. Even the in-flight meal tray is chock full of clever design touches, brilliant detail after brilliant detail, again cleaving to the brand’s livery without compromise. If these guys put so much effort into organizing and presenting those plastic knives and forks, imagine how seriously they take flying planes. When that pilot says the cruising altitude will be “serty-two souzandt feet”, you know it’s not going to be 31,999 or 32,001.

And their advertising makes no bones about it. None of the usual “We love to fly and it shows so have a nice day and we’ll work really hard” disingenuous corporate pap. Their take it or leave it slogan is charming in its Prussian bluntness: “There is no better way to fly.”

Then they lost our luggage.

For, like, days.

They weren’t really sure where it was. Monaco, maybe. In any case, Prussian bluntness was suddenly replaced by on-holdness and evasiveness and fill out this form and hope for the bestness. Sweetie and I were on the verge of wearing the hotel bedsheets as togas when the bags finally appeared without fanfare or apology in the lobby.

Naturally, we were disgruntled. But, for me, the promise of the brand became gasoline on the fire of my disgruntledness. If it had been my usual airline, I would have been irritated but resigned to the inevitability. But this was a betrayal. How can I ever trust a natty uniform or a clever meal tray or yellow upholstery piping again? The moral of the story is obvious, of course: Don’t let your brand write cheques your product can’t cash.

And don’t wear a splendid hat unless you mean it.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

When the levee breaks.

I have long believed that the definitive post-modern protobrand is the United States of America. We marketers can all learn from this one. Pretty cool name. The abbreviation makes a good chant at sporting events. The logo is a bit clunky, but they apply it consistently and liberally. And talk about value propositions: ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ What Nike did for fitness, America has done for enlightened selfishness. Brilliant.

Brands are about faith in a lot of ways. It’s rare that a product fails on us, or that it would matter very much if it did. We choose the brands we believe in. And as long as the faith is unbroken, we’re pretty sure we’re not fools to have it. But what happens when the curtain is ripped away and we see who is pulling that brand’s strings? It can’t exactly be faith anymore, once we’ve seen what’s back there. What then?

Remember the famous Tylenol tampering ‘incident’? Back in 1982, seven Chicagoans died taking Tylenol laced with cyanide. That tragedy could have killed the brand, but it didn’t. Johnson & Johnson decisively and transparently took responsibility and action. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of product was destroyed. The company’s management went on television and told us what was happening every step of the way, seemingly willing to sacrifice the company’s viability rather than risk another death. Far from killing the company, Tylenol came back stronger than ever when it was over. By the end of the ‘80s, one out of three pain relievers taken in North America wore that brand, and people trusted it more than ever before. We liked what we saw behind the curtain. Faith had become trust. That's what you hope for. That's the way it should work.

So I’m watching the horrible mess on the U.S. Gulf Coast. I see death, a police state, and the pursuit of food and water. In Washington, Katrina has ripped the curtain away, and what she has revealed is disinterest, incompetence and feet of clay. It has taken so long to own up to this thing that even a bayou ‘gator can see the spin for what it is. And the world is watching. New Orleans will heal one day. I wonder, though, if the American Brand ever can.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A tale of two cities.

I was in New York yesterday, which was not as much fun as it sounds. My meeting was in a building near 3rd and 40th, which has got to be the most characterless neighbourhood in the city. I was early, wandering around in that dissociative state familiar to those of us who travel to places that are almost but not quite like home. Think ‘Lost in Translation’ and that weird way strange advertising and brands make you feel alienated.

Anyway. And then I saw it, a block west on the northwest corner: a Starbucks. It was like discovering a friendly embassy. Inside, the allegory held up quite nicely. As in any embassy, the clientele looked relieved, if not happy, to be there. There were orderly lineups. People shared obtuse customs and their own exotic language – as in, ‘tall’ means small, and ‘doppio’ means double, and ‘long’ means more water – while powerful functionaries dispensed favours and took money. And this made me think of France.

If Starbucks is a nation, surely France is a brand. All the coolest countries are brands. But France has always somehow been a troubled specimen. The world is ambivalent about them. The French remind me of Microsoft: Persistently annoying and obstreperous, yet we can’t imagine life without them. So we endure their Byzantine rules and imperial arrogance because the cheese is worth it.

Starbucks makes me wonder if it has to be that way. Do the greatest brands have to be arrogant and difficult in order to protect their identities? It seems to me that any brand that aspires to have its own culture could stand to learn a few things at the espresso bar. There’s more to this branding thing than just offering something people can’t get anywhere else. Apparently, you can be nice to people when they buy things from you, look as if you care about what you do and make the experience as pleasant as the product and they’ll still come back for more.

I feel fairly certain that if I could sit Chirac down with a Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino, I could talk some sense into him. Gates might be tougher. After all, Microsoft’s headquarters have been within smelling distance of Starbucks’ in Seattle for a long time, yet they still seem to prefer the taste of their own Kool-Aid.

Monday, August 29, 2005

The devil wears fleece.

Let’s play a game: Guess what Old Navy’s ‘demographic’ is. Old Navy, as in fun disposable clothes made in distant, exotic lands for very little money and sold in shopping malls everywhere for something-9.99. T-shirts, hats, fad of the moment accessories conveniently designed to last only as long as the fads themselves. This is the fashion business, right? They must have had someone in mind when they made all that stuff.

Let’s look for clues in their advertising. Hmm… energetic, retro-ironic, exhuberantly faddish. Aha! It’s for young people. Old Navy is for the youth market, right?

Nope. I just saw a corpulent middle-aged man herding his kids in the direction of a streetcar, wearing an Old Navy cap. If he’d been wearing a FUBU hat or a Volcom hat, they wouldn’t have been caught dead with him. But Dad was okay in that Old Navy number as far as they were concerned. Strike one.

Okay, maybe it’s a ‘value brand’. Maybe it’s for people whose aspirations exceed their means, and Old Navy was invented to make them feel better about the whole thing. Well, then, explain this guy who just parked his BMW across two spots and is right now insouciantly beeping his alarm remote over the shoulder of his Old Navy t-shirt as he walks away. He didn’t choose that shade of blue cotton to match his Rolex. Strike two.

And don’t bother trying to cheat by looking at their web site. It’s closed. If they know who they’re for, they aren’t saying. Give up? It was a trick question. Old Navy doesn’t have a demographic. It’s not even a real brand. They just made it up. It’s a non-brand. An unbrand. Old Navy exists to occupy the place where a brand would ordinarily go.

Which, if you ask me, makes it the work of the devil.

I mean, geez. A brand with no redeeming cultural value, no personal statement to offer its wearers, and 38,300 Google hits when combined with the word “sweatshops”. It’s, like, the trifecta of brand nihilism.

Don't believe me? Turn 9.99 upside down and tell me what you see. Coincidence?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

All I know is, when the end comes, I'll be wearing one of those Ashlee Simpson t-shirts. Just to be safe.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The real thing.

I'm stealing a contemplative moment at my desk. To be specific, I'm looking for some relief from the ennui of trying not to screw up (what passes for 'marketing'’ in the modern age), and I'm flipping through the August issue of Business Week. This is their annual 'Best Global Brands'’ issue, and there, right at the top of the list yet again, is Coca-Cola. They say the brand - not the business or the market cap, the brand - is worth sixty-seven and a half billion dollars. That's roughly eight Googles, in brand valuation terms.

Coke really is the proto-brand. Look at its recent history: There's the whole New Coke thing. The whole CAA thing. The whole Sergio Zyman '‘End of Advertising As We Know It'’ thing. It goes on. A parade of geniuses who are like nothing so much as an airline pilot that sings Barry Manilow tunes in the cockpit and, observing that the plane is still in the air, concludes that '“Copacabana'” is keeping it there.

I have another theory. I think that the triumph of Coke has been in spite of all this heavyweight marketing and advertising brilliance. Its value might really lie in its sheer tenacity. In an age when we look for authenticity wherever we can find it, Coke sells it for a buck a bottle. I wonder sometimes if '‘Hilltop'’ was the last great thing Coke ever did because it was the last unselfconscious thing it ever did. From that day on, the brand went one way and the advertising went another. And the consumer followed the brand.

Now there's something to aim for. A brand so well loved that people forgive it for its marketing. I could screw up all day long and look like a genius.

Nice work if you can get it.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Can't touch this.

I’m standing at an intersection, waiting for the light to turn green. Stopped beside me is a throbbing Range Rover, all chrome and tinted glass and gleaming menace. Despite the proximity of this fabled brand, this iconic bearer of rice and powdered milk and soldiers in blue berets to the third world’s hungry, this carriage of sporting royalty and tweedy gentry, the Kalahari doesn’t cross my mind for one second. Nor am I transported to the sodden English countryside. What I am is nervous.

This moment of urban terror reminded me of a piece I read in the paper a few weeks ago, in which it was reported that Cadillac was the brand most mentioned in songs on the Billboard Top 20 singles chart last year. It was followed by Hennessy, Mercedes, Rolls-Royce, Gucci, and Jaguar. For the most part, it was the hip hop scene that gave these brands so much free advertising, and some pundit opined – get this – that the people who live in that socio-cultural demimonde aspire to these brands so that they can proclaim their membership in the success club. In other words, the gentlemen in the Range Rover were letting me know that they, too, can prosper and enjoy the concomitant luxury.

Uh, yeah.

I’ve got news for that pundit guy. Those people driving around in Cadillac Escalades and wearing Burberry and sipping ‘yak are not here to join the success club. They’re here to trash it. The point of dragging status brands kicking and screaming into the street isn’t to celebrate them, it’s to deprive them of their meaning. There’s a class war going on out there, and the insurgents have obviously decided that the enemy’s brands are a strategic target.

It’s kind of too bad they didn’t go after the middle class’ brands instead, though. Somehow, a minivan wouldn’t have made me half as nervous. Even a throbbing one.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The medium is the masses.

Apple, the quintessential post-modern brand, is doing it again. Look, I know it’s not cool to love the iPod now that everybody has one. But they really are marvelous, and so is the advertising. I’m sitting here in my office looking out the window at a lush forest of iPod outdoor ads, once again showing the proto-consumer as nothing more than a silhouette with the only recognizable item the distinctive white box and headphone cord. Marketing nerds everywhere nod in approval because the product is king. Hah… fooled you. The user is king! In fact, the user is the advertising. These billboards are doing nothing more or less than directing our attention to the people around us who already have an iPod. It’s they who actually do the selling. Genius.

Twenty one years ago, Apple introduced not so much a product as a manifesto: Computers should serve people, not the other way around. A radical thought, more relevant today than then. Now, I look at the teeming masses of free thinking humans, all clutching identical little tabula rasa-white icons, broadcasting custom media experiences to their audiences of one, and I wonder who is serving whom. Or if maybe this is the first time a brand has succeeded in having itself and its consumers serve each other. It’s such a drag that the Village Voice already burned the phrase, ‘the new Maoism’ to describe the Gap a decade or so back; it would have been a very clever thing for me to say right about here.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Through a glass darkly.

Here’s the problem: Brands aren’t bad. Marketers are. Marketers and their advertising agencies. I sometimes think that there needs to be a movement to liberate brands from their captors and release them into the wild where nature meant them to be. They would flourish. We would know what brands were good, because they would be the ones we saw the most. We would know what brands were coolest because they’d be the ones that the cool people bought. We’d know which ones were best for people like us, because we could just ask people like us what they buy. And brands would get better, because it would be the principles of Darwin and not the likes of Sergio Zyman that determined which would survive and which would not.

Oh, what a halcyon day.

This occurs to me as I’m sitting in a dark room behind a one-way glass, watching a focus group, the crack cocaine of advertising research methodologies. Here we are again, asking the consumer to do our jobs for us. There are vast branches of science dedicated to the idea that people are not always conscious of what motivates them. Nobel prizes are awarded to economists who discover that marketplaces aren’t rational. And yet we believe that for fifty bucks and all the Chunks Ahoys they can eat, we can get consumers to accurately predict their own behavior, and do it in front of a half dozen perfect strangers in under an hour. All this on the arrogant and ludicrous assumption that the simpler and more uncontentious the answer, the more likely it is to succeed in the marketplace.

Consensus may have prevented all kinds of mistakes in the course of history, but it’s never created a damned thing.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Fiat lux.

I think almost everybody is a hypocrite. At least they are when it comes to brands. The official consensus is that we don't like them and we think they're instruments of corporate manipulation. They are putatively so evil and such effective weapons of control that it's not hard to imagine the United States Army might have its own branding corps, a top secret special forces unit that parachutes into innocent third world villages and Nikes them. You'd think we became stupid in the presence of a logo. Stupid, or weak, as if brands were some kind of moral kryptonite. We would sooner be busted socially for being an Ashlee Simpson fan than somebody who cared about what kind of toothpaste they used.

Well, sorry Naomi. Everybody might be nodding solemnly, but they're still buying. (Nice logo, by the way). They may be just this side of porn as a guilty pleasure, but brands are fun. They're pop culture, at least as much as Ashlee Simpson is (though it should be noted that the number of Nike t-shirts one sees on the street exceeds the number of Ashlee Simpson t-shirts by an estimable margin). I can prove they're pop culture, too, with a simple test of my own devising:

1. Is it fundamentally irrelevant?

2. Can you see it on television?

3. Can you buy its t-shirt?

4. Is someone getting rich from it?

5. Have the really cool people already moved on to something else?

Answer yes to all five questions, and you've got a bona fide piece of pop culture right there. The Rolling Stones? Five out of five. The Mini Cooper? Five out of five. Try it on your own favourite brands, and you'll see. Your beer brand has a lot more in common with the whole Jennifer and Brad thing or the inexplicable staying power of hip-hugger jeans than it does with anything 'corporate'.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me, then, to treat them the same way. Laugh at them, admire them, deconstruct them, gossip about them and generally amuse ourselves at their expense. A great brand is like a hip hop star. You might not always like the music, but it's always fun when one shoots up a night club, and they love the attention.

So that's my plan.