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.