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.

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