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.