Monday, December 25, 2006

Brand bites dog.


Ad agency reviews can sometimes be pretty sketchy affairs. The lengths that some agency bosses will go to in order to land an account would make a defense contractor blush. I guess there might be less flat out corruption in the process than there once was, but it remains true today that nothing will make some agencies drop their ethical trousers like the prospect of winning a big, new client. Oh, the things I’ve seen… (cue the distant sound of helicopters)… the horror… the horror…

Anyway. So, a couple of weeks back, a senior vice president working for a famous brand got fired for getting too cozy with one particular agency during a review, the agency that ultimately won the business. The agency that was the object of the coziness also got the hook. After a suitable amount of huffing, a new review was called, and all the other agencies who lost the first time around got back into ‘my uncle’s got a barn, let’s put on a show’ mode to pitch it again. Fascinating stuff, huh?

No? But it was all over the news! Ad Age alone ran seven pieces on the story in their electronic addition the day it broke, and a bunch more as the week unfolded!

Oh, hang on, I forgot to mention: What made it news was brands.

You see, the marketer in question was Wal-Mart. That puritanical cult from Bentonville, an organization so sanctimoniously protective of its moral authority that it won’t even let prospective vendors pay for coffee. And the other brand was Aston Martin. Specifically, the Aston Martin of Howard Draft, boss of the aforementioned ad agency, who offered Wal-Mart’s Julie Roehm a ride in it after a sumptuous repast at a trendy Manhattan boite. The fact that she’d allegedly just sat in the car was just this side of Monica Lewinsky’s dry cleaning bill as prima facie evidence of, well, pretty much everybody’s guilt.

Yeah, I know Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer in the world. And I know that Ms. Roehm came equipped with a reputation of her own (that Lingerie Bowl thing raised the hopes of a whole generation of testosterone-addled creative departments). And I know that a high priced sushi joint on Hudson Street is a long way from Bentonville, Arkansas in every imaginable cultural sense. All that made the story interesting.

But what gave it irony and a heapin’ helpin’ of schadenfreude, what got it on the front pages and made it into a scandal, was the awesome semiotic power of b-r-a-n-d-s. She wasn’t just a marketing boss, she was a fox in Wal-Mart’s henhouse. And he wasn’t just an agency boss; his ride made him an overpaid, arrogant smoothie. That right there is some serious cultural shorthand, kids. Tom Wolfe would have needed 200 pages to explain the motives of those characters. Brands made it happen in six syllables.

I mean, if Howard Draft had been pitching Aston Martin and had taken his prospective client to a nearby Wal-Mart, would we be having this conversation?

Thought not.

Hey, wait. I wonder if that would really work…

Friday, November 24, 2006

Hey, wasn't that Richard Branson?


Sweetie and I went to see Casino Royale last night. With most movies, I’d wait for the DVD – movie theaters remind me of commercial air travel, except that you never go anywhere, nobody brings you anything, and the staff don’t seem old enough to drive – but this was different. This was James Bond, brothers and sisters. Another ripping tale of hot lookin’ people saving the world with sex, violence, power toys, nice clothes and cool brands. Another rendition of the timeless good-versus-evil story, in which evil exclusively buys no-name.

Few marketing tactics draw as much sneering cynicism from consumers as product placement does. It’s reached the point where just being able to recognize a brand in a movie or television show indicts its presence in the story. People think that paying to have your brand on screen is a bit cheap and desperate. The marketing equivalent of having to hire a date for the office Christmas party.

So how does the Bond franchise get away with it?

Well, for one thing, it’s open about it. Next to the choice of Daniel Craig as Bond, the most reported Casino Royale story was the $100 million dollars paid by Heineken, Ford, Smirnoff, Sony, Sony Ericsson and Omega to be in the movie. For another, the movie doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, artistically speaking, so nobody can bellow ‘sellout’. Especially not after 21 films. And for another, Bond knows its own brand. The stuff 007 uses is pretty much the stuff the real guy would use, with the possible exception of the jarring Casino Royale scene in which Craig desperately tries to use his own coolness to overcome the dorky Ford rental car they put him in when he arrives in the Bahamas. (So kryptonite-like was the effect of the blue oval on Bond’s charisma that Sweetie actually exclaimed right out loud, “Why’s he driving a Ford!?”)

Which brings me to the thing I love the best about Bond and his brands: They need him more than he needs them.

With a lot of product placement, paid and otherwise, brands get brought to the table at least partly because of their cultural meaning. Put a Mac on someone’s desk or have them drive a Volvo or peer at a Blackberry or order a Stoli, and you say something about the character. It’s a convenient silent language for the filmmaker to use to add information and dimension without adding time or words to the script. Having your brand in a Bond film feels different, more like an honour. You just have to believe that Omega hopes Craig will do for its Seamaster what Connery did for the Rolex Submariner. Or that the guys in Dearborn are praying Casino Royale will redeem their loony investment in the Premier Automotive Group brands (which include Aston Martin, Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo).

This womanizing sociopath actually has the power to make brands cool.

Which makes him something more than a brand himself. It makes him a metabrand. And, in that sense, a model for the way we all hope we choose brands: To sometimes declare what we’re about, but never to make us who we are. And maybe every once in awhile to incite coolness ourselves by, as Vesper Lynd said of Bond’s tailored suit, wearing them “with disdain.”

Yup, brand-wise, it was a good night for cars, cell phones, computers, watches, booze and the edgy new Bond himself.

In fact, the only brand manager I wouldn’t want to be today is the guy who did the deal to supply wicker chairs. I bet he’s got some explaining to do.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Shades, jeans and automobiles.

I'm not in the habit of writing codas to these little epistles, but this has been a pretty interesting week.

Of all the brands that I've slagged and celebrated in something over a year of doing this, three stand head and shoulders above the others in the volume of email I got afterward: Mini, Oakley and Cinch Jeans. It warms the cockles of my hard little heart to see people actually get passionate about a brand, even the ones that happen to work for it. (Take that, Naomi). But I think it also points the way to a future forseen by icons like Apple:

In a world where we don't need much and it's getting hard to find a really bad product anymore, brands don't win by trying to sell someTHING. They win by being for someBODY.

Now I'm feeling kind of inspired. If it lasts through lunch, my clients aren't going to know what hit them...

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be brand managers.


This weekend, the Royal Winter Fair here in the Big Tomato has been rudely interrupted by, of all things, a rodeo. I am absolutely tickled at the thought of all those overbred Biffs and Muffys prancing about shopping for stretchy pants and shiny boots, having to rub shoulders with tobacco spitting, pickup truck driving manly men with belt buckles the size of manhole covers. For one glorious weekend, that stupid pet trick known as dressage will be displaced by the serious business of agricultural workers riding angry livestock.

Can I have a ‘hell, yeah.’

Well, if you happen to be attendant at this spectacle, or any like it, keep your eyes peeled for a little brand called Cinch Jeans. I am utterly charmed by these guys, and I think their story has a lot to teach us about how brands work.

Just ten years old, Cinch has managed to find its way into the hearts and onto the backsides of some people that take their traditions pretty seriously. In almost no time at all, brand wise, they’ve earned respect in cowboy culture, a milieu where even the 153 year-old Levis brand is regarded with some suspicion for being vainly obsessed with its fashion street cred. How they did it is like a manual for post modern branding.

Got a pen? Write this down.

First, advocate for somebody. Cinch’s slogan: “Made for the man who lives his life in denim.” (This is as distinct from Ralph Lauren’s jeans slogan, which I believe is “Made for the man who lives his life in denial.”). See? They’re for men. Not everybody. Men. And only men whose self-definition is symbolized by that plainspoken blue fabric that used to mean hard work and lack of pretension.

Then, make whatever matters to them, matter to you. Cinch sponsors two things: Rodeo cowboys and country music stars. That’s it. No Superbowl ads. No flash mobbing, no AdSense. And your sponsored content is that guy riding a bull over there. What about brand extensions? Okay, if you insist. How about shirts. And maybe knives and hats. Stuff that matters to the man who lives his life in denim. Instant authenticity, produced not by history but by saying what you mean and meaning what you say.

Want to play a fun game? Toggle back and forth between Cinch’s web site and that of ‘authentic’ Levis. Now come on. Whose jeans would you rather slide into this Saturday morning? That’s what I thought.

And that’s why I’m the Brand Cowboy and not the Brand Pouty Supermodel.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Reality bites. No injuries reported.

Brand wise, I have spent the week in an existential funk.

It started with the YouTube story. Those cunning little brats sold their company to Almighty Google for all the money in the world, and with it a brand that putatively stood for the shining, populist future of user generated, socially networked video content. Except that Google apparently failed to notice all those commercial videos that are crashing the YouTube party now, turning it into little more than a clunky on-demand television network that would make Philo T. Farnsworth spin in his grave. All this with the dust barely settled on the whole lonelygirl15 flimflam.

Seeking the comfort of honest commerce, I turned to Business Week, only to run smack into “The Organic Myth” cover story, wherein on page 52 there is a rundown of the corporate owners of America’s favourite organic food brands. Ben & Jerry & Unilever. Forgot about that one. And there’s no escape in my online news diet, either: When the hell did L’Oreal buy the Body Shop? How did I miss that? According to FT.com, the L’Oreal guy says, “ the operation of single-brand stores [is] just one form of brand management.” Brand management!? I get hoarse from ranting, but find no comfort in my Buckley’s Mixture. It’s owned by Swiss pharma giant Novartis. And I can seek no escape in my preferred wobbly pop, Creemore Springs. It’s owned by Molson Breweries, who are in turn owned by Coors (itself a formerly authentic micro brewer, making for a corporate mobius worthy of M. C. Escher). This quote kind of captures the spirit of the moment: “Consumers like boutique brands,” says the head of [General Mills’] organic unit. “There’s a feeling of authenticity.”

Organic unit.

Feeling of authenticity.

Sigh.

I guess this kind of thing really represents the collision of two inevitabilities in the realm of brands: One, that people are looking for authenticity wherever they can find it in life, including in yogurt, beer and lipgloss. And, two, that enterprise will seek profit wherever it may find it, and sometimes that means small, ethically defined ‘boutique brands’ that coincidentally boast big, fat margins. Cognitive dissonance all over the place.

But wherever you find cognitive dissonance, situational ethics are usually bounding cheerfully along right behind. And so it is with brands. Let’s face it: We don’t want the happy little myths we give to ourselves to be shattered by the truth of corporate ownership. So we deconstruct and redefine authenticity, bending and stretching it until either it fits or is rent asunder and beyond hope.

So that’s what I did. And my verdicts? YouTube is a sellout. So is Body Shop. The Land Rover LR3 I drove the other day just stinks of its Ford parentage, and must therefore be stripped of its bragging rights, too. As for Ben & Jerry, the whole ice cream business is fraudulent anyway. I mean, if Haagen-Dazs still has a franchise, the boys from Vermont certainly can. So they get off on a technicality. On the other hand, Buckley’s Mixture still tastes awful, and they’ve thoughtfully kept any clues to their ownership off the packaging. And Creemore Springs is still great beer, made in the same place with the same stuff, so why do I care where the profits go as long as it isn’t to some nuclear rogue state?

We are adaptable creatures, no doubt about it. When it comes to brands, it wasn’t that long ago that we judged their authenticity by their provenance, history and parochialism. But the world is becoming more corporate by the minute, in case you hadn’t heard. Even as brands seem to proliferate, the number of companies and nations actually making things seems to be shrinking. Very little is really real anymore. So we reconstitute authenticity to fit the new reality. Now, it’s less a question of where something is made, how long it’s been made there and how single-minded its makers are. Now, we’re content simply to reconcile those artifacts with the apparent motives of the corporation that now owns them. If they respect the brands they bought, then we will too. If they ‘leverage’ them until they become insulting caricatures of themselves, then we’ll toss them faster than a Pierre Cardin belt and move on to something we can believe in. As Forrest Gump’s mom might have put it, authentic is as authentic does.

There. I feel better already.

As for that General Mills guy, maybe he needs to spend just a little bit less time with his organic unit. I’ve heard that sort of thing can make you go blind.

Monday, September 18, 2006

V for Vituperation.

Well, this is rich.

Awhile back, a high-minded British fellow named Neil Boorman decided to set an example for us all by living ‘brand free’. His blog lays out his polemic and, to his credit, confesses that he’s managed to sell a book about the whole enterprise. As I write this today, all his branded stuff has been reduced to a smoldering pile of ashes at Finsbury Square, London. Onlookers were treated to free bottles of unbranded water as they watched the spectacle.

But apparently, this stunt hasn’t all gone as planned for Mr. Boorman. In a piece in the Guardian this past week, he whined, “When I announced I was burning all my branded possessions, I expected support, not censure.” You read that right. Censure. People reacted to his book-selling stunt not by seeing him as some kind of messianic social reformer but as an irrelevant crank.

And rightly so.

The whole thing is so utterly intellectually bankrupt that I hardly know where to begin. So I’ll begin here: What the blazes do you plan to wear and eat, Mr. Boorman? Will you hunt for your food and wear the skins of your prey? Because it seems to me that, brand or no brand, your presence on this planet implies consumption of resources. The fact that you and I and six billion other souls infest this benighted orb is the reason that we consume it and make such a mess. Avoiding labels isn’t going to change that.

What it IS going to do is make things worse. Unbranded products are bandits and scoundrels of the worst kind. They are accountable to nobody. Not to customers and not to shareholders. They make no promise they must then be burdened with keeping. Your wieners and beans now need only pass government thresholds for safety and no more than that. Your garments can be made anywhere their manufacturer wants to make them, out of anything and by anyone who will do the job. When a product fails, you’ll have nobody to blame. No leverage for you, no responsibility for them. And yet, for all of that, precisely the same amount of our planet’s riches will be consumed in the process of making your stuff, save and except for the grilled swordfish that the ad agency would have been fed while shooting the commercial for the branded versions.

What is most galling about this is that he offers to people, much as that No Logo person did, an alibi: The fact that we’re wrecking our collective home is the fault of brands and the people who market them, not the fault of you and me. That’s all but criminal. It’s like saying it’s not the fault of people who drive SUVs that they burn all that gas, it’s the fault of the companies that made them. We being but helpless pawns in the face of their irresistible marketing campaigns.

Look, if you want to debate the morality of rampant consumption, Mr. Boorman, you won’t find an argument here. But so long as we consume anything, we need to do it as responsibly as we can. That means buying the best quality we can afford, so we aren’t buying all over again sooner than we have to. It means making manufacturers accountable for what they produce and how they do it. It means having respect for the things we buy and the sacrifices made to produce them. And it means giving positive social meaning to doing these things so that the behavior is perpetuated. If, in the end, we buy less but buy better, we’ve got a much greater chance of saving the world than we have by mincing about in our unbranded hemp trousers wagging our fingers at it in smug disapproval.

And those things are exactly what brands are for. A good brand is to consumerism what the constitution is to citizenship. It’s power to the people. There are bad ones, too (you know who you are). But, as it is with democracy, the best way to fix them is from within the system.

That free water still came out of the ground, Mr. Boorman. The plastic bottles it likely came in were still a product of petroleum. The smoke your belongings produced will be inhaled by half the world by the time the wind is through with it, and the whole mess will still wind up in landfill. And you’ll go shopping.

They’ll be chopping a few trees down to print that book of yours, by the way. Probably advertise it, too. And if your literary ambitions are realized, your name will become a household word. A veritable po-mo Guy Fawkes.

Which is suspiciously brand-like, if you ask me.

Next thing you know, he’ll have his own logo.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Bavarians at the gate.

It was the first week of August, branding’s dog days. I was lollygagging in front of the computer, putting off my commute to the office by reading the internet (It’s really quite huge, and some of it is interesting). Suddenly, I gasped audibly, only the second time the internet has made me do this (the first being that Diet Coke/Mentos thing): The unimpeachable Advertising Age revealed that BMW was about to change its slogan. What was for more than three decades “The Ultimate Driving Machine” was poised to become “A company of ideas.” The article was penned by no less a personage than the redoubtable Al Ries, the Martin Luther of positioning. And he didn’t approve.

Well, neither did anyone else out there in cyber-self-styled-brand-expert land. The folly of a change like this is painfully obvious, I hope. The world’s 15th most valuable brand according to Business Week, the company that generally produces the fattest margins in the business, got there by a) Knowing who it was and what it stood for with resolute arrogance, and b) Rooting that in the bedrock of the product experience. Blah blah blah. Plenty of experts like me have weighed in on that already. This isn’t about that.

This right here is what we like to call a cautionary tale.

You see, what interested me most about the whole eruption wasn’t the bleating of brand experts, but the hue and cry from regular folks (Here's an example, along with the text of the original article. Here's another. And another. ). Practically the day the article ran in Ad Age, internet forums were frothing with indignation. “Since when did BMW become Hudsucker Industries?,” spat one jilted Bimmerphile. “It’s like watching an accident in slow motion,” sulked another. Cruising the message boards, it was fascinating to see how personally people took the news. How betrayed they were. And how suddenly trivial they felt at stoplights.

I hope that some of the world’s other überbrands were paying attention to all this. It proved that even in success there is danger, and in this case the danger lay in the fact that when you make a brand culturally powerful, it’s not yours any more. Brands like that live celebrity existences. They’re owned by their fans. They’ll forever more be dodging paparazzi, never to enjoy another moment of real autonomy, and it will only end in oblivion. Go ahead and change your hair colour if you dare, Britney, but don’t for a minute think it’s just about you anymore.

Very soon after the firestorm over Ries’ piece, BMW rushed to correct the story/reverse its position. Ad Age and Al Ries got it wrong. “The Ultimate Driving Machine” would stay. But by then, the damage was done. The faithful were confronted with the truth that they were being marketed to. BMW wasn’t a religion, it was just a brand.

And I’d already been to the Porsche dealer.

They haven’t had an idea since 1964. There’s no substitute for that.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Reeling in the years.

Fresh back from a vacation, and I’m feeling benevolent. Besides, I’ve made a bunch of bitchy posts lately, which might leave us thinking that maybe I don’t love brands so much after all. And that would just be wrong. Anyway, as somebody’s mom used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, go into journalism.”

Besides, brands are what put Sweetie and me on that beach last week. So, today, I’m going to say something nice.

Ish.

This, friends, is a story of redemption, and it’s about a brand called Olay. It came to mind as I was sweating off mai tais on the hotel’s treadmill, watching the little television thoughtfully provided to me and my fellow hamsters to relieve the ennui. On came a commercial for Olay stuff, featuring a stern, self-actualized looking woman using the power of science to defy nature. Not a man in sight. This woman was using the goop in question for her own satisfaction, thank you very much. And that’s unremarkable on the face of it, unless you consider the history of this brand.

If you’re old enough that they played ‘Color My World’ at your prom, you might remember the original Oil of Olay brand as it was before Procter and Gamble got hold of it. It was a one-product business. It featured coquettish women of uncertain vintage asking prying gentlemen, “How old do you THINK I am?” The nerve. And it ran ads with copy like, “My wife, I think I’ll keep her,” and a slogan like “Keep them guessing.” Seriously. I am not making this up.

These guys made the Virginia Slims woman look like Gloria Steinem. And this brand should have been given some kind of Viking funeral a generation ago.

But, of course, that’s not what happened. Today, Olay is a vast franchise. Still very much in the anti-aging business, but no longer in the ‘if you want to keep your husband, keep your youth’ business. Where women used to have to sneak this stuff through the checkout the way the fellas do with Grecian Formula, today they can buy it openly and straight-faced like any other cosmetic and not look even slightly desperate. In brandland, this is an Angelina Jolie-sized transformation.

I’d love to credit P&G with a social conscience, but that’s outside the scope of this inquiry. What’s clear, though, is that they understand that this brand is better off owning what it can do rather than why people want it. They never made the mistake of confusing the power to look younger with the social meaning of looking young. That, they realized, is just tactics. And tactics are disposable. More than this, they kept their eye on one really important insight: Meet a marketer who works in this product category, and you’ll eventually hear the cynical expression ‘hope in a jar’. P&G understood from the start that it’s not about hope at all. Just look at that sleek packaging. Olay is power in a jar, baby.

I guess the moral of the story is that a brand is never beyond redemption if it keeps paying attention. If it has a sense of context. And if it’s sure enough of its fundamental purpose that it’s willing to adapt the means by which it accomplishes that purpose.

Of course, selling a product that makes you look good still doesn’t hurt, either.

I could forgive, say, Ferrari a host of cultural sins if I had one in my driveway. Now THAT would be nice.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Beware of Greeks bearing brands.

I’ve always believed that no brand is wholly in charge of its destiny. Just as Engelbert Humperdinck as a concept is incomplete without his fans, so it is with laundry detergent, cars, colognes, hamburgers, scotch, chewing gum and insect repellent. The brand acquires associations from the marketplace, starting the second it’s born, and continues to evolve that way forever more in a perpetual cultural conversation.

But dealing with marketing people, as I am occasionally required to do in order to keep gas in the Mini, you sometimes meet up with those who see things differently. There roam the earth legions of brand determinists, a flinty breed who think that every day in the life of a brand is a blank page. That the marketplace will forget whatever you tell them to forget and do and think whatever they’re told, if the logo is swooshy enough.

And I have found their king.

His name is Andreas Markessinis, and it is his professional opinion that Greece is in desperate need of branding (see for yourself). Greece, the country. You know, where western civilization invented its philosophy, politics, morality and flaming cheese? That Greece. This place has been a going concern since before the Leafs won their last Stanley Cup. It’s, like, the definition of ancient. And I reckon it has a brand, thank you.

To be fair, Mr. Markessinis acknowledges as much. But he thinks Greece’s brand is “…sleepy [and] disorganized…”. And, though he confuses the brand with the product experience, he does go on to make a reasoned case that branding is about, as Johnny Mercer put it, ac-cent-tchu-ating the positive. Still, I think he may be a bit too close to the subject - a common affliction among marketers - and that breeds a kind of arrogance that’s deadly to brands.

From New Coke to the Cadillac Catera, from McDonald’s Pizza to Levi’s Slates, brands never experience more near misses at oblivion than at the hands of brand managers who want to make their marks before their hitches are up. They and their market research geeks may mean well, but their disrespect for history is, by definition, a disrespect for the relationships people have with the brands they’re managing.

Do I have to bring up that whole Oakley thing again?

In the world of branding, good intentions like this are Trojan horses. A fact apparently not lost on Mr. Markessinis’ constituency. No posts from him in a year, no forum discussions, ever. Whatever his original agenda is, it’s faded into the mists of time. Unlike, say, the Acropolis. Or democracy. Or Big Macs.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Smelled like teen spirit.

Our youngest, a strapping lad of 15, has selected his aftershave, an adolescent male rite of passage. He’s picked a tony designer brand, for which I’m proud of him because it evinces some taste. And because it isn’t Axe. It is ever so much more pleasant having a teenager around when they don’t smell like the inside of a taxi.

Axe was an instant cliché. The brand’s proposition was Hai Karate redux: Spray this on yourself and score. And the disarming clarity of that predictably led to a similarly direct advertising strategy: Show a guy spraying this stuff on himself and (almost) scoring. So primitive. So universal. What teenage boy could resist? How could it possibly fail?

Well, of course, for a while there, herds of these lumbering ids bought the pitch. Or, at least, they figured anything that couldn’t hurt and might help was worth adding to mom’s grocery list. Soon, high school corridors reeked of a potent mix of Axe and hopeful testosterone. It got so bad that you began to see news reports of fragrance bans in schools, if you can imagine.

But the flaw in all this was that teenage girls watch TV, too.

What knucklehead really thought that blatantly and publicly telling boys their aftershave was chick-bait was a durable strategy? Not one that knows the first thing about women, that’s for sure. Maybe not even one that’s ever been on a date. As junior junior sagely put it, “Now, girls say, ‘oh, you’re wearing Axe…,’” in the same tone of voice they might use to observe mayonnaise on your chin. Even in grade ten, Axe has become a badge of desperation.

Well, I’m enjoying this all very much. Especially since, this week, a sensation at the Cannes Festival of Utter Social Irrelevance is an exhuberantly puerile promotion for Axe (called Lynx elsewhere). Quoting from the award show entry: “Lynx's problem was that guys 17-25yrs were dropping out of the brand because they perceived it to be for their younger brother (sic). Lynx needed to actively engage 17-25yrs males.”

Might be too late, boys. It seems the girls those guys are trying to impress are on to your game. And so are their little sisters.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Payback Mountain.

I read this week in Ad Age that Ralph Lauren (the corporation, not the guy) is discontinuing his jeans (the ones they sell, not the ones he’s wearing). Someone from Lauren confessed that the brand had simply been bled dry by overpromotion and overdistribution. Well, true dat, as the young people say. But I wonder if there was a bit more to it.

For decades, Ralph Lifshitz imagined, invented and nurtured a mythic America that never was, and then invited everyone to immigrate and buy clothes there. And you didn’t even need a passport to cross the border. Just a credit card and a willingness to surrender your individuality to become a mannequin in Ralph’s diorama. In my mind, the apogee of all this was the 1980s, an era when everybody was pretty much okay with joining socioeconomic glee clubs and wearing their prescribed uniforms. People willingly sported the little pony logo as a badge of sophistication or aspiration, if you can imagine, oblivious to the brand’s true positioning, which I will now reveal:

Polo Ralph Lauren was Garanimals for yuppies.

(Remember Garanimals? Children’s clothes for people who are terrified by Gap Kids. All you have to do is make sure each day that all of little Biff’s or Muffy’s clothes have the same animal label – a giraffe, say - and you’ll know they match. Much easier than figuring out that whole plaid versus stripes thing.)

This consensual self-delusion continued for Polo for about as long as it did for society at large. Then, in the 1990s, it ended like a parade going over a cliff. Authenticity became the new black, for brands and for folks. Everybody ran screaming from affectation, and the cooler you were the faster and further you ran. Pretty soon, you could get Ralph’s natty duds at The Bay. Could “overpromotion and overdistribution” be far behind? And will it end with Ralph’s jeans? Or is this just part of the long, slow, inevitable fading away of a brand that was never more than a mirage.

Well, I can personally guarantee you that no actual cowboys wear Polo jeans. Not one. And I know about these things. And I’ll wager that the same absence of the Polo badge could be observed at the prep schools, Hamptons beach houses, English country estates and Virginia horse farms to whom that silver haired smoothie owes a debt of inspiration.

It’s only a matter of time before everybody quits you, Ralph. You can’t dine out forever on an invented past.

Now, if somebody would just tell that to the Roots boys, I’d be a happy camper.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Dr Vinci Code.

A couple of years back, I got hoodwinked into reading that DaVinci book, about which I am reminded everywhere I turn these days. (It wasn’t very good, since you asked. Take out all the God stuff, and you’ve got a lame thriller that would have made Ludlum blush). Anyway, among the things that I thought didn’t warrant all the fuss was the character of Sophie Neveu, winsomely played by Audrey Tautou in the film. I just kept thinking, dudes… it’s been 2000 years. Even if she IS a relative of you-know-who, she isn’t a close one. Genetically speaking, there’s not much left in there after, oh, a hundred generations or so.

This is what I’m thinking about as I sit in an interminable meeting, sipping a Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper. Not just a Dr Pepper, mind you. And not just a Diet one, or a Cherry one, or a Vanilla one, but a Dr Pepper so manifold blessed that it possesses all of these characteristics in a single, genetically engineered chimera. A third declension of what was a niche little brand to begin with. (A brand so aware of its own marginality, by the way, that it has forbidden the use of the period after ‘Dr’). I selected it from the tray, choosing it from among all manner of surer things, soda-wise, out of sheer incredulity.

Good Lord, what chucklehead brand manager thinks that there is so much meaning in the Dr Pepper name that it doesn’t matter what he puts it on? So, we’ll drink it even if it has mouthwash in it, as long as it says Dr Pepper on the can?

Good luck with all that. Who do they think this brand is? Apple?

Brand extension is a risky business at the best of times. It’s like adding a deck onto your house. It might look nice if it’s proportionally right and made of the same or some complimentary material. But make it the wrong size or too different, and your house will look silly. And if your house is a shack, the whole mess might fall down while you’re hammering away, leaving you with nothing but your new deck, which will be useless unless your hobby is reviewing passing parades.

Let me now return you to my regularly scheduled analogy. This Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper making rings on the boardroom table in front of me was a bit like Sophie: cute, but there wasn’t much of the original brand left in there.

I should have taken the Coke.

Classic, that is.

Hey, don’t look at me. At least that’s just one adjective. And at least its parent brand is ‘the real thing’. Which is more than you can say for Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper. Or Sophie Neveu. Or possibly Dan Brown.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The blind leading the brand.


Get comfortable. This is a long one. Because I am steamed.

Every day, I walk past this anodyne looking fashion billboard on my way back from having smart lunches with the cool kids. For weeks, I ignored the vapid, sunglass-adorned face thereon because, a) I am not an aspiring supermodel, and b) I take my sunglasses seriously, as all the cool kids do. Then, one day, desperate to find something else to look at besides my colleague's new orange velvet trousers, I actually studied it for a second and realized…

Great thundering Paris Hilton, it’s an OAKLEY billboard!

I felt ill. Betrayed. Crushed. As if I’d just caught my wife shopping for a Lincoln Navigator.

The Oakley story is just a perfect parable for how we’re all going to be building brands one day soon. Advertising didn’t play a huge role, and not until it was an established brand. Oakley began with technically superior eye protection for sports. And from the start, they understood the power of designing that stuff to make a statement. Their products came off the drawing board screaming menace, courage, aggression, predatory focus. They cost insane amounts of money, which somehow authenticated the claim of superiority. And they made sure that their products were seen on the right faces in the right places, in the beginning by simply giving them away at sporting events to people who seemed to matter, and seemed to win. And if you showed up at the Oakley trailer with a broken frame, they’d just replace it for you on the spot. Nobody in the Oakley tribe was going to be caught dead with duct tape on their M-Frames.

(It’s a wonder they never forcibly remove their products from losers and posers, in fact, but I am eternally grateful for that).

Oakley eyewear had a way of turning a person into a machine. A nice bit of intimidation for bike racers and downhill skiers. And cops. And soldiers. And Arnold Schwartzenegger in The Terminator. And don’t think for one minute that those news photos of some special ops thug wearing his Eyejackets and toting a machine gun didn’t add to the emotional punch of seeing the same glasses on the person next to you at the starting line of your local mountain bike free-for-all. Not since ‘The Man With No Eyes’ created a hostile workplace for Cool Hand Luke has eyewear had such semiotic potency. Oakley says, ‘don’t mess with me.’

And this, of course, inevitably made it fashionable. Even the slightest excuse to own Oakleys has always been enough – “I have to run to grab the phone before the third ring,” for example - and the company has regularly supplied this market with products that were a bit more fashionable than technical. All the while never dropping its guard. They never, NEVER said, ‘don’t these look cool?’. They said stuff about UV protection and the ability of their lenses to stop shotgun pellets, should that be a risk to which your pastimes might expose you. They officially ignored the fashion market, and sold to it hand over fist.

So now, some brand manager, freshly extruded from Wharton or some such, has decided to ‘leverage’ the fact. It’s called ‘Oakley Script’. A whole line of fashionably designed eyewear for, um, I dunno, girls, I guess. The assumption seems to be that the Oakley power thing excludes women somehow (ludicrous) and that the world needed another fashion eyewear brand (it didn’t). Then, in a masterstroke, they camouflaged the whole enterprise by designing a special girly Oakley logo so the cool kids wouldn’t notice.

Sigh.

Now, instead of saying, ‘don’t mess with me’, my Oakleys are going to say, ‘don’t mess up my hair’.

It’s a disaster. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Ray Bans are out. I still haven’t forgiven them for Tom Cruise. And I can’t even think of another brand.

They just don’t seem to advertise.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Here comes Peter Cautionary Tale.

This, in a brilliantly ironic twist, is my Easter post. You see, my favourite brand story of the week is the uproar in Indonesia against the launch of Playboy magazine there. (Bunny? Easter? Get it? I slay myself…). The first issue recently hit the newsstands in that far off dominion, and almost instantly, er, aroused a firestorm of controversy and protest on moral grounds.

But here’s the thing. In its piece on the story this morning, the Globe and Mail soberly advised us that pornography has long been widely available in the region. And, apparently, the Playboy magazine in question didn’t even contain any naked pictures. So, why the outrage?

Here’s what I think. I think it’s hard to protest against a market driven phenomenon because, as Pogo famously put it, “the enemy… is us”. But it’s easy to protest against an invading nation. And as threatening nations go, Playboy has it all: A despot, an alien value system, a flag, aircraft, a uniformed service, propaganda and cocktail napkins. And decadent? Oh, man.

Well, Playboy should have known better. If they were simply selling their product, they could probably find custom anywhere on the planet. But they’ve spent more than half a century building a comprehensive brand ethos that disguises pornography as lifestyle and titillation as intellectual discourse. As soon as you start selling values, you are at the mercy of cultural relevance. Mostly, that’s a pretty cool place for a brand to be. But it also imposes limits. Sell dirty pictures to an individual, and you’re only up against his tastes and personal ethics. Sell a cult of decadence to a society of people with a strict moral code, and you’re just asking to get spanked and sent home. And not in a fun way, either.

So all this probably serves ol' Hef right.

And if anyone asks, I only look at the internet for the articles.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Aristotelian Job.

The branding frenzy continues unabated and, with it, unremitting busyness and the constant need to be zipping about. So it’s a very happy coincidence that I have recently acquired a Mini Cooper, and I’ve been enjoying it immensely. And not just because of its obvious charms, either. Aside from being a dandy car and zippy by nature, it comes with a feature that you won’t find mentioned in the owner’s manual or even in Mini’s advertising:

Benefit of the doubt.

For some reason, I can drive this car like a maniac and never get so much as a dirty look from my fellow motorists. If I tried a tenth of the stuff in my BMW that I get away with in that rorty little Mini, I’d have been shot by the roadside years ago and my corpse paraded through the village by torch-bearing citizens as a lesson to all. For some reason, when you round a corner ‘con brio’ in a Bimmer, you are some kind of unfeeling capitalist running dog whose apparent wealth evidences some heinous crime. But take that corner on two wheels in a Cooper, and everybody just grins right along with you, anti-establishment rebel that you are. How can it be so? Especially given that both vehicles are produced by the same dour, German, most-profitable-in-the-world car company?

The answer, of course, is the… anybody? Bueller?

Do I have to say it?

Okay, brand. The answer is the brand.

There’s just no way that someone driving that car could be malevolent. I mean, look at its cute little face. And the adorable name, which, as an adjective, improves almost everything from skirts to heart attacks. And its fun lovin’ advertising. With all that, you certainly couldn’t be taking yourself too seriously if you chose a Mini as your primary conveyance. Especially if you’re not a twenty-something girl. Which I emphatically am not.

No, somehow that carefully engineered brand experience, with all of its relentless cuteness and absence of menace and ego, has given me permission to roam the earth at excessive speeds, changing lanes like a bumble bee and stopping and turning like some kind of ‘toon, with absolute impunity. I feel all but cheered on.

I think this is a convincing argument that, at least as far as conspicuous consumption is concerned, brands are all about imputed motive. It’s not what a company makes, it’s why they make it. And, for us consumers, the statement we make lies not what we buy but in why we seem to have bought it.

Being zippy isn’t all laughs, mind you. By the same token people don’t fear me in my Mini, they don’t make a lot of room for me, either. And it’s just not as satisfying to flip someone the bird from behind the wheel. It leaves you feeling vaguely like a rude clown in a Shriner’s parade.

A rude maniac clown.

Wait, maybe that is scary…

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The brand down under.

There was an Australian sleeping on my son’s couch for a while there.

It seems this guy has been in the process of circumnavigating the globe, relying for shelter exclusively on people he’s met on MySpace.com. That’s how he bumped into junior. Some shared interest linked them up, they communicated asynchronously for a bit, looked over each other’s respective profiles, and decided that a) they had enough in common and b) the way they described themselves seemed authentic enough to make one complete stranger curling up in a sleeping bag in another complete stranger’s living room seem sensible.

Crazy university kids, you’re probably thinking.

Or, if you’re all clever and current, you might be thinking this is just another example of the connectedness that being young is all about these days.

But if you’re me, you’re thinking, “Hey, that sounds a lot like branding.”

MySpace.com, the phenomenal web community that gets more visitors every day than almighty Google, is perhaps the ultimate proof that brands have gained full citizenship in the dominion of popular culture. Because it proves that everyone wants one of their very own. And that everyone is feeling pretty good about their instincts for sizing brands up. If people are willing to choose their friends this way, choosing mere products to buy is going to be a piece of cake for them.

After all, even if you totally screw up picking a new espresso maker, it probably won’t steal your iPod and leave town with your girlfriend.

Junior’s guest moved on to the next MySpacer after a few days. Apparently, while he was here, though, he was quite tidy and ate only his own food. When the brand is you, I guess you have to be who you promised you’d be, and that last impressions are as important as first ones. A lesson a few brands I know could stand to learn.

But they’re not going to learn it from me. I can’t afford this do-it-yourself branding thing to catch on. University’s not cheap, and junior’s talking post-grad.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

L'etat, c'est Phil.

By the time you read this, William Perez, CEO of Nike (and latterly of S. C. Johnson, for which I will lampoon him shortly), will have cleaned out his desk. Phil Knight fired him last month after barely more than a year in the job in what Business Week described as “… one of the worst chapters in the history of Nike Inc.” His likeness consumes all of page 35 in this week’s issue, sulking on a Florida beach, looking a lot more like Frank Purdue than, well, Phil Knight. There is now, apparently, a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over succession, while Nike’s stock fell steadily for almost three weeks afterward.

Yeah, well, Business Week, you don’t get it. And neither does the stupid stock market. And neither did William Perez.

Reading the piece, I practically spat single malt all over the cat. This guy walks into Nike, and actually believes he’s going to have free rein to make the joint over. Make it all clever and efficient. He locks horns with the founder over things like expense accounts, whines aloud that the company is resistant to new ideas, demands that its legendary advertising convey “relevant messages about the product.” And then, in a masterstroke, invites Boston Consulting Group in to ‘fix’ the company’s strategies and practices. Brilliant. Hey, if it worked for Drano it’ll work for Nike, right? Drain cleaner, air freshener, basketball shoes, it’s all the same.

Willy, I gotta say I don’t see a bright future for t-shirts that say, ‘Just analyze it’.

This brand got where it is, became second only to perhaps Apple as the apogee of post-modern branding, because of its sheer guts. It left ‘the product’ behind a long time ago, instead daring to inspire people. It made athleticism cool. It made brands cool. It made mistakes, but it also made history.

The point, Bill, is that for better or worse, Nike has rarely been in the running shoe business. It has almost always been in the attitude business. The authenticity business. Maybe the Boston Consulting Group couldn’t tell you that, but any kid could have. Whether Phil Knight did the right thing for the company remains to be seen, but there is no doubt in this cowboy’s mind that he did the right thing for the brand.

Resistant to new ideas. Man, what were you thinking?

Being resistant to new ideas is, like, the whole point.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Rebrand. The end is near.

There are no direct marketers in foxholes, apparently.

It’s been too busy to post for a while. Why? Because the phone is ringing off the hook with marketers wanting branding. Brand me, rebrand me, refresh my brand, save my brand. There’s an apocalyptic hint of panic in the air, and suddenly everybody has religion.

And with just cause. These are strange days indeed for old school brand marketers. We always thought that we could just kind of teach brands to consumers through mass media. Give ‘em The Family Guy free of charge, and they’ll gratefully watch your dogfood ads all day long. After a few years, voila. A brand. Better still, there were so many people watching that you really just had to convert a small percentage of them and not only would you have a brand, you’d have a business. And here was the best part: Everybody would subconsciously remember your dogfood and have warm fuzzy feelings about it for a long time. So, when they eventually got it in their heads to Google ‘canine nutrition’, your brand would shine forth from the computer screen like a divine truth.

Good times.

But the dark horsemen are gathering on Madison Avenue. For one thing, audiences aren’t that mass anymore. We have a hundred times as many channels as we used to, but I’m pretty sure we don’t have hundreds of times as many consumers to watch them. Worse yet, some of ‘em are starting to think that the dogfood ads–for–Family Guy deal smacks vaguely of a hostage taking. Besides, you can get last week’s Desperate Housewives on your iPod for two bucks. And with Google always there for you, there seems less need to commit mental hard drive space to your impressions of a dogfood brand. Not with all those PIN numbers to remember.

Nobody is quite sure where it’s all headed, but it seems like a brand that’s already famous and loved will be a good thing to have, since it seems like it’ll soon be almost impossible to make one from scratch. So it’s standing room only in the church of brands. And I’m furiously pounding away at the organ and passing the plate, selling salvation to all comers.

Still, I’m an optimist. I know that as long as people continue to be the gloriously flawed, vain and restless creatures we are, there will be brands. We might find them differently, but we’ll still want them. And if bad marketers get scared straight by all this and quit taking consumers for granted, so much the better.

On the other hand, if you hear that Larry and Sergey have started taking riding lessons, let me know. Seven years’ notice or so would be about right.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Milli Vanilli, your car is ready.

The literati are shaking their heads today. It seems that James Frey, wunderkind author of “A Million Little Pieces”, stands accused of fabricating a bunch of stuff in that book. Which is a problem because it’s supposed to be non-fiction.

Take heart, Mr. Frey. This kind of thing happens to brands all the time. Consider the case of Volvo. A brand whose stodgy image and obscure provenance had always been redeemed by the legendary safety of its cars. Generations of college professors smugly piloted these bricks to and fro, certain in the knowledge that they would never seem vain and always be safe.

Then, in 1992, Volvo got caught faking a demo in a TV commercial. A monster truck rolled over a row of cars, leaving all but the intact Volvo crushed flat. Seems the Volvo had some non-standard bits of steel welded inside to reinforce it. Oh, and the other cars had been, um, weakened here and there to ensure their destruction.

Not too safe, and pretty darned vain.

Just as with James Frey’s semi-non-ficto-auto-bio-story, you’d think this was a betrayal and expect summary punishment from an unforgiving marketplace. But it doesn’t always seem to work this way. Rather than making people feel betrayed and angry, these situations often seem merely to confront them with a dilemma: If it’s not real, can it still be good?

Well, in Volvo’s case the answer is apparently yes. Despite squandering its safety credentials with that TV ad stunt, and despite selling out to dowdy old Ford Motor Company, it has continued to prosper. So did Coke after its New Coke market research triumph. So did Nike after the whole sweatshop thing. So did Michelin after its Formula 1 debacle at Indianapolis last year. So did European wines despite their various dalliances with wood alcohol, anti-freeze and (shudder) the illegal blending of lesser vintages.

Hell, even Bill Clinton is looking positively statesmanlike these days.

I still think that authenticity is the most valuable thing a brand can have. The only thing that matters. But once that authenticity has wormed its way into people’s psyches, it turns out to be rather difficult to dislodge. What starts out as a fact metastasizes into a truth. People don’t get attached to facts, but they become personally invested in their truths and cling to them sometimes beyond all reason. Volvo owners will still tiresomely insist that they are the safest cars on the road, even though statistically they simply are not (in the luxury sedan category, Lexus, Audi and BMW all perform better, according to Consumer Reports. If you can believe them, that is).

It remains to be seen if people will decide that “A Million Little Pieces” is good enough to overcome the fraudulent hype of which it stands accused, but they’ve already voted on Volvos. And that should give you hope, James Frey. If your readers want it all to be true bad enough, they’ll just decide it is.

Which proves that there’s a reason the opposite of ‘fiction’ in the literary world isn’t ‘truth’. It’s just ‘non-fiction’.

And that monster trucks are no match for faith.

Or, um, welders.