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.


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.