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.


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.