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.