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.