Friday, December 07, 2007

A blog about nothing.

There was a Gary Larsen cartoon that was a favourite of mine back when I was younger and pretending to be twisted and nihilistic. It posed this existential question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no-one’s around and it hits a mime, does anybody care?”

I hereby claim this charmingly collegiate sentiment for my own allegorical purposes as I present to you the most pointless rebranding exercise that I have ever beheld: The New York taxicab.

Here's what it used to look like:


And here is the stunning transformation:


What in the name of Judd Hirsch do you suppose they were thinking, here? Let’s consider all of the magical things a brand can do, and then ask ourselves if a taxi in the Big Apple requires a single blessed one of them. You new kids might want to grab your notebooks.

Okay, why don't we start with recognition. Some companies like to have a fancy new logo so that people will identify their products and pay attention to them. Geez, I don’t know, but I think getting attention is not a problem that a New York taxi has. Give a typical New Yorker the choice between an empty cab and, oh, I don’t know, eternal life, say, and they’ll take the taxi. Salvation is like a subway. You miss one chance, another one will come along soon. But an empty cab? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Then there’s differentiation. Some companies like fancy logos because they make their products look more special than other people’s products. Could this be it? Well, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think so. BECAUSE THEY’RE ALL YELLOW. They are supposed to be anonymously interchangeable. The only exceptions to this are the gypsy cabs at the airport which if patronized, we are led to believe by the ironically named TLC, will leave you dismembered in Ziplock bags scattered along the BQE. And maybe the occasional rebel who duct-tapes dingle-balls along the top of his windshield and plays zither music on the radio while he mutters into his cell phone. But that’s it. Otherwise, they’re all supposed to be the same.

Okay, how about making money. Some companies like to make their logos fancy so that they can charge more for their products because of an enhanced image. Buzzer noise! Fares are fixed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Only two things can jack up the price: a tip, or a revolver. Nope, no added image value here.

All things considered, I’d say we’ve found the perfect vacuum of reason for ‘rebranding’. Fortunately, while the new NYC Taxi logo – um, brand – lacks the insouciant bluntness of the original, it’s every bit as unattractive. There is no risk that anyone will interpret this as the commercializing of New York’s unofficial public transit system. Rather, we are left with the impression that this was nothing more than a spasm of vanity from deep in the bowels of the city’s bureaucracy. Moreover, the TLC didn’t even pay for the design work. It was donated.

So, they didn’t need it. It won’t have any effect. It’s no improvement on what it replaces. And it was free.

Good, then.

Kind of leaves you speechless.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A knife to a gunfight.

Before:

And after:

I believe religiously in the power of design to shape perception in the branding game. What I’ve never understood, though, is why it so often becomes the last resort of scoundrels. Whether it’s Robert Milton a few years back, giving Air Canada’s fleet a snazzy new paint job in the wake of a government bailout, or the freshly reconstituted AT&T, there seems to be a breed of executive who believes that all will be forgiven if you just buy your brand something new and frilly to wear.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a monumental mismatch between a PR problem and a design solution as the recently unveiled new visual identity for Blackwater USA.

Blackwater, of course, is the private security contractor that has had so much negative press lately, in particular around America’s Iraq adventure. Whether for their alleged shenanigans in-country, or for the enormous cost and ethical concerns of employing them in a war zone, or just for their swaggering macho image, this firm is perhaps second only to Halliburton among corporations to which the Iraq war has attracted unwanted attention. And at the very apogee of all this controversy, the press circling them with First Amendment rights locked and loaded, the boys from Blackwater unholstered… a new logo.

Not that it didn’t need work, mind you. Their old logo looked like a sweater patch for the varsity homicide team. The new one is definitely friendlier and more corporate. Now they just look like a phone company that kills people.

But the timing. Whoever advised them on this move should be made to do quite a lot of pushups. Nothing a brand does is judged in a vacuum. It’s always about context. And when you’re talking about something as supposedly sacrosanct as a logo, that judgment is about imputed motive. Logos are symbolic by definition, so when one gets changed the first question is, why? Or, at least, why now? In this case, intended or not, context and imputed motive combined to send an unfortunate message. Design geeks are having a heyday with it. The press, meanwhile, is just shaking its head and wondering how stupid Blackwater thinks they are. And the rest of us, thankfully having no reason to encounter a Blackwater brand experience for ourselves, will form our impressions solely on the press’ reaction.

A tactical blunder for sure.

In fact, I’d say it was a branding disaster if I thought that Blackwater’s customers paid any attention to the press…

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fallen.


Is Apple getting too big for its britches?

I’m a fan. Always have been. Besides loving most of what they make, I also think that Apple is the post-modern proto-brand. When that lady threw the sledgehammer at the giant video screen during the 1984 Super Bowl, it was branding’s Sarajevo: the single shot after which nothing would be the same. From that day on, the best brands, the ones that really mattered, were advocates and not salesmen.

My first inkling that the honeymoon might be over happened last year. I’d used the Apple brand to demonstrate a point to a class I was teaching and, to my horror, was met with rolling eyes. Some wag even referred to Apple as the Evil Empire, for pete’s sake. I let this blasphemy pass, figuring that, hey, it’s an arts university. They’re forced to use Macs. Undergrads are like that. If you forced them to drink beer, it would end campus alcohol abuse overnight.

But it didn’t end there.

There’s since been all this squirming about the cable company-esque monopolistic behavior of iTunes. There was the pouting and foot-stamping about the exclusive deal that they gave AT&T to distribute the iPhone (a deal which, in fact, had a perfectly logical explanation: they were the only carrier whose network could support it). And then pouting and stamping Part Deux, when Apple had the temerity to lower the iPhone’s price and rebate money to the people who bought the first ones. The press has jumped on the dogpile, too. Check out the October 22 Business Week. On page 81, you’ll find the headline “A Bruise or Two On Apple’s Reputation,” accompanied by a photo of a grim mom and sulking child clutching their ailing iMac. The story is about service problems, but if that’s of no interest you can flip back to page 30 in the same issue and read about plucky Universal planning to take on giant iTunes, “… the Jobs Juggernaut”.

Apple? The Jobs Juggernaut?! What we have here, kids, is a sudden deficit of benefit of the doubt. And that’s as fatal to a brand as ice cubes are to single malt scotch.

There is, of course, no end of punditry on this subject out there on the internets. Words like ‘arrogant’ get hurled about. Theories about a backlash against its Mac vs. Windows television campaign are smugly invoked. The ubiquity of the iPod is causing brand fatigue, some opine. Might be something to all of it, but here’s what I think:

You’ve heard the term ‘adoption curve’? Well, it comes from a concept called Diffusion Theory (liberally plundered by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘The Tipping Point’). Among its principles is the idea that as something new gets adopted by more and more of the population over time, each successive wave of adopters has its own unique motivations and biases. So, if you were the first on your block to get a DVD player, you probably paid too much, loved the novelty and social status, and were very patient with its technological teething problems. Whereas, if you bought your first DVD player last Tuesday, you paid about $49, don’t give a fig about novelty and social status, resent being forced to ditch your VCR, and expect the thing to work as reliably as your Electrolux. Get the idea?

So I think maybe this is Apple’s, um, core problem. For two decades, this brand was a counterculture darling and the pet of the creative class. It subsisted on its alternativeness and the endless patience of early adopters. But now, everybody’s got an Apple somethingorother. And ‘everybody’ is price sensitive, less interested in tech-status and just wants stuff to work like their Electroluxes and somebody to blame if it doesn’t. Today’s Apple isn’t doing business with the sledgehammer lady. It’s doing business with the slack-jawed drones she was trying to liberate. They don’t think Apple is a religion. They just think it’s a brand.

Tough beans for Apple. It’s hard to be an iconoclast when you’re the icon. But, hey, Steve, keep the faith. Even Microsoft went through tough times. Look at Bill now. On the cover of Time with Bono.

Britches don’t get any bigger than that.

Friday, September 21, 2007

RIM shot.


27D is still poking away at his Blackberry. We’re climbing out of LaGuardia in air traffic so thick you need more than one hand to count the planes you can see out the window, and this post-modern Willy Loman is peering with porcine intensity into the little glowing screen, typing with the unmistakable cadence of someone who is being answered. We suspect he still has the transmitter turned on, but cannot prove it without a confrontation. I even give the ol’ cut-eye to the flight attendant, but she seems uninterested in asking Willy if he has something he’d like to share with the rest of the class.

The tension this generates is only finally broken by a slightly panicked announcement from the cockpit begging whomever is using a Blackberry to turn it off because it’s generating “some confusing messages from the plane’s TCAS (Traffic Collision Avoidance System)”. You know, the thing that keeps planes from hitting each other. Especially here in the most crowded airspace on the planet, as the senior flight attendant tersely points out to Willy before he emits a bored sigh and – with leisurely deliberation that seems to belie his otherwise apparent indispensability to the world – shuts the damned thing down and pockets it. And here’s the word that flashes through my mind:

Typical.

Some of my best friends use Blackberries, and no user I know personally would ever do anything this biblically stupid. Yet this stereotype sticks so naturally to the brand. And so, with no bar service to lighten the mood, I’m left to contemplate why this might be. I suppose one obvious contributor is the cultural history of the device. Like cellular phones fifteen or twenty years back, Blackberries were first badged by the Type-As that first adopted them (I still smirk recalling the participant in an early 90s focus group who observed that “cell phones are how you identify jerks in restaurants”). It’s hard to give much benefit of the doubt to a brand that you first saw strapped to a stockbroker’s alligator belt just before the tech crash.

But I don’t think that totally explains it. The ‘berry is almost nine years old. By the time cell phones were that age, they were being marketed as Christmas gifts for the family. No, I think that the real reason why we are so willing to use this brand against its users lies not in anything that Research In Motion has done, but in what they have not done. Think about it: Can you remember ever hearing this brand’s voice? Remember one thing that it has ever said to its customers and prospects, on its own behalf or theirs?

No. You read about RIM being sued. You read about RIM suing someone else. You read about how much money Jim Balsillie makes. You read that RIM is a great place to work. You read about its stock price. But you never see this company stooping to the fundamental and respectful act of simply selling their product to us and, thus, acknowledging that we matter to them. They just take us for granted. And into this vacuum of purpose rushes the only assumption we could possibly make about the Blackberry brand: that the company behind it is arrogant and self-absorbed, just like 27D.

It’s a useful reminder that brands are the proceeds of observation. You can’t force people to see you a certain way just by advertising to them. But neither can you decide simply to not have a brand because you don’t have any serious competition and therefore don’t need one. If you have a name, if your conduct in the marketplace is observable, even through the behavior of your customers, you’re gonna get a brand. And the first time consumers find themselves in a position of real choice, it might just bite you, hard. Ask the phone companies.

Meanwhile, back on Flight 713, we’re taxiing to the gate in Toronto. Everyone’s turning on their communications devices and, what with the charming little boot-up tunes and the glowing displays, it is as if the plane is suddenly filled with magical fairies. Willy joins in, but it appears that he hasn’t received any messages since nearly killing us all in the skies over Queens. It seems the world carried on just fine for 45 minutes without him.

Typical.

Friday, August 17, 2007

A Convenient Truth.


Hello, my name is BrandCowboy, and I didn’t used to be the next President of the United States.

Okay, kidding. That was an important film and Al Gore is an important guy. But you could forgive us regular folks for feeling wearily powerless against the various apocalypses (apocalpysi?) so ardently marketed by the media these days. You could forgive us for raptly watching Paris Hilton emerge from jail instead because, although we’re equally powerless to affect that, at least it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, the Greek chorus of No-Logoists and their equally smug neo-environmentalist cousins intone that it’s all the fault of corporations. We, but hapless pawns, are being danced to our doom by vast, evil empires whom, we are to suppose, are bent on destroying the marketplace that sustains them.

Then, just as we’re about to give up all hope, along comes Elmo.

Not the Tickle Me one. The little plastic one. The one recalled by Mattel last week because it had too much lead in its paint. That Elmo. And while everyone fretted about the problems of producing products in poorly regulated foreign markets and television news programs aired tape of wailing children having their toys confiscated, I cheered right up. Why? Because I realized the truth that’s been staring at you and me and Al all along:

Brands could save the world.

Let me frame this up: A dangerous product was made by a manufacturer with no strict capitalist imperative and no brand of its own (see where this is going?). It was prevented from doing any harm, though, because the product was to be sold by a company that DOES have a brand. And why? Is it because they’re good and decent people with a deep sense of social responsibility? Maybe. I couldn’t say for sure because I don’t know them. But I know this: They fear us. They’ve got far too much to lose by selling toys that make people sick.

And that’s the key. You see, Al, unlike the election you lost, branding is a democratic concept. We get to vote every time we buy. Brands mean we have the power to make corporations behave more or less the way we want them to, if we want to bother. Though there’s no absolute guarantee that all those corporations will toe the line, disassociating ourselves from their brands certainly won’t help. It’s like spoiling your ballot at election time: You’re rejecting a flawed system in favour of no system at all. And anarchy, in case you don’t watch TV, doesn’t bring out the best in people.

The other thing Al would like about branding is that it stands as a bastion against crap. If we buy crap, it eventually disappoints us and we throw it away, wasting both the resources it took to make it and the landfill it will end up in. A brand certainly doesn’t guarantee quality, but the absence of it removes any inhibition a company might have against making crap. Here’s a case in point: A couple of weeks back, the Globe and Mail reported on a study comparing the total life cycle energy requirements of 100 makes of cars and trucks. Guess what the biggest factor in lifetime energy consumption was. Size? Nope. The type or quantity of fuel used? Nope again. The major contributor to the impact a car has on this planet is, in most cases, how long that car stays on the road. The longer a car lasts before it has to be replaced, the less environmental impact it ultimately has, because building it and disposing of it can do more damage than driving it does. Extend this principle to our computers, running shoes, home appliances, golf clubs and sponge mops, you start to see how the same consumers who got us into this pickle (that would be us) might have the power to get us out, if they just keep their standards high enough.

It was just about a year ago that I used this same rhetorical Nerf bat to try to beat some sense into Neil Boorman, whose ”Bonfire of the Brands”’ is due to be published any day now. A year on, I feel like vindication is nigh. We’re seeing daily in the news what happens when products are made by people who are not accountable to the consumer. It may scare us, but I promise you that it scares marketers more. It must be pretty obvious by now that brands aren’t really the problem, here. And it will hopefully soon be just as obvious that if we consumers exercise our franchise and buy with a conscience, they might actually be part of the solution.

You know, Al, I rock at PowerPoint. Maybe you and I should take this show on the road. As long as you don’t mind if we use my Mac.

Oh, and I’ll drive.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Eurotrashed.


Well, I’m back in the saddle after a brief sojourn on the Continent with Sweetie. There’s nothing like a wine-soaked meditation in branding’s Garden of Eden to give a cowboy some perspective. Take, for instance, these revelations scribbled on the back of a boarding pass…

Overheard at the airport in Milan at 6A – freakin’ – M over the clip-clop of little Crocs: “Mommy! They’ve got Minute Maid!” Now, how can you say globalization is a bad thing? At least, as long as ‘global brand’ really means ‘American stuff you can get anywhere’, it sure seems to keep the kids happy.

Can someone explain Paul and Shark to me? I saw this brand worn by lots of briefcase-toting businessmen in mufti. It appears to be like Dockers for rich people. You know, so you’ve got more money, but still no imagination.

Okay, and here’s a handy travel hint: In Europe, Martini is a brand, not a magical healing potion. I ordered one in a very fine establishment, and it confusingly arrived on the rocks.

Worst. Martini. Ever.

That’s because it was vermouth. Ironic, don’t you think?

Here’s how much Europeans love brands, unlike the Puritanically ambivalent relationship we have with them here in the colonies: Sweetie marches up to a street vendor selling designer sunglasses and demands to know their provenance. The vendor looks to the left and then to the right like Lefty the Salesman on Sesame Street and then says, “Mafia.” Because there, you see, ‘stolen’ is more socially acceptable than ‘fake’.

Can I just say, I love Samsonite Black Label? Yes, it turns out they sell it here in the Great White North, online at least. But there, they have actual stores, complete with dreamy ambient lounge music and obliviously hip staff. What a wonderfully exuberant, brave and all too rare example of a brand extending itself UPwards. While a procession of the world’s great brands are slouching towards Bentonville in an effort to trade margin for volume, here’s workaday Samsonite asking itself not, “How can we make this cheaper,” but rather, “How can we make this cooler?” There should be a medal for this.

… and then there were some Byzantine exchange rate calculations on the stuff we bought, a tomato sauce stain, and an incoherent scrawl on the subject of why nobody can afford business class anymore.

It’s good to be home.

P.S. In case you thought that branding’s rich pageant had halted for the summer, here are two stories from this week that need no sarcastic illumination from me:

Can a brand be used as punishment? Ask misbehaving Thai police officers…

A placebo can make a headache go away. And, apparently, a brand can make a French fry taste better. Behold its terrifying power…

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Glory of O.


Somebody said once that when information is free, the only thing that will have any value will be a point of view. Though the fact that nobody seems to want to claim authorship of this quote may ironically suggest otherwise, I think there is real truth in it. And Exhibit A must surely be Oprah Winfrey. This woman’s success has got to be the most encouraging proof that brands have a future since the swoosh hat Tiger Woods wore at last year’s Masters. With no pedigree, no credential, no tangible product or service to offer, Oprah was the answer to a question nobody had yet asked, and that answer built her a personal fortune estimated by Forbes to be $1.3 billion dollars. She has elevated her brand to pure essence. An adjective free of any noun. A trademarked existential state. It has made people happy, apparently, and her rich.

And now she’s opening a store.

Construction started last month in Chicago, not far from her studio.

On the face of it, this is a big yawn. You could look at this little enterprise, fairly conclude that it’s nothing more than a souvenir shop, and flip to the next blog (which, last time I checked, is a site debunking online degrees. There goes that dream). But what I think is so fascinating is that it could just as easily be the seed of a national chain, spreading like a virus across the land until it’s become the Starbucks of self-actualization. And what could it sell? Well, her online boutique gives us clues. Coffee mugs, beach totes, stretchy pants and lounge socks. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t you think she could sell pretty much anything she wants? Radishes? Deodorant? Hedge clippers? It’s easier, in fact, and more telling to come up with a list of what she couldn’t sell.

Automatic weapons, for example. Probably not those.

Domesticated ferrets, hard liquor, Tom Cruise posters. There would be limits. But they would be authenticating limits, because those things would so obviously clash with what we understand to be her values. Otherwise, if those values can make any sense out of a product, I reckon she could flog it.

This makes me happy. You see, I think that to represent a point of view is a brand’s highest calling, and that there are lots of them out there prospering as such. You can’t tell me that Nike ever just sold shoes, or that McDonald’s ever just sold burgers or that Disneyland was ever just a theme park. Platoons of MBAs, mind you, in their unending quest for tangibility, will argue that those brands are constructed value propositions. But we know better. And Oprah has proven it for us. Because all she makes is people to see life her way.

As for the store itself, I can really only see one flaw in the business model: I’m hardly going to drive all the way to the mall if I can get that Zulu Telephone Wire Basket just by thinking positively. I mean, gas alone is going to be, like, five bucks. And they’ll probably be out of stock anyway.

Wait, that’s not very positive. Maybe I do need to go to the mall…

Friday, June 15, 2007

Webbed feat.


Okay, I’m pro-brand. A ‘Yes Logo’ kind of guy. But it’s not just because brands pay the dry cleaning bills for all my black turtlenecks. I actually think that brands are the last bastion of accountability between society and corporations. Kind of a thin blue line, on one side of which exists at least the possibility that we can use our wallets to force companies to behave, and on the other side of which lies a kind of marketing anarchy in which we’re deluged with cheap battery-operated mantel clocks made of nuclear waste and mine slag. But let me tell you, it’s lonely work. Nobody wants to hear that brands are to marketing what democracy is to governance. Marketers clap their hands on their ears and make that Jerry Lewis ‘la la la’ noise, while consumers buy copies of Naomi Klein’s book and solemnly park them on a conspicuous shelf so much as to say, “These sneakers aren’t my fault. Nike made me do it.”

Anyway, so I almost flipped past Allan Sloan’s story in the June 4 Newsweek (The Cruncher) when the duck stopped me in my tracks. Aflac’s famous spokes-quacker featured prominently in the picture at the top of the article, entitled “Aflac Ducks a Punch Over Executive Pay”. Huh? Ad ducks? Executive pay? Whaasssuup?

The story in brief: Aflac was to become a target for shareholder activists for how much its executive team is paid, part of the ‘say-on-pay’ movement that’s been sweeping the country in this post-Enron era. Rather than fight about it and cause a big, embarrassing mess, Aflac proactively volunteered to offer its shareholders a say on pay going forward. Nolo contendere. Good for them, but so what, right? Well, so this: It was the writer’s opinion that Aflac capitulated because they didn’t want to risk their famous, well-loved brand. The article begins with the assertion, “When the public face of your company is a duck, you can’t afford to foul up your reputation.” Notwithstanding the Churchillian turn of phrase, I gotta say hell, yeah. He even goes so far as to back his claim up with one of those Newsweeky data boxes, telling us three things: How many years they’ve used the duck in their ad campaign (7), what their brand awareness is (90%), and Aflac’s market cap ($25B).

See, Naomi? Imagine how this would have gone if there had been no brand at stake. Gulfstreams and Centurion Cards for everybody! A Bentley in every parking spot! Solid gold putters and foie gras with your lobster! And, of course, atrophied 401ks for the little guy. But no. Aflac had to do the right thing and, without prejudice to whether they’re actually good folks or not, their brand made them do it.

Sometimes, I want to get all the marketers and all the consumers together and give them big noogies. If companies live up to their brands, people will trust them. And if people insist on brands with integrity, that’s the only kind there will be. And look, Naomi, it didn’t even take me 490 pages to say it.

Sigh.

Meanwhile, the world will awaken tomorrow morning secure in the knowledge that at least one more corporate giant has seen the light. Asked by Newsweek how the duck will vote on the say-on-pay motion at the next shareholders’ meeting, Chairman Don Amos said, “The duck’s the cheapest guy we’ve got working for us – and the most valuable. He’ll just say, ‘Vote yes.’”

Man, I bet Conrad Black wishes he had a duck.

And I think I know why I don’t have that book deal locked up yet.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Put up a parking lot.


In his 2004 book, “A Short History of Progress,” Ronald Wright wagged his finger at mankind for failing to learn from its mistakes. It’s a compelling read, relying heavily on the lessons of extinct civilizations to make its case. Among these, maybe the most jaw-dropping is the story of Easter Island, a barren rock in the South Pacific that once teemed with arboreal life until it was deforested by its resident humans, utterly. He evoked the moment when that very last tree came down, wondering at how whoever was wielding the axe must have been so blinded by their immediate agenda that they couldn’t notice that there wasn’t any more shade.

It was the image of this imbecile, axe in hand, proudly surveying his handiwork, which came to mind as I read about yesterday’s CRTC ruling in favour of increasing commercial content in television’s prime time.

For non-Canadians and anybody else with other things on their minds besides the demise of commercial television, here’s the headline: The CRTC, Canada’s broadcast regulator, has approved a request by the country’s beleaguered television broadcasters to increase the number of minutes of commercials it can show during prime time to 14 per hour, then to 15 for all time periods a year from now. And then, finally, in September, 2008, there will be no limit at all. The networks can sell as much advertising time as they like. Or can.

Well, I suppose they’re turning cartwheels around the foosball tables at the nation’s ad agencies today. More ads to sell means more ads to make. First, the Bessie Awards and McHappy Day fell on the same date this year, and now this. Good times.

But when the cool kids are done dancing around this latest fallen log, they might want to spare a thought for what this really means to our little branding island.

For one thing, let’s remember that television networks weren’t in trouble because they couldn’t sell enough ads. They were in trouble because they couldn’t scrape together enough audiences. In the U.S., network television just had what Associated Press called “it’s worst spring in recent memory,” with 2.5 million fewer viewers of its programming than in the previous year, and it’s only an acceleration of a trend that’s been around since the dawn of cable. Audience shares of top rated programming have been halving every twenty years since the 50s. Today, here in Canada, a program with an audience share of as little as 6% can make it to the top ten. First, cable sliced audiences more and more thinly, and then the internet stole them away altogether. You might be making more ads for the next little while, kids, but you’ll be making them for a lot fewer people to watch. And eventually that math is going to catch up with you: Your clients and their brands will have a harder and harder time justifying the cost of producing television advertising (especially if it just reaches the same 17 trailer park-dwelling recluses, over and over and over again). Being excited about this is like a beef farmer being excited about McDonald’s lowering the price of its hamburgers.

And then there’s this pesky moral thing. Advertising was always a value exchange. Ads funded the creation of wonderful things to watch. More ads is going to lead to less wonderfulness, changing the value equation and slowly but surely reducing its appeal until it has none at all. And that’s going to be a huge pity. You see, while I’m skeptical of all the self-congratulatory ceremony around advertising and its rather parochial view of branding, I am still a believer. Used respectfully, television commercials are among the very few remaining ways you can stimulate the interest of a passive consumer. You know, make them want something. The internet is lovely if you know what you’re looking for, but the best way of making a consumer want to look in the first place is probably still going to be some kind of ad. But bombard people with them, hold their programming hostage for another few minutes an hour, and eventually advertising will get a bad name. No, seriously.

No, this is not good news. Not good news at all. Canada’s broadcasters are joining the ranks of marketing’s damned, the people who’d rather sell more of less. Keep it up, keep running more and more ads, more and more cheaply, to smaller and smaller audiences, and before you know it, you’ll have invented YouTube.

Except we already have one of those.

Don’t it always seem to go…

Monday, April 23, 2007

American idolatry.


I just hate jumping on bandwagons, but this one was irresistible.

If brands and their hijinks amuse you even a little, then there is no way you’ve avoided the Jesus-drinking-a-Coke kerfuffle that erupted earlier this month. The story goes like this: An Italian film called “7 Kilometers From Jerusalem” was to have its debut on Easter weekend. In this film, a modern-day Jesus is shown drinking a Coke given to him by the film’s protagonist, a disenfranchised ad guy. (Excuse me while I reset my irony meter). The Coca Cola Company takes umbrage at this, and parachutes a battalion of lawyers into Italy to threaten tort mayhem if the film is shown with the scene intact. They succeed in terrifying the producers, the film is withdrawn and, last I heard, will be edited to eliminate the scene. And here, from a Coke spokesperson, is the statement that got my Irish up:

“We are not interested in this kind of product placement.”

Product placement!? Who in the blue blazes do these people think they are? Sorry, Hoss, but that’s not product placement. That’s a movie. Art. It’s none of your business.

There are three things wrong with this, it seems to me. First, it’s arrogant bullying. You want to control who in the public realm, fictionally or otherwise, is seen drinking your product? Geez, I’m glad you weren’t in the neighbourhood for my wedding. I’m sure there were a few Coke drinkers there you wouldn’t have approved of. And no, you can’t see the pictures.

Second, it’s rank hypocrisy. For 115 years, this brand has done everything it could think of to insinuate itself into American and then global culture so that it’s as comfortably familiar and ubiquitous as air. That humanity bought your pitch and made you its own means you have to tolerate what they do with it as long as there isn’t any misrepresentation involved. It’s not just yours anymore. It’s also ours. You can’t stuff that genie back into your shape-trademarked bottle, sport.

Finally, I’m left scratching my head over what all this tells us about Coke’s values as a brand. I mean, they let Bill Gates drink it publicly, in a commercial no less. And they let Simon Cowell drink it publicly. And they allowed the Bushmen of the Kalahari to cavort with the bottle, at least, in that movie. A bottle, it should be noted, that started off as litter before it wrought havoc in the tribe, eventually getting hurled off the edge of the world because it was an “evil thing”. This, you were fine with. But a movie Jesus? Um, no, sorry. That’s going too far, no matter what the Vatican thinks.

I can’t figure it out. But I do know three things: I know that the line between benevolent megabrand and evil empire is razor thin. Mr. Gates could have told you that, Coke. I know that the Second Commandment got broken, here. (I'm just not sure whose).

And I know that you’re going to be kicking yourself if Jesus switches to Pepsi.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Brands? We don't need no stinkin' brands.


A few years back, I found myself in Miami shooting a television commercial. As is usually the case with location shooting, we had hired local cops to control traffic and keep gawkers at a respectful distance, and among our contingent of Miami’s finest was one particularly memorable specimen. He was a strapping fellow, obviously spent a lot of time in the gym, and equally obviously did not wear a standard issue uniform. His appeared to have been bespoke tailored out of some kind of shiny, stretchy material, chosen to show off the product of all that gym time. It was impressive, in a vaguely Village People kind of way, but also a bit unsettling. It sent odd signals about what motivated this particular public servant, signals more about vanity than responsibility. I understand the value of looking intimidating to the difficult job of policing; I was less clear about the value of looking like you're ready for your closeup. I just kind of thought that if I was being rescued from bad guys or dragged from a burning wreck, I’d want my savior to be completely unconcerned about the crease in his trousers or whether his badge was interrupting the line of his pectoral muscle.

This is what came to mind last week as I beheld the new livery of the Toronto Police Service’s patrol cars, which again demonstrated that the inherent vanity in branding might not be suited to absolutely every purpose. Okay, the new cruisers aren’t as disturbing as a black spandex uniform, but they still feel a bit… I dunno… brand-y. Where the old ones had all the personality of a tax form, the new ones seem to be saying, “Introducing All-New Police Ultra! Now 20% more law enforcier!” If I was being transported to the hoosegow in one of these things, I would feel more like I was in a movie than in trouble.

I wish there were brand cops. Whoever sold the police service this bill of goods would be brought up on charges. Some kind of recklessness or negligence thing. Everybody knows that a brand is not the sum of what it looks like, it’s the sum of what it does. Everything sends a signal, and the signal a police car should send is, “Don’t worry, we’re here.” Or maybe, “You are so busted and screwed beyond belief.” It shouldn’t send a signal that says, “I am snazzy. Admire me.” I mean, geez, you need look no further than the major military conflict of the last century to see the truth in this. Who had the coolest uniforms and the flashiest stuff? The facists. The bad guys. The guys that lost. They wore Hugo Boss.

Moral authority doesn’t go shopping.

Fortunately, the rest of the Toronto Police Service brand experience is pretty much intact. The earnest blue uniforms, the handcuffs, billy clubs, mace, Glocks, flashing red lights, all that will still get my attention and respect after I sail through my next radar trap. Despite the fancy new package, the product inside is the same as it ever was, and this is one of those rare occasions when I think that’s about as it should be.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The tangled web we weave.


With great power comes great responsibility, so said Spiderman. But apparently certain craven elements of the marketing community were watching Goldmember that year, because the idea of responsibility in this game seems to be disappearing like the polar ice caps. This week, three more examples landed on my desk with a damp thud, leaving me in a mood to rant.

It began with a story in Ad Age about how Jeep is going to oh-so-cleverly delegate the creation of its next ad campaign to consumers, just the latest in a string of brands resorting to this bit of marketing seppuku. Inspired by Time, who sweetly informed us that we were all the Person of the Year, Ad Age followed suit, breathlessly making the consumer the Agency of the Year. Then, brand by brand, marketing people, glassy-eyed from watching too much YouTube, decided that if the vox populi was really that smart, maybe it should do its own damn ads. Well, that’s just a super idea. Why don’t we confirm their suspicion that advertising is hokum, and so devoid of meaning that anyone can do it. Why don’t we silence the voices of our own brands and surrender advertising to the compost heap of pop culture. It’s bad enough that ad people believe that if consumers are laughing at our brands they’ll buy our products. Now, we’re going to invite them to laugh at each other. Ask Star Wars Kid how that worked out for him.

Next came a piece in the New York Times about how the Association of National Advertisers was going to demand that broadcasters develop ratings for individual television commercials, the way they do for programming. Because, you see, if people don’t watch the ads, the advertisers don’t want to pay as much for running them. Um, okay. I always thought it was the job of the ads’ creators to make commercials worth watching. But I guess if the consumer is making the ads, maybe not... it’s all so confusing. Anyway, I also thought we already had ratings for commercials. If memory serves, they were called ‘business results’.

World weary sigh.

And finally, speaking of YouTube, how about all that Taco Bell/KFC New York rats hysteria (if you missed it, here’s an example). This story is a couple of weeks old, but it came to mind as I was pondering this question of brands being responsible for themselves, and here’s the line that got me: In an interview with a local NBC television affiliate, a spokesperson for the parent company, Yum Brands (no, seriously) said, “The franchisee is actively addressing the problem.” As they say on the internets, WTF!?

Look, Yum dudes, let me give you some free advice:

Fire the franchisee. Terminate them with extreme prejudice. Swoop down on Greenwich Village like an avenging angel and tear your logos from the front of that building. Say you’re sorry for the lapse in judgment trusting these people with your precious brand and secret chicken recipe and start over down the street. “Actively addressing the problem”!? People came into that restaurant because your brand promised them a consistent experience and a level of accountability that exceeded that of a pretzel vendor. If all you’re going to do now is punt to the franchisee, then I’ll have mine with mustard. At least the pretzel guy will look me in the eye.

There. Somebody had to say it, and it was me. As Spidey put it, “This is my gift. My curse. Who am I?”

Just your friendly neighbourhood Brand Cowboy, baby.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Oops, they did it again.


Sometimes, an ad campaign can save a brand. But sometimes, the effort is so late, so desperate and so embarrassing to witness that it’s like walking into your parents ‘vicars & tarts’ party: An unseemly masquerade in which it’s hoped by all involved that, by dressing up as precisely the thing you are not, you can distract everyone from the hard truths of cellulite and chin wattles.

This was the lurid simile I finally settled on when Chrysler – sorry, DaimlerChrysler – broke its Dr. Z ad campaign some time back. The conceit of the campaign amounted to a signed confession by the folks in Auburn Hills that they just couldn’t build and sell cars on their own anymore. Look, it exulted, the joint’s being run by Germans now! They know how to build a car, by gum. And here’s the Head German, Dieter Zetsche, who even has (quoting the campaign web site, here) an “awesome moustache”! So now, our cars are going to be almost like, you know, Mercedes. Mercedeses. Mercediae. Whatever…

Anyway, they must have been convinced this was going to save the company once and for all, because it was a full court press. The company’s name had been changed, of course. And there was a series of mildly amusing television commercials in which a laconic Dr. Z demonstrated the virtues of dual sliding minivan doors and the like. And the aforementioned web site, featuring actual questions from actual consumers, each one inviting yet another revelation about the Teutons’ contribution to Chrysler’s rebirth. Actual questions like, oh, “What is so important about German Engineering in American cars?” Or, “Hey, Doc, I’m looking to see all of the current vehicle incentives. Can you send me in the right direction?” Man, if incentives don’t prove an ad campaign is working, I don’t know what does.

Well, whatev’, as the young people say. I cursed the chucklehead ad people who dreamed up this little festival of disingenuousness and got on with my life, no more inclined to buy a Chrysler and slightly less so to drive a Mercedes (whose brand was beginning to look like K-Fed to Chrysler’s Britney).

Then, while shaving one morning last week, I heard a familiar voice coming from the television. Could it be? I peeked out at the TV, and there it was: the Awesome Moustache! And it wasn’t being one bit laconic. The Head German was telling the folks in Auburn Hills that they were a financial sinkhole. They’d need to lose, oh, 13,000 or so souls from their payroll to make any financial sense. Oh, and layoffs or no, the folks in Stuttgart are seriously thinking about selling Chrysler anyway (possibly to these guys, it’s rumored), so fed up are they by the whole thing.

So, summarizing: Car company gets bought by famous German brand. Head German takes charge, and is appointed ├╝ber-shill for its products. Head German ends up threatening to fire 16% of the company and sell the rest to the Chinese.

Well done.

Brand-wise, it’s just gotta be hard to recover your dignity after a rejection like that. F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been wrong about there being no second acts in American life, but at this moment it seems like the only difference between Chrysler and Britney is that Britney’s hair will eventually grow back.

Who knows, maybe she'll even grow an awesome moustache.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Dead can dance.


There is no more anguished proof that a brand is out of ideas than the plundering of its past. From “Hilltop” redux to Burger King’s creepy disinterring of The King to the zombified Orville Redenbacher (which is, like, mega-creepy), every time I see one of these acts of creative despair I think that the perpetrators should be banished to writing Johnson Boxes at the nearest junk mail sweatshop.

(Seriously, this Orville Redenbacher thing is macabre. Take a look. Then come back here.)

So the other day, I’m out for a stroll and a billboard for another brand resurrection catches my eye. As in, I literally did a double-take and reread it to see if I could find the inevitable stupidity. Nothing. The needle on my stupidity meter was almost motionless.

TaB is back. And might possibly be cool.

To be exact, it’s a newish product called TaB Energy, and its proposition is, “Fuel to be Fabulous.” And the Coke folks have pulled off a pretty neat positioning trick with it. To start with, they’ve actually found some white space in the insanely cluttered beverage category: an energy drink for women. And I don’t mean the “hear me roar” variety. This is aimed at the modern sort who, besides being emancipated and empowered corporate executives and rock-climbing marathon runners, also like to read trashy magazines, collect cheap sunglasses and look cute when the mood suits them. It's Red Bull for for the girl power crowd.

But wait, you’re thinking. Didn’t TaB die ignominiously in the last century, a victim of its own obsolete pre-feminist positioning and possibly evil saccharine? In its final days, wasn’t it shorthand for antediluvian feminine vanity? Well, yeah. But, see, they’ve actually made that work for them. There’s an inviting sense of playful, pink irony about the whole thing that somehow seems to acknowledge that maybe, finally, we have come a long way, baby.

(TaB is, of course, no stranger to irony, or the subject of fabulousness for that matter. Consider this, taken with ruthless disregard for context, from Andy Warhol’s 'America': “You can see a billboard for TaB and think: Nancy Reagan drinks TaB , Gloria Vanderbilt drinks TaB . Jackie Onassis drinks TaB, and just think, you can drink TaB too. TaB is TaB and no matter how rich you are, you can’t get a better one than the homeless woman on the corner is drinking. All the TaBs are the same. And all the TaBs are good. Nancy Reagan knows it, Gloria Vanderbilt knows it, Jackie Onassis knows it, Katharine Hepburn knows it, the bag lady knows it, and you know it.” And it doesn’t get any cooler than Andy Warhol, right?)

If you snoop around their web site a bit, you’ll see that things kind of fall apart with the rather-too-perfect models in the photographs and the “Fabulous is…” philosophical stuff. Fabulousness needs neither explanation nor apologia, nor does it need some kind of presumptuous role model lecturing us on confidence to sanction it. Dove has that covered, thanks.

Even I, a mere oafish man, know that fabulousness is a state of mind and that earnestness is its kryptonite.

But out there in ad land, TaB Energy has got the thing just about dialed. I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching this reincarnation.

And I guarantee you I won’t be eating popcorn while I’m doing it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A New York minute.


For no particular reason other than to breathe the fetid air of possibility, Sweetie and I went to New York a few weeks back. While she shopped for shoes (and against all imaginable odds found none), I wandered the streets of SoHo clutching a Starbucks cup and trying to look like I belonged, the Elmer Fudd of cool hunters. And believe it or not, the most interesting thing I discovered on this little safari was not an obscure micro-genre of lounge music or some new level of opacity for Helmut Lang ads. It was a hole in the wall on Wooster Street called the Wired Store.

Now, on the face of it, this place wasn’t as mind blowing as, say, the new Apple store on 5th Avenue. Imagine a Sharper Image, but without most of the strange massage appliances. It was populated sparsely on this December afternoon with glassy-eyed geeks passing time until their round-two financing came through, and the occasional startled looking tourist, alternately poking and caressing the latest shiny totems of modernity.

Yawn. And so?

So this: Wired is a magazine. It’s not supposed to be a store.

Yet there it was, and it seemed to make all the sense in the world. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn inside, and as I tried on the solar-powered laptop-charging backpack, I meditated on what seem to be some emerging truths about what brands are about here in the 21st century.

Here’s one. A brand is an advocate. Some clever duck once said, “When information is free, the only thing that will have any value is a point of view.” Wired is a brand more than it’s just the name of a magazine because it has a coherent way of seeing the world. Its reason for being is not its ability to staple piles of colourful paper together and sell them, it’s its unbridled enthusiasm for the digital age. In my head, I knew all these toys they were selling were probably products of the magazine’s advertisers; in my heart, I felt like maybe all these products had passed a test to be there.

Or how about, a brand is understood through experience. And, in a sense, the capacity for experience is kind of how you know you have a brand. The Wired Store, to me, was impressive precisely because it wasn’t surprising. Of course this is what Wired would look like if it was a store. Of course this is who would be lurking therein. Of course this is where it would be. Of course.

And this: A brand’s consumers are a tribe of shared values, not shared demographics, and certainly not, heaven help us, a ‘target’. What’s more, the beautiful thing about a brand like this is that it can be for some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time. It didn’t care who came through its doors. Although I thought it fell short in the execution, you could see the potential, here, for this place to be like a church of Wired-ness. Niketown, taken to the next level.

Yeah, so, I was pretty chuffed about all that. Madly making notes and congratulating myself later over a martini for observing this evolutionary moment, this brand ascendant. You can imagine how sulky I was, then, on learning that they’d packed up and left like gypsies in the night shortly after Christmas, leaving nothing but a ‘for rent’ sign in the window. I’d stumbled on a new trend, alright. It’s called a “pop-up store”, and they’re all the buzz-making rage in Manhattan right now. Nike had just done one, too, in fact. It was open for four days.

Wascally wabbits.

But I still kind of want that backpack.