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.