Friday, October 26, 2007

A knife to a gunfight.


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


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.