Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Road to Perdition.

What’s lost if a brand dies?

I’ve been asking myself this question as I watch the North American auto industry mismanage itself this time not just into dire straits, but perhaps into oblivion. From the moment those dimbulbs stepped off their private jets with their hands out last month, I have had a terrible feeling this wasn’t going to end well.

So hot is this issue, and so high-stakes, that I feel like I need to stipulate a couple of things before I launch this polemic: First, as a former card-carrying member of the UAW in my student days, and later as a marketing partner to two big Japanese auto makers, let me assure you that I understand this situation is not simple. And there is plenty of blame to go around, from head offices to the shop floors to the showrooms to the consumer’s driveways. Second, I am not unaware that the consequences of this industry failing are inestimable. In this sense, the car companies really do have a lot in common with the financial institutions that got us into this mess: they brought it on themselves and the rest of us, but we probably can’t afford to punish them.

But this is a blog about brands, and of all the casualties that might pile up in the months ahead, I’m not sure anybody else is going to shout this one out. So let me add a couple of things to the list of what’s at risk, here.

Consider the Ford Motor Company. At its birth, this enterprise was practically the Apple Computer of its time. Henry Ford saw a business in the idea of mobility as a universal entitlement. “I will build a car for the great multitude,” he proclaimed. His vision of a car in every driveway was linked to a technological breakthrough for making it possible (that would be the assembly line) and a simplified product offering (one model, one colour), and to the notion that the workers themselves should be able to share in both the fact and the fruit of that vision. Brilliant. Inspiring. Gone. Today, Ford has some nice products, I guess, but no real sense of why it should exist. Or for whom.

Or General Motors. Under Alfred Sloan, the concept of positioning was essentially invented there, decades before Trout and Ries coined the term. He built GM as a portfolio of brands that were not meant to compete with each other at all. Instead, they broadened GM’s market coverage, while giving the consumer a lingua franca with which to express himself through his choice of cars. And a social ladder to climb while doing it. Like it or not, it was brilliant. Inspiring. And now, though the husk of the company remains, gone. Today, GM is a big, fat, inefficient pile of marketing redundancies, built by cynical badge engineering and dealer pandering.

These, it seems to me, were two very good ideas: The democratization of personal transportation, a portfolio of microbrands aimed at affinities rather than functional needs. Maybe even better ideas now than they were then. The problem, it seems to me, is that the people who now run the companies that had those ideas aren’t believers. They’re just managers.

(As for Chrysler? Well, Chrysler never really had a vision, did it. No sense of purpose. It’s been in the fashion business since the 1920s, a market opportunist chasing the zeitgeist with engineering and design, but no mission. A car company shouldn’t be more famous for a building than it is for its products. And so it’s somehow not surprising that this isn’t Chrysler’s first time at the public trough. Or second. Or third.)

It’s hard not to notice that the same short-sighted marketing that destroyed these brands, destroyed these businesses. Coincidence? Maybe. But I’ll tell you this much: If a company stops believing in its brand, it cannot expect its customers to continue to do so for long.

And that’s what’s really going to be lost, here. After we’ve absorbed the initial economic consequences of whatever happens to these guys, we’re going to ask ourselves why we needed them at all. Sure, we all know why we need the factories and the dealerships and the jobs and the credit facilities. But do we know why we needed the cars? The answers to that question were encoded in the brands those cars wore. If the brands meant nothing, then neither did the cars (you can get cars anywhere, if that’s all you want). And if the cars meant nothing, then neither did the industry that built them.

Legitimate profit, my jet-setting Detroit friends, is the consumer’s way of telling you how much he cares.

A lesson we all might want to pay close attention to on the road ahead.

PS You've got to read the consumer comments about a bailout 'thank you' ad from Chrysler, featured in their corporate blog. In case you've ever wondered just how far a corporation can have it's head up its, um, self-interest.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Dearth of the Cool.

It felt like getting picked first for basketball: My co-author and I were invited to speak at Google this past week as part of their Authors@Google series (YouTube link to come). The coolest cool kids in the universe wanted to hear about our little book and what we think makes it important. This would mightily reduce my degrees of separation from Nobel winners and recently elected Presidents. So, needless to say, I packed my pundit pants, grabbed Sweetie and was New York-bound before you could say, “Hendrick's martini, dry, straight up with a twist.”

It was going to be cool.

This trip, though, instead of staying at our preferred underlit, sullen and contemptuous boutique hostelry, we decided to give the recently renovated W on Lexington a go. It’s a brand that’s always interested me because of its improbable triumph over modest Starwood roots. W Hotels are, I had been assured, also pretty cool. Cool enough for the likes of me, anyway.

And that’s how it seemed, at first. They almost had me with the buzzy lobby bar and the Wallpaper-esque d├ęcor. Enough so that I nearly overlooked the promotional ‘Acura Experience’ desk outside the elevator, hawking free rides to anybody who might like to buy a sporty sedan while they’re in town for the econolypse. The illusion remained more or less intact until I got to the bathroom in our cloyingly hip little suite...

Remember ‘jump the shark’? It was one of my favourite turn-of-the-century colloquialisms. I didn’t only like it for its pop culture savvyness, either, efficiently encapsulating as it did the notion of a popular entertainment property self-destructing by trying too hard. I also liked it for the cringe-inducing reference film itself: It wasn’t just that someone jumped a shark. It was that Fonzie jumped a shark. In his leather jacket. Rather than fade away, the character of Fonzie flamed out in a spectacle of self-debasement that, once and for all, atomized his moral authority as an arbiter of cool.

That’s kind of the effect this sticker on the mirror of our bathroom at the W had. Fonzie in his swim trunks and leather jacket. A reminder for those who need it that the minute you say you’re cool, you’re not.

Google was. Cool. The W Hotel, not so much. Checking out the next day, I felt like I was getting off the Hipster Doofus ride at Disney World. If I’d wanted to see what not-really-all-that-cool looks like, the mirror would have done the job quite nicely without the sticker.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The iPres.

I wasn’t going to talk about the election. I really wasn’t.

It’s not as if there hasn’t been plenty of punditry about what marketers can learn from this bit of history. And I think that part of my reluctance to add to the din has been the enervating familiarity of it all. The glib pronouncements about what Brand Obama got tactically right sound like the same sort of analytical chaff that followed, say, the introduction of the iPhone. Humans who wear suits insist on trying to reduce the behavior of their species to some kind of mechanical stimulus/response model, and fiercely deny the thing that most makes us human: We have souls. We are gloriously flawed, emotional creatures who exist in a perpetual zero-sum game of hope versus fear.

So here’s your answer: At the heart of Obama’s victory was not his brand, but America’s. What he did so brilliantly was not to say, “America is broken and I will fix it.” He said, “The idea of America is great, and we must return to it.” He didn’t only dazzle with clever marketing and deft tactics; he went back to the fundamentals and to the 232-year-old rhetoric of Brand America, and used it to remind the nation of its awesomeness.

H.L. Mencken, a notorious cynic about democracy, once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” He has never been more satisfyingly wrong, in my opinion, and regardless of one’s politics. Certainly that thumbs-up fella and his moose-hunting sidekick did. No, I think the truth is that, from 1776 until last Tuesday night at least, nobody has ever gone broke overestimating the human appetite for self-respect and a sense of possibility.

Can marketers learn something from that?

Yes we can.

Friday, October 24, 2008

All you need is love. And cable.

Would it be okay if I jumped on an old-news bandwagon just this once?

Because I want to give a shout-out to, of all things, a television commercial. Specifically, I wish to heap praise upon the gobsmackingly charming Discovery Channel spot called “I Love The World”, quite possibly the most redemptive bit of television advertising since British Airways' "Global".

But Cowboy, you’re thinking, does this mean you’ve gone back to the dark side? Can swilling crantinis and blogging from Cannes be far behind? Don’t get your chaps in a bunch, cupcake. I’m not dusting off the black turtleneck just yet. It’s true that I think this is a great piece of advertising, but that’s not why I think it’s worth talking about. There has already been a pundit-a-thon about that. No, I think it’s actually a shining beacon of hope. To whit:

It’s first a lesson in what a brand should be about. Someone over there at Discovery Channel, having recovered from the whole Bloodhound Gang thing, had a flash of clarity: Content is not what defines a media outlet in this era. A point of view is. This is a particularly acute lesson here in the squillion-channel universe if you’re in the media business, but it’s essentially true of almost everything. Very, very few marketers can claim a sustainable rational advantage for their products. From beer to sneakers, it’s a brand’s point of view that attracts affinity and puts a product in some kind of emotional context. I want to take every marketer who wishes his brand would get out of the way so people can see the product, and every ad wonk who thinks that entertainment is the antidote to poor differentiation, and lock them together in a room to watch this spot for a few hours. No sushi until you see the light, kids.

But more than this, it’s a fragrant bloom poked into the gun barrel of public cynicism, a commodity in such abundance right now that we should be glad it’s not publicly traded. Somebody out there wrote this earnest, sincere thing. And somebody out there bought it. And then millions of people took it at face value and thought it was just lovely, and said so. Go see it on You Tube. Look at the view count. Look at the comments. Very little “They’re just trying to sell you something,” and quite a bit of, “I just love it.” While we in our ivory towers imagine that consumers are roaming the streets in torch and pitchfork-wielding mobs right now, along comes this proof that consumers are still human beings and would still prefer to be happy, given the choice.

Even for sixty seconds.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Karmic Tuesday.

There’s a bar in my neighborhood that’s an interesting little cultural mashup. At first glance, it seems to be an Irish pub. Confusingly, though, it’s run by dour Eastern Europeans. And most perversely of all, it serves just one kind of food: Hamburgers. 35 kinds of them. Times 7 kinds of meat. And 3 kinds of fries (I recommend the yam fries). It’s a simple menu with mind-boggling choice. There is no cheap option, and there is no bottom-of-the-page $35 surf-and-turf selection to impress your date with. Everyone there can afford a hamburger, everyone pays within a buck or two of the same price, and everyone there is having the one they like the best. It was there, last week, that I sat munching my Papa Giorgio burger on bison (with the aforementioned yam fries), watching the financial world implode on cable television.

When you get right down to it, this whole economic mess we’re in right now was caused by people feeling entitled to more and better stuff than they had yet to earn. A toxic stew of entitlement, optimism and selective blindness has driven the world’s economies straight over a cliff. Now we find ourselves watching CNN in horror as capitalism’s sacred shrines fall one after the other, and dazed looking investment bankers stumble up Wall Street carrying cardboard boxes full of their World’s Worst Golfer mugs and photos of the family basset hound. We borrowed and borrowed, and Tuesday finally came.

I blame hip hop.

Okay, not really. But kind of. You see, no cultural force has more potently expressed the American urge to flatten status hierarchies than that one has. Its chosen battleground: Consumption. You can take what you want, the movement seems to argue to those of us who probably don’t really understand it; in fact, you have a social duty to crush elitism by wearing its totems with the maximum possible insouciance. The media directs its digital fire hose at us, spewing images of putative street kids guzzling cognac, wearing couture and driving Bentleys. Serve those highly branded pictures to a society where roughly a third of the population believes they will be rich in their lifetimes anyway, season to taste with the indelible 2001 image of George Bush telling us that shopping is patriotic, et voila: the end of days.

Are brands somehow complicit in any of this? By their existence, I don’t think so. But I do think the people who manage them sometimes are. The paucity of marketing imagination has turned a lot of branded marketing into a process of exploitation dressed up as ‘selling the consumer what he wants’, when in fact the whole idea behind modern branding was supposed to be personal affinity. Offering the consumer what fits. When the discipline of positioning withered with the 1980s, what was left for branding in a lot of categories was a heartlessly binary schema: you, Mr. Consumer, can have the best, or you can settle. Well, that’s an easy choice. Especially when there is no end of easy credit available to fund it. They’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for an Escalade today.

I miss positioning. I miss when a guy could feel pretty good about driving a Buick after graduating from his Chevy, while he waited until he could manage the Caddy. I miss the middle. I miss all the middles that made being Main Street okay instead of a penance. I think the world will be a lot better off when consumers can choose what they like from 35 kinds of good instead of having to publicly declare where they are on the food chain.

And pay for it today.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Ich bin ein commodity.

Well, they tell me that our book – the one I’m shamelessly promoting just to the right of this column – has shipped to the printer. No more changes or revisions or additions or whatever other urges might awaken my co-author or me from a sound sleep with a night terror-inducing realization about the permanence of ink on paper. The missiles have left the silos.

And it’s a real book, too. This wasn’t some bootstrap vanity project we financed with our retirement money, or from the tills of our respective employers, or with the generosity of some charitable foundation for wayward bankers and branding consultants with literary pretensions. “The Orange Code” was bid upon by big, fancy publishers who publish famous books by famous people and make money at it. It is a product, already for sale at places like Amazon.com and Wal-Mart and Target, right there alongside the kitty litter, shower massages and bestselling novels. Me, a guy who has made a career out of helping companies market things is now, himself, being marketed.

Except that I – tragically - am not famous. And this, in a supreme twist of irony worthy of an Aesop fable, makes me a product without a brand.

So let me just say this about that: If you ever find yourself questioning the real value of a brand in the noble cause of marketing, just walk a mile in these generic shoes. In the publishing world, if your name isn’t Dan Brown or J. K. Rowling, the product (that would be you and your tome) is doomed to assert, defend and explain itself all the way from the publisher’s swishy lobby to the airport bookstore where it will vie with “Who Moved My Cheese?” to redeem some poor bastard’s unplanned layover in Pittsburg. For a writer, life without a brand is a Sisyphean struggle for credibility that ends only when Oprah says it does.

Harsh. And it’s no different for real products, either. Take that last sentence and replace “writer” with, oh, say, “boxer shorts” and “Oprah” with “Wal-Mart”, and you have every brand manager’s worst nightmare.

Anyway, with editing and the summer now fading memories, it’s good to be back in the groove. And my evangelical fire is lit anew. For I have been brandless. And it’s even worse than I thought.

Friday, June 27, 2008


Marketing pundits and consumers alike were shocked and bewildered this week at the news that Nike has sold its swoosh. The iconic logo device has belonged to the Oregon-based athletic shoe and apparel manufacturer since it was created by Carolyn Davidson in 1971, and has found homes in popular culture everywhere from the golf course to inner-city ghettos. The swoosh was sold to an exultant Reebok for an undisclosed amount. Reebok said that it will debut its newly acquired swoosh at the upcoming Olympic games.

Did I have you for a second there? And if I did, surely your reaction was, “That is possibly the most futile and ridiculous branding decision since, like, ever!” Well, of course it was. Nike selling its swoosh would be just stupid, unless it really needed the money to make rent. And buying it would be stupid squared because, for at least a very long time, everybody that saw it would think of Nike. Even Sweetie’s cat could figure that out.

So, if you’re as smart as me and our barfy cat, you must have been shaking your head at the dustup earlier this month over ‘The Hockey Theme’, the mysteriously titled music that plays while the opening credits roll for Hockey Night in Canada (my American friends can substitute Wide World of Sports for an approximation of the cultural significance of this program). After decades of association with the enormously popular weekly sports broadcast, the rights holder to the song – octogenarian and former ad babe Dolores Claman – didn’t like CBC’s offer to renew the license for it, and she sold it instead to competing network CTV. Who, lacking a clear plan for how to get a return on what some speculate was a seven-figure investment, appear to have bought it just to irritate the CBC.

And so the brilliance of my opening feint is revealed. Yes, CTV is the Reebok in this story, and ‘The Hockey Theme’ is nothing more than a logo you listen to. I won’t judge CBC for drawing the line on the dollar value of this music. And I won’t judge Dolores Claman for wanting millions for it (I also want millions, yet have no song to offer in exchange). But I do judge CTV for what seems to be nothing more than macho nose-thumbing with no evident commercial value. I mean, guys, seriously… did you think that people watched Hockey Night in Canada for the song? Did you think that hockey fans were such dolts that you might, in the future, be able to fool them into thinking it was on CTV now? Or were you just rubbing your hands in glee, Grinch-like, because your efforts, while producing no benefit for you, had discomfited the enemy?

Well, I hope whoever signed that cheque to Dolores has already had their performance review, because I’ve got some unfortunate news that could affect their bonus:

First, you are not heroes, CTV, for buying and saving this piece of ‘Canadiana’. We don’t thank you. We just think you have too much money.

Second, Canadians will get over this and keep watching Hockey Night in Canada. We got over Labatt and Molson being bought by foreigners. We got over the whole Tim Horton thing. We got over Gretzky going to LA. Hockey bags across the nation were just as stinky the day after Bauer sold to Nike as they were the day before. Nobody is sad. I think they already forgot, actually.

And finally, you are going to look foolish when you hit the play button on ‘The Hockey Theme’ for the first time. Viewers who are already a few beers ahead of the game will just think they’re on the wrong channel. And the sober ones will be lost in reverie, fondly remembering the Saturday nights of their youth rather than paying attention to whatever you’re going to try to sell them during the commercial break.

Meanwhile, down at the CBC, I think they’re probably going to get over it, too. They’re having a contest inviting Canadians to write a new song for the show. They’ve got Stompin’ Tom Connors' offer of ‘The Hockey Song’ as a backup. And the optics of all this were masterfully handled: Canada’s public broadcaster drew the line, refusing to squander the taxpayer’s money (apparently $2.5 to $3 million). By the time the puck drops this fall, the whole thing will be a memory as distant as dollar-a-liter gas.

And if you miss Dolores’ ditty, a little-reported angle to this story is that Warner Music still seems to own the digital rights to the epic composition. You can listen to it all day long, free, here.

You can even make it your wireless ring tone. Heck, CBC could just download it to Don Cherry’s cell phone and then call him during Coach’s Corner. That would irritate CTV no end.

And for a lot less than $3 million bucks.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A flying leap.

The most interesting things happen to me on airplanes.

Let me pause here and provide some background for my friends abroad: The topic of this post is an airline called WestJet. WestJet is a plucky little upstart carrier cut from the same cloth as Southwest Airlines in the USA, but with a clearer sense of purpose. Namely, that sense of purpose is to harass and undermine one reviled competitor: Canada’s flag carrier, Air Canada, an enterprise whose crown corporation roots live on in a culture of disinterested arrogance of the likes seldom seen since the court of Louis XIV. WestJet barnstormed its way into our hearts with low fares and charming, denim-clad ground and in-flight personnel who would do things like board passengers by sock colour. We like WestJet. They’re funny, they’re on our side, and they give Air Canada apoplexy. They are so popular, in fact, that when WestJet executives were busted for rooting through Air Canada’s garbage looking for confidential competitive information a while back, public opinion shrugged it off the way they would an errant teenager’s breaking curfew to play ball hockey.

Get the idea?

Okay, so a few weeks back, Sweetie, the kids and I are on a WestJet flight leaving Calgary for Toronto. As we’re buckling up, a nattily-attired fellow strides onto the airplane like he owns the place, and helps himself to the public address system. He is, as it turns out, the President of the airline, Sean Durfy, and he’ll be riding east with us. A frisson of excitement ripples through the plane… maybe something wonderful will happen, or at least something funny. This is WestJet, after all. Well, nothing of either sort transpires, but Mr. Durfy does introduce himself and politely thank the passengers for their custom. Sounds okay, right? I mean, it’s not very WestJet of him, but at least it’s presidential, right?

Maybe not when I add some texture to the story.

See, Mr. Durfy swaggered on to his jet carrying a Starbucks cup. Not itself a crime, of course, but wait: What he thanked us for was making them “… the most profitable airline in the world for the last two quarters.” And our reward for this support was that he was able to order a bunch of new airplanes, each of which costs, he said, $45 million. When he finished his speech, the audience - er, passengers - could only muster a polite golf clap, with the same vaguely shocked and confused tentativeness that might have followed had he just turned his eyelids inside out. He sat down, the plane got airborne, and we were served up free airline coffee and pop, along with $3 headphones so we could use the ‘free’ in-flight entertainment system.

I imagine Sean Durfy is a good guy and wants the best for the airline and its passengers. But when he seized that microphone, he became part of the WestJet brand experience for us passengers. And his unspoken message was, “I hate the coffee we serve on board. My main concern is our shareholders, not you lot. And these planes are getting old.”

To which our unspoken reply was, “Who do you think you are with your fancy Starbucks cup? Your own coffee not good enough for you? And for the rest of us, Bucko, a quarter is something you put in a payphone. And by the way, what’s wrong with the airplanes you’ve got, one of which is about to hurtle us skyward at 450 mph?” Okay, harsh, but you get the point. For an airline that has passionately preached about its customer-centric culture, this particular ‘brand experience’ felt like an uncomfortable glimpse behind the curtain. A misleading one, we hope, a moment of insensitivity rather than a flash of truth, but uncomfortable all the same.

To me, this underscores an inescapable reality for brands in the post-modern world: Leaders are the brand managers. It’s organizational behavior, not advertising, that makes a brand what it is, and organizational behavior is a leadership responsibility. So when the leader himself stands up to speak, he had better radiate what his brand stands for, and do so from the heart. Or he should just sit down and be quiet. The best kind of brand to have is one that is authentically an advocate for its customers; the second best kind to have is one that simply stands in front of a well-run company. But to have people believe that a brand is the champion of the people and then be faced, even for a minute or two, with evidence that it’s really just out for itself? That’s just not going to fly.

I forgive you this time, Mr. Durfy. I’m sure most of the folks on that plane did. Flight 798 was probably nothing worse than a missed opportunity for you. But let this be a warning: Customer-centricity is a glass house. And airport security doesn’t screen for stones.

Friday, March 14, 2008

What's in your wallet?

Geez, I take one month off blogging, and the world goes to hell in a handcart. Bad enough that my dream of finally getting that Dyson vacuum cleaner must now be postponed so I can afford to put gas in the Brandcowboymobile. Now, we’ve got world financial markets in turmoil, governments desperately propping up their currencies and fending off recession, financial institutions teetering on the verge of collapse and the very future of our monetary system in question, all because of the irresponsible marketing practices of lending institutions. Apparently, the apocalypse is nigh because Biff and Muffy just had to have that patio furniture right now.

I want to help. I really do. So, as a service to misunderstood credit card marketers everywhere, I’ve done a little ‘best practices’ audit of a similar product category to see if they’re really as bad as the media are making them out to be. It didn’t take long to identify a model to study, either. Let’s see… a product you can carry in your pocket, that’s useful in certain specific circumstances but that not everybody should be trusted with, and which, if abused, can be life-alteringly dangerous. Bingo: Guns! The perfect analog. Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum and that credit card offer that was in your mailbox this morning are not really all that different, other than that with the former you could hold up a gas station, whereas the reverse is more likely with the latter.

To facilitate this analysis, I have carefully selected two brands: Capital One (esteemed purveyor of unsecured credit) and Smith & Wesson (esteemed purveyor of the aforementioned peacemaker). At first, I fear the experiment will fail because the similarities are so striking.

For example, both brands are a bit circumlocutory about what business they’re in. Capital One says, “Our business is helping customers, so what's important to them is important to us. Our commitment to our customers motivates us to stay in close touch with their financial needs and concerns,” before they mention the ‘C’ word. Smith & Wesson says, “Smith & Wesson is one of the world's most recognizable brands, and for good reason. Since we first opened our doors, we have focused on designing and manufacturing innovative solutions that are unparalleled in the field of personal safety and protection.” Hmmm…

Also, both brands are similarly eager to help you match their products to your personal needs. Completing the handy questionnaires on both web sites, I learn that my life would be improved by a Platinum Cash Back MasterCard and an M&P.40 with 15 rounds in the clip and one in the chamber.

Eventually, though, moral leadership emerges and one brand sets an example: Smith & Wesson, in addition to selling gun vaults and protective equipment, would like you to be trained in the use of their product. It’s right there on the home page. Go to the training site, and you will see serious-looking people with glasses and earmuffs, shooting at things with both hands. It doesn’t get any safer than that, kids. Meanwhile, I click on the ‘How Credit Works’ button over at Capital One, hoping that it says something like, ‘try not to spend money you don’t really have, or you will destroy our way of life.’ Instead, it says, “Credit is convenient and offers benefits cash doesn’t.”


I’m pretty libertarian about most things branding. But I have to say, I think there are some businesses where the marketer simply can’t sit back and pretend that they bear no responsibility for how their products affect the lives of the people who buy them. Brands still have some authority, even if it’s sometimes convenient to pretend otherwise, and this is nowhere truer than with financial institutions. If a bank says I’m good for the money, I feel like they are speaking from their experience with these things. I think their judgment might even be better than mine. If they say I can handle it, maybe I can. If they don’t say credit is dangerous if abused, then maybe it isn’t. If they seem happy enough to give me more when I use up what I’ve got, then maybe I deserve it. Everywhere else in marketing, dangerous products are sold as such, from cigarettes to motorcycles to Harry’s piece. But credit seems to be sold by many financial institutions with the same level of corporate conscience you might find in a crack dealer.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Did he fire six shots, or only five?” But it doesn’t really matter, does it. Fifteen in the clip and one in the chamber, baby.

P.S. Apologies for the especially long hiatus between posts, and I wish I could say it won’t happen again. But, you see, Brand Cowboy is working on his first book, and you wouldn’t believe how many words you need for one of those. It’s about an awesome brand, and will be in bookstores across North America this fall. All I can say for now, but stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Crying Game.

You just couldn’t escape it, for a day or two there. Played over and over on the television screen, Hillary Clinton in a New Hampshire coffee shop, on the edge of tears as she proclaimed how personally important this campaign was to her. For hours afterwards, though you can find scant evidence of it now, political ‘experts’ pronounced this a fatal error on her part, a show of weakness that no American could brook in a Chief Executive. Certainly, that’s how it went the last time a candidate wept during a New Hampshire primary; those same experts will tell you that a similar moment sunk Ed Muskie’s campaign in 1972. And Hillary was already in a bit of a hole after a narrow loss in Iowa.

And then she won New Hampshire.

The same experts jumped back into their pundit pants and caught the first bus back to CNN to claim that it was women who had carried the day for Hillary, which should win some kind of award for facile sexism. The more liberal press coolly characterized the teary moment as “humanizing.” Closer. But the prize goes to hubby Bill, who said simply of the people of New Hampshire, “People saw who she was.”


I think that voters in that moment had a choice, and it was a choice of interpretation: Hillary got choked up because she’s weak. Or, Hillary got choked up because she’s authentic. And what delighted me about the outcome were two things: One, that they picked door number two, and two, that the pundits were so fantastically wrong.

So it was ironic and interesting that, on that very same day at another coffee joint on the other side of the country, a kind of similar (work with me, here) drama was unfolding that had something to do with authenticity: The return of Howard Schultz to the CEO job at Starbucks. You don’t have to dig too deeply in his open letter to all of Starbucks employees to see that Howard is saying, ‘we screwed up’. Furthermore, you have to be struck by the fact that his prescription for fixing the problem isn’t some kind of Chainsaw Al, shoot-the-wounded, cut-our-way-to-success restructuring. Rather, he reckons, he needs to “transform the Starbucks experience.” He’s less concerned about the overexpansion of the chain and more concerned that it’s lost its soul in the process. And, as with Hillary, Howard claims it’s personal: “Twenty-five years ago, I walked into Starbucks' first store in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and from that day forward we have taken the road less traveled, “ he begins his missive.

And then their stock price, which had halved over the previous year, rose by 9% in overnight trading.

It remains to be seen whether Starbucks will find its soul again and, with it, prosperity. It remains to be seen whether the oddly pierced, tattooed and dissociative dolts at my local Starbucks, despite my ordering the same thing every morning for the last three years, will deign to say hello to me, offer me my usual, or even look me in the eye, now that Howard has returned like Arthur to Camelot. And it remains to be seen whether Hillary’s verklempt moment is even remembered in the days and months ahead, never mind decisive. But I like the idea of living in a world where being real has more commercial value than being clever or aggressive does. Where a brand has to figure out what it stands for more urgently than it does its next tactic. Where we get to see who it really is.

I think Hillary really was choked up. I’m not sure about Howard. There is a faint whiff of crocodile tears in the way that emotional opening about Pike Place ends the selfsame paragraph with a bunch of chest thumping statistics about how big they’ve become. Muskie possibly lost New Hampshire in ’72 not because he wept, but because he denied it, claiming the tears were “melted snowflakes”. In the branding game, insincerity is much more dangerous than vulnerability.

Man, these pundit pants are getting a bit tight. Maybe I should switch to non-fat. I wonder if they’ll notice…