Thursday, October 21, 2010

Simply red.

One of my deepest, darkest secrets is that I’ve been a closeted motorhead since I was five years old. These days, I don’t get to indulge this weakness much, the times and the burdens of adulthood being what they are. But I do still have a well-used little sports car I’m rather fond of, and twice a year I gather up my chequebook and my trepidation and take the aging hussy to its mechanic for some attention. That’s where I was yesterday morning and, waiting in the showroom, that intemperate red beast in the cell phone pic above is pretty much the only thing I could see. I stared at it, sat in it (don’t tell anybody), and generally wallowed in gauzy nostalgia until my bill came. Oh, man.

It’s called a Ferrari F40, and I had a model of one of these things in my office for many years. Not just because it’s cool, either, which it patently is, but because it was a symbol of something sacred about a marketer’s duty to a brand, and about what a brand is really for. Here’s why.

At the end of the 1980s, Ferrari was not the motorsport powerhouse it is today. It was struggling in Formula 1, tough medicine for a company that seemed to sell cars so it could race rather than the other way around. And its road cars were no longer necessarily the uncontested ultimate in performance or prestige. Most galling had been Porsche’s recent introduction of the 959, an all-wheel-drive technological tour de force that was so sophisticated even an ordinary driver could make it fly. The Germans had thrown down a gauntlet they probably didn’t really believe Ferrari would pick up. In a sense, it wouldn’t. Enzo Ferrari, the man behind the company and its cars, was by then 90 years old, but he was not about to stand down from this one last fight, nor delegate it to a marketing department, nor let the competition make the rules. The F40 was to be his final statement.

At this point in the story, if we were talking about minivans or shampoo or e-commerce web sites, the word “better” would probably rear its sanctimonious head. Teams of clever and determined professional marketers would deconstruct the fearsome Porsche, and figure out how to exceed it in every objective way. A little like the tablet computer dustup we’re seeing today, ego and technocracy would guide the competitive response. Enzo’s F40 was no such thing. In stark contrast to the cool, competent, innovative 959, the F40 was simply an animal. It was ferociously powerful and light, and yet didn’t even have traction control. It was astonishingly expensive, and yet you had to pull the doors closed with plastic covered ropes. The interior had no grand touring pretensions like the Porsche’s, and made no effort to conceal the brutal plumbing that made it go. In the hands of truly talented drivers, it was the fastest production car in the world from 1987 to 1989. In the hands of anything less, it was merely lethal.

It was, in no sense and by no comparison, “better”. And in Enzo’s parting statement to the world, the marque ended up reborn.

That’s why it was such an inspiration to the young brandcowboy. Ferrari’s way of coping with being on the defensive was to remain stubbornly true to itself, to not let the enemy dictate the terms of battle, and to be willing to exclude customers if doing so meant preserving the integrity of its brand. In the end, this is the only way any marketer can earn passionate loyalty, the only way it can be irreplaceable to its customers. And it’s pretty hard to succeed at growing any business if those two conditions aren’t in place first, no matter what you ‘re selling.

What a lesson, still.

Friday, October 15, 2010


A South African fellow of my acquaintance has an expression for this: “smelling your own socks.” Vivid image, that. But I suppose this is what I was doing the other day when I picked up a copy of The Orange Code and skimmed through it for the first time in a long while.

It’s been exactly two years this month since our book about the story of ING Direct launched, which would not ordinarily be an interesting piece of information. Not unless it was this particular two years. Remember the fall of 2008? The Lehman collapse, and the looming sense of apocalypse in the aftermath? Remember that uneasy holiday season, and then, finally, the crapstorm itself at the dawn of 2009? Bank failures, government bailouts, foreclosure signs on lawns across America… it was pretty sketchy for a while there, and some experts suggested that we’d all come closer to the abyss than anyone wanted to admit. And in the wake of it, a consumer who had both lost confidence in banks (according to Gallup, fully 38% of Americans had “very little confidence” in the country’s financial institutions even as recently as last month) and was flat out angry at them. Of all the ‘toxic assets’ in the system, customer faith was surely the most so.

Things have settled down a little now, but the relationship between banks and their customers has probably changed forever, for the banks left standing, that is. And for me, The Orange Code is born anew. You see, when we wrote this book, it was a story about a successful brand. There have been lots of those. But rarely in the history of business writing has anybody described a successful branding model and then –with the ink on the page barely dry – had that model tested on so biblical a scale. Today, après le deluge, ING Direct is still trucking along, still enjoying passionately loyal customers and a healthy business. All that stuff my co-author said about principled leadership and the paramount importance of a customer-focused mission, it turned out to be true. It turned out to have built an enterprise that was more seaworthy than anyone could have predicted it would need to be. Suddenly, thanks to the intervention of history, The Orange Code is a lot less theoretical.

I think that’s why it’s worth a read now more than ever, if you haven’t yet. Yeah, I know, I’m just promoting our book. But just because it’s marketing doesn’t mean it’s not true. Or that it stinks.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Plus ça change.

What a delightful poopstorm the new Gap logo has been. I’m not sure what’s more howlingly funny: the brilliant Twitter feed of @gaplogo (the irritable, vaguely sociopathic anthropomorphized logo drunkenly lashing out at its critics), or Gap’s own lame retreat from the redesign on its Facebook page (“We love our version, but we’d like to see other ideas…) and in the CEO’s HuffPo blog (apparently, the imperative to design a new logo has something to do with “new black pants”).

The substance of the criticism thus far has focused on the design. Lay people say they hate it and question the need for change, and design geeks are still in paroxysms over the use of Helvetica and the strange blue box hovering in the background. But if this were a giant focus group, I wouldn’t be buying a word these people are saying. The words sound logical enough, but there’s nothing evident to explain all the emotional heat behind them. Helvetica doesn’t have the power to enrage all by itself, not unless it’s on a parking ticket. Something else is going on here.

There are certain things a brand does that should be refreshed all the time. That’s how people know you’re still alive, and you’re still aware that they are, too. Things like advertising are part of the marketplace conversation, and they need to flow. But there are other things that should almost never change, especially without an obvious motive (black pants notwithstanding). Consumers need to know that you are authentic, that you’re sure of the values you claim to have as a brand, that you have some self-respect and a vision of your own. A logo is on that list. For a brand, new ads are like new clothes, but a new logo is like going into the witness protection program. It’s unsettling, and it’s risky.

But it’s not the riskiness that’s got people exercised about this. It’s that Gap doesn’t seem to appreciate that risk. They made the change, they didn’t explain it respectfully, and to ice the cake, the change didn’t carry any semiotic freight that people could connect with. They just did it. As if they weren’t afraid of the consumer at all. That’s arrogant. And that’s what’s bugging people, whether they realize it or not. It’s amplified by the fact that Gap had really started to acquire some gravity as a brand, and by the fact that it’s a fashion brand and thus a mediator and curator of value rather than a creator of it. But mostly it was just the arrogance. They acted like a big oil company, changing their identity because they damned well pleased, and blithely assuming we’d relearn it because they said so. If you want to reproduce this phenomenon, try rearranging the furniture while your spouse is at work.

I think the great yet-unlearned lesson of our age for marketers is that they don’t have sole dominion over their brands anymore. In the parliament of the marketplace, brands are negotiated with their consumers. The new Gap logo could have been a thing of transcendent beauty, and it still would have got under people’s skin for a while. Consumers don’t really care that much about logos. But they hate it when they see even the slightest sign you’re willing to take them for granted.