Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Society of Sissies and a Bloodthirsty lot

One of the most interesting questions that I ever received during a job interview was from an ad agency. The question was “Talk to me about a trend…” Of course, there were obvious trends that I could have talked about: the baby shortage, the aging population, and obesity. I can’t remember my answer at the time, but the question stuck with me. Tonight, I will comment on something that impacts the obvious trends.

It was 19 something
When I was a kid growing up in the 70s and 80s, I remember racing my wagon down steep hills, building forts which were later used as defensive empires in mud-ball flights, swinging from ropes of the tallest trees, amassing giant artilleries of snowballs to be used in snowball fights, jumping off cliffs on motor bikes and bmxing off ramps. I remember traveling in the back of my parent’s wood-grained-panel station wagon (where there was no seat), sitting in between my parents in the front of our old Ford where there was no seatbelt, and cuddling with our sick dog on the way to the vet. I remember lighting firecrackers to blow up ant hills, playing organized ice hockey in -40 outdoor stadiums and competing hard to make hockey teams. Some times I made it, sometimes I didn’t. But, along the way, I collected my share of scrapes and a lot of bruises - but they all forge an extremely happy collective of my childhood. Even the bloodiest moments would end up well because of a loving hug from my mother, a “This is what it takes to be a man, son” command from my dad – or a cup of hot chocolate from my grandmother.

We’re now in 2010. I don’t need to say a lot has changed but I will say that a lot of the trend lines are absurd. Schools have been on the attack against basic child-hood games. Dodge-ball, tag , soccer, and even balls have been banned from school yards. Sparklers have banned from public places. There are movements to assign warning labels to Coca-Cola, Big Macs, and iPhones. Law suits are sure to follow. There are campaigns to ban preservatives on apples. There are fines for not wearing a bike helmet (1,2) or riding in a car without a seatbelt. By today’s standards, most of my family’s trips of the past would have been illegal.

So what are the implications of this? We’re becoming society of sissies and driven by fear. Kids’ favorite games have been taken away from them resulting in less exercise and more inside time. Instead of playing dodge-ball, a lot of kids are dodging fiery bullets in bloody, violent video games. Instead of competing and learning how to be gracious winners and losers on a soccer field, kids ain’t doing what kids ought to be doing. Worse yet, kids become conditioned to accept the big brother mindset on things that are incongruent with their nature.

But, this trend of “big brother knows best” has a lot of far reaching implications. Just think what a simple regulation on mandatory child restraint seats means to a new family. To have a 3rd child, the family requires larger cars for transport- which is a financial tax on having an extra child- exacerbating our already low birth rate. This, in turn, has implications on the nation’s aggregate future tax base which impacts social policies for dealing with our aging population. And what about warning labels and bans? Well, reduce the preservative and the supply of available apples will go down - driving up prices. Of course this will affect the poor and working classes disproportionately while the affluent shift to organics. All of these rules are part of the "big brother knows best" mindset. But as long we do not resist this mentality, we become compliant in its issue - and complacent on regulations that intrude on individual freedoms and personal responsibilities. We accept laws that limit choice and by "being boiled slowly" (starting in our school system), we get sissified, and lose our gumption to resist attacks on individual freedoms and personal responsibilities. These are precisely the values that our ancestors shed blood to defend.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


In 1828, a bitter American presidential campaign was waging. The vicious personal attacks and spin doctoring going on at the time would make James Carville very proud. Andrew "Old Hickery" Jackson, an outsider, was running against an establishment incumbent President John Quincy Adams. Jackson was "a man of the people" and was the first leader of the newly formed Democratic Party. Quincy was portrayed as an "elitist" and represented wealth, establishment, and the status quo. But the campaign between the two leaders was a rerun. They had faced off in in the presidential election of 1824, and Adams won. Some historians tag the Adams victory as “The Corrupt Bargain.” In short, since the election was controversial, the House of Representatives determined the winner. Speaker of the House Henry Clay allegedly used his influence to give the victory to John Quincy Adams.

With that background in mind, here is where we get into branding. During the election of 1828, the mudslinging escalated and Adams group labeled Jackson a "jackass" (which was a particularly derogatory term back then). In responses, Jackson "spun" the insult into a positive- taking the image of a donkey and used it as his symbol. Jackson's point was the he was like the "strong willed" donkey. It didn't take too long before political cartoonist Thomas Nash took the donkey idea and ran with it. Democrats became donkeys in the mass media. The Democratic symbol had taken root.

Since that time, the Democratic National Committee has used the donkey as a shortcut to represent their candidates - from the local level to presidential candidates. It has been along side Democratic presidents over 171 years, through 14 different presidents and 15 presidential victories. (Astute history readers will know that Harrison interrupted consecutive terms for 2 time winner Cleveland). Throughout its history, donkey logo has been endowed with some of the most amazing times in Democratic-inspired American history (Jackson's win for "the common man", Kennedy's inspiration to have Americans walk on the moon, Obama's win as the first president of color) and has served as a short-cut to Democratic positions during some of the most challenging times(Civil War, World War I & II, Korean & Vietnam wars, 9-11, the Great Depressions and civil strifes). And, just because times are challenging doesn't mean positive associations can't flood to the brand. Some of the most endearing bits of hope are associated with the donkey. After all, Democrats using the donkey coined the iconic lines: "The only thing to fear, is fear itself" (Roosevelt); "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (Kennedy), for example. Of course, in addition to the rich history endowed on the donkey, it also serves as a short-cut to today's Democratic positions on social policy, taxation, war etc. In a world that is unsettling both economically and geo-politically, the Democratic Donkey provides a sense of Americana, tradition, stability and current relevance. In short, the donkey is loaded with a lot of positive brand equity.

Usually when a brand element (a trademarkable device like a name, logo, slogan, symbol) is so iconic, custodians of the brand will go through great pains to preserve it. Sure, it might need updates to give it a more modern feel- but common sense tells you to preserve as much of its relevant design as possible. Think how crazy it would be for Coke to all of a sudden to abandon its red and make all of its its bottles green- or for Apple to throw away its apple-with-a-bite-out-of-it logo. For 171 years the Democratic Party has understood the value of its donkey and appropriately adapted it over time.

But a few days ago they unveiled their new logo.

I do not understand in any way why the party abandoned its high awareness, richly-association endowed donkey - and replaced it by an ill-conceived logo that lacks any imagination or captures any of the Democratic party's rich legacy. This, of course, occurred under an Obama presidency- by the same folks who engineered a masterful "elect-Obama" marketing campaign. It makes me both frustrated and sad to see how cavalierly an iconic brand element can be abandoned - and how the Democrats could throw away a wonderful piece of American history.

The legacy of the Jackass Bad-Ass: (About.com) Jackson Bio

Jackson appears on the American $20.
By 13, Jackson was orphaned. He lost his father at an earlier age and then lost his mother and two brothers during the Revolutionary War.

Jackson bore scars from a British officer’s sword on his skull and hand, and bullets from duels in his shoulder. In an 1806 duel, Jackson had killed a duel opponent.

When commanding troops in 1815, he had ordered the execution of militia members accused of desertion.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hey, isn't that the Old Spice Guy?

Here's a brain-candy blog post. It came to me after watching the movie the Expendables on a guys-night-out. One of the guys said, "Hey the guy with the big gun, wasn't he the Old Spice Guy?" (There were many big guns in the Expendables but one gun was bigger than all others so we all knew what he was talking about.) Read on to see how this relates to marketing and brands...

Being an aspiring actor is a tough gig. The cliché is that aspiring actors move to L.A, take on minimum wage waiter/hostess jobs in order to pursue their acting dreams, and audition for roles- most of which do not materialize. Along the way, some actors are able to pick up some advertising gigs which provide relevant experience ahead of the camera, exposure, and money to pay the rent. In addition, ads help actors develop their network. A lot of the directors of ads become A-list directors and producers. (e.g. Ridley Scott, director of the famous 1984 Apple ad went on to produce blockbuster films like Robin Hood, Gladiator, Blade Runner, American Gangster; Michael Bay worked on ads for Dairy Producers, Nike, Budweiser/Miller, Levi's and Coca-Cola and before moving on to producing Transformers, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Miami Vice.) For the actor, ads can be an effective springboard to launch their movie/tv careers. How common is this? John Travolta started off in Band-Aid ads, a young DiCaprio pitched Honda, Wesley Snipes modeled Levis and repped Western Union, Keanu Reeves drankCoca-Cola, and Jodi Foster got her start as the Coppertone baby. But every once in a while, an advertisement connects with the public and the actor’s career becomes overshadowed by his/her performance in the ad. Below is a fun top-5 list of actors whose fame is intimately linked - and overshadowed - by the role they played representing brands.

#5 Tom Bodett. Here’s a guy who has done a lot of narration, but he’s most remembered for the folksy award winning radio ads for Motel 6 that feature the line, “We’ll leave the light on for ya”. Bodett allegedly ad-libbed that line during the commercial recordings. Evidently Motel 6 is now using Tom's voice for wake-up calls.

#4 Vince Offer. Offer is a comedian whose writing, acting, and directing skills did not earn him critical acclaim but he found his niche as a quirky, fast-talking, irreverent pitchman for Slap Chop and Sham Wow. According to Wikipedia, Offer is going to use his advertising celebrity to re-release some of his past film work - but he's been framed by audiences as the SlapChop Guy.

#3 Jonathan Goldsmith. Here’s an actor who has been working the tv/movie circuit since the 1960s. IMDB lists Goldsmith as having more than 100 different working credits - including a prominent role on Dallas - but his acting career is clearly eclipsed by his work as “Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World.” Check out the lengths that Jonathan goes through to say that he is not the most interesting man in the world - but rather the “the actor who plays the most interesting man in the world.

#2 Isaiah Mustafa. Here’s an athlete-turned-actor whose career got a huge boost via P&G’s Old Spice campaigns. Although he has been cast in Jennifer Aniston's upcoming film "Horrible Bosses", it is likely that he’ll always be remembered as the Old Spice Guy. By the way, contrary to internet rumors, Mustafa was not cast in the Expendables, but Old Spice model Terry Crew was.

#1 Justin Long. Long’s had quite a few roles in feature films including Live Free or Die Hard and Dodgeball - but he’s clearly most known for the laid-back, casual likable guy that personifies Mac. A rep for Long confirms that Long's ties with Mac are over: "Justin’s a movie star, not a commercial guy."

I'm going to close this blog with a cheesy observation: Bodett, Offer, Goldsmith, Mustafa and Long share brand-characters who are anything but Expendable.

Friday, September 10, 2010

When Product and Celebrity Placement gets Dirty

Every marketer and student of marketing knows all about product placements- a type of advertising where brands are given cameos in movies, tv programs, video games, songs and literary works. The idea is that product placements are more stealth than more traditional ads and can powerfully convey brand associations into the audiences’ minds. (Think why so many brands line up to get secondary association spillover benefits from the suave, sophisticated, and exciting James Bond.) And, since most media is international, a movie or hit tv show can be a fast way to reach a global audience quickly. For the producers of the media, product placements are a nice way to co-finance their work and, at the same time, provide realism to the story (e.g. think of FedEx in Castaway). It is not surprising, then, that global brands plow money into product placements at a rate of 3.6 billion a year. By the way, a typical product placement is between $50,000 and $100,000 (Keller, Strategic Brand Managment P.253).

Of course, product placements have been around for a long time. Wiki reports that the first product placement was in 1873 (Jule Verne's classic book Around the World in 80 Days) - and the success of the Reese’s Pieces in Spielberg’s ET ushered a new demand for product placements. Since that time, product placements have evolved and “celebrity placements” have grown in popularity. A lot of star (and starlets) are paid to “be seen” with certain brands (ie. celeb placement). Miss Sixty and Rock & Republic pay celebs to sit in the front row of their fashion shows. (Rihanna gets $100k to attend a fashion show, Beyonce $90k, Kim Kardashian $40k, for example). New York Daily News and Brand Channel speculate that when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner nonchalantly pose for the paparazzi with their Starbucks cups or when Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz parade about the town in their Uggs- they are getting well compensated from the brand. The going rate appears to be around $100k. The point is this- brand presence around celebs is often orchestrated by the brand.

But it appears celeb placement has evolved. One of my readers who has his ear to the ground on new marketing trends sent me a beat on celebrity placements with a twist: negative product placement and negative celebrity placement. The rumor is that some luxury brand companies are sending their competitors' products to celebrities who they think will create a negative associations with the brand. The flagship example involves certain luxury brands that are “aggressively gifting” “undesirable fashionista” Jersey Shores star Snooki with competitor products. The idea is that Snooki has terrible fashion sense and if she is seen with a brand, then the brand will suffer. Since bad is stronger than good and consumers weigh relevant negative associations stronger than positive associations (there is a lot of evidence about this and I will have a blog entry about this in the upcoming weeks), there is the potential for a lot of fast damage to the brand.

Some might think this negative celebrity placement is a good competitive idea, but I’m going to argue that this is a big mistake for two main reasons. First, there may be legal (and certainly ethical) implications if a firm of the competitor can prove that the competitor maliciously sought to damage its trademark. Second, and more importantly, negativity can damage the entire category. This argument sounds like this: If you hit me, I will hit you back harder. We've seen this before in politics. When campaigns go “negative” the result is increased voter cynicism, apathy, and ultimately lower voter turn out. Luxury brands watch out- it is a dangerous game you are playing that can quickly backfire.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Powers of Personality: Lambo and Ferrari

Last week I went to the Vegas Speedway to race some Lamborghinis and Ferraris. While waiting for my track time, I had the pleasure of speaking with my new bud- Peter, a professional racer from Exotics Racing. It didn’t take long before the conversation shifted over to brands. (Gee, I wonder why!) I couldn’t resist asking Peter the question, “Peter, what’s the difference between the Ferrari brand and the Lamborghini brand?” Since Peter is a professional driver, I expected a response related to the technical specifications/performance metrics of the brands- like some of the data presented in the chart below. But, his answer really surprised me: Brand personality. (Check here for a 10 second excerpt from his answer.) The prof in me had to probe a little deeper so I followed up with a few “brand audit” type questions related to brand personality. Peter held very clear distinctions between the brands as is evident by these responses.

Anyone who studies brands is familiar with Jen Aaker’s work - The Dimensions of Brand Personality. In this ’97 classic, Aaker suggests that brands take on human traits and characteristics. Using the psych literature as her launchpad, Aaker argued brand personality can be broken into 5 distinct dimensions: Sincerity (down-to-earth, honest, wholesome, cheerful); Excitement (daring, spirited, imaginative, up-to-date); Competence (reliable, intelligent, successful); Sophistication (upper class, charming); and Ruggedness (outdoorsy, tough). To hear that brand personality is the key differentiator between Lambo and Ferrari - from a technical expert – shows just how relevant brand personality is. From Peter’s “quick and dirty” response, we can project that Ferrari would score higher on competence and sophistication dimensions- and Lamborghini would rank higher on the “excitement” scale.

Of course, brand personality is not only relevant to automobile brands. Consumers have clear perceptions, associations, and attitudes towards intangible aspects of many brands. The intangible stuff is the stuff that makes the brand valuable. Just think of some competing brands and do some quick brand personality comparisons (e.g.Energizer vs. Duracell, Nike vs. Adidas, Apple vs. Microsoft...) Very quickly we see just how relevant and common brand personality is in creating brand differentiation. If you have some time, add a few other brands with stark contrasts in their personalities in the comment section below.

Ferrari and Lamborghini: A few selective technical/performance/attribute comparisons: