Curmudgeonly Comments

Real Branding Hurts

In marketing, it’s the brander who hurts instead of the brandee.

There are hundreds of definitions for branding. There are even dozens of good ones. For the moment, let’s think about this one:

Branding is the process of making one company’s products distinct from similar products offered by competitive companies.

Sure, it’s overly simplistic but let’s go with it for now.

Just as there are hundreds of definitions for branding, there are hundreds of ways to make one product distinct from another. We can invent distinctive, new features and functions, create distinctive, new ways to benefit customers, find distinctive, new ways to communicate about features and benefits (even if those features and benefits are not especially distinctive and new). And we can imbue our products with distinctive, intangible qualities that some people will find enticing.

Note that I said some people. But not all people. The process of making a product distinctive requires us to define exactly who we’re going to try to entice and exactly who we’re going to risk ignoring, or maybe even turning off.

And that’s why branding – real branding – hurts.

“But, I don’t want to turn my back on potential customers”

Having the guts to walk away from something is just as important as having the fortitude to embrace something. That’s hard to do because “I don’t want to turn my back on potential customers.”

But, think about it this way; what if you could be reasonably sure that the “customers” you’re walking away from would never really be your customers anyway? What if you could know that they’re so in thrall to your competitors that spending one more dollar on them would be foolish? And what if you could focus all your attention on the people who are most likely to find your offer appealing?*

Same Sxx Wedding

Would Eastern Bank’s new “Join Us For Good” ad campaign succeed in rural parts of my home state of Alabama? Maybe not. But it doesn’t have to.

Bank of America is a 900-pound silverback of a brand. Bank of America can afford to be all things to all people. Or it can afford to try.

Eastern Bank, based here in Boston, MA, cannot, so they’ve made the conscious decision to be “the socially responsible, activist bank” (these are my words, based on their marketing materials, not theirs, so don’t come after me, Eastern folks, I’m a big fan) and to aim their offering squarely at people who will find that proposition enticing.

Despite not having the heft of a B of A, with 100 branch offices and almost $11 billion in assets, Eastern is not some hip, little boutique institution. So, to my way of thinking, it took a fair amount of fortitude to commit to a strategy and a message that’s absolutely guaranteed to hack some people off. You can follow a link at the end of this article and read how well Eastern is doing with this strategy. I wouldn’t have used them as an example if their results weren’t pretty remarkable.

Cannibals need love too

1980 GM E-Body Coupes

From the top, a 1980 Buick Riviera, Oldsmobile Toronado and Cadillac Eldorado. I think. Distinctive, huh?

If you’re a company with a portfolio of multiple brands, sometimes real branding means letting one of your brands take share from another. Big, multi-brand corporations can afford to take the attitude “If anybody is going to steal our business, it’s going to be us.”

Procter & Gamble and Campbell’s Soup are great at this and they’re thriving. Back when you couldn’t distinguish a Cadillac from a Buick from an Oldsmobile at twenty paces, General Motors was lousy at portfolio management, but they’ve gotten a whole lot better in recent years.

But, even for marketers who are good at it, going full-on Darwinian on your own brands is painful. For a CMO, it requires a clear vision, an iron will and the ability to turn a deaf ear to the indignation of the brand managers who are getting cannibalized by their colleagues down the hall.

John Mellencamp, marketing strategist

When you do it right, branding hurts.

Sometimes it means walking away from what seem like potential sales.

Sometimes it means allowing one of your brands to encroach on another, and may the best brand win.

But if the real goal of branding is to make what you’re selling distinct from similar offerings from competitors (and, let’s all be really honest, there are a lot of similar offerings available in almost every product category) then the hard choices have to be made by people who are comfortable with discomfort.

Next time you’re facing one of those hard choices, hum a few bars of Hurts So Good. Maybe that will make it easier.

But it probably won’t.

Linkography

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How does your brand taste?

Why every single brand of detergent, insurance, refrigerator, light bulb, motor oil, plant food, semiconductor, investment counselor, industrial robot manufacturer, disposable dust mop and galvanized roofing nail needs “taste copy”.

When I was a young copywriter I had the privilege of working on several Anheuser-Busch beer brands (to be clear, I was one of a small army of copywriters and art directors sharing that privilege). One of the great parts of that job was attending Beer School, where we learned about the magic of beechwood aging, what several tons of hops and malted barley smell like (delicious), what a barn full of Clydesdales smell like (also, surprisingly delicious) and the difference between lager and pilsner

One of the not-so-great parts of that job, at least to a young copywriter’s way of thinking, was being forced to internalize the sacred mantras of the Anheuser-Busch brands’ “taste copy.”

Each A-B brand had a set of words – mostly adjectives – that were used to describe the particular flavor of that particular brand. Budweiser was always “distinctively crisp and clean.” Michelob was always “smooth and mellow”. Michelob Light was always “rich and smooth.”

Those words were to appear in that order in every piece of communication, whether it was a TV commercial or a coupon ad. And woe betide the high-spirited, creative puppy who took it upon him or herself to “improve” on that copy.

Of course, at the time, being high-spirited, young creative puppies, we rankled under these rules. Wasn’t it our job to push hard against this boundary? Wasn’t it our duty to rend and sunder rules like these?

Processed with VSCOcam with s6 preset

Every Anheuser-Busch brand had a set of pre-approved adjectives that described that brand’s unique taste. This “taste copy” was sacrosanct

In fact, no, it wasn’t.

Especially not if we ever wanted to see our work produced. So, we all grumbled and made dark, cynical jokes and “crisped” and “mellowed” until our fingers grew numb on the gray keys of our beige IBM Selectrics.

Whether they tasted “rich and smooth”, “smooth and mellow” or “crisp and clean”, as a young copywriter, Anheuser-Busch’s mandatory taste copy made me nuts. As a not-so-young branding strategist, I find it not only darned smart, but an idea that’s well worth stealing.

So, flash forward a few decades and witness this former, high-spirited creative puppy beseeching clients to work with their researchers, planners and creatives to craft, agree on and enforce the “taste copy” for every brand.

Taste copy for every brand of what? Every brand of everything.

As young creatives, all we could see was that the fascistically-dictated taste copy prevented us from stretching our creative wings and describing Michelob as “brisk and refreshing.” What we didn’t see was all the good things the taste copy did:

  • It stopped territorial squabbles between client-side brand teams before they could even start. Budweiser owned crisp and clean. Michelob owned smooth and mellow. Period. There was nothing to discuss. Dismissed. Go sell more beer.
  • It streamlined the work because nobody at the agency or the client got bogged down reacting to focus groups’ opinions about whether or not Michelob Light really tasted “rich”. It did. It said so in the taste copy.
  • And, perhaps best of all, at least from a pure, marketing standpoint, the taste copy enforced consistency of message across all media. And this is where the concept becomes especially relevant today.

Back when I was pecking out the fifteenth variation on This Bud’s For You, “across all media” pretty much meant TV, radio, outdoor and print. Now it means all that plus web, earned, viral, social, guerrilla, buzz and body art. Which is terrific. But since creating content for each of those media can conceivably be handled by a different set of people, enforcing a consistent description of your product, what it does, how it works and what it stands for begins to look a lot less like creative handcuffs and a lot more like common sense.

Please. Use the handcuffs.

Your features are fungible and your price can be undercut. The only aspect of your brand that can’t be copied is the connection it has with your customers’ hearts and minds.

The harder trick, of course, is to create the right “copy” – I’m using that term in its loosest sense, to mean the core message that pins a brand in the heart and mind of its intended buyer – that not only appeals to the senses, but also to peoples’ need to make emotional connections with the brands they buy.

It’s not easy because people are not necessarily willing to admit (in many cases they’re not even aware) that their choice of an insurance company, light bulb or analgesic is making a critical emotional connection for them. But finding those connections – or, more specifically, finding where there may be a lack of connection and crafting your brand to make one – is the most important job marketers have in this world. Especially when competitors can steal your features and undercut your prices faster than you can say “Mexican Outsourcing Partner”.

So, by whatever means possible, discover the emotional connections that your brand can make, craft your “taste copy” accordingly (commercial: one real good way to accomplish this is to hire us to use Motiv to create an Emotivation-based Message Architecture for your brand. Ok, end of commercial), then enforce the use of that copy with draconian ruthlessness. Demand to see it everywhere your brand is written about and to hear it each time your brand is spoken of. Defy anyone to “improve” it.

And if, by chance, somebody does come up with something better, well, buy them a beer.

Money Talks. And Sometimes It Yells, “Shut Up!”

Part One of an (at least) two-part series on Marketing and the Culture wars.

On January 8, 2017, The New York Times published an article in the Sunday Review section with the title How To Starve Online Hate. In it, writer Pagan Kennedy (great name) describes how Nathan Phillips, an environmental science professor, visited the right-wing website, Breitbart News, for the first time, just to see what all the recent fuss was about

Breitbart Headline: Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy

On the website he was surprised to see an advertisement for Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, the very grad school where he’d gotten his degree. Why would an environmental science program willingly spend money to advertise on a website that’s famous for denying climate change?

Breitbart Headline: Climate Change: The Greatest-Ever Conspiracy Against The American Taxpayer

breitbart

Right wing website Breitbart News

The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t. Anybody familiar with how programmatic online ad placements work will understand how something like this can happen. People don’t buy online ads, algorithms do. Even the most major, mainstream marketers often don’t know exactly where and when their ads run (don’t get me started).

By letting his alma mater know, to their surprise, exactly where they were spending some of their advertising dollars, Professor Phillips became one of a new form of activists. In the past several months, a Twitter group called Sleeping Giants has sent screenshots to more than 1,000 marketers whose ads ran amidst “hateful” content. More than 500 of those advertisers – including some sizable, mainstream marketers like Lenovo, Novo Nordisk, Chase, Clarins and Visa – have pulled their ads from those websites.

Naturally, there’s been all sorts of entertaining hullabaloo over this, with loyal readers of sites like Breitbart News threatening to boycott marketers who pull their ads and people on the other side of the argument pledging to buy more from brands who refuse to give ad money to the perceived bad guys’ websites.

One Million Moms, a conservative group dedicated to fighting back “against the immorality, violence, vulgarity and profanity the media is throwing at (our) children”, has been using a similar strategy for years, calling out marketers who run ads in media that promulgate what they perceive as undesirable values.

One Million Moms campaign against indecency in the media

One Million Moms campaign against indecency

One Million Moms Headline: Urge Red Lobster To Pull Sponsorship From Impastor

In some instances, they take issue with the ads themselves, such as a Zales jewelers commercial depicting two women exchanging wedding rings and vows.

One Million Moms headline: Zales Attempts to Normalize Sin

Whether your sympathies lie with the Giants or the Moms, any true capitalist has to acknowledge that this is exactly how the world should work. To the venerable five P’s of marketing; Product, Price, Place, Promotion and People, we’re going to have to add a sixth P, Principles. From now on, a brand’s principles are going to have to at least appear to align with those of the people it wants to sell to.

If your detergent brand stands for cleanliness and wholesomeness, how can you justify paying to place an ad on a violent TV show, or a sitcom that features a sexually active pair of seventeen-year-olds? If your car brand stands for safety, then explain why you give money to a website that makes marginalized groups feel unsafe.

It’s going to be up to individual marketers to decide how to wrangle this. Can you afford to alienate group A if it gets you more business from group B? Can you message to group X and hope group Y doesn’t find out?

More and more, marketers are going to be forced to take sides in the culture wars. It won’t be comfortable, but it will be interesting.

Linkography:

How To Starve Online Hate
Pagan Kennedy
Nathan Phillips
Breitbart News
Nicholas School of the Environment
How programmatic ad placement works
Sleeping Giants
One Million Moms
Impastor
Zales Jewelers Love and Pride Collection

Holy Jurassic Park! It’s a Living, Breathing Print Ad. And it’s A Good One.

I just encountered something a lot of people believe is extinct. And, I have to admit, I’d begun to think they might be right. After all, you can only hear “Conventional advertising is dead!” and “Print advertising is thoroughly, dead. Stake-through-the-heart dead. Zombie-shot-in-the-head dead. Armadillo roadkill dead. Extinct. Fossilized” so many times before you despair and reluctantly begin believing it.

Especially when you see the evidence, or lack thereof, in newspapers and magazines. Ad pages are dwindling and the work that fills them is, for the most part, execrable. Or, even worse, just invisible.

But in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal – yes, an actual, physical, printed-on-macerated-dead-trees newspaper – I came upon this big, striking ad for Shinola watches.

shinola-apple

I was slightly familiar with the Shinola story, about how Tom Kartsotis, previously of Fossil Group, adopted the brand name of a famous shoe polish (commonly found in the antiquated putdown “You’re so dumb, you don’t know sh*t from Shinola) and is now applying it to watches, leather goods and bicycles, all assembled in a hip factory in Detroit.

The brand’s products are meticulously conceived and marketed to appeal to folks who dwell in the 11206 Zip Code or aspire to. In other words, they’re the kind of small batch, artisanally-crafted, defiantly retro, slightly twee and precious merchandise that affluent hipsters snatch up by the fistful to help define their own, unique, individual style (no judgement here, I think the watch looks bitchin’).

So, given those brand characteristics, it makes sense they’d choose a small batch, artisanally-crafted, defiantly retro medium to promote their new watch, The Runwell (even the name is retro, precious and, clearly, handcrafted).

But, this is not just a print ad. It’s a really good print ad.

The strategy is clear: this is not for just anybody and, by wearing it, you’re declaring that you, yourself, are not just anybody. The copy is persuasive, devoid of hyperbole and written in complete, correctly punctuated sentences that are packed with attitude.

And the ad is beautifully designed (I have a beef with the all-uppercase body copy, but I’ll let it go).

The Runwell costs between $600 and $1,000, right in the price range of the entry-level Apple Watch. So, the fact that the ad ran directly opposite an article announcing the new Apple Watch made it all the more juicy. This is evidence that the media agency and the creative agency actually got together and planned for this to happen.

Everything about this effort is small-batch, artisanally crafted and precious. In other words, this ad was made the way effective communications have always been made, by smart people with a profound understanding of their product and their audience applying their considerable talents to the task of selling something.

Credit for this good work goes to Partners & Spade, in New York. I recently made some disparaging comments about this agency’s work for Whole Foods Markets, because I find it to be everything the Shinola ads are not, specious, sappy, packed with inflated “Here’s Why We’re Great” claims and all summed up with a chest-pounding tagline, “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store”, that I can’t believe ever got past the company’s attorneys.

A lot of my antipathy toward this work, though, is probably more personal than professional. I worked in advertising in Texas for a number of years and, during that time, every single agency in the state beat their knuckles bloody on Whole Foods’ doors, trying to get so much as a polite audience with the Austin-based grocer. But Whole Foods spurned us all, stating haughtily that they had no need of our hucksterish ways.

Now, all these years later, to see them award their business to a New York-based agency, then crank out this beautifully-shot organic pabulum, rankles my Lone-Star-Loyal sensibilities.

So, while I’ll probably be buying my kale and quinoa at Stop & Shop, if I find myself with $600 to $1,000 burning a hole in my pocket, I could easily be convinced to throw down for a Runwell, if for no other reason than to reward good, old-fashioned creative work. After all, I’m strictly a mechanical watch man. If you don’t have to wind it, I won’t wear it. I don’t believe this means I’m a wannabe hipster. I think it just means I’m sixty years old.

Sure. Screw ’em. They’re only our current customers.

A few days ago my wife got an email informing her that it was time to renew her subscription to a magazine that she’s subscribed to for at least ten years. The renewal price was $12 a year (Just $1 an issue! You save 83% off the newsstand price!).

That very same day, I received an email from the same magazine, offering me a New Subscriber Discount Rate of $8 for a year, plus a Free Subscription to another magazine.

Naturally, once we compared notes on the matter, she cancelled her subscription and I bought a new one. It’s a perfect Win/Lose. We saved $4 on a magazine we would’ve happily renewed at full price and we got a free subscription to another magazine. The magazine nets zero new subscribers and loses $4, plus whatever it costs to send us that free magazine every month.

Now, I’m not so naïve as to think the magazine publishers are actually losing anything in this deal. They’ve got roomfuls of people with spreadsheets working the numbers on these transactions sixty-three different ways. They’re golden. Besides, most of their subscribers are probably not as sagacious as my wife. They’ll happily click the Renew button year after year because that’s the easiest thing to do. That’s what most marketers count on.

I’m much more interested in what this says about the magazine’s attitude toward its subscriber customers. Obviously, a new one is worth more to them than one who’s been a brand loyal customer for ten years.

Meg Tilly as Comcast. "Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?

Meg Tilly as Comcast. “Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?

Going to great lengths to get new customers while neglecting or even gouging existing ones is certainly not limited to the publishing business. Cable companies are notorious for offering extravagant introductory offers to new customers while slowly creeping rates up and up on long-term ones. After all, the cable business is essentially an oligopoly, so most people don’t have lots of options when it comes to where they can buy TV and Internet service. It’s like Meg Tilly’s iconic line in the 1993 version of Body Snatchers. “Where ya gonna go? Where ya gonna hide?”

This Just In: Cable Providers Frequently Less-Than-Equitable Toward Customers.

To be fair, I’ve learned recently that our cable company will happily make all kinds of terrific deals with an existing customer, if you call a secret phone number (which can eventually be obtained by calling their published customer service number), navigate through a moderately dense bunch of prompts and ask, straight out, “what will you do to make my monthly bill lower?”

But, just like clicking that renew button on the magazine’s email, most customers won’t ever do this. They’ll just grumble their way through life in a state of hostile dependence on their cable company (it’s what I would’ve done if I hadn’t been encouraged to seek out a lower rate by my sagacious wife).

It’s interesting to note that, once I’d “negotiated” a new, lower rate from the cable folks, I felt really good about myself, and about the cable company. But that’s a topic for another post.*

If You’ve Already Bought One Of Our Cars, You’re A Clueless Bumpkin. And Probably Fat.

The auto industry is another sector that treats existing customers like second-class organisms. It seems every commercial for “attractive lease rates” ends with something like “…available only to non-GM (or Ford or Nissan or whomever) lessees…” buried in that mandatory salvo of legal verbiflage. In other words, if we’re winning you over from another car brand, welcome, friend. If you’re already leasing one of our cars, well, not so fast.

That can't be a Buick! Buicks suck. And, by extension, so do the people who drive them. Now please buy one. Okey?

“That’s not a Buick!” Because, apparently, Buicks suck. And, by extension, so do the people who drive them. Now please buy one. Okay?

Dissing previous customers seems to be the core communications strategy behind the new Buick ad campaign. In the commercials, people gush over the great-looking new cars being driven by friends and neighbors. But, once being told that the cars are Buicks, the people become incredulous. They say things like “That can’t be a Buick!” Of course, what’s (barely) unsaid is “Because this car looks pretty cool, and Buicks have always been the very automotive manifestation of utter un-coolness.”

I would have loved to have been in the meeting where the Buick brand manager told the ad agency, “Look, the cars we used to make were wallowing, corpulent, sauropods. And so were the people who bought them. But now, thanks to our ability to bring European GM models over and stick a Buick grille badge on them, they’re pretty darned good. Here’s a few million bucks. Go tell everybody.”

“If You Are Short Of Friends, I’ll Tell You What To Do. Make An Examination. You’ll Find The Fault’s In You.”

Mayme White Miller wrote those lines in 1943 (I’m sure I’m not the only person my age who had the poem they’re taken from read aloud by Mom and Dad on multiple occasions) and they’re absolutely applicable in this case. Let’s be clear. I’m in the marketing business. It’s my job, and, frankly, my joy, to help companies figure out ways to sell more stuff to more people for as much money as possible. One way that some companies do that is by offering more favorable terms or, in the case of Buick, more favorable messages, to new customers, while shunning, scorning or even outright soaking previous customers. But those companies do it for two reasons. 1) It works and 2) People let them.

People persist in doing the equivalent of blindly clicking that “renew” button because it’s easy to do. And the cable companies, the car lessors and the airlines (I’m looking at you, Delta in Atlanta) know exactly how much bitching and moaning people will do without actually doing anything to rectify the pain.

People ask, “But, Bill is this right?” And I’ll smile and answer, “Lord, but I do love capitalism.”

*There are numerous studies around that prove that companies that solve a problem for a customer are rated more highly in customer satisfaction than companies that never had a problem to begin with. This deserves its own article. Maybe I’ll tackle this subject soon. But probably not.

Here’s something sort of infuriating.

When did “sort of” become something people say all the time? I heard a neuroscientist on NPR yesterday and he must’ve said “sort of” a couple of dozen times during a 30-minute segment. He actually said “…so the old brain sort of says ‘eat those cupcakes right now because fat and sugar are scarce’ and then the new brain sort of says ‘well, I’ll only have one…”.

And those weren’t even the most egregious examples.

I hear this over and over. I’ve even heard colleagues tell prospective clients about how “we use a proprietary research technique to sort of figure out why people make decisions” and then “sort of turn those insights into ideas.”

We don’t sort of do that. We really do that. I’d think clients might feel a tad diffident about paying us to sort of deliver some results.

We’ve always had “ya know” as default conversational padding. But I think that’s just an innocent, if irritating, verbal tic. “Sort of”, and it’s almost-as-insidious brother “kind of”, seem deliberately weaselly. It’s as though people are reluctant to make a definitive statement they can be pinned down about. Is this right? Are people just more prone to waffling than they used to be?

Why?

Please, somebody help me understand where this came from. Why do obviously very smart people who know exactly what they’re talking about feel the need to dilute their pronouncements this way?

Really, I’d sort of love to know.