Archive for August, 2009

Is GM a “ghost” brand?

So for a few months I have been pitching the idea that GM should be renamed The Chevrolet Corporation.  

And at first it seemed like GM was determined to continue down the path of the recent past.  Over the past 6 or 7 years there has been a concerted effort to create more meaning and purpose around the GM brand.  It began to show up on products as the badge of excellence.  There was advertising around GM itself.  Even the logo was updated.

And then the company deflated along with the rest of the economy.  The brand portfolio was streamlined, as whole areas of business were sold off.  The strongest brands remained.

And yet GM was still there, too.  It was a catch-basin of bad reputation.  More to the point, the cost of maintaining an additional GM brand goes against the greater economies that the company is trying to achieve.

So my observation that they would be best served by replacing the GM brand with The Chevrolet Corporation did not seem to be an option they were actually considering as the company publicly announced their plans.

And then…

And then I saw this in the NYTimes about how GM is dropping the “GM” logo, their “badge of excellence” from all new vehicles.

The perils of positioning – or – Verizon is reliable, reliable, reliable

Verizon is an excellent example of a company that has been following the brand positioning method very consistently.  For years now they have been very focused on a single attribute: reliable.  They’ve coined their wireless network as “America’s most reliable network.”  

In fact, Nielsen has recently published a study which commends Verizon for this single-minded approach of differentiation through a single attribute.


A testament to the success of its consistent advertising message, the number of

consumers who perceive Verizon Wireless as having the best mobile network has shot up over the last

two years and it leads its closest competitor now by an almost 2:1 margin.


And what is the benefit to Verizon of this singular focus on reliability?  Well, having a reliable network fell from being the second most important factor to 7th place.  The more Verizon has been focusing on reliable, the more they have been missing out on the biggest shift in the market to the “unlimited” brands such as MetroPCS.

When Choosing a Carrier, Does “Reliability” Really Matter?

This raises the wisdom of the narrow positioning model for brand marketing — at least for major brands who are trying to reach multiple audiences.  

On the other side is AT&T.  They are having a tremendous boost from the exclusive arrangement to carry the Apple iPhone.  This has become more important on an absolute level — although not by rank.  More importantly is that iPhone users tend to use more services and driver higher ARPU (which is industry slang for Average Revenues Per Unit).  That means the new people AT&T attracts will be generally more profitable.

It is ironic that the actual article appears to argue that the iPhone doesn’t really matter.  It does matter, to one small but very influential audience.  For a brand to become mass, it needs to appeal to multiple audiences with different aspects of their narrative.  All these aspects of the narrative need to come together into a coherent whole.  But they  are not narrow, rigid and repetitive attributes.

If the brand positioning model is right, then Verizon will become strongly associated with the attribute “reliable”, an attribute which is falling in importance.  Fortunately for Verizon, there are other models for branding that recognize the reality that people do change their minds about brands.  The challenge will be for Verizon to drop the traditional brand positioning approach and move to a more effective branding model.  It is hard to shake a brand model that has been dominant for decades — it becomes ingrained.   That leaves the door open to newer companies looking for breakthrough approaches to compensate for lower budgets.  And also for AT&T which has a lifetime of brand associations.


P.T. Barnum’s spirit lives on

P.T. Barnum set-up shop at the Hippodrome, located next to Madison Square.  In later years he brought his circus to Madison Square Garden, which was then located right next to the real Madison Square (built on the site of the old Hippodrome).  When his circus was there, it was the media epicenter of America.  It was the Times Square of its day.

P.T. Barnum is long gone but his spirit lives on at Madison Square.

It’s just about impossible to walk near the park without seeing how Barnum’s media savvy spirit lives on.

Exhibit A: The HSBC campaign shot in Madison Square:

Speak up America!

Speak up America!

Exhibit B: The  Living Zero Home.  This is a modular home that uses zero energy from outside the home, more or less.  It’s traveling around the country and recently came to rest next to Madison Square.

The Green House

The Green House

These are just two examples from the past few weeks.  The list of other pr, advertising, promotional efforts at Madison Square could go one for days.  It’s not all about sponsored events and advertising.  It is the site of art installations — last fall a Japanese artist, Tadashi Kawamata, built and installed individualized Tree Houses in many of the trees around the part.  It was quite a site for us city dwellers without backyards.  The area is also home to cultural events such as the Big Apple BBQ Block Party.

Photo credit: The camera on my Samsung Behold.

Colbert Coldwell and Benjamin Banker are brilliant

It’s wonderful to know that there really was a Coldwell and a Banker at Coldwell Banker.  The brand isn’t just a lawn sign or a golden retriever (although I do love goldens).  The brand is about people, starting with Coldwell and Banker themselves.  

And kudos to the marketing team and agencies who have brought back Colbert Coldwell and Benjamin Banker as spokespeople.  For the past year or so, they have been the stars of the real estate broker’s campaigns.  And it is brilliant!  And this is a perfect example of how the founding story is a powerful element in the overall narrative.

Keeping Coldwell and Banker in their framed pictures is a powerful metaphorical device.  The pictures give a sense of time, of authenticity and also authority to the brand.  The voices and stories make them accessible. It reminds me of someone holding a photograph in front of their face and pretending to be that person.  And, of course, framed picture is perfectly at home in a home.  

While reaching back to their founding, the brand is also reaching ahead into new media.  They are one of the most tech savvy brands in the market.  Tech savvy is not something you’d normally associate with real estate brands.  Coldwell Banker is way out ahead of most marketers.

Here is Michael Fisher, the CMO of Coldwell Banker, explaining the back story.  

On the other hand, Wittgenstein was not a brand guru

Okay, so I took the Harvard Business Review seriously.  Back in 2004 they ran an issue about breakthrough ideas for 2004.  Number 9 on the list was “The M.F.A. is the new M.B.A.”   The piece was written by Daniel Pink.

Yes! I said at the time.  Yes!  Exactly!  

Here’s an example of how I see an MFA benefiting companies.  It can improve the ability of your branding to engage consumers. More engaging branding = more effective branding. It can be put into practice by having one key person on your team who really knows and understands the elements and structure of narrative.  That  is extremely valuable if your brand marketing is to be more than just a hit or miss process.  It is extremely valuable if your marketing department is to get the best work out of your outside creative agencies.


An MFA alone won’t succeed.  You need someone who is equally an MFA and an MBA.  You need someone with the skill and ability to synthesize both the creative and the business perspectives.  Those people are rare.  I suspect that is because our society tends to discourage people from crossing boundaries between the creative and business sides of life.  

It’s stereotyping, of course.  The recent stories about the photographer Annie Leibovitz being in financial difficulties is an example of the stereotypical view that great artists aren’t such great business minds.  Never mind about T.S. Eliot being an executive at Lloyds Bank.  Or that Franz Kafka was an insurance executive.  Henry Green was a business executive, too. Louis Begley (About Schmidt) was a highly successful lawyer.

Just adding an MFA to the marketing department will not work miracles.  It is also important to create an atmosphere where the MFA and the MBA can work as a team of equals, with mutual respect.  From my perspective that is not so easy to accomplish in the real world.  And in today’s economy having an MFA in the marketing department can seem like a frivolous extravagance.

A good place to start would be having some interaction between the business school and the school of the arts at places like NYU, Columbia or the University of Pennsylvania.  Just imagine how much richer (in content) the marketing programs would be!

Full disclosure: I have both a degree in Economics and an MFA in creative writing.  There is probably a good deal of bias in this post!  

Even without an MFA, everyone can gain a fundamental understanding of the structure behind great narratives.  All you have to do is spend an afternoon reading through Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle was perhaps the first brand guru, laying out all of the elements of a great narrative in his Poetics.  He knew that a value proposition was limp and unconvincing without having metaphor, character, plot, visual elements and music to give it the breath of life.

However, I do draw the line at other philosophers.  Wittgenstein just got it wrong.  “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” (translation by C.K. Ogden).  Clearly the man was word-mad.  Communications through images, visual metaphors, sound — all are powerful.  In fact, more powerful than words alone.  Frankly, it’s not worth the effort to read Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  This afternoon would have been better spent if I had just left it unread on the shelf along with all of the unread marketing books I’ve collected.  

Oh, and one last question.  Why did HBR choose Number 9?  The Beatles’ White Album, anyone?

Retail advertising

Walk along Broadway in New York City and you’ll see empty storefronts from one end of Manhattan to the other.  Circuit City. Domain. Tower Records. Virgin Records. Helio Wireless.  All gone, along with many restaurants and small local shops.

These locations have now become prime advertising space.  

The space for Domain, the furniture retailer, is now an advertisement for Home Depot.  Irony abounds!  It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of retail advertising.


Retail billboards

Retail billboards

This is a rather unique door hanger.  Or do we call it door-to-door selling?


Door to door advertising

Door to door advertising


A thanks to Mike Prentice for his street photography!

This brings to mind a time in the 1980s when New York City decided to put up trompe d’oeil decals of windows with flower pots on burnt-out buildings.  The buildings were still empty but they looked nicer from the street.

Framing the Narrative – or – What branding can learn from Karl Rove

There is an interesting phrase used in politics, “framing the narrative.”  Essentially it is about putting the framework for a coherent set of stories about a person or event, and then sticking to that framework.  Of course the opposing side will try to do the same thing.

Who wins?  Whoever has the strongest narrative framework and the greatest talent in expressing the stories within that framework.

Karl Rove is a master of the art in framing the narrative for his candidates.  This is a fact, not a judgement.  Rove knows about the power of symbols, of metaphors, to get beyond the rationalizations and right to the emotional heart of people.  By framing the 2004 presidential election about war, security, safety, 9/11 and “homeland” it was possible to crowd out the very real issues around healthcare, growing inequality of incomes and opportunities and other day-to-day problems.  It was the winning strategy.  

The most successful politicians have crafted a coherent narrative about their life and how that makes them uniquely qualified for the position they want to have.  I deliberately use the word “crafted” in the previous sentence.  To give sense to our lives we turn them into narratives.  The stories and pieces that don’t fit into the narrative are forgotten or downplayed.  The ones that shape the narrative shift to the foreground.  Politicians understand this and make deliberate choices in their public narratives.  The recent presidential contest was an example of two competing narratives.   Each one recounted the struggles and impossible obstacles they faced as young men and how that shaped their character and prepared them for the presidency.  

McCain with his powerful narrative of being a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam was, and is, a tremendously compelling human story.  It is a gripping narrative. Visceral. What he wasn’t able to do is tie that together with why that will make him a better president.  

Obama’s narrative was less about the physical and mental ordeal and more about the obstacles he faced growing up with little money, racism and social pressures.  He was able to connect his personal history to his goal of improving healthcare with the stories of his mother’s struggles to get the healthcare insurers to cover the medical bills as she was dying of cancer.  This is an ordeal in which many people can easily imagine themselves.  We’ve all had experience with health insurance companies denying payment for one bill or another.  It is less dramatically gripping than McCain’s strong.  At the same time it is more accessible to most people and ties directly into a major issue of the day.

So what does this have to do with branding?  


Successful branding is about framing the narrative.  It is about telling a coherent set of stories within that framework.  And it is about understanding the power of symbols and metaphors in attracting the right kind of attention.

In short, brand marketing has much in common with political consulting.  And with theater.  Political theater. Branded entertainment.  Framing the narrative.  

Why narrative and not positioning?  

Ah, let’s frame that argument!  

Positioning is about defending one’s position.  It is static.  I stand for this and this only, unchanging in the face of time or circumstances.  

Narrative is about time.  There is the next scene, the following act, the next chapter.  Built into narrative is this recognition that time matters, that situations change.

New consumer research technologies, old research techniques

Okay, it’s old news that in the US and many other countries, market research has moved online.  The new technology makes it possible to set-up and field studies in record time.  And with Zoomerang and Survey Monkey, just about anyone can create and field a survey.

Which brings to mind a simple question:  Are we using new technology to improve the quality of insights or just using it for the same old tasks?  

My observation is that online research is often a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the minds of customers.  

In study after study I see that questions and study design meant for mail, phone or in-person studies are now migrating online.  The same old studies just done in a new medium.  Why is that such a big deal?  Because many of those questions were compromises based on the technology that existed in the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s like replacing an electric typewriter with a MacBook Pro laptop.  A very cool way to type things.  But you could also adopt all of the new technology stuffed into the MacBook and be making videos and other visual presentations that are much more effective.  

The very nature of putting a study online opens up a world of possibilities — ones that should excite both the market researchers and pretty much everyone in marketing.  The past methods and study designs were not meant for the internet age.  Now it is possible to bring visual experiences and images into the process.

Consider for a moment the typical questions about brand awareness.  Currently they are about remembering a brand based on a verbal cues, along the lines of “What brands of xxxxx come to mind?”  “Have you ever heard of BrandX?”  For aided questions, it is just as easy to show the logo and ask, “Have you ever seen this brand before?”  In real life people come across brands visually, logo first.  If I go into a store, I see the brand name in context of a label, a logo, a package, perhaps a point-of-sale display.  So why not in market research?  

For image and brand personality questions, it is now easy to use visual images instead of  checklists of adjectives and attributes such as “Tall”, “Dark” and “Handsome”.  The illusive grail of marketing, “differentiation” is often in imagery and not in product characteristics.  Consider wine. Or beer. Or water. Or perfume.  Or any number of other categories where consumers cannot rationally explain the differences between the physical products. Here’s where the visual aspect of the internet can really delve deeper.

Yes, yes, I know that there are huge problems with online research. How do you know that a real person between 18 and 49 is filling in the survey? How do you actually verify the sample? This is not meant to diminish those issues.  Market research on the internet is here for the foreseeable future, so this is the time to begin making the most of it.

A number is just a number.  But an insight is priceless.  Much of memory is visual.  Much communication is non-verbal.  Much communication is metaphorical. The great promise of market research on the internet is to re-invent market research to get into these visual, metaphorical, non-verbal parts of the consumer’s mind.  The great promise is to get deeper insights.

Okay, I’m putting my soapbox back into the closet for a while…

Guess that brand’s country of origin.

Today’s quiz is much easier than the New York Times crossword puzzle.  I’ll name a brand  and you guess the country where the company is headquartered.  









And the answer for all of the above  is The Netherlands. Yes, even IKEA has been headquartered in The Netherlands for more than 25 years. Dove?Part of Unilever which an Anglo-Dutch company.  

In fact, Holland seems to be a country that is particularly conducive global brands.  This came up at dinner on Thursday night when several friends were commenting on how country of origin plays a role in the favorability of brands around the world.  American brands came in for a lot of heat over the past 8 years.  Japanese brands have a disadvantage in China and Korea because of the Japanese occupations in those countries.  And the same for German brands.  Spanish brands are strong in Latin America and weak in Europe, outside of Spain.  And Chinese brands?  Not even the best known, such as Lenovo, are particularly strong.  And I say that with a heavy heart because I was on the team that created the Lenovo brand so that the company, formerly known as Legend Computing, was able to go global.

The answer probably lies in some combination of the liberal Dutch culture and the long history as a global trading center.  Even the colonial role of The Netherlands is not as controversial as the Spanish, Japanese or French.  Come to think of it, I’m writing this in a city founded as New Amsterdam but today is known as New York City.

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