Archive for June, 2010

Different is different – or – The Spy vs. Spy Skool of Branding

You can hardly sleep through a marketing lecture without hearing the word “differentiation” so many times that it begins to seep into your daydreams.

The language of differentiation — giving your product a point of difference that customers will value — has become so pervasive that it is taken as a categorical imperative…With all due apologies to Immanuel Kant.

In theory, differentiation is a lovely idea.  But in reality is highly ephemeral.  From the stand-point of a physical product anything can be copied — quickly and cheaply (particularly if you don’t have to invest in coming up with the idea in the first place).  Well, not everything. For instance, a patented formulation stands a good chance of holding off the hordes of imitators for a good while — at least in North America and Europe.  But that aside, just about any product point of differentiation you can imagine can be quickly copied.

What happens next is the true danger of differentiation.  I call it the Self-Referential Hermetic School of Tautological Reflexology.  In other words, spending more time looking at what your competitor is doing in response to what you are doing and what you will do in response to that.

Example: About 5  years ago I was meeting with the marketing executives of Movilnet, a wireless phone company in Venezuela.  They were positively gleeful as they showed me a new commercial.  The commercial was making fun of their competitor, Telecel.  Why all of the joy and glee in the room?  Because they knew the ad would be taken as an insult by the head of marketing at Telcel.  Millions of dollars in media spending to insult the competitor — without a thought to attracting customers.

I wish that anecdote was a one time case but I have seen it repeatedly around the world.  Looking at the other guy instead of focusing on being yourself and your connection to the consumer. Well, it’s rather like the old Mad Magazine feature, Spy Vs. Spy. It bears little connection to the world of consumers.

Spy vs Spy

Spy vs Spy

Click here to see Differentiation In Action!

Focus on what you have most control over.  And that is the resources and direction of your company.  Real differentiation comes from self-awareness and creating your own path to the future.

Shell shocked?

Timing is everything.  Sometimes time is just not on a brand’s side.  And sometimes a brand makes an ill-timed decision.  I think that Shell falls into that second category.
I was quite surprised to see the new campaign by Shell.  The timing seems all wrong, given the events in the Gulf


True, true, it is BP whose well is gushing…Or perhaps gurgling is a better word for an underwater gusher, or geyser?

BP on sustainability – or – the past is always present

One of the things I have learned about the internet is that the past is never past.  My daughter and my step-children are able to Google me and find some of my old short stories and other fiction.  [By the way, you’ll find it under R.C. Ringer.  That was the name Gordon Lish bestowed upon me when publishing my work.]

While looking for something about gardening, I came across a speech from BP.  It was made by Peter Southerland the vice chairman back in 1999.  Here’s an eerie excerpt:

We are not a ‘charity’.

It is not our role to clean up the environment. Our environmental responsibilities are inherent in our ‘long term’ goals. Our standards and values mean we don’t poison streams and damage the atmosphere. Because we realise we are not just trying to make a quick killing, we’re there to build permanent relationships.

Some companies may disagree with this strategy. They may say that it’s more important to focus on the short-term rewards for the shareholders, and deal with the social and political fallout when it’s absolutely necessary.

Given the expectations we now face, at BP Amoco we think the pursuit of short-term goals would be foolish. Remember the corporation that realised that asbestos was poisonous, and tried to cover the problem up. The more they denied the problem, the more serious it became, until the consequences nearly resulted in the extinction of that company.

excerpt from speech by Peter Southerland, Vice Chairman of BP

A generation of MBA students will be writing case studies on the BP Gulf disaster, the role of corporate social responsibility and prudent communications.  The matching of words and actions is easy on paper but in the real world there are many conflicting forces that are pulling on a company like BP.  There are many audiences to whom it is beholden.  And those audiences have conflicting needs.

So the story of BP, the narrative of BP, is taking an unexpected turn.  The words of the past are there and companies will be asked to live up to them or to explain them or to deny them.  That is the blessing and the curse of the Internet.

BBQ Day in Madison Square Park!

This is the big day — the annual BBQ contest in Madison Square Park.  Come on down!  And visit the Heartland Beer Garden between booths of wonderful ribs!

And while you are walking around the park, remember that this is ground hallowed by P.T. Barnum’s emporium and the Greatest Show On Earth.

The new new Chevrolet — or — GM is just kidding us!

About a year ago I made several posts recommending that GM retire the GM brand and rename the whole group as The Chevrolet Group.

My reasoning was that Chevrolet was a very storied brand, started by the Chevrolet brothers who were well-known race car drivers.  Right there was the heritage of a high performance company, with the humanity of the Chevrolet brothers as part of the folklore!  And the diminutive of Chevrolet, the Chevy, has become part of American culture.  Just think of Bruce Springsteen’s Racing in the Street (“I’ve got a ’57 Chevy with a 396…”).  [Note to NY Times — how could you leave out Springsteen but include Motley Crue?]

Of course GM is still GM.

But Chevrolet is only Chevrolet — it has lost the Chevy!  Or maybe not.  If you saw the front page story in yesterday’s New York Times you know that the company wants to drop their nickname, Chevy.  G.M. Proposes Leaving a Car’s Popular Nickname in the Dust –

Now today GM has come out to say, just kidding folks!  According to the Times:

In an interview by phone, Mr. Batey [VP of Sales] called the memo “a rough draft” and “a bit of fun.”

G.M. Backtracks on Chevy Memo –

You can also check out the GM Facebook page to see how they are handling this bit of news.

So here’s my strategic recommendation.  Move forward with calling the entire company The Chevrolet Group.  Drop the GM name.  As the name for the overall company, Chevrolet is terrific.  And within the Chevrolet division, well…why mess with a good Chevy?

Effie evidence

One of the lovely things about the Effies is getting your photograph as one of the winners.  You can link to the photo finish here or at the NYAMA.ORG

Proof positive that I was actually at the Effies.  It’s one of the few photographs of me in a tux, so I shall treasure it.  I’m the fellow third from the left, in case you don’t recognize me when I’m not wearing sneakers!

Evening at the Effies

Evening at the Effies

Off to the Effies

Last night was the annual Effies award dinner, so I dug out my tux and put on a bowtie.  On my way over to Cipriani I was wondering why I don’t wear these to client meetings.  It’s fun to dress up.

The place was packed, the event sold out.  More than 750 people attended and many others were unable to buy tickets in the first place.

I also saw the Effies from a completely new perspective.  In the past I had been one of the ad agency people sitting at a table wondering if we won bronze, silver or gold.  The tension was gone this year since I was attending in my role as a board member of the NYAMA.  That made the whole evening more enjoyable.

One friend asked me, “So what does ‘effie’ stand for?

Advertising effectiveness, I explained.  To which he responded, “It must have been a short evening since advertising is less and less effective.”

So here’s the list of winners, in case you missed it last night.

2010 Effie Winners

BP, Toyota and the Gulf spill

A tale of two companies in the middle of a reputation crisis — Toyota and BP.  Two different companies with every different approaches to the damage that is being done to their brand by external events (or, in the case of Toyota, internal events.

Media post has a story on this.  Toyota is more or less keeping its head down.  BP is being pretty active at outreach.  Just look at the differences in the home pages.  BP has the Gulf story front and center.  Toyota has the recall 3 links into the sites.

The irony is that the Gulf spill may benefit Toyota, raising awareness of the environmental and oil issues that will contribute to selling more hybrids and other energy efficient cars.

Toyota homepage

Toyota homepage

Toyota safety page

Toyota safety page

BP Homepage

BP Homepage

BP Homepage

BP second page

BP second page

Both companies were at the forefront in addressing environmental issues in their communications.  In BP’s case it seems to be making them into a larger target — at least in the short run.  For Toyota it seems to have helped insulate their branding from more damage.

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