Category: Marketing Mistakes

How to Kill a Great Brand

Heavy Duty Vehicle Emissions - October 2005 Environment DEC
Mmmmm. Smell the clean.

Here’s an object lesson in how to kill off a great brand.

First off, you have to lie. Not just little lies. Nooo, those aren’t lethal enough. You have to make them big lies. Super-massive-black-hole-at-the-center-of-the-galaxy-sized lies.

Take the recent Volkswagen diesel scandal. From the land that brought us Joseph Goebbels comes one of the longest, biggest lies in marketing history; that of  cleanness of diesel powered cars.

Okay, at first, the idea that a diesel engine, already known for great mileage and power, can also operate below EPA limits seems too good to be true. Diesel has long been synonymous with dirty, carcinogenic, black smoke belching out of truck stacks. I mean, it’s burning oil, for crying out loud! But for a long time now, Volkswagen, that esteemed automaker that brought us the original Beetle and its ultra-honest advertising in the 60s, has been flogging the notion that they’ve come up with a diesel car that is not only fuel-efficient, but environmentally clean, all without giving up any performance. How do they do it? German Engineering.

And…oh, yeah…lying.

Class, how many times do we have to learn the lesson of “too good to be true”?  And what is that lesson, Munchkins? Let’s all say it again: It’s not true.

It seems, according to a long investigation by our own EPA, a number of consumer groups, and the investigative agencies of several European governments, that Volkswagen had not only blatantly lied about its environment-friendly claims about their diesel cars, they deliberately built in clever software to fool the emissions testers. It goes far beyond just exaggerated advertising; it involves deceptive engineering…German deceptive engineering, though.

Let’s say you take your 2009 VW Jetta in to the appropriate facility to get it certified for registration. They hook it up to their computer and, unbeknown to anybody but Volkswagen, a secret  little program inside the car’s computer turns on the filter so that you pass. Then, when you drive out with that “passed” stamp,  and that self-satisfied feeling of having done your part to fight global warming, that little program secretly turns the filter off again and you go back to spewing as much muck into the air as a Panzer tank–as much as 40 times more than legally allowed by the EPA, in fact. (Read all about how it works  in any number of stories this week. Here’s one in the New York Times.)

Of course, the CEO of VW, Martin Winterkorn, resigned today; shocked, shocked, he tells us, that there was Schwindeleien ( German for shenanigans) going on behind his back at Volkswagen. This is a little much considering that VW  has long been famous for its highly centralized, Teutonic control culture. Central control is the leitmotif of German engineering, after all. But what do you do when you’re caught in a big lie? Double down with a bigger lie: “I had no such knowledge!”

Okay, great that Winterkorn resigned (I’m sure he had a very big parachute). And let’s see if any government agencies seek to prosecute him and any other executives at VW, putting them in orange overalls. But what about the 11 million people who shelled out a significant portion of their salaries for diesel cars they thought were legally compliant with their countries’ emission standards? How is Volkswagen ever going to make it up to them? There have as yet been no recalls. But if they are coming, what can the factory fix? They can disable the filter-disabling software, but can they make a diesel engine emission compliant and keep its fuel efficiency? Let’s see what the Magic Eight Ball says:

Magic Eight Ball

 

Volkswagen says they’ve put aside $7.8 billion to handle recall expenses. Does this mean they’ll buy the bullshit cars back? Well, only if each of the 11 million bilked buyers are willing to accept $709 in trade-in. If the average price of one of those diesel cars was $30k (just estimating based on advertised MSRP) VW’s going to need to set aside closer to a third of a trillion dollars to make it good with all those pissed-off customers.

A Great Brand Commits Suicide

My prediction (using my own trusty  M8B technology) is that the German Engineers at VW  have taken their respected brand and locked it in the garage with the motor running. Of course, other automakers like Ford, GM, Hyundai, Toyota, and Chrysler have all survived scandals involving exploding gas tanks, faulty air bags, unintended acceleration, and odometer tampering.  But none of those companies’ scandals were anywhere near as cynical, deliberate, pervasive, or harmful to their brands as VW’s. That company has built its reputation on reliability. From the very first “Think small” ad in 1959 to now, they’ve cultivated a brand position of being reliable-to-a-fault. And now this new generation of cynical smart-asses has just killed it. Great job, Martin. Hope you sold your stocks before you left.

Two Rules Ignored

Here is yet another example of Unbreakable Rule #9: Everything is marketing. This may have been a bad engineering decision, or a manufacturing decision, or a business decision, or an ethical decision. But ultimately it was a bad marketing decision. Because now nobody will trust Volkswagen again. Not its customers. Not its shareholders (if any stick around). Not its majority of hardworking, dedicated, honest employees. Not its dealers struggling on the narrowest of margins. Not governments charged with seeing to public safety and health. Nobody.

The other thing offensive about this story is that, once again, it feeds the belief (see Rule #2: Perception is reality) that marketing is a lie. I hate that. Marketing is not a lie. Marketing that lies is a lie. But marketing itself should always seek to tell the truth. It should find the best true thing to say about a product and portray that in as compelling a way as possible. But if you’re an marketer and you feel like you have to lie, get out of the business. Or resign the account, at the very least. And blow the whistle on the liars.

Solving Problems We Don’t Have

Shaved catThere’s been, in case you’ve been in hypersleep for the past five decades, a revolution in shaving technology. When I started shaving, all we had was a chipped shard of flint we shared within the Clan of the Cave Hamster. Worked fine. Then came the safety-razor. Then twin blades. Then three. Then four. But they didn’t stop there:  Then five with advanced sensitivity strips. Then vibrating, triaxially-rotating, self-lubricating heads. And now there’s Dollar Shave Club.

What I find unintentionally hilarious about the Dollar Shave Club’s advertising is that they solve problems I don’t have (which, to be fair, is something all razor marketing has ever done for years). Some of their commercials revolve around men having to get around the Mission Impossible security evidently guarding razor blades in stores, with the poor shopper being Tasered or beaten up when he tries to buy them–something we’ve all experienced, I’m sure.  Other spots  focus on how expensive traditional razor blades are, cleverly depicting hapless customers forced to trade in their grandpa’s wristwatches and all their clothes to afford to buy blades. Now there’s a new series of ads featuring gross, talking, “Brand X” razors that need replacing, which the owners are loathe to part with because the cost of replacement is somehow prohibitive. Also the Brand-X razors talk and have googly eyes, which is a little off-putting when you’re shaving.

Solving problems that don’t exist is an old trope in bad marketing: We’ve got nothing anybody wants, so invent some problem and solve it.

The trouble with the Dollar Shave concept, and with other mail-order razor subscription services, is that even if you understand the problems they make up, their solutions are weak. The misnamed Dollar claims they are cheaper than the Gillettes or Schicks you’ve been using. But they aren’t. Dollar’s run about $2.25 a pop for a comparable six-bladed cartridge, which is, depending on where you shop, about the same as the Gillettes and Schicks you toss in your basket (and, if you buy in bulk at Costco, a lot more expensive). So even the name Dollar Shave is misleading.

Also, do you know any store that locks their razor blades up? It isn’t exactly a controlled substance.  Maybe where I live, out here in the Wild Wild West, we can sashay into any old feed store and openly buy blades, condoms, weed, ammo, and weaponized anthrax right off the open shelves. But I’ve never seen razor blades locked up. Cigarettes maybe. But not razors. Is this an East Coast thing?

And then there’s the curious marketing concept of buying your razor blades by subscription–mail order.  What you get with both Dollar Shave and their competitor, Harry’s, is a package of four or more razor cartridges per month (depending on the subscription level) for about the same price you’d pay if you picked up a pack of Gillettes every six months at your local supermarket. The advantage, I guess, is that you don’t have to remember to put razor blades in your cart as you pass down aisle 14; you can wait for them to be mailed to you. Why this is an advantage, I don’t know. Unless you are housebound and can’t leave your front door because you are an invalid or under surveillance by spy satellites or are in the midst of a Call of Duty marathon. Again, another problem that just doesn’t exist.

How often, in fact, do any of us (males, at least) have to buy razors? It’s not like most of us are shaving our cats and run through a blade a week. A normal razor blade (with four parallel blades and all the latest gel strips) lasts me a month. Runs about $2.50 a cartridge. Admittedly, I’m not the most hirsute of people, but I can’t imagine even somebody as brillo-paddy as Ted Cruz going through more than one a week.

How about mail order toothpaste next? Or dental floss? Tired of having to defeat ninjas at the store just to buy dental floss? Get on our automatic plan and we’ll send you 30 yards of industrial-grade waxed floss every month.

Me, I still love the feel of a freshly chipped shard of flint.

All advertising is an interruption

Clockwork'71
“HOW CAN WE MAKE PEOPLE WATCH OUR ADS?”

One of the most unintentionally hilarious questions in this Age of Data Mining must be, “Would you like to see more ads about this product?”

I wonder, does anybody actually click “Yes”?

Ironically, the thing that initially got me interested in a career in advertising was the very first thing out of the mouth of my mentor at Art Center, Ray Engle, “All advertising is an interruption.”

Nobody likes to be interrupted:

Nobody likes to have a TV show broken into with some non-sequitur thought about reverse mortgages.

Nobody likes to be called out of the blue by somebody trying to sell them something (especially the phone calls that begin with the blatant lie, “This is not a solicitation.”)

Nobody likes clicking on a YouTube video only to have to wait for 30 seconds through a commercial.

Nobody likes having pop-up windows get between them and the article they’re trying to read.

Nobody likes having to clean out their mailbox (literal or digital) of the 99% of the crap that’s cluttering it up.

And nobody likes to have their smartphone constantly vibrating with ad-mails and ad-texts (well…depending on where they carry their phones…almost nobody).

When you interrupt somebody, especially with an ad, you’ve already put them in a foul mood. Not the greatest state in which to sell them something.

And that’s why everybody hates ads. The only people who seem to like them are those that make them. And they only like the ones they make. Or the funny ones.

That’s also why there are spam filters. And that’s why there are DVRs, so you can FF through all the ads. And there have been “MUTE” buttons on TV remote controls ever the advent of the first Zenith Space Commander sixty years ago, which predated the creative revolution in advertising by six years.

Zenith_Space_Commander_600
THAT THIRD BUTTON WAS MY GRANDFATHER’S FAVORITE.

It used to be, back in the Mad Men Golden Age of advertising, that advertisers recognized this timeless fact about human nature;  people don’t like ads. This recognition was first uttered (supposedly) by David Ogilvy, “Nobody ever bored their customers into buying their product.” But for some reason, the majority of people making ads today seem to think that human nature has changed in recent generations and that people nowadays seem to love to be interrupted by ads. And bored into buying products.

I’m not a scientist, but…

Now, I’m not a behavioral scientist (even with my degree in it) and I haven’t actually read any studies to the contrary, but it seems to me that people still don’t like being interrupted. That hasn’t changed. That app is still working in Human Brain OS 1.0.

So, what’s an advertiser to do? What’s the anti-anti-spam technology? According to my first ad mentors, Ray Engle and Lee Clow, and to countless other genii of the Golden Age, the answer was simple: Make it good. You just pissed somebody off by interrupting them–you can’t get around that–so you’d better make it worth it. And “worth it” doesn’t mean telling us about all of your J.D. Power Awards.

The “worth it” is where creativity in marketing comes in. Make it entertaining. That was the giant, forehead-slapping discovery made by Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach and all the ad people who weren’t working at that hack-factory, the Sterling Cooper Agency, in 1962. Why are funny ads ten times more successful than information-only ads? (There actually have been studies to measure this.) Because they reward us for listening. They respect us as intelligent people. They know they just interrupted us. So they give us a peace offering.

And then we are not so inclined to hit mute, or change the channel,  turn off the TV, or click “skip” on the pop-up window.

Want to make somebody watch your ad? Then make them laugh. Or cry. Or scared. Or at least feel entertained. Other than kidnapping them, duct taping them to a chair, and clamping their eyelids open, there’s no other way to do it. Legally anyway.

Introducing: the Death Word

Introducing

Don’t use this word. Ever.

When “introducing” is used in a headline,  it takes the average reader less than 14.2 nanoseconds to recognize that you’ve got nothing interesting to say. (I made that datum up to impress the engineers among you. Let’s just say it doesn’t take much time.) And since, in every reader’s mind,  all ads are perceived with disdain and irritation to begin with, to flag one with the death word, “Introducing,” is to insure that it will never be read…not unless it’s part of the sentence, “Introducing the best way to stick your elbow in your ear.”

(Admit it, you just tried to do that. Didn’t you?)

“Introducing” is also a gerund. Which means it’s passive. Of course, this is covered in the first hour of any community college copywriting class. But it doesn’t seem to have sunk in lately, at least judging by all this year’s crop of $4.5-million-per-30-second Super Bowl spots. If you want your ads to be read or listened to, don’t use the passive voice. Don’t use other gerunds like “celebrating” (as in  “Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence”), “innovating,” or “leveraging.” The passive voice sucks all the life out of your ads. It makes them dull. It makes them ignored. It makes you waste the $4.5 million you just spent on your Super Bowl spot.

“Introducing” betrays an amateur copywriter, without even a hint craft or talent. No professional copywriter would ever use such a lazy, lifeless verb like “Introducing.” Not in the headline. Not in the copy. Not in the script. Not in the content of a website. It’s a dead word. And it screams, “I’m a hack!” Such a hack would also not hesitate to use a phrase like “passion for excellence,” “formula for your success,” or “the difference is in our people,” in their copy.

But there seems to be much more hackitosis in advertising these days.

“Introducing” also embarrasses the client who would tolerate such a passive, lazy word in their marketing. It tells all of us, unconsciously (in 8.9 nanoseconds), that the advertiser isn’t all that enthusiastic about their product. So why should we be?

Do you ever, in normal conversation, use the word “introducing” as a predicate? When you are introducing two friends, do you say, “Liam, introducing Miyako. Miyako, introducing Liam.”? Do your e-mails and texts use that word? Then don’t write your ads using it.

Ever.

Unless, of course, you have a very good reason. And a note from your editor.

Ha! Ha! Old people are so stoopid.

esurance candy crush
She’s so dumb because, see, she thinks Candy Crush is a game you play with a hammer, and it isn’t.

Don’t you love those Esurance spots that show how dumb old folks are when it comes to modern inventions like social media and mobile gaming? Isn’t it adorable how that one old lady is crushing hard candies on her table with a literal hammer and thinking she’s playing Candy Crush?  Or the other old lady has taped pictures to her literal wall and thinks she’s sharing them on Facebook? They’re so funny because they’re so true; old people are dumb as walnuts.

Okay, now let’s do a mind experiment and recast those old ladies with black or latino people. Same script. Is it still as funny?

Actually, you don’t have to imagine because they did one with an old African-American guy who is so dumb he actually thinks you’re supposed to rewind rental DVDs. Ha!Esurance Larry Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!…Wait, what are “rental DVDs”?

The point Esurance is trying to make (I mean esurance, because the lower case “e” makes them seem so much more accessible) is that young, smart people know that if Geico claims you can save 15% in 15 minutes online, you can save even more in half the time with Esurance. What a brilliant strategy: First remind me of the competitor’s brand position (which is itself utterly weak to begin with) and then vaguely say we’re twice as fast. Yes, twice as fast. What’s that? Let’s see, fifteen, divided by two,  carry the one… SEVEN-AND-A-HALF! Ooo…that’s fast!

If you don’t believe how fast that is, call them up and wait on hold for seven-and-a-half minutes. You won’t believe how time flies. Unless, of course, you’re a Baby Boomer and those are seven-and-a-half minutes docked from your already dwindling time on the planet.

Rule: Don’t insult the people writing the checks.

Of course, we get it:  The intended audience isn’t composed of old people or aging Baby Boomers. The campaign is for very young (usually male) drivers who just want the minimum, catastrophic insurance required by state law to register their pickup truck. They don’t care how fast or well their insurance company takes care of them when they do have an accident; they just want to be able to show that they have minimum coverage when asked for their license and registration by Officer Muzzy. And besides, they don’t plan on having an accident. Duh!

The old people in this campaign, on the other hand, who would have had some experience with how the world actually works (and in particular, insurance companies) would know that it isn’t how fast it takes to get a quote, it’s how fast it takes the insurance company to come through with a claim, a tow, repairs, a rental car, and all that boring service part of the business.

The Baby Boomers would also be of an age where their own parents, or they themselves, are terrified of getting older, of senile dementia, physical infirmities, and the horror of Alzheimer’s. So they probably don’t see the humor in the jokes.

I’m surprised at Allstate (who owns Esurance), whose main commercials are otherwise so smart. Their agency since 2011, Leo Burnett, who did the terrific “Mayhem” campaign and the intelligent spots with Dennis Haysbert, also did this utterly witless and offensive campaign for Esurance.  Great idea. Baby Boomers are still the biggest market demographic in this country, and are the ones most likely still paying the insurance premiums for their kids and grandkids.

So, by all means, let’s insult them.

Rule: Don’t pick a weak position.

The other strategic boo-boo this campaign makes is thinking that the battle is over how fast it takes to get a quote. Did they run some focus groups on this? I always thought Geico’s own purchase proposition (15 minutes can save you 15%) was itself one of the weakest brand positions on the planet. They may be crappy in every other aspect of service, but…”oh, let’s see, what else have we got, Murray? Fifteen minutes? Fifteen percent? Okay…well…if that’s all, let’s run with that. At least it’s not as dumb as ‘so easy a caveman can do it.'” (A geriatric caveman.)

“But be sure to say ‘could save you’ and not ‘will save you.’ Don’t want to over-promise.”

Yet having to spend fifteen minutes, or even seven-and-a-half minutes, on a website getting a quote (much less fifteen) is itself interminable. Do nothing for seven-and-a-half minutes and tell me how quick that feels.  This week I had to contact my own car insurance company (USAA) and they took my claim (none of your business for what), set me up for repairs, and upgraded my policy. And the entire transaction took less than five minutes with a live human being. So I’m thinking, I have to wait seven-and-a-half minutes to get  just a quote from Esurance? And that’s supposed to be good because at least it isn’t fifteen minutes? And fifteen minutes was supposed to be fast? (I’m talkin’ to you, Geico.)

Rule: Don’t pick an unsupportable position

Here’s the other weakness of this “cheaper “position; make sure you actually are cheaper. I went through the exercise of going onto Esurance’s site in researching this post only to find out that getting the exact same coverage as I was getting from USAA was, in fact, about 36% more. So, in spite of the daily robo-calls, hourly e-mails, and irritating pop-up banners I get from Esurance now, they’ve completely lost me forever. They hung their hat on cheaper, and weren’t. End of pitch. (It did, I’ll admit, take under seven-and-a-half minutes; just six minutes ten seconds.)

Rule: Don’t remind me of your competition.

But wait! There’s more! Esurance compounds this marketing error by actually reminding us of their competitor, Geico. In fact, the first few times I saw their spots, they seemed so similar in message, lame humor, and production quality that I thought they were Geico spots. But that must be because I’m a dumb senior citizen.

Rule: Don’t set up non-existent problems to solve.

Really, Esurance, nobody thinks taping her photos up on her living room wall is the same as posting them on her Facebook “wall.” Nobody thinks you have to rewind DVDs, or that smashing candy on a table is a game, or that standing on your roof using a megaphone is a good way to search for roof repair. And nobody thinks that the problem with shopping for car insurance is that it takes fifteen minutes online (It doesn’t. Not unless they have weak-ass servers in Pakistan.) That isn’t a problem. And it doesn’t need a solution.

And no it doesn’t humorously highlight how modern Esurance is. Especially if they think you can still rent DVDs.

Giving Bad News

inkjet-hypodermic-needle-2Be honest. Do any of you ever read those agonizingly composed letters from marketers that begin with the deadly phrase, “Your business is important to us…” (YBIITU)? In the first place, even if you open the envelope or the e-mail, you know what this means. It means bad news coming. They’re raising their rates; they’re closing your local branch; they’re discontinuing a service you’ve enjoyed; your frequent shopper points have expired…something bad. In other words, YBIITU means the opposite; that “your business isn’t important to us,” at least important enough to be honest upfront. And if it were that important, why would you do this bad thing to me?

YBIITU letters are examples of marketing that shoots itself in the foot. We have all, as good little Pavlovian dogs, become conditioned to regard this phrase as the buzzer before the electric shock. It’s the commercial equivalent of the equally deadly phrase in a romantic relationship, “We need to talk.” Somehow, you know that the “talk” isn’t going to be about something positive, like whether the Kings have a shot at the Stanley Cup this year. “We need to talk,” is the bell that announces the bad news coming; “I’m seeing somebody else,” “This isn’t working,” “I’m moving out,” “You’re moving out,” or “I’m going to have to raise my rates for you sleeping with me.” YBIITU is the same. It’s the wrong way to deliver bad news.

Yet the writers of these communications, while they may stay up all night carefully composing their obsequious prose, don’t seem to get what starting off with these shallow clichés does to their audience. It immediately causes the defenses to go up. The same happens when they leaven the first few paragraphs with self-aggrandizing language that extols how much the company thinks of itself, of how many customer-service awards it’s won, of its commitment to excellence. Nobody gives a damn about your customer service ratings (those are rigged anyway, we all know). We’re only scanning for the bad news you’re about to hit us with; the broken glass in the sandwich.

Well, how do you give bad news to your customers?

Be honest. Be upfront. Since your customers are already going to be wary of the contents of this letter, just cut to the chase and say right out, “It pains us, but we’re going to have to raise your rates 1.5%” Then you can explain why. But the bad news is already over, and, usually, it probably isn’t as bad as you think. It’s like when the nurse gives you a shot. The good ones just do it quick and painlessly, before you can even tense up. The bad ones talk about how it’s not going to hurt, but may “sting a bit,” and then slowly push in the needle.

Relate to your own experience as you write these letters, too. When you hear someone yammering on about all the good things you should be grateful for in doing business with them, don’t you start thinking, “This is going to be bad.”? You brace for the pain. And that amplifies it when it eventually comes, way down in paragraph #4.

Likewise, make it short. Don’t fill up the page with cant about how great you think you are. We don’t care. In fact, it makes you look like an egotistical jerk. Bad news is worse when it’s verbose. Just opening a letter with bad news sets an “off” tone for the recipient. We can smell it. And if we see hundreds of words in 10 point type, you’ve added insult to injury by requiring us to sit down to do a lot of reading. Most of us won’t anyway. We see “YBIITU” and immediately start scanning below for the sting.

So if you have a rate increase to announce, or you’re closing a store, or you’re no longer supporting some popular software, don’t take more than 50 words at most to say that. Be deferential, of course, even apologetic. But be brief and honest.

And never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever say that my business is important to you. That just makes me think the opposite.

 

Unlucky Charms of Lawyers in Marketing

lucky-charmsSo the big news today (I mean, besides ferry and school bus disasters, Russia’s threats to Ukraine, domestic terrorism, and the death of Gabriel Garcia Márquez) is General Mills’ sudden reversal of an announced self-proclaimed exemption from any wrong-doing, past, present, or future. Last week, the giant food processor published their new terms and conditions that if you downloaded one of their coupons, “liked” them on Facebook, “followed” them on Twitter, bought any of their products, or even ate a single Cheerio at any time in your life since you were sitting in a high chair, you waived all your rights to sue them for any harm whatever you may have, now or in the future, or in any parallel universe, possibly claim you think you may have allegedly suffered from them.

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the brilliant meeting where that policy was presented. I’m sure General Mills’ lawyers, bless their well-meaning hearts, all thought they were so clever in arc-welding together this Iron Man pre-emptive defense. Nothing could penetrate it. General Mills, if they were evil, could knowingly pour buckets of broken glass, rat poison, plutonium, and X-acto blades into their brightly colored cereal boxes (yes, yes, yes, we know they make more than cereal) and never have to worry about being sued. All because you would have waived your right to redress by simply “liking” a General Mills Facebook post. Brilliant.

Except for one thing. The law team that crafted this impenetrable body-armor forgot about the wrath of the public and the power of marketing backlash. I don’t know how many people fired in angry letters, box tops, or e-mails (I was one of them, sarcastically putting myself on the record as opting out of their can’t-sue-us agreement). But evidently it was enough for General Mills to reverse itself this morning and rescind the policy. They’re happy to accept any and all lawsuits again. Yipee!

That’s too bad, because it would have been fascinating to see how that but-you-said-you-liked-us defense would have played out in the first class action lawsuit. I’m not a lawyer, but I play one all the time, and it may be that the pre-emptive legal force field was, indeed, impenetrable. If it was, then maybe another GM should consider it.

But what isn’t impenetrable is public backlash. It’s not good for your brand to announce that you intend to be a jerk from now on. And there’s no legal defense on earth that can protect a company from falling sales due to public outrage.

This is another of many example of big brands, who should know better, forgetting the 9th Unbreakable Rule: Everything is Marketing. Even legal caveats.

I know corporate lawyers aren’t concerned with marketing. Their only concern is the protection of their client (or employer). But they really should look up from time to time and notice that occasionally the act of defense itself causes more harm that what it was intended to ward off. And General Mills has done the right thing here by putting the gun down.

Now let’s cuff ’em.

Avis decides trying harder is just too hard

Avis girl
I know how this actress must feel being in this goddawful commercial.

What the hell happened to Avis? Oh, yeah, they got a new ad agency. And what’s every lumbering, Cretaceous-era ad agency’s mantra? If you get a new client, take everything they’ve ever done and lift your leg on it.

As every sentient being on this small, rocky planet orbiting a third-rate star must be aware, for the past fifty years  Avis’s brand position and slogan has been “We try harder.” One of the classic and most effective brand positions ever. First conceived at Doyle Dane Bernbach back when Kennedy was president, it has stood as a powerful brand message ever since. Timeless. Inspiring. Memorable. Self-sustaining. And brilliant. It stands for perpetual improvement, a hunger to get better, and making the customer first.

Enter the Keebler Elves

Now along comes a new ad agency for Avis, Leo Burnett (of Tony the Tiger, Jolly Green Giant, Keebler Elves, and Pillsbury Doughboy infame), who felt the need to chuck all that and come up with perhaps the dullest, most banal ad campaign so far this year. They’ve also added insult to injury by flushing Avis’s stalwart “We try harder” in favor of some focus-group-generated, lifeless tagline and a derivative concept that seems to come right out of Don Draper’s hackneyed, martini-soaked, Sans-a-Belt slacks.

This campaign, “The Professionals,” is part of a new (and I use that adjective with extreme irony) brand proposition called “It’s your space.” Of course, it’s just a humiliating attempt to imitate National Car Rental’s “Rent like a pro” campaign. Because National has been stealing Avis’s lunch money and dunking their heads in the toilet for years now, some marketing MBA at Burnett probably thought it would be just the ticket to emulate those bullies. That’s how you make yourself unique; remind your customers of the other guys.

The concept is pathetic on the surface. And in execution it’s even worse. Like you’d expect from every other bloated, obsolete ad agency, Burnett’s creative teams had the original idea of paying celebrities (but in this case, third-level celebrities) to shill their client’s product. I’ll bet that was a late-night, white-board session.  So the message is, if you’re a celebrity, Avis treats you like a celebrity.

Everybody in the commercials just looks bored to be there. And the jokes are so limp they would make a minivan full of preschoolers groan. (A Playboy centerfold/volleyball player says she’s going to slip into this “tight black number I brought with me,” but it turns out to be just her yoga leotard. Get it? Get it? Because you thought it was going to be a…oh, never mind.)

They even have the gall to post a “behind the scenes” video on Avis’s website, just in case you were curious to see what it might have been like to stand around all day, pigging out at the craft services table, and shoot this steaming mountain of Triceratops dung. What’s so great about this BTS video is that it’s message is, when you’re a near-celebrity, you really need to retreat to luxury (“your space”) to get away from all those sweaty little people who can be so annoying.

Back when advertising was creative, Avis used to do spots that amused, but, more important, identified with us, the “sweaty little people”. They told us they had to try harder to earn our loyalty. Now, of course, their message (at least from these ads)  is they would prefer not to have to deal with us at all.

Here’s a strong brand. Let’s kill it.

But the unbelievable and heartbreaking thing about what they’ve done is the cavalier dismissal of one of the strongest, tallest, oldest brand positions in the history of the world. Rather than seeing how they could creatively refresh and remind us what trying harder means, they’ve decided to not try at all and apply an advertising formula from 1959…and saw down this Sequoia of a brand.

But that’s what obese, senile ad agencies do: Kill brands.

jeannine-haas
Avis’s new CMO Jeannine Haas

Avis’s new, Gen-X CMO, Jeannine Hass–whose first act was to fire incumbent and longtime AOR McCann Erickson (as every new CMO must do to show everybody who’s boss)–explained her reasoning in dumping the brand position that has worked longer than she’s been alive, “Consumer-centric brands must always evolve in order to keep pace with ever-changing customer needs and preferences. Avis is evolving as a premium brand to better meet those needs.”* Inspiring words; right out of a Douglas Adams satire. One can see where “We try harder” doesn’t cut the butter where “ever-changing customer needs” are concerned. The new customers don’t want a rental car company that tries harder. They want a rental car company that gives them their own space…man.

Haas backtracked a little, though, when she said, “We firmly believe that after nearly five decades, ‘We Try Harder’ is fully embedded in the Avis DNA, and defines the spirit our employees embody to deliver superior customer service.” Yes, so let’s shitcan it. And, yes, she actually used the phrase, “embedded in the Avis DNA.”

Good luck, Avis, with your new marketing officer and your new agency. Don’t stop trying. I’ll still rent cars from you, even if your advertising sucks.

And if a headhunter approaches me about a sweet job at Avis or Burnett, this post never existed.

*From AdAge 27 Aug 1012 article: http://adage.com/article/news/50-years-avis-drops-iconic-harder-tagline/236887/

PROMOSCUITY

6a00d8345233a569e200e54f6264d38833-800wiI may be alone in this, but I think it’s the nadir of bad form to troll for dates on Match.com when you are married. You may think you’re just trying to hedge your bets in case your marriage goes south, or to increase your list of leads, or maybe you’re a Congressbeing who has a compulsion to torpedo his own political career. Whatever the excuse; there isn’t one. And your spouse probably isn’t going to understand. But, of course, I don’t know her…yet.

Well, in commerce, it’s also bad form to troll for new customers in front of your old, loyal customers.

Of course, you know I have an example: Last week, while logging on to the New York Times, a big, fat, roadblock ad popped up announcing a promotion of so-many weeks digital subscription to the NYT for only $1.88 a week, considerably less than the $8.75 a week they currently automatically charge me. So, naturally, I lunged for the bait and spent the next several minutes entering in all my data, including my credit card information. It was only after I clicked “submit” (a curiously loaded marketing word) that I got an automated reply that I was ineligible because I was already a subscriber (paying full fare).  Oh, I’m sorry.

Aside from wasting 12.7 minutes of my time, I felt cuckolded. And (like any cuckold) stupid. I should have known the ad wasn’t for me. Just as your spouse should know your Match.com post is not for her.

I sent the NYT customer service department an e-mail sharing my hurt feelings and formally requesting that special  advertised promo rate (at the very least, to reward me for my loyalty and recompense me for my wasted time). Three days later, I got an e-mail telling me they “value” my readership and “welcome any feedback”, but no dice. I was told I was sent that e-mail in error (it wasn’t an e-mail, it was an ad, out there for all to see–but, okay, I shouldn’t have read it). Not “We’re sorry, let us make it up to you by offering you this special, limited time rate.” Not squat. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have read that ad.  But at least I know they value my readership.

Free Advice for All (Even My Paying Clients).

Here’s some free advice, something I usually charge big bucks for, but something  I’m also offering free to my paying clients. Get a pencil and a piece of paper. Here it is:

If you run a promo involving a price reduction, make it across the board. Don’t insult your existing customers for being loyal by only rewarding people who aren’t yet customers. The bad stink you spread by doing that will also lose you business. And since we are all sophisticated consumers, we know that once we’re in the CRM database we’ll be shunted aside in future promotions. This has happened to us all before. A lot.

Instead, show everybody, loyal customers and not-yet-customers alike, how generous you are.  Throw a promotion and invite everybody, even your loyal customers–even your spouse. Make them glad they’re your customers, or want to be, and want to tell their friends.

But if you aren’t generous, certainly don’t advertise it. And certainly don’t compound your marketing booboo to those you’ve insulted by telling them they weren’t invited.

But act on this advice today. It’s a limited time offer. Next month, I’ll charge you for it.