We’re all familiar with those chartreuse-colored wasp traps, right? Especially this time of year as we start thinking about gardening, barbecuing, al fresco dining, outdoor weddings, and Easter egg hunts. There’s nothing can ruin an outside dinner like a bunch of yellow jackets landing all over your food. And they are so pissy! You can’t just wave them away. Everything makes them mad. They come to the table mad. Have you ever had a face full of angry yellow jackets? Try it. It’s fun.
So, if you’re like me, you start hanging wasp traps around the property this time of year. And when you do, you’re doing marketing.
Here’s why: Marketing is, by definition, anything you do to get someone to do something you want them to do, even if they aren’t your species. And wasp traps are the perfect example of that.
Sorry Bees, Wasps Only In the first place, they are elegantly designed to target only yellow jackets. They use wasp sex pheromones that drive wasps crazy with lust. They don’t hurt bees or other pollinating insects because those guys couldn’t care less; that smell does nothing for them. It always amazes me, when I empty out the desiccated carcasses of my traps in the fall, that the only insects in there are yellow jackets. It’s like there’s a sign on the entrance that says, “RESERVED FOR VESPIDAE FAMILY PICNIC.” What big-data-driven ad agency wouldn’t love to have that kind of market efficiency?
In the second place, because the only chemical the traps use are natural (and concentrated) wasp sex pheromones, they don’t harm the environment. No ecosystem killing pesticides or genetically altered anything. My hat’s off, though, to the brave people who have to extract those sex pheromones from the yellow jackets (they must have very tiny hands).
In the third place, the trap designs take advantage of a peculiarity of the target market (wasps); that they are stupid. Once a wasp climbs into a trap, it just doesn’t have the neural wherewithal to turn around and climb out the way it came. I know a lot of people like this. In a way, the wasp trap follows the same design principle as the typical Las Vegas casino.
And in the fourth, and best, place, this little pheromone broadcaster also lures its target audience with their own vices; lust. I like the moral poetry of that. Prepare one of these things by squeezing in the little phial of sex juice into the cotton in the bottom, and horny insects come from hundreds of feet away, thinking they’re going to get laid. They may even see dozens of the dead carcasses of their compatriots filling the transparent cylinder, but it doesn’t matter; they can’t help themselves. They probably think all those bodies are just having a wasp orgy. “Let me in there!” they cry, in Yellow Jacketese. It’s like a biblical lesson in the wages of sin. An insect Hooters.
Why is this marketing again?
…you’re undoubtedly asking. As I pointed out already to those of you who forget how you climbed into this post, marketing is any technique you employ to get someone to do something you want them to do. In the case of the wasp trap, the thing you want your customer to do is enter and die. A pretty tall order for a marketing campaign. But the inventors of the traps hit upon an enticement that few arthropods (or humans) can resist, the promise of sex.
I’m going to rant about the Metric System now. It’s something that’s been gnawing at me for years. What’s this got to do with marketing? you might well ask. Well, nothing. Or rather, adhering to the 9th Unbreakable Rule of Marketing, that everything is marketing, including the Metric System, everything. Also it just bugs me.
I could just toss this argument off with the circulating joke that says that the world is divided into two types of countries: those on the metric system and the country that walked on the moon. But that would be too glib. Also, kiljoys would note that Myanmar and Liberia are also holdouts, and neither of them, to my knowledge, has walked on the moon.
There is actually a logical reason why the system the United States uses (as well as most of the Anglo world in everyday practice) makes more sense than the metric system. The latter, as I will show, is based on something incredibly unintuitive, nerdy, and snobby. At least in linear measurement.
The origins of the Metric System go way way back to 1799, when it originated in Republican France just after they had sated themselves with their orgy of hacking off the heads of tens of thousands of innocent people and had just started their program of world conquest under the new dictator, Napoleon. Napoleon, in fact, heartily endorsed the metric system because he was bad at math and liked the idea that he could use his fingers to count stuff.
Tired of so many different standards of measurement throughout Europe (not to mention the rest of the world, but they didn’t matter then), the French reasoned (and they considered themselves the paragons of reason) that a single, standard, interconnected system of base-ten measurements (since humans have ten fingers) was the most rational. This they proceeded to impose on all the other countries they conquered–as well as the Code Napoleon, croissants, and Jerry Lewis. The British, whom they never conquered, told them to stuff it. And the Americans didn’t care what the French were doing.
Ten hour days. That’s gonna work.
The first thing that the French Revolutionaries tried to decimalize was time. In 1793 they divided the day into 10 hours (each of a hundred minutes) and weeks into 10 days (décades–yeah, yeah, I know). Clockmakers were frantic. But the months they left at twelve (changing the names of them to conform to more rational connotations like Thermidor and Fructidor) and each had exactly 30 days divided evenly into three ten-day “weeks”. But that left five days leftover at the end of the year. So the system was already running into problems due to uncooperative Mother Nature. The decimal system just didn’t apply naturally to time on this planet. The earth, vexingly, takes 365.25 days to revolve around the sun and isn’t neatly divided by 10, or even 30. The Creator was not sufficiently revolutionary, evidently. So by 1805, when Napoleon made himself Emperor, he abandoned decimal time and told everybody to go back to the old system. And Frucitidor went back to being just August.
Not so other measurements.
But what could be more logical than the meter…or metre?
All the Enlightenment people liked the idea of a length based on some rational, decimal standard. At first the meter (or metre, to be French about it) was supposed to be one-ten millionth of the distance from the equator to the pole. Now there’s a concept everyone can feel. I mean who hasn’t walked from the Amazon to the North Pole and counted to ten million? When, sometime in the middle of the twentieth century, they found out that they didn’t have that distance as accurate as they thought, they changed the definition of the meter to the distance of 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red emission line of the element krypton-86 in a vacuum (in honor of Superman, I imagine). Can you feel that? It’s so logical. It’s yea big.You know, a meter. Like a yard, only better.
Finally, somebody had an even more natural standard for the meter, it was the distance light traveled in a vacuum in 1/288,792,458th of a second. Yeah! That makes so much sense now! It’s so…uh…visceral. You turn on the flashlight and I’ll use my iPhone stopwatch, set to 1/288,792,458th of a second. Go!
The meter was supposed to replace the ancient and unenlightened yard, which was roughly the distance from the tip of a grown person’s nose to the tip of their outstretched fingers.The meter was supposed to be about a yard, but more scientifically derived. The yard was just not precise. Not scientific. But it was pretty easy to visualize. A meter is, by contrast, roughly the distance from your finger tips, past your nose and halfway (not quite) to somewhere between your nose and your shoulder. Now given the wide variety of human physiques, this old measurement of a yard is mighty crude. But there is a standard yard somewhere (like in at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, for instance). So it’s been regulated for a couple centuries. And it’s defined to three feet or 36 inches for ease of computation. It’s a very easy measurement to work with.
The other old measurements of length–the inch, the foot, the mile–also have origins in human physiology and experience. An inch is about the width of a grown person’s thumb, for instance. A foot, roughly the length of a man’s foot (size 11). During the sixteenth century a village would take sixteen random men, measure their left feet, take the average,and that would be the village’s standard foot. But even that became standardized throughout the British empire. I even miss the old cubit, yessir, the distance from your elbow to your middle fingertip. Eighteen inches (half a yard). Couldn’t have built this here ark without it.
What have the Romans ever done for us?
And a mile? This is the best one. A mile comes from the Latin, mille passus, or 1,000 paces. Back when most people walked everywhere, this made perfect sense. As a Roman legion went on a march, it would designate one poor sap (presumably as administrative punishment, like peeling potatoes) to count off 1,000 paces of his right foot hitting the ground. He was like a human odometer. And since an average grown man’s pace was a little over 2.6 feet, counting for a thousand times when your right foot comes down means you’ve walked a mile, or 5,280 feet (1,760 yards).
I’ve actually tried this and measured it against my sophisticated, digital, geo-calibrated pedometer on hikes and found this method was 99% accurate (even though I’m slightly taller than the average Roman soldier). Another convenient thing about the mile is that at normal walking speed, it takes just about twenty minutes to walk one, since we average 3 mph. You can’t do that with a kilometer. You walk somewhere between 4-5 kph so, that means. it takes..well, you figure it out.
So, see? At least for distances and measures of length, the old inch-foot-yard-mile system is far more intuitive and human than the meter. Of course the American military has gone over to metric system, mostly as a concession to our sensitive allies in NATO. Where a “klick” is military jargon for a kilometer (real Americans can’t bring themselves to say “kilometer”). And the U.S. scientific community seems to talk in meters and kilometers and nanometers; that is, until they get to really big measurements like AUs (astronomical units, the radius of the earth’s orbit), light years and parsecs. None of these are tied to the metric system.
And yet we still use the ancient Sumerian sexigesimal (base 60) system for radial and time measurement; 360° in a circle, 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in both an hour and a degree, 12 months in a year, and so on. Nobody seems to want to make that metric.
“A pint’s a pound the world around.”
Of course with measures of liquid and volumes, both systems are logical. A pint of water (or beer) weighs a pound (“A pint’s a pound the world around.”) and a liter of water (or chablis) is a kilogram (come on, you know the mnemonic jingle, “A liter’s a kilogram in every place but the United States …and English speaking countries, Burma, and Liberia…but that’s it.”). So it’s hard to argue one over the other in terms of reason. And the volume of a liter is 1000 cubic centimeters. How convenient. Everything in a dec-chauvinist neat little package.
But I have become accustomed to how much a pound feels from enjoying a pint in a pub. A liter of beer is a little much. I don’t know the heft of a liter pitcher. And I also think the idea of the liter is a marketing trick on the part of Europeans to make you think you’re not paying as much for gas.
My forehead’s a balmy 310° Kelvin.
When it comes to temperature, it also seems perfectly logical that zero degrees C should be the freezing point of water (vs 32° F) and 100° for its boiling point (vs 212° F). The only trouble I have is probably that I’m just used to Fahrenheit over Celsius (or Kelvin, in which absolute zero, the most logical of all starting points, is in fact zero, not −273.15° C or −459.67° F). But I am used to my normal, non-feverish body temperature being 98.6° F, not 37° C (that just seems too cold) or 310° K (too hot). I like it just right. Like Goldi-whatsername.
But that’s just me. In fact, I’m fine with people who want to use the metric system. It’s just that Americans who do are generally such self-righteous pricks about it, wanting to force it on everybody, like gluten-free cookies. They are so committed to the intuitive feel of how far light travels in 1/288,792,458th of a second (in a vacuum) that they can’t see any other way. To which I’d say I’m committed to how far light travels in 1/315,823,432nd of a second, i.e. a yard.
So I guess that my preference is for the natural and human scales measured by inches, feet, yards and miles. And the pound of a pint of bitters in an English pub. However, I’ll give up rods (5.5 yards), furlongs (220 yards or half a high school track), leagues (3 miles or how far you can walk in an hour), and toises (6 feet).
See? Didn’t you learn something? In spite of yourself?
And I didn’t bring up marketing. Well…hardly at all.
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.
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:
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.
One of my many vices is an addiction to the old Maxis game, SimCity. I play SimCity 4, which I think is about twelve years old, but I love it for its elegant game engine
As games can be instructive, SimCity is very much so. I think it should be used in high school curricula to teach civics, and economics, and tax policy. And would that more candidates for public office played it. They might not blurt out so many inane sound bytes at state fairs.
Also the music is so cool. I often just let it run in the background and not play the game.
Now this probably brands me as a policy wonk–let me amend that; it definitely brands me as a policy wonk–but I have fun noodling with all the various tax rates the game lets you play with. They have rates for high income residents, middle income residents, low income deadbeats. Also rates for commercial activities, farming, heavy (high polluting) industries, light manufacturing, and high tech (low polluting). This is fun to jiggle with to see how it affects growth and the environment. For instance, if you give a tax holiday to high tech industries and tax high polluters back to the swamps from which they crawled, you can raise jobs and revenue and keep the air and water quality clean (and the Sims happy and healthy and approving of your job as a Mayor). But you also need a lot of schools in your city to attract those high-tech industries.
The game comes with all of these rates defaulted at 9%, which is where Herman Cain got his “9-9-9” tax plan when he was trying to win the Republican primary back in 2011. I’m sure he just played the game without changing any of those rates, and also probably grooved to the cool music as I do. But the fun is applying your own economic theories to the game as an experiment to see what happens to your balance of payments and economic growth. Of course, the game algorithm was originally conceived by Will Wright, who must be a Keynesian, because the outcomes definitely favor a more actively managed fiscal policy. If you cut all the taxes to zero and let the Free Market frolic, your city soon comesto resemble the scene of a post apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel. And cannibalism will reign.
The other thing I like to do is lay out my city with all the dream services you’d expect in a socialist paradise: a rich infrastructure, lavishly funded schools, universities, sanitation, big hospitals, public transportation, police and fire services, recycling centers, clean power (wind turbines mostly), parks , public pools, playgrounds, cool beaches (a shoreline is helpful), museums, libraries, seaports, airports, and theaters. I put all these in place before I start the city. (No stadiums, they’re just a money drain. Put them down. I don’t care what “The Citizens demand.”) All this cost a fortune in Simoleons and will probably drain your starting budget to zero, but wait…
Enter the Cheat
Then, before you turn your city on to let it grow, you do one more important thing; you activate a cheat.
The cheat for Windows is Alt-X “weaknesspays” Enter (I don’t know what it is on a Mac, look it up). Applying it repeatedly magically floods your budget with money from nowhere. Frankly, I don’t know why this is a “cheat” and not a tool in the game because, when you think about it, this is exactly what the Fed does in real life. It’s what the IMF and the European Central Bank does for countries in default like Greece; making capital out of nothing, allowing for sovereign default, bailing out. It’s also the same as when a country or a municipality issues bonds, or, hell, just runs deficit spending. Nothing bad ever happens except more growth, on and on, just like in SimCity. The only time anything bad ever happens is when somebody decides, based on the Bible or something, that deficits are bad and a country can’t just print money whenever it needs more. Can it? The 14th Amendment to the Constitution says it can (look it up).
A popular sophistry is that a country like the United States should balance its budget like a family does; not spending more than it takes in. But doing that would never allow for growth, or jobs, or prosperity. And if your tax rate is zero (as is also popular with the same people who like the country-as-a-family-budget analogy) you get nuthin’. No roads, no Internet, no airports, no power grid, no jobs, no hospitals, no public transportation, no police and fire, no schools, no water filtration plants. Just desolation, with zombies roaming the streets moaning for “Brains!”
Also, families don’t get to print their own money like countries can. They can’t use an Alt-X cheat. But the government can.
What’s this got to do with the Unbreakable Rules? Nothing. (Unless I can invoke the catch-all Rule #9: Everything is Marketing.) I just wanted to write about it. I am addicted to SimCity, as I’ve said. And tax policy.
So here’s a little known rule in marketing: Leash your dog.
And I don’t mean this metaphorically, as if a dog had anything symbolic to do with customer service, or branding, or best practices in advertising. No, I mean it literally. Keep Cujo on a leash. And make sure you’re strong enough to keep it from getting away from you.
What’s provoking this diatribe? I was walking our dog, Bob, (a Westie, and, yes, on a leash) at Cook Park a little while ago and met a man who asked me if I’d seen someone walking a black Labrador–off leash. He gave a description; white, middle aged, probably a Christian (the owner not the dog). It seems that a couple days before, while he was walking his own dog, a Dalmatian (on leash, thank you), the off-leash Lab had attacked and severely mauled her. While pulling them apart, the Lab owner told him, “I don’t understand it; he’s usually so friendly. It must have been something about your dog that set him off.” I’m sure. Probably the way she was dressed–or the fact that she wasn’t dressed–what can you expect? She was clearly asking for it.
The Dalmatian owner told me his own dog was still in the vet hospital, recovering from surgery, and he didn’t know if she was going to make it. He was combing the park now to see if he could find the Lab owner again, to at least get him to pay for the vet bills–something he understandably didn’t have the presence of mind to ask as he was rushing his wounded dog back to his car.
After expressing mutual indignation at “some people” with him, I went on with Bob’s walk. But I’ve started noticing people walking their dogs off leash more and more, even in parks like this that have clearly posted leash laws. Most people respect the law, but some don’t. And it’s usually with a big dog. Who’s very friendly.
Yesterday, Bob and I were at another park, Summerlake, and I saw coming the other way a guy (white, middle-aged, probably a Christian) with his pit bull–off leash. Now while I love dogs, I’m not a fan of pit bulls. With apologies to pit bull lovers, to me they’re ugly, brutish animals, bred for killing other dogs. I’m sure most of them are very gentle and great with kids. As the man neared us, his dog trotting at his side, I locked Bob’s retractable leash short, stepped to the side of the walk, and kept him behind me. I glared at the guy as he came up and he said, “It’s okay. She very friendly.”
“I don’t know that,” I said coldly. “You know there’s a leash law in this park?”
He didn’t respond except to say to his dog, “Heel, Ginger”–or something; I can’t be expected to remember the dog’s actual name–but kept going (and fortunately, so did Ginger, who didn’t stop to investigate Bob’s butt, as is the dog custom). But the man said again over his shoulder, sort of churlishly, “She’s very friendly.”
I’m sure he’s had to repeat that mantra “It’s okay, she’s very friendly” to everybody he meets, when if he’d just kept her on a leash (as the law required) he wouldn’t have to. He was just a narcissistic Assburgie.
The FU Brand
People like this are advertising their hostile intent (even if they are not fully conscious of it). They are broadcasting their brand, which is “I’m a baddass mofu with a big dog, and nobody’s going to get hurt as long as they respect my libertarian rights…and, of course, don’t make any sudden moves.” It’s the same as those libertarian white guys who tote assault rifles into Walmarts and Appleby’s in “open carry” states. It’s not that they don’t care if they scare people. To the contrary; they do care. They like scaring people. That’s the whole point. It’s vital to them to keep reaffirming in public that they have rights, even it means dismissing the rights of the rest of us to not feel just a little unsure about some sketchy-looking, shaved-headed white guy with a gun… or an unleashed pit bull…while he verbally reassures us he means us no harm.
Now our dog, Bob, is indeed very friendly. He’s a Westie, after all (though I’m sure there are psycho Westies, too). And, unless you’re a squirrel, he’s always calm and well-behaved. He has never jumped up on people and is patient when strange children want to pet him (but I always caution them to ask first). He doesn’t like big dogs. But then he’s over 15 , which makes him about 110 in dog years, and is not too sure of himself. But I always walk him on a leash. He feels safer that way because he can physically feel the connection to me.
But I personally know people who are scared of strange dogs, even small ones. Some of them were attacked by a dog as children, or just have irrational fear of them–doesn’t matter (Some people even have an irrational fear of tarantulas. I know, right? Those innocuous, furry little things? Go figure. ) So out of respect for people, I always walk Bob leashed, even though he weighs 18 lbs and has teeth with the consistency of Gummi Bears. Because they don’t know how friendly he is. Most of the time.
The Personal Marketing Rule
And here’s where the marketing lesson comes in. When you walk your dog, you’re projecting something about yourself; your brand. It’s not just what kind of dog you have. It’s how you respect other people when you come up to them. And if your Yorkie or Newfie or Westie or pit bull is unleashed in public, the thing that it says loudly about you is that you don’t care about other people. That’s what you’re marketing about yourself. And you’ll find you probably have more trouble making friends. Because you’re an asshole.
Think of it like an ad campaign for a company known for…oh, I don’t know…raping the environment, for instance, or maybe food contamination, or employee abuse. They can have a headline that says, “We care about people!” but if their brand belies that through their actions, it’s like the guy with the unleashed pit bull saying, “It’s okay, she’s friendly.” That’s just a bullshit headline. That dog, or that oil platform, or that pipe line,or that chicken processing plant is liable to go kablooie at any second.
So just don’t tell me how friendly you think your personal brand is. Prove it. Leash your dog. And if you want to take that as a metaphor for marketing, well, that’s okay, too.
So 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.
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.
Don’t get me wrong. When I walk our dog, Bob, I am diligent about picking up his scat. I carry around more than one plastic bag and a bottle of Purell (because, even though I know those bags are hermetically impermeable…well, I just want to make extra sure), and I’m equally diligent about tying the bag off securely and disposing of it in an appropriate container. If we’re far from an appropriate container, I’ll carry that steamy bag around with me until we find one, even though I see how other people have thoughtlessly tossed theirs to the side of the walk expecting their mom to clean up after them. I heed the signs at the various parks which explain how they runoff to the streams and rivers from which we get our drinking water and it’s important to keep dog poop, with all their nasty parasites, out of that water cycle.
Even though that’s all crap. Literally and metaphorically.
In the first place, we don’t get our drinking water out of the runoff from the parks around where we live (Portlandia, Oregon). That comes from the supposedly protected Bull Run water shed many miles away in the Cascades, where bears and deer and salmon and snowy owls poop. And that leads me to the second place…
What about those bears and deer and salmon and snowy owls? As I was picking up after Bob this afternoon, trying to make sure I got all of his sticky, gooey, smelly product out of the grass and twigs, I couldn’t help noticing that it was surrounded by a hundred or a thousand times as much Canada goose poop. If any of you are blessed with Canada geese in your neck of the woods, you know that they lay a tootsie roll that is every bit as big and nasty as any dog (though not as smelly). And most of the parks we have here in the Great Pacific Northwest are carpeted in goose poop. You have to hose off your shoes when you get home (and don’t wear waffle soles).
I asked a veterinarian friend who is particularly militant about keeping dog excrement out of the environment and she explained that it was because of the parasites that dogs carry, and that other dogs can pick those up. (Anybody who owns a dog –and those of you who don’t, skip down to the next paragraph–know that dogs love eating other animals’ turds; it’s like candy to them. And then they lick you.) But when I asked her if wild animals (or cats) don’t carry parasites, she had to admit that they do, too; in fact, many more.
But who’s running around with little plastic baggies picking up after the geese, the ducks, the squirrels, the bats, the racoons, the coyotes (dogs themselves, let’s face it), the deer, the skunks, the pigeons, the red tailed hawks, the ospreys, the bald eagles, the black capped chickadees, the spotted towhees, the horses, the elk, the robins, the frogs, the great blue herons, the snowy egrets, the snowy owls, the voles, the thrashers, the chipmunks, the spotted owls, the hummingbirds, the California quail, the newts, the salamanders, the rainbow trout, the sea lions, the bobcats, the orb weaver spiders, the fly-catchers, the flies, the thrushes, the crows, the Sasquatches, the buzzards, the kestrels, the pileated woodpeckers, the swifts, the red wing black birds, and the domestic cats? (especially the domestic cats)
ALL these animals carry parasites, some really deadly ones (like rabies and parvo). And they outnumber dogs a billion to one. And yet, somehow, dogs are really the culprits for polluting our natural environment? Come on.
This policy just doesn’t seem thought through.
Of course, nobody likes to step in dog poop, or play football in a park where dogs have gone. But nobody particularly likes stepping or being tackled in goose poop either. And nobody likes to think about the flies at your picnic who just came from chowing down on a fresh pile of some species’ feces to stomp their dirty feet all over your macaroni salad either. This is why I don’t like picnics.
I know what you’re thinking; what’s this have to do with marketing (since this is a marketing blog)? You’re right. On the surface, nothing. I just had to vent about it.
But beneath the surface, down under the soft grass where I didn’t manage to clean up every last molecule of Bob’s viscous mess, there is a marketing point. And it’s this:
Unbreakable Rule #1: Consistency
And by consistency I’m not referring to the consistency of you-know-what. I’m referring to the consistency of your marketing message. Remember that all marketing is the means to get somebody to do something we want them to do (or stop doing). If your goal is to change human behavior so people stop letting their dogs just go wherever they want, places where other people want to picnic, then think about the reasoning behind your message. Don’t invent some bla-bla about polluting the water table and print it on a sign. Because that’s going to cause people to think it through (like I did) and say, “Wait a minute! What about all these geese, then?” And then they’ll conclude you just don’t like dogs; you must be a “cat” person (someone who lets their cat go in a sandbox beside the clothes dryer).
Instead, be honest. Point out the obvious. Say “Please pick up after your dog so the rest of us don’t have to step in it.” Everybody can relate to that, even dog owners. It doesn’t rope in some bogus rationalization about polluting the streams we drink out of, or spreading disease, or respecting nature. It just says everything we’re already thinking; dog poop is nasty. Pick that shit up.
I have to go now. Bob’s scratching at the door for some reason.
I must confess, I recently got sucked into a fruitlessly emotional thread on Facebook about how terrible Old Navy is for insulting a Vet…on Veteran’s Day Weekend, no less. Being a self-righteous veteran myself, I read the posted story about how this innocent veteran, Aaron Bennett, had gone into an Old Navy store in Jacksonville, Florida, noticed one of the teenage employees wearing an old Marine Corps tunic (The Marine Corps, is, technically, part of the Department of the Navy so I guess they could argue there is relevance to “Old Navy”), went up to the store manager and courteously and helpfully mentioned that this was not only illegal (according the the 2005 Stolen Valor Act) but offensive to veterans, such as himself. For his civic trouble the poor man was ejected from the store and banned from shopping at an Old Navy or the Orange Park Mall ever again.
Of course, there was hue and cry for boycotts of Old Navy and all Gap/Banana Republic/Etc. stores owned by Gap, Inc. How dare they insult our Returning Heroes! I myself was ready to grab my own pitchfork.
Then, as some of the less hot-headed commenters on the FB post started pointing out (the killjoys), there was another side to this story. What? Don’t tell me that! I’m having too much fun being mad and adding Gap to my Buycott app on my iPhone.
The Facts (how I hate those!)
For one thing, it is not illegal to wear an old uniform coat or even medals that aren’t yours (unless you stole them). Heck, I used to do this when I was young (I wore a ball cap with my dad’s Naval Officer’s insignia on it to junior high school and when I was going to high school in London, I had even scored an old Coldstream Guards red tunic–sweet–just like Sergeant Pepper). The attempt to make this illegal in 2005 by a jingoistic act of Congress (The Stolen Valor Act) was ruled unconstitutional as a violation of the 1st Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012. It was then reintroduced in a no-better-things-to-do Congress as an amended, much scaled down act, which only forbade the wearing of medals (not the uniform) for the specific purposes of monetary fraud. Which certainly wasn’t the case here. Had Mr. Bennett, the self-appointed Vigilante of Veteran’s Valor, done his homework before getting his panties all twisted, he might have avoided the misunderstanding.
Something doesn’t add up.
For another thing, according to Old Navy, the Orange Park Mall, and the Sheriff’s Department of Duval County (who, for some reason had been called to deal with a “polite” customer–hmm), Mr. Bennett was not banned from Old Navy or the mall or anywhere. And why if, as he claimed, he was only politely pointing out a statutory violation to the store’s manager, would that store manager have felt threatened enough to call mall security, who then felt it necessary to call the cops? Something doesn’t add up. It was, as it turned out, only Mr. Bennett’s assertion that he was being polite or that he was banned.
I have to think that there may have been another impression of his behavior. Or his criteria for politeness. One he hadn’t intended. But I wasn’t there.
And the Gap, Inc. has issued very respectful statements that their companies meant no disrespect to Mr. Bennett, and have nothing but the highest respect to the military and veterans (Jacksonville’s a big Navy town, for crying out loud!). Which was exactly the right thing to do: Don’t piss off a customer, even if he’s actually acting somewhat less than polite (they didn’t even say that).
And, one more thing. For teenagers to wear articles of military apparel does not even disrespect the military or veterans, Stolen Valor Act or not. Teenagers have always done this…usually from their parents’ closets, as I did when I was a kid,and as my own daughter has done with my old Navy (as opposed to Old Navy) flight jacket. It’s just supposed to be cool. A fashion statement (which is how 6 of the 9 Justices defined it in their 2012 majority ruling). Earning “the right” to wear such things has nothing to do with it. Just as with the employees of an Apple Store wearing black polo shirts, or of UPS wearing brown overalls, or anybody with a job that has to wear a uniform, they didn’t “earn the right” to wear those things–it was just part of their job.
And, for those of us who have actually served in the military, we didn’t have a choice about wearing our uniforms; it was also part of the job, for which we got paid (and great health, retirement, and vacation benefits to boot–at least while we were on active duty). There was no “earning the right” to do so–getting through eight weeks of boot camp was about the only “right” we “earned.” And most of us don’t think of ourselves as valorous. Only a tiny minority of people who are or were in the military have actually had to face the enemy shooting at them. Those are the valorous ones. And they usually got medals to recognize it.
But what’s this got to do with marketing?
But this is a blog about marketing, and following the Unbreakable Rules of Marketing (and shamelessly plugging my book). From my view, if that Old Navy store manager made a marketing mistake, it was to not enforce the company’s own dress code for employees. Unless Old Navy is selling military tunics (as the original Banana Republic used to do), then the clerks should be wearing the clothing that is being sold there. They are models as well as clerks. And their products are what are on the racks. So I’m sure there’s some renewed dress code enforcement going on at Old Navy. This is the First Unbreakable Rule of Marketing: Consistency. If you’re selling clothes; wear those clothes.
As far as dealing with an irate customer, it sounds like The Gap did the right thing. Their statements were courteous and supportive of veterans. They were never disrespectful in these public statements of Mr. Bennett, and didn’t ban him from their stores. They recognized that others were watching (though a lot would rather be mad instead). And they handled it appropriately.
In fact, have you ever witnessed an irate customer at a store? Didn’t you pay attention to how the management addressed them? How they dealt with their problem?
Whenever this happens, it’s actually a gift to you if you’re the retailer. It gives you an opportunity to put on a little marketing theater, to show off how you deal with unhappy customers. And everybody notices. If you come across as sympathetic, patient, generous, and agreeable, you are obeying the Sixth Rule: Give Love to Get Love. You may or may not be getting love from the irate customer at the moment, but you are going to get it from everybody standing in line witnessing it. If the customer refuses to be placated when offered what seems like a more-than-generous conciliation, then he or she loses sympathy, which flips, by default to you, the store. That’s a sweet opportunity.
Everybody is so ready to get mad and stay mad.
I don’t know what’s going on in the world lately. Maybe it’s because of the bad economy, or climate change, or overpopulation, or the fear-mongering 24-hour news media, but everybody seems so ready to fly off the handle about nothing. Everybody’s looking to take offense, mostly on behalf of somebody else (gays, veterans, patriots, women, people of color, white people, Christmas trees, God-fearing Christians…pick your category). I’ll bet I even get indignant comments on this post (from one of the six or seven people who read it).
And because of this electrified atmosphere, everybody’s ready to launch a boycott or set up a Facebook page to protest something. I’m no different. As I said, I actually have an app on my mobile thingie that assists me in boycotting products whose companies support (or seem to support by staying neutral) policies I don’t like. A pasta maker’s CEO says he doesn’t approve of gay marriage; boycott that brand. A fast food chairman says the same thing on a talk show; boycott his chicken, or, if you agree with him, eat mor chikin. A clerk in a store wears something a customer takes offense at, boycott that store. This just ends up hurting the thousands of innocent employees who are just trying to keep their 30-hour-a-week-minimum-wage-with-no-benefits jobs so they can feed their families. And the millions of little girls in sweatshops in Bangladesh risking their lives in horrible conditions so you can buy a $10 T-shirt.
The other problem for us trying to just get by in this prickly world is that we can’t even buy a stupid T-shirt without making a political statement. It’s just exhausting–for the poor marketers, for their companies, for us customers, for their employees, for everybody.
Let’s just calm down, okay? Let’s not be so ready to get our panties all twisted.
Are 12-year-old girls in charge of public corporations now? I was just wondering because the highly profitable Men’s Wearhouse retailer did what seemed like an impulsively 12-year-old thing this week; they fired their founder and 30 year spokesman, George Zimmer, of “You’re gonna like the way you look, I guarantee it” fame ( not the George Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin murder infame…could the board have been confused?).
Of course, it makes perfect business sense. After all, the company is apparently very healthy, made a record 23% jump in profits last year, is beating the bejeezus out of competitors Jos.A.Bank and Macy’s, and had one of the strongest brand positions in its field. So, obviously, what better time for the board to act on a brain fart and shoot itself in the breadbasket? Of course, as in all cases like this, nobody at the company could be reached for comment other than with the boilerplate we-have-tremendous-confidence-in-our-current-management-team variety (which makes you think it was a hormonal, mean-girl decision on the board level). And Zimmer himself has not been talking either (making you think there are lawsuits a-flying). But the board and all concerned won’t be able to keep this quiet for long. You know they didn’t consult with their PR firm first before whoever it was had their hissy-fit.
So there’s a vacuum of information coming out of the corporation. And in the absence of information, people just make stuff up. Like I am. And once that starts happening, you’ve lost control of your brand. You’ve ignored Rule #2, Perception is Reality.
They probably had their good reasons.
Now, I’m sure the Men’s Wearhouse board probably had their good reasons. Maybe we just didn’t realize how difficult it was to work with Zimmer. Maybe we didn’t realize the Machiavellian environment over there. Maybe somebody didn’t like his personal support of certain lefty political causes. Or maybe they thought they could get more Millennials to buy suits if they didn’t think they were buying them from their grandfather (newsflash: Millennials aren’t going to buy suits anyway, even if you got The Bieber to sell them). But we don’t know. We’re just dumb customers. Yet, in the tweeted words of one of those dumb customers (who identified himself as a Millennial), “You’re gonna miss the way I shop, I guarantee it.”
In our new, highly leveraged economy in which mundane things like, oh, sales, productivity, earnings ,or customer loyalty have no relevance any more–and all that matters are rents–one can laugh at the naiveté that the rules of marketing would apply to how a board conducts itself. But they will. The rules don’t give a shit about the minutiae of corporate politics.
For us, this becomes an ideal experiment to observe. We should grab some popcorn, pull up to the rail, and see what happens when a company violates nearly all the Unbreakable Rules of Marketing at once. It’ll be fun. We might very well be witnessing a brand suicide.
Consistency vs Creativity
Now, nobody ever accused the Men’s Wearhouse of being particularly creative or entertaining with its advertising. But George Zimmer, with his charming New York accent, repeating his corny, I-guarantee-it tagline, ad infinitum et ad nauseaum, helped the retailer become, over three decades of consistency (and some $90 million a year in advertising), one of the strongest brands in America. It grew from a single store in Houston in 1973 to over 1200 stores, with annual sales of $2.5 billion.
That phrase, “You’re gonna like the way you look,” with Zimmer saying it to you directly, meant that this guy personally cared about your appearance. That was a very compelling idea. Very empathetic. Very persuasive. Realistically, you know he wasn’t going to be fitting you when you went in to get your interview suit, but it certainly wasn’t beyond your expectation that he could. He had that credibility.
It would certainly have helped even more had the advertising been more entertaining. But Zimmer, having obeyed all the other Nine Unbreakable Rules of Marketing, especially the Give Love to Get Love Rule, made his company unbelievably successful. And his board, ignoring all those rules (especially Rule #9, Everything is Marketing), are setting themselves up for, as the Chinese curse goes, “interesting times.”
In history we’ve seen what happens when companies have fired their popular founders and spokesmen. It happened to Apple back in the 1985 when John Scully manipulated a boardroom coup to fire Steve Jobs, only to come crawling back to him ten years later to save them again. It will be interesting to see the direction of the Apple brand now that Jobs has gone where no board can crawl back to him.
But it’s one thing when a founder who has become the personification of his brand dies (Jobs, Wendy’s Dave Thomas, Frank Perdue of Perdue Chicken). It’s another thing when the board fires him. That just smacks of bad mojo. Nobody likes a family fight. People on the outside don’t want to take sides. All they know is that there’s a stink in the air and they want to get up and leave.
Among their non-statements about the incident, Men’s Wearhouse has said that they haven’t made a decision about whether to continue to use Zimmer and his famous phrase in their advertising. I’m sure they hadn’t thought it through that far.
But Zimmer will probably land on his feet. At the very least he can stand in for The Most Interesting Man in the World, which is who I thought he was anyway.
So, apparently, the venerable Borghese family, a family of 1000-year-old Italian aristocratic lineage, is being sued by Borghese, Inc., a company founded by one of them, Princess Marcella Borghese, in the 1950s to sell some foofoo water under the brand name, Princess Marcella Borghese. This brand and company was sold to Revlon in the 70s, who turned around and sold it to M&A conquistadora Georgette Mosbacher in the early 90s. Now Mosbacher is suing the family for having the temerity to use its family name to make a further living. Mosbacher is claiming she owns all uses of the family name, Borghese.
Ho hum, I know. When the 1% have a cat fight, it’s so much fun.
Aside from the obvious lack of merits in the case (at least to me; I’m no lawyer, of course, but does one member of a family have the rights to sell the family name in the first place?) this feels like just one more example of companies behaving like bullies, at the expense of their own brands. Borghese, Inc. is not giving love. Violation of Rule #6. Also Rule #2: Perception is Reality.
Imagine if McDonald’s or Disney or Ford were to sue anybody with those family names (and there are probably millions) to stop them from using them. Those companies are anything if not hyper-vigilant trademark enforcers, but they stop at the unreasonable and ridiculous. They’re also savvy to the value of brand loyalty and imagery. They know it’s not smart to be a jerk. Not Georgette Mosbacher though. That’s now her personal brand. (Incidentally, I just registered the name Mosbacher with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, so she’d better lawyer up.)
As the NYT article linked above referenced, there’s also been the case of bad-PR-magnet Chick-fil-A suing some little silk-screener in Vermont for daring to use the phrase “Eat More Kale” on his homemade T-shirts, which CfA apparently thought was way too close to its unique “Eat Mor Chikin.” Yes, CfA, that imperative sentence (with its adorable misspelling) has never, ever been used in the English language in any variation before your copywriters thought of it and your copyrighters trademarked it. Just before the gay-bashing misunderstanding of last summer, the fast-food chain had already covered itself with bullying glory with this let’s-pick-on-the-little-guy lawsuit. Chick-fil-A (or is it Chik-fil-A?) seems to go out of its way to give us reasons to boycott them.
The Patent Parasites
And then there are the patent parasites; genetic and software companies who lay claim to the rights to things discovered in the natural world (like your genes) or ideas so obvious they aren’t even ideas (like backing up your files online, a claim by Intellectual Ventures of Silicon Valley).
There was a victory for common sense in this regard, however, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Myriad Genetics could not enforce patents it claimed it owned on the discovery of certain genes responsible for breast or ovarian cancer in women. This was such a forehead-slappable ruling (they even had Clarence Thomas write the opinion) on a blatantly evil ploy by a company to try and make an extortionary buck off of the suffering of millions of women, that it amazed me the plaintiffs had the gall to take it all the way to the Supreme Court. But greed has no shame.
It did, however, dash my own nefarious plans to become the richest man in the world. I have noticed, over decades of meticulous and exhaustive study, that a majority of human beings have brown eyes. This is my life’s work. I don’t think anybody else noticed this before. So I’ve filed a patent to claim brown eyes as my intellectual property. If approved (and before the High Court’s clearly anti-free-enterprise ruling, I had every expectation it would have been), I would have been able to charge licensing royalties to anyone on earth possessing brown eyes…brown eyes I discovered. I wasn’t going to be greedy, though: I figured a low, annual licensing fee of $10 per eye very affordable and reasonable, possibly a buy-one-get-one promotion or with a family plan for big savings. But multiply that by the estimated billions of brown eyes on the planet…well, let’s just say I would have been able to afford the legal army to enforce my patent forever (with surgical spoons if necessary). But now the activist, anti-innovation, anti-capitalist Supreme Court has rendered my life’s work and investment worthless. Thanks again, Clarence Thomas.
You can win the battle and lose the war.
Companies that indulge in bullying (aside from law firms and equity ventures), making IP lawsuits against individuals who pose no threat to them, seem to be stuck in the narcissistic notion that their right to own something because they saw it or thought of it trumps what the public thinks of them–that same public they want to win over and keep as loyal customers. It is just plain stupid. At least from a branding point of view.
The article in the NYT quotes an IP legal specialist, Kenneth Port, a law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in Minneapolis, “We’re seeing a growth because trademark owners are finding that the more kind of bullying conduct they do, the more the trademark is worth. They think they have to act like a bully to get the trademark stronger.”
I would respectfully submit that this is thinking like a lawyer, not a marketer. Since your brand really only thrives in the minds of its perceivers, to poison those minds with bad karma poisons your brand. Your brand means “bully.” Sometimes the best defense is no defense.
This may be showing my 20th century psych-major prejudice, but it seems that the people who make these patent/trademark suits (from Georgette Musbacher® to the ironically named Intellectual Ventures) have, somehow, become stuck in what Freud described as the oral phase of early childhood development. Everything they see they want to stick in their mouths, to ingest the whole world into their bodies… like The Blob.
But The Blob didn’t exactly have a great brand, and it ended up being frozen and dropped in the Arctic. Something that will happen to Chick-fil-A, Intellectual Ventures, Georgette Musbacher®, and any company that acts like a bully…if they aren’t nicer.
But this isn’t to say you should never defend your trademark or your patent. In fact, I would recommend that you do so zealously. But with common sense. Pick your battles. If someone seems to actually be trying to steal the equity in your brand to enrich themselves, or sell fake Oakley sunglasses, by all means go after them with your SEAL Team of IP lawyers. Just think about the context, though, and what the cost to your own image (not to mention the cost of the lawyers) that would do. Don’t pick on the little guy (sometimes just a friendly personal phone call can do more wonders than a lawsuit). And don’t be a jerk.
Still, you do have such pretty brown eyes. Twelve billion of them.