Category: Branding

Everything is Clueless

Xfinity Everything is Awesome Still 2
Warning! Not recommended use of mobile device

I couldn’t help spraying my ginger ale through my nose last night when I caught this spot from Comcast (or is it Xfinity? I’m confused. Are they the same company? Can’t they make up their minds what their company name is?). A riff on the Oscar-nominated song, “Everything is Awesome” from the The Lego Movie, the creators of this unintentionally ironic ad must have thought, “OOO-OOO-OOO, this song is about us! Let’s spend a fortune and buy it for our own jingle!”

“Jaylen, you’re awesome! Let’s go tell Nigel!”

(And yes, they probably really do use exclamation points to end all of their sentences.)

I hate to admit it, but they’re right. It is about them. But not in the way, I suspect, they intended. In the movie “awesome” was about the over-hyped shallowness of corporate hegemony, in which everything, however ordinary and unremarkable, is dialed up to 11. Or, as Mr. Incredible observed in that other satirical CGA movie, The Incredibles, “It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity!” So it was a satire. And that Comcast doesn’t realize that the original song was making fun of monopolistic corporations like theirs, dragging everything down into the same level of banality, makes their commercial unintentionally hilarious. Enough to spray ginger ale out your nose. I wonder what they spent on that license? The movie’s original creators must be rolling on the ground. In massive piles of treasury notes.

Chris Miller, director of The Lego Movie, Tweeted, “Everything Is Awesome used in an Xfinity ad to sell a corporate idealization of consumer culture is more meta than the movie itself, love it.”

Mark Mothersbaugh, the song’s original composer, said  it “…was supposed to be like mind control early in the film. It’s totally irritating, this kind of mindless mantra to get people up and working.”[link to interview]

And one of the song’s co-writers, Shawn Patterson, described the painful process of writing it, “I was going through a very ugly divorce when I wrote that song…There were definitely elements of darkness seeping into my lyrics — sarcasm, heavy f—ing sarcasm.”[link to“The Utterly Depressing Story Of Why Lego Movie’s ‘Everything Is Awesome’ Was Written”]

But I’m sure the Comcast creative team that had the brilliant idea of using the song had never seen the movie, or, if they had, it probably went right over their heads. “OOO-OOO-OOO that’s a catchy tune!”

And compounding the irony, their interminable commercial strings together a montage of teenagers making selfies, funny cat videos, jackass pratfalls, a ZZ-Top-look-alike imagining himself as a character in Game of Thrones, dancing chickens, and image after image of our modern idiocracy. And all the while the painfully shoehorned lyrics try to convince us that these endless banalities are, guess what? Yeah. Awesome.

I’ve already ranted on the incessant use of that tired adjective. God, how I have come to hate that word. Unless, of course, you use it to describe the super-massive black hole, Sagittarius A, with a mass of 4.31 million suns at the center of our galaxy thirty-thousand light years from us.  That, by definition, is awesome.

Oh, and so is a super funny cat video. But it has to be really super-funny. Like wearing an adorable costume.

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.

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/

YOUR BROWN EYES ARE MINE

Eye Makeup for Brown Eyes6
Nice brown eyes. You owe me $20.

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.

 

 

WINDOWS OF PERCEPTION

iPhone 5I couldn’t help noticing the new iPhone 5 commercial from TBWA/Chiat/Day. It features a montage of pretty, young people taking pictures of all kinds of pretty things with their iPhones. Very pretty. Lots of appetite appeal (as we say in the biz). Lot’s of demonstrations of zooming, and cropping, and panorama-inginging-ing. It’s accompanied by pretty piano music with a simple chord and beat, like you’d expect from Chiat/Day and Apple. Very pretty. Altogether it is a quintessential example of clean, simple advertising.

Years ago, when I was going to Art Center to learn how to be an ad creative,  I was fortunate to take a rare class from Chiat/Day legend Lee Clow. (As far as I know, it was the only class he ever taught there…and with good reason.) Clow was the CD behind the historic “1984” Macintosh ad. He inspired us to keep things simple, to go for the heart, and to make things elegant. You can certainly see his influence in this new iPhone ad. He was one of the main reasons I decided to make a living in advertising…instead of neuro-ophthalmology.

The only copy in the ad is also simple, coming at the end where a voice over announcer says, “Every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone than with any other camera.” Very strong. Very simple. Very Clowesque.

Only it’s a fairly outrageous statement. Is it true? Are more photos taken with an iPhone than any other camera? With the Apple iOS continuing to lose market share to Android-based mobile OS, you have to ask yourself.

According to industry reports, last year Apple iOS had fallen to less than 20% global market share to Android’s 70%. And in an article in Fortune this week, iPhone is projected to drop to 9% from a high of 22% just six months ago. So either iPhone owners are taking pictures much more frequently than anyone else (like Samsung Galaxy III owners, or Canon or Nikon owners) or it’s just…oh, what’s the nice word for it? You know; when someone represents something that is different from reality. It’ll come to me.

I think, listening to my friends who are loyal Apple owners (whether Mac, iPhone, iPad, iPod), that they are so in love with the brand and the product that they must believe that the whole world is pretty much Apple-based now. Why else would you have any other brand? Apple is frequently reported in the press as being the world’s largest company (at least in terms of market cap), even though it’s a long way from being the actual largest company, too (see Fortune’s list of Fortune 500). So doesn’t that mean that more people have iPhones, iPads, and Macs than any other similar appliance?

Nope.

I was looking at the stats on a client’s website yesterday and a curious datum hit me: Under “Page Views by Operating System” 72% were from Windows OS (which would include everything from Windows 8 back to, I guess, Windows 95), but just 7% were from Mac OS (it didn’t parse out the versions). If you add the mobile iOS , the total Apple share of this activity was less than 19%.  The balance was from Linux and Android.

I was surprised. This doesn’t seem like the world’s largest company. These numbers seem about consistent with Apple’s market share 20 years ago.  Not a whole lot of movement in the 29 years since Mac was introduced in 1984. By the end of that decade, Mac penetration into the personal computer market was also in the single digits. Like today.

In an article from last fall, ZDNet’s tech reporter Adrian Kingsley-Hughes headlines: “Mac OS X Overtakes Windows Vista in Global Market Share.”  The numbers don’t lie:  a whopping 7.13% for Mac to a pathetic 6.15% for Vista (never popular to begin with and by last year already on its way out). Further down in the article (you’ll notice, with a hilarious graph) he concedes that total Windows share has been unchanged for years at 92% to Mac OS X’s  7%.

So how can more people be taking pictures with an iPhone? And Apple be the largest company on earth? And everyone be using a Mac? It certainly seems that way whenever you go into a Starbucks and try to find an open table without that bitten apple staring at you.

Perception is Reality

This is Rule #2 of the Unbreakable Rules of Marketing. And Apple really does a bang-up job obeying it. Their ads, their brand, even their loyal customer base, all speak with one voice to control and cultivate that perception. There is only one choice in terms of computers, smartphones, tablets, and media players; and it’s Apple. So the iPhone ad can confidently state that more people take pictures with an iPhone than with any other camera, and nobody’s going to question it. It sure seems that way; so it must be true. The perfect sophistry.

Apple has done such a good job at synonymizing the iPhone with smartphones in general that when we see crowds of people holding up their little rectangles to take a picture at an event, we all assume they’re holding up iPhones. It’s hard to tell a Samsung from an iPhone at that distance, anyway. If we see someone using a tablet in public, we also assume it’s an iPad. In fact, no one uses the generics “smartphone” or “tablet” to describe these things; they’re iPhones and iPads. They’ve become the Kleenex®, Bandaid®, Aspirin®, Xerox®, and Coke® of electronics…without the ®s. That’s brand nirvana (except to the trademark attorneys).

Will anyone stand up for Windows? Anyone?

Of course, no one’s going to challenge Apple’s claims of brand superiority. You don’t have loyal gangs of Windows users coming to the defense of Microsoft. People who use Windows (including me), don’t feel particularly religious about it. It’s pretty much a generic when it comes to operating systems, even though each iteration does pretty much the same thing each new generation of Mac OS X does. But we’re not going to leap at the throat of someone who complains about Windows. Try criticizing a Mac or an iPad to an owner, though.  Those people are fanatics. (I can’t wait for the reaction to this post.)

It’s not because Apple products are so much better. It’s because Apple branding is. Just look at its market cap (#1 at $500 billion) versus its actual size (#55 at $108 billion). Apparently, people are five times more likely to buy Apple stock than Apple products.

Steve Jobs has been described as a visionary, a genius, an inspiration to all who seek to create heaven on earth. Of course, none of the innovations with which he is credited did he actually come up with first; the personal computer, the WYSIWIG graphical interface, the laptop, the smartphone, the tablet, the touchscreen interface were all developed by other people at other companies before his muse visited him. What he was a genius at, and what Apple continues to excel at, is brand marketing.  Nobody does it better.

Okay now, Apple owners. Bring it on.