Where’s the seasoned beef? Who cares?

2 Feb

It’s tempting to assume the class action lawsuit facing Taco Bell for falsely claiming its meat filling is “seasoned beef” will damage the brand in some important way. But I don’t think that will happen. Here’s why:

  1. The lawsuit is over a technical issue. Does anyone really know the difference between “seasoned beef” and whatever fills a chalupa? No one is claiming physical damage. No harm, no foul.
  2. Taco Bell’s customers — mostly ravenous young men between 16 and 25 — aren’t exactly hunting for health food. If it tastes good (for under $4) they’ll eat it. If they really cared what they were putting in their mouths, they’d belly up to the salad bar.
  3. Taco Bell is handling the situation in textbook fashion, with statements from their CEO and complete disclosure of exactly what’s in their filling. Social media takes the blame for spreading rumor, but it can also be used to spread truth (or a version of it). Taco Bell has been quick to respond. Bravo. They’ve veen bought pay-per-click to gain presence when people search the “seasoned beef” controversy. If you haven’t seen CEO John Ramsey’s video, here it is:

In an odd way, this flap may actually redound to TB’s favor. Sure their “seasoned beef” will serve to fill late night monologues for a few weeks, they also have the opportunity to tell their story to an attentive audience. Who knows? The brand may actually get stronger.


I have seen the future and it is Qwiki

27 Jan

The Qwiki page for "Italian Campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars"

Have you seen Qwiki yet? If not, you MUST click on the link now. In case you’re in too much of a hurry to click, let me explain it to you. Qwiki is kind of like having Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, armed with an encyclopedia, YouTube and Google, in your laptop, or desktop, or mobile, or well, wherever. Only, of course, a little less murderous. You tap in a search, item — say “Italian campaigns of the French Revolutionary Wars,” like the screen on the left  — and Qwiki prepares a short video presentation, complete with computer generated speech, in about ten or fifteen seconds. It’s a jaw-dropper.

Qwiki’s founders, Doug Imbruce and Louis Monier (founder of AltaVista) explain it as a way to “make information into an experience.” To be honest, the site is still in alpha and the experience still needs a little work. There are only about 2,000,000 available search terms, which sounds like a lot, but nowhere near the “traditional” search engines. (I’m not sure it’s technically a search engine, anyway; more of a knowledge engine.) And the generated speech can be a little sketchy, especially with foreign words. But those quibbles will no doubt fade over time. Qwiki sees a day in the near future when your mobile device will wake you up in the morning with a cheery voice, reminding you of your day’s appointments, fill you in on the weather, maybe telling you what happened on this day in history, all served by Qwiki. Type in a search term and you’ll get the whole song and dance — in song and dance.

I don’t know if Qwiki will imperil Google, Yahoo or Bing. It must have been difficult to imagine T. Rex going extinct when he ruled the earth. But you can’t help feeling the Qwiki search experience can be so much more satisfying than what we’re served right now. If Qwiki doesn’t replace search as we know it, it will certainly affect it. And that, of course, means yet another evolution in advertising models. Could they become as involving as Qwiki, itself? We’ll see.

RIP Jack Lalanne, a man who sold his brand

25 Jan

I remember Jack Lalanne from my childhood as a hyperactive muscleman in a short sleeve belted jumpsuit, urging us to better health from inside the tiny black & white TV in our  family room. My mom liked watching him in the afternoon, though I never remember her ever actually exercising. Now that I think of it, she may have had a little crush on him. And why not? He was a hunk when the word was still synonymous with “chunk.”

Jack took the Charles Atlas don’t-let-them-kick-sand-in-your-face world of body building and turned it into the “fitness” industry, maybe not singlehandedly, but certainly significantly. Through his long running “The Jack Lalanne Show” and small empire of Jack Lalanne’s European Health Spas, his name became synonymous with “fitness.” He was his own best advertisement for the product: a powerful (literally) brand long before people talked much about “brands” the way we do now. Check him out in his heyday:

It’s sad that when he sold his chain of fitness clubs to Bally in the 80s, they chose to rename them Bally Total Fitness. Jack Lalanne went on to write more books and sell a lot of juicers, but his brand was never the same. Maybe Bally did the right thing by “deLalanne-izing” the fitness centers. We’ll never know. He certainly wasn’t very hip anymore. And who knew when he would go the way of Colonel Sanders and kick the bucket (though his bucket would never be filled with deep-fried meat)? But I like to think he could have become as iconic as the Colonel, even though he more closely resembled Tony the Tiger, and could have been a great asset to the business he created, even after death.

Jack was famously quoted as saying: “I can’t die; it will ruin my image.” He was right about a lot, but not about that. He died Sunday at the age of 97, but like many great men and great brands, his image lives on.

Fun with Brand Tags

24 Jan
Volvo Brand Tags

Volvo: boring and boxy (but good)

Occasionally, when I’m tired of doing anything vaguely productive, I wander over to brandtags.net, where I inevitably waste more time than I intend to. You may have visited brandtags.net already . It’s been around a couple years and has been written up by lots of folks — Wall Street Journal, Ad Age, ClickZ, Seth Godin, among others. If not — and if you don’t mind losing yourself for a while — give it a whirl. It’s both a running compilation of the perceptions of various well-known brands and an engine for you to input your own instant perceptions of whatever brands the site throws your way:  sort of a brandophile’s Rorschach test. (Quick, how would you describe this brand in a word or phrase: Suzuki?) The site now has over a thousand brands tagged with over two million tags, which appear in cloud formation (like the one at left for Volvo), with the descriptions in size proportion to the frequency of their usage.

So here’s some interesting stuff I learned in a few minutes on Brand Tags about luxury automobile brands:

  1. “Asshole” seems to be about as important an element of the BMW brand as “Engineering,” “Performance,” “Overpriced” and “Snob,” though not as much as “Ultimate Driving Machine” or “Yuppie.”
  2. Mercedes evokes “Prestige,” Luxury,” “Overpriced,” “Expensive,” and “Nazis.” BMW seems to have a Nazi element, too, but not as strong as Mercedes; go figure.
  3. Cadillac combines elements of “Classic,” “Expensive,” “Luxury,” “Grandpa,” “Old People,” and “Pimp.” Draw your own conclusions.
  4. Audi? “German,” of course. “Luxury,” “Performance,” “Sleek.” And how about this — “Olympics?” Seems their  logo has made a real impression. (“Star” was significant for Mercedes, too.)

Restaurants are fun, too:

  1. Boston Market? “Chicken,” “Food,” “Meat,” “Turkey,” “Yuck.”
  2. Burger King ranges from the obvious — “Hamburgers,” “Fries,” “Junk Food,” “The King,” etc. — to the unsettling “Creepy King” — to the ancient — “Have It Your Way.”
  3. Here’s a fun and popular association with Dunkin Donuts: “Cops.”
  4. I guess it’s no surprise “Shit,” “Obesity,” “Disgusting,” and “Yummy” rate high for McDonald’s. But “Evil?” That’s harsh.

What does it all mean?

  1. For starters, it confirms what we know — that brands over time become extraordinarily rich stews of impressions and perceptions: positive, negative and lots of in between. Those stews ARE the brands. They grow in directions we simply can’t control. If you’re McDonald’s, “Disgusting” is apparently a side of your brand — albeit the dark side. If you’re Dunkin Donuts, you need to accept the popular perception that you’re the place cops hang out. If you’re Mercedes, “Nazis” is something you’d consider unwarranted and irrelevant 65 years after the fall of the Third Reich. But it’s no less real for that — perception in brands is reality. And that reality is constantly evolving as new perceptions enter the mix and old ones either evaporate or grow in intensity. In case we didn’t know it, managing brand perceptions is a 24/7 job, not simply a campaign or three.
  2. How we brand and communicate makes a difference. Can you believe how vital “Have it your way” still remains for Burger King? Or how important “Engineering” is for BMW, but not for any of its competition? Those are significant brand advantages that grew directly from the product, to the communications, to perceptions. Look at the brand tags for a brand like Boston Market, which has deep penetration and has been around for a while — there are almost no perceptions beyond the most basic (“Chicken,” “Meat,” etc.). Could it be because they’ve never planted any with their communications? Could this be one reason for their struggles?
  3. The brand experience itself communicates more strongly than anything we say. No amount of communication seems to be able to erase the memory of experiences. Communications can effect the perceptions of those experiences. But they can’t delete them.

Fun, huh? Of course, there is not explicit connection between brand tags and a brand’s success or lack thereof. But if you’re looking to spend a little quality time in Brandland, check it out.  And if you register, you’ll be able to play “Guess That Brand,” where you’re presented with a set of brand tags and have to figure out which brand they are for. I found it very humbling.

AIDA’s dead. Give it a rest.

19 Jan

AIDAAwareness. Interest, Desire. Action. When I took my first advertising course almost thirty years ago, our professor intoned those words as if they were gospel. “That is how,” he would say, “consumers move along the path to purchasing this item or that one.” And the whole industry was built around that never-proven, not-based-on-any-credible-research theory — all the stuff about reach and frequency and three-exposures-required-to-gain-awareness. It was how plans were developed, how fortunes made (and spent). AIDA.

For over 20 years now, since the advent of integrated marketing communications, the AIDA theory has been on the wane. Customers just aren’t that simple. The most current research by McKinsey about the Consumer Decision Journey should have put it to rest forever. And yet,… and yet students and clients still talk to me about AIDA as if it were the latest thing, as if all we have to do is make enough people aware of a brand to magically induce some portion of them to take interest, a smaller portion to develop desire, and a smaller portion yet to take action and buy: simply pour enough people into the top of the funnel (awareness) to see some flow out the bottom (action). Once upon a time, the P & Gs of the world placed product on every shelf and could buy enough reach and frequency for a product to make it look as if awareness led inexorably to action. Maybe it was even true in some small way. But not anymore. And even if it were, with people’s attention divided between so many media, so many content offerings, who can afford to buy huge awareness anymore?

The newer models, including McKinsey’s and inbound marketing models, take into account — correctly — the fact that interest now often precedes awareness. People start with a set of acceptable brands,  search for information, stumble upon things they weren’t hunting for, develop a modified set of acceptable brands, search some more, succumb to last minute changes of heart — in short, they act like people, not like lab rats. A brand’s mere presence somewhere on the journey, combined with the ability to establish some sort of connection, based on shared goals, values, or interest — as opposed to a simple bludgeoning of customers with a blunt message — can win the day. Let’s call it “affinity,” rather than “awareness,” that drives the brand decision journey.

Oddly enough, traditional media — notably television — can be effective in developing affinity, because of its great story-telling power, even though it lacks interactivity (for the time being), while most Internet advertising fails horribly in this regard. I urge you to check out two great pieces about this: a blog post by David Aaker and a video of a tremendous TED presentation by Chris Anderson. One of the key nuggets of knowledge that drives them both is the fact that the advertising value of an hour of an Internet user’s time is only about a dime. The reason is not only because the Internet’s infinite inventory of advertising makes it very cheap, but because we have not yet cracked the code on how to make it  effective, that is engage people and drive affinity. Most of us are still caught up in the AIDA model — impressions, eyeballs, clicks.

This is partially a measurement problem. Impressions, clicks and the like are very measurable; affinity and connection not so much. But we are also faced with a creativity problem. Knowing what we know about how individual customers make decisions, understanding that they are now in charge of what they see and when they see it, how do we use all the available new platforms to enable them to meet and engage with brands on their own terms? In a world where advertising is more like wildflowers and less like bullets, how do we spread our messages?

Social media has blossomed as a brandland strategy in response to this dilemma. But it’s only one answer. What seems clear while we grope to use digital and traditional media more effectively is that building brand communications around a full understanding of individuals’ complex motivations and habits, rather than forcing messages down any available throats, seems a better prescription for long-term brand health.

Brand redemption Ray Lewis style

15 Jan
Ray Lewis

The Ray Lewis brand, circa 2000

It’s the best wekend of the year for professional football (that’s American-style football, for all you non-American readers). So let’s talk about a football brand.

By his own admission, Baltimore Ravens sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Ray Lewis was a pretty bad guy, bad enough to be indicted in 2000 on charges of murder and aggravated assault. The charges were dropped in favor of lesser charges and a stiff fine. But the images and circumstances swirling around the incident — a night club, a limo, a few words, a brawl, Lewis’s rough entourage, his later admitted cover-up — along with his on-field reputation for particularly hard hitting in a violent sport, yielded him a personal brand that could only be envied by a thug. His brand came packaged in one of three wrappers: a Ravens uniform, an ankle length fur, or an orange jumpsuit. In Baltimore, he was cheered on the field, feared off it and scorned behind his back as “too ghetto for his own good.”

But Ray Lewis proved what BP, AIG and many other blemished corporate brands would do well to understand: brand redemption can be achieved; the price is honest, real, sustained change. Today, ten years after the ugly incident that defined it, the Ray Lewis brand is golden. Let’s let Wikipedia tell us why:

“Lewis started the Ray Lewis 52 Foundation which is a non-profit corporation whose mission is to provide personal and economic assistance to disadvantaged youth. The foundation has funded such events as adopting ten families in Baltimore City community for the holidays, an annual celebrity auction and bowling tournament, the Great Maryland Duck Derby, Thanksgiving food drives on North Avenue in Baltimore and Ray’s Summer Days. All proceeds have helped fund the Ray Lewis Foundation.

Ray Lewis

The Ray Lewis brand, circa 2010

Lewis has since been involved in pressing political, business, and philanthropic leaders for a stronger commitment to disability sports both here and in the developing world. Lewis was also honored with a JB award (named in honor of CBS broadcaster James Brown) during the 2006 off-season and received the “Act of Kindness” Award for his work in the community.”

But that’s not the whole story. Ray Lewis still leads his team onto the field and hits as hard as ever. But he also takes the time to mentor others in the NFL — not just his own teammates, but the same people he’s likely to hit on any given Sunday. He’s used his own personal redemption as a tool to help others redeem themselves. He doesn’t preach, he ministers. And he’s found his way back as a product endorser, too, even appearing on the cover of the Madden NFL video game.

Ray Lewis

The Ray Lewis brand promise

What would happen if BP honestly undertook an effort to become environmental leaders, rather than leaning on a PR campaign? What would happen if AIG led the drive for financial reform and corporate responsibility? What would happen if they did those things without fanfare or PR flacks? Wouldn’t long term benefits accrue? Couldn’t they be corporate Ray Lewises? They wouldn’t have to be any less competitive, just transparent and disciplined.

OK, time to get off the soapbox. The Ravens are about to play the Steelers. Gotta go catch me some Ray.



A Restaurant’s Guide to Groupon, Part Two

14 Jan

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Groupon, based on a nice piece of research by Utpal M. Dholakia. I did that because a lot of clients ask us about Groupon (and LivingSocial and Restaurants.com and others) and — let’s face it — there’s just no avoiding it. To my mind, Groupon and the others are nothing more than a new generation of ValPac and Valassis, which were themselves a new generation of targeted promotional media in their day. People will always love a deal. Retailers and restaurateurs will always want warm bodies in their establishments. Entrepreneurs will always be finding new ways to put those facts together for their own profit. It’s up to marketers to figure out what works for them.

Now a new paper has been published by the Harvard Business Review that furthers our knowledge of how Groupon and other deep discount vouchers work in the marketplace. In it, the authors develop a model to explore how consumer demographics and offer details interact to shape the value of voucher discounting. Here are a couple main findings and how they affect restaurants interested in Grouponing.

First, “discount vouchers can facilitate price discrimination, allowing merchants to offer discounts to customers who value the merchant’s product less than ordinary customers do.” In other words, Groupon and others encourage trial by those who simply won’t pay your prices. That’s a good thing if their experience is so good they can establish a strong connection between your price and their pleasure and/or your margins are high enough to scrape adequate profit from the voucher users and/or the Grouponers who show up aren’t already customers. That’s a lot of ifs, ands and ors.

Second, “discount vouchers can benefit merchants through advertising, by informing consumers of a merchant’s existence. For these advertising effects to be important, a merchant must begin with sufficiently low recognition among prospective consumers.” Obviously, Groupon and others offer an opportunity to introduce yourself (or reintroduce yourself) to a potential customer. But it comes at a cost. Groupon’s seductive business model — no money down, proceeds from Groupon sales split 50/50 with the merchant — can mask the true cost in lost margin. Giving that margin away to current customers just doesn’t make sense. So if you’re already well-known, but just want to generate a little more sales volume, find a different answer.

So again, the question must be asked: to Groupon or not to Groupon? The answer is yes, if:

  1. You need a big awareness bump at any cost. New restaurants or restaurants that can’t seem to get over the hump may need a jump start. Groupon’s ability to reach many people and induce trial can be very powerful. But it ain’t free.
  2. Your margins are high enough to take a battering. For most restaurants this probably won’t apply. But some have begun raising prices to allow space for deep discount vouchers. In the short term this can look attractive. But it’s no way to build a brand.

Above all, if you do choose to go Groupon, make sure your system for collecting customer data is in place. If you don’t take responsibility for bringing the Grouponers back, you may never see them again.

Arizona Shooting: Good for the Glock Brand?

12 Jan

Fair warning: this isn’t a post about how the Arizona shooting is the gunmaker’s fault, or the fault of loose gun legislation or enforcement, or over-the-top political rhetoric.

I simply find it interesting in a macabre way that — according to  Michael Riley of Bloomberg — Glock sales are surging in the shooting’s aftermath, particularly sales of the Glock 19, Mr. Loughner’s weapon of choice (as well — it should be said — of many law enforcement organizations). Though Riley reports gun dealers believe the sales surge is due to ” fears among gun buyers that stiffer restrictions may be coming from Congress,” no one can really suppose that Congress (OUR Congress), where there has been no gun legislation since 1994, is likely to rush through a bill banning the Glock. Indeed FBI data show sales were up on January 10 all over the land: 60 % in Arizona; 65 percent in Ohio; 16 percent in California; 38 percent  in Illinois; and 33 percent in New York.

No, this seems to be a simple case of a brand reaping the rewards of its product performing spectacularly in a very public way. As one of Riley’s interviewees said, this helps prove the Glock 19 “is one of the greatest guns made in the history of the world.” It’s as if the McDonalds diet Morgan Spurlock (barely) endured in Supersize Me had actually improved his health and he were REALLY “lovin’ it.” Or as if The BP oil spill IMPROVED the ecological health of the Gulf.

We all know now the Glock is now the baddest handgun in all the land. And that’s very good for the brand. Strange consequence of a bloody tragedy, yes? As a brand strategist and student of consumer behavior, it doesn’t make me feel so good about my profession today. I’m just saying…

Girl Scout Cookies and social media? It’s just not fair.

10 Jan

Girl Scout by Norman RockwellHave you heard the Girl Scouts are going to use social media to help peddle their product this year? It can only mean one thing: the apocalypse is upon us. Now I not only have to resist the temptation of filling my freezer with Thin Mints (about an eight day supply the way my wife and I plow through them) and my cupboard with peanut butter Do-Si-Dos® (two weeks worth, tops), now the little girl down the block will be able to stalk me online. Here’s their waistline-busting strategy, an innocent-sounding ploy called “The Cookie Club”:

“The Cookie Club” is an interactive, online cookie business for girls that teaches them about goals, tracks progress, and allows girls to send e-cards to friends and families. Using an online order form, customers are able to submit their “promised” cookie order that is automatically recorded on girls’ “Cookie Club”account order pages.

“Cookie Club,” indeed. It’s pure evil. My will already crumbles like a damaged Lemon Chalet Creme™ when I see my local peddler skipping up the walk, deadly order form in her wee hand. Now I might get e-cards. And I can order online, ANY TIME I GET THE URGE. Soon I’m sure she’ll discover my Twitter account (a simple search, any eleven year-old can do it). She’ll follow my tweets. I’ll feel obligated to follow her tweets. Ere long she’ll be tweeting me her sweet 140-character siren songs: “Have you tried the Dulce de Leches? They’re so-o-o delish! #mmmcookies.” Maybe she’ll begin responding to my blog posts: “Great post, Mr. Fiddler. Must have worked up an appetite for a fudgie Thanks-A-Lot™, yes? I can get a crate over to you tonight.” THERE IS NO ESCAPE!

And I guess that’s the point: no escape. It speaks to both the power and simplicity of social media and digital commerce that — no exaggeration — even an eleven year-old can manage it. In fact, I’d guess many eleven year-old girls will be much more capable than many 41 year-old marketing managers. And I have no doubt it will prove to be a productive addition to what is already a marketing juggernaut. What a wicked combination: personal contact, social media, beloved brand, online ordering, pre-teen energy and irresistible cookies. The future looks bright for Girl Scouts, terrifying for cookie addicts.

Lies vs. Truth. Advertising vs. Brand.

9 Jan

PinocchioOK, the title of this post is disingenuous. Advertising isn’t really about lying; many people just think it is. Once upon a time in Don Draper-land you could say almost anything about a brand and it was difficult to prove you wrong. “Fast, fast, fast relief.” “Little, yellow, better.” “The champagne of bottled beers.” Whatever. Oh, eventually people would figure it out. But by that time you may have already sold a tidy sum of product. It wasn’t that people really believed all the BS. It was more like a willing suspension of disbelief, a grain of salt attached to every ad.

Some people are still living in Don Draper-land, believe any claim worth dreaming up is worth making. But their numbers are dwindling. In a world where customers have become more skeptical, communication between brand and customer is increasingly two-way, and customer-to-customer communication takes place in open forums, the words “truth in advertising” have taken on a whole new meaning. Now “true” no longer means “not demonstrably false,” but “demonstrable.”

Brand claims must reflect reality or face the consequences. The onus is now on companies to mothball the smoke and mirrors in favor of picture windows. It’s not just a communications challenge. It’s a performance challenge. You can only promise what you can deliver. And you must deliver what you promise. It’s a simple rule, if not always easy to follow. Brands drive advertising, rather than vice versa.

For brands that can look honestly at themselves and maintain discipline between communications and operations, this is good news. They should prosper. For those searching for  a 21st century Don Draper, beware.