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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.


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, where I inevitably waste more time than I intend to. You may have visited 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.

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.



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.