Category Archives: Branding

Branding theories under scrutiny in “Absolute Value”

To call advertising as the ‘art of relative persuasion‘ is sure to get the major advertising practitioners to put you on their black list.

I just completed the book Absolute Value, and found it to be a larger thesis than the title implied. In some ways it’s a systematic take-down of several sacred cows of marketing, branding, the role of persuasion and much more. But what’s impressive is how the authors (Ithamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen) do it in a calm, intellectual fashion, trying to assure readers they are not really picking a fight.

Book - absolutevalueThey observe how we customers have a hard time assessing the quality of products, so we typically use ‘quality proxies’ such as a brand name, prior satisfaction, country of origin, image of the store at which the purchase could be made etc. Oddly enough, we change these proxies over time. Think about this: There was a time when ‘made in China’ meant superior quality, but not anymore. There was a time our prior experience with a brand determined its replacement. Today? (I recently ditched another carrier for T-Mobile because prior experience wasn’t exactly great.)

Absolute Value gives you a three-part theoretical framework of how to promote brands –the P-O-M Influence Mix. I find it interesting how the authors steer clear of calling it the Marketing Mix. It stands for Prior Preferences (P), Other People (O), and Marketers (M).

Does this mean the death of branding? No! But it does reveal serious cracks in what is typically considered brand management –tied to Positioning theory, Segmentation etc. Today we are nearer to having perfect (or ‘absolute’) information about a brand we are considering because of the abundance of reviews, and websites dedicated to testing, comparing, or even disparaging brands. Bloggers and journalists prod and pry a brand’s claims to see if it is living up to it or the market hype, exposing the slightest flaw, or lesser-discussed breakthrough feature. Social media is a big part of this, obviously.and marketers should understand that their primary role is shifting from persuasion to (and this should not come as a shock!) communication!

In this scenario –this has to be troubling to ‘positionistas’ and those running loyalty programs—customers can evaluate a brand for what it is, rather than how it compares with other “choice-sets” they are allowed to see.

Sidenote: There’s a great story about Jonney Shih, who created a brand following with hardly any brand advertising. I was in the market for a laptop a few weeks back, so having sworn by a Toshiba for many years, guess what brand I bought?


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Anti-commercial on library throws ‘Spice’ on dry subject

Who would want to make a commercial to promote a library? Videos of city centers and golf courses have built-in stories that are easy to tap into. But a library? They end up being like this! Or, for heaven’s sake, this –with slogans and beauty shots devoid of a story line!

So this commercial, which borrows heavily from the effects we have come to expect in Old Spice genre, is a lot of fun. OK, maybe they could have not been so liberal about stealing the copy approach ( “look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man…”) but I guess that’s what genius is, sometimes,”standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Shameless rip-off, or brilliant homage to a meme before it burns out?

Not everything this group does is that way, though. Take a look at this video on Roman citizenship, that is another way of spicing up a dry subject, even with with the standard Professor talking head.


Infographics pack stories – you unzip the meaning

The way I see infographics it’s not just to tell a story. That was the purpose an infographic was originally intended to serve.

I see it performing a different function in a media-saturated world. Fighting the attention economy!

Inception infographic

Take a look at this. It’s not evident first what it’s trying to ‘say’ about the movie.

It’s a way of letting the reader unpack a level of meaning that would be different from the next reader.  It’s perfect for movies and complex narratives, where there is no one universal meaning. Great directors compress ideas and leave it for moviegoers to discover those nuances.

Oddly enough, journalism and advertising works in the opposite direction –even though both like to be also known as genres of storytelling. They like to bring pure clarity, and therefore unpack the details for the audience. (Check this simple, timely one on BP’s spending.) Worked until about five years ago. Today, consumers, newspaper readers (some call them media snackers for good reason!) don’t want that level of explanation.

Maybe you don’t have the capacity to embed an infographic into your commmunictaion, but you could learn the secret of leaving the reader to unzip his or her own meaning.


Should BP spin its wheels on its pesky little PR problem?

I bet this will be question that many presenters on crisis communications and PR turn to –at the IABC World Conference in Toronto this week, and many other events.

Variations of this question could come range from “can social media rescue a company’s reputation,” to “Is this a warning shot for corporations dabbling in social media?”

You could say BP which has the  nation’s largest environmental crisis on its hands should ignore the PR disaster they have inherited (as Len Gutman at ValleyPRBlog noted, “There are some things PR can’t fix”) and stick to fixing what it has wrought. It’s near impossible for them to address the ‘wisdom’ of the passionate crowd leveraging new media.

Take these responses to the oil spill:

BP Logo

  • The BP Logo Redesign Contest. I’ll don’t need to tell you what this means in a Web 2.0 world where images are shared, commented on and archived forever.
  • Wikipedia edits. Lots of activity on the discussion pages of BP’s Wikipedia page, where editors this week seem to be dredging up –still unpublished– unsavory details of cancer etc.

In the face of all this, what in the name of crisis communications is the value of the full page ad in the New York Times, and some of those TV spots? Is there any value in using old media Tylenol-type tactics to fix the situation BP is in? I recall BP used to run a great series of ads, when it was re-branding, that said things like “It’s time to go on a low carbon diet.”

I think its time for BP to go on a low PR diet!


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How to fly (through social media turbulence)

Airlines frequently fly into turbulence –not always the kind they are used to.  Just ask United. Better still, just ask Southwest Airlines. Over the years since they began embracing a slew of social media tools, Southwest has done a grand job of listening and responding. Sure, they’ve made their mistakes, fixed them fast, and moved on.

There may be a huge difference between an airline and an airplane, but I thought of juxtaposing them because of some common lessons they have for all of us –not just people who communicate about objects with wings.

If you missed this case involving Boeing, it’s worth a second look. The setup:

  • Child draws lots of pictures of airplanes.
  • Child sends one drawing to Boeing.
  • Corporate office sends him a standard letter saying it does not accept unsolicited designs, and has destroyed the letter.

Sad? Legal? Damaging to brand? All of the above?

The boys father was crushed/confused. He writes a blog so he asked his readers what to do.  Word got out. People came up with creative answers (including one that suggested writing the letter Boeing should have sent his son!) Boeing was forced to join the conversation at the late stage, and respond.

There are many lessons here. The first is about a canned response and a genuine response. So easy to do the former. But it’s out-of-place in a world where we make a huge din about being better at communications, great at listening yada yada.

To cut to the chase, Boeing Corporate (which uses this Twitter account that’s different from the one that talks of its engineering stuff) responded with aplomb, and thanked everyone for ‘supporting’ Harry Windsor, the child artist/airplane designer. “Supporting Harry,” as you might suspect is code for Punishing Boeing. Loosening them up. Humanizing them…

But we all live and learn. Boeing is a great company. They may have never in their wildest dreams of crisis planning imagined an eight year old would teach them a rapid lesson in communications. Neither do many organizations. So here are my takeaways from these two examples:

  • Plan  for the unplanned: Social media adds a lot more turbulence, often the kind that cannot be anticipated by the most sophisticated ‘tracking’ tools on board.
  • Know your audience’s audience: No matter who your end-users or customers are, your audience –and your ‘followers’ are always larger than you thought.
  • Put humans in charge. A professional response is not as good as a human response. Many of us/you are trained in the former. Don’t check your humanity at the door when you walk into your office.

Social media is nothing special. It has no secret ingredient. It is nothing more than humanized communications, for a world that has done an awful job at it.


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Quotes for the week ending 17 April, 2010

“I write essentially 7,000 words every week for the blog and for the paper and all that stuff.”

AdAge on the New York Times Reporter, writing fro DealBook, who resigned for ‘accidental plagiarism’

“If you get the chance, grab a video camera (or a smartphone) and head to your nearest Tea Party. Who knows, your footage could dispel some false accusations; citizen-journalists are turning in the most reliable kinds.”

Lachlan Markay,  of Dialog New Media, on the Tea Party infiltrators.

“To all the Twitter lovers out there: this is NOT the first sign of the apocalypse….People will not desert Twitter for this. It’s inevitable — technology services need revenue.”

Josh Bernoff, on Twitter’s business model that might involve advertising

“Her brand is Teflon, ubiquitous and so strong that a book like this is not even going to dent it….The media is not going to give this story a second life.”

Michael Kelley, in Advertising Age, on Kitty Kelly’s latest unauthorized biography on Oprah

“Wait, Who Says My Tweets Belong to Google or the Library of Congress?”

Slate’s Heidi Moore, on the news that Twitter content from as far back as 2006 is being archived in the Library of Congress

“Weave in your personality. Sure it’s business, but you don’t want to be a social media sleeping pill. Avoid dry and boring messages, posts and links.”

Susan Young, at on the ‘Seven Habits of Highly Successful Social Media Communicators’


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Ecohes of Ogilvy in Creative Refinery

I have to applaud Nathan Wagner, a friend with whom I chat about all things marketing and branding. he occasionally leaves a comment on this blog, and that starts an offline conversation.

Having worked for some pretty cool interactive agencies, he’s launched is own shop, called Creative Refinery. Intriguing name, that. (Previously there was BaconPony) Nathan is one of the few marketing practitioners I know of who rather than parrot the marketing-speak from business books, coins his own expressions. His recent blog post (the blog is called “Relevant Chews” – go figure!) talks of something after my own heart. The ordinariness of the consumer:

“I am not a consumer.  I am a husband, father and a hard working guy – but I could be your next loyal customer.”

I found it almost echoes a famous David Ogilvy idea: “The consumer is not a moron. She is your wife.” Actually I think that’s a  misquote. It is most likely Ogilvy said “The customer is not a moron. She is your wife.” Big difference.

The refinery guys should know.


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One way to handle a Twitter squatter

Thought this story about the televangelist, whose ‘channel’ was hijacked by a Twitter cyber-squatter was a great way to handle a potential brand / identity theft situation.

Robert H. Schuller, isn’t interested in fighting with the impostor, but hiring the person.

“I was honored that anybody thought my material was good enough to be repeated,”

Of course, Schuller’s next statement, that he is considering how he “could hire them as a ghostwriter,” is going to send shivers down the blogosphere that looks at ghost tweeting, like ghost blogging as the eleventh ‘thou shalt not.”

Not many know other leaders like the Dalai Lama are using Twitter in a big way, with quotes like “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.” Which soulds a lot like Fuller’s when life gives you lemons… statement.

But how does a non celeb resolve an issue where a name or brand has been taken on Twitter? There’s a thoughtful piece by an Gartner research director, Thomas Otter, on intellectual property issues and Twitter handles.

On the other hand, maybe people pay too much attention to Twitter handles, having worn the ‘brand’ lenses for too long.

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Posted by on March 29, 2009 in Branding, Social Media, Technology, Twitter


Branding Phoenix runs into same old issues

Pity the folks entrusted with coming up with a city brand. It’s one of the hardest nuts to crack for a variety of reasons:

  • Too many stakeholders and interested parties
  • Past failures make everyone pessimistic, itch for a fight
  • Money spent on what seems like a few words is always seen as a ridiculous waste of taxpayer resources

If you don’t believe me, Google ‘London Olympic logo” and you’ll see what an identity brouhaha it created for Londoners, and all those experts out there. Even I couldn’t relate…

So to get back to the branding or Phoenix that has drawn fire, one comment from a reader of the Arizona Republic typifies what I am saying.

No money for education, senior citizens, no decent jobs, the housing market crashed …we have a crazy sheriff who uses our light rail for prisoner transport and a bunch of cameras on the freeway for government finances. Does the advertising agency know what a financial risk our state is?

The writer blames everything he is upset about in the state or county, on Phoenix. It’s too easy! Others have called it ‘too aspirational.’ I think much of this ire misses the point. A brand has to be a bit of a stretch, or a bit of reductionism.

No one blames Vegas for NOT coming outright and branding itself as “fake architecture, losers welcome!” now that “What happens in Vegas” has caught on so well to define ‘adult playground.’ If you analyze it to death, as those who slam all forms of branding tend to do, then ‘adult playground’ is a only half the story. But it resonates with what  Vegas visitors accept and expect.

Branding agencies may be expensive, the concept may seem one that an eighth grader could have come up with, and you can’t blame a city for what it is not –not Seattle, not New York, not (who knows) Helsinki.

So my point is, let’s not analyze this new Phoenix branding to death. It sorely needed a refreshing new identity with so much going on there in the past few years, recession or not. As most branding experts say, a brand is what you invest into it. Not the slogan (anyone knows the slogan of ebay?) but the emotional experience.



Bobby Jindal’s not ready for prime time

I don’t want this to sound political, but it might come off that way. Please skip this post if you’re disinterested in the wacky 2-party system in the US.

But the moment I started listening to the Republican response last night, I could see why Bobby Jindal, who has all the street cred of a long-shot presidential nominee, was a wrong pick.

I’m going by the communication parts of the response, remember.

  • Badly needs teleprompter training
  • Desperately needs a speechwriter –especially when trying to jam in a family story
  • Uses wrong anecdote/case study to make the point: He used the predictable Katrina example, which would have been wonderful, had he not used it as a reason why ‘more government’ is bad. Bobby, that was Bush government, remember? Your party’s fearless leader at that time.
  • Repetitive phrase tactic (as in “I have a dream”) only work for grand ideas; not suitable with grocery store analogy.

The odd thing is –perhaps being Asian, but more because I have watched him closely over the past two years– I was rooting for this guy a few months back. I just wish he studied others who bombed in front of the camera (there was, ya know, the other outsider) a bit more before making such a debut.

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Posted by on February 25, 2009 in Branding, Media, Political Campaigns


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