Category Archives: Branding

Reebok, Self-Reliance, and Individualism.

In the summer of 1990 in New York, while working at Ogilvy & Mather, Bill Hamilton told me not open my mouth for the next 10 years. It wasn’t directed at me personally, just all of the account executives in the company. I did not observe his monastic recommendation, but I always admired the voice he created for his clients.

You may not remember Bill like I do, but he was the creative genius behind the iconic U.B.U. campaign for Reebok in the late 80’s. Described by Philip Dougherty in his 1988 New York Times article as filled with “generally weird segments” including “a fairy godmother type in a crowd emerging from a subway exit, all white and bouffant with her crown and her Reeboks; a surreal shot of a Greek chorus in amphitheater surroundings; a bevy of wood nymphs tiptoeing through a forest glade, and, in baseball cap and raincoat, a three-legged man.” Here is the ad below:

The visual chaos of this 80’s infused spot overshadowed copy that will live well beyond the time anyone remembers Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. That is because Bill Hamilton didn’t write it. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote it. It was borrowed. And, it is perfect:

  • Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.
  • A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
  • To be great is to be misunderstood.
  • There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.
  • Insist on yourself; never imitate.
  • God will not have his work made manifest by cowards.
  • Discontent is the want of self-reliance: it is infirmity of will.
  • Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.
  • Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.
  • To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.

The Fellini visuals of the U.B.U. spot mask a brand voice that seems to have found its way back into the Reebok brand. The new global marketing campaign called “Live With Fire” brings back the themes resonant in Emerson’s essay entitled “Self-Reliance” that provided copy for U.B.U. in 1988. Here it is:

The loss of the NFL contract and the impact of the NHL labor dispute have challenged Reebok, but sometimes there is opportunity in loss. Michael Jordan once said, “It’s not what you have at the beginning of the game, but what you have at the end.” In the case of Reebok, it seems that taking a look back at what they had at the beginning might illuminate their way forward.

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Filed under Advertising, Brand Strength, Branding, Culture Change, Marketing

Innovation on Ambien, or Why Product Development is Sleep Walking

I had this ridiculous idea once that involved billboards, graffiti, hidden video, bumper stickers, and a fake drink. If I had raised the funding I was going to conduct an experiment in Boston to prove that a brand could be created before a product, and even sold to Coca-Cola before the first bubble of fizz was added. The plan was this: I would concoct a mysterious energy drink called Reverse, and initiate a ground swell of demand through viral and guerrilla marketing tactics combining the humor of YouTube’s “Charlie Bit My Finger” and the social impact of Banksy. Was I on the road to Abilene? Maybe.

Reverse never materialized, but the idea kept returning like the way root beer comes back to tickle your nose. I was reminded of it again, as dabbled in my new addiction “Kickstarter.”  As you can read here on CrunchBase, “Every week, tens of thousands of people pledge millions of dollars to projects from the worlds of music, film, art, technology, design, games, fashion, food, publishing, and other creative fields. Since its launch on April 28th, 2009, more than one and a quarter million people have pledged $130 million to projects by creators who always maintain full ownership and complete creative control of their work.”

I ran across a recent Kickstarter project called Flint and Tinder, billed as Men’s Basics (i.e. undies and t-shirts) Made in America. The topic is near and dear to my…heart, for two reasons. The first reason is that once I ordered $300 of Jockey underwear sometime in the middle of the night, while on my first and last Ambien. I have no recollection of it, but this is a topic for another blogpost.)

The second reason is that Flint and Tinder has pulled a Reverse. They’ve not just developed a product concept, but more importantly have created a brand before a stitch of elastic has met a thread of cotton. Amazing. Beautiful. And, so American. I love it.

Well, here’s another idea. I want all of American consumer goods companies to listen. I want you to try something that I believe will improve the success rate of new product development, and change the face of innovation forever. Take the laboratory wonks, secret test tracks, and testing kitchens out of your bunkers. Your products have a 6 in 7 chance of failing anyway, so what’s all the fuss. Drop the idea that greater secrecy leads to greater product success. I think it’s a pile. Your brands live in a new world of co-creation, and American ingenuity is alive and thriving. Every consumer goods company should be running a Kickstarter, and not some secret Communispace-like community, but an open public forum to which people can thoughtfully and monetarily invest. It is called Kickstarter for Business, and you must be a billion dollar brand to join. Imagine 100,000 people contributing financially and publicly to the development of a new electric car by Apple, or maybe an entirely edible playground by Hershey. Who knows what may happen…

The idea gives me goose pimples. The benefits go beyond developing better products. It fundamentally changes the nature of the consumer/producer relationship. We all become investors, and invested people care. Imagine a country of investor/consumer/owners versus the antagonistic triad of overweight consumers, detached producers, and invisible shareholders.

American business it’s time to drop that Ambien, because it’s likely when you wake up you’ll find you’ve slept-walked all the way to Abilene. Believe me I know.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Branding, Entrepreneurialism, Fashion, Indie, Marketing, Product Innovation

There’s No Crying in Investment Banking, or Don’t Take a Ride on a Snake’s Back

So there’s this mouse who wants to cross a river, and a poison snake who offers the little fellow a ride. “Will you bite me?” squeaks the mouse. “Of courssse not,” replies the snake. The mouse gets on the scaly back of the helpful snake, and they begin crossing. The snake flips around and mortally bites the mouse. “But you said you w-w-w-wouldn’t bite me,” cries the mouse, as darkness descends around him. The snake merely replies, “I’m a snake.”

I feel bad for the mouse.  And, I feel sort of bad for Gregg Smith formerly of Goldman Sachs, or anyone for that matter who spends a quarter of their career traveling down a path they never should have been on. All of our careers have been on the road to Abilene at one time or another. (To paraphrase a bit…Let he who has not imagined smashing a cheeseburger in the face of a horrific boss throw the first Big Mac.)

So Gregg…you rode on the back of a beast that uses “Atlas Shrugged” as its owner’s manual, and sharpens its claws on the bones of its competition. Did you really expect a culture rivaling that of Habitat for Humanity? These are not people looking for win-win situations. They are fierce competitors, and ultimately most of their clients remain fabulously happy, or they don’t remain clients. It regulates itself.

Looking past the press memes and poor career choices, it is fair to ask whether Goldman Sachs should learn from this. The answer is yes and no. Reputation is everything, as evidenced by the $2.2 billion drop in Goldman’s market cap, but I’m sure no one in the company is going to respond well to sensitivity training.

There are 14 principles already embedded in the corporate culture at Goldman, which are as good as any out there. Perhaps, though, it is time to revisit them. I believe there are two principles (#13 and #14) that seem to be most at odds with each other, and perfectly capture the conundrum of having to act like a shark with table manners:

13.  Our business is highly competitive, and we aggressively seek to expand our client relationships.

14.   Integrity and honesty are at the heart of our business.

It is the word “Aggressively” that bothers me here, especially in the context of Integrity and Honesty. Aggression contains a Darwinian nastiness that permits sharks to eat each other in utero. I think the word they were looking for was actually “Assertively.”

It is a fine point, but with vastly different connotations. On the one road, your client is at your side, and on the other your client follows you. With your client at your side, you’ll always know where they are and where you should be headed. With your client traipsing behind, you may one day turn around and find them gone, and the road you’re traveling paved with fool’s gold all the way to Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Arrogance, Culture Change, Employee Engagement

The Sunshine of Branding, or How to Make the Invisible Visible

I’ve spent the last 20 or so blog posts bringing to light how employees, committees, and organizations can participate in folly that as individuals they know to be ridiculous. This is the focus of The Road to Abilene: my puny contribution to an imagined world of corporate excellence in which every person remains awake, interested, engaged, and productive. (When the heck did I become an optimist…)

In any case, last night I saw a YouTube video that illuminated another road to Abilene. It is a road that is so wide an entire planet’s population can walk it. This dark route is followed not when we choose to go against our better judgement, but rather it is travelled because our focus drifted away from what truly matters.

I’m referring to the viral YouTube video Kony 2012, which at last count 70 million people have watched. It’s almost 30 minutes long, so wait a minute before you watch it. My first reaction to it was as a fellow human being. My second viewing was of course as a branding professional. I know that seems ugly and coarse, but it is an intellectual reflex that is not without a little merit.

You’ll see how a simple idea that is no more complex than “Crest Fights Cavities,” or “Coke Adds Life” is brought to the fore through the basic imperatives of iconic branding. (See this white paper by MillwardBrown.)

Iconic brands:

  1. Find strong cultural roots that tap into society’s values.
  2. Identify physical or symbolic features and make them instantly recognizable.
  3. Have a compelling story and remain true to their original values, while reinterpreting them in light of contemporary culture.

The Kony 2012 “brand campaign” does exactly these. Take a look. Devote the required 30 minutes. You won’t regret it.

In this case the message is “Get Joseph Kony,” and ignoring it leads us all to a place we would never want to go. What this documentary also proves is that there is a basic underlying decency to all of us (well…probably 96.3% of us) that transcends national boundaries, and it has found a home in social media. Think Arab Spring.

Now an allusion you’ll only get if you watch the video… In the words of Qui-Gon Jinn from Star Wars Episode One: Phantom Menace: “Your focus is your reality.” The right focus allows you to walk in the light. The wrong focus? Well that takes you to a galaxy far, far away to an unfortunate little place called Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Branding, Culture Change, Group Dynamics, Indie, Social Media

The Power of Tension and Trans Fatty Acids, or why 2012 is like 1984.


First let me say this: No one should judge advertising under the influence of Cheese Whiz and Funyuns. Now that thirty days have passed, and I’ve worked off nearly a third of the calories that I consumed during our Super Bowl party, I’ve rethought my opinion that there was no “1984” ad moment. There was, but it just took longer to realize. I blame what obviously was a trans fatty acid induced stagger towards Abilene. Don’t worry. I’m good now.

Much has been discussed already about the lack of great advertising during Super Bowl 2012, and so I don’t need to spend any time here rehashing that. One ad though has continued to remain in my thoughts well past the others: Wieden + Kennedy’s Clint Eastwood Half-time ad.

My previous definition of a “1984” moment is when ad is so astounding that while watching you could be induced to join Scientology. This year it didn’t happen for me. In fact it hasn’t happened for me since 1984. Then I began thinking: maybe my definition is flawed. Maybe.

Well, here’s my new and improved checklist for determining the existence of a “1984” moment during Super Bowl, and how “Half-time in America” fairs:

  1. The production value is astonishingly good. Check.
  2. The writing is perfect. Check.
  3. The message inserts itself into an acutely felt cultural tension. Check.
  4. The ad gives me goose bumps or a lump in my throat. Check.
  5. The tone of the commercial is distinctly different than all others playing during the Super Bowl. Check.
  6. It only needs to run once, and the world continues to discuss it. Check.
  7. It pisses off “The Man,” (or at least Karl Rove). Check.

Not that you haven’t seen it a dozen times, but please take another look, and see if it doesn’t hit all these attributes squarely in the face like Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby. 

http://youtu.be/1NrklYQbbZM

Oddly enough, when I first watched it I thought it was a rip-off of Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning in America” spot, and in fact it seemed very conservative to me. Clint is my favorite gun lover. On the other hand, those in politically conservative circles viewed this as pay back for political patronage (to put it mildly). In this case, both sides are right, and that’s the beauty of the spot. It allows for multiple, intensely felt interpretations. It’s like that joke about the psychiatrist who is accused of sharing dirty pictures, even though he keeps explaining to his patients they are just inkblots.

Even if you think that Chrysler will never produce a product as significant or wonderful as Apple can, one thing’s for sure. The Chrysler ad did what few ads will ever do. It continued to move our jaws well after we were done gnawing on buffalo chicken wings, giving us pause long enough to look down to make sure our feet are pointed in the right direction -180 degrees away from Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Brand Strength, Branding, Super Bowl Advertising

Introducing a Breakthrough in Advertising Measurement: The Abilene-O-Meter

As you have probably figured out by now, I believe the truth is best told with a heavy dose of humor. In fact, in Shakespeare the fools always told the truth before others realized it (and often too late). With this in mind, I would like to share with you my great advancement in measuring advertising effectiveness, The Abilene-O-Meter. It came to me during the Super Bowl last night, as I watched millions upon millions of advertising dollars evaporate like the dreams of Patriot fans. Poof!

In the mere 18 hours of its existence, it has proven more reliable than the free Scientology Stress Tests you can get at the mall, and more accurate than 90% of mutual fund managers. Here is how to read it. First, you must understand the unit of measurement, as it is quite groundbreaking. All are animals that can be found in Texas. (A State that I adore, btw.)  At one end of the scale is the devilish poison armadillo, symbol of that wonderful place great corporate minds come together to produce mediocre results, i.e. Abilene. At the other end of the scale is the proud bald eagle, representing the rare and inspiring actions of brave business people who create the icons we measure our lives buy (oops…I mean “by”). Think of this as a “brand menagerie,” if you will, with each lovely vertebrate standing for a certain metaphorical distance from Abilene. Eagle, good. Armadillo, very bad. Cow, meh.

In order to calibrate the Abilene-O-Meter, I first measured the Fiat commercial that aired on the Super Bowl.

This charming spot for the struggling vehicle sent the needle rocking with the first slap from Romanian supermodel Catrinel Menghia. Within seconds the secret love we have for all things Italian was reawakened. Of course, The Richards Group who created the ad relied on the age old truth that sex sells, but who cares. In this case it really worked. In fact, Edmunds.com reported that Fiat had the highest cumulative increase in web traffic after airing, with a rise in activity of 138 percent. I’d say that’s soaring with the eagles.

To complete the calibration, I then measured the Old Navy ad for Corporado, a make believe brand designed to mock Dockers. As the logo emerged like a leak from what seemed to be the actor’s pant leg, I was afraid I might have pushed the Abilene-O-Meter to its limits. It took me three viewings to realize it was all a joke, which usually means it ain’t that funny.

Despite the Texas inspired satirical name “Corporado,” Old Navy came up all armadillos. I’m afraid the only way out of Abilene for Old Navy will be to take off the Corporados and do the walk of shame pant-less out of town.

If you would like to submit an ad for Abilene-O-Meter testing, please feel free to send it along.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Advertising, Brand Strength, Branding, Marketing, Super Bowl Advertising

Prestidigitation and Brand Strength – A Hypothesis


When I was about 10 my father took me to the Magic Castle in Hollywood. What a strange and wonderful place. In every nook and cranny there was something mysterious and amazing (at least for a 10 year old). However, what stuck in my mind was not the lady cut in half, nor pianos that played themselves, but the roaming magicians who would perform small miracles up close with sleight-of-hand. If you have ever witnessed a true hand mechanic, you’ll know of what I speak. Your mind bends as your eyes defy your intellect. Hands are truly amazing instruments.

What sparked this memory was a recent trip to a good Dunkin’ Donuts. You know what I mean by a good Dunkin’. There are Dunkin’ Donuts and then there are Dunkin’ Donuts. All the food is the same across the franchise: the donuts are fresh, the coffee is hot, and the bagels toasty. The employees even smile the same amount. Until now I couldn’t put a finger on why I felt a difference between my favorite Dunkin’ and the rest. I think I know now.

The secret is in the hands.

The next time you go to a retail establishment, be it Fast Food or a Car Wash, watch the employees’ hands. They tell a story. At my favorite Dunkin’ the employees’ hands move like olympic synchronized swimmers. They exhibit fluidity, speed, deftness, and the practiced hand movements of concert pianists. At my least favorite Dunkin’, the employees seem to be wearing invisible weighted baseball mitts. To watch them mix cream and sugar makes me crazy, and don’t get me started on spreading cream cheese. It’s like watching a glacier move across the tundra. Eyes may be the window to the soul, but hands hold the light of truth. Hands don’t lie.

Our hands connect us to the world. They are our interface. Our language is filled with metaphor incorporating the word hand. “Let’s get a handle on this.” “He’s got the upper hand.” “Let’s give her a hand.” “He’s got the whole world in is hands.” For some, physical hands are the primary means of communication.

My theory is this: you can tell a great brand by how deftly the employees’ hands interact with their environment, from handling merchandize to ringing up items to filling out return forms. I think hands are a leading indicator. Slow, hesitant, close to the body, clumsy = brand in trouble. Snappy, outstretched, active, practiced = brand on the rise. The hands are in the driver’s seat. More precisely, they are on the wheel, and the moment they come off, you’re on the road to Abilene.

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Filed under Abilene Paradox, Brand Strength, Branding, Employee Engagement, Marketing, Prestidigitation