Monday, December 17, 2012

All I Want For Christmas...

 Less than two months ago, we couldn't wait for Election Day so that the barrage of political ads would mercifully end.  Now, I'm feeling the same way about Christmas.

As a career marketing veteran, I can appreciate the necessity of holiday advertising, the same way I know that political candidates need to run negative campaign ads; somehow it is justified as a contributor to positive end results.

Despite the tens of millions of dollars spent on holiday advertising, no one is tempting me with anything I want for Christmas.  The marketing campaigns that make the least sense to me are:
  • Cars as presents.  Does anyone know anyone who actually has given someone a car for Christmas?  If it's only the fabled 1% (or less) that the auto manufacturers are targeting, surely there's a more direct way to reach them?  I guess the only people who would be enticed by the suggestion that cars make good presents are those who are looking for a vehicle to drive over the fiscal cliff.
  • Jewelry = love.   For three years now, people have been holding back on making replacement purchases on things that are necessities, like appliances, cars, even shoes, while waiting for the economy to turn around.  If I were to spend hundreds of dollars for a special necklace for my wife, I'm quite sure that her reaction would not be astonished gratitude and amplified feelings of love.  More likely it would be a suspicion that I have lost all sense of reality (or that I'm guilty of something and trying to create a diversion).
The fatal flaw in these marketing campaigns is how badly they affect the desired emotional connection with their brand.  These luxury categories are certainly about aspiration and promoting the joy of giving (which ironically is a highly noble and Christian value).  Yet for the vast majority of people who are struggling through financial difficulties, these ads serve as a harsh reminder that we don't have enough money, that our careers haven't been successful enough, that we don't measure up to other people.  We want to do more, but we just...can't.  So the inadvertent outcome of these "brand building" campaigns is to make us feel worse about ourselves, and then associate those negative feelings with the advertised brand.  As my brilliant colleague Steve Gang (founder of Resonance Insights) notes, "rather than creating an engagement strategy, marketers who aren't in touch with what their audience really wants and needs are potentially creating an estrangement strategy."

The appropriate level of ad testing would likely uncover this double-edged sword, but I suspect that most agencies would eschew the need for testing because they are oblivious to the negative consequences.

If you have insights to add to this conversation, please join in.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Creativity Gap?

The dust is just now settling on the infamous re-branding effort that turned out to be a false start and a stubbed toe for Gap Inc. Much of the buzz in marketing circles is centered on how loyal brand believers came to the rescue of the brand, to save it from a fall into the breach (or the gap) of brand irrelevance. The agency was fingered as an accomplice to the crime, for leading the client to a decision point that was a proper from a market research perspective yet woefully ignorant from a customer relationship standpoint. In our opinion, Gap Inc. had lost its way long before the agency work was commissioned.

The key deficiency for Gap was not their inability to create an effective brand logo -- it is their inability to find their strategic compass. Gap is wandering in the dark, trying to find the new path to glory, tragically ignoring the signs that the original path was indeed the right path.

Looking at Gap's financials over the past five years, their revenues have been steadily declining, from $16 billion in 2006 to just over $14 billion in 2010. Two of its erstwhile competitors (Aeropostale, American Eagle) have seen sturdy growth
in the same timeframe, though neither is at the $3 billion mark. One of the common symptoms of a major brand that is wandering aimlessly is that it seeks to copy the strategy of competitors who are stealing their market share, even if the competitor is one-quarter of their size. It's like Goliath looking down at David, thinking that maybe he should buy a slingshot. What Gap really needs to remember is that they are Goliath (so to speak, in their respective category) and that the brand equity created by their loyal Gen X customer base can be extended to reach the new Millenials...without sacrificing their loyalists.

Continuity in brand strategy over multiple generations is a challenge, because turnover in Marketing and Brand leadership (coupled with frequent knee-jerk directives from senior management that does not understand or appreciate the importance of brand strategy) results in a loss of institutional memory. New CMOs and Marketing VPs are prone to want to create new brand strategies rather than evolve their existing brand strategies. Why? First, gives the impression of progress. Second, it is an easier path; much like the person with serious health problems who would rather find a new doctor than commit to a new regimen of diet, exercise and moderation. And third, the CMO is focused on brand growth...although the brand is his/her personal brand, which would be famously bolstered by getting credit for leading a bold, radical move.
We're sure that the VP Marketing who thought that New Coke was the "real thing" was guilty of this version of brand malpractice.

Our advice to Gap: take stock in your enormous brand equity, control your "brand envy" of Aero and AE, and get to work on re-presenting yourself as the hip, classic, authentic icon that you are. If you build it, the Millenials will come. Remember that Apple lost their way for a short while too.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Getting brand management to stick in Higher Ed

As I meet with administrators at colleges and universities around New England, there are two things I consistently find. The first is that the topic of school branding is alive, and is deemed to be of great importance by the Board of Trustees, the President, the Deans, and the heads of Advancement, Admissions, and Communications. The second is that there is no consensus on what a school's brand is, let alone how to build it into a competitive differentiator.

This is not just the plight of smaller schools that struggle in many ways to compete against their larger brethren. Brand confusion is a virtual epidemic at top 100 schools, and in fact the problem worsens at the larger universities with a portfolio of colleges, where the colleges are actively seeking their own brand identity in a manner similar to a breakaway Soviet republic. Regardless of the size of the institution, there is a general lack of experienced resources that can provide the required leadership and expertise to properly re-position the school's brand. While there is a (slowly) growing trend for larger schools to establish CMO and VP Marketing level positions, this does not assure a school that it is establishing a brand management competency.

In a commercial business, this problem has a simple solution: hire a brand manager. For Higher Ed, the solution is not as simple, mainly because the problem isn't very simple. As a public service, here are five changes Higher Ed institutions need to enact in order to make brand management a stronger and more permanent competency:
  1. Understand your real business. Since the lion's share of on-campus activity is focused on curriculum and learning, one can easily be led to the incorrect (albeit ironic) conclusion that your business is about delivering academic programs. Once schools begin to dive into the branding question, they find that their brand is really built on their reputation for being the best at making their students and alumni feel special. This externally-focused goal is about creating multi-faceted relationships, and is the essence of what makes students and alumni feel bonded to their school. It is also the area where effective branding can produce the greatest benefit. I will expand upon the different relationship types (transactional and emotional) in a future blog. For now, let me say that this insight too often goes unnoticed, amid the mushroom cloud of activities surrounding operating budget, curriculum, tenure, admissions, development, athletics, et al. The forest is really hard to see through all the trees.

  2. Reduce tribalism. Guen's Law silos will appear in any institution, whether Higher Ed or corporate, that is in operation for more than 10 years (yes, stay tuned to this space for more startling insights). The larger the organization, the greater the level of tribalism, and ultimately the greater number of conflicting answers to the question "Who are we?". In Higher Ed, the on-campus rivalries between faculty versus administration, athletics versus academia, big department versus little department, all detract from a strong, unified brand. In most cases these rivalries are founded on the battle for resources (money and people), and it's too easy to lose sight of who the real competition is... the other school that's competing for your prospective students. Developing a master brand positioning requires all stakeholders to arrive at a level of consensus on the critical meaning of the brand. This is a daunting challenge in an environment where there is little common ground between the tribes.

    To illustrate this brand management challenge, let's imagine that you are the brand manager for the U.S. Congress, and are trying to position it to the American public as a progressive and effective governing body. You do your market research and find that people can identify two main features of your brand: Republican and Democrat. The top-of-mind attributes of the U.S. Congress are words like partisan, political, focused on re-election, protect home turf, dogmatic, bureaucratic, party line, ineffective. Do you think managing this brand would be an easy gig? And by the way, do you think any of these attributes exist in Higher Ed? Whether this is a major or minor issue at your school, a strong brand can be the unifying force that can rally all the tribes to a common purpose.

  3. Legalize the M word. Peter Drucker, the renowned strategist advised, "A business has only two basic functions, marketing and innovation. Marketing and innovation produce results. All the rest are costs." Since Higher Ed institutions generally perceive marketing as a either a necessary evil (at best) or pure evil (at worst), this statement is a cause for concern. Marketing remains The Word That Must Not Be Named across many campuses, from Top Tier schools on down. The primary censors seem to be faculty elites who feel that marketing is only one step above (or below) prostitution. They say that "our school is over 100 years old, everyone knows who we are, and our reputation speaks for itself". See Change #1, above.

    At the November 2009 AMA Symposium on Higher Ed Marketing, the two most often-heard laments from attendees were that (1) Marketing has no voice when it comes to the school's long-term strategy, and (2) expectations to support critical functions (i.e., admissions and development) have never been higher, yet Marketing staff and budget have been reduced due to current fiscal tightness. If Drucker is right, then it is a questionable the decision to have Marketing play a purely tactical role. I am seeing central Marketing departments report to a variety of functions, including admissions, advancement, finance & administration, the Dean's Office, and communications. Moreover, universities that have de-centralized governance at the college level have Marketing personnel dedicated to each program; and since they are segregated they are presenting a different brand voice, identity and message to their discrete audiences. One pass through a large university web site will show you how disjointed and confusing a school's brand presentation can be. If an unbearable level of dissonance exists, there is no go-to person with either the clout or the expertise to negotiate an integrated result.

    It may be that "branding" is a convenient code word to be able to talk about marketing without using the M word. While this may provide a glimmer of hope for real brand management to take root, I am convinced that branding goals will never be achieved until Marketing is let out of the closet.

  4. Leave branding to the experts. Whoever coined the phrase "too smart for your own good" may not have been thinking about Higher Ed, but the shoe certainly fits. Please don't misunderstand this as a knock on educators and administrators; one of the biggest reasons I choose to consult in Higher Ed is because I find everyone I meet intellectually stimulating and passionate. And I really do mean everyone; I always leave a discussion with a Higher Ed contact feeling like I have learned something new and interesting.

    If there is a bane of professional marketers, it's that everyone has an opinion. Since every American is the recipient of thousands of marketing impressions every day, it's fair to say that all opinions are valid opinions. And Higher Ed faculty and administrators can express particularly impressive and thoughtful opinions! The issue is that the science of marketing is easily camouflaged by the physical outputs of marketing. For too many administrators and faculty the scope of branding strategy is limited to logos, ad campaigns and tag lines; and too few understand the importance of a solid brand positioning, brand equity measurement and internal branding. Again, it's not for lack of intellectual capacity. As the Dean of a Tier 1 business school program admitted, "The trouble with (our administrators) is that we are very smart, but not savvy."

  5. Lead from the top. To me, this is the biggest driver in successful Higher Ed brand management. Many senior administrators enter the branding discussion with the belief that branding is simply marketing with a sharper focus - an unfortunate misperception. While marketing execution is an important component of branding, it goes well beyond the new logo and ad campaign. The proper scope of a Higher Ed branding initiative can impact strategy development, curriculum and programs, competency development, and organizational behavior; therefore, it is as much about change management as it is about brand management. This is why leadership matters: an effective strategic change requires a champion who can articulate a compelling vision of future success, and then create the right environment for other leaders to step up and fulfill the vision. Given the expected multitude of tribal interests (see Change #2), the person who is best positioned for this champion role is the school's President or Chancellor; this is because he/she has the clout and influencing skills to attain the required levels of consensus, collaboration and sacrifice necessary to reach a proper decision.

    At last fall's AMA Higher Ed Conference, Ted Long, the President of Elizabethtown (PA) College, presented a case study about his school's brand re-positioning initiative. A highly visible and engaged leader, President Long found himself at the heart of every difficult disagreement with entrenched faculty factions, non-supportive Board members, and change-averse alumni. He found himself on a steep learning curve about brand strategy (ably assisted by a consulting firm), and finally reached the point where he proudly declared himself to be "College President and Brand Manager". He added, "I was the number one supporter of the improvements we had to make, and the number one cheerleader for the new brand." So I suppose the model for bringing effective branding to Higher Ed is to hire Ted (insert rim shot here). The Maine College of Art is currently in the midst of a Presidential search. Among the top selection criteria is a person who has a solid understanding of branding strategy and how to execute it.

The other reason why leadership is the most important factor is that Presidents, Chancellors, Deans, and Department Heads are the people who can make the changes #1 through #4 happen. These are the leaders who will decide whether branding will be a strategic differentiator or just a set of temporary tactics. I am not advocating for colleges and universities to start raiding Procter & Gamble for brand management talent (at least not today!), because there are numerous brand consulting firms who can provide excellent advice on how to build your brand governance. But whether it's your Marketing Director, Communications Director, Dean of Faculty, Advancement Officer, or your President, ultimately a bona fide brand champion must be found from within your school for brand management to stick.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Sad State of Brand Affairs

Last week there was a USA Today article on the emergence of state-sponsored ad campaigns targeted at corporations, enticing them to move their headquarters for the financial and tax advantages. States such as Nevada, New Hampshire and Indiana were cited for the aggressive promotion of their economic and lifestyle features, and their unapologetic bashing of their neighbor state’s shortcomings. From this, a curious question began to circulate around observers as to whether this strategy could be called “state branding” or “place branding”.

It is a stretch to call these campaigns a deliberate act of branding, even though there are elements of brand meaning associated with any discreet geography. What is interesting is the intentional friction the state-sponsored campaigns produce by rubbing together two highly-charged emotional issues: (1) economic advancement and (2) geographic tribalism. Each state that promotes this strategy is betting that its corporate audience will care so much about attaining #1 that they will abandon their ties to #2.

The flaw in the strategy is that #1 is a temporary opportunity...once the market recovers people will quickly want to return to status quo and their long-standing values. As eager as a company may be to improve their economic bottom line, they must care more about their organizational considerations, and specifically on the impact corporate relocation would have on the lives of their employees. Take New Hampshire as an example: it's fine for the state’s economic development team to promote its tax incentives, but how does it hide the fact that NH ranks 50th out of 50 states in per student capita investment in public schools, and have student test scores whose national ranking reflects that investment strategy? Would any company be excited about moving the families of their top management team from Massachusetts, a state that has always been on the high-end of the educational performance spectrum? Whatever economic argument can be pitched is quickly overwhelmed by the social and cultural forces that are hard to quantify in monetary terms but easy for a CEO to appreciate and accept as decisive reasons to stay put.

We will probably see more of these state promotional campaigns, for nothing says opportunity like collective misery. I would predict a low, low return on investment for the ad money spent, however. What would make a difference is if the governor of any state (the erstwhile CEO) would employ a bona fide branding strategy, i.e. to identify a compelling and differentiated benefit for any person or company choosing to reside in that state, and then aligning all its resources, programs and policies to reinforce its brand promise. It will look at its state's brand in a holistic manner, integrating the economic, social, cultural and environmental realms with an eye towards long-term sustainability. Instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul, there will be such growth and wealth created by the massive population influx into the state that Peter and Paul will both get to retire comfortably.

Sadly, Professor Kotler is correct in that through their very narrow lens, state governments are only able to see the opportunity as a zero-sum game. Innovative and visionary leadership, and immense courage and stamina to take on the infinite number of interest groups, is a critical requirement for any state leader to achieve this winning strategy.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What companies should learn from Mark Sanford

Reflecting on the political fallout of Mark Sanford's southern "swing", one could see this as another link in the epidemic chain of sex scandals that has really never been broken since the Clinton-Lewinsky link-up in 1998. I choose the word epidemic because it feels more like a contagious disease than just a misguided decision of an ego-centric power player. Including Sanford, 23 politicians have now succumbed to this epidemic since President Clinton, who of course was not the first-known case but is certainly now the best-known.

In his blog for, Scott Eblin accurately diagnosed the root cause of this type of misbehavior as a psychological fear of "not being enough". He attributes his conclusion to Eckhart Tolle, who wrote in his book "The New Earth" :

"Whatever behavior the ego manifests, the hidden motivating force is always the
same: the need to stand out, be special, be in control; the need for power, for
attention, for more... The ego always wants something from other people or
situations. There is always a hidden agenda, always a sense of 'not enough yet,'
of insufficiency and lack that needs to be filled. It uses people and situations
to get what it wants, and even when it succeeds, it is never satisfied for

So what's the connection with corporations? Read Tolle's description of human behavior again, but now substitute a CEO or company president as the subject. Most of you can probably think of a dozen business leaders for whom this is an accurate profile.

The object lesson here is about leadership and culture. As fashionable as it may be for companies to de-centralized and democratize their organizations, it's a universal truism that all companies expect their top leader to model behavior and define the boundaries of the culture. When the CEO endorses a business growth strategy motivated by a "not enough yet" mentality, in the extreme you can get a criminal result such as Enron, Tyco or Adelphia; but more likely you will get middle managers and front-line managers to adopt the same self-interested behavior, justified by the rationale of "that's how you get ahead in this company". This is a rhetorical question, but if President Clinton had not blunted the immoral edge on adultery in 1998, do we think that 23 senators, congressmen and governors would have made their tragic decisions so blithely?

The alternative to "not enough yet" is "we have enough, so let's share what we have". This is the choice of companies who truly practice Corporate Social Responsibility, and who are able to achieve the proper balance between economic, social and environmental concerns. It requires companies to moderate self-interest (always in the name of shareholder interest...the dangerous trap) with an equal measure of selflessness. Where will this type of culture shift come from? It's never going to be the head of HR, or the CFO, or even the CMO who will stimulate this change, although those are vital supporting roles to legitimize and reward new employee behaviors. This has to come from the top of the organization, where conflicts between short-term financial performance and long-term community interest have to be mediated; where the generous spirit of volunteerism has to be modeled; where discussions with the Board of Directors to insist on their support of a broader versus narrower agenda has to be held.

Notice that this is the first time I've mentioned "brand" in this blog. While everything matters in the arena of brand building, in my view strong and principled corporate leadership matters most of all.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Welcome to the Branding Matters Blog!

Of the world's most loved brands, many have been in the market for generations while some have just recently come onto the scene. Regardless of their history, the people responsible for managing these brands have to be opportunistic, nimble and decisive. No one has the luxury of endless deliberation and debate these days, lest they allow the window of opportunity to slam shut.

For this reason, we offer our best current thinking on the Branding Matters blog, so that our visitors can keep up with conversations on the hottest topics in the branding world.

We're especially excited to hear from visitors from the Higher Education arena, as we know your world is changing faster than a NASCAR pit crew. Many schools we've talked with have used the same go-to-market model for over 100 years! How many industries have been able to resist market evolution for even 20 years? This is why adoption of a brand strategy for a college or university is so vital, as it points the way to an externally-focused view of the world that is necessary to be competitive and relevant.

Similarly, we offer our help to those companies who are committed to achieving broader corporate goals that include new activities re: sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility. If ever there was an area where companies should proudly copy the practices of others, CSR is the one. The fundamental tradeoffs between short-term financial goals and longer-term sustainability goals, and the dilemma of how to establish the right processes and resources to be effective is shared by virtually every company in business today. Our quick advice here: before you do anything proactive in the CSR arena, benchmark against other similar companies first. The buddy system works.

To paraphrase Scott Bedbury, when it comes to managing a brand, everything matters. So you can expect that we'll be covering an amazingly broad expanse of ground in this space.