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The Army's misguided "influencer" campaign

Today's Wall Street Journal (November 29, 2007) has an article about how the Army is now promising new recruits up to $40,000 in seed money toward the purchase of a home or the starting of a business.

The goal, says the article, is not so much to reach recruits as their parents. It quotes the program's "architect," Lt. Col. Jeff Sterling: "If you want to get a soldier, you have to go through mom, and moms want to know what kind of future their children will have when they leave the Army. This is meant to answer that question in a tangible, concrete way."

As the Journal notes, the new program "is the latest sign of the military's growing use of marketing and other recruitment strategies from American corporations." In particular, the idea of targeting "influencers" rather than the audience themselves is a forward-thinking approach.

The problem, I think, with the Army's new campaign is that it misreads what influences the influencers. Parents are not wary of the Army because they are afraid their children will have no future when they get out. They are wary of the Army because they are afraid their children will die in battle in Iraq, or be seriously wounded.

The way to address this is not to up the financial ante, but to speak directly to the emotion--the fear that parents have. The Army needs to initiate some kind of campaign that talks about the likelihood that recruits will be hurt or killed in battle. If the likelihood is low, then they can say that. If it is high, then they need to say, this is the situation, but it's the price we pay for freedom--appealing to parents' patriotism and sense of duty and loyalty to the nation.

Money can't fix everything...and there is no way to buy patriotism. Either you believe in the Army's mission, or you don't. The rest is just Madison Avenue talk.

Should you really "lose control" of your brand to brand effectively?

Elsewhere, I have argued that brands are in effect co-created between producers and consumers. Now Brandweek (November 26, 2007) features an article called "Lose Control: It's Good for Your Brand," in which the author argues that brands are not at all created by producers but entirely owned by consumers.

"In my world...campaigns....exist at eye level with the consumer, seeing in real time how he interacts with products, services and the core brand itself....the days when you were able to exercise 360° control over your brand communications have ended....when the brand lets go a little, consumers start to open up a lot."

The author argues that the tools of the "average citizen"--"Digital cameras, cell phones, blogs, social networks, Web videos, urban interventions, word-of-mouth and more"--are becoming ever more important in communicating about brands.

The idea is to stop overtly marketing to your target audiences, and "allow consumers to become active participants in its evolution."

There are five principles to follow in this regard, says the article:
  1. Focus on the experience your customer wants to have with the brand, not the experience you want the customer to have.
  2. Find out what the "cultural phenomena are that get people excited," and whether your brand fits in with one that you can "customize and own."
  3. Figure out what the "ideal media" for your brand is...if it doesn't exist, "create it."
  4. Make sure that your campaign to promote the brand is "exciting."
  5. Make use of "the new 'clipping' nature of the social Web....furnish icons, visual experiences, sound bites and entertainment in a way that translates easily to sharing—photo, video, blog and mobile."
In essence, the article argues that you should set up the brand experience intelligently, then trust consumers to run with it. "Furnish the consuming public with brand experiences that are interesting to them—ones that permit them to get involved with the brand instead of just watching a pitch; ones that invite and trust them to deliver the branding message to others."

At first glance, all this sounds very shrewd and strategic to me. But then a question follows immediately--whether you really can predict what consumers will do with the brand once you hand them total control. The truth is that no, you can't. And then you really haven't created a brand at all...you've just plopped a product or service out there and let the market take over, for good or for bad.

The article alludes to this issue when it says that brand marketers should provide the brand experience that will be exciting to the public in the first place. But there again, I say, it is the job of the brand to set forth the vision--to create the compelling idea--not to follow trends. Following trends is marketing, not branding.

I say it is the brand marketers' job to instill a message, a core vision for the brand and then disseminate that experience to the public at large. This means holding on more tightly to the reins of the brand. Let the customer co-create it with you, but always maintain some measure of control. And lead the way, don't follow. True brands have an experiential essence that cannot be market researched, duplicated, or created by the customer--they retain that elusive yet very real promise that only a true brand master can instill.

Small company rebranding - just a logo?

In an article titled "Extreme Makeover," the Wall Street Journal (November 26 2007) talks about the trend toward small companies pursuing rebranding. Increased competition and lower costs are the drivers of this trend.

The problem is that the Journal talks about rebranding exclusively in design terms. (Or the problem is, small companies think about branding exclusively in design terms.) For example, it cites the offerings of Powerful Impact in Great Neck, N.Y.--which are provided in tiers. The lowest tier is logo, business card, stationery; the highest tier includes a Web site and product packaging. Nowhere does it talk about brand assessment, strategy or internal branding, all key critical elements of any rebranding.

The danger of this kind of approach to branding--of looking at it purely as a design exercise--is that it minimizes the strategic and people elements of branding. Without thinking through what the positioning should be, who the audience is, what the distribution channels are, what future opportunities exist, and how people deliver on the brand, the whole thing is wasted.

A more interesting article would be on whether small firms ever choose to do a comprehensive rebranding or whether they tend to stick with redesign as a substitute for something more strategic. Even more interesting would be an article on the state of branding today--how many companies understand what branding really is and pursue that, vs. how many are still stuck in the logo mindset.

Strong brand, weak market: Rolodex

The Wall Street Journal has an article about executives clinging to their old fashioned Rolodexes. (Rolodex is the top brand in rotary card files and everybody refers to them by that name, demonstrating the brand's strength.) It's a way of showing social status apparently.

Despite the loyalty of some users, sales of rotary card files appear to be trending down. The question is, can Rolodex continue to be a strong brand even when demand for the product is declining?

I think so.

The issue is what brand characteristics make Rolodex stand out and how Sanford (the company that owns Rolodex) can leverage those.

I would suggest that those charcteristics are tangibility and visibility.

Sanford could go back to manufacturing the monster size Rolodexes in strong materials like titanium steel. It could make accessories for the Rolodex. And it could even make a custom business card business to go along with the Rolodexes.

Just because technology has advanced, doesn't mean there aren't still customers for paper and pen.