This morning I was astonished to see that Coca-Cola Classic had put the calorie count of the beverage on the bottle, very prominently. One 20 ounce serving is a full 240 calories. It’s sugar water, not health food, and by giving you the calorie count they are telling you that they know that. It’s a message that, together with the ingredient label, says, “I’m not going to try to fool you - I am an unhealthy indulgence. Buy me if you want.”
In doing this, Coca-Cola continues to show a mastery of branding that is nothing short of amazing. They are accused of peddling junk food, and there they go admitting it. Emblazoning themselves with the evidence.
I can’t think of any other brand even remotely as smart as this one. They understand their flagship brand so well that they’re not threatened by health food activists, concerned parents, or sugar-busters in the least. Their target audience is going to buy the soda regardless of the calorie count. So there isn’t any need to deceive.
Coca-Cola sells a lot of products. The brown fizzy sugar-water for which they are famous is only one of them. I’d like to see them sell organic food, which they may never do. But the bottom line is, they are on the cusp of a movement that will become standard for every brand in America and the world. And that movement will be about transparency – in terms of ingredients and operations – to the greatest extent possible. As long as they are honest about what they do, in effect giving people a choice of buying or not buying, I think they are ethical.
This is the opposite of what many people think about companies like them. Companies that are accused of promoting obesity, nutritional deficiency, labor exploitation, the objectification of people, a culture of superficiality, environmental toxins, you name it. People say that these companies are inherently “bad.”
I completely disagree.
Brands give us what we want. They give us what we pay for. Vote with your pocketbook and you will get something else. If we are getting all of the above, then we are the ones at fault.
Taking this a bit further, I disagree with the premise that emotional branding (or marketing an image in order to obtain a premium price) is inherently bad, either.
People don’t just spend money in order to survive. They also spend money to support the images they have in their heads. They spend money to create an identity. They reward themselves by buying things. And they distinguish themselves from other people through spending.
All of these activities, and more, are accomplished by buying brand names.
The fact of the matter is, people need brands. The human mind requires an outlet. Fantasy, imagination, and choices – even those that are deemed culturally unacceptable – are important to one’s health and even one’s spiritual development.
Some people are concerned about the fact that brands exploit your fantasies to make a buck. Well, that is true. But as long as you, the customer, willingly go along with that scheme, I don’t see the harm.
Coca-Cola freely admits that fantasy and memory association is the basis of its brand. That is probably how they have the confidence to admit that they’re selling sugar water in a fancy bottle and associating it with so many American cultural icons that to dislike it is almost un-patriotic. Think about it: Coca-Cola is woven through religion (Santa Claus), art (Norman Rockwell), sports (football-Mean Joe Green), and more.
Oddly, I don’t even like Coca-Cola, or any kind of soda, usually (except diet cherry, of either Pepsi or Coke, which I admit is pretty good, though it gives me sugar cravings). When I haven’t had it for awhile, it actually looks disgusting. Yesterday I had to dispose of some, actually, and as I poured it out I saw the brown liquid filling the sink bowl and grimaced. I wondered how anyone could put that garbage down their esophagus.
But a world without the choice to drink that junk would be a world much worse off indeed. Nobody wants the food police to dictate what they can and can’t eat.
Branding is just a tool, not an instrument of harm in and of itself. If you, as a brand owner, sell a good product at a fair price, treat your employees well, pay your taxes and give charity to the community in some way, that is about as spiritual as a functioning economic system can get.
I go to see a movie about Aron Ralston, a hiker who has an accident so bad that he nearly doesn't survive.
The movie portrays his accident vividly, gruesomely, and in every physical detail.
Yet what do I notice equally as much as his plight?
That he is starving with thirst (see bluish, cracked lips in the photo) - and thinking about a Gatorade, orange flavor.
Distracted from the plot, I think to myself, how much did Gatorade pay to get their product placed into this movie so obviously? (In the film, hiker Aron Ralston dreams about a bottle of Gatorade, placed on its side, the orange liquid sloshing up and down. Inviting him to drink.)
Gatorade is made by Pepsi. But Pepsi doesn't dominate the movie. Coca-Cola is there too. So is Scooby-Doo.
In fact there are so many product placements, but they're so well-done, that I can't tell whether the hiker is really obsessed with brands, and the movie documents this, or whether the movie was somehow compromised to enable the placements.
I couldn't even remember all the placements in the movie so I had to look them up:
"Gatorade makes a prominent appearance, and when his water runs low, Aron fantasizes about cold drinks -- and viewers see actual TV ads for Sunkist, Coke, and Perrier. Mountain Dew and Scooby-Doo are also mentioned."
Ralston, in fact, is very into brands. He actually speaks to the audience, to tell us not to buy the (I'm paraphrasing) "generic brand of Swiss Army Knife that comes with the cheap flashlight."
Being a brand-conscious person, it is perhaps not surprising that Ralston is very conscious of himself at all times. He doesn't just hike...but rather he videotapes himself hiking. And photographs himself. Much of the movie is about this need to document every moment of his life.
It's interesting how, 5 or 10 years ago, his behavior would have seemed odd or strange to the average person. Today, it's 100% normal.
Brands have changed us in a significant way. We have gone from living life directly, to experiencing life in terms of how it will look later on, both to ourselves and to others.
We have learned the lesson that we are all brands...but has the lesson gone too far?
As a hiker who is so aware of the physical world, who seems to literally see and smell and taste things more vividly than everybody else, Ralston seems like the exact opposite of someone who would be carried away by image. And yet he is.
127 Hours is a great movie by the way, I highly recommend it. Despite all this talk about branding stuff, I was deeply moved.
Three reasons why I initially loved the Swiffer brand:
- A dedicated Gen Xer who loves ‘80s pop culture and music, I love The Human League song “Don’t You Want Me” – featured in its TV commercial
- A dedicated mom who counts herself a feminist too, I liked the “women are in power” theme of the commercial
- It seemed like Swiffer was promising to actually do a better job than anything that came before it, and the ad was so slick I thought “there must be some truth to this”. The website does say: “A great clean on virtually any floor in up to half the time.”
Of course, I didn’t think about any of this in detail. I just liked it. Countless times I passed the Swiffer display in the grocery store and asked myself, “It looks good. Should I buy this?”
The only thing stopping me was the price. It seemed a bit expensive, and wasteful to buy a Swiffer.
Still, clearly the brand is incredibly popular.
- According to BusinessWeek (January 2010), it’s one of “20 Products that Rocked the Stock Market.”
- The first year Swiffer was on the market, the share price of parent company Procter & Gamble rose 130%
- According to ShopatHome.com, in the 3rd quarter of 2010, Swiffer was 1 of the top 5 grocery brands, along with Tide, Clorox, Huggies and Febreze
I asked my friend Michelle what she used to clean her home. She said that her mother had long ago advised her to use a steam mop, the Shark, and she loved it.
I didn’t know anyone who used the Swiffer.
Meanwhile, I kept on using what I had always used. Plain ammonia. Plain vinegar. Paper towels. Wipe.
I kept wanting to buy the Swiffer, but it was just so damn expensive. A quick price comparison from Amazon.com:
- 1 gallon of “Mizkan Americas Inc 072412004037 Pantry Mate White Distilled Vinegar” (plain white vinegar): ~ $4
- 1 gallon of Swiffer “multipurpose cleaning solution”: ~ $13 (requires $20 investment in Swiffer WetJet Starter Kit, which includes cleaning solution)
Both the products are safe.
I saw another commercial, for Pine-Sol. This one showed an African-American woman bossing a Caucasian man around. She literally says, "That's The Power of Pine-Sol." The power to end sexism? Wow! It's amazing what a cleaner can do!
When you really think about it, Swiffer and Pine-Sol are selling the message, not the function. Any corrosive irritant can clean. But not every corrosive irritant can let a woman doing housework feel like a queen. These brands are subconsciously sending women who are engaged in housework message specifically designed to fit today’s cultural codes. Messages like:
- “You’re still responsible for the drudge-work of housecleaning, but when you do it smartly by buying our brand, you can flip that around and call yourself empowered.”
- “You may still be subject to sexism, but at least when you’re housecleaning, you can be the one in charge.”
These messages are specifically sub-coded to hit women based on sensitivities and stereotypes that are connected with race:
- All the Swiffer ads I've seen show Caucasian women. The women seem to be obsessed, Martha-Stewart-like, about keeping their perfect, upper-class suburban homes clean. The issue here seems to be guilt over wanting to do something else besides cleaning. The guilt has turned into a fear of not cleaning the home well enough. Using Swiffer allows you to do a great job and do it fast, so you can get out of there and go back to work.
- The commercials aimed at African-American women imply that by using Pine-Sol, they reverse the usual power equation, in which they do not have the upper hand at all, and become a kind of queen. (The Pine-Sol ad literally shows this.) The issue seems to be that for African-American women, cleaning the home is a degrading experience. The implication is that the home she is cleaning is not her own. The message is that Pine-Sol puts the woman, who may or may not own the home, into a position of ultimate power, where she is actually ordering a male figure around (either Caucasian or African-American, depending on the ad.)
I am tempted to say that these ads are an improvement over "Mr. Clean," which portrayed the helpless housewife "rescued" by a strong and capable housecleaner who took care of the dirty work for her. Again, here is the exploitation of a female fantasy created by a sexist culture: The woman really doesn't want to be cleaning the home at all. She is hostile toward the concept and toward the gender imbalance that says she has to do the cleaning. So she imagines that a kindly and strong man (one who fits society's image of masculinity) handles it all and sets her life right, freeing her from cleaning so she can attend to other things. Her attitude is to practically weep with gratitude, when inside she feels precisely the opposite - angry at being stuck with this job.
When you don't analyze this stuff, it gets taken for granted. When you say it out loud, it sounds not only stupid, but even kind of crazy that anyone makes up this stuff, or buys into it.
Yet it all has an effect. Look at the runaway success of housecleaning brands such as Swiffer.
The reality is, most women I know don’t have a “secret romance with cleaning.” Cleaning tools don’t “empower” anyone. I know I'm usually too busy to clean. Things get messy again pretty fast, anyway.
When we do clean, doesn't it make sense to divide up the work? Don't people do this already? Why are the ads so heavy on featuring women? Unless men just don't clean at all?
On top of that, why should we pay three times as much for one cleaner as another? The job is always the same.
Real empowerment is not having to do the housework at all and if you have to do it, certainly not paying extra.
This Thanksgiving, I am grateful for the choices that we all have. We can choose to do housework, or not. We can choose to buy into the Swiffer or any other cleaning brand's fantasy, or not. Most importantly, We can choose to decode the messages that brands send us, or simply to enjoy them. That, to me, is true progress over a past when all of the cultural messages concerning housecleaning went unquestioned and taken for granted.
Brands, although they make their money from exploiting our emotions, can also be seen as neutral conveyors of messages and even vehicles for raising our consciousness about the need for social change.
but am writing this post independently.)
Today's Washington Post
covers "National Opt-Out Day," a citizen protest day against the
current scanner/patdown policy that is scheduled for today, the travel
day before Thanksgiving 2010. Basically, they're going to jam the
The weather is supposed to be bad in some parts of the country on this
busy travel day, so the fury on both sides could rise to significant
heights if a lot of people start missing their flights.
Some key facts and statistics as backdrop:
• There are 400+ imaging machines at 70 airports
• Imaging takes less than a minute
• A full body patdown takes twice as long (or more) as imaging
• 50% oppose patdowns (today's USA Today says it's "nearly 6 in 10")
• 32% oppose the scanners (USA Today has it at 42%)
• Roughly 1 million patdowns so far under the new (more intrusive) policy
• ~ 2,000 complaints filed
The collective sentiment of the "experts" interviewed for the article:
The opponents of the policy are uninformed, "fringe." Today's protest
is "going to be a huge bust," said one.
I find myself wondering what planet these experts are on. They don't
seem to get – it hasn't penetrated their brains – that public support
is critical to the effectiveness of government policy. It doesn't
matter if they're right and the public is wrong. If you alienate the
people you are trying to protect, you will not be able to protect
• There is nonstop citizen coverage of this issue on the Web, from
YouTube to the Drudge Report to Twitter
• 600,000+ people have visited the "We Won't Fly" protest website site
in 2 weeks
• There are opt-out events planned for 20 airports today
• College students in Phoenix are going to hand out radiation
registering devices and gloves for TSA officers today
• San Francisco will see a passenger-rights group monitoring the TSA
with ABC's Nightline
• There will be a demonstration in Philadelphia
Mainstream media news has picked up on citizen interest in this issue,
running a seemingly endless series of stories. There have been Senate
hearings on it. Even Saturday Night Live parodied the TSA situation in
a truly funny skit last week.
The bottom line is, there is a schism between what people are thinking
and feeling about this issue, and the attitude of those promoting the
Interestingly, I don't see evidence of a bad attitude in TSA
leadership itself. TSA Administrator John Pistole consistently shows
empathy and sympathy for the traveling public.
• In an interview with CNN, he took responsibility for the horror
story of a traveler whose patdown left him covered in his own urine in
public, even noting that the TSA had reached out to him personally and
that the traveler would be providing training to the officers in the
• Pistole's comments to the Post also focused on the experience of the
traveler. He didn't say how "right" he was, but rather said: "If large
numbers of people do intentionally slow down that process, I don't
think we can avoid people not making their flights on time," he said.
Pistole's communication team also has shown a commitment to being
responsive, reacting to the public on the TSA blog and participating
in discussions at government-centric websites such as GovLoop.com.
Clearly something has gone awry when you care about the public and are
trying to help them, but the public doesn't trust you to do your job.
I think there is still time for TSA to make something positive out of
this whole situation and recapture the public trust. Here are some
• Post, transparently, as much information as possible about all the
concerns that the public is expressing. These fall into two
categories: the effectiveness of the patdown procedure, as well as the
machines, as versus other security methods; and possible incorrect
influence of others on the security decisions.
• Post interviews with experts both in favor of and against the
current policies on the website.
• Host a town hall to engage citizen concerns, then transcribe and
release the results.
• Allow travelers to video or audiotape their inspection
• Engage the officers in sessions to discuss their thoughts, feelings
and concerns and implement their suggestions in the airport
• Produce volumes outreach materials that respond to passenger
concerns and place them visibly in the TSA area of the airport
• Reach out to the most visible of opponents and discuss their
The bottom line is, just because you listen to your opponents, doesn't
mean that you agree with them or will do as they say.
It all goes back to credibility. If your audience sees you as
trustworthy, they will give you permission to do what needs to be
done. But if they see you as abusing your power, they will ultimately
thwart even the best of security policies.
I studied sociology in graduate school. At the time all I knew was
that I couldn't think of a better option. All my life "they" told me
to become a lawyer, and then I wanted to be a fashion designer, and
then a writer and possibly a social worker. None of these made any
sense for me, and I didn't have a career counselor urging me to go out
and get an MBA in marketing like I was probably meant to do. So I got
a fellowship to study sociology, which I knew nothing about, and
wouldn't have even followed through with if not for a former roommate
who – although we weren't best of friends – took mercy on me and let
me know about the offer after I had already moved out.
So I guess you could say that I became a sociologist because I
couldn't figure out what to do with myself. But as soon as I walked
through the doors of The Graduate School (CUNY), I felt like I was
(intellectually) home. Not to name drop, but what the heck: I read
Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Mead, Goffman, Freud, (struggled with)
Lacan. I learned more about feminist theory, although frankly I didn't
like sitting in feminist class as much as I liked being the rebellious
kid in yeshiva reading Gloria Steinem's "Revolution from Within" (and
all variants of radical feminism).
I really liked graduate school. In fact I loved it. I loved that there
were people who spent all day studying really cool things (cool to me,
that is) – how narcissistic personality disorder among CEOs marries up
nicely with our social expectations of what a leader ought to be and
do (Catherine Silver); why most people, like sheep, study the liberal
arts when they will end up taking more or less narrow and technical
jobs (Stanley Aronowitz); how we seem to have little moral rules for
the slightest things we do, even such things as saying hello and how
are you (Lindsey Churchill). Also stuff related to mothering (Barbara
Katz Rothman). Each and every one of these people, I was fortunate to
be around and learn directly from.
I never, ever, in a million years, dreamed I'd end up in marketing. As
much as I struggled with all the 'isms in graduate school -
psychoanalytic sociology, structuralism, functionalism, conflict
theory, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, postmodernism – I
somehow believed that one day I'd be teaching.
That didn't happen, but I have never felt for one day that my
schooling was wasted. It gave me the confidence to go into marketing
later on knowing one critical thing: The way things are is not a
given. You have the power to shape society, for good or bad, through
the power of understanding and (yes) manipulating group behavior.
Hopefully you use it for the good.
I also learned that what other people say is good or bad, or right and
wrong, is not the definition of reality. Follow your beliefs, your
conscience, your heart, or your freely chosen religious framework. But
don't let other people dictate who you are.
Unfortunately, the first realization came way before the second. When
I accidentally stepped into the world of marketing – almost as
accidentally as I became a sociologist – I became enthralled with the
wizardry of this incredible field. It was like finding gold. But at
the same time, I ended up in a profession that is all about
brainwashing people. And I brainwashed myself into thinking about it
uncritically, at least at first. All that mattered was learning the
trade; the social criticism that had always been so important to me
would have to wait.
Now I am reading more and more about the damage that branding, and
brands can do. I am still fascinated by them, but it is also time to
question and undo. Sort of like if you discovered the atom bomb, and
then had to develop a nuclear containment program, or at least a way
to deploy these weapons responsibly.
Not that I'm apologizing (OK, I am), but I was brought up not to
question. My family was untraditional, but also traditional, part of a
quiet, Jewish community in the suburbs. It was the Reagan years – "Mr.
Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" – and I watched shows like Family
Ties, where Alex P. Keaton lectured his hippie parents to stop living
in the counterculture and go along with the preppy materialistic ethic
of the time. It was funny, but then again it wasn't: We really were
supposed to think that way.
Interestingly, I didn't care one bit about logos or their importance
until my peers started to make fun of and exclude me for not having
them. Frankly, I was happier before brands entered my life, when all I
worried about was painting cool murals for Color War in camp, and
playing tetherball till my fingers broke – literally. But when brands
became an issue of honor, I strangely became enthralled with them –
they had the power to save me from uncoolness. And that was when I
became bound, brainwashed, to the redemptive power of the logo, even
though I had never heard of the term "brand."
Of course there were counter-currents. I read like crazy, for example.
And from books I learned that there were other ways of thinking and
doing. Not one any particular thing, but everything. But in my mind, I
still separated the world of books from the world I lived in. In that
world, particularly the world of the religious community, there was
certainty and fact. There was right, wrong; moral and immoral;
fashionable and unfashionable; and so on.
Everything got undermined eventually. I don't know when, I don't know
how. It wasn't any particular event. But it seemed like all my friends
and I went through the same thing. Like we were on our own, while our
parents worked. Seemingly all the time. And the things we learned in
school, didn't jive with reality. It was a faint and imperceptible
schism. But it was broader than me and my friends. It was reflected in
the movies I still consider "mine," where the main character is
disillusioned by hypocrisy, finds solace in friends or an individual
purpose, and moves on. All the John Hughes movies, Less Than Zero, Say
Anything, and other similar films portrayed characters that I
identified with, who were navigating a world where the sand had
suddenly shifted beneath their feet. Suddenly everything that seemed
reliable, wasn't. The adults were sleeping at the wheel. And we were
on our own. Later, every book by Bret Easton Ellis – despite them
being truly misogynistic, horrible, bloody – I gobbled up because I
sensed that he was onto something.
I found out later that I had grown up in Generation X. If it had been
an upbringing where conformity worked really well for me, I might have
bought into it. But quite honestly, doing what everybody else did and
thinking like a robot wasn't my thing and never brought me much
reward. Recently I read a column in The Wall Street Journal by Scott
Adams, the "Dilbert guy," that made the same point: Before he started
Dilbert, he worked for boneheads in a traditional workplace, and
noticed everyone suffering similarly. Everyone seemed to start their
own business on the side because they recognized that conformity,
trying to climb the traditional ladder, is a waste of time.
Anyway, I always knew that I should question everything. Graduate
school gave me the justification and the words: "social construction."
Meaning, everything we take for granted is created by people, more
specifically people in groups who tell other people what to do until
eventually they join the group themselves or leave to start their own.
Brands are a social construction. And the people who make them are
deeply invested in convincing as many people as possible that their
product is automatically right and normal.
I am starting to see the negative implications of this. I don't
understand how I've been blind for so long. Can it really have been
all about popularity? If so, how shallow and sad! Still – maybe it's
true. I read Naomi Klein's No Logo. I am a social critic. I have
always thought for myself. But still, there is something about brands,
and branding, that has held me as if in a spell.
How could I, along with many other people who thought they were savvy,
have been brainwashed by branding? I have some ideas, but the bottom
line it is, it doesn't matter. Though I love my field as much as ever,
I have decided that it's time for me, personally, to sort the wheat
from the chaff, to take some responsibility for the harm of
perpetuating a branded world. Aside from the obvious - exploitive
labor practices and pricing for example – there are others that are
quieter but no less poisonous. For example, in promoting a culture of
automatic decision-making, brands make it easy to do the wrong thing
and easy to demonize thinking people as "crazy" when they're actually
more sane than the people promoting bad brands.
Rather than dismiss branding altogether, It's time to examine and take
apart the things that are good about it from the things that are bad.
I have decided to spend more time talking about using brands for good;
making transparent what brands do that is bad; and thinking in general
about the ethical dimensions of branding. We'll see where this roads
leads to; I hope you find it interesting.
Yesterday I happened to flip through this month's Health magazine (which features an amazing-looking Janet Jackson BTW - between her and Emma Thompson, who thought the pixie haircut could look so good on so many?) and see an interesting "diagram" purporting to help you avoid the traditional Turkey Day pigout.
(Photo source: Health Magazine)
Normally I am one of those people who reads such diagrams intently, trying to understand why this factor or that has led me to overindulge in the party tray full of chips or the brownies piled high on the side.
On this particular day however I had been testing the argument being made by a variety of doctors and medical researchers that MSG and aspartame make you crave food, and therefore, get fat. Names include:
* Kevin Trudeau - "More Natural Cures Revealed"
* Suzanne Somers - "Breakthrough"
* Mike Adams - Web articles under the name "The Health Ranger"
* Dr. Joseph Mercola - Website
* Dr. Russell Blaylock - Web articles and interview in Somers' book.
(Google all these names for more info if you're interested.)
Anyway, these people have quite a bit to say about the unnatural state of our environment and our diets. While it might seem drastic to hear that pretty much every brand you use is a problem, I tested the thesis about MSG and aspartame out of purely selfish reasons.
I am here to tell you the following:
* The minute I ate or drank anything containing aspartame I spent the rest of the day eating sweets or refined carbs.
* The minute I ate anything containing MSG or anything related to it, I experienced elevated hunger the rest of the day.
* Every processed food in my cabinets had MSG, including every soup, sauce, Mac & Cheese mix, pre-prepared rice mix, everything.
Eating out, the prospects aren't much better.
Interestingly, I had a Subway vegi delite with a scoop of tuna for lunch and another for dinner. And didn't put anything with preservatives on the sandwich, didn't have any of the salad dressings either. (Looked up the bread ingredients and couldn't find MSG). Thank goodness, I felt OK.
So maybe this year, if you're worried about a pigout...you might want to choose a simple tuna sandwich.
Brands are neither good or bad but what we make of them. It's up to us to open our eyes and reward them for being "good."
Everybody loves those “Priceless” ads by Mastercard, where they do an admirable job of connecting their brand with everything valuable in life. Who hasn’t seen the tagline:
“There are some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.”
But when it comes to the new communication technology known as the QR Code, they seem to have gone absolutely crazy.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the QR code enables the advertiser to put a lot of communication in a little space – and have the user opt into it. Forgive me for sounding like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde here, but they put a little black and white barcode-looking thing somewhere on an ad, you scan the code (it looks like a UPC code on a package), and the user gets more information, offers, etc. (See BBC example below.)
Shel Holtz wrote a good blog on this in September 2010.
QR codes are really cool and we’re going to be seeing a lot of them in the future.
But what’s stupid, from a brand perspective, is when a brand uses a communication technology like this, which most people aren’t familiar or comfortable with, and places it on an ad as if it were “normal,” without any explanation of how to use it.
In the case of Mastercard on the DC Metro, all they said was “scan the code.”
When I did that, using Barcode Scanner on my Android phone, absolutely nothing happened.
My response? I felt 1) stupid and 2) peeved (that’s the nice word for what I mean here) and 3) decided that Mastercard as a brand was out of touch with me, the customer.
I don’t think most Mastercard users are familiar with QR, because the brand is decidedly mass in its base and appeal, and QR is still very narrow. Yet the placement of the QR on the page was pronounced.
The lesson for brands: Don’t incorporate communication strategies that are out of sync with your customer base. Otherwise you risk alienating them, while achieving no benefit in return.
Saw an ad on the train promoting something called "Harvard Distance Education" through "Harvard University Extension School." It's not the first such ad I've seen or even inquired into, as we see schools like Stanford and MIT getting into the distance learning business, with modules that are either paid or free. Jack Welch has an MBA program. On iTunes you can find a lot of this stuff, either in the form of podcasts or "iTunes University."
In the free format, providing Ivy League syllabi is a great idea. Not only does it promote brand awareness, it shows transparency, shows goodwill to the customer who can't afford the brand, and facilitates an environment where the ideas and names associated with the school have greater influence. And the fact that it's free shows that the school is not exploitive or desperate, but rather knows that there is a time and place to make money and a time to step aside and facilitate learning in its own right.
Yet Harvard's "Extension" program seems not to understand the difference between providing a glimpse of the Ivy League, and hosting a fire sale. By selling the brand in volume and on the cheap, they are betraying their strategy of exclusivity and premium pricing, not to mention associating themselves with "diploma mills" - a position most schools struggle to avoid. Maybe they need money, but by doing this they are jeopardizing their long-term brand equity, which is the basis for their price premium.
For the brand that literally defines the "gold standard" of education – against which all other schools are compared – there really is no substitute for geographically limited, face-to-face interaction between brilliant students and brilliant teachers in an enclosed environment that celebrates brilliance.
Does that mean that the Harvard experience can only take place in Boston? Hell, no. I can envision many opportunities to replicate the experience in a "bubbled" environment through offsite classes, conferences and retreats, and exclusive, high-tech virtual roundtables where the professor and the students are working together virtually but in such a "live" way that it is almost like being there.
But this is not what Harvard is doing with its current approach. Here are the cues from the ad that indicate the school is milking its brand as a cash cow and cheapening its value in the long term:
1. "Competitive tuition" – exclusive brands never compete on the basis of money
2. "Extension school" – brings to mind a trailer next to the beautiful brick building covered in ivy
3. Logo - looks cheap, inferior, and like a bad version of the real thing
I can only conclude that the Harvard push into distance education, in this way, is an outstanding example of a brand screwing up because of blind greed while telling itself that it is "doing the right thing" by "expanding the brand promise" to "make a Harvard education accessible to those who couldn't otherwise have it."
Without addressing the issue of goodwill, from a business perspective people who are interested in the Harvard name are EXCLUSIVE by nature. They actually want to pay MORE for the class, not less, and the money should never even be mentioned.
With this strategy they are lowering themselves to the Jos. A. Bank level, where $500men's suits are sold in the mid $100 range with ridiculous "Buy 1 get 5" or "Buy 5 get 5" or God knows whatever commercials they run all the time that make this actually very nice brand look completely cheap. (If you walk into a store, the suits are not crappy at all, but they really seem that way from the way they are portrayed on TV.)
Back to Harvard: They should never put the word "extension" in the same sentence as their name. Rather, they need an entirely new brand, with a focus on technology and/or accessibility. If they are going to keep the Harvard name, call it "Harvard Without Walls" and show how the virtual experience will be premium-ized to be similar to the live one.
This is something that the Jack Welch MBA actually does very well. I've inquired with them, interacted with them, and reviewed their materials, and they have created a very classy and compelling brand offering. (Not an endorsement.)
Again, back to Harvard: They live and die by that logo. It should never be cheapened or even look cheap.
Bottom line: Harvard's "Extension" school is a case of a great brand shooting itself in the foot. When you are an exclusive luxury brand and you need to extend outward, do so in a way where you can ask more people for the same premium cost per item - never where you're giving the product away just to boost volume.
This may seem simple, obvious and unimportant. But it is 100% true. And exciting or not, it is a truth that is extraordinarily profitable. Because people, being survival-oriented, need to save time and energy for the critical things in life – like hunting for food and preparing for war. In addition, they will tend to avoid risk, because doing risky things can put your life and livelihood in danger. For example:
* When you’re in a place you don’t recognize, you’ll eat at McDonald’s or Subway or Taco Bell rather than a no-name diner because you know basically what to expect, how it will taste, what will be in it, and the quality is guaranteed.
* When your resume is submitted for a job opportunity, if it is stamped with the name of an Ivy League school, the recruiter will be more likely to put yours in the “interview” pile.
* When you have to buy a piece of software for your company, you will go with a name that’s “known” rather than a no-name, because “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”
No wonder, then, that everyone wants to be or own a great brand. You want to be the one that busy people turn to - one less of life's million daily decisions.
But another benefit of branding has to do with your personal ability to make decisions. Not necessarily the right decisions. But simply the ability to make them, when you're not sure what to do or when you're confronted with many choices.
If you think of yourself as a brand, you can then decide how you want to be perceived. If you know how you want to be perceived, you then know how to act. Thinking in brand terms helps you to focus where you may be confused by the different and seemingly equally important choices you have.
Once you know your priorities and what order they’re in, you then have a filter to tell you what to do when confronted with various situations. There is less questioning whether you did the right or the wrong thing, and more calm. Eventually, as you get feedback on your priorities (some of your choices will be right for you, and others wrong), you can shift them around until you get them on track.
This is similar to coming up with your personal mission statement, something we’re often told to do but which can be difficult to actually do, or live up to.
The way I think of it is that your priorities don’t come from what’s in your head. They come from what you’re already doing. Look to that, and simply put that on paper.
As an example, here are mine:
Both personal and organizational branding can give you the focus you need to say "no" in a world where it is easy to get distracted by the myriad opportunities and attention-wasters, that tend to consume our time, fritter away our energy, and distract us from our primary goals.
Remember: At the end of the day, it is not your effort but the results that matter. If you follow your personal brand, you may not have the most money in the world, but at least you will have a measure of control over your life satisfaction, because you will have truly focused on the things that are important to you.
This led me to think about the techniques I use to lower stress in my own life. Hope these are helpful to you, no matter what line of work you happen to be in.
Notice that I haven't numbered them. Numbering is stressful!
Spirituality - thinking about higher things. Striving for serenity. I like the worldview of the Dalai Lama. New Agey thinking in general. (Also Jewish mysticism - the inner meaning of things. Emphasis on making the world right and whole again, ending injustice and suffering, through personal growth and development.)
Taking care of my family. Achieving something concrete.
Doing my job the best I can. Focusing on my efforts, not worrying about outcomes I can't control.
Observing advertising and popular culture.
Observing photography and art.
Diet: No sugar - high protein - nutritional supplements. Avoid chemicals.
Walking in nature.
Bookstores and libraries.
The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post. Also The New York Times and (sometimes) The Wall Street Journal.
Taking the time to listen to others, be empathetic, try to help if I can.
Avoiding the mall, though individual stores are OK.
Starbucks, Panera, illy.
Take an hour a day for yourself. You will be happier and healthier, and everything in your life will benefit as a result.
with each other.
This is an incredibly important question – actually THE most important
question communication experts must deal with today.
If you understand the importance and connection between these two
things, you will be equipped with "risk insurance" for your
organization in the case of a communication disaster. You will be able
• Predict a crisis that will come way before it ever starts
• Perceive the signs of a crisis before it starts to affect the value
of your organization
• Minimize the damage of a crisis in its early stages
• Help the organization recover from a crisis once it's blown up
The fact of the matter is that communication crises, like fires, are
normally completely avoidable. It is only our own sense of
invincibility and denial of reality that causes them to fester.
But let's start at the beginning – let's talk about branding for a minute.
Brands are a fact of life today. Every organization has a brand, every
product is a brand, every service is a brand, and every person is a
Brand is really synonymous with image. It's a kind of shorthand that
people use to interpret their worlds and make decisions.
Brands come about through the actions of the individual or
organization together with the social, economic, political, and other
realities of the larger environment.
For example, if you run a luxury fur coat company today, you are by
definition up against a cultural definition of your brand as
unethical: PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has 2
At the same time, there are still those who drive gas-guzzling
Lamborghinis and routinely spend $12 for a cup of gourmet coffee.
It's up to you to develop an action strategy to effectively manage the
conflicting values represented by these opposing realities.
Now let's go to social media – a social force equally strong as
branding, that is the very opposite of this discipline.
Social media is essentially what happens when people speak up without
restriction. There is no "trying to create an image," only authentic
It is extraordinarily difficult for companies to build a brand in an
environment such as exists today, there self-expression by way of
social media has literally exploded to the point where you cannot shut
people up anymore.
Companies themselves are expected to participate in social media,
leaving them in the odd position of creating and managing an image,
and yet having to be completely authentic at the same time.
Of course, this is impossible. You can't be wearing makeup and going
without makeup all at once. Either you're plastic or you're not,
Well, not necessarily. Which brings me to the solution.
The way to handle branding and social media is to actually be your
true self at all times.
This goes for companies and this goes for people.
In this way, you do develop an image, and the image is the same as
your true self.
More importantly, what people say about you is going to be basically
the same thing as what you say and do, because there is nothing to
In short, branding in 2010 and going forward is about transparency.
The art of it is in doing two things, and here is where we get to
1. You focus your brand on one thing. Not everything.
2. As long as it is legal, of course, your brand can be morally "good"
or "bad," objectionable or unobjectionable – the point is that you
don't have to be Pollyanna to have a brand. You simply are focusing on
one area. (Most consumer products can be objected to on one level or
3. Wherever you have focused your brand, this is where you are
especially and absolutely transparent. You do not promise to be
completely transparent in all respects of your operations (though you
do have to be ethical) – only here.
When you have aligned your brand, you are then in a position to spot,
avert, manage, and even eliminate the communication crises that
threaten all organizations constantly.
Remember: A communication crisis is really a fancy way of describing a
broken promise. It happens when you do something so much in contrast
to your promise, that it completely undermines your credibility among
In the age of social media, what you say about yourself is only the
starting point. What really matters is what people say about you. So:
• Take the time to decide who you are as an organization – it may not
match the fantasy.
• Focus in on one thing that you can do better than anyone else.
• Deliver on that promise. Communicate your delivery.
• And monitor what people are saying about you.
When you see that a gap is developing between the promise and the
reality, do something to bridge it and repair the damage - before the
shaking ground beneath your feet becomes a devastating earthquake.
Unstoppable is a pretty good movie. From a branding perspective, it proves the "law" that successful brands are about delivering consistent value. I didn't even have to know the plot to know that if Denzel Washington was in it, it was going to be worth watching - and not just on DVD, but in a theater. Read: nearly $10 ticket price, per person, when all of you can see the same thing on Redbox for $1. Wow.
Yet RED was even better. Let me tell you why.
The culture of branding today has shifted away from celebrating the individual. The truth is, individuals are only of limited interest, because people today are so distractible, so distracted, so used to multitasking, as well as so demanding that every moment of their time be maximized, that they want to focus their attention on many things at once. The synthesis is more important than the one.
In RED, it's not all about Bruce Willis the hero (as Unstoppable is about Denzel Washington), but it is about celebrating the entourage - amazing, great legendary actors John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and Brian Cox. Even the "weakest link," Mary Louise Parker, added something important to the mix that would not have been possible without her presence.
If your goal is to get 50 million people to pay $10 each for your movie, lean toward casting a great entourage rather than a single star.
5 Trends Driving Branding In The Age of Post-Capitalism (a.k.a. "Why It's Time to Take the Marketing Out of Branding")
Branding in the past was a business strategy that enabled companies to sell products at a fictitious markup - the brand being the imaginary factor that enabled this premium to be charged successfully.
In the future, branding will not be useful in this way, at least partly because of the following factors:
People are now able, thanks in large part to the Internet, to find out the truth behind the brands, in three important ways:
- They know where to get similar products cheaper.
- They know what ingredients are going into the brand - good and bad.
- They know about unethical labor practices.
Mass production techniques are getting better and better all the time.
Today, everybody can partake in brands because technology enables branded-looking products to be created quickly, cheaply, and in high volume.
Not only that, but cheaper imitation brands spring up so quickly that even a functional brand advantage is quickly gone.
Consider for example the "Skechers Shape-Up" sneaker (see below), which retailed for more than $100 when it first appeared on the market.
Now Payless (the Wal-Mart of shoe store chains) is selling the Champion "Pace Fitness Athletic" (see below), which looks very close to the original Skechers version, for less than half that price - about $40.
Consumers today vote with their pocketbooks, and we continue to evolve toward a greater sense of spirituality, and connectedness with an underlying life force that powers all things. Both religious devotees and the spiritually inclined are included this category.
- The book Faith-Based Marketing estimates that "America's 140 million weekly church-goers spend $5.1 trillion annually and support the businesses that understand and respect them with near-religious devotion."
- Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) is a demographic segment "focused on health and fitness, the environment, personal development, sustainable living, and social justice." One site quotes LOHASjournal.com in estimating the potential U.S. market for spiritual products & services is $10.63 billion.
4. "Status Inflation"
When everyone has access to a version of a premium brand, the meaning of the premium brand is cheapened. There are three reasons why this inflation is happening:
- Imitation brands (as mentioned above)
- Secondhand sales, online and off
- Outright counterfeiting - obviously a crime, but also rampant and often conducted right out in the open (see New York Mayor Bloomberg holding a "closed" sign in a store full of counterfeit bags).
5. DisillusionmentTo put it simply, people are not fooled by marketing anymore. Not only do they see through the illusion, they are angry at such phenomena as photoshopped models and the distorted messages they send.
A good example was the scandal over the Ralph Lauren model fired for being too fat, who then appeared in a photo retouched to make her look abnormally skinny.
All of this does not mean that branding is "dead."
Branding remains an incredibly powerful tool, in at least 5 ways, despite the above trends:
- Businesses can use it to engage employees with the organization so that they are more productive
- Governments can use it to help citizens find the information they are looking for and help them ensure that the information they are getting is trustworthy
- Businesses as well as nonprofits, charities, and other socially responsible organizations can use it to promote ethical behavior and engagement with good causes
- Individuals can use their consciousness of it to help them avoid potentially damaging behavior (your actions create a lasting brand)
- Individuals can also use it more broadly to clarify their goals in life so that they do not waste time and energy on irrelevant, unhelpful, unprofitable, pursuits.
The key thing to remember is that in the past, branding was about creating fictitious value. Although your product may actually have a functional advantage over your competitor's, the underlying strategy was to take every possible advantage - both real and the kind you could psychologically manufacture - and pump that up.
So in the past, success meant making the product look as attractive as possible to one's audience group and then convincing them to purchase only your product, paying dearly for it.
No wonder so many people hate marketers.
Branding, though, is still alive and well. This is because people have learned (or should be learning) that the right way to use branding is to focus your personal or organizational skills to create actual value for the customer.
Nothing in life is inherently good or bad, and branding is no different. The utility of branding and its purposes can change. But the fundamental skills associated with it remain constant and are incredibly valuable to those who understand them.
Cutrone, who owns the fashion PR firm The People's Revolution, took one of the guests for a trial run at her company and was shocked to learn that she could not even do the simplest self-sufficient thing possible: folding clothes.
What makes her a great brand for today is the following:
- A unique and relevant positioning - a Generation X "mama bear" for Generation Y
- An aura of authenticity that can't be faked
- A truly unique, daring, and compelling look - long black hair with no makeup
- Credibility - she's been there and done that
- Something of value to contribute - it's not just a show
- Honest and direct, yet caring as well - not hurtful
My prediction: We'll be seeing a lot more of Kelly Cutrone.
Spouse to get the job of CEO, but as we move forward into the 21st
century that will not be the case at all. Instead, people who look
like everybody else are going to be viewed as lacking in creativity.
Those who are speckled, feathered, covered in pink polka dots and
otherwise strange-looking are going to be the stars. And those who
change their speckles, feathers and dots on a regular basis to evolve
with the times are going to be the superstars.
Way before Tom Peters' landmark article in Fast Company, "The Brand
Called You," Madonna served as the "spokesperson" and absolute pioneer
of the be-yourself and even constantly-reinvent-yourself approach to
personal branding. See the 100th anniversary celebration magazine for
Women's Wear Daily (WWD) – suffer through it, if you aren't into
clothes. It's important because the growth of the fashion industry
over the past century is integrally related to the explosion in
branding and the "massification" of this formerly esoteric marketing
In other words, not only do we have a million brands nowadays, but
people understand very well that they are brands too.
I have had a "love-hate" relationship with Madonna, I must say, as I
have observed her through the years. When she first appeared on the
scene in the early 80s, I thought she was totally cool. The bracelets,
the hair, the songs – they are still amazing to me. The songs "Get
Into The Groove," "Borderline," and "Material Girl" are still like
Today, whenever I see anything in the news about Madonna I absolutely
must read it. I actually have read all the stuff about Lourdes growing
up, being a fashion plate, Madonna's "bizarre" mothering rules for all
her kids, etc. When Lourdes launched Material Girl clothes at Macy's I
was reading, listening, analyzing.
Yet I've hated a lot of Madonna's incarnations too. Basically
everything after the first album right up until the Kabbalah stuff,
actually. I like her new idea for a fitness center brand. Whatever, I
don't listen to her music anymore, but I think she's cool.
The reason I say she's the gold standard is that Madonna understands
that fundamental thing about branding that most people don't. The
popular conception is that a brand must stay the same all the time,
that it must be consistent, that it must never let go of that familiar
image that people recognize. That if you change, it's very slowly and
incrementally and that you shouldn't scare people. The recent
rebranding of Gap, and the quick retraction of the new logo when
people complained, is an excellent example of what NOT to do to
Madonna understands that it's just the opposite. In the first place,
you have to get out there and be yourself. Be totally yourself. No
matter how weird, wacky, odd, or strange you seem to others, if it's
authentic to you, then be that. Kelly Cutrone (read her book, she has
the company The People's Revolution and she had a great Bravo show
about her event/PR firm for fashion shows) completely understands
that. And then, once you have fully and completely explored the
identity you've built—trash it. Go completely beyond. Try something
different. Play. And don't be afraid to emerge with a totally
What Madonna understands is that it's not one persona in particular
that defines who you are as a brand. It is the amalgamation of those
personas, and the fact that you're willing to play with them and
explore different aspects of yourself as you evolve, that defines your
brand. And if you are completely and totally authentic as a human
being, your brand will be successful and your audience will find you.
Copyright 2010 by Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D.
All opinions my own. Originally posted to my blog at
http://thinkbrandfirst.blogspot.com. Permission granted to repost with
This supports Alex Wipperfurth's thesis in Brand Hijack.
Fun to flip through - I saw a copy at Urban Outfitters.
or social movement can.
Think about it – as a rule:
1. Brands are a necessity of life – we need to know what products
are best for us, and which are trustworthy
2. Brands are available to everyone – no matter how rich or poor
you are, and no matter what your cultural background
3. Brands provide a marker of achievement as you move up the
4. Brands are simple and therefore satisfying to talk about, while
issues are complicated
5. Brands provide a common reference point in a global, diverse world
6. Brands enable you to construct your own identity rather than
7. Brands help you understand the identity of others
8. Brands offer a way to transcend traditional affiliations and
talk a common language
9. Brands are always changing and evolving, so they offer
something interesting and non-controversial to talk about
10. Brands fulfills people's spiritual needs, as they purposely
consume products from ethical companies and even form communities with
others who consume the same products
In short, brands fulfill our material need for survival; our social
need for connection and status; and even our need for spirituality.
So shopping is more than just a trivial exercise – it's one of the
most important things that we do in contemporary society. The way we
shop, the why of shopping, and the social interactions around it are
worthy of being taken seriously by anyone who wants to understand more
than just how marketing works.
In the world of positioning, the sandwich chain Subway is in an enviable place. In a February 2010 survey by market research firm Decision Analyst, nearly 1 out of every 4 consumers (24.2%) “completely trust” its nutritional claims – more than any other restaurant in the quick service category. The second in line, Chick-fil-A, had less than half that See chart.
And Subway is undoubtedly an incredibly successful fast-food brand, coming in second only to McDonald’s in 2009.
You might think that Subway, with an estimated $10 billion in sales last year compared with more than $30 billion for McDonald’s in the U.S. alone, doesn’t stand a chance of overcoming that behemoth bastion of serious and classic American fast food—cheeseburgers, shakes, and salty French fries.
I am here to tell you that it can—Subway had 4.2% sales growth last year vs. 2.9% for McDonald’s—but that for some reason it’s not leveraging the positioning opportunity that it has.
That opportunity is to grab and run with the “healthy decadence” position, which is slowly taking root but hasn’t really exploded yet.
You can see “healthy decadence” happening in a few scattered areas—La Crème yogurt “that is dessert,” for example—but the problem is that often these products aren’t actually all that healthy. One serving of La Crème, for example, has nearly 19 grams of sugar.
In scattered places there is “healthy decadence” that is actually healthy. Low-calorie, high-nutrition Vitatops muffins are a great example. So is the eatery Funxion, which bills itself as “the first FIT restaurant and bar in America.” (See photo of the cover of Funxion’s menu.)
Neither of these are really mass-market brands, because they’re too expensive. But if someone could capture the formula and get the price down, they would be.
Why can’t that brand be Subway?
Right now when I look at a typical Subway menu board, I see that the “heavier” aspect of the sandwiches is emphasized—choices like Meatball Marinara come first. And of course, most people are going to put sauce and cheese on dishes like that. Which is going to make the calorie count skyrocket.
Yet the company does little to glamorize the much healthier and very low-priced choices that are available. You can easily get a “loaded” (with vegetables and non-fat condiments) 6” Veggie Delight at Subway for just 230 calories. That is nothing for a sandwich. Add a scoop of tuna to make it more filling and you’re still only around 350 calories, by my estimate.
The company has other great choices in the “healthy decadence” area. Look at the breakfast menu—who else gives you egg white sandwiches for 150 calories? You can’t get that at McDonald’s!
I get the sense that Subway is struggling with how much to push the healthy aspect of its food. It’s like they want to be all things to all people—telling people that they’re the healthy alternative, but once they get people to go there, offering less healthy alternatives along with the really good stuff.
Further, although the printed materials on display are informative, I have found that the staff at most Subways, although amiable enough, totally does not push the healthy message.
In fact, one day when I asked for a Veggie Delight with mustard and one scoop of tuna (to cut the calories), the person behind the counter seemed to find the request annoying.
My suggestion to Subway, if they truly want to succeed, would be to do the following:
- Focus on the “healthy decadence” brand position and stop trying to be all things to all people
- Make the calorie count even clearer than it is now
- Expand the “Fresh and Fit” menu and perhaps even brand the heavier items with another name—then they can say that everyone has a choice of what to eat at a Subway
- Train and engage the franchisees
- Set a goal of knocking McDonald’s off their perch
And now…let the brand games begin!
The bottom line, though, is that anytime a consumer is strongly drawn to a popular culture phenomenon, that is an opportunity to sell them things. Especially, branded things. Because by and large, whatever it is you're watching on TV isn't a basic and generic need, but rather an escapist one. And escapist brands are ripe for charging a brand premium.
Right now I am aware that the Kardashians push at least two brands: QuickTrim diet pills and a clothing boutique called Dash.
To me these are both total loser propositions.
- QuickTrim has a very generic-sounding name and like all quick-fix diet pills, seems like a scam - unless you're the type of person who is desperate, or willing to believe anything. It's about on the level of "burger sliders," "mini-chop blenders," and a lot of the other stuff they promote on late-night TV. So it cheapens the Kardashian name.
- Dash is another impossible brand. Kourtney, who is most identified with this brand, doesn't have any special sense of style. They all pretty much dress the same. She's not passionate about it - in fact seems pnever there - and when she was there, in Miami, the store ended up very run down. Last season the TV audience saw her horrified face as she came back from a trip to find that her associates had to clean human waste from the wall of a dressing room. Triple uch.
Thinking about it I see at least 5 possibilities where the Kardashians could earn quite a bit by simply endorsing a product with their name:
- Nightclubs - as they are very much about experiencing life, enjoying life, having fun, etc.
- Luxury homes and home furnishings - as half the show is about watching them go from one family member's luxurious home to another.
- Baby clothing and accessories - as there is a frequent focus on Baby Mason. Last night it was all about his hat.
- New York and Miami - each one a place-brand. They could partner with the tourism boards of each of these cities to bring visitors in as the family has made these cities look glamorous and fun.
- Romance novels - the mother seems to tag along with the girls and complains that her husband isn't as exciting as she would like - she would be perfect to endorse "beach reading" for other women who feel similarly.