Friday, June 26, 2009

Trying to Be Everywhere Can Get You Nowhere. Fast.

In my never-ending quest to learn - and find source material for this blog - three articles this week caught my attention. I've got Guts (Branding) Feelings about each of them. For this blog, I'll focus on one in particular: Time Warner Links with Comcast for TV Everywhere Trial.

The focus of the article is about the cable giant moving a step closer to offering channels a la iTunes: The consumer selects and bundles the channels it wants rather than it being a cable cramdown. But that's not what I'm focusing on for this post. It was actually a section in the article about Hulu and the broadcast networks that most piqued my interest.

Unlike the other three big networks, CBS is opting not to make its programming available via Hulu, the Web site that allows you to watch your favorite shows for free. Today, shouldn't you make your products and services available to the masses and on their terms? Well, CBS' defiance (or, maybe they just haven't struck the right deal yet) didn't hurt it. In fact, it was the only network out of the big four to actually increase ratings last season. Keep in mind Nielsen now can measure out-of-home (and non-set top) viewing in top markets. So, any argument about ratings advantages or disadvantages doesn't hold water.

Was it because CBS, the top network in households the past few years, has better programming? In part. Who wants to watch bad programming no matter where it's offered? Wouldn't making it available "everywhere" be more convenient for consumers, just the way we all want things today? Yes. However, when it comes to strong brands in certain categories, the other side of supply and demand - something that's hard to get your hands on - is a powerful force! If you build it - a powerful, highly-desired brand - they will come. Even on your terms.

Remember when Coors beer was only available west of the Rockies? Everyone wanted it. People used to bootleg it. Smuggling Coors that was at the heart of the 1970s movie, Smokey and the Bandit. Today? Original Coors isn't even in the top 10 selling domestic beers.

Remember in 1999 when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was on ABC? It was generating ridiculous 30 and 40 shares? Then, ABC began airing it four nights a week. The show was cancelled less than two years later. Attempts to revive it, including it's syndication run, have had moderate success at best.

Then, there was the Sopranos. You could only get original episodes by paying for HBO. It made die hard fans wait nearly two years between season five and its final season without a single new episode. In fact, HBO remained very tight-lipped during final season production, refusing to leak any plot line details. All totaled there were only 84 original episodes during its nearly nine-year run. That's not very many when you consider that Law & Order has over 300 originals. If you wanted Sopranos, you had to do it on HBO's terms. Apparently, it worked. Sopranos was the most commercially successful - and one of the most critically acclaimed - cable program of all time.

Why does Nordstrom Department Stores only conduct one sale a year? Because it has such a strong brand predicated on extraordinary experience and high quality offerings it doesn't have to. In fact, having more sales would actually work in favor of competitors by effectively narrowing the gap of distinction between them and Nordstrom. Avoiding sales protects the Nordstrom brand and helps keep competitors separate in the minds of consumers.

Bottom line: Mass availability does not always equate to mass consumption.

In my opinion, the biggest mistake that Starbucks ever made was installing drive through windows, followed closely by over-expansion. Starbuck's brand was never about convenience. Rather, it's all about inconvenience. But inside the confines of Starbucks corporate, bottom-line decisions were made to expand in ways that conspired against the brand. My practice is built around the notion you build the most authentic brands from inside your organization out to consumers. Decisions you make in boardrooms are every bit as critical to protecting your brand as the systems, programs, training and people you put in place.

Mass exposure also does not guarantee mass appeal. It seems everyone is trying to figure out how to leverage social media. In fact, companies are redefining job descriptions and creating positions based on it. I believe there is value in social media. But I also find that people rush to jump on the newest bandwagon way too often. When online video first emerged, every client I worked with a few years back just had to find a way to "own it" in their market. Yet, research our company conducted for these broadcast media clients indicated "information" was actually more important to users of broadcast media news sites than video. This explains why newspaper Web sites, video poor but content-rich, have generally out-performed broadcast media sites in the local market space.

Keep in mind it was us, the practitioners, that added the "media" to social. Facebook and Twitter weren't created with that in mind. So, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind when entering the social media landscape:

--Does my brand actually fit in this space? If you have to wedge it in, it's not going to work. In fact, it could do be very off-putting to consumers if you're not careful. Twitter might make sense for a brand that is predicated on getting information out quickly to people, like a news and information brand or Apple, which could probably get away with creating groundswell with the release of a new iPhone. But is there really a Twitter strategy that works for say Tide? Volvo?

--Know exactly who is utilizing social media and how. A 2009 national study by Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., indicated that Baby Boomers were more inclined to use social media sites for information and news. Conversely, the pre-teen and teen Millennials are using it more for watching and sharing videos, music and other Web-centric content. Because Boomers grew up in a passive advertising world, it's probably natural for them to expect to be marketed to on any platform. But the younger generation can smell a rat! So be careful.

--Listen. It's one of the key take aways from the Magid study. You don't need to be on Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc. But you do need to keep an ear to the wall and listen to what consumers are saying via those channels, and talk to them in an open, earnest way, when it's necessary or makes sense for your brand.

Most importantly, how distinctive and relevant is your brand? If it doesn't give people a reason to post, share or Tweet, they won't. Make sure your brand stays remarkable and does remarkable things, so people will keep talking about it.

Sometimes, trying to be everywhere gets you nowhere. Fast.

These are my Guts Feelings

Thursday, June 4, 2009

GM Needs a New Baby, Not A Re-Birth Announcement

I've received emails and comments from friends, some in the business, praising the television spot lauding the "new GM." Feedback has ranged from, "very American," "they're coming clean" and "powerful message." I too agree with those sentiments.

However, what so many are overlooking in this decades-in-the-making, historic mess, is a lesson for any brand: This should have never happened. GM shouldn't be having to manufacture a positive spin. It chose to be in this place by expanding and contracting in wrong ways. And when it comes to its rebirth as articulated in the commercial, why should we believe them now? More on that in minute.

First, Al Ries suggested years ago that GM needed to reduce its brands and models. GM chose not to listen. It continued expanding in the wrong ways like adding brands (Saturn, Hummer) and more models within each brand, ignoring Ries's "Law of Contraction." All the research I've been a part of for clients always supports "less is more." Brands that try being all things to all people get very little credit for anything and own very little market share. Brands that are laser focused on a distinctive idea, concept or approach, get major attitudinal props not only for their one thing, but for things they don't even do or focus on! It's called brand halo. Despite just focusing on safety, consumers believe Volvos are also durable, reliable, even though it doesn't tout these attributes. If you're good at one thing, you must be good at other things, goes the thinking. Conversely, if you try to be all things, you're good at nothing, goes the thinking.

Where GM contracted wrong was in making platforms and designs virtually ubiquitous. In the short run, sharing tactics reduced costs and saved money. But, as always, when you go from brand to bottom-line focus, it will catch up to you. Why aren't Honda, Volvo or Toyota filing for bankruptcy? While every automaker has been hurt by the recession, they are examples of how being brand focused helps weather tough patches much better than bottom-line driven companies.

If you have a powerful brand, you don't need to be bottom-line focused. Rather, bottom line sensible. In fact, your brand and business strategies should be one in the same. And the strongest brands are always better positioned to reclaim lost ground and grow faster when the economy does turn around. Can you say that about your brand?

Back to rebirth campaign. GM says it's changing. Oh, really? I'm seeing these spots everywhere, and at least three times in prime last night. A national buy of this magnitude can't be cheap for a company that is broke...and broken.

More importantly, and predictably, GM is taking an outside-in approach by running the birth announcement before the new baby is even born. For all we know, it could end up being as ugly as the old one. I'm not surprised because companies generally attack similar situations or new launches by talking-the-walk before walking-the-walk, anointing before it can back it up. This can create an expectation that so often falls short in the minds of consumers. Inside-out strategy would have GM reducing, retooling, redesigning and rebuilding internally and quietly before ever uttering a word externally. It could learn a lot from Staples, which successfully orchestrated its turnaround in the early 2000s via inside-out strategy.

If GM were to take this inside-out strategy to heart, but was worried about disappearing off consumers' radar screens, while re-engineering itself, it could engage a carefully-planned and timed information leaking strategy to give it "presence." The right chatter could also ensure that when the new GM is born, it's everything the birth announcement says it is and much more.

These are my Guts feelings.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The City That Needs A Brand, Not A Slogan

The headline in the May 27 edition of the Johnson County Sun says it all: "Overland Park Seeks Identity with City Slogan, New Logo." I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into this one!

Let me begin by saying I'm a fan of Overland Park. I live nearby. I shop and dine there. The schools are good. It has a quaint downtown with a farmers market. It has Botanical Gardens and the Deanna Rose Children's Farm. It's a well maintained, safe place to raise a family. These are all assets for sure. But they don't exactly light your hair on fire, nor scream: Above and Beyond. By Design. Well, that's Overland Park's new slogan, and it hopes, the answer to making it a "well-known commodity instead of a rather well-kept secret."

From my perspective, it's flawed thinking on many levels. Most important of them being the idea that "branding" creates brands. The act of "branding" implies applying or affixing something to something. Do not confuse labeling with building a brand.

To further demonstrate my point, here's a test: What cities instantly come to mind when you hear: What Happens Here, Stays Here, The City That Never Sleeps and The Aliens Aren't the Only Reason to Visit? I suspect you said, Vegas, NYC and Roswell, N.M. You'd be correct. Now, if I say, Always Turned On, Soul of the Southwest and City with Sol, what cities come to mind? Not quite as easy it it? It's Atlantic City, Taos, N.M. and San Diego, respectively.

You could argue that Vegas, NYC and Roswell are better known than the other three examples because they spend more money advertising and get their slogan out there more. True or not, I'd argue these cities are brands, which I define as a unique ideal, a concept or an approach. Note that I said "a," which is singular. They stand for one thing: Sin, entertainment/arts/culture and (space) aliens, respectively. Their reputations preceded their slogans, and were created organically and built over time, not penned.

Vegas, NYC and Roswell also pass my logo litmus test: Their slogans only fit them. While I'm not privy to the Overland Park research, I wonder if it asked in some way the critical question, "when you hear Above and Beyond. By Design. What city do you think of?" This is important because if someone already owns that image in the mind, you won't be able to take it away from them. Or, it simply might not be a good fit, as Hyundai automotive found out a few years ago. It found a slogan that really resonated with consumers. But when it took it a step further and asked the "fit" question, it found it actually would work against Hyundai, potentially creating even more confusion about the Korean giant and costing it millions of dollars in brand damage.

With the Power & Light District and Sprint Center for sports and concerts, Crossroads Art and River Market districts, new HQs for H&R Block and HOK Sports architects, new condos and downtown living options (some offering decades-long tax abatement), I'd say that neighbor Kansas City already has a leg up on the claim Above and Beyond. By Design. While it's busy building a reputation, what is Overland Park really doing other than bringing awareness to a collection of nice little assets? Overland Park does acknowledge in the article it faces many challenges like lacking a central gathering place and significant entertainment venues. It's essentially acknowledging, without realizing it, that it doesn't have a brand yet.

Overland Park needs to first define and create real distinction, and walk-the-walk before it talks the walk. While that's much harder than launching a slogan, it's the only way to create a truly authentic brand.

That's my Guts feelings.