Monday, September 28, 2009

Starbucks Heading Further Away From Home VIA New Ready Brew

According to, the word "via" in preposition form is defined as "by a route that touches or passes through." VIA is also the brand name of the new instant coffee from Starbucks. I was introduced to it last week by a young Barista. She made sure I understood that it's good for when you're at sporting events or camping out.

Or, as I retorted, "any place other than here."

Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't Starbucks built as a destination brand? Many referred to it as the "third place," with home and office being the other two. It seems Starbucks is moving closer to a new address: Your nearby Piggly Wiggly. Perhaps, it can persuade the grocery manager to put out a few bistro tables, pipe in some artsy music and install wireless Internet on Aisle 5.

If you feel compelled anymore to step inside a bricks and mortar version of Starbucks, take note of what's happening. It's redesigning, including installing new espresso machines, to make them more inviting and feel like your neighborhood, yet is launching products like VIA to send you away. In fact, the little trial sample of VIA I was handed has three boxes on the front that are X'd, with the first one denoting it's extra bold, the second to remind us (thank you) that it's coffee and the third to let us know we can take these little suckers "anywhere."


Guts Branding principle and reminder to Starbucks: Mass availability does not always equal mass consumption. In fact, making something less convenient, even in this era of instant access and on "our terms," still works if you have a powerful, desired brand. I once again cite CBS, the only network to grow in households and key selling demos in the 2008-2009 season. Unlike it's direct competitors, it made none of it's programming available via Hulu. You wanted CSI Miami, Two and Half Men or 48 Hours, you had to watch them on CBS's terms. What a novel concept.

Starbucks is again chasing "convenience," becoming more and more of a commodity and starting to blend (and not in the good coffee sense). That's physical and mental territory long-held by the likes of McDonald's and convenience stores. As much as I believe McDonald's could benefit from a good cup of focus, you don't see it packaging and selling its coffee in stores. At least not yet.

If you think about it, the Starbucks brand was originally built around the notion of "inconvenience." Loitering encouraged could have been their mantra. After all, that was a big piece of the original vision.

But then it was like the signs were switched overnight to no loitering when it added drivethroughs (at least you have to drive around the building rather than bypass it all together) to its grocery store line of prepackaged coffees, right there next to Folgers and Nescafe', which already dominates the instant coffee market. I'm sure VIA, which officially launches in two days, will have plenty of skews as well. One more reason to avoid your nearby Starbucks.

I'm really not anti-Starbucks. In fact, I wouldn't have a problem with VIA and other similar product offerings if Starbucks had started out as a store brand. Where I have a problem with it, or any other brand for that matter, is when after it tastes success, it travels in a direction opposite of what people want or expect from it. What if Subaru began making front-wheel drive vehicles or YouTube allowed people to post text-only stories?

My advice to Starbucks: Hit the brakes. Make a U-Turn. And find your way back home.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fire Your "Offensive Coordinators" and You Might As Well Punt Your Brand

Earlier this week, my beloved Kansas City Chiefs fired their offensive coordinator. Head coach, Todd Haley, is now assuming that responsibility.

How many companies during this recession have fired or downsized their offensive coordinators, a.k.a, marketing professionals, and handed those responsibilities off to someone else, perhaps, in another department all together? Too many to count.

Indeed, times are tough. No business is immune. While the move by the Chiefs doesn't seem to be economically-driven, the impact will be the same: When you eliminate specialists, particularly those directly charged with brand communication, you are risking the future of your most valuable asset.

If you recall, in the 90s the old playbook was pitched and NFL head coaches tried tackling general manager responsibilities. And I'm not talking a bunch of second stringers. Future Hall-of-Famers, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan, took a crack at it.

How did that work out? Not so well. It was too much for one person to handle. Divorce ensued shortly thereafter and teams went back to separate positions.

Why did this approach fail?

I offer a pragmatic but brand-centric reason: While the roles of the GM and head coach parallel in dealing with player personnel, functionally, they are on completely different playing fields. In a nutshell, the GM handles the bottom-line and the head coach handles the sidelines.

And you simply can't do two different things simultaneously well.

Specialization is the foundation of any powerful brand. FOX Newschannel can only be conservative, Las Vegas can only be sin city and Victoria's Secret can only be sexy lingerie. What would happen if FOX News tried to be both conservative and liberal? Vegas tried to sell itself as a family destination? Victoria's Secret marketed business attire? First, those positions are already taken, so it would fail on that level. Subsequently, they would dilute their own specializations, leading to mind share and ultimately market share erosion.

Todd Haley has credentials as an offensive coordinator. He called plays in last year's Super Bowl. But he has a different focus now, that is much different than being an offensive coordinator. It should be on pulling together a team of specialists like the defensive coordinator, offensive line coach and the training staff toward the common goal.

A head coach usually creates and manages the team's brand personality like Bill Walsh and his West Coast Offense, Chuck Noll's Steel Curtain, and Dick Vermeil's Greatest Show on Turf. Ensuring that ever person from the field up to the owner's box is living the brand is a full-time job in and of itself. It's going to be difficult for Haley to stay strategically-focused when he's tactically drawing plays in the dirt.

When you try to focus on two things at once, you end up making compromises to one side or the other but usually both. It takes absolute, undivided attention on one thing to be a specialist, to be a brand.

So, when you punt your marketing professionals, and hand these critical to your bottom-line responsibilities off to say your sales manager or business manager, you are taking the first steps towards killing your brand. You are sending the signal inside your organization that brand is not your priority without even realizing it. Whomever assumes marketing responsibilities, will in turn lose focus in their area of specialization. More dominoes will fall inside your organization that will eventually have an impact outside it.

If brand isn't your main focus, and building it from inside your organization out to customers and prospects, it should be. Nearly $210 million of the The Dallas Cowboys overall value is attributed to brand management. While there are other things that factor into the overall value of an organization, Jerry Jones' new stadium will eventually grow old and depreciate. The NFL revenue-sharing model that is so lucrative for teams could change. Star players will come and go. But your brand is really the only thing you can control. As your most important asset, it needs to be nurtured and grown by specialists, not handed off as an afterthought to bean counters and tactical thinkers in a short-sighted effort to save money now.

While there is great optimism under the new regime at Arrowhead Stadium, and I'm personally excited about it and Haley, it's his first time as a head coach, he inherits a team coming off a 2-14 season, and his starting quarterback is already injured and the season hasn't even kicked off yet. He already had a lot of balls in the air. He just added another big one, and that makes it even more likely he'll commit some costly fumbles this season.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What's In A Name? Everything!

Do you call it H1N1 or Swine Flu? Did you call it the Car Allowance Rebate System or Cash for Clunkers? Do you say Economic Stimulus Package or Government Bailout?

Unless you're a medical professional or a government employee, the latter most likely in all three instances.

For the same reason we use U.P.S., not United Parcel Service, FedEx not Federal Express, and I.B.M. not International Business Machine, our complex minds deal more efficiently and effectively with simple things. Or, as the old saying goes, K.I.S.S! (Keep It Simple Stupid).

But simple isn't enough. I recently worked with a client on developing a brand name. They got the simple premise, but weren't grasping the other two critical ingredients: Unique and memorable. This client was locked into a brand name that was generic like The Dog Groomer or H-E-B. These might be simple, but they aren't unique nor memorable. Names like Doggy Style (yes, it is a real name) and Whole Foods are, satisfying all three criteria.

Working with media clients over the years, particularly local market televisions stations, I encountered brand name issues often. Station call letters created the conundrum. With a few exceptions, most were forgettable. Only people on the inside knew what acronyms like KRGV, KSHB or WPPY stood for. Most viewers use channel numbers as their reference point. Yet, in markets where ratings are determined by how viewers fill out diaries, call letters is one way to receive credit for a program that was viewed. But if viewers don't remember who they are watching, what's the point? Call letters like KARE, WOOD and KAKE are the exceptions. Why? They form a word. Words are more memorable than acronyms.

You might be thinking at this point I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. After all, I did mention U.P.S. and I.B.M. earlier. But they didn't start out as acronyms. They were birthed as words, much like the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) and shortened after being established over time. In these rare instances, they became more memorable as acronyms because in word form weren't unique, simple or memorable.

That opens up another can of worms: Names that on the surface really have nothing to do with the product itself like Nike, Amazon and Yahoo! Yet, I'd be surprised if anyone doesn't know what they represent. You can redefine the meaning of a word (think: "Spam" and "Blackberry") with the right strategy. Over time, the name and idea can become synonymous.

Don't let lack of URL availability influence your decision on a brand name. Do you think Google, Spike and Target would have changed their brand names if the respective URLs weren't available? My guess is they would have done whatever they could to secure the URLs even if they were already taken. Why? Keep in mind that Coca-Cola (mostly referred to as Coke, another example of simplification) is worth about $66 billion but it's physical assets are worth just around six billion. What accounts for the difference? Brand essence and brand name. Find the right brand name first and then find the ways and means to take complete ownership.

When you consider that what you do can ultimately be copied but not your brand name, then you must do everything you can to create one that is unique, simple and memorable, distills the essence of who you are and/or what you do, and won't be confused with anyone else in the mind.
These are my Guts feelings.