Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Don't Be An Oxymoron. Focus on the Little Picture.

Recently, I was told by a pair of company leaders that I was "too focused" in defining the brand. They proceeded to say that we needed to "broaden the focus." Isn't that kind of like saying, anarchy rules, barely dressed, friendly argument and one size fits all?

Yes, “broaden the focus” is an oxymoron.

It’s not the first time I’ve been told by executives and even colleagues that I’m too narrow in defining brands. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard things like, “there’s no way everything can live the brand.”

Oh, really?

Shame on Pixar for only focusing on family movies and sticking to it’s “less is more” approach. Did you know it takes five years from concept-to-completion to make a picture? That didn’t seem to bother Disney, which shelled out $7.4 billion for the company.

Pity the Whole Foods fools for focusing on organic and ringing up profitable quarters and shares at a two-year high even in a tough economy.

And I’m guessing the end is near for Southwest Airlines, whose barebones (but fun) focus the past 37 years has yielded 37 consecutive years of profitability and counting.

Then again, Pixar isn’t really focused on movies nor is Whole Foods on food and Southwest on flying. If they were, Pixar would make movies for adults, Whole Foods would stock as much non-organic as organic foods, and SWA would nickel and dime customers like every other airline. No, they are all focused on building brands. And as such, they are focused on the “little picture.”

You see, I was also told by one of the aforementioned leaders that they had to look at the “big picture.” I believe he was insinuating that I wasn’t. I wonder if he would have approved Hooters Airline, Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water or Bic Underwear?

Okay, you could argue no one in their right mind would rubber-stamp those ideas. Except, that CEOs did. What about examples that don’t seem so obvious like a Mercedes for the price of a Camry? Even Forbes Magazine wasn’t buying it:

Finally, an inexpensive Mercedes is an oxymoron, since the three-pointed star is all about prestige. A Mercedes is something people have always felt they had to work for; to "achieve" a Mercedes for a mere $26,000 might undermine the value of the brand.”

Forbes’ concern was validated when the Mercedes brand itself suffered and the cheap Benz was ultimately sent to the scrap yard.

To really be focused on the big picture means to really focus on the small picture. But this is counterintuitive to conventional thinking. Broadening focus might just work in the short run, but inevitably, you undermine the core brand and over time your brand will lose its meaning and market share. Like Boston Chicken, which was looking big picture when it expanded its menu beyond chicken and even changed its name to Boston Market to be all-inclusive. Shortly thereafter it went bankrupt.

Statistically, nine in 10 expansions fail yet companies continue to think big picture. Did you know that Papa John’s started out selling pizza, subs, cheese steak sandwiches, fried vegetables, etc? When it found the courage to slice off everything but pizza and think small picture, it eventually became the third largest pizza franchiser in the world.

And how do people emotionally connect with the big picture? Take cities for example. Atlanta is touting itself as “A City Too Busy to Hate.” Huh? Broad, confusing and uninspiring. Then there’s, “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Its focus is small and crystal clear. Now wipe that smirk or smile off your face.

If category-dominating, often category-creating laser focused brands like Apple, Facebook and Fox Newschannel aren’t enough to convince you that focusing on the little picture – i.e., your brand - rather than expanding is the key to dominance, then you’re just clearly confused.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Southwest Airlines: Oh Yeah, It's SO On!

Southwest Airlines continues to be the darling of domestic airline brands and the apple of my eye because it continues to be the perfect storm of business model and brand model.

For a little perspective, Southwest has never strayed from it's low fares, no frills, lots of fun image. All it's done is produce 37 consecutive years of profitability. How many other airlines can say that? How much has the industry changed since Southwest first took to the skies? Over 200 domestic airlines have either merged, been taken over, or are now extinct.

But over a year ago, this category killer took its brand into the stratosphere when it launched its bags fly free assault. Talk about kicking competitors when they are down. It was more than just guerilla warfare and great marketing strategy. It was a brilliant example of creating more brand separation from not only competitors but an entire industry. And every nickel and dime move other carriers make - some are contemplating charging to use the toilet or making you pay by how much you weigh - the more SWA looks like a hero.

So, what does Southwest do for an encore? Separate itself even further from all other domestic pretenders by declaring you can only find fares and book tickets on swa.com. Doesn't this fly in the face of conventional and contemporary thinking that you must be everywhere to be successful? Au, contraire.

Brand strategy legend Al Ries (The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding) talks about the Law Exclusivity. Essentially, two brands cannot share the same image. He couldn't be more on point. However, I take that law a step further when talking about exclusivity: Mass availability does not always mean mass consumption; demand can create more desire.

CBS doesn't repurpose its programming on Hulu, a site that allows you to watch episodes of some network and cable programming after it airs. Yet,, CBS once again won the coveted A25-54 demographic amongst all other broadcast networks this past season. How many jewelry stores actually carry Rolex watches? Though often imitated, you have to go to high end shops to purchase one. And it's doubtful you'll find Cuban cigars next to the register at your local convenient store. If you can get your hands on them, a box will set you back as much as $500-$700.

So, by not allowing itself to participate on sites like Orbitz or Travelocity, Southwest is not only physically separating itself further from competitors, it perceptively is making its brand more unique by not blending in with the fray.

The only downside? It doesn't make it easy for you to conveniently compare its fares to competitors side-by-side? But Southwest Airlines never portends to have the absolute lowest fares. Rather, all the things it has systematically done through the years from serving peanuts, group seating and no charge for bags, have conspired to make it the best overall value in the air and a brand to be envious of no matter what category your product or service is in.

Southwest likes to say, "It's On." When you consider the powerful impact all these moves have on customers and the brand damage it continues to inflict on reeling competitors, I'd say "It's SO On!"

These are my Guts Feelings.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feed the Beast, Starve the Brand. Just ask Toyota.

Domino's. I'm not talking about a Pizza chain. I'm talking about all the ones falling at Toyota.

It's gone from pristine image to recalls to hearings on Capital Hill to now being investigated by a grand jury and the SEC, and rapid evaporation of customer satisfaction at its dealership as people wait days - even weeks - to get their defective vehicles fixed.

Poor Toyota.

But this all could have been easily avoided if it would have followed one simple premise: Make brand decisions not bottom-line decisions.

When you make most or all of your business decisions based on boardrooms and the bottom-line, you are focused on the company. When you make your business decisions based on your brand promise, you are focused on the customer. In the immortal words of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, "the only person that can fire me is the customer." Are you listening Toyota?

By focusing on itself, failing to listen to initial customer complaints, sourcing inferior materials, neglecting to issue recalls sooner than later, covering up and trying to cover its tracks, all in an effort to save a buck, Toyota has cost itself dearly in the form of brand damage. I saw a figure that estimated it's loss of brand equity in the billions. That's a multi-billion dollar punch to the gut that is already hitting them in the wallet and could take years to recover. If ever.

When you choose bottom-line over brand, you also might as well hand over your playbook to your competitors because eventually you will lose. In fact, this could be the best thing that ever happened to GM and other American car companies. Whereas Toyota failed to knock out it's American brethren when they were being bailed out by the government, GM has been given another at bat. But I wouldn't just swing away at reliability and dependability. I'd hit 'em where it really hurts: Trust and transparency. If customers believe in you, there's a good chance they will believe in your products.

The Toyota meltdown tees up another opportunity for me to talk Southwest Airlines. It's business model is its brand model and vice-versa. That allows it always stay focused on the customer and continue to profitably soar.

Remember: when you feed the beast, you will starve the brand.

These are my Guts Feelings.