Monday, October 23, 2006

Inspi(red), Reve(red), Bo(red), Beleague(red),

and finally, Reti(red)?

I hope this isn’t the case, but it’s my guess that Bono’s new initiative, (RED) — the multi-megabrand co-op which, as the site says, was “Designed to Help Eliminate AIDS in Africa” — was devised with rose-colored lenses obscuring the fickle nature of brands, their audiences, and their life-cycles; and on the next level, overlooking the potential injury to the charitable efforts themselves.

Simply put, brands can get irritating. Brands screw up. Some get good-lucky, others, un-. Once in a while, a brand becomes bigger than life. But all brands age. And most die.

Now, because this brand has so much riding on it, I have to wonder if it’s wise to make a marque out of (read: trivialize, or worse yet, commercialize) a massive philanthropic promise.

Of course (RED) raises awareness for the scourge that is AIDS in Africa. And it’s nice to see global conglomerates kneel to the threat of bad P.R. if they don’t participate, sending what may someday become billions of dollars in relief. At that, I applaud Bono for throwing his weight around to make this all happen. (By the way, don’t you find it sad that it takes a rock-n-roll star, not governments [or hell, average citizens] to make this a reality?)

But I maintain that a multi-brand like (RED) walks on thin ice as a brand every single day. Let’s review the risks:

  • Say for argument’s sake that Motorola gets swept up in some giant corporate accounting scandal, or that Apple is exposed for running sweatshops in China. What happens to (RED) then? What happens to one of the other brands, say, Emporio Armani, in the court of public opinion through their association?
  • Inversely, what negative equity does GAP inherit if (RED) handles itself with incompetence — or some slimeball somewhere on the money trail from NYC to Ghana is found siphoning cash?
  • I know that not every product donating proceeds will be colored red. Nonetheless, remember all the disgusting copycats of the Livestrong bracelet when it launched? How many imitations with ill intent are going to pop up and ruin (RED)’s credibility?
  • Shareholders at power-brand Nike — owner of (RED) participant Converse — decide for some reason they no longer wish to be affiliated. Does this whole thing backfire on them, on (RED), on the other participating brands?
  • After a few years, it’s found that (RED)’s efforts haven’t worked. Will consumers feel cheated? Will we ever trust another big-name charity again?

The above neglects the mention of what’s inevitable for all brands everywhere: fatigue. (RED) is guaranteed to ride the highs and lows that befall every marque that ever existed, and that means that the work of the Global Fund (the world’s largest fundraiser for AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis programs) on the African continent is susceptible to rising and falling along with it, at least on a superficial level, which seems a real shame.

Most certainly, if one life is saved, then it’s all worth it. (And there will be thousands saved because of this effort, I'll bet.) That's not to be argued.

But this is a discussion about brand. I just find myself wondering if wrapping this whole thing in rockstar corporate glossy glam won’t force unintended long-term effects on a daring concept that's trying to solve some of the planet's most elusive health problems.

Was there another, perhaps more surreptitious, way to roll out (RED), á la Newman's Own, that might have invited discovery on the part of the consumer? I've always believed that, in the vast majority of cases, hype level has an inverse relationship with brand lifespan, and that helping people uncover an experience (in this case, a cause) without a treasure map engenders audience ownership and, usually, loyalty.

Also, I can’t help thinking that the only people who REALLY care about this are Bono, all the wonderful humanitarians who devote their lives to working for the Global Fund, and the sufferers themselves. In recent years, Corporate America has shown its true colors (pun not hugely intended), which makes me want to consider if this won't someday be seen as another "just-add-water" corporate responsibility program for the Fortune 500.

The above may seem cynical, but because such a noble cause like (RED)'s has been “so heavily branded,” one reserves the right to treat it like any other brand.

And therein lies the problem.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Beer needs bottles, and bottles need caps.

Bottle caps need air seals, and air seals need rubber. Rubber needs trees, and trees gotta have rain.

So what? So, the last time you uncapped a dead beer, did you damn the droughts of Southeast Asia or curse Coors Light?

Ask the makers of laptops, luggage, life jackets, and LCDs about the importance of buttons — the gateway to the brand experience they've promised to the consumer who has just made the purchase.

If they look at you like you're crazy, they no understand brand.

The bottle cap is a brand interface. Nothing more and nothing less. When it fails, it's immediately apparent to the thirsty tailgater, who blames the brand, not the cap. Unfortunately, this is not known to the bottler until that one guy, out of a few zillion unsatisfied customers, sends back the product in question, with date of purchase and UPC symbol and whatever other bullcrap is required.

Anyway, one's got to imagine that a brewer, clothier or anyone else who cares about the interaction between consumer and product knows that everything matters. Particularly the one thing that makes possible the fulfillment of the brand promise.

So why are there so many major brands out there whose stewards are so blind to the online interface? They've spent a quarter-billion on physical button design over the years, yet allot a fraction of that to the virtual design thereof.

And they wonder why their brand's all flat.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Do kids adopt parents' brand opinions?

What are the ramifications if they do — and how long does it take, if ever, before offspring have considerations that differ?

Parents are the most powerful brands in the eyes of young children (what are usually babies' first words?), so it's interesting to me to consider their lasting influence on brand perceptions. In fact, this gives rise to the idea that brands influence other brands, potentially burning opinions into one's psyche forever, bulletproofing an audience member to brand messages no matter how powerful.

We've seen the ugly side, of course. Racism, violence, religious radicalism, and chauvinism are easy examples of innocent brand absorption gone wrong. Then the benign examples: moderate religion, family cars, TV shows, even sports teams. We so often emulate our parents that it's common to hear someone respond to the question Why did you choose that college? with an answer like That's where my parents went.

This is how the old altruism "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" lasted all these centuries. Truly, parents are the world's most impactful brand stewards or "emulsifiers" (mama birds) for maturing brand recipients (baby birds), processing marques for their kids' consumption by merely reacting naturally to the quality and relevance of each brand touchpoint.

So when we frustrate Mom with our brand, do we inadvertently poison our future chances of resonating with her kids? Because Dad is Junior's Rock of Gibraltar, does BMW lose the boy when the service center angers the man?

Children are so impressionable, I'm positive supermarkets have systems dedicated to the idea. (Modern grocers are probably the most scrutinous marketers on the planet.) For a reminder, take a gander at a shopping cart: it's got a built-in seat for the little one, which faces the child toward Mom — that's just how closely the consumer, the kid, and the brand are connected. This continuum is only as lengthy as Mom's disgruntled face, her re-shelfing a product after inspecting it, and/or denying exposure by dismissing whole categories altogether.

Case in point: look at the eyeball illustrations on the cartoony characters gracing practically every cereal box in the aisle. They're peering downward, purposely engaging the gaze of the child looking up from his wireframed seat. It's impossible to ignore the brand value of capturing consumers early, if for nothing else their effect on Mom's pursestrings (not to mention their lifetime wallet-share).

Over an extended period, how could a kid not side with Mom when in contact with a brand time and time again?

Oh, and if this blog entry overlooked the effect on the kids' kids, why, it'd be hypocritical. It's funny to think that, as so many kids grow up resentfully swearing they'll be the "apple that falls far from the tree," they instinctively follow in their parents' footsteps and loyally purchase Puffs, and tacitly reject Reynolds Wrap.

Coz that's what Mom did.

P.S. Soon I plan to tackle the force that's widening the chasm between parents' and kids' brand opinions — the web.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Has anyone noticed

the angel on the face of a few of Warhol's Marilyn prints?

Look between her eyes and you'll find the angel's head/halo, left and right for her wings, and downward to the flowing dress of her nose.

Why do I bring this up? My book's research has taken me to Andy Warhol, the agent of perfectly timed controversy who unashamedly made something clean ("art") of that which was considered base (commercial products and advertising). In the process, commerce and culture were bridged in a manner no longer ignorable.

And this is the heart of the modern branding discussion; er, the glue binding my assertion that branding is merely the brain's valuation battle between Money, Information, Loyalty, and Time.

Next topic.

Busy with my latest creation,, which should launch some time this week. A completely free, registrationless online environment where brands and media vehicles are matched according to their respective criteria (i.e., a dating site or even

It's an out-of-pocket experiment for now, but I have objectives for this thing.

They'll be met.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Back from the World Cup,

which is itself a cavalcade of "nations as brands" (see my "Where are you" posting from September 27, 2005 for thoughts on that topic).

More later, when use of my brain and limbs returns.

Check out the World Cup 2006 movie I shot (and assembled on the nine-hour flight back from Cologne) here.

Oh, and turn it up.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Fairest of the Mall

Since the '70s — when kids back then, like me, were to be "seen and not heard" — man have things changed.

Recently, on a luxury automotive account with which I'm highly familiar, I witnessed first-hand that kids' opinions really do influence their parents’ purchase of a $70,000 automobile. Yep, I wrote "luxury auto," not cereal or peanut butter or school supplies. This fact is as nauseating as it is indicative of something much larger and even more dyspeptic.

The marketing plan was not built to position the car as a “family vehicle,” which is a perfectly valid way to present a machine that carts around your offspring (and while you sleep, is driven by them without your knowledge, even though they’re 14).

No, this was marketing to the kids themselves. The 13 year-old set mandates to be treated to the “cool factor” — ostensibly so that a “trickle-up” theory of influence will guarantee a successful sale.

Does this disturb anyone but me? Does this mean that the nation’s well-off are so brain-dead they must look to their know-nothing kids to push the “okay” button on a purchase representing a quarter of their discretionary income?

Watching ads anymore is akin to seeing that old Star Trek episode where children controlled a distant planet and the adults were laughing-stocks. (Actually, the grown-ups ["grups"] had perished from a plague decades before the Trek crew landed, the result of a life prolongation experiment which also made it so the children only aged an hour every hundred years.)

For example, a Lexus spot from last winter went like this: we open on the façade of a classic Northeastern private elementary school being hit hard by a snowstorm. The principal informs the kids over the P.A. that class is cancelled due to inclement weather, just moments before the teacher pleads with the cheering section to settle down. “It’s going to be a while before your parents can get through,” she warns the viewers (er, children).

Oh, but not that Lexus mid-size SUV. Its intrepid form slices through the snow drifts and pulls up confidently to the front of the school building.

Now up to this point, this spot hardly differs from any other seasonal auto claim (one which I’ve made in my work seemingly hundreds of times). It’s what occurs next that transparently reveals the strategy’s ass:

The little boy and girl traipse through the snow and climb in to the waiting SUV, as the boy rolls down his window to sneer smugly at his classmates, whose parents evidently have inferior vehicles. The pupils stare back with great sadness as the boy visibly chuckles, making it known he’s the coolest kid in school because his parents got there first.

Now, we never see the parent driving during the spot. In fact, the only adult we see during the entire ad is the teacher, long the hated adversary of kids everywhere.

It's obvious to the attentive viewer that this spot isn’t aimed at parents; it's targeting kids who tell their parents what to do, which millions of dollars spent on market research must've proven at some point or we'd never see the evidence. What’s more sad is that parents not only listen to this pre-pubescent advice, they actually seek it.

Has the bloated, lazy American culture gotten so stupid that we’re left to look to our own kids for clairvoyance before purchasing big-ticket items? Or are we so obsessed with them — their standing among friends and classmates, their opinions toward us, their misguided sense of control over adult issues, and our own self-esteems’ intrinsic dependence on theirs — that brands are spending millions of dollars to advertise to people who aren’t even legally permitted to buy the product?

Either way we’re really, thoroughly, sadly messed up in this country.

When I was a kid, I got marketed to by shoe companies and soda manufacturers. And that was fine. I’d mow enough lawns to buy a new pair of handlebars or a Rush record, and that was that.

But if I even opened my mouth to tell my dad he should or shouldn’t buy a particular car, for whatever reason, there wouldn’t have been any teeth left inside by the time I closed it.

It’s obvious that children now run the family in America. The genius of The Simpsons sheds light on this fact in a unique way. Lisa is by far the smartest, most mature member of the family, while Homer acts like the impetuous child. In this case, the youngster assumes the adult role and would therefore be the appropriate receiver of marketing messages. But The Simpsons is fiction, a discourse on American culture that takes failures to the extreme for comedic purposes.

To me, that’s hilarious; unfortunately, nothing’s funny about the modern American parent letting kids wear the pants in the family. Of course, about 15 years ago, if you were seen spanking your kids, it might have resulted in some neighborhood talk. Today it’ll land you in jail. Children, as they are wont to do, seized upon this opportunity with military efficiency. Those kids are now parents themselves, heads-of-household with no idea how to say ‘no’ to an entire generation of youths who can’t find Iowa on a map.

Yet these dolts take the word of their children before buying a car that 97% of this country can’t afford. Hmmm.

Before MTV, marketing to minors came in the form of those famous (if not misleading) ads for X-Ray Specs; the one-inch square illustrations asking kids to collect 2,000 Bazooka Joe gum wrappers for a squirt gun; and an entire page of confusing six-point type recruiting the Grit Newspaper salesforce. Obviously, such initiatives were holdovers from the late '60s. Through the advancement of technology and the proliferation of mass media, kids just became too savvy for such “aw-shucks” kinda stuff.

Enter Music Television — coincidentally, right about the same time that the ‘80s of Ronald Reagan rendered itself the Me Generation. Parents worked more than ever, and latchkey-ism skyrocketed. Kids were often left to their own decisions and devices, which were buoyed by effortless allowances and discipline-free homes bestowed upon them by parents compensating for not being there (or for splitting up their marriages, another steep trend of the era).

The result: marketing to the youth audience (particularly the one we now call “Tweens”) boomed. We began reading about the hysteria of murders committed by teens for pairs of Air Jordans, as well as reports of parents fist-fighting in record stores at Christmas over the last copy of Like A Virgin.

The sea-change was impossible to stop. Culture, marketing, and technology (the very soul of the “Life imitating art/Art imitating life” argument) converged upon unwary parents raising kids with nothing but a remote control and a $10 bill next to a hastily written “Luv yoo hunnee” note on the kitchen table each morning.

The currents were set in motion, and all we could do was stand and watch as kids began to dictate to parents for the first time in the history of the world.

(As such, I’ve named these see-through adults Trans-parents.)

Today it’s hard-wired into the familial structure so profusely that brands don’t even have to sell youth products to beg for youth approval. It’s now obvious: unlock the kid and you unlock the family vault. Also known as “pester power,” the authority exhibited by kids over their parents is worth billions.

To prove it, if you’re ever in doubt about anything that matters to the corporate world, just look to demographic research. There, you can always find a treasure trove of unbelievable crap that doubles as our national bellwether, as the free-market economy is usually a good mirror of whom and what is most important to Americans. (I’m not degrading our free-market economy by the way, just making an observation on its correlatives.)

Take a look at some new demographic groups you may or may not have heard of:

- SKIPPIES – School Kids with Purchasing Power
- DINKs – Double Income No Kids
- SWAKs – Single Women And Kids
- SWANKs – Single Women And No Kids
- SMANKs – Single Men No Kids
- WOOFs – Well Off Over Fifty

The most influential of the above? You guessed it: SKIPPIES. With time on their hands (and heavily favoring their consumer life-cycle), yet with time-starved, apologetic parents who exert no control over them, they’ve become a marketer’s dream come true — an overweight, socially inept Richie Rich comic come to life, waving Benjamins in the air like Paris Moron herself looking for a cab in the rain.

SKIPPIES have billions of dollars to spend of their own — $6,000,000,000 at last estimate — and ostensibly hundreds of billions more of their parents’.

Now, look at many TV spots and other marketing messages these days (very much including the web), and you’ll see it. And once you’ve caught a glimpse of it, you’ll never miss it again. The sad thing is, the vast majority of our adult nation is as inebriated and slow-witted as a junior prom — and they’re actually falling for it.

When I was a kid, my mom took my little sister shopping so she could buy my dad a Father’s Day gift — an Ohio State sweatshirt — with my mom’s money. Of course, the age-old tradition of one parent taking care of a little kid’s gift for the other parent is nothing new.

What was notable was that my sister got to pick out the garment, and chose one that she knew for certain would be just a little too small for my dad.

Fashion being what it was at the time, 7th-grade girls everywhere were wearing too-large boys’ sweatshirts that hung down to their knees like dresses. Knowing this, it was obvious to my brothers and me that her surreptitious hopes lay in my dad not wearing it himself, and not returning it (that would hurt her precious little feelings), but handing it down to her. Bingo, she inherits the perfect sweatshirt, free-of-charge.

Gina was in fact buying herself a sweatshirt with my mom’s cash.

Of course, I raged with jealousy over the ingenuity, simplicity, and efficacy of the 12 year-old girl’s ruse, and couldn’t help but exhibit contempt. This was sheer brilliance, and no one could do a thing about it.

Of course, it went down just as she predicted. I’ll never forget the sight of my dad dropping her and her four friends off at the movies the very next week, each wearing some variation on the same sweatshirt theme. He grinned from ear to ear, watching them all hop out in excitement, 100% cotton clones giggling at whatever girls at that age find entertaining. My dad positively beamed as they all skipped to the ticket window.

And so it is with American kids and their wealth, the fortune made not by them but spent by them. The robbery isn't merely successful more often than not — rather, when it happens, it actually makes the American parent happy.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Trusting a brand

requires the engagement of a consumer in a long-term relationship, one that hasn’t failed expectations sufficiently to warrant reconsideration.

Gee thanks, Steve. Didn’t know that.

Okay smarty, so howsabout I throw in a wrench? What would you say to revisiting Marshall McLuhan’s golden rule — The Medium Is the Message — and applying the authenticity of the media upon which brands stake their consumer touchpoints?

Throughout history, messengers have pleaded not to be killed for the bad news they’ve been tasked to deliver. But couriers, usually, are people. What happens when almighty television is the conduit of crap?

Oh, it’ll be killed dead.

At least the TV we know today will be. Ya know, it’s funny to see traditional brands and their marketing agencies fighting the metamorphosis that’s been upon us in earnest for a few years already. Oh, losers, stop whining and start running. The time to catch up is nigh.

With the opposing bullet-trains of the web’s (re-gaining of) credibility and television’s loss thereof, we’re knee-deep in a dilemma we’ve been reading about with increasing frequency: is this the death of the :30 spot? Why o' course it is.

But here’s where my opinion differs from the industry — it’s neither the technology nor the consumer that’s expediting the death of traditional, ad-supported TV. It’s the brands which once supported TV that hasten its demise. Et tu, Brute?

The fumes rising off the incessant b.s. delivered by television (particularly cable) have become so noxious, the clean can barely stand in the same room. The tables have turned because, now, the web is the medium Americans use most when seeking information on their own time and terms, while TV’s standards — lowered by everything from CBS News’ non-validation of the Bush memos to constant Girls Gone Wild ads to innumerable miracle weight-loss pill peddlers — are being exposed.

Wherever consumers are in control (most of the web), brands find an environment conducive to interacting with fans and prospects on an equal playing field.

The web’s improprieties, and there are many, largely aren’t caused by the big players (brands, networks, news organizations), but by other private citizens with malicious intent. (And as long as people are in control of the content, that’s going to happen.)

These major players know that if they’re caught lying on the web they’re done-for, because the web’s a two-way medium. Act any other way and the repercussions will be as swift as they are damaging and final.

Television, on the other hand, is a one-way street. So when an action that a consumer deems unacceptable is taken by a brand or content provider, the only recourses are to change the channel, to complain to the FCC, or to send an email to a complaints department which responds with the ever-effective form letter/email.

So now it's fair to extrapolate: the trustworthiness of the medium conveying a brand to its audience members has as much effect on its own credibility as it does on the brand’s.

TV, kinda like fascism, isn’t democratic. It has a mouth and no ears. The web, like democracy, is by and for the people. Neither is perfectly good or perfectly evil, but which system does a better overall job of communicating in a believable manner?

Think about it this way: when was the last time you took seriously a headline from the Chinese Ministry of Information? Even if the words you read were absolutely accurate, you (as a prudent consumer) are forced to second-guess integrity for obvious reasons. Just like we're forced to do anymore with television. Last time I checked, that ain't trust.

These examples are by design extreme, for they shed light on why the web has already surpassed television as the arena of choice for brands that seek trust from their audience members. The old system absolutely must perish by its very nature, and it’s well on its way to doing so. (See also: USSR in its final years.)

Consequently, brands catalyze the process by moving their offline messages (and budgets) online, rendering TV the domain of singles chat phone line advertisements, Fox News, and anything else that doesn't invite honesty and candor.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Battle of Our Den

Does war change branding? Does it modify brands themselves? Well of course. The short answer is that war changes everything. (And on the totem pole of your, my, and Maslow’s hierarchy of anything, branding is of absolute zero importance in comparison to, say, death.)

So, yeah, sitting on our full-scale arses absorbing military conflict on every channel has the canny ability to transform the perception of messages and the thinking that surrounds them — mostly and evidently on the receiver’s side of the equation.

Because brands are merely the stories our brains report to us when appropriately stimulated, the frenetic, DEFCON 5 delivery of messages that happen in life during wartime tend to shift a promise like “Whiter Teeth in 14 Days” down a few notches on the importance scale.

I’ve never supposed that the human brain can only accept a finite amount of information; rather, I subscribe to the belief that the mind has a self-protection mode wherein it raises the criteria required to begin recording stories. You may have also heard this called “modern life.”

For a related perspective, just look at the depths to which non-hurricane-related charitable donations dropped last year after the amazing city of New Orleans was put on life support. Nicknamed the “Katrina Effect,” our usually generous nation felt temporarily immune to pleas for breast cancer research dollars and AIDS walks sponsorships. Indeed, the collective brain could only consent to the same message so many times before shutting out all of them.

And that was just mother nature doing her thing — twist the screws that much harder when it’s humans killing each other (and often themselves in the process) on TV, and we’re rendered numb to the whole concept. As a result, we’re anaesthetized to the ideas of every subject lower on the hierarchy. It’s just our “self-preservation mode” in action, the one that allows people like me to fall asleep in my New York City apartment with car horns blaring on the street below at all hours while my friends, visiting from the Midwest, lay awake wide-eyed until morning. People simply acclimate to their surroundings and adjust their importance criteria accordingly. That’s just the brain. If you don’t like it, donate it to the nearest university.

Okay, now to the ideology of war.

That “i” word has kinda been mutated in the last few decades here in the States. What once meant “belief system” or “principles” has been pulled cursing and screaming into a definition akin to a political calling card, or worse, a moral platform. Chalk it up to the religious wrong.

Branding, as it’s widely defined, is merely a subset of “ideology.” War shifts a nation's ideology to the short-term pragmatism of achieving military goals. In my opinion (and I’m not alone), the most effective and impactful branding campaign in history is what a failed artist from Austria so originally appointed the ‘third reich.’ Wanna talk ideology, influence, mindshare, and results? Look no further than the goose-stepping morons’ 1933 public speeches, their subsequent brainwashing of millions, and the 1938 Time Man of the Year. Those were pre-WWII events, yes, but they were also the causes and fuels for the war following “the war to end all wars.” We know what happened next to 55 million human beings, their families, and the modern world in general.

Branding “good” and “evil” plays a key role in gaining support for everything from poker sites to police actions in Vietnam. We see it every day: Coke vs. Pepsi, Microsoft vs. Apple, Nike vs. adidas. But when it’s someone’s son vs. someone else’s son, our country vs. yours, it takes on abnormal gravity.

The Three C’s of branding are called up for their tour of duty: first, a launch awareness initiative; second, the consideration drivers; next, purchase promotions.

Clarity, Consistency, and Constancy report for the long campaign in the mindshare theatre. Soldiers, voters, and mothers are asked to buy the battle with messages as clear and consistent as they are constant. Welcome to branding, Patton-style. Do it long enough and voilá. People actually find themselves WANTING it to happen. (And hey, tell the Defense Secretary that a massive media buy won’t be necessary. Unlike the days of propaganda posters and newsreels, cable news vehicles will provide 24-hour coverage — er, ad spots — supporting the campaign; for no media dollars, that’s a helluva return on investment.)

Unfortunately, war has become the defining characteristic (brand) of all generations since the Spanish-American. Mine (stupidly titled Generation X) was the first without one. Oh, but we made up for it in spades, ain’t we.

Yeah, every pair-o-decades needs something to define itself. I guess the only spot powerful enough to help us belong is the blood kind.

Just think, for a moment, about the most influential, best educated, highest numbered generation of them all — my parents and millions of Americans like them, born a few months after our boys came home from saving the world from itself.

Does war brand? Just ask some Baby Boomers. Then ask their parents about target audience.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

There’s Breakfast

at Tiffany’s, the classic that turned 45 this year, and just as many stomachs. The Coca-Cola Kid hung out with Cadillac Man before packing a Colt .45 and standing in line to see Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

Okay, that was as subtle as an Ayn Rand dialogue; the nearest cadaver’s id and superego got the point. Still, before brands grew up (and for good reason, paranoid), it was kinda neat-o for a feature film to use a product name in its title. Gosh, that’s swell, marketers thought. They like us. They really really like us.

Hell — even this summer, when The Devil Wears Prada, the anti-christ will have never enjoyed so much target demo mindshare.

But just like most things, the innocence of brand inclusion went the way of the Sta-Puff Marshmallow Man long ago. Recently, it’s taken a turn for the weird. I guess in some ways this trend kinda reminds me of the creepy hero-worship feeling I had when I watched Hollywood slobber all over #23 in Space Jam. Michael Jordan was the supernatural focus of the animated subject matter, yes; but in actuality, the whole thing ended up a superliminal music-video-tisement for the coming of the logo Jumpman.

But I digest. Well, that was, until I saw the title of the upcoming United 93.

Now I’m not about to launch into a 9/11 diatribe that could instantly consume every precious petabyte on the web and bring the whole damn thing down for a few seconds. (I watched the planes hit that morning from the street below, so this isn’t some pedantic attempt at shock blog bullshit; I’m forever distorted.) Rather, I'll just make a calm prediction.

But before I do, I want to admit openly that I don’t know what the official licensing agreement is (if there is one) between United Airlines and Universal Pictures. And that’s not for lack of looking.

Now here it is (and you read it here first): someday brands will pay NOT to be involved — in writ, mention, or image — with media vehicles.

Go to the site and just look at the title logo. Then read below it — “From the Acclaimed Director of Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy.”

Someone other than Holly Golightly, please make me understand.

I know I represent the mere fractional percentage of the U.S. population that witnessed the New York, New York; Washington, D.C.; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania events first-hand — so I and others like me make for an audience disincentive that’s laughable by Hollywood standards. All the same, without a clear, upfront message of cinema proceeds going to charity or some such cause, I'm going on-record as saying I’m so nauseated by the idea of the movie, of the title, of the consummation of United Airlines and Universal Pictures, of the Ameri-common betrayal/alienation of the thousands lost and their families, that I (of all loudmouths) am at a loss for words.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

White. The official color

of Gen-X yuppies. No, not skin color. Brand color.

Thank the iPod, the little device that could. And did.

This machine's proof-positive that certain brands travel in packs. Apple, Volkswagen, J.Crew, Puma — look at ANYTHING any of these companies (and others) have marketed in the past year and I bet you’ll see something that looks straight out of Warhol’s White-on-White period. Interesting, as they all share the exact same target demographics. Hmmm.

“Vacant, vacuous Hollywood was everything I ever wanted to mold my life into. Plastic. White-on-white.”
—Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, Popism

The Gap's in-house agency could've made that quote. In fact, their addiction to the white stuff pre-dated the iPod (i.e., their late-90s/early-00s campaigns). But it took the iPod to inseminate the global "cool" culture with white. My guess is that it's the result of a Holy Trinity effect that manufacturers/marketers of any product anywhere would do anything to have happen to them — the combination of Apple's effective marketing visuals à la TBWA/Chiat/Day (contrasting the white machine and earphone cord against the black silhouette of the listener); the fact that they're EVERYWHERE today (easily noticed because the white sticks out like a sore jog-wheel thumb); and that the product is effin' great.

Not only has the iPod mutated the music and computer industries in its wake, but fashion and advertising too. Everything’s gone white.

White shoes and suits are no longer the domain of used car hucksters or lounge lizards. And it ain’t just for after Memorial Day anymore. Anything with wires inside seems to be white outside. Every VW you've seen in the last two TV campaigns has been white. Every :15 spot comprising the latest Puma TV campaign is set in a white seamless soundstage using white stage props.

The iPod has done this, and I find that incredible. White is now the new black (high fashion) or silver (high technology). Something as out-of-nowhere as a portable MP3 player has now made the distinct lack of color THE color. And the yuppie-friendly brands which all chase me (yes, I’m a slobbering fan of all of them) have blindly followed suit.

Come on, guys. Have some guts. Use your intuition. Find some calling card of your own. The iPod’s amazing success has made a cottage industry of white paint, but it’s whitewashing (er, homogenizing) message-senders and their wares. It’s almost embarrassing to me as a marketer to witness these amazing marques all coalescing to capitalize on the “idea of white” begun by Apple, the king brand of all VW-drivin, soccer-lovin, Puma-wearin, Europe-travelin, slightly artsy yet safe clothes and hairdo and music-ownin Gen-Xers.

Again, I hate to admit that I’m one of them. Which may have been why I was recently asked by someone who doesn’t even work in commercial communications, “Why do you think so many Apple users drive VWs?” His consumer intuition spider-sense was right on. And the riot of white that’s ensued has only made the ugly truth of bedfellow-brand-imitation more obvious.

Come to think of it, sheep are white.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Another speaking engagement —

and this time, at the incredible Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale for the AAAA Management Conference for Agency CEOs.

No, I didn't win a contest in hell and become an agency CEO.

And yes, a certain luxury auto manufacturer has been keeping us busier than a shredder at BALCO; but not so much so I couldn't accept the invitation. The Phoenician is amazing, and our moderator Mike Donahue is cool as hell and has so much ad industry experience that I walk away 32% wiser every time we talk.

As well, you should know that a branding discussion this was not. My onlookers were CEOs, and as such, weren't jonesing for the latest creative tactics per se. Rather, I figured they'd respond stronger to a more holistic view of creative — a service offering that drives ROI and upsells clients.

Nauseate by viewing my opening remarks. (For some reason, Firefox doesn't agree with this link.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Back to the

surface, finally.

Six weeks, a product launch, a couple major holidays, and over 15,000 flight miles ago began The Attack of the Workload.

Oh, and lest I forget the North American International Auto Show in balmy Detroit.

The Auto Show punched me with the power of brand. Wanna watch people OVERLOOK or JUSTIFY really bad product design to avoid disparaging their favorite marque? Go to an auto show. How about watching millionaire 60 year-olds run like pre-schoolers on Christmas morning to a long-awaited line addition? Get thee to Detroit in January.

Want to be threatened with violence for disallowing a show attendee from opening and sitting in one of your floor models? Come and stand next to me at the next NAIAS. (No joke — a giant dude gilded in bling and an ill-fitting track suit told me to get out of his way "or else.")

Click the link above and scroll until you find proof of the mass hysteria paid to the new Camaro concept. Don't TELL me brands aren't powerful aphrodysiacs. Hell, I thought the throng had just discovered a living, breathing alien.

More than a few dozen of the people with whom I spoke drove over from Canada or up from various Southern states, flew from way out West — even traveled from Japan — just to be among the first to witness the unveiling of one of my clients' new models.

In the dank cold of the Upper Midwest, just a month after the mass brand agnosticism that are the Holidays, and in the thorough financial exhaustion of January, the power of brand was alive, well, and wearing Fila.