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), รก 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.