Category Archives: Brand Watch

Seinfeld, Gates, and Microsoft: brand rebuilding

The new Microsoft ad featuring Seinfeld and Gates has arrived.  People are using words like "dud," "misfire," and "bomb," but I thought the spot was brave and interesting.

Gates_and_seinfeld_from_the_microso More particularly, people are saying the spot is confusing.  Russo of the LA Times says,

"many … viewers are leaving a trail of rancorous confusion all over the web.  People are asking, nay, demanding to know what the minute-and-a-half spot is trying to convey.

Peter Collins offers this case in point:

I watched the commercial this morning online–I may be stupid but I just didn’t get it!  What was the purpose.  What did it have to do with selling computers.  And Microsoft is supposed to be paying $300 million for this series  ???????

Peter, I have bad news.  Please sit down, and we can call your wife in from the waiting room, if you’d like, but you must listen to me very carefully.  Your self diagnosis is exactly right.

The Microsoft spot has a clear task: to rebuild the Microsoft brand.  It is using Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Gates and a particular situation to perform an act of meaning manufacture.  We can say it is good meaning manufacture.  We can say it is bad meaning manufacture.  But we can’t be mystified a) that this ad exists, b) what it means to do, or c) what it has to do with "selling computers."

Microsoft has dug itself a very deep hole.  It is seen to be smug, arrogant, monopolistic, and indifferent to consumer wishes.  What was left of the brand after this misbehavior was pretty much finished off by those brilliant Mac vs. PC ads by TBWA\Media Arts LabSo, hey, Microsoft had to do something.

What they did was call Crispin.  I haven’t been persuaded by all the work of CPB.  Some of the Burger King work seemed to suffer a Steve-O fascination with stunt marketing.  But this spot is interesting. 

Simplifying, we would say that Crispin’s job was to move the brand from the PC side to the Mac side of the TBWA\Media Arts campaign. So, what do you do?  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at Crispin as they ran through their options!  Oh, to have taught this as a case as a bschool or dschool challenge!  Me, left to my own devices, I got nowhere.  I ran this experiment in my head when I heard that Crispin had been hired and eventually just threw my hands in the air.  I couldn’t think of anything even remotely convincing.  Microsoft seemed to me a little like a meteor so utterly wedged  into the surface of a planet that you really don’t have much choice but to leave it there.  But the new Microsoft spot actually manages extraction.  The brand is not saved.  It’s not repaired.  But it is mobilized a little, and this is a Herculean accomplishment.   This may not be a sufficient act of brand rescue.  But it is a necessary first step. 

Frankly, I didn’t think hiring Jerry Seinfeld would help.  I mean, for all his centrality to our culture in the 90s, his star had faded, his moment passed.  But here he is replaying Jerry from the TV series, that goofy guy who believes he has all the answers and is just smart enough to be right some of the time and interesting all the time.  Mr. Know It All, this was Jerry and especially George on Seinfeld.  Often wrong but never in doubt.  These are guys who believe they can beat the system, only to watch their best efforts spin gently out of control in a slow motion Rube Goldberg disaster that brings embarrassment to everyone.  This is the Seinfeld Crispin recruits for the ad.   

The meaning mechanics of the ad are wonderful:  Jerry’s shoes squeak like a cartoon character.  A store called Shoe Circus.  A family gathered outside the store window in solemn and learned reverence for shoes within.  The meaningful glance between Jerry and Bill that makes no sense.  Seinfeld’s lunatic advice that Bill try wearing his clothes in the shower.  The starring role give churros.  The idea that anyone would want to earn points in a store like this, especially when the card calls them a "shoe circus clown club member."  The idea that computers could ever be "moist," "chewy," and edible.  The idea that Jerry suspected this "all along." 

In a more perfect world,  Crispin might have put Microsoft into company with something like the Wes Anderson movie The Life Aquatic, the one that starred Bill Murray as Steve Zissou.  But there were two problems: Microsoft is utterly out of touch with contemporary culture, and Bill Gates is, as someone once said of Dick Cavett, "spectacularly gentile" which is to say utterly out of touch with contemporary culture.  The Aquatic Life was a world too far.  Some day.  Perhaps someday this will be the "sufficient" act of meaning management.

Well, what does this have to do with selling computers?  I am going to have replace my laptop in the next few months, and despite the fact that I have been an intensely loyal Thinkpad and Windows guy for more than a decade, I am thinking for the first time of an Apple conversion.  And I have to say that this ad, for a very brief moment, actually gave me pause.   Maybe, I thought to myself, Microsoft is not an embarrassing relic after all.  Briefly, very briefly.

And so what is the act of meaning manufacture?  Crispin manages to mine Jerry Seinfeld, a very particularly Seinfeld.  Crispin transfers Jerry’s off kilter way of seeing things to the brand, and this makes Microsoft seem more human, more actual, funnier and more companionable. and most of all, more present to the world.  Is this a good thing?  Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking about a brand that had made itself the paragon of the humorless and the monolithic.  I would say this is work well done.  Crispin earned its dough and then some.  It’s just a start, but what a start. 

The meaning passes through a series of intermediaries.  It must pass from Jerry, this Jerry, and the ads particulars (as above) into Bill and from Bill into the brand.  And Bill plays his part very well, considering.  He seems in every way hip to the joke here.  And this anthropologist is inclined to suppose that some of this ad is a mystifying to him as it is to poor Peter Collins (above).  But Crispin, to their credit, brought him into the ad and found a way to make him work.  (We can imagine how Bill calculated the risk: if Jerry thinks it’s funny, it’s probably funny, and, if Jerry is prepared to share the risk, it’s probably not so risky.)

So everyone hates the new Microsoft ad?  We shall see.  It represents an act of meaning management by one of the best agencies at the top of its game.  It is a powerful first effort to rebuild the brand.  Let’s hope Microsoft sticks to its guns and gives the campaign a chance.  This thing could work.


Russo, Maria.  2008.  Seinfeld and Gates’ Microsoft Misfire.  LATimes: Webscout.  September 5, 2008.  here

See the Seinfeld-Gates Microsoft spot on YouTube here.

See the Microsoft PR backgrounder on the campaign here

My heroes

Heroes_image_by_wordlesnet I gave a talk a couple months ago at Ideo and for some reason I decided to "dis" everyone.   

Not anyone there.  I’m not a complete idiot.  Ideo is of course a brain trust, and a gift to ethnography, anthropology, innovation, creativity. 

I did let fly at many of the pretenders in these fields. 

And the crowd was not amused. 

They assumed, I think, that with every act of criticism I was anointing myself as the one, true authority in matters of marketing and branding.  (I had assumed they knew that this sort of thing is for a Canadian constitutionally impossible.)

But I do dis people, and for all my Canadian reticence, I dis often and with enthusiasm.  On this blog,   I’ve had a go at Kevin Roberts, Sir John Hegarty, Chris Anderson, Jerry Zaltman, Clayton Christensen, Clotaire Rapaille, James Surowiecki, to name a few.

This sort of thing raises a question: Who do I like? It is easy to be critical, but unless you like someone, well, you’re merely nay saying and this is easy and empty. 

So here’s a few of the writers and thinkers I like.  I am a big fan of Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind.  This is a book that resists the BIG PRINT tradition of business publishing, according to which any business book should consist of one idea, exhibited in the title and on the flap of the book jacket, with the rest of the book devoted to shamelessly repetition and lots of examples.  The Opposable Mind is both an argument for and a demonstration of, um, what shall we call it, a small print approach to business discourse. 

More broadly, I like the tradition created in Chicago by Lloyd Warner after World War II.  This was a time when people from industry and the academic world met to solve problems.  I put the following people in this tradition, though it is not clear whether and how they worked with Lloyd Warner: Syd Levy, Irv White, Phil Kotler, John Sherry.  As a graduate of the University of Chicago, I put myself in this tradition. 

There was something reckless and joyful about the work Warner and colleagues did.  They appeared to hold that being smart and well informed was the due diligence.  What didn’t work we could take down, and try again.  This made marketing a restless, experimental, iterative enterprise.   The idea was to fail early, often and informatively.

There are several communities that appeal to me. I am giving a few names for illustrative purposes.  Please think of these names not as an exhaustive list, but a representative sample. If I have missed your name, for God sake, don’t hate me.  Just send me an email.  And shame on me. 

1) The "interpretive" business school community: John Sherry, Rob Kozinets, Susan Fournier, Russ Belk, Alan Middleton, Doug Holt, David Mick, John Deighton, to name a few.

2) New media: Clay Shirky and others in the ambit of the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University; Henry Jenkins and others in the ambit of the Department of Comparative Media and C3 at M.I.T., David Weinberger and others at the Berkman School at Harvard, to name a few.

3) Design world: Diego Rodriguez, Bob Sutton, and others at the design school at Stanford, Michael Beirut, William Drentell and others at Yale, Debbie Millman and others at SVA, to name a few.

4) Planning and creative communities: Boy, there are too many people to know where to begin.  Oh, alright, Russell Davies, David Armano, Dino Demopoulos, Faris Yakob, Brian Collins, to name a few.

5) Journalism: Jon Fine, David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell, Lisa Schwarzbaum, Virginia Postrel, to name a few.

6) Marketing thinkers and practitioners: Seth Godin, Thomas Davenport, Johnnie Moore, John Grant, Tom Guarriello, Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Nick Hahn, Sergio Zyman, Tom Asacker, to name a few. 

7) Other: Pip Coburn, Jerry Michalski, Sara Winge,Tim O’Reilly, Andrew Zolli, to name a few. 

Ok, so the next time I criticize someone, you’ll know I do not imagine myself the one and only.  There are lots of people working this ground.  I am grateful to them all, named and not named.


For more details on Lloyd Warner, see my blog post here

The review of Kevin Roberts here

The review of Sir John Hegarty here


To for the image.

Markets now


[Jeffrey] Bewkes [Time Warner President and CEO] describes Time Warner’s new raison d’être as “dominating niches with a clear brand strategy.”


Arango, Tim.  2008.  Holy Cash Cow, Batman!  Content is Back.  New York Times.  August 9, 2008.  here

McCracken, Grant.  1997.  Plenitude.  Toronto: Periph. Fluide.

Yahoo, brand drama and the summer solstice

Img_0015_2 It’s like that scene in Men in Black, the one that shows aliens bailing out of spaceship earth. 

A lot of talent is now in flight, including Flickr founders, Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake, Delicious founder, Joshua Schacter, not to mention Jeff Weiner, Usama Fayyad, Jeremy Zawodny, JR Conlin, and Bradley Horowitz.

But wait a second.  Delicious and Flickr belonged to Yahoo?  No kidding.  I am sure lots of people knew this, but, if I may use myself as a measure, lots of people did not.   

This is an interesting branding problem.  I mean, what if Yahoo were in the hands of a different, more expert, branding team?  What if the meanings were actually being managed here? 

One strategy is, of course, to rename everything Yahoo.  But that seems pointless and dumb.  Not least because we have such interesting naming exercise in the works: and Flickr. 

Vowels excised or isolated?  It was if these new brands were taunting the skittish adopter, as if to say, "we are so necessary, we can call ourselves anything, and you will still embrace us."   I, for one, was terrified by and it took me an extra month to try it out.  Sure enough, this service was so useful, I found a had to use it and that funny sounding word. 

The other extreme is "embarrassed parent," no acknowledgment. This appears Yahoo’s present strategy, if they have a strategy, that is.   But this seems just as pointless. "Brand neglect" is never a good idea.  Especially now that Google appears to have stepped up their game.  HP has done some nice work recently.  I feel like we are still waiting to hear something sustained from Cisco, but what little we hear is nice.  Microsoft bumble along as usual, truculent and contrary, the teenager who blames us for his mistakes.  The social networks have their own brand vivacity.  Anytime you are the platform for identity creation and identity management, you don’t have to work very hard.  But it won’t be long before the space too becomes crowded with competition and then branding will have to be done deliberately.  This moment will come sooner than Facebook thinks. 

In between is "big tent" and "loose orbit." And in this case, we want the lesser brands to flourish beneath, or around, a concept that is  gigantic and capacious.  And this would be interesting, wouldn’t it?  Building the architecture within which these very vital brands could play.  We would be looking for the subtle and not so subtle exchange of meanings between the star ship and the things in orbit.  Who builds the brand capital?  Who ferries it?  How do brands divide the labor of meaning manufacture. 

I was going to do a kind of stage 2 of this post.  For the events at Yahoo this week raise still deeper anthropological issues that take us from the meanings of the brand to the culture of the corporation.  I am thinking especially of the brilliant resignation letter that Stewart Butterfield sent to Yahoo this week.  It is the most brilliant thing I’ve read in a long time.  (It is reproduced in the article here.)

But then I thought, hey, this last day of the week is the first day of summer.  I am going to make the toys go for Molly, have dinner with Pam, and raise a glass of something rich and mysterious.  Happy summer solstice!


Thomas, Owen.  2008.  Stewart Butterfield’s bizarre resignation letter to Yahoo.  Valleywag.  June 17, 2008.  here.

Wray, Richard and Bobbie Johnson.  2008. ‘I’m off to tend my alcapas’ – Flickr founder’s exit marks end of a web era.  The Guarden.  June 20, 2008. here

The Method Brand

Daniel_day_lewis_2People have such a misconception about what it is I do.  They think the character comes from staying in the wheelchair or being locked in the jail or whatever extravagant thing they choose to focus their fantasies on…  But that’s just the superficial stuff.  Most of the movies I do ae leading me toward a life this is utterly mysterious to me.  My chief goal is to find a way to make that life meaningful to other people. 

Hear that?  This is Daniel Day-Lewis talking about acting.  Unless I’m mistaken, he is talking about artifice. 

I had always assumed that Daniel Day-Lewis was a method man, a man who committed himself to his part, living and breathing it for the duration of filming. 

Method acting, as I understand it (and I may not), is not really acting at all.  It’s an act of revelation.

Method actors feel their character with great depth.  They enter an emotional condition in which the portrayer is indistinguishable from the portrayed.  Committed to someone else’s selfhood means that the actor must necessary throw off signals that describe the emotional condition within. The actor isn’t so much acting as he or she is giving an account of how he or she feels in this moment before camera.  In the method approach, acting is kind of serial sincerity. 

Not so the crafty European.  No, the old world actor engages in calculation!  In artifice!  This actor is making stuff up.  No sincerity here.  He actually stops to think how he might "make that life meaningful to other people."  Ladies and gentlemen, the guy’s a faker. 

We North Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of artifice.  We want our actors to live and breathe their roles, in the manner of a Robert De Niro.  It’s as if we are saying that we will not commit to a performance unless we know the actor has done the same.  And if this should cost some actor his self possession, in the manner of a Heath Ledger, well, this troubles us not at all.  In the art markets of our democracy, we are little monarchs.  We will have our due. 

And this brings us to what I think we mean by authenticity in the world of branding.  We don’t mean brands that are never otherwise.  We don’t mean brands that are true to themselves.  We mean brands that practice serial sincerity.  We want the brand, as we want the actor, to be what it is the moment it is with perfect and thoroughgoing commitment.  The brand might have been something before, and it may be something after, but in this moment the brand must be what it is and not another thing.  It must be in this regard actorly, a method brand. 


Jensen, Jeff.  2008.  Daniel Day-Lewis.  Entertainment Weekly.  Issue 978, February 1, 2008, p. 33.   

Brand Multiplicity

Img_0057 Martin Bishop very kindly left a comment on my blog yesterday.  Here’s a portion:

It’s interesting that you select the Axe and Dove teams at Unilever as good programs. They’ve been innovative, for sure, but the fact that they’ve operated so independently has created a brand/corporate reputation issue for Unilever.

When Dove launched its campaign against beauty ads, critics pointed out that this message was absolutely incompatible with Axe’s misogynistic ads. To quote from an op-ed: "A Company’s Ugly Contradiction" in The Boston Globe:

"Viewers are struggling to make sense of how Dove can promise to educate girls on a wider definition of beauty while other Unilever ads exhort boys to make ‘nice girls naughty.’ … Unilever is in the business of selling products, not values, and that means we, the consumers, are being manipulated, no matter how socially responsible an ad seems."

I think this is a cautionary tale suggesting that renegade activity should have limits and that some corporate oversight is essential.

I am grateful for Martin’s comment and I love the imagination and intelligence in evidence on his blog.  But this sort of thing makes me deeply uncomfortable.  From an anthropological point of view, I believe that brands are obliged to be responsive. This is what makes them vital and interesting from a cultural point of view, and, we hope, from a competitive one.  Brands and corporations should be multiple.

There are two points to make here. 

First, I think, it’s not for us to say what Unilever can and can say when it makes an ad for Axe.  To be sure, there is nothing quite so obnoxious and in the wrong circumstances dangerous as a teen age boy.  But it is the job of the marketer to find out what animates the consumer, the meanings at work in his life, to discover his "mattering map."  And Axe campaign does this very well.  We don’t like it.  Too bad.  We are not the arbiters of teen boys or American corporations.

Second, we cannot demand consistency from Unilever in its marketing and branding efforts.  It is going to speak in several languages.  It is after all operating in an increasingly diverse society and several markets.  Consistency would blunt its marketing efforts.  More to our point, consistency would blunt its responsiveness. 

Here’s what I think.  We can’t refuse Unilever the right to make an Axe campaign without giving someone the right to refuse Unilever the right to make the Dove campaign. If we can say "no" to a sexist campaign, someone can say "no" to a feminist one.

Nothing should be foreign to brand.  As I was trying to argue a couple of days ago in the Kleenex post, we are seeing brands get more adventuresome in the meanings they are prepared to cultivate and embrace.  This means that brands are becoming more like other cultural producers, movie makers, poets, writers.  There are some standards here, and perhaps stricter ones that those that constrain the movie maker or the poet, but we are nowhere near these standards in the case of the Axe ad.  To use the language of the Elizabethan court, the Axe ad may be treated as a "thing indifferent."

This is precisely what is wrong with the authenticity argument now being promoted by Gilmore and Pine.  In fact, brands have no native voice.  They may have a brand heritage.  Some brand meanings may come more easily than others.  But there is nothing a brand must say, and nothing, within limits, it mustn’t say.  Brands are designed to be exemplars of responsiveness.  This means we may not insist on what they "really" mean, or what they "must" say.   The very point of the exercise, as this is carried forward by branding, marketing, capitalism, and a dynamic society, hangs in the balance. 

For some reason, we feel free to let fly when talking to a brand.  We say things we would never dream of saying to a movie maker or a novelist.  (And this is interesting.)  But I thought the thing we liked about capitalism is that it is responsive.  In some sense it does not care what received convention says.  It is quite prepared to trumpet new body types if there is an audience for this argument.  It is this aspect of capitalism that so serves the cause of liberty.  It is this aspect of capitalism that has helped it produce the plenitude, the blooming diversity of our contemporary world.   The brand must be multiple because increasingly that’s what the world is. 


See Martin’s blog "Brand Mix" here.

Gilmore, James and Joseph Pine.  2007.  Authenticity: what consumers really want.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press. At here.   

Postrel, Virginia.  1999.  The Future and its Enemies: the growing conflict over creativity, enterprise and progress.  New York: The Free Press.   At here.


Got the image shooting my iPhone outside the window of Amtrak on the way to Cambridge.  I call it "brand migrating."  No, not really.   

Release the Candor: new branding strategies

Img_1332 Can branding learn something from Western ideas of selfhood?  Dude, totally.

In the Elizabethan best seller, The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione recommended that gentlemen fashion the public self with care, and then conceal this care with the appearance of carelessness.  He called this "sprezzatura," the art of concealing art with art.

Castiglione’s Italian countrymen accepted the idea, but it was the English who embraced it with passion (well concealed, of course).  They embraced it, and, as I discovered sleeplessly last night, built upon it.   (For God sake, whatever you do, avoid the Safi Luxury Hotel in Monterrey.  Whew!)

Beau Brummell was the arbiter of 18h century style, and the man usually credited with inventing the suit and tie.

What the wearer is after is a "curious mean" (as Virginia Woolf wrote of Brummell’s jokes) between skill and pure chance. The tying of a cravat involves the rigorous removal of human agency from the final appearance of the fabric: the knot is intentional, but the folds are entirely fortuitous. As Giorgio Agamben has put it, Brummell, "whom some of the greatest poets of modernity have not disdained to consider their teacher, can, from this point of view, claim as his own discovery the introduction of chance into the artwork so widely practiced in contemporary art."

Brummell’s debt to sprezzatura is evident but his approach is new.  This is not art perfected and then concealed. This is a deliberate stepping off, a search for perfection in what cannot be controlled, a betrayal of perfection to consort with its enemy, accident. 

There is of course a great tradition of using chance to create art.  But have we ever used chance to create brands?  Certainly as we embrace new and less controllable kinds of marketing devices (experiential marketing, networking, buzz management, guerrilla marketing, and so on) we embrace chance whether we want to or not. 

Indeed, there has always been something accidental (or accidentful) about marketing.  This must be the reason we used to say things like "I know half of advertising is effective, I just can’t tell which half."  It may also be the reason we used to say things like "release the condor" before the beginning of an ad shoot.  (This comes from an infamous moment when an great bird of flight that was supposed to circle gracefully around a new GM product plummeted to its death. The production team had managed to engage the only species of condor incapable of flight.)

What I mean is that we consider creating brands through the "rigorous removal of human agency"  We must choose the elements with care, but the "folds," the outcome, should be fortuitous.

In this event, the brand message would have to unfold in the moment, and each time a little differently, until, hey presto, perfection for this fleeting moment is achieved.  If this where an ad with several elements, an ad that was constructed more like noir, with complexity and ambivalence.  Sometimes we would see the ad one way, sometimes another. 

The work that Arnold did for Volkswagen in the 1990s, the car traveling through a summer evening. with kids who decide not to get out and go to the party.  The work that Wieden + Kennedy does for Nike also qualifies.  The spot that shows a girl who walks to work without ever touching the ground.  I would watch it a little differently every time, sometimes it was simply odd.  But sometimes it was close to sublime. 

But the elements that come together could be the bits and pieces of a coodinated marketing compaign.  Let’s say I own a Mini.  (I don’t but let’s say.)  Sometimes the social part of the brand experience annoys me, a forced sociality.  Sometimes I kind of like.  Recently, I saw the Hammer and Coop ad and I liked its homage to those deeply stupid Starsky and Hutch productions. These notions are tumbling about in my head when I take my Cooper S out for a spin and suddenly i get it. Suddenly, the brand promise if fulfilled. 

The trick here is to mix lots more elements into the ad or the campaign than we normally do.  And this means mustering our courage and hewing to a course that will test the mettle of every marketing manager.  The old rule of marketing was of course sell that unique selling proposition often and loudly.  Mixing lots of interpretive options into the signal, this is a departure for which some of us are intellectual and emotionally unprepared. 

What we want are brands that invite our involvement and then reward it.  Involvement takes complexity and the willingness to open the brand to a variety of interpretations and the possibility that some of these interpretations will prove a little insipid.  What we are doing here is buying sublime brand moments at the cost of some that are ill formed and unsuccessful.  Let us try out Castiglione’s and Brummel’s advice. I mean, we keep saying that marketing is a conversation.  Perhaps its time to make brands creatures worthy of talking to. 


Dillon, Brian.  2006.  A Poet of Cloth.  Cabinet.  Issue 21 (Spring). here.

The Wikipedia entry on sprezzatura, here.

Last note:

The photo above was taken last week in Mexico City.  It kind of works for this post, but what I was thinking when I saw this and other cues for the bus is that this is a photographic project waiting to happen.  Someone should travel the world and take photos of people waiting for public transit.  It’s a great opportunity to observe cultural difference and human sameness, and as we begin to see the importance of diminishing the effects of gas burning engines, it’s germane to one of our most pressing global problems.  Just a thought.      

Cate Blanchett: brand exemplar

Cate_blanchett_i When theatre people say why Cate Blanchett is a good actress, they say she is:

  • transformational and fluid
  • open
  • filled with contradiction
  • uncontrolled at the core
  • elusive
  • ambiguous

Hah!  Traditionally, this is the "no fly zone" of the branding world.  It may do for actresses to work the more difficult and meaning rich tropes. Not for brands.  No, brands preferred a rhetoric that emphasized emphasis, repetition, clarity and, um, emphasis. 

But why can’t the brand be more like Cate? 

Lindy Davies, director at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney, says that Blanchett as a student exhibited a kind of egoless state.  She was, in his word, "transformational."  Blanchett calls this "fluidity."  Lahr of The New Yorker calls it an "inconclusiveness."  As brands learn to be many things to many people, and to be ever more quick about it, the transformational will come to be seen as a good thing. 

Openness also matters.  Blanchett says, "I think it’s important to pin questions down.  Sometimes you can answer things definitively with a character, within a moment.  And sometimes it’s important that you don’t."  What brands try for openness?  A mere handful.  Apple?  Geiko? 

Contradiction is one of the sources from which fluidity and openness come.  Blanchett is "candid and private, gregarious and solitary, self-doubting and daring, witty and melancholy."  The idea that a brand could be any of these things is a little dizzying.  The idea that it could all of these things at once, is completely removed from the realm of possibility.  Still, that’s doesn’t mean that brands won’t someday master contradiction.  After all, if a real world of perfect dynamism is truly upon us, it won’t have any choice. 

Jonathan Kent says that Blanchett has an "uncontrolled core that she’s not entirely in charge of, which when it’s harnessed, makes her riveting."  Riveting, now that’s language the branding world can understand. That’s something the contemporary brand wants very much to be.  If the price is an uncontrolled core, look out Kraft, look out Motorola, look out Warner Brothers.  We have seen your future.

Scott Rudin is impressed with the way that Blanchett controls access.

She’s very shrewd about what capital she gives up and when.  When she gives you the tiniest bit of insight into why the character’s behaving the way she is, you gobble it up.  I think it’s a combination of alluring and elusive.

And when Blanchett was preparing a scene for Notes on a Scandal, she decided, "I’m going to be completely, utterly ambiguous.  Ambiguity is not absence.  It’s a wildly contradiction series of actions, emotions, and intentions." 

Zut alors.  We are now so far off the brand map as to be living in another universe.  But as I say, capitalism is nothing if not responsive, and when it sees that the only way to make dynamic brands is to embrace a new rhetoric, well, of course it will.  And in that moment, the world will threaten a massive changing of the guard.  The business schools, the agencies, the consultants will change or be displaced.  We’re all going to have to be a lot more like Cate. 


Lahr, John.  2007.  Disappearing Act.  Cate Blanchett branches out.  The New Yorker.  February 12, 2007, pp. 38-45

7 Branding lessons from the Dove campaign

Dove_ii Marketing can be a lot like surfing.  The brand surveys contemporary culture as if it were the surf off Australia’s Gold Coast, looking for the perfect wave. 

In the early oughts (probably 2003), Unilever made an extraordinary discovery.  A global research project told them that of the 3200 women they had surveyed, only 64 of them (or 2%) were prepared to call themselves beautiful.  Seventy-six per cent of the respondents wanted the idea of beauty to change. 

Unilever decided to make itself that change agent:

The Dove mission is to widen the definition of beauty.  The Campaign for Real Beauty is based on a belief that beauty comes in different shapes, sizes, ages and that real beauty can be genuinely stunning.  (Verkade in Lichti, below) 

The Dove campaign for Real Beauty launched in 2004.

Yesterday, I talked about the Dove campaign…because Virginia Postrel had done so.  But in truth I had wanted to talk about this campaign for a long time. 

After all, the Dove campaign for real beauty is a great example of marketing that works with contemporary culture, not against it.  Dove was prepared to capture the tremendous energy coming off a trend that many brands just looked through or tried to work around.  In point of fact, ideas of femaleness had been "under review" and deeply contested in our society at least since the ideas of Susan B. Anthony.  The tide had come and gone several times by 2003 and now it appeared to be prepared to transform our culture’s most fundamental ideas of what beauty is. 

Brands that surf culture have to choose their moment with exquisite timing.  If they are a moment too soon, they look like reckless "kooks" way out ahead of the trend.  The brand will pay for it.  The brand manager’s career will pay for it.  On the other hand, if they wait too long, they are going to look like johnnies-come-lately playing me-too marketing.  March can be too early and May too late.  April is the sweet spot between ridicule and scorn. 

We can’t know what was going on within Dove, but we may assume that Unilever marketers were monitoring several diverse developments in contemporary culture, everything from the Boston "our bodies, ourselves" collective founded in 1970 to Anna Nicole Smith, the voluptuous celebrity who died tragically in 2007 through the TV show Sex in the City.  (We can’t say that the head’s up came from the 2003 research project.  Something had to inspire the project.) 

But the moment that Dove decided to get on board was the moment that the trend took on an extraordinary ally.  Using the creative talent at the brand’s disposal and the deep pockets at Unilever, there was now a mainstream champion of a new definition of beauty.  At some point, Oprah came on board.  The fitness studio Curves was established. Special K got in on the action.  (We must hope for a clarifying history here.)  And before very long, the beauty hegemony of Vogue and the Hollywood Studio was being challenged.  A nascent, distributed, but deeply unofficial unhappiness with beauty concepts suddenly was given a voice and a profile.

There is a bargain at work here, a trade.  In order to get access to the power and the authenticity of the new beauty movement, Dove makes available its marketing cunning and check book.  To get access to Dove’s cunning and check book, the trend makes available its power and authenticity.   Intellectuals are fond of talking about how capitalism corrupts culture, but this bargain looks like a pretty good one.  Both parties prosper.

Seven branding lessons of the Dove campaign

1. Survey the world.  Get to know the  culture. 

2. Discover the trend or the impulse that could serve the brand.

3. Assess the downside risks to which the brand is exposed.

4. Establish a time table that shows the growth of the trend.

5. Establish the moment to get in.

6. Partner with the enthusiasts of the trend.

7. Make your move (repeat steps 1 through 6)


Anonymous.  n.d., History of Our Bodies Ourselves and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.  here

Clegg, Alicia. 2005. Dove Gets Real.  April 18, 2005. here

Lichti, Shirley.  2006.  Dove Campaign reflects a beautiful strategy.  The Record.  June 21, 2006. here

McMains, Andrew.  2007.  $70 mil. Weight Watchers in Play.  Adweek.  February 14, 2007.  here.  [The Watchers went into play today, with $70 million at stake, and WPP Group’s Young and Rubicam the incumbent.  Dove will has changed the landscape in which the winning agency and this brand must work.]

Piper, Tim, Yael Staav, Mark Wakefield, Sharon MacLeod, Stephanie Hurst. 2005.  Dove Film.  as posted on YouTube, September 5, 2005. here.  [This short film appears to compile clips from ethnographic interviews with girls 7-17 roughly.  Captures the pressures on young women to lose weight.]

Traister, Rebecca.  2005.  "Real beauty" — or really smart marketing. Dove has a worthy new ad campaign that tells women to embrace their curves. Too bad they’re hawking cellulite cream.  Salon.  July 22, 2005.  here

Brands behaving badly II

Firefox The new brand is a guest, not a host.  It doesn’t force itself on the consumer.  (This is what Joe Plummer means by "engagement.")  It doesn’t  pretend to control the debate.  (This is what the Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger, Rick Levine, and the Cluetrain Manifesto meant by "conversation.")  It didn’t pretend to know better.  (This is what Prahalad and Ramaswamy meant by "cocreation.") The old days of asymmetry, with brands on high, and consumers below, are gone.  Aren’t they? 

In the last week I have seen three instance of brands behaving badly. 

Mozilla’s Firefox, for instance.  When I try to put a URL shortcut on my desktop, Firebox strips out the icon that came with the original, and insists on adding it’s own (as pictured).  Yeah, I know.  It looks like hell. 

Now, this is the sort of thing I’d expect Microsoft to do.  It’s kind of greedy, imperial, and, well, Microsoft.  But I thought Firefox had taken a page from the "don’t be evil" game plan developed by Google. Why not let the original URL icons remain in place?

If Firefox can’t do it as a gesture, they could at least do it as a brand utility.  When the original icons remain in place, it is actually easier for me to organize and navigate my desktop.  And that is, after all, what a desktop is for.  It is, to change the metaphor for a moment, a flight deck that tells me at a glance the projects I am working on and how to get at them.   The original icons add value.  The Firefox icon destroys this value.  A brand destroying value?  Good one.

I feel the same way about product placement.  I do realize that there is now an entire industry here, encouraged in part by Steve Heyer’s famous call for new intersection between Madison and Vine.  And, yes, I am now accustomed to seeing products jammed into movies and television.  But it interferes with the suspension of my disbelief.  Especially when that label is always face out.  These brands are interlopers.  They have forced themselves into my life.  I don’t thank them for it.  If I want a bully brand wandering into my entertainment time…well, I don’t.  Gee, more brands destroying value.  Perfect.

I know this will be an unpopular position, but I feel the same way about the Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing tactics that recently, um, unleashed in the streets of Boston.  I will not comment on the scare the tactics provoked, except to say that it is perhaps not entirely surprising that a nation in a heightened state of security would leap to conclusions.  No, I’d be unhappy with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force event even if it hadn’t provoked a terror alert.

Here’s the thing.  One Andre Obey is charming, interesting, poetic, provocative, just the thing to make urban life more engaging. Two Andre-type campaigns is less interesting.  And a great flood of Andre-type campaigns is a right pain in the ass.  The world fills up.  Poor old Naomi Klein is wrong to suppose that public space is being devoured by advertising.  But enough Andres and her argument would begin to make sense.  (And we will ignore for the moment the irony that the people who perpetrate these campaigns are mostly Klein enthusiasts.)  Slapping things up around town, especially when it is driven by a marketing campaign and not artistic impulse, is annoying.  No, actually, it’s intrusive, and bad mannered.  No, it’s brand placement every bit as obnoxious as product placement.   

All three of these seem like cheats.  Firefox, product placement and guerrilla marketing, all seem like an effort to find a way around the rules of the game.  Yes, I know that TIVO and an agile consumer make it harder and harder to reach the consumer.  (Haven’t the new marketing tools also made it easier to reach them?)  What we ought to have done is master the rules of the old marketing, not to go looking for a cheat, especially when this cheat was going to rehabilitate the brand as a vulgar, shouting, unwelcome guest.

Google vs. Microsoft: my ransom note

Microsoft_gates Microsoft and Google are gods at war.  At issue: who will supply our software.   

This is a moment of transition.  Microsoft enjoys the incumbent’s advantage on PC operating systems.  But Google is challenging on Office software.

The thin edge of the wedge was Google’s emergence as the search portal.  Google search so came to dominate my Internet activity that it eclipsed Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and this opened the way for Firefox, Microsoft’s  competitor.  Google’s Gmail replaced Microsoft’s Outlook.  With Excel and Word alternatives, Google was suddenly in the Office game.

Google took this position not a moment too soon.  Microsoft Office 2007 is now for sale and consumers like me must now decide: do I complete my migration away from Microsoft or do I "reup" for the new Office 2007 suite?  Needless to say, once I have paid the $680 for  Microsoft’s Office, I’ll be inclined to stay put.  The time for the Google god to step forward is now.

It looks as if the decision turns on presentation software.  I don’t like Powerpoint.  It is clumsy and dangerous, sometimes vaporizing slides minutes before showtime.  The trouble is that Google does not have credible alternative.  (Don’t tell me that Thumbstack is any kind of  alternative.)   Nor does anyone in the PC universe, not so long as we all stand in awe of Apple’s Keynote, the new defacto standard. 

The Gods contest but strangely.  From a strategic point of view, presentation software looks the battle on which the war depends.  To win the day, Google needs something remarkable here.  In a perfect world, the Google presentation software would be to Microsoft Powerpoint what Gmail was to Outlook: astonishingly better, enormously problem solving.

How about Microsoft?  Did it seize Office 2007 to redesign Powerpoint so well that Google would be shut out, or forced to play catch up? Recently, David Pogue said, "no."

In the … slide-show program PowerPoint, in contrast, there’s not much new apart from the Office-wide improvements.

What can the gods be thinking? 

Whether I persevere with my prison break or merely, meekly reup for Office will depend, I think, on how I feel about these two brands. 

I first heard about personal computers, software and Internet in the early 1980s at the computer lab at the University of Cambridge.  This little world was buzzing at the prospect of…well, we weren’t quite sure.  The ability to create,  organize, disseminate information seemed the least of it.  The new movement of data as knowledge as understanding as communication…this seemed to promise a Bernoulli effect.  Surely, the worlds we cared about would lift off, spin, tilt, glide, and come to earth again unpredictably. This technology would have big, structural effects, that much was clear, even if the effects themselves were impossible to imagine.

That Cambridge buzz was kept alive for me by Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog. These was fascinating reading, a little compulsive, actually, as if a Sears catalog was actually giving a glimpse of the world ten years out.  Much of it was too Californian for me.  Whenever I am asked to join hands, sing Kumbaya, and contemplate a world in which all men are brothers, well, I just want to take a swing at someone.  In my experience, utopian visions are as coercive as the worlds they would supplant…except now we have to be grateful about it.

So, unlike the likes of Mr. Brand, I did not see the computer revolution as an opportunity for the installation of certain political ideals.  But I did feel certain the world would have to be more interesting.

Google is a partner here.  That’s ultimately what search is, an opportunity to discover the things in the world that make the world more interesting.  The Google motto "don’t be evil" is ok, but merely that.  It ought to have been "don’t be dimming or diminishing."  No, come to think of it, it ought to have been "search, not destroy."

Dim and destroy, that’s the Microsoft thing.  I came to the brand in the 1990s, grateful to have their brand companionship as I made my way through the strange land of computers and software.  It’s taken Microsoft something like a decade to beat this gratitude out of me, but finally, they managed.  I watched as they bullied and supplanted other suppliers, scorned and then tried to coopt the internet, scorned and then tried to coopt Web 2.0, scorned and then tried to coopt free email and blogs. 

Microsoft didn’t have to be utopian in Brand’s manner.  It didn’t have to be "all about creativity and self expression" in the manner of Jobs and Apple.  It just had to be curious, open, searching, not merely the supplier of the operating systems of this new revolutionary world, but somehow animated by its best hopes and biggest promises.  It was as if Microsoft had been cursed by the things we like least about the corporation: the rule bound, hierarchical, arrogant, self serving, insular, dark, collapsing, and, yes, diminishing.

From a branding point of view, the Microsoft fiasco was astonishing to watch.  Here was a corporation that could build a brand at a time when the category was new, the consumer was new, and they had almost limitless resources with which to work (there was a time when Microsoft had $50 billion in cash).  Here was an opportunity to build a brand like no other.  There was even someone called Steve Jobs testing the alternatives.  But, no, Microsoft was apparently too arrogant to make an effort and too ham-handed to succeed when it did.  Things have gone so badly that it was hard not to wonder whether this was an unprecedented string of bad luck or perhaps even God’s punishment.  Perhaps Microsoft couldn’t ever be Jobsian because it would always be Jobbian.

The gods contest most painfully.  Generally, we the consumers are well served.  Microsoft continues to pave the way for Google’s success.  We should all have enemies like Microsoft (unless of course they supply our operating system and our office software).  But it is time for Google to step up and create an office suite that is not cobbled together from Web 2.0 startups.  It is time to take its considerable fortune and offer it up as a ransom.  I believe I speak for everyone when I say, we the users of Microsoft software plead for our release. 


Pogue, David.  2007.  Purging Bloat to Fashion Sleek Software.  New York Times.  January 18, 2007.  here.

Several.  n.d.  Don’t be Evil.  Wikipedia. here

Craig Ferguson (brand exemplar?)

Craig_ferguson Are TV talk shows a laboratory for branding?  Do we have something to learn from Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel and Craig Ferguson?

Well, surely, we don’t want our brands to look like Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show, that exercise in the painfully agreeable.  Jay Leno used to be a comedian:

"President Bush is recovering after an illness in Japan.  His medical advisers were very clear.  They said to the President, "Get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids.""

"Plenty of rest, lots of fluids?  I thought that was Congress’s job."

Now, Jay uses EZ humor.  Retirement happened a while ago.  We’re just waiting for him to leave. 

Jay’s story is the story of a several brands.  They begin with edge and intelligence and then trade this away for growth.  They grow large without even as they wither within.  EZ branding, it’s everywhere.  Big simple branding propositions.  Repeated endlessly. Argh.  Retirement can’t come soon enough.

Jimmy Kimmel is another story.  I liked the fact that he promised his talk show was going to be a "funny version of the Tonight Show."  And I like the fact that he manages to express two very different parts of contemporary culture: wicked clever and Man Show stupidity.  The person who can pull this off is a genius or the head writer at a Frat house.  The brand that can pull this off, well, name one.  ESPN, maybe.  Apparently, Kimmel is up 17 % among adults 18 to 49, so a lot of brands ought to be taking notice.

But there is trouble in this little paradise.  Kimmel is making a host of compromises.  He now wears a tie.  The show is no longer live.  He dutifully stands up for his monologue.  Yes, the numbers are growing, but it is not clear that the potency of the proposition can sustain itself. 

This is an old story, the trading away of credibility to get to success.  It looks as if Entertainment Weekly may be engaged in something like this.  (The current cover showing Matthew McConaughey under the desperate title "Sexiest Man Alive or Serious Actor?" is but one indication.)  It’s always the same.  The compromises begin to accumulate, the numbers spike nicely, and within a year or two the thing has jumped the shark. 

The lesson from Jimmy Kimmel and his handlers may be this: take grow only if you can have it without compromise.  If you need bigger numbers, start another brand.

This week I’ve been watching Craig Ferguson on The Late, Late Show, and I wonder if he is a new model of the talk show host…and perhaps the brand.

First, Ferguson reverses the trend.  We are now accustomed to actors who started as comedians (Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Ray Romano, Martin Lawrence, Will Ferrell, the list is long). Ferguson is a comedian who started as an actor.   

Second, Ferguson is the picture of animation.  If he were any more animated, he’d be a cartoon character.  I counted 15 vivid, distinct, arch expressions and then gave up.  This guy just loves to mug for the camera and he manages to get from "fiendish glee" to "mock horror" in the blink of an eye.  This may be his acting training.  In any case, there is no such thing as dead air in this show.  Even when the guest is shambling along, Ferguson is furiously digging around them for comic material with the joy and accuracy of a truffle pig. 

Third, Ferguson builds an interesting relationship with the audience.  He actually opens the second segment by saying, "Welcome back, my cheeky little monkeys!"  I tried and tried but I just could not image David Letterman ever saying anything like this to his audience.  (No mugging for Dave.  His is a kind of Protestant, Midwestern, Carsonian theater of the small gesture and restrained reaction.) 

Somehow, Ferguson has got around the "tell a joke" model and creates the impression that everyone in the studio is already party to a joke in progress. In the process he creates an irresistible bonhomie.  No need to get the party started.  It is already well under way the moment Ferguson starts talking.  He insinuates a co-conspiracy and we the audience, go, "well, ok, fine, you’re on."  The on-air relationship is, in the words of our favorite linguist, Michael Silverstein, maximally presupposing.  It assumes what other comedians must labor to create.

Fourth, Ferguson is actually a pretty good interviewer…this separates him from most of the competition and especially David Letterman who is certifiably hopeless.  And being an interviews lets him open up the guest list to include guests as diverse as Edward Norton, Ming Tsai, Xzibit and Paula Poundstone.  Norton showed distressing signs of taking himself seriously as the auteur and grand actor, but dear old Ferguson just kept beaming good humor at him till he loosened up.  He got Xzibit to make fun of himself and talked Ms. Poundstone down off the ledge of career insecurity.  Ferguson proves to be as engaging with guests as he is with the audience. 

It’s all very Scottish, this humor is.  I have seen something like it before in a little pub several miles outside St. Andrews (aka the middle of nowhere) where people would entertain one another with playfulness, wit and dexterity that left yours-truly silent with awe.  There are elements of the music hall at work, with people vamping and camping their way through cheeky, off color jokes and stories.  And it is completely inexhaustible in what we might otherwise think is the Fergusonian style.   

So it’s not as if young Ferguson has made all this up on his own.  But, to be sure, he has, by this time, made it his own, and his opening few minutes of stand up are an exercise in effortlessness and sheer comic facility.  He’s very good at this.  It’s as if the American comedians have made a fine art of taking things out, baring things down, searching for the mot juste and then timing delivery to within a millisecond of perfection.  Ferguson appears to subscribe to the Grand Central Station idea of train travel. Missed a joke?  Never mind, there’ll be another one along in a moment.

What does this have to tell us about branding?  I think the Fergusonian brand is one that brims with lots of things, and shows itself more interested in vividness than consistency, majesty, or even clarity.   A Fergusonian brand is playful, a little surreal at times, vivid, changeable, unpredictable, insinuating, co-conspiratorial, and a little hyperactive.  A Fergusonian brand breaks out of the "keep it simple, stupid" rule book that governs many marketers.  Most of all, the Fergusonian brand works from an abundance model.  It’s not about crafting a couple of words and delivering them with surgical perfection.  It’s about more, and then more, and then more of that more.  Marketing by profusion.  Not everything will work.  And that’s ok.  Now we know.  It’s kind of the way Hollywood used to make movies, and the way Jerry Lewis used to make jokes.   

If there is a brand in the world that captures the Fergusonian approach, it is, I think,  There seem to be lots of Geico ads running at the moment: the gecko, stone age man, the workout parodies, the tiny house bit, the geico squirrels, the interpretive spots starring Mini-me, Little Richard, Peter Graves, Charo, and the guy who does the voice over for action-adventure ads.  It’s hard to believe all this stuff comes from a single agency.  (As far as I know, it does, from the Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia.)

I mean, surely, there will come a time when the brand will want to gaze out on its customers, and salute them with a fond "hello, my cheeky, little monkeys."


I couldn’t actually find anything on YouTube that was guite as good as the Ferguson I got to see this week, but here are a couple of examples

Craig Ferguson Vampire Bats Locusts here

Late, Late Show – November 3, 2006 here.

Late, Late Show – November 14, 2006 here.


Hibberd, James.  2006.  Kimmel’s Old School shift Wins Following.  Televisionweek.  December 18, 2006. 

Zune betrayal (brands behaving badly)

Playsforsure Last week, I was in San Francisco.  I picked up a copy of the Guardian, and came upon my first "year end review."  To my horror, I recognized only a couple of songs in the top ten.  (This is a chronic problem for those of us trying to stay in touch with contemporary culture…or me, anyhow.)

Time to catch up.  In the old days, I would have had to buy 10 albums. But now, of course, I can buy 10 tracks (or albums) on line.  Or so I thought. 

I am not an iPod user.  Something about the "closed Apple universe" put me off.  I wanted music from many sources that I could play on several devices, not a "sole source" supplier that limited my options.

My iPod alternative was the music service from Microsoft’s MSN.  This is where I turned last week.  Bad luck. 

Beginning November 14th, 2006, MSN will no longer offer music downloads through the MSN Music store. The "Buy" buttons that you are used to seeing on the MSN Music album and artist pages will change to links that connect you to Zune        and Real Rhapsody. See below for information regarding how this change will impact your MSN Music account.

There are several things to say here, but here’s the one that strikes me most forcibly.  Microsoft has abandoned PlaysForSure.  PFS was designed to make it easy for consumers to buy digital music from several sources and play them on several devices.  In the place of Apple’s "closed universe," Microsoft was creating something breezier. It was admitting third party players. 

Well, with Zune, that’s over.  Now music from Microsoft is a closed shop too.  Music from Microsoft now plays only on Microsoft devices. And Microsoft devices will play only Zune tunes.   Now the Microsoft music universe is as closed as Apple’s. 

If I want to continue to buy music from Microsoft, I must:

1) rebuy all the songs I have bought from them already.

2) buy a Zune player

3) buy all future music from Zune

I think that we can divide the world of digital music into two camps. There are those who embrace the Apple iPod as a sole source supplier, but there is so much to like about it, and those who, like me, accept a little imperfect for the protection of an "open universe" approach. Most of the people who used the MSN music service did so, I am guessing, out of this motive.  (I mean, is there another plausible reason?)

And what does Microsoft do?  It breaks this connection, creates a closed universe, and forces me to join this closed universe.  Golly, if I were prepared to join a closed universe (and repurchase everything), why would I not just go over to Apple?  Microsoft just managed to remove my one  motive for connecting to Microsoft.  Nice work, fellas. 

This is a brand behaving very badly indeed.  Normally, we don’t treat consumers this way.  And God save us if we do. 

When I was doing research for the Canadian Recording Industry Association on the problem of illegal downloading, my respondents told em that they had several motives.  One was revenge.  Consumers understood that the transition from vinyl to digital, when prices did not drop, was a piece of pure profit taking on the part of the generation.  Also, and this surprised me, they were still pissed off with the "jewel case," that crappy piece of plastic that breaks virtually upon first contact.  I wonder if Zune doesn’t supply a new motive for illegality.

In the fall, BusinessWeek indicated that the the illegal download problem is still with this.  By the estimate of the International Federation of the Photographic Industry, 20 billion songs were illegally downloaded or swapped in 2005.  I think it’s fair to say, that when Microsoft pulls a stunt of the kind (and order) Zune represents, they damage not just their own brand, but the prospects of an industry that is struggling with a gigantic competitor.

Let’s review.  With the Zune universe, Microsoft has dispensed with their difference, broken their contract with consumer, forced him/her to repurchase the music, and with this they have supplied a new motive for the flight from legality that now torments the music industry. Really nice work, fellas.

A.G. Lafley, CEO of P&G, said recently that marketers

"must stop thinking of brands from [a] manufacturing point of view.  Consumers own brand equities [and] brand messages.  [Marketers] need to learn to let go."

Let go of the brand. What good advice. Oh, and Microsoft, while you’re at it, let go of my music.


Bahn, Christopher, Andy Battaglia, Aaron Burgess, Scott Gordon, Liam Gowing, Marc Hawthorne, Jason Heller, Steven Hyden, Josh Modell, Noel Murray, Sean O’Neal, Keith Phipps, Nathan Rabin, Kyle Ryan.  2006. Best music of 2006.  December 13, 2006.  here.

Bernoff, Josh.  2006. iTunes are NOT plummeting!  Forrester blogs. December 13, 2006. here.

Lehman, Paula.  2006.  Free Downloads — After this message.  BusinessWeek.  October 9, 2006, p. 95.

Melillo, Wendy and Joan Voight.  2006.  World on a string.  Adweek.  December 11, 2006, p. 10.  (source for the quote from A.G. Lafley) 

Slater, Derek.  Speculation – Why Did Microsoft Design.  A Copyfighter’s Musings.  here.

is the branding concept AWOL?

Branding_4 What a thing is branding.  So vigorous in its purpose, so capacious in its reach.  To chart the expanse of the enterprise, I give you two of its practitioners. 

Timothy Neve is the creative director of Boutique Agency.  He is a graduate of Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts and he is famous for his theatre set and costume design.

He calls a brand a "visual personality."  His website says,

Tim’s passion and gift is for creating brands from inception, flowing through to unique advertising aesthetics – along with his amazing eye for detail and expression.

Cool Hunting today described Tim as creating "a flourishing identity throughout all aspects of branding." 

Thomas Cromwell
is the head of East West Communications. He specializes in helping nations create brands for themselves. 

Here’s how he is described by his website:

[Thomas Cromwell] has traveled to over 100 countries and worked with many governments on their communications needs, including the preparation of country reports for The Washington Post, The Washington Times and other media. […]

Here’s the way Cromwell describes the value of what he does.

If, on the other hand, your country is known for civil war, widespread crime and corruption, inadequate infrastructure or an unfriendly population, the task of encouraging tourists to visit your destinations is very difficult. You have to either pretend all those disincentives don’t exist, or convince your audience that they will have no impact on a visit to your country.

Think about it. If you are heading to a vacation destination that looks like paradise in the brochures or on the net, but when you arrive you are kept in a long line at passport control at an airport that is dirty and has no climate control, and then you are exposed to sweaty men fighting over who will take you in his taxi, and on and on, your vacation will be spoiled and you are unlikely to return to that country.

(To be fair, not all of Mr. Cromwell’s prose is as bad [or funny] as this.  And some of his notions of branding are interesting.)

I don’t doubt that Neve and Cromwell are good at what they do.  But I am impressed that the same term can describe what they do.  Branding, what an athletic little concept.  Apparently, it applies to the aesthetic,  flourishing, and flowing even as it applies to investment,  tourism, and nationhood (oh right, and "sweaty men fighting.")   

Ours is an expanding culture, its absolute semantic space growing a pace.  So it makes an anthropologist’s heart glad to discover something this encompassing, a bit of culture that stretches from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, as it were.  (I refer of course to the deathless lyrics of "This Land is Your Land" by the Brothers Four.)

Still, "branding" is perhaps too inclusive for its own good.  It may be all things to all people because it’s not much of anything to anyone of us.  Aesthetic and practical, identity and investment, perhaps no concept can stretch this far.

I wonder if the concept called branding is not AWOL, an innocent making its way in the world, falling sometimes into bad company, pressed into service by the not very scrupulous or the not very bright.  It’s as if "branding" fell off the back of a truck and is now circulating without guarantees or operating instructions.  Gray matter gone gray market. 

This raises the question of who should be in charge.  Should it be the academics?  Should it be Mr. David Aaker at Berkeley?  Should it be Philip Kotler at Northwestern.   I don’t think so.  Kotler has done magnificent work, but generally speaking this academy is guilty of abuse and obfuscation.  I was interested to see that, today, Ann Fudge (pictured) resigned as the CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands.  I could not help wondering whether her professional fate would have been any different if her alma mater (Harvard Business School) actually understood brands in any sophisticated way.  Put it this way, no one in the business school community gets the cultural dimension of branding.  This is a little like doing statistics without understanding any of the math.  (You are just going through the motions.  Let’s hope this works for you. God help you when it doesn’t.) 

Well, perhaps the keepers of the branding concepts should be the gurus and the consultants.  Oh, don’t even go there, girlfriend.  Gurus and consultants are famous for adjusting their concepts to suit the client.  So they should, that’s their job.  But this makes them the very worst guardians of the branding concept. 

I believe the nod should go to the marketing practitioner.  Not all of them, to be sure.  But there are people out there who a) really, really care about the brand, b) who have the advantage of watching it take shape over several years, c) who have the advantage of seeing how it responds to various experiments in product development, advertising, promotion, and interaction, d) who have built up an idea based on practice that makes up in empirical acuity what it lacks in formal specification. 

If we were smart, we would go out, gather up best practice, and make this the new standard of what branding is and how branding works. 


Cromwell, Thomas.  n.d., Why Nation Branding Is Important For Tourism.  The East West Communications Website. here.

Sanders, Lisa.  2006.  Ann Fudge Retires From Young & Rubicam Brands.  Ad Age.  November 28, 2006. here. (subscription required)

The boutique agency website here.

Cool Hunting on Tim Neve here.

Acura’s bid for a resonant brand

We hope every brand will resonate withAcura_5 something in our culture, it’s deep structure or recent churn.  Brands that don’t resonate, don’t flourish.  They don’t sell.  They die. 

But sometimes we build a brand so perfect it makes culture resonate in turn.  The brand gives off something clear and powerful and culture begins to stack around it in a gravitational array.  In their time, Coca-Cola, Mustang, Levi’s, Jeep, iPod, all had this effect.  They resonated till culture began to hum. 

The new campaign for Acura’s MDX is ambitious in this way.  Acura would like to bend the culture to its brand.  The point of this post is to ponder their chances. 

It’s an urgent matter.  MDX sales are off 16% this year. This is partly due to the downturn in the luxury SUV market.  It’s also because, as Susie Rossick, national advertising manager for Acura says, "it held on for so many years, but it was time for a redesign."

So far, not so good.  The design of the MDX itself is disappointing. Jason Kavanagh says his team drove the tester all over the Southwestern states "without drawing a single murmur or sideways glance."    MDX competitors are well designed or at least conspicuous: Porsche Cayenne, the BMW X5 and the Lexus RX 350.  Resonant brands almost always begin with brilliant design work.

So Acura has dug itself a hole.  The resonant brand will have to come from other parts of the marketing proposition.  Some from the West coast agency, Independent RPA, which has built a campaign around the "advanced" theme.  And Acura has given them license to explore this in interesting and ambitious ways.  As Rossick puts it, the Acura has forsaken the numbing predictabilities of the luxury car market, and positioning the brand for "independent thinkers."  Excellent. 

Here’s copy for one Acura ad:

At Acura, we help people advance from where they are to where they could be.  Advancing technology, advancing design, advancing life.

Now, this is in fact a modernist theme, developed in our culture in the late 19th century, intensifying in the 20th century, dropping into the mainstream around mid century.  In fact, that’s what we call it, "mid century" modernism.

Mid-century modernism helped confirm and create a new way of thinking about time.  It is characteristic of First World, industrial, cultures to think of time as something open ended (This marks them as very different from traditional, face to face societies, who are inclined to think of time as something repetitive, redundant, in a word, circular.)  Western time is a bullet train.  It hurtles away from the present, taking us with it as it goes.  In it’s mid-century formula, individuals suppose that this future will be better than the past.  Both collectivities and individuals looked forward with pleasure and anticipation.  (I think the only place on the planet that still entertains this concept of time is China.  Ok, there’s also a small community outside Bergen, Norway, and a guy in Munich.)

At mid-century, everyone quickened to the theme. Nations, companies, cities, individuals, were seen to be committed to progress and charging into the future.  The very idea of "forward motion" was elevated from a technical description to a collective enthusiasm, a cultural desideratum. 

So when Acura claims "advance" as their theme they are tapping something that exists in our culture.  The question is whether it is still active and compelling.  Does Acura want to put its eggs in this basket?  Is this the culture of the moment?

The answer has to be "no."  The mid century notion of progress is now on life support.  We have lost our sense of optimism.  We do feel ourselves to be hurtling into the future, but we have our doubts about what will happen there. Political and economic instabilities give us pause.  The big question is what will happen to the environment.  How badly have we f*cked this up?

Technology, so admired in the 1950s, is now seen as the culprit.  We suspect that our fate will depend upon a foot race between the new technology and the effects of the old technology.  It’s going to be a squeaker.  When Acura promises, "advancing technology, advancing design, advancing life" our hearts no longer fill with joyful anticipation.  No, what we think is, "Geez, Louise, it’s going to be a close one." 

Happily, there is another arrow in the quill of this campaign.  A second Acura ad (pictured above) shows a car moving down a country road with a city scape springing up around it.  The voice over intones, "connect to the modern world or escape from it"

Ok, that’s better.  The Acura is not just all-terrain.  It is also all-time, just the thing when we want that "off modernism" driving experience. 

A third spot shows, in black and white, a a guy standing in a city street surrounded by tall buildings.  He is standing still but moving forward as if on a mobile platform.  People move around him in a blur.  The  voice over:

The world is advancing.
Faster and faster.
Are you in or are you out?
Introducing the all new passenger Acura MDX.
Technology takes it to  whole new place.

Well, this is not good at all.  Now we have to choose?  Are we in or are we out?  (I would have preferred, "Is you in or is you ain’t," but that’s probably just me.)  Come on.  This does nothing to diminish the anxieties of our moment.  Any one of us could find ourselves "ain’t" at any moment. 

The question, the test, for any brand that wishes to resonate is 1) what is the culture of the moment, and 2) how can contact be accomplished?  For Acura, it is not clear that the target is well chosen, and the really bad news is contact was successful. 


Kavanagh, Jason.  2006.  More than meets the eye. Insideline.  November 15, 2006. here. [for quotes and prices]

McCracken, Grant. 2006.  When Cars Could Fly.  Culture and Consumption II.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 

Solman, Gregory.  2006.  Acura MDX Cites Advances in Next Campaign. Brandweek.  October 17, 2006.  here. [for sales figures and Rossick quotes]

For examples of the MDX campaign, go the the RPA site here.  (You will have to wrestle with the "time line" but this proves to be quite good fun once you get used to it.)