Category Archives: Brand Watch

Rachael Ray: branding goddess?

Rachael_ray Did Rachael Ray sneak up on you?

I thought I knew day-time television.  Suddenly, her name was everywhere.

Here are 5 things I learned about Rachael Ray:

1) She is 38 years old.  She was raised in upstate New York in an Italian-American family.  She published her first book, 30 Minute Meals, in 1998 and started her first TV show, 30 Minute Meals in 2001.  (She came up fast.)

2) She is now the author of 11 books, a magazine Every Day With Rachael Ray, and her own TV program, Rachael Ray, which launched September 18, 2006.  (She came up prodigiously.)

3) Rachael Ray’s approach to food is peppy and practical.  She doesn’t do finnicky or precious.  She doesn’t do baking.  This has earned her the devotion of contemporary homemakers, and the loathing of foodies who see her as an enemy of the new food culture.  (She came up contra-trend.  She rose while a new approach to food was colonizing the American consciousness: the "slow food," Chez Panisse, Saveur Magazine, celebrity chef, high-end restaurant, connoisseurship trend.)

4) Stylistically, Rachael Ray is the anti-Martha.  Her website calls her "TV’s most down-to-earth and relatable star."  Where Martha Stewart was cool, authoritative, self possessed, as if from the manor born, Rachael Ray is warm, improvisational, unassuming, and just folks.  If Martha Stewart was ceremonial perfection to home making, Rachael Ray captures the "close enough is good enough" spirit that animates most American households.   (Contra-trend meets contra-snootiness, Rachael Ray is a celebrity in that democratic, "America’s sweetheart," tradition.)

5) Rachael Ray is not only peppy but peppery.  The "adorable" Rachael is frequently accompanied by a Rachael who lets fly with sexual innuendo, little digs, and frank observations.  "Sweetness and light" meets "nobody’s fool."  (Ray builds her celebrity out of mixed signals, in this case, the sweet and the savory.)

So Rachael came up fast, prodigiously, contra-trend, contra-snootiness, and she came up with a balanced brand-celebrity message.  And none of this interests us.

What interests is what Rachael Ray can teach us about branding.

Most cooking shows are about food.  They focus on recipes, ingredients, preparation, things cooking, things cooked.  The money shot?  That overhead camera that stares down onto simmering shallots and bubbling stews.

Rachael Ray is interested in what food becomes, how food turns into meals, social occasions, brimming kitchens, people communing, families eating…and talking…and being a family.  This enterprise begins with food and moves briskly on to the emotional, social, and cultural benefits that food gives us. 

Sound familiar?  In the early days of marketing, we were encouraged to think of products and brands in terms of Unique Selling Propositions (USPs).  What we were selling was the physical property and benefit of the product.  In the food category, it was about being creamier, meatier, sweeter, flakier, richer, tastier, etc.  In the pre-Rachael era, the food category was about food. 

Some marketers climbed Mazlow’s hierachy in search of the higher benefits of food brands.  But always there was someone on the marketing team prepared to say, "keep it simple, stupid, this brand has to be about the product benefit."  The USP didn’t keep it simple.   It kept it stupid. 

In the post-Rachael era, a new approach emerges.  Now we want to sell what food turns into, the meals, the social occasions, the brimming kitchens, people communing, families eating..and talking…and being a family.  And from this point of view, the consumer is not a cook, she is a very different kind of problem server.  Here is a women who is called upon to manage a family that is bulging with highly individual individuals, diverse enthusiasms, and conflicting schedules.  (And she must do this at the very moment that every health care professional is insisting on less fat, less sugar, less salt, the very building blocks of food that brings people to take and turns them into families.)  This woman needs a bigger and richer value proposition that the USP. This woman needs ways to imagine and stage the family that make it easy to think and do this thing called a family.

The new approach in marketing must be more Rachael-like.  We want to see how the brand invests food with meanings that convert to the things that Moms most care about, animated kids, engaged dads, and vivid table talk.  This consumer wants food that turns into a "meal," meals that turn into "events," events that turn into a "family."  USPs?  Please.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could reinvent the cooking show.  It’s still larger to imagine that anyone should have found a way to get below the "receipe" approach to cooking and into the real emotional, social and cultural aspects of food.  But Rachael Ray did.  She turned her persona into a celebration of why food matters. 

When does marketing catch up? 


The Rachael Ray Show website here.

Anonymous.  n.d., Rachael Ray 101.  The Food Network.  here.

Anonymous.  2006.  Stupid Questions: This week with Rachael Ray.  Entertainment Weekly. October 20, 2006, p. 90.

Pellettieri, Jill Hunter.  2005.  Rachael Ray: Why Good Snobs Should Quit Picking on Her., July 13, 2005.  here.

Brown outs from Powerpoint (and our Microsoft deliverance)

Thunderbird When I was in my early twenties, I resolved to hitch hike across Canada.  Like much of my generation, I was enamored of beat poets and life "on the road."

I made through BC and Alberta quickly enough, but things got tricky when I hit the prairies.  Somewhere on the outskirts of Regina, I got stuck outside a road side cafe and stayed there with my thumb out for 24 hours.

So when a Thunderbird stopped, I didn’t hesitate.  The guy looked a bit dodgy, blood shot eyes, a tremor in his hand, a certain vacancy in his eyes. What the f*ck, I was on the road again.

I didn’t even mind when the driver offered me a pill from the match box on the console.  And I didn’t mind when the headlights kept shorting out.  "Don’t worry," he said, "they’ll come back."  And sure enough, after about 6 seconds, they did.  He was nonplussed, but I was plenty plussed, I can tell you.  When you’re on the highway, travelling 60 or 70 miles an hour into the pitch dark, 6 seconds is an incredibly long time.  I was all I could do to keep from screaming.  (I was pretty sure that screaming was not in the beat poet handbook.)

Eventually we ran out of gas.  Good, I thought, Nietzche was right.  "What doesn’t kill me makes me happy." 

Sort of a long preamble for a bit of Microsoft bashing, I realize.  And I’m sorry.  Next time you won’t take a ride with this stranger and I don’t blame you.  (It’s just that I am on the plane to Guangzhou, and I have a little extra time.)

Ok, here’s the Microsoft bashing:

The thing I was prepared to endure from perfect strangers driving Thunderbirds, I am not prepared to endure from a corporation with a market cap of several billion dollars.

Headlights shorting out.  This is precisely what happens to me routinely when I am using Powerpoint.  (I have three presentations due by the end of the week so I am using Powerpoint a lot.)  I am typing away and suddenly no letters appear on the screen.  I can keep typing like a demented, pill popping, Thunderbird pilot, and eventually my input puts out and letters appear on the screen. 

Six seconds is an incredibly long time not to see letters on the screen.  If you were in the throes of idea capture, too bad.  Chances are the thing is gone.  You might have a trace, but the unfolding has stopped. 

If you were in the throes of air traffic control, too bad too.  You know, when you have lots of little ideas flying about in your head and you are trying to get some down, so that you can get others down, so that you can get still others down.  When the headlights fail, the entire "stack" crashes, and you have to start again.

So, no, it is not ok for Powerpoint to take a little f*cking holiday in the middle of slide.  How old is Powerpoint software?  How long has Microsoft had to solve this problem?  Could we not have a stripped down version, a stall-proof version of this  software?  Could we not have a composition mode that’s all about capture, and not encumbered by the bells and whistles needed for formatting.

I have a sneeking suspicion why Powerpoint has not fixed this flaw.  It is to do with a button that Micrsoft employees used to wear in the 1990s.  (They might wear it still but I can only speak for the 1990s.)  The button read "FYIV." This stood for "F*ck you, I’m vested."  When one Microsoft employee asked another Microsoft employee to do something he or she did not want to do, the button’s message was clear.  The wearer didn’t have to do anything he or she didn’t want to.

Apparently, the corporation believes in large what the employee believes in small.  FYIV.  We have your business.  When it comes to presentation software, we have everyone’s business.  We would like to help you.  Wait a second, we couldn’t give a sh*t about helping you.  You see, we’re vested. 

Isn’t that sweet?  I have been in full flight from Microsoft for some time now: Mozilla Firefox for my browser, gmail for my email, Google even has a spreadsheet now.  But Windows OS, Word and Powerpoint, these are sticking points.  I know there is presentation software available from Sun (Star), Lotus (Freelance), Harvard Graphics, and so on.  I have looked at most all of them.  I know Apple has Keynote.  I also know that they will never surrender it to the PC world.  There are Web 2.0 software suites out there, including Thinkfree.  The best of them, I think, is  Google is supplying a version of presentation software.  Lenovo is promising to install Linux. 

God almighty, it won’t be long before we’re free at last.

Cocreation or brand revenge

Pirates_iI am in Pittsburgh.  No, not for the all-star game, but thanks for the thought. 

No, I am here to advise and consult.  But I was interested to learn that Pittsburgh Pirates fans, suffering an extraordinarily disappointing season, have taken to customizing their shirts.

These used to read "Pirates Fan."

Now they read "Irate Fan."

Once we turn over brands to the consumer, we must expect things like this.  And who’s to say it’s bad for the brand.  Better protest than repudiation. 

The Times File debacle: Brand damage the New York Times way

New_york_ties_times_select Recently, the New York Times (NYT) engaged in product development that has quite marked implications for its brand.  It what we might call the "Times File debacle," the NYT violated reader trust, and, in the process, destroyed brand equity.

It was once possible to save an article from the electronic version of the NYT.  I must have saved 10 or 20 articles to "Times File" this way.  Yesterday, I discovered they were gone.  In the place of my Times File was an invitation to sign up for Times Select, at a cost of around $50 a year.

No one doubts that the NYT has to find a way to monitize its electronic play.  The Wall Street Journal did this early on, and it’s odd the NYT should still be struggling to catch up.  The Times creates substantial value for me, and, frankly, $50 looks like a bargain.   

But monitizing is one thing, and dumping "consumer created value" is another.  My 20 saved articles represented a tiny investment in time, attention, and choice.  (As I recall, one was on Kevin Smith and the 6 blogs that now distract him from his film making.  There is a "old media, new media transition" angle here that caught my attention.) 

But more than time, attention and choice is lost.  Intellectual opportunity was also destroyed.  How many potential ideas and understandings were contained here?  This is impossible to calculate. But I resent the the assumption on the part of the Times that this value was their’s to destroy.  These few articles represented an opportunity for pattern recognition.  Their loss represent an act of pattern decognition.  Pattern decognition?  From the Times? 

I suffer modestly.  The Times suffers massively.  They have just sent me a message.  They don’t care about my intellectual capital.  They presumed to call this, to make this, worthless. 

Um, I believe there is a passage in the new marketing handbook that says a brand wishes to invite the participation of the consumer, to encourage his or her cocreation of value, most of all, to respect the consumer as a creature with symmetrical claims to status and standing in the world. 

I am sure that this last condition is exceedingly difficult to grasp for an institution as magisterial as the Times, but too bad.  All of us live in a culture and a market place where new rules of status and standing apply.  Adjust or die.

What is the precise nature of the brand damage?  It is that I now have grounds to distrust the Times.  As John Deighton, my esteemed friend at the Harvard Business School, will tell us, trust is the first condition of brand meaning.  Squander this and the brand suffers damage to its very foundation.

How not to save brands (from the commodity basement)


Personal computer brands fell from their original glory with Icarian speed and suddenness.  Thanks to Michael Dell and the off-shore players, the market went from huge premiums to tiny margins in what seemed like a single precipitous descent. 

The "commodity basement," this is where brands subsist on life support.  Ventilators, tubes, shunts and pumps, the marketer will now resort to any artifice to keep the thing alive.  When brands are obliged to compete on price alone, there are no margins for real acts of meaning manufacture.  The brand clings to life.  (And eventually even this is too much to hope for.  We learned today that Ralph Lauren is discontinuing the Polo line of jeans.  In its day, Polo was a brand to be reckoned with.  Then it was remaindered to the commodity basement.)

The solution is obvious.  Fight the price game!  Escape the community basement!  Identify a higher value that consumer cares about, and deliver this value with product and brand development. 

This appears to be precisely what HP is up to with it’s new campaign from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.  Here is the copy from an ad which appears on the back cover of a recent BusinessWeek

In the beginning, it was magic.

Magazines proclaimed a "personal computer revolution."  And it was, for awhile.

But soon the word "revolution" got dropped from "personal computer revolution."  "Personal" vanished from "personal computer." And both words disappeared into "PC."

PC.  A boring box, sold on speeds and feeds and gigabytes.

Still, there is hardly anything you own that is more personal.

Your personal computer is your backup brain.  It’s your life and the life of your business.  It’s your astonishing strategy, staggering proposal, dazzling calculation.  It’s your autobiography, written in thousands of daily words. 

Today HP is making the entire experience of owning a computer more personal than ever before.  We are designing products that offer you ever greater power, simplicity, and security; all backed by a one-year limited warranty, the industry’s best. And we offer HP Total Care–expert services for every stage of your computer’s life, to help you configure it, protect it, tune it up, even recycle it. 

Because when you own a personal computer from HP, you own something more that right to demand that the personal computer will finally live up to its name.

Very good.  The research, we guess, was illuminating.  PCs do create extraordinary value in the life of the consumer.  Many of us would put ourselves in harm’s way to protect our computing devices.  My little ThinkPad is my little think pad.  I would be pretty completely thoughtless without it.

The agency or HP discovered the higher value of the PC.  The HP website puts it this way:

This new HP campaign focuses on the highly individual and personal relationship people have with their computers, unique to each user. Whether what they are creating is a spreadsheet or a work of art, HP’s goal is to make the personal computer a more powerful personal tool. 

But here’s the problem. HP does not appear to have stepped up.  The new campaign does not herald hardware or software that actually makes the personal computer "a more powerful personal tool."  Most of the fuss appears to be about a program called Total Care which gives better backup and repair.

Really.  That’s it?  What happened to "Your personal computer is your backup brain…your astonishing strategy, staggering proposal, dazzling calculation, your autobiography"?  Until this brand promise is built into the HP PC, the ad is really just talk.  Indeed, it is the abuse for which advertising is famously infamous: dressing mutton up as lamb.  More exactly (mixed metaphor, me?), where’s the beef?

The options here are not hard to imagine.  With the deep intellectual gifts at its disposal, HP could easily have offered hardware and software options that really do deliver against the proposition.  How about software of the kind that MindJet creates?  The "mind map" software really does make it easier to think.  There are visualization technologies out there of several kinds that could be developed (or purchased) that would give HP machines a real claim to being "personal, powerful tools".  All of us live in a wind storm of information.  All of us use our personal computers to manage this chaos.  How about a little help here?

It sounds like I am making the criticism that Bob Garfield brought against the BMW "ideas" campaign.  Today, in Advertising Age, he insisted that the BMW campaign (from GSD&M) was cliched and without substance.  There is, he says, no evidence in this campaign that BMW is in fact a corporation committed to innovation.  I think he has missed the point here badly.  In fact, something extraordinary is happening in the corporate world.  It is growing ever more responsive in order to track the growing dynamism of the competitive world.  This puts the nay sayers and the truly creative players at odds with one another.  I think making itself the champion of creativity and dynamism is a strategic move for BMW.  (Mr. Garfield says the campaign is a cliche from a 1950s Tony Randall movie.  Can he really have missed that this world has changed beyond recognition?)

No, I am not insisting, as my distinguished colleague Tom Asacker sometimes seems to, that all branding has to be about a functional benefit, a utilitarian property.  Sometimes the concept of the brand is the value of the brand, a value, in point of fact, that commandeers very nice premiums indeed.  But in the case of the HP campaign we need something more than a general acknowledgement of the value of a PC.  Because, very plainly, every single PC delivers this value, and a Total Care package is neither unique nor part of the real value add here. 

We have seen Nokia claim for the brand some of the higher value delivered by the category.  (See the post noted below.) There is no change in the Nokia bundle of utilities in evidence there.  But the claim is made by an act of meaning manufacture of some subtlety and a good deal of depth.  Nokia is made a brand that gets how the consumer uses technology and a match is fashioned between the most substantial benefits of the technology and the Nokia brand.  The HP ad, on the other hand, tends to read like a lecture in how lucky we are to be using personal computers.  I get that.  I think we all get that.  The question is, what has HP done to earn any of the credit.

With off shore suppliers, and lightening acts of reverse engineering, increasingly the best way to fight demotion to the commodity basement will be brilliant acts of branding.  We may take the HP campaign as an object lesson, a demonstration of how not to do it. 


Garfield, Bob.  2006.  BMW’s New "Big Idea" ads aren’t" first TV ads from GSD&M are terrible.  Advertising Age.  June 6, 2006.  here. (subscription required)

McCracken, Grant.  2006.  The Problem of Partial Ethnography.  This blog sits at the… May 3, 2006. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2006.  BMW claims meaning for the brand.  The blog sits at the… May 15, 2006. here.

For the HP ad in question, see the back cover of BusinessWeek.  May 22, 2006. 

For more on the HP campaign, see comments on the HP website here

For still more on the campaign, see the PR fact sheet on the HP website here

what brands can learn from bands

I always thought that rock videos were effectively a gesture in cross marketing.  A Run DMC audience meets Aerosmith and vice versa.  And I always wondered why brands don’t do this kind of thing. 

But today in my hotel room I saw the video that features Mary J. Blige and Bono.  I find these artists a little tedious alone.  But brought together in this video, they were both somehow refreshed. 

I think this yet another example of what is proving to be the Swiss Army knife concept: what we call the Jonathan Miller effect here at This Blog Sits At.  Each performer is effectively ever so gently cast against type and this breaks up and lets new meanings out of their well formed persona and new meanings in.  At the very least, and according to the Miller effect, each act feels not just fresher but somehow, and paradoxically, truer to itself. 

In any case, cross marketing proves to be merely one of the benefits and a distinctly inferior when compared to the revivication that takes place one two acts are brought together. 

The question then is, might this happen for brands.  Certainly something like is happening when Snop Dog features a Chrysler 300 in a video.  But in a sense this works like a celebrity endorsement.  I’m talking, I think, about moments in which Coke products appear in an ad for say FedEX. 

The idea here is NOT to find a marketing partner that has a youthful audience or a constituency that TCCC (the Coca-Cola Company) wishes to recruit.  The idea is to put Coke in the company with something with which it doesn’t quite go.  What we are looking for is something a little counter-expectational.  Not deeply strange, just a little odd, so that we are now obliged to savor the differences, look for the similarities, ask for a moment, so just who is this Bono fellow again? 

This is what I think helps break open the existing set of meanings, decide what exists there and whether and how will it plays off this unexpected partner. 

As we seek to give brands newly robust and dynamic meanings, I think we will be obliged to resort to new meaning management strategies that are not at first true to marketing orthodoxy.  Ah, but that’s one of the reasons marketing has become so newly interesting and difficult.  I think. 

(written from a Kinko’s in London because some hotels here are still trying to come to grips with this "whole internet access" thing.  Here in the great capital of capital in Europe, we are, from an internet point of view, still partying like it’s 1999.)

Building stronger brands

Mit_logo_uncompressedI just finished attending the first annual C3 (Convergence Culture  Consortium) retreat at MIT.  It was revelational.  C3 is the accomplishment of Henry Jenkins, and C3 faculty and students.  I can’t think of any place in the academic world where people think about the interface between culture and commerce with such clarity, power and absense of cant.  It was really, really interesting. 

I hope to share things from the retreat over the next few weeks, but there was one issue that struck me.  We noted that technologies have made possible the participation of consumers in the construction of the brand.  Technologies aside, many consumers have make it clear that the only brands that they will really care about are the ones they help cocreate. 

But as I was noting a couple of days ago on the post about Chevy Tahoe, cocreation is not for the faint hearted.  When the marketing team invites the consumer "into the tent" weird and nervous making things are bound to happen.  The question is whether and when we will come to see the brand as something big enough and resilient enough to withstand the "rough air" created by new cocreation strategies.

We were talking this through during the retreat and I suddenly remembered that something like this issue has vexed the marketing community before.  When I was doing research for Chrysler in the 1980s, Detroit was buzzing with a recent change of heart.  Sometime in the 1970s, new marketing research techniques had made it possible to test design possibilities, and these techniques had been ceased upon to eliminate anything that eliminated anyone.  The result was several years of bland boxes that no one much cared about. 

Finally, someone took their courage in both hands and said, "look, we cannot eliminate what some hate without eliminate what some love.   Delight and provocation are connected.  Besides, something like half of the people who say they hate a design will eventually come to love it.  So really, we’re talking about an alienation factor not of half, but more like 20%"  And with this Detroit return, somewhat tepidly, to designs that were more genuinely provocative, and we might argue that the advances made by Chryster in the last view years is a lineal descendant of this philosophical repositioning. 

Brands are where design was.  Let’s not cause offense.  Let’s hew to the middle.  Let’s make ourselves agreeable.  Let’s talk out anything that is odd, counterintuitive, or inaccessible.  Let’s make nice.  Let’s play nice. 

I think we can argue that this was never a very promising approach.  The idea is not to eliminate risk but to manage it.  But now that we are letting the consumer into the process of brand creation, and now that this will surely result in things that are odd or unsavory (as in the Tahoe case), we really have to rethink whether the brand can continue to think of itself in traditional terms.  Ok, it is now 11:58 on Friday night.  If I want to post this Friday, I have just seconds to wrap this up.  My conclusion, brands now live in a world in which there is more to fear from being conservative than from being dynamic. 

I feel to thinking

Branding, the Birkin bag and damage control

Jane_birkin_1 I managed to make it to mid life without ever hearing about the Birkin bag, but then some kinds of knowledge, perhaps the most important things, are withheld from the anthropologist.

I wasn’t ready.   I didn’t know enough.  This was insider  knowledge I would have to earn. 

Naturally, just about everyone else knew, including a dear friend, Joan Kron, who owns a Birkin, and my wife, who would dearly love to.  Birkins are made by Hermes and they cost between $6000 to $75,000.  They were named for an English singer, Jane Birkin (pictured), who took French popular music by storm in 1968 with ‘Je t’aime moi non plus," a song that drew the censure from the Vatican.  Jane Birkin won still more notoriety by appearing naked in bed with Bridget Bardot.  This plus her "I’ve been idea-free for a decade" beauty endeared her mightily to the French (who have been idea-free for much longer) and prepared her to leave her mark not just on music but on handbags. 

According to the origin myth, as reported to the New York Times by Andrew Litvak, here’s what happened. 

[Jane] was on an airplane one day, and the guy next to her was the president of Hermès. He looked at the bag that she was carrying, which was a form of the Birkin bag but was in canvas or something, and he said to her, ‘Hey, how would you like it if we designed a bag like yours?’ It would be the first bag since Grace Kelly that we’ve given an actress’s name to. And Jane said, ‘Sure, that would be great.’ So she drew up a sketch."

All brands should be born this way, from contact, between a mortal and a goddess, as they pass in the heavens.  The mortal pleads for inspiration from his muse and in her majestic way, she consents ("Sure, that would be great.")  And the rest, as they say, is fashion history.  The Birkin went on to become perhaps the single most coveted item in women’s fashion. 

But now the bad news, and here’s where it gets interesting for marketers.  According to the Scotsman, my first source for fashion news, Jane Birkin recently repudiated the Birkin and now carries a sporran she bought for £10 in Edinburgh.  Disavowed, dissed and dumped.  Dommage!

Now, if we were the Birkin brand manager, we might say, "Je m’en fiche."  What do we care if we are abandoned by a celebrity endorser?  Most women who covet the Birkin have never heard of Jane Birkin.  The brand has moved on.  Jane and the sporran are well matched.  We wish them well. 

But there is another way of thinking about this.  When Hermes reached out to Jane Birkin, she was still a creature of great exoticism, and certainly the only Hermes partner who had been photographed naked with Bridget Bardo.  (There are photos of certain senior managers, but that’s another story.)  We can assume that Hermes was displaced, as many great brands were, by the cultural shift of the 1960s and 1970s.  Connecting with a young bohemian beauty was a very good idea, and an opportunity to renew currency and altitude.

Now to lose Ms. Birkin, this might well put the brand in jeopardy.   Now the brand is simply about the upper reaches, the glory, that is the fashion world.  It has lost that connection to the great counter culture that arose at mid-20th century. 

We were noting yesterday that the winner of American Idol will combine contradictory elements.  So it is, perhaps, with fashion brands.  A little grist, type working against type, all of this is sometimes the essential ingredient in meanng manufacture and the very secret of brand meaning managment. 

Marketers are like any culture bearers.  They are sometimes lucky enough to have brands of such standing and power that they obliterate the very idea of their diminishment.  But this can happen.  And to lose an essential piece of the brand portfolio, this is the way it happens. 


Smith, Aidan.  2006.  Jane Birkin ditches Hermes bag for sporra.  The Scotsman.  March 19, 2006. here.

Wadler, Joyce with Paula Schwartz.  2004.  Can You Even Left It?  New York Times. September 7, 2004. here.


To The Agenda, with a hat tip for the head’s up here.

American Idol: minerva taking wing at dusk

Media_week_chart Mark Berman of Mediaweek notes that American Idol helped Fox beat all the other networks combined, last night

Mr. Berman has a prediction to make:

Chris Daughtry is the definite favorite, while talent-less Bucky Covington is the most likely to bid adieu tonight. Potentially joining Bucky in the bottom three: Lisa Tucker and, unfortunately, energetic Taylor Hicks in place of oddball teen Kevin Covais. Did you ever, meanwhile, see a contestant more in love with himself than Ace Young?

I am surprised to see how easy it is to make predictions.  Everyone seems to know exactly who will win.  And there is surprising agreement.  Clearly, Kevin Covais will have to go just as surely (and for the opposite reason) that Santino Rice had to leave Project Runway.  Kevin was too nice and Santino not nearly nice enough.  (We want our icons, in music as in design, a combination of the two.)

But if we are truly a post modernist society, buzzing with variety and novelty, surely the American Idol confidence and consensus should be impossible.  Surely, the whole thing should be playing itself out as a great mystery, with, say, performances of emo that shock and puzzle.

That there is confidence and consensus tells us a) we are mostly wrong when we talk about the new structural properties of contemporary culture, or b) there is something about American Idol that smooths the way for our confidence and our consensus.  I am prepared to be talking into "A" but I have a feeling that the answer is "B."

After all, there are moments when watching AI where I find myself wondering what decade this is. No one has chosen a song penned in the 21st century.  Indeed, as Randy, Paula, and Simon are often moved to observe, clothing and makeup choices often seem to harken back to another time. This is my way of saying that American Idol is a lie and perhaps even a conspiracy.  It appears to be crafted to give the impression that American culture remains a mass culture, that happy time when every thing was known to everyone (see Monday’s post on the "death of destination television").

This is the "big brand" approach to contemporary music.  Covington is an Eagles imitator.  Daughtry is a road house rocker.  Ace does Motown.  My favorite, Elliott Yamin, a guy who looks endearingly like George C. Scott, covers Stevie.  The girls, generally, are anyone anyone wants them to be as long as it obliges them to dress in clothing that no one has worn for several decades.

As we have noted here before, the great fluorescence of cultural invention that is taking place at the moment has certain structural effects, some of them predictable, some not.  Predictably, it drives a plenitude of musical production, a fragmentation of consumer taste, and profusion of long tail markets.  Unpredictably, it creates a flight to the higher ground of broader choice. 

So much for the notion that the center will not hold.  The fluorescence of our culture at one end is forcing a new coherence at the other.  There are several benefits of this development.  One of these is that we are left with an impression that really this a mass society, that nothing has changed. And it’s a very veritable impression.  Forty million viewers.  God in heaven. 

I can think of several institutions that will buy the lie.  The business schools will say, "listen, American Idol is proof that we do not have to let contemporary culture into the curriculum.It is business (school) as usual."  Several brands, famous for the cluelessness, will also insist that American Idol is a license for complacency. 

Too bad.  For this appearance of cohesion is, I think, being driven by its opposite. 


Berman, Marc.  Programming Inside.  Mediaweek.  March 22, 2006.  By subscription.  Sorry, I don’t have an url.  I get the Programming Insider by email. 

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Branding: a river runs through it


Brands used to be carried around the big top of popular culture in triumph.  Clowns scattered.  Children thrilled. The crowd roared.

Now culture and commerce are so changeable, disaster is always near at hand.  It’s harder to keep pace.  It’s harder to stay put.  Brands no longer move in triumph.  Now it’s all they can do to hang on. 

There are two ways to restore the brand to glory. 

The first is to give it a new breadth of reference.  The brand has to talk to lots of smaller consumer segments.  And we’re not talking about the long tail brands here, but "fat middle" ones.  These must make their great big markets out of lots of little ones.

The second is constantly to renew the freshness of the brand, to keep the brand in touch with the hyperactivity of popular culture.  After all, the phrase "attention span" is now a misnomer. My attention stopped "spanning" a long time ago.  Now it tends to hop and skip and…I’m sorry, what was I saying again?

Yesterday, I found a nice solution from Aquafina (the water brand from PepsiCo).  According to Jon Lafayette and TelevisionWeek, Aquafina has done a deal with IFC (Independent Film Channel) to sponsor a website that will show short films submitted by the public. 

The website will be called Media Lab (which will surely interest the people at MIT).  Evan Fleischer sees the website as a way to build the IFC brand. 

One of our core missions is to provide filmmakers with a place where they can express themselves unedited and uncut.  That’s the way we run it on the network and the way we run it online.

No doubt, Media Lab will do good things for IFC but what impresses me is how well it works for Aquafina.  Media Lab builds a shunt into the brand through which the most contemporary of contemporary culture can run like a river. 

IFC is not going to edit this material.  Some of it will be bad film making.  Some of it will be outrageous film making.  Aquafina doesn’t need to care.  It is close enough to take credit and far enough away to avoid contamination (when this might occur).  Now it has a constant stream of various meanings and absolutely current ones running through it. 

This needn’t be the sum and total of the brand.  It will be a relatively small part of the meaning portfolio.  But there it is what Michael Hammer, senior brand manager, calls a "more alternative [and] unique way[] to complement the other media that we have."

Brilliant.  We have seen something like this strategy before.  Absolut did a particularly brilliant campaign in which the bottle was made to take up residence in the city.  Yellow taxi cabs in Manhattan in the shape of the Absolut bottle, say.  Benson and Hedges, the British cigarette brands, did something similar.

The IFC "river runs through it" strategy is in some ways more effective and vital.  It brings diverse and current meanings into the brand, better than taking the brand out into the world (as Absolut and Benson and Hedges did). 

I believe we are getting the hang of this, we really are. 


Lafayette, Jon.  2006.  IFC banking on user-made films.  TelevisionWeek.  February 6, 2006, pp. 6. 18.

Who’s Coke Is It, Anyway?

Coke_iiThere’s a great story in the WSJ yesterday about a new conumdrum for the Coca-Cola Company: American consumers are buying Coke made in Mexico. 

You might think that The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) would embrace this development.  After all, Classic sales are down %10 (since 2000) and the TCCC’s share of the industry is at an eight-year low.  Consumers are so passionate about "hecho en Mexico" Coke that they are prepared to pay a premium, as much as $.25 a bottle.  In an industry that moves heaven and earth to create (or protect) a two-penny margin, this is a staggering development, and very good news.  No?

No.  TCCC is now condemning Coke importation "as the work of bootleggers."  There are lots of technical reasons why TCCC should react this way, some to do with issues of formula, and some to do with the way production and distribution dovetail in  the TCCC system.  But I can’t help feeling that the hoped-for suppression of Mexican Coke is also driven by a disagreement over what "authenticity" means and a dispute over who owns the brand.

Some consumers now insist that Mexican Coke is a more robust brand than American Coke, not least because it is charged with meanings that American Coke never had, or long ago gave up.  In particular, Mexican Coke is charged with a powerful nostalgia, a remembrance of childhood south of the border.  (Hey, this is cultural meaning being monetized, and it turns out to be worth around $.25 a bottle!)

Now there was a time when American Coke had a meaning this powerful.  I think, for a time, the brand (as crafted by Norman Rockwell, among others) stood for the quintessential small town American experience.  This was compelling for native-born Americans who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, migrated from small towns (and farms around them) into the cities.  The Coke message was here what it is in the Mexican case: a "world we have lost" nostalgia.

There was a second group who sought and bought the nostalgia message.  Many newly arrived Americans had come in pursuit of the small town dream (even as  they were now stuffed into big, Northern cities).  Indeed, for many of these people, American was what TCCC creative said it was, and Coke remained their connection to the America they would sometime call their own. (This would make the brand point in the opposite temporal direction, not nostalgic but anticipatory, even as the "quintessential American" meaning remained the same.)

That’s all gone now.  The Classic brand has lost its potency.  The old meanings have, variously, washed away, decaffinated, and lost their fizz.  It would be easy to blame TCCC for this loss of brand value but that would be facile of us.  In fact, the Classic brand has been diminished by all of the challenges that face every American brand: the fragmentation of the marketplace and America, the explosion of meaning makers, the crush of small, more potent, brand players, to name a few.

But sometimes the world comes to a brand’s rescue.  And it is hard not to think that this is precisely what has happened with Mexican Coke.  Here are consumers who have, for their own reasons, found a way to restore the brand to "real thing" status.  Hey, presto.  The brand rebounds.  Or could for at least one segment.  And lest we suppose that this is merely a Hispanic play, let us note that many non-Hispanics want access to the authenticity of a Coke from Mexico (for some of the same reasons they embraced Corona as their choice of beer). 

But, again, no.  TCCC is acting like administrators of the Roman empire who have discovered that they must now contend with a small group of enthusiasts in Gaul who worship Rome and Romanness with new intensity.  The Roman decision: put them down!  Because the passion of the zealot is dangerous even if it happens, for the moment, to run in your direction.  It’s the principle of the thing.  "We don’t want your zeal," says the administrator, "we just want your obedience."

Actually, there is a better way of putting this.  TCCC is now acting like the Catholic church  confronted by a cult of Christians who forsake orthodoxy for their own special brand of religous fervor.  "No, no, no," says the Church.  It is the Church that decides what devotion means and what belief shall be.  It’s Rome that determines the forms and vessels of religious inspiration.  The zealots can just cut it out.  We decide.  Not them.   

It is easy to be snide here.  And we must remember that TCCC’s problem is the problem of every brand.  All of us need to grasp that we are not the arbiters of the brand and that we must defer to to the consumer even when he or she takes leave of our brand orthodoxy and starts making things up.  We aren’t Rome any longer, not the empire, not the church.  We are shepherds.

The bigger challenge for TCCC: it is to admit that even the magnificent corporation that has created and preserved "real thing" authenticity must now admit to the possibility that there are many authenticities.  This is the lesson of plenitude.  This is the lesson of the long tail. 

Some meanings of the Classic brand are constructed through long standing, patient, and deeply sophisticated  acts of meaning management.  Some are just conferred upon us.  TCCC would do well to act opportunistically and capture the Mexican message.  After all, empires are not forever.


McCracken, Grant. 1988.  The Evocative Power of Things: consumer goods and the preservation of consumer hopes and ideals. Culture and Consumption I.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Terhune, Chad.  2006.   U.S. Thirst for Mexican Cola Poses Sticky Problem for Coke.  The Wall Street Journal.  January 11, 2005, page A1. 

Transmedia: branding’s next new thing?

GoofyAmerican Icon

Goofy was enormous.  At least four feet tall.  Standing guard at the door of the giftshop with that…look on his face.

The giftshop belonged to the Marriott and the Marriott stood within shouting distance of Disneyland. 

So the Marriott was loaded with families coming to and from this holyland of branded entertainment. 

An American Boyhood

I couldn’t feeling like that the Goofy doll was looking a little tacky, as if he’d been punked out in polyester.  But as I was standing there, a family of four walked by, struggling with their luggage, obviously on their way home.  The little boy, about 7, said with unmistakeable sorrow,
"Goodbye, Goofy."

It might look like 5 dollars of polyester to me, but for this little boy, Goofy was a god. Well, not so much a god as a someone with whom he had a deep and enduring emotional connection.  One trip to Disneyland, a couple of hours of cartoons, and maybe a comic book or two, and this polyester bundle had slipped the bounds of implausibility and morphed into matter that mattered a lot.  This childhood would be shaped, warmed, and animated by a guy called Goofy.

American Girl

I had lunch in Chicago recently with my esteemed fellow ethnographer, Rita Denny.  Rita was telling me about the phenomenon called American Girl.  I resolved to go see the American Girl store for myself.  There’s one just off Michigan Avenue, and it was a short walk.

Trundling up the Avenue, I began to see young women clutching dolls, walking with a interesting mixture of urgency and self composure.  This is one of those moments when a little cultural literacy goes a long way.  Had I seen these girls before my lunch with Rita, I’d have been merely puzzled.  But with an ethnographer’s expert briefing, I thought, "oh, very good, American girls on their way to American Girl."

American Girl was founded by Pleasant T. Rowland in 1985.  The enterprise centers on 8 characters, each from a different moment in American history.  Thus, Molly is 9 year old with pig tails and bands.  Molly has seven novels.  The first opens with Molly’s father going off to war, and the last, Changes for Molly: A Winter Story, describes Molly’s life in 1944 as she awaits her father’s return. 

"Molly," then, is a character with several manifestations, the novels, the doll, and the accessories.  Molly can be "reached" at the American Girl retail store, website, catalogue and magazine.  The last was founded in 1992 and now has 650,000 subscribers. 

American Girl was acquired by Mattel in 1998.  Almost certainly, this is a classic case of an entrepreneur, Ms. Rowland, coming up with an innovation too strange and wonderful to interest the mainstream players in the early days.  But Ms. Rowland struck a cord, stayed close to her audience, and tried things the "doll makers" would not contemplate.  Thoughtful, observant, creative, risk taking, the enterpreneur creates explosive growth and Mattel is obliged to step in and buy out.  Barbie meet Molly (and move over).


I have been thinking about Goofy of the Marriot and Molly of Michigan Avenue for awhile now, but it was not until I spend a day with my colleagues at MIT that things began to click.  Henry Jenkins, with his  colleagues and his students, is working on a notion called "transmedia."  Here’s how Jenkins defines it:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. 

Jenkins offers The Matrix as a case in point.  This "property" is now three movies, a program of animated films, a series of comics, a couple of games…and counting. 

So what happens if we thinking about brands from a transmedia point of view?  I don’t mean only entertainment brands like the Matrix or Star Wars.  I mean products like Campbell’s Soup, Coca-Cola, Mr. Clean, Purdue (chicken), and Brown Jordan (furniture).  Should these brands  "go transmedia."  Is this the way to build the brand that will speak to the consumers of the 21st century?

The answer tomorrow.  Please come back Part II.  [Sorry, I ran out of time.]


Jenkins, Henry.  Forthcoming.  Convergence culture: Where old and new media intersect.  New York: New York University Press. 

Brands behaving badly: The Sony story

GuydoinggrafittiforsonySony Corporation is having a bad couple of weeks.  Several days ago, this came rattling out of  the teletype machine:

Security experts have found that a hidden antipiracy technology on some Sony BMG music CDs causes dangerous computer vulnerabilities – as does the company’s method for removing the original program.

This is of course disasterous from a branding point of view.  It says, "we, the corporation, don’t trust you, the consumer."  Worse, there’s a follow up.  The antipiracy debacle also says, "You shouldn’t trust us and here’s why.  We just helped ourselves to your hard drive without disclosure or permission." 

For the last couple of days we have been getting reports from the Wooster Collective about ads for the Sony PlayStation masquerading as graffiti, as pictured.

This too is very bad for branding.  It says "we are happy to help ourselves to someone’s else credibility and, no, we didn’t think you’d notice."  I believe this is another way of saying, "we, the corporation, don’t trust your intelligence and this, and the graffiti campaign, might serve as evidence that you shouldn’t trust ours." 

The success of the PlayStation is often attributed to Andrew House, a 15 year Sony executive and Oxford man.  In September, House was made CMO and group executive at Sony to oversee global marketing.  On his appointment, House said he,

foresees no changes in Sony’s marketing partnerships, which include Omnicom Group’s TBWA\Chiat\Day, Havas-owned McKinney + Silver and Publicis Groupe’s Fallon.

I wonder if that will change. 


Anonymous. 2005.  Sony Protection Problems at a Glance.  The Associated Press via Yahoo.  November 15, 2005.  here

Post from the Wooster Collective here

Photo from PSP updates here.

Solman, Gregory. 2005.  Sony Names Global CMO.  Adweek, September 14.  here.

Watches worth watching

In the 20th century, the brand universe was small (e.g., Timex, Rolex [as pictured], Longines, Omega, Oy7040_bigBulova, Cartier) and the models were relatively few.

Welcome to the Cambrian era of time keepers. There are 110 models from 40 brands in the current Town and Country. Swatch, until recently, made 180 models. Casio appears to have more than 2000 models on How many distinct models in the universe of watches? I had the boys in the lab run the numbers. Their answer: really a lot.

There are a thousand points of price. The Volant (European Watch Company) costs $57,600. My Casio cost $10. (It is the tragically named "Casio Classical White Men’s Watch"!)Watches

There are many styles: modern (CVSTOS, Rado), sporty (Tagheur, Porsche, Nike), retro (vintage), groaning with gems (Meyer, as pictured), quietly expensive (Patek Philippe), fashion forward (Bill Blass, Issye Mikake) and atomic (Junghans).

There are watches covered in diamonds (Pierre Kunz). There are watches covered in bells and whistles. The Breitling Montbrillant Olympus ($15,850, pictured) is Watch_ivcapable of 461 distinctions (seconds, minutes, hours, months, seasons, moon phases, and much, much more). The Montbrillant can predict the weather in 42 countries. The downside, it looks like there’s a hedgehog strapped to your wrist.

It is not hard to see the things that drives this plenitude of watches. Growing wealth at the top, a willingness to "trade up" in the middle, these drive the luxury market. As for the rest, new technologies, off shore manufacture, and fierce competitition drives things nicely.

There is evidence of two things that suggest this universe is changing.  A couple of days ago the Wall Street Journal said that mechanical watches were once more on the rise.

There are a few dominant trends in men’s watches this season: larger faces, an increase in rectangular face styles and more leather straps. The biggest change, though, is in the number of mechanical watches taking the place of quartz…

Ah, the rational consumer.  Economic man rushes off to buy a watch that is more expensive and less reliable than his alternatives.  No doubt, we are prepared to suffer imprecision from our wrist watch because we are surrounded by quite reliable time keepers: the clocks in our tool bar, fridge, stove, TV, cable box, telephone, cars, PDAs and of course VCRs.  Everything that is the least bit electronic comes equipped with an accurate clock, (except at my house where the VCR blinks "12:00" for some reason.  We just cover it with tape.)  It may also be true that we like mechanical watches because they give off the princely implication that we do not need to be anywhere on time or at least that we are not slaves to precision.  (Hah!)

But the other thing that struck me was this new watch by Corum.  These are the people who used to make watches out of silver dollars, as I recall.    Corum_bubble_privateer_1 Their new watch is called the Corum Bubble Privateer.  This watch shows a skull and cross bones.  Someone had the bright idea of giving the skull a gingham topper and the watch a splash of color.  Surely, this is the gift to give the "hostile take over" enthusiast in your family. 

This really opens things up.   All those watches out there (and there are as we noted, how thousands of them), and almost none of them departs from the "function plus decoration/design" convention.  None does what the Privateer does rather dashingly, combine the representational, evocative, and the iconic into a design that suggests both a tribal totem and the beginnings of narrative.

Now that story lines and historical evocation is part of the game we may expect the market to flood new possibilities.  Surely,  we can find something else in the work of Robert Louis Stevenson.  How about something chivalric from Sir Walter Scott?  How about something from Twain that’s Huck Finn-ish?  The world of popular 19th century literature is just loaded with new watch ideas, now that Corum has blessed us with the Privateer. 

And so does the design vocabulary of the commercial world expand, along with the dramatic, playful possibilities thereof. 


Smith, Ray A.  2005. Watches  Shift Into Automatic: Ready to pay more for a less accurate timepiece? We look at the new mechanical models on the market.  Wall Street Journal.  November 12, 2005. 

Burning brands, or, the new marketing thugs in Silicon valley

Microsoft_1I am working on a brand new computer and I have now tried several times to change my Explorer home page.  I want to use Google/ig, my new portal to all the things I care about on-line, including, of course, the Google search engine.  Guess what? Microsoft won’t let me.

I have tried to make the change now for two days.  I have tried every option available to me, and my browser always resets to  This problem was always a problem.  In my experience it always took a few days for this setting "to take."  (I understand that this is not how computers work, but I am not sophisticated enough to give you a more sophisticated account.)

Really, is this not saddest thing you have ever heard?   Microsoft knows perfectly well that Google is the new home page/portal of choice.  Have they now resorted to cheap tricks to prevent this from happening?  How low can they go?  How complete do they wish to make their humiliation?  So far, they are well on course for "Laughing Stock," New Mexico. 

Silicon Valley has never been the birthplace of great branding.  But it is filled with lots of smart people.  How bright do you have to be to understand that some consumers are going to resent this sort of thing?  The rest of us (and eventually, the rest of them) are going to rethink who and what you are.  If we’ve invested any "trust" or "good faith"  in your brand, these we will cash in immediately. 

I have been running the numbers anthropologically, consulting that is to say the cultural factors that need to be reckoned with here.  The conclusion is clear.  Short of having their physical liberty taken from them, there are few things that members of the 1st world dislike more intensely than being having their realm of personal choice narrowed or forced.  They might go along in the short term.  They will make a point of making you pay, in the long. 

So, let’s engrave this in the marketing handbook, shall we.  (You know, for those not bright enough to work it out for themselves.)  Consumers are to be treated with respect and courtesy.  They may not be coerced, constrained, or manipulated.  There may be some small benefit in the short term.  But the damage to the brand will be formidable.

Burning man?  How about Burning brand.  Just get everyone is those shiny cars they like to drive at Micrsoft and head for the Nevada desert.  Construct some facsimile of the brand.  Now, burn it down.  Or, blow it up.  Take brand equity and scatter to the four corners of the desert and drive your shiny cars home.   

There is a punishment for bad marketing beyond the ridicule you visit on the corporation.  Some of what you just destroyed in the desert was share holder value.  Yes, I thought that might get your attention.  Consumers?  We don’t need no sticking consumers.  We, Microsoft, has an immense installed base.  But share holders?  They are mobile, and you diminish them at your peril.

I have directed this criticism to Microsoft but it’s clear that there are several players who are equally offensive.  Yahoo is apparently deeply implicated in adware mischief.  Do need seek advantage by being tricky.  Eventually, you will be found out.   

Microsoft and Yahoo, it’s time to choose.  You can be a bully.  Or you can build brands.  These are mutually exclusive activities. 

Post script.

Last night, we tuned in "My Name is Earl" and watched it jump the shark in the scene where Earl goes back to apologize to an old friend of highschool.  What is clever in this show is entirely charming.  What was broad was way too broad.  I get, and admire, the marketing issue at issue here: can you capture a 90s sense of humor even as you capture something much broader, and there always was a common ground here.  But you have to work them like those little side by side circus ponies.  One was allowed to stray.  (No cards or flowers, thank you; I think I’ll be fine.) 

Post script II

I understand that one of the solutions for this Explorer problem is just to move to Mozilla and I did that some months ago.  The use of the right click key, however, drove my crazy (I badly need to click and paste without interference) and it drove me home.  "Home?"  Microsoft, why it’s not home any longer.  It’s a cheap motel I am looking forward to vacating as soon as possible.  Especially, now that I know branding decisions are being made by a shifty looking fella who always orders lotto tickets and a tall boy way early in the morning.  (Hey, if my competition were Google, I’d be cashing my Microsoft stock in for Lotto tickets, too.)