Category Archives: brands behaving badly

Oh, thank goodness

Faithful readers will have noticed that This Blog has been down for a full month.

We were hit by the malware attach that caused Google and Firefox to warn away visitors.  

I have to say Network Solutions has been spectacularly unhelpful.

Use "Network solutions" and "malware" as your search terms in Twitter, and you will see that this attack is "epidemical" as they used to say in the 18th century.  The nightmare continues for many.  Network Solutions as acted with the cavalier disregard of the public utility it once was.  Bad brand, bad!

We have abandoned it and good riddance.

But we didn’t get off scotfree.  We lost all the blog posts since December 18th, 2009.  This too is thanks to Network Solutions which managed to delete the entire database.  Yes, that’s 1.5 million words, and many years of work, made to disappear in a puff of digital smoke. Bad brand, very bad brand.

Were it not for a backup at Foliovision, I would have lost the whole thing.  Good brand! Excellent brand.  (No, but really.  Foliovision has earned my undying gratitude.  Highly recommended for anyone thinking of making the transition from TypePad to WordPress.)  

It looks as if we were going to lose the list of Very Good Blogs, but, happily ,David Armano referenced it a couple of months ago, and this gave us a back up.  Thank you, David. 

So we are back in action.  Thanks for your patience.  And thanks to people who wrote in to give me the head’s up on the malware attack.  

Special thanks to Ana Domb for helping me get This Blog back in place.

NFL and American individualism

Polamalu_si_cover National Football League is contemplating a rule that would forbid the likes of Troy Polamalu of Pittsburgh, Al Harris of Green Bay and Mike McKenzie of New Orleans from wearing long hair on the field.

Professional players are constrained in what they can wear on and off the field. They are also forbidden certain acts of celebration in the end zone. These restrictions have been accepted by the players but this proposed rule was scorned this morning by Kyle Turley, a former player.  A larger protest might follow.   

Certainly, this sort of constraint suggests an anxiety on the part of the owners, a wish to control the "product" on the field, and protect the "brand" as it it were their’s alone.  It also encourages the widespread suspicion that professional football secretly conforms to the Roman gladiator model, the one that says that the League owns players…until it sacrifices them for its own advancement.  In this scheme, the individuality of the players couldn’t matter less.  It is all about the League, it is exclusively about the League. 

But there is another way to look at this.  Daniel Bell proposed a distinction between instrumental individualism and expressive individualism.  The former encourages the individual to define himself according to his utility.  It enables this instrumentality.  The latter encourage the individual to define himself according to his individuality.  It promotes his self expression. 

There is a lasting tension between these two forces in American culture.  There are moments when instrumentality has the upper hand. There are moments when expressiveness wins out.  But notice that these two forces exist always in a state of opposition.  It is never ok to dial one or the other out of existence altogether.  And that appears to be precisely what the NFL is on the verge of doing.  Hair was the last medium of self expression.  And even this is now at risk. 


I am speaking today at the PSFK event.  My theme is "intellectual appliances," the ideas that help us think.  Bell’s distinction between expressive and individual individualism and its application here to NFL policy will serve as an example.  But, listen, if you are reading this while sitting in the audience of the The Art Directors’ Club, I have a request.  Look up.  Listen to the guy on the stage.  Stop reading this.  Please.

Farewell to that doggie in the window

AiboSony Corp. has officially euthanized the Sony AIBO entertainment robot … the company said today.

The "announcement" was slipped into Sony’s 2005 third-quarter earnings report, which also detailed a number of plant closings and a refocusing to core businesses like entertainment, pictures and music.

A couple of years ago I bought an Aibo in Tokyo.  I found him on the third floor of a crowded department store, surrounded by people transfixed by his smallest gesture.  I knew I had to own one.

It was Christmas time, and I came back through Victoria, B.C. to see my family for the holidays.  At first, I thought I would leave Aibo in my luggage, but wiser heads prevailed and pretty soon Aibo was doing tricks in the middle of the living room floor. 

The men in the family dismissed Aibo immediately on seeing him and the women, all three generations of them, watched him with an air of what I can only describe as fond expectation.  Aibo wasn’t actually doing anything that charmed them, but something about him persuaded them he soon would. 

My family is not big on gender orthodoxy (descending from a Victorian feminist, we have our own orthodoxy), but Aibo split the family right down the middle.  The men thought he was a machine flawed by improbable sentience.  The women thought he was a machine improved by nascent sentience.  This turned out to be one of many Xmas disagreements.

But who cared, really.  Not me.  I got bought Aibo mostly out of guilt.  I was travelling a lot, and this meant neglecting Daz, my very talkative, very companionable, Siamese cat.  When I saw Aibo in that Tokyo department store, I thought, "perfect, a pet for my pet.  Daz will love him."  But Daz was true to the gender orthodoxy in effect.  After one good sniff, he dismissed Aibo completely. Aibo was consigned to a back room, as if he’d done something really bad, and I came to regard him as one of my many failed investments in the field of guilt management.      

Now in the marketing research community, these are called unofficial, anecdotal findings.  But of course that does not mean I don’t intend to run with them. 

I think it’s fair to say, if my "findings" are anything to judge by, Aibo fell between the men who buy computers and the women, in this case, who love them.  I know this sounds like a sexist howler (no pun intended), but ethnographic research in several tech categories persuades me that, by and large, men insist on making household computer purchases.  They may not be smarter about technology than women, but they insist on acting as if they are.  (Women, bless them, look the other way.)

Now this is an interesting marketing problem.  How to find a way to parachute a consumer good like Aibo into the lives of female consumer over the walls of male disapproval and budgetary control?  Everyone’s answer for a problem like this is always, "Oprah."  And that is in fact the right answer, but it is also a lot like the lottery.  Our chances of getting Aibo on Oprah are one in a ten thousand.  Harpo productions looks like O’Hare airport: everyone’s trying to land there.

So what are the options?  We know there are precedents.  Honda launched the Prelude as a car for guys and women took it over.  (Marlboro cigarettes moved in the opposite direction.)  It might be possible to sell it in as the ultimate office accessory.  I like the idea of visiting the office of a high powered executive, being greeted by her exuberant Aibo, and being reassured with a dry, "Oh, don’t be alarmed.  He’s quite harmless."  That would tell us we were dealing with someone with higher orders of intelligence and cultural literacy, wouldn’t it?  (Useful for her, too.)

Sony might have commissioned a transmedia novel called "Raised by Aibo," about a woman who was, like, raised by Aibo.  In fact, there are several movie and fictional properties waiting to happen: "Jane Ford, Aibo wrangler," "Aibo walkies: domesticating your new best friend," "Letting Aibo out: discovering the beast within."   

But in point of fact, I don’t think Sony pitched women at all.  In fact, my sense is they blithely hoped that he would be embraced by the hobbiest lobby, a community that is still largely made up with men.  Weird!  All they had to do was put Aibo in a roomful of women to know that this was the wrong audience, or, at least, not the only audience, or best, a distant second to the real target. 

Aibo’s demise might be the result of bad research, bad marketing or bad management.  But this is a terrible error and a spectacular waste of R&D dollars.  I can’t help wondering whether the research failed to do their due diligence.   There is nothing wrong with this product that good marketing could not fix. 


This story is on many websites today.  My crawling cursor is driving me absolutely crazy and I am putting off all citations till I can get the thing fixed. 

Amazon goes Hollywood

Amazon_1According Brandweek, will attempt to expand its brand by offering a weekly online program, Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher. Streamed live through a high-definition media player, the program, slated to run for 12 weeks starting June 1, will begin showing previews on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

According to Amazon,

Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher has a simple, yet powerful mission-to help our customers discover new books, films, and music, and to help the creators of these works find new audiences. (Kathy Savitt, vp for strategic communications, content, and initiatives, as quoted in Anonymous 2006, below).

Now this raises some of the same problems we discussed yesterday, but it also confronts us with a spectre much more terrifying: undue brand specificity. 

The really great brands are a study in multivocality.  So when you sit down with consumers and ask them to tell you about the brand, the first reaction is often, "well, let’s see, Coca-Cola, it’s, well, its sort of.  I mean, you see, its…"

Now normally when this happens in an interview, the consumer is spitting nails of frustration  (fixing the anthropologist to the methodological cross in the process), but in this case, even as they are stumbling over their words and virtually drooling with indecision, they are smiling…and this is because they are talking about something that is many things to them.

Amazon is not an old brand, but it has taken on some of this magnificient indeterminacy.  Amazon was beginning to take on that transcent quality that great brands have.  If you thought about it, it was equal parts the Pacific Northwest, Jeff Bezos, tremendous choice, the death of retail, and particularly a respite from the horrifying push and shove of December shopping.  There is something magical about the brand, as in, "I want Tom Asacker’s new book on my doorstep tomorrow" and there it is. 

There is even something endearing about the brand, and I think this comes from those sometimes wildly  mistaken recommendations Amazon makes from time to time.  ("It’s trying," we think to ourselves, "it’s trying.")    It’s almost as if Amazon the brand bears a resemblance to Bezos the man.  Both are transparent, agreeable, eager to please.  (No trace of the smugness of a Bill Gates or the arrogance of a Steve Jobs.)   But we know there has to be lots more going on.  And there is it.  Some brand traces…and a certain indeterminacy.

This is put at risk when Amazon appoints Bill Maher as a voice of the show.  Here Maher is in November of 2005, talking Bush’s "big bird flu speech."

[Bush] made a big announcement today which – and, look, bird flu could be real. My parakeet used to say, "Polly want a cracker," and now it says, "I’m bleeding out of my rectum."

Funny…but vulgar, anti-Bush, and anti-pet.  (And in this country, presidents may be fair game, but pets are still sacred.)  The mismatch between Maher and Amazon grows still more marked when Maher is strident and scornful, as he almost always is.  This is really unBezosian.  Indeed, it pushes the Bezos image in the direction of Gates and Jobs, and perhaps beyond.

But the real problem is that it is, as any single voice must be, particular.  And this interferes with the brand indeterminacy that Amazon needs.   Great brands are a house of many mansions and there is always that transcendant quality.  The last thing we want is a new face and a particular voice for the brand. 

Long term solutions

This is a short term problem.  There will come a time when consumers become familiar with the idea that the brand speaks with many voices.  Some of them already grasp this and have come to expect it. 

But let’s face it: many consumers and that’s because we keep insisting that the brand is a single thing and that it speak with a single voice.  I give you this announcement from Brandweek.

Wal-Mart has named auto industry veteran Julie Roehm as svp-marketing communications, responsible for the overall development and execution of advertising strategies, creative services and special events for Wal-Mart Stores U.S.A. She will report to John Fleming, Wal-Mart’s chief marketing officer. This is a new position within the company.

"By creating a single source of responsibility for our marketing communications, we will ensure the consistency of our message to our customer," Fleming said in a statement. "We want our customers to know that whatever their shopping needs, Wal-Mart provides products and services that are relevant to their lifestyle, at great value. Julie’s experience will be instrumental in our efforts to showcase that message." (emphasis added)

There we go again, insisting on consistency in the age of the long tail when consistency is where brands go to die. 

So Amazon’s problem is a short term one.  One day, there will come a time when Amazon will be able to use Bill Maher and Dennis Miller as simultaneous spokespeople.  (There will come a time when it has to.)  But until then let us wonder about this choice of Maher.  It will not be good for the brand. 


Anonymous.  2006.  Amazon Expands Footprint with Original Programming.  Brandweek.  January 19, 2006.  here.

Maher, Bill.  2005.  Real Time with Bill Maher.  November 4, 2005.  Transcripts on line.  here.

O’Loughlin, Sandra.  2006.  Chrysler’s Roehm Drives Over To Wal-Mart.  Brandweek.  January 18, 2006.  here.

Starbucks goes Hollywood

StarbucksLast week, Starbucks announced its interest in a closer connection with Hollywood.  For starters, it will promote a Lions Gate film called Akeelah and the Bee in return for an undisclosed portion of the box office proceeds.

Hollywood is thrilled, I’m sure, at the prospect of a new marketing vista and the opportunity to reach the consumer in the uncluttered space of the Starbucks. 

But what’s in it for Starbucks? 

Well, there are those dreams of empire.  As Gray and Kelly of the WSJ put it,

Starbucks Corp., having conquered the coffee business and staked a claim in music, is setting its sights on Hollywood.

Starbucks is so very good at the coffee business that it must be getting restless.  Plus, Schultz has always insisted that he is in the "lifestyle" business and he recognizes Hollywood as the most important lab benches for cultural (and lifestyle) innovation.  This partnership is well advised.

And as the WSJ points out, with drive-through windows and breakfast sandwiches, Starbucks is now competing with McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts.  The Hollywood connection might be a useful point of difference.

Fair enough.  But I have a question.  What does this do to Starbucks as a "third space."  This was one of the great marketing accomplishments of our time: to see that there was the opportunity, the wish, for a space between work and home, and then to build it.  In effect, Starbucks was doing a little cultural innovation of its own.  North America has never been entirely comfortable with life in public.  Unlike the European cultures from which it sprang, public space in the new world was an excluded middle, not quite informal enough to give the comforts of home, not quite formal enough to be governed by the rules of work.  Hence, the drive through line…or, the restaurant in which we are aware of others only until conversation and the Bordeaux draws us into a world of our own.

Starbucks actually managed to build a third space, and then to monitize it.  Bravo.  How many of the success stories in American culture come from people who have the courage and smarts to give us cultural innovations of this kind?  (I give you the iPod, the Blackberry, the Coca-Cola Company, Nike, Sony, to name a few.)

So what happens to the third space when Starbucks "goes Hollywood?"  What happens when the third space fills us with DVDs and CDs, to say nothing of promotional messages on the sleeve of every coffee-cup. 

The WSJ sees a danger: "Starbucks could risk alienating customers or diluting the value of its brand if its promotions come on too strong."  And Ken Lombard, the man in charge of the Hollywood connection for Starbucks, does too:  "Our customers aren’t going to walk into their favorite Starbucks and suddenly feel like we’ve commoditized music and CDs."  Apparently, Starbucks will sell 20 or fewer titles at a time. 

But frankly, I am not reassured that Starbucks has thought through the potential danger.  (Just for starters, what the heck does Lombard think "commoditize" means?)  If I were a Wall Street analyst, I want to hear that benefit (new revenue streams, new connections to the beating heart of contemporary culture, new sources of interest in a Starbucks store) actually outweighs risk.  More precisely, I want to hear that the sacred ground of Starbucks retail is not going to be sacrificed in pursuit of a few extra bucks.  As it stands, this space has an interesting "hard to put your finger on" quality which I personally I like lot.  Shilling for Hollywood might give Starbucks a quality that’s really easy to put our finger on. 

What are the fundaments of the Starbucks brand?  It begins with the coffee.  It continues with the creation of a coffee connoisseurship that comes to us out of Venice (via Seattle).  But what is crucial here is what Starbucks managed to do with that retail space.  They gave it something.  And that something gives us something.  And they did such a good job here that not even the ubiquity of the Starbucks outlet (there are now 5,500 of them) has really damaged the magic of this space.  (In fact, it turns out that not even the now reliable truculence of the serving staff can damage the magic of this space.)

We are not good at thinking about how the Starbucks space creates value for the brand and adds value to the Starbucks proposition.  So it’s difficult for The Street to factor this in.  But when, as an investor, I pick up the Wall Street Journal, I want someone, preferably Lombard, to "run the numbers" here and reassure me that brand equity is in good hands.

As Katherine Stone put it rather nicely in a comment on this blog this morning, (referring to bad brand stewardship on the part of the Coca-Cola Company): "Here they go again siding with money over magic."  This is the story of American capital: corporations that build brands and then destroy them.  It is, to be sure, a death of a thousand cuts: a brand extension here, an ill advised partnership there.  It all seems like a good idea at the time.  But eventually the pursuit of minor profit sacrifices the real founts of value.  As Katherine’s remark reminds us, we understand more and more these days that the money comes from the magic, and that we "commoditize" this magic at our peril. 

What would it cost us in time, effort and investment to build a brand like Starbucks from scratch?  Could we build it from scratch?  Do we wish to put this accomplishment at risk?  Or, more exactly, when, where and how can we leverage the brand without diminishing it. 

For all I know, this Hollywood partnership may be exactly the right thing to do.  I guess what I want is the due diligence of a real analysis. 


Gray, Steven and Kate Kelly.  2006.  Starbucks Plans to Make Debut in Movie Business.  Wall Street Journal.  January 12, 2006.