Tag Archives: brands

Brands behaving badly: the case for messiness

By this time, all the world is objecting to the proposal from G.M. to dump "Chevy" and hew to "Chevrolet."  it’s such a manifestly bad idea, it might actually be calculated to provoke the great linguistic love fest soon to follow.

But we can take issue not just with the what of the decision but the why.  Richard Chang of the Times gives us the memo from inside G.M.  It comes from the desk of Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim Campbell, the G.M. division’s vice president for marketing.

“When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple or instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding,” the memo said. “Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer.”

I beg to differ.  Brands did once labor to present the same face in every medium and all markets.  In the second half of the 20th century, the world of marketing and especially design was all about consistency.  This is what the corporation paid us for: to get their semiotic ducks in a row.

That was the 20th century.  Brands now want to be many things to many people.  They are called upon to adapt in real time.  Some overarching supervision is called for.  But we want the brand to give off a certain vitality, vivacity, charisma even.  And these things, as we know, come more surely from complexity than consistency. 

Naturally, this makes the marketer’s job more difficult.  In the old days, once the choice was made, due diligence was all about policing the departures that were sure to spring up in every corner of the corporation.  Now, it’s managing a bundle of sometimes discordant meanings, expressed with a variety of various visuals (and audibles). 

"Chevy" is a worthy part of this bundle.  Nay, it has deep roots in American culture.  This makes it a meaning most meaning managers would kill for.  


Chang, Richard.  2010.  Saving Chevrolet means sending "Chevy" to dump. June 10.  here.


Thanks to Daniel Rosenblatt.

Does Buzz Need Batteries? (thoughts on viral marketing)

Brandweek yesterday:

More brands will compensate bloggers and social media users in an attempt to generate chatter about their products, a new study found.

PQ Media said such "sponsored conversations" — which compensate social media users for discussing brands’ products — grew to $46 million in 2009, a 14 percent increase from a year earlier. Even so, that figure represented a tiny chunk (2.7 percent) of the word-of-mouth marketing category, according to PQ.

The firm now forecasts what it terms "social media sponsorship spending" to rise 26 percent this year to $56.8 million.

What should we make of this? 

One interpretation: that buzz marketing does not go unless pushed, that buzz needs batteries. 

And this is a problem for a couple of reasons. 

1) Paid buzz bloggers would become advertisers by another name.  (In what sense is “sponsored conversation” a conversation?)

2) The credibility and authenticity of blogger enthusiasm would be open to challenge.

3) The viral model may not actually work. 

Ten years ago, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger published The Cluetrain Manifesto.  Marketing would never be the same.  “Marketing as conversation” wasn’t a perfect metaphor, but it was a liberating one.  It helped corporations see that idea was not to shout at consumers but to converse with them.

As Manifesto was making friends and influencing people, another idea began to exert itself.  Buzz marketing, let’s call it, was suddenly everywhere.  The idea now was to “go viral.” 

Some marketers returned immediately to form.  “Virality.  Perfect!” they said, “We’ll get consumers buzzing about us!”  No sooner had marketers glimpsed the possibility that marketing was a conversation than some decided to make the conversation about them. 

It was that old joke all over again: “well, that’s enough about me, what do you think about me?” 

The truth is simple.  Consumers don’t necessarily care about brands.  They care still less about marketers.  They care about what they care about, and it is up to us to find out what that is.  It’s up to us to join the conversation.  There is little chance that we can start this conversation, especially if all we want to do is to talk about ourselves. 

The year 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the phrase “consumer is king” as invented by Charles Coolidge Parlin.  The metaphor has plausibility problems of its own, but it proved influential and it remains active.  It was marketing’s way of remembering “it’s not about us, it’s about them.”  This is another way of saying that we have been thinking about this problem lesson for around 100 years.  When does the penny drop?

Clarification: This is not an attack on viral marketing.  This is an attack on viral marketing that insists on making the brand the stuff of the buzz.  We have plenty of evidence that the corporation and marketer can create content that consumers are keen to consume and communicate.  This viral marketing is a contribution to marketing only because it is first of all a contribution to culture.  The Ford Fiesta campaign is I believe a good case in point of this kind of viral marketing (see my remarks below).


Levine, Rick, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls and David Weinberger The Cluetrain Manifesto: 10th Anniversary Edition.  New York: Basic Books. here.

McCracken, Grant.  2010.  How Ford Got Social Marketing Right.  Harvard Business Review Blog Conversation.  January 7. here.

Morrissey, Brian.  2010.  Paid Brand Conversations to Rise.  Brandweek.  Subscription fees may apply. May 11.  here.

For more on Parlin, see his entry in the Advertising Hall of Fame here.

Meaning manufacture, old and new (Significant Objects)

In the old days, most of the meanings of our objects came prefab.

This what brands did for us. Brands, and the advertisers, planners, researchers, and  marketers who made them.

Inevitably we would add meanings to our possessions.  We might finesse the ones we found there.  But mostly, anyone with the same objects had the same meanings.  Thus did our material culture make our culture material.

We have since seen the rise of custom-made meanings.  This is one of the reasons we like antique fairs, and farmer’s markets is that these objects have been stripped of their original meanings and taken on new, historical, ones.  What used to be someone’s tea cup is now our Victorian teacup.

It’s the reason we like the tourist trinkets we bring back from vacation.  These were likely hand made somewhere.  That textile just says Mexico.  More than that, it says, "our vacation in Mexico."

It’s also the reason we like artisanal goods, the chocolates, beer and bread that is so popular now.  There are no brands here. These products take their meaning mostly from the process of hand crafting and the person who made them.  These objects come with stories more than meanings and we like to tell these stories.  "Well, Frank, that’s the guy who made these chocolates, he’s got that little shop down on Cambie, Frank used to be a professional football player.  No, I am not kidding."

Of course this sort of thing has always been true of high end restaurants.  This has always been hand crafted, unbranded (at least in so far as national brands are concerned), and meanings that come with this food are all about this very particular restaurant, chef, owner, designer, etc.  Here the brand is a man or a women.

The rich like to live in a relatively unbranded world.  Kitchens, furniture, bespoke tailoring, all of this is completely custom made.  It’s fun to go due north on Madison, I think it is.  In mid town, we are looking at branded stores, but as we hit the the upper east side, the brands fall away.  Now all the shops are little and very particular.  This is no brand land.

Experiments like Etsy give us a glimpse of a democratized version of this world.  Now, the rest of us can own customized stuff. No brands.  No manufacture in the industrial sense.  What we buy from Etsy.com is unique and if its to mean something, it will be because we have invested it with meanings particular to our own lives and sensibilities.

So I was interested to note the website called Significant Objects.  (Thanks to Leora Kornfeld for the head’s up.)  This was invented by Joshua Glenn, Matthew Battles, Rob Walker and others in the summer of 2009.  Here’s how they describe what they do.  (Sorry to be vague about the founders of Significant Objects but they appear to take pains to efface their identities on the SO website.  I can’t but wonder whether they are waiting for authors to supply identities for them…or at least names.  Excellent strategy.)

Significant Objects has three steps:

1. The experiment’s curators purchase objects — for no more than a few dollars — from thrift stores and garage sales.

2. A participating writer is paired with an object. He or she then writes a fictional story, in any style or voice, about the object. Voila! An unremarkable, castoff thingamajig has suddenly become a “significant” object!

3. Each significant object is listed for sale on eBay. The s.o. is pictured, but instead of a factual description the s.o.’s newly written fictional story is used. However, care is taken to avoid the impression that the story is a true one; the intent of the project is not to hoax eBay customers. (Doing so would void our test.) The author’s byline will appear with his or her story.

The first version of Significant objects can be defined still more particularly:

Significant Objects was originally intended as an experiment exploring the relationship between narrative and value. (In fact, we didn’t think many writers would want to participate — before we launched the experiment, we listed 100 writers we knew or just admired and asked ourselves, “How do we convince/cajole/trick/browbeat these talented people into helping us with no guarantee that they’ll get anything out of it whatsoever?”) Our goal, then as now, was not simply to generate content, or to provide writers with a fun creative exercise, but instead to pair our carefully curated objects with stories that we’d curated every bit as carefully. We want the site to offer a consistently great reading experience — and we put a lot of effort into that.

The relationship between narrative and value.  How very interesting.  Economics is not very good on this relationship.  Indeed the idea that stories can create value is a little mystifying.  And this would be a good time to come to terms with this, because as I say, it is the coming thing.

I fell to thinking about a variation of the SO theme.  As it stands, in what remains of the old world of marketing, a watch comes charged with some standard meanings, crafted by the CMO, the brand, agency and its creatives.  Take for instance the Rolex that uses the Bond movie franchise to give the watch a certain quality of romance, danger, adventure, etc.

A SO approach would craft the meaning of the objects more particularly.   The brand could engage a team of writers and have them standing by to deliver stories to the owner, perhaps on a just in time basis.  What I am a buying the watch then is also a stream of stories that might come to me every day or week or month.  Tomorrow, I might get an email that reads

Today your watch is owned by a functionary, a man who lives in Ottawa and works for the Canadian government.  You have a secret.  You have embezzled $3 million from the Canadian government.  Today is actually is your last day.  You wouldn’t be here, but the embezzlement will finalize today. You are nervous.  Actually you’re sweating bullets.  Make it through today, and you can spend the rest of your life in some sunny country that laughs in the face of the Canadian extradition.  But you can’t help feeling that suspicions are flourishing.  You know people are looking at you.  Aren’t they? Every glance, every comment today will be charged with menace.  Have a nice day.

This is narrative and I believe our Rolex is more valuable for it.  As these stories change, as we enter the narratives that come with the watch, the watch becomes more and more valuable.  It serves as a portal on alternative realities and multiple selves.


See the Significant Objects website here.

See the Smoking Man Figurine complete with a very interesting story by Vicente Lozano here.  (this image lost in the melt down, see note below)

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010.

7-11, where brands go to die

Think back, way back, to the last time you were in a 7-11.  Recall the smell, the light, the linoleum underfoot, the clerk behind the counter.

It’s as if everything that is bad and wrong in the ordinary world has assembled in a kind of jamboree of awfulness. When I used to frequent one in downtown Boston, I would shuffle around endlessly looking for something to eat. And I came to the conclusion that with the exception of a token apple or two, only artificial food is allowed in this place.  If you ate here exclusively for a month (instead of at McDonald’s), there is no chance you would complete the assignment.

But it’s not just food that’s bad for you.  Something about this very entropic place actually manages to wick away your knowledge of the world; what time it is, what season it is, what neighborhood, city, region you are in.  And once the locational knowledge goes, it’s not long before basic identity info begins to go.  Forget eating at 7-Eleven for a month. Try living there.

We are bat-like creatures, bouncing signals off the world to locate ourselves in this world.  You can try this in 7-Eleven. But no signal returns.  You are lost in a box lost in space.

So what happens to the brand in this box? But of course it withers and dies.  It has been crafted by brilliant marketers. Millions have been spent to give it all but only the meanings that will make it resonant, interesting and vivid.  But none of these meanings are robust enough to survive the 7-Eleven.

And what happens to culture in this box?  Damaged beyond recognition.  It has been crafted by the rest of us.  And we what a thing we have accomplished.  Talk about resonant, interesting, and vivid. That’s us.  But even this is not robust enough to survive 7-Eleven.  It is impoverished and hollowed out.

There have been two recent attempts to save the 7-Eleven.  One was the Homer Simpson "endorsement."  D’ho!  I think this was a bad idea.  (See my blog post below for the larger argument).  More promising is the appointment of Rita Bargerhuff.  Yes, she was the one who okayed the Simpson endorsement.  And that tells us that she’s trying and that she knows the direction 7-Eleven must move: away from "convenience" (that concept that has underwritten so much bad design and experience) to something funny, playful, more responsive to the culture around it.

Who knows? Perhaps Bargerhuff will someday double as 7-Eleven’s CCO.


Hein, Kenneth.  2009.  7-Eleven Elevates Bargerhuff to CMO.  BusinessWeek.  November 18.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2007.  Homer Simpson and the 7-Eleven Endorsement debacle.  This Blog.  July 17.  here.

Note: this post was lost due to Network Solution incompetence in December 2009.  I am reposted it today, December 24, 2010.