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Monday, March 28, 2005

The GAP Between Smart Brands and Stupid Celebrities


Some time in 2004, that venerable bastion of misguided apparel
brands, the GAP, announced to the world that it had scored a big
coup: it had signed Sarah Jessica Parker as their spokesperson for a
big time, multi-million dollar three year deal. They spent about
five minutes producing perhaps the most annoying television spots in
recent consumer history, which they aired until -- somewhat
predictably -- they had driven GAP sales about eight and a half feet
into the ground. As a result, barely nine months after scoring their
"coup," the GAP announced that they are parting ways with Sarah
Jessica Parker.

Gee. What a surprise.

What do you suppose was the reason they're dumping her? Could it be
that the GAP is not a store devoted to over-aged women who fancy
themselves young enough to wear mini-skirts? Now there's a thought.
For the last few decades, the GAP has offered clothing to a
distinctly younger set of men and women. Yet here they are, signing
on a celebrity spokesperson who is neither young nor appealing to
males. In fact, if Sarah Jessica Parker represents anything to
American men, it's the personification of smug, self-involved
annoyance.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the geniuses at GAP gathered round
the conference table, congratulating themselves on signing on to yet
another brand fiasco. "We've got Sarah Jessica What's-Her-Name - you
know, form the recently cancelled 'Sex In The City' show?" Slaps on
the back all the way around, with each marketing maven secretly,
fervently wishing and hoping that this would be the magic bullet to
pull the GAP out of its tailspin.

It's no different a few doors down the hall at GAP: Recall the
revolving door of over-the-hill celebrities that has become the mill
for their Old Navy brand. Cleverly disguised as "retro," the
Einsteins in GAP's marketing department keep dredging up washed-up
wackos to hawk their under-priced overalls.

Does it work? Oh, sure. Well, kind of. Um, almost as well as it
did for the pinheads at Chrysler, who honestly believed that
strapping Celine Dione to the hood of a Town & Country would move
cars. Don't hear much from Chrysler or Celine these days, do you?
Of course not. That relationship also ended a tad earlier than
expected, because Celine Dione is totally incompatible with the brand
that is Chrysler. In fact, other than actually cashing their rather
considerable paychecks, I doubt that Celine Dione has even ridden in
a Chrysler. Of course, the management didn't realize that until
sales figures came in. Or rather, didn't.

You don't have to yank your memory cord too hard to recall all the
celebrities that have gone on to misrepresent the companies to whom
they were signed. If you're old enough, you might remember that
Monument to American Parenthood, singer Michael Jackson, being signed
as a pitchman for Pepsi. And if you're a veritable antique (like
myself), you can still conjure up images of O.J. Simpson running
through the airports for Hertz (minus the butcher knife, of course).

The real problem here, is that America is increasingly being managed
by corporate caretakers who have never built brands, so they have no
idea how to manage them. They simply hope they can rub up against
anything -- and anyone -- who happens to be in the media spotlight
this week. But as Frankel's Laws
(http://www.RobFrankel.com/frankelaws.html) clearly state, "Branding
is not about awareness. First you create the brand, then advertising
raises the brand's awareness."

What companies like GAP, Old Navy and Chrysler don't understand is
that you can't make the quantum leap from brand to brand awareness
without first developing a brand strategy. What's the point of being
famous, if nobody understands what you're famous for?

Apparently, GAP has seen the error of their ways, though. They've
dumped Sarah Jessica Parker and signed on Joss Stone. Yeah. That
oughta make a huge difference.

Not.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Corporate America Eats Its Young: GM Kills Its Brands

You can't pick up a newspaper -- or more accurately, scan a web page
-- without reading about the some bizarre human atrocity. It might
be a political beheading. Maybe a military torture. But no ritual
sacrifice, no satanic ceremony can possibly rival the horror of
watching a parent devouring its young.

It's sick. It's disgusting. And now it's become a common practice
of American business.

Throughout America, the major brands that haven't been starved to
death by neglect are slowly being consumed by their own incompetence.
Such is the case with General Motors -- once the most powerful brand
in the world -- who this week announced that it would likely kill off
some of its brands "if its weaker car brands if sales fail to meet
projections."

According to Reuters news service, "GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz did not
specify which car might be dropped but described Buick and Pontiac as
'damaged brands' due to lack of investment over the years, and told a
Morgan Stanley automotive conference in New York that GM is working
to correct that with an array of new vehicles coming to market."

Damaged? Anyone want take a guess as to who actually inflicted the
damage? I feel like I'm watching family movies at the Yates' house.
There's mother, smiling with the kids, none of whom have the
slightest inkling of their impending doom.

It's not enough that GM has already killed off the Oldsmobile and all
the brand equity that went with it. Nor has GM seemed to notice how
badly it has damaged its relationship with both its retail network --
and the public -- by offering the largest "sales incentives" in its
history. Apparently, bribing the public into the showrooms with
"cash back incentives" wasn't enough, and now GM is left in even
worse shape than before. So GM is planning to do to its offspring
what every maladjusted, ignorant parent would do to its troubled
kids: killing them off.

In the human world, I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who
procreate while remaining totally unprepared for parenthood. They
give no thought to the trials and tribulations of raising a child.
They just have the kid and figure that things will somehow work out.
Then reality hits. The kid gets sick, misbehaves or worse yet, gets
crippled for life. Yet despite their incompetence the vast majority
of parents don't kill off the kid out of convenience. Even the most
detached parent eventually summons the strength to nurture and cure;
abandonment rarely enters his mind.

Not so with General Motors. It seems content to blame its children
for their own fate, sending them into the forest to fend for
themselves. GM's plan, having learned nothing, is to have another
kid and hope that things go better this time out. The trouble is
that, like human parents, it's far more likely that GM will just make
the same mistakes all over again.

If you think that GM's brand incompetence is an isolated case, think
again. K-Mart's takeover of Sears is another case of brand murder.
Anyone who believes that K-Mart acquired Sears' for anything other
than Sears' catalog of under-valued real estate is in serious denial.
For that matter, anyone who hasn't noticed the disappearance of
Woolworth's from the planet or Kodak's banishment from the Dow 30
Industrials has simply been asleep at the wheel. Michael Eisner's
running Disney on to the rocks is one more example.

The plain truth is that America's brands are devouring their young.
Sub-brands and line extensions are being spun off or closed down for
all the wrong reasons. Procter & Gamble, the place where all good
brands go to die, is infamous for killing off brands that "don't
perform," which more often than not means they don't please
accountants whose own lives are measured by fiscal quarters.

I guess this wouldn't bother me so much if I knew that these brands
and sub-brands really were to blame for their own failure. But I
have a sneaking suspicion that it's the mama and papa brands -- the
boys in the corporate ivory tower -- who are really to blame.
Guiding their decisions by balance sheets instead of real brand and
marketing strategy, they completely undermine and undervalue the most
powerful asset their companies possess: their brand. They discount
the trust and values their fathers spent decades cultivating and
nurturing, because they know nothing of trust and value.

Perhaps the worst tragedy of all is that, due totally to corporate
incompetence, the destruction of major brands is taking a
considerable human toll. As Reuters' report continues: "An
elimination of any one of GM's brands would likely mean plant
closings and a shrinking of GM's hourly work force." Translation: a
lot more than 20 or 30 people on the line are going to lose their
livelihoods. We're talking about hundreds, maybe thousands. And
that doesn't even touch on the dealers who devoted their entire lives
to brands that were once as "solid as a dollar."

This is the story that American business media continues to miss.
The widespread ignorance of branding is a scourge on the economy
that's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Today,
General Motors, tomorrow, Levi Strauss. You know, that company that
is trying to sell its Dockers brand -- but can't find any buyers.