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Friday, January 26, 2007

Disney "Dreams" up a Nightmare

Here's an interesting riddle: What do you do to revitalize one of America's traditionally strong brands when it's been left by its managers to languish for three decades? How do you jump start a company whose founders, incensed at the Caretaker Managers who nearly ran the brand on to the rocks, tried and failed to wrest back control of the company? And what do you do when attendance at your theme parks -- presumably the world's best-loved parks -- are laboring to bait more people through their gates?

If you're Disney, you do what everyone else with no clue does: Hire celebrities.

In case you haven't seen it, the brain trust at Disney has decided to run an advertising campaign aimed at getting more people into their parks. That's the good news. The bad news is that Disney isn't aiming at getting more young people in there. They're aiming at getting more old people in there.

That's right: Disney is so bad at motivating young people to nag their parents to overpay for $7 hot dogs and $4 Coca-Colas, that they're planning to hit up the folks they've been sucking into the Magic Kingdom for years: Their past customers. According to Reuters, Disney's new "Dreams" advertising campaign is designed to stick it to your grandparents. Again.

The fact that Disney, long the brand of wholesome youth and idealism, can't figure out how to capture the imaginations of America's youngsters is bad enough. To some of us, it's practically inconceivable. Remember, there once was a time when Disney couldn't keep kids away from Disneyland. Families planned entire vacations around a two or three day visit to see Mickey Mouse up close. For a while, Disney was invincible.

Not anymore.

More parks. More thrill rides. More distractions and less imagination made Disney vulnerable to just about anyone with a rollercoaster and an advertising budget. With every passing season, Disney eventually lost more of its imagination, the one brand attribute that truly made the brand "the only solution" for millions of kids. Instead, the Caretaker Managers at Disney cheaped on out park quality. They abandoned Walt Disney's vision. They started imitating their competitors -- and losing to them.

It got so bad that Roy Disney launched his own rebellion to take back control of the company. While that dream didn't materialize, it did help to end the nightmare that was Michael Eisner.

Now comes the Disney "Dreams" ad campaign. The company, still bankrupt of any truly creative ideas, has hired the likes of celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz to create print ads featuring - what else - celebrities like Beyonce Knowles, Scarlett Johansson, Lyle Lovett, Oliver Platt and David Beckham, each dressed and posed as a Disney character.

The big question is, why?

What possible value can any of these celebrities bring to the Disney brand that a good character model could not? For that matter, why Annie Leibovitz, when there are thousands of photographers just as good, lots less expensive and maybe even more talented?

I'll tell you why. Because Disney has become so confused, so distracted, so unconscious of its brand that it no longer has the capacity to do anything with it other than license the logo. The celebrities they've chosen add no value to anyone, anywhere. They relate in no way to Disney, the stories depicted in the ads or even the people to whom they're supposed to appeal. After all, if I'm the grandparent to whom the ads are aimed, do I even know who Scarlett Johannson or Lyle Lovett is? If Disney is serious about selling to grandma and grandpa, they'd best realize that nobody in that age bracket knows anything after Peter Pan and Fantasia.

But don't tell that to the folks working the Mouse House. In yet another capitulation to mediocrity, they've jumped on the Hollywood bandwagon, desperate in the hope that the stardust of actors will somehow rub off on their legendary mouse and, like Sleeping Beauty, awaken their fortunes once more. Oh, to be a fly on the wall when the ad agency creative director pitched this train wreck to the Disney marketing department. The silence must have been deafening in that boardroom, as each Disney employee smiled while silently wondering how the hell any of this was ever going to work.

I could be wrong, but if history is any indication, there's a good chance that at least one of these Disney Dream celebrities will end up either arrested, in some rehab or outed by the media.

At least that would get Disney back into entertainment.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Cingular, AT&T & Other Brand Corpses

In what has become a disturbing trend, predicted long ago by yours truly, the Beginning of the End of latter day brands is finally arriving. Many of the latter day brands are starting to buckle under their own ineptness. What's worse, the Caretaker Managers of those brands are running out of options.

Ever since the Caretaker Managers inherited their jobs, they've been at odds with how to perform their duties. C-level executives are given fat paychecks to manage their brands, but have no skills, tools or knowledge with what their brands actually are. There is no thought given to nurturing or sustaining the brand. How could there be?

If you don't know what branding is, how can you possibly grow it?

The result, for the most part, is a pattern of revolving door executives, each leaving their post in worse shape than their predecessor. And if you think I'm spouting off just for the sake of ranting, take a look at the latest rage in branding:

Exhuming brand corpses.

It's true. An entire generation of Caretaker Managers has proven so inept and managing their brands that, in a final act of desperation, they are exhuming the branding programs first established by their fathers decades ago. ConAgra, the owners of Orville Redenbacher Popcorn, can't find any more productive tactic than digitally inserting new words into their long-dead company's namesake to pitch his wares from the grave.

Clairol couldn't come up with any new brand, so they exhumed Herbal Essence, once the queen of all hippie hair care products. Not because baby boomers are still hippies, but because baby boomers still remember the brand. Today's Herbal Essence shampoo retains little, if anything, from its hippie glory days. But because Clairol's branding abilities are so sub-standard, digging up old ghosts is as close as they can come to generating success.

But it gets worse. AT&T is folding Cingular into its AT&T brand. Why? A few reasons that come to mind:

1. The Caretaker Managers at Cingular have proven themselves unable to build a brand in the telecom space. That's no big deal. The sector has a huge churn rate precisely because nobody in that space can tell you why their brand is "the only solution." So despite the zillions of dollars burned in attempting to create and sustain a brand, Cingular is throwing in the towel.

2. Further proof is that AT&T is a long-standing brand that was built in the days when people knew how and why they were building brands. In fact, their work was so strong, that like our popcorn and shampoo friends, their management sons and daughters could never equal their parents' work. AT&T stood as a monolith on the American landscape for decades, but in its later days, become known more for its price gouging and sloth than anything else. It became a laughing stock, the lumbering, unresponsive oaf that rested on its laurels while it overcharged its customers. Yet for all that, AT&T was always known for its reliability and stability. The brand still resonates strongly with baby boomers, who probably make the buying decisions for their kids, who grew up with Cingular.

3. Speaking of money, don't forget that despite the above, AT&T has never fallen out of the 30 Dow Industrial Components. Kodak has, but AT&T hasn't. Baby boomers know and remember AT&T because their fathers knew and remembered AT&T. There's just one difference:

Baby boomers have lots of pension money and nowhere to go with it. Which means AT&T's move on SBC and now Cingular is a branding story at its very best: folding weaker brands into a publicly traded, stronger brand can't exactly hurt the attractiveness of a stock's brand.

Overall, it's a sad story on the state of branding in corporate America. There doesn't seem to be anyone out there capable of creating and sustaining a brand, increasing its customers' loyalty and increasing its profitability.

Oh, wait, sure there is. He's a branding expert in Los Angeles. What was his name again?