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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Presidential Snake Oil

If you're anywhere near a television these days, it's just about impossible to avoid some flack's political promotion for his or her presidential candidate, hawking their modern day snake oil as the panacea to the world's problems. Beyond the sheer opportunism, it's almost embarrassing to see how readily the public consumes the same boasts, promises and revelations spewed forth by politicians. But even more ridiculous is the public's acceptance of those boasts, promises and revelations as being entirely new.

Think your candidate is promising you new solutions to old problems? Maybe you should think again:

Would you like to see a Constitutional Amendment outlawing employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, pregnancy or medical condition? Yeah? Well, surprise! It's been law in the United States since 1964, known officially as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

How about a Federal law that protects job applicants and employees who are over 40 from employment discrimination based on age? You like that? Here's the news on that one: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act has been in effect longer than its youngest beneficiaries have been alive. That's right, the ADEA has been on the books since 1967. Not a whole lot new there, either.

If you're in a wheelchair, blind or otherwise disabled, the Americans with Disabilities Act has been in force since 1990, which is just about the time all those good parking spaces vanished.

Think women deserve equal pay for equal work? Apparently, so has the Federal government -- since 1963. Your basic politician wouldn't tell you this, but the Equal Pay Act of 1963 prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender for similar work performed under similar conditions. Which means Gloria Steinem was still a Playboy bunny when this legislation was hammered down and finalized in every state of the union.

Here's one that should open your eyes: Think all those illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs? What do you suppose is the solution to illegal immigration? If you're the United States Congress, it's the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which makes it unlawful for any employer to hire any person who is not legally authorized to work in the United States. It actually requires employers to verify and prove their employees' legal status, but forbids discrimination based on national origin or lack of citizenship. And this was law of the land years before the first fear-based "terrorist threats to America" became the driving force behind everything we do and say today.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it? The youngest of these pressing political solutions has been proposed, accepted and ratified by every state in the union for over 20 years, yet for some reason, political candidates seem to think they need to bring something new to the party. Here's a really novel idea:

How about saving everyone a lot of time and money and just enforcing the laws that are already in place? Duh.

There is a reason, of course, and this is it: The American public has no idea these issues have already been addressed. Most can't recall their civil rights, even when prompted. And a survey conducted in the late 1990's found that when read to them, most respondents felt the Bill of Rights was too radical to be adopted into the United States Constitution.

In a word, clueless.

In politics, as it does in branding, the first step in developing a solution is understanding the problem. Maybe if people really want solutions that work, they shouldn't be looking for them in the empty, hack stunts and slogans of politicians. Perhaps they should be looking more closely at the people who vote for them.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jimmy Carter, Still Stupid

There are a lot -- and I mean a lot -- of people who currently believe that George W. Bush is among the stupidest presidents ever unleashed on the American people. He's not . Bush may not be Einstein, but he's not even close to being the stupidest. The press has always had it out for him, the same way they bent their biases against Richard Nixon.

Let's face it, Bush is an easy target. He's easy to mimic and well, his resumé doesn't exactly reflect a lifetime of victories.

History, however, has a different way of looking at things. It takes its time. Mulls things over. It factors in the value of hindsight and summarizes effects as viewed in terms of the greater good. Nixon was perceived as Evil Incarnate by just about everyone in the world in 1972. Pummeled in the press for his domestic "enemies list", inflation and of course, Watergate, he rated at the bottom of every presidential poll taken at the time.

Not so today.

Read any current history book of your choosing and you'll find fading references to Watergate. Nixon is far more widely recalled for ending the war in Vietnam and opening China to the western world. In fact, much of what you buy at WalMart today is due to Nixon's far-sighted recognition of China's potential. Without Nixon's invitation to join the western world's economy, Ronald Reagan never would have been able to ask Gorbachev to "tear down this wall", which reunited Germany after almost 50 years of Communist divisions.

In 20 years, I imagine that Bush's image will mellow, as well. Probably something along the lines of "being the first to actively engage the threat of radical islamic terror when previous presidents would not."

Where history is concerned, it's the long view that counts, it seems, with one exception: Jimmy Carter.




Sorry, the title for Stupidest American President is already taken.

Here's a guy whose list of screw-ups begins with his election in 1976 and spirals downward to this day. For those of you who don't recall -- or weren't alive -- when Carter was elected, it was a strange time, reminiscent of Andrew Jackson's "people's inauguration." A time after Nixon and Ford, when populist fervor overtook party politics, restoring a corrupt White House to a humble peanut farmer from Georgia. At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

And then reality hit.  He wasn't a humble peanut farmer; he was stupid peanut farmer.

In what could only be described as a scene from The Beverly Hillbillies, Carter proceeded to embarrass and degrade the USA from every conceivable angle. Under his short stint as president, Jimmy Carter managed the following:

• Drove domestic interest rates up over 20%, effectively destroying the national economy for a number of years.
• Undermined the brand image of the United States, by demonstrating inconsistent hand-wringing instead of decisive actions, which allowed second and third world nations to challenge -- and wrest -- American moral and economic influence the world over.
• Allowed American hostages to languish in Iran for 444 days
• Tolerated his drunken brother's behavior, which included, among other escapades, public news conferences calling for an American abandonment of Israel because "there's more Arabs than there is Jews [sic]"

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. The man may have earned a degree in nuclear engineering, but don't forget that the first astronaut was a monkey.

Even if you spot Carter the Camp David Accord, his record of historical accomplishments isn't exactly stellar. Sure, the man can swing a hammer for humanity, but there's a reason for that: he's good at it. It's where he belongs. In a nice, quiet field, knocking nails into walls where he can't hurt anyone and hopefully, has gotten over being America's single biggest mistake. Were you to doubt that last statement, consider the fact that Carter, after publishing his last book in which he comes closest to admitting his own anti-semitic views, now seems intent on "visiting with leaders of Hamas" on his next trip to the middle east.

That's nice. Your tax dollars going toward the protection of a clearly senile man, on his way to display even more of his inimitable buffoonery to a terrorist organization whose sworn mission is the total destruction of Israel, the only stalwart ally of the United States in the middle east. This, from a guy who really thinks he is Jesus Christ and probably has robes in his closet to prove it. A guy whose Alzheimer fog has him touting himself as the better side of the American people.

Um, not exactly the kind of guy I want representing me, any time, anywhere -- for any reason.

You think Bush is bad? Sorry to disappoint you. When it comes to undermining the brand that is America, Carter is the winner, hands down. He's as stupid today as he was back in the 1970's and no doubt history will remember him as such.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Branding Torches China

Man, I love the free market system. It's so much more fun and exciting than, say, a centrally-planned economy, where everything is predictably boring. When the central government runs the show, everything is slower, duller, lower-quality and subject to committee-driven criteria. Sometimes I think that's why the Soviet Union collapsed. Not because of a political yearning of their citizens to be free, but more because they were increasingly bored with buying soap flakes in the same gray boxes.

One of the last, large centrally-planned economies left on the planet today is China. And despite what you may read in the papers, including political oppression and downright domination, there's an aspect to China that's profoundly fascinating. Here you have perhaps the most hard-knuckled government clamping down on its population for the better part of a century, primping and swooning at Western civilization's temptations dangling in front of their eyes. For every student of Mao's Little Red Book ("avoid wearing underwear that's too tight") there are thousands of Asian teens writhing and squirming, aching to taste one more lick of Britney Spears.

Kind of reminds me of all those devout muslim terrorists who visit strip joints and order adult videos the night before they board airplanes in their efforts to strike a blow to American decadence. Weird.

What I find most interesting, however, is the panic with which Chinese economic force is met here in America. For years, we've been hearing about forced Chinese labor driving down the price of imports far below any level possible for American manufacturers to meet or beat. Were you to believe what you hear, you'd think that it's all but over for the American economy, dislodged from its global pre-eminence by Chinese under-bidding.

But you'd be wrong. And here's why:

As I'm fond of saying, "Life is a branding problem." And even when you ignore your brand, it doesn't mean you aren't branded; it means you're letting everyone else define who and what you are, which means that there's no way on God's green earth you'd ever be able to meet or exceed every one of their expectations. The end result is that nobody, anywhere, would agree on anything about your brand, other than their common disappointment in it.

Enter China. No brand strategy, which means (like corporate and personal clients), they are hanging out there, left to be judged by media reports of their words and deeds -- most of it not really good. Go ahead: scour the internet for the good news on China, and you'll see for yourself that not a whole lot comes up, especially when compared to all the bad news on China. Recognized as the leader in lead-based children's toys, China is also gaining ground on the state of Florida as the most corrupt economy in the world. Chinese food products, for both man and beast, is delivered fresh and fully-laden with poisons that cause real injury and deaths. Chinese soldiers put down any sort of free expression regarding Tibet and have even been accused of manufacturing false evidence to frame the Dalai Lama, a guy in a robe that -- last I heard -- doesn't carry a gun.

In short, left to the rest of the world to define, China is in a heap of bad yogurt, heading for an Olympics in which the main events would seem to be protest and boycott. Not exactly the kind of "Guys-I-Want-To-Hang-With" kind of brand. In fact, this is the kind of stuff -- the qualitative, human aspect of brand -- that motivates people to bypass a cheaper fellow's goods in favor of the folks with whom they feel good about doing business.

You know, the guys who don't imprison their laborers for posting letters of disagreement on the internet.

In light of China's brand neglect and inability to articulate who and what they are, you can expect to see more Americans arrive at their own conclusions, choosing to buy American, even if the price is a bit higher.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once remarked how, "you cannot legislate the hearts and minds of men." He was right. The Chinese threat will not be undone by tariffs, tirades or trade policies. It won't be undone by us at all. It will be undone by the Chinese themselves, as their centrally-planned consciousness collides with a free-thinking society capable of making up its own mind -- and speaking it with their wallets.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Yahoo Had It Coming

For anyone who subscribes to my weekly FrankelTips column, you knew this was coming. The demise of Yahoo was never in question. It was just a matter of time until someone, somewhere, figured out that were the company in even worse shape, it would have simply collapsed years ago. Now, ever the predator, Microsoft sniffs the blood. Like a hyena, Steve Ballmer is circling its wounded prey, watching and waiting for its simpering victim to buckle and surrender.

Unfortunately, the death of Yahoo is not going to be quite as quick or painless as one would hope. Nor does Yahoo deserve it. Years of brand neglect, reckless management and just plain stupidity have finally caught up with the company who owned, then fumbled and lost dominance in the internet space.

On paper, the deal makes sense: Even at Yahoo's current stock price -- inflated nearly 35% by the prospect of a Microsoft takeover -- Yahoo is hardly underpriced. Its market cap is roughly $37 billion, although when the drugs wear off, it's actually closer to $20 billion (if that). If you're into stock analysis, you might also be interested to know that Yahoo's price to earnings ratio is astronomical, causing nosebleeds at something around 59. The company has never paid a dividend. It has never had sane management. And now, Yang, Bostock and company are whining about how Microsoft's offer is too low.

Please.

If anything, Microsoft's offer is too high. The mere fact that previous to Microsoft's offer of $31 a share Yahoo stock was languishing in the high teens should be enough to tell you that this company was going nowhere fast. One look at the history books should be enough to show you that Yahoo once owned the search market. If you really want to know why Yahoo will quickly succumb to Microsoft, consider the old Machiavellian adage:

The quickest ascension to power is through a vacuum.

The truth is that Yahoo got there first, and like most first-in-the-space players, enjoyed considerable success. It got big fast because there really weren't any other serious competitors. But like other successes whose good fortune is more a result of good timing than good thinking, Yahoo's managers began to believe their own press. As I've written previously in this blog, they hired a show business guy who knew nothing about the web as their top gun. His ineptitude set Yahoo on its precarious, downhill course and the company never recovered.

Actually, Yahoo never had a chance because they never had a brand. Sure, they had an identity, but nobody -- not management, not employees, not developers nor users -- could ever tell anyone else precisely why they chose Yahoo as "the only solution to their problem." Sure, they recognized the now-famous yodel on the radio, but what of it? Who cares?

As it turns out, nobody cares, which is why nobody is weeping to see Yahoo slowly getting sucked up by Microsoft, itself among the least well-received brands on the market. But the news isn't bad for Yahoo. It's probably the best thing they could hope for.

In the first place, as the Dark Force consumes Yahoo, you can bet that it will do what software engineers do best: restore discipline to clearly-focused deliverables. Yahoo could do well with a healthy shot of discipline. After wandering aimlessly about, never knowing who or what it was supposed to be, a good trip to the strategic wood shed could help it restore both functionality and purpose.

Second, Microsoft would have to be pretty stupid to completely abandon the Yahoo identity. Although there's no value beyond its identity, there is brand awareness, which means that if (and this is a real big "if", considering that Microsoft has no brand value, either) Microsoft can define why Yahoo is worth using, they might be able to quietly avoid questions as to why MSN is such a terrific failure in the hearts and minds of the public.

Hey, if you can't make it, buy it.

Finally, Microsoft has always been financially successful. There really isn't much more to this story than the old-fashioned "buy low, sell high" strategy. With all the hype about hostile takeovers and Microsoft buying Yahoo, nobody ever said that Microsoft had to buy and keep Yahoo. At these bargain basement values, they could turn the old "pump and dump" trick and spin off Yahoo in a few years at a healthy profit.

Personally, this whole affair reminds me of a classic Hollywood thriller. No, not Wall Street. More like Dumb and Dumber.