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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Chief Branding Officer's Don't Know

I'm going to attempt to write this with as much sensitivity as I can muster. After all, it's not without foundation that I've been labeled as much for my brutality as irreverence. What can I say? I'm a guy who calls 'em like he sees 'em and sometimes I don't like what I see.

I recently had a conversation with a very high level branding officer of a very high profile Fortune 100 company. I don't want to step on any toes here, because truth be told, this person was very kind and extremely genuine. Totally well-meaning and, judging by the tenor of our conversation, a true believer in New Age marketing. For the uninitiated, New Age marketing is that which places a premium on engaging with end users through social media, surveys and megatons of research.

You know, stuff for which agencies are totally unaccountable.

The purpose of my conversation with this Chief Branding Officer (CBO) -- code-named Jordan to keep things anonymous -- was to find out if the company had any real brand strategy to speak of. Actually, the purpose was to find out if the company even had a brand strategy. Most don't, which is why I call them. It's what I do. But that's another story.

Jordan was very amiable, asking me why I would ask a question like that. "Because I'm on your web site right now, and for the life of me, all I see is a logo. Not even a tagline. No reason for anyone to choose your brand. Nothing. Is there a brand strategy?"

Keep in mind that I'm talking to a CBO -- the highest level there is in this type of corporation, which happens to be international in scope and service. A Wall Street darling. A major player in its field. And with all that, this is the answer I get:

"Our branding agency will be presenting the brand strategy to us in the coming weeks."

When I got back into my chair, I couldn't help but inquire as to who that agency might be. It was, as I suspected, a major international hack branding agency whose failing works I've previously lambasted here. Who else would have the cojones to string along a powerhouse client -- for years -- with absolutely no tangible deliverables while charging the client millions for the privilege?

I've grown accustomed to the millions-for-hackery branding scams that go on in the boardrooms of corporate America. But the real shocker was that Jordan couldn't even come close to expressing what the company's brand strategy was. Not even a hint. Jordan wouldn't even take a shot at it, which could only mean one thing: Jordan had absolutely no idea what a real brand strategy is. One look at the company's materials only reinforced my suspicion: Logos were everywhere, but no place could one find any message conveying why the company should be perceived as "the only solution to its prospects' problems."

I'm often asked about high-level, Fortune 1000 clients. "Aren't they more knowledgeable and sophisticated when it comes to branding?" The answer, sadly, is no. Not by a long shot. In fact, when it comes to branding -- real branding -- I'm consistently dismayed to find that in general, the bigger the name, the less they know about branding. But when you think about it, it makes sense:

When you're small and bucks are sparse, you do everything you can to establish and protect your market share. You make sure people know you for the right reasons, whenever and wherever you communicate with them, because losing market share means losing the food off your table. But when you're big -- really big -- you get fat. Really fat. You get so fat that you forget what it's like to be hungry; you pay people to be hungry for you. Instead of thriving on grit and determination, you order lattés and conference reports. You become detached from who you are and why you are because, win or lose, you know you can always fire the agency, but you'll never go hungry.

When you're that high up in the ivory tower, the denial gets so thick that you can barely see your way down to the golf course. It's happened to so many big brands that I've lost count. It's happening to brands like Kodak and Maytag and Yahoo and so many others I've written about here.

Now the long, slow decline will begin to take its toll on Jordan's Fortune 100 company. I suppose the good news is, as with all degeneratively diseased patients, Jordan won't even realize the impending doom until it's much too late -- and the stock in the pension plan is worthless. But Jordan doesn't believe that. The company, it would seem, is too big to fail.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Meg Whitman Stumbles Again

If you live in California as I do, it's impossible to sit in your car, mired in traffic without listening to your radio. Sure, most of us are plugged into our iPods precisely because we hate what's on the radio, but after a while, even your favorite New Age trance music gets boring. Sometimes, you just gotta hear what's happening out there, beyond the wall of glass that divides you from the other morons crawling along the eight lane highway at five miles per hour.

Sometimes, you just gotta hear the news -- or at least what passes for news.

At this writing, California's richest ego-maniacs are beginning to jockey for position to become the state's next governor. So far, just about all of the announced candidates are from the northern part of the state, a nod to the monumental amount of wreckage left in the wake of the last southern-based governator's bid to fool all of the people all of the time. The first two candidates off the line are a millionaire and a billionaire, Gavin Newsom and Meg Whitman, respectively.

Sigh.

Gavin is the well-heeled mayor of San Francisco, whose ethics and morality qualify him to serve as a role model for all Californians, if you call sleeping with your best friend's wife "qualified." The big question is not whether Newsom supports gay marriage (he does) or can appeal to Californians in the south (Gavin who?), but whether he can stock enough hair-styling mousse to last throughout an arduous, mud-laden campaign. Nobody has ever accused Newsom of being a particularly deep or thoughtful person. Judging from his early campaign efforts, I see no reason why this would change any time soon.

Meg Whitman, on the other hand, may be able to do something in California that neither the Republican or Democratic party has been able to do since eighteenth century France: Govern a state while in complete and total denial. In case you don't know who she is, Meg was the CEO of EBay, fostering its growth until a series of bad decisions (can you say "Let's buy Skype!") suddenly angered enough shareholders to motivate her to switch careers. Fast.

You would think that being in Silicone Valley, Meg would be hip, slick and in touch with what's going on out there. Well, you'd be wrong. In an homage to Marie Antoinette, Whitman's first radio spots go directly at where California's problems aren't, proving she's just another rich candidate that's hopelessly out of touch.

Here. Take a minute and listen to this:

Wait a minute. Banks are failing. Insurance companies are defaulting. Bernie Madoff is rotting in prison for scamming billions. The media is hoisting Wall Street on its own petard -- and Meg Whitman is telling voters that what they need in the governor's office is another business person?

Wow. Talk about denial. Where is she getting her brand strategy, WalMart? I mean, this woman can buy just about anything she wants, which I suppose includes stupid advisors. Of course, you have to remember this is the Republican party, the party which drove John McCain's campaign into the earth with genius advice from the likes of Carly Fiorina (who nearly destroyed Hewlett-Packard). These are the same voices that shouted their approval for that-one-lipstick-away-from-the-Presidency pick, Sarah Palin.

Do I sound a bit too negative? Maybe so. After all, these are just the first two horses out of the gate.

Meet you at the glue factory.