Thursday, May 25, 2006

Apple and Nike's Happy Shoes

For some reason, the world's attention never seems to focus on the really important stuff. A little while back, for example, the Los Angeles Times carried an article in which a particular breed of lab mouse was shown to possess a gene that literally destroyed cancer cells. Apparently, these mice treated cancer just like any other kind of infection, surrounding the foreign intruder, killing it and disposing of it. All without any side effects whatsoever.

To make things more impressive, the gene could be transplanted into other mice with the very same (and permanent result). The implications of this discovery are immense. What research scientists have stumbled upon may, quite soon, prove to be the magic bullet sought by humans to kill off cancer with no toxic side effects.

That's incredible news, I grant you. Which is why the Los Angeles Times managed to bury it, ranking its importance somewhat below that of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's new baby and whether Jennifer Aniston's gig with Vince Vaughn is for real.

Celebrity marriages, it turns out, are what makes big news these days, which is why the folks at Apple and Nike have announced their betrothal with a little gizmo that I like to call the Happy Shoe. You link your running shoes to an iPod, and you get music, time data, running data and from what I hear, even a synthesized vocal running coach egging you along as you jog.

Truly another example of digital technology at its most useless, but that's another story. My main reason for bringing all this up is that a lot of media pundits are going to call this a "marriage of two strong brands," which is what this story really is:

Just another Hollywood marriage. And not of two strong brands. It's one really strong brand and one really not strong brand.

For years, I've been informing audiences that while it is a high-awareness brand, Nike is not a truly strong brand. Despite a fashion/celebrity-endorsement agenda, fueled by multi-million dollars' worth of media, you still can't find anyone out there who can tell you why Nike is the only shoe for them. Since branding is all about being "the only solution," this means Nike is typical of so many brands: high awareness, with no message.

This doesn't mean the folks at Nike are dopes. Far from it. Because the first thing that brand-vacant companies do to gain traction in the marketplace is rub up against people, places and things that DO have real brand resonance, or at the very least, some sort of loyalty in the market. Nike tends to buy as many celebrities as it can. In this case, it's hoping that Apple's success will rub off on its shoes.

Think of it this way: who was Tom Arnold before he married Roseanne? Just another guy. Now Tom Arnold has a career! Who was Hillary Clinton before she married Bill? Now she's a senator from New York! Whether you believe in these brands or not isn't the point. The point is just like your mother told you: if you're going to get married, marry up. Nike is smart enough to realize that. You'll notice that they didn't do this deal with Dell or Microsoft. They chose Apple.

Remember Apple? The company whose machines are "too expensive?" The company whose machines "don't have enough software?" The company that "only has 5% market share?" Why would Nike choose to marry Apple? Here's why:

Because neither Dell, nor Microsoft, nor Nike are true, real brands. And because Apple is. And that's the reason why Nike's Happy Shoes have hooked up with Apple. It's the brand that refuses to die. The brand whose users KNOW why it's the only solution for them. Just try to persuade a Mac user to convert to PC and see for yourself.

As the world becomes more cluttered with pseudo-brands like Nike, Microsoft and the like, true brands like Apple only grow stronger. As in Nike's case, all Apple had to do is lead the way.

And watch as Nike came running.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Yum De Dumb Dumb

One of the most common problems I have to deal with every day is helping people discern the difference between "branding" issues and "awareness" issues. As I've mentioned a number of times, branding and awareness are not the same thing. In fact, awareness is just one by-product of branding. Simply put, there's no point is raising a brand's awareness if nobody knows why they should care about the brand.

On my web site, I put it this way: Cancer has high awareness, but how many people want it?

Nevertheless, the common misconception persists, with thousands of advertising and marketing hacks getting big fees for telling their plainly innocent clients that high awareness is something akin to Branding Valhalla.

I'm constantly amazed at how many "professionals" in the financial markets fall for this old scam, completely unaware of the damage they do to their brands -- and in the case of Yum, other unsuspecting brand victims.

In case you missed it, Yum (the parent company of Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken) recently announced a deal in which it was participating as a branded sponsor of the Kentucky Derby.

How many ways can you spell "wrong?"

In the first place, the guys over at Yum might be good at cranking out food that contributes to America's obesity, but when it comes to branding, their talents are somewhat anemic. Consider how they managed to decimate the heritage and value that used to be Kentucky Fried Chicken, by renaming the brand as KFC. In a move clearly meant to pander to their increasingly disenfranchised audience, the brand that used to own the province of southern fried chicken has been reduced to an acronym more fitting for microchips. The brand has no meaning, and thus, inspires no more loyalty.

Second, in a disturbingly common practice, the Kentucky Derby has decided to sell out its proud tradition and rich heritage by linking up with a brand whose claim to fame is cheap food. I always tell my clients that if you must forge an alliance with another brand, always "marry up". Just as your mother warned, "its as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one," why would any brand in its right mind hook up with a brand that would drag its own value down?

Consider, for a moment, all that the Kentucky Derby is: The finest horses parading before the finest people, at one of the world's most meticulously groomed tracks in what the world considers to be the classic event of the sport. Now throw a full cup of Pepsi on to the turf and belch up a burrito and see what that does for your imagery.

In case you're wondering what's going on with Yum and the Derby, it has nothing to do with enhancing anyone's brand. It's really an old financial trick that usually goes something like this:

Yum is, for all intents and purposes, a holding company for its subsidiary brands. Executives at Yum decide that the stock price of Yum is just too darn low, which figures, because they don't do anything to nurture and grow the brands they own. They want the stock price to go higher, at least to where stock options are worth redeeming. So what do they do? They decide to call in their marketing and publicity people to "raise the awareness of the Yum brand."

If this song sounds familiar, you might recall its heyday, the good old days of the tech bubble, where "pump and dump" got its start. In those days, my friends and I always knew when to short a stock -- it was always the day a public company began "raising its awareness" by touting new alliances and promoting road tours by executives. As soon as the hype hit the the wires, the stock would leap a few points (or in those days, 20 points), and then crash like a brick from twenty thousand feet.

What you're seeing here is pretty much the same thing. You'll notice that every press release issued to the financial press defines Yum as the parent of Taco Bell and KFC, not because nobody knows who they are, but because nobody cares who they are. In a desperate bid to gain attention from Wall Street, Yum is hooking up with a high-awareness event: the Kentucky Derby.

Forget all the jokes about where Yum gets the meat for all those burritos; but do think about this: What, aside from a few million short-term dollars, does the Kentucky Derby have to gain from this deal? Nothing, other than a reputation for having sold the family farm, another monument to America's mortgaging its soul to pay the rent. in the meantime, what does Yum benefit from this deal? Well, that all depends on how gullible Wall Street really is.

If I were a betting man, I'd say Yum would have a better shot of taking its marketing budget and putting on the favorite to win. Because even by taking down the Derby's brand, and even with a bit of short-term press, the financial market still has no reason to care about who or what Yum's brand is. Which means in the branding race, this company has pulled up lame.