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?


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