Friday, November 23, 2007

Political Brands: Fred Thompson

Maybe it's me and the fact that I am, despite all my protests, getting old. Then again, maybe it's the dumbing down of America that's getting to me. Maybe it's both. But when I see the sorry lot of candidates running to become the leader of the free world, a shiver runs down my spine.

None of the candidates - Republican, Democrat or any life form in between - seems to have the brains of a bat when it comes to leadership. All of them seem to dismiss the notion that a leader is someone who leads, not panders. That's because my generation was the last to experience what following real leaders was like.

And believe me, it was a lot different than it is now.

People older than myself lament the loss of leadership by reciting a roll call of personalities from the Second World War. They'll talk about Roosevelt, DeGaulle, Chuchill -- and to some extent, Hitler and Mussolini. Sure, the latter two weren't exactly movie idol favorites, but each managed (mainly through sheer force) to drive their countries in new directions. It's just that the Axis powers were driven in the wrong direction.

In more recent American history, you hear the name Kennedy (John, not Robert or Teddy) bandied about as one of the last great leaders and no matter what your politics, you'd have to admit he was. JFK took bold moves, issued strong challenges and moved the country forward -- even while women were running naked through the White House.

The last great American leader, however, was Ronald Reagan. Forget his politics, for now. Focus on the last persona old enough to play the role of father to a massive, aging baby boomer population. You can say what you like about Ronald Reagan, but you can't take away his ability to inspire comfort, calm and assuredness to millions of Americans and foreigners alike.

If you don't remember his election, let me remind you that when Reagan took office, Jimmy Carter had driven interest rates up sky high (over 20%) and driven America's international image into the ground. By the time Reagan was into his second term, all of Carter's damage had been undone and then some: Soviet communism disintegrated without one shot being fired -- and this from the president whose detractors considered the most likely to push the button.

Not bad results for a clearly defined brand strategy.

Reagan's brand strategy -- like all good leaders -- was communicated effectively. And that's a big part of what great leaders do. John Kennedy made his visions clear, resulting in the country (and the world) following. Reagan tapped into the concerns of Americans, communicated them effectively and the world followed him, too.

Which brings us to Fred Thompson, a man -- like Reagan -- presumably with little in the way of traditional Presidential qualifications but whose communication qualities appear unrivaled. Take this 30 second piece for example:

Remind you of anyone? The toe-in-the-dirt, aw-shucks-folks-it's-so-simple approach designed to address American aspirations, hopes and dreams? There's a reason why Fred Thompson strikes such a major chord with so many Americans. And while his brand is never really articulated, it's his intuitive anti-branding that makes him so effective. Public relations people and competitive campaign advisors will snivel that Thompson's recurring role on Law and Order form the basis of his campaign power. Sure, it helps. But that's not what's going on here.

Thompson's ability to reach through the tube and not be like every other blowhard is what touches people. He never yells. He has no pretty boy looks. He just eases back and lets the voters discover his authority instead of hammering it into them, the same way DeForest Kelley did as Star Trek's Dr. McCoy when he protested on some distant planet in the future, "I may be just an old country doctor......" What Thompson projects is calm, credible, authoritative wisdom -- a quality totally lacking in his competitors. And he does it pretty well.

The question now is whether the actor has any idea that the role for which he's auditioning has real life consequences.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Starbucks Down the Drain

One of the best parts about being an iconoclast is enjoying the naysayers who dump on remarks that are grounded in truth. I can't help it. I enjoy watching lemmings in denial jumping on the popular media bandwagon, only to tumble when the wheels fall off.

Such is the case with our friends at Starbucks, whose fortunes of late have been anything but fortunate. In case you're just tuning in, "everyone's favorite cup of coffee" has been dumping its value down the drain. In the twelve months previous to this writing, the stock that everyone continues to pronounce as "one of the best brands in America" has lost close to half its value.

Hmm. Why could that be?

Clearly, Starbucks' ever-rising prices over the last decade couldn't be nickel-and-diming its income statement to death. After all, if you're willing to pay three or four bucks for a latté -- or if you're cheap like me, a buck and change for a tall drip -- another quarter isn't going to change your behavior. Starbucks has been charging premium prices for its brew since well into the last century. We're used to it. We don't mind it.

Of course, if you were paying attention back then, there were telltale signs that Starbucks' high-flying days were numbered. Not because they couldn't purchase enough premium beans. And not because they couldn't hire enough young, overly-caffeinated baristas to process your order.

It was because Starbucks has no genuine brand. Never did.

Ah, I can already hear the whining of marketing and advertising people objecting to that last sentence. Here I am, blastpheming what posers and pundits have worshipped as a "great example of branding," when in fact I warned Starbucks publicly years ago that their lack of brand would eventually do them in. Nobody listened then. And nobody will listen now. But the truth will always out.

Here's the deal on Starbucks and its brand:

What everyone likes to call branding is, especially in Starbucks' case, nothing more than identity. When it comes to knowing who Starbucks is, there's no problem. But that's not a brand's - a real brand's - true function. That's advertising's function. Advertising is the means for raising a brand's awareness. But no amount of marketing or advertising or public relations can sustain a brand's growth if they raise awareness without making people understand why the brand is "the only solution" to their problem.

To this day, there is not one person who can accurately and consistently articulate why Starbucks is preferable to other competing brands. Not the average yutz in the street . Not the Vice President of their ad agency. Not even the CEO of Starbucks himself. And you can bet that if they can't articulate why Starbucks is "the only solution," nobody else in this great land of ours can, either.

And if millions of caffeine addicts can't articulate it, do you think the financial geniuses of Wall Street can? Of course not. They just look at the numbers and panic.

Which means that no matter how fast Starbucks dances, the Titanic will keep sinking. Sure, they'll try all kinds of cross-merchandising with all kinds of products they hope and pray will add to their coffers. But until they've defined why Starbucks is the only solution to their prospects' problems, Starbucks will keep playing hit-and-miss. There are only so many unemployed writers that can occupy floorspace with their laptops before a store's per-square-foot revenue sinks like a proverbial stone. And single women reading novels in hopes of getting a date don't do much for improving the bottom line, either.

When you put it all together, the picture isn't all that rosy for Starbucks. McDonald's will be coming out with high-priced coffee soon enough. Dunkin Donuts is already massing its troops along the border. And both of those brands have more to offer than the only thing Starbucks ever did -- a good cup of coffee.

Where there's no brand articulation, there is no strategy. And where there's no strategy, there's little chance of growth. Which means that while Starbucks may continue to brew a hot cup of coffee, their future is more than likely leave its investors steaming.