Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tears in Starbucks Coffee

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may recall that in 2007, I tried to warn Starbucks of why their company was tanking. At that time, nobody wanted to hear it. They were all convinced that Starbucks was one of the country's best brands.


Despite the stock's swan dive well before anyone had even sniffed any kind of recession, all the telltale signs were there. Sure, everyone knew Starbucks. The problem was that nobody knew why they should evangelize Starbucks. Today, they still don't. And likely never will.

In a desperate attempt to right his listing ship, Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz, has been trying all kinds of really, well, strange tricks. Earlier, he introduced the concept of Via, an instant coffee product sold in bags. Via pretty much got a frigid reception, especially from Starbucks' most loyal users, who avoid instant coffees like the plague. Old Starbucks fans became confused -- and by all indications, felt somewhat betrayed -- by their caffeinated ideal's capitulation to mass market tactics. Starbucks sold out, losing the loyalty of its users who by now are questioning whether Starbucks stands for anything at this point.

It's a good question, considering that Schultz himself recently admitted in the Los Angeles Times that "we've allowed other people to define us."

Yes, Howard, you have. And good for you for recognizing that. What's not good is that nowhere do we see signs of you rectifying the problem. As I've been telling you for the last decade, they don't know if you don't tell them. And nobody -- including Starbucks management -- can tell you why the brand should be perceived as the only solution.

So, what's going to happen with Starbucks? If history is any indication, Schultz will probably hire some hack "brand identity" or advertising agency to apply some oblique, short-term media-driven solution. We still won't know why we should insist on, or pay premium for Starbucks. The company will continue to slide and everyone will keep wondering what went wrong.

Except for McDonald's and Dunkin Donuts, of course.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Landor Dumbs Down SciFi

In the never-ending battle between giant, over-priced hack "branding" agencies, Landor took a vicious swipe at the Arnell agency's latest Tropicana fiasco by "re-branding" cable television's Sci-Fi Channel with a hopelessly stupid and - you should pardon the pun - incredibly alienating new moniker: SyFy.

Wow. It's hard to tell where to begin to describe just how clueless this effort is. But what the heck. I'll give it a shot.

Clearly, the entire project was commissioned, planned and executed by teams who had no idea of what appeals to science fiction fans - or how to drive a corporate brand into the hearts and minds of its target audience. According to the New York Times:

“We couldn't own Sci Fi; it’s a genre,” said Bonnie Hammer, the former president of Sci Fi who became the president of NBC Universal Cable Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions. “But we can own Syfy.”

Here's a newsflash: Who would want to own SyFy? You want it? It's yours, lady. Take it. Because nobody, and I mean nobody, wants a dumbed-down, stupid play on a phrase-of-the-week that's doomed to irrelevance when the term "wi-fi" expires. And that includes current SciFi viewers who are vocally expressing their displeasure at this latest exercise in fan condescension. Fans - or should I say ex-fans of the channel are rightly angry at the brand for surrendering the very "geek" qualities that originally attracted them to their favorite mode of entertainment.

Another benefit of the new name is that it is not “throwing the baby away with the bath water,” she added, because it is similar enough to the Sci Fi brand to convey continuity to “the fan-boys and -girls who love the genre.”

Ms. Hammer and her successor as Sci Fi president, Dave Howe, said they had sat through many meetings over the years at which a name change was debated.
The principal reason the idea kept coming up, Mr. Howe said, was a belief “the Sci Fi name is limiting.”

Did you read that last paragraph? They actually had many meetings over the years to come up with this? What's next, a musical Hannah Montana version of Close Encounters?

Take a look at some of the other logos that appealed to SciFi viewers over the years and you'll find that all of them are driven by core attributes of the science fiction aficionado: intelligence, curiosity, imagination and more than a touch of prideful geekdom. See, what Hammer doesn't get is that sci-fi fans actually dig being geeky. They get as much of a rush from being geeky as she might from, say, a new Prada purse.

Landor, the hack agency that created the name and logo, has once again proven its ineptitude, by charging big bucks for a logo that was probably the result of a junior designer spending an hour or two rendering a 3D line of text in Carrara Pro, completely draining the mark of any values to which sci-fi fans could relate. What you've got there, friends, is a soccer mom's version of what the people at Landor think science fiction ought to be.

If science fiction logos were cars, this one would be a mini-van. Yuck.

To be fair, this isn't all Landor's fault. Much of the blame should be placed at the feet of SciFi's corporate managers, who obviously have no concept of what branding is or does. The big clue is that the spokesmen for corporate are all based out of the channels sales department. Which, I suppose, is fitting. After all, they're the ones who are going to be feeling the pinch the hardest.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Obama's Logo Failure

One of the topics I get into with clients and audiences is the list of elements that go into a solid brand. Invariably, they list the wrong things: Awareness. Identity. And the most dreaded of all, the logo. Don't get me wrong, logos are a big part of brand identity. But they're hardly the main component of a brand.

For a brand to be really effective, it has to engender trust and credibility. That means people have to do more than just know who you are. They have to know why they should care about who you are. That means your brand has to do more than just announce itself. It has to set the public's expectations about what they're getting and what you're offering. Once you have all that stuff down, you can begin to craft your brand strategy.

And once you have your brand strategy, then you can get started on a logo.

The misunderstanding of logos was continued recently, with the Obama administration's unveiling of its graphic emblem representing its recovery efforts. The mark is, to put it plainly, an absolute failure, for a few reasons:

First, just as with any failed brand strategy, the emblem merely describes the entity, instead of depicting how it's the only solution to the prospect's problem. This is bad. Really bad. If all your logo does is communicate what you are, you're permitting everyone who views it to set their own expectations of you. That's hugely dangerous, because in a heartbeat, everyone viewing the logo applies it to their own, personal agenda. With 300 million people looking at one emblem, you can see how that might cause more than a little disappointment.

Second, the logo depicts the wrong information. Sure, it shows symbols of economic sectors, but so what? It leaves out more than it includes. More to the point, it's actually a graphical list of problems instead of solutions. I don't care how well you draw, that's the wrong message to send to a nation that voted for sea change.

Third, because of the first two points, the mark comes across as just another government office here to serve you. It simply doesn't inspire anyone to get up off his couch and be part of the solution. Recall the only phrase anyone remembers from John F. Kennedy's administration: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." JFK had it right: get people involved. This mark - and the strategy behind it - is far more comfortable on the side of a government service vehicle than on the front of a banner at a public rally.

Look at Franklin Delano Roosevelt's programs if you want a taste of inspiration. Every one of his programs were just as "socialistic" as they come, but they inspired a country to get back to work.

Of course, what you're really seeing here is the same lack of true brand understanding in Obama's administration as you do say, at General Motors. Before Obama's election, hack, frauds and pundits were bandying bits about "brand Obama" as if there really was something to it. Surprise: There never was. "Brand Obama" was actually a half-baked message of change. The big question was always "Change to what?" And that question was never answered.

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for changing course from where America was headed. And I kind of like the new captain of the ship. What concerns me is that even if everyone gets on board with this new logo, we're setting sail without a map.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Bernie Madoff of Brands

A day doesn't go by when someone, somewhere corrupts the notion of branding. I should know. I live the stuff. I have to deal with designers who really think that selecting a new font constitutes re-branding. I have to endure warmed-over ad agency rejects who peddle new campaigns to clients under the guise of increasing brand awareness.

Charlatans though they may be, none can quite match the sheer larceny that passes for branding as created and perpetrated on the public by Peter Arnell.

In this day of Bernie Madoff, AIG, GM, Chrysler and a host of failing banks, I suppose the average man on the street doesn't care much about Peter Arnell or even know who he is. But I'm a branding guy. I care. Because he's the man that's crippling the branding industry much in the way Madoff has scorched Wall Street.

Let me begin by saying I don't know Arnell personally. He might be a great guy. But there are those who think Robert Nardelli is a sweetheart despite nearly tanking Home Depot as its CEO. What I do know about Arnell is that he's a soft-spoken guy who runs a multi-million dollar design firm that passes itself off as a branding agency. You may know some of his clients. And if you don't, allow me to introduce you to a few:

Pepsi is one of Arnell's clients for whom he designed a new logo. That the logo communicates no brand strategy would be criminal enough, if it weren't for the million dollar fees the agency charged to Pepsi for such a weak mark. Add to that the agency's now much-ridiculed, over-indulgent and just plain stupid supporting document (download the PDF for yourself) and you've got the makings of a modern day pirate.

Of course, everyone is entitled to one misstep. But Arnell didn't stop there. In a stunning display of mediocrity, his company re-branded -- in fact, re-packaged Tropicana's orange juice package and did such a horrible job that not only did the public mistake it for the local store's generic juice, the client reversed itself and pulled the design after spending millions on design fees, production and distribution.

Can you imagine what a million dollar designer would have to say for himself after this kind of thing? No? Well, you don't have to. Here's Arnell himself, attempting to explain what he was trying to do with his Tropicana design:


Okay, you tell me. Does any of that makes sense? Squeezing the cap relating to the emotional value of a mother hugging her kids? I'm not sure what he was smoking at the time, but it's a fair bet he must have passed plenty of it around for the chiefs of Tropicana to buy into it.

Arnell isn't alone. The masterminds behind Gatorade's recent switch to calling itself G are just as guilty. After years of running indecipherable television spots, I suppose the agency couldn't keep itself from following suit with the packaging. Either that, or none of the designers felt the market was literate enough to actually read the entire brand name on the label. Oh, to be a fly on the wall the day the account execs pitched the boys at Gatorade:

"Think of it, fellas -- we'll own the letter G!"

Almost as inspiring as when United Parcel Service embarked on their legendary quest to own the color brown. And in case you were wondering, yes, that, too, earned a million dollar payday.

You think insurance companies taking billion dollar bailouts is bad? Can't fathom how big time banks go belly up? Still not certain why American auto companies burn cash like kindling?

It's not hard to figure out. There's no accountability. The high-flying few have ruined it for the rest of us. There are bankers out there who are the backbone of their communities. But we'll never see them, because their shining points of lights barely twinkle in the shadows of mediocre monoliths.

Mediocrity, it seems, is now the law of the land. Sadly, it's as true in the branding world as anyplace else.