Category Archives: branding

Google, stuck in the middle


We won’t bore you with predictions of whether Google+, the new me-too social network, will make it. Instead, we’ll suggest Google faces a classic mass-marketing, mainstream-media problem. Branding.

More than 20 years ago Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter wrote the landmark book “Competitive Advantage” (heard the term? the book coined it) and in it he suggested most companies, as they grow, face a classic challenge. They start out as a niche player — a specialist, something that customers can easily pigeonhole in their mind — and then decide to grow. A consulting boutique decides to take on McKinsey; an online bookstore decides to sell all forms of goods. Some companies, such as Peppers & Rogers Group (1to1 consultants), fail to make the transition; others, like Amazon.com (once only online books), leap over the confusion to grow to the next level. Porter suggested the challenge in this transition is to not become “stuck in the middle.”

Stuck in the middle is what happens when you lose your focus, and your correlated customer brand perception of you, and become nothing to no one as you try to grow to the next level. You aren’t perceived as the next big service; yet your customers forget you used to be special. It’s exceedingly difficult to make the leap from specialist to market leader not due to your product-design aptitude, but instead because most consumers don’t give a damn about most products. We all have limited attention spans as customers, and it’s easiest to keep companies, like people, in their place. If you were once known as the maker of Product X, like a girl or guy in high school who gets a bad rap, customers may remember you as That Product X forever.

When a company such as Google, known as the leader in online search, tries to become a social network, human beings get confused. Google+ has hoards of features emulating Facebook, GroupMe, Instagram, and Twitter. So we go hmm. “Where do you fit in this complicated, crowded space?” we ask. We already have locks on where Facebook and Twitter fit. They are snapshots in our mind on the scale of private-to-public, boring-to-fun. Instagram, a newcomer, has rapidly gained traction by carving out a unique position. LinkedIn, the cold porridge of social media, is no fun to visit but you know you need to post your resume there. In the world of communications, specialists rule.

Google+, however, faces a basic challenge. We already know who Google is. Google, we love you, we use you daily … and unfortunately, you’re stuck in the middle.

Bonus points: If you’re not familiar with Michael Porter, get started.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.


The sexual impetus for your hatred of Gap’s logo


Word to the advertising community: The new Gap logo doesn’t suck. You’re just hung up about sex.

Before we explain, let’s review the rebranding kerfuffle. Gap, a purveyor of American denim and flannel, this week did what companies often do — redesigned its wordmark. The advertising world screamed bloody murder. Abe Sauer over at Brandchannel said the revamp “looks like it cost $17 from an old Microsoft Word clipart gallery.” David Brier of Fast Company called it “goop” and suggested protagonists would get fired. Someone launched the site CrapLogo.me offering infinite versions of Gap-crappy logos, and Adweek named the mock @GAPlogo to its top 25 Twitter accounts. And when Gap backpedaled suggesting it was open to new ideas, the blog ISO50 gathered more than 260 submissions.

What gives? Well, sex…


Ad gurus are steamed, you see, because Gap didn’t include enough nuance in its design, and nuance drives humans at the sexual core. It’s certainly not about the actual result, because Gap’s new use of the classic font Helvetica is similar to the wordmarks of other major brands — 3M, American Airlines, Panasonic, Toyota. Agency types are wringing their hands because such simplicity leaves their minds out of the game.

Nuance is a foundational human incentive because sex, food and shelter require it. For sexual attraction, humans look to symmetry as the core indicator of health and high-value sperm or eggs to produce strong offspring. Look at a photo of anyone you consider super attractive — Brad Pitt or Scarlett Johansson — and you’ll find near-perfect symmetry in their features. We focus on nuance because it signals reproductive health. In the long history of human evolution, nuance also led us to berries with more vitamins, tar for blocking shelter gaps, and metal better for battling enemies. Nuance is how we grow and survive.

If nuance is an over-focus of humans in general (Did you see the lines on the latest BMW? Did you try the latest Starbuck’s Via coffee?), it’s even more vital to ad agencies. Agencies are glorified temp workers, extensions of real marketing departments often filled with extremely intelligent right-brain creatives who are rewarded for ideas that scale memes across the masses. This is hard, because the idea marketplace is crowded, so ad creatives explore every angle of every communication and possible response. When found, a slight nuance is often the edge required to succeed. Nuance is the key to breakthrough success.


Gap’s logo failed for the design community because it lacks their core value: nuance. The logo is achingly simple, based on the old 1957 Helvetica typeface that has been used for decades by New York City subway signs. The irony of the outcry is the Gap logo’s Helvetica is one of the most beloved fonts among typography geeks; Helvetica is an everyman’s font because its thin lines are filled with nuance, such as a defined spur in the capital G or slight curves at the terminus of the lowercase a. Heck, designers love Helvetica so much they often mock the competing font Arial as a bastardized Microsoft knock-off. You see Helvetica in the logos for BMW and Target. You could argue Helvetica is the most popular font for brand icons in the world.

In its wrap-up of the debate, Yahoo Finance noted Nate Jones as one commentator who actually liked the Gap wordmark redesign. Jones wrote the new icon “brings to mind visions of a streamlined, technologically dominant future America where everyone wears white suits and cool glasses.” Gap’s icon moved away from the nuanced differences. Gap just went simple.

And since simplicity is the opposite of what you want in food, shelter and sexual partners, no wonder you are pissed.

NPR hides its radio roots


What’s in a media name? Back in the 1990s the company 1-800-FLOWERS — whose early success hinged on acquiring a killer mnemonic phone number — changed its name to 1-800-FLOWERS.com. Accent on the dot-com. You know, in case you missed the point, the Internet was the new, big thing.

Media fashion bubbles rise and fall, but now in 2010 we find it curious that radio — a continued mainstay in consumers’ media mix — appears to be flopping as fast as the web popped as a branding entity. Public Radio International, once nicknamed American Public Radio, a few years back began promoting all of its radio programming under the non-radio rubric American Public Media. Last week, National Public Radio announced it will rebrand itself solely as NPR, meaning henceforth the NPR acronym, like KFC, will only stand for itself. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that AT&T still spell out the telegraph in its final “T,” but with Americans stuck in traffic 3.7 billion hours each year, we wonder why brands that remain focused on radio fear its name so much.

Image: Onkel Wart

Do brand marketers have more or less options? Why, yes.


Here’s a brain-teaser: Today, is there more or less ad inventory in the world than 10 years ago?

The puzzling answer, we suggest, is yes to both. Like the Schrödinger’s cat physics thought experiment, marketers live in a paradoxical universe in which there is both more and less space to send a message to consumers.

First, why more? Because consumers now consume more media than ever before. The New York Times reported today that the typical U.S. resident watches three times as much media now as they did in 1960, taking in 12 hours of content each day including 40 web sites on average. Behind this time-use tidal wave is an ocean of material, thousands of cable channels, hundreds of thousands of apps and millions of web sites that allow consumers to find anything they want. This expanding universe of content has created an almost limitless inventory for ad placement — one reason why CPMs are falling as advertisers learn to target consumers via ad networks (online collections of thousands of web sites) or ad exchanges (online bid systems that help marketers reach specific target audiences).

But second, why less? Because consumers are paying less attention to intrusive media than in years past. You see, advertising impressions don’t really exist unless they reach a consumer’s mind. Dig into each media arena, and the data shows consumers blocking marketers everywhere.

Television: Did you know channel surfing no longer exists? The typical U.S. home receives 130 TV channels but dials in to fewer than 18 — because consumers now click on guide menus and scroll down to “tune” to the exact channels they want. Yes, according to the Nielsen / Ball State University March 2009 study of 376 participants directly observed over 48 hours with media exposure logged at 10-second increments (whoa), U.S. consumers still watch 5 hours and 9 minutes of live television a day — but concurrent media use, or watching more than one device at the same time, is the biggest media trend. When commercials air, eyeballs go to the computer or smartphone in the lap.

Radio: Arbitron’s expansion of Portable People Meters, which measure radio usage via an actual electronic signal vs. the older, less effective diary panels, has found that consumers tend to rapidly change the dial when :30 second spots come on.

Online: Consumers change viewing windows on computer screens about 37 times an hour — clicking away from any content that doesn’t immediately meet their needs. The falling click-through rates for banner advertising, once above 4% in the 1990s and now below 0.08%, are the surest indication that consumer attention to marketing messages online is fading.

Mobile: And the world of mobile apps, launched by Apple’s iPhone, allows you to tap a single button to find a sports score or weather report, ignoring the old world of advertising inventory altogether. Mobile advertising has been perhaps the most disappointing arena for marketers, with missed forecasts for each year in the past decade. Wall Street analyst Mary Meeker has noted that we’ll soon live in a world of 10 billion mobile Internet-connected devices, and most of those will not use the old browser portals that enable standard advertising inventory. As consumers migrate to content-specific applications with traffic alerts on car dashboards and weather advisories in umbrella handles, mobile advertisers will face a continued squeeze in ad inventory.

The great paradox of our age is that consumers, floating in a sea of advertising inventory, are finding ways to ignore most marketing messages by controlling what they watch, spending more time in content creation, and sharing only what they find relevant. For brand marketers this means the cost of placing ads against your specific targets is now cheaper than ever before; the question is, are those inexpensive impressions really making any impression at all?

* * *

We’ll be discussing this issue at DigiDay Target this Wednesday in New York City with Dave Smith of Mediasmith, Tariq Muhammad Walker of AOL Black Voices, Mark Zagorski of eXelate, Jeff Hirsch of AudienceScience, and Omar Tawakol of BlueKai.

Bicycle unbranded


So this sharp blogger named Dave Wilkie, who has self-branded as Jetpacks, has always hated those plastic license-plate frames dealers stick on the back of cars cheesily advertising their dealership, so yanks them off, and suddenly realized his beloved bicycle was also covered with logos. Trek. Bontrager. Shimano. Even emblems for the local bike dealer. So he painted over them all.

The resulting image creates a surreal branding negative space. Our reaction, upon seeing the stripped bike photo, was it looked like an unbike. Is it worth anything? Hard to judge. If you’re not into cycling components, brand logos help you ascertain whether there is expense here or not. Now we’re befuddled. Maybe it’s just a bike — a form of transport from A to B?

Fire and fertility

Which brings up the value of brands anyway. We’ve written before brands are a helpful mental shortcut in a world filled with too much information; illusory, perhaps, but also a quick scoring mechanism to tell you whether a thing has value. Branding focuses communication and can sway minds. Consider the “estate tax” vs. the “death tax” — same deal, but when conservatives began calling the former the latter, public opinion tipped away from such an evil thing. Liberals call conservatives they don’t like “tea baggers.” Conservatives call liberals they don’t like members of the “democrat party.” Names and icons have power, because our cave ancestors had to make quick decisions to survive, and rather than logically weigh the merits of every choice, they learned to follow brand images. Red = fire = danger = today’s stop signs. Green = fertility = happiness = today’s go signs. Brands are everywhere.

Jetpacks, we admire your cleanliness, but man, your bike is confusing.

Syfy wins the great rebranding debate


When Sci Fi rebranded to Syfy in mid-2009 with more diverse drama content for women, fans were aghast. But the cable network is having the last laugh with ratings for women 25-54 up, new ad dollars flowing in from Hershey’s and BMW, and a leap over Lifetime in the coveted prime time slot. We’ve been debating ad guru Bill Green for a while over why we liked the rebranding, and responded to his it’s-still-wrong post today with this:

Bill, I called this back in March 2009. I think what you missed is cable TV networks don’t exist to serve content to audiences; they exist to serve *audiences* to advertisers. Syfy had to find a new audience because the old one was leaving cable TV.

You raise a good point that cable nets risk diluting their value if they broaden content too far. But think about the audience. Science fiction fans skew young and male, the earliest adopters of technology — and a wave of eyeballs leaving traditional cable TV. You seem to be a sci-fi fan. Do you spend hours in front of cable, Bill, or a computer? Young men also often have less income (since wealth is a function of age) and are focused on a limited product set (gizmos, cars, razors). Women of all stripes, on the other hand, account for 80% of discretionary spending, buy everything for the household, and are a sweet audience to serve to advertisers. Older women are more likely to have higher incomes, another draw for marketers.

I wouldn’t blame Syfy for leaving its fans. I’d fess up, and blame Sci Fi’s original fans for leaving it. TLC did the same thing a few years back (um, remember “The Learning Channel” human anatomy shows? All gone now.). If you ran a cable net and saw forecasts of your audience going out the door, the smartest thing to do is go find another audience. Syfy, very well played.

Rebranding Playboy


When design student Alex Cornell was given the assignment to reinvigorate a dying brand, he first thought of a clothing line from his middle school years. And then a spark. Why not reboot Playboy, once the pulse of American maleness?

The joke, you see, is some people claim to read Playboy for the articles, which no one today believes … but back in the 1960s it was true. Alex writes, “Playboy was once regarded as a sophisticated and classy magazine for the modern gentleman. It attracted all of the best writers and was a beacon of style and culture … I imagined a Playboy comprised solely of articles, devoid of nudity (or images of any kind) — something that people would have no choice but to read.”

Alex’s blog post provides a brilliant narration of his thought process, at first a fox eating the classic Playboy bunny, then deemed too violent, the fox becomes an iconic replacement to bunny ears and bow tie. His most interesting analysis is how the audience moved on, awash in a world filled with laddie magazines and Internet porn … and how some brands like Playboy must thus move themselves if they don’t want to drown in a competitive tide. As Dirk Singer at London’s Cow notes, will someone now please give Alex a job?

J.S. Bach, backward time and brand history

One of the puzzles of physics is there is no mathematical reason why time flows forward and not backward as well — all the theories that explain the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces work equally well in either direction. (All right, entropy gives time a push, but we digress.) There is a universe in which you are still a baby, so why aren’t you headed back to mommy now?

Humans are myopic and we tend to focus on today and tomorrow, explaining wars and politics and the corporate obsession with quarterly results (see our debate with @swoodruff and @obilon). Marketers fall into this immediacy trap often, thinking up the latest campaign to give their product sales a lift … without examining the context of their customers’ history. U.S. automakers fell into this boat in 2009, approaching bankruptcy as it dawned on them a vast swath of Americans still doesn’t want to buy their cars (trucks and SUVs, yes, but for smaller U.S. vehicles memories persist of the junky tin rigs sold in the 1970s).

If we are connected to our history, any communication must examine that context. You can’t repaint a brand today without understanding what it was yesterday. All perceptions of value are connected, and sometimes they form loops — like this beautiful riff by J.S. Bach.

Animation by Jos Leys. Via Andy Jukes at Million Monkeys.

Doctors on camels: Framing the benefit


Communications designer and caffeine addict Hal Thomas found this classic Camel cigarette ad in a July 1952 edition of Life magazine. Ethics aside (for the record, our agency does not work with tobacco companies and has led several anti-smoking campaigns), it reminds us of the basic strategy of framing value for your customers. If you have ever bought something on sale, marked “40% off” a higher price, you’ve been the recipient of framing. All those red tags with discounts in this holiday shopping season are simply attempts by marketers to follow Richard Thaler‘s advice: “frame” the price against another benchmark to convince consumers they’re getting a good deal.

Customers, as we’ve written before, are bad judges of value. We don’t know what a diamond should cost — but if the engagement ring is $3,000 marked down from $5,000, it feels fair. We’ll pay $3,000 perhaps if we see an illusory $2,000 above it in “savings,” even if that higher price point never really existed. This old Camel ad does the same thing to consumers of the 1950s, framing a cigarette choice as a safer alternative by juxtaposing it against images of doctors. Businesses fall for this all the time, too; take the marketing director who demands “30% in value-add” from any media buy; she’s really getting the same amount of media, but feels better because the vendors restructure the pricing of ads to give “some” away for free.

We shade truth because we need nuance

Why do we do this? It’s human nature. We all tweak communications in a way to make them more appealing to the recipient. If you call home late from work tonight, you will likely explain you’re on deadline or stuck in traffic (due to outside forces, beyond your control, not really such a bad thing). The message arrives inside a context, and if we set the context appropriately, the message sounds better. The dissembling tactic likely has an evolutionary benefit; no one survived in the wild by collecting all the data carefully and analyzing it — a wild lion would eat you before you ran the odds of where to run — so we had to make snap decisions based on what others told us about our environment. Comparing options to other choices also helped humans evolve; the caveman Ooga might not have been handsome by today’s standards, but if cavewoman Booga thought he was the hottest in all the tribe, he and she passed on the best genes.

You’re beautiful is nice. You’re the most beautiful person in this room is so much better.

So here’s a provocation for your marketing team’s next meeting: Have you explored all the ways you can compare your product attributes or costs to something else to make it more appealing? Tactics include communicating higher price points now X% off (Talbots sale), or bundling your product in an unusual configuration (candy boxes at movie theaters, or those collections of food items from Omaha Steaks), or even framing it against other brands (Coke vs. Pepsi). If you focus on the product itself without putting it in context, customers may not get what you mean … or want what they’ll get.

(Thanks, Hal.)

Nice pitch. I don’t believe you.


One of the arrogant beliefs within ad agencies, including sometimes our own, is the thought that with the right branding, creative and media plan we can influence anyone in our target audience to buy a product. What that belief misses is the power of consumer prejudice.

Gallup, for instance, just reported wild doubts among the American population over how credible news media is. This should give marketers pause, because “news journalism” (with the exception of a few cable networks) is supposedly an even-handed, objective presentation of facts to the world. Only 45% of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in news media, and the numbers slide further among the well-educated and conservatives (for advertisers, read that as “higher income, desirable customers”).

Brands face the same trust challenge

Decades ago Toyota realized it couldn’t possibly overcome its customers’ inherent bias. Toyota was a mid-market brand, and it would never attract luxury car buyers. Rather than fight the perception trap, Toyota created the Lexus … to wild success. And more recently Toyota launched the downmarket Scion brand targeting hip youths who wouldn’t be caught dead in a stale Camry.

Prejudice is an ugly word, but everyone has it, because we carry our worldviews around with us and make judgments about actions based on our past experiences. If you were burned by a stove as a child, you didn’t touch it again. When you buy a product and it fits a mold, you put it into that box, and don’t believe it fits somewhere else. Psychologists call this “heuristics,” mental shortcuts humans make to comprehend a world awash in too much information. Your cave-people ancestors didn’t think carefully whether to run when a lion attacked; a flash judgment told them to bolt, saving genes for you. Prejudice and snap logic are the reasons why healthcare reform in the U.S. may fail; health care is enormously complex, people have had bad experiences with paperwork and government bureaucracy in the past, so it is more simple mentally to just shout “NO!” than to try to process a nuanced, and potentially beneficial, reform logic.

It’s worth a discussion with your marketing team. How far can you push the brand message to be credible, given your target audience’s preconceptions? And when do you decide you need to become radically new to reach prospects who will never believe your old brand story?