Category Archives: Brand building

Sock-Puppeting Puerilism

Normally smart people seem to lose all common sense when it comes to joining an online conversation under a fake name. The cloak of “sock puppeting” (a terrific phrase to describe the act of masking your identity when posting comments on a Web forum) can be incredibly empowering, even for people who already possess gobs of power.

John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods Market, is the latest poster boy for this inane and brand-damaging behavior. I’m sure you’ve heard the story by now: For more than seven years, Mackey posted comments on Yahoo message boards talking up Whole Foods and dumping on the competition. He posted under the handle “rahodeb” and never disclosed his true identify. Now he has the SEC on his back. Nice leadership. Nice irony too, considering his comments in the current issue of Fortune about his blog:   

“We want to communicate as honestly as we can. I am talking about the things I most care about. I don’t do what other bloggers do. I don’t post all the time. The great thing about blogging is that I don’t need you journalists to interpret me anymore.”

Yes, honesty. And integrity. And credibility. When you misrepresent yourself to others, you’re blowing off all three of those traits. I understand the limits that the CEO (or any officer) of a publicly traded company is under regarding what they can say about their business on public forums, but how that leads someone to make the leap to post anonymously on matters directly related to their company and business is beyond me. 

I guess the Web feeds our subconscious desires to perform uncivil acts without repercussions. Just as drivers hidden safely in their cars do unseemly things without pause – things they would never think of doing outside of their vehicles (cutting others off, tailgating, swearing in front of their kids) – the Internet (and its precursor, the online bulletin-board system) is a playground for drive-by postings from people lacking the confidence (or the balls) to stand behind their verbal attacks or contrarian opinions with their real names. (When I was with PC Week, a reader reacting to a negative column I wrote about Apple posted anonymously to express his desire that I would some day end up in prison getting gang-raped by a bunch of guys named Bubba, though he used far more colorful language to describe his fantasy. But I digress.)

Just as troubling as Mackey’s deception was his unapologetic response to being unmasked. Clearly, his actions aren’t in sync with the ideals for which his company supposedly stands. His own blog posting about “open, honest, candid communication” certainly rings hollow. When the actions of a company’s employees – from executives down to the rank and file – differ from the company’s brand promise, it will eventually lose the trust of its customers.

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Negative Influencer

My 9-year-old son Conor was engaged in his usual hypermultitasking activities last night – simultaneously watching TV, building something out of Legos, visiting the Webkins site, hugging the dog – when a Circuit City commercial came on. He stopped everything he was doing and proclaimed to no one in particular, “I will never shop at Circuit City again!”

You see, Conor and I had a bad experience at a local Circuit City store when an overmatched and undertrained sales clerk couldn’t figure out how to ring up the three items we were purchasing. His incompetence was both comical and frustrating. Twenty minutes into the transaction, I gave up, stopped a manager on the way out of the store, and ripped him a new one for putting staff on the floor who obviously weren’t prepared to do their jobs.

Not a big deal, right? Especially for Conor, who as a consumer-in-training is endlessly bombarded with brand messages and has trouble remembering where he left his socks 10 minutes ago. The negative memory will surely fade into the background, and all will be well. Except for one thing: That in-store experience happened nearly four years ago, when Conor was 5. No amount of slick advertising will ever convince this young consumer to spend his allowance in a store that wouldn’t let him buy a PlayStation game.

Brain Dead

A lost week for me, blogwise. Immersed in a couple of new projects on top of a couple that are just wrapping up, ferrying the kids around to various camps and activities during school vacation week, the blog has calcified. Too brain dead at this point for a real post, so here are links to a few stories that caught my eye this week.

BT’s Next Stage: Custom Creative. An interview with EchoTarget CEO Greg Smith, who claims his hotel and travel clients see a 200% to 400% lift in transactions when the EchoTarget behavioral network sends the right destination-specific creative to targets. I have experienced this targeting a few times over the past few weeks after checking a few travel sites for flights to Florida. I didn’t make a reservation, but received a few follow-up emails from Expedia, Travelocity or whatever sites I checked (they all seem the same to me) promising “low fares for your trip to Orlando.” Pretty cool stuff.

Snack Attack! Wired’s current cover story on the bite-sizing of our culture. At first I thought it was a lame idea, but the more I read, the more I liked it. The Biz and Music sections were my faves.

AAAA Media Conference coverage. Microsoft’s top marketing exec, Mich Mathews, said that by 2010, the majority of the company’s media mix will be in the digital space, a signal that the company is simply following its consumers. Mathews followed P&G global marketing officer Jim Stengel, who talked about the need for brands to be authentic, trustworthy and generous. “It’s not about telling and selling,” Stengel was quoted as saying in AdAge. “It’s about bringing a relationship mind-set to everything we do.”

Killing the Golden Duck

Aflac CMO Jeff Herbert is clipping the wings of its ubiquitous duck, Advertising Age reports. Despite an astounding 85% brand awareness – attributable largely to the duck – Herbert is retooling the insurance provider’s marketing plan around education, not awareness. From Ad Age:

His plan is to focus more marketing on what Aflac does — supplemental insurance — while expanding its offerings and growing the category.

“Our industry is a difficult one for the average consumer to understand,” Mr. Herbert said. “We want to move our brand from being known to owned.” And that means new creative, new products and a rethinking of the media plan.

I’m sure a deep dive on the benefits of supplemental insurance is just what the average consumer wants.  While it certainly makes sense to augment the duck with a broader strategy (one that is less reliant on TV advertising) to help turn brand awareness into sales, Herbert should not turn his back on a brand icon that most other services companies would die for. This is the problem when a “classically trained packaged-goods marketer,” as Ad Age refers to Herbert, tries to apply a “classic” (outdated?) CPG formula to a wildly different market like financial services. Selling insurance ain’t like selling Macaroni & Cheese.

Update: Aflac said in a press release that contrary to stupid media reports, it “has no intention of abandoning its use of the Aflac duck.”  

JetBlue Fallout

JetBlue is taking steps to restore its image in the wake of its scheduling implosion last week that left passengers stranded in airports for days and in some cases sitting in grounded planes for more than 10 hours at a time. A day after trotting out CEO David Neeleman to the New York Times (who said he was “humiliated and mortified” by the delays), the company plans to unveil today a customer “bill of rights” program and new operating procedures. A YouTube video from Neeleman is also front and center on JetBlue’s website – a good use of the medium to speak directly to customers.

For a company that has developed a loyal following despite its low-frills approach to flying, this is a critical juncture. It seems to be aware of the damage control it must do. Here’s Eric Brinker, JetBlue’s director of brand management and customer experience, quoted in the Poughkeepsie Journal discussing the new passenger bill of rights:

“We’ll be reaffirming ourselves as a leader in this industry. It’s something that’s going to hold JetBlue financially accountable to a much greater extent than airlines have today. It’s something that really forces us to do right by our customers.

The airline already has pledged full credits or refunds to passeners whose flights were cancelled. So far, so good. But the next few months – and the steps the company takes to fix its apparently deep-seated operational problems – will determine just how much equity JetBlue has built up with its customers.

More broadly, some observes are calling the JetBlue fiasco a tipping point for airline travel, as the blogosphere heats up with calls for legislation to protect travelers’ rights.  Before the JetBlue troubles, a real estate broker named Kate Hanni had formed the Coalition for a Passengers Bill of Rights and is collecting signatures on a petition to spur Congress to enact new legislation for airline travelers. The JetBlue incident will no doubt feed those efforts.

Another great example of the power of social media.

New Life for Tired Brands

An article I wrote for the February issue of The Advertiser, titled “Putting a New Shine on Your Brand,” is here, courtesy of The Pohly Company, which publishes the magazine for the Association of National Advertisers. The article is about how companies can restore life to a tired or maturing brand and make it relevant to newly empowered consumers.

The piece has some terrific insights from brand consultants like Hayes Roth from Landor, Brad White of (r)evolution partners, and Daryl Travis from Brandtrust, along with practitioners including Becky Saeger (Charles Schwab), Sharon John (Hasbro) and Alan Hallberg (Cisco).  Money quote from Saeger about Schwab’s new approach to customer research:

“No one walks down the street wondering if Schwab is better than Fidelity. They’re thinking about how they’re going to get their kids into college. That’s the relevance we needed to tap into.”

Ethnography and Coprophagia

I just filed an article for the January issue of The Advertiser on the topic of re-branding strategies. The consensus from my interviews was, not surprisingly, that marketers need to get really deep into consumer behavior and attitudes in order to figure out how to build (or rebuild) a relevant brand. One of the techniques gaining some traction with marketers is ethnography, a fancy word for observing people as they go about their daily lives. Procter & Gamble does a lot of this field research; Charles Schwab did it before launching its “Talk to Chuck” campaign.

I was thinking about all this yesterday as I conducted my own ethnographic study: watching my chocolate lab eat her poop in the front yard. This has been an annoying habit of hers for the past few years. At first, she dined only on frozen excrement in the winter (the “poopsicle”), but now her munching has turned into a year-round activity.

Beyond her fetid breath and room-clearing belches, this habit apparently is not harmful to the dog. It even has an official name: coprophagia. No one really seems to know definitively why dogs do it, though there are plenty of theories. And there are several options for addressing the problem, although the only foolproof one is clearing the soon-to-be snacks out of the yard soon after the dog does her doodie. It keeps me busy.

Anyway, this is the crux of the ethnography issue for marketers: As Brandtrust CEO Daryl Travis told me for the re-branding article, figuring out why humans behave the way they do is a lot harder than observing what they do. Cracking the “why” strikes me as the secret sauce for customer engagement.