Radisson takes an “adversity branding” platform. And it works.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Radisson Hotels invested in a half page ad in the Marketplace section.  It wasn’t an ad with a juicy third-night-free offer, or even touting the allures of any of its zillion locations.  No pretty pictures.  No direct response call to action.

It was an open letter.  To be more specific, an open apology letter to any guests that stayed at any North American Radisson between November 2008 and May 2009.  Turns out they were hacked, and they come clean in this letter.

But this is more than a simple mea culpa.  And way more than an apology.  This is a strategic positioning initiative that tackles an ugly problem head-on and engages the audience in the healing process.  In the letter, they provide a direct link on their website for more information and how to receive free credit monitoring for one year.  (You’re eligible only if Radisson can confirm that you stayed at one of the hotels during the stipulated period.)

Despite the gaffe, Radisson comes off looking pretty good here, and very responsible.  The average consumer will be miffed at first, but then heartened by the multiple steps the company is taking to a.) make it up to their customers and b.) shore up their security initiatives by working with law enforcement and credit card companies.  It also provides some insight to the operational values at the corporation.

Bur more importantly, I think this leaves the consumer more confident in the brand – and interestingly, more bonded.  The fact that Radisson shares this “we’ve been compromised, too” idea with the consumer helps to unite the brand with its audience on an unlikely, but effective, triangulation point.

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A Branding Bummer – With or Without U2.

It seems like only yesterday that U2 was going steady with Apple.  They helped usher in the digital music era when they were a featured artist in those really cool iPod commercials from Chiat/Day.

Heck, they even had their own iPod – a slick black version with a red click wheel and the four band members’ signatures engraved on the back.  In the official press release, Bono was quoted as saying “we want our audience to have a more intimate online relationship with the band, and Apple can help us do that.”  Apple even went so far as to release the online music industry’s first “digital box set,” which contained more than 400 tracks – the entire U2 catalogue plus 25 rare and unreleased songs.

So with all this mutual love between Apple and U2, how is it that the band is now endorsing BlackBerry?  A beautiful new Alex Courtes-directed spot (from ARC/Chicago) culminates with the super “Blackberry Loves U2.”  If you follow the vanity link, you learn that Blackberry is introducing the “U2 Mobile Album,” a sort of 360° (pardon the pun, that’s U2’s tour name,) view of the band, the new album, the tour, etc., that can be shared among mobile devices.  Of course, that “sharing” is only available on BlackBerry devices, and ostensibly only on the newish ones.  PS – in case you’re wondering, the answer is Yes…BlackBerry is the principal sponsor of the U2 360 world tour.

This is a train wreck on multiple levels:
Level 1:  U2 ditches Apple for a direct competitor in the smartphone category. Ouch.

Level 2:  BlackBerry is the device of choice for geeky IT guys and nerdy accountants, isn’t it?  Not exactly the hip/young/world-changing/activism crowd you’d expect. At least Apple made sense in terms of shared vision and shared audience.

Level 3:  To really muck up the situation, Bono is a founding member of Elevation Partners, a private equity firm (along with Fred Anderson, former CFO of Apple, ahem,) that is a principal investor (to the tune of 27%) in Palm, and therefore, ANOTHER direct competitor in the smartphone category, the Palm Pre.

So is possible for U2 to be effectively “aligned” with Apple, BlackBerry and Palm?
Not a chance.

Brands exist in the perceptions of consumers.  When those perceptions become clouded, even a little, the brand loses points proportionately.  What U2 have done loosens the stickiness for Apple, BlackBerry, (and to a lesser degree Palm, since not many people are aware of that connection,) and especially U2.

U2 really come off looking like sellouts at best and “who’s next?” product hustlers at worst.  In an era when aligning your brand with strategic partners can make all the difference in the world, it’s important to align on VALUES and VISION, not just what’s hot at the moment.

Steely Dan as business marketing model?

I recently had the pleasure of taking in a Steely Dan concert at New York’s Beacon Theater. They are on tour performing alternating sets of their final three classic albums.  I opted to see “The Royal Scam,” one of their finest and most muscular records from 1976.

I was fortunate to have an excellent seat, where I could see the band, and enjoy their music.  When the band first took the stage, I was quite surprised to see the legendary guitarist Larry Carlton taking up residency on stage right. And not just for the first song…he played the entire set.

There was no mention that Carlton would be performing with the band.  But it made absolute sense, since he figured such a prominent role on “The Royal Scam,” playing memorable guitar solos throughout, (including on this night, a note-for-note reincarnation of the classic “Kid Charlemagne” solo,) all with the distinctive Carlton hollow-body sound.

This is an excellent lesson for business and consumer marketers, and how to go about your communications strategies.  A key element to connecting with an audience is relevance;  putting a message that has context in front of someone that likely wants to hear that message, while using a medium that appeals to his or her sensibilities.  But the truly memorable connections are made when you can add an element of the unexpected, some surprise or aha! moment that catches the consumer off guard.

When you deliver marketing messages that are both relevant and unexpected, it usually resonates  – right on the bottom line.