WhyHOP?

Remember the old expression, “there’s no such thing as bad publicity?” Well, you can retire that along with any hope for IHOP, who, in a pre-planned coordinated marketing/branding/PR effort, decided to change its name to IHOB.

At first, the brand teased the new name, and for a couple of weeks the Interwebs buzzed about the possibilities, roundly agreeing that the “B” would be for “breakfast.”

But noooooo. The we’re-smarter-than-you-are team at IHOP/B then dropped the real bomb: that the “B” would be for “burgers.”

I can hear you saying “but WHY? Why would a fast-casual restaurant chain with a 60-year history of serving (and dominating in) breakfast try to suddenly pivot to a burger chain? Especially in light of the fact that there are SO MANY bigger, richer, more entrenched burger chains across the category?

So first, let’s be clear: IHOP is NOT actually changing its name to IHOB. We’ve been trolled. We’ve been duped. We’ve been fake news-ed. And while it may seem fitting in the United States of Trump to push out fake stories in service of ulterior motives, this one’s not getting elected to anything soon.

Instead, the other restaurant chains are actually enjoying the halo effect of all of IHOP/B’s spent money and effort as they throw shade from every corner of the flat-top:

When a Twitter user asked Wendy’s if they were worried about the new competition, Wendy’s sharply replied: “Not really afraid of the burgers from a place that decided pancakes were too hard.” Ouch.

Taking it to a whole other level, Burger King has changed its Twitter handle to Pancake King to gloat.

Waffle House, a brand that can hardly get its shit in one bag as a brand, had this to say:
“Even though we serve delicious burgers… we know our roots.”

White Castle:
“We are excited to announce that we will be switching our name to Pancake Castle.”

Even Netflix – yes, Netflix…not even remotely in or near the category – got in on the action with this savage tweet:
“brb changing my name to Netflib”

This recent publicity stunt of “re-branding” of IHOP to IHOB is not only a temporary hoax, it’s also a strategic misstep. They were (likely) doing it to get some top of mind awareness around their new line of burgers, which they’re promoting hard over the summer to stave off sagging sales in the afternoon and evening periods.

But for brand managers and CMOs who have influence over things like this, top of mind is not the point in and of itself. Preference is the point. Difference is the point. You use top of mind tactics to cement your differences and create preference around them. Scams and gimmicks are for used car salesmen and some carpetbagger politicians, but not for supposedly mature brands.

When you’re good at something – indeed when you own an attribute that larger, more mature brands can’t touch you on – your job is to build on that advantage. Make the gap wider, and make it harder and harder for ANY brand to encroach on your position. Instead, what IHOP/B has done has created doubt in the mind of consumers.

The average consumer will think “why would they try to do burgers? They’re a breakfast place.” And that little bit of doubt about the brand’s judgment will leak into little bits of doubt about their ability to even win at breakfast anymore.

I’m sure the brand has girded themselves for this.  The last board meeting was probably filled with aphorisms like “it’s gonna look bad for a while, and we may even take some heat, but we’ll dominate the trades for a month.”

Last time I checked, nobody ever walked into an IHOP because they were dominating the trades. Come to think of it, nobody ever walked into an IHOP for a burger either.

Delta is WINNING in the Georgia Tax Tussle

delta_georgiaLast week, the Georgia legislature rescinded a tax break proposal that would have meant approximately a $50 million savings on jet fuel taxes for Delta Air Lines, the state’s largest private employer. This came in direct response to Delta’s announcement from February 24th, which read in part:

“…the airline will end its contract for discounted fares for travel to the (NRA) association’s 2018 annual meeting… Out of respect for our customers and employees on both sides, Delta has taken this action to refrain from entering this debate and focus on its business. Delta continues to support the 2nd Amendment.”

To be clear, Delta did not end its relationship with the NRA, or NRA members. It simply removed a special discount as a perk, and stated its rationale in fairly certain terms. NRA members are free to fly Delta any time they like.

Delta, like any brand, made this move and released this statement partly due to its convictions, and partly for the timely optics.

And several brands, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Hertz, MetLife and United Airlines, have also taken steps – some far more significant than Delta’s – to either enter or remove themselves from the fray surrounding this percolating national conversation.

In response to Delta’s statement, Georgia Lt. Gov Casey Cagle tweeted:

“I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with the @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”

The Georgia senate followed through, and sitting Governor Nathan Deal signed the bill on March 1st.

This is also an optics play for Georgia, the brand.

Mr. Cagle, the man who authored the tweet and led this movement into law, is seen as the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, as Georgia enters an election year with primaries in May and a general election in November.

Some rash-thinking practitioners might suggest that Delta leave the state, and the 33,000+ residents it employs, to make a bold(er) statement. That would be an arduous task, complicated by the fact that Delta just renewed their lease on Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest, for a 20-year term. And while it might be a windfall for any other city, (what’s up, Nashville?) it might be seen as a petty slight against tens of thousands of workers, based on politics. (Not a great brand play.)

Financially, the new taxes, while significant, probably won’t hurt the company as much as one might think. Delta has laid out a long-term plan to spend between $2 billion and $3 billion per year on aircraft replacement and other capital upgrades. The $50 million in fuel taxes will likely be factored in to that budget.

From a marketing and brand sensibility, Delta doesn’t have to leave Georgia just to make a wildly expensive point. The brand “won” the optics game by sticking to its guns (reverse puns intended) on this polarizing issue, and then getting punished for it.  Those who are watching brands at this time will have taken notice, and will be impressed by its fortitude to stick to its promise as a service provider.

And now that they’re paying for that decision, both literally and figuratively, their marketing job has gotten quite clear: stand by our principles, continue to conduct business to the best of our abilities, and enjoy (and selectively promote) the wave of earned media this whole issue has garnered.

Delta can now leverage the opportunity to create a new bond with their Georgia employees with a “we’re sticking with you, no matter what it costs us” message. That’s also a strong brand move.  Think of the wave of pride and support that will generate internally.

My guess is that CEO Edward Bastian is filming that message any day now…

Five Reasons for a Delta/AT&T cobrand

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If you’re a business traveler who spends any appreciable time traveling, you understand the typical challenges: commercial transportation, even in its most streamlined forms, can be a lot of work. Especially if you’ve got a lot of work to do while you travel.

Some commercial carriers now offer wi-fi as a feature of their offerings. In particular, Delta Airlines touts that they proudly offer wi-fi on all flights (with a few restrictions based on the aircraft used on certain legs.)

Unfortunately, the wi-fi offered is painfully slow and doesn’t perform in any manner even remotely resembling acceptable. In some cases, the wi-fi isn’t available at all. This is especially infuriating on longer flights – like New York to Seattle, for instance – when you hope to strike several items from your to-do list, and make those hours productive.

We understand why Delta would offer wi-fi (through a fulfillment partner Gogo Inflight) services. It’s a great way to differentiate from competitors, and it gives the brand another feature to promote to consumers. And not just about targeting business travelers – even today’s average non-business traveler is in need of good wi-fi.

But when Delta can’t deliver on even the most basic version of that promise, they are losing esteem in the minds of their consumers, (this one included,) and thereby damaging their brand in the process.

This is a perfect market condition for a cobranding opportunity. If Delta dumps Gogo and partners with AT&T to deliver on an important and desirable brand feature, everybody wins. Let’s explore how.

Here’s loosely how it works: AT&T wires up all Delta flights with soon-to-be-ubiquitous 5G broadband wireless (serious network capability that’s actually really fast even when everyone is connected,) and now that they own it, AT&T can even deploy their DirecTV service into the flights where there are screens on the seats.  Great way to preview the new network, and better way to innovate (since you’d have to be creative with how to get good-sized beacons into typically tight spaces with the rest of the avionics configuration) on the installation.

What might happen in such an arrangement? The answers are five good reasons Delta and AT&T should cobrand:

  1. Consumers would enjoy a far better, far more productive online experience while flying Delta. If you’ve ever had to deal with slow or spotty wi-fi, you know how frustrating it can be. Smooth and fast connectivity that allows business people to connect to emails or shared docs and enables kids to stream movies would simply make for a stronger overall experience while flying Delta.
  2. Those consumers would form positive brand impressions about both Delta and AT&T. Smooth flights with lots of productive connectivity and streamed entertainment options that are delivered without incident looks good on both brands. This is especially true for AT&T, who is in a near-constant dogfight with Verizon for perceptual wireless network preference.
  3. Delta gets to deliver a category differentiating benefit at no carried or additional operational costs. Without assuming massive operational dollars to implement this arrangement, Delta would leapfrog its competitors with this feature. Sure, JetBlue has in-flight entertainment (ironically delivered by DirecTV,) and sometimes wi-fi, but a fully thought-out super high speed network for everyone to share would help the brand stand apart from its national rivals like United and American in a meaningful – consumers actually desire this feature – and powerful way.
  4. Although AT&T would assume the operational costs of outfitting every Delta jet with their hardware, the brand would receive (basically) free exposure to Delta’s 180 million yearly passengers. Yup I said 180 million. That’s a lot of top-of-the-funnel preference for nearly all of AT&T’s business units built around the network. If they want to beat Verizon’s brains in, getting in front of 180 million passengers and basically making their travel day is a really fine way to start. How about leveraging that exposure with juicy offers to switch to AT&T wireless for your mobile phone service, or similar offers for Sunday Ticket and other DirecTV enticements?  Did I mention 180 million passengers per year?
  5. Both brands would enjoy the benefits of individualized responsibility. Under this arrangement, Delta would only be responsible to its consumers for on-time flight performance and in-cabin service, and NOT the quality or uptime of its wi-fi. When it’s co-branded with a reputable and well-known name, Delta can actually get away with saying the wi-fi is “AT&T’s problem.” With Gogo, (a smaller player with far less brand visibility,) the average passenger assumes it’s Delta’s wi-fi. Conversely, AT&T gets to take all the credit for great wi-fi and entertainment and none of the guff for flight performance or on-time arrivals. A win/win indeed.

While we’re matchmaking, I might also propose that Amtrak and Verizon enter into the same type of arrangement. Have you ever tried to connect using AmtrakConnect? As they say in the business, “oy.”

Now that the business end is settled, all we need is a good tagline. Any ideas?

How to get control of your brand. Now.

It’s tough for brands these days. All the competition. All the change. And all that damn marketing! And perhaps most difficult is getting consumers to know you, then like you, and finally, to trust you.

Brands – and I’m talking about brands of all sizes, really – invest a lot of money in so many areas – it might be research and development, or operations, offices, showrooms or retail stores, or even the “perfect” ingredients for their recipes. These are all things that are relatively controllable for the brand.

But once they’re born, brands are basically out of control. Because, ultimately, consumers decide if the brand is good or bad, cool or “over,” worth the money or not. And in the age of social media, the lack of control can really get scary.

Consider the recent tweet by the then-President-elect Donald Trump:

trump_tweet

On the surface, it sounds like another one of the Donald’s weirdly-supportive and overly generalized ramblings. But there’s something really telling about this. The account of @realDonaldTrump has about 22 million followers. That’s a really lot. All of whom now have this “advice” about supporting and patronizing L.L. Bean.

We’ll stay out of the politics of this exchange, and whether or not it’s ethical for a candidate to receive a donation from an individual, and then use his massive influence to issue a sales pitch for her company after winning. Because eeeewww.

But what happens if that brand DOESN’T WANT that endorsement?

After the tweet, a group called Grab Your Wallet added L.L. Bean to a boycott list of any companies associated with Donald Trump. What if thousands, or even millions of L.L. Bean consumers got wind of that and decided to protest the man by dropping the brand? That has real consequences for the brand – especially if it’s publicly traded.  L.L. Bean quickly issued a statement on their Facebook page (that reaches just slightly over 750,000 followers – see the disparity there?) distancing themselves from alignment with any candidate and asking Grab Your Wallet to reconsider their position. [They haven’t.]

And if you’re a brand that’s invested time, and money, and millions of dollars and hired people all over the country and have supply chains in place and employees who count on your continued success for their livelihoods, it’s a little disconcerting to know that equity can all disappear – or at least be seriously compromised – with 140 characters or less. In this hyper-polarized age, it’s certainly possible that bonds are being formed and broken in more and more capricious circumstances.

So what’s a brand to do?

Well, it’s simple. Advertise.

While there are many ways to develop and grow a brand, advertising remains the most direct route to establishing your own position, and forwarding your point of view.

So, if you’re an apparel company, and someone does or says something terrible while wearing your clothing, advertise. If you’re a food brand that gets protested by a fringe group who claims you’re not environmentally responsible enough, advertise. If you’re a retailer and you’re losing share because some influencer tells millions of followers that she overpaid for your wares, advertise.

At the very least, you’ll have had your say. You’ll have run commercials and ads and said to the world: “this is what we stand for.” “This is who we stand for.” “This is who we are.” Otherwise, you might get hijacked by someone’s wayward ramblings…even if they may have had good intentions in the process.

TRUMP: the brand that never was

trump_logo_1

In her recent article in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin writes an impassioned article about how, in the “Irony of Ironies,” Trump has destroyed his own brand right in the middle of perhaps the most popular and most saturated stretch of his career. She’s kind of pissed.

I agree with this article on only one point: that Donald Trump likely entered the presidential race as a publicity stunt, something I’ve been crowing about for more than a year. My guess is that he thought he had no shot at winning, but would gain widespread popularity during the primaries – and leverage that popularity to launch a newer, bigger, huger reality show about something or other.

However, that’s about all we agree on, and likely because Ms. Rubin and I have very different ideas of what “brand” actually means.

Donald Trump built – literally and figuratively – his name on real estate development. That was his bread and butter, and (aside from a little head start from his father,) how he made, and lost, and made, his enormous fortunes. He put the Trump name name on every building, every hotel and every DBA he launched.

He then (pretty successfully) associated that name “TRUMP” with wealth and opulence. The gold finishing on all the buildings. The gawdy furnishings in the hotels. The “you-can’t-afford-it” pricing. And the brand actually stood on something fairly cohesive in its earliest form. This was a real estate/building/developing/fancy-finished kind of brand. Even when TRUMP extended the line into other types of properties, like resorts, and casinos, and golf courses, and a skating rink, it kinda sorta held together. (After all, those are all developed and built on property.)

Pretty straightforward. And for those who wanted to associate with that big-money, big-ego promise, the brand was there for the hefty asking price. And it commanded a limited, but interestingly dedicated, audience.

But then TRUMP derailed. It made the classic hubris mistake of any brand that thinks it’s soooo good at one thing, that it can be equally good at lots of other things.

He extended the brand.

And from there, the TRUMP brand got hazy, and extended into a weird and wide array of categories. Through the years, the TRUMP name has appeared on a host of enterprises:

A winery.
A beauty pageant.
A mortgage company (okay, that might be sort of adjacent.)
The oft-vilified university.
Clothing.
Fragrances.

(Should I keep going?)

Okay.

An airline.
A vodka.
A model management company.
A steakhouse – later extended to online steak delivery.
A catering company.
(And I’m leaving out a bunch.)

As it turns out, almost all of those ventures have failed, some more magnificently than others. And the reason was, in almost all cases where the concern was dependent upon consumer interaction, the price point (always set at the ultra premium level) did not consistently match what was delivered.

Which, itself, is the rub. The “promise,” the central pillar of the TRUMP brand was that you’d PAY a lot to interact with it. But time and time again, with greater frequency than we might care to agree on, the quality and commitment to excellence delivered to the consumer was not commensurate with the price commanded.

Which proves that the TRUMP “brand” is only a brand in that those five capital letters are emblazoned on just about everything the organization has ever produced. But not a delivery against his core promise.  (We assume, as consumers, to GET a lot when we PAY a lot.)  Instead, the sum of all the experiences in all the categories over all the years is this: the TRUMP brand is extremely shiny and impressive on the surface, and anywhere from meh to virtually invisible right after your platinum credit card transaction goes through.

Which means, and I say this quite politely to Ms. Rubin, that Mr. Trump’s behavior in recent months hasn’t done anything to “damage” the TRUMP brand. Because the brand is a disembodied disaster in pure marketing terms. (Let’s not confuse the TRUMP brand with Donald’s celebrity persona…if his celebrity persona is the brand, then he’s trending like mad and gaining in popularity.)

The TRUMP brand’s only verifiable track record has been to over promise and under deliver on matters of substance in all the categories outside of real estate properties. It has done that quite consistently for decades. And in light of its founder’s recent press, it’s continuing magnificently. Terrific. Huge. Tremendous.

Pokemon GO reveals 5 important marketing truths you can’t underestimate

pokemon_GO

Unless you’ve been living on another planet for the last several weeks, you’ve no doubt heard of the Pokemon GO craze that’s sweeping the globe. 50+ million downloads later, and people are still out walking the streets, through parks and even into closed spaces like stores and stations to throw a virtual PokeBall at virtual fictitious creatures.

It’s a powerful shift in the gaming world, and integrates many tech categories, including mobile, AR, GPS, and more.

But beyond the tech itself, what’s most interesting are the marketing implications. (What would a good fad be without in-app purchases, right?) And the Pokemon GO craze reveals some deep-seated marketing truths that should not be underestimated.

Never underestimate the power of brand bonds.
While Pokemon GO is a 2016 phenomenon, its roots go back more than 20 years, to the Pokemon game developed for the original GameBoy console by Nintendo. This collecting game centered around fictional creatures called Pokemon, and was a huge hit, eventually spinning off six generations of gaming updates and more than 700 “species” of Pokemon.

The original games captured the attention of young children and tweens prior to 2000 – the group we now fondly call millennials – and those children lived and breathed the games, the anime series and feature films. There’s a complete mythology that children became immersed in, memorized, and fantasized about as a result of all the media pushed out around the brand (not unlike some other franchises you may have heard of, like Star Wars or Harry Potter.) It’s no surprise, then, that when the brand resurfaces decades later with a new iteration, that the barriers to entry are virtually non-existent, and the familiar faces (who can resist a Pikachu?) bring back deeply embedded fond memories and feelings of a bygone youth.

Never underestimate the power of new technology
The tech involved with bringing Pokemon GO to market is pretty hefty, especially in its integration of several complex technologies into one robust platform. There’s a gaming component, of course – objectives, scoring, playing against others, battles in PokeGyms and reloads at PokeStops. There’s full mobile integration (iOS and Android compatible,) with GPS into a hyper-animated GoogleMaps application. And central to its appeal is the AR (augmented reality) built into the experience, that “hides” Pokemon into your normal environment when viewed through your device’s camera. Oh, and a wearable device for playing the game (line extension anyone?) is set to be released in September of 2016.

It should be noted that tech is at the heart of this whole thing, and that Niantic, the company who developed Pokemon GO, was at one time an internal Google startup that spun off (with $30 million in pledged investments) back in October of 2015, right around the time Google restructured as Alphabet.

Never underestimate the power of fads
It’s hard to resist the appeal of seeing scads of young people laughing, working together, laughing, running around the streets, laughing and having tons of fun. Did I mention laughing? Fads capture attention, typically of a specific group, and gain popularity due to their exciting or enticing nature. That is happening here on a grand – indeed a global – scale, and a great many participants have the Pokemon history to fall back on. To be noted, the Pokemon universe is rolling up new fans as a result of Pokemon GO’s popularity as well. Also of note is that fads typically don’t last – some turn into trends, and I suspect that we’ll see that in this case, because of the copycat phenomenon…see below.

Never underestimate the copycat syndrome
How many brands right now do you think are huddled in their war rooms, feverishly discussing the Pokemon GO craze and asking the inevitable question “how can OUR BRAND do something like this?” Naturally, when a craze sweeps the nation (and in this case, the developed world,) competitors and non-competitors alike recognize the opportunities and rush to develop their own versions to grab attention and attempt to capitalize on the appeal.

Once it becomes viable that there’s a WILLINGNESS on the part of millions of people to participate in a specific type of activity or behavior, brands rush in with their own versions. Expect to see at least a dozen new AR-oriented applications, games, and extensions within 6-18 months. Some may find traction (if they can bring their own appeal to the engagement,) but most will typically fail – either because the appeal will fall on deaf ears, or because the offering won’t be actually cool, or because it will become too overtly commercialized.

Never underestimate the power of community
One of the most critical elements of the Pokemon GO craze (and it was likely unintended,) is that it brings people together. You see groups of 2, 3, 4 or more people walking around with their phones and working together to find new Pokemon. They’re young, they’re laughing, and it looks like they’re having a great time. (Seriously, who wouldn’t want to be involved with that?)

This part of the phenomenon speaks to a deeper truth about consumers and brand adoption behaviors – we’re far more likely to adopt a brand if we think we can be affirmed or liked in some way as a result – especially by our peers. Pokemon GO has done that in a unique way: with the backdrop of a well-established brand familiarity, with the integration of emerging technologies and through the power and comfort of a large peer community.

So…if you’re one of those brands who are considering launching your own version of Pokemon GO, don’t underestimate these important elements. And more importantly, don’t OVERestimate the appeal of your brand to extend into this realm. If you’re gonna do it, do it right, and do it in context with what your consumers really want. After all, you gotta catch ‘em all!

 

Why would Amazon rush up to a #2 position in a category? (Hint: it’s the money.)

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One of the basic tenets of marketing, (and what almost all of my students are sick of hearing about already,) is that brands need to strive for a leadership position. You may not always be able to achieve category leadership, but you can certainly attain positional leadership: quality, price, availability, etc. Heck, leadership is so important, the concept of loss leaders is a thing.

And while leadership is the coveted spot, there happens to be some pretty cushy seats in the #2 position as well. Just ask Avis, Burger King, and Pepsi how they’re doing. Avis is the quintessential case study here, having turned their #2 status into a promote-able benefit nearly 50 years ago, and successfully positioning themselves in their category. (It turned into some pretty great advertising from Doyle Dane Bernbach, too.) Sure, these companies have never beaten out their category leaders on the key metrics, (revenue, profits, number of locations, etc.) but they have consistently beaten out EVERY OTHER player in the space.

I’m most interested in this positioning battle model since hearing the news that Amazon is entering the video content space with a new platform called “Amazon Video Direct.” This platform will allow users to upload their own content, and will even have revenue-sharing models for those who upload premium content that other users may be willing to pay for. If it sounds familiar, that’s because it’s YouTube under a different name. [PS – if you think you can be a video star, this may be your big chance to get in on the ground floor.  Just sayin’.]

Amazon has made a history (and quite a good living, thank you) by exploring opportunities outside its core competency as an online retailer. While purchases of companies like Audible and Zappos make perfect sense as extensions, development of electronics devices (like Kindle and more recently, Echo,) cellular enablement services (like Amazon Wireless,) and original content (Amazon Studios) really didn’t. That those products may have performed fairly or even very well is beside the point.  T

Just as a sidebar, let’s think on that for a moment:  Amazon, an online retailer, delivers original programming content. Could you imagine if, 30 years ago, K-Mart (a one-time very successful retailer,) launched a dramatic series on television? Who would have ever taken that seriously? So yay for the tech revolution and skewed boundaries!

Video content is really far from what we might consider Amazon’s sweet spot. Sure, Amazon Studios may have a mild hit with “Transparent,” as a piece of original content, but they’re not going to catch Netflix any time soon. And that may be precisely the point.

Nor is Amazon Video Direct going to catch YouTube and its billion-user infrastructure any time soon. But with Amazon’s 130 million unique visitors per month (just let that sink in a moment,) they can rush right up to a cozy #2 spot in the category, maybe disrupt a few long-held market beliefs, and add a few more zeros to their bottom line and their $700 per share stock price.