Coronavirus CMO Checklist

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As we’ve turned the calendar to another month of dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of brands and agencies are wondering what’s next.  While many brands have pivoted to pandemic-related messaging (see a regularly updated list here,) most are taking a breath, and working hard to plan their next move(s.)

Believe it or not, this forced time-out can be an incredibly useful opportunity on many levels.  Whether you’re the CMO of a global brand that spends millions or an owner/manager of a small to medium-sized business that’s trying to edge out your competition on a regional level, this may be the best time to evaluate your brand and make structural moves to re-position it for success when the world wakes from its medically-induced commercial slumber.

Here’s a quick dos and don’ts checklist of items to consider while we’re all waiting for the refs to say it’s time to get back in the game:

ON POSITIONING

DO reinforce your strategic position, whatever it might be. If you’re the low-cost leader, then now is the time to forage for ways to maintain and even strengthen that position, perhaps by having new discussions with suppliers and distribution agents.  More importantly, if you don’t have a strategic position (or perhaps don’t know exactly what yours is,) you’ve now been given the gift of several weeks and even months to figure one out.  Huddle with your team – or better yet, a consultant or agency – and learn how to articulate who you really are in ways maybe you haven’t before.

DON’T waver.  If you do have a position and it helps the consumer/customer understand what makes you different, do not veer from your course.  You might hear of brands trying to “strategically pivot” into new areas and try to replicate what competitors do in an effort to grab short-term revenue gains or “narrow their gap.”  We’ll probably see a LOT of price manipulation once the markets begin to wake as competition for consumer attention will spike – but don’t be tempted.  If your position is built on quality, or prestige, or speed, or technology, or safety, or any other attribute that you can effectively “own” in the mind of the market, stay the course.  The consumer segment that desires your position will be more motivated than ever to seek it out when this is all over.

ON STAYING IN TOUCH

DO stay in touch with consumers/customers and stakeholders of all kinds. Be a friend in some way.  Be a lifeline if you can.  One of the most compelling aspects of this pandemic is the psychological toll it’s taking on people from all walks of life.  Routines are disrupted.  Rituals interrupted.  And we cannot forget that brands represent constancy and normalcy for so many Americans – perhaps the only two commodities that are in shorter supply than toilet paper. As long as your brand is reminding consumers that you’re still there, and will continue to be there to support them with what they expect of you, you should come out of this national hibernation in pretty good shape.

DON’T brag.  Even if you’re doing the most amazing things right now in your community or in your industry, no one wants to hear how great you are.  Do what you can to serve in this crucial time, but do those things quietly and let the results speak for themselves. Grandstanding is not a good look in a crisis.

ON ADVERTISING AND STAYING VISIBLE

DO advertise if it makes sense and you have something valuable to say. In my last post, I advocated strongly for advertising, and provided several reasons why it’s more important than ever.  I continue to recommend that you stay visible and adjust your messaging to take the current consumer environment into account.

DON’T disappear.  Find ways to stay relevant, even if you’re conserving major expenditures (like media costs.) This is a great time to get more social, expand or enhance your app, send timely email updates and so on.  AND DEFINITELY DO NOT use your advertising presence to take shots at competitors.  You should notice that there’s no “feuding” going on now, even among the largest brands.  No cola wars.  No chicken sandwich smackdowns.  Competitive advertising in the current climate is not only a waste of valuable ad dollars, it’s in poor taste. Consumers are paying rapt attention right now, so behave with your brand as though momma was watching you.  ‘Cause she kinda is.

ON PLAYING THE LONG GAME

DO be prepared (financially and otherwise,) to ride this situation out well into 2021.  It’s clear that some brands will falter during this time as consumers are also re-evaluating their priorities and allegiances.  Staying true to your brand ethos (and reinforcing/refining your position, see above,) can a.) cement the relationships you’ve already worked so hard to forge and b.) make you look darn attractive to those defecting from other brands.

DON’T rush your expectations.  Although confidence is virtually nonexistent at the moment, consumer motivation will be high and will likely surge for many months as the commercial rebound begins.  Expect a tentative but large wave of consumers re-entering the market with fresh perspectives and open minds.  Rushing to grab profits and short-term gains (in an attempt to recoup some recent losses) may preclude your brand from the much more substantial rewards of sustained success and new fans.

Is THIS the best an ad can get?

A lot has been made of the new Gillette short film entitled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” The spot, which challenges men to take a look at tired masculine clichés, like “boys will be boys,” and mentions #metoo within the first five seconds, depicts several scenes wherein some certain male behaviors have been tolerated almost hypnotically for quite some time.

A group of teens sit on a couch and flip through scenes of female marginalization in situation comedies and reality shows. An executive inappropriately (because he’s pandering,) puts his hand on a woman’s shoulder and starts a phrase, “What I actually think she’s trying to say is…” And so on.

Then, a new narrative starts to form in the video, where men intervene positively in several oft-tolerated situations, including cat-calling, fighting, and bullying. Underneath it all, the voiceover insists that “some is not enough.” And “Because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

On its surface, this is an incredibly powerful social statement. And Gillette should be congratulated for boldly making it.

But as a piece of advertising, it may be overreaching at best, and carelessly ineffective at worst. While I can appreciate what it’s trying to do, the ad loses focus in its earnest to say something share-worthy on social media. (Although, in its defense, it has succeeded in doing at least that.)

The modern American consumer does not always make the loftiest cerebral decisions when trying to discern which brands to buy. Instead, they make simple, often one-word phrase mnemonic connections (that brands typically provide for them,) and choose based on how that singular experience makes them feel.

And for the past 30 years or so, Gillette has “won” consumers on a simple concept: the best a man can get. Strong tagline. A simple and understandable position for consumers. Advertising to support it. Not surprisingly, strong sales followed.

But now, Gillette has waded – rather, they’ve taken a rocket-powered speedboat – into dangerous waters that even their historically strong positioning may not be able to weather.

Here’s why.

It’s too little. And it’s too late. And so it looks like a desperate attempt to re-imagine the “appropriate” response. If there was a Gillette spot genie, these would be my three wishes:

  • I wish this spot was made a year ago, when #metoo was really a national discussion being had by, for, and with women. That it comes out now seems suspect.
  • I wish this spot also involved gender and sexuality issues – toxic masculinity is especially reprehensible towards non-heterosexual males and the LGBTQ universe in general.
  • I wish this spot took on the real issue, which is not just how young boys’ behavior gets formed, but more importantly, how that behavior is reinforced when it gets pardoned at nearly every important juncture of their lives.

In all the reaction I’ve seen, no one has mentioned that other brands, including other P&G brands, have tried this approach before, and to great reception. A zillion accolades (and ad industry awards) were showered on the #likeagirl campaign from Always. And the #realbeauty campaign from Dove was equally lauded.

Why is Gillette getting pounded by the social mediasphere? Probably because it’s disempowering. Probably because it’s by males for males, and about males and male grooming products. And that’s kinda not the point.

Probably because, as a brand, Gillette makes products for men that are purchased as much or more by women on behalf of men, and nowhere in this spot does Gillette equate toxic masculinity to domestic abuse towards women. Swing and a miss.

Now let’s be fair.  Gillette attempted to have an important conversation with American consumers, and they handled it awkwardly.  But that is STILL better than avoiding that conversation at all. And if you can imagine this, things are about to get harder for Gillette from here.

When a brand takes on a position, embodied by a bold tagline, then you have to own it – and that can come at quite a cost. The real test now for Gillette is where they go from here. If they continue to embody this refreshed perspective, and if all their forthcoming ads are aspirational (where we show men aspiring to be better men, especially with and around their female counterparts,) and they continue to use their brand to inspire action and help shift attitudes, then we can look back and say, “See? This was the moment they became aware of who they were as a brand, and the responsibility they bare as a consequence.”

But if they don’t?

Then the market can have at them – and Gillette will deserve every criticism they will likely suffer, not to mention probably losing market share to a host of upstart razor companies ready to eat their lunch.

No pressure, Gillette. But the world is now watching. And you invited us all to the party.

Dunkin’ Is Nuts

The news has officially come down, (although it’s been in the works for almost a year,) that Dunkin’ Donuts, the international (yes, they have stores in 36 countries,) brand that was established nearly 70 years ago, is changing its name.25_Dunkin_Before_After_c4885e75-fe56-4add-aab3-a51120689229-prv

They will no longer be Dunkin’ Donuts, but will officially change their name to simply Dunkin’ as of January, 2019. According to the company’s official press release, the plan behind this switch is to transform the company into a “beverage-led, on-the-go” brand.

To cut to the chase, this is a bad idea. A really bad idea.

Let’s start at the beginning. Dunkin’ Donuts dominates in the donut category, leading Krispy Kreme and Mister Donut by a long way, and by a wide margin in terms of number of stores.

The brand also competes in the coffee category, and meets a strong and persistent consumer need in that area. And for decades, Dunkin’ Donuts coffee has established itself as unique, based on flavor profile (and, some would argue, sheer temperature.)

As the quick-serve coffee category has expanded in the last 20-30 years, and has come to be dominated by Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts has pivoted to offer more varieties and flavors of coffee and espresso drinks, and has achieved a strong challenger position. According to Statista, Starbucks has almost double the market share volume over Dunkin’ Donuts in this category, and slightly more than all others combined (not including Dunkin’ Donuts.)

So if you’re a challenger brand in any category (and this has turned into a classic leader/challenger category like Coke/Pepsi or McDonald’s/Burger King,) your goal as a brand should never be to appear MORE like the leader. The goal is to establish difference.

And DONUTS is what makes this brand special.
DONUTS is what makes this brand DIFFERENT.

Now, the Dunkin’ brand will still carry donuts.  But when you don’t tell people that it’s what makes you different, (say, by including “donuts” in your brand name,) who’s to say that consumers will inherently know? Especially young, entering-the-market consumers who may not be familiar with the brand’s history?  What will Dunkin’ mean 10 or 20 years from now without context?

The idea of changing the name to Dunkin’ at all seems wholly misdirected.  When the press release states that you want to be a more “beverage-led” brand, the slang word “Dunkin'” doesn’t say “beverages” at all.  What’s more insulting is that the name referred to the verb of actually. dunking. donuts. in. coffee.

So let’s review:  Dunkin’ Donuts is perceptually and verbally moving AWAY from the category they dominate, and CLOSER to a category where they challenge a leader who owns nearly twice the market share, and where their only competitive advantage is average price.  Sounds like a frozen-double-mocha mistake in judgment to me.

Dunkin’ (as they will be called in a few months,) should stick to what they’re good at – good coffee and family-friendly offerings served in modest stores at moderate pricing. AND LOTS AND LOTS OF DONUTS.

 

 

 

 

VW: follow-up to previous post

Back on November 11, 2015 I wrote a post entitled “Das Issues: What’s Next for Volkswagen?”    In it, I discussed the emissions scandal, and what I thought the brand could do to start the process of reconnecting with current customers and reaching out to prospects.

At the end of the post, I made a suggestion that went like this:

If I was a brand consultant for Volkswagen, (full disclosure: I’m not, but certainly available!) I would start by going back to what helped build their perception: The dorky little outsider that promised the moon and modestly delivered it. My very next ad headline (think full page insertions in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today,) would probably read “11 million Lemons.” And the body copy would go on to overtly apologize for the transgression, and then outline the steps we were taking to make good on our (new) promises and deliver exceptional automotive engineering.

And then I’d invite consumers to come along for the (literal and figurative) ride to redemption. Das Step 1.

So I was just poking around today and saw this article about Volkswagen. As you can see, it’s written on November 17th.  It talks about how VW started running full-page insertions in The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.  The headline reads “We’re working to make things right.”  And the CEO apologizes for the transgression, and begins to outline some steps to make good.

Kooky, huh?

Breaking (Bad) news: Marketers LIE!

I know it sounds like heresy, but I’m here to break bad news: marketers lie. Most specifically, they lie in their advertising. They’ll do or say virtually anything to GET YOU TO LOOK OVER HERE! It’s nothing new. They’ve been doing it for decades, from omitting “unnecessary” items on their package labeling, or touting offers that get negated in 30 lines of 5 pt heavily kerned knockout legal copy.

And it’s hard to avoid. Because in many instances, the competitors are lying too. So some awfully nice marketers are often forced to join in the lying spree to make sure YOU LOOK OVER HERE TOO!

Case in point: Century 21, the national real estate broker, recently perpetrated an outright lie to draw attention to their brand. Wanting to capitalize on the enormous popularity of the AMC TV Series Breaking Bad and tie in to the September 29, 2013 series finale, and seeking a solution around the enormous costs associated with advertising on the show, they opted for a more, um, unorthodox solution.

Century 21, and their agency Mullen, ran the below ad in Craigslist, listing fictional character Walter White’s Negra Arroyo lane ranch.

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See the full listing at http://albuquerque.craigslist.org/reb/4098553645.html

Pretty neat, huh? It’s a funny and quirky idea that leverages the popularity of the show. And they make no bones about it: the ad is a farce. It’s laced with Breaking Bad references, and inside jokes about how there’s nearby “RV spots” and a “motivated seller” who must be out by 9/29. Let’s face it. It’s pretty funny stuff.

But it’s also an out and out lie. And here’s the thing – they may have misled some people in the process. I commented on the AdAge article about the stunt and surmised that there may have been 117 people who actually clicked on the ad interested in this home. (Seriously, a 3BR ranch in a nice neighborhood for $150K listed by a reputable broker would MAKE ME LOOK.) And let’s say that 20 or so of those people immediately understand that it’s a Breaking Bad riff, and get a good chuckle out of it. That’s 97 misled people who MAY now have a bad taste in their mouth about the brand.

When you call the telephone number associated with the ad, you’re told “this house isn’t really for sale. But if you’re interested in buying a home, call Century 21.”

It seems odd to me that THAT’S the way you’d like to call attention to your brand. Sure, I get the bulleted list of reasons to do this:

– capitalize on Breaking Bad popularity
– show people in the target 25-44 demographic that Century 21 is a little hipper than you might remember
– get some ink around the #breakingbad and #waltshouseforsale hashtags

But still, if Mullen didn’t issue a press release around this concept, who would know about it? Maybe the extended social networks of those 20 potential buyers who are also Breaking Bad fans. But heck, you may have 97 people crowing to THEIR extended social networks about how they were DUPED by Century 21 in the name of a marketing “stunt.”

Brands have a hard enough time trying to maintain their personalities among competition, economic trends, and other market forces. So it’s ill-advised to pull out the rope-a-dope in the hopes of creating fans.

But as I said earlier, lying is nothing new for marketers. I recently received a promising email from JetBlue touting a two-day sale with “fares starting at $69.” And it happened to be somewhat true, there WAS a fare starting at $69. Just one. From New York to Buffalo. EVERY other flight leaving out of New York was more than $69, with some as high as $249. The promised fare carried restrictions like:

• “travel on Tuesday and Wednesday only” and
• “travel between October 8th and December 18th” and
• “blackout dates of November 22nd through December 2nd” and
• “may not be available on all flights” and
• “does not include fees for optional services” and
• “additional restrictions apply.”

While this is all important legalese, it ultimately dilutes the power and appeal of the original promise. So as a consumer, I’m left holding the bag on a flight I don’t even want to take, on days I don’t want to fly, just to try and save a few bucks? No thanks.

I’ve written many times that brands are very delicate entities that are built over time. Most importantly, one of the primary aspects of a brand is that it is a cumulative phenomenon – the perceptions and overall impressions are built over time into what you ultimately believe about the brand and its promise. And when brands start lying to me about virtually everything, (even as a goof,) those perceptions start to erode. And as a consumer, there are so many “shiny new things” out there, that I’m likely looking for another promising offer within 2 minutes.

Take note Century 21 and JetBlue and any other brand that’s still using snake oil salesman tricks from 100 years ago.

It’s a new age.

It’s a new consumer overloaded with choices.

You can’t just break bad and expect it to keep working.

Why, Hightail?

The very popular file sharing service, formerly known as YouSendIt, has now changed their name to Hightail.  No, keep reading…I’m serious.

This is what their homepage takeover message looks like:

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So the obvious question is…why?  And let me qualify that question with some color.

Why, if you’re a file sharing service, a service that allows YOU to take a large file and SEND IT to someone else (for free on the basic plan, I might add) change your name from YouSendIt to, well, anything else?

Why, if you’ve invested all this time and money for nine years in the back end cloud storage virtualized pool infrastructure, and invested in acquisitions and technological upgrades, and invested in marketing and advertising, would you change your name from YouSendIt to, well, anything else?

Why, even if you’re announcing broadening your offering from file sharing into digital file collaboration services, would you change your name from YouSendIt to, well, anything else?

Why, when there’s nine years of brand equity built up, when you’ve outlasted some pretty high profile would-be competitors, (including the flailing DropBox,) when you’ve gotten 4 out of 5 stars from PC Magazine, when you’re finally turning a profit on the premium services, when you’ve become the generic term for Internet file sharing services (literally, people verb-ize file sharing as “I’ll YouSendIt to you later,”) would you change your name from YouSendIt to, well, anything else?

It could be a number of things.  It could be new CEO Brand Garlinghouse (formerly of Yahoo!) putting his fingerprint on the company he’s been appointed to run.

It could be that YouSendIt doesn’t sound sexy or silly enough, and they wanted to sound more like Yahoo!, or Hulu, or Etsy or whatever.

YouSendIt could have done a lot of things to refresh – which they’ve done with Hightail.  New, HTML5-coded website.  New features.  New look and feel.  Heck, they could have updated the logo.

And the folks at Hightail know the name thing is an issue.  It merits above-the-fold position on their homepage with a message that says “watch this short video to learn why we changed our name.”  Yes.  Let’s:

Okay, but still, the new name thing confounds me.  In the video, you hear some of the talking heads saying things like “the name YouSendIt constrained us in terms of our vision.”  [Tell THAT to Google.]  And “we don’t want a name that holds us back.”  And my favorite “we finally have a second chance to make a first impression.”  And that’s the quote that really stands out for me.

Because here’s the dirty little secret about branding that nobody teaches you in b-school.  You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.  You only get one chance to make one impression to one prospect at a time.  And in my opinion, Hightail doesn’t make a bad impression.  It does something far worse.  It makes no impression at all.  It confuses rather than clarifies.

Don’t get me wrong.  I get “hightail” as a verb.  “I’ll hightail it over to you.”  Or “you hightail it over to me.”  But we’re not talking about meetings here.  [Really, “I’ll hightail it over to you” means “I’ll be right there.”  Not “I’ll get you that large file right away.”  So there’s even a semantics issue. Ugh.] Plus, it’s such a hipster-cum-corporate-acceptable piece of jargon. I wonder if they’re now headquartered in Dumbo?

From a pure brand perspective, the truth is that YouSendIt was a GREAT name for a brand.  It was functional.  It was short and sweet.  But mostly, and bestly (?) it conveyed a promise (You.  Send.  It. ) which, after all, is the heavy lifting of a brand.

Let’s watch and see what happens together.