When Times Square Smoked and Steamed

I have spent a great amount of time in Manhattan. In the ’90’s, I was in the city for 5 months “reengineering” Price Waterhouse’s marketing in the five boroughs. Later, I commuted there twice a month from Canada for over eleven years, working for Interbrand and DDB Worldwide over that time. And there were many other visits too. In fact, I have probably “lived” in Manhattan for four or five years.

Times Square was gentrifying when I started taking in its sights, yet still plenty gritty. I often triple-checked that my wallet was still on my person but it was nothing like Midnight Cowboy. I do not think of it as a square. It more resembles a small valley framed by towering, brightly-lit odes to commercialism and capitalism. For over one hundred years this has been the case. The difference now is the volume of messages. Times Square is analogous to marketing and advertising overall, too much clutter, it is tough for messages to break through.

Three signs did an admirable job of standing out in Times Square.

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Decoding Mr. Clean

So, there I was surfing Tumblr when I tumbled across this…

This contest had a lot on the line. First, being able to brag that you named Mr. Clean. Second, you win a house! If you were close, the next prize of transistor radio was not too bad either (in 1962). Mr. Clean made his television commercial debut in 1958, initially portrayed in the live-action versions. Within the first six months, Mr. Clean became the best-selling household cleaner on the market. Impressive results.

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Seven & Seven: Is the Cocktail and Ads Coming Back?

My father was born in 1925. A WW2 Canadian navy veteran, semi-pro football player, and lawyer who drank exclusively a variation of the “Presbyterian”. The recipe is 2 ounces scotch, bourbon or rye with ginger ale and club soda. Instead, he enjoyed rye, 7 Up and water. In hindsight, not really a Presbyterian. Closer to the simpler Seven & Seven. A drink that was all the rage in the late ’60’s and early 70’s.

7 Up has been around since 1920. Seagram’s, the liquor company, was founded in 1857 and gained notoriety, ubiquity and riches thanks to Prohibition. That is when the two first came together, however, only scattered information can be found on the early union. I came across a 7 Up ad from 1964 centred on sport fishing that extolled the virtues of mixing the pop with any whiskey. It got me thinking…not a bad idea. Play the beverage up as both mix and pop. 7 Up extended the campaign to gin.

The target audience is affluent men in desirable situations and settings (golfing, squash, sport fishing). Basically, those that have disposable income and drinking time on their hands. Another shows well-dressed couples around a fire in a Mad Men-era home. There is even one that may have appealed to my father…it showed the “sport” of curling. At the Winnipeg Winter Club, on the ice, he was known as the ‘Man with the Golden Arm’. Did he succumb to the advertising or did the advertising emulate his life?

A little digging saw a progression. Let’s talk about the originally named whiskey, Seagram’s Seven Crown, now mostly called Seagram’s Seven. It is a blended American whiskey. Once produced by Seagram’s, it is now owned by Diageo under the Seagram name. Seagram’s beverage division was acquired by Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and The Coca-Cola Company in 2000 (that is a whole other story!). What we see next is classic co-branding. Seven & Seven. Whiskey and mix, with a 70’s look and feel.

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McDonald’s and Burger King: Brand War or Duopoly?

I grew up with perhaps the most intense brand war of all-time. This was epitomized in the famous taste-tests between Coke and Pepsi. Both colas were nearly 100 years old when the Pepsi Challenge was launched in 1975. Most consumers favoured the flavour of Pepsi. This war has raged since and has not only been fought on product differentiation but through endorsement marketing, global advertising, and sports and entertainment sponsorship. 

Another war was fought between adidas and PUMA. I call adidas the winner in this brawl. It was very much a Cain and Abel story, given the two brands resulted from the split between siblings in the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoe Company. Now global brands, when the defining battles took place, this sneaker war was primarily in the European theater. The fight continued until the brother’s passing’s, “even in death the two brothers couldn’t stand each other as they were buried at opposite ends of the cemetery from one another.”[1]

Do you remember the Console Wars? Nintendo, who once controlled almost 90% of the gaming industry, doth did battle with Sega. This was to be a case of Mortal Kombat (all pun intended). The treasure at the end of this big game was a US$60 billion-dollar industry. Each company pumped out new hardware and accessories that supported ever more complex games. Analysts conclude Nintendo won due to Sega’s techy missteps. Market share and revenue certainly bears this out.

Apple has been a battler. It took on Samsung over cellphones. Legal battles on patents and infringements raged. Billions were spent on legal fees and settlements were similarly large. That is no surprise given the market at stake. And, let’s not forget, the famous Apple versus Microsoft computer fisticuffs that was dramatized in a series of ads. Metaphorically, two actors showed the differences between the two brands, one was staid and nerdy and the other relaxed and hip.

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Benetton’s Confusing Legacy of Brand Activism

I grew up preppy. A Canadian kind of preppy. Often Ralph Lauren polos were out of reach both due to cost and supply. This was the 1980’s. When an outlet store of Ralph’s opened in my neighborhood of Tuxedo in Winnipeg, I was a frequent browser. More affordable were Roots and Beaver Canoe brands (you have to be Canadian to fully understand). My friends and I lived in either brand’s sweatpants which were considered preppy. I wore out Ellesse knock-off polos that my father came back with from a trip to Asia.

One very influential brand while growing up was Benetton. Founded in the year of my birth, 1965, it still numbers 5,000 stores worldwide. I say, “still”, because it is amazing it is still relevant given its marketing tone and very real controversies. Benetton was once iconic, gaining huge recognition in the 1980’s and 1990’s but has since struggled. In 2000, it ranked 75th in Interbrand’s ranking of best global brands but by 2002, it had dropped out of the list (I was Chief Marketing Officer at Interbrand at the time).

In 2017, the company posted a loss of €180 million. Luciano Benetton, who was then 83 years old, came out of retirement, returning as Executive Chairman. Revival efforts also included appointing Jean-Charles de Castelbajac as artistic director and re-appointing photographer Oliviero Toscani to regain some of the old glory. But was it glory or gory?

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When You Go To Hire An Agency, Don’t Pick a Dog

Let me make this real quick. Advertising, marketing and creative agencies are horrible at marketing and building their own brand. Cobbler’s shoes and all that (“someone very good at their profession but are completely unable or unwilling to use this ability on themselves”). While head of marketing at Interbrand, I obsessed over our brand. Given Interbrand was the leading global brand consultancy, my many lost sleeps were to be expected.

As Chief Communications Officer at DDB, I felt the weight of legacy while trying to make a Mad Men-era brand relevant. I give thanks that the competition were more laconic and greatly paralyzed in managing their own brand. While at the iconic agency, I tried to point out that PR was not brand-building. Further, award shows and sending out a press release on a new client win is table-stakes. To be more pointed, agencies of any size should redirect award show cash towards thought leadership and staff development (but I partially digress).

Over the last few years, I have consulted to over 20 agencies and consultancies on their business and brand strategies. It has been challenging because true sources of differentiation are elusive. All have great people, a smattering of cool clients (often the uncool ones keep the lights on), talk about a unique, cool culture that doesn’t actually exist, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and too many have an office canine featured in the people section of their website (agencies have made a cute pet table-stakes).

Here is more frank, straight-shooting … every agency should be a best practice case in their own marketing. When you are looking to hire an agency, look past the Nascar slide of past client logos. Discount the featured case studies unless they include impressive quantifiable results (97% of agency case studies are wishy-washy fluff). Drill down on process and methodology. See if they hint at their revenue model because that will drive how they behave and serve.

As much as I detest the proliferation of marketing award shows (a cottage industry of vanity), it could be fun to start one that recognizes agency marketing. There would be a lot of participation ribbons with very few standouts. So, when you go to hire an agency, do so based on its marketing. Otherwise, you may be hiring a dog.

Narrative Psychology in Brand Storytelling

Let me tell you a story. It’s a bit about our past, a bit about our future but more importantly, it concerns what is happening right now. It is also a story that nears 2,500 words because our complex world cannot be dumbed downed, reduced to a vague tagline, summed in a tweet, or captured in an oversimplified how-to formula. True learning and understanding requires time and effort so heat the kettle or uncork a bottle and enjoy.

Marketing and advertising agencies claim to be professional storytellers. Agencies deliver a brand story as part of engagements while creative briefs bring the story to life. Agencies pump out papers on the subject and profile case studies where the story is key to client success. Within the industry, marketing conferences make room for storytelling as part of the agenda. Media and publications write on the topic with frequency. Storytelling permeates the profession. Here are three changes taking place in business storytelling:

They Don’t Tell: by its very definition, storytelling is broadcast in nature. We tell a tale. It is ‘one-to-many’ like the Mad Men era of advertising. We know that no longer works. Stories must now invite consumers in and let them be both character and storyteller. It is now about storyparticipation not passive absorption.

They Are Organic: the best brand stories take root organically and get consumers involved. Then they really evolve. This scares traditional marketers. They fear ceding control. Granted it is a bit of a wild ride when consumers help build the story but this is what is taking place with Uber and Airbnb and has taken place with Apple and Red Bull.

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How to Evaluate a Company’s Culture

When I was a consultant at Price Waterhouse, I worked for a time in Mergers & Acquisitions. Not the deals, the actual coming together after the deal was signed, the integration. It was all about managing the human aspect. Could two cultures come together?

When I moved onto large strategy projects, much attention was made to the organizational chart. I learned there is the organizational chart on paper, the one that is promoted, and there is the one that shows how the organization actually worked (the one I had to figure out).

For the past 7 years, my brand strategy work has been mostly executive coaching (as much as I hate the term, “coaching”). I contend 25% of my work has involved the process of branding and 75% has been helping, directing, influencing, and bolstering the thinking and decisions of management.

This experience has produced a single insight…business is all about human psychology. I know, that is not earth-shattering but put it this way, every human is fallible. Every business is made up of humans. Businesses are, therefore, fallible, imperfect, flawed. And here is a branding secret, that is what makes them great.

Enough. I am rambling. What I want to get to, is the criteria for evaluating a company’s culture. This will help career seekers. It will direct and ease mergers and acquisitions. It will help clients pick providers and providers seeking clients. It is the way to calculate connection and fit.

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Don’t Be Afraid of Long-Form Ads

There was a time when people actually read, and read a great deal. Now brands, marketers and advertisers, have catered to and hastened ever-shortening attention spans. Videos run in seconds, online ads pop up over-and-over again in seizure inducing ways, radio screams irrelevant call-to-actions.

We have robbed consumers of their intellect by dumbing down both message and medium. Yet, people still read and watch in longer amounts. So many documentaries on Netflix are long ads for different sides of the same debate. Reality shows espouse different ways of life and people eat them up. So, why are brand ads increasingly short and, arguably, simpler (if not, dumb)?

It is great to come across long-form ads in print as they are both endangered species. Check out this beauts that take the time to compel and tell a story. Make sure to read the last one!

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My Tenuous Connection to Spy Magazine

It takes a certain vintage, I am speaking of human age, not a red wine or long-packaged Twinkie, to recall the magazine called, Spy. It was, to use an expression oft-used, fucking awesome. It ran from 1986 to 1998. Those were formative years for me. Actually, every year has been formative for me. I expect future ones to be equally or even more formative.

The publication was founded by Kurt Andersen and E. Graydon Carter, who served as its first editors. Their pedigrees are well-pedigreed. Andersen graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College, where he edited the Harvard Lampoon. He has been a writer and columnist for New York, The New Yorker, and Time. What an under-achiever. Carter is Canadian (enough said) who served as the editor of Vanity Fair from 1992 until 2017. Such a light-weight.

Before their real accomplishments, they focused on Spy, which bathed in irreverence and was doused in satire. The content loved to skewer the American media and entertainment industries while mocking “high” society (which in America is vacuous celebrity). To say it was ‘ahead of its time’, is an evaluation they would skewer and mock if still in print.

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