The Branding Cannabis Series…#1

Welcome to the first in a series of three papers on Cannabis Branding.

It is as if the Gold Rush and the end of Prohibition crossed paths. The legalization of recreational cannabis use includes Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, the District of Columbia, and the Northern Mariana Islands, with all but Vermont and D.C. permitting its commercial sale. On October 17, 2018, Canada legalized recreational use from coast-to-coast.

If I can provide another historic reference, this has produced a Wild West when it comes to the branding and marketing of businesses in the blooming and growing cannabis industry. Policy makers can’t keep up with the ramifications. Everyone is confused about what can be said, how they say it and to whom.

This messiness is going to have long-term impact on how the industry is viewed and perceived. Further, the mostly juvenile attempts at branding cannabis-related companies has everyone veering into Cheech and Chong territory with an overuse of green leaves and big buds. The nascent industry is “stereotypicallying” itself to the point of comedy.

Download the paper SC_BrandingCannabis_1.

A Brand is Not a Way of Life

Recently, I met with a fashion technology startup. They are building an interesting secondhand marketplace whereby consumers can sell “lightly used” bespoke clothing. Perhaps you wore a Chanel dress once but have no call for it now or the Ralph Lauren tuxedo in the closet is gathering dust. You get the idea.

An additional service involves sending in your used expensive clothing and having it “re-imagined” by company designers. One example was a beautiful woman’s blue blouse that subsequently had one sleeve and the collar removed. These were replaced with a white lacey pattern. I must admit it looked stunning and was very unique. The company also accepts purses and bags that they will clean, restore and/or re-imagine. All in all, it is a cool concept.

Then came a very familiar probe from the founders. They told me they want to be a “lifestyle brand”. That means joining a very long list of brands with the same intent. In fact, I think every brand believes they are a lifestyle brand in some way.

Apple never claims to be anything. Ingeniously they let customers identify them in certain ways. Many suggest they are a lifestyle brand given their dominance in personal technologies. Plenty of apparel brands make the lifestyle claim especially those with a focused product set and defined market. Burton is for snowboarders, Quiksilver for surfers, Helly Hansen for sailors, Volcom for rebellious skateboarders, and Patagonia for environmentally friendly explorers.

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Retro Nostalgia

We we’re feeling nostalgic for the nostalgia of Mad Men.

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The Branding of Places

Place branding counts among the most difficult of all types of branding. Shoestring budgets and critics from all quarters put these under pressure and under scrutiny. Having worked on a handful of such engagements, I have felt both firsthand. One place brand continues to be used after more than twelve years. Chile’s “Always Surprising” was originally intended for their exports but grew into the country brand. It even ended up as stamp.

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One for my home province of Manitoba did not have the same longevity. The brand committee selected a header we named for a category of creative work rather than one of the real taglines we authored. The strategic work was fantastic, the creative incredibly sophisticated and layered around the four seasons but the public and media could not abide the tag, “Spirited Energy”. It limped along for years but never caught on. We also rebranded the government’s image and that has been in use for close to ten years. I would have bet on Manitoba doing better than Chile but it was the exact opposite.

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Does KFC’s Marketing Work?

A press release from September 4thgot me thinking. And that is saying something, given press releases to me are an archaic form of communications. It proclaimed:

KFC is offering a college donation to the first child born on the Colonel’s birthday (Sept. 9, 2018) named Harland…. As a birthday gift from the Colonel and KFC, the first baby Harland will receive $11,000 (in honor of KFC’s 11 herbs and spices, of course!) to go towards their college education, setting them up for future success.

It got me thinking about KFC’s marketing. Is it just a series of goofy events and preposterous merchandise or is there a deeper strategy? And is any of this activity truly helping sell product? Before I answer those questions, I have a revealing confession.

I love KFC.

The brand I mean. I eat the product only once or twice a year. It is a tradition on one occasion at my namesake golf tournament, The Swystonian Institute Golf Classic. On the kick-off night, we order up more KFC than we possibly can finish, then we finish it. It tastes fantastic, but one gorge generally holds me over for the year. In my youth, it was the best damn hangover food. I treasured it cold the next day.

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Freedom 55: Canada’s Most Memorable Campaign

Wow. It is hard to believe that it has been over 30 years. In 1984, London Life Insurance Company hit on an insight through consumer research that would become part of Canadiana. It is the country’s Just Do It or Got Milk? or Reach Out and Touch Someone. London Life established the idea of Freedom 55. It resonated and led to ubiquitous TV ads that ran continuously for 25 years.

Freedom 55 is much more than a slogan or an ad because it was never intended to be. It was the insurer’s attempt, both altruistically and self-servingly, to alert Canadians to what it took to retire. And to retire well enough at a relatively young age. For the vast majority though, we now know that packing in the career at 55 is a healthy fiction. For many, 65 is a stretch.

Yet, for 25 years London Life dined out on Freedom 55 as a brand position and marketing differentiator. Then in 2012, they shifted gears and recognized both life’s and the global economy’s uncertain variables. “It has to be rooted in reality, otherwise people will disengage, and get distracted by the grandness of it all,” said Alf Goodall, SVP, Marketing at London Life.

There was, and still is, tons of goodwill in the notion of Freedom 55. No one put the blame on London Life for a rapidly unattainable goal. As Alf Goodall pointed out in 2012, “People are very willing to broaden their perception of Freedom 55. We were the ones who were trapped a little bit in its literal imagery.” This is one of those rare cases where the populace was educated and adroit enough to separate concept from hyperbole. As early as 2010, only 28% of Canadians expected to attain financial “freedom” at 66, according to Ipsos Reid.

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Swystun Communications Capabilities Superb Read

This will make for a great airplane, beach or two-scotch reading. After two scotches, it may even seem brilliant. Download it here… SWYSTUN_Capabilities_2018.

 

The Advertising Industry: What’s Next

What do you think of when you hear, “the advertising industry”? Is it the embellished glamour of the Mad Men era or do you see logos and hear jingles. More abstractly, you may imagine a long assembly line spitting out ever more advertisements adding to the communication clutter in our lives.

One of the most prescient thinkers on media and marketing was Professor Marshall McLuhan. It is argued he predicted the rise of the Internet and the advent of social media decades in advance. McLuhan was the fellow who said, “The media is the message.” I was amazed to learn on a visit to Facebook headquarters that the professor’s books are required reading for staff.

One of his lessor known quotes is a doozy, “All advertising advertises advertising.” You could spend a lengthy dinner party unpacking the meaning and intent of those words. The quote caustically equates ubiquity with effectiveness while suggesting that the industry that produces ads is a self-perpetuating machine.

So where is that machine headed? What is the future of the ad industry?

Read the paper (SC_WhatsNext.March18) or listen to Jeff’s presentation on Hubspot’s Agency Expert Webinar series. Cheers!

Mad Men Carousel: A Book Review

Okay, um, wow. I am positively blown away by Matt Zoller Seitz’s book, Mad Men Carousel. His sentences are paragraphs, paragraphs are chapters, and chapters an entire work in density not length. I mean this in the best possible way. I never knew that when Don was stopped at the railway tracks, he was contemplating suicide. Or when Betty vomits in their recently purchased automobile it ruins the new car smell and is a form of revenge because Don has stunk up their marriage. Matt brings tons to light.

He schooled me on what is really going on in a series I have watched five times. In viewing, I was enamoured with the historical accuracy and the portrayal of the ad business, specifically the pitches. My last viewing was paired with this book (like martinis and oysters). I would watch a few episodes and then read Matt’s corresponding analysis. Then I would switch the order by reading then watching.

In so doing, I got an incredible amount more out of the stories, characters, and historical context. Matt is incredibly balanced. He calls the series out for missteps and mistakes especially when they appear to back off issues and subjects when they shouldn’t. He acknowledges the complaint of many that, “the series is merely a high-toned soap opera gussied up with period detail and allusions to literature, mythology, and other signifiers of respectability.”

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We Compare to the Top Brands

Have you noticed the same handful of businesses lead every brand ranking, are mentioned repeatedly at conferences, and are consistently referenced in books and articles? One cannot escape testimonials to Apple, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, and Disney. It is if there are only a handful of successful brands on the planet.

Now it seems consumers believe that to be true. Wunderman and Penn Schoen Berland surveyed 2,000 people aged 18 to 65 in the US and the UK, and the findings were consistent across generations, geography and gender. Here is an amazing finding: 87% of US and 85% of UK consumers compare all brand experiences to those they consider the best, such as Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks.

That means when we pick up our dry cleaning, rent a bicycle, or buy a shirt we are judging the experience as compared to ordering a venti cappuccino from Starbucks or streaming Better Call Saul.

After working with tons of brands and consulting to agencies who work with an exponential number of brands I am confident I know what consumers truly want from brands. They demand a solution. A solution that makes their lives easier and more enjoyable. Netflix, Amazon and Starbucks do that.

All that other brand stuff involving authenticity, consistency, and transparency are in the next consideration set. Those considerations are important for sure but when you boil it down consumers consume. Sure, some vote with their wallets if a brand does bad or badly but we buy to satisfy our very selfish needs and wants.

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