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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Best (Business) Crime Reads

Having ghostwritten 9 books and put out my own on marketing’s rich history, I know what books do well. Self-help, leadership, romance, wellness are hot categories. So, too, is true crime…and not only in the form of books. Podcasts, streaming content, traditional television, long read articles and more share the depravity and cruelness of the human condition to a large audience.

I am not writing here to profile, explain or justify true crime. It is not my genre though I must admit, while cutting the lawn, I may listen to the podcast version of NBC’s Dateline. Spoiler alert: 99 times out of 100, the boyfriend or husband did it, or, the girlfriend or wife.

What I want to share are stories that have fascinated me going back 30 years. That is, business, financial or corporate crime. It all started on one of my first business trips. In 1988, I traveled from Winnipeg to Toronto. At the tender age of 25, somehow I had fallen into the world of professional fundraising for nonprofits. I was repping three Winnipeg institutions and was soliciting big business in the Big Smoke (a Toronto nickname).

Between meetings, I entered a Coles bookstore underground the towers of First Canadian Place (this was interesting as later I had an office in the building while working for Price Waterhouse and the Coles chain became a client). One book cover called to me from the shelf. The flashy cover and clever title beckoned and enticed.

The Story of Three 1970’s Posters: Tennis Girl; Hang in There, Baby; and Farrah

Why, oh why, should I write about this, you ask? Well, because, they all hung in my family’s summer cottage. So, let’s find out how they came to be and the legacy they leave.

Remember the Tennis Girl Poster? A very cheeky one, indeed. What throws many off is it is British. Most assume American origins. It shows an attractive woman from behind (hint, hint) walking towards a tennis court net. In her right hand is a (wooden) racquet. Her left hand reaches behind for some unknown reason lifting a short, white tennis dress. The movement exposes most of her back side.

The poster became incredibly popular and was shrouded in a bit of, “who was she?”

According to accepted sources, the photograph was taken by then-30-year-old Martin Elliott in September, 1976. The model was 18-year-old Fiona Butler, his girlfriend at the time. The photo was taken at the University of Birmingham’s tennis courts.

The dress was hand-made by Butler’s friend Carol Knotts, from a Simplicity Pattern with added lace trim. Knotts also supplied the tennis racquet, with all of the borrowed items later returned by Butler to Knotts after the shoot with the gift of a box of chocolates.

The image was first published as part of a calendar by Athena for the 1977 Silver Jubilee, the same year Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon ladies’ singles title. Athena negotiated an agreement to distribute the image as a poster. It achieved widespread distribution, selling over 2 million copies at £2 per poster. It remains a popular print to buy on Amazon and Posters.com.

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Now is the Time to Write that Book

In addition to our branding and marketing services, Swystun Communications helps thought leaders get their book from concept to shelf. It is great way to get your thinking out there while growing contacts, leads and business. Click here to learn more.

Dive Into These Long Reads

As we all hunker down to limit the spread of covid 19, this is a time to reset our practices and reconnect with those dear to us in the best possible ways. Many of us will reassess our priorities, habits and rituals. One, I have allowed to slip is reading. Streaming services and screens have taken control over the last few years and I hope to change that around.

I have been a voracious reader for most of my life. At one time, I was the #12 reviewer on Amazon.ca, having only reviewed books. That statistic has slipped. But it is not about that number, it is about the joy of reading and the entertainment and education it provides. Groucho Marx said it well, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”

What follows is a list of Long Reads that have impressed me in content and style. If you are not familiar with this brand of writing, Long Reads are dedicated to longer articles with larger amounts of content. The articles run between 1,000 and 20,000 words. Such pieces often take the form of creative nonfiction or narrative journalism.

Here are a few that I hope you will enjoy…

What It’s Like to Hike 2,000+ Miles with Your Best Friend

“Shortly after my college graduation, I trekked the entire Appalachian Trail with my roommate of four years by my side. Over the course of six months, we backpacked through 14 states—and learned a lot about ourselves along the way.”

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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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