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 books and put out my own on marketing’s rich history, I have a grasp of what books do well. Self-help, leadership, romance, and wellness are hot categories. So, too, is true crime, and not only in the form of books. Podcasts, streaming content, traditional television, and long-read articles abound, sharing the depravity and cruelness of the human condition to huge audiences.

True crime is not my genre though I must admit, while cutting the lawn, I will 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 books that have fascinated me going back 30 years. That is, business 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, I was a professional fundraiser for nonprofits. I was representing three Winnipeg institutions and soliciting big business Toronto for large corporate cheques.

Between meetings, I entered a Coles bookstore underground the towers of First Canadian Place. Later, in my career, I had an office in the building while working for Price Waterhouse. One book cover called to me from the shelf. The gold embossed lettering and clever title beckoned and enticed.

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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.

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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Waste Not: The Staggering Business, Societal and Environmental Cost of Returned Goods

Did you know that in 2018, luxury purveyor Burberry admitted it had destroyed £90 million worth of clothing and accessories over the previous five years. After a public outcry, the company stopped burning returned and leftover merchandise. Now they focus on recycling and donating.

Unfortunately, that is just a drop in the bucket. You see, it is cheaper for businesses to throw away returns rather than go through the process of reselling. So much focus is put on our supply chains…getting something to market, it seems there is very little focus on the “remarket”. It is incredible in this time of tech, how retailers mismanage inventory and promote returns.

Thanks to the CBC program, The Current, for investigating this astounding issue in our society. They call out consumers who order two or three different sizes of clothing, knowing they can return the one that doesn’t fit (this is called “bracketing”). That return, more often than not, is sent straight to landfill. With about half of U.S. customers engaging in bracketing, the returns built into the sales cycle are staggering. More so in Germany, where 72% of consumers bracket clothing orders.

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#WMW 3rd Quarter Newsletter

Read a few excerpts from Why Marketing Works. Pabst Blue Ribbon refuses to market and Lacoste had to get fancy when it broke into America. Plus much more…WMW.

#WMW 2nd Quarter Newsletter

Why should a book have a newsletter? Because it is so chock full of good stuff worthy of sharing! Get the 2nd Quarter, 2019 Why Marketing Works Newsletter here.

Taglines…need to be all they can be

Read this piece below or download the nicely designed PDF (Taglines).

It is ironic that a short bit of writing used to concisely convey an idea is called different names. These communication devices go by slogan, catchphrase, motto or tagline. For the sake of this piece and my preference, I call them taglines. Slogans possess a cheap connotation, 8701catchphrases seem vacuous bits of pop culture, and a motto is actually a hard rule more than an idea or aspiration. You can also throw jingles amongst them as a type of slogan set to music. So tagline it is.

Taglines are battle cries and statements of benefit and intent. They exist to offer information in a succinct, appealing and creative way. Ideally they deliver a message that shapes opinion and changes behavior. Taglines, when combined with action, have spurned whole movements.

These tools have been around for centuries and were refined during political campaigns in the 1800’s. In the latter half of that century they began to be employed to create awareness for products and services. Ivory Soap’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure was a pledge of quality to ivory_old_1954consumers. It floats was added in 1891 because competitive soaps did not float. Heinz’s “57 Varieties” came along, as well as, Nabisco’s clever Uneeda Biscuit that was both tagline and name all in one.

Memorable taglines have stated clear positions. There is American by Birth. Rebel by Choice. for Harley-Davidson, A Diamond is Forever for De Beers, and AVIS’ We Try Harder. Some engage by asking questions including Capital One’s What’s In Your Wallet? And UPS’ What Can Brown Do For You?

These lines tend to offer clear benefits like M&Ms Melts In Your Mouth, Not In Your Hand or the United States Postal Service We Deliver for You. Others include the name of the product or company to firmly plant them in our conscious or subconscious. Examples include Virginia Is For Lovers for Virginia Tourism and Like A Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There. Some appear www-VA4L-neg-verdefensive like Live in your world. Play in ours. for PlayStation.

Taglines have been historically a pithy short sentence or combination of words meant to live for several years if not decades. They have been locked up with a brand name and logo. That choice of words, “locked up”, is deliberate. This use of taglines is incredibly confining and tethered to antiquated marketing thinking that has lost relevance.

They should not always be carved in stone. While the idea of finding some all-encompassing nirvana statement that nails it and resonates for years is appealing, I believe the tagline can be doing so much more for a brand. In fact, I view them as mini campaigns that deserve far more freedom.

This epiphany came to me through a series of client rebranding engagements. A new brand or rebrand all demand fresh communications. When launching a rebrand I was repeatedly recommending a launch tagline that would live for a few months or upwards of a year. Then at the appropriate time it would be swapped for an attempt at a more timeless rendition. This meant avis-logoconcocting a handful or more for the client to evaluate. In every case this bundle of taglines had one or two that did not create a spark but the others were always enjoyed. So why cast them all away?

I advocate the use of different taglines at different times for different audiences. Branding is much more flexible and tailored these days. The heavy and thick guideline books that once dominated the practice no longer exist for a reason. A single tagline has diminishing value given the fluid and variable applications we use today. I often think that brand guidelines were less about consistency and more about command and control from the brand owner. They limited creativity in a monolithic manner.

There was also the fear of the cost of changing anything “locked up” in the guidelines. This I can understand. No business can change where a key brand element lives with frequency. Now in this time of digital, brands can afford and need to tailor their communications and that includes taglines.

Arguably HSBC has been doing this for years. Granted they go by The World’s Local Bank but all of their communications leverage the notion of tailored taglines used in combination. They employ, We see no problem in different points of view. Only potential. Then there is, The more you look at the world, the more you recognize people’s different values. and The more you look at the world, the more you recognize what really matters to people.

So though A Diamond is Forever a tagline does not have to be. Taglines need to ‘try harder’. Rather than use a tagline as a static statement or one battle cry, set loose a manageable army of them. Lead them and make them work together but act fast because soon every brand will be doing the same.

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