Looking back on blazingtuque 2013, the phrase that flies like a banner above the year’s posts is Orwell’s grimly ironic “Ignorance is Strength”. Indeed, it was a year in which idiocy trounced intellect, politicians put the ‘hog’ back in Hogtown, megabrand RIM became the next Nortel, the biggest spy agency in the world got caught with its digital pants down, Canada’s brand got a fresh coat of bitumen, a giant replica of a dead Russian’s luggage dwarfed Lenin’s tomb and temporarily rebranded Red Square in the name of Louis Vuitton, a Pope reminded us that it was the Catholic Church that invented loyalty points, not Madison Avenue, and a big bad American wireless company scared the pants off of Canada’s putative ‘big three’ mobile operators but, after sending the Canadian government and operators into a mad frenzy, decided it wasn’t really that into us after all. (Its annual revenues of $115 billion are almost 6x the wireless revenues of Telus, Bell and Rogers combined. Hence the lack of interest ).
In the Toilet We moaned (and how) about the lack of innovation at the operational level of the Canadian wireless industry, especially at the level of customer experience. But then later in the year, we were excited to hear about Guy Laurence taking the helm at Rogers. A customer focused CEO in an internally focused and competitor obsessed culture is going to make some serious waves. Here’s hoping!
Lack of Veracity We speculated on the fortunes of Canada’s self-annointed 4th wireless carrier, which looked as challenging then as they do now, especially as the spectrum auction approaches. We also lamented that the dream that launched WIND in the first place is long forgotten. And nobody got the pun in the headline.
The Tatra to the Tucker We explored how to kill innovation through the story of a very innovative Czech automobile called the Tatra 77, an aerodynamically designed car that was so ahead of its time that its features were replicated by Volkswagen, Volvo, Chrysler, Toyota, and perhaps most poignantly, the Tucker Torpedo.
Brandmines You can’t swing a dead cat in the Canadian economy without hitting a miner. By the looks of that market, they’ve been hit by a lot of dead cats this year. The feline flogging continues in a down market for commodities. The story? Suddenly the industry is interested in branding . . .
Buried in Bitumen lamented the nefarious, hamfisted and narrow-minded policies of the Harper Conservative Cabal as it bets the entire economy on the oil sands, ignores any responsibility for the environment, and boldly rebrands Canada – once rightly associated with pristine expanses of natural, untouched beauty – as a global petrowallah hellbent on shipping crude across mountains, forests and aboriginal lands to eagerly awaiting fleets of China-bound mega-tankers. We can now confidently add ‘peddlers of petroleum’ to our traditional economic identity as hewers of wood and drawers of water.
Saving the World, One Art School at a Time It wasn’t all dumb this year. There were some bright spots. In our ongoing obsession with innovation, we explored and examined the state of post-secondary art and design education from a global perspective, in search of new curricular models that have been formulated to produce both applied and strategic innovators. These are schools where designers earn an MSc rather than an MA. This is the future – and, given the kind of behaviour noted in Buried in Bitumen, this is the kind of future we need in the Age of Ignorance.
In Praise of Papanek The theme of innovation bade us reach back to the days of industrial design king Raymond Loewy, whose mark was made on everything from locomotives to Lucky Strikes packaging. Many of his product designs are iconic – but his prowess as a formgiver was challenged by the evangelizing Victor Papanek – designer of things like a dung-powered transistor radio for the poorest of the the poor. Papanek’s 1976 book Design for the Real World scoffed at commercial industrial design as completely superficial styling executed without any awareness of the larger context in which the product is manufactured, sold, used and disposed of. ”In persuading people to buy things they don’t need, with money they don’t have, in order to impress others who don’t care, commercial design is probably one of the phoniest fields in existence today.” He said that in the 1970s, but he could have been talking about what caused the American real estate market crash of 2008: selling people what they don’t need for money that they don’t have.
Heins’ Sight Early in the year we thought we saw a glimmer of hope for Blackberry but then watched that sliver of light disappear in the wake of the long overdue but weak selling Z series. We should have seen that coming. Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, so fiddled Balsillie & Lazaridis while RIM burned, scorched by the fiery tails of Apple and Google shooting past the once mighty king of mobility. Now the new guy John Chen presides over the slow and methodical disassembly and divestiture of Blackberry’s asset pile. Sounds like death by a thousand cuts.
Ford vs Toronto Back in the spring, when the Ford Fiasco was in its infancy, blazingtuque defended ‘brand Toronto‘ against brand Ford, reminding readers that this city is much bigger than anything a lying, cheating, delusional and self-obsessed mayor like Rob Ford can throw at it. So that was April. Since then, he’s thrown pretty much everything he has at it, way more than anyone could have imagined, making us famous around the world for all the wrong reasons. Blazingtuque could have easily gorged on the ensuing revelations. Because for a while there, it was an all-you-can-eat Schadenford buffet. But all-you-can-eat just ain’t our style.
Betting in a Brand Killer For a short time it looked as though Toronto might join the ranks of the many misguided and intellectually barren cities that rely on casinos to top up their coffers. Rather than leveraging the energy and intelligence of a burgeoning creative class, the Ford administration (previously of theme park ferris wheel fame) fought to turn the waterfront into Boardwalk Empire. Thankfully they were scuttled by a more enlightened citizenry, but the debate shone a light on the whole notion of how fragile a city brand can be.
When Brands Go off the Rails Over here at blazingtuque, we don’t like bad brands to get away with jackshit. So when the MM&A railroad failed to respond immediately to the most lethal rail disaster in Canadian history, we bore witness. And while we were on the subject of brands behaving badly, it seemed appropriate to shine a light on Walmart’s reprehensible firing of an employee who had the moral fibre to scold a customer for leaving their pet in the car during a heat wave. (Fun Fact – the 4 Walmart heirs’ net worth is greater than the combined net worth of the poorest 120 million Americans). Later in the year, Walmart lowered the bar even more when it was revealed that its stores had food donation bins for employees who couldn’t afford to feed their families. Walmart 2, Humanity 0.
Can You Oreo? In one fell swoop, the world’s most ubiquitous cookie brand turned a power failure at the Superbowl into a social engagement phenomenon. “Say hello to real time marketing”, said Sharon Macleod, then VP Marketing for Unilever Canada. The upshot is that ‘to oreo’, as confirmed by Terry O’Reilly, is now a verb meaning to respond to marketing opportunities in real time via the social channels. While agencies agonize over how to cope, veteran creative entrepreneur Sabaa Quao’s startup newsrooms has shown them how to do it with the launch of its content management on-the-fly service. This is what the future looks like, people. That means you, agency people.
Privacy: Use it or Lose it The revelations that the NSA can see into everyone’s digital underwear drawer – and that means everyone on the planet – shook the world almost as much as the knowledge that the big internet players and mobile operators are all too willing to hand over our data whenever the G-men come knocking. While those who man the engine rooms in these operations simply shrug it off, the US Supreme Court later showed that it still has enough moral fibre to call a constitutional foul on the NSA’s STASI-like behaviour. Let’s hope that 2014 is the year the US saves itself from becoming the next East Germany.
The Purgatory Promo The new Pope Francis showed Madison avenue who the real boss is when it comes to marketing by extending Get Out of Purgatory Free cards to anyone who tweeted the annual Catholic funfest known as World Youth Day. It reminded blazingtuque of the reason the Church got into marketing in the first place: customer retention. Not only did the Church pull off the first, greatest and longest ad campaign ever – also known as the Baroque – but invented every other acquisition and retention tool used today. Don Draper owes it all to the Vatican.
The Emperor’s New Colours For what was briefly the most valuable company in the world, Apple’s category-killing run of stellar product launches, from the iPod to the iPhone to the iPad, came to a quiet end with the launch of iPhone 5S and 5C. When you start fussing with the colours, as someone recently said, you’ve run out of ideas. As unthinkable this must be to Apple devotees, the object of their undying loyalty is starting to migrate to the middle of the pack.
Vladimir’s Vuitton Russia’s holiest national shrine – Lenin’s Tomb – was very briefly overshadowed by the presence of a giant replica of a Louis Vuitton valise in Red Square recently. Putin’s bureaucrats were embarrassed and unable to explain to incensed citizens how the giant piece of luxury luggage got there, but reacted quickly and had it removed after just 3 days. Now that Louie’s gone, Lenin can rest peacefully in his sub-zero display case.
The Stupidest Brands We couldn’t end the year without a funny story. Being serious about brands requires one to ignore the silliest ones, take the badly behaving ones to task, and praise the rare successes – because they are very rare. But all that serious work can put a permanent furrow in your brow. So to unfurrow blazingtuque’s intensely knitted brow, we took a shot at three really, really, really stupid brands. Because sometimes, a boy’s just gotta have fun.
Thanks for reading! Stick around for another year of playing in traffic at the intersection of branding, design, business and politics.
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