Old Brand Tools, New Brand Rules

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In the turmoil of the 21st century marketplace, the 20th century brand toolkit is starting to look as useful as a fax machine on a space station. Is it time for a new set of brand management tools and rules?

In the early 80s, Jack Trout and Al Ries gave us a simple, common sense approach to brand positioning. It was perfectly suited to the brand landscape of the time. It prioritized the competitive set over the customer base, in that its frame of reference was always other brands. It was always about figuring out how to wedge yourself into a part of the customer’s brain that was not yet occupied by any of your competitors.

It was a product-driven approach designed to operate in a much simpler media landscape and a more limited number of communication channels. Balance sheets were geared towards top-line growth and completely focused on customer acquisition. (Loyalty didn’t matter too much in a volume-driven marketplace). The focus in marketing was on messaging; customer experience wasn’t on anyone’s radar. Marketing communications were therefore a one-way street, where brands were doing all the talking and customers could only listen.

It was based on the assumption that the conditions of late capitalism would not significantly change. It did not anticipate the technological and economic disruptions that were about to happen. Its weakness was that it was perfectly designed for a mature industrial economy, not an emerging networked economy. So it was like giving marketers a knife to take to a gun fight.

Thirty years later, we are in a networked economy characterized by constant technological disruption, channel proliferation and fragmentation, over-populated categories and far fewer opportunities for differentiation. Far more technologically enabled and influential customers operating in much more intensely competitive categories are forcing a shift from customer acquisition to customer retention and from message to experience. They do not want to listen to brands; they want brands to listen to them. They want brands to back up their promises with action.

Jaded attitudes towards branding and advertising have resulted in lack of trust and the sharing of brand control with customers across social channels. In these conditions, traditional market research is at a loss; customers no longer want to be lab rats in front of a two-way mirror. They want a hand in making your brand. In this model, your customer is far more important than your competitor, and far more involved in brand-building.

Brand-building used to be about advertising and media. Now, it’s about experience, interaction, engagement, and response. In today’s brand-building, customer relationships are the platform and customer experience is the lumber. Post-industrial branding is still about occupying a unique territory on the competitive landscape, but you reach it through an intimate understanding of your customer’s unmet and unarticulated needs and by crafting a differentiated experience to match them.

So, herewith, blazingtuque‘s 6-point agenda for change:

RE-HUMANIZE The practice of branding has for too long been focused on products, not on people. Putting people at the center of a brand means starting with human realities, not marketing fantasies or competitive look-alikes. Put real people at the centre of the branding process for authentic insights that lead to unique opportunities for brand experiences that can be almost impossible for competitors to duplicate. (think Zappos)

UN-POSITION Amidst a sea of sameness, brands are still getting lost in the minutiae of indistinguishable features and continuing to claim implausible emotional benefits stemming from these.  In a market where customers have far greater influence and endless products that are “good enough”, smart brands are more concerned with how they fit into people’s lives and culture than where they fit in the competitive landscape. (think Method)

RE-RESEARCH Market research methods have grown tired and predictable. The effectiveness of the standard focus group is greatly diminished and increasingly anachronistic in a world of 24/7, real-time feedback via social channels. Surveys are great for making executives comfortable but are devoid of insight. As Roger Martin has said, data is no substitute for people. Today, insights require the listening and interpretative skills of the social anthropologist. Ethnography accesses the unmet and unarticulated needs that traditional market research misses. (think Campbell’s Go Soup)

EX-CATEGORIZE Why compete against the other million brands in your category? What nano-niche of positioning space is there left? Don’t compete with them. Compete with the whole category by creating a new one. (think iPad)

RE-WRITE The language of brand strategy has become completely commoditized. Brand attributes are selected from the same list of overused, generic terms that everyone in the business has access to. Imagine every book on the shelf in your library was written with the same 100-word vocabulary, and that describes most of what passes for brand strategy today. Finding the right language to articulate a brand strategy should be just as hard as writing poetry. It’s not supposed to be easy. (think The Brand Gap)

UN-REPLICATE You still have to be different. You still have to resist the temptation to ‘do the same thing only better’, which is what most brands try to do, and how most position themselves. And it usually amounts to a mere cosmetic difference. Meaningful differentiation is experiential. If you want to achieve meaningful differentiation, start with a real human need and work from there. Don’t be a solution looking for a problem that’s already been solved by a hundred others – and may not even be a problem that customers want solved. (think Airbnb)

Ready to rock? wn

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of MISC Magazine. MISC is published quarterly by Idea Couture and is distributed in 28 countries around the world.

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Amazon: The “Coalface of Consumerism”

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Don’t you just hate it when a brand that you’ve grown to love turns out to be the operational equivalent of Fritz Lang’s iconic film, Metropolis?

In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, you can read how working in a fulfillment centre for the world’s most successful online retailer is frighteningly similar to Lang’s dystopian take on the future. In Metropolis, the thinkers and planners live a life of luxury and decadence above ground while the workers who keep the city running toil endlessly below the surface as indentured slaves.

Needless to say, the conditions in which they work bear little resemblance to life in the gleaming towers aboveground. Talk about income inequality – Lang foresaw it clearly. The only difference is that his film is set in 2026. We’ve beaten that forecast by 12 years.

While they are not located below grade, the conditions in Amazon’s fulfillment centres come as close to a working hell as one can imagine. With no rights and no unions to protect them, workers have zero job security and work 10-hour shifts for a few pennies above minimum wage. If you’re sick, you get docked a point. If you’re even one minute late, you get docked half a point. Three points and you’re fired.

Why is this make my tuque blaze? Because I have had nothing but good experiences with Amazon. They really have figured out how to sell anything and everything online, and how to get it to me on or before the date I expect to receive it. They almost always have what I’m looking for. And they continue to optimize my user experience, making it as frictionless as possible. As Carole Cadwalladr, the writer of the Guardian piece writes, “We want cheap stuff. We want to order it from our armchairs. And we want it delivered to our doors.” From Amazon, we get it. But at a very real human cost.

There is another ugly truth about Amazon’s business model. It only locates its centres in states or countries that offer it huge tax subsidies. In the UK, for instance, it paid £3.2 million on 2012 sales of £4.2 billion. That’s a tax rate of .00076%. You can bet its underpaid, overworked employees paid tax rates far higher than that.

It’s just plain wrong for a brand to deliver a customer experience that so clearly depends on increasing degrees of employee exploitation. Amazon may be a 21st century success story, but it has earned that reputation by replicating some of the worst excesses of 19th century capitalism. As Cadwalladr so painfully but elegantly writes: “To work at Amazon is to spend your days at the coalface of consumerism.” Is this what happens when high tech meets operational efficiency? Fritz Lang must be turning in his grave. wn

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Porter Airlines: Putting Lipstick on a Raccoon

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There are approximately 700,000 raccoons in the Greater Toronto Area, or about 1 for every 8 citizens. No wonder then that when design firm Winkreative was engaged to create the visual branding for Porter Airlines, they chose the raccoon as a mascot. The little masked bandit has worked overtime as an advertising mnemonic ever since.

Porter has been one of those rare brands that lives up to its promise. Its tagline, “Flying Refined” is an accurate reflection of the passenger experience, from check-in to baggage pick up, from the voice over on their radio spots to the packaging of their in-flight meals.

Add to that the convenience of a regional carrier that flies from a downtown location and you have an unassailable blend of value propositions not seen in the airline industry since the days before cost-cutting made air travel into the equivalent of riding in a cattle car. For all these reasons, Porter, like American regional innovators Southwest and JetBlue, has been a textbook case on how to build a customer-focused airline brand.

It’s been a cozy story up until now, but under inevitable pressure from investors to grow its business, Porter is aggressively changing from a lovable regional brand to a brand that is more concerned about its shareholders than the citizens who live and work in the city it calls home. Robert Deluce wants to add C-series jets to his fleet, which will require much longer runways than the current flock of turboprops the small airport is designed for. The change in aircraft will mean more flights, more noise, more traffic congestion, less harbour (due to the extended runways) and a drastic reduction in quality of life along the waterfront.

Porter has been lobbying city hall very heavily ahead of today’s council vote on whether or not its growth plans will be approved. A controversial radio and facebook campaign asks people if they’d like to fly to far-flung locations like Vancouver and Miami, then links them to a page encouraging them to ask their city councillor to vote YES for the airport expansion. Meanwhile, grass roots groups like No Jets T.O. are working hard to organize opposition to the scheme.

This is a classic case of stakeholder conflict. The financial agenda is at cross purposes with the community the brand serves. Porter, which has until now been able to balance the interests of its customers and its investors, is about to do that at the expense of a third stakeholder: its local community.

It’s also about to take its brand into much more hostile terrain. If Porter is successful in winning the vote at council, it will move the brand from its fairly unique position as a quirky, stylish regional carrier into the mushy middle of international carriers, where brand differentiation is much harder to achieve. And once jets are allowed to land at its coveted downtown terminal, other carriers will claim landing rights at what was once Porter’s private airstrip. Knock off another value proposition.

Suddenly, the cute ads, the upscale lounge experience, the quirky radio spots and the metrosexual brand personality are all beginning to look a bit like lipstick on a pig. Or, in this case, an increasingly rapacious raccoon. wn

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Old Wine in New Bottles: Why It’s So Hard for Brand Consultants to Practice What they Preach

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Got my knuckles rapped the other day. Had it coming.

Lashed out at a brand blogger for expressing consternation over the fact that people keep asking the question, “What is a brand?”. Like most practitioners, this one produces a steady stream of mental models which essentially give new names to brand principles that have been in use for the last 20 years.

There’s no question that how I responded was way out of line.  It was one of those moments when you need to ask yourself to step away from the keyboard. So I made an enemy. And that put me in a place of reflection: where did my anger come from?

I see now that it was from another place in my life, completely unrelated to the subject at hand – or the person I was attacking. Shoulda stepped away from the keyboard and reflected before pushing ‘send’. But what triggered it was a genuinely professional concern, something that has been eating away at me for years. And it is this: although most of the fundamental concepts of branding haven’t changed, every time another brand crusader comes along, those principles get the equivalent of a new paint job. And the crusaders are legion. On Amazon, for instance, there are 14,000 books about branding. That’s a lot of paint.

That’s because, in an effort to obey the first law of branding (differentiate!) all brand consultants can really do is make the same principles look and sound different than their competitors do. What a vexing paradox brand consultants face: we preach differentiation, but most of us cannot deliver it in a really meaningful way when promoting our own practices.

While the subject of branding is now appearing in more and more academic curricula, it is still greatly misunderstood by most people. So it comes down to who can explain it in a more engaging and insightful way than the next guy. At the moment, one of my favourite ‘explainers’ is Marty Neumeier, Director of Transformation for the Liquid Agency out in San Francisco.


Marty’s a born visual and verbal communicator. He’s one of the better examples of strategic brand thinkers who have come from a design background, and I think because of this, he’s a much better ‘painter’ of brand principles than most. If you haven’t seen it, check out his slideshare The Brand Gap here. It’s had more than 3 million views, for good reason.

The only criticism I have of Neumeier is that he suffers from the same conceit that afflicts most practitioners chasing brand guru status: the belief that they have ‘written the book’ on branding. Let’s be honest: that book’s been written 14,000 times. wn

Top Image: 99Designs

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How to Turn an XXX Freak Fest into a Brand Legend

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In the world of brand experience, there is something called the ‘moment of truth’. It’s when a brand is faced with a crisis – usually something very damaging or hurtful to its customers or its community – and goes way over the top to make things right. The most famous case study for this was that of the Chicago Tylenol Murders in 1982, in which some Tylenol bottles were laced with potassium cyanide and placed back on the shelf, killing seven people. The brand’s rapid response to the crisis is the stuff of legend.

A far less grave but no less disturbing case came to light this week in New York City, when an AirBnB customer returned home to find what he called a “XXX freak fest” going on in his apartment living room. Seems he rented it out through AirBnB to a guy whose brother and sister-in-law were in town for a “wedding”.

Turned out to be a “wedding” presided over by the likes of Caligula.

As a result of the sex-soaked spectacle, the place got trashed to the tune of $87, 076 in damages and the tenant got evicted. Needless to say the tenant, in this case a comedian named Ari Teman, was more than pissed. So he jumped on twitter and chastised AirBnB for its humiliating gaffe.

And lo, the brand which just this month was listed as one of Fast Company’s 50 most globally innovative companies, responded. According to the Time.com article, within 24 hours, AirBNB sent over a locksmith to change the locks, put Teman up in a hotel for a week, and reimbursed him for damages. It also barred the renter from its site for good.

What’s interesting is the ecosystem of customer experience revealed by this episode. It’s a native web 2.0 story from start to finish, one that couldn’t have happened 10 years ago. Customer logs on to the AirBnB site, connects with renter. Renter does real world damage to customer’s property and credibility. Customer tweets. Brand responds in real time with real world action and consequences. Customer is compensated by AirBnB and provided with comforts of home after being evicted. Renter is barred from using site ever again. The loop is closed.

Some brands really do care about their customers and understand the value of taking responsibility for situations that are even an indirect result of their agency. Here’s to AirBnB for doing the right thing. wn

Images: Top: detail from Blusens Orgy of the Senses, BAP&CONDE Agency, a Coruna, Spain; Middle: from the 1974 film Caligula, directed by Tinto Brass and produced by Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse magazine.

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The Brand Called Thank You

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Believe it or not, there was a time when gas stations were called service stations. A time when station attendants dressed in uniform, like cops or soldiers, and your local dealer sent Thank You cards in hopes you would come back for another tank-full.

Thank you cards? From a gas station?

While any post-modern person would look at this and put it on the same ironic shelf as bp’s pre-Deepwater Horizon slogan, ‘beyond petroleum’, I ask you to put it on another shelf for just a moment, the shelf of customer experience. It just seems that 60 years ago, the idea of being nice to your customers was a no-brainer.

In those days, your car was your most valuable possession and your most visible status symbol. Now that role is shared to some extent by your smartphone. In terms of global revenues, the mobility industry is almost as large as the auto industry, so it’s no stretch to suggest that your connectivity is as important to you as your transport.

Despite the important role mobility has come to play in our lives, the operators have not really paid much attention to their customers over the last 30 or so years. Most markets around the world are oligopolies of one sort or another, so there has been little pressure to be customer-focused. Anyone who as read this blog over the last two years will be familiar with its customer-first critique of brands like Telus, Rogers and Bell.

The tables seem to be turning. Rogers’ hire of customer crusader Guy Laurence is a strong indicator that change is afoot at the very senior levels. Telus has gotten on the CX soapbox recently, claiming that its industry-leading metrics are a direct consequence of its customer service. Bell’s George Cope has proclaimed more than once in the past year that customers must be more satisfied because complaints are down.

As encouraging as it is to hear all this talk, it’s mainly just talk at this point. Question is, can they really do it? Will they really do it? Are they really doing it? Telus, for instance, is basing its claims on category-leading net adds and historically low churn. But can they draw a straight line from those numbers to specific customer experience initiatives? It would be instructive to see the data.

As this writer has opined so often in the last 10 years, a focus on customer experience is the only differentiator left in a business where everyone has the same gear, the same network capabilities, the same prices, the same plans. It seems that Canada’s providers are beginning to understand that. I can’t say I’m disappointed. Let’s hope it’s not all words and no action. wn

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The Brand Called Screw You

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I wonder if this is what Tom Peters had in mind when he unleashed “The Brand Called You” back in 1997.

For anyone who hasn’t read it, he was talking about promoting yourself and managing your career as if you were a brand, with all the strategic and tactical ingredients of a leading product or service. He wanted you to find the thing that makes you You, that secret sauce that no one else has, the magic code not found in anyone else’s DNA.

In the case of  serial entrepreneur, TV personality, investment manager and multimillionaire Kevin O’Leary, his “secret sauce” recently manifested itself as a toxic blend of ignorance, self-righteousness and an almost pathological absence of empathy. Had Tom Peters written his book about Kevin O’Leary, it might  have been titled “The Brand Called ScrewYou”.

In a recent segment of the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, a daily talk show on business and the economy, co-host Amanda Lang shared the statistic that the collective net worth of the world’s richest 85 people was greater than that of the 3.5 billion poorest people on the planet. To which O’Leary replied, “That’s fantastic! Now the 3.5 billion poor people have the 1% to look up to, now they can be motivated by the richest to work hard because if they do, they too can be stinking rich someday! This is great news!”

Share that good news with the single mom who works 8 to 12-hour shifts in in a hospital monitoring patients for $10.25 an hour, the Walmart employees who still need to use food banks for lack of a living wage and the Somalian doctor who drives a cab because his credentials aren’t recognized. Tell them they’re not rich beyond their wildest dreams yet because, well, they’re just not working hard enough. But they’ll get there. Look at the 1%!

Socio-economic extremes breed extreme apologists. Wealthy figures like Tom Perkins, Rush Limbaugh and Home Depot founder Ken Langone suddenly feel victimized by the wrath of the 99%. The irony is lost on no one but them, it seems. The so-called “war on the rich” would be comical were it not so obscenely self-centred.

How does this happen? UC Berkeley Professor Paul Piff and his colleagues have been studying this phenomenon for a number of years. What their research has shown is that the higher an individual rises in status and wealth, the less likely they are to be compassionate and empathetic to others, and the more likely their feelings of entitlement and self-interest. There are exceptions, of course. Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind.

It’s tempting to dismiss O’Leary’s shocking statements as deliberate provocation designed to keep eyeballs glued to the screen and his brand fresh in your mind. The fact that his disturbing point of view is shared by a growing contingent of high-profile figures in business and media makes it much harder, if not impossible, to do so. wn

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Dirty Water. Bad Branding.

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Water. Once it’s mined, shipped, packaged and merchandised, it’s more expensive than gasoline. And while we’re busy burning tonnes of fossil fuel to ship it across countries and continents, we’re also spending countless billions sending probes into outer space in search of more. Because where there’s water, there’s life. And where there’s life, there are markets and customers, right?

From Nestle Waters‘ annual 265 million litre harvest of BC groundwater (cost to Nestle? $0) to Dasani being outed as marginally enhanced municipal tap water, some big brands are quietly draining the global well for private gain. And while they’re draining what most would consider a publicly shared asset, they’re not only depleting our H2O reserves, they’re also indirectly responsible for polluting the very same global resource with trillions of empty plastic containers.

What we have here is branded planetary degradation. Not that brands playing havoc with natural resources is anything new (think bp in 2010), but the extent of this particular kind of cognitive dissonance –  i.e., the contradiction between brand image and actual experience  - is off the charts. While ‘purity’ is the pitch, the stats tell a shockingly different story.

To manufacture and ship a one kilogram bottle of Fiji brand bottled water to the US, it takes 26.88 kilos (7.1   gallons) of water, 1 litre of fossil fuel, and it emits 1.2 lbs of greenhouse gas per litre along the way. Bottles used to package water take 1,000 years to biodegrade. Incinerating them produces toxic gases. It’s estimated that 80% of plastic water bottles end up in landfill instead of being recycled.  In the US, water bottle manufacturing requires 1.5 million barrels of oil annually. And 90% of manufacturing costs are for the bottle, the cap and the label.

Stats like these give the lie to the language used to sell these brands. Science has proven that tap water is not only just as clean, but much more rigorously and frequently tested for impurities. That explains why brands like Dasani just turn on the tap to fill their bottles. It’s why Aquafina can say “Purity Guaranteed”. Then they add a few nutrients and sell it back to us at an obscene markup.

According to Dr. Michael Warhurst, Friends of the Earth‘s senior waste campaigner, bottled water “is another product we do not need. Bottled water companies are wasting resources and exacerbating climate change. Transport is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, and transporting water adds to that. We could help reduce these damaging effects if we all simply drank water straight from the tap.”

It is a classic case of the devil chasing his own tail. The bottled water industry not only depletes an already available and fundamental resource, but its manufacturing and distribution are contributors to the climate change that is on track to drive more drought, greater environmental degradation and escalating conflict as parched populations fight over our most precious resource. It’s a lose-lose if ever there was one.

This is an opportunity for these brands to show some real leadership. They are global giants with the power and capacity to absorb the short term losses that would result from exiting the business. What they would gain is hero status for doing so. wn

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Tagline for 2013: Ignorance is Strength

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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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The Stupidest Brands of 2013

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Are you getting tired of all the “5 Reasons Why You are Stupid for not Using Twitter “, or “The 10 Habits of People Who are More Wildly Successful than You Will Ever Be” lists that clog everyone’s twitter and LinkedIn feeds? Well too bad, because I’ve got another one: Beardos, Zoomies and Airholes: 3 Brands That Got it Horribly Wrong.

Top of the list is the Beardo. It’s a toque for your face. From a functional perspective, it is a great idea. The bite of the North wind on a -30c day can literally freeze your face off. Any Canadian will tell you that. Will any Canadian wear the Beardo? Are you kidding? You wanna look like your grandma knitted your beard? And tell me honestly, ladies and gentlemen, would you date a woman who wears one?

The elements continually challenge us to come up with novel ways to protect ourselves from them. Another attempt to cover our faces in hostile conditions, the awkwardly named Airhole does so while affording us the opportunity to stick our tongues out. Sadly, the Airhole bears a striking resemblance to the oral cavity of a plastic love doll.

Then there’s the cleverly named Zoomie, touted as a pair of binoculars you can wear. Great for birdwatching, sporting events, or spying on your neighbours. Can also be used, and this is verbatim, “to turn a regular TV into a big screen TV”. Which by extension would suggest it could turn a newspaper into a billboard, or the keypad on your mobile into a giant scoreboard, or your finger into an arm . . .

So what do you do if any of these things end up under the Christmas tree?  Be prepared to ask yourself that question. Because if it’s a friend or family member, you need to have a talk. Then you need to throw it in the same pile as the Shamwow, the Egg Genie, the JumpSnap and the Sonic Blade.  Because someday there will be a Stupid Museum where each of these will have its own display case. wn

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