Branding, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Rebranding – Usually the Wrong Strategy

“Sometimes you have a PR problem, and sometimes, you just have a problem!”

I can’t count the number of time my mentor, Marcia Silverman, said that to clients.   And it always brought them up short.  After all, they were asking us to sprinkle some magic PR fairy dust on their very real problems in order to make them magically all go away.   Lots of firms would have taken the money and sprinkled vigorously.  Marcia always had us take the harder path, the one with integrity, and tell the client what they didn’t want to hear.

I’ve been reminded of that recently when major brands opted for the fairy dust of rebranding hoping it would cover up the stink of serious problems.

First, Wells Fargo, who’ve recently endured more than two years of devastating scandals, record setting fines from a series of Federal regulators, CEO and top executives fired and stripped of benefits, Congressional hearings………….it just goes on and on.   In April of 2017 they launched a campaign to restore consumer confidence, with the rather tentative slogan: “Building Better Every Day.”  Which translates to: “We don’t suck as much as we used to.”   A real rallying cry.

Then when that didn’t work (go figure!) they decided that what they REALLY needed was an entirely new brand…….. one that looked exactly like the old brand.  What?

Here’s the rebranding spot:

And the tag line is: “Wells Fargo.  Established 1852.  Reestablished 2018.”  Accompanied by promises to stop doing all the bad stuff they got caught doing.

Stay tuned for next year’s rebranding.

Closer to home is the rebranding of the giant Ogilvy & Mather, the company where I got my start and where I was lucky enough to work for Marcia Silverman.   They’re in a world of hurt – digital disruption of the advertising industry itself; an antiquated agency model; stalled growth; and tremendous instability at the parent company, WPP.   The Ad Week headline was unintentionally revealing:

“Ogilvy Rebrands Itself after 70 Years with New Visual Identity, Logo and Organizational Design

Agency also plans to promote more women to partner.”

Nothing fixes serious institutional problems like a new logo and corporate font.  Oh, and by the way, we’ll take some token steps towards a 20th century talent strategy.  Never mind 21st century, we’re content to take tentative steps away from an agency run by old white guys.

If anyone should know better its Ogilvy.   I can’t think of a clearer signal to the marketplace that they’ve lost their way.

Rebranding for the sake of rebranding is always a mistake because it’s using PR flim-flam instead of authentic communication to try to address previous failures.  And that’s true for corporations and non-profits.

Marketing consultants who do branding work should have the integrity to tell that to our clients and guide them to a better solution.  Or we should walk away.

Branding, Culture

A Rotting Apple?

Steve Jobs is dead.

If you needed proof, just look at the latest advertising campaign from Apple.

It never would have happened under Jobs.

First, it betrays the fundamental Apple brand, which was built on innovative products that delight and amaze consumers, and permanently disrupt the marketplace, from PCs to cell phones.  But this campaign is not about a new innovative product, it’s about a way of producing new innovative products.

Which is what one talks about when one DOESN’T have any new innovative products to release.

The iPhone5 was something of a disappointment, in that it didn’t mark a significant step forward from the previous model.  But now the innovation pipeline seems to have stalled completely.  So let’s tell America how wonderful that pipeline is!

And second, even as a corporate branding campaign, it’s a deeply flawed strategy.  The campaign is actually focused around the company’s most notable negative, and in the course of doing so, spotlights that very issue – the origins of that device we all hold in our hands.  Because while they may well be “designed” by people in California, Apple’s vulnerability is that they’re made by people in China, working in horrendous conditions.

SNL nailed it in December with this brutal Tech Talk segment.

So the geniuses at Apple, realizing that Samsung (Korea)  and HTC (Taiwan) are gaining market share, decide that what they really need is a little red, white and blue sprinkled over their phones.  “OK, it’s not innovative any more, but at least it’s made in America…….except not really, it’s just designed by well paid people in America and then made by poorly paid people in wretched factories in China.”

Don’t you feel better about Apple products?

A good corporate reputation is a necessary but not sufficient part of a consumer’s decision to buy.  And if the product is innovative enough, its not even necessary.

Having failed to sustain innovation, Apple is now trying to compete (badly) on reputation.

Steve Jobs is spinning in his grave.


Paula Deen and Proposition 8

Quite a week.

Paula Deen brings the “N” word into national discourse, and the Supreme Court strikes down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

A day after this stunning reversal in our march toward civil rights, the Defense of Marriage Act is over turned and marriage equality is affirmed.

Hard to make sense of it all.

Two lessons I’ve taken from this week.

The first lesson is about our consumer culture and the role of brands. Paula Deen has been a train wreck this week because she doesn’t understand the difference between a celebrity and a brand. She thinks she’s a celebrity. She’s wrong. The Paula Deen brand is a fantasy of southern warmth and graciousness based around comfort food. It’s a fantasy world where racism (and diabetes) don’t exist. The first blow to the fantasy was her admission that she is in fact diabetic. The uproar over that should have been her first clue to herself as a brand. Consumers project their hopes and aspirations onto a brand – we all wanted to believe we could eat Paula’s food without consequence. When you rip that dream away from us, we get angry.

We also don’t want moral complexity from our brands. When asked under oath is she’d ever used the “N” word, she replied: “Of course.” The worst possible answer – albeit true and authentic to her culture and upbringing. Two sticks of butter we can take, but please don’t serve us the reality of race relations in America. No one has an appetite for that!

Failing to understand brand dynamics, her horrendous defense this week has only made the problem worse, and her brand has become aligned with Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and many others. The Food Network and Smithfield Foods, fully understanding brand dynamics, have run as quickly as they could from her.

The second lesson, from both Paula and from the Prop 8 battle, is about our need to simplify and reduce people to a single label – to treat each other as brands instead of people. Labeling Paula Deen a racist makes all of us feel better about our own degrees of racism – we can point to “it” over there as if none of “it” was also inside of us. When we divide the world up that way, and group people as racist, homophobic, sexist, etc, we reduce them to something more like brands than like the people they truly are. We deprive them of the ability to be complex, to grow, and to change. Even the redemption narrative, so common in our culture, requires a bipolar theory of life: you were one thing, now you’re redeemed and you’ve become its opposite.

This point came home to me reading about a family in California that had been very involved in the fight in favor of Proposition 8, banning gay marriage. From the LA Times:

Wendy Montgomery, 37, of Bakersfield and her husband supported Proposition 8 in 2008 but changed their position “180 degrees” after they learned their 13-year-old son was gay a year and a half ago. Montgomery, a practicing Mormon, said she voted for the measure and spent a couple of days canvassing and working on a phone bank for it.

“We’re Mormon. The church asked us to participate in Prop. 8, and we did, pretty much unthinking,” she said.

When her son came out, he told his parents he had at first planned never to tell them he was gay, because he thought they hated gay people because they had supported Proposition 8.

I suspect in 2008 most of us would have described the Montgomery’s as homophobes and bigots.  But what seems so clear to me is that they are in fact thoughtful loving people who work very hard to incorporate their faith with the reality of everyday life. They are complex people capable of growth and change, exactly the sort of people I’d like to have in my life.

If we’re to stay on a path toward justice, we need to create a world where Paula Deen and the Montgomery’s are real in the public discourse as full people, not simply as labels, and where their own personal growth is supported and acknowledged, along with our own.

So from this week I’m going to try to do better avoiding labels and embracing the complexity of my fellow humans.

And maybe a little less butter…………..