Brand Blogging

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Charlie Brown goes emo

The best comics store in Manhattan has to be Forbidden Planet. They have a friendly, knowledgeable staff, a good selection, and always something interesting in their window display. Recently, the display has included the new Peanuts anthology books being put out by Fantagraphics Books. Fantagraphics is perhaps best known as the publisher of Daniel Clowes' work, including Ghost World and Art School Confidential, although they also publish a number of other graphic novels and comics that have names like We All Die Alone, Monologues For The Coming Plague, and Angry Youth Comix. And yet curiously, at the same time Fantagraphics also puts out anthologies of classic comics such as Peanuts. However, the portrayal of the Peanuts gang (at least on the cover) for the books in the anthology could be considered "off-brand," at least in comparison to the treatment they receive at The Official Peanuts Website. Here is a side-by-side comparison of the anthology covers (for the books released so far) to the character portraits on the Peanuts website:

In each case, the Fantagraphics version looks upset, angry, pensive, etc., while the version is smiling and happy, except for Schroeder; but note that Schroeder has pretty much always been characterized as somewhat angsty (his favorite composer is Beethoven).

This is part of a calculated attempt by Fantagraphics to not only appeal to the people who like comics such as Ghost World, but also to add a serious air to Schulz' art for those fans who see it as something more than just a comic strip; as Fantagraphics says on its about page,
Fantagraphics Books has been a leading proponent of comics as a legitimate form of art and literature since it began publishing the critical trade magazine The Comics Journal in 1976. By the early 1980s, Fantagraphics found itself at the forefront of the burgeoning movement to establish comics as a medium as eloquent and expressive as the more established popular arts of film, literature, poetry, et al.
In addition, in the press release for the first volume of the anthology describes the "aesthetic sensibility" of the packaging as
both austere and direct, reflecting the quiet and melancholy of the strip in a package that shows the proper respect due one of America’s greatest artists in any medium.
Overall, I think this is an interesting way of presenting the Peanuts comics in a new (or at least underrepresented) light. Even though the tone of the packaging doesn't dovetail with more popular representations of the characters, the anthology—which is being put out at the rate of two books per year until 2016 for a total of 25 books representing 50 years of strips—is designed to appeal to more serious comic fans who may see themselves more like art collectors than casual readers.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Starbucks bottled Frappucino line gets (over)extended

While browsing the beverage aisle today, I noticed a new addition to the Starbucks line of bottled Frappucino drinks:

Strawberries and Creme Frappuccino

My first thought was that it looks an awful lot like Nestle's Strawberry Quik. My second thought was Why are they selling this under the Starbucks label? Indeed, the bottle notes that this item is "coffee-free," making it Starbucks' first grocery item, as far as I can tell, that is in no way contains coffee. While I realize that this is a product that is based on an actual Starbucks store item (although N.B. that the grocery line is actually produced by Pepsi), it seems like an odd choice for a line extension. At least with the bottled coffee drinks (and packaged coffee and coffee-flavored ice cream) they're leveraging Starbucks' reputation as a company based on coffee; I'm not sure exactly how well this "fits" with the consumer's idea of a Starbucks product.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness, I went out and bought one of these. It tasted like a watered-down Strawberry Quik, which costs less and gives you more (16 ounces of Quik for $1.59 versus 9.5 ounces of Starbucks for $1.79).

Sunday, June 11, 2006

iDon't: Poor strategy, worse execution

In the past few months there have been posters plastered around my area of Manhattan promoting the web site. The site itself itself proclaims
Calling all free thinkers, contrarians, and malcontents. The time has come to rise up against the iTatorship. To resist the monotony of white earbuds and reject the oppressive forces of cultural conformity.

Now is the time to break-free from restrictive formats and a single source for music. It's time for choice, for freedom, for self-expression and - for all independent spirits to stand up and say "iDon't." You don't need to follow. There is now an alternative.
What, you might ask, is this web site asking us to do? Will it give us open-source instructions for creating our own digital music player? Of course not. The site is an advertisement for Sandisk's Sansa e200, and it comes courtesy of that countercultural juggernaut, Grey San Francisco, part of Grey Global, which is itself part of WPP. They're about as underground as Berkshire Hathaway.

I think the campaign fails on two fronts: first, you have a campaign that tries (like the Honda Fit/Toyota Yaris campaigns) to reach an ill-defined group of people (youngish, independent thinkers, etc.) by trying to be all hip and edgy, but it completely fails in the execution—"Hey, groovy dudesters, don't be a sheep who buys into that iPod bullshit, buy our product instead!"; secondly, by deriding iPod users, they've shut out a huge group of potential costumers, namely those people who are considering transitioning from an old iPod to something new. With iPod owning 80% or more of the market, that might not be a good idea.

The desperation is palpable: in this week's print version of the Onion, there are no fewer than three ads for—zombies, donkey, and the Flocking Hell comic strip. You can almost see the sweat dripping down their faces as they try to be edgy but only succeed in digging themselves further into the hole. It's like some sort of seven-layer burrito of irony.

Take the Flocking Hell comic strip, for instance. Its format looks suspiciously similar to Red Meat (which is also in the Onion) and other alterna-comics. And the main thrust of it, which equates not following the pack (being a "sheep" or a "lemming") with buying a heavily-marketed product (the ultimate purpose of the whole iDon't campaign) is incongruous, to say the least. Now, I realize that the use of incongruence is a time-honored advertising technique, but somehow I don't (or perhaps iDon't?) think don't think this is the best application of that approach.

In the end, the appropriation of countercultural elements for a marketing campaign is often sloppy at best and at worst, counterproductive. As I've said before, simply using a certain tone or biting a certain style in your marketing materials will not give the product being marketed any kind of instant street-cred.

OK soda, anyone?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Life imitates art for Yum! brands

This SNL Digital Short was originally a parody of the race to the bottom that Taco Bell is having with itself regarding how many different combinations of ingredients they can fit in a tortilla. This includes menu items such as the tortilla-within-a-tortilla Double-Decker Taco and the Grilled Stuft Burrito—"A large, warm, soft, flour tortilla wrapped around seasoned ground beef, hearty beans, seasoned rice, a blend of three cheeses - cheddar, pepper jack and mozzarella, creamy pepper jack sauce and fiesta salsa, then grilled to perfection"; shades of both items can be seen in the above Digital Short.

Well, now KFC—related to Taco Bell via Yum! Brands, the Pepsi spin-off company that also includes Pizza Hut—is offering its "Famous Bowls," which include mashed potatoes, corn, gravy, cheese, and chicken, all mixed together in the same bowl. The commercial shows a man walking up to the counter at KFC and asking for mashed potatoes, corn, and chicken all in the same bowl, to which his server replies, "should I top it off with gravy and a three-cheese blend?"

To me, there seems to be a distinct air of desperation in all of this; the Famous Bowl is something that, given an extra ingredient or three, could be its own parody commercial. It's almost as if they're trying too hard. And, in fact, KFC is somewhat desperate:
For years, KFC has tried to increase lunchtime sales. Various sandwiches and wraps are still on the menu, including the 99-cent Snacker sandwich, which has boosted sales.
But the brand's chicken and side items, dinnertime staples, haven't done as well at lunch.
"We know our products are better for lunch when they're portable," said Scott Bergren, KFC executive vice president for marketing, in a statement.
The bowls, priced at $3.99, have broad appeal and are targeted at "heavy fast-food users," said James O'Reilly, KFC vice president of national marketing.

Let me translate this from marketing-speak into English: the Famous Bowls (I don't get why they're famous if they're brand new) are designed specifically for people who hate the hassle of having to sit down and eat the main ingredients separately. Therefore, in order to make it easier for them to shovel everything into their mouths all at once while they ride their Segway or whatever, they just put it all together in one bowl. The result of this food agglomeration is below:

Of course, there is the standard disclaimer that the real thing will look nothing like the picture that they use for marketing purposes. I'm not sure if gravy and cheese is something that people will go for, although given the potatoes/gravy/cheese combo, there is a resemblance to the Quebec dish poutine:

That's fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Which, by the way, is delicous. However, none of this solves the desperation (or at least awkwardness) inherent in the Famous Bowls. At least the Taco Bell analog, the Border Bowl—filled with seasoned rice, beans, chicken or steak, lettuce, cheese (also a three-cheese blend) tortilla strips, salsa, and "Zesty dressing"—more or less replicates the contents of your average burrito supreme. (Although I should point out that there is no single item on the menu containing rice, beans, and meat—only combinations of rice and beans, beans and meat, or meat and rice. The tensile strength of a tortilla probably wouldn't allow for all three.) Taco Bell and KFC's cousin Pizza Hut is perhaps best suited to offering multiple-food items because pizzas were made to be topped. For example, their Meat Lover's pizza contains—in addition to the standard bread, sauce, and cheese—pepperoni, sausauge, ham, bacon, beef, and pork. It may sound extreme, but with a name like Meat Lover's, you want to make sure you have all your bases covered. Hell, here in Manhattan you can get a slice of pizza topped with lasagna, which is essentially one full meal topped with another. The Famous Bowls, on the other hand, seems like they're one step away from throwing all the ingredients into a blender and making a chicken cheesy mashed potato gravy corn shake.

But I think I should stop now. I don't want to give them any ideas.

Related link: Yum! promises growth (of your waistline)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Product Red: the socially responsible licensed brand

Yesterday, I was viewing a story on The Independent's website, and I noticed they were using a different logo:

I had no idea why they changed the way the logo looked (and why there were complementary American Express ads on the front page), so I did the most logical thing: I asked about it on the Independent's Wikipedia talk page. Apparently, this was part of publicity campaign in the UK for Product Red,
a brand created to raise awareness and money for the Global Fund [to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria] by teaming up with the world’s most iconic brands to produce RED-branded products. A portion of profits from each RED product sold will go directly to the Global Fund to invest in African AIDS programmes, with a focus on women and children.
Bono (who was The Independent's guest editor yesterday) and Bobby Shriver, the founders of DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa), came up with the idea; essentially, DATA is an NGO that lobbies governments for contributions to the Global Fund, while Product RED is meant to get money for the Fund from the private sector.

The ability to use the RED logotype outline and create RED-branded products is licensed to different companies. That is, companies—currently American Express, Converse, Gap, Motorola, and Armani—pay for the right to co-brand their products and logos with RED. So, for example the Amex RED logo:

and now the actual card:

That's even cooler looking than the much-ballyhooed, invitation-only Amex Black card. Now, this is obviously not the same as, say, an Amex Delta Airlines Skymiles Card or other similar co-branded credit cards, but there are some analogs, such as the Chase-Visa-ASPCA card, which gives .7% of the amount spent by the card user to the ASPCA. However, this initiative is much larger in scope than anything else I can think of.

The "buy something and part of the proceeds go to charity" scheme is a well-worn marketing device based on the following insight from consumer behavior: people are accustomed to trading money for goods or services; people would like to give to charity, but they don't like the idea of just giving their money away while receving nothing (tangible) in return; however, if they pay for something that they wanted to buy and then the money they spent goes to charity, they get to receive something and give to charity.

By partnering with well-known companies, Product RED gains instant brand equity, which it can use to entice future partner companies. It also doesn't hurt that Bono is involved.

This is also a way for companies to enhance their image by aligning themselves with a good cause; corporate social responsibility (CSR), the idea that companies should be socially responsible in addition to making profits, has become such a big deal that there is even a set of standards created by Social Accountability International called the SA-8000, which gives guidelines for adhering to "international workplace norms" (such as no child/forced labor, no discrimination, realistic working hours, etc.). Among the signatories are Dole Foods and Toys 'Я' Us. But just remember that none of these companies are doing this out of the good of their heart.

Because CSR is just another form of PR.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Chase: the card for irresponsible overspenders

The Chase commercial "First Checking" has been around for a while now, but it was only recently that I got to see the 60-second spot. As the storyboard (pdf) explains:
This story is about a girl named Roxy who is in her 20s and is just starting out in the big city. She gets her first paycheck at work and immediately goes to open a new Maximum Strength Checking Account at Chase. Throughout the spot, we see Roxy using Chase Online Bill Pay, Text Alerts, her Check card, and various features from the bank as she bursts with energy in her new and empowered life. The portal closes with Your Choice. Your Chase.
And yet, the story that I see is a lot different. This story is about a girl named Roxy who has just graduated from college and is carrying who-knows-what in debt. She is hired at an office somewhere in the big city because they needed warm bodies to fill the cubicles. When she gets her paycheck at work she has the following exchange with the guy handing the checks out—
Guy: "Roxy?"
Roxy (enthusiastically): "Yes!"
G: "Don't tell me, first paycheck?"
R: (more enthusiastically): "Yes!"
Even though the line about the first paycheck was merely meant as throwaway expository dialog, the guy who says it does so in such a way that he seems to be intimating that one paycheck is nothing to get excited about and that in the future she won't be so enthusiatic about getting her weekly check, seeing as there's not much in it and she'll probably be getting them for the majority of the rest of her life. Probably not what was intended, but deliciously ironic nonetheless, given its context.

Roxy is excited. So much so that she runs right out and...opens a Chase checking account. Cut to a scene of her and her boyfriend looking at cute puppies, and you know she just has to have one. Does she have the dough? Her checking balance shows up on her cell phone, which tells her that she has a whopping few hundred bucks in her account. She buys the bulldog! Which (According to my father the veterinarian) over the next twelve months will cost her roughly $1000-$1200 in medical bills alone, and that's excluding the cost of food as well as any number of major medical precedures that a dog (even a super-cutesie bulldog) might at some point have to undergo. Cut to Roxy in a new outfit getting another account update on her phone. Roxy throwing down her Chase card at a restaurant to pay for herself and her friends (although there is a shot of her grabbing the cash her friends had laid out to pay).

Somewhere in the midst of all this there is a snippet lasting no more than two seconds showing her at the computer actually paying her bills.

The strategy being employed here is almost too devious in its cynicism: pandering specifically to a demographic that likes to spend money it doesn't really don't have. And, by the way, it's not just the younger crowd that's prone to irrseponsible spending; in a US News article on growing American debt (as well as the possible effect of an interest rate hike), they profile a 41-year-old pharmacy technician who "amassed roughly $30,000 in debt spread out over eight cards" by paying for "vacations, jewelry, and especially shoes, over 600 pairs housed in a custom-built, cedar-lined closet" in his basement. He then explains this by saying "'It's so easy to buy a pair of $300 shoes when you have plastic.'"

Technically, since this is a commercial about a checking account, Roxy is spending money that she has - even if she's not making that wisest of spending decisions. However, I'm sure that once they know her buying and spending habits better the people at Chase will be able to offer her the perfect credit card.

Rather than being a wealth management tool, the checking account is portrayed in this spot as a means of more efficiently pissing away your earnings without the nuisance of building up any significant savings.

In advertising, there is something called the shape-versus-mirror debate: does adverising merely mirror society, or can it actually shape societal attitudes? The answer is almost always mirror, but all that means is that advertising is complicit in amplifying certain societal trends. While one commercial is not going to be the sole reason that anyone goes into a financial downward spiral, the ad certainly does nothing to discourage the kind of reckless spending that has led to Generation Y being labeled Generation Debt; in fact, people who spend this way seem to be the target demographic. As a long-term marketing strategy it makes no sense to me: how will banks have any customers in the future if everyone is broke?

As the man says, "It's so easy to buy a pair of $300 shoes when you have plastic."

Your life could be somebody's branding strategy.

By the way, Kudos to JPMorganChase for making their tv and print ads readily available on their web site. It's something all companies should do.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Fit vs Yaris: A Tale of Two Cars

Ads for Honda's new Fit model starting playing around the same time that the ads for Toyota's new model, the Yaris, started airing. This is something that I've paid particular attention to, because my advertising class was involved in promoting the fit through EdVenture Partners, a company that matches up advertisers with college advertising classes in order to market products on campus through the students themselves. I would describe it as an unpaid in-class internship, although technically we were not employees of Honda in any way. Adrants has a short post on a video made by some members of the class (but which I had nothing to do with) here. A recent NY Times article ("A Car Campaign Takes Some Alternate Routes," April 18, 2006) explains Honda's marketing strategy for the Fit:
The goal is to appeal to ''people who are typically living in large cities, into art and music and fashion, who have a sense of 'doing your own thing,' '' Mr. Smith said, an audience RPA describes as ''metro-funky.''
So finally, a car for hipsters on a budget. Anyway, the above apparently translates into ads with no real distinguishing factors except for a lame robot voice saying "The Fit is go!" It's almost condescending in a way, as if a bunch of RPA and Honda execs sat around in a room going, "You know what the idiot kids today love? Robots!" (Which, by the way, is not true: as many people know you should never trust robots.) It's actually somewhat reminiscent (in terms of its inability to understand the target audience) of McDonald's's Big Mac rap commercial, an urban-targeted piece that consisted of a "rapped" version of the Big Mac ingredients (two all-beef patties, special sauce, etc...) followed by the line "And as a matter of fact/to be exact/nothin' eats like a Big Mac." Oh yeah, and at the beginning someone yells out, "Put them Big Macs up y'all!" That is truly gangsta. If you live in Wisconsin.

The sorry state of the Fit ads is actually quite depressing, as the Fit is, in reality, a nice cheap little car that's surprisingly roomy on the inside. Car and Driver rated it #1 among its competitors, including the Yaris.

Speaking of which, the Yaris ads are far and away much better than the Fit ads, simply by virtue of not having that goddamn robot voice. While certainly nothing groundbreaking, they say what they need to without turning the customer off from the brand. In one, as C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle describes it,
the Yaris stops in front of a cute pink piggy bank. But it isn't a toy, the pig actually blinks adorably for its close-up. The Yaris sprouts [an] alien arm...out of the hood. [Ed. note: it looks like one of the appendages on the Sentinels from The Matrix]. It whirs down to the little piggy and zaps it with what looks like a laser. Then a spinning blade pops out and goes all around the piggy's body. That done, a small hammer comes out, taps the pig once and it shatters into neat pieces. The alien Yaris arm reaches down, sucks up the money that was inside the pig, and snaps back into the hood.
It's actually a well executed ad, and it makes a simple point that the car will save you money, especially in these times of rising gas costs. (It also makes me wonder if that laser/spinning saw attachment comes standard or costs extra.)

However, while not as aggressively inane as the ads for the Fit, certain Yaris ads also suffer from their share of creative shortcomings: for example, while watching Adult Swim (or, if you must, [adult swim]), I saw a Yaris ad that specifically apes the Adult Swim bumps. Let me emphasize that just because your target audience thinks something is cool doesn't mean that by emulating it you automatically gain all the attributes of that something. You usually end up looking foolish, desperate, or both. To paraphrase Patton Oswald, anyone who goes out of their way to show that they're hip or edgy is the exact opposite.

Generation Y is in on the joke: we know we're being marketed to, even though we're generally no less immune to marketing than any other group; however, we realize that bad advertising directed at us is the product of marketers misunderstanding us. This means that marketers have to try that much harder when they're trying to reach us. I realize it's tough work and it's a bitch, but going the extra mile in order to understand your target audience on something more than a surface level is what will, in the long run, create not only a competitive advantage but also real brand equity for whatever it is that is being marketed. Understand that, and the rest will come easily.

And that robot voice has got to go.