there will always be a scar

With this new commercial, it seems that JC Penney (NOT JCP) has now fully come back to their senses…

I’ve been updating my original post on the JC Penney brand debacle as they’ve come to this point. And I’m glad they’ve re-embraced their core brand.  As Mark mentioned in the comments of my original post, this really is the New Coke of the retail sector. Now the analogy is complete with their mea culpa.

Two last thoughts…

  1. Will they actually recover? Coke did but they were a much stronger brand with more equity built into the culture. As the spot begs for forgiveness from their old customers, will that core demo come back to buy husky jeans for their teenage boys when back-to-school shopping time comes?
  2. Even if they do recover, this will leave a scar that will never be erased. Sure, customers will forget in a few years, but it will be marketing case study fodder (just like New Coke) for years.

It’s a lesson for your brand. Don’t trash years of brand equity to rebrand. Your brand is your most important asset. Embrace it and build onto it.

kentucky kicks a**

One of the very first blog posts I published in 2005 was a repurposing of an op-ed article I wrote for the Courier-Journal about the failure of the Unbridled Spirit “rebranding” of Kentucky. I’ve used that story many many times since then. It’s featured prominently in Brand Zeitgeist. I use it in my marketing keynotes when I speak about branding. Because I’m from the Bluegrass State, it’s one of my favorite ways to talk about misconceptions on brand strategy.

branding keynote speechAfter seven years of lackluster response to Unbridled Spirit, someone decided to do something about it. A group calling themselves Kentucky for Kentucky has taken the task of reimagining the branding of the state commonwealth.

They’ve replaced “Unbridled Spirit” with “Kentucky kicks a**” (no asterisks) complete with a YouTube video that’s gone viral and related merchandise.

Their campaign, which is only a few weeks old, has already outpaced the real campaign run by the Kentucky Department of Tourism in Facebook likes, video views, etc. It made a big jump when it picked up national exposure in the USA Today this week.

Many have faulted the state tourism department spokesman for their response, but I can see the point of the tourism bureaucrats trying to distance themselves from this homegrown branding effort because of the vulgarity of it. It plays well with certain demos, but will turn off others which is a death knell for tourism.

While I’ve gone on record against vulgarity, I do like the fact that this campaign does something right. It has emotion. It has personality. Instead of trying to cram a corporate brand message down someone’s throat, it takes the brand equity that is there and translates it into something people want to share and experience. State leaders should take a lesson of how to properly translate a brand message into something people want to share.

(btw. KY does kick a**.)

usa yesterday

In July, USA Today underwent a redesign. (For the rest of this blog post, I’ll try to avoid the phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”.)

But while we could talk alot about the news / journalism implications of the redesign and even how the print design is meant to evoke more of a web feel, I’m stuck on the new “logo” (use “airquotes”)

USA Today’s new logo — a large circle in colors corresponding to the sections — will be an infographic that changes with the news, containing a photo or image that represents key stories of the day.

This “evolving logo, but not a logo” idea was tried by AOL back in 2009.  Basic business lesson: Don’t copy AOL ideas.

While logo does not equal brand, the logo is the main visual anchor of a brand. Visual brand identity does need to evolve with the brand, but it needs to be a gradual process, not a daily one.

The USA Today’s troubles run deeper than the logo. What if hotels stopped dumping them at guests’ doors? Circulation would go down by 97%.

Seriously, the USA Today still has the same 2 major brand problems it’s had since 1982. It’s a McPaper about a mile wide and an inch deep and it’s owned by Gannett.

In the end, I guess the real reason I’m a little disappointed in the redesign because it’s no longer “delivered by satellite” (cause that’s SO high-tech).

jc penney failure

jc penney logoI’m typically not one to root for something to fail, but I will make exceptions.

Ever since the “rebranding” of JC Penney JCP back in February, I’ve boycotted the store and waited for the day that their marketing stupidity would result in marketing failure. That day was yesterday.

From the super annoying teaser spots back in January (Nooooooo!) to the vapid campaign that was heavy on style but lacking any substantive advertising strategy, the whole endeavor by JC Penney to abandon their heritage was sad.

The advertising campaign bothered me the most. Newspaper inserts were wasted empty brand building pieces sitting next to other stores’ inserts chock full of merchandise. JCP featured no products. The campaign delivered no message. JCP waded right into the culture wars with a spokesperson who many people find objectionable. The media placement and scheduling was infuriating to viewers. The creative was not original. It was like watching an advertising student recreate an ad from The GAP or Old Navy as a class project.

(Lack of substance is an issue with alot of advertising today. More ad people need to read this book.)

But advertising is temporal. If a campaign doesn’t work, you can shove it under the rug and start fresh with the next one. JC Penney’s bigger problem is they have irreparably damaged their two most valuable assets: their customer base and their brand.

They may not be sexy, but the 35-65 female demo buys most things in department stores. They have disposable income. They purchase clothes and other items for the kids and the rest of the family. This type of base customer was the loyal customer base of JC Penney. And JCP left them to chase after a younger woman.

The JC Penney brand was not broken, but did need an update and adjustment. Like so many companies instead of brand adjustments, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Rebranding is rarely the answer. You only need to rebrand if the brand is damaged. (Phillip Morris, BP, etc)

Marketing execs need to learn that rebranding is like paying the mortgage on a house for 30 years then abandoning the house because you’re tired of the wallpaper and paint. The key to successfully moving the perception of a brand is to take the positive brand equity with you instead of abandoning it.

JC Penney faced an impossible task. You can’t change a 110-year-old brand in a few months. Maybe they began with good intentions. Moving away from constant sales, coupons, and promotions was a good idea, but they over reached by trying to reinvent language. People know what a “sale” is, but a normal person doesn’t understand what “month-long value” is. And who knew a “Best Price Friday” happens on Saturday and Sunday as well? In general, JCP should have been more delicate with the brand work.

So now what? JC Penney is caught between the dock and the boat. They’re going to have to decide whether to build on what they have or keep trying to reinvent. What would you do?

By the way, if any company is thinking of hiring someone to come in and destroy their brand in 9 months for $15 million, I’ll do it in 5 months for only $7 million!

(UPDATE: April 2013 – JCP has ousted the architect of failure and reinstalled the former head honcho. We’ll see if it’s too late to save the brand.)

(UPDATE: May 2013 – I’ve written a new post complete with the JC Penney mea culpa commercial.)

linguistical maneuvers

Apple wants the iPad 3 to be called the “new iPad”.

This poses some questions for the future. What happens when the next incarnation of the iPad arrives? Will we call it the newer iPad? At that point, what will we call this iPad? The old new iPad?

Then what about versions after that? Will the hipsters eventually walk into the Apple Store and say “I need a dock for my old newer new newest iPad”?

There is some strategy behind this branding shift for Apple. We just won’t get to see their complete line of thinking until the new newer version of the newest iPad is unveiled in a few years.

brand leadership

Strong brands have strong leaders with strong personalities. This branded leadership will help organizations succeed because the audience will have confidence that the leaders will respond to their needs.

colonel sandersLeaders of the organization (at all levels) can influence brand perception. How they exercise that influence can have positive or negative effects.

But where does this leadership come from? There are three primary sources:

Shoppers trust Joe down at Joe’s Butcher Shop more than the corporate meat cutter behind the glass at the Mega-Low Mart. The product is similar in both instances. Why is there a major perception difference? It’s because shoppers perceive Joe as a guide, curator, and maybe even a friend. His personal integrity stands behind his product. The meat at the big box store is presented as a faceless commodity.

And the naysayers say…

“Well, okay, of course the small mom & pop business can do this stuff, right? That’s their strength. Major national brands can’t do it.”

Perhaps you’re reading this post on a product you picked up down at Steve’s Apple Store.

Steve Jobs was defined by Apple and Apple will always be defined by Steve Jobs (and Woz). Jobs’ personal credibility bled through to the brand. While he was infamously a hands-on micromanager in development and design, he didn’t personally sell iPhones, Macs, and the rest to consumers….Or did he?…You saw the personal connection between him, the brand, and consumers at when he unveiled a new Apple product when he was alive and you certainly saw it when he died.

You’ve seen this strong personal leadership that crossed the veil into the brand at several strong corporate entities. Tony Hsieh at Zappos. Richard Branson at Virgin. Herb Kelleher at SouthWest. Oprah at … Oprah. All individuals whose personal leadership made those brands great.

And the naysayers say…

“Well, okay, of course the founders of these companies made a huge impact on the corporate brand. But our founder is ____. (boring / evil / dead / etc) We can’t do it.”

No doubt Henry Ford, in his day, made as much or more of an influence on his company as any of the people I mentioned above. His influence on the Ford brand is finished. But with social media connections to people like Scott Monty (@ScottMonty), there is a personal leadership and connection to the brand. Through an effective social media strategy, consumers can talk “personally” to a brand and feel a one-on-one connection that is similar to Joe down at the butcher shop.

Another point to remember is that brand leadership happens at every level of the organization. The barista that you interact with every morning who knows your name and you know theirs is more of the face of Starbucks to you than Howard Schultz is. Develop a corporate culture that helps the people who are ambassadors of your brand (employees, volunteers, other customers, and more) show brand leadership.

People want to interact with personalities, not corporations. No matter where the leadership for that personality comes from, organizations will benefit from it whether it be from an employee empowered corporate culture, an interactive social media presence, or a visible dynamic founder.

brand strategy lessons from zappos cyberattack

Online retailer Zappos has been attacked via one of their servers in Kentucky. (yes, we have servers and electricity in Ky.)

Anyone who has spent any amount of time following me or listening to me speak knows I love to use Zappos as an example of great customer service. I even used them as a case study in Brand Zeitgeist. And once again, they are showing some smart reactions to a bad situation. Just a few important points to learn from this event:

Cyber attacks are a reality. If you have sensitive customer information in digital format, it’s not a matter of “if” this will happen to your organization, but “when”. Do as much as you can to prevent such attacks, but also have a plan ready of how you will respond when it does happen.

Communication is important. The knee-jerk reaction for most after an event like this would be to communicate with customers … which obviously is important. But a more important first step is internal communication. Customers will ask your employees questions. Employees need to know how to respond to those questions. CEO Tony Hsieh sent out an email to employees prior to the customer email going out.

They’ve gone to emergency mode by taking the call center offline and just using email as a single point of communication. They have pressed each employee into service as a customer service rep during this crisis. Most companies couldn’t dream of doing this. But, because of the unique culture at Zappos, even the janitors know how to respond to customers.

The social media lesson is that, even though they’re focusing on email, they are actually responding to each individual post on their Facebook wall and each tweet on Twitter.

Today, there are only the quick and the dead. Zappos didn’t have numerous meetings to only post a weak response a few days after the event. They worked quickly and decisively by resetting all passwords and initiating the first point of communication about the problem with customers. The first storyteller frames the narrative.

Well built brands can take a hit and recover. Much of what they’re doing with this reaction couldn’t be done if they had not spent the last several years creating a great corporate culture which bled through to a well-developed brand strategy. This is probably the most important lesson for brands to learn. You need to build your boat before you get to the water.

UPDATE: They’re even responding to the postive feedback:

white (flag) coke

It’s something I say a lot…
You don’t own your brand.
You can (and should) develop a brand strategy to guide the message, but ultimately the attributes of the brand rest in the hands of the market.

coca cola white holiday cans 2011Coca-Cola is getting pushback on their white holiday cans.

Coke drinkers are mad about everything from the fact that the white cans are too similar to silver Diet Coke cans to furthering the global warming polar bear hoax. And to prove the theories of product sensation, some drinkers think Coke tastes different in the white cans. The whole incident harkens back to the Tropicana or Gap logo disasters.

Coca-Cola seemingly didn’t learn the lesson of their 1985 New Coke disaster and messed with another core attribute of their brand.

Coke is red. That simple sentence should be in their brand book as something to never mess with.

I assume their white can strategy was another subtle step to back away from Christmas messaging to more generic PC polar bear ‘holiday’ ads. But Coke can’t easily shed Christmas symbols they helped create like the iconic image of Santa Claus.

For over 100 years, Coke has become a part of the American cultural zeitgeist. They have done a good job making people have an emotional attachment to their sugar water. They need to be careful not to disturb those emotions.

it’s always the little things

Positive branding comes from positive customer experiences. Most of your brand is built through mundane daily customer experiences rather than polished marketing messages.

The opportunity and danger in this is that there are a LOT of little things that can either be a remarkable delight for customers or a slightly off-key note.

I eat regularly at a place that occasionally offers me a free food incentive on my receipt if I take their online survey. I usually take the survey because … hey … free taco.

At the end of the otherwise well-designed feedback survey, the final screen tells me to write the confirmation number on the line provided on the receipt and bring it in for the free food.

But … there’s no line anywhere on the receipt.

I usually just jot it down in some white space on the receipt and redeem it.

Is the line a big deal? No.

Does the lack of the line offend me so much that I will never set foot in the place again? No.

But here’s the point. If they’re missing such an obvious little thing, what else are they missing in the customer experience?

It’s like a story I enjoy using when I speak to groups about how you never notice your house stinks until you’ve been gone for a few days and return home. Likewise, business owners don’t notice the many things customers do notice because they rarely go through the customer experience for themselves.

They never see the dead plant at the entrance of the building like customers because they enter from a back door.

They never get lost in phone call center option matrix that their customers have to navigate.

And they never notice a line is missing where they say a line should be.

brand drips

Many small business people don’t actively get involved in managing their brand because they don’t (won’t) see the big picture of branding. Some who do see the importance of brand management get discouraged because they have a hard time getting started.

I’ve written a guest blog post for Spears Marketing on these branding issues. The post uses a new analogy for me on how every single “drip of branding counts”. The post also gives a super simple process for quickly gauging the current status of your brand and a quick way to define your brand objective.

Check it out (plus the posts from Seth Spears as well).