Category Archives: 1. Building Brand

The Dell Lemon-ade

I’ve been offline for a couple of days doing a long overdue computer upgrade, and remembering just how bad Dell’s customer service can be. My workstation had been on a long-slow death spiral, and finally crapped out. I ordered one of Dell’s high-end XPS machines to replace it, and received assurances it would ship in a week. That’s a long time to go without a machine, but it was my fault for waiting too long. So a week passes, and at the end of the day my new machine is supposed to ship, I get an email saying it was delayed and wouldn’t be shipping for another week. I do a quick Google and find out that Dell has had problems shipping other machines in the XPS line, and a lot of customers are annoyed with the unexplained delays. Hmmm. Wish I’d checked that sooner.

So I decide to contact Dell and find out why the order was delayed. There was no reference phone number or link in the failure-to-ship notice, so I go to  When I get to the site, the option at the top of the contact list is "chat". Cool. I won’t have to wait on the phone, or wait for an email response. I click on chat, and they ask me to put in a customer number or order number. No problem. I dig out my customer number, enter it, and get a reply that says "The Chat Service is Not Available to You At this Time". Excuse me? You just charged me over $2k for a computer, failed to ship it, offered no explanation or support number in the notice, and now you tell me I don’t qualify to talk to a service rep online? I’m instantly pissed off. I go on to the next option, email, and send a succinct query asking them to explain the delay so that I know whether I can rely on the new date, or if I need to make other plans. Dell never responded.

The computer did ultimately ship 2 weeks after the order, and I’m happy with the product. But man, I hope I never have to rely on Dell’s customer service.

So I’m telling this story to a buddy of mine who runs IT for a mid-sized company. He has a lot of Dell machines in his organization. Like me, he’s pretty solid on the product, but he has a very jaded view of the organization. Recently, he’s had to deal with the laptop battery debacle–if you haven’t heard, you may be at risk of spontaneous combustion. Although the problem with the batteries originated with Sony, Dell was complicit in waiting out a recall of 4.1 million batteries until there was real, live evidence of catastrophic danger.

My friend, who isn’t usually prone to conspiracy theories, but as an IT manager is over-exposed to aggressive marketing, perceived a marketing agenda in Dell’s recall program. The way he describes it, enterprise customers with a lot of laptops were instructed to pass the recall notice on to each end user. Dell would handle the inconvenience of desktop support for the recall by dealing with each end user directly. I wouldn’t have thought much about that, but my friend immediately balked. Why, as a responsible IT manager, would he help open up a direct channel  to his entire company’s staff for Dell? I kind of marveled at his paranoia for a moment, but then I thought about the numbers. Millions of users hidden behind a corporate IT firewall, and a recall campaign financed by Sony. Maybe that’s how you make lemonade out of 4.1 million lemons.


Brands with your Breakfast

In what may very well turn out to be the most brilliant idea in modern marketing, CBS will unveil a new advertising platform this year: your food. It seems the vast mix of conventional advertising mediums–like print, television, radio, Internet and outdoor–is just too shallow to effectively deliver everything the CBS brand has to offer. So starting this fall, CBS will be coming to you directly from your refrigerator, as a laser imprint on your eggs.

Responding to the overwhelming crowd of entertainment ads in newspapers, magazines and Web sites, George Schweitzer, president of the CBS marketing group, decided it was time to think out of the box and really get in your face. "You can’t avoid it,” Schweitzer chuckled.

The inspiration for the experiment apparently arose from the dismal lack of promising programs for the fall line-up. Without the quality programming to draw bigger audiences, CBS has shifted funding priorities to marketing in order to build positive brand associations through aggressively intrusive messaging.

The tactic has already given new life to CBS’s staff of writers, who are referring to the medium as egg-vertising. Newly inspired slogans are said to include: "CSI” (“Crack the Case on CBS”); “The Amazing Race” (“Scramble
to Win on CBS”); and “Shark” (“Hard-Boiled Drama.”), while ads for new comedy shows include “Shelling Out
Laughs,” “Funny Side Up” and “Leave the Yolks to Us.” Plans are said to be in the works for a new police drama with an ironic edge based entirely on breakfast puns.

The egg advertising follows months of research and development into food-born messaging, with CBS now positioned to corner the egg-messaging market, and staking initial claims in breakfast produce and meats.  While basking in the glow of this masterful stroke at CBS, Mr. Schweitzer remained modest. “I think, it’s like, you know good ideas when you see them.”

Targetted PR Messaging

A couple of people responded by email to my post about Segway–where a PR rep at an obscure industry vertical tradeshow made Segway sound like an obscure product for an obscure vertical during an interview with National Public Radio. What *should* she have done–give up the opportunity to get Segway’s name out over the national airwaves?

No. The problem is more strategic than tactical. If you’re making an investment in PR, you should be working with a company that understands targetted messaging and how to deliver it. The message you position with a trade press journalist is not the same story you deliver to the general business media, much less a mainstream consumer audience like NPR. You and everyone who represents your company should have a playbook of targetted messages for different media outlets and journalists, and you should have it memorized.

When a reporter from NPR showed up at Segway’s booth, Segway’s representative should have had a message ready for a national audience, or she should have phoned home for support. Instead, Segway blew an opportunity to connect with one of the nation’s largest audiences of educated, affluent and environmentally aware consumers–exactly the audience Segway needs to connect with. Those are the kinds of mistakes you can follow right to the bottom line.

Take Me Out to the Small Game

I’m going a little far afield today. Stay with me, it’ll come full circle.

I’ve been following the recent revival of the Barry Bonds doping scandal with the release of the investigative book "Out of the Shadows". I’m one of those Giants fans who’s been in denial. I watched with incredible fascination as Bonds kept dominating the plate and sending the ball into the stratosphere like a vision from every little leaguer’s dreams. It was magical. And it wasn’t too hard to write off the accusations of doping as the whining of detractors.

Now, the evidence is too overwhelming to dismiss, and I wonder how I could have ignored the obvious for so long. I mean, come on, an aging athlete becomes a hulk overnight and pops his batting average to record heights? What kind of collective fantasy are we all living that we refuse to confront such obvious red flags? Where was the mainstream sports media? Where was Major League Baseball? And more to the point, where are they now?

This year, I’m really torn about taking my 5-year-old son to see the Giants. I know he’s not old enough to understand a scandal, and he’ll bask in the atmosphere of a Saturday game at the park. But I’ll be stewing in the knowledge that it’s just another cynical industry that looks the other way when tickets are being sold.

And here is where this comes full circle. As crazy as this may sound, it seems to me that Bonds is a metaphor for the worst in Capitalism. The short term gain is relentlessly pursued even in the face of long-term loss. Bonds gave us a few seasons of magic. And now there will be a long and painful hangover. We may have bought a lot of tickets then, but how many people will be disillusioned this season and look somewhere else for inspiration? How many people will never look at baseball the same again? And how many people will start to doubt other heroes? Lance Armstrong, anyone? Too good to be true?

I sat with my son last weekend in the bleachers at a local high school game, and after a few minutes soaking up the atmosphere of a small local game, I started wondering if any of those high school kids were using steroids, or how long it would be before they would be tempted. I feel like I’ve lost something of value–not just an experience of something magical, but a belief that the magical is real, that it’s possible. That’s now replaced with a sense of cynicism and disgust. And you can bet there’s a real dollar value to that feeling, especially when it’s aggregated over a mass market.

So. Was it worth it? How will the balance sheet for Baseball look after this scandal finally settles? Think about it. Beyond the disillusionment and disgust, Baseball, and most sports for that matter, have cultivated an unsustainable appetite for super human feats. Without chemically enhanced super athletes to make it all so exciting, what segment of the commercial fan base will wander away, bored by the banalities of a normal season?

Why does this look so much like a metaphor for business to me? I believe in the strengths of Capitalism, but watching what’s happening in the confluence of Big business, politics and entertainment–how everything is so relentlessly short-sighted, mindlessly selfish, and cynically amoral–I can’t help wondering what, beyond the bottom line damage, we’re losing with each new scandal. What new hope will be replaced by cynicism and disgust? And in the end, what faith will we have left to invest in achieving the impossible?

Before you go off and slit your wrists, let me say that I’m not a cynic. I don’t believe all is lost. I just think we’re deluded in believing that reform will come from the government, from business, from Hollywood (no, not even George Clooney), or from religion. Change in our business culture is only going to come from the fringes, from the individuals and the small businesses that will grow larger by doing things different, and by investment from people who want to see those changes succeed.

My big burning question for the day–and I invite comments so I can see some examples–is what businesses or institutions do you have faith in today? Who’s doing something right that we should all know more about?

Marketonomy One Year Old

I was looking at my blog’s statement of purpose yesterday–to see if I was still relevant–and noticed that Marketonomy has just hit the one-year mark. Since no one else will stand up and cheer: yippee.

Quite a lot has happened in the past year. I left the marketing agency I helped to found, Cymbic; I joined the CMO Council and it’s corporate parent, GlobalFluency to help drive global expansion; I quit BusinessWeek Online and joined Executive Decision Magazine as a columnist and commentator on marketing; and I had a blast participating in various marketing events and conferences. All the activity has made it hard to keep posting regularly, but it’s been a fascinating exercise in finding the right voice. A lot harder than writing a column or feature story. I’ll have to put some thoughts together on that topic–the advent of blogging puts an interesting twist on the concept of the public sphere…

I’ve got my first article out in a new gig writing for Executive Decision Magazine. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Killing Brand Barbie

Researchers in England have just released a report that, among other things I hope, documents the phenomenon of Barbie mutilation among young girls. It turns out young girls think Barbie torture is cool, especially when it involves burning, breaking and even microwaving.

Only a neurotic parent or the NSA would find this deeply disturbing. My brother and I favored fireworks and liquid flammables for torching our toys as teenagers, and I suspect it’s a time-honored rite of passage. But what stands out in this study from researchers at the University of Bath is that Barbie leads the pack as the favored torture victim.

Researchers from the university’s marketing and psychology departments questioned 100 children about their attitudes to a range of products as part of a study on branding. They found Barbie provoked the strongest reaction, with youngsters reporting "rejection, hatred and violence," researcher Agnes Nairn said.

"The meaning of ‘Barbie’ went beyond an expressed antipathy; actual physical violence and torture towards the doll was repeatedly reported, quite gleefully, across age, school and gender," she said.

I’m usually frightened when marketers and psychologists team up to study kids, but this is fascinating. What on earth, beyond simple joys of teenage sadism, could provoke such a visceral hatred for Barbie? The mind reels.

Matel took it all in stride, however.

Manufacturer Mattel, which sells 94 million Barbies a year worldwide, said the doll remained the "No. 1 fashion doll brand." Mattel U.K. said that despite the findings of "this very small group of children, we know that there are millions of girls in the U.K. and across the world that love and enjoy playing with Barbie and will continue to do so in the future."

With sharp knives and lighter fluid.

Wouldn’t that be a cool Barbie accessory kit? 

A Virgin Eye for Design?

Virgin has just announced the location of its new Virgin Galactic headquarters–a spaceport somewhere south of nowhere in New Mexico, where consumer-grade astronauts can take a ride into space. I have no doubt that some day my 4-year-old son will be able to fly into space, and it’s exciting to see the first steps take shape.

Virgin also announced it’s new corporate identity, which is a little less exciting.

The concept is interesting, but the design doesn’t work at all. For starters, the concept only works well on a black background: it’s supposed to be the pupil of an eye incorporated into a solar eclipse. But on a white background, it just looks like an eyeball with "Virgin" tatooed on the pupil. Even if the concept did work on white, the design wouldn’t. Can you imagine trying to size this for letterhead? The image would be reduced so much that Virgin would be unreadable. The "Ga" in Galactic is already unreadable layered over the iris. It looks like "Virgin Lactic"… a new milk product? Then you’ve got the nightmare of reproduction, with hundreds of gradients in the iris that will make all but the best printers reproduce a muddy mess. How will it reproduce in black and white? In knock out? In a vertical lockup? It looks cool on a black Web site, but I can’t imagine this being used successfully as a corporate identity.

Why am I taking the time to comment on this? This is classic form over function design, which eventually hampers good marketing. Someone was married to a concept, damn the consequences. I wonder who…. They say that Richard Branson’s iris will be used for the final logo. It kind of makes you wonder if the whole Virgin Galactic operation isn’t a little heavy on concept but light on actually making the details work.


I had a funny conversation with a sales rep from Google who called to sell me on reselling AdWords and AdSense. She was smart, well informed on Google’s offering, and pretty well briefed on the company I work for. But when I told her Paid Search and SEO weren’t on the roster of services I would be offering in 2006, she went, like, totally blonde on me. "You’re a PR and Marketing firm, right?" Yes, I confirmed, and we don’t do search marketing. She barely concealed her incredulity, circling back to the beginner’s pitch to introduce me to AdWords. Yes, yes, I know. Great stuff, really. No, not interested, thanks. But if you want to send me some material I’ll keep it on file. She couldn’t resist confirming one final time, "You are a PR firm…right?"

Yes. I know Google is a really big phenomenon, and I know AdWords is critical for generating topline revenue at many companies–especially if they happen to be selling something like refrigerator magnets or life insurance. I’ve advised businesses spending 10s of thousands of dollars a month on paid search, and others spending over $100k on SEO. When something like 80% of all Internet traffic begins at a search engine, it’s a good idea to understand how the game works. But–gasp–I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all marketing strategy for most businesses. This seemed to come as a genuine shock to the Google Ad Rep. As if, what else is there?

Well, I think the biggest What Else is what seems to be a rapidly resurging relevance for Social Marketing–a marketing approach that focuses on meticulously cultivating relationships with a selected audience rather than trying to push a critical mass of anonymous and abstract targets through a response filter. As effective as AdWords is today, it still represents a paint-by-numbers approach to mass marketing that won’t stand on its own in a world where users have on-demand access–through Google, no less–to hundreds of data points on your product from media sources, expert reviews and countless peers. Businesses are rapidly losing control of their own message, and channel efficiency isn’t going to solve the problem.

I’ll post more on this after the CMO Summit in Monterey this week. For now, I’m not sure whether I’m captivated more by the Google Ad Rep’s inability to conceive of any marketing tactic beyond Search–are they really that self-inflated?–or by the thought that she was so incredulous because she doesn’t come across any other companies that question Search’s omnipotence. That can’t be true. Can it?

Marketing Mindshare

I’m at an event in Boston this week for senior marketers–a week long summit of targeted sessions on everything from Competitive Intelligence to CRM optimization. It’s an interesting crowd–maybe 200 or so marketing executives and 30 vendors. The event is hosted by Frost & Sullivan, and I’m actually here to support the marketing and sales team of one of my clients, Leverage Software.

The event is pretty well produced as far as conferences go–the venue is right on the harbor, the networking is well facillitated, the crowd is highly qualified and strategic–nicely done. My only complaint is at a much higher level. When you get a few hundred marketers in the room together and start threading the crowd to network, you get a really good sense of the current position of marketing evolution. There’s certainly a lot of activity out there–busyness–but the signal-to-noise ratio isn’t what I would have hoped by this point.

Here’s the problem: While the activity of marketing is changing, the mentality is too much the same. The activity of marketing today is focused on accountability, metrics, ROI. It’s all about efficiency. If marketing can line 100 ducks up on the fence, sales can shoot 1.5 of them. And the big objective of today’s marketer is to improve that ratio to 1.7.

What few marketers seem to appreciate is that you can be remarkably efficient at serving your market poorly. The mentality needs to change from shooting a fraction of your ducks and calling that success, to gathering those 100 ducks off the fence and cultivating them into a channel that can consistently offer up 1.5 new customers, without making the other 98.5 gun shy. You do that by engaging with your market, cultivating peer connections, collaboration and dialog–not by spouting positioning messages and applying your cookie cutter qualifiers. That, by the way, is why we’re here with Leverage, because they provide software that enables such an approach.

As a blog entry this is oversimplified to the point of being parody. But I just want you to know that I’m milling around this show with a highly concentrated crowd of high-level marketers–and as events go, it’s a decent one–but it feels like there’s not enough octance in the fuel.