December 21st, 2008
The concept of fulfilling the wishes of poor children who write to Santa Claus is a century-old initiative first started by postal workers who were moved by such letters. In the 1940s, the post office began making such letters available to the public, and eventually “Operation Santa” was born.
New York was the first, but programs exist in NJ, Washington, Dallas and other cities. New York alone gets around 500,000 letters each year.
One year, my mom and I decided to participate. We made the trek to the 33rd Street Farley Post Office on the West Side, and sat on the floor reading letters. Some were goofy, with kids asking for cars and video games. Some made us cry, with children asking for a warm coat for a sibling, or shoes, or a job for a parent. You take as many letters as you can, purchase goods and then mail them to the family on your own.
This week, the program was suspended when a registered sex offender was spotted taking one of the letters. Apparently the guy meant no harm, but – when the program came back days later – it was materially changed.
From now on, personal information on all the letters will be masked and you will have to return to the post office and give your package to a post office employee, who will then address and send your gift to the child whose letter you chose.
I predict that this will suppress participation, as some of the warmth of the process is drained away, and it’s going to put a horrendous level of stress and responsibility on the Post Office at the busiest time of year. Philadelphia mysteriously ended its program yesterday, saying its decision to halt the initiative 4 days earlier than planned had nothing to do with the breach. Unless they ran out of needy families, I doubt that.
As I said, folks, I got nothin’ on this one. No pithy observations. This is just bad bad bad at a time when the poor need more help than ever. I’m really sad about this.
Give to a foodbank, or go to a homeless shelter and offer gifts for children. Donate supplies to schools that cannot afford them. Resolve in 2009 to work with NY Cares or other organization to “adopt” a child in a school in need. Children do not deserve to suffer at this or any other time of year.
December 10th, 2008
Wow, Chuck E. Cheese has a problem.
The Wall Street Journal ran a half-page story in Section A yesterday that would cause any parent to run for the hills. While CEC describes itself as a place “where a kid can be a kid,” and the cover of its 2007 Annual Report boasts “The Evolution of Fun,” it appears that the actual stores have become a nexus of bad behavior and danger. Police all over the U.S. have been dealing with fights, guests carrying weapons and boozed-up brawls.
When a public official describes his local Chuck E. Cheese as “something out of a Quentin Tarantino film,” you have a serious problem. The picture at right shows the CEC in said politician’s Milwaukee neighborhood – with an armed guard out front.
A simple glance at Google tells the Web 2.0 tale. Of 9 front-page search results for “Chuck E. Cheese,” 5 are negative. Of 10 front-page results for “McDonalds,” 0 are negative.
So where is the crisis management and what is the company doing about this problem? While the company’s head of marketing describes the fights and problems as “atypical,” the risk to a corporation is not always volume-based. Only one child or parent needs to die in one of these melees for CEC to get sued into the ether.
Not only is (a) taking aggressive action and then (b) broadly communicating your plan the “right thing to do,” it ultimately protects the bottom line and shareholder value. Take the saddest, most base scenario: if the company gets sued over a child’s death, it will be in far better stead with the court if it can show an active, consistent and good-faith effort to address this problem. Such a good-faith effort could very well include suffering a short-term revenue hit by closing the most troubled locations in the near 500-location chain. And continuing to serve alcohol in most stores is a recipe for disaster. What percentage of revenue coming from alcohol sales – at children’s birthday parties – is worth a legal disaster that effectively cripples the company?
I frequently refer to the Tylenol poisonings in 1982 and J&J’s decision to pull all U.S. product off the shelves even after the company had been determined to have no involvement in the tragedy. This may well be the best example of a company taking the long view in memory.
There is a range of choices CEC can take. At the lower end of the range, management needs to take action in its own backyard to resolve these issues. At the higher end, welcome Alderman Zielinski in as a valued advisor. Hold a press conference with him in Milwaukee where he ceremoniously padlocks his neighborhood location while you rightfully announce that no amount of money is worth putting people’s lives in danger. Ask Zielinski to help you create a national “Having Fun Can Be Safe” campaign nationwide.
Wherever CEC lands on this spectrum, it had better land quickly. Or ol’ Chuck may be toast.
November 21st, 2008
It’s so appropriate that the phrase comes from the investment community – because said community really stinks at it!
I submit to you the following:
1. AIG using taxpayer money on sales retreats, replete with spa treatments. Then AIG used taxpayer money on deferred comp for the top 5% of its executives.
2. The CEOs of GM, Chrysler and Ford flying to Washington DC in private jets to plead for taxpayer money before a Congressional committee.
3. James Cayne, the former CEO of Bear Stearns, was busy playing bridge in Tennessee without a cell phone or Blackberry while the financial community struggled to save (or sell) his firm.
On the flip side – with good optics – is The Nielsen Company who just canceled its 2009 client meeting, citing economic concerns.
In times of significant oversight, the last thing an organization should do is something (anything) that would instantly be absorbed as inappropriate. And – suspending belief for a moment – even if the action is “legitimate” (a surprised AIG executive told me this past weekend that he could not understand how anyone wouldn’t understand the just cause of deferred comp), it is wholly irrelevant. Because even if you are “right” you won’t have the chance to prove it: the market will have passed judgment and moved on.
Poor optics – particularly those we’ve witnessed since the failure of Lehman Brothers – can be a symptom of two diseases. The first illness causes a historically successful individual to somehow believe that she is untouchable and, perhaps, even super-human. Just as troublesome is the disease that causes one to believe that anything he does might in fact be seen, but that the seers will determine the person’s true, positive intent and will defer.
Both illnesses bring down companies. As senior marketing executives frequently run PR/communications, we can only counsel senior management in their best interest but, too often, these voices are eventually silenced. Any CEO playing cards in Tennessee without a phone while the market is tanking is accustomed to such behavior, and is unlikely to accept advice to the contrary. And in that case, the potentially hundreds of thousands of employees, retirees and communities who rely on that organization better hope that the card game ends early.
A version of this post can be found at www.reputationgarage.com.
November 16th, 2008
October 9th, 2008
In August, I wrote a post titled “Stephanie Fierman On Beer And Blahniks.” (or, Why Do Businesses Not Understand Women, Part 1). The upshot of the post is that Guinness planned to launch a beer “for women” that was essentially a watered-down version of their existing product. The head of marketing at Guinness said that he wanted women to love this new watery beer as much as they love high heels.
I felt sorry for him. Sort of. But no one else seemed to.
I added the post to Blogher, where it received praise from one of the site’s founders, Lisa Stone (thank you, Lisa!) and this from Liz Rizzo (aka Beer Lover): “I love beer WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY more than I love shoes. And watered down Guinness? For my sanity, I’m going to pretend that I never ever ever read those words. They hurt me.”
It’s frustrating. There appears to be two prevailing views of women in most marketing efforts: (1) the good-time girl who weighs 90 pounds and lives only at night, goes out with lots of friends in great clothes, does not appear to have a job and loves your car/bodyspray/lipstick/ deodorant/liquor (Guinness), and (2) the mom (Best Buy).
But back to Best Buy in a minute. First, an anecdote.
I was on a plane last night and watched Baby Mama. Loved it. Silly, and a bit like one SNL skit after another, but 98% fun overall. It’s the story of an attractive, totally put-together non-spinster woman, played by Tina Fey, who has a nice life and great career. She’d be happy to be in a relationship but is ok being alone at the moment. She does, however, understand that her eggs can’t wait so she wants a baby. Now.
Flash forward to Fey, her sister and their mother (played brilliantly by Two And A Half Men’s Holland Taylor) having dinner while discussing Fey’s intention to adopt or otherwise secure a baby. While her sister is going along, Holland Taylor despairs, “not everyone is so supportive of your ‘alternative lifestyle.'”
To which Fey responds: “Mother, being single is not an ‘alternative lifestyle.”
Mother: “It is when you are 37 years old!”
Holy mackerel. How and when did being fine and single become AN ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLE??
So back to Best Buy. Best Buy has gone for Door #2 as described above while exclaiming that they have created new stores “with women in mind.” “Gone are the chain’s typical warehouse-like blue interiors… replaced instead by wood paneling.” A store for women apparently also needs family-friendly restrooms and race car-shaped shopping carts – because the only way a woman would ever venture into a Best Buy (sans male decision-maker) would be with her male children in tow? If you click on the photo in this post, you will see shots of the interior of one of these stores. Note the cozy throw pillows and kitchen set-up.
I store things in my oven.
Ginger Sorvari Bucklin, Best Buy’s director of Winning With Women, explains that the chain has created these stores based on its appreciation of the fact that 45% of all electronics purchases are made by women. The chain is paying attention. They are spending the time. The new stores were more expensive to build than their standard model. So why such a horrible blind spot? Where is the understanding that women are a diverse crowd? Some of us are single, some are married. Some love babies, some don’t. Some live in the city. Some even live in the suburbs… alone (the horror).
I decided to google Best Buy’s endeavor and saw some seemingly positive reviews. A site with the impressive URL GlobalMarketer.com praised Best Buy as being “best in class” based on its new stores targeting women. I opened the article. It starts with “My husband and I (Strike 1) walked into a Best Buy store in Richfield, Minnesota (Strike 2) at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon (Strike 3).” You can’t make this stuff up. I have nothing against husbands, Minnesota or Sundays on their own but, seriously: this vision would actually drive me away from such a store. Especially on a Sunday when my friends and I are in Tribeca nursing Bloody Marys. Next!
It’s not only silly and frustrating to be seen exclusively as either a party girl or a candidate for Jon and Kate Plus Eight… it’s offensive and disrespectful – to all women. I do not believe that most companies deliberately disrespect women. Best Buy does not consciously disrespect women. It’s worse: companies so smugly assume that they know what women are and what women want – or what they need women to be – they simply disregard the possibility of anything to the contrary.
How Best Buy traveled from learning that “female customers wanted more help seeing how products could work together and fit into their lives” all the way to diaper changing tables and race car shopping cards is beyond me. Sadly, the result will be beyond Best Buy when these stores fail to reach their full potential.
September 28th, 2008
September 9th, 2008
More than 25 years ago, Tylenol changed the “crisis management” business forever by taking decisive action to compromise profitability based on something that was not its fault.
In the fall of 1982, seven people in Chicago died after taking Extra Strength Tylenol capsules laced with potassium cyanide. A 12-year old girl was reportedly the first to die. Panic ensued. Police cars roved the streets in and around the Chicago area blasting warnings from PA systems. When it was determined that the poisoned bottles had come from different factories, the possibility that Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol’s ultimate parent) was somehow to blame was decisively ruled out. Officials came to believe that one or multiple criminals had instead removed bottles from stores, tampered with the contents and then surreptitiously returned the bottles to store shelves.
And yet, responsibility never entered into the decision-making process underway at J&J: only public safety did. The company stopped all Tylenol production and promotion. It issued a national recall not after the episode was over, but while it was still very much underway. The bottles returned to J&J as a result of the recall had a retail value of more than $100 million. I shouldn’t say that J&J stopped all Tylenol promotion: it paid for and issued new national advertising instructing individuals to avoid taking any products that contained Tylenol, and offering to reimburse anyone who sent in an existing bottle of Tylenol capsules.
Once both the crisis and J&J’s action plan were in full force, Tylenol’s market share dropped like a rock from 35% to 8%. To be expected. What was not expected was that share rebounded in less than one year: a return widely credited to J&J’s immediate and decisive action to sacrifice its own well being for the health of – really – the entire country. Since then, J&J’s response is widely considered to be the gold standard in crisis management. Act now. Ask later.
I cannot overemphasize how I feel today about J&J’s behavior that long-ago autumn when I was still a kid. It made an impression that has lasted my entire career: one that influences how I measure companies and my own conduct as a business executive to this very day.
So when I see a company disregard such a lesson for no other reason than financial gain, I am not just nonplussed – I’m disgusted.
SFCA Inc. purchased the assets of Simplicity Inc., a baby bassinet manufacturer, earlier this year after Simplicity went out of business. SFCA is an affiliate of the private equity firm, Blackstreet Capital. Two weeks ago, fifteen retailers – including Target, Wal-Mart, Toys R Us, Amazon and Kmart – halted the sale of certain Simplicity bassinets that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said could be hazardous to babies after two baby girls died (from strangulation in their bassinets). The Wall Street Journal reported that Toys R Us were selling eight of the 66 models affected by the warning; the chain pulled the products anyway. And all the retailers affected agreed to permit consumers to return the bassinets for a refund or store credit, regardless of how long ago the product had been purchased. These retailers heeded the lessons learned from the shining example set by Johnson & Johnson. Act now.
SFCA, on the other hand, is doing nothing, holding fast to its claim that it bears no legal responsibility for the hazardous bassinets. The USCPC couldn’t even issue a product recall, because SFCA would not cooperate. Rick Locker, a lawyer representing SFCA has declared the company unwilling to recall “a product that it did not make and sell.” The blog Daddy Types reports that – while SFCA may have hired Locker to assist with this matter – Locker is also paid as counsel for the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association: the lobbying organization that helps protect the makers of children’s products.
Ironically, the JPMA’s website is currently heralding September as “Baby Safety Month.” In July, the association tooted its own horn for “reaffirm[ing] its commitment of safety.” The communications contact on the July press release isn’t someone at a real PR or crisis management firm: it’s a woman at Association Headquarters, Inc., an organization whose lone means of support is selling services to organizations such as… JPMA. You can’t make this stuff up.
Henceforth, SFCA has taken a “Who, me?” approach to its products killing children. The company claims that it might go out of business if it took all the offending bassinets back. I find this particularly ironic and outdated in our Web 2.o world. If SFCA came out on the Web and announced a recall (even though they were not legally responsible), the company’s future would be far more secure. The company would be a hero. Parents would rave and remember the company when they went shopping the next time. They would tell one another, at a time in history when spreading the word is easier than ever. Their marketing folks would get college and business school cases written.
Isn’t this exactly what Tylenol did and exactly what happened as a result (in a decidedly Web 0.0 world)? But then again, it’s not hard to imagine those meetings in 1982 where well-meaning lawyers warned that a recall could take down the company and J&J’s top management said, So be it. We’re not going to stand by and let people die. Short-sighted greed and bad lawyering are in full control at SFCA. The drawbridge is up. SFCA is not legally required to take back the affected bassinets, there are no mandatory standards for safety in the category and the USCPSC cannot bring legal charges against SFCA.
No matter. There is a higher standard for working and living on this planet that J&J set and by which all corporations should live. As an aside, I’ll say once again that it’s just good business: (a) the positive halo effect for J&J post-crisis was and still is phenomenal, and (b) not doing the right thing will get you in the end. You can expect boycotts and bad press at minimum: perhaps a crazed parent manufacturing a terrible happening to take you down if you’re really unlucky. Permanently disastrous online search results. But aside from it being good business, it’s about acting human, like someone whose own child or grandchild was killed by your product.
There is no exception – and if there is, I haven’t heard about it and SFCA most definitely does not qualify. This is capitalism run right into the ground, taking humanity and business ethics down with it.
SFCA Simplicity bassinets Blackstreet Capital JPMA
Johnson & Johnson 1982 Tylenol Rick Locker
September 2nd, 2008
The teenage jury is in: Abercrombie & Fitch’s cross-channel marketing/ hype machine leaves just about everyone else in the dust. Launched in 1892, I suspect that former shoppers Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable would scarcely recognize the clothier whose soft-core porn advertising/experience that has turned the chain into a cultural icon (well, maybe Gable would feel at home…).
Since rebooting the brand in 1988, A&F has broken from the teen pack by courting controversy everywhere it goes. Let us count the ways…
Because just about every retailer has a catalog and everyone’s catalog is free (ho-hum), A&F created a separate lifestyle magazine full of black-and-white photographs taken by Bruce Weber, the photographer best known for highlighting “the beauty of youth in male nude photography” (as taken verbatim from his own website). There were so many protests over A&F Quarterly (which the company sells – further stoking desire among teens) that the company suspended publication for awhile; it’s hard to say whether it was the magalog’s porn star interviews or the b&w shots of Santa and Mrs. Santa Claus in flagrante that pushed thousands of parents and a few governors and attorneys general over the edge… who’s to say?
Such outrage, of course, only pushed the Quarterly to greater, more mythical heights, stoking the company’s good-but-bad-boy (emphasis on “boy”) reputation. Go online right now to witness the hysteria it generated in 2003. Totally un-cool Bill O’Reilly, a series of religious organizations and others called for boycotts, and articles concerned with “cultural decay” screamed out with headlines like “Abercrombie & Fitch Stops Selling Porn.” Parental boycotts? Porn? Thongs for pre-teens, according to Bill O’Reilly? [Don’t think too much about that one.] All like catnip to your underage kitty. Meee-ow!
A&F Quarterly has recently been reintroduced (in Europe, not the US) with a promise from the company that it would no longer be sold to individuals under the age of 18 and that there would be less of everything that made it hot in the first place. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect any A&F articles on the virtues of abstinence anytime soon.
On the ground, it appears that the company used the Quarterly‘s hiatus period to begin focusing on customer service and the stores. A new CEO was brought in from Gucci which – at 46,000 feet – now boasts the largest luxury store in the world right here on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Gucci knows how to push the rags. The CEO beefed up store staffing and there are now greeters at the front of every store, in addition to at least one employee inside covering each sales section. But what is A&F’s spin? A&F hires male models as greeters, who may literally be standing out on the sideway, stirring up – whatever. The company further inflates the aspiration by “casting” for such greeters on its website, where the pages pulsate with club music accompanying a video of store events where the models are decidedly half-naked and the customers are clearly under 18. If you are interested in becoming a model for A&F, you’re asked for a photo, your height, your weight… and the name of the mall nearest you. ‘Cuz you may be pretty, but don’t ever forget why you’re here.
A&F’s been knocking around in my head for some time, but the impetus for this post was an experience this past Labor Day weekend. Marketing Mojo was merrily cruising down NYC’s Fifth Avenue until running headlong into a case of gridlock at 57th Street. What could it be? Celebrities (pretty typical in these here parts…)? No, it was a huge mass of people standing in front of A&F’s flagship store, waiting to get in and taking pictures of what definitely seemed to be a highlight of their day. There were two beautiful young male models standing at the door controlling entry, and a line of people behind a velvet rope that snaked around the corner. A velvet rope. 2008’s version of Studio 54/Limelight/China Club (all of which the Mojo’s under-18 friends snuck into) is… Abercrombie & Fitch.
There is no question that A&F has made some wrong moves, particularly in the area of diversity. Several years ago, the company made t-shirts that it considered fun and tongue-in-cheek. Just about everyone else, including many college student organizations, considered them racist. And in 2004, the company settled a $50 million class action lawsuit brought by former employees who claimed that the company was happy to hire African-Americans, Asians, Filipinos and other minorities… as long as they worked in the stores’ stockrooms and not out on the selling floor.
Ergo, the stupid, screwed up (and illegal) side of presenting the “Caucasian, football-looking, blonde-hair, blue-eyed, skinny, tall male” as everyone’s ideal.
Fast forward to 2008, and the company is making progress. Today, the company claims that minorities make up 32% of its sales staff. It also has a huge “Diversity” section on its website. Of course this is A&F, so the section plays a video loop that features Asians, Latinos and African-Americans – all of whom are gorgeous and (most of whom are) in some state of undress. The company can’t give up everything!
[Nota bene: An employee recently claimed that A&F has simply shifted its discriminatory ways toward not hiring “ugly” people, with the company’s “hierarchy of hotness” dictating just about everything. And not hiring unattractive people (across all ethnic groups) is very hard to outlaw, according to a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the original 2004 case.]
Based on 20 years of business experience, the Mojo has absolutely no doubt that A&F’s lawyers and senior management are fully cognizant of what they’re doing, and believe that a nuisance lawsuit or two is worth preserving the highly profitable fantasy world they’ve created. And by doing so, A&F taps into its target consumer’s impressionable zeitgeist like few others do – or have the nerve to do.
Abercrombie & Fitch back to school shopping clothing retail
August 16th, 2008
I don’t really understand it. One way or the other, I often write about women who are smart, accomplished and savvy. I don’t consider this to be any big deal: some women are all these things and some aren’t. Just like men. So why do companies still talk down to women in weird ways that they use with men?
There’s an article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal highlighting the efforts of UK beer makers to attract women. To me, this is a fairly basic marketing exercise: Determine the needs of your target. Build product, messaging and pricing to suit. Sell into channel. The (grossly generalized) End. But too often, it doesn’t seen to work that way.
Coors UK says that its mission is to “create a world where women love beer as much as they love shoes.” That should make a marketer cringe. How does Coors know that all women love shoes (they don’t)? And even if they did, what is it about the buying criteria women apply to a fashion purchase (that can be expensive and is seen by the world day in and day out on her feet) that beer makers think they can really learn from here? And do you only want (‘airhead’ is the subtle implication) women who can’t live without… heels? How about wanting to create a world where women love beer as much as they love exchange-traded funds? Or as much as they love criminal law? Climbing teelphone polls? Hmmm. Not sexy.
Later in the article, a bartender in London says that few women have tried Guinness Red (a line extension intended to appeal to the gals) because of its low awareness, and that it would help if “advertising could help explain that it’s (Red) like a watered-down Guinness.”
No no, please don’t go to the bother of making a product for little ol’ me – just give me a man’s product weakened and drained of whatever made it special in the first place. And ask your salesman to describe it to me that way. I’ll be fine.
Peroni seems to be on to something, given that 30% of its drinkers are women – over 2x the industry average. The beer’s upcoming campaign ties the product to Italian culture, a near-universally appealing concept of leisure and enjoyment.
August 10th, 2008
First it was the story on ad agencies that have their own bars and – woo-hoo! – staffers who drink on the job. Now, I know that this is all just good bonding fun: 99.99% of folks aren’t getting drunk on the job. I just thought the piece was a little insensitive (and not too reader-friendly) given that the rest of the issue was focused on layoffs, ad cutbacks and clients bleeding to death.
Now comes what I would call the “Call Me Irresponsible” issue (August 4, 2008).
1. A sidebar about the TV show Mad Men discusses the big sales of Frank O’Hara poetry after Don Draper reads O’Hara‘s poetry on the show. The article’s title: “TV Can Boost Book Sales, Too.” Didn’t Oprah prove that… years ago? And, like, over and over? Hmmm.
2. On a Law & Order episode I saw last weekend, a witness testifies that violent television programming makes juvenile delinquents delinquent. Sam Waterston then proceeds to eat said witness for lunch by quizzing the guy about the difference between “cause” and “correlation.” Now comes the inadvertently humorous, self-involved AdAge article, “Ad Cutbacks Backfired For Bankruptcy Victims.” [Even though your product is lousy, and you expanded too fast, and your customer base dried up… you’d have been fine if you’d only kept advertising!] The article does admit that perhaps there are other factors that make companies go belly up, but when push comes to shove… See Wikipedia on this topic.
3. Finally, an article titled “How The Economy Is – And Isn’t – Affecting Our Lives” tries to take a sort of tongue-in-cheek view on how the recession is changing consumer behavior. We’re buying (cheap) coffee at McDonald’s instead of Starbucks. We’re “ordering from the dollar menu” instead of choosing Big Macs.” We’re “knitting ponchos” instead of “buying back-to-school clothes.” OK. Not brilliant, not offering me any insights for my subscription dollar, but fine. Then I got to a claim regarding our reading habits: We are “reading Stephanie Meyer,” but not “reading Maureen Dowd.” The writer’s evidence for the latter is The New York Times’ declining profitability.
Oh… Trying. To. Move. On. Can’t… Drat.
(a) Nearly every newspaper is losing money at this point because offline readership is declining, (b) Maureen Dowd has written two books that have done pretty well, and (c) Dowd’s columns are quite popular online where – unlike the paper – they can be read for free. So what the heck does the Times‘ profitability, in this particular case, have to do with Maureen Dowd? Nothing. The article does, however, include a picture of Maureen Dowd, so maybe they just thought that that would attract attention. And while I’m on a roll, the author’s supporting evidence for the idea that we’re knitting ponchos is Martha Stewart Living’s increase in 2Q08 sales while consumers are cutting back on back-to-school clothes. Help me.
If AdAge was known and purchased for its satire, this wouldn’t annoy me. And you may conclude that I’m making a big hoo-ha over nothing. But you know what? I really look forward to getting something out of AdAge every week. I give Crain Communications my time and my money, and this stuff isn’t worth either. It’s just dumb. A revered trade journal owes its readers more.