The Experience Is The Thing

December 4th, 2015

And now a rant on customer experience triggered by Brian Solisnew book, X: The Experience When Business Meets Design (more on this later).

I am a Birchbox subscriber. Twice, when the company’s sample boxes got me hooked on a product and I went to the website to purchase a full-sized version, the product was sold out, and I had to check back numerous times. The last time this happened was on Cyber Monday 2015, when Birchbox was pushing me emails shouting “25% off on everything!” Twice that day, I took a moment away from my work and clicked through from those emails only to find the product unavailable. Frustrating. As a result, I tweeted at Birchbox, asking them whether a sale could really be called a sale if the products loyal subscribers wanted (that they’d already promoted to us) weren’t available. I got a smiley robo-tweet in return, apologizing and suggesting I buy something else. When I tweeted a second time, suggesting that this sounded a little like a bait and switch, Birchbox tweeted back the identical robo-apology… minus the suggestion that I shop for something else. Non-thinking, unfeeling, impersonal and obnoxious.

If that sounds strong, it’s because I care. Seriously. Birchbox obviously frets quite a bit over how pretty their monthly boxes are, and what color the tissue paper is inside, and all I want to do is shake them and ask, “Do you understand what you sell?”

Like all brands, Birchbox’s product is not at the point of the most obvious transaction – in their case, the monthly boxes of samples. Their “product” is the entire experience into which a consumer is drawn when he/she decides to allow a brand into his or her busy life. And that’s what it is: I have choices, I don’t need you and – if I let you in – every single touch, every single interaction better be great. In Birchbox’s case, I love the samples, but may not renew my annual subscription because the surrounding experience they provide is lousy and I can’t count on getting a product I want even if I like the sample.

I am constantly shocked at how unconscious brands seem, how blind they are to the fact that experience IS the brand. As a marketer myself, it’s seriously terrifying how clueless brands are about what’s really important.

Oh, and – once a customer starts yelling online – it often kicks off additional complaints, like the woman on Twitter who responded to my experience with “I was basically charged twice for a December birchbox. I signed up last week and now I have ten bucks out of my account today.”

Oh, and (one more time…), of course Birchbox has completely ignored my question about sale rainchecks. Ignoring a customer? That’s the worst.

As Brian Solis says, “Ignorance is diss.”

All this is what Brian’s book is about, and why I loved it. If the above blah-blah makes me sound a little crazy, Brian says I’m normal. He explains that the digital world has upped the ante in terms of what customers expect, making us all “accidental narcissists” who expect more and expect it quickly. And by the way, these expectations that started online have bled into every part of our lives. The experience is everything everywhere now. I don’t care how amazing a refrigerator is; if I can’t get a service person on the phone, I will never buy you again. I don’t care how great your clothes are if your salespeople are rude and your return policy sucks. I don’t care how amazing you are if your ad tracking follows me all over the Web until I want to scream. I don’t care how fabulous your shoes are if your website’s a nightmare. No amount of product fabulousness – or boxes that are so pretty I save them – can overcome a crappy experience.

Brian is right. From the second a brand story catches a consumer’s eye, the clock starts ticking and the expectations start growing. That brand is on stage… and needs to learn how not to f* it up. I used to love Birchbox. Happy thoughts all around. That was then. Last night, I saw a holiday TV ad for the company, and my head was full of disappointment.  That’s a self-inflicted wound that the company would need to work hard to close.

Great book.

Pardon my French, but I feel like a total and utter s**t.  At least I’ll be punished by having to walk on the other side of the street every time I want to go to the drug store.

Allow me to explain.

I believe in supporting small businesses.  My grandfather, a pharmacist, had his own drug store.  My mom feels very strongly about frequenting privately-owned stores whenever she can – drug stores, book stores, you name it – and I try to do the same.  I still feel the “You’ve Got Mail” horror whenever some big box something or other gobbles up yet another street, pushing out all the small business owners just trying to get by.

Flash forward to the polar vortex of 2014.  I need snow boots and I need ’em bad.  I’ve checked all the usual suspects – Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Zappos… nothing but Uggs left in my size (ugh).  The shortage is so real that it’s made the newsmore than once.  There is a small shoe store near my apartment, and I saw some boots I liked in the window.  I went in and discovered that they were $245.  Not happening.  But there was a pair that – all in, including tax – was $130, which felt a lot better than $245.  The trained shoe salesman actually acted like, well, a trained shoe salesman:  he knelt before me, unlaced my old boots, put my new ones on, laced them up, then followed me around to hear whether they fit. He delivered a real service experience.  I left the store with $130 boots feeling sort of ok.  But once the $245 phantom price wore off, and I was home with boots for which I’d paid a lot more than I’d planned, I started to get… itchy.

That’s when I went online.

Armed with new information – the manufacturer’s name and model number – I was able to sidestep all the branded retailers who’d burrowed into my brain via their PR coverage and ad spends (I mean, Zappos? Really?  I don’t even like Zappos) and leverage the Internet’s long tail by just typing the specific shoe information into Google.  This allowed me to browse a number of retailers I’d never heard of, including one that was selling the same pair for $83 all in (including shipping, no tax).  That’s a huge difference.  I returned the first pair of boots to the neighborhood shoe store the next day.

Now, I feel awful about this.  I support small, private stores… I do!  But at what price?  At how much of a premium? A 56% premium? That’s a lot of money. I am now officially playing both sides of the argument: SHOP SMALL (“these big conglomerates are killing the little guy!“) vs. I WORK HARD FOR MY PAYCHECK AND WILL SHOP WHEREVER I GET THE BEST PRICE (“all these bleeding hearts who whine about little stores disappearing should put their money where their mouths are… but they don’t“).

The brick and mortar stores that survive will, for the most part, have to provide something that is (a) truly irreplaceable, or (b) at least worth a modest premium.  I’m talking out of my hat here, but take electronics:  people don’t buy the service warranties because they are expensive and don’t get used.  But maybe buying a TV at a physical Best Buy should gets you the 3-year warranty for free – an offer not available online.  Maybe stores that don’t have loyalty programs will have to start them – programs that provide REAL value – like $100 off your next purchase of any pair of shoes over $200 (I’m making this up, but you get the picture).

I know it’s not my job in life to crack the conundrum of showrooming, but I still feel guilty.  That’s why I figure that once I start wearing the boots I bought on the Web – the same lovely boots that Neil the real shoe salesman so caringly sold me in person – I’ll have to avoid walking by the store, lest he see my feet and discover that I was seduced away by a significantly smaller price tag.

Internet, Shimternet

June 14th, 2011

Do you ever feel like your head might just explode if you have to shove one more new business term in there? Or perhaps you’re simply in the mood for a friendly game of buzzword bingo. I have some extra cards right here…

Who could blame you? I mean, I think I actually met with the guys in this VIDEO just last week:



There isn’t room to list all the new words, terms and acronyms we’ve learned in the last few years:  moblog, m-commerce, phishing, NFC, PPC, CPA, CPO, CPS, DSP, skyscraper, pure play, Splinternet, semantic Web, SMS, TCP/IP, VOIP, XML, RSS, API, CSS, SMM, SMO, black hat (and white hat – I mean, duh) SEO, cybersquatting, adware, P2P, spider, favicon, mousetrapping, greenwashing, augmented reality, branded entertainment, geotargeting, behavioral targeting, network effect, SERP, cloud, triple play, (Web) abandonment, (Web) arbitrage, bot, deep linking, delist, linkbait, spyware, widget, maybe a million others… and certainly dinner isn’t dinner without a good forking.   Or something like that.

But there’s a new new term whose fear factor I want to eliminate right away: agile commerce. As defined by Forrester in its March 2011 paper, Welcome to the Era of Agile Commerce, agile commerce is “an approach to commerce that enables businesses to optimize their people, processes and technology to serve customers across all touchpoints.”

There are 15 pages of text and charts delineating the difference between multichannel and agile commerce, and the analyst also penned a Forbes article titled “Why Multichannel Retail is Obsolete.” “Agile commerce is a metamorphosis,” he says. “It is time for organizations to leave their channel-oriented ways behind.”

The problem is that all this relies on what I consider to be a seriously antiquated view of multi-channel operations.

The definition of multichannel commerce upon which the new agile commerce movement depends is a way of doing business that leaves customer touchpoints and transactions in silos: potentially envisioned, designed, managed and measured independently from one another.  It assumes that prospects/customers probably use one channel but not another (e.g. Jack’s a “store person,” Jill’s a “Web person,”), that user expectations in each of these channels do not overlap, that content, design, functionality, payment options, etc. etc. all differ from one channel to another and that it doesn’t matter because consumers don’t really see all the channels anyway.

What contemporary marketer believes this anymore?

Is there a digital-savvy executive alive who doesn’t know all the stats about connectivity exploding, and audience fragmentation, and the accelerating evolution of technologies, and the emergence of smartphones and tablets and ebooks (oh my)?  Is it news that TV watchers also like being online, or that newspaper readership is sliding around? And yet these are the metrics and conversation points that the paper uses to announce that it’s a new world and that ecommerce players better get with it.

For any marketer trained to start with the customer, the revelation that we must strive to deliver a 100% (a girl can dream) seamless experience from one channel to the next and that our business eco-system must be woven together and able to learn so that a user’s behavior is reflected and rewarded as she wanders from one touchpoint to another… well that’s no revelation at all.

Good marketers recognized and began turning their organizations toward this vision many moons ago.  The consumer is where everything begins and ends.  In the future, channels will be like lights in a galaxy that deliver a seamless, 24 hour brand experience.  Rather than you having to travel to the brand (e.g., you drive to the store), all the access points will do the virtual traveling instead.  With you in the center, the brand will constantly update its customized knowledge of and relationship with you, in all directions and in nearly all applications.  A little like “Minority Report” but in a good way – and without having to remove your eyeballs.  [And yes, I wrote this paragraph while entirely sober.]

Now don’t get me wrong here; I doubt there is an organization on the planet that feels fantastic about where it is on this trip we’re all taking together.  Forget even the fantasy of walking into a physical location and having a person (or digital display) interact with you in a way that reflects a 360° level of knowledge of my relationship: I’d be excited just to talk to a call center rep who can see me transacting on his company’s own website in real time and help me out in a normal, knowledgeable manner.

We have a long long (long) way to go.  But this post is my way of saying that no one should be discouraged, or privately assume that keeping up is impossible.  The  next time you see or hear a new Internet/marketing/digital business buzzword, it may be just that: a new arrangement of letters describing a principle you already understand (perhaps better than those making up some of these new terms in the first place) and live by.

Either way – as long as we keep our heads – it makes for a good game.  And, hey! I’ve got Bingo!!!
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A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executive Network Group‘s blog, MENGBlend.

Beyaz Weird As Possible

June 6th, 2011

Birth control ads are strange. Exhibit A: the Nuvaring ad (see HERE) where the gals take off their clothes and climb into a hot tub with their yellow bathing suits on. Each woman has a… each has a number… and… and one has a bathing cap… and then the hot tub spins like a ride at Disneyland… and then there’s a song that makes me hear Satan’s voice urging me to kill (Mommy!).

I don’t know what’s going on, other than understanding that I better use Nuvaring because remembering to take a pill every day is simply too much for me. At least I think that’s what is says.

So in a land of weird, one must rise extra high to be noticed – and I think Beyaz overshot by a mile. Check out the ad (see below or HERE):



The “it’s good to have choices” positioning is fine, but to put women in a shopping setting, where they can simply choose the men, educations, homes and discretionary incomes of their dreams off a shelf at any time – with as much thought and planning as picking a bottle of ketchup – is offensive. And what was the general idea here: that because women understand shopping the best, we can make birth control a section of a department store to help the message hit home?

Then there are the choices themselves. The home the female shopper chooses is a sweet little purple house, with a car out front that looks like it’s from the 50s. Is that where women belong, or when women were “best” – in the 50s? Have we already failed if we don’t want the picket fence?

And the stork: the only “selection” that tries to literally follow the woman once it is rejected (a stalking stork, if you will). All the women in this ad are still in their 20s: are young women supposed to have babies… or else? Note there are no “and” equations in this ad. It’s all about the “or,” as in grad school or a baby. None of the shoppers leave with more than one item.

or me, though, the most disappointing episode takes place over in the Significant Other section of the store. First of all, the store only carries men in inventory. Being homosexual is not a choice in this retail establishment. Then comes the best part: a woman standing in front of a man (under glass…), only to have another female come along with a smirk on her face and snatch the man off the shelf.

That’s nasty and cruel. And pits women against one another.

The site TresSugar.com does a great job breaking down the ad, scene by scene, object by object. Take a look if you get the chance.

Even in the fantasy world of flying snacks, sodas that never make you fat and perfect hair, I think this ad is over the top in its disdain for women.

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This is an encore presentation of a blog post originally published on Stephanie Fierman: Marketing Daily.

A couple days ago, I returned a dress to Kenneth Cole in NYC. Clearly criminal behavior, based on the way I was treated. The staff seemed almost surprised that I had the receipt AND the credit card associated with it.

Once the associate began the return, he asked for my phone number. I declined to provide it. He said “they” needed it, or he couldn’t process the return. Since the card associations (in this case Mastercard) do not require a phone number for a return, the “they” in these cases is clearly the retailer. But in some cases – where providing a phone number is the shortest path between me and my money – I provide a phone number. Sometimes it’s mine and sometimes, not so much.

Since I squeaked out a weak protestation, I suppose, the associate snarkily replied, “Are you having a good morning, miss?”

Grr.

I said yes.  What I really wanted to say was, “Why? Does Kenneth Cole require a phone number AND a good attitude for a return?”

How much business do these companies need to lose to Internet shopping before they realize that they’re going to have to make a face-to-face transaction really, really good?

Which reminds me of another experience I had recently at Best Buy. I bought a not-unusual item for about $30. I paid cash. Simple.

‘Turns out the item did not have the feature I needed, so I went back to the store a few days later to return it. I had not opened the blister pack, etc. – the item was pristine.

The rep at Returns asked for my phone number. Then I think she may have asked for my email address. Since I use an email specifically for this purpose (cataloguers and the like) I gave it to her. I did ask why it was relevant for a return, and again it was the mysterious “they” who needed it.

Sidebar: Do you think there’s a “They Club” somewhere where all the theys hang out, eat candy and plot their next diabolical scheme? The TSA could run it.

So anyway, the associate has my phone number and my email and I’m holding on, I can do this, go with the flow. Then she asked for my driver’s license.

This is a problem.

My driver’s license for a $30 item? My driver’s license number is not a retailer’s business, particularly when I make a (low-value) purchase with cash. I don’t recall anyone at the store when I purchased the item having any trouble taking my cash: they only appear to have a problem giving it back.

But this post isn’t about the fact that fraud and theft have driven some retailers to do crazy lengths and that they clearly believe an employee can’t do hard things like ask for a driver’s license only for items priced at more than, say, $100.

No, this post is about creating an environment where employees and customers feel welcome and understood.

This “they” thing is pervasive – and completely unnecessary. What it means is that associates are either trained to say “they” – which would be super obnoxious – or they’re not trained for pushback from the consumer at all, and squeeze out a “they” because they truly do not know what to say. In either scenario, the retailer has pitted some innocent, often 19-year-old kid against an unhappy customer, transforming this stranger across from me into the faceless “they” – The Corporation.  And no harried consumer appreciates this when s/he’s trying to get something done.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The associate is human, the shopper is human. Why aren’t employees trained to diffuse the situation but making eye contact and saying something like (insert head shake here): “I know, but Best Buy requires me to do it. I’m really sorry.” Or replace the “sorry” with an “I know it can be annoying.” Or “I know it seems silly and I will try to get you out of here as quickly as possible.”

Something – anything – that reinforces and reminds the customer that the employee is not the company. We all do things we don’t like to do: when a sincere rep looks me in the face sympathetically and says anything close to the phrases above (and the smart ones do), it is a far warmer transaction for both parties.  Then we’re in this together.

And let’s not forget the employee’s feelings too, by the way: how does Best Buy think this rep feels about her job if half of it is occupied by unhappy shoppers? So the company is whittling away at morale by tossing these kids out on the floor without the appropriate “human interaction” training, as well.

Once again I am inclined to say… Grrr.

So the next time, gentle reader, an employee says that “they” need you to swab the inside of your mouth to prove that you’re you, take a deep breath, consider writing an email or letter to the retailer and assess all of your shopping options. Fortunately for us, there are more choices than ever.

It was my pleasure to be interviewed by Peppers & Rogers1to1 Magazine for a story on the evolution of branding.  My responses were folded into the article “Hasbro Gives Control of Its Brand to Customers” HERE

Below is an expanded version of my answers.  It’s a topic that’s at the very core of how I think about brands, communications and the marketplace.  I would welcome your thoughts.

I’m doing a story about the evolution of branding: particularly the growing influence of the customer experience in branding strategy.  How is branding strategy different now than it used to be?
The biggest difference is that a “brand” is something that marketers and companies are accustomed to controlling. In the past, a company sent all of the brand messages that general audiences heard.  Brands pulled the strings – they had all the information that was to be had, and so were able to manage consumer expectations and impressions. In that kind of world, an unhappy customer or supplier – or a disgruntled employee or competitor – could only reach as many people as were in his or her own circle of friends and associates.

Today, any individual can reach literally millions of people in real-time.  The message is whatever each person wishes it to be.  Even if that message is inaccurate or unflattering, its reach is almost limitless.  And a message someone posts can grow in influence as others pick it up and begin circulating it to ever larger circles – that’s how something becomes “viral” – which means that marketers have to be as viral as their customers, ever- vigilant and ready to address whatever comes their way from any corner of the world.

A quick example is Motrin. Motrin created an ad in 2008 that used an irreverent tone in an effort to sympathize with moms who have sore backs from carrying their infants.  This offended some moms,  Had this happened in 1988, you probably would not have heard about it unless you were personally close to one of these women.  Today, moms created and posted angry videos of their own online, the Motrin ad was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and thousands of comments were posted on Twitter alone.  And this happened on a Saturday, by the way: we’re on consumer time now, not brand time.  So same reaction, perhaps, as many might have had 20 years ago, but much bigger megaphone.

This is something that companies and marketing teams are not organized to address – and it exposes all elements of a brand, warts and all, 24/7.  Brands are no longer the shouters: they’ve got to be the listeners. For brands that embrace a conversational relationship with the market, this can be an exciting experience that ultimately creates even more respect and love for a brand.  But for marketers who are accustomed to maintaining a tight rein, there are fundamental challenges ahead.

Branding used to be a way to gain awareness to a mass audience. But tools like social media, more robust customer data, and increased online activity in general seem to be pushing branding toward more personal engagement. What are your thoughts?
I don’t think it’s an either/or: each makes the other better.  Better data helps companies spend their mass advertising budgets more effectively and more precisely, which in turn provides air cover for more personal, individual efforts on the ground.  But there’s no question that it’s always been somewhat difficult to measure the effect of many forms of mass media, and – as other customizable channels become even sharper – there will be even more pressure on companies and their media partners to “prove” value from TV and other big efforts.

Personal engagement has another effect, as well: it raises consumer expectations.  How many times have you heard a frustrated person say “but they know me!” in response to an email addressed in the wrong language, or to the opposite gender? Consumers now know that companies have all this data, and they expect to benefit from it.  How well this data is, in fact, applied may then have an impact on whether the market listens to any messages a brand might send in any channel.

How do trust and credibility play a role in branding strategy these days, and how is it different than before?
Everything’s laid bare now.  There is virtually no nugget of information that isn’t available with a quick Google search.  An employee can create a pseudonym, for example, and tell the world how things “really” work, or that a company is being misleading or untruthful.  There’s no way to hold things back, or sweep something under the rug anymore. 

This puts intense pressure on brands to be more authentic and more worthy of consumers’ trust.  Let’s say a company manufactures merchandise overseas in unacceptable or even illegal conditions: in the past it could continue to do so for years, if not forever.  Now that people walk the globe with high-speed Internet access and cell phones that capture video, those times are over.  And if a company does get “caught” doing something today, these dynamics make the blast exponentially more damaging.

Where do you see the future of branding headed?
I’m hopeful about the future. My own professional community is full of marketers who understand that a brand is no longer corporate IP that needs to be policed and protected: it’s the beating heart of the enterprise. Instead of being talked at, consumers want to talk with a brand, and see the very human passion behind what you sell.  That can be scary, but it’s also pretty darn exciting.

What’s the biggest challenge to getting there?
One of the most difficult challenges is the uneven level of understanding and expectations of those who surround the marketer: the CEO, the CFO, the pressured head of sales and the Board, to name a few.  Executives already know what television advertising or print is, no explanation needed.  There’s comfort in that.  There’s going to be a lot of uncertainty and skepticism about dipping into a world that looks a little crazy, to do something a brand’s never done before.  And the road won’t be smooth: it’s already difficult to explain why something “negative” that’s said online is par for the course and why the brand must continue to engage, not back away.  I am very empathetic to the people on both sides of that table.

Any other thoughts?
For those who already know that good ideas rarely come from sitting behind a desk and who get charged up by listening to product users, prospects and partners, this is a great world.  Assuming a brand is being authentic, there is no real “bad” feedback – there are only lessons that help make you better and better.  There’s going to be plenty of trial and error, but this is all about getting closer to your customer, and that’s a great thing.

 

Stretching More Than Dollars

October 1st, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

It’s true that people love certain brands, and it can be awfully expensive to launch new ones.  I started thinking about this after seeing some slightly off-kilter commercials: could it be that established brands are trying to extract value by presenting new uses for existing products?

Witness the following:

* EGGO ON THE GO-GO.  Working three jobs to pay the mortgage? No time to sit down for breakfast? No problem – take Eggo waffles with you! Last I checked, butter and syrup are a real pain on the subway, so this ad shows kids and adults running out the door with waffles in their hands.  A kid is just running with – you know, a plain ol’ waffle – and a woman says that she takes hers with just a “smudge” of (what looks like strawberry) cream cheese.  A smudge? What’s a smudge? And is that waffle toasted? Because raw would be gross, but cold and toasted and hard would be, well, gross… And then you’ve got the smudge… Eeeee!!

* I LOVE THE SMELL OF ASPIRIN IN THE MORNING. Then there’s Bayer A.M. A television ad features a working dad moving in slo-mo while the voiceover asks whether you’ve ever needed a little get-up-and-go in the morning. He takes Bayer A.M. – “an extra-strength pain reliever with alertness aid specially formulated to fight morning pain and fatigue” – and suddenly he’s racing out the door. Specially formulated! My goodness, what is this magic drug?  That would be caffeine – 65 mg of caffeine in each tablet. Less than 1 cup of coffee. So much for pharmacological breakthroughs.

* GOOD DIGESTION FOR DESSERT. Lastly, there’s Yoplait positioning yogurt as dessert. This was new to me, but apparently Yoplait actually sold “dessert yogurt” back in the 80s.  I don’t know – it’s hard to ponder “dessert!” when all I can think of is Jamie Lee Curtis and those animations of little microbes floating around in my gut.  Maybe it’s just me.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these, of course; one could say they actually represent the creativity of the folks behind these brands.  But there are limits: when they start suggesting that we use Stayfree Ultra-Thins as shoe insoles, I’m outta here.

 

 

In A Fog

September 1st, 2010

by Stephanie Fierman

There’s been a bit of a scramble among brands seeking to leverage AMC’s popular series, Mad Men. BMW is one of the largest and most frequent sponsors, prompting an auto site to gush, “BMW’s underwriting for Mad Men is mad marvelous.”

Maybe so. After all, the series is about an advertising agency and the supposed glamour of the post-War period, all glowy and wistful. It’s an unusual opportunity to create a fresh and fun message… IF it makes sense for the brand.

BMW did two things right. First it aligned itself with the overall je ne sais quoi of the show: the ambience, the characters, their lifestyles, their appearance, their tastes, the physical environment. That provides a very broad base upon which to construct an association. BMW is already an upscale, luxury brand, so this association is more of a positive reinforcement than a flat-out creation.

Second, this attachment is even further strengthened because BMW’s ads run during the episodes themselves. As the show transitions almost seamlessly from content, to commercial, and back again, the company and its cars place themselves directly alongside the target of their (and your) dreams. The viewer sees both in the same sitting; the brain experiences both in the same moment. The connection is made in real time.

London Fog‘s new Mad Men-related ads, on the other hand, miss on both these counts.

Unlike BMW, London Fog’s owner, Iconix, chose to bet all its chips on one single character, Joan Holloway (aka Christina Hendricks). This demands a plausible or at least believable connection between what the product and the individual represent, which is not present here.

Today, London Fog is generally utilitarian, functional, male (androgynous?), classic (tired?) and generally unremarkable, while Hendrick’s Joan is nearly the polar opposite: voluptuous, sexy, powerful, womanly, stimulating. She’s brightly-colored cotton candy in a dress. When you watch the show, her sexual presence makes her nearly every man’s fantasy at one point or another. She’s unattainable, like a rare luxury item.

London Fog is the opposite. By its own admission, the brand has far-flung distribution and high consumer awareness: it holds little mystery, no magic, no unattainability. Mad Men‘s Joan would not wear a London Fog, and no woman (consciously or unconsciously) believes that she will be “more Joan” by wearing the brand. The effect is double-whammy, given that the clothes (which might look fine on “normal” people) appear boring, dull and awkward draped on Hendrick’s frame. The two zeitgeists are just too far apart.

Iconix may have thought that Joan’s essence would rub off on the product. And, prior to Hendricks, Iconix enlisted Eva Longoria and Giselle Bunchen for its ads, presumably with the same objective. The problem is that consumers cannot make brand connections that aren’t there or – worse – pulling in opposite directions.

Forcing an otherwise adequate brand into an environment that makes it appear inadequate is sad and unnecessary: an embarrassing kind of brand dissonance that can do the brand more harm than good.

Lastly, the Joan ads do not have the benefit of being absorbed in the same moment as the story itself. The connection failure is particularly dramatic when experienced in the middle of a fashion magazine, surrounded by circa 2010 fashions, photos and messaging.

Managing a brand – particularly one trying to meld a perhaps very different past with the present – is a fine art. The brand steward must have an unblinking grasp on what the brand is and is not, what it might become, how fast such a change in direction might be made and how to begin. If that direction is wrong, or the speed too fast, the desired messaging won’t find its target and you may needlessely displace the neutral-to-positive feelings most people have about the brand in favor of all the characteristics the brand does not possess. It’s work grounded in an almost DNA-level of understanding of brands, consumer desire and human behavior.

Most brands have positive if not wonderful attributes to emphasize. Show yours in its best light. Avoid whatever might be hot right this second if it just doesn’t fit, and create an environment in which the product can truly shine.

There’s a real reputation-meets-revenue battle happening online.

Today, any advertiser with a Google AdWords account can buy virtually any keyword to advertise its own goods, regardless of whether said advertiser has the rights to use the word.  This is particularly troublesome for companies that have spent decades burnishing brand franchises and consider the associated names and words to be reputational assets of great value. 

If you go to Google right now and type in “LVMH” (the owner of numerous brands including Louis Vuitton and Hennessy), one of the sponsored ads shouts “Designer Handbags 70% off,” with a URL that includes the Louis Vuitton name. That has LVMH steamed and the company sued Google in Europe for trademark infringement.

Well the ruling is in… and it’s a split decision, advantage: Google. Upon Google’s appeal of earlier rulings (that didn’t go its way) the highest court in the EU has determined that – on its face – the mere fact that an LVMH-protected word is available for sale by Google does not mean that Google is in violation of LVMH’s trademark rights.  stephanie-fierman-louis-vuitton.jpg

Specifically, the court has said that the search company is not violating trademarks if (a) its automatic ad system is judged to be “merely technical, automatic and passive” in its operation, and if (b) the company is not aware and cannot be expected to fully police all the words that advertisers purchase.

Since computers are programmed by humans, I would argue that the first point is debatable, but there it is.  It was not a flat-out win for Google, however, as the court also ruled that Google must remove said ads if the brand owner formally complains about an advertiser infringing on its marks.  If Google fails to do this, the court says it won’t be so helpful in protecting Google’s revenue stream the next time around.

The court also reinforced that Google could be held liable for selling keywords that openly encourage or facilitate counterfeiting, which is a win (or at least a booster shot) for brand owners.  And lastly, the court also clarified the responsibilities of advertisers who mustn’t, by “using such keywords, arrange for Google to display ads which do not allow Internet users to easily establish from which undertaking the goods or services covered by the ad in question originate.”

I don’t know about you, but if I’m an advertiser that gets into hot water for legally buying a word that Google sold to me – and I’m not trying to sell knock-offs – I’m naming Google in my legal response.

stephanie-fierman-brand.jpgLVMH has been on the attack re. this issue for a long time all around the world, and must fight infringement in all possible sales channels. It has sued (and has won), for example against eBay in the past.  And  LVMH was front and center in the effective elimination of a thriving Louis Vuitton counterfeit trade on Canal Street in New York City.  After this ruling, the company will flood Google “Don’t Be Evil” Inc. with complaints until the search company will at least have to question what (and how much) it is defending by taking on massive legal expense (and bad PR) in order to make money from advertisers leeching off others’ trademarks.

And speaking of buying Louis Vuitton knock-offs on the street, a LVMH board member asks what may be the most probative observation yet: “Under trademark law anywhere in the world, brand owners have the right to stop third parties from using their names. “Why make an exception for the digital world?”

 As the division between online and offline “worlds” continue to disappear, why indeed?

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, efficient manufacturing, distribution and customer service support…), but you get the idea.

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.