Monday, December 21, 2009

The Salvos - A brand as big as Christmas

When the chips are down, people turn to the Salvation Army or, in Australian vernacular, the Salvos. This is a brand that never seems to tarnish and when the media does its Christmas rounds, the Salvos are in the forefront of the news, distributing toys and Christmas pud to those who would otherwise struggle to put the 'festive' into the season.

This year, the Salvos are reporting that a number of recipients were actually givers only a year ago. The GFC, that has seemingly washed passed many in Australia, has certainly had casualties.

I'm more fortunate. I have a Christmas pud sitting on my office desk right now - ready to serve the small family invasion that will strike at some point on Christmas Day. It's appropriately branded Puddin on the Ritz. The Salvation Army serveries will seem like the Ritz to many this Christmas. No matter what your belief, I'm sure you'll agree that we should 'Thank God for the Salvos'. Their's is a triple bottom line result on the community balance sheet.

This is my last blog until early 2010. Best wishes for Christmas and New Year to anyone who drops by for a read over the next couple of weeks. Catchya next year in the Bloggosfear.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Radio triumphs as web jams

Victoria, Australia is heading into the period of highest risk for bushfires and already the inherent strength of radio as a primary media channel is emerging as we experience our first 39 deg (Celsius) day of the summer. Many people with images of January 2009's Black Friday still burning in their memories were unable to access the Country Fire Authority's (CFA's) website designed to provide them with advance fire warnings as the web traffic clearly outran the available bandwidth.

And what channel emerged as the people's champion? Radio. What a boost for this oft forgotten media channel - the poor relation of the more image and content-rich channels of TV and the web. Even a government official on tonight's ABC National News advised that radio was the best channel to use to update on this life and death information.

So media planners, ignore radio at your peril. It is simple, long-proven technology that rarely fails. It can penetrate home theatre systems, iPods, transistor radios, mobile phones and even the web. And it's cheap, enabling high frequency. How many technologies can boast reliable penetration of all those access points.

If I was a radio marketing guy, I'd be pointing this out, particularly during the tinder dry summer months that have become the norm in our part of the world. You can guarantee that, at least over our hottest months, radio will extend your reach better than ever before.

What brand of Christmas stocking?

It's should be a prime time for makers of hosiery. But amid lots of talk about filling stockings, marketers seem to find it a challenge to capitalise on this annual surge of consumer interest. Here's a desktop analysis of how some of our leading brands could be positioned for Christmas:

Sheer Relief: For those with low expectations for Santa's visit.
Holeproof: A special line for paranoid lawyers.
Rio: Add a Carnivale flavour to Christmas morning.
Razza Matazz: Pack with 'label' brands for the pretentious recipient.
Voodoo: Stick pins in them to see if you can guess what's inside.
Kicks: The stocking for adult toys.
Antz Pantz: For those who want to take kicks (or licks) one step further (explanation here).

Yep, it should be boom times for hosiery sales. This product segmentation study is free to anyone who wants to use it!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pet topic - gotta get to Copenhagen!

I read yesterday that keeping a goldfish as a pet consumer resources equivalent to the energy used by two mobile phones. Keeping a cat annually uses the equivalent of 0.15 hectares of resources. A German Shepherd is the equivalent of about 0.8 hectares.

Who calculates this stuff? The only farm produce I can think of that might enable a universal mathematical link between hectares, kilojoules, resources and zoology is illegal where I live. And clearly, the statisticians using it have tried it - and inhaled!

I went home last night and stared into the goldfish bowl considering how energy efficient its pescatorial occupant looked. I got the cat and stood it alongside to compare. But cats tend to want to be anywhere other than where you place them - energy consumed biting, scratching and finally exiting the experiment. Our cat is clearly a fast burner and probably exceeded his 0.15 hectare annual quota in that single hissy fit.

So what was the point of the story, occupying about $12,000 worth of space in the Financial Review? It was covering booming pet accessory sales, climbing dramatically out of the backwash from the GFC. Don't tell me you've already forgotten what the GFC is! Remember that time when the world threatened to melt down? That was the GFC. Clearly pet owners are optimists and are living proof of the psychotherapy or blissful ignorance that owning a pet offers.

But they are also burning up the planet's resources at an astonishing rate - a point yet to emerge in the goldfish bowl that is the disintegrating Copenhagen summit. Perhaps it is the reason the Africans walked out of the talkfest yesterday. They're already sharing pets within their villages, a proposal presented as an energy saving solution in the Financial Review, and are frustrated that the world doesnt' acknowledge their environmental contribution.

With cow farts already exempted from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) just torpedoed by the Liberal Party and pets vacuuming up hectares of output all through the suburbs, someone has to get to Copenhagen with a blueprint for a global pet sharing scheme. I hereby volunteer to consume some megajoules and flit to Copenhagen to save the talks and bring the Africans back to the table to describe how best to implement community pet sharing, thus restoring glaciers in Greenland.

But wait, what additional energy will we consume transporting goldfish in their bowls to a neighbour up the street? Will this throw the calculations out? We'll never know until Dr Jim Penman launches a new 'Jim's Pet Sharing' franchise and we have a 13 number to call to organise Rover's daily transfer.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bread - should it be prescribed?

Remember the old expression 'I wouldn't know him from a loaf of bread'? That was in the days when you went down to the corner store and selected either a white loaf or a wholemeal loaf. Nowadays though, you should use that expression with caution. They may well come up with a loaf that closely resembles the person in question - perhaps even shares their DNA!

Supermarkets have whole aisles dedicated to loaves of bread. The choice is made even more bewildering by the potential impact of various ingredients on one's health - - barley, wheat, corn, sunflower seeds, olives, raisins, orange peels, dried apricot, cornflour, salt, sugar, saturated fat, unsaturated fat, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, wheatgerm, rye, flour and Preservatives numbered from 001 to 999. And to top it all off, you have to decide whether you want no GI, low GI, just GI or high GI. Perhaps they'll soon have bread by prescription!

I'm sure its just an oversight on the part of bread marketers and packagers that the information overload and the anxiety it causes in the bread aisle already overwhelm any health benefit that might derive from loaves of bread suffused with a mix of high-powered vitamins and minerals.

But surely I have a preferred brand. You know what? I'd like to list bread brands, but none come to mind. They're just absent from the part of the cerebrum where they're supposed to be. I'm so jerked around by ingredients, relative freshness (just baked or half-baked), size of slices (believe it or not, some slices are bigger than a toaster slot) and GI's relationship with hyperactivity that I cannot possibly remember what brand consistently meets all my purchase criteria. What are my purchase criteria? Fresh with a bit of grittiness. Why don't they have a sign saying something like that?

I'd love to know what the unprompted brand recall figures are for bread. Anything more than 1% would have to be a major achievement, because the advertising certainly doesn't help. Bread ads are all the same. Pictures of bakers too happy to be working at 4 a.m., people putting stuff into toasty looking ovens, mentions of abbotts making bread in traditional ways and Mums packing lunches (or are they ads for spreads?). No matter how you slice it, bread marketing has no cut-through that I can see. I reckon someone could make much more dough from one decent ad.

I'm seriously happy to be challenged on these views because I have crossed bread marketing off my 'to do' list. Come to think of it, there's a whole bunch of supermarket things that have this problem - frozen peas and carrots, fish fingers, taco sauce, apple juice. You don't feel any stirring in the groin over any brands in these segments - which brings to mind another undifferentiated category, nuts.

Apologies to all those who invest millions in marketing these things. By writing this I may have justified your suspicions. Middle-aged, once-a-month, male supermarket shoppers are not your prime target.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Applying Daly Tiger balm

Ever used that Chinese Tiger balm ointment? When it first touches your skin, its hardly noticeable and then it just gets hotter. A lot in common with another Tiger don't you think? A few people have emerged recently who might be able to compare. But my purpose is not to heap more misery on the guy. I am more interested how his brand ended up where it has.

The Tiger Woods brand has shrunk in stature nearly as much as John Daly. The trouble is the shrinkage has been caused by personal indulgence rather than the recent abstinence practiced by his colleague. As I think about this, there are interesting observations you can make. On the one hand, we have a guy with a carefully cultivated public image - more carefully than we realised. On the other, a deeply flawed character who has not pretended to be anything else.

I think image management prior to the recent revelations has been as big a contributor to the brand damage wrought on Tiger Woods as the recent revelations. I won't go as far as to say I defy anyone to live up to the manicured image that was Tiger Woods pre-roadside incident. There would be some monks and others who might be able to, although even that is doubtful. But a guy who my wife says is 'gorgeous', loaded with dough and presented with countless temptations faces a fair few challenges in living up to that image.

By comparison, John Daly almost swaggered through booze, drugs, women and gambling and most people felt sorry for him. Some even identified with his flaws. My wife doesn't find him attractive. Many went to watch him play in case he did 'lose it' on the golf course - precisely the opposite reason for tailing  the Tiger.

So while people admire the way Daly appears to be winning a lifelong battle with his inner demons, millions are disappointed in the way in which Tiger Woods has failed to be 'true to brand'. And that is where the problem lies, particularly for prodigies like Tiger Woods who blossom young. Yes, he's had affairs and is dealing with the domestic fallout from that. But I believe that he is really also the victim of some really bad advice. And that advice was probably all around 'just doing golf'' and not doing anything that might offend any potential demographic, psychographic or sponsor.

That's virtually impossible advice to live up to for any young bloke. When the inevitable character flaws emerge in the years ahead, it leaves the brand with no reserve of public understanding to draw on. Perhaps he could get a loan from the place where the Daly brand has built its reserves and just bring the real persona back to the golf course.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Those smoothie talking dudes from Westpac

Nailing financial services communications is not easy. I'm in a position to say that, 'cos that's my job. I remember in my early days being advised by a mentor that all mass communications should be pitched at Herald-Sun (a Melbourne tabloid) comprehension level. Either that 'mentor' was spot-on or had little regard for the general intellect of the community, or both.

Whether right or wrong, Westpac decided to test the waters with this theory in the last week or so. They emailed an animated video to customers after announcing a home loan interest rate rise of nearly double the lift in the central bank rate earlier in the day. It's folklore now that the bank has withdrawn the video after everyone from outraged consumers and government ministers bristled at the comparison drawn between the impact of a tropical storm on the price of banana smoothies and the GFC's impact on the pricing of interest rates.

I viewed the video. I don't think the banana smoothie metaphor was particularly bad. What jarred with me was the final 45 seconds or so which implied it was important to price rates to protect Westpac which was, in turn, ultimately beneficial to its customers and, implies the video, THE NATION! When are banks going to learn it's all about perception? If it is sound commercial practice to price for profit, even if they know it, customers don't want it in their face. Customers would be much happier to hear their bank had sacrificed some of its multi-billion dollar profit to alleviate their pain.

There's no doubt Westpac achieved lots of cut-through with this, albeit for the wrong reasons. But what are the ramifications for communicating complex financial information or, for that matter, any other technical information. On the one hand, we have a disclosure regime in Australia that everyone criticises because it dictates a brain dump of information and data that is too complex and obtuse for anyone to comprehend. On the other, we have a Federal Government and regulators telling us to devise ways of communicating in simple language.

Westpac had a crack at the latter, successfully alienating its more 'sophisticated' customers, who thought the whole thing was patronising. They simply created a modern version of a parable, a visualisation technique harking back to Biblical times.
While the Westpac message clearly had some flaws, I think it's a shame that an experiment in communicating a complex issue in a different way has copped such a caning. It will discourage others from having a crack at a new approach - perhaps not marketing communications types, who never give up trying, but those they have to convince of new approaches.

And let me say, I can't help having a parting shot at two categories of people who never fail to take full advantage. a) Government ministers, including Kevin07, whose motives are all too transparent. Nothing better after an interest rate rise than to be able to demonise a bank. Let off some hot air, then jet out to Copenhagen to work out how to cool it. b) Marcoms/PR cognizenti who seek to enhance their credentials by being wise after the event - the 'major PR blunder' commentators. There, but for the grace of God go they...

It's raining outside, so I'm off for a smoothie before the price hike! Thanks for the tip, Westpac.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Is Twitter dying or morphing?

I saw an article in today's Financial Review 'Twitter and the twits that tweet'. Australian traffic to the Twitter website had, according to monitoring company, Neilsen, declined by 28% in October 2009, while comScore had traffic down by 8%. The article noted that the measured decline to the website may actually reflect a trend to tweeting from other access points like Tweetdeck.

Of all the social networking sites I have looked at, Twitter is the one I find hardest to fathom, at least in its current form. Twitter CEO, Evan William's own Twitter entry yesterday said: 'Many of the great businesses of the next decade will be about making information about our behaviors more visible.'  What the hell does this mean? Does this mean businesses infiltrating our privacy, our yearning for celebrity, even our pursuit of individual relevance? Who wants to be more visible? I blog about brands, marketing and communications built around personal experience. Yes, this does provide some glimpses of what I've been up to. But frankly, I don't think anyone wants to know, or necessarily has a right to know, where I've eaten, slept, banked or wanked.

It is impossible to predict where Twitter will end up. I think I can see a trend, but it is probably only one of many, including possible oblivion. Twitter is being used by some organisations and community groups as a tool for collaboration. I think there is a future here. Eventually, most of the innane domestic affairs publishers will bore themselves into obscurity and  I think Twitter could become a platform utilised by common interest groups to coalesce, whether commercial or community based. The business advantage may ultimately be free use of a collaborative platform, rather than the endless pursuit of consumers totally immersed in their own trivia.

Aussie farmers into a bit of tasty branding

Aussie farmers have always been innovators. Ever since 1876, when South Australian wheat farmer, Richard Smith developed the stump jump plough, our farmers have been world leaders in developing ever more efficient ways of extracting the best from our dry land and competing for shelf space around the world.

So it's great to see a group of farmers in the New South Wales town of Orange launching a new online retail brand, Totally Local, to bring produce direct from farm to consumer. The online brand is an extension of a bricks and mortar retail outlet that's operated in Orange for some time. It's a fightback of sorts. The sort of innovative backlash that you'd expect against the competitive pressures of imported produce and constantly being screwed by large retailers and middlemen from a culture used to prevailing in the harshest environments.

All they promise is food 'harvested for taste rather than transport', a less than subtle reference to the long-term cold storage techniques employed by the major retail groups and transport companies to keep food 'fresh'.  Totally Local expresses a simple vision: 'to have people discover the experience of eating, drinking and enjoying the best local food and wine'.

Don't be surprised if this brand becomes a franchise. It resonates with Gray Advertising's annual 'Eye on Australia' research, which has shown a consumer retreat to community and local brands over recent years. I referred in an earlier blog to the popularity of TV home and garden shows, the upswing in spending on home entertainment systems and so on. The affinity with local brands is part of a greater search for control over life and connection with community.

That's why I think Totally Local is a brand for the times. I hope it goes well for these innovative farmers.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Will Qantas go the way of the dodo?

This is a fair question to ask, given Qantas may become a flightless bird as subsidiary discounter, Jetstar, grabs an increasing share of the tourist market. Like the dodo was shot out of existence due to its inability to take to the air when Europeans brought gunpowder to Mauritius, Qantas may ultimately be shot from the sky by Jetstar and other discounters and, with it, arguably Australia's most revered brand.

In the good old days, Australian skies were shared by Qantas and Ansett Airlines. In the late 80s, the first of the serious challengers to this duopoly, Compass, came along. The compass strategy was based on three pillars - price, price and price - a strategy that I believe spells doom for brands. In the Compass instance, I was correct (I did actually put the prediction in writing in a post-Grad marketing project and was howled out of the room by the rising business elite when I presented it!). Qantas and Ansett had deeper pockets and Compass died the death of a thousand undercuts.

In the early noughties, Ansett went the way of Compass, for entirely different reasons - onerous labour agreements, appallingly complex fleet structure and under-utilisation etc. etc. And there to fill the gap was the perenniel opportunist, Richard Branson, with Virgin, named Virgin Blue downunder, who quickly seized vacant infrastructure after Ansett collapsed. Virgin Blue's 'keep the bastards honest' approach to pricing was one of the reasons Qantas gave birth to Jetstar. It was also a sleight of hand by Qantas management, enabling the company to set up new labour agreements under the Jetstar banner, diluting the impact of one of the overheads that had triggered Ansett's demise.

Jetstar was initially restricted to domestic carriage, leaving Qantas to rule the international air routes and wave the Aussie flag in foreign parts. But price pressure continued as Virgin Blue morphed its international ambitions into Pacific Blue and, along with other competitors pressing for market share, forced Qantas to extend Jetstar to its lower yield, tourist-laden, international routes like New Zealand and Southeast Asia.

From a brand management perspective, the Qantas approach to protecting the margins of its flag carrier has theoretically been excellent. Put the discount brand on the discount routes and retain the full-service brand (and higher fares/yield) for Qantas. Whether this is sustainable long term is the question. Qantas' more lucrative North Asia, European and American routes are mouth wateringly attractive - even to discounters.

Qantas' Chief Executive, Alan Joyce, has confirmed that Jetstar and the Qantas Frequent Flyer program have sustained the entire group in recent times and last month announced moves to cut the number of Business and First Class seats on Qantas flights - more room for travellers who have not been quite as well-heeled since the GFC.

If the Qantas brand does survive, what will it look like? How will it differ from stablemate Jetstar? There are many, including Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation Director, Peter Harbison, who believe Qantas will ultimately be 'gutted and reconstructed around the more profitable Jetstar model'. If this is the case, another great Australian brand and all those who admire may also be 'gutted'.

Friday, December 4, 2009

At a loss when brand doesn't ring a bell

Another terrible confession to make. I was in Bunnings last night (dominant big box hardware retailer for those overseas). I was buying a handyman bag of cement for a small repair job but, inevitably, walked out with several items - one of which was a door bell thanks to drawing my mother-in-law's name out of the kris kringle box last week. I am reviewing my diary to see what I did this year to deserve that!

I did not choose a door bell as the least interesting present I could think of. My wife suggested that an audiosensory decline in my octogenarian in-law meant she could no longer hear the one she had. So the Bunnings display of door bells attracted my attention last night. More correctly, I sought out the display, because even the retail cognizenti at Bunnings have failed to recognise that door bells deserve elevation to a higher calling. Note to Bunnings: Place door bells on check out ends - they're a fantastic impulse buy...Not!

Anyway, I was faced with an array of door bells, which could loosely be divided into two segments - silver and white. Big decision. I phoned my domestic adviser about which was preferable. This narrowed the search. The second criterion was it had to be loud. And this is where I started coming what you'd call 'a gutser'. I couldn't play them. Some had high and low volume settings, but didn't indicate what the threshhold for 'low' or 'high' might be. Silent dog whistles for some reason slipped through my mind as I considered this. I also noted the other audio data relating to these products was the choice of sounds, ranging from two to about eight. As the target audience was nearly stone deaf, I didn't think it would matter.

Basically, they all looked about the same and, roughly speaking, were similarly specified. This was heading towards a brand decision. Shortlist - Arlec, HPM, Kambrook. These were all well known to me. The metal spikes of my HPM garden lights had rusted and fallen off, I knew Arlec made power boards, but the circumstance for testing their overload cutouts had never occurred, and we had a Kambrook kettle once that was so loud we turfed it (I wondered whether the same technology had been applied to making the door bells).  No definitive brand positioning here.

There's only one conclusion I could draw. Door bells are a commoditised product. Brand does not play a big role in door bell marketing strategy, unless of course marketing effort is directed at tradesmen, who have 'the knowledge'. So which one did I buy and on what grounds? Can't remember. Brand recall zero. Feature recall zero. Price recall $29.90. I got out of Christmas cheap. Good purchase decision!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Funk trumps functionality

The Windows 7 advertising campaign, which focuses around cool 'PC' people with great ideas, just looks lame. Only nerds, keen to job Jobs, could think it's clever. It's clearly meant to be a counter to Apple's punishing attack on the uncool, nerdy 'PC' a couple of years ago, but all it does is highlight a lack of ideas in the creative department and a company that just hasn't moved on from that onslaught. It does nothing to convince me that Windows is capable of making the vital leap from functionality to funk, which I think is what it's trying to do.

Apple has a cult following and it's growing rapidly. Four weeks out from Christmas, The Apple Centre in our local shopping mall was packed last Sunday with people standing two and three deep around display counters. The machines looked cool - organic designs tempting you to touch and play. Yes, sexy is the word that comes to mind. They're more expensive, but you're paying for a membership, not just a product.

My daughter turbo-propelled herself into the Apple shop, but displayed only lukewarm interest in Supre, Cotton On and other regular tween fashion haunts. You see, more than most, Apple has commandeered everything that counts to Gen Z and Gen Y - mobility, accessibility and street cred. Think MacBook, iPod, iTouch and iPhone and you get the picture. My daughter could walk around the shopping centre with a MacBook under her arm radiating her chic consumer savvy, even if it didn't work. That's funk.

Testing a potential CEO against brand values

Our CEO resigned yesterday. It got me thinking, not about applying for the job, but rather what sort of person would replace him in a few months' time and what impact that would have on the culture and brand values of our organisation. As I thought more deeply about it, I concluded that, if employees, customers and other stakeholders are comfortable with our culture and brand positioning, the selection process should ensure that our new CEO naturally fits those parameters.

The appointee will no doubt bring their own unique personal and leadership attributes to the organisation but, if the organisation is fundamentally healthy, that individual style should not impact on the underlying values that have navigated and will guide our destiny.

The fascinating overlay on this appointment is that our Board Chairman is only one year into the job and, no doubt, will strongly influence the new appointment. I am sure we will be able to draw more conclusions about the Board's conviction about our brand values, performance and strategy from the choice of CEO than we have been able to from the many staff briefings on Board meetings we have attended over recent years.

Interesting days, interesting days...!

Monday, November 30, 2009

A call to put the 'silly' back into silly season

Opened my diary this morning and noted it's the first week of December - the launch pad to silly season. I've got to say, previewing the week was a hell of a shock. Three school events within the next five nights. No agency or supplier parties. One visit to our agency - and that's first up on Tuesday morning! Not a long lunch in sight.

How many weeks to Christmas? Three that are meaningful. So what's derailed here? Has my social calendar been crunched by the GFC? Perhaps I got invitations for the 50-plus set that didn't look exciting enough. My peers are rubbing on hair restorer rather than letting their hair down.

I can't put my finger on what's changed. Companies send Christmas cards by email, the highlight of our year now being the face of someone's CEO dancing around our computer screen in an animated Santa suit. If they'd done that all year, they'd no longer require the blood pressure medication they doctor prescribed in February because they'd be several stone lighter!

It all seems so impersonal and unnecessarily frugal. Think of all the companies that used to depend on Christmas largesse to make a buck. I think we should write Christmas festivities into supplier contracts in future. Make it mandatory to have fun and actually share a few drinks or, to ensure tax deductability, organise a go-karting competition under the guise of team building.

Let's become rabid consumers and party animals at least once a year. Restore business confidence at a personal level. Renegotiate next year's contract with a nudge and a wink while we order another McLaren Vale red. Mutually assure each other for 2010 with a few good Aussie 'she'll be right mates'. Turn the GFC into 'Great Festive Cheer'! Who's with me on this?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Taking a byte out of life

Having an iPod in my ears yesterday evening got me thinking about how we compress everything these days to get more out of life.

As a poor man's audiophile, I was actually evaluating the quality of the sound out of the iPod relative to what I have experienced through my years via stereo, quadrophonic (remember that!), surround sound, vinyl, cassette tape, CD,  and now, of course, digital. This is a continuation of an age-old debate that arises every time there is a tech evolution.  I remember very lofty arguments with school mates over whether cassette tapes delivered the same audio experience and quality as reel-to-reel. Now you wouldn't bother with either!

The mpeg files that drive iPods are made possible by removing digital information to make the file size compressible and manageble. It's the audio version of jpeg files, which derive from much larger eps, tiff and other graphic files. There is no doubt that in both cases, we sacrifice quality for convenience. The sound out of that iPod yesterday was a convenient, mobile sound, with nowhere near the quality of either of the modest sound systems inside my home.

It is a sign of the times. This is a product that shows we're prepared to lower our standards, even our enjoyment levels, to fit everything into our busy schedules. We become more volume-driven rather than quality-driven. We commoditise everything, even trample over copyright and IP laws in the rush to pleasure ourselves. This is something the music, movie and fashion industries are battling with as I write.

It will mean a dramatic change in the type of consumer with whom we'll be communicating as Gen Z and beyond increase their buying power. These will be generations whose experiential benchmarks will be set by iPod sound, jpeg images, fake designer fashions and so on. They will have unprecedented access to a range of, shall we say, compromised sensory experiences.

This is a challenging scenario for brands that have traditionally invested in innovation, quality and durability when they address consumers who are pursuing volume, price and disposability. Issues of quality will take second place in the value hierarchy of the 'whateva' generations, just as the hollowness of Britney's lip-synced concerts is lost on them. Their values are being built, not on quality, but on accessibility and convenience.

As marketers and communicators, we will need to understand this changed value set and focus on instant gratification rather than Instant Karma.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Whew! The air just gets hotter and hotter

While the Aussie Liberal Party tears itself apart over the ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) bill before the Senate, divisions have emerged elsewhere, notably within the US Chamber of Commerce. Apple announced its resignation as a member over the Chamber's position on the Waxman Bill. Other companies like Nike and Pacific Gas and Electric have either withdrawn their memberships or reduced their level of engagement with the Chamber over the issue. And boy, have these moves generated passionate discussion on the web!

The bottom line is that these companies have accused the Chamber of an anti-science stance in its opposition to the Waxman Bill, which is the US version of the Australian ETS. There are remarkable similarities in the arguments for and against these pieces of legislation. Beneath the rhetoric of climate change advocacy and denial, the core issue relates to the commercial and community cost of implementing climate change legislation and, indeed, if there is to be legislation, whether the management models are appropriate.

Apple, Nike and others have put their brands on the line by taking their strong public stances. Both Apple and Nike have faced battles of their own in the past on environmental and labour issues. Both clearly believe now that they have cleaned up their act and are now setting about cleaning up the rest of the world.

But there is a risk. Take the Apple case, where the company is accused of supporting legislation that will penalise US commerce and favour China, where most Apple computers are manufactured. Detractors argue that Apple has relocated its manufacturing to China to bypass the constraints and costs of US regulations. Advocates argue that Apple is being true to its values, evangelised by its charismatic leader in a recent BusinessWeek interview.

In order to maintain their brand integrity, I believe the key thing for Apple and other companies taking this stance is to ensure that they uniformly apply environmental policies and manufacturing controls no matter where they locate their operations. Brands that can be proven opportunistic and not authentic will be damaged if they fail to do this.

For me, an interesting facet of the debate ahead of the climate meeting in Copenhagen for me is the assumption by detractors that China will be a laggard in climate change negotiations. Who is to say that China will fail to recognise the opportunity to adopt a global leadership position in relation to this? Their rapid economic and civic development is underpinned by a better understanding of the need for resource planning than was the case for any of the countries arising from processes and societies established during the Industrial Revolution.

And, if you don't believe the Chinese will be motivated to progress climate change measures, take a look at this article in The Times relating to glacial loss in China. No matter where Apple and others manufacture their goods, there is a growing prospect that they will find political and community expectations for environmental management might be rapidly aligning.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rupert tries to Bill Microsoft

I am intrigued by Rupert Murdoch's negotiations with Microsoft. Now Rupe's track record in business is somewhat stronger than mine, but what I see here is a guy hell-bent on converting content to cash negotiating with an organisation equally desperate to sting Google with Bing.

That Microsoft would consider paying for 'exclusive' news content to trump the world's most successful search engine is curious, when it is more than likely that consumers will continue to use Google to track news from publishers still willing to churn out free content.  The strategy from Bing's perspective is not compelling.

You've got to ask how two aggregators of content, News Corp and Microsoft, can add value to each others' business. I suppose Rupe thinks that if Bill G's outfit is willing to pay for content, then it matters not how Microsoft intends to recoup its outlay through Bing.  But if News wants to distribute content through user-pays channels, surely it is better to forge alliances with distributors - telcos .

Rupe could negotiate with telcos for a share of the mobile download charges. Mobile communications are the way of the future. Cloud, voice recognition and other technologies will ultimately make the traditional desktop PC redundant.

This would really be charging for content by stealth, but it capitalises on what never ceases to amaze me - consumer willingness to pay for almost anything they get on a mobile device. Compare this with consumer resistance to paying for content via a PC, and the psychology just doesn't add up. Perhaps it's convenience. Perhaps it's because the phone user often doesn't end up paying - the cash cows being either parents or employer.

The bonus of the mobile distribution  idea is that it piggy backs on telco systems, which can already track the downloads and collect and allocate the revenue to content providers.

But Rupe and his troops should know this. They already have the model for it - pay television.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Turnbull - not turncoat

Sorry for posting yet another political blog in this branding space, but I think personal brands are interesting. The case in point is Liberal Party leader, Malcolm Turnbull (for those outside Australia, Turnbull is parliamentary Opposition Leader). I should say up front that I am not his biggest fan, but I have to give credit where I believe it's due.

At yesterday's internal party showdown over whether to pass the Government's carbon trading scheme legislation, Turnbull was true to brand in every sense. Having a few weeks ago set the scene for this meeting by saying he wouldn't lead a party not committed to doing something about climate change, he was put to the test yesterday. Not only did he have to gain majority support for the legislative changes negotiated with the Government, he reportedly offered to spill the party's leadership positions several times.

Under pressure, he held his position on both the proposed legislation and his earlier stance on the leadership. Although the intensity of  feeling at the party meeting was immense and there may still be a push to replace him as leader, he has done the only thing credible - remained true to brand. In my humble view, the Aussie public will score him highly for this, whether or not they agree with the carbon trading scheme legislation, or his crash-through or crash leadership style.

Check out the eyebrow movement

Do you ever watch the US television series, Lie to me? Most of the storylines are basic, the interest being created by the weekly clues to body language and facial twitches that give you away if you're lying. We suspect our politicians tell us fibs occasionally. This is why we're all closely examining the eyebrow movements and searching for other indicators of self-incrimination that we have learned as students of Lie to me, as we listen to South Australian Premier, Mike Rann, deny allegations of sexual liaisons with parliamentary waitress, Michelle Chantelois.

We're different than our American cousins in our reaction to sex and politics. We're equally fascinated but, frankly, are pretty blase about whether or not our pollies are sexually outperforming in the bedroom, or any other venue - more akin to the French or Italian perspective than the American. But what public reactions are clearly indicating is that if something has gone on, as alleged, between the SA Premier and Ms Chantelois, we don't want Mr Rann lying about it.

Mike Rann is a very popular Premier and, according to opinion polls, will win the SA state election in a few months at a canter if there is no adverse fallout from this affair. Public reaction is telling us that the issue that would lose the election would be if he has told lies about sexual liaisons with Ms Chantelois, not the fact that the events had taken place as alleged.

So the successful handling of the issue relates solely to the integrity of 'brand Rann'. After all, the guy wasn't even married when the liaisons were alleged to have taken place, so there's no suggestion that he was cheating on his wife. The problem now of course is that, if he has been lying, it's too late to change his public position. If there is substance to Ms Chantelois's allegations and they can be proven, Mike Rann's in big trouble and his personal brand is trashed. On the other hand his stocks - and votes - may rise substantially if his highly regarded personal brand has been wrongfully attacked.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

When branding's a matter of life and death

I have a cold today. All together now..... aaahhhhh! But don't feel sorry for me, it's given me a new topic to blog about .... pharmaceuticals. Alleviating a cold, or managing things more serious, exposes you to the medicine cupboard or, even more exciting, encourages a trip to the local pharmacy.

Pharmacies are a unique retail experience. They are alien lands full of life-saving and, potentially, life-threatening toxins that we willingly ingest to maintain the rhythm of life.

But it's a challenging shopping experience, where you're faced with not only heavily promoted 'big name' brands, but also generics. In theory, the latter are no different than the home brands that feature in supermarket shelves, but their purpose makes it a much harder leap psychologically than swapping, say, Arnotts cream biscuits for the Safeway brand. In the pharmacy, it requires a much greater leap of faith in the integrity of the generic manufacturer.

I am not experienced in marketing pharmaceuticals, but it would be interesting to see how the introduction of lower cost generics impacts on the sale of branded products. In fact, would any branded products be sold in pharmacies if it wasn't for the 'fear' factor - the fear of ingesting powerful chemicals that could wreak havoc if not mixed in exactly the right ratios and to the most stringent manufacturing standards?

It is one industry where being first to market is an enormous advantage. In how many other sectors do you refer to solutions by the brand name, for example, 'take a Codral', or 'take some Aspro'. Car industry marketers would love it if solutions to personal transport were expressed as 'you need a Ford' or 'get yourself a Mercedes'. It just doesn't happen - or at least not as often as in pharmaceuticals, where brands are a substitute for a generic descriptor. It's why patents are all-important and fiercely defended in that industry.

I've got to say, brand works for me in pharmaceuticals because, in my deep subconscious, I think of brand integrity as a matter of life and death. Ahhhh... chhhoooo.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Am I out of touch, or is Christmas more subdued this year?

It's late November and I haven't seen one Santa on my TV screen. I remember remarking in previous years how retailers have hit the Christmas button early, sometimes as early as October. There's definitely something more restrained this year. There's still plenty of retail catalogues published, but I cannot recall seeing a Santa in them either.

Perhaps I don't notice Santa any more because my daughter is no longer a believer. She discovered several years ago that if you want something in your Christmas stocking, it's better to go straight to the source rather than queue for hours outside a department store to see what turns out to be a bearded decoy for the real providers.

It will be interesting to see what the numbers say next year about the retail advertising spend for this Christmas period. Retail sales dipped in the most recent retail spending report published in Australia, some suggesting that this might be a sign that the Government stimulus package might be starting to run out of steam. I guess it must be if I have yet to stumble across a hidden cache of Christmas presents stacked under the stairs. And I would know if they were there because that space is also shared by my modest wine cellar. At least there is some Christmas cheer bottled up under there. Ho! Ho! Ho!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Climate change - Pepsi v. Coke

There's a great brand positioning war waging in Australian politics right now - with a bit of religious fervour thrown into the mix. It's based on climate change - whether you're of a 'Pepsi' or a 'Coke' persuasion, metaphorically speaking. It was illustrated on last night's edition of Lateline, on which Tony Jones interviewed the Liberal Party's Shadow Minister for Lots, Tony Abbott.

It was hard to decide who to give the 'Tony' award to on this occasion, but former Catholic priest, Tony Abbott, managed to swing religion into the picture, likening Prime Minister Rudd's attack on climate sceptics to the Spanish Inquisition, an accusation that would also fit the good Abbott well at times.

Nevertheless, Tony Abbott raised an interesting point about fads - in this instance the current scientific one of subscribing to the notion of man as a major contributor to global warming. It is like the old Pepsi or Coke allegiance. Both sides of the climate debate are building tribal loyalties, based not on rational argument, but emotion. This is made more evident by the fact that Tony Abbott, as sceptic 'brand advocate' admitted not being steeped in detail about climate change. "I know as much as you would expect of any average politician," he declared. This is either a damning or elevating response, depending on your view of the 'average politician'.

I'm an average Joe and I cannot believe anyone who thinks burning the amount of fossil fuel humans do around the globe can do anything other than warm the place up. Thanks to gravity, clouds and other natural phenomena, not much of the heat we generate escapes into space, so we must be warming the bloody place up! Coupled with the fact that we simultaneously hack down the Earth's carbon dioxide processing facilities (forests) at an astonishing rate, we are only exacerbating the problem!

But back to the Abbott's point. Even on issues as complex as the drivers of climate change, we consumers have a terrific capacity to simplify everything, as I just did, and then form an 'allegiance' which, thanks to out imperfect data processing, is based on instinct rather than rational analysis. Abbott likens the Rudd attack to the Inquisition, eliciting fear of its association with zealotry, lust for power and so on.

This is standard political fare and it shows that our pollies understand the power of branding - the dominance of emotional connection over the rational. Brand connection, or tribalism, is being practiced at the highest levels of our society, not just on supermarket shelves.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Local brands that won't be bullied

Recently, one of Australia's dominant retailers, Woolworths, announced its entry into the 'big box' hardware space. This is a sector absolutely dominated over the past decade by the Wesfarmer conglomerate's Bunnings stores. Following the announcement, we have had acres of financial media space dedicated to studying the tea leaves to analyse what all this means for retail hardware and the players within it.

Smaller operators, already battered by Bunnings, have stared fearfully into the future and seen a screen fading to black. But is this necessarily the right response? I can quote a few examples within 10 km of my home in Melbourne that have defied the power of the leviathans. Not only that, they have thrived under the competition, as increased trafffic swirls around their stores.

Three examples come immediately to mind: fruit and vegetable specialist, Toscano's, boutique superamarket group, Leo's, and garden nursery and landscaping specialist, The Greenery. All of these local brands are thriving because they have three things in common - high quality produce, specialist knowledge and service and the offer of a unique buying experience.

The fruit and veges at Toscano's beg to be picked up and eaten. It's actually surprising many of the items actually make it out of the store. Go to Toscano's and you admire the bright colours, crisp feel and fresh fragrance of an astounding array of common and rare produce. This is a fruit and vege store where you're happy to pay more to reconnect with the land - a place that sells produce that radiates the Sun's rays stored over months of tender nurture (here's a list of Victoria's award-winning local operators).

And Leo's thrives and grows, despite the hulking presence of neighbouring Safeway, owned by Woolworths. The delicatessen is renowned through the land (or at least the locality), there is a rich array of niche brands not stocked by the neighbour and, most of all, the store has more of a community feel than a supermarket. This is a place where you're likely to see someone you know and have space and time to pause without being run over by a herd of trolleys, unaided by those wheels that resist straight-line navigation.

And finally The Greenery. It has competitors all over the place - from big box hardware stores with discounted plants, to brick and tile merchants, to landscaping suppliers and local hobby retailers. Even school fund raisers compete. But The Greenery is different. Not for them the plants that are cracking the pots in their desperate need to expand, or the narrow aisles between displays. No. They present their wares in a garden setting, with people manning the information desk who.... surprise! surprise!... know about what to plant where and when, what fertilisers to use and so on. This is a garden for gardeners, a place where people are prepared to spend an extra buck to enjoy the experience of buying from people who understand their addiction.

These are brands that many who read this will never have heard of. But they highlight to me the value of knowing your niche, sticking to it and, above all else, making the customer feel better for the brand experience. So quake not you local hardware people as you face another big box bully. Work out how you can create a unique experience for your communities and they will come to you.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Britney's brand of concert

Another confession. I went to the Britney Spears concert in Melbourne last Friday night. How do you reconcile that with my earlier 'fess up that I drive a VW Passat? Superficially, it paints me as a very complex character, but there is consistency in my brand selection. It's all about making room in your life for a tween daughter - more room in the VeeDub to drive her and her friends around and more room for taking her to concerts and events that she is not quite free just yet to go to alone.

So what about brand Britney, which has copped as big a hammering in the Australian media as any thanks to her lip-synced show? In case you hadn't heard, fan protests have ranged from walking out after three songs to demanding their money back. And the media cognizenti have been unable to resist heaping more misery on young Britney than she really deserves.

Having experienced the Britney Big Apple Circus first hand, I have to say the critics just don't get it. The circus, on and off-stage, is not about singing live, it's about star power and celebrity. My Gen Z daughter simply said 'whateva' when I raised the point about lip-syncing (or miming). All she wants to see is the person metaphorically, if not literally, in the flesh. It matters not to her and her generation brought up on video clips, animations and virtual worlds, that the person does not actually sing. To her, it's not what the event is about. She's experienced Britney Spears' virtual world and that's all that matters.

Even the support act, DJ Havana Brown, is not questioned. Imagine years ago if you had put on a DJ as a support act to a live performance. You would have felt dudded. But not the 14,000-odd Gen Y and Gen Z females who made up 97% of the audience at Rod laver arena. They were up dancing and gyrating to the DJ's high-energy sound, just as if they were in front of a live band at the local pub.

So all you older folks who know better and sit in judgement, take a step back and listen to what the teens are saying. The world has moved on. No careers are going to be destroyed a la Milli Vanilli for lip-syncing. Shows are about celebrity - grabbing a moment in time to experience the aura of a powerhouse, personal brand.

If you're in marketing and/or communications - this is a warning shot! There is a rising generation of Gen Z that talks, walks and experiences life differently according to an emerging set of techno-driven values. If you don't get that this may be the first generation happy to attend an avatar concert, prepare to vacate the chair and make way for those who deeply understand, even if they do not share, those values.

My perspective on the concert? Bored fascination throughout. But at least I understand the show is not for me. It is about branding and channel selection that has well and truly dialled me out of the target zone.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Beauty and the Geeks

I never thought I'd watch this TV show, but my daughter is increasingly controlling what appears in the lounge room, at least until 9:30 p.m. As it turns out, I've been suckered in over the weeks, more by the geeks than the beauties because of their amusing propensity to intellectualise the tabloid goings-on during the show.

The closest I have come to this experience in real life was trying to put a home theatre system together at a reasonable price. Not for me the superficial beauty of pre-packaged systems offered by the high street retailers. No sir! Instead I delved deeply into the geek-driven feedback channels on the web - looking for reviews and advice on the performance of various components that make up home theatre - even HDMI cables!

And yes. If I charged out the hours spent making sense of these reviews and recommendations, it would have been much cheaper to just go out and buy a top-of-the-range system and throw some money for good measure at optimising the acoustics of the house itself (as it turns out, this would have been money well spent and contributed to a more harmonious relationship with wife and neighbours).

How does this relate to marketing and branding? Very simple. I could have bought on reputation at the superficial level. Perhaps buy a Sony, Samsung, Yamaha or other 'big name' system. But instead, I went in search of that elusive creature described as 'best of breed', component by component. In this Dark Zone emerge reputations built on the word of niche retailers, eminent bloggers etc. Let me tell you - it's an extremely scary place to go. Just as you get the torch working, the answer slips out of site because some other opinion casts its shadow.

The world of audiophiles is one of geeks. Ears insulated against extraneous sounds during the day so they can come out at night and listen to the fine balance of tweeters, mid-range, woofers, sub-woofers, cross-overs, gold plugs, valves, transistors, di-polars and rears... the list goes on. And I am being very superficial. Within each of those terms are a bunch of sub-terms underpinned by jargon. Scarily, brands you've never heard of start to illuminate the darkness and confuse your thinking. Dollars mount up and ride off to hitherto unknown destinations via the web and side streets you never thought you'd visit.

This is territory the big brands cannot own. Their systems are necessarily compromised by price and packaging to suit interior decor more than audiophiles. As I progressed towards the right answers for my home and budget, I was often tempted to just go down to the high street and buy the bundle. But I perservered and the journey was rewarding. Not only did I end up with an excellent set-up within my budget, but I also learned much about how consumers use the internet to research products and how they are influenced.

You should try it sometime - perhaps starting with something easier like a bicycle!

Incidentally, I think the geeks in Beauty and the Geek are inexorably being dragged down to the beauties' level - at least those geeks who are left in the show.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Farewell to an old friend - and culture!

Tomorrow I will not post in deference to the passing of an old friend. I could not be more serious when I say that this friend was and still is, part of a culture to which I strongly subscribe. He was with me during some of the toughest years I have ever experienced in business, was a partner to my employees and produced outstanding work.

In his own way, he was an industry icon. Colourful, reliable, funky and fun, he was popular with employees and admired by clients whenever they dropped into our humble offices. But most of all, he reflected our organisational culture and all the systems that underpinned it in those days. Breakthrough ideas, innovative communications. That's how we liked to think of ourselves and that's why we loved our iMAC (pictured here as last seen at home).

Yes, my last MAC is being sold tomorrow - appropriately through a contemporary channel, ebay. We'll get about 50 bucks for him - small and sad change for a machine that set a new trend in computer design - blasting the beige boxes off desktops and making the office more fun. Try as I might, I could not convince my wife and daughter that iMAC could become a collectable and be worth a lot more in the future. My wife just doesn't like things that are out of date (the impertinence!) and my 11-year-old daughter just can't wait to get a new laptop, which will most likely be a Windows machine.

In fairness to my daughter, she does have fine taste. She would prefer an MacBook, but at double the price, she ain't gettin' one! The old public sector employee view cuts in... if Dad can't have one, neither can you!

Thankfully, the most likely buyer on ebay appears to be a guy who has just bought a pink version of the iMAC, so clearly my mate is passing on to a good home - perhaps an iMAC heaven even. The buyer's even willing to courier it interstate at a cost that will no doubt exceed what he pays for the machine.

In recognition of my allegiance to MACs, I have added the Apple web address to my list of fave websites, with an appropriate descriptor. I have to go now, other work to do on my HP Pavilion! *shame*

Nothing like a bit of jingoism in branding

Australians have historically been criticised for having 'cultural cringe'. I don't know who coined this term, but it broadly means we bow at the altar of 'superior cultures', in our case principally American and British, at the expense of our own. We have a cultural inferiority complex. But this clearly doesn't equate to lack of national pride when it comes to branding.

Our biggest not-for-profit superannuation (pension) fund, AustralianSuper, has just launched a new brand positioning campaign with the catchline It's Australian. And it's super. I like this. It is the first time AustralianSuper, formed by the merger of two large funds a few years back, has broken away from its price-led, low-fees positioning and tried to create any sort of emotional connection with its target audience, which is essentially anyone with a job in Australia.

Down here (cultural cringe term, perhaps I should say 'up here' and put the Southern Hemisphere on top), we have seen a number of big companies tap into our inherent parochialism. Before mining company, BHP, became the world's largest miner, BHP Billiton, it ran a very long corporate citizenship campaign, BHP. The Big Australian. Ford ran a campaign for its oversize passenger car, Fairlane, under the tag line A Big Car for a Big Country. The AustralianSuper campaign does not have the big, hairy chested machismo of the other two, but taps into the same psychology - showing more of a feminine side of jingoism, if you like.

The two other campaigns to which I refer, worked their butts off. I was working for Ford when Kevin Rasheed bounced the Fairlane mercilessly through Wilpena Pound in outback South Australia and the product never enjoyed the profile it did then - before or since. Iconic, weather-beaten Aussie actor, Bill Hunter, became the face of BHP for years, making our chests fill with pride at the thought of BHP digging big holes in remote places to, we almost believed, fuel the national economy.

When Mercer research released this week shows only 44% of Australians trust their super fund, it will be interesting to see whether being simply 'Australian' will work for AustralianSuper as those campaigns did for Ford and BHP. The world is a more insular place since 911 and over the past decade, consumers have psychologically retreated into their own backyards. Home renovation and cooking shows are enjoying stellar ratings and sales of home theatre systems are through the roof. All signs that we're keen to understand how to set up and control the home fortress.

The question is, as time heals and our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, strides the world stage helping set up the G20 etc., is this campaign coming on the cusp of us becoming more outward looking again? Often, timing is everything in consumer psychology. But perhaps jingoism never dies. Incidentally, I think the Aussie cultural cringe has died. Vale for now...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Still wishing all my life was circles - And I can tell you why

I drive a VW. There you are. I've said it. I'll even go further. I drive a VW Passat. You get my drift, which is straight into the heartland of Melbourne suburbia in this instance. Like most blokes, I lust after something better to drive. In my case, this is not too far up the evolutionary tree - an Audi R8.

Now avid followers of automotive literature will know that VW and Audi are branches of the same business. Even Lamborghini is part of it now and Porsche is in the process of joining the stable. So I'm in pretty illustrious company, but I don't see many passers-by drooling at the throaty burble of my VW Passat twin exhausts as I cruise through the supermarket car park.

I have never really adjusted to the Passat. I traded a neat looking Audi A4 for it about 18 months ago. Dark blue, cream interior, effective V6 engine, great transmission, lowered suspension and hot-looking BBS alloys. There were many reasons for the quick trade into the VeeDub, but principally the brand downgrade was because the Audi A6, while an appropriate stretch for the family from a wheelbase perspective, was not from a financial perspective.

Is there anything wrong with the VeeDub? No. Did I have issues with the Audi? Yes.  Does it cost less to run the VeeDub? Yes. Is the VeeDub more practical for the family? Yes. Does the VeeDub perform better than the Audi? On some things, yes. Then, Brooksie, you've made the right decision! But...

Here's the brand rub for the VeeDub. Is the VeeDub something I've aspired to? No! Is the VeeDub cool? No! Does the VeeDub make others jealous? No! Does it pander to my ego? No!

Carry out this honest appraisal of something you have bought. It will reveal, when all else is equal, the essence of brand - rational versus emotional connection. When I drive my VW Passat with its VW logo instead of the four linked circles, how I sometimes regret my moments of rationality or, put simply, shortage of cash!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Stimulants needed by retirees - but not financial!

I am involved in a project right now that is researching whether people either retired or approaching retirement have any concept of risk - financial or personal. Given that our pollies have been trying to scare the bejezuzz out of us, throwing money this way and that to stimulate us, it appears that distributing viagra might have dealt with retirement concerns better than money.

Our anecdotal evidence appears to be that the GFC has had little impact on those Australians planning or living in retirement - at least conceptually. That, or they are so underfunded already that the GFC's impact has been minimal. Lop 50% off nothing and you still have nothing!

When our project group commissioned the research, we thought of all the possible risks that older Australians might be concerned about but, as is usual with good research that is allowed room to explore, our gray-haired community produced one 'risk' from left field that we hadn't considered - relationship risk.

This is because retirement often throws lifelong partners together for whole days instead of a few hours each day. So, at least for some, longevity risk is not a financial issue, but a personal one. How long do you really want to live, if you're forced to live cheek by jowl with your partner around the clock? Hmmmm... perhaps our research is showing that a stimulant other than financial might be the key to long and happy retirement!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Thanks but no thanks

Good to see a few followers turning up and reading my rants and raves. Unfortunately for some, I have a jaundiced view of people who follow, but to whose sites I cannot click through to check out. Some disconnect for me between building communities and anonymity!

So I regret to say, those I cannot see I have blocked. Hopefully smart rather than unsociable on my part. Let me know if you think otherwise! I'll be back with more rants over the next day or so.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Oh no! I have become a virus!

I was checking out our company's website stats the other day, taking a particular interest in other sites from which we were receiving referrals. To my surprise, up there in the Top 20 was my own account. For those who don't know this site, I can best describe it as Facebook for business folk. I've heard recruitment companies use it a lot for prospecting.

The point is though that my setting up a linkedin profile has actually benefited my employer, introducing the fund for which I work to at least 600 new people. As we're Australian-based and many of these visitors are from overseas, the overall value of my viral presence is reduced, but nonetheless these are eyeballs on the business that would otherwise not have seen us.

It raises an interesting point - should businesses be encouraging employees to register their names on sites like linkedin as a viral marketing strategy? Not only that, should they not be making it company policy that staff invite any new contacts to be linkedin connections to ensure the company's profile is constantly expanded?

Ok, it may expose staff to recruitment companies and so on but, if you're an employer of choice, there is little downside risk in this.

I hope this viral blog is catching...!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Stayin' Alive - the HP Sauce brand promise

I remember reading an interview years ago, where Rolling Stone axeman, Keith Richard, claimed that venerable British condiment, HP Sauce, had kept him alive. Now here is a brand with substance! Anything that can keep Keith Richard alive has to have something going for it.

I thought about this the other day as I added a splash of HP to my bacon and sausage on Sunday morning (for those dry retching at this vision, I apologise). As I watched it pool on the side of my plate, I thought about the power of celebrity endorsement.

In particular, I wondered whether there is added power to the 'mention' because of the incongruity of a former scourge of establishment Britain identifying a brand that, after all, is as establishment as you like ('HP' derives from 'Houses of Parliament' as shown on the label) and, what is more, with no money changing hands in return for the plug.

Although 'Keef' said it in jest, the incongruity of the quote has stuck with me for years. So for all the hand-wringing and brain storming that marketers undertake when considering appropriate celebrity alignments with brands and/or products, it begs the question, do we more often get it wrong than right? If Maggie Thatcher (assuming she was able to) had endorsed HP sauce, would it have been as memorable? The affinity would have been obvious but, quite possibly, the cut-through minimal and, depending on your politics, possibly detrimental!.

A recent brand endorsement that has worked well has been irreverent Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, with global financial powerhouse, ING. At first glance, not an obvious alignment, but the cut-through has been excellent. Consider the alternative of using someone like Ben Bernanke! Now I am getting ridiculous. But I merely raise the point that incongruity can often be more effective than the safe haven of natural fit.

And, in case you're wondering ... did the HP sauce on my brekkie live up to the brand promise? Well, I looked in the mirror on Wednesday and thought I had a few more lines... more akin to Keith Richard than Cliff Richard. So far so good. As for longevity... I'll post closer to the time!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Introducting the 'wine bottle effect'

I'm a pretty basic bloke and like a drop of wine, sometimes two. In recent years, I have noticed an encroaching fungus on wine bottles that has nothing to do with the contents being corked. Rather, the fungus I refer to is a growth of gold, silver or even bronze splotches on and around the labels.

Careful inspection of these reveals they are 'medals' won at wine shows around the country. From a distance, they all look like each other. Closer inspection though, reveals small type disclosing the prestige or relative obscurity of the wine show at which the medal was won. But the average punter appears to care not whether the medal was won in outer Augathella or at the Sydney National Wine Show - a medal is a medal is a medal. More importantly, it is a third party endorsement of a product which most buyers, including me, only have a superficial knowledge. It is assurance that someone - perhaps only one other - actually thought the stuff tasted okay.

I have invented a term in my marketing chat. I call this the wine bottle effect. Marketing financial services (which I purport to do) is, perhaps surprisingly, very similar to marketing wine. Most consumers have little knowledge and thirst (excuse the pun!) for someone else to provide a reliable referral. So on our pension products, for example, I have bought a medal at an outrageous price from one of our best-known ratings agency to use on Product Disclosure Statements. My view is that, despite the reams of product description contained therein, most people who pick up the book will take a cursory glance at it, crease their brow, throw their hands in the air, look at the 'medal' and sign up.

I know this is an over-simplified view of the buying process, but there are two psychological drivers here: fear and pride. In the case of our pension product, there is: a) fear of the consequences of putting one's life savings into our hands and getting it wrong; and b) avoidance of looking dumb because you don't understand what is in the book.

We always recommend people see a professional financial planner before signing up, but this creates another psychological hurdle for many: c) trust, particularly in recent times when money has simply evaporated thanks to tainted advice from some 'professionals'.

So thank God for the wine bottle effect. Let's drink to the medals that'll overcome fear, pride and mistrust any day.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Big Carnival decisions - what's in a champagne brand?

In Victoria we are blessed with one of Australia's most respected locally produced champagnes.... err.... sparkling wines (a few years back the French got very sensitive about the use of the terms 'champagne', bordeaux' etc!). This isn't surprising because our Domain Chandon is produced and owned by the world-renowned Moet & Chandon, that stable stalwart from LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennesey).

But the relative merits of brand were recently forced upon me by the imminent task of lubricating friends in the car park at the Spring Racing Carnival. The best price I could get on the Moet was $53 a bottle. The local variety, on the other hand, was $29. When you're buying a number of bottles, you discover this discrepancy has a horrible multiplying effect, to the point where you question the premium you're paying for Chandon relative to, well, Chandon.

Now I am not a champagne/sparkling wine afficianado, but knowing brand is often about perception, I considered buying half and half was a pretty good option. This was based on the rationale that while perceptions and brand awareness were pretty sharp when the first cork popped at around 9:30 a.m., they were somewhat muted by the time the last popped at around 7 p.m.

So, if you're thinking of crashing my party tomorrow on Derby Day, or on Melbourne Cup Day, and you're feeling a bit brand-sensitive (common meaning: "snobby") make sure you're early! And if you're late in the day, you will be turfed out forthwith if you dare to discourse the difference between the morning brew and the local product.

Cheers! Make sure you pick a winner so you can shout next year's Moet & Chandon!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Melbourne's Spring Racing Carnival - a party with substance

From a brand perspective, what makes Melbourne's internationally renowned Spring Racing Carnival so successful? Is it beautiful women dressed for Spring? Is it copious volumes of alcohol consumption? Is it simply great marketing?

While all these things are essential ingredients, I suspect it is because, like all great things, the Spring Racing Carnival has substance built on years of tradition and moments of note. The rest is just the contemporary pizazz required to make horse racing the hub of an extravagant Spring celebration. Without the tradition of the 3200 metre Melbourne Cup (first run in 1861) and the 2500 metre Victoria Derby for three year olds (first run in 1855), this event would not be happening. Better still, without the history, it would be impossible to create the Spring Carnival with the same degree of success.

As I have written in other blogs, the key to the success of branding is remaining true to brand. The Carnival's custodian, the Victorian Racing Club has done this, retaining all the traditions and pageantry while repackaging it to appeal to a new audience.

This year, with brilliant weather forecast for most of the week, the VRC expects the aggregate crowd number for the four days of the Carnival to exceed 400,000 - a huge number for horse racing held anywhere in the world. The worldwide audience for the television coverage, let alone the growing online following, will be in the hundreds of millions for the running of the Melbourne Cup alone.

This is a brand with substance to match the promise. As an avowed follower and unsuccessful owner of throroughbreds, I will of course be included in the headcount for this year's Carnival attendance. No doubt I will contribute heavily to next year's marketing budget and to the general welfare of those employed in racing. But who cares? It's a great tradition, well presented and marketed.

Congratulations to all those involved. I'm happy to pay for the privilege of this great 'brand experience'. Most of all, congratulations to the horses who, with their regally bred ancestors, have delivered the legend that underpins our unique Spring Racing Carnival!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Educating lawyers

This is a brief entry of record. It is to note the date on which I authorised a visit of our legal and compliance crew to our agency in the vain hope of building empathy.

In all probability, it is a foolish plan because a) it assumes lawyers and their ilk can build empathy with another human being and b) they'll probably want to sack the agency when they discover the real world short cuts we take to just get stuff done.

If anything material emerges from this sojourn, I will dutifully record it here - for better or worse. I might even turn out like marriage - when 'worse' eventuates the oath of allegiance becomes a little more tenuous!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tweet, Tweet - The consumer strikes back

You should never promise to write something tomorrow - at least on a specific topic. But, true to word, I am producing a blurb on this at risk of exceeding our modern attention span.

I can remember the days when TV commercials were actually running around 30 seconds, but our creative has to deliver in tighter timeframes these days. Originally, it was to drag media costs down and achieve greater frequency for the same bucks. However, I am convinced that this is one contributor to our diminishing attention span.

TV news has been the additional conditioner massaged in after the cost-cutting shampoo - our pollies honing their skills to deliver their messages in similar timeframes. Or perhaps they aren't. Were they ever able to put more than a dozen sensible words together? At least it gives them fewer words to remember and therefore greater capacity to stay 'on message'. So cynical and unkind of me.

How does this impact on our communication with customers? I believe Twitter is the consumer's ultimate revenge on marketers and also, perhaps, their elected representatives. Consumers are talking in 'tweets' - the web equivalent of the 15-second commercial. So we're all tweeting at each other through various channels. Much of our twitter is inane, but it is eminently digestible, even if it often lacks flavour and looks unappetising.

What our tweeting really achieves is more noise and clutter and, generally speaking, less insight. While you can monitor blogs and responses to track community interaction and conversation around your brand, how can you make sense of tweets? And, if you can detect a positive or adverse trend in all the tweeting, how can you interact effectively and make a plausible argument for or against?

Remember, you have no more than 15 seconds, or 140 characters or less in which to make your point. Can't do it? Sorry, we've already moved onto another subject!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When greed is no longer good

Attended a presentation yesterday on Business and Ethics by Prof. Ed Freeman, who is a visiting scholar to Melbourne University's Trinity College. Ed conducted a quick show of hands around the room to explore common threads in the values we would teach our kids. The three top values were: respect, honesty and selflessness.

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that these are commonly held values - not only in the room yesterday, but around the world. And, proposed Ed, if these values were those we taught our kids, why had they not applied in business over the years. I proposed that Donald Trump's The Apprentice series mantra, 'It's not personal, it's just business', was at the core of the problem. Series like this promote the idea that this philosophy lies at the core of business success (there is an Australian version of The Apprentice built around a mini-Trump, Mark Bouris, currently airing) .

In an era of celebrity and digestible 15-second grabs, how can we expect Gen Ys and beyond to see life any other way when we have shows that promote these values? The interesting thing in the Australia context is that Mark Bouris has already stated in interviews that his success with the Wizard Home Loans group was as much a consequence of being lucky and in the right place at the right time, as well as just bloody hard work. Nothing in that to suggest that you have to be ruthless also.

Professor Ed made a solid case, littered with commercial examples and simple homespun wisdom, to demonstrate that it is the best interests of business to approach and resolve each challenge as you would wish your own children to deal with their issues. But basically, it boiled down to what brand developers have known for years - act in the best interests of your customers and the rest will follow.

I will post on the challenge of the 15-second grab next time!

Friday, October 16, 2009

What happened to the best job in the world?

Remember the award-winning 'Best job in the world' campaign run by Tourism Queensland? Attracted entries from all over the world and a guy from the UK won it. Well, what's happened to it?

Presumably, the aforesaid winner is working his way around Queensland, occasionally parking himself in the penthouse on Hamilton Island to recharge the batteries and contemplate his great fortune. But what about the promotional stuff to flow from it? The beautiful images of Queensland streamed all around the world?

Perhaps I'm in the wrong demographic, but I am a daily user of the web and I haven't seen any follow-up promotion of where I can view this guy's take on Queensland's undoubtedly numerous attractions. And believe me, I drop in on all kinds of websites (no, not those websites you idiot!). I am a great consumer of news from politics down to a diluted round-up of celebrity gossip. The latter is only so I have some vague idea of what my 11-year-old daughter is talking about / listening to when I get home.

But, hey, wait a minute, this all-knowledgeable tweenager living under the same roof as me hasn't mentioned the Queensland reportage either. Must be pitched at a demographic somewhere between me and her.

Alternatively, dare I say it, the follow-up to the campaign hasn't been as good as the campaign itself. If this is the case, it means we just witnessed the execution of the world's most expensive recruitment project!

Cya next week.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Consumer intelligence - is there any?

I attended a conference the other day conducted by, arguably, Australia's leading superannuation fund ratings company, SuperRatings. There you are... my free plug for the day, given because I think these guys do a great job and, most of all, through excellent PR work have convinced us all that they are the leading ratings agency. But I digress.

The conference included a media panel of august journalists from daily newspapers. Notably TV, radio and online media were missing, although newspapers would claim to be the rightful providers of the latter. One journo queried why SuperRatings would readily post info on its top 10 super funds, when it would not readily provide a list of the worst performers - in recent times, these being funds who had lost more of our retirement savings than others. The debate that followed was around assessing fund performance - short term versus long-term and whether it was valid or even misleading to provide short-term numbers.

This led to the point of this blog entry - consumer intelligence. The journos argued, I believe with some justification, that consumers were smart enough to work out that when you're investing for 30 years or more, you should focus on long-term performance - even if you publish short-term (one year comparisons). This is markedly different than the industry view, which is that consumers have poor financial literacy and that it has to spell everything out chapter and verse in monosyllables that, in the words of one of Australia's more colourful Prime Ministers, Gough Whitlam, "even you can understand".

The interesting thing is that the industry, 'guided' by its regulators, then goes on to produce reams of technical and legalistic 'disclosure' information that no one can understand unless they are, not only financially literate, but literary scholars. The point is that by marking consumers as reasonably intelligent, the journos produce a much superior communications outcome.

As I hear the industry lynch mob gathering in the corridors outside my office, I appreciate this is heresy from an industry insider. Our lawyers, actuaries, investment specialists and others will loudly decry the lack and distortion of detail in the general media and even in the industry ratings surveys. They are obsessed with the ifs, buts and maybes that permeate finance - investment allocations within portfolios, risk tolerance, quality of advice.. yadda.. yadda.. yadda...

The point is that punters just want things spelt out in plain English. They want unqualified statements and commentary to help them understand. And I believe they make allowances for media shortcomings. If their fund has stuffed their retirement planning in the last twelve months, or even the last month, they want to know about it. League tables are easy to understand. They say "my fund is great" or otherwise. I believe they are smart enough to not move their money straight away, but they are alerted to the fact that they better keep a closer eye on things over time.

And guess what? This means they are suddenly more engaged with their finances and who is managing their money. Immediately, the industry can stop paying lip service to achieving greater engagement. This is all good......Isn't it?

Oh, wait a minute! That means we're all going to be more accountable and maintain or even improve performance across all facets of the business. Remind me, did we ever assume we would be dealing with informed and engaged consumers in the brand strategy manual? I hope so.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Is entrepreneurism the key to brand success?

Why is consensus so valued in business life? What makes a consensus decision better than a unilateral one? Despite having no natural resources, other than a best-practice geographic location, Singapore thrived under benevolent dictatorship (putting aside various human rights arguments for the moment).

Strategy meetings are only a gathering of varying opinions and perspectives around the table. Apart from views expressed by the lunatic fringe, most ideas from professional people have some merit based on a sequence of logic. But what meetings achieve is one of two things a) a compromised outcome which, by definition, means proceeding with a lack of organisational conviction based on 100% buy-in or b) dominance of strategy presented by the most forceful presence, or person with the highest rank, in the room. The latter can be very positive or negative depending on the quality of the idea.

Outcome (b) is more likely in entrepreneural and/or owner-operated environments. Richard Branson has built the global Virgin brand on the force of his own personality. Analysts might not like the way Virgin operates, or how its finances have teetered from time to time, but at least the company has some clear conviction about what it stands for. Consumers love it or hate it. Enough love it to make it successful. They don't care about those who hate it because they don't have to. Their brand engenders tribal loyalty.

Of course, outcome (a) is generally the province of the corporate world, where executives have become so obsessed with political correctness, analyts' day-to-day doodlings about short-term performance etc. that they spend far too long securing buy-in and not enough time leading. I propose that this model tends to stifle brand conviction and, therefore, success in an era of high-speed communication, hyper velocity of money around the globe and so on.

Consumers have taken control of brand positioning and corporate reputation because, in the absence of clear brand definition and corporate conviction, they are free to disseminate their own ideas on brand positioning to friends, rellies and.... well, anyone with access to their blog or favourite chatroom. But they are merely filling the vacuum that brands with a clear identity should fill.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Are marketing communications skills transferable?

I remember the good old days, when marketing and communications types frequently hopped from one industry sector to another - accumulating insights and experience that they could apply to the next sector on which they inflicted their ideas and practices.

But is it as easy today? When companies are recruiting marketing/communications people, are the professional skills and insights valued more highly than industry knowledge? The reason I ask is that you see all kinds of people promoted into so-called marketing roles. In the financial services sector, in which I am currently employed, I recently attended a meeting with the actuary made reponsible for marketing within a highly regarded international consulting firm.

The interesting aspect of this meeting was that it never proposed a call to action. After 30 minutes, I was prompted to ask "So what are we supposed to do with this information? What exactly are you offering us?" I suppose, as a potential client, I was feeling sorry for the geyser and gave him the opportunity to get to the point. Another prospect would have been more likely to shanghai him out the door.

The point is that, in this case, he wouldn't be able to close a sale to save himself. Even when asked the question, he was desperately searching for a relevant answer!

Now the face-to-face sales presentation is really the pointy end of marketing - the conversion point. But this experience did bring into sharp focus the question of whether companies are recognising that: a) marketing and communications are professions, similar to actuaries and lawyers, with fundamental skills and experience required; and b) that there is substantial value in introducing new perspectives and techniques from other sectors into organisations in order to provide them with a better client perspective.

Obviously, my comments relate primarily to corporate marketing and communications environments. Agency staff, by definition, usually work across multiple sectors, unless they service a massive international client.

What are your experiences of this?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Fiji - proof that people are your greatest asset

It's ok folks. Despite a tsunami warning on my last day in Fiji, I'm back. Great place. Great people. But sorry for all the neighbouring Samoans, who appear to be similarly blessed as a community of goodwill. My sincere commiserations to them all. I hope they get their lives back on track as soon as they can, although can you ever do this when you have lost those close to you?

But back to the subject of this entry - people as your greatest asset. I stayed at a resort that shall remain nameless. The point about this from a brand perspective is that, despite abysmal a la carte servings from the kitchen (buffet dinners were ok), starving horses worked to death taking tourists on beach rides and a few other gliches, I would consider going back to this resort.

Why? Well it's not because it is well located, because so are others. The reason is that the people working there were first-class. Ok. Perhaps a little relaxed in true Fijian style, so don't put in an urgent request, but very eager to please and help even the most demanding guests. I won't rattle on about this because I think you'll already get the point. This resort, despite the shortcomings of its product offer was, for me, saved by the attitude of its staff.

It is for them that I would return. There are clear lessons in this for all brand custodians.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Remember the days when we just got things done?

As I pack the last pair of undies into the Fiji kit bag, I pondered the idea of just getting things done - without all the political correctness, sign-off and other paraphenalia that contributes to not getting things done, or at least not getting them done on time.

I don't know about you, but I find deadlines really difficult to meet these days due to the intervention of a whole range of 'stakeholders' who become involved in the marketing communications process because a) the government or regulator says or implies that they have to or b) their misguided belief that their input adds value to the communication (usually it has the opposite effect).

I was at a meeting a few weeks back when one person asked could we make a communications decision without involving two others - neither of whom was relevant to the decision nor, I suspect, would have been really interested in the outcome. Fortunately, their proposed involvement was knocked firmly on the head before it became doctrine. Sometimes I long for a new management 'bible' that proclaims we need to reinstate benevolent dictatorship into the management process. Bring back Tom Roberts' Thriving on Chaos quickly!

Not that I exclusively want to exclude people from my management portfolio. I want to be excluded from endless meetings to which a) I can contribute little or b) I have no interest in contributing to. You see, I respect the professional judgement of experts in fields in which I am unqualified. I can spend my time much more effectively involving myself in marketing and communications projects for which I have the experience and qualifications.

So, as I prepare to fly the coop, I hope I return from my holiday to a nirvana where marketing and communications people can focus on their core business without having unnecessary 'inputs' of well-intentioned amateurs. All it needs it mutual respect for our professional ability from those in the more 'esteemed' professions.

I'm off for a good break. Don't fret. I'll be back!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Fiji holiday - It shows what happens when you damage your brand

I will head off to Fiji next Monday. The few people who traverse this blog over the next fortnight will be devastated at this news. However, this holiday has brought into focus how much a damaged brand can impact margins.

You see, I'm going to Fiji because I was able to get a bloody good deal for my family. It did not require genius, just some issues relating to Fiji's brand. Our package includes: airfares, resort accommodation, free stay and food for my daughter, several tours and, to top it all off, a AUD650 voucher to spend at the resort.

To spell it out, according to my calculations, there are at least five product and service providers slashing their margins to get the three of us to travel to Fiji. I presume there are others attracted to the deal, but I won't know this until I catch the flight out of Sydney.

And why are these providers cutting their own throats to get us there? Because, frankly, Fiji's brand has been pulverised by the nation's military shoving an elected government out of office and the subsequent rejection of the country from the Commonwealth of Nations (now there's a 'brand' that does need refreshment!).

Coups, whether bloodless or otherwise, and being ostracised by other nations is not the natural fodder of tourism promotion, even though you are unlikely to see or hear evidence of unrest while in Fiji. It is brand-tainting material, which has led this leading Pacific destination to price-driven, tactical marketing - the domain of all damaged brands.

But believe me, none of this will likely cross my mind as I take full advantage of this brand malaise!

The email challenge

I recently ran some research among superannuation fund members. Of those surveyed, over 50% said they preferred to receive newsletters and other discretionary information via email. However, only 7% of the fund's members had subscribed to the its electronic news service.

This isn't due to lack of incentive or effort on the part of the fund's communications team. Over the course of the past 18 months, two recruitment programs for email subscribers have been conducted offering incentives of a flat screen LCD television and a choice holidays to North Queensland or Fiji.

While this doubled participation from 3% to 7% of fund members, it is nowhere near the 50% who expressed a desire to receive information this way. The fact that the second campaign attracted far fewer subscribers than the first suggests that the number of subscribers is approaching a plateau.

Now superannuation (pension fund for overseas readers) is a low-engagement product for many but, nonetheless, how do you explain the fact that it appears some people would rather give you $1000 than yield their email address?

Is there anyone out there who knows the trick/s of the trade for building email databases? And please, no funny remarks about finding a job in a more engaging sector, unless you're willing to offer one with the appropriate amount of remuneration attached!