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.