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...!