Monday, September 7, 2009

The Unmovable Line in Brand Promotion

I have two wonderfully spirited sons who laugh, smile, play hard and always (and I mean always) test to see where the boundaries lie. My wife and I quickly learned that good parenting is all about consistency in rules and reaction.

Does the same apply to brand management?

I’ve been thinking about this issue ever since Advertising Age writer Rita Chang phoned me to discuss Verizon Wireless’ sponsorship of a “Friends of America” rally in West Virginia. It appears Verizon unintentionally tossed its much respected corporate brand into the debate around the powder keg issues of employment and the environment.

Ouch…for a taste of the divergent emotions swirling around Verizon on what the company thought was its harmless participation in a local event check out the comments to Chang’s article.

Ironically, in my subsequent readings these past few days I have stumbled across several egregious examples of inept brand management. Let’s start with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) that gave the thumbs up to a print advertisement which compared the wrath of nature to the death and destruction of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The market reaction was swift and all condemning, resulting in a hasty apology from the WWF and its advertising agency acknowledging the ad “never should have been created, approved or run.”

Then there is the little tidbit about the dictator and mass murderer Adolf Hitler who has now become the corporate and product spokesperson of choice for a number of internationally-based companies.

That’s right…he is back…the Nazi fuhrer -- whose resume includes architect of World War II and perpetrator of genocide -- is hawking products as diverse as computer thumb drives, condoms, coffee and chopsticks.

So…yes…companies are clearly testing the boundaries when it comes to brand promotion in an attempt of find the appropriate balance between Jerry Springer shocking and downright offensive. It’s all in an attempt to cut through what continues to be a noisy, message cluttered market.

My advice when it comes to brand management is right in step with what I tell my children: never stray from what is morally acceptable and don’t do anything stupid.


Anonymous said...

THe WWF never approved this ad. It was a concept ad put together that once presented to the WWF, they declined it.

Marc Hausman said...

The ad actually was approved by WWF and it did run in a regional newspaper. Here is a link to the statement from the ad agency's CEO:

Lois Thomas said...

As a provider of culturally as well as linguistically appropriate promotional materials for global audiences we are constantly advising clients what will and what won't work cross borders.

I'm with you on this one, shock and unusual tactics are one thing in marketing.

However those organisations who think it's OK to use imagery that the vast majority of people find offensive and unacceptable are playing fast and loose with their / their client's brand.

Mark said...

Verizon is being hammered by motivated adversaries, for the sake of hammering any and all with any connection to those who oppose the Waxman-Markey bill, passed by the House and yet to be considered by the Senate. Didn't Tom Wolfe called this mau-mauing? They are laying on the "guilt by association" pretty thick, IMO.

Verizon's critics are taking advantage of a local decision by local Verizon marketing folks. Verizon doesn't need or want folks in the field asking HQ to vet every damn thing they do, so they give them flexibility to respond as circumstances permit. I think it was an error of omission. But then again, this is WV, coal is a big deal, and it's very likely there are Verizon employees who DON'T support Waxman-Markey.

Final Analysis: Kerfuffle, IMO.

joelkirstein said...

Going in that tired, cliched direction is a bad move every time because after the shock value dissipates, it has no residual value and and if anyone thought things through to the end, do you really want to associate your company, product or service with the worst, most heinous individuals in history or a tragedy like 9-11?

A few years ago an agency in Southeast Asia used Hitler in an ad using morose humor. Jewish groups were outraged and when the campaign was pulled, the excuse given for using his image was that people would see past the obvious negative imagery and like the humor at Hitler's expense. They claimed they weren't anti-semetic. Needless to say no one saw it that way and the agency came off as being just plain stupid!

Michael said...

Well, here comes the kick line. One, two, three, four: "Springtime for Hitler and Germany . . ."

There is a double-edged sword here. We must never forget this monster, and so organizations, museums, literature, films, news, etc., will continually remind us about what Hitler did thanks to the continued dedication of many.

Part of the the other edge of all this continued visibility is that his image has become iconic, like it or not. And so what happens is that the reminder of the horrors becomes an image that young art directors or writers want to use to punch through all the clutter in the media, which is rather thick.

I don't think that Pol Pot, who was pretty bad himself, or Joseph Stalin, has accumulated as much charisma / notoriety, nor did they look as weird, as Adolf. And I sincerely doubt that any campaign whose theme is based on another exhumation of the Fuhrer is going to seriously move a needle on any sales chart, nor do I think it will reflect positively on any brand that chooses him as a "mascot" or spokes-Fuhrer.

Send the creative department to the showers!

Anonymous said...

Ad agencies continue to push the 'one-size-fits-all' communications driven tactical approach to brand building. What is required is an organisation based, geographic focussed, segment driven, integrated strategic plan that understands what value segments require and matching corporate attributes to those requirements.
Agencies know this but don't have a clue how to go about it so they create campaigns that push the creative/socially acceptable envelope and hope that the viral campaign will give them the exposure they promised the client.
Sadly of course this happens yet all it does is raise awareness but doesn't get bodies through the door.
So begins the agency merry-go-round!

Kevin McMahon said...

Those are indeed two of the more egregious examples of creative run amok. It seems to me, however, that a significant portion of advertising creative is designed solely for shock with little concern for what comes next. Perhaps "cutting through the noise" is the only thing that matters, but I sure hope not. Relying on Hitler to stand out from the crowd indicates a complete lack of creativity and depth of understanding.

For me, there is plenty to dislike about the anything goes school of capitalism - but the one saving grace is that we can all vote with our wallets and with our outrage posted on the web. Companies that cross the line between "attention getting" and "massively offensive" run the long term business risk of getting marginalized and driven from the market for good. Two recent examples of inept brand management, though certainly different in genesis from bad ads - Michael Vick and Chris Brown. The fortunes lost by arrogance and blindness to prevailing "third-rail" issues is truly stunning.