28 August 2006

Attention Cummins: Don't hold others back... Resign the Connex account now!





Connex launched its Don't hold others back ad campaign on 13 August. According to the Connex press release, "the centrepiece of the campaign are (sic) TV ads that can only be described as intriguing".

Only as intriguing?!! You're kidding, right? From my first viewing of the campaign, I'm afraid numerous other adjectives came to mind!

This is a campaign designed to tell commuters that it's their fault Connex trains don't run on time more often. If you decide this is the right thing to be telling commuters (and I'm not at all certain that it is), it sets up a communications challenge that calls for brutal honesty and self-reflection on the part of the advertiser. You have to be prepared to disarm commuters' natural counter-arguments first - by acknowledging your own shortcomings - before you can begin to hope for a fair hearing. And your message needs to be delivered with a very high degree of empathy and, probably, ironic humour.

Cummins & Partners' creative strategy fails on both counts. The choice of black & white cinematography, the funereal music and the images themselves evoke Stalinist Russia - they are cold and there is not a jot of empathy. Then the message "tag" is delivered not by a human being, or even a human voice, but by a sign on the end of the platform - a piece of totalitarian bureaucracy worthy of Orwell's "thought police". There's no light at the end of the tunnel: the depiction of the problem is dark and heavy-handed, but the solution is just a sign telling us how we should think and behave.

Let's face it, we're not talking here about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. A campaign to encourage commuters to contribute to the shared goal of helping the trains run on time doesn't exactly call for the Grim Reaper.

20 August 2006

Spoilt for choice? (Or spoiled by choice?)

As discussed with Helen Razer on ABC Victoria local radio, Sunday 20 August

It's been your favourite chocolate bar for as long as you can remember. But suddenly it comes in King Size, Bite-sized, Chunky, "Bits", peanut butter-filled, white chocolate, dark chocolate, low GI and guarana-boosted varieties.

Or your current toothbrush is looking shaggy and needs replacing. You spend 5 minutes in front of the oral care shelves of the supermarket - it's only 3 months since you bought your last brush, but the range of product features has changed even in that short time. Suddenly you're worried about something you weren't even aware of when you walked in: Do I need whitening, tartar control, plaque removal, gum massage, and a tongue scraper? And in what combination?

We enjoy and value choice when it lets us get closer to exactly what we already know we want. We're delighted by choice when we're seeking variety and excitement. But we are often troubled by choice when it undermines our confidence in our ability to make the right decision. In many purchase situations - especially when we're not quite sure what we need - the more choices we have, the higher the perceived risk that we'll make the wrong choice.

There's a standard term in the lexicon of the consumer behaviourist: "post-purchase dissonance". We've all had it - that unpleasant feeling we get when something (or someone) tells us that we made the wrong choice, paid too much or bought last year's model. The complexity of choice in the category - whether it's mouthwash, mobile phones or mortgages - makes information processing and decision-making more taxing, and post-purchase dissonance more likely. In other words, too much choice can make us unhappy.

And when consumers feel that marketers are deliberately making things more difficult by offering more choices, then this can lead to resentment, because they are made to feel ignorant or inadequate for what should be a straightforward task.

It's a problem, too, for the marketer. Product and brand proliferation, making the choice too difficult and overwhelming for the consumer, is a risky strategy. Sales may look OK as consumers continue to buy - but grudgingly - until another marketer detects that level of disaffection and the feeling of being "trapped", and dramatically simplifies the whole offer, taking share away from the brands that were making it all too hard, and often attracting new consumers to the market in the process.

A classic example is herbal weight loss supplements. Once you had to DIY: first read up, then buy separate bottles of brindleberry, chromium picolinate, chitin, lecithin, etc. from your health food store. Then along came "Fat Blaster", with a name and a value proposition that told you they'd done all the worrying for you - everything you needed and nothing you didn't was in the one capsule. At around $50 a box, it doubled the size of the market overnight!

And when a FMCG company like Nestlé offers at least four different products in the chocolate mousse category alone (see my earlier blog on this), you also have to wonder about the economics of it - the cost of developing and managing such a complex product portfolio or "matrix" has to be justified by increased overall profitability or you're simply destroying shareholder value.

What can consumers do? Some marketers argue that consumers have the power to simply stop buying if they're not happy, but that's an unrealistic expectation when we feel like we're being held hostage.

You can look for a market maven - someone (without any vested interest) who collects and disseminates market and product information (you know, the brother-in-law or the guy at work who knows all about mobile phones or plasma TVs). Web forums are often a gathering place for such mavens, especially for technology-based products. You can find an intermediary who will do the simplifying and worrying for you - place your trust in a broker to find the best loan, super scheme, etc.

But few of us can afford a personal shopper to go to the supermarket! For groceries and other FMCG products, the best way to combat the tyranny of choice is feedback - call the 1-800 consumer line number on the package to tell marketers you're unhappy (they're crazy if they offer this and then don't listen). And, please, please, participate in market research and be painfully honest - we're often afraid to admit that we don't understand or are overwhelmed by choice, but marketers need to know... for their sake and ours as consumers.

13 August 2006

Telstra and Trujillo: Media are overdoing the Mexican flavour

It's been a big week for Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo. First there was the scrapping of the fibre-to-the-node broadband strategy, then revelations of Mr Trujillo's severance package from US West a few years back, and then Telstra's financial announcements... and the news that the CEO had met his performance targets and earned his bonus. There were lots of calls for Sol to be sacked and oblique comments from John Howard about fat executive salaries.

I was astonished to see that, more than a year after his appointment, many editors, sub-editors and journalists are still using "Mexican" references when they discuss Trujillo and Telstra. A quick scan this week revealed the following:

...sends profits south of the border
...Sol Trujillo and his "Three Amigo" executive compadres are in the gun sights of furious Coalition MPs
...you've got to have faith, amigos...
...as you might expect from a true Mexican raised on chilli peppers, a bit of heat doesn't seem to fluster him
...Telstra opts for Mexican stand-off

By contrast, international reporting on Telstra this week invariably described Mr Trujillo as "an American", referring to his background and experience managing other telcos like Orange in France as well as US West.

The facts: Mr Trujillo has never been a Mexican citizen. He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Mexican-American parents, educated in the US, gained an MBA from the University of Wyoming in 1974, and worked in the United States for the next 25 years. His Hispanic heritage is celebrated in the US - he was the first US-born Hispanic to become CEO of a Fortune 200 company.

But, hey, he has a "funny" name with a "J" that sounds like an "H" and a "LL" that you pronounce like a "Y". And a moustache...

In my Brand Management classes, I'd classify it as "leveraging a country-of-origin brand association". While we may try to assess Sol Trujillo's performance on purely rational grounds, by using "Mexican" clichés - not 21st-century Mexico, mind you, but those associated with the Mexicans of Hollywood Westerns - journalists tap into images and associations in our minds that have been reinforced over decades. First come the images: think sombreros, ponchos, siestas under a cactus, Speedy Gonzales, "Hey Cisco", etc. And hard on the heels of those images come the more judgmental associations: sleepy or lazy, thieving bandido, or just plum loco.

Of course, outside my brand management class, and applied to an individual, I'd call it racial stereotyping. Imagine the outrage if (for example) Jac Nasser, as a Lebanese-born Australian, had been subjected to the same sort of country-of-origin clichés when running Ford here or in the US.

If they can’t respect the facts or show some restraint, then perhaps it’s time some sections of the media laid off the tequila.

UPDATE 25 AUGUST: A piece based on this one appeared today in Crikey (subscription required), where it attracted a brief response from Eric Ellis, Walkley Award-winning SE Asian correspondent for Fortune and The Bulletin. In a piece written last April for Fortune, Eric noted - for an international readership - that Trujillo "has become the foreigner Australians most delight in mocking".

12 August 2006

Brand equity lost in translation

Why do we take such delight in the stories of marketers who get it wrong? A particular favourite - not only on the Web, but also in respected textbooks like Kevin Lane Keller's "Strategic Brand Management" - is the dumb US or other English-speaking marketer that launches a product in a non-English-speaking market without bothering to get a local translation done first. A Google search on terms like "brand name", "translation" and "blunder" will get you hundreds of sites like this one and stories like the Clairol "Mist Stick" hair curling wand, which sold poorly in Germany where "mist" means manure... etc.

Of course, they're not all true: the wonderful Urban Legends Reference Pages actually debunks some of these, including the false tale of the Chevy Nova having failed in various Spanish-speaking countries simply because "no va" means "doesn't go" in Spanish. (As if there weren't any Hispanic employees at GM in Detroit in a position to say "hang on a second...") Then again, the one we've all heard about the Mitsubishi Pajero is, apparently, true, as this scholarly account of Spanish swearwords from Wikipedia testifies. [WARNING: SERIOUS PARENTAL ADVISORY - THIS ACCOUNT OF SPANISH PROFANITY HAS VERY FRANK ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS.]

But step into one of Melbourne's increasingly accessible Asian grocery stores (there are two within 200 metres of QBrand's offices) and you get a better idea of how much we rely on familiar brands to guide us when we're shopping, and how easy it must be to miss some cultural subtleties when naming a brand for export. Even though many of the brand names are in English, the sheer number of unfamiliar names to mentally process can be almost overwhelming as you try to make sense of the structure of a particular category.

Still, it was well worth a few minutes' mental overload to find these two...

My usual advice to marketers is to avoid any connection - explicit or implied - between chocolate products and the word "colon".
And perhaps "Good Fortune" might have conveyed the intended meaning more effectively... in Australian usage, naming a canned meat product "Good Luck" sounds like a warning!

09 August 2006

Iconic landmark? I'm not having a bar of it!

It was fun being asked by The Age (put on the spot) to comment about what makes an "iconic Melbourne landmark". No, Showgirls Bar 20 isn't on my list. (By the way, the link is for those unaware of Bar 20 and in no way an endorsement, and yes, I had to go looking for it!)

In this case, "iconic Melbourne landmark" is, of course, just another expression from the real estate agents' lexicon (from the people who brought you "renovator's delight" and, in Sydney, "Harbour glimpses"). But it does prompt the interesting question of what makes for an icon, especially from a branding perspective.

"Icon" is generally used as a cultural term: to be regarded as an icon, a brand really needs to be linked to, and to symbolise, something that's culturally important. (For more on this, see the book How Brands Become Icons by Douglas B. Holt.)

But important to which culture? Our "national" culture? I don't believe we have a single national culture, so I'm generally very suspicious when anyone claims something like "mateship" as an inherently Australian cultural value (see Don Watson's excellent critique of the politicisation of mateship - he asks whether it isn't in fact gender-biased and xenophobic, and why John Howard seems so keen on promoting it).

I would, however, agree that the MCG is an iconic Melbourne landmark. It's very widely recognised and has enormous cultural relevance and resonance for a very broad cross-section of Australians. It calls to mind significant sporting and cultural events - not only the 1956 Olympics, 2006 Commonwealth Games, VFL/AFL football, Test cricket, soccer, rugby, etc., and great sporting achievements, many of which are themselves symbolic of cultural values. But there are all the other events and uses, too: military (First World War conscription rallies, a base for RAAF personnel and US Marines in the Second World War), spiritual (from evangelist Billy Graham to Pope John Paul II), artistic (concerts by David Bowie, David Cassidy, Madonna, U2, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones), and Royal... along with thousands of other schoolkids, I saw the Queen from the "hallowed turf" of the MCG on her 1970 Royal Tour. We were arranged into large herds, and Her Majesty was driven around us in a kind of Queen-mobile. Apparently, this was deemed culturally and educationally important enough at the time to take us out of school for the day, but it seems pretty bizarre 35 years on!

Likewise, Flinders Street Station is an iconic landmark. It has great symbolic value to the many generations of Melbournians, from all kinds of cultural backgrounds, who've arranged to meet "under the clocks" and is well and truly linked to notions of what it means to live here for most Melburnians.

So I'm not being a prude or a wowser (a tremendously useful and culturally-laden word that seems to have faded from use lately) when rejecting Bar 20 for icon-ification. It's not that a venue for adult entertainment and "showgirls" can't be an icon - I would certainly support icon status for the Folies Bergère or the Moulin Rouge in Paris. And I'm certainly prepared to acknowledge that many Melburnians have probably had a good time at Showgirls Bar 20, recognise it and perhaps even think fondly of it. But I'm afraid I just don't think it can really lay claim to symbolising any cultural truths about life in Melbourne for significant groups of our citizens.

Of course, I'd love to hear from anyone who thinks I'm not paying Bar 20 its due cultural respects - comments always welcome.