Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Laughing it up with TBS

A select group of off-network sitcoms – Seinfeld, Friends, Raymond - and a tagline “very funny” are at the center of TBS’s latest push. Few consumer brands, outside of retailers, can re-invent themselves with re-tread product. Other than Rhino Records and cable TV, not too many brands have been innovators solely by repackaging. Game Show Network and TV Land (and Nick at Nite), among others, have mined this territory on TV in the past. Rhino has famously rediscovered forgotten recorded music gems. And A&E Home Video, in a departure from its namesake parent, has turned itself into an imprimatur for cult TV fans.

At TBS, modern classics have inspired a quiet programming innovation. In a landscape of inane reality shows, the comfort of the sitcom format as evidenced by the best contemporary examples of the genre is a big, simple idea. Remove the uncertain performance of yet another wife-swapping, deranged boss entry. Avoid the faddish celebrity card games and budget make-over shows. Create a destination with identifiable programming that people want to watch – that’s always been the cable model.

Recent history has seen networks put more and more of their programming budgets – and, thus, their marketing and branding activities – behind original programming. A compulsion to own programming (and the related rights across all media) has driven a trend towards originals. Off-network programming is a staple across the cable dial, as cable nets often use original programming as aspirational products, while filling out much of the schedule with non-original fare.

The difference with TBS is in positioning. Think Lifetime, which for years has been calling itself “Television for Women” while promoting a slate of weakly performing original shows – yet the bread and butter of the network is Golden Girls reruns and old Made-for-TV movies. TBS eschews this hypocrisy by boldly positioning itself behind its winning sitcom lineup. They’ve even turned to a most-celebrated sitcom of yore in their requisite “reality” entry with The Real Gillian’s Island.

TNT, TBS’s sister net, has scored big in recent years as a drama destination with a slate of Law & Order and big-ticket Hollywood titles. TBS has ripped a page right out of that playbook with its comedy bid. Where the name of the game at the end of the day is ratings, riding the coat tails of proven products to create a reliable destination should prove a winning formula.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Combining Cingular and AT&T Wireless

In a merger, a new logo or tagline is the most simplistic step in combining two distinct companies. For the new Cingular, grafting AT&T Wireless's "How Many Bars..." campaign onto their new identity is decidedly pre-mature, despite the completion of the long-anticipated deal.

Right now, customers are on incompatible networks, have incompatible phones and are stuck in non-transferable customer contracts. Yes advertising can - and often must - be aspirational, talking about what can be, what will be. But big promises can yield big disappointments -- much to the chagrin of potentially disillusioned customers and the employees who have the thankless task of servicing them.

Acquisition of AT&T's customers was a prime motivator in this deal for Cingular - as cellular customer churn is a major industry-wide issue. Yet this same issue, particularly with the advent of transportable numbers, should be top of mind if Cingular forsees any customer service challenges.

Logistical issues will keep the two companies separate for some time. AT&T itself had two distinct networks - with the geographically dominant one being phased out by a more web-surfing friendly infrastructure. (Remember M Life?) Many customers were loathe to give up the better coverage of the old network for unwanted web capabilities of the new one. And many customers just got new phones, virtually forced to do so by AT&T's phase-out of the old network.

When customer contracts expire - forcing people to get a new phone (again) - Cingular will need to have as compelling a story for them as any of the set of majors out there. Unmet customer expectations that may follow this merger can only work against Cingular in retention efforts.

Yes, Cingular needs to talk about "the near future" in their messaging - giving time for network logisitics to catch up to the need to unify their customer base. But Cingular should be very aggressive in moving to retain customers long before their contracts expire. Agressive equipment deals will encourage customers to acquire new phones (and new contracts). Immediately implementation of the Rollover Minutes feature to all AT&T Wireless customers will win excitement and enthusiasm.

A new tagline will only be lipstick on the gorilla without a broad plan to communicate to and migrate millions of acquired customers. If Cingular fails to deliver on the expectations their new advertising creates, the only winners will be their competition.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Promoting AOL's new identity

AOL is using a subtle yet jarring tactic as they continue to promote their new corporate identity. In one ad in particular that has been running during the MLB playoffs, an AOL Member stands on a conference table barking demands about features and performance to an eager group of AOL employees. The message about responsiveness and the like is obviously none too subtle. The subtle part is more in the set design. The conference room is rimmed with the old AOL mark.

It is a bit strange to see a lame duck logo so prominently placed in an ad campaign. If an old logo does appear in an ad, chances are it will soon be shattered or crushed by its newer vintage. One would imagine AOL is looking bridge the old and the new. The old logo is, after all, fairly well recognized - even for non-members who've been bombarded with free discs for years. Perhaps the old logo offers some context. This is an ad about AOL - and look, we're listening.

But what the clichéd exploding old logo thing does that this ad does not is offer a segue. All of a sudden, at the end of the ad, the new, less distinctive logo appears. Wouldn't AOL have been better off using the new mark as a backdrop in the scene? Wouldn't the presence of this new mark have underscored their message that they continue to be responsive to a changing marketplace and an evolving customer?

As for the mark itself, fresher, cleaner, more contemporary - it's all of these. But it also lacks some of that folksy personality that has always been a part of the AOL brand.

And AOL seems to have come to the conclusion that customers want a more protected and secure Web experience. Security and comfort in online credit card transactions and the like are obviously key to success for AOL in getting members to open their wallets further beyond their monthly fee. But the "Peace of Mind" they have promoted in full page newspaper ads is kind of hard to get excited about. Broadband customers already pay up to $50/month for access. I would think AOL needs something more alluring than an insurance policy to get people to pony up an additional $25 on top of their access fees - especially if they hope to expand relevance beyond tweens and seniors.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Drinking Speedo

In brand licensing, just because you can doesn't mean that you should. Case in point, Speedo Sportswater, the bottled drink marketed by Fuze Beverages under license from Speedo.

Yes, Speedo is a dominant water brand. But, as someone there may have failed to acknowledge, that dominance involves swimming in it, not drinking it.

Fit & relevance with the brand, product design & implementation, and channels of distribution are all key ingredients to successful brand extension, via license or otherwise. If this was an innovative product with exciting/unique packaging, maybe the definitions for fit & relevance can expand. Innovative packaging, for example, can create relevance with design or usability that leverages the heritage of the brand. For Speedo water, perhaps this could have been some kind of swimmer-friendly sipper-top, or something that stops the bottle from rolling away from the edge of the pool.

A few years back Nike teamed with Philips to market a line of MP3 players. Rather than just another gadget with a swoosh, this product was positioned as a device to enhance a workout - and this was supported by an ability to create a soundtrack for your workout with playlists from the Nike website.

Speedo Sportswater, by contrast, is a copycat product that offers no distinguishable benefit and no real connection to the Speedo brand, beyond the aforementioned water thing. The tagline on the bottle: "We know water." Well, Mercedes knows gasoline - but I don't see them getting into the petroleum business.

Channels of distribution offer another shot at sparking relevance. The cafe or vending machine at the gym can offer the consumer some context to connect the dots. Maybe the snack bar at the beach would be appropriate, too. Though I might steer clear of the poolside snack bar, as the ill-conceived blue bottle may mislead as to the actual source of the water. I should note here that the only place I have ever seen this water was at a local pizza shop. Very un-Speedo.

Speedo is a rich, dominant brand. Efforts to enhance that richness and extend that dominance require careful consideration in rationale, positioning and execution. Speedo missed on all three.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Nike & LIVESTRONG

Great brands surprise in positive and reinforcing ways. Positive surprise can spark re-discovery of a brand by reminding customers why they fell in love the first time. And for those that don’t feel the love, surprise offers an opportunity for another chance.

Such is the case with Nike and LIVESTRONG. Nike adopted a soft approach to their LIVESTRONG initiative, selling upwards of 15 million $1 yellow bands to date (all proceeds to the Lance Armstrong Foundation), without so much as a swoosh on a single one.

For a company that continues to seek positive press to erase persistent memories of overseas child labor, charitable initiatives are certainly not undertaken with their hearts alone. Yet, in an environment where seemingly no surface remains logo-free, kudos to Nike for understanding that a relatively quiet approach would be far more effective than a blatantly self-aggrandizing one. Better to have fewer people make the connection between Nike and LIVESTRONG and be positively surprised than turning everybody off by telling them how great Nike is.

Thursday, September 30, 2004

In-Flight Magazines: A Brand Opportunity?

As an industry, there are few worthy of as much brand criticism as the airline industry. The major airlines are an easy target for a range of critiques - stemming from price wars, unfriendly behaviors, undifferentiated experiences, a la carte pricing for a paper ticket or a bad sandwich, etc.

Yet there is one tool that all of them have at their disposal – and none seem to use very effectively, the in-flight magazine. The first question is “Why does it exist?” Yes there is a need for a program guide for the movies and radio. Yes the airlines like to illustrate flight patterns and such. But does a “Nightlife in Dallas” feature have any relevance to someone who happens to be flying to one of the other 500 cities served? Just because I’m on a plane doesn’t mean I like to read about travel related stuff – particularly if it has absolutely no bearing on my destination.

There seems to be this idea that a crappy magazine becomes this conduit for communication with the consumer. The CEO often “writes” a letter at the beginning. The editor-in-chief may present an intro, too, as if you’re a dedicated reader and subscriber – and not a bored, captive customer looking to kill a few minutes while waiting for the flight attendant to bring you a drink.

Magazines in the pouch in front of you are great – if they are magazines you’d like to read. In fact, if I opened the pouch and found a couple of real magazines that I liked presented on behalf of the airline, that would enhance my in-flight experience for sure. Why should an airline reinvent the wheel and create a sub-par product when they can leverage a wealth of good magazines out there and put them to work on behalf of their own brand? Airlines have profiles of travelers that can help them in the selection. The business traveler vs. the vacation traveler. The early morning Chicago flight vs. the midday Puerto Rico flight. The ski destination vs. the beach resort.

Sure, there are often a few issues of a golf magazine or a news magazine circulating on board in those “don’t take this home” covers. But any major publisher would pay handsomely for the right to put their magazine in front of someone for 2-6 hours+. The waiting area of the NY-DC shuttle is filled with free magazines for the taking – and it’s the best part of the trip.

I’m sorry Continental and American and Delta and United et al, your magazine stinks. If you want me to bond with your brand, don’t insist I read a second rate digest published exclusively for your customers. Give me something I might actually like – and I promise I’ll remember that next time I’m buying a ticket.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

Happy Meals for the Olsen Twins

McDonald’s has signed an endorsement deal with the Olsen Twins to promote Happy Meals in France.

Huh? Wasn’t one of the Olsens just released from an eating disorder clinic? And isn’t McDonald’s at the center of a firestorm on obesity and unhealthy eating? Could this be more absurd? And in France no less.

So if you’re grossly underweight you can safely gorge on McNuggets and fries? And it’s okay to promote fat-laden foods to French children if we symbolically renounce eating disorders in the process?

Who the hell let this happen? McDonald’s has proven their short-sightedness time and again – and once again shows that they just don't get it. But don’t the Olsens have people looking after them? I mean the Olsens are a $Billion brand – these things aren’t supposed to happen to properly managed brands. Is it possible they thought we’d never find out about it here in the US of A?

Easily among the worst celebrity tie-ins ever.