Merriam Associates specializes in branding that gets results. Everything we do systematically generates leads, closes sales, boosts profits, and builds a solid reputation for your company and your products or services. Our background combines the rigor of global Fortune 500 companies with the tenacity of successful entrepreneurs.
Opponents of genetically modified foods are successfully skitching on the Monsanto brand. As a kid growing up in Chicago, I used to grab the fenders of passing cars for an exhilaratingly fast slide on icy roads. “Skitching” is a portmanteau combining skate and hitch. Political causes often grab onto the power of well-known brands to use their power to efficiently communicate their messages and the get attention in the media. The nicely alliterative “March Against Monsanto” is just the latest example of brand skitching.
Organizers of today’s marches claim over 2 million people participated in over 400 evens in 52 countries according to founder and organizer Tami Canal. “If I had gotten 3,000 people to join me, I would have considered that a success,” she said in media interviews.
Skitching off the Monsanto brand brought Canal’s cause enormous attention that would have been hard to obtain without the connection to this chemical boogeyman. Monsanto has long been associated with reviled chemicals like DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange.
The company adopted a new logo in 1999 (with the tagline “Food. Health. Hope.”) and spends a fortune talking about the “new” Monsanto being “a sustainable agriculture company.” Despite these investments in trying to build an earth-friendly image, the brand negatives are still high, making it ideal for skitching.
As a mother and entrepreneur, getting the balance right isn’t always easy. This article talks about working from home trying to focus and balancing home and kids. While I don’t get to work from home much–client projects have me working for all the heck over the place–keeping all the plates spinning can be a challenge. Happy Mother’s Day to all you special ladies out there. Okay–back to branding.
Chinese companies made headlines a few years back with lead tainted toys and pet food that sickened cats and dogs. Now a US company is coming under fire in China. KFC is alleged to use excessive growth hormones and antibiotics in their chicken. This insightful article by Chinese branding expert Milton Kotler on the blog he shares with his marketing guru brother Philip Kotler points out that dealing with this crisis as a cosmetic branding and PR issue is a mistake. KFC has a business model problem that affects trust. Trust is the core of any brand and it is trust that fuels ROI. BP faced a similar problem.
When a brand’s strength is tied to a real person–when it is a celebrity brand–its fortunes rise and fall with that person’s reputation and behaviors (see Osama bin Laden, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods). In the case of the Livestrong brand, Lance Armstrong’s “doing the dirty” complicates his business and his charity.
The Livestrong brand is tightly tied to the cancer fighting Livestrong Foundation, but the brand is not strictly altruistic. The Foundation licenses the brand, which is personally owned by Lance Armstrong, and it is the driver of his multimillion for-profit empire. The dynamic is a complex one. Armstrong’s modest fame as a cyclist built the Foundation, and the Foundation burnished Armstrong’s reputation, catapulting his fame, marketability and fortune far beyond that of a mere road racer. Can you even name any other famous cyclists?
Lance Armstrong has confessed to doping by Oprah. The irony is the profit and fame dynamic of Livestrong was a key driver in Armstrong’s decision to cheat. He needed performance enhancing drugs to stage the comeback that built his celebrity that built the foundation that built the million-dollar enterprise. Now those performance enhancing drugs are dragging down the whole thing. It pays to be a winner. Being a cheater? No so much.
As the presidential candidates argue about what happened in Libya, Stratfor, an intelligence analysis group, has written a great article on Al Qaeda’s brand architecture mess. As Al Qaeda fades as a brand, other elements of Islamic jihadist movement will muscle into top shelf position
Al Qaeda isn’t the only Islamic extremist group with marketing problems. The Taliban must now combat media bias in coverage of their attack on a Pakistani school girl. The Taliban brand is being tarnished by media reports that have “crossed all limits” to paint the Taliban as the “worst people on earth.” Their plan to turn things around? They have selected 12 suicide bombers who will attempt to blow themselves up in the offices of various Pakistani and foreign media news offices. Talk about confusion about goals and utter befuddlement over methods.
In one simple line, he repositioned the Democratic Party and defined a winning brand for the market: “If you want a winner-take-all, you’re-on-your-own society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared prosperity and shared responsibility — a we’re-all-in-this-together society — you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.” Bill Clinton has offered the market a clear choice.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, Bill Clinton isn’t running. Instead, Obama’s brand is relentlessly negative and unfocused, veering from anti-Bain to “you didn’t build that” to Jerusalem is not Israel’s capital. Obama styles his brand as “incomplete.” Compared to the positive energy Bill Clinton offered, that doesn’t sound like a winning position.
The ruling that Samsung stole technology from Apple could devastate the Samsung brand–but it may prove just as destructive to the Apple brand.
Already media wags have been calling the Android phone leader “Samesung.” But Apple could be starting down the path brand ruin. Today Apple has a reputation for being cool and creative, but how cool is it to be the market heavy who stamps out innovation? Apple’s promise “to go thermonuclear” on competitors is not at all cooland definitely is not creative. With this win, Apple might have taken the first step toward Microsoft-izing itself.
On the surface, Samsung sounds like a whiner when it complains about patent law being “manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners.” But there is truth to the complaint. No one likes to see their idea stolen, but there is a difference between protecting an invention and closing out all innovation for an entire category.
A similar situation 100 years ago damaged the reputation of innovators and ultimately destroyed their business. In 1906, the Wright Brothers patented the general concept of controlling pitch, roll and yaw with U.S. Patent 821393 for a “Flying Machine”. So basic was their concept, aircraft could not be flown without it. When Glenn Curtiss invented the aileron, the Wrights threatened to sue. Curtiss countered that the Wrights’ patent was so broad that if someone jumped in the air and waved their arms that the Wrights could sue them and win. Indeed, the Wrights did sue Curtiss (and everyone else) and they did win. Wright patent infringement lawsuits effectively shut down the aeronautical industry in the United States.
The Wrights won the legal battles, but not the war. The Wright Company earned a reputation for being greedy and litigious, and most devastating of all, for producing inferior products. The U.S. government found Wright aircraft were “dynamically unsuited for flying.” At the start of World War I, the United States could not buy any functional American designed and made planes—they had to buy French. By 1916, the Wright Company was out of business.
Apple does not now make inferior products, but will lack of competition cause complacency that puts an end to creativity? Apple is admired now for being cool, but will heavy handed attempts to protect its smart phone monopoly make them into the next Microsoft? Apple has won this battle, but at what cost to their brand long term? Their “monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners,” might not be so cool in the future. What Isaac Newton said about visionaries also applies to brands: “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
AIG is returning to its old name, finally correcting a an ill-considered and ineffective name change.
Here’s what we said back in 2009:
“AIG is trying to outrun its old reputation by adopting a new brand. Will it work? Most people aren’t buying it. The entity, formerly known as AIG, is firmly attached to its reputation of irresponsible financial stewardship and credit default swap schemes that played a major role in the global financial collapse of 2008. The payout of millions in bonuses, particularly to executives responsible for the collapse along with lavish executive spa trips using the millions of US taxpayer bailout money haven’t helped. With record losses mounting and a reputation in shambles, a name change isn’t fooling anyone.”
Transportation Secretary Ray La Hood sent Toyota stock into a nosedive two years ago when he told a congressional House Appropriations subcommittee, “My advice is, if anybody owns one of these vehicles, stop driving it.”
Jay Leno quipped, “Things are not looking good for Toyota. In fact, today, two crash test dummies refused to get in the car.”
And of course, experts lined up to predict doom for the Toyota brand. On expert told CBS Co-Anchor Harry Smith, “We’ll be seeing for at least a decade, maybe two, that there will be major problems with the Toyota brand.”
Fast-forward just two years, not ten or twenty: The Toyota brand is definitely back. After a disastrous year of sinking sales, expensive recalls, congressional hearings and a seemingly endless public relations meltdown, Toyota’s reputation remains intact and sales are soaring.
As a brand consultant who works with various automotive brands (though not Toyota), I have been following this story closely over the last year. Here are highlights from over 40 parking lot interviews from New York to Florida of drivers and their opinions about Toyota:
Confounding comedians and critics, Toyota has become a textbook example of how a brand can bounce back. As of February, 2012, Toyota’s market share had rebounded to 13.8% of the market, despite continuing supply problems due to last year’s tsunami. Toyota’s pre-recall market share was 14.7% in January, 2010, according to Edmunds.com. According to the just-released Consumer Reports 2012 Car-Brand Perception Survey, Toyota still holds on to the #1 spot and Lexus remains in the top ten.
Part of Toyota’s recovery is due to Toyota being cleared of accusations that electrical and engine glitches caused deadly, uncontrolled acceleration. A lengthy joint investigation by NASA and the Department of Transportation found that most Toyota and Lexus crashes were due to “pedal misapplication,” that is drivers stepped on the gas instead of the brakes. A decidedly secondary cause was floor mat interference with brake pedals. The rocket scientists at NASA and engineers at the DOT found no electronic or engine failures of any kind.
Toyota’s targeted and effective communications with consumers have also helped the brand bounce back. The company’s advertising, public relations, and digital communications have been direct, honest and voluminous. Moreover, Toyota’s use of social media show that they “get it,” engaging people in true, human, back and forth conversation. At the grass roots level, dealers have earned high marks in communicating with customers affected by the recall and performing recall services promptly.
But by far the most credit for Toyota’s recovery is due to decades of delivering on its brand promise of durable, affordable high quality cars. As part of my work helping brands understand their consumers, I frequently turn on the video camera and conduct on-the-street interviews. I talked to drivers in a series of video interviews during the height of the recall crisis in back February 2010. In light of Toyota’s fast rebound, I was curious to hit the parking lots again. I interviewed dozens of drivers in Florida and New York to find out their opinion of Toyota and their reaction to the recalls.
There is still some left over recall anxiety. One young mom said, “I love the Land Cruiser. It is probably my favorite. But we actually just bought a Ford Flex. My husband does all the new car research and the recalls were something he mentioned as being a factor.”
More often people were philosophical. One woman said, “Technically, the defect didn’t cause the deaths and we are beginning to find out that a lot of those deaths were caused by driver error.” Another young man said, “Lots of cars are recalled. It is not just Toyota.”
The recalls don’t appear to have much negative impact. “I just bought a 2010 Toyota Venza,” said a dad I interviewed. “It’s been a great car. It’s brand new, put out after the recall. The recalls did not affect my decision at all. I thought they (Toyota) stepped up and took care of the cars the way they should have.”
In fact, excellent service at the dealer level plays a big role in the strength of the Toyota brand. One woman I talked two pushed back her sunglasses and enthused, “I love my car! I have no problem with Toyota at all.” She was directly affected by the recalls, “I had to take it back to the dealer. They were very cooperative and I was very happy. I got in and out real fast.”
And she wasn’t the only person to use the word “love.” That level of passion came through with surprising frequency when Toyota owners talked about their cars. One sprightly grandmother said: “I love Toyota. I happen to own one. It’s a beautiful little car.”
When companies find their brand in a crisis, they face three potential outcomes. First, their brand can suffer permanent damage. The only way to recover shareholder value is to sell it off or merge it with another. Second, the brand can soldier on, nursing its wounds for many years, waiting for consumers to slowly forget its woes. In the rarest of cases is what has happened to Toyota. The brand made a quick recovery because of the many years invested in keeping its brand promise, combined with effective communication, and the fact that Toyota was absolved of suspected engineering problems. It was the slowly built resiliency of the Toyota brand that made its fast rebound possible. Toyota teaches us that winning isn’t an event; it is a process of consistency and endurance.