Even After Vintage Clinton Repositioning Attempt, Democrats Still Have a Problem

The article I wrote for Forbes earlier this summer, “The Democrats Have A Big Branding Problem, As Does Obama,” talked about how Obama is “more defined by what he is not.” Bill Clinton’s speech last night showed that he, not Obama is a master at branding.

Obama Democrats Brand Problem Bill Clinton DNC Speech

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.

Read Forbes article on the Obama branding problem here.

Samsung vs. Apple: Hip to Be Square with Round Corners?

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[6] 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.”

BBC News Interviews Merriam Associates About Google Doodles

Several months ago, we wrote about the unique way Google uses its logo on its website. Most brands consider their logos to be sacrosanct and unchangeable. Google changes and plays with its logo all the time. BBC News covered the Google Doodle phenomenon and interviewed Merriam Associates about the interesting brand building aspects of constant change.

Here is the BBC article.

Is the Nokia Brand Dead?

Nokia’s brand problem is outlined in an insightful article today on Bloomberg. The Nokia brand has been so thoroughly buried by competitors that stores no longer mention it, much less carry the product. Smart phone buyers consider an Android phone vs. an iPhone. Nokia missed the smart phone revolution and compounded the mistake by playing catch-up in a competition that required it to leap frog way ahead. Being the second also-ran with 2011 technology in 2012 while combating an awareness and availability problem, the Nokia brand needs more than an ad campaign–it needs a miracle. Nokia could be as dead as Blackberry or Palm. (Remember them?)

Nokia Lumia Windows 8 Brand Smart Phone

AIG is AIG Again

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.”

Can You Tweet Your Brand Positioning?

At a fund raiser yesterday, President Obama disparaged his opposition by saying: ” “you can pretty much put their campaign on, on a tweet and have some characters to spare.”

Obama’s comment shows how far the brilliant marketer of 2008 has fallen off his game. Obama has forgotten what it takes to make a winning brand: YES! You should be able to fit your campaign or brand positioning into a tweet!

There is a lot more to an M&M than ”Melts in Your Mouth, Not in Your Hand.” And Nike has a lot more to offer than “Just Do It.” Yet the fact that Mastercard is simply, in one word, “Priceless” says it all. Obama himself owes his election to “Change we can believe in.” Slogans or taglines that can fit in a tweet are a good thing: They convey a positive, unique, and important benefit in a catchy way. Good marketers and good politicians know that’s what it takes to sell product or get elected.

Of course, every winning brand should be able to answer “Where’s the beef?” in a full and factual way, but if your brand can’t be boiled down to a short tweet, you lose.  Unfocused, free-ranging complexity that fills dozens of pages of a position papers won’t make it into the customer’s (or voter’s) minds–and if they can’t understand, articulate and remember what your brand stands for, they won’t buy it.

What is the Obama brand’s tweet? He needs to get one fast!

More on Obama’s brand in my latest article for Forbes: “Obama’s Branding Problem”

More on political brands:
Brand Obama: What Now?
Branding the Candidates: Obama vs. McCain

Brand Naming Webinar IABC - Replay

I gave a webinar on naming brands for the IABC on May 22nd. The presentation is available for replay (and you can also request a download the presentation deck) here:

IABC Logo Brand Naming Webinar Lisa Merriam

Google's Brand: Constant Change Is the Brand Constant

I posted this article last week and just had to update it with today’s (5/23/2012) Moog doodle:

Moog Google Doodle


Respect for the logo has been a key tenet of brand management for decades. Brands spend millions creating graphic standards and trademark usage guidelines (here’s an example), with careful processes and procedures that preserve the integrity of the logo and ensure that the brand is consistently and correctly used everywhere by everyone, whether it’s on a sign in Sri Lanka or a can in Columbia. I have a binder three inches thick devoted to the use of the GE logo with the Olympic rings. Some companies have “brand cops”–even “brand Nazis”–who ensure logo use always complies with brand standards.

Then there is Google.

Just yesterday, they changed their logo in 45 countries to celebrate Worker’s Day:

Google Workers Labor Day Logo Doodle


With the Google logo, nothing is sacred; not consistency, not recognizability, not even legibility. What is constant is charming, interactive engagement that gets tons and tons of press and buzz. People are still talking about the famous Les Paul tribute:


How does Google successfully flout brand management orthodoxy?

First, Google doesn’t use its logo as a billboard. Unlike a can of Coke, you don’t have to pick out Google search on a shelf. Its logo does not have to work to differentiate the brand in a loud and crowded marketplace. The Google home page is a place you go knowingly and deliberately. By the time you see the brand, your choice has already been made.

Second Google doesn’t need to use its logo to identify its search page product. The Google identity is conveyed as much by its streamlined page design as anything else. No matter that Google has grown into a complex organization; it has maintained one of the simplest home pages ever created: a search box surrounded by empty white space. In a sea of look-alike generic Web pages,  you don’t need to see the Google logo to know you are on the Google home page.

Eadweard J. Muybridge's 182nd Birthday Google Doodle

Playing with the Google logo has morphed from mere whimsy to a powerful marketing too. Called “Doodles,” the Google logo morphs are described as “fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous”–exactly what the Google brand experience is. Doodles keep the Google brand connected to places, events, issues and feelings of their users and generate tons of positive press, not to mention water cooler chatter. They keep the brand topical and relevant in an endlessly fun way, or as Google says, “bring smiles to the faces of Google users around the world.”

That is not to say that a changing Google brand works everywhere. You’ll see the formal brand-managed logo on business cards, on non-search products, in investor meetings and every place where the brand is needed to identify, differentiate and get attention.



The Toyota Brand Bounces Back

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.

Brand Twins: Same Brand Names for Different Products

Owning your brand name is critical for your business, but what many people don’t realize is that owning a trademark on your brand name is not the same as owning a unique name.

Delta Brand Name Trademarks Logos

Facebook raised a ruckus last year when it applied to trademark “face”–yet there were hundreds of  “face” trademarks granted before Facebook made their application. There are almost a thousand trademarks on the name “Delta” for everything from airlines to faucets to power tools.  That is because trademarks are granted by classification of goods and services as defined by various international agreements. You cannot own a word exclusively and universally; only for the actual products and services you offer.

You’d be surprised at how many well-known brands share names:

Domino: Sugar and pizza

Domino Sugar Domino’s Pizza Logo Brand Trademark

Burlington: Discount retailer and holding company

Burlington Coat Factory Burlington Industries Logo Brand Trademark

 Dove: Soap and chocolate

Dove Soap Dove Chocolate Logo Brand Trademark

Finlandia: Cheese and vodka

Finlandia Cheese Finlandia Vodka Logo Brand Trademark

Apple: Records and computers

Apple Records Apple Computers Smart Phones Logo Brand Trademark

Eos: Cameras, cars and software

Canon Eos Volkswagen Eos Cisco Eos Logo Brand TrademarkPink: Victoria’s Secret and Thomas Pink

Thomas Pink Victoria’s Secret Pink Logo Brand Trademark

Then there are the sound alikes: Thompson and Thomson, Sonoco and Sunoco, Sysco and Cisco, Coke and Koch…