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Branding • Marketing • Design

Golden State. Base metal plate.

blackcalifornia2Yesterday I gave in. I’ve always said that specialty license plates are a waste of money, but the new black California plates are going to have to go on my ’71 Buick Riviera. I cannot live in a world where (as I saw yesterday) a 2014 Honda Accord has the black plates and my Riv does not.

Which leads me to a thought…

A few years back I was in a meeting on one of the University of California campuses, which I was told was the first meeting where all 30+ deans were in one room. We were there to discuss the branding of the university as a whole vs. school by school. Dan Burnham, ex-CEO of Raytheon and at the time the head of the Trustees asked me, “Simon, we don’t have an unlimited budget for this, are there any things we could do that would be effective and not cost much money?”

I answered that actually, some of the things most important and most effective would almost certainly save them money. Back then, I had never been to a meeting at the university where 5+ people from the same department/school would have the same business card. And every PowerPoint seemed to be a custom creation. And so this tremendous university with many extremely accomplished faculty (including, a number of Nobel Laureates) had no unified message about its greatness. They would almost certainly save time and money by having all business cards and all PowerPoints created from the same template, but also, importantly, have them all pushing the same brand message. I have found this to be an all too common situation in large organizations.

And so back to license plates:
California still represents the American Dream to many people both in the U.S. and abroad. And the scintillating tagline that we choose to affix to the 13 million vehicles carrying California plates?

Wow. I guess we’ve decided that Californian governmental gridlock should be our defining feature. Also that our citizens have never heard of Google and so would need to walk out to their car to obtain the web address of the DMV. Perhaps it’s part of a state-sponsored plan to encourage web-browsing while driving.

So here we have it: a free mini billboard on every one of the 13+ million vehicles registered in California and it is just thrown away. I don’t even ask for originality, Governor Brown. Going back to using “The Golden State” would do the job just dandily. While you are at it, the blue and yellow or the black and yellow plate colours of old are also much better looking than the current colour scheme.

And here I saw maybe the flash of genius. Could it be that they make the standard plate so boring that the upcharged specialty plates become more alluring?

I don’t think so. It’s just that no one with the power to change it is thinking what messaging could be achieved by 13 million billboards.

Any suggestions?


— Simon Dixon



Did someone Trump?

shutterstock_355923599Ahhh…Donald Trump.

One day I wonder if he is a Machiavellian genius with a keen sense of what “just enough” people will vote for and the next day he reminds me yet again that “to trump” is UK slang for raucously passing gas.

But that Trump can attract strong numbers to his gatherings and polls should not surprise us. In truth, Trump is just extending his brand. Even if it were no-one else, people who would buy gaudy products or live in gaudy buildings with the TRUMP name emblazoned on them would find his similar approach to politics and leadership attractive.

If you have seen me talk, then you will almost certainly have heard me say, “better to be loved by some than thought of as ‘acceptable’ by many.” In most cases, people’s shopping lists for any particular product are one item deep. Which is how the polarizing lightning rod politician can score higher on the polls than any of the five fractionated flavours of “meh.” It’s also how Cadillac came back from the dead. Starting with the CTS, they stopped trying to be another German car and became something unabashedly American (plus well made). If you like that look (and I do) then you are not going to shop it against the German three that are rather interchangeable. A great move and it paid off.

Donald Trump actually stands for something. That you may not like it, even abhor it, nonetheless shows that you know what it is. He has done a good job of giving you enough information to make a choice. What does Jeb Bush stand for? Ted Cruz? Marco Rubio? Mostly, you’ve no idea. Neither much does anyone else, so traction is hard to come by.

Take all this and apply it to your own company and products. Do people know what you stand for? Do they at least think they do? If not, there is very little binding you to your customers (which means they are up for grabs) and people who would love you, have no idea who or what you are.

But with some work, it’s totally fixable. – Or, like the Donald, it’s certainly a problem you can over-comb!

— Simon Dixon

Will Hoverboards segue to Segway?

segway-peopleWith Hoverboard sales exploding (or the actual boards themselves, according to recent news reports) it has led me to wonder if we might see a related brand go through a metamorphosis. I remember way back around 2000, when I first heard of an invention code-named “Ginger” that was a personal transportation device. It certainly looked cool and the technology allowing a two-wheeled device to self-stabilize was truly cutting-edge. And then it launched as the Segway….

Many people have theorized why Segway never caught on. One thing I have learned over the course of my career in branding is that scientists and engineers often look sneeringly at branding. It can seem so silly and capricious to them. “Surely if it is a good product then people will see that and buy it” is essentially their position. There is an inherent dislike of the idea that something would need to be “sold.”  I think, largely, that Segway fell victim to that opinion. Segway could have been revolutionary but instead became the thing that dorks ride. I was on Maui last year and went on a Segway tour. It was tremendous fun, but I found myself rather glad that no one I knew could see me.

I remember Tina Fey referred to Segway on Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update: “Scientists have said that Segway will revolutionize the way that people get killed by cars.” I loved that one. Segway has tended to blame authorities in various jurisdictions for Segway’s poor adoption because of laws passed curtailing their use on sidewalks, etc. but what really killed it was leaving the brand perception up to the masses and it didn’t go the way they assumed.

As I have often said, there will always be messages about you, your company, your product. The decision you need to make is whether you will be in charge of the message or someone else will. And the “someone else” may not be as kind as you. (Or perhaps, more benignly, just not aware of the compelling truths about your product.)

So back to Hoverboards. Right now they are the hot gift for Christmas 2015. (Immolation pun intended :)  If that stays true and people start riding them in numbers, it would be a great opportunity for Segway to reposition their brand. They have an opportunity to harvest the “cool” of Hoverboards and then burnish it with the superior capabilities of the Segway. (Although some hip redesign would not be out of order…)

If you find yourself on a Segway next year not praying that you won’t be recognized — thank the Hoverboard. It may turn out that you can indeed polish a… nerd.

#segway  #hoverboard  #polishanerd

— Simon Dixon

Swift Thinking

Negotiating with Apple about his next “spontaneous” selfie.

Negotiating with Apple about his next “spontaneous” selfie.

I may have imagined the whole thing, but tipped my hat in awe on what I perceived as a stage-managed “disagreement” between Taylor Swift and Apple as Apple Music launched. Taylor tweeted how she felt that Apple’s FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL!!! (my emphasis) (sort of) was unfair to artists who would not get royalties during that period.

Apple then issued a mea culpa about its FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL!!! and did an about-face and agreed to pay the royalties.

Taylor Swift then thanked Apple for its decision regarding its FREE 3-MONTH TRIAL!!!. And all was well and world peace reigned.

Oh, and the world’s biggest brand and the world’s biggest music star gave each other huge headlines….

I may have imagined it, but I’ll be sad if I did. It’s genius.

Today I saw a story that PETA is suing to give a macaque (which is a kind of monkey, unless like George Allen you want to lose an election…) the rights to some selfies it took. Rather a fun water cooler story.

To me it seems like a similar stroke of genius. If they can win a case giving copyright rights to a monkey, you know some talented attorney is going to use that precedence to try and seriously expand animal rights in other areas. (Good for her!)

It’s always worth it to stop for a moment and ask, “what else could be going on here?”

— Simon Dixon

What’s really bugging VW?

vw-splat-2There’s something I taught my son when he was around 8 and he still remembers well at 12. If I ask him, “how do you keep a secret?” he will reply, “tell no one.” Sounds rather simple. It is.

And yet here we are with the colossal blunder, (or errr… willful criminal fraud) that is the growing VW story. Somehow, the management of VW figured that a secret that tens, if not a hundred, people must have known about, would not see the light of day.

Bill Clinton could not keep a lid on the secret that was his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky and the people tasked with keeping that secret were actually called the Secret Service!

But there is a back-story here that I think is worth looking at. What is your driving force? You and your company?

Up until 2007, General Motors had led global car sales for 77 consecutive years. But slowly, the ramifications of a quote attributed to two different GM CEOs came home to roost. “General Motors is not in the business of making cars, it is in the business of making money.” In the purest mix of capitalism and altruism such a focus would lead to building the best vehicles possible to make the most money possible. But in the real world, that can easily lead to lowest common denominator decisions purely to wring out short term profit. (As GM learned from around 1972 to 2000.)

In the early 2000s the folks at Toyota had realized that GM’s hold on the global sales lead was tenuous and made the decision to do what it would take to assume the #1 position. They became #1, but what it took was a very public slip in quality control followed by deaths, investigations, recalls and a lot of damage to Toyota’s core brand identity which was built on quality. They had been gaining on GM for years by “simply” making the most reliable cars on the planet. But they switched their focus and paid the price.

Now it is VW that has “done what it takes” to wrest the global sales crown from Toyota (which it achieved just this year). I’m sure there was no management retreat where they white-boarded international fraud, but it can be the off-shoot of making your core identity about a sales number. As a result, they have left themselves wide open for crushing fines and lawsuits. (And perhaps jailed executives?) I doubt if VW will go bust, but perhaps someone might like the idea of buying a global car company for half-price…

So my question to all of you is: what is your focus? Is it still being the best purveyor of what you do? Or has it become doing what it takes to meet the numbers?

Ask yourself. Ask your employees. Ask your customers. Listen to the answers and adjust as necessary. One answer forms your decisions from the dark-side of you fighting for every quarter; the other forms decisions based on a radiant march to long-term success. (And happy customers and employees is a nice bonus!)

— Simon Dixon

Who Should I Be: Better or Different?

fast foodAn interesting story in last week’s New York Times discussed the challenges McDonalds is, and has been, facing. Same-store sales have been falling worryingly. As one former McDonalds executive theorized, people think of McDonalds as “fast” and “food” and on both counts they have slipped. The McDonalds burger was recently rated as lowest in taste by a survey conducted by Consumer Reports, while the average time to assemble and serve orders has been increasing.

When asked to explain the meaning of “brand,” I say it is the answer to the question, “What do people think of when they think about me?” This applies whether the “me” in question is a person, product, place or position. And this is an important question for McDonalds right now: who do people think McDonalds is and therefore what do people want them to be? In past, McDonalds had widened its food offerings – the Premium Wrap and salads being examples. But these products have not saved McDonalds from sliding. I think the problem they have is that they decided to try and be something different when their actual problem has been they just have not been the best version of what people wanted them to be. If you serve “fast food” and yet your food is not good and it is also not fast, then you are failing on your basic brand promise. The answer is not selling different food – it is selling food at a higher quality and faster.

Early in my career, I was bemused to watch 7-Eleven start a major campaign to aggressively compete on price with supermarkets. This was costly on two fronts: the price of the advertising and the cost of the markdowns. It was a dumb idea and it netted them nothing except lower profits. 7-Eleven had not focused on what their brand was. No one shops at 7-Eleven for deals; we go to 7-Eleven for convenience. And it has been proven every which way that people will pay for convenience. So all they got out of that decision was brand-erosion and lost profits. Oh, and er, having to sell the company to stave off bankruptcy.

Figure out what your customers see you as. What they like you to be. And then be the best version of that and sell to it.

I was driving to give a marketing talk this past week and NPR was doing a report on falling profits at Kellogg Co. People are turning away from cereals. Various issues are at play here: gluten, culture, sugar, portability and more. And it got me wondering how Kellogg will battle this. Will they cut prices on cereals? (or issue coupons to same effect), Will they try to fight on gluten-free and sugar fronts? (General advice to all: be a “solution” not “less of a problem”). Or will they massage their brand into being more about “breakfast” than about “cereals”? – This might be interesting; with the new FDA re-think on cholesterol, it might be a great time for Kellogg-brand eggs…

— Simon Dixon

Chasing Tales

dog-chasing-tailLast year a friend of mine in DC went to work for the federal government after spending his previous career working in the private sector. A month or so after the switch he came to me saying, “You know people have got these guys all wrong, folks here work really hard.” I did not doubt the veracity of his statement. I know a lot of hard working government folk. (Yes Honey, I mean you too.) Recently we crossed paths again and he was rather despondent. He was dismayed how much time people in his division spent chasing rabbits down holes and how easy things were made difficult by “the system.”

(It’s worth taking a moment to say I hear this kind of story all-too-often in for-profit organizations also.)

I reminded him of his “people here work really hard comment” and said, “Remember, your dog is working really hard when he’s chasing his tail.” (And “Chip,” the Labrador in question, really does work hard! He is focused, resolute and even occasionally catches his tail…)

Something that is an output of our brand creation process is an “Observations and Recommendations” document. It often truly surprises clients what a fresh (and experienced) set of eyeballs (and a confidential set of ears) can learn about their organizations. Sometimes relatively easy things to change are having truly deleterious effect on morale or perceptions of the organization both inside and outside. But you can’t fix the things you don’t know about. You, chasing your peoples “tales” can, with proper analysis, stop them from continually chasing their own “tails”…

Because, if you don’t address these issues, it limits the brand promise you can make, or the kind of effective advertising you can do down the road. Not to mention the cost in employee morale.

One of my favourite quotes is by Basil King who said, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Of course if one is going to act boldly it would be a good idea to be wise in the selected direction of all this boldness… The good news is that all the information you need for that wise decision is out there. In your head. In your staff’s heads. In your customers. If you ask them correctly or more importantly listen to them correctly they’d love to tell you.

It’s the difference between going bold, and getting bowled-over.

— Simon Dixon