Category Archives: Marketing

Messengers of Confusion

We all get why marketers choose ambassadors and evangelists for their brands. They help put a face and name to the brand, and add a human element to the perceived experience of using the product that the brand advocates. They also personify the sky-high stack of values that marketers  hope their audiences associate with their brands, and strike that elusive chord of emotional connect with those audiences. Long story short, ambassadors and evangelists are intended to be catalysts in the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action-Recommendation cycle. And the choice of brand ambassador is supposed to make their audiences go: “Of course, that makes sense.” and NOT “Err.. What were they thinking?!

Lately, though, there is an increasing number of brands whose choice of ambassadors seems to be more a cry of desperation, than a positive reinforcement. Don’t get me wrong, the chosen ones in question are super successful and admired people in their field. By themselves, their own personal brands are associated with all things positive. But it’s their association with certain brands that comes across as completely random, and honestly, just plain sad.

(Image credits: jessicaalbalove.tumblr.com)

(Image credits: jessicaalbalove.tumblr.com)

Take the Windows Phone, for instance. Jessica Alba is the face of the phone, and in all their commercials, press conferences, and other public interactions – the key reason that is claimed as the basis of this mutual association (Alba’s home & baby products venture ‘The Honest Company’ shares space in Windows phone promotional material), is that the Windows Phone works for people like Ms. Alba who have to multitask and juggle between diverse parts of their lives efficiently. Frankly, the whole premise of this association is weak-sauce, and it’s presented in a way that’s not really helping Microsoft’s case. Sure, the phone has clever features like the ‘Kids’ Zone’ that makes sure your kids don’t get access to any of your stuff on your phone (and thereby, don’t get to delete / tinker Apps around on your phone!). I also quite like the ‘Live tiles’ interface – interesting stuff, very Flipboard-esque. But I still don’t see any clear proposition and distinct advantage that makes me want to switch over to that phone. Also, no offence to Jessica Alba, but they may as well have used anyy other seemingly multi-tasking, well-liked celebrity as their endorser and I bet nobody would’ve wondered: “Hey, I wonder why they didn’t choose Jessica Alba as a brand ambassador!” It’s not a no-brainer association. Or even something that instantly clicks.

(Image source: www.engadget.com)

(Image source: http://www.engadget.com)

Another such “association” that is hard to comprehend, is the Alicia Keys – Blackberry 10 alliance. As if featuring her as a brand ambassador wasn’t confusing enough, Keys was appointed as ‘Global Creative Director’ for Blackberry (I’d love to see the job description for this one!). I know the Querty ‘Keys’ have always been one of BB’s trump cards, but isn’t this taking it a little too far?! Also, it’s not like Blackberry wants to leave their established positioning as a business phone behind: With the BB 10, they basically want to be a business phone & more for “people who want to get things done”. Apart from the obvious vagueness of that statement, it implies that BB now wants to be everything for everyone: a classic recipe for marketing disaster. And as much as I love Alicia Keys, it’s hard to digest her pantsuit-clad, Blackberry-brandishing Avatar: It’s just doesn’t make for a convincing story; and incidents like her continuing to use her iPhone to tweet (and later attributing it to hacking) are not helping the case either. Let’s just say this girl isn’t exactly on fire here.

(Image credits: http://en.inmoreau.com)

(Image credits: http://en.inmoreau.com)

The Justin Timberlake – MySpace alliance is one more such confusing story. But it may be worth watching this one closely, as there are two different factors in the mix: 1. Timberlake himself is the unlikely entrepreneur here and has invested $35 million in MySpace and released a new single exclusively via the platform, and 2. MySpace seems to be poised for a huge overhaul in terms of its design (getting rid of the clutter), quality of content, and focus: Timberlake plans to leverage the “social component to entertainment” by bringing fans and artists together in a more organized community on MySpace. So, the jury may still be out on this one.

To me, an example of a ‘no-brainer’ choice for brand ambassadorship would be Tiger Woods for Nike. Yes – despite all the scandals of the past couple of years, I think Tiger Woods still is a good choice for Nike – as opposed to Lance Armstrong, who has obviously earned his dismemberment. Reason being, while the personal character of Tiger Woods may be questionable, his professional capabilities and achievements cannot be doubted. On the other hand, with Lance Armstrong – the very reason for his glory: his performance on the cycling track – can no longer be held as the golden standard. And Nike is, after all, about performance. Nike never said it represents good husbands, or good family men – it only said it represented go-getting, performance-oriented stellar athletes and sportspersons. And his personal life notwithstanding, Tiger Woods still personifies this performance-driven perfection that Nike is all about.

There are plenty such great brand ambassadorships around. Take the case of Jennifer Hudson‘s much publicized, winning battle against the bulge courtesy Weightwatchers, for instance. Or the long standing James Bond – Omega association. Or heck, even John Stamos and Oikos – what better way to underscore the Greek-ness (and ahem, appeal) of their brand?! These ambassadorships make sense, not just because they make people sit up and notice the brand, but more so because they echo the exact qualities that the brand clearly wants to highlight, and they speak directly to the purchase decision maker. While it is true that the right ambassador could work wonders for a brand, it’s not an imperative to success. And whether or not marketers choose to enlist celebrity ambassadors – it’s high time they reminded themselves that their brand is supposed to be the hero of the story, and the ambassadors merely the narrators and messengers of it. Not the other way around.

The Secret Caveat of Brand Karma

What goes around…
(Image source: rotflpictures.com)

We’ve all heard those quotes reminding us how the true test of one’s character is during hard times. Last week reminded me of how true this holds even in the case of inanimate Brands. Up until now, I genuinely believed this is common knowledge, and something every brand, every marketing team, and every social media community manager is aware of.

American Apparel’s ‘Hurricane Sandy Sale’ Email

Turns out, it isn’t. On October 29, while Hurricane Sandy was in devastating full swing and in the middle of its terrible rampage across nine states along the east coast, American Apparel sent out an email (included on the right) specifically targeted to consumers belonging to these nine states, inviting them to shop online in case they were ‘bored’ during the storm. No concerns about the well-being of their consumers mentioned, no help offered. Needless to say, Twittersphere exploded with criticism for AA, and this insensitive faux pas has brought some seriously bad PR to AA shores.

But does AA care? Nah. Their CEO Dov Charney said on record that this wasn’t really a big deal, and he doesn’t think his marketing team made a blooper. His exact words were: “Part of what you want to do in these events is keep the wheels of commerce going.” 

While I do appreciate Mr. Charney’s commitment to constantly keeping an eye on the ball, he unfortunately doesn’t seem to acknowledge the fact that the “wheels of commerce” are the last thing on people’s minds when they’re going through a life-threatening natural calamity. And a result, a brand which blatantly admits it’s only thinking about keeping the cash registers ringing through rain, storm and disaster will obviously ruffle many feathers.

Gap checks-in to “Frankenstorm Apocalypse – Hurricane Sandy”

Another kindred brand that attempted to make light of the situation is Gap. They decided to ‘check-in’ via Foursquare on a “Great Outdoors” category spot they’d specially created: “Frankenstorm Apocalypse – Hurricane Sandy” (See image alongside)

Incidents like the above make American Apparel and Gap look like “bad person” brands who don’t really respect the feelings of their audience. And that may not bode very well for them, especially given how powerful negative word of mouth can be. In fact, according to a recent Retail industry roundup by About.com, a whopping 140 million people on Twitter found American Apparel’s Sandy Sale offensive and inappropriate. While we don’t have a way yet to directly translate this number into impact on sales, we can take it as a good indicator of purchase intent at the very least – which of course is by no means a number American Apparel could afford to risk. And Gap faced the music as well – featured below is just one among the several irate responses they received.

Reactions to Gap on Twitter

In contrast, Starbucks has been surprisingly humane and empathetic pre and post Sandy. Yes, I say ‘surprisingly’ because of the reputation Starbucks earned for themselves following their indifferent treatment of the 9/11 rescue workers in NYC back in 2001. But that was then, this is now. Not only did Starbucks announce they were shutting their stores early for the safety of their employees, but they also made sure their consumers knew they were being thought of, and their well-being was being hoped for, via their various social media channels. They also made sure consumers were kept posted on what Starbucks’ response was to the hurricane. In addition, post the storm, they also urged their audiences to make a contribution to Red Cross to help rebuild the areas affected by Sandy. How much of a tangible difference does all this really make to the lives of people actually affected by the storm? Maybe none. But it sure has made people think of Starbucks as every bit of the warm, community brand they claim to be, in stark contrast to the unapologetic indifference of brands like American Apparel.

What’s even more impressive is brands like Verizon that are choosing to actually put their money where their mouth is. Verizon just announced that they’re going to waive domestic voice and text charges for customers in the areas affected by Sandy. That’s an even bigger step than AT&T and Sprint who announced they would waive off late charges for hurricane victims who were not able to pay off their phone bills on time because of the storm. (Sure, if Verizon had waived off even Data charges – they would be considered the Angels of Telecom-land, but waiving the voice-text charges too is a pretty substantial step in itself!)

Be it Verizon or American Apparel, there are several such instances of brands showing their compassionate side or self-serving side in the face of hurricane Sandy. By choosing to reach out to consumers during the storm, these brands could only meet one of two consequences: 1. Be lauded for their sense of customer service and gain more emotional capital; or 2. Earn people’s wrath by attempting to capitalize on a tragic situation or being unabashedly indifferent to it. In either case, thanks to social media, the side-effect is always amplification. Good deeds and bad deeds alike are amplified, shared virally and by the time a brand can react to it – acquire the status of a socio-urban legend. For instance, Radian 6 recently reported that Hurricane Sandy triggered 11.5 Million social media conversations. Imagine the kind of wanted / unwanted amplification a brand would stand to gain against this backdrop.

It’s not just the sheer money-mindedness behind the sentiment displayed by American Apparel and Gap that is so controversial. What these brands seem to have completely missed is the fact that in the age of social media, for all practical purposes; they are viewed as a real person with a voice and personality by their audiences. The KIND of person they come across as, however, is their choice. And this is exactly why brands need to have good karma. Because at the end of the day, whether it’s Starbucks checking in on their customers’ well-being or P&G dispatching Duracell charging stations and Tide laundry trucks for free assistance to hurricane victims, or Verizon waiving off charges for hurricane-hit customers, it does boil down to Karma: What goes around will come around (with amplified effect), especially in today’s socially charged digital times. And by default, it might just be time to institute and operate by a new motto of commerce – Caveat Marketer (Marketer, beware!).

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