Posts filed under ‘Branding’

Pile On Groupon

Groupon: time for a lot of PR and a new ad

The “fastest growing company ever” owns today’s fastest spreading controversy. Groupon has triggered outrage with Super Bowl ads that appear to mock serious issues, primarily China’s occupation of Tibet. Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton begins the key commercial by acknowledging Tibet’s woes only to segue into the virtues of fish curry from a Tibetan restaurant purchased at a discount thanks to Groupon. The ad’s tagline is “save the money.”

On the face of it, the ad appears to be a sophomoric satire linking a company’s everyday offerings with a global crisis, a la Kenneth Cole’s widely criticized tweets about the Egyptian uprising. Only later has it been explained that Save the Money is a legitimate cause-based program, not an iteration of Groupon’s discounting premise. The ad is meant to simultaneously spoof celebrity sanctimony and Groupon’s viral bargains. The problem is that Groupon is too clever for us. Its CEO, Andrew Mason, confirms as much in a next-day blog response that The Wall Street Journal calls a “non-apology apology.”

Groupon seems to be joining other web ventures that proved their clout with a Super Bowl sponsorship, although turning down Google’s $6 billion buyout is a much cooler demonstration. Amending a media mix (television now in addition to online) entails reaching out to new audiences as well as re-connecting with current ones. It calls for a basic message, not an obscure one made under the assumption that everyone already grasps the company. It can have humor–a Super Bowl advertising staple–but it must use that multimillion-dollar window to display the brand. So beyond their controversy, Groupon’s ads miss the mark as effective communications. Articles on the ads have cited the agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, as being known for edgy work. This invokes Al and Laura Ries’ warnings in The Fall of Advertising & The Rise of PR about shops that are more focused on artistic expression than marketing fundamentals.

Groupon has deepened its self-inflicted wounds with CEO Mason’s off-putting response on his company blog. He insists that the ads support real social causes (impossible to tell at first glance). He then points fingers at other offensive Super Bowl ads, primarily those that objectify women. He defends his ad agency, citing their precedent for irreverence with their commercials for In short, Mason acts upset that people are upset with his company. He is going to need a lot more PR, an infusion of contrition, and a new ad:


A “backstage” setting with lights and cables visible. A clapperboard fills the screen, scrawled on its face: GROUPON “WE’RE SORRY” AD.

Clapper Loader (off screen): Groupon, take two!

The clapperboard claps and is pulled out of the shot, revealing CEO Andrew Mason sitting in a tall director’s chair. Standing around him are actors Timothy Hutton, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Elizabeth Hurley.

Mason: Hello, I’m Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon. By now, you’ve probably heard about our Super Bowl ads that offended many people who thought we were making fun of important social issues such as human rights in Tibet.

We’re sorry. The ads were confusing and sent the wrong message. The right message is that Save the Money-dot-org is a real program soliciting donations and building awareness for worthy causes around the world. Groupon supports this program because while we’re working to save you money locally, we’re also thinking globally. Please visit Save the Money-dot-org to learn more and to give. Thank you for your understanding.

Timothy Hutton nervously leans toward Mason.

Hutton: Do you want us to say anything?

Mason (pleasant): No.

Hutton straightens back up. The foursome smiles and waves at the camera.

FADE IN: Groupon logo with titles beneath:



POSTSCRIPT 1: Groupon CEO Andrew Mason blogs a straight-forward apology on Thursday, Feb. 10, and pulls the ads.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Groupon fires Crispin, Porter + Bogusky with CEO Andrew Mason saying they placed “too much trust” in the ad agency. CP+B says it was simply end of project work and wishes Groupon well.


February 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm Leave a comment

Turning the Tide, Part 2

Can the king of the laundry aisle dominate dry cleaning?

Tide, Procter & Gamble’s megabrand, is expanding its horizons again. Last year, I blogged about the introduction of Tide Basic, a stripped-down version of the detergent intended to ply budget-minded consumers. Now, Tide is going beyond a line extension to a brand extension. The New York Times reports that P&G is introducing Tide Dry Cleaners.

The new dry cleaning stores are franchises, with each outlet using versions of Tide for wet laundry and offering discounts and giveaways on P&G products. Drive-through service, 24-hour pickup via lockers, and environmentally friendly practices further distinguish the chain. The iconic Tide bullseye is prominent in the signage and staff wear branded orange shirts.

There are challenges for P&G. The NYT article points out what many of us would assume: the dry cleaning industry is suffering amid the economic downturn. Cultural shifts are hurting cleaners too as business attire is becoming a week of casual Fridays. Case in point: I wore suits in my last corporate gig as AVP, Marketing Communications, for a nationwide lender. Jacket and tie have not been de rigueur during my subsequent two years as an independent consultant.

P&G is one of the biggest and most brilliant consumer product corporations on the planet. Just one of their brands–Pampers, Gillette, Mr. Clean, and CoverGirl are but a few–can dwarf entire companies in revenue and awareness. Billion-dollar sales are beautiful, but flatlines are dismaying. The NYT article explains that lack of sales growth in the U.S. is the impetus for the Tide venture, a way to leverage the brand anew.

Tide may already be in the clean clothes business, but placing that bullseye on a dry cleaning chain constitutes a brand extension, the application of a brand known for one type of product or service to a new category. It isn’t the same as a line extension, a new product/service in the brand’s established category. Tide is a study in line extension. A quick count on their website revealed more than 30 varieties of the detergent itself. Tide Stain Release and Tide on the Go add several more SKUs. When it comes to the perils of extensions, I go with the long-standing warnings of Al and Laura Ries. Al’s landmark book Positioning offers cautionary tales of numerous extensions. In dissecting Gap’s rebranding fail, Laura blogs about their diffusion in the pursuit of babies and teens.

Some may argue if such extensions are “line,” staying within category, or “brand,” venturing into a separate realm. Some may say that Tide proves line extension works, given its dominance in detergent with 30-plus permutations. Decision makers in Cincinnati have said that the dry cleaning foray is a natural. It isn’t.

P&G is getting into real estate, labor and operational issues that do not figure in selling the primary Tide brand. And no, these things are not just “the franchisees’ problems.” If P&G is concerned about a saturated, mature market blunting Tide’s growth, the answer is not trying to penetrate the saturated, mature market of dry cleaning. But can the mighty Tide brand grab share in a sector where mom-and-pops still reign? My dry cleaner is not worried.

When picking up a sportcoat and three shirts, I asked the proprietor of Wendy Cleaners about the P&G threat. He said that his customers value expertise and believe in supporting small businesses. He also said that the special detergent he uses for wet laundry is better than Tide. He didn’t ask when I’d start bringing in more suits again. He knows things have changed.

December 19, 2010 at 12:29 am Leave a comment

Barbie Battles Back

BarbieThe Wall Street Journal reports Barbie’s newest incarnation, the Fashionistas line, a trendier, more posable (12 joints) version of the iconic doll. According to the article, two new dolls are ready to challenge the champ–Liv dolls from Spin Master, best known for toys for boys; Moxie Girlz from MGA Entertainment, the company that lost a crushing legal fight with Barbie parent Mattel over the Bratz line.

Barbie is a company unto itself with annual sales topping $1 billion and a globally recognized brand. Its marketing issues resemble those of Tide detergent, another “company-within-a-company.” In an earlier post, I mention the orange monolith that is the Tide display in the supermarket laundry product aisle. That’s only outdone by the pink grotto which is Barbie’s turf in the typical toy store (even a manly guy like me will find himself there if he has daughters).

Like Tide, Barbie has a variant and sub-brand for every perceived customer, from “Peekaboo Petites” ready to throw down on Polly Pocket, to the “I Can Be” line which casts Barbie as a career woman, to “Barbie: Collector,” the $40+ resident of Mom’s knickknack shelf. Of course, there’s plain old Barbie in Fairy-Tastic, Wedding Day, and Fashion Fever formats. Ken better look out. There’s also a Barbie accompanied by Spongebob Squarepants.

Barbie suffers from line extension fatigue, as decried by my favorite branding experts, Al and Laura Ries. In their book, The Origin of Brands, Al and Laura assert that the effort to force existing brands into new positioning would be better spent creating entirely new brands to satisfy changing consumer tastes and needs.

Bratz fulfilled that new doll brand opportunity as it went sassy instead of statuesque, straight-up urban diva versus fantasy princess/Malibu beach girl/modern bride/astronaut/curio. The one problem: designer Carter Bryant was still in Mattel’s employ when he devised the “disruptive technology” doll. Mattel proved it in court and won a $100 million judgment against MGA Entertainment and the right to shut down the Bratz line–a business and legal miracle that allowed the big, slow established company to thwart the upstart that had absconded with its share, something the incumbent brand was unable to accomplish in the marketplace.

The irony: Bratz probably would have never seen the light of day had Carter Bryant submitted the concept to his bosses at Mattel. Just as Xerox squashed the personal computer technology developed at its PARC think tank, just as Kodak forgot the first digital camera came from its labs, Mattel would have seen the pouty, cooler-than-thou Bratz as an affront to its Barbie dynasty and shipped them to the dumpster.

Now everyone is trying to be Bratz, including MGA Entertainment with its comeback Moxie Girlz and Mattel with the Fashionistas. Barbie has morphed more than Madonna. It’s time for the true material girl to concentrate on her strengths and adjust sales and market share expectations accordingly.

October 21, 2009 at 9:52 am Leave a comment

Bailing out the Trust Bank


Al Golin, founder of the "Trust Bank"

Al Golin, founder of the "Trust Bank"

BusinessWeek recently ran “The Great Trust Offensive” in their issue featuring the 100 Best Global Brands.  The article identifies trust as a brand asset, highly valuable and equally perishable. It cites an Edelman poll that finds 14% fewer Americans trust business and features a quote from Larry Light, CEO of brand consultancy Arcature: “Trust is what drives profit margin and share price.”

PR pros may respond to the article with a collective “no kidding,” but its numeric portrait of trust–statistics, effect on the proverbial bottom line–is essential. The article’s description of trust shifting from a PR priority to a marketing goal is also important as companies modify their messaging to address consumers’ deepest needs and concerns.

Despite the new measurements and emphasis, trust is not something that can be “ramped up,” “unveiled” or treated like a product. The best methodology remains the “trust bank,” coined by PR legend Al Golin and the crux of his book, Trust or Consequences. According to Mr. Golin, steady, sincere deposits in the trust bank pay dividends in:

  • Employee retention/recruitment
  • Customer relationships
  • Innovation
  • Branding

Continuing with the banking metaphors, accruing trust helps companies “save up for a rainy day” as public goodwill will sustain them during setbacks or crises.

Will companies “get it?” There was supposed to be a great trust awakening after Enron, Tyco and other corporate scandals early in the decade. The economic upheavals and corporate rogues gallery of the past couple of years have practically made us forget Ken Lay and Dennis Kozolowski.

Now the most traumatic recent lessons seem to be wearing off as Goldman Sachs faces a PR Katrina in the form of pending employee bonuses triggered by new multi-billion dollar profits. The Wall Street Journal reports that Goldman Sachs is mounting a “charm offensive.” Apropos of the times, it is a bailout of their trust bank.

October 15, 2009 at 8:41 am Leave a comment

Turning the Tide

Tide BasicThe Wall Street Journal reports the rollout of “Tide Basic,” a new, lower-priced version of America’s top laundry detergent. Tide’s parent Procter & Gamble is introducing the product to combat the surge of bargain and private label store brands amid the economic downturn.

Tide is to P&G what Chevrolet is to GM, a mega-brand in its own right with $3 billion in annual sales. Also like Chevy, Tide offers numerous “models,”  including Tide HE, Tide Free, Tide HE Free, Tide with a Touch of Downey, and Tide HE with a Touch of Downey. There is also Tide Stain Release “in-wash booster” and Tide to Go in a pen-style applicator. And of course, there is just plain old Tide.

Tide may be Chevy in terms of mass appeal and line extension, but it is Cadillac in price point. This creates P&G’s multipart marketing dilemma:

  • Reinvigorate Tide’s slipping market share as households cut back
  • Protect Tide’s “high end” positioning while responding to market trends toward cheaper products
  • Capture market share from competitors with the new product, not cannibalize existing Tide sales

The Wall Street Journal diagrams P&G’s tightrope act with Tide Basic:

  • Product: Tide Basic is a traditional powder with fewer of the unique ingredients that set apart the specialized versions of Tide. The trick is to show that Tide Basic is more than “good enough” without making the more expensive Tide sub-brands seem superfluous.
  • Packaging: The dominant color is yellow, an element of the Tide bullseye but not the iconic orange of the main Tide line. (Go to your supermarket’s laundry aisle and you will see the orange monolith that is the Tide display.) Recalling Tropicana’s sales disaster when Peter Arnell got ahold of their classic carton, packaging alone is a make-or-break proposition.
  • Placement: Tide Basic has been placed on shelves among its targeted lower price competitors. This is another critical strategy as shoppers look for “their brands” in accustomed locations. For example, if you want bargain-price, “bagged” cereal, you look on the lower shelves, not among the major brands at eye level.

Introduced in 1946, Tide is a post-war icon. It proudly touted itself as a synthetic detergent, another man-made wonder in the age of penicillin, jet planes, A-bombs and television. It boasted its premium status just as we were shaking off the deprivations of the Depression and hitting the freshly laid interstate for suburbia. Now many of us have adopted a pre-war mindset as we struggle in the worst economy since those years. With Tide Basic, the Tide brand continues its quest to be all things to all people including something it’s never been–cheap. If consumers respond, it may be the biggest breakthrough in over 60 years of R&D.

October 6, 2009 at 9:39 am 5 comments

Would You Buy a New Car from This Man?

General Motors has unveiled its new ads with new CEO Ed Whitacre. Using the theme “May the Best Car Win,” GM is offering a 60-day money-back guarantee to anyone who buys one of its core brands–Chevy, GMC, Buick or Cadillac.

Reaction from marketing pundits (those who write columns and those who write comments) has ranged from blasé to bombastic. Laura Ries tweets that Ed Whitacre is the new “Dr. Z,” DaimlerChrysler Chairman Dieter Zetsche who was featured in Chrysler ads in 2006. The result then: 80% of consumers believed Dr. Z was a fictional character, Chrysler sales continued to crater, and Daimler jettisoned its American acquisition the following year.

The gold standard for CEO-driven ads remains Lee Iacocca’s Chrysler commercials of the 1980s, but that campaign owed its success to many unique elements. First was Iacocca’s telegenic personality, tough but likeable with a snappy delivery. Second was Chrysler’s inventive product line built off its company-saving K-Car platform: turbo-optional models such as the Dodge Daytona and Chrysler LeBaron; the iconic Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth minivan. Lastly was the spirit of the Reagan years, when “Buy American” could still be said with a straight face and a CEO might engender a modicum of respect.

The GM ad has none of these advantages. The company’s government bailout dwarfs the one Chrysler received 30 years ago, just as our current recession overshadows the downturn of that era. Even without negative reaction to its federal rescue, GM has long since expended its reputational capital with vehicles that either tried our patience or put us to sleep. Millions of consumers have come of age since the Iacocca campaign with no pangs of patriotism when it comes to car purchases. Add to that the muddled nationalism of Asian manufacturers’ stateside factories employing our countrymen and producing cars we enjoy. And, as Laura Ries points out, Ed Whitacre is no Lee Iacocca.

In the end, the GM campaign is an amalgam of two auto industry clichés, the “approachable” chief executive and the desperation incentive program. Let’s hope the Chevy Volt is better assembled.

September 14, 2009 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Pull the Plug on Buick


(Please read all the way to my humble postscript written nine months after the original post.)

Newsweek reports Buick’s woes as the brand struggles even after surviving the brand massacre that came with GM’s bankruptcy. Buick tried to introduce a plug-in crossover that was quickly derided for its similarity to the Vue from the late-Saturn division. GM’s clone-mobiles were the symbol of its decline as it transmogrified core vehicles into Chevys, Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Saturns and Cadillacs. The W Platform was perhaps GM’s most vigorous exercise, undergirding approximately 10 redundant models. In the end, the new Buick crossover has been canceled.

As the Obama Administration was forcing the elimination of GM’s comatose brands, the company insisted on maintaining Buick. Per multiple media reports, primary rationale was:

  • The brand’s popularity in China
  • The importance of its “near-luxury” niche

The arguments smack of GM’s bullheadedness over the decades to keep every last nameplate regardless of the resultant cannibalization of sales and watering-down of product. If the brand is adored in China, then build it and offer it there–after selling it off à la Hummer, Saturn and Saab.

As for “near-luxury,” that is an elusive segment, the pursuit of which has often inflicted reputational damage on the manufacturer, seen notably in Jaguar’s X series that tried to be the cheap Jag and just came off as cheap. GM itself is the king of “near-luxury” infamy: the 1980s Cadillac Cimarron, a barely disguised version of the Chevrolet Cavalier economy car.

The Lexus 350 is Buick’s admitted marketing target. This is Lexus’ “entry-level” sedan, its near-luxury model built in GM-esque fashion upon parent Toyota’s top-selling Camry. Dan Neil of the LA Times gives the new Buick LaCrosse a strong review, calling it an “American Lexus,” but wonders if its attributes and competitive price are enough to justify the brand.

The “age issue” is a constant factor in charting Buick’s health. The Newsweek article cites perceptions of Buick as an “old person’s car,” and Dan Neil identifies the age of the average Buick owner as 68. My mother recalls my great-grandfather, Willie Rapson, would drive nothing but Buick Roadmasters in the 1940s and 1950s and looked down upon any other vehicle, including my grandfather’s Hudson. Not the kind of buzz to burn up Twitter.

Marketing comes down to meeting underserved needs with available resources, supported by brand equity. “Near-luxury” is not an underserved need thanks to a preponderance of cars filling the niche. Add to that GM’s lack of resources and Buick’s lack of brand equity. Time to pull the plug on more than just the proposed plug-in.

POSTSCRIPT 1: Buick uses crowdsourcing to figure out how to market the new LaCrosse to a more youthful demographic, but the young social media specialist soliciting feedback on Facebook commits a damning Freudian slip.

POSTSCRIPT 2: I’m sure GM has been waiting for this contrite admission nine months after I wrote this post: Buick is proving itself a worthy brand. Sales are way up and most importantly, average age of Buick buyers is dropping. Now it must buck the GM habit of recycling models sold by other divisions (much easier now with fewer divisions) and establish a true niche between Chevy and Cadillac.

August 24, 2009 at 12:35 pm Leave a comment

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