Posts filed under ‘Creativity’

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

More Lawsuits Than Brand X!

The New York Times reports a growing phenomenon in the marketing world: companies suing their rivals for claims made in attack ads–or comparative advertising, if one opts for the gentler term. Pantene vs. Dove, Iams vs. Science Diet, AT&T vs. Verizon, and Campbell Soup vs. Progresso are listed as examples of ad wars that have prompted legal action.

Aggrieved companies’ recourses range from complaints to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus to lawsuits under 1946’s Lanham Act for false advertising. Verizon’s red and blue map comparing its nationwide 3G coverage to AT&T’s is one of most notable recent cases. AT&T has sued, claiming that Verizon’s graphic of patchy coverage implies that it has no cellphone service whatsoever in the map’s blank expanses.

Admittedly, I enjoyed the Verizon commercial with a dejected AT&T smartphone arriving at the Island of Misfit Toys from 1964’s “Rudolph, the Red Nose Reindeer.” I didn’t run out and buy a new phone; I’m just a child of the ’60s who got the joke.

The real issue: at a time when all advertising is being questioned for its effectiveness, measurability and ROI, how much significance do attack/comparison ads have? Going a step further, do the ads actually diminish the brand’s reputation and dignity? (Now there’s some serious ROI.)

In The Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, three European academicians assert that comparative advertising signals “quality” when a market entrant takes on an incumbent brand. They conclude that the known threat of lawsuits lends credence to the entrant’s comparisons for the very fact that they are being made under such litigious conditions.

In contrast, AdWeek columnist Barbara Lippert takes a dim view of side-by-side comparison ads. She lambasts Dove for an ad that equates “soap” with “scum” and deems such product comparisons a throwback to the advertising of 50 years ago.

Are the complaints and lawsuits ultimately counterproductive when they produce negative publicity? (And they do.) The NYT article presents expert conclusions that the Campbell/Progresso legal battle ended up driving away customers for the entire ready-to-eat soup market.

Inevitably, the issuer of an attack/comparison ad is acknowledging that the rival brand is #1. It is always a position of weakness. Witness Buick’s campaign for the LaCrosse that morphs its vehicle with the Lexus 350. Blatant and desperate. Barbara Lippert points out two campaigns where also-rans at least showed creativity and humor: Avis’ “We Try Harder” and Apple’s “Get a Mac.” But did Avis ever beat Hertz? No. Have Macs outsold PCs? No, but their overall sales are up; however, some attribute this not to the ads but to a halo effect from the iPod along with Microsoft’s self-inflicted wounds from Vista.

I work across the marketing mix, but the PR guy in me trumps the ad man on this issue. Attack/comparison ads inherently reinforce perceptions of inferiority and can stir even greater negativity with counter-claims and lawsuits. At the end of the NYT article, James P. Othmer sums up the shortfalls of the attack ad mentality: “they’re not thinking about what consumers want to hear — they’re just talking at conference tables about how to strike back…”

What do consumers want to hear? Nasty ads and subsequent reports of lawsuits don’t top the list.

POSTSCRIPT: Enfamil maker Mead Johnson loses in a lawsuit brought by private-label baby formula maker PBM. The federal court ruled that Enfamil ads constitued false advertising by suggesting that cheaper baby formula could impair babies’ health and development. The judgement: $13.5 million.

November 25, 2009 at 4:28 pm 2 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

2000 Uses; One Great Marketer

wd40On July 3, John S. Barry, one of America’s great marketers, passed away at 84. Today, terms like brand equity and brand community are bandied about as companies spend untold sums on flashy products and flashier marketing campaigns. Before the buzzwords or the Internet, Mr. Barry accomplished these branding ideals with a product that made no pretense of being cool, just useful: WD-40.

The New York Times chronicles Mr. Barry’s achievements in turning a lubricant/protectant originally designed for the military into a true household name. His legacy reads like a marketing textbook:

  • Changed the name of the parent company to the name of the flagship product–the brand belongs on the building as well as the can
  • Shipped 10,000 samples per month to Vietnam to help troops keep their weapons operational–a laudable donation tied to a major issue of the day
  • Sold WD-40 in supermarkets–a change in “place” strategy to accommodate buyer behavior
  • Refused Sears’ request to supply a version of the product under their name–shades of Apple in the 1980s vetoing Mac clones, preserving its brand
  • Pushed into overseas markets–going global before the term was popular
  • Encouraged consumers to send in their unique uses for the product–fostering brand community and promoting new applications to update a mature product. Today, WD-40 has an online fan club as its official social media platform
  • Neutralized a primary competitor–in 1995, WD-40 bought 3-in-One Oil and maintained it as a separate brand

Forbes cites Mr. Barry’s contention that WD-40 is a marketing company, not a manufacturing company. Frankly, every company is a marketing company and every CEO is marketer-in-chief. John S. Barry understood that.

July 31, 2009 at 7:31 am Leave a comment

V for Victory and Viral

Churchill_VJuly 20 marks the 68th anniversary of World War II’s “V for Victory” campaign. A New York Times article of the day describes it as a “nerve war” against the Nazis in occupied Europe. Launched by the BBC, championed by Winston Churchill, and executed by countless brave people in conquered countries, V for Victory was quintessential propaganda. It was also viral marketing in an era when the only computers were a handful of top-secret, room-sized machines (also part of the fight against the Nazis, used to break their coded messages).

The concept began in early 1941 with a BBC radio broadcast by Belgian refugee Victor De Lavelaye. He urged those under occupation to use “V” as a rallying symbol, the first letter in the French “Victoire,” the Flemish “Vrijheid,” and the English “Victory.” BBC editors embraced the concept, and the service beamed the official campaign to occupied Europe beginning July 20.

Per the NYT account, a BBC announcer with the nom-de-guerre “Colonel V. Britton” read a statement from Prime Minister Churchill:

The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the peoples continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.

Col.  Britton urged listeners to create “V” graffiti, to chalk or paint the letter on walls and pavement. The “V” theme continued as it was construed as the Roman symbol for the number “5.” Listeners were instructed to read Daniel 5, beginning with the fifth verse–the “writing on the wall” foretelling the downfall of the Babylonian empire that had enslaved the Jews. Additionally, Col. Britton told the audience to tap out Morse code for the letter “V,” three dots and a dash for the benefit of friend and invader alike. That rhythm mimicked the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth (again, V as 5), a motif likened to “fate knocking at the door,” an extra affront to the Germans that co-opted the greatest work of one of their greatest composers. The first notes of Beethoven’s Fifth became the BBC’s call sign for its broadcasts to continental Europe throughout the war.

V for Victory spread across Europe, as one defiantly drawn or tapped “V” sparked another and another. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels quickly countered, claiming the campaign was a Third Reich invention signifying the German “Viktoria.” The Nazis posted their “V” on banners and newspaper front pages and used Beethoven’s Fifth in their radio broadcasts. It is true brilliance when you can get the competition (enemy) to carry your message.

V for Victory was viral marketing. A major media platform, the BBC, created the spark and the people did the rest. The great communicator of the age, Winston Churchill, continually flashed the V sign for photographers, maintaining his role in the movement. Nearly seven decades before Twitter let Iranians strike a blow against their dictatorship, V for Victory gave voice to Hitler’s involuntary–and temporary–subjects.

July 19, 2009 at 8:29 am 2 comments

Brand Slam

Marketing media, old and new, have been commenting on a spate of recent brand makeovers. For your convenience, and a chance to share my sentiments, here are highlights from the “brand slam:”

syfy-logoThe Sci-Fi Channel: This cable network is not really changing its name; it’s simply changing the spelling to “SyFy.” Allegedly, the pronunciation is still the same, although Christopher Bonanos blogs that “Seefy?” is the first thing people will mutter when they stumble across the non-word. Part of the Sci-Fi Channel’s rationale for abandoning its claim on an instantly recognizable term: the fact that it is generic (therefore recognizable).

Beware, the branding contagion may have spread to the Food Network. They may be in the boardroom ranting, “We hate our name! Everyone knows what it means! It’s so…generic!” Get ready to search out “Phuudah” on the cable guide if you want to watch Iron Chef.

kraft_foods_detailKraft: America’s largest food and beverage company is launching a new logo to foster “a clearer brand identity and more cohesive corporate culture.” This program has also brought forth a new intranet and viral video program for employees. Regarding external communication, BrandWeek cites pressure from private labels, eroding Kraft’s profits and driving the need for a stronger image to help differentiate it from the sea of store brands.

Kraft gets kudos for prioritizing its culture and internal communications. The assault by cheaper products is very real in this difficult economy. Its new logo is not the answer. The lower case and handwritten fonts, the smiley face, and the “flavor burst” all scream “cute.” Let the individual brands like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Chips Ahoy and Jell-O attract kids and moms with vivid colors and bouncy typography. The multibillion-dollar, multinational needs to take a step back.

200px-Broadview_Security_logo_svgBrink’s Home Security: Brink’s, the name you trust for security, is now becoming Broadview(?) In an AdWeek article, a company rep says that “Brink’s” conjures images of “armored trucks” while “Broadview” invokes “broadband.” Of course, when someone is breaking into my house, I don’t want to think of tough guys in a bulletproof vehicle rolling up to save the day. I want to think about how fast I can log onto Facebook.

In fairness, The Brink’s Company spun off Brink’s Home Security and required it to change its name within three years. A similar situation occurred between Arthur Anderson and its spun-off consulting company which was compelled to become Accenture, an unforeseen blessing when the accounting parent died in the Enron meltdown. Still, if the new standalone security company must surrender a name steeped in brand equity, at least pick a new one that tells me what I’m buying.

July 16, 2009 at 7:50 am Leave a comment

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