Open Letter to Cooper Union Board:

As an alumnus of Cooper Union, I was not surprised to see students take to the streets and protest the decision of the Board of Trustees to abandon the tradition of offering a free education. Cooper Union students have never been known to accept situations they see as unjust.

During my tenure, students protested an art show sponsored by Mobil Oil, by dropping oily fish on the gallery floor and erecting a protest sculpture to disrupt the posh VIP opening. I watched as the Dean of Art ordered the fire department to destroy the sculpture, which led to a successful effort by students to oust the Dean.

I was proud to take part in these protests and to advocate for the Dean’s dismissal from my post as a representative to the Faculty-Student Senate. These lessons taught me that people with conviction can stand up to any injustice, a lesson that has served me well in the 30 years since I graduated.

 At the time, I thought it was important to stand up to the school’s administration, but the issues we fought for then seem trivial compared to today’s challenges. There is nothing more sacred to the students and alumni at Cooper Union than the promise of “free education for all.”

The decision to charge tuition at the famously free institution is a demonstration of four serious failings of the school’s stewardship.

1. A Shameful Lack of Financial Responsibility

One of the most important roles of any board member is to protect the assets and economic lifeline of an institution. I’ve served on boards of schools, colleges and non-profit organizations and every board orientation includes a reminder of the fiduciary responsibility of board members. Yet the board approved the construction of an impractical building it had no means to pay for and it participated in decisions that left the school’s endowment severely depleted. The board’s decisions demonstrated both ignorance and negligence and they were compounded by the actions they took to remedy the situation.

2. An Approach Based on Division

There is no better way to address the needs of an educational institution than to bring all parties together in a constructive dialogue that encourages participation. Thousands of students and their families have benefitted from a Cooper Union education, and they are the best audience to turn to for support in a crisis. But at the time of the school’s greatest need for alumni and student support, the board and administration began to pursue a plan based on charging tuition, thereby alienating the very audience the school needs to cultivate for support. The result was to divide the Cooper Union Community, turning it against itself.

 3. An Abandonment of Core Values

Beyond their responsibilities as financial stewards, the board and administration play another role, which is just as important to the health of any institution. They are responsible for protecting the values of the organization. It is, therefore, astonishing that the board at Cooper Union has not uttered the one sentence that would prove they are worthy stewards of this storied institution: “We will not entertain any proposal that involves ending the policy of free tuition for all.” This simple sentence would have ended the protests and turned combatants into collaborators, working together to secure the future of the school.

 4. A Tarnished Reputation

One final role of any board is to protect the reputation of the institution it serves. For an organization with the prestige of Cooper Union, the reputation has more value than any physical asset. The board’s new plan is a sure path to depleting Cooper Union’s reputation in the same way its past actions depleted the school’s bank accounts. Without an immediate reversal of the board’s decision, applications will decline and both student quality and program rankings will surely follow. Alumni giving will decline and corporate support will be much harder to come by. And these factors will compound, making the school less attractive to students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and the community.

Of all of the board’s failings, the inability to foresee the collapse of the school’s influence is the most troubling. The board must come to believe what the students and alumni already understand, that charging tuition is such a crippling option that it must be taken off the table. And only when this course has been abandoned, will other paths become visible.

So I call on the board to demonstrate wisdom and goodness by ending this madness and affirming Peter Cooper’s commitment to free education for all. The alumni and students are eager to help solve the problems that plague the school, but only once we know that the principles that made Cooper Union great will never be put on the bargaining table.


Kelly O’Keefe

Cooper Union School of Art ‘82

Professor and former Managing Director of the VCU Brandcenter 

Chief Creative Officer of CRT/tanaka


Here’s to the crazy one.

The misfit. The rebel. The troublemaker. The round peg in the square hole.

The one who saw things differently.

He wasn’t fond of rules. And he had no respect for the status quo.

You could quote him, disagree with him, glorify or vilify him.

About the only thing you couldn’t do is ignore him.

Because he changed things. He pushed the human race forward.

And while some may have seen him as the crazy one, we saw genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.


Tomorrow is graduation day for students at the VCU Brandcenter. One hundred of them will stride down the aisle as their name is called. They’ll take their diplomas and walk past a gauntlet of faculty, stopping to shake hands, hug and sometimes cry.

Brandcenter students will be surrounded by the truly important people in their lives. Fathers and mothers, sisters, brothers, friends and lovers. People who care about them. People who know the greatness and goodness they are capable of.

The Brandcenter faculty in the front of the room can be counted among these well-wishers. They’ve spent years sharing everything they know and demanding everything our students can give.

Like the families and friends in the audience, our professors have become important people to the students. In my years at the Brandcenter I’ve watched our faculty give their best for each student. A part of every day is spent out of sight of the students, conferring about their strengths, weaknesses, triumphs and tragedies. Our faculty talk about how to renew the energy of those who’ve become weary, how to inspire the uninspired, how to deliver worthy challenges and worthwhile critiques.

For Brandcenter faculty, there are few things more rewarding than seeing our students walk across that stage, confident in their abilities and well on their way to successful careers. So if you’re attending the graduation ceremony, take a moment to greet the faculty and staff behind the Brandcenter’s important work.

VCU Brandcenter’s full time professors. (click to enlarge)

A fact of life in business is that most large companies acquire other companies. Sometimes these deals are aimed at taking out a competitor, like when Starbucks bought Seattle’s Best. Sometimes they add complimentary offerings, like when Sears bought Land’s End. And Sometimes they don’t really make sense, like when Daimler Benz bought Chryslers. Often these deals are looked at financially, but there isn’t always a thorough exploration of the impact on the brand.

Since Apple has a war chest of $60 billion, there’s been speculation over whether the company should make more acquisitions. The company does have a history of buying other businesses but they are usually smaller deals aimed at building technological capacity. In 2010, Apple bought Quattro Wireless, Intrinsity, Siri and Poly9. Don’t be embarrassed if you never heard of these, most people haven’t. The question I like to think about is who Apple might buy if they wanted to do a major deal, and how might it affect the brand?

If you’d like to play along, please add your suggestion in the “comments” section.

Here are two to get you started:

Apple + Nikon:

The famous photography company is valued at just under $8 billion, well within Apple’s price range. The brand is know for making superb products for professionals and consumers – just like Apple, and Nikon focuses on a target audience of creative people – just like Apple. There are also some notable synergies. Apple offers two software packages for editing photography: iPhoto and Aperture. Both are superior to Nikon’s own software. Apple also makes the leading video editing software: Final Cut. Nikon’s newest cameras also shoot video. Apple’s latest hardware, including the iPhone, iPod, iPad and Mac computers, all have built in cameras. Unfortunately these cameras aren’t very good. Imagine dropping Nikon cameras into these devices? Overall, I think an Apple/Nikon deal has a lot to offer.

Apple + Nintendo

This is a pricier deal – Nintedo has a market cap of about $30 billion – but this is still well within Apple’s grasp. Apple’s has $60 billion in cash and a market cap of over $300 billion, so if both companies wanted to do the deal it would be easy to pull off. The value? Well both companies are known for innovative, elegant products that challenge industry conventions. When gaming hardware companies were all focused on adolescent boys, Nintendo changed the industry by targeted everyone else with their incredibly popular Wii. And Apple has recently started to wake up to the potential of gaming. It’s AppStore has become one of the largest gaming outlets in the industry. Imagine AppStore for Wii and DS? Seems like an interesting fit.

With both Nikon and Nintendo, I think there’s an ideological harmony, but maybe you disagree. I’d like to hear your opinions and your suggestions for an ideal Apple mash-up. Just use the comment field to join in on the conversation. And if you’re a marketing professor, ask your students what they think and let me know.

This past year, VCU Brandcenter students and faculty got involved with an interesting project. We were asked to work with Venture Richmond and The Martin Agency to help drive and effort to bring attention to the creativity and innovation that fuels Richmond.

The effort started when Martin Agency Partner, Matt Williams, worked with leaders from the Richmond area to begin defining those things that set the city apart. The effort identified characteristics that were seen as essential to the city’s future. Participants saw an opportunity to define a reputation that is “forward-looking, eclectic, dynamic and timeless” fueled by “a history of non-conformity”.

The process identified a growing momentum in Downtown Richmond and beyond. Anyone who’s paying attention has observed the dramatic rise in downtown living spaces, arts venues, dining, entertainment and innovative businesses, schools and organizations. The data is impressive and led the group to define the potential for helping Richmond become recognized as a center of creativity. That’s where the Brandcenter came in.

The folks at Venture Richmond and Martin wanted to go beyond the business and civic leaders involved in the first phase, to take a broader sampling from the street level up. We recruited Brandcenter professors Caley Cantrell and Mark Avnet to help guide teams of over 40 graduate students, and we charged the team with conducting research and coming back with a fresh approach to a civic identity.

Guided by Cantrell and Avnet, the students explored Richmond from every angle. From first thing in the morning at a local coffee shop, to last call at the clubs, the students interviewed residents, business owners, civic leaders, architects, urban planners, musicians, magazine publishers, retailers, venture capitalists, philanthropists, tattoo artists, historians, museum directors and computer programmers. They collected stories that reflected both passion and pride.

It’s important to note that the students were not asked to invent a new identity for the city – they know better than to attempt to make up something that doesn’t fit the brand – instead they uncovered a movement that was already well established, one that many residents and leaders have been talking about for some time. The student’s mission was to synthesize the information from all sources and to develop an approach for telling the stories in a way that would accomplish two primary objectives:

1. To help Richmond take credit for the creativity that has been part of both the city’s past and present.

2. To inspire even more innovation in the future, by encouraging community members to practice more creativity in their work and lives.

When the student teams presented their work, we were all moved by their efforts. They saw an opportunity to avoid the overused slogans and jingles of typical municipal branding efforts and instead to leverage the existing shorthand for Richmond’s creative community: RVA.

The students felt that any top down slogan would be more likely to inhibit creativity, rather than promote it, so they suggested that “RVA” could be customized to say whatever the participant wanted it to say. They also designed the logo to allow the visuals to be ever changing. Again, based on the creativity of the user. This user-generated approach to branding allows the minimalist “RVA” to be endlessly reinterpreted.

Of course brands are much more complex than logos or even advertising, so the real power of the brand is driven by the action, not the words, of those involved. While the effort is still in its infancy, there are already promising signs on the horizon. Business leaders and university heads have committed their support, arts organizations and creative individuals are fueling new projects, training programs and events are being planned and the Mayor has supported the effort and announced a plan to establish Richmond’s first Arts District, with tangible incentives and promotion for participating organizations.

These tangible acts are being combined with increased marketing driven by a team of six organizations, including outstanding Richmond businesses, like Elevation, Hodges Partnership, JHI and West Cary Group. The team’s work already includes a website, online video, rolling billboards, printed materials and social networking. Soon these efforts will be joined by mobile applications and even a fleet of eco-friendly garbage trucks, carrying the RVA logo.

To paraphrase Mike Hughes, “Branding is not a sprint. It’s a marathon.” The success of this program will depend on continued efforts to engage the community. But, given the promising start, I look forward to the day when our Brandcenter alumni return to find a more dynamic city where originality is celebrated – or better yet, I hope they never leave.

Additional information:



Click to hear comments on Steve Jobs on PBS

This week, the business news was dominated by an announcement that Apple’s Steve Jobs has temporarily stepped down from the role of acting CEO to take a medical leave of absence. This is not his first medical sabbatical; Jobs has struggled with health issues for years, but the timing of the announcement came just one day before Apple, Inc. posted record-breaking revenues and profits, blowing past all analyst estimates by a wide margin.

The company now has revenues of more than $70 billion, tenfold its size when Jobs returned to the company in 1997. It has the most desirable products in most of its categories and a stock value of more than $300 billion.

Certainly Jobs has proven to be a brilliant leader with an uncanny ability to identify opportunities and respond with beautifully executed products. So the question is, can Apple continue on this path once Jobs is gone? Does Apple’s success surface solely from the perfect-pitch vision of its charismatic CEO or is there more at work here — a recipe that other leaders can follow?

To find our answers we can look at the performance of not one but two companies that Jobs has led in recent years, Apple and Pixar. Prior to Pixar’s 2006 sale to Disney, Steve Jobs was CEO of the motion picture studio while simultaneously running Apple, a remarkable feat, made even more remarkable by the fact that Pixar has the best track record of movie hits in Hollywood.

Over the years, I’ve followed both companies closely as a student of creativity and a teacher of successful brand practices. In my observations, I’ve seen more than individual mastery at work; I’ve noticed a simple, clear pattern of behavior that drives the success of both companies. I call it “The Jobs Doctrine.”

This doctrine can be used to understand how Apple became the most influential company in computers, phones, music and consumer electronics, and how Pixar simultaneously became one of the most influential company in movies. The Jobs Doctrine can also be put to work in any company, or used to make any career more successful.

So what is The Jobs Doctrine? It isn’t a lengthy set of rules or a mathematical formula. It is simply a disciplined approach to making things that delight us: Design fewer, simpler, greater things.

This recipe would seem so obvious that it’s barely worth mentioning; except that it is so little understood as the driving force of Jobs’s creativity and it is ignored by most corporations and individuals.

Let me demonstrate the doctrine in action. In 2010, a Businessweek survey named Apple the most innovative company in the world. While that may be no big surprise, most people associate innovation with constant change and multitudes of innovations. But Apple’s only major new product for the year was the iPad® and its last major new launch was the iPhone®, released in 2007, three years earlier. And to get to the launch of the iPod®, you have to go back to 2001. The point is that while Apple’s products are inarguably innovative, their releases are much less frequent than those of their competitors.

Take a quick look at the phone lines available from Samsung, Nokia or Motorola and you’ll see dozens of models with a wide variety of features. Even the more selective BlackBerry® brand has seven current models. Apple has only two: the new iPhone 4 and the earlier 3GS model. Both come only in black. They are currently only available from one carrier. The remarkable truth is that Apple gives consumers far fewer options than all of their major competitors, yet they sold an astonishing 16 million phones last quarter.

Think of the dilution of effort that a company experiences when it has dozens of phones to design, manufacture and support. Imagine the focus that would come if it decided to scrap their massive product lines to instead focus on designing a single, beautiful phone.

Jobs’s genius is that he fully understands the power of simplification. Go to the site of any competitor, from Microsoft, to Google, to HP, to Samsung, to Dell, and you’ll find they all have larger product lines and operate in more categories. Jobs presides over a company that prizes simplicity not only in its product line but in every feature that appears on every product. This allows the company time for meticulous development, which in turn leads to superior products. Jobs fundamentally believes that consumers are more interested in perfection than variety. And this is plainly evident at his other company, Pixar.

It seems unlikely that a technology mogul could succeed in the movie business but Jobs has been more than successful. He bought Pixar from Lucasfilm in 1986 for $10 million and sold the company to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion, 740 times what he paid for it. But what is more remarkable is that at the time Jobs sold Pixar to Disney, it had released only six movies.

As with Apple, Jobs revolutionized the animated film industry and made a killing doing it, following the identical recipe: design fewer, simpler, greater things. While the studio had made only six films at the time of its sale to Disney, each had been released to become number one at the box office. And the streak continues today, several years after Jobs stepped down as CEO. Its most recent film, Toy Story 3, was the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

The company continues to release fewer films than its competitors and it takes longer to perfect the films, but each of Pixar’s 11 movies is listed among the 50 highest-grossing animated films of all time and each has been acclaimed by critics.

So, the successes of Apple and Pixar are based more on a consistent formula than on individual genius. If this successful formula can continue in the absence of Steve Jobs, as it has with Pixar, than maybe we can all take lessons from it.

Let’s break down the formula a bit. I’ve used the term “design” because Jobs considers Apple to be in the design business. The evidence is printed on every package. The words “Designed by Apple in California” suggest a company that is concerned with design. But what if your business has nothing to do with design? Perhaps you should alter your perspective.

Webster’s has several definitions for design. They are:

• to create, fashion, execute or construct according to plan

• to conceive and plan out in the mind

• to have as a purpose

• to devise for a specific function or end

These definitions can apply to anything you do, whether it’s creating a research report that might change the direction of your company, perfecting a smoothie to make your restaurant famous, developing curriculum that will really get through to your students or building the finest website for adopting puppies that anyone’s ever seen. When you think of your role as that of a designer, rather than just someone who performs a routine job, it liberates you to build your project from scratch. You are not just executing or refining but are creating something new and better. But of course, you can only do this if you’re focused on a few things.

Designing fewer things may be hard to do if you’re an employee and someone else is setting your priorities, but it is still possible. Think of an advertising designer who must work on a dozen projects every week. If she looks at each project as equally promising, she will have her efforts divided with little hope of perfecting her work. But if she works to identify projects with the potential for greatness, she can focus most of her time on those and fight to get them approved. Many famous advertising creatives have built their reputations on a few, brilliant campaigns. So look for these opportunities, and concentrate your skills on making brilliant work.

One last piece of The Jobs Doctrine is the quest for simplicity. This is where Steve Jobs may be at his best. Almost everything he makes has fewer features than almost everything his competitors make. Fewer buttons. Fewer menus. Fewer cables and ports. Fewer options. Steve Jobs is absolutely fanatical about designing products with simplicity. There are trade-offs, of course. The MacBook Air® has no CD/DVD drive, but that allows it to be smaller, lighter and more elegant. The remote for Apple TV® has only a few buttons, but this eliminates confusion.

We live in a complex world, where simplicity is a rare commodity, and like all rare things, it is valued. Take a look at your work. Can you make it simpler? Can you eliminate confusion? Can you edit out the excess until only the essential ingredients are evident? If you’re like most people, the answer is “yes.” But it takes time. Mark Twain famously commented, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Most of us fall into this trap. We would make things simpler, but we just don’t have time for the needed refinement. And this comes back to doing fewer things.

One last point about the doctrine: Designing fewer, simpler, greater things doesn’t just make the products better, it makes them easier to sell. Jobs is considered a masterful showman, and he is. We can all learn from watching his keynote presentations, but what enables him to be so persuasive is two things: He has only a few things to talk about, and each has been refined to make them better than the competition. We all know the feeling of going into a meeting with great work in our hands. We almost can’t wait to show it off. Our excitement and confidence are palpable. Selling a few great ideas is considerably easier than selling a lot of mediocre ideas. We have the time to romance each idea and we gain power from knowing the work is good.

Steve Jobs will be remembered as a remarkable individual who reshaped every industry he entered. The fact that much of that genius has been concentrated on designing and perfecting a small number of things does not diminish his accomplishments; it is the source of them. Applying this formula to our own efforts may not make us a billionaire or a celebrity, but it will make our work stronger and our efforts more purposeful, and that’s a good idea.

With help from Photoshop and apologies to Sherwin Williams.

Sherwin Williams BP Oil Spill

Don Just is back on the cover of the Business Section. The VCU Brandcenter professor looks quite comfortable on the business pages in his in a crisp sport coat and starched white shirt. Don started his career in banking, back when bankers were conservative with their money and their politics. Mid-career, he unexpectedly left his post as a leader of one of the most respected banks in the region and passed on a job as president of Circuit City to join an emerging ad firm, The Martin Agency.

Don’s move must have seemed reckless at the time, but today we might think of him as prescient, since both the bank (which became Wachovia) and Circuit City are no more and The Martin Agency is thriving. Fortunately for students, Don Just left the agency after helping grow it to a nationally respected firm. He has become a fixture at the VCU Brandcenter, where he teaches students the business of advertising and creative brand management.

Here’s the article by Louis LLovio of the Richmond Times Dispatch:

Peter CoughterUnless you’re Warren Buffett if you want to get something done in business you’re going to have to sell others on the idea. So if you’re wise, you’ll read every word of this article by VCU Brandcenter Professor, Peter Coughter. Peter teaches presentation skills to the best ad agencies in the world and he’s been a part of the recipe at the Brandcenter for more than 10 years.

The article is on the blog of Heidi Ehlers of BLACK BAG creative recruitment + career management. Heidi is a friend of the Brandcenter with a passion for identifying and developing the best creative talent in the advertising business. You’ll want to bookmark her blog and make it a frequent destination.

Click here to read the article: Black Bag Blog.

After posting a comment on Twitter about the Art of Shaving acquisition by P&G, I got a note from a student, Joe Hagel, telling me how great the Art of Shaving stores are. A week later, in DC’s Washington Square, I ran across one of the stores and went inside. I was met by Enrique Navarrete, a well-dressed gent who quickly engaged me in a conversation about shaving and proceeded to demonstrate the proper method at the sink in the store. This had become more that a visit by a curious brand strategist, it was now about my face, and the wrongs inflicted upon it over years of clumsy shaves. I left with a full set of man-pampering tools and lotions, a new respect for the Art of Shaving and a faint scent of sandalwood. This is the kind of experience that builds a great brand. Thanks Joe and Enrique!

[This is a follow-up to the Art of Shaving story below.]

groomingC4-art-of-shaving-brush-0309-lg-78495870 copy

Last week Procter & Gamble announced the purchase of the retail chain the Art of Shaving. Stepping into retail might seem like a peculiar move for the consumer products company, but it follows a pattern of increasing innovation for the organization.

Back in 2005 P&G made a lot of noise when it bought Gillette. At the time, I was interviewed by BusinessWeek, which picked up on the innovative shift signaled by the $57 billion deal. [The article is available here: Branding: Five New Lessons.]

The deal made a lot of sense for P&G. Gillette was a master at marketing a cohesive family of products under one brand. P&G is growing in this area, extending brands like Crest into broad families of related products. Gillette also benefitted from the combination of innovative hardware paired with consumables — the razor and the blades. P&G has expanded greatly in this area with electric toothbrushes, Febreze air cleaners, Mr. Clean car wash kits and Swiffer wet mops.

So if putting hardware and consumables together and building product families can boost your brands, why not control even more of the consumer experience? The Art of Shaving deal could teach P&G some important lessons, but only if they do it right. Back in the 1980s, P&G picked up the Vidal Sassoon product line, but left the high-end hair salons alone. The brand languished, and Sassoon and P&G found themselves on opposite ends of a heated lawsuit. In retrospect, P&G might have missed an opportunity to explore the connection between product and service. A connection the folks at Starbucks exploited when they expanded from selling bags of coffee beans to serving the coffee in upscale bistros. When brands mix product and service, the resulting experience can increase customer loyalty, reduce price sensitivity and boost differentiation.

Given its position as the leading consumer products manufacturing company, P&G could content itself with sticking to the existing formulas and leaving the innovation to smaller, nimbler players. But with this entry into retail experiences, it looks like the company that invented brand management might just be on its way to reinventing it.

General Motors filed for bankruptcy. Too bad for my hometown of Detroit, but maybe it needed to happen. The GM name has come to represent an overgrown, overly complex conglomerate that expanded into everything from home mortgages to aerospace to computer programming. It’s hard to run a great company when you’re tangled up in too many businesses. But there is still great potential for the company’s strongest brands.

At the heart of this company you’ll find nameplates like Cadillac and Chevy. Chevrolet alone accounted for half of all GM sales last year. It sold 10 times as many cars as the company’s other brands. (100 times Hummer.) All by itself, Chevy would be among the world’s largest car companies and one of the best loved.


Here’s a thought for my friends working at GM and their ad agencies: Why not change the company name to Chevrolet? Most other car companies are named for their primary car line. This includes Ford, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, VW and many others. Most of these brands have high-end lines, like Lincoln, Lexus, Infinity and Audi – Chevrolet can do the same with Cadillac. The change would signal that the company was serious about focusing on its core brands and products. And that’s the right move for the company and for its customers.

Note: For more about GM’s brand, check out my interview on Fox Business here: GM Brand


This week, Fox News asked me to comment on the challenges facing a bankrupt Chrysler as it attempts to win consumer confidence. [Watch the video] Here are a few things for the company to consider:

Chrysler’s reorganization is intended to proceed in record time, with surgical precision. Maybe so, but to survive as a brand, Chrysler management must now execute the most flawless marketing campaign in the history of the company in order to hold onto skeptical consumers.

First the challenges:

  1. The buy-American approach, used by Lee Iacocca after the 1979 bailout, won’t work in the current environment, since the company will be controlled by Italian automaker Fiat.
  2. New cars are probably two years or more away, so the current product line will have to do.
  3. Many of Chrysler’s customers aren’t happy about the billions in government funds that have gone into shoring up the company.
  4. The dealer base is demoralized and worried, with no clear direction about the future of the company or their contracts with it.
  5. The company’s past blunders, from the failed Daimler merger to unsuccessful takeover by private equity speculators have ravaged the management team and led to stale product lines and tarnished brands.

The company should emerge from bankruptcy on firmer financial footing, with favorable union contracts and reduced operating costs, but none of this matters if customers won’t buy the cars. Here is what the company MUST do to survive.

The company must demonstrate that it’s a new day at Chrysler. There can be no doubt in the consumer’s mind that new ideas and energy will guide the company’s future. Telling the public that things have changed will mean nothing given the unfulfilled hype that surrounded past turnaround efforts. Only with a change in corporate behavior demonstrated through tangible actions will the company earn back the attention of consumers.

This change must affect:

  • The Dealer Experience
  • The Product
  • The Advertising

The Dealer Experience

The most important change in behavior will be the hardest to accomplish. The dealer experience must be completely reinvented. With no new product in the lineup the company must rely on dealers as the primary avenue for contact with consumers. That’s too bad, because car dealers are independent companies, so controlling their behavior is difficult in the best of times. Management must convince dealers that providing a reinvented customer experience is the best path to recovery and they must develop clear guidelines for this experience. Customers must leave the dealers ready to talk about the whole new approach they experienced. And while they’re at it, the company should take a cue from Saturn and move to no-haggle pricing. Nobody feels good about playing cat-and-mouse with sales people to guess the price they should pay for their car.

The Product

While the product line can’t be reinvented overnight, the company can alter the product in ways that can generate positive feelings among consumers. Chrysler should consider introducing special editions for 2010 that stand out. For example a line of “platinum edition” vehicles could come equipped with a full list of premium features, all for the regular price. The line should feature altered exterior trim to freshen the look. Promotion should focus on how the new editions are Chrysler’s way of thanking the consumer for supporting the company.

Long-term, Chrysler must stop killing its own babies. They’ve shut down consumer favorites like the Jeep Cherokee and Dodge Neon to introduce untested new products like the Caliber and the Nitro. Customers want stable, long-term brands they can trust. The success of cars like the Corolla, introduced in 1968, and the Accord, introduced in 1972, demonstrates the value of consistent improvement to trusted brands. Chrysler has been careless and self-destructive in this arena.

The Advertising

Once freshened products are paired with new pricing and dealer experience, it’s going to be time to tell the story in a new way. This can’t be the same old automobile campaign. It’s time to shake things up and that can happen only when you change the way you do business. Chrysler should break the rules by asking the 10 best creative directors in advertising to spend a few days together brainstorming about how to make the company a poster child for new approaches to consumer engagement — and let the press go along for the ride. Instead of tired executions hammered into submission by uninspired bureaucrats, this approach will yield original thinking and smart solutions.

On a Personal Note

I love to write about troubled brands, but this collapse hits me where it hurts. I grew up in a Chrysler family — there was never a car in the garage that wasn’t a Chrysler. My father worked for the corporation from the time he graduated from law school to the day he retired more than 30 years later. So I care about the future of this American icon and you should too, since we all have a stake in its future.


At a time when the news is filled with the ugly side of corporations, I thought I’d share a story about a series of selfless acts involving a well-known brand.

It all began about two weeks ago when MasterCard generously donated a $100 gift card to each team competing in the Kansas City Regional FIRST Robotics competition. The donation was intended to help the teams purchase parts and equipment for their robots.

Later that day, one of the teams learned their trailer had been stolen from the arena. After word of the theft spread through the audience, 20 competing teams donated their gift cards to help replace the trailer and some parents added cash donations. The Kansas City Star quoted the team’s advisor, Kathy Shirk, who said, “There were lots of tears in the stands. We know we are in a generous community. And we know that gracious professionalism is a tenet of FIRST Robotics. But to have it played out that way — it was like getting a gift you were not expecting.”

When they learned about the good sportsmanship demonstrated by the robot teams, the people from MasterCard were inspired to add one more act of generosity to the story. After making sure the trailer was fully paid for, the company gave each team another $100 cash card to spend on parts. A company spokesman said MasterCard’s employees attending the event were “impressed by the kindness and graciousness shown by the FIRST Robotics teams and wanted to extend their gratitude.”

I was one of hundreds of people who heard this story today at the FIRST Robotics competition in Virginia, which shows how a message about a few acts of generosity can spread across communities, rewarding the brand that’s involved.