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At the beginning of each year, I like to take stock of the big branding mistakes made by well-known brands. You can find articles about this in various publications, but I’m including the full release here:
2007 Brand Blunders, By Kelly O’Keefe
“As we surveyed the year’s most notable blunders, we saw an unusual pattern emerging, some of the biggest slips were coming, not from perennially-challenged brands like Ford, but from consumer favorites like Apple, Nordstrom and Starbucks. Can a powerhouse brand like Apple appear on our annual list of blunders, when they are having their best year ever? Absolutely! “
“What better way to remind brand managers that even the best of brands can make dumb mistakes,” O’Keefe said. “Whether these mistakes lead to long-term trouble or a momentary blip depends on how quickly and effectively the brand responds. The fact that some of our favorite brands are vulnerable to slips should serve as a reminder to marketers everywhere: Brands are dynamic and ever changing. Every encounter with the consumer is important, and the loyalty of your fans never should be taken for granted.”
Number 1: Cartoon Network – What started out as a guerrilla marketing campaign ended up crippling Boston when Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network tried to promote its show Aqua Teen Hunger Force and its upcoming movie by littering the city with Lite-Brite-like gadgets that were mistaken for bombs. Cartoon Network’s head Jim Samples resigned over the stunt, and Turner and its marketing firm shelled out $2 million to pay Boston for its troubles. Oh, and the Aqua Teen movie flopped, grossing $5.5 million at the box office. “This is a perfect example of a market leader that just made a bad move,” O’Keefe said. “No brand benefits from being positioned as irresponsible. This was guerrilla marketing gone awry at its worst.”
Number 2: Apple – Apple spent months building hype surrounding the launch of its iPhone. But after a highly successful debut, Apple geared up for the holidays by slashing the price of the iPhone by 200 bucks, alienating its tried and true supporters who were the first to purchase the new gadget. Apple quickly apologized and offered early adopters credit. “Apple is having its best year ever, and its overall brand actually grew stronger this year,” O’Keefe said. “That doesn’t mean it didn’t slip here, especially in the eyes of its most loyal fans. This blunder cost the company $100 million. It could have been much worse had Steve Jobs not admitted to the mistake almost immediately and apologized for its gaffe.”
Number 3: American Sports – Lying and cheating were the constant themes in American sports in 2007, with each superstar bigger and each sport as embarrassed as the next. Star quarterback Michael Vick* denied involvement in dog fighting and was in jail by year’s end. Slugger Barry Bonds* – and the rest of baseball – Olympic hero Marion Jones* and Tour de France winner Floyd Landis* continued to be plagued by allegations of steroids (Jones actually pleaded guilty to lying about steroid use and returned her five medals from the Sydney games). NBA referee Tim Donaghy* was busted by the feds for allegedly making calls that changed the games he was working. And, the New England Patriots’* pursuit of perfection was deemed imperfect with allegations of using video to steal signals of its opponents. “Sports teams and athletes themselves are powerful brands, and there’s never been a year when bigger names in sports have tarnished their brands so badly,” O’Keefe said. “It’s tragic to see how the mighty have fallen.”
Number 4: Facebook – Internet darling Facebook made headlines again when it introduced Beacon, a feature that uses e-mail addresses to track the purchasing habits of its members and publishes that info for friends to see – and allows advertisers to target them by the preferences. But it came under scrutiny from privacy advocates, who argued users couldn’t opt out of the feature then argued more loudly when the Web site disclosed that even non-members’ personal information could be shared. Founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote on the site, “We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it.” “Owning up to a mistake is a great first step, but Facebook may have to deal with members and advertisers it may have alienated,” O’Keefe said.
Number 5: Whole Foods – CEO John Mackey had an alter ego for the past eight years. Posting messages as Rahodeb (an anagram of his wife’s name), Mackey posted messages about his company and competitors, including Wild Oats, which he repeatedly trashed before his company acquired it. The SEC is investigating the postings, and the grocer implemented a new policy on postings late in the year. “There’s nothing wrong with a CEO being a cheerleader for his company – Southwest Airlines, for example,” O’Keefe said. “But this reeked of hubris. With everything else the company was dealing with, the last thing it needed was a CEO acting like a kid.”
Number 6: JetBlue – JetBlue’s attention to the customer made it a favorite among airlines and a brand to be reckoned with. Then came a February snowstorm that exploited the airline: Thousands of flights were postponed, and questions were raised about JetBlue’s infrastructure. Worst of all may have been the plane full of passengers that was stranded on a runway at JFK for nearly 10 hours (and a You Tube video that chronicled one passenger’s 43-hour plight to get home). Prior to the debacle, JetBlue shouted on the front page of its Web site, “Our promise: to continue to bring humanity back to air travel.” That quickly disappeared after JetBlue’s struggles. However, the company later introduced its customer Bill of Rights as a response. “There’s nothing wrong with making a brand promise, but the big thing is that you have to keep it,” O’Keefe said. “JetBlue slipped but seems to have recovered nicely with its new Bill of Rights. Its actions in response to chaos went a long way with customers and should help its brand regain its luster.”
Number 7: Starbucks – The coffee king built its empire on word-of-mouth marketing and the thought of one cup of coffee at a time. The past year saw Starbucks’ stock price plunge by more than 33 percent and same-store sales fall by almost 40 percent. Market saturation has become a huge concern, and losing a Consumer Reports taste test to McDonald’s didn’t help. Late in the year, Starbucks – whose Chairman Howard Schultz once wrote that “national advertising fuels fears about ubiquity” – introduced its first national advertising campaign. “Starbucks is one of the truly great brands, but it appears to have responded to weakening sales with a knee-jerk reaction to advertise nationally,” O’Keefe said. “Rather than signal strength as hoped, it is signaling weakness. For a company that has prided itself on providing an intimate experience no matter the location, Starbucks’ recent actions contradict the very fabric of what made it so fabulous.”
Number 8: Nordstrom – Nordstrom, long revered for its exceptional customer service and quality, has attracted and entertained shoppers with live piano music for more than 20 years. Stop the music. The upscale retailer has begun letting its nearly 160 stores phase out the piano man in favor of canned music even though a company spokesperson said it wasn’t a cost-cutting measure. “Shopping at Nordstrom is about the experience,” O’Keefe said. “The piano music is a big part of what makes Nordstrom unique, and it faces the very real possibility of fixing something that isn’t broken, which could be dangerous for the brand.”
Number 9: Unilever – For the past few years, Unilever has been the parent to children taking different paths in life. On one hand, there’s Dove, the pure, wholesome brand known for classy ads and its Campaign for Real Beauty and Self-Esteem Fund. On the other, there’s Axe, the immature, sleazy brand known for its sexist ads and Bom Chicka Wah Wah campaign. The family hypocrisy grew in 2007 when Unilever released a viral Web video called Onslaught that takes the beauty industry to task; a You Tube responder answered with a video (viewed 80,000 times) that replaced sexist images from the Onslaught video with snippets of Axe commercials. In addition, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood’s Ax the Axe campaign that demands that Unilever can its sexist ads targeted at teens. “Kept separate, Dove and Axe could possibly co-exist, despite the despicable nature of the Axe ads,” O’Keefe said. “But Unilever goofed by chastising the ‘beauty’ industry for the very same tactics it uses in its Axe ads. As consumers find that the company behind the Dove campaigns doesn’t share the values portrayed, it could be seen as a betrayal.”
Number 10: FEMA – Just when you thought the Federal Emergency Management Agency had stopped its self-inflicted agony, an October “press” conference made news for all the wrong reasons. FEMA gave the media 15 minutes notice for a press briefing about the California wildfires. Despite the fact that no media attended on such short notice, the “press” conference went off without a hitch, except for maybe deputy administrator Harvey Johnson calling one of the “reporters” in the audience by name. The truth was that the “reporters” actually were FEMA staffers posing as reporters and asking “softball” questions. Homeland Security Department head Michael Chertoff told the Washington Post that the stunt was “one of the dumbest and most inappropriate things I’ve seen since I’ve been in government.” “You could make a great case that this could be ranked much higher, but in all honesty, it’s what we’ve grown to expect from FEMA,” O’Keefe said. “FEMA has stumbled enough trouble the past few years to know that this was a preposterous idea. The real comedy is that it actually thought it might get away with it.”
Maybe it’s not so surprising that I would strongly endorse the new name for the most influential school in advertising. After all, I’ve deliberately avoided the “advertising” moniker since I formed O’Keefe Marketing in 1990. On the other hand, I’ve been associated with the Adcenter since its formation. Aren’t we turning our back on the principles that made this organization great? Thankfully no.
I took a little walk through time on the Internet Archive (better known as the “WaybackMachine“). Here that I found an article in CMYK heralding the launch of a new advertising school. The article quotes visionary leader, Diane Cook Tench, in saying the need for the school arose because:
“While advertising education has stagnated over the last two decades, the ad industry has not.”
The quote reminds us that the sole reason for the Adcenter’s formation was that other schools failed to change and adapt to a turbulent industry.
When industry leaders gather for our semi-annual board meetings, they seldom question whether the school is changing too much. Instead, the conversation is rightly focused on whether we are changing enough. Are we keeping up with the astonishing growth of new technologies, new techniques and new mediums? Are we opening our door to a diverse population that reflects the globalization of commerce? Are we immersing ethics and responsibility into the subjects we teach?
Thankfully, the school that Tench brought to life and Rick Boyko now stewards has not falling into the stagnation trap. The new logo is the school’s fourth. There have also been four directors of the school. The Martin Agency’s Mike Hughes is the only remaining member of the original board. (Sadly two of the three board members pictured here have passed away.)
VCU, One of the most esteemed educational institutions connected to this business of ours, a school charged with grooming the next generation of creative marketing torch bearers, is no longer an Adcenter. School steward and MD Rick Boyko recently announced the school would now go by the handle VCU Brandcenter.
Aside form provoking relief that the school’s deciders didn’t go with something more oblique and annoying (or something with “Idea” in it) the name change seems apt. Boyko has spent his tenure at VCU retooling the center’s program to mint minds for the new era, expanding the scope of the school’s teachings with the goal of creating graduates that aren’t merely carriers of attractive portfolios and makers of attractive ads but creative thinkers and marketing problem solvers. In addition of a Masters in Creative Brand Management in 2005, to help spawn a new breed of creatively enlightened marketer and account person, and last year, the Advanced Management Training program for creative directors.
So if the Adcenter isn’t an ad center anymore, is the industry into which its students will graduate still an ad industry? Are you people still as men and women? The head of our agency of the year David Droga called himself “absolutely an advertising man” in our last issue and yet we recognized his agency’s work in part for its non-advertisingness. Is the distinction important? We’ve talked at length in Creativity about name calling–if it’s not advertising then what? –as have others. TBWA’s Lee Clow has famously pursued a vision of a “media arts company” as the evolution of an ad agency and has told us in the past: “Brands today cannot be sustained by what in the past has been called advertising…everything a brand does that connects to the consumer is media, is brand communication. If orchestrating the art of all those media conversations isn’t advertising, then perhaps the creativity of what we’ll do in the future needs a new name.”
So this week, as the Adcenter changes its name to the VCU Brandcenter and inhabits an astonishingly forward-thinking new building, we are again refusing to stagnate. Fulfilling the original vision for the school and ensuring that once again, our future will be more interesting than our past.