Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I believe there is great value in taking a closer look, in not flying off the handle and speaking before you have all the information. Why? Because it pays not to look like an idiot when the facts come out.

I thought I was going to have to eat my words recently. Not too long ago, I wrote a post that included my non-number based theory that America isn't buying trucks and SUVS like they used to. Well, it turns out I only have to eat half my words. As of the beginning of December, pickups were still extremely strong sellers, but SUV sales have slumped dramatically. My anecdotal theory had a hole- people actually still need the utility provided by genuine pickup trucks, so their sales haven't slumped nearly as far as SUVs have. I might submit that part of their continued sales performance is due to the deep discounts that have been offered on them lately, but I understand that there are simply people who need to haul things.

It seems that America has voted, however, that the "U" in "sport utility vehicle" is a misnomer as their sales have plummeted about as quickly as the value of Madoff investments. So, pickup trucks, I apologize- the value of your utility is undeniable as non-essentials are cut and your sales remain strong. I proudly eat my words against you. SUVs, you must have known your time was coming. Perhaps the SUV bubble has popped.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quote of the somethingorother

"I wish my grass was emo so it would cut itself."
- Mike from Virginia

Monday, December 29, 2008

Quote of the somethingorother

"Most cynics are just frustrated optimists."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What does sound look like?

It's official, I'm tired of being told to look at things on the radio. Radio is a difficult medium, especially with as visual as humans tend to be. It doesn't help that such a hefty part of advertising is built upon visuals. But I still don't feel that's any excuse to ignore the medium's most obvious feature- the fact that you can't see anything. At least two radio ads I've heard recently have done this.

The first is for the new Blackberry Storm. Naturally, a touchscreen is a tough sell on radio, but I'm forced to grind my teeth when the spot starts out by telling me to look at the screen. It's not that I won't, but I can't, no matter how hard they want me to.

The other is for Guitar Hero World Tour. It starts out with the right idea, asking you to remember the TV spot (still a bit of a cop-out), but quickly degenerates from there. First, it tells me to "look at that," then goes on to tell me, "no, stop looking at..."

Know your medium, don't try to recycle your TV spots. Sometimes it requires a little more imagination or even the occasional straight-sell, but at least you won't be insulting people by telling them to see the sound waves coming out of their speakers.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The death of a billboard

I saw a sad sight today. It was a billboard along a major US interstate, bare on both sides. That's right, no message- just empty ribs sticking out into the sky like the skeleton of a woolly mammoth brought to the ground by the spears and ropes of a vicious economy and picked clean by the beaks of close-out sales and store liquidations.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Social media utopia: it runs on dreams and rainbows

Adrian Ho from Adweek suggests that the future of branding is in a system of mini-communications between employees of a company and consumers. He posits that traditional marketing will go the way of the dinosaur and that communications will come from thousands of blogs and twitters that employees at every level will produce to which the public will listen. I think this philosophy is severely flawed on three counts.

The first two places I disagree with Mr. Ho are in regards to his idea about brands embracing the Zappos form of marketing where "mini-communications," if you will, between employees and consumers will form the backbone of future marketing efforts. Here are two reasons I believe this model will always be the exception and not the rule.

One- Executives will NEVER yield that kind of communicative power to the lowly ranks of employees of major companies. Zappos is an exception, and a wonderful one, but if you think for a moment that somewhere like Burger King or Starbucks is going to put the billions of dollars of carefully crafted public image they have created in the hands of their underpaid, overworked, largely disgruntled workforce, you're crazy. They're not going to allow it, much less encourage it. Why? Because most brands cannot, or will not, foster the kind of happiness and loyalty required for the kind of communications above to come out positive, much less consistent.

Two- Mr. Ho's model involves companies keeping employees around long enough to develop long-term relationships with customers. I'm sorry, anyone else here been paying attention to business models lately? Employment at any company is getting shorter and shorter by the year. Why? Companies are doing everything they can to cut benefits and keep wages down to manage costs. Employment is getting shorter and only showing signs of shorterning further as most companies create technicalities where their employees are all "independent contractors" to avoid paying any benefits at all. And I'm supposed to believe the future of brand communications is based on companies extending employment for the purpose of setting their disgruntled employees loose on the public's ear? Please.

My third bone to pick is this- While social media certainly has a place in future communications (especially if anyone starts figuring out how to use it successfully, reliably and cost-effectively), it will not replace all other forms of brand communications. Like TV, print, radio and outdoor, traditional media as an entity will not perish from the earth. They will simply move over and yield market share to new forms as they have throughout history.

More importantly, unless we delve into some sort of "brand heaven" where all employees have long employments at companies they love so much they want to tell the world, Hr. Ho's suggested model will be about as accessible as the fountain of life.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

WHO dunnit? WHO dunnit.

I'm filing the World Health Organization under "unfortunate acronyms."

"Who says smoking is bad for you?"
"WHO says smoking is bad for you."
"I'm confused."

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Crossovers: a triumph of branding

First there were station wagons, then they became grandfolk cars.

Then there were minivans, which were inextricably tied to soccer moms.

Then there were SUVs, then trucks with 4 doors.

The people said, Trucks are too high, they use too much gas, they're too big. Then crossovers and hatchbacks came to life.

Crossovers give you the look, people room and cargo room of an SUV with the footprint, gas mileage and ride of a car. They're like station wagons with testosterone or short SUVs. In short they're minivans that look cool. They are your mom's minivan and your grandfather's station wagon, but a new word and a little marketing made them cool. Kudos to the people who came up with the idea of calling them crossovers. They made the dorky, but functional cars of the past cool again, and made a fortune in the process.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Auto Industry Fearmongering

As a caveat to my last post about the auto industry, I wanted to mention an important fact that a lot of people are starting to learn. If the auto industry doesn't get the bail-out funding it's seeking, it's not the end of the world. The whole system will not come crashing down. First, there are other government agencies besides congress that can give the big three money. Second, the worst that happens is that they file for chapter 11. What does that mean? It means they get to do things like the government enforced opportunity to renegotiate (currently ridiculous) labor contracts. It's designed to delay some of their debts and let them get back on their feet, but demands they adjust and become more fiscally efficient as they get back on their feet. It helps cut the fat and the U.S. auto industry is currently a 350lb executive trolling around gold-laden offices in one of those electric sit-down scooters. There are more options, people, so calm down. These guys aren't down for the count. They just have to learn how to do things smart again.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Marketing can't solve everything

The big three American auto manufacturers have finally found a problem that they can't market their way out of.

With GM, Ford and Chrysler going to the government with hats in hands, many American are wondering whether a bailout would actually save the American auto manufacturers or just put a band aid on massive gash. So far, I see no reason to throw more money at companies that continue to prove why they can't run their businesses. And I'll tell you why.

American auto manufacturers simply create an inferior product. They are designed to last half as long as their Japanese counterparts. A car is a life-changing expense. If you know you can buy a Toyota that lasts 100,000 miles before you encounter major mechanical problems for the same price you can get a comparable Chevy that will start getting its problems around 50,000 miles, it's a no-brainer. The big three often tout their highest ratings in "initial quality." For anyone who really knows cars, they know this is an almost worthless characteristic. Initial quality is how nice the car is the moment you drive it off the lot. It will never be that nice again, and it's amazing how nice you can make something if it doesn't matter how long it lasts. And while a Japanese car may not be quite as shiny off the lot, consumers know that the knobs and seat belts won't be breaking at 30,000 miles.

So, what have the big three been doing to try and sell more cars? Well, they have NOT been promoting their fuel efficient models. While they do now have lots of vehicles with great gas mileage that's comparable to foreign vehicles, they aren't spending their marketing dollars on promoting those vehicles. They also aren't advertising their hybrids, though I don't know if I can blame them. While Toyota made a small car hybrid to create one of the most fuel efficient cars on the road, For and Chevrolet are making hybrids out of trucks and SUVs. So, what are the big three spending their money to advertise?

TRUCKS. TRUCKS AND SUVs. How dense do you have to be to spend all your marketing dollars on advertising trucks and SUVs right now?

First, they're the worst performing categories in all of auto sales right now. I get it Detroit, they were your high-margin bread and butter, but those days are over. Stop crying over it and trying to find new ways to market these gas guzzlers.

Second, no one believes gas prices are going to stay down. With gas available many places for prices we haven't seen in nearly a decade, you might think this is the time to sell the guzzlers again (I won't even touch how they're bragging about 20mpg ratings). It's not. America had $4/gallon gas for long enough, it's worked its way into our psyche. A shift has been made. Moreover, most people just believe the low gas prices are a function of the crippled economy and are sure gas prices will go right back up as soon as things recover.

Third, they're still trying to market their way out of the problem instead of focusing on their inferior products. Are they spending money on R&D to raise quality and tell us about that? No. They're trying to sell us subscription services like OnStar and XM Radio. People want a car to be as close to a one time expense as possible. Stop jamming them full of equipment that will lay there like a lame duck after our free one-year subscription is out.

Fourth, there are WAY too many brands. Even with a few shuttered over the past decade, the big three have more brands than you can count on one hand. GM does NOT need Chevy, Pontiac and GMC. GMC trucks are the exact same trucks as Chevy trucks, just with another name badge and endless overhead from separate dealerships, separate marketing efforts, and so on. Pontiac is the same way- they're just Chevy cars with a different badge and stupendous overhead from supporting another brand. Why not follow the Japanese model? Toyota only makes Toyota and Lexus. Toyota is the general auto brand and Lexus is for luxury. It's the same way with Honda/Acura and Nissan/Infinity. Why not narrow it to Chevy/Cadillac and Ford/Lincoln? Then you could spend the money from a huge number of redundant brand to build single brands. Imagine tripling the money you could use to promote a single brand. That's smart money.

Fifth is actually less of the auto industry's doing but that of the unions. If I knew people could make $75/hr operating a factory press and getting paid 96% of my salary for years after getting laid off, I might not have bothered taking on thousands in student loans to get into an industry that starts people at half of what a teacher makes. If the unions don't loosen up on their outrageous requirements, (which result in thousands more per auto produced in labor costs than foreign competitors) they might not have an industry to work for.

That said, do I have anything good to say about them? Yes. I think the big three CEOs committing to take $1/yr salaries if they get government funding is a good step. I think them selling their private jets is a good step, but these are both largely symbolic measures. I think the auto workers' union renegotiating contracts to lower labor rates significantly over the next several years is a big step in the right direction. Hopefully the Chevy Volt is everything it's supposed to be and that our guys will start taking some of their marketing cash and spending it on R&D to make better quality vehicles. Most important to is that I believe the big three have it in them to be great again. They'll just have to cut the corporate crap, face the realities and allow real progress to happen. Here's to hoping they can get it together.

For my part, I believe this has been coming on for a long time. Ever since the gas crises of the 70s and 80s allowed Japanese and European cars to make significant inroads in to the American auto market, American auto makers have been sticking their heads in the sand.