Archive for December, 2006

How NOT to build a brand with PR

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

Let’s follow the thought process that caused this train to miss the station: Microsoft’s PR agency thinks that a great way to build the Vista brand is to give loaded Acer Ferrari laptops to influential tech bloggers. The laptops come with Vista pre-installed, and Vista runs great on these super-fast machines. As the agency sees it, the bloggers will embrace the freebie, and will then rave about the coolness of Vista. In so doing they will help sell the Vista brand to the many readers who trust the opinions of this blogger elite.

Simple enough, right? It’s PR 101.

Well, maybe not so simple. A sizable PR backlash ensues, much of it about Microsoft trying to “bribe” the blogosphere rather than let Vista succeed on its merits. This rings a bell in Redmond, and apparently Microsoft now says it wants the gift machines back.

That makes it PR 101, “Full Circle Edition.”

Thomas Hawk takes the story from there. (Alternate link.)

Once you’ve got the story, read on for some notes on the relationship between brands and PR.

Brands and PR rarely mix

Truth is, brands and PR don’t have much in common. Brands are a strategy of value. PR is a strategy of persuasion. The two rarely mix. At times there can be a bit of overlap between the two, but that’s the exception. A solid brand strategy doesn’t need a lot of help from PR. In fact, heavy PR is often a sign that a brand is broken. In this particular case, over-aggressive PR has derailed the Vista brand.

Brand builders rely on the integrity of blogs

The Vista PR backlash underscores the importance of maintaining high levels of weblog integrity in the tech community. This is a vital issue for brands. These days, blogs are an important brand building tool, in large part because people trust blogs to “tell it like it is” without the compromises of paid or sponsored media. This “freedom to be objective” constitutes a key element in the integrity of the blog medium. Brands, which are forms of integrity themselves, naturally grow among the “integrity networks” of blogs. The PR effort to buy influence among leading bloggers threatens to weaken the integrity of the blogosphere, and thereby diminish its value as an organic brand building tool.

Joel Spolsky on PR, credibility and integrity

Joel Spolsky has some wise and well-chosen words on the possible negative impact of PR on credibility and integrity in weblogs. His linked post should be a must read for brand builders. (For those who don’t know about Joel: he used to work at Microsoft, has top-tier cred in the tech industry, is a smart guy, and writes a widely-read, thought-provoking blog. And he also refused one of the laptops offered in the Vista PR effort.)

Other links

See also: Marshall Kirkpatrick, and the discussion on Slashdot.


Brand dress is nice, but it doesn’t win wars

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

We all want our brands to look the part and to play the part, but the fact remains that fancy duds don’t do diddly in the brand trenches.

Brand wars are won or lost based on brand value delivered. If your idea of “brand value delivered” is polished helmets, white gloves, gold braid and tip-top tunics, then your brand stage is little more than a parade ground. There you may shine and troop the colors, but don’t be surprised when competitors carve out huge territories in the real world outside.

Photo: Philip Allfrey — WikiMedia

The coming age of digital brands: RIAs + widgets

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

If your job is to build brands, now is the time to learn more about powerful digital platforms taking shape in the world of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs), and widgets. These two software advances are about to transform the way you build brand relationships, and the way you deliver brand experience.

In the coming years, brands that master these new platforms will be able to outpace and outflank their competitors.

RIA’s and widgets will break down barriers between you and your customers. Through them, your brands will become less mediated, maybe even “immediate”—which is exactly where brands want to be. They’ll become closer to the user. They’ll enable new realms of customer interaction that are fine-grained, flexible, personalized, data-enabled and visually engaging—on digital devices from computers to cell phones.

Click through this OpenLaszlo dashboard demo to see what’s in the works. This is a “web page” that incorporates deep interactions. It’s the forerunner of the “RIA Web” of tomorrow—where richer forms of brand interaction can take root.

RIAs put more brand in the hands of users

With RIAs, the goal is to do in a lightweight browser what is now done with traditional desktop applications. A web page or widget can behave like a mini-application. Ajax-enabled Google Maps and mashups are one example of RIAs, but current apps are just scratching the surface. For brand builders, the ultimate goal is a fluid, seamless user experience where the (brand) application empowers user intent.

The RIA brand benefit

The RIA brand benefit is that users will have more powerful and more flexible tools to get things done. The idea (and ideal) is that you just open your browser and call on lightweight, purpose-built apps (or widgets) available online. A company’s brand presence can ride along with these apps, or incarnate the apps themselves, adding “deep-tissue” brand value to a variety of activities.

Conceptual Example: Think of a “personal trainer” fitness widget from a Nike or an Adidas that could include a personal diet regimen, your exercise goals and stats, your training charts and graphs, your weight targets, tips, and everything else you need to stay fit, updated daily. Accessible on your laptop or on your web-enabled cell phone, this app might greet you in the morning and team with you during the day, depending on the interaction you want. The first desktop steps toward such an application are now being offered.

A value stream that only you can deliver

As a brand builder, you should view RIAs and widgets as elements of a unique value stream that only you can deliver. Plan to deploy them as teams of smaller, value-rich brand applications available on the fly, used by customers to accomplish vital tasks. A brand might orchestrate a dozen or so RIAs or widgets as part of a strategic deliverable. In this manner, a brand could form whole new sets of creative connections with customers in areas of new business development, or in strategic areas of interest. The chosen deployment would depend on the type and style of brand presence a company desires, and where the brand intends to lead customers.

Brand applications on mobile devices

Because of form factor and wireless connection limitations, these new advances will be harder to achieve on mobile devices. But, they will happen. Currently, Opera has a leading mobile browser for RIA functionality.

See our recent post on mobile brands here.


Here are some links to get you started:

  1. RIA background from Wikipedia
  2. The RIA tag (to keep you current)
  3. Recent RIA Roundup
  4. Om Malik on the widget potential
  5. Our previous posts on widgets: here, here and here.

Will all brands run through Adobe?

Adobe (now with Macromedia inside) is positioned to be a powerful player in the RIA field. It’s quite possible that in the future all brands will run through Adobe. In fact, Adobe’s new cross-platform Apollo runtime (due in 2007) is a potential game changer in digital brand experience.

Photo: Opera

Saatchi’s new “Stuart” is the stuff of brands

Wednesday, December 20th, 2006

Saatchi gallery in London has made a splash with Stuart (short for Student Artist), a heavily trafficked online community where artists can post their portfolios and connect with other creatives. The site has become an instant magnet for young artists wanting to see and be seen. Started in May, 2006, Stuart has transformed the placid Saatchi gallery into a vibrant social place with 20,000 member artists.

Details in the New York Times article here.

Stuart is all about brand

Let’s kindly set “art” aside for a second and focus on brands. Stuart is all about brand. It represents a deep brand move by Saatchi to redefine the mission of “art gallery.” Stuart is transforming Saatchi from a conventional art gallery (and dealer) into a nexus of creativity, broadening its base, opening doors, bringing artists together, sinking deep roots into emerging artists, and tapping into the limitless energy of artists themselves to help Saatchi grow its brand in new directions.

From “gallery” to “community”

Stuart is how Saatchi is socializing its brand. Stuart is weaving the Saatchi brand presence into the social fabric of art and artists. It represents a brand transition from private gallery to social community. This is done not by “branding” Saatchi in conventional ways, but by unlocking the social context of art and providing a free, online “place” for artists to congregate under the Saatchi aegis. Through their interactions on the site, artists can support one another and jointly become a powerful indirect driver for the Saatchi brand.

The brand as “place”

Stuart means that Saatchi is designing a customer. becoming a brand platform, and using its brand as a collaboration in context. In contrast, other galleries suddenly look one-dimensional and stale. If Saatchi manages to cultivate Stuart and grow its users through increased interaction, it stands a chance of being the place for online artists to congregate and connect. This gives Saatchi a cachet and currency it could never achieve in a thousand conventional campaigns. Saatchi itself becomes the medium.

Network effects are brand effects

Of course, the technical barrier to entry for this type of brand innovation is not that high. It’s a socially-enabled website. The brand goal is to build out the network effects quickly so that your site becomes the definitive hub, a scaled-down eBay, MySpace or Facebook, but the prime segment player nonetheless. Do this right and your network effects can do double (and triple) duty as brand effects.

Through Stuart, Saatchi is building what may eventually be an insurmountable community lead in the creative arts market. One might ask: Where is the equivalent from AIGA? Where are the leading design schools? The leading design firms? Museums? If Saatchi snatches the wind from their sails, they may find it hard to catch up.

A brand lesson for all

The wider brand lesson from Stuart is that a brand can gain significant strength by enabling its base in new and different ways. Imagine your brand as a social force, not a top-down wrapper. Decouple your brand from your business silo. You can fly your brand over customer fields. Sometimes the most fertile field is not the same closed plot you and your competitors have been dutifully ploughing all these years.


Update: all Cougar Ace Mazdas to be scrapped

Tuesday, December 19th, 2006

Mazda has announced that it will scrap all 4,700 Mazda vehicles on the car carrier Cougar Ace that almost capsized in the North Pacific. We previously reported on the brand challenge presented by the Cougar Ace ordeal here, and here.

After its harrowing mishap at sea, the Cougar Ace was stabilized and towed to port in Portland, Oregon. Many of the Mazda vehicles on board appeared to have survived the near-disaster with little or no damage. At the time, Mazda said it was considering selling the cars as “used” if they could pass thorough inspections.

Preserving brand trust

Now Mazda has decided that protecting the integrity of the Mazda brand comes first and foremost—an option we recommended in our first post. Mazda will not release the vehicles to the public.

As we stated in September:

Brand trust is really what’s at stake here. Mazda can’t afford to lose it. Those are not just 4,700 Mazda vehicles aboard the Cougar Ace. Those are now 4,700 unknowns, and question marks corrode brands.

And now, Mazda’s decision, from BYM News:

Mazda Motor Corporation has announced that all of the U.S. and Canada-bound Mazda vehicles from the car-carrying vessel, Cougar Ace, which nearly capsized off the Aleutian Islands in late July, would be scrapped.

“After thorough testing by engineers from our North American and Japanese R&D centers, we decided the most appropriate course of action – with our customers foremost in mind – was not to sell any of the 4,703 Mazdas aboard the ship,” said Jim O’Sullivan, President and CEO of Mazda North American Operations, based in Irvine, Calif.


O’Sullivan added that although some of the Mazdas aboard the Cougar Ace showed little or no visible damage from being tied-down at severe angles for an extended period, the potential for future problems led the company to reconsider its initial decision to sell any of the vehicles as used.

“We always put the customer first,” O’Sullivan continued. “This drove our decision to scrap every one of the Mazdas involved in this incident.”

Mazda News Release.

Brand leadership rescues the brand

This decision from Mazda shows brand leadership at its best. As we wrote back in September:

Mazda has greatest brand leverage if it can negotiate a full value settlement for the entire shipment from the shipper and insurers. This would enable Mazda to affirm that these vehicles were effectively “lost at sea,” and will be kept off the market to protect the customer, and the brand. The brand logic behind this strategy is that these vehicles have the taint of damaged goods. If allowed into the market they could spread doubt across the entire Mazda brand, disrupting future sales and re-sale values, even if the salvaged cars were to show no outward defects. The mere belief that random Cougar Ace vehicles are “out there” could haunt the brand for years.

Bottom line: from a near disaster at sea, Mazda has clearly and courageously rescued the brand.


Brands in the age of mobility

Sunday, December 17th, 2006

Mobile devices will have a huge impact on brands in the coming decades. They will change the way brands engage the customer. Not only will these new brand engagements be more personal and more portable, they can also be more creative, offering many more levels of brand imagination. None of this will be in the form of intrusive ads, or ham-handed “branded” placements.

Perspectives in mobile context

Two recent posts shed some early light on these new directions in mobile brands. They’re not about brands per se, but they present some perspectives on “mobile context” that will get brand builders thinking. The first has a handy chart just begging to be deconstructed and repurposed.


  1. Read/Write Web
  2. Raghavendra Prasad
Device: Nokia 770

When your brand is not meant to be seen

Friday, December 15th, 2006

It may seem counter-intuitive, but a primary purpose of your brand is not to be seen.

It is to be seen through.

Your brand is a lens that enables customers to experience their world, and their role in it, in a richer and more complete context. You show the way.

A brand activates beyond the brand. It does not hook.

It frees.

And great brands do not sit dumbly on a shelf.

They fly.


    In search of brand imagination

    Thursday, December 14th, 2006

    Here’s a clever YouTube video that’s making the rounds. A guy (in Norway) can’t play the drums, or the piano, yet he crafts an amazing video where he’s a whiz at both. He makes it happen through stop motion and a massive number of video and audio edits, using his home PC. Quite fun, and eminently watchable.

    His YouTube video was posted in November and has been visited over 1.5 million times, referenced by the Wall St. Journal and discussed to the Nth degree on Slashdot. Don’t be surprised if you soon see ad agencies copying the look and feel. (They know where their future lies.)

    Creativity from the bottom up

    While YouTube has its share of self-indulgent debris, it also hosts some fairly creative video productions (like the one above), generated at the grassroots level. These shouldn’t be arbitrarily dismissed as low-end, “user generated content.” They’re creative works from creative people now freed from a system once geared to big budgets.

    The result will be more creativity, not less.

    A creative challenge for brands

    So what does all this mean for brands? Where’s the brand imagination to carry these new formats to the next level? What can brands do to make them better? (Please, please, please, not that ultimate kiss of mediocrity: product placement.)

    It’s time for brands to move beyond the broadcast advertising paradigm and to reshape themselves as a creative force in their own right. In the world of online everywhere, there’s no reason brands can’t be allied with customers in creating and promulgating new forms of expression.

    Waiting for the next Absolut

    Thus, if you wanted your brand to be the next Absolut, you might tie it, ever so subtly, to the creation of a whole series of quirky/clever/charming and recursively over-the-top videos made by people with a fresh slant on life. Forget product placements. Just place the videos in the hearts and minds of hip people like you.

    And yes, that also means your brand is the new network.