What Were They Thinking?

The world is crawling with bad branding practices. They lurch stupidly across the countryside, inciting consumer cynicism, bombarding the citizenry with meaningless messages, wasting scarce dollars and even scarcer time.

For the most part, these misguided marketing moves are created and perpetuated by people paid handsomely for what they do. But what were they thinking? What was on the minds behind such products as Oil-Free Oil of Olay, Low-Salt Mr. Salty Pretzels and Rust-Oleum for Wood?

Here are a few examples of bad branding practices that I find nettling:

Subway Brings You… Pizza???

Subway turned heads this year when it introduced personal deep-dish pizzas. Odd, considering Subway built a powerful brand around the concept of good-for-you fast food. You’d think they might have learned something from McDonald’s, who have a list of failed menu-expansion ideas as tall as Ronald.

When you establish yourself around a clear core premise, stay faithful to it. Avoid dumb line extensions. People get confused when you say you’re one thing one day and another the next. Confusion is never an effective brand strategy.

The Tedious Billboard Reveal Strategy

When will the “billboard reveal” ever stop? This is an oft-used gimmick in which an advertiser puts up a billboard that tells you something is coming – just watch this space! – and days or weeks later reveals what it is.

Apparently we’re meant to wonder: What could it be? What vital information will soon be shared? When will that billboard speak to me again?

The conceit here is that your consumers care as much about your advertising as you do. Here’s a tip: They don’t. To me, the billboard reveal smells like an ad agency trick to double its budget. If you have news, out with it – don’t play the coquette.

Credibility Counts

Direct mail is some kind of bad-branding Valhalla. Credit card and mortgage companies are the worst offenders, littering our collective mailboxes with undifferentiated offers and lousy copy.

Take this sample I recently received.  It opened with the line, “First Ohio Banc & Lending has been authorized to payoff (sic: yes, they spelled “pay off” as one word) your first mortgage…” Really? Authorized by whom? I wish I had been consulted in that decision.

If you wish to establish credibility – and you do – don’t open with some ridiculous claim. Open with facts, or a benefit or a statement of difference.  But open honestly.

Time Warner Cable Gets It All Wrong

Time Warner Cable has been running an ad featuring Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo. This is the rare ad that manages to get nearly everything wrong.

First, the voiceover recites a list of features, along the lines of “the best part about Time Warner isn’t X, it’s not Y and it’s not Z.” Bronson then fires a ball into an awaiting catcher’s mitt. The announcer continues: “The best part of Time Warner Cable is our customers!”

Any brand in any industry could use precisely the same copy approach. The sentiment would be every bit as empty.

Lesson #1: If your copy is interchangeable with everyone else’s, you need to work harder – on your copy, your product or your brand idea.

Lesson #2: Your customers may be great, or they may be pretty much the same as everyone else’s. Either way, that’s not your point of difference.

The ad continues with Arroyo turning to the camera and saying, “I’m a Time Warner customer. Are you?” Oh, I get it. A kind-of-famous guy has cable, so I should, too. What gives Arroyo the least whit of credibility as a cable TV spokesman? He throws baseballs for a living.

Lesson #3: If you employ a spokesperson, select one with some credibility and relevance. Michael Jordan for Gatorade makes sense. Michael Jordan for Hanes – who cares? We don’t need to know what tag is on MJ’s drawers.

I hope I’ve helped make the world a little safer for good branding. If not, I feel better for venting.

A version of this post appeared in the Cincinnati Business Courier on January 11, 2008, in the column “That Branding Thing.” Originally co-written with David Wecker.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2008 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.