Friday, March 27, 2009

Recession Landmines Do Not Discriminate: Proceed With Extreme Caution

by Stephanie Fierman

A recession landmine is like a real landmine. It’s going to kill or maim whomever steps on it. The guilty, the innocent… it doesn’t matter. A landmine does not discriminate. You just explode.

And so it was with a recent Pepsi ad for G2 (low-calorie Gatorade).

When you watch the ad, you can see what Pepsi was trying to do almost immediately, then BLAM: it spins around like Linda Blair’s head and everyone’s covered in slime. This means Pepsi now have something in common with AIG, but more on later.

The shots move back and forth between NBA player Kevin Garnett and a normal, suburban-looking guy - also named Kevin – who loves to swim. The voiceover also switches back and forth between the two men, and herein lies the problem. In trying to write a Nike-reminiscent “athletic striving” ad, the supposedly inspiring statements appear to mock and insult people who have lost their jobs or are otherwise suffering due to the economic crisis. See for yourself (if you cannot already see the ad on your screen, click HERE).

When I first heard about this controversy, I’ll admit it: I really, really wanted to support Pepsi. Pepsi's a great brand. But this spot has issues.

The lines are being called "arrogant and insensitive" and a "cruel" "slap in the face":

Garnett: “I’ve never been handed a pink slip…” “I’ve never had to tell me wife ‘We can’t pay the mortgage.’” (Kevin “The Big Ticket” Garnett has a $24.75 million contract with the NBA)

Normal Kevin: “I’ve never had to fill the holes in my sneakers with cardboard.”

Garnett: “I’ve never used the backstroke as a ‘coping mechanism.’

And with these statements, my professional persona disappeared and I became a person who can’t pay for food, who doesn’t have health insurance, who has to drop out of school. The sneaker comment struck this trustmeister as particularly startling. Normal Kevin moves us swiftly down the road, past unemployment, with homelessness straight ahead.

How did Pepsi end up in this place? The financial services companies got into trouble for how they handled their (financial services) business. They made endemic mistakes, in their own backyards. This energy drink runs right into a buzz saw for no reason at all.

And so let us come back to how Pepsi now shares something with AIG. Both companies failed to grasp how people are feeling today… how “business as usual” no longer applies. 1.3 million children in the United States are homeless at some time every year - and that was before the recession started. One could assume that some of these children must use cardboard to fill the holes in their shoes.

If you think this is overly dramatic, we would respectfully suggest that you could step on the same landmine that Pepsi and the banks did, either while you’re on the job or chatting at a cocktail party. This is a sea of vast, vast pain.

Personally, I am counseling clients today to look hard at the need to advertise right now. If you are running ads, make sure they are seen and tested with a much broader swath of consumers and experts - people who may not be in your target audience. Put the ads through the mill. Have linguists and child advocates and food bank directors mull every word, every image.

Is all this fair? Fairness is not at play; raw nerve endings are. We are all in the business to sell, of course, but at what cost at this very moment? The news and current events are swinging wildly from one day to the next: are you comfortable deciding what messaging won't spark an undesirable (albeit inadvertent) reaction? Think long-term. If you’re not 100% secure in next week’s flight, cancel it. Because getting this wrong could negatively affect your brand’s reputation for years, if not a lifetime.

Friday, March 20, 2009

#1 In Our Series for Keeping Customers In Tough Times (Nicolette Wuring)

TIP 1: In Today’s Low-trust World Your Promises Are Much Less Likely to Be Believed.  Focus Instead on Improving Your Ability to Deliver Meaningful Interactions With Customers that Build Trust.

A cable company in Europe launched a re-branding soon after a roll-up of acquisitions by a group of venture capitalists. 

The investors demanded that the re-branding take place almost immediately.  This was not only premature and meaningless to employees and customers, it proved harmful.  Premature because on the inside this organization was far from one company.  Harmful because important organizational, operational and cultural objectives necessary to sustain the rebranding hadn’t been met. Worse still, mistrust and insecurity could be found throughout the organization in abundance. Employees were insecure about retaining their jobs after the roll-up. They were uncertain about how to represent the new entity.  And for many loyalties remained rooted in the company they used to work for. Customer-facing policies and procedures were not in place yet.  Systems had not been integrated.

Disregarding all this, the investors demanded that management forge ahead with a re-branding. The effort introduced a vision for a completely new DNA for the culture.  It painted a picture for the outside world of a company that sets itself apart by truly listening to its customers and one that enters into a personal dialogue with you.  The brand image was warm, engaged, truly caring, attentive and accessible. A company that makes complicated things simple. Boring things more fun. Dishonest things honest.

And the impossible, possible.

Now what do you suppose a group of confused, fearful and uncertain employees of this company felt when this re-branding hit the above- and below-the-line communication channels?  How do you suppose their customers felt when confronted with completely disengaged and confused employees who were struggling with legacy operational issues that made it impossible to deliver on the brand promise?  What do you suppose was the media coverage on these results, or the comments posted by customers and employees in online social environments?

The results were very bad indeed.  The company lost employees and customers, prospects turned to alternatives, and every Euro invested in the brand campaign was largely wasted.  Had this disaster taken place in the current environment, where companies can ill-afford mistakes, things would have been even worse.

Learning: Job #1 as a starting point in keeping customers is to deliver on promises.  Lead with trusted actions and only then back them up with brand imagery and communications.  The people you interact with as a company, especially your employees and customers, make or break many a brand’s reputation. Never make promises or create expectations they cannot live up to!

Nicolette Wuring is an internationally acclaimed and awarded Customer Advocacy thought leader, speaker, author and boardroom advisor to Fortune 500 companies. She is the founder of Customer M@nagement Services,, a strategic consulting firm dedicated to helping business conceive of increasing their economic value by creating emotional connections and trust with their employees and customers.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Financial Firms Must Break From The Pack To (Re-)Establish Trust

by Stephanie Fierman

Here at the Garage, we believe that a more measured approach to bank and investment advertising is probably a positive development.

After all, hadn’t all the ads begun to look the same? Could every company and every investment have possibly offered the best return, and the most Morningstar stars, and the biggest retirement homes in paradise? Unlikely. Outside of just a few stalwarts, such as Vanguard with its slow-and-steady point of view and Bogle-esque approach, many of the siren calls in the newspaper, on television and online had all taken on a surreal and undifferentiated patina. That’s not effective.

Now it appears that all the bulls have stampeded in the opposite direction.

Consider the list of firms advertising in one issue of The Wall Street Journal this past week, along with text pulled verbatim from their ads:

MORGAN STANLEY: “To find the smart investments today, you need to be world wise.”

MERRILL LYNCH (aka Bank of America): “Seeing clearly. Acting confidently.” “With personal insight into your goals and an understanding of the market…” “…Find a smart place for your money.”

CME GROUP: “Rise Above the Risk.” “For more than a century CME Group has provided competitive, transparent and safe markets.” “…protect customers and ensure financial integrity by guaranteeing the performance of every transaction on our exchange.”

TD AMERITRADE: “There’s never been a better time for a second opinion.”

FIDELITY: “Guaranteed income you can live with.”

GLENMEDE: “There’s no substitute for safety and stability.”

PNC: “…It’s also a way of doing business that has strength and stability at its very core.”

Safe, smart, transparent and guaranteed: these are the adjectives to which financial firms are now rushing as they adjust to our new economic circumstances. The problem is – well, it’s the same problem as before, isn’t it? If your messages are entirely undifferentiated from those of your competitors, they essentially melt into one and stakeholders become unable to distinguish one from the other.

If the Garage held a focus group tonight, and scrambled the names of the above firms and the quoted text, we would challenge any budding Trustmeister to re-match the elements correctly.

And killing an ad’s effectiveness may, in fact, be the most benign result. Worse? Just as when every firm claimed great returns – which turned out to be untrue and, in some cases, backed by unscrupulous actions – everyone now shouting about safety looks equally as unlikely and untrustworthy.

All of these brands are more and are capable of doing more: the “more” being the hard work needed to determine exactly what it is about the brand that is unique and distinguishable from the competition.*

Without doing this work, going out with a “safety” message isn’t safe at all.

* Many of the above firms may not technically be competitors, but that’s an insider’s view. To the public and the U.S. Congress, too much of the same becomes one shapeless – and dubious – perception.

A version this post was first published on