The Blog

The “New” United / Continental Branding

First – after a crazy couple of months, I figured it’s about time I finally got back to posting on my blog. And, with yesterday’s introduction by United Airlines of their new advertising campaign, it made me realize something.

The new United Airlines branding….sucks!

I read a great article in Fast Company about the new United brand – and I agree. For those that don’t know the whole story, United basically acquired Continental. Since about 1974, United’s branding has included what some would call iconic – the “tulip”. OK…so it looked more like a “W” than a “U”. It was designed during the height of disco – almost 40 years ago. But the designer was the legendary Saul Bass – who, ironically, also designed the logo Continental used until the early ninety’s (known as the “meatball”).

The whole point of a logo – and of branding – is to differentiate your company from your competition – which is the easy part. The harder part is to associate a positive emotion with that image – both so that you are remembered, but also so that when a buying decision is being made, that positive emotion overrules the emotion to associate with the competition.

With the new “United” branding – first, it causes confusion. They took all of the “look & feel” of Continental, replace the word “Continental” with “United” and ran with it. But, the problem with this approach is – for those that are making a choice – the question is then asked “who am I flying?”  Now, there has been the argument out there that the branding is irrelevant – what is important is the service. Continental did rebuild their service after Frank Lorenzo nearly destroyed the airline back in the 90’s (to the point where he was banned from ever being involved with a airline again) – but United also not only survived bankruptcy – but came back stronger.

Given that it was a merger of near equals, at least in many flying customers minds – to me, it would have made more sense to merge the branding to signify the merger. For example – keep the tulip on the tail, pick up the font used in the word “Continental” (which would have also been a nice tie back to the serif font of United’s “stars & bars” branding of the early 70’s, but keep the gold / blue of Continental.

Again – there are two arguments about the branding. One is that people don’t care. The other is that people do care. To truly merge the two brands as suggested above – if no one really cares anyway, there is no damage. But, if people do care – well….it makes sense to put a bit more thought and effort into your branding before you abandon brand elements that have nearly 40 years of brand equity around them.

Thoughts on Customer Perception

I just watched a commentary about GM’s exit from bankruptcy, and the struggles it will face moving forward. Specifically, that in recent customer approval ratings upon ranking issues they had with their new car purchase, the statistical difference between a Chevy product, and a Toyota product, were insignificant. Yet, the public perception of quality between these two brand is huge!

How many times have we made a choice between two brands based on our perceptions, rather than reality? And, later on, either found out we made the wrong choice, or that had we made the “other” choice, the result would have been the same?

I think about what we see & hear in the media. How that shapes our perceptions. How what our friends and family say about an experience shapes our purchasing decisions. And, from a brand management perspective, how can we re-shape and re-manage those perceptions in a social-media controlled environment.

It used to be quite simple. Do a big ad-spend over a significant amount of time, get some good PR around your product – and everything would improve. No longer. One bad experience means thousands of instant Twitter posts, Facebook status updates, and instant market share loss. What’s the solution?

Simple. Never let your guard down. Whatever you do when you interface with the customer – do more. Do it better. Your product needs to provide a better experience than it does now – and you need to keep improving it. And, ask your customers what they think! Don’t ever assume – anything. Research, learn, implemient. Rinse & repeat.

Now…the bigger question – will your accounting department and your shareholders understand this concept?

More on American Car Design…

I recently got a comment from a reader, who took issue with some of my past comments on why it seems that American car manufacturers seem to design “less than attractive” cars. His points were that so have the Japanese & European manufacturers…and with attitudes like mine, no wonder the American automotive industry is in such crisis.

I applaud his brand loyalty. There are plenty of things I’m also loyal to – and I wish one of them was cars from the American car industry. But, his logic is flawed, in my opinion. Based on his note, the problem isn’t that we’ve built ugly cars, it’s that people just need to buy American. To a degree, he’s right – if we’d bought more American cars, we wouldn’t see GM shedding brands and declaring bankruptcy, nor would we see Fiat now a large owner of Chrysler.

But, let’s take my opinions out of the equation for a moment. Reality – the American buyer votes with his bank account…and there are a multitude of reasons why he/she hasn’t voted American nearly as much recently as, say, back in the 1960’s.

So, let’s take a look at “1969 vs. 2009”.

  1. Market Penetration. In 1969 – there wasn’t Datsun / Nissan, or Honda, or Toyota, or Subaru, or Mazda, or Kia, or Hyundai….and the list goes on. What the American automotive machine was competing against was either poorly made cheap British & Italian cars, or the VW Beetle. And, American build quality was world-leading. But, the cars were simple. Frame, body, engine, carburetor, wheels, suspension, brakes. Performance was measured by adding a bigger engine, and maybe cutting down on the overall mass of the car – which is how the muscle car grew in popularity initially. Competition between GM, Ford & Chrysler kept the lines moving. And, yet, when it came to performance cars, American cars were a good value. Now, 2009. American cars have to compete not only with their much improved counterparts “across the pond”, they also have had to compete with a whole new group from Asia, which even if everything else was even, would still contribute to a loss of market share over the last 40 years.
  2. Value for the Money. In 1969, as I mentioned above, you could build a car for a pretty inexpensive amount of money. Safety requirements, emissions requirements, reliability expectations were all much lower. So, there was not only room to pay the labor costs associated with the car, but still make a good sized profit. Now, in 2009, labor costs, along with the costs of meeting safety and emissions requirements, have caused the cost to build a car to explode. Unions still expect their workers to get paid the wages they’ve negotiated, retired workers still need their pensions, and shareholders still want their ROI. So, the accountants have gotten involved – and even though the overall reliability of American cars has drastically improved over the last 20 years, they still feel “cheap” inside. Hard plastic, cheap materials, and lost options abound on the lower-tiered cars in order to hit their price points. Yet, with lower labor costs, no union pensions, and a different shareholder perspective, have allowed European and Asian manufacturers to create cars that “feel” more expensive in comparison.
  3. Management Myopia. 1969 had the “Big Three” competing with themselves for the most part. When the rush of inexpensive, and eventually reliable, Asian cars rolled in during the 70’s gas crisis, it seems that one of two things happened. Either management ignored the threat, or with our American desire for “instant gratification”, the Big 3 shareholders handcuffed management’s need to change the companies and their resulting corporate cultures to chase after the “immediate ROI”. I suspect it was a bit of both. Case in point – GM was the early innovator in the late 1990’s with battery / hybrid technology with the EV1. Yet, they killed the car because they felt the need to chase Ford & Chrysler for SUV market share – and transferred those development dollars to Hummer. Now, Hummer is being sold to a Chinese company, and Toyota currently leads the way.

To be fair, not all American cars suck. The new Chevy Malibu – very attractive, and back to providing good value for the money. Same with most of the Cadillac line. Dodge still builds some of the best trucks, not to mention most attractive. But, of the three, Ford in my mind still leads the way. The Mustang – just about perfect. The truck lines – spectacular. And, unlike the other two, Ford does know how to build small cars – the Focus has always felt more expensive than it was, and the upcoming Fiesta is a world leader.

It’s not that I want the American car industry to fail –far from that. I want to see them truly regain the position that they’ve lost over the last 40 years. But, to “Buy American” just because it’s American – doesn’t keep us competitive. It doesn’t force us to do our best. Competition is good. It’s even better when – finally – it seems that the Big 3 have woken up, and realized that they aren’t competing anymore with each other – they are now on a world stage, and have to cut back, build attractive cars that provide safety, reliability, value – and are just as attractive from a design perspective as anything from Europe or Asia.

Here’s hoping they do it!

Why the economic downturn can drive good design

We’ve just come out of a time where, let’s face it – the conspicuous consumption of the last 10 years dwarfs what we saw during the 80’s. We’ve had reality shows that show young girls being chauffered in Lamborghini’s to “sweet 16 parties” that cost the same amount of money that AIG employees got (or now, might just get taxed out of) for bonuses.

And, things moved on at such a swift pace, that as long as it was “pretty” – people would buy it. 15 years ago, who ever heard of the term, “Do you speak Prada?”. Now, with budgets scaled back, and people actually taking the time to think about what they are buying – now is actually a great time for products that are built on the concept of “form follows function”.

I’ll use Chrysler vs. Ford as one example. Both companies have, over the last 15 years, built vehicles that are attractive. But design goes beyond “pretty”. Design isn’t just how it looks – it’s how it works. Good design means you don’t have to think about how to use it – you just use it. In the most recent surveys done by Consumer Reports, had both GM and Chrysler at the bottom of the list in reliability, with Ford fourth from the bottom. (USAToday – 27 Feb 09). And, yet, both design cars such as the Dodge Viper, the Chrysler 300M, the Ford Mustang, and even the now discontinued Ford GT – that are quite attractive.

Another example is Apple products compared to…well, just about any competing product. During the downturn, Apple has introduced the new “unibody” Mac’s, the iPhone, new iPods, and now the Shuffle. Sales may have dropped a little, but to hear that Lenovo (which makes great systems, by the way) has had to lay of people at their factories in China – seems to be showing that the combination of good visual design, good ergonomic design, and good mechanical design – are what are becoming key to sales.

Basically, it’s coming down to this – if people are going to spend, they want it to last, and they want to be proud of it. Architect Sarah Susanka has been a proponent for years of smaller spaces, with money spent on the details. Over the last “boom” – the goal seemed to be to buy bigger homes – yet, not necessarily better homes. Last year, for the first time in 10 years – the average square footage of new single-family homes actually fell from 2,629 in the second quarter, to 2,343 in the fourth quarter, according to US Census Data.

We’re seeing a return to common sense. We want more out of less. We want to feel connected to what we have spent our money on. Those who produce designs that help create a long-term emotional bond to the brand, to the product, and to the company that produced them, will be the winners once we rebound out of this downturn.

The Future of Motoring?

I realize that the Toyota Prius is the current “in” car – you can save the planet while driving a truly boring car – and now Honda has something that I think is not only far beyond the Prius in terms of “hybrid techonology” – it doesn’t look like a toaster on wheels!

When does the sports car version come out?

GM and the upcoming bailout…

With the upcoming bailout of the “Big 3” Automakers, it’s got me thinking again about “bad design. Of the three, Ford is actually in the best position financially. GM…is in the worst. GM is also thinking of shedding a few of it’s lines, including Saturn, Buick, and Pontiac.

The funny thing is, with the exception of the Corvette, the upcoming Camaro, and the (of all things) – new Malibu, nearly all of Chevrolet’s products are, well, bland. Yet, the new Pontiac G8 (really a Holden designed in Australia) and the Solstice, the nearly all of the Saturn lines, and the newest Buick products – are actually attractive! With car sales down 37% or more over last year, it seems insane that GM would get rid of the lines that might actually have products worth buying, and keep the lines that, well, pretty much suck. Furthermore, they keep talking about the Chevy Volt – the car that will “save the company” when it comes out in 2010.

Speaking of the Volt, I’ve read complaints that the car is “boring” – not very exciting to look at. Now, it does look a bit less like a toaster than the Toyota Prius does, but here’s a chance for GM to show the world that a breakthrough automobile, that can go 40 miles on it’s batteries before kicking in a small gasoline engine for recharging them, can also be beautiful. Yet, they responded to the criticism by saying that people would buy the car not based on looks, but based on it’s technology.

I believe that this is additional proof that the movie “Idiocracy” was really a documentary!

Oh…and they’ve also announced that they expect that they won’t make a profit on the Volt, due to the enormous R&D costs they’ve incurred during it’s development.

And we wonder why GM is in trouble?

The Importance of Integrity & Reputation

Whether it’s in a business relationship, a friendship, or a marriage – the importance of integrity can not be emphasized enough. I have been forced to think about this topic quite a bit over the last few weeks – due to a friendship that at this point, looks as though it has unfortunately, and catastrophically, ended.

Without identifying the friend, nor their situation, I’ve found myself stuck in a situation that has forced me to re-evaluate the importance of staying true to one’s own values. The problem is, I see my friend making a multitude of errors in their life that has hurt many people. They have sacrificed quite a bit over the last few weeks due to this – and yet, they continue to follow a path that from my experience, will not dig them out of the hole they’ve created for themselves.

One of those sacrifices has been their integrity. The person I thought I’d known for the last few years – now, I hardly recognize. When all of this started, I promised them that as a friend, I would not tell them what they wanted to hear – but what they needed to hear. And, they said they would not want things any other way. So, about 10 days ago, I had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I had to bring to their attention, the fact that I know the reasons behind their recent choices. And, I didn’t do this in a judgmental way. Rather, I was trying to show them how their current path could lead to more problems.

The problem is compounded by the fact that this person has been one of my best friends. They feel horribly guilty over the pain they have caused others. And, since my warning to “be careful”, they have ended all contact with me. Yet, I have no regrets over trying to warn them – since, it would be a violation of my own sense of integrity, as well as a violation of the promises I’d made to them as a friend, if I hadn’t brought this to their attention.

The tough thing about living a life of integrity – is it’s not an easy path. Whether it’s a friend, a spouse, a business associate, or a customer – taking the path of least resistance may seem at the time to be the best approach. It avoids confrontation at the moment. It allows you to avoid the pain and discomfort of having to face someone that is offended. And, there’s always the excuse that “I can just avoid this now and deal with this later”.

Unfortunately, unless dealt with immediately, the longer you go without dealing with the issue, gives the person that you’ve offended that much more time to question your integrity. And may damage the relationship to the point that you loose that customer permanently. Or the spouse. Or business associate. Or…as in this case…possibly a friend.

Reputation research has verified what you were taught as a kid –  reputations are hard to earn and easy to damage. We filter the behavior we experience through the lens of its reputation. Behavior consistent with the reputation is accepted at face value while events inconsistent with the reputation are discounted.  And, once a reputation begins to move in a positive or negative direction, its momentum is extremely difficult to reverse.

From a business perspective, studies have shown that even a small positive increase in a company’s reputation results in a significant increase in business value, while a negative drop in reputation results in a decrease in business value. For example, a +1% improvement in the reputation of a company is accompanied by significant increases in that company’s value. Unanticipated, however were the strength of the impacts of negative changes in company reputation. A minor decrease in reputation (-1%) has 34 times the impact than an equally minor increase in reputation (+1%)!

Looking at the current economic crisis is a perfect example. A strong positive business reputation attracts customers, investors and employees. This has great benefits for a company because it will book more business, have an easier time raising money and recruiting employees. One of the great gains of a positive reputation is the loyalty it generates in customers and employees. Loyalty will cause customers and employees to stick with a company through tough times. A good reputation also makes a customer more likely to give a company the “benefit of the doubt”. This will make a customer more likely to tolerate a huge mistake and to not resort to the courts to settle a dispute. And, may give that company a competitive advantage over other, less reputable companies

It’s also important that when we end up in a situation where our trust is broken, that we let our own sense of integrity derive the path we should take with that person, company, or organization. Many times, there may be underlying reasons that were out of their control that caused the fault to occur. So, giving them “the benefit of the doubt” is never a bad thing. But at the same time – once should never compromise their own integrity in that process. To do so – may cause others around you to question your integrity just like you’re questioning the integrity of the  person or company that broke your trust.

How do you know if you’re a person of integrity? Simple. There is a wonderful quote from Thomas B. Macaulay. “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out”. As well as another one from Martin Luther King Jr. – “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy”. And, finally, one from Thomas Jefferson – “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock”.

PS. In the event that my friend reads this (which is doubtful) – I would hope they would call me – as a matter of principle, I don’t abandon my friends – especially when I know they are feeling bad. ☺

Thoughts on things “after the election”

Now that the election is over, and we’re now inundated with the media’s “Obama-mania” – I have been thinking about what all of this really means.

I just read an article on CNN that Obama is planning on “rebranding” the United States. The full article appears at http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/11/19/obama.world.image/index.html, but the gist of the piece is that although he’s poised to re-brand the United States image in international markets, his actions will have to live up to his rhetoric.

I, for one, don’t think that this is going to go well for him. Simply because I don’t see how anybody, at this point, could do it. The damage we’ve suffered within the international community over the last 8 years has been huge. From a branding perspective, when your brand has taken a hit – even if your customers want your brand to recover, and want to believe in you, turning your brand image around quickly is extremely difficult.

Think of General Motors. Up until the early 70’s, General Motors could do no wrong. They built large, gas-guzzling vehicles that had gobs of power, but were horrible for the environment, and burned through fuel as if it was always going to be cheap and plentiful. Between tightening emissions and a gas crisis in the early 70’s, they tried to turn on a dime, building cars like the Chevy Vega – pieces of crap that rusted on the showroom floors, that broke down constantly, and depreciated to the point of being worthless about the time they drove off the dealer’s lot.

35 years later, GM has never truly recovered. And, they’ve done a wonderful job of repeating their mistakes of the late 60’s – early 70’s – and are now facing bankruptcy without a huge injection of taxpayer money (which is really what a bailout is) – to keep them afloat. Now, yes, I understand that much of their problems are also due to UAW demands driving up labor costs, keeping their cars from being price competitive to other competing brands. But in terms of overall quality – there is still the perception that GM vehicles are not as reliable as, say, a Honda. Even when the quality of their vehicles has improved to the point where they may very well never break down.

Does this mean that people want GM to fail? No. But they’ve had 30 years to turn around their brand perception, and they’ve had the help of some of the best marketers in the business. Obama – he has 4 years – or less – to turn around the United States brand position. And, he also has to focus on our wars in  Iraq & Afghanistan, an economy in crisis, all while fulfilling the expectations of every voter that believed his promises enough to vote for him.

As a country, I think it’s in our best interest to support our new President. But, it’s not just his responsibility to improve our country’s image overseas. It’s our job too. A 2002 National Geographic study indicated that nearly a third of young Americans could not locate the Pacific Ocean. So, go learn a language. Learn about another culture. Befriend someone that you might have just met from another country – and learn about their experiences growing up somewhere else. And, if you travel overseas – be humble – and appreciate the country your visiting – learn from  it, and bring the best of it back here. Our country was built by people that brought their culture here – let’s show the rest of the world that we can still learn from them, rather than impose ourselves on them.

It might just make Obama’s job a little easier.

A Great Idea for Letting People Know About Your Business

I just found this video for Fitness4Home Superstore here in Tempe – showing how to use a treadmill. When it comes to leveraging the power of social media, how many businesses could go and take a video with a Flip camera, and upload videos to YouTube? Just a great way to give out information without seeming “sales-y”, while promoting your business.

Social Networking – Is It Relevant?

I was just reading an article in 1to1 Magazine  – called “The Social Media Hype Is Over” – basically, they feel that it’s time to create real value from online customer interactions. Beyond being today’s buzzword, social media has taken our job as marketers, and thrown us on our collective asses.

We started out with the Internet – a nice, controllable vehicle to get our message out. Then, we started corporate blogs – which gave us the ability to get closer to our customers, while getting feedback (good and bad) – but we still retained some control over the “message”. Now, with the growth of social communities such as Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, etc, – we no longer control the message – our customers do.

The question we keep asking ourselves (or, get asked by our bosses / clients / customers) – is whether social networking is really relevant?

Short answer – if you think for a second it’s not – it’s time for a new career.

I’m thinking of a kayaking trip with friends in the next few weeks. I’ve communicated with my friends to plan the trip over Facebook. I read reviews of different tours on Yelp. One company – has a blog where i read up about the last few trips they’ve headed up for clients. I’ve checked out trips taken by other customers on Flickr, Photobucket, YouTube, and Picasa.

In the past, I’d had just called the company, booked the trip, and hoped for the best. Yet now, with a tightening economy, I want to know what I’m getting prior to the trip – and I want to know what others think.

The opportunity for us as marketers – is to realize that as costs go up, for us to ignore our clients desire to research what they are getting for their money – that the less we do with marketing over social networks – the more our customers will do it for us. I realize that I’d mentioned above that the customer controls the message now. This isn’t totally true. They interpret what we put out there as our message – and then do some of our marketing for us.

Our job – is to make sure the message is more accurate than ever before – and, make sure that we stay on top of that message. Then, utilize these social media tools to make sure our customers know about our message. Finally, once we’ve accomplished that – we then need to stay on top of what they say about our message – how they interpret it and market it – so we can constantly make course corrections in our message.

I like to think that in some ways, we’ve simplified some of our market research via the introduction of social networks. Think about how many blunders have taken place over the years because what a focus group said was important, was irrelevant once brought to market. Now…you’re going to know the relevance to the market that much sooner, and possibly more accurately, than ever before. We now have the ability to monitor our brands in real time – for better or worse!

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