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COVID-19: Actions to Protect Your Brand in a Volatile World

The world is in a crisis. The doomsday prophets are alive and well. The stock market is reaching historical lows. Government leaders have never been in this situation and are making up their plans on-the-fly. The major solution is pumping trillions of dollars into a fragile system with the hope that the market will return to normal. People are terrified of the invisible COVID-19 enemy that is attacking thousands of people. Locked-up in their homes, they count the days. A perfect script for a horror movie of epic portions. But it’s not. How do you protect your brand in a volatile world? Here are some immediate steps:      

Protect Employees

Many brands saw the writing on the wall and quickly sent most of their employees home, as did many government institutions. Those brands that operated their business as usual were eventually forced by governments to close their doors, unless they were essential services. The employee that stayed to keep the business running are instructed to keep their social distance (two meters) from anyone else and ensure the highest hygiene standards. Employees will be your first critic if you fail to protect them and only focus on profits. People first!

Protect Customers 

As brand ambassadors rush home with office laptops and mobile devices, their ultimate goal is to keep customers happy and revenue flowing. This new decentralized work force must adjust to the new work and home realities as they are forced to improvise new ways to delivery customer satisfaction. Thank heavens for digital technology that can replace face-to-face interactions! The dreaded meetings are still happening, just virtually with frozen faces and choppy voices. A crisis means more meetings. Those brands that require face-to-face interactions with customers are scrambling to find online solutions to keep them afloat. But many can’t find a solution so closing their operations is the outcome. This has resulted in millions of North Americans being laid off. Not serving customers means no revenue. It also means keeping people safe and isolate.  

Difficult Times

So far, millions of people have flooded the employment insurance system with benefit claims. All indications suggest that this event will surpass the Great Depression with the number of people unemployed. Many of the big multinational brands have deep pockets and a war chest to fall back on to ride-out this crisis. Small brands or brands that survive on cash flow and low margins (airlines, hotels) will struggle as revenues abruptly stop and expenses pile up.

Shopper Shook

With everything closing except for essential services, online commerce is skyrocketing. However, before the crisis, over 50 percent of American families were living paycheck to paycheck and most didn’t have any emergency funds for this type of crisis (First National Bank of Omaha in Nebraska survey). What does this mean for brands? If consumers don’t have money, they won’t be spending on brands, which means further decrease profits.

Full of Fear with Empty Wallets

This is the worst combination: concerned about their financial situation and pessimistic about their future. Some economists say consumer expectations concerning economic conditions tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. If they expect doom and gloom, the economic conditions worsen because they stop consuming. In this case, they were forced to stop consuming and by stopping, many people have lost their jobs. The reality is that many consumers are terrified for they health, their family well-being, and their future survival. Even with billions and trillions of dollars being promised to help businesses and consumers, there is little confidence that help will reach them.

Here are five actions to protect your brand in a volatile world:

1. Be Real and Engage

WPP, the world’s largest multinational advertising agency, says in a study that brands need to face the reality of the situation and address customer needs by showing a sense of honesty and concern. There are intelligent ways to acknowledge the problem and to reinforce your brands positioning and relationship. Similar to customers, brands must make difficult decisions with limited resources. Brands that take meaningful actions to help their customer through difficult times will be rewarded in the long run. If your brand doesn’t have the resources to help, continue to communicate with your customers in meaningful ways.

2. Create Added Value

If consumer don’t have money or think they could be in a difficult financial situation, they will be looking for inexpensive options with greater value.

  • Justify price – Demonstrate superior performance and value, product comparison, testimonials etc.
  • Add features and services – Free support & servicing, check-ups, extra quantity, extended warranties, free shipping or setup, or choice of colours. Make it easier for them when they are trying to juggle expenses on a shoestring budget.
  • Economy sizes – buy more, get more. You are positioning savings, retaining sales, and not sacrificing value. This is the Costco model of buying bulk.
  • Do it yourself – The IKEA model. The perception that you have to assemble it means you will be saving money – or just creating more pain at home. “What do you do with all the extra bolts and screws they give you or should there be extra?!”

3. A Strong Purpose

This isn’t the time to be an exclusive, high-end brand. People are hurting both physically and mentally. Give them a strong reason for why they need your brand today. Create urgency that this is the best-time to be buying your brand. Give them a reason why your brand will help them. Make your brand part of the solution.

4. Reduce Fear & Barriers

Show that you brand cares and understands the situation customers are facing in these difficult times. Provide alternative payment options – nothing down, don’t pay until next year, zero percent interest payments, free financing, no-credit-check, job loss protect, etc.

5. New Innovations

Make consumers forget about the bad times and create excitement towards a new product with never before seen features or benefits. For many brands, this might be difficult to accomplish in a short-time frame. Online convenience and no-contact delivery can be a simple solution. But you can also adjust your brand to have new efficiencies or reduce costs. Reduced costs can be accomplished many ways such as production efficiencies, cheaper ingredients, smaller package size, single servings, and slimmed-down basic version with no bells or whistles. So, if you can’t “wow” your customer into buying your products, then reach out with an offer they can’t refuse.

Brand Survival

To protect your brand, not only do you need to address customer’s fears but continue to strengthen your brand’s relationship with your customers. Be creative. Remember that your best customers can be your best backers during difficult times. With the help of social media, they can quickly be mobilized to get your brand message out – from a simple customer referral program to getting “likes” for a new product. Always talk about the value your brand brings –the rational and psychological. Tap into the concepts of small indulgences, sharing, and helping. Do random acts of kindness, reach out with empathy and connect with your customers on a different level. Build trust based on reassuring your customers that your brand is committed to their well-being and not profits.

Stay Safe & Healthy

Consumers are scared. The future is unknown. The brands that step-up and help their customers during these uncertain times will survive. This is a time to start thinking differently. A time to take chances in a risk-adverse, volatile world. Brands will need to reinvent themselves to flourish in a new post COVID-19 world. Good luck in these challenging times.

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Killer Brands

As the world becomes smaller and smaller from digitization and globalization, many brands are becoming bigger and bigger. There was a time when big was a disadvantage with too many layers of bureaucracy, creating a lack of agility, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Digital technology has changed all of that. The bigger, the better. In the book, Big Is Beautiful authors Robert Atkinson, and Michael Lind conclude that large companies are more productive, innovative, and diverse than small ones. The number of mergers and acquisitions has doubled since 1997 to 48,825 in 2016, with a total value of $3.62 trillion. Last November, on “Single Day,” giant online Chinese retailer, Alibaba racked up more than $38 billion in sales in 24-hours. To put this into perspective, this is more than the yearly GDP of countries like Paraguay and Iceland.

Killer brands are also collecting more consumer information and data than ever before. In 2017, DOMO estimated that every day 2.5 exabytes (add 18 zeros) of online data are generated worldwide. For example, one exabyte is one quintillion, take 2.5 quintillion pennies, and you can cover the entire surface of the earth five times! Market intelligence company IDC predicts the world’s digital data will grow to 175 zettabytes (add 21 zeros) by 2025. With this much data power, are killer brands monopolizing and manipulating markets and consumers, forcing consumers to pay more, destroying competition and innovation? Are domineering brands killing free enterprise?

Brand Nations

Some killer brands are more reliable and wealthier than many nations. McKinsey Global Institute says that 10 percent of the world’s listed firms generate 80 percent of all global profits. The top 20 global brands control over 42 percent of the world’s economy. If you dig deeper, you will see that some brands dominate in several industry categories. Interestingly, the Technology sector, worth over $5.7 trillion, has the highest concentration with over 50 percent controlled by four brands: Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook.

Similarly, the Consumer Services category, worth $2.6 trillion (about the size of France’s GDP), is controlled by two brands: Amazon and Alibaba. With so much control and money, can we trust that these brands have our best interest at heart? In essence, these are brand-nations with a massive responsibility to society. These dominant brands are accountable only to shareholders; shareholders are only interested in profits and ensuring the brand’s continual expansion. Currently, there is a significant debate on whether dominant killer brands are healthy for economic growth in free enterprise world commerce.

2019 Top 100 Best-performing companies based on market value, according to CEOWORLD magazine. This chart accounts for $21 trillion in market value.

Death Row for Past Killer Brands

Go back one hundred years, and the dominant brands were very different with US Steel, American Sugar Refining Company and Standard Oil at the forefront.

In the late 1870s, Standard Oil has founded by John D. Rockefeller. The story goes that Mr. Rockfeller expanded the brand by bullying suppliers for preferred rates and buying out many small competitors. At one point, Standard controlled nearly 90 percent of US oil production. In 1890, the US Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which outlawed monopolistic business practices. After several legal manoeuvres, the world’s most powerful company, Standard Oil, was finally ordered by the US Supreme Court to break up into 34 independent companies. Standard Oil came under heavy public criticism and outrage after investigative journalist Ida Tarbell published a 19-part series of articles damning Mr. Rockfeller and Standard Oil as ruthless and immoral. Today, these companies are now some of the world’s largest Oil & Gas brands like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips.

In 1969, the US government took a run at IBM, who at the time had nearly 70 percent of the business computing industry, but the case never amounted to any significant action. While the case dragged on for over 13 unlucky years, the distracted IBM company missed out on personal computer innovations. A death sentence for the company.

The next big shake-up wasn’t until 1983 when the Bell System monopoly was broken-up. Bell Systems started as a monopoly back in 1876 with the help of patents that did not expire until 1915. This lone brand built a massive telecommunications infrastructure network across the USA. Today, the many Baby Bells contains well-known brands such as Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink, and US West, to name a few.

In the 1990s, Microsoft tried to force the computer industry to bundle their web browser with the operating system to control the market. With the result of destroying the top competitor Netscape which caused the US Department of Justice to file antitrust charges against Microsoft. Microsoft wasn’t broken up during the appeal process; the distraction allowed companies like Google to gain an edge. Senator Elizabeth Warren says the antitrust case “helped clear a path for Internet companies like Google and Facebook to emerge.”

Today’s Killer App Brands

We know the big six killer brands. We interact with them daily and sometimes hourly: Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Alibaba. They are all technology, digital application-driven and American, except for Alibaba. American brands account for a disproportionate percentage of the world’s largest brands. Elvis Picardo, Portfolio Manager, attributes this phenomenon to a stable US equity market, a strong US currency, and premium valuations (mega-caps).

Collectively, these companies have defined the world’s culture and drove the information and digital revolution. They have changed our lives: how we work, play, and think. They have contributed to political upheaval; misinformation; economic, social, and technological trends; and other changes beyond our imagination. Together, their total market value is over $4 trillion, equitant to Germany’s GDP (4th largest in the world). Freelance writer Daniel Baylis says, “The benefit of being one of the biggest brands of the world is that you often get to define the rules of the game.”

This statement is very true. Apple redefined the music industry. They destroyed the recording industry and record labels. Today, Microsoft’s windows system has only 80 percent of the desktop operating system market share. Back in 2013, it had over 90 percent of the market share. Amazon redefined the book industry forever and is in the process of destroying the bricks and mortar retail industry. Without Google we would never find anything on the internet. Try navigating over 1.5 billion websites without Google. Facebook has played a major role in overthrowing governments and making political movements a reality both positively and negatively. They have also driven the human psych to crave more “likes” by the minute. Alibaba is still behind Amazon in e-commerce revenue, but it continues to defy expectations with constant growth of over 50 percent every quarter. It doesn’t hurt that they have 1.4 billion potential consumers.

Collectively, Google and Facebook control over 60 percent of the global online advertising market (excluding China). This year, the duopoly is forecast to pull in $174 billion in ad revenues. Together, they’re redefining the advertising industry.

All of these numbers are mind-blowing. It’s not hard to believe that in the world of trillions and billions, the average consumers can get lost between the commas. The interesting fact is that these companies are making billions because they know us better than we know ourselves. What is good for the brand might not be suitable for you or me. Ram Shivakumar, an economic professor at The University Chicago Booth School of Business, says these brands have given us enormous benefits to our quality of life. But he cautions that “the value of these contributions shouldn’t blind us to the dangers posed by the power modern superstars have accumulated.”

To keep their dominant power, these brands either buy out potential start-ups or drive them out by pricing or other predatory activities. This killer instinct is better known in the venture capitalist world as the “Kill Zone,” where start-ups don’t have a chance of competing.

Killer Instincts

Facebook

Facebook has become a brand we love to hate but not enough to log out forever. The fear of missing out is too high for most people. While our commitment to Facebook doesn’t have a financial impact (because its free for users), we do pay dearly, giving up our privacy as they collect personal data that they have sold and misused. Facebook estimates that more than 2.1 billion people use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Messenger every day, and around 2.7 billion people use at least one of their services each month. Facebook’s on track to bring in over $60 billion in total revenue in 2019.

It is through their active database that they can tell if a competitor app is getting too hot for comfort. The “Kill Zone” around Facebook is big. They either buy them out (like Instagram and WhatsApp) or mimic their popular features like Stories and Bonfire to neutralize Snapchat and Houseparty apps. Linette Lopez, a political journalist, said Facebook used user-data against smaller rivals such as Vine. In essence, they destroyed the Vine app by blocking its friend-finding feature.  

Before the acquisition, Instagram had only 30 million users and 13 employees. Today, they have over 1 billion monthly active users, and LinkedIn indicates they have more than 9,000 workers. Facebook has the power to make or break any start-up. Wikipedia says Facebook has acquired 82 companies so far.

Free or not, Facebook has had its fair share of negative press and global regulatory attention due to the mishandling of private personal data, disseminating fake news (especially for the Russian military intelligence agency), and severe data leaks.

Anna Johansson, marketing and PR consultant said, “Facebook is operating in some contentious and ambiguous ethical territory, and some of the decisions it has made in the past decade are somewhere on the spectrum between short-sighted and dumb.” Andrew Burt, Chief Legal Officer at Immuta, is less polite and states that privacy and online security risk is too high for consumers. He believes governments must “diminish the vast power of companies like Facebook by limiting their ability to hoard the data they collect and to aggregate the services they provide, contracting their ‘attack surface,’ so to speak, to a level that is manageable.”

Alphabet (Google)

If Google used its dominance to gouge us on prices, we would all be up in arms or become a fan of Yahoo. The problem is we don’t see their revenue model. Why would we be upset with services (such as search, Gmail, Google Docs, Translation & Maps) that are free and some of the best services? Google controls over 88 percent of the internet search market share. Statista states that there are about 4.5 billion active internet users or 58 percent of the global population. That would mean that Google touches around 4 billion people or 52 percent of the world’s population. Should we be worried?

Google has more data on us than any other internet service. They know our wants, needs, and desires – priceless for the marketer. Getting a marketer’s message to the right audience, at the right time, is the ultimate goal. In 2018, Google made $116 billion in advertising. With a war chest of billions of dollars, they are free to buy-out potential competitors that get in their “Killer Zone” and pick up innovations before they are hot. To date, they have acquired over 120 such companies.

In their data harvester information, Google listed ten principals that are important to making “money without doing evil.” Many companies are incredibly frustrated with Google’s behaviour, but the average consumer remains blissfully ignorant. The Federal Trade Commission investigated Google and concluded that they used their dominance to make competitors harder to find on its search engine. A simple ranking algorithm mishap or change can destroy a competitive brand. Who is watching Google ensure their definition of “evil” is the same as ours? To date, they have been fined $2.7 billion for violating antitrust regulations in Europe.

Amazon

Amazon has been accused of hurting suppliers, competitors, and even their employees. But their growing online customer base is addicted to their competitive prices, convenience, vast selection, and fast delivery system. While they destroyed the original bookstore market, they made books more sustainable and environmentally friendly as long as you have their e-reader. The company commands 50 percent of all book sales in the United States and 75 percent of all e-book sales. There have been several reports of Amazon using its dominance to pressure publishers into more desirable agreements.

Their goal is to have e-books be the gateway to the store of everything. So far, about 197 million people visit their online store each month. Over half of American households are Amazon Prime subscribers. In 2018, Amazon’s share of the US e-commerce market was 49 percent and still growing.

The tactics they use to keep growing is the concern. Brad Stone recounts in his book The Everything Store how Amazon wanted to get into the diapers business and reached out to Quidsi, who owned diapers.com. They weren’t interested in selling, which led Amazon to set up the Amazon Mom Promotion, where they discounted baby products, including diapers and free delivery, basically forcing Quidsi to call “uncle” and sell to Amazon. Amazon then quickly retired Diapers.com. A perfect example of how the “Kill Zone” works. To date, Amazon has acquired 101 companies and has a stake in another 22 companies.

Amazon’s ultimate power is its transactional data. They can see what is trending and what is hot. They aren’t just happy with being the biggest online marketplace for other vendors but want to get into the action directly through their own product brands such as Amazon Basics and Amazon Essentials. This is not dissimilar to supermarket house brands, but they don’t stop there. They have many other brands that aren’t associated with Amazon as Goodsport, Lark & Ro, North Eleven, and Society New York. TJI Research Inc. recently reported that Amazon has more than 450 brands sold exclusively on Amazon. The third-party brands don’t have the complete picture like Amazon who has all the consumer data and expertise to react to analytics. Is this a conflict of interest?

Apple

There is always one bad apple, but Apple is hard to dislike. They made music accessible to everyone through iPods and other Apple devices. They took everything big and made it small and portable. Their closed ecosystem business model is brilliant. Every transaction that goes through their iOS has a positive financial benefit for Apple. Some call it the Apple 30 percent vendor tax. Jonathan Prince says, “…Apple makes more off a Spotify subscription than it does off an Apple Music subscription and doesn’t share any of that with the music industry. They want to have their cake and eat everyone else’s too.” As of June 2017 (the most current statistic), 180 billion apps have been downloaded from Apple App Store.

Apple is the exclusive luxury brand with profit margins (32 percent) similar to Hermès (35 percent) and Ferrari (29 percent). Think about it. They can sell a phone at $999 and sell 29 million of them in less than two months. That’s what happened in 2017.

Apple has also acquired its fair share of potential competitors. Wikipedia reports about 100 competitors, but they state Apple doesn’t regularly release financial details on mergers and acquisitions. In May 2019, CEO Tim Cook told CNBC that Apple purchased a company every two to three weeks on average, having acquired 20 to 25 companies in less than six months. It sounds like the “Kill Zone” is alive and well at Apple.

Apple has had its fair share of antitrust lawsuits for anti-competitive practices, price-fixing accusations, tax avoidance schemes, and deplorable working conditions in Asian electronic sweatshops. Their aggressive business tactics only negatively affect vendors, app developers, and competition – not customers. Keeping their customer happy is priority number one.

Microsoft

Amazingly Microsoft has been around for over 44 years and has been a dominant player in the personal computer operating system market since the mid-1980s. Its founder, Bill Gates, is one of the largest philanthropists in the world, reportedly donating over $45 billion in the last 25 years. Today, Microsoft understands how to protect its market without raising the concerns of the antitrust police. Since its conception, Microsoft has acquired over 225 companies and has investments in over 60 other companies.

Alibaba 

Alibaba is Amazon’s nemesis. Established five years later than Amazon, it continues to grow exponentially in its region. These two killer brands have many things in common except that Alibaba has over one billion potential customers in China compared to Amazon’s half-billion in North America and Europe. Ming Zeng the Chief Strategy Officers at Alibaba says Alibaba is more than just an e-commerce company and “does what Amazon, eBay, PayPal, Google, FedEx, wholesalers, and a good portion of manufacturers do in the United States, with a healthy helping of financial services for garnish.” Their goal isn’t just to conquer China, but Southeast Asia, India, Africa, Europe, and, hopefully, the US.  I’m not going to get into any China rhetoric, but this brand could be the biggest killer brand the world has ever seen.

Since it’s inception, Alibaba has only acquired 29 organizations, a small number for a killer brand. The significant problem with Alibaba is that we don’t have full transparency on this company as it resides in secretive China.

Serial Killers on the Loose

Killer brands have enjoyed a world unhindered by rules and regulations as they define the future. Consumers have embraced these new toys and innovations, regardless of the consequences. Still, without guidelines and clear values, this empowerment can lead to chaos and bad decisions both by consumers and companies. Unencumbered by laws and regulations, killer brands have been able to prosper and make shareholders, employees, and governments very wealthy. The trillions and billions of dollars I have quoted are unimaginable and impossible to comprehend, but they are real. To date, we have relied on these brands’ corporate governance to do good and not evil. Many consumers are oblivious to the risks and dangers, addicted to the digital candy and satisfaction that these brands give them.

Our antiquated legal systems, laws, and regulatory framework haven’t been able to keep up with the digital revolution. The US is still protecting consumers from monopolistic business practises defined by the Sherman Antitrust Act passed by the US Congress in 1890. The world and business practise specifically have changed a lot in 130 years! In the last decade, the killer six have made over 657 acquisitions with little to no challenge from antitrust authorities. In some cases, these acquisitions propelled these brands to new heights, but many were just killed or silently integrated to reduce competition.

The problem today is that the authorities don’t have the tools, the understanding, or the laws to protect humanity in this new digital world. The scary part is that technology isn’t waiting for the authorities to catch-up. Technology is advancing at warp speed. Governments can only protect us if they know-how, which means they need to be smarter than the killer brands. A scary thought indeed!

The German consumer isn’t as trusting as North Americans. Their history has trained them to be fearful of mass data collection and unchecked powerful forces. They are one of the few countries that haven’t embraced credit cards and debit cards for fear of leaving a digital path. Not surprisingly, they are at the forefront of data privacy and protection. They are currently trying to stop Facebook from aggregating consumer data between their various platforms (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) and other third-party site data collection.  

Throughout history, we have seen that extremely concentrated wealth and power that hasn’t benefited humanity. Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence, cautions that immense wealth comes with tremendous impact and responsibility. He says, “We’ve always had to regulate markets; unfettered capitalism tends to go to excess. Regulation is needed to ensure that companies act in line with the public good and not just the stock options of their CEOs.”

The winner-take-all approach comes with many risks. History tells us that governments take action only when consumers aren’t happy. Today, the killer six are focused on keeping consumers happy, but what happens when they aren’t? With all the data monitoring killer brands have, they will know this answer before we do.

As these killer brands race towards the internet-of-things with further digitization and data harvesting, who will protect the consumer? The world has never seen such massive, powerful brands with their ability to invade consumer privacy, monopolize new markets and quietly destroy the competition on their quest to dominate. Will this quest eventually translate into political power and the demise of free enterprise? Only time will tell.

The article illustration was done by David Parkins, a prolific illustrator and cartoonist. It first appeared Jan. 18th, 2018 on the cover story of  The Economist titled How to tame the tech titans.

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Why Retail Store Brands are Doomed

I just finished shopping in a typical large urban shopping mall. With over 360 stores, I was sure I could find a simple pair of black active-wear shoes, your basic laced up runners. I was on a mission.

The first store I saw was the very popular and trendy Steve Madden with a large “50% OFF” sign in the window. They had a couple pairs of runners that were close to what I was looking for, but they all had a white rubber band at the bottom. If it was black like the rest of the shoe, it would have been perfect. A salesperson asked if I needed help, but I politely declined the help as this was the first store I had tried. So, I left Steve Madden and I continued on.

Next was B2 Shoes, another trend setting store. I quickly found two styles that could work. I approached the checkout counter to find my size 11. The friendly young lady replied that they didn’t have an 11 in either of the styles, but she had 10.5. When I said 10.5 wouldn’t work, she suggested that I go online where they had a greater selection. I thanked her and went on my way.

I proceeded to Little Burgundy, Skechers, and then Hudson’s Bay with no luck. I was starting to believe this wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought. But I was persistent. I found the mall directory and scouted out 29 other footwear locations, then planned my attack.

My first stop was Browns who also had “SALE” signs everywhere. I found a perfect match, and, for safety, I choose another as backup and took them both to the cash register and waited for someone to help me. Patiently I waited as someone else was being helped. I stood there waiting and waiting. Finally, someone ask if I needed help. I forced a smile on my face and asked if they had these shoes in size 11. The lady went to the computer terminal. “We only have the one pair in 10.5” she announced as if she saved the day. Again, I replied that that size wouldn’t work. A shoe that was a half a size too small wasn’t helpful unless they thought I could curly my toes to fit. As I left, she suggested that I go online where there would be more sizes available.

Dejected, I went onto ALDO shoes who had a “Two for One” sale. I didn’t want two pairs of shoes; I just wanted a simple pair of black runners. They had a fancier black leather shoe. I was becoming desperate. Once again, I stood in line to see if they had my size. As I stood there waiting for someone to help me, I started to understand why retailer store brands are doomed. “Can I help you sir,” asked the young girl with bright colored hair. Startled, I asked her if they had these in size 11.  No size 11 but they had a 10.5. Really! She too suggested that I go online.

I was beginning to think that size 11 was a rarity. I now understood how Shaquille O’Neal must feel with size 22 feet. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons reports that the worldwide average shoe size for men is between 9 and 12. According to Shoes.com, the average Canadian male shoe size is 10.5. Do retail stores only carry the average size?

I continued on my quest checking Champs, Lacoste, Journeys, and SportsChek with no luck. Finally, I gave-up. I had spent over an hour with nothing to show for it. I moved on to other items on my shopping list.

As I was heading out of the mall feeling defeated, I saw the Foot Locker. “Last chance,” I said to myself. On display was a black Converse. I took it off the shelf and walked to the counter to once again see if they had my size. The girl tapped onto the screen and advised me that they did. I almost jumped up for joy, but I just stood there feeling sad that the retail business was dying a painful death and they were totally oblivious as to why. A young guy in a referee outfit came over with a box and opened it to show me that the runners were the same as the ones I took from the shelf. He put down the box as I started to take off my shoes to try them on. Unceremoniously, he left, and I am there to fend for myself. I thread the laces and put them on. Satisfied that they fit, I go to the counter to pay. I explain to the lady that I will wear them out and will not need the box. She replies that without the box I can’t return them. I agreed to this condition and paid with my debit card. She hands me a bag to put my old shoes in it, like I’m at a discount store.

I know all retail transactions aren’t like the one I just descripted, but this isn’t the first time I have been disappointed and totally frustrated with the line ups, lack of service, or no service at all, and limited selection and sizes. There are a number of reasons why retail store brands are doomed. Unconsciously, they are driving us to online shopping, if not telling us directly. Next time, I will start the retail journey on my laptop in the comfort of my own home.

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The Christmas Brand

The most wonderful time for brands

‘Tis the season for corporate/retail brands to perpetuate the Christmas brand. No other holiday is embraced more by brands than Christmas. According to Pew Research, consumers’ least favorite part of Christmas is commercialism and materialism. Yet, every major retail brand tries to capture the hearts of consumers with the spirit of Christmas and end with a profitable year.  In the UK, Christmas adverts are like the Super Bowl in the US. Every year, John Lewis, Sainsbury, Marks & Spence, Boots, Tesco, Heathrow, and others compete for the honor of the best holiday advert – every year the stakes seem to get higher. Christmas is no longer seen as just a religious holiday but as a joyous time to spend with family and friends. In fact, 80% of non-Christians will celebrate the holiday season. The Christmas brand has a lot to do with this fact.

Evolution of Christmas

In the fourth century, the Christian church declared a winter holiday to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The holiday was combined with other already established solstice celebrations. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that Christmas transformed into a family and children-centric ritual with the introduction of jolly-old St. Nicholas. In the 1840’s, the first Christmas-tree appeared in North America. Alongside this tradition was the Jewish Hanukkah celebration which evolved into the festival of lights. As the religious connotations of these holidays fade, the celebrations have become more secular and inclusive with core values of the Christmas brand based on peace, goodwill to others, charity, and a hope that goodness will prevail.

Today, the festivities and values are significantly emphasized through commercialization and sensory overload, driven by the many corporate/retail brands eager to morph the Christmas brand to theirs. Iconic Christmas songs like All I Want for Christmas Is You by Mariah Carey and classic movies like It’s a Wonderful Life are all geared to keep the Christmas spirit alive against the harsh distractions of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and Boxing Day. The silver-lining is that all the shopping is tied with the notion of gift-giving. It is a practice of sharing your good fortunes, expressing your love and friendship.

The Spirit of Christmas

The 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge once said that “Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind.” The Christmas brand is a feeling of happiness, wonderment, togetherness, festivities, joy and love; brought out by merriment (eating and drinking), holiday decor, lights, gifts, ritual traditions, music, and storytelling. The ultimate goal is rekindling the nostalgic holiday magic we cherished as children.

Hallmark is a master of capturing the holiday spirit through stories of reunited loved ones, kindness of strangers, family-values, and holiday love stories. Last year, Hallmark made over $600 million in advertising associated with their 37 holiday-themed movies. Last year, Christmas movies recorded 85 million viewers.

Economics of Christmas

Today, brands use the concepts of Christmas by emotionally connecting with their customers through unique holiday commercials. They hope to transfer the Christmas brand of joy and happiness into holiday sales. A whopping $731 billion in holiday sales is predicated by the National Retail Federation.

The fact that emotional branding is the strongest way for brands to influence consumers is means that companies spent almost $4 billion on holiday advertising last year.

Deloitte predicts retailers can expect a jolly holiday shopping season. While some economic headwinds are forming, the average US household is planning to spend nearly $1,500 during the holidays.

The Recipe for a Great Holiday Commercial

I don’t think there are any revolutionary secrets on what makes a memorable holiday commercial but here are some key take-aways that I have gleamed from previous successful Christmas commercials.

A Great Christmas Story

A great story should quickly establish the protagonist in a situation with an obstacle or crisis that they need to overcome. At the climax of the story, the protagonist makes a discovery that changes his/her life.  The ending should be both inevitable and unexpected. The audience should be left with hope and a sense that the crazy world is still a good place. This simple formula starts with a touch of sadness, a dash of surprise and delight and finishes with hope, happiness, and joy.  

In 2015, Edeka, a German supermarket company, introduced Heimkommen (Homecoming) one of the best holiday commercials in history. Since it was launched, it has received over 65 million views. Make sure you have a tissue handy if you plan to watch it.

Awesome Soundtrack

The audio can quickly make or break the mood. All of the great commercials have memorable music. According to the Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA), musical commercials are 27 percent more likely to report large business effects compared to non-music campaigns. That translates into increased sales!

A number of research studies have found that music can amplify emotional responses to the story and increase ad memorability. Radiocentre has found that music can boost brand recognition.  Brainsights says that lyrics/message that support the ad storyline are best.

John Lewis, a UK department store, is notorious for their Christmas adverts. The Bear and The Hare, produced in 2013, is still garnering view. Recently, the UK Metro media declared it the top John Lewis Christmas advert ever in a readers’ poll. This commercial feature a bear and hare who are best friends. The wintery weather forces the bear into hibernation leaving the hare to face Christmas alone. The hare solves the problem by purchasing an alarm clock so that the bear wakes up in time for the festivities. This beautifully illustrated animation is enhanced by Somewhere Only We Know sung by British pop singer Lily Allen.

Simple, Authentic, and Symbiotic

Being real to the brand’s persona is vital. There is a great desire to solve the world’s problems and be a hero but most people are only looking for hope. No brand will be the hero but they can bring hope by emphasizing their brand’s values that correlate with Christmas. This year’s Walmart Canada’s “Piggy Bank commercial is a great example of promoting their brand promise with the message of spending small and give big for the holiday season.

Another classic commercial is Hershey’s Kisses’We Wish You Merry Christmas.” It only takes 15 seconds to effectively get its message across. The story goes that John Dunn, Hershey’s Chocolate brand manager in 1989, came up with the concept on a business trip. Ogilvy Mather produced the commercial with the latest stop-motion animation and CG photography available at the time.

Children, Animals and People

It’s true! Add a cute baby or animal and your commercial’s appeal will increase. Super Bowl commercials with animals, babies, or children tend to score much better than those with without. In fact, ads with animals performed 21 percent better than ads with celebrities and 14 percent better than the average non-animal Super Bowl ads.

The underlining premise of the holiday season is about bringing people (family, friends, and strangers) together to see Christmas as a child would: joyful and wonderous. Connecting your brand to people in the holiday spirit is a recipe for success.

The Folger’s Coffee 1986 “Peter Comes Home for Christmas” commercial fits the bill. The only thing missing is a golden retriever running to meet Peter at the door.

Inclusiveness – Peace on Earth

Keep your message and sentiment universal and true to the phase “Peace on Earth”. The holiday is a time of the year when the world stands together, quite literally in the famous Coca-Cola‘s 1971 “Hilltop” campaign with the very memorable “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song. The ad was later re-worked to show a very diverse group of people at night, holding white candles and ended with the tagline “Seasons Greetings.” It’s not a time to air a highly polarizing messages that only appeals to one demographic segment or worse offends another.

This timeless Pampers commercial “Peace on Earth” shows different babies sleeping peacefully as the song Silent Night is sung by a mother’s voice. This simplistic but captivating ad communicates vulnerability, beauty, and peace.

Memorable, Unique and Relevant

Alongside the engaging soundtrack, the commercial must be visually stimulating with dramatic lighting and brilliant colours. Ultimately, the commercial must be share worthy.  If the commercial captures the hearts of your audience, it will quickly be shared around the world. It will become an iconic holiday memory that supports the brand of Christmas. Attaching your brand to the idea of helping, sharing, and giving during the holiday season makes good business sense. It also builds the Christmas brand that everyone wants to embrace.

The Apple commercial appropriately titled Frankie’s Holiday is beautifully shot with rich details and colours like the framed image of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, on the wall of Frankie’s home. He records a music box version of “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays” on his iPhone then plays the track in the town square as he nervously sings the song. The commercial concludes with the message: Open your heart to everyone.

The Christmas Brand

There are many reasons why Christmas isn’t the most wonderful time of the year. It’s become too commercialized and is not environmentally friendly (all the plastics and packaging, food waste, energy consumption). Bringing family together can be stressful at the best of times. There is the pressure of shopping, the financial woes, and high expectations. Holiday depression is very real. Are the billions of dollars of consumerism worth it? Should we all become like Scrooge or the Grinch?

Once every year we pull-out the holiday decorations, put on the ugly Christmas sweaters, consume too much, get frustrated in busy malls, parking lots, roads and airports, navigate rude and obnoxious friends and family, but there is always that one moment that makes it all worth it.  We strive to capture these moments in our commercials.

The trick is to recognize that one moment of time when you see a child’s face light up in wonder, when a stranger stands there opening a door just for you, when someone thanks you for helping them with the simplest things, when you try something different and like it, when you invite someone new to share your holiday traditions. Not unlike the image portrayed in Christmas commercials, there are real moments that remind us of the true spirit of Christmas.

May your heart and home be filled will all of the happiness, joy, and peace during the holiday season. May you experience that Christmas moment of joy even if it is sparked by a Christmas commercial.

Merry Brand Christmas!

Check out the latest 2019 Christmas commercial lineup.