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What does a red cup have to do with branding?

Full Stop – red cups are part of the Starbucks brand experience. As a matter of fact, over 60 million Starbucks cups are served each and every week. From the beginning of November until the end of December, Starbucks will be serving 480 million red holiday cups to help celebrate the festive season.

 

Eighteen years ago Starbucks launched their first holiday red cup – a duration that has created great expectations beyond a simple disposal coffee cup. Has this red cup replaced the advent calendar? With all the controversy so far this season you need to wonder.

 

 

Over the year’s Starbucks red cups has celebrated the holiday season with snowflakes, doves, reindeer, snowman, vintage ornaments, poinsettias, and Christmas trees, but this year they opted for a minimalist design of a two-tone red cup with no images. This brilliant long-term campaign has taken some of Coca-Cola’s best Christmas ideas and put them on a cup. Check out Time’s magazine for the evolution of the Starbucks red cup over the last seven years. This year’s red cup sans holiday icons has become blasphemy for many Christian’s organizations or an opportunity to create a controversy to garner media attention.

 

 

“In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs,” said Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks’ Vice President of Design and Content. “This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”

 

Customers See Red

 

Former Arizona Pastor Joshua Feuerstein wrote in a Facebook post “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus,” that went viral with over 14 million views in the last five days. This extreme view has stirred up the media and the social channels. Even Donald Trump has entered into the picture with the suggestion of boycotting Starbucks. Obviously he doesn’t have any Starbucks shares in his portfolio.

 

Starbucks issued a statement Sunday explaining that they are trying to create an environment that encourages “customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way” and “to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity.“

 

Jay Parini, a poet and author of Jesus: The Human Face of God said on CNN.com that Starbucks red cup is an attempt to remove even the most secular side of Christmas by “strip[ping] all texture and mythic potential from contemporary life – seems beyond absurd, perhaps even dangerous, as it points in the direction of total blankness, a life lived without depth, without meaning.”

 

Or from Starbucks point of view it’s about creating your own texture and mythic potential without being spoon feed of what you should think or believe.

 

What 480 Million Red Cups Mean

 

There are a couple learning’s we should all take from this event.

 

First, colour does matter, (check out my article on colour), red is a very strong and vibrant colour that can stimulate high emotions – just ask a raging bull. In 2011, Coca-Cola changed their sacred red Coke can to white to celebrate the holiday season and were punished by retailers and customers who became confused by the change.

 

Second, customers own your brand. Before you change any representation of your brand make sure you understand what your customers’ think. Product packaging is sacred ground for loyal customers. If Apple changed their earphones from white to red what do you think would happen? Maybe nothing or maybe all hell might break loose.

 

Third, by providing ambiguity with a blank red cup and letting the customer fill the void leaves too much room for misinterpretation or anti-brand advocated to take advantage of the situation. The brand must own the space (physically & mentally) and direct the conversation.

 

I am happy that I don’t drink coffee and have to endure this tragedy on a daily bases for the next six weeks. However, I did hear that Starbucks has started using cup sleeves with snowflakes on them. Maybe this will appease the detractors.

 

The great thing is brands continue to have the power to inspire, create conversations and be news worthy without changing anything inside their cup. And as we see here, some brand loyalists will always see the cup as half empty and others as half full. Cheers.

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Brand Terrorism

Every brand should be very afraid.

Power to the people, as the saying goes. Thanks to the internet consumers have a say in everything a brand does, good and bad. Today, we are seeing more and more people crowding together as a force to be reckoned with – a force that can turn into a destructive attack and can cause a brand serious damage. These attackers, or dare I say terrorists, can be competitors, disgruntled employees, unhappy customers, extortionists, activists or others more sinister who want to cause a brand harm or even ultimate assassination.

Richard Torrenzano, co-author of the book Digital Assassination, says “Crime and ideology have integrated. Diehard activists and unscrupulous business rivals are engaging in digital combat marketing.”

 

Brand Hacking

Last October on CBS 60 Minutes FBI director James Cormey was recorded saying “there are two kinds of big companies in the United States … those who’ve been hacked by the Chinese and those who don’t know they’ve been hacked by the Chinese.” Then there are those who have been hacked by North Korea. Hacking big brands are a big problem. Robert Herjavec, founder of global IT security firm The Herjavec Group  and star on the TV show Shark Tank says “The higher profile your brand, the more value it carries and the bigger a target it is.” No surprise major American brands have been significantly effective.

A very memorable attack was just prior to Christmas in 2013 with over 70 million credit card customers’ files hacked at Target. The Wall Street Journal estimates the Target hack cost over $350 million including replacement cards and IT expenses. But the fall-out went beyond direct costs to the departure of the company’s Chief Information Officer and the Chief Executive Officer. The actual cost of customer’s losing confidence in Target was never part of the equation.

In a study done by RedSeal, a cybersecurity company in USA, found that almost 80% of 350 C-level executives admit that a cyberattack can inflict “serious impacts to business profitability and growth,” and bring about “serious brand damage.” If you asked Sony Pictures senior executives they would whole-heartily agree. This last Christmas season Sony Pictures experienced one of the biggest online data heists to date. Earlier in 2015 Sony Pictures downplayed the massive hack as only a 15 million dollar inconvenience. Their revenues were down by 11.7% for that quarter partly due to not fully releasing their controversial movie The Interview, thanks to the threats from Kim Jong-un.

How about the hacking group Rex Mundi who demanded over $40,000 from the fast-food chain, Domino’s Pizza for ransom of 600,000 Belgian and French customers’ personal data records including their favourite pizza toppings. As the story goes, Domino’s refused to comply and the hackers never released the information. Maybe they paid them off with free pizzas for a year.

Herjavec believes that hacking has entered a more sinister stage where it is less about money and more about a brand assassination. “We’re no longer dealing with individuals who want to steal your money. We’re dealing with foreign national governments that want to hurt America.”

 

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False Claims, Reviews and Rants

A 2014 study by BrightLocal found that 88% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations (vs. 79% in 2013).

The popular review site Yelp.com contains over 70 million reviews of restaurants, barbers, mechanics, and other services. Roughly 16% of reviews are removed by Yelp because they are deemed fake both positive and negative. Vince Sollitto, VP of Global Corporate Communications at Yelp says their “job is to find and filter out fake reviews. At the same time we let our audience know that this system isn’t perfect. Some legitimate content might get filtered and some illegitimate content might sneak through.” Over two years, Yelp caught 400 companies trying to game the system – sounds like they weren’t very good gamers.

The New York Times reported on a case of a business hiring workers on Mechanical Turk (an Amazon-owned crowdsourcing marketplace) to post fake 5-star Yelp reviews on their behalf for as little as 25 cents per review. I’m sure 1-star reviews are even cheaper, which would be a deal to take down an adversary.

Bing Liu, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has estimated that about 30% of the reviews online are false. He also says that a substantial percentage of those false reviews are negative. Can one review kill a brand?  Chris Anderson, co-founder of Cyber Investigation Services says “a single Ripoff report that ranks high under a brand search can drop a business’ revenue by as much as 75%.”

The scary part is there are so many places you can post malicious,  false rants or claims beyond the traditional review sites that are monitored. There are a number of gripe sites people can share their hateful brand story. If you have a gripe, there is a website.

According to research by Ponemon Institute, 43% of companies reported security breaches in 2014 which is up from 33% in 2013. So what can you do? Mailguard experts in online security  says you need a “Brand Guardian” to oversee monitoring and reporting system to scan and monitor your website for hacked pages, potential malware and security risks such as phishing links.

Research firm Gartner warn that one in seven posted reviews are likely false.  How do you respond to these reviews?  First you have to keep your cool. Fighting fire with fire doesn’t work here. Check out the website policies and contact the website support team with your concerns. If they can’t help, then respond directly to the review in a professional and civil manner and if possible offer a solution.

Jeff Hancock, professor at Cornell University and expert in “Faking It” gives some excellent tips on how to spot a fake review.

 

Negative Brand Placements

To further heighten the brand negativity, the assailants, armed with creativity and talent, will associate the attacked brand with something or someone consumers would consider offensive (examples below). The sad thing is these images don’t have an expiry date and will pop-up whenever and forever on the internet.

 

anti-brand

 

During a recent highly publicized gruesome murder case, the killer Luka Magnotta was found on the Montreal Gazette’s website holding a bottle of Labatt Blue beer. Labatt Breweries of Canada threaten to take legal action against the paper if they didn’t remove the photo. This ignited Twitter and Facebook followers to engage in the conversation creating more negative media for Labatt. They used the hashtag #newlabattcampaign to post fake negative advertising for the beer. Not a successful outcome for Labatt.

 

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From all corners of the internet, conversations about brands are taking place both positive and negative, whether the brand participates or not. The real trick is understanding when the brand should and shouldn’t engage in the conversation. But, what’s really important is that your brand be visible online when people want to hear your side of the story.

 

Shaming – the Digital Lynch Mob

On Mike Ewing’s blog, he quotes a study that says 90% of people believe brand recommendations from friends. That is a strong endorsement for word-of-mouth.

Social media has become the future version of public flocking, stoning, lynching and the people’s court – all in one. But, it is also the best word-of-mouth when people are raving about their brand experiences. It’s a two edge sword.

People can lose their jobs in minutes or find themselves on the nightly news after being captured on video doing something regrettable that can never be erased. Most brands are represented by people – fallible people; therefore, brands quickly get implicated when an employee is captured at work or off work doing something unsightly for some. There is no longer a line between church and state. The righteous understand that they have more power pressuring the employer to get the appropriate action they are looking for. The scope, reach and speed which harmful content can move around the internet is truly alarming. Six years ago, Domino’s Pizza saw this first hand as two employees posted a prank video of unsanitary and disgusting food preparation practices in one of their stores. I am sure you saw it on Facebook. Within a few days (today it would be hours) there was over a million views on YouTube. Here is a news report of the event.

 

 

Domino’s President, Patrick Doyle, responded with his own YouTube video to apologize and reassure customers’. He said there was nothing more important and sacred to Domino’s than its customer’s trust. That being said, the damage was done. A study done by HCD Research found that 65% of respondents who would previously visit or order Domino’s Pizza were less likely to do so after viewing the offensive video.

NGO’s also understand the power of social media to not only get their message out, but to activate people and supporters. They have two objectives: to raise money and to stop brands from doing something they deem bad through the power of amplification (i.e. using concerned citizens who are trying to do right). In some cases, they will take a fact about your brand grossly out of context or exaggerate it, making an ordinary shortcoming seem horrifying. In most cases it’s about terrifying the public to take action. Mark Twain said “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”.

Greenpeace has been very successful in launching social media attacks on brands. Here are three examples:

The first is an attack on the Nestlé’s Kit Kat brand to stop them from using palm oil from Indonesia where many animals were threatened by unsustainable forest clearing for palm oil. Nestlé now has a goal of using only palm oil certified as sustainable.

 

 

The next attack was on Shell Oil and the toymaker, Lego. Since the 1960’s, Shell promoted a Shell-branded Lego sets at gas stations. Greenpeace protested Shell’s plans for Arctic oil exploration via the Lego’s partnership. The campaign was successfully in ending the partnership between Lego and Shell. I believe Shell is still perusing its plans in the Arctic but are more dependent on oil prices at this point.

 

 

And finally, the attack on British Petroleum after their major oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Greenpeace launched a “Rebrand the BP Logo” contest. They asked supporters to “…create a logo for BP which shows that the company is…up to their necks in tar sands and deepwater drilling.” Here was the winning design by Laurent Hunziker.

 

rebranded

The Anti-Brandists

There is a good chance that strong leading brands who have beloved followers also have the detractors – activist who hate everything the brand stands for. These brands become the focal point of what’s wrong with the world. The terrorist’s goal is to damage the brand’s image which ultimately will affect its market share and profits. Ironically, they treat large brands as though they are the terrorists and in true stately fashion, they’re not into negotiating. In 2004, mi2g estimated there were over 10,500 hate sites against major global brands on the internet. My guess is that number has more than doubled since then with the help of social media. Here are some examples:

Umit Kucuk, an authority on anti-brand sites says “The majority of companies might be choosing to ignore these sites while others are spending money developing websites or filing lawsuits to combat them. Companies need to realise that these sites can direct extreme criticism to companies and bias-driven broadcasting to markets and consumers.” He says it’s important to investigate ways to shift this hate towards “a more productive and positive form of communication that helps to maximise both company and consumer benefit in markets.”

 

Protect – Monitor – Defend

Protect

  • Have an action plan ready for scenarios like the ones described in this article. If anything you do or offer has the potential to be used against you, be prepared to address it.
  • Have experts available at a given moment to provide support and advice.
  • Have a digital and social presence with consistent messages that can be easily found.
  • Continue to build brand trust online like you do in real-life.

Monitor

  • Start listening today on what is being said about your brand on blogs and social media
  • Understand who is saying what and who are the influencers.
  • Setup Google Alerts to notify when you brand is mentioned somewhere on the internet.
  • Google your brand name once a week or more.
  • Understand your environments (industry, political, geography) to catch trends that put you at risk (i.e. consumer opinion, fads and referendums).

Defend

  • If you find your brand under attack, take appropriate action. I say ‘appropriate’ because sometimes no action is the right action.
  • Activate your plan quickly.
  • Be honest and sincere, even when the attack isn’t.
  • Remember you are protecting your relationship with your customers – respond to them and not the attacker.
  • Seek expert help when necessary.

“Don’t think that if you are not participating in the social media conversation that your reputation can’t be ruined online by a digital attack,” said Richard Torrenzano. “Others will create false information or blogs about you or your brand that can cause significant damage with a keystroke. And you have to know how to thwart or respond to those attacks.”

 

Be Afraid and Be Ready

With the help of social media and a couple of million friends, consumers and attackers have a lot of power, more than any brand will have, because people will believe people first. According to Nielsen, 92% of consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all forms of advertising.

Generally, most consumers can distinguish between facts, hate and fiction. The problem today is more and more hate and fiction is being packaged into well-crafted emotional stories that become viral sensations before any truth hits the web, which is too late. The collective world has made their verdict and has moved on to the next terrorist attack, while the brand tries to regain trust and fix the damage. For small businesses and individuals, the damage may not be repairable.

A few brutal reviews on Yelp may destroy a small business, but may not have the same effect on a BP or Monsanto (two of the most hated brands based on market research firm Harris Poll). Both companies have received their fair-share of NGO’s attacks, Facebook boycotts and bans, Twitter hashtags like #monsantoevil and #boycottBP, YouTube videos, protests and marchers, and Halloween costumes. But, they are both still in business and doing well. As a matter of fact, Monsanto’s 2014 sales were up 7% over 2013 for a total of $15 billion, while BP Group’s 2014 sales dropped 11% compared to 2014 for a total of just $214 billion.

Consumers have a short memory and if you respond quickly and fix the problem (if one exists), they will forgive you and come back. More importantly, if you brand is strong, your loyal customers will come to your rescue and defend you. I can’t emphasize the importance of being prepared for all possible situations.  If you don’t have all the right answers now, at least make sure you have a clear crisis escalation organization chart of who needs to be involved when the attack occurs. Time is the biggest challenge when the verdict is immediate.

Be alert and ready for any possible brand terrorist attack.

 

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5 Ways to Keep a Brand Out of Trouble

Every once in a while a brand will screw-up. If you go online and google “Brand Blunders,” you will find annual lists of the latest and greatest mistakes that brands have made. Social media has given us all the opportunity to see, almost in real-time, the latest and greatest gaffes. An advertising campaign with the goal of reaching a million customers can turn into billions of thrill seekers who will never buy your brand in the first place. The size of the mistake will determine how famous you will become. Famous for all the wrong reasons, I might add. Some brands have gone to the extremes to fake real people product situations with the hopes of becoming a viral sensation, but in most case this too back fire.

Big brand mistakes are self-inflicted wounds based on ignorance, arrogance, tastelessness and just poor judgement. But, sometimes, the reward of free publicity and fame are too hard to give-up.

There is always the temptation of getting your brand noticed – there is good awareness and bad awareness. Generally the bad awareness doesn’t build your brand, but can seriously damage your brand.

Here are some tips on how to keep your brand out of trouble:

 

Fine Line Between Funny and Offensive

Humour is a great way to communicate your brand. Nothing is better than getting your customer to laugh. In a study conducted by Millward Brown, over half of all ads around the world are considered either ‘funny’ or ‘light-hearted.’ The funnier the ad the more memorable it is likely to be. This is where some brands have gotten themselves into trouble. It is generally when a brand tries too hard and misses the mark or just doesn’t understand their consumers.

Spy Sunglasses tried to be witty and humorous with their outdoor campaign when they plastered the slogan ‘Happy to Sit on Your Face’ on billboards.  Clever, but it didn’t sit well with their customers.  The billboard, slated for a six month stint, was taken down after only one month.

The British grocer Sainsbury’s wanted to promote their ‘low-price guarantee’ and used John Cleese to break down Sainsbury’s aloof image. Lecturing the customers and the staff misfired badly and successfully alienated the target audience.

Skittles is known for their entertaining and fun brand – Touch the Rainbow. The experience of eating Skittles is just as important as the candy itself. In 2008, they crossed the line when they portrayed someone who turned everything to Skittles that he touched. He could no longer hold his baby and he accidentally killed a man on the bus. Depressing rainbow.

Sloppiness

There are countless examples of typos, wrong prices and misinformation. I am sure you have your favorite blooper. Here are a couple examples that will put fear into you to make sure you double and triple check everything you publicly display on your brand.

La Redoute a French fashion chain has had a number of embarrassing moments. On their website, they had a photo of kids promoting their children’s clothing line, but clearly in the background is a naked man. On the same website, they are also selling a t-shirt with a spelling mistake. Instead of having ‘Enjoy Holidays’ written in the garment it read ‘Enjoy Holydays.’

Remember the launch of Apples iOS 6 mobile operating system with the new and amazing Apple Maps? This system would no longer feature Google Maps.  The issues in the Apple Maps were endless to the point that a Tumblr blog was setup to document all the map errors. Every media outlet had a wonderful example in their backyard of wrong bridges, wrong towns and cities, airports turn to parks and parks turn to airports. One reporter stated, “While they are not enough to stop the iPhone 5 love-fest, I sincerely hope that the massive flaws in Apple Maps do not cost anyone their lives.” I am sure there were a lot of Apple employees who didn’t get much sleep until they solved all the problems.

With the desire to offer the widest range of product choices and selection Walmart’sHalloween promotional web pages included a category called “Fat Girl Costumes.” By the time the company understood its error, it was national news and the brand damage was done.

There are many examples of sending the wrong email to the wrong customers or sending out tweets that don’t reflect well on the company like US Airways, who accidentally send a customer a tweet with a pornographic image with a naked woman with a misplace model plane. This tweet was re-tweeted hundreds of times before the company noticed.

Contests and promotions are another area that has high potential of messing up a brand. Getting legal advice is a no brainier, but also making sure the contest fits the brand promise and builds on the brand. Malaysian Airlines still reeling from its misfortune of losing two planes launched a ‘bucket list’ campaign, asking customers to tweet places they’d like to see before they die. I think you know how this ended.

Double and triple check everything before you release it and ask the question does this fit our brand values and promise?

The Shock Value

Fashionista blog says “people are pissed about Harvey Nichol’s new pee-stained ad campaign.” It seems that the British department store Harvey Nichols knows how to get people’s panties in a knot and the Daily Mail said that the campaign has “soiled many customers’ opinion of the store.”

If you ask Tom Ford, he’d say that the shock value works just fine. He built a fashion empire (worth over $275 million) on pornography.  “When I shaved G for Gucci into the model’s pubic hair it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek statement about branding,” Ford said in People. “We had Gucci emblazoned on everything in those days—so I said why not the pubic hair too. It wasn’t just about sex.”  Really! Somehow he continues to get away with this type of thinking. But there is a limit to what people will allow a brand to do with their brand relationship.

Unlike most advertisements which centered on a company’s product or image,United Colors Benetton’s branding building focused on social and political issues like racial integration, AIDS awareness, war, poverty, child labor, death, pollution, politics, etc. The advertisements initially succeeded in raising the brand’s profile, but eventually began to cause dissatisfaction among customers, retailers, government bodies and various international non-profit organizations.

Some of Benetton’s most provocative advertisements were of a priest and a nun kissing, a just born baby with uncut umbilical cord, a black stallion and a white mare mating, a colourful mix of condoms, a black woman breast- feeding a white baby, AIDS victim and his family taken moments before his death, people on death row, a bloody uniform of a dead Bosnian, and senior political leaders kissing each other. I am still trying to figure what all this has to do with buying a sweater or a new polo shirt.

I never thought Microsoft would be an example of shock value. In 2009, they introduced the IE8 with an online commercial called ‘Oh my God! I’m gonna puke (O.M.G.I.G.P.). The purpose of this ad was to showcase their private browsing feature that is ideal for keeping your online porn habits a secret from others people who might share your computer.  As the Microsoft spokesperson said “some of our customers found it offensive, so we have removed it.”

Super Bowl is the Olympics of branding position new and old brands.  Insurer Nationwide created a buzz, but the jury is still out if it helped or detracted from their brand.  They ran a campaign depicting the death of a child, due to a preventable accident at home. The negative reaction is largely based on why share this message at a time when people want to enjoy a game. USA Today describes the ad as “depressing, upsetting, and even brought down the uplifting Super Bowl atmosphere.” You be the judge.

Brand Boundaries

Where are the brand boundaries? For Tom Ford there are no boundaries as it concerns beautiful naked people, but see if he can sell food products or toys for children. Somewhere in the process common sense must prevail.

In 2010, Gap clothing store launched a new logo to portray the brand as more modern. In two days, they heard clearly that they change wasn’t what their customers wanted.  While their goal was to appeal to a more hip crowd, their existing customers who pay the bills didn’t want anything to do with the new image. Gap was smart enough to listen to their customers and quickly react.

In 1996, McDonald’s invite “adults back to McDonald’s by enhancing [their] adult and food image” as reported in the Mac Today magazine. It took two years to develop the adult burger Arch Deluxe. McDonald’s research revealed that 72% of consumers think the chain has the best burgers for kids, but only 18% said it has the best adult burger – a huge opportunity.  McDonald’s spend an estimated $200 million in a promotional blitz to launch this new product that failed miserably. The McDonald brand is based on friendliness, cleanliness, consistency and convenience. If someone at McDonald had asked their customers if they wanted a” burger with the grown-up taste,” they would have said no.

 

Does It Make Good Sense?

Or, better yet does it make common sense? Just because you have a powerful and very recognizable brand doesn’t mean people will allow you to sell them anything.

Bic, the company that sells disposal pens, lighters and razors decided they should be also selling disposable underwear – actually, a line of women’s disposable pantyhose. Besides that they were disposable, there was no credible link between the Bic brand and the product. What were they thinking? Maybe they were thinking that they could do sexier advertising now that they were into underwear like Calvin Klein.

Colgate, the toothpaste company and the first to put fluoride into toothpaste had the bright idea to market frozen meals. They failed completely. Nobody wants a toothpaste-flavoured meal. Yet there must be many bright people at the Colgate Company who reviewed and approved this opportunity with the goal to succeed. Maybe they are too close to seeing the big picture beyond the consumer’s mouth.

 

Final Comment

The moral of the story is use the ultimate acid test – stand back from the situation and ask yourself does this message build on your brand promise. Is it building goodwill? Will you be sending the wrong message to your existing customers? Common sense should prevail. If you screw up, be transparent and fix the problem. Time and honesty will heal most errors.

And finally, double and triple check everything and if possible get as many eyeballs on everything before it goes out. In this instant world on digital communications, it becomes even more important that you communicate clearly and honestly.  Once it’s out there, it is out there for life.