Brand brief: Google begins to assimilate Microsoft – one interface at a time

Yesterday, page I blogged about the Interbrand 2009 list of 100 Best Global Brands and how it showed that Google was getting big, salve and I mean silly-big, link fast. I mused about how this might impact their ability to deliver on their internal motto: “don’t be evil“.  Now I learn from TechCrunch that Google is now offering a service called Google Chrome Frame that will helpfully turn your Microsoft Internet Explorer browser into Google’s Chrome browser.

Basically, it’s a way of allowing IE users to access some Google technologies that Explorer doesn’t support. TechCrunch says:

Yes, it’s both hilarious and awesome (or hilariously awesome, if you will) that Google seems to dislike IE so much that it has spent its own time improving it. Google claims its goals are noble. Talking to Group Product Manager Mike Smith and Software Engineer Alex Russell, they tell us that they simply want to make a more seamless web experience for both web users and developers.

Is that the sound of (somewhat) evil genius laughter I hear in the distance?

Download the app here:

Bill Gates reacts to new Google Chrome Frame:

Gates & Frames 3

A YouTube introduction to Chrome Frame:

This hip young Google engineer couldn’t possibly be the face of evil could he? Look again at his shirt. Is that a giant mutated monster about to gobble up a helpless little browser… er… victim?

New Coke 25 years later: was it all just a brilliant conspiracy?

Yesterday, sales in five more brand strategy lessons from the Princess Bride I used New Coke as an example of how customer research can occasionally lead branders astray. But thinking about it, visit two things struck me: First, healing that April 23, 2010 will be 25  years since the launch of New Coke.  Second, I turn forty tomorrow, so that spring day in 1985 was when my fifteen-year-old self realized for the first time: branding isn’t a cold, abstract business decision made by far-away executives: it’s personal.

Ah the good old days - when a company could just change its brand without fear of consumer backlash...
Ah the good old days - when a company could just change its brand without fear of consumer backlash...

A brief history of New Coke

For those of you who are too young in 1985 to remember – or were bricked up into the walls of a desert hermitage during the 1980’s (and who can blame you really?) here’s a brief blow-by-blow of events around this seminal consumer branding event.

  • Pre-history to present – Coca-Cola launches, and retains market leadership, in the soft drink market. Fortunes are built on dark, bubbly sugar water.
  • 1975 – Pepsi launches the Pepsi Challenge – a campaign of blind taste tests in which consumers really did choose Pepsi over Coke for the most part.
  • 1975-1985 – Coke market dominance gradually slips – mostly under pressure from Pepsi. Coca-Cola executives realize that the threat is serious, and it seems to them that taste is a key battlefield.
  • Early 1985 – rumours circulate that Coca-Cola is testing a new formula. And indeed they are. Thousands of consumers choose the new sweeter flavour in blind taste tests like those used in the Pepsi Challenge. No one tests whether the taste actually influences the purchase decision when users are aware of the brand. 
  • April 23 1985 – To great fanfare (followed by an enormous “thud”), chairman and chief executive officer Roberto Goizueta announces New Coke to the world as a better tasting alternative to the old Coke that was still dominating the world’s brandscape.
  • Supporting “the Cos”: In an act of selfless, heart-warming altruism, Bill Cosby brings his considerable charm to bear on the issue telling the world that he personally prefers the new taste.
  • April 23 1985 – Meanwhile in Ottawa Canada, a pencil-necked grade niner in a Hewey Lewis & the News baseball shirt hears the news. And although prior to this, he has only been an indifferent cola consumer, the news wallops him with an odd mixture of horror and deep personal indignation. At lunch, he and his friends talk in whispers and look to the sky for other signs of impending apocalypse.
  • The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcasts this scathing critique of the move. Check out the footage of the press conference “tasting”, the video message to retailers, and the response from Pepsi in which they declare victory in the Cola wars and give employees a celebratory holiday.
  • May, June 1985 – Stories circulate in the press of wide-spread hoarding of Coca-cola. Anecdotes like this one (of many) from the Coca-Cola Heritage site give a sense of the real urgency and panic that many consumers felt.

When the new Coke came out, I borrowed my friend’s pick-up and went to a club store and bought three pallets of regular Coke. It took two trips to get the Coke home. I had enough Coke to last me through the crisis, but I had to repair the floor in my spare bedroom – because of all the weight, the floor had sunk. It was well worth it.

  • Petitions are circulated, rallies are held, activist groups like the “Society for the Preservation of the Real Thing” and “Old Cola Drinkers of America” are formed, and Coca-Cola is swamped with angry response:

By June 1985, The Coca-Cola Company was getting 1,500 calls a day on its consumer hotline, compared with 400 a day before the taste change. People seemed to hold any Coca-Cola employee – from security officers at our headquarters building to their neighbors who worked for Coke – personally responsible for the change.

  • July 11, 1985 – Coca-Cola announces that they will be offering the old formula in parallel with the New Coke – which they call “Coca-Cola Classic”. There is widespread rejoicing.
    In the decades that followed of course, New Coke became Coke II and then quietly disappeared as “Coca-Cola Classic” became the name for standard Coke again.
  • 2007 – In Canada, the “Classic” was quietly dropped, but it remains on American packaging – albeit in smaller and smaller letters.

Brilliant conspiracy or colossal blunder?

But along the way home from their corporate Waterloo, a strange thing happened: Coca-Cola actually accomplished what they had set out to do in the first place: “to re-energize its Coca-Cola brand and the cola category in its largest market, the United States.” Coke sales surged, consumers breathed a collective sigh of relief, and Pepsi resigned itself to a seemingly permanent runner-up position in cola sales.

So of course, many conspiracy theorists have emerged claiming that Coca-Cola had planned this all along. But as they publically say on their Web site: “The company didn’t set out to create the firestorm of consumer protest that ensued”. Of course, they do try to put a positive spin on this bottle (with a little kiss of revisionism at the end):

    The return of original formula Coca-Cola on July 11, 1985, put the cap on 79 days that revolutionized the soft-drink industry, transformed The Coca-Cola Company and stands today as testimony to the power of taking intelligent risks, even when they don’t quite work as intended.
    (emphasis mine)

So here’s the real thing

That phrase “taking intelligent risks” doesn’t capture the enormous arrogance, ignorance, and shocking naïveté that went into the decision in the first place – and doesn’t capture the huge embarrassment and sense of crisis within the Coca-Cola company, or the tsunami of indignation that swept consumer society at large.

To sum up: New Coke made the corporation look really, really dumb. (But we forgave the brand).

Their big mistake (and it was a mistake): they treated the launch of a new formula as a problem that could be solved with product research, business logic, and a big ad campaign. In other words, they acted as if they had the right as a company to make such decisions, and we the customers would obviously be grateful.

The huge branding truth that became clear to this pencil-necked Hewey Lewis Fan:

Coca-Cola didn’t own their brand; I did.

Lessons for branders:

1)  Respect the owners of your brand – your customers.  

Yes, you own your “formula”, but they own the expectations and experiences built up over time – which are ultimately far more important than your brilliant launch  plan. 

2) Freedom’s just another word for everything to lose.

Coca Cola didn’t win because of New Coke, they won in spite of it – and because they were smart about getting out of it. For 99.9% of brands, a misadventure like this would be fatal.

5 more brand strategy lessons from “The Princess Bride”

Thanks to you readers for all the re-tweets, price comments, and forwards on last week’s 10 Brand Strategy Lessons from the Princess Bride. It seems to have hit a nerve with branders across the board – from mental health charities to romance novelists (see the comments below). It also generated a lot of suggestions for quotes we missed. So, because we know a good thing when we see it, we present five more brand strategy lessons – and please feel free to suggest more.

If you've got 'em, don't stab 'em (see Lesson #15)
If you've got 'em, don't stab 'em (see Lesson #15)

Branding lesson 11: Go boldly into that fire swamp young pirate.

Buttercup: “We’ll never make it out alive”
Westley: “Nonsense. You’re just saying that because no one ever has.”

David Harvey pointed out this one as one of his favourites – highlighting the importance of courage, audacity, persistence. All true, and “never-say-die” is one of the battle cries of successful brands.

But I’d like to add one more important quality to his list: constructive ignorance.

If you’ve never read Malcolm Gladwell’s David vs. Goliath article check it out. Among the many truths in it, you’ll learn that underdogs can win, and even most of the time if they defy the commonly understood conventions in their “fire swamp”. That is, it often helps to be ignorant of, or at least to consciously ignore, the accepted “truths” in your market. That’s where true strategic innovation comes from.

Oh, and a stout heart, a sharp sword, and dogged determination don’t hurt either.

Branding lesson 12: Avoid land wars in Asia

Vizzini: You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is: “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” But, only slightly less well known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian, when death is on the line!” (he laughs, then suddenly falls over dead)

Vizzini was (dead) wrong about the Sicilian bit. But he’s right about the other bit. Getting yourself involved in a protracted “land war”, where your brand is going up against entrenched opponents who know the landscape better than you do is a poisoned chalice – particularly if they’re willing to outwork, outmanoeuvre, and outlast you.

I won’t make any reference to recent geopolitical examples. You can fill in the blanks for yourself there. But if you didn’t read the Gladwell article before, read it now about Lawrence of Arabia against the Ottoman turks.

Branding Lesson 13: Always answer customer wishes (but then show them a better way).

Westley: As you Wish!

Pop quiz: is this a) an answer to customer wishes, or b) a land war in Asia?
Pop quiz: is this a) an answer to customer wishes, or b) a land war in Asia?

Jess Joss commented that “When branding for clients, I guess, we might have to add in the lesson encapsulated in the line: “As you wish.” True. Customer wishes need to be fulfilled.

On the surface, I might seem to be saying that “the customer is always right” here. But I’m not. Because they’re not. As a matter of fact, one of the ironies of traditional marketing research is that customers are often spectacularly wrong.

The New Coke debacle is the classic example of this. Executives at Coca-Cola weren’t guilty of not listening to customers. They actually talked to thousands of cola drinkers, and in blind taste tests, customers said they like the new formula much better.

But just as Buttercup couldn’t truly love Westley until she saw him as more than a farm boy, smart branders understand that meeting customer wishes involves more than hearing what they say; it’s about the art of figuring out what they really wish – that is, meeting their expectations consistently (i.e. keep the old Coke), plus surprising and delighting them with new adventures they never dared to expect (maybe test the new formula as a line extension in smaller markets?).

Branding Lesson 14: What to do if you weren’t hired for your brains.

Vizzini: Am I going mad, or did the word “think” escape your lips? You were not hired for your brains, you hippopotamic land mass.

And speaking of giants, my point about this line spoken to the character of Fezzik – played by the late great Andre the Giant – is pretty simple. If any client, customer, or boss calls you a “hippopotamic land mass”, and tells you not to use your brains in your work: just fire them.

Branding Lesson 15: Take a deep breath and turn around.

Westley: (as Buttercup is about to plunge the dagger into her heart) There’s a shortage of perfect breasts in this world. ‘Twould be a pity to damage yours.

There are about a dozen ways I could get into trouble with this last one, so I’ll be brief: don’t skewer your brand equity by panicking when things seem to be going badly (see the New Coke example above). Take that moment to look around instead. You might find your true love there behind you – who isn’t “all dead” after all.

Thanks for all the suggestions. If we get a few more, I’m sure we’d have enough material for another post. But only if you think we should dear readers: “As you wish”

RadioShack tries some funky brand-altering substances

Here we go again. In June, side effects we blogged about Pizza Hut experimenting with becoming “The Hut” (Pizza Hut drops the Pizza.. again – spoiler alert, Jabba was not pleased). Now Radio Shack, fresh off its announcement that Lance Armstrong will represent it (blog entry here), has announced that on August 6, it will be rebranding as – wait for it: The Shack

My take: resist the Temptation(s)… 

Psychedelic Shack
Cover of the Temptations' 1970 album where they experimented with brand-altering substances - apologies to the band for the rip-off, but buy the album. It's great.

Come in and take a look at your mind

This past weekend, on the way to the cottage, I reintroduced myself (and my very patient wife and kids) to one of my favourite campy-classic albums The Temptations 1970 Psychedelic Shack – hear it here / buy it here. Very funky, very funny, and obviously written under the influence of the hippy era (and probably a lot of other stuff too).

People let me tell you about a place I know
To get in it don’t take much dough
Where you can really do your thing, oh yeah
It’s got a neon sign outside that says
Come in and take a look at your mind
You’d be surprised what you might find, yeah

The Temptations

Take a look at your mind indeed – and be surprised. Because, while this is very entertaining, catchy music, the first reaction of anyone I’ve played this for is: “What were they smoking? That’s not the Temptations!”

The Temptations of the mind.
The Temptations of the mind.

That’s because the Temptations are imprinted in the public’s mind as a sweet-singing, sharp-dressing, doo-wop group with such amazing mid-60’s hits as “My Girl” and “Get Ready“. The funkadelic hippy incarnation of the Temptations seems like a totally different band / brand – and an aberration in their development.

“But hey, that’s not fair!” you say. Shouldn’t an artist have the freedom to break out of the genre box and try something new? Why shouldn’t Billy Bob try to rebrand himself as a rockabilly musician as if his movie career never existed? Why shouldn’t a classic electronics retail brand try to reinvent itself in a cooler, funkier package?

Because life, and more to the point the life of a brand, isn’t fair. 

The RadioShack of the mind

And speaking of funky little retro-branded shacks with neon signs outside, that brings us to “The Shack”. As a child of the 1970’s, here’s how RadioShack appears in my mind.

In my brain, RadioShack isn’t all positive: this brand could be a crass, hard-selling little shyster. But it was where the first computer I ever used came from (one of these – a TRS-80 as seen in this Smithsonian archive), where I bought my first AM radio and my first video game (this Pong / Skeet shooting hybrid) and it’s where I always went for batteries and obscure electronic components and cables throughout the 80’s and 90’s.

So while I’ll admit it’s a flawed and faded brand in my brain, RadioShack still there, and I still smile when I see that ad above.  So why shouldn’t they do what the Temptations did and re-package themselves to keep up with the times?

6 Reasons Radio Shack shouldn’t become “The Shack”

The RadioShack of the mind.
1) 88 Years of brand equity. Just as the Temptations couldn’t turn their brand on a dime, the Radio Shack brand comes with a lot of baggage – and value – in the form of customer expectations. Pop quiz: can you name another consumer electronics retailer that has a longer history? Trick question. There isn’t one. Founded in 1921, Radio Shack is pretty firmly established in the public’s mind by now. Yes “radio” is a quaint and old fashioned word, but in the hands of the right brand manager, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And if you must change, handle the public’s expectations (and hang-ups) with care.

2) Radio Shack, the company, is in decline. As lampooned in this Onion article from 2007, it’s hard to imagine how RadioShack stays in business, and indeed, despite some recent cost-cutting that temporarily buoyed the numbers, analysts feel the same way. Rebranding is most successful when it is seen as part of a positive change in the history of the organization. Otherwise it just looks like “rearranging the deck chairs” at best, as a hoplessly desparate act at worst.

3) There are no shortcuts. As discussed last week (see the NOMO series), an abbreviation is seldom a strong brand. “FedEx” was able to pull it off when it shortened from “Federal Express” because the resulting word was an even stronger, more distinctive name. But just like “The Hut”, “The Shack” doesn’t contain enough a) information, or b) character to serve as a strong platform for a new brand. It seems like a step backwards.

4) It’s tough to use grammatically.  think about the difference between “Team Radio Shack” and “Team The Shack”. If it’s difficult to use, people won’t use it. Don’t believe me? Look North. In Canada, where the Radio Shack chain was purchased by Circuit City, they rebranded as “The Source – by Circuit City”. The name doesn’t have the distinctiveness, penetration, or staying power of “Circuit City” so many people used that instead; I’ve heard it called “Circuit City Source”. Now they’ve dropped the “by Circuit City”, but it’s still awkward. 

5) It’s not a Shack! Okay, this may strike readers as incredibly petty-minded, but it always bugs me when a retail company chooses a metaphor like “__Shack” “__Hut” “__House” or “___Chalet” and then doesn’/t reinforce the metaphor through the design of its outlets. Not cheesy or over the top of course, but just a distinctive roofline, a few subtle hints to give the store “placeness”.

6) It cheapens the brand. but the biggest problem in my opinion is that by using a name that is slang shorthand (and trendy), Radio Shack is cheapening its image and thus  playing into the hands of one of its most damaging negative sterotypes: that it is a purveyor of cheap, outdated, breakable products.  This is what is killing RadioShack, not the name. “The Shack” sounds even cheaper, and what’s worse, it makes an 88 year old company sound like a fly-by-night! Which may turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How to do it right

If Radio Shack really wanted to refresh its image, my recommendation would have been in two steps: 

a) Work to find your DIFFERs: a set of key differentiators, based on “real brand” attributes in the public mind – which you would then use as “themes” to guide an upgrade program for the whole organization: prove to people that you offer better products, better service, better experience. Then, only once this is well underway, and you can show tangible results, should you…

b) Re-launch your brand: using the themes established in #1 as pillars of your new positioning, name, design system, and promise to customers.

NOMO lie number 2: all acronyms are bad

(Part 3 of a 4-part NOMO series about abbreviated brand names) Right, more about so this week we’ve dealt with nomonyms, order our term for any unhelpful abbreviated names, tadalafil initialisms like IBM, and whether they can be a brand at all. And later we’ll deal with the 25 worst acronyms of all time. But first: acronyms. And here’s my lie about them: all acronyms are bad.

The happy couple in the merger of Russia's Gazprom and Nigeria's NNPC: the awkward new name "NIGAZ" (pronounced "NIGH-gaz" - no really)

So yeah. It was a lie: not all acronyms are bad.M

But just as initialisms are not a good choice for the vast majority of products and companies, acronyms are very difficult to do well, and are fraught with hidden perils – as the well-meaning folks in the picture above thought when they chose their acronym – based name, or the example we commented on last month: the SciFi channel, who thought Syfy would make a spiffy (not “siffy”) name for their channel rebrand.

What is a (real) acronym?

But lets be clear what an acronym actually is. The word is used as a blanket term for all abbreviations – as in this Wikipedia post, which starts off making the distinction between acronym and initialism, but then ends up lumping them together. A true acronym has to meet three tests :

  • a. It must be the abbreviation of a series of words, which
  • b. creates an actual word that people can realistically use in everyday conversation, and
  • c. the new word must stick — that is it must actually be used by people as a proxy for the longer phrase.

Meeting criteria a. is really, really easy. Anyone can take a bunch of letters and throw them together into a sequence. But if the combination is “YTJNE” it’s not an acronym, it’s an initialism.

Which brings us to criteria b. This one seems easy, but is actually devilishly difficult in practice. And criteria c. is the hardest of all, since this involves actually convincing people to use the name you create – and preferably without rolling their eyes or laughing aloud.

Why it’s so hard

It’s like trying to give yourself a nickname. In my early brand-geek days (when I was 8), I tried to get my friends to call me “Tater” (don’t ask). But of course it didn’t work. Why? because it was my idea of what would be cool, not other people’s idea of what FIT me.

Because essentially that’s what an acronym is – a nickname.  Think about how we call Coca-Cola “Coke”. We know the “official” version, but saying “Coke” feels more familar, more friendly. A good nickname is a proxy; a good acronym is a short, catchy version of a longer name that people are aware of, but if the right handle comes along, they’ll use it.

The secret to good acronyms

So here’s the key: a successful acronym has to be so simple, so elegant, so natural, that it feels like it was you customer’s idea all along. Essentially, it has to be a useful tool to help people notice, remember, and refer to you. Oh, wait, that’s our definition for a brand!

  • Successful acronyms like “laser”,”NASA”, “Benelux”, and “UNICEF” are easy to say, easy to remember, and natural to use. When this is the case, the acronym actually supercedes the full name in the customer’s mind. I was an adult before I learned that UNICEF was anything but a strong stand-alone brand name. Quick: what does “scuba” stand for? Most people don’t even realize that it’s an acronym for “self contained underwater breathing apparatus”. That’s how natural a good acronym should be.
  • Unsuccessful acronyms are either unwieldy (UNRWA – pronounced “un-rah”), unpleasant to say (GATT), or just too long (PUMCODOXPURSACOMLOPOLAR – Pulse Modulated Coherent Doppler-Effect X-Band Pulse-Repetition Synthetic-Array Pulse Compression Side Lobe Planar Array).
  • Really awful acronyms: At their worst, acronyms are so laughably bad they make news on their own – ususally because the combination of letters forms a word that is just too much of a stretch. But we’re reserving those for another post.

The whole NOMO series: