Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Are the Muppets back to stay?

Has Disney finally figured out how to deal with the Muppets?

Yesterday, medicine Beg to Differ introduced you to the brilliant new Bohemian Rhapsody parody from the Muppets – but with no brand focused commentary at all. Since then, try we’ve realized that the big story here isn’t the video itself (or the others we’ve included below). The big branding story is the Muppet brand itself and its current caretaker: Disney.


Keeping your Beakers and Bunsens apart

A Disneyland attraction that people liked, but didn't recognize the characters.

When I showed the Bohemian Rhapsody video to my kids – aged 3 and almost 5 – they laughed and laughed and laughed, just as my wife and I had done. Of course, they totally missed the parody, but it was heartening to me that they seemed to love the characters and hooted along with that trademark goofy, over-the-top vaudeville campiness.

But when I asked my 3-year old what he’d liked about it, he said: “Those Wild Things were funny.”

Anaheim, we have a problem.

It’s not like we haven;t done our parental duty by exposing him to the Muppets. This is a kid who has an Animal doll, 50 Sesame Street books, and has sat and watched the Muppets on YouTube, as well as the season 1&2 DVDs with the family. But even he couldn’t identify the “Muppet” brand, and couldn’t recall any names except Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Turns out my son is the market in microcosm (I’m so proud). Kids don’t get the Muppets. And I blame Disney.

Disney’s problem with Muppets

Since acquiring the Muppet brand in 2004 Disney has been widely criticized by fans for under-utilizing the Muppets characters and failing to re-invigorate the brand for a younger generation. For an exhaustive insider background, see Jim Hill’s blog post from 2007.

But in brief, I think this verbiage from the February 2004 press release captures the problem in humourless, corporatese:

The transaction includes all Muppet assets, including the Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Animal characters, the Muppet film and television library, and all associated copyrights and trademarks…

Now read that again in your best Rizzo the Rat voice to hear how ugly, inhuman and unintentionally funny it becomes. These are cartoon puppet critters people!

Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he's doing in front of an SUV.
Roadkill? Kermit wondering what the heck he’s doing in front of an SUV.

It’s not easy being green (but it’s worth a try).

And it went downhill from there. Disney efforts have included an aborted attempt to make Kermit more “edgy” for his 5oth birthday in 2005, and a tone-deaf attempt to exploit the lead characters as commercial shills. The Ford Explorer ad shown here is a great example.

Demographic fact: Muppets are loved by nostalgic 30-40 somethings. Frog-leap of logic: Hey! Kermit can sell SUVs!

But through it all, the big problems that were festering under the surface were 1) a failure to generate any significant new Muppets content (or that the new content was bad), 2) erosion of the brand equity of secondary characters, and 3) lack of respect for the real brand qualities that made the Muppets so charming and relevant, and sustain them to this day in the hearts of 4) the brand’s real owners: who are you, me, and hopefully, our kids.

The Muppets of the mind

So that’s why it was so nice to see yesterday’s Bohemian Rhapsody video get hundreds of thousands of hits and quickly become a trending topic on Twitter. It’s also nice to learn that more videos are coming (watch for “Dust in the Wind”, “American Woman”, “Popcorn”, “Carol of the Bells” and “Stand By Me”) and that a new Muppet movie is in the works – among other interesting projects.

But most heartening of all, there’s the tone of the new content – which finally shows signs that Disney actually gets the Muppets. The new stuff is funny, and the characters seem like themselves again. And that’s why I felt like I had to share that video immediately.

To us, the real owners of the brand, the Muppets are about creating a warm space where comedy, pop-culture, kid-culture, and pure unadulterated silliness can come together. The real Muppets in our heads never take themselves too seriously (see the “assets” quote above), and they are also never mean-spirited or even “edgy” (they’re refreshingly nerdy actually – kind of like Queen music).

Oh, and take note: the Muppets in our heads would never sell an SUV, so they won’t help us buy one either.

Welcome back Muppets

But lest we be accused of getting too serious ourselves (we beg to differ!), below are a few more recent YouTube videos featuring some great second-string Muppets.

Bohemian Rhapsody – in case you missed it

Beaker does Ode to Joy:

The Swedish Chef carves a pumpkin:

Sam the Eagle gets patriotic:

Lethal generosity in my neighbourhood: Taste of Wellington West 2009

This Saturday, drug I had the privilege of photographing some of my favourite people from my favourite place in the world doing what they love to do. The event was the third annual Taste of Wellington West festival – when the food shops and restaurants of my neighbourhood in Ottawa give away free samples of thier food to benefit a local food bank. What could be better?

Sushi kids

From a marketing perspective, of course, the idea of giving away free food is a guaranteed hit and a very smart stratgey. But what’s better, I see this as a practical example of a term Shel Israel introduced me to a couple weeks ago – first on Twitter, and later when he visited Ottawa to promote his book Twitterville: How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods.

“Lethal Generosity”

Here’s Israel’s own definition of this term from his Web site:

Shel Isreal: Lethal Generosity is the business strategy of doing as much good for your customer as possible, thereby screwing your competitor who has to either follow your lead or ignore programs that serve them.

Don’t you love that idea? Now, “lethal” and “screw your competitor” are hard-edged, cut-throat words. But they get your attention don’t they? In reality this is a “bad cop” way of describing a very “good cop” phenomenon. Because actually lethal generosity only works when you do it the way we do it in Wellington West: generosity comes first; lethality follows.

So here’s how I’d (humbly) alter Israel’s definition to put the emphasis on the strategic sequence of events:

Denvan: Lethal Generosity is 1) doing something warm, human, and generous that endears you deeply to your community, which 2) also has the pleasant side effect of giving you an incredible competitive advantage, 3) forcing others to either follow your lead or look really stupid.

Taste of Wellington West

Heavy construction didn't keep the huge crowds away in 2008 (shown here) or 2009.
Heavy construction didn't keep the huge crowds away in 2008 (shown here) or 2009.

A couple years ago, I helped out with the establishment of the Wellington West Business Improvement Area (BIA) – partially as a response to other local areas who had been running their own BIAs for years – particularly Westboro, Somerset Chinatown, and Preston Street.

Even though we had a blossoming arts community, many dozens of restaurants, our own outdoor farmer’s market, and the biggest cluster of owner-operated gourmet food shops this side of Montreal, other neighbourhoods were getting all the attention because they were organized, and were investing in building their brands.

What’s more, we were facing three years of heavy disruption from a massive and dirty construction project that would replace century-old sewer and water lines and make a wasteland of our street, and chase away customers.

So how do you compete with all that? Well, you build on your strengths. In our case, the incredibly warm and quirky characters who ran the shops and restaurants of our neighbourhood – who could always be counted on to give their time, money, and products to worthy local causes. But now they had a new weapon: a way to organize, mobilize, and capitalize on their native generosity to help them through a tough time.

The trick: to be more generous: 

The more you give, the more lethal you are. Absynthe gave away full sized gourmet Buffalo Burgers - resulting in longer lines.
The more you give, the more lethal you are. Absinthe gave away full sized gourmet Buffalo Burgers - resulting in longer lines.

Generosity, in the form of Taste of Wellington West, has helped us to bring thousands of new customers into our area at a time when most would rather stay away. And it allows locals a risk-free way of trying new places and meeting the humans behind those shops. I particularly love the picture of the kids trying the sushi. It really captures the spirit of the day: passionate merchants sharing their passions with people. 

But even more interesting, the merchants themselves have started to compete with each other to see who can out-generous whom. One high-end restaurant created waves by offering meal-sized Buffalo burgers, while another that had opted not to participate, had to reluctantly start giving stuff away. One of the employees told me: “everybody’s asking where the free stuff is. It’s just easier this way.”

Slideshow of some people pictures from the day:

More pictures here (Picasa Web album of 130+ photos)

What I love about these pictures:

1) The warmth: I’d call these people the salt of the earth, but “spice of the city” is closer to home. Don’t those smiles just make you want to move to my neighbourhood?
2) The energy: these are always hard-working people, but for one day they double their workload to make magic in the process.
3) The variety: from the high end restaurant to the tiny family groceteria, everyone brought something different (and yummy) to the table.
4) The food: my biggest regret is being on the wrong side of the camera again this year! I get hungry all over again looking at these.

10 Highlights from the 2009 Best Global Brands list

Ten days ago, shop I wrote  10 days to Interbrand top 100 brands & 10 reasons to care. Well Friday (three days earlier than adverstised), the results came in. And if you have time, you can read full results and commentary at two sites: 1) Interbrand and 2) Business Week.

But I’ll warn you, it’s a lot of information, and you’ll have to wade through some sections knee-deep in self-congratulatory hype. So as a public service, I’ve distilled 10 aspects of the list that jump out for me (below).

Symbol of an industry? This year, ING crashed right off the list, along with a few other financial industry stalwartsn The past year for the financial industry in one concise picture.
This year, ING crashed right off the list, along with a few other financial industry stalwarts.
(Image from the Dutch-language blog

(But first, a slightly bitchy side note to Interbrand: guys, if you’re going to release these three days early, please 1) skip the giant countdown clock , and 2) actually send notices to people that signed up. Okay, my chest is clear, on to…)

10 Highlights of the 2009 Best Global Brands

1) Coke is still it: Top five brands are unchanged

2009 top 10 list

The top five brands on the list are exactly the same brands in the same order as last year, and although Microsoft and GE lost more value than most brands ever have, with the spread in value between the top four, those mega-brands don’t look likely to change anytime soon.

Nokia’s brand is losing steam however, while gaining ground behind it is Google (in a big way) and McDonald’s (growing, but more modestly).

2) Google is the big disruptor

The Google brand shouldered ahead of Toyota, Intel, and Disney, and now is very close to overtaking McDonalds. As a matter of fact, its brand value has almost doubled since 2007, when it was 20th in the rankings.

Think about that for a moment: “Google” has grown from geek-niche-buzzword to #7 brand in the world in just 10 years – growth rates we haven’t seen since, well, Microsoft pulled the same trick for the ten-odd years before that.

But now that Google is starting to look more and more like a big, aggressive company (because they are), can their brand sustain its quirky garage-band appeal? Already their “don’t be evil” internal mantra is attracting more cynicism than praise. And while Googlers are still innovating, and making a lot of feel-good noise with their open source projects, one wonders when critical mass and inertia kick in (see Microsoft?).

3) Other big winners this year

By dollar value gained, H&M, Ikea, and Amazon gained a solid amount of value this year.

But apart from the indominatable Google, Apple grew the most, adding an incredible $1.7 Billion in brand value. Apple is the darling of the branding industry of course and a favourite of mine (see my Steve Jobs tribute), with its creative energy and  focus on human-friendly products and messaging, so it’s heartening to see that doing it right by your customers still pays off during a recession.

4) Surprise! Financial institutions are the biggest losers

Have you heard about this recession thing? Well, if you have, then it should come as no surprise that the industry hardest hit in the brand value bottom line was the same industry that imploded and begged for (and received) massive government  bailouts.

American Express, Morgan Stanley, and HSBC all lost billions of dollars of brand value, while Citi and embattled Swiss giant UBS both lost half of their brand value in one year.  Several others dropped right off the list, including Merryl Lynch, AIG, and ING. Could it be a coincidence that many of these losers also have meaningless nomonyms for names (see my definition here)? Probably just a coincidence, but their names certainly didn’t help them.

5) Automobile brands: losing value

Also not surprising, every automotive or motorized equipment manufacturer on the list except Ferrari lost a significant amount of brand value this year.  Harley Davidson and Lexus lost the largest percentages.

But despite losses, a few brands managed to hold their own or gain ground. Apart from Ferrari, Audi managed to gain, while Ford kept its ranking – the only one of the “Big Three” American manufacturers to have a substantial corporate brand seems to have benefited from its perceived stability as well. Another star: Hyundai:

Hyundai boosted ad spending and aggressively promoted its Assurance program, which allows buyers who lose their jobs to return cars. Hyundai’s brand value slipped 5%, but it moved up three places to No. 69.  – Business Week.

6) Food and clothing: the basics still sell when times are bad

You can download the whole Interbrand report here.
You can download the whole Interbrand report here.
Comfort food standards Campbells soup and Burger King appeared for the first time, while all the other Big Food brands gained in the rankings – Nestlé, Heinz, Pepsi, Kellogg’s, and Danone. Restaurants KFC and Pizza Hut creeped ahead a few positions, while Starbucks lost 16% of its brand value and fell five spots.

The same pattern held true for clothing brands – although it must be said that the list is incredibly top-heavy with luxury brands – so Gucci, not GAP; Rolex over Timex. I suspect that this is because of a) the weighting given to “brand premium”, that is, the amount consumers are willing to spend over and above competitors, and b) the fact that lower-priced clothing brands for us mere mortals tend to be less global.

7) Adobe: New kids on the branding block

Abode finally made the list after it “recorded record revenue and double-digit growth for the sixth consecutive year. They weren’t immune to the downturn (they lost money overall), but importantly from a brand perspective, they grew strongly in the consumer preference category. And their brand awareness continues to grow through the ubiquity of their consumer-facing products Flash, and the Acrobat / PDF line.

8 ) Brand USA – still the biggest brand builder

We were watching to see if the recession would dent the US dominance in global brands. With 52 brands on the 2o08 global 100, the Yanks are the uncontested branding champs, but those of us who were hoping for a moment of guilty schadenfreude were mostly disappointed that the US claims 51 – still a majority – of the 100.

Note to the rest of the planet: keep working.

9) No new countries

The names of countries in the Global branding club stayed exactly the same this year with only 9 brands coming from outside Europe and North America (Japan 7, Korea 2). Russia, China, India, Brazil, and the rest of the world have yet to break in. But of course, it’s only a matter of time.

10) Brand Canada: maintaining numbers, but losing ground

Both of our two Canadian contender brands Thomson Reuters and Blackberry grew this year, and both made gains in the rankings with Blackberry jumping 10 spots to number 63. But they weren’t joined by any other brands, and what’s worse, we slipped a rank in number of brands-per-capita when the UK added a brand and vaulted ahead of us. On that list, we were 10th; now we’re llth.

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

Yesterday, 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, two things struck me: First, 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:

Brand strategy isn’t a cold, abstract business decision made by far-away executives. It’s personal! THEY WERE MESSING WITH MY COKE!!

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 were too young in 1985 to remember – or maybe you 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 nine kid in a Hewey Lewis and the News concert t-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”