Hey geeks! Think everyone knows what you’re talking about? Think again.

This is a message from one geek to another. I was raised on computers as a teenager in the mid 80’s, capsule and have been on the Internet since before browser technology made it easy for everyone in the 90’s, website like this the question seems pretty straightforward: “what is a browser?” But in April, when Google staffers from the Chrome browser team asked that question of people in New York’s Times Square, they were shocked with what they found out.

Less than 8% of people interviewed knew what a browser was

It isn’t scientific at all, but it makes the point very strongly. You can hear people struggling to distinguish between a search engine, an operating system, office software, and a browser.

And the results are repeatable as you can see in this video from Rotterdam (Dutch with English commentary) – which means we also can’t dismiss the people in the Google video as just dumb Americans /  New Yorkers / etc. Dutch people are pretty smart – and Dutch Canadians even more so (editor’s note: may be some bias here).

The Googlers were trying to figure out how to get people to switch to the Google Chrome browser, but they couldn’t even start the conversation because most normal Internet-using humans don’t even know what a browser is.
To their credit, Google has now gone back to basics with a simple site called www.whatbrowser.org that breaks it  down for the average human (if they care enough to visit).

The results seem incredible to me (because I’m a geek)

As a geek, I naturally assume that because I know what a browser is, so does everyone else, right? And if they don’t, they must be uneducated, luddites, or just totally out of touch. I’m like the mechanic who assumes that everyone knows what a catalytic converter is – because we all drive cars that have them.

But it’s not true. Most people don’t know because they don’t care what the technology is called. They just want to perform their daily tasks and would prefer the technology to be as invisible as possible. 

Three problems this example highlights for branders

I coach executives and companies on sharpening their elevator pitches – 30-second verbal descriptions of their companies or products. And these are smart people too. But one of the first problems we almost always have to overcome is this:

Problem 1: We assume that our listeners know more about our subject area than they actually do.

They don’t. I think it’s because we don’t want to insult the intelligence of the listener by explaining things that seem obvious to us. So we jump straight in at the deep end, using all of the same catch phrases and jargon that we use with internal colleagues.

I catch myself doing this all the time when talking about some obscure brand strategy model, and then have to consciously take a few steps back before I lose my audience.

Problem 2: The audience doesn’t want to seem stupid, so they won’t interrupt and reveal their ignorance.

Just because they’re nodding their head doesn’t mean they get it. Find ways to figure out where they are on the learning curve and help them along it – in terms that make sense to them.

All of which leads to:

Problem 3: If your audience never gets past basic understanding, you’ll never get to the next level.

Forget about “positioning”, “marketing” and “brand awareness”. Especially forget about “sales”. If they don’t have a category for you in their brain, they’re not buying.

They probably don’t even know you exist.

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”