Enroll at our school, or Granny’s a goner
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 10:37 am
Filed under: advertising,Internet,US economy

Fear-based advertising is nothing new for auto manufacturers and personal injury law firms, but colleges?

Capella University is running a wild TV campaign that shows all the terrible things that can (and WILL!) happen to you if you don’t get a Capella degree.  My favorite is the one that implies that your mother/grandmother will meet at ignominious end if you don’t act now:



Here’s another – this one threatens that your kids won’t reach their “full potential” unless you go to Capella.



And lastly, here’s one that seems to be saying that you will be able to help save people from a terrible tragedy – or maybe stop a terrorist attack (“help prepare our first responders”) if you have a Capella degree.  I love it.


Who knows? Maybe the Ivies should go this route…



Trump Is Just Being Trumpy

Today, I was asked what effect Donald Trump’s supposed presidential run is having on his personal brand.

In my opinion, Trump’s flirtation with the presidency doesn’t impact his brand value one way or the other.  This is because – whether he originally intended it or not – Trump has had a bifurcated brand for years.

Trump has a business side and a farcical side. The farcical or “personality” side is what’s enabled him to create (and – hellopublicize) entertainment properties, because it drives him to behave in an entertaining way.  In his real life, he’s a paunchy, weird-haired real estate guy, so to be entertaining, he needs to be over the top.  Brad Pitt can just stand still and attract attention; Trump cannot. Donald’s got to jump up and down to draw interest.

This means that people expect to see Trump behaving in an outlandish sort of way, so his “presidential bid” isn’t new news: it’s just The Donald being wacky again.

Therefore, his recent jaunt through Kookytown (a) doesn’t impact people who expect it (and that would be everyone by now), and (b) wouldn’t put off anyone who actually wants to do real business with the Trump Organization (those who ignore stunts and would be interested only in the deal they were getting), so… this is Donald Trump status quo.

Let’s clarify: I loathe what’s happening and agree with The New Yorker’s David Remnick regarding the reasons for Trump’s behavior.  But that wasn’t the question and, unfortunately, our pseudo-celebrity culture – in which many don’t think any deeper about a person’s character than what dress she wore to court – will simply bump along the surface before moving on to its next source of amusement.



Luxury Auto Ads On Auto Pilot?
Monday January 17th 2011, 9:55 am
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,branding,luxury,market research,US economy,wretched excess

Do you think that Cadillac and Audi know they’re running nearly identical ads?  Cadillac describes its positioning as “red blooded luxury,” Audi “progressive luxury…”

I’m afraid it’s a “you say potato…” kinda thing, at best.






Elegance and Permission
Monday November 15th 2010, 9:13 am
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,branding,luxury,US economy,women,wretched excess

In a way, true luxury brands have it easy. There may be reasons that your customers don’t buy, but not having the money isn’t one of them.

But what about upscale-but-not-quite-luxury brands that sell goods that truly are a considered purchase for their target audiences?

Such was my thought when I spotted the Ethan Allen store at 60th Street and 3rd Avenue in New York last week.  Ethan Allen makes very nice, albeit expensive furniture. When I was growing up, my mother sometimes insisted on buying Ethan Allen because it would “last forever” and was, therefore, worth the sticker shock.

What caught my eye was the type in the front two windows. The first said, “It’s ok to buy one piece at a time. That’s how we build it,” and the other said, “A great room starts with a great piece.”

Now, I am so glad that I saw this before I saw the Brandweek article on this new campaign, because it let me have a “pure” consumer reaction – and that reaction was relief, mixed with encouragement.

Relief that I don’t have to feel bad if I couldn’t buy a whole room or house worth of furniture right now, and encouragement that – instead of waiting until I can (NB: at which time I might go somewhere else) – I should start with that one nice thing from EA today.

There are so many thoughtful things happening here.  The brand has turned a negative into something positive.  It has actually made me feel good – smart - for starting with that one great object, rather than beating myself up over all the other items I can’t afford right now.  EA made it ok to walk past a room in my home and see one chair in it:  it’s not because I’m broke – it’s because I’m wise.  And the “That’s how we build it” line draws me in even more, as if we were in on it together.  I’m just like you, Ethan, if I think about one piece at a time because you do, too.

The ECD at McCann-Erickson talks about the campaign as being part of the brand’s continued attempt to reach a younger-demographic, to show that EA’s pieces and attitude are more modern than they might expect. 

I’m glad for that, because all that Paul Revere-ish dark furniture my mom bought from EA when I was a kid made me gag (and to her credit, it finally made her gag, too).  But whether it’s deliberate or not, I think the work strikes a more universal tone that performs a little magic, turning a lack of cash into a moment of affirmation and intelligence. 

Nicely done.



Making A Weird Situation Worse At McDonald’s
Monday September 20th 2010, 9:48 am
Filed under: customer service,Reputation Managment,retail,stephanie fierman,US economy

by Stephanie Fierman

I like McDonald’s.  I do.  Always have.

Recently, though, I’ve noticed something annoying on my receipts: either an “eat in” tax (if you eat at the restaurant) or an “eat out” tax (if you take your order to go).

Either way, there’s a “tax.” 

A tax??  McDonalds is taxing us, literally coming and going? 

This makes no sense.  Corporations can’t just invent their own taxes.  What is this?
 
Turns out it’s just plain old state tax.  In Connecticut, where I dined recently, the tax is 6%.  6% in, 6% out, 6% if you take your fries and you shake ‘em all about…

The 8.5% “eat in” (aka state) tax in San Fran at the time of this purchase

6%. Period.  [Note: State sales tax laws on prepared food are notoriously kooky, but whatever they are in the state in which you’re ordering is what you’ll end up paying]

So why would a marketing icon like McDonald’s turn a charge that it is forced to apply into a fee that looks like an assessment from the company? I am flummoxed by this.

A Google search of “McDonald’s eat in tax” and “McDonald’s “eat out tax” yields lots of other folks with their “britches in a bunch” over this (like HERE and HERE and HERE).  A couple of them actually posted the “tax” to sites like ripoffreport.com.

Now, this fellow claims that it’s because some states (e.g. California) actually have a take-out tax, so an establishment doing business in that state must be able to discriminate a meal served at the restaurant vs. one taken elsewhere.  His supposition is that it would be cost prohibitive for a company to use software that could apply the tax rules state by state, and that it would be hard to administer.  

I would be surprised if it’s a matter of cost.  McDonald’s had $6.8 billion in U.S. operating income in 2009: how much could such a system cost?  And how does that cost shape up against the reputation cost of such bad publicity?

Is there something else going on here?  Anyone?



Tiffany’s Got A Brand New Bag
Tuesday September 07th 2010, 12:00 pm
Filed under: advertising,branding,luxury,retail,US economy,women

by Stephanie Fierman

Tiffany & Co has impressed me over the years.  It’s been able to show some restraint when it comes to mucking with the brand while still responding to shifts in the consumer zeitgeist. 

The company has been particularly wily in its introduction of new non-jewelry items and jewelry pieces at lower price points.  Leather, scarves, fragrance and the like serve multiple purposes: the products expand Tiffany‘s reach among existing customers; they help Tiffany establish earlier brand engagement among the base of young women most likely to become the core Tiffany customer; and I would expect that it’s helped the gift business, as well, particularly as tableware’s centrality in the wedding business wanes.

Its moves in its core business, jewelry, have borne fruit.  31% of the company’s sales last year coming from its lowest-priced merchandise: sterling silver jewelry at an average price of $200.  The silver, in particular, is a good example of how Tiffany has made and executed on long-term commitments that have helped achieve a higher level of market accessibility. Its Paloma Picasso, Elsa Peretti and Frank Gehry lines of jewelry have built their own bases of loyal fans over the years. The company’s website top navigation makes it easy to find these pieces, and the first entry behind the “Designers & Collections” tab is currently “Elsa Peretti $250 & Under.”

Nice touch.

So what’s another potential category? Handbags.  Although it may strike some as odd, sales of handbags priced at $200 or more have actually grown 15% in the year ending this past June. Many of the leaders are the usual suspects, but – if Tiffany wants a model to study – Coach has shown everyone how it’s done.

Coach’s 2009 successful launch of the more youthful, lower-priced  Poppy line of bags and accessories with the positioning “Are You A Poppy Girl?” – but with bag prices starting at $200 – sparked a lot of wonder.  It’s not that there wasn’t a space in the market, but $200? Hardly the “budget” youth collection, as one fashion blog optimistically coined it.  Andy yet: it’s sellingA lot.  Why?

To a certain extent, the answer comes back to the ill-defined but highly desirable “affordable luxury” moniker that so many brands want to claim.  Two thoughts here: (1) If a woman can get her fix with a $300 bag from a favorite brand (when she might have chosen a $1,200 one in the past), she’s more likely to make that choice, and (2) A woman needs a bag every single day.  No one “needs” non-wedding jewelry. So if I’m going to buy a bag anyway, the thinking goes, it’s penny wise and pound foolish to buy an unremarkable bag when I could just spend another $100 or $200 or even $300 and buy a bag from a brand I truly love – a brand that will “show” well on a daily basis.

Sidebar: I have two core daytime bags: one for fall-winter, the other for spring-summer.  The spring-summer bag was $400, which felt expensive.  Now that I get no less than, say, two compliments on the bag every single week – and the credit card charge is only a hazy memory – I’m sorry I didn’t buy two.

And just to finish it off, notice that these purchases are literally BIG: much larger in size than a bracelet or ring that I might get at the same price.  More status mileage for the dollar.

So into this environment comes Tiffany’s new handbag line, created in partnership with the designers of the Lambertson Truex luxury label (which the jeweler purchased post-bankruptcy last year). The products are priced from $395 for a small suede tote to $17,500 for a large crocodile handbag, and all carry the imprimatur of Tiffany, whether it be in the clasps, the colors or the silver. 

I’m waiting to see how they promote the line.  The evening “Holly” bag has gotten a lot of press, but such a bag has limited use cases and narrows the market; I hope to see some creative promotion and messaging that emphasizes day and weekend bags, as well. 

And not to state the obvious, but I know that Tiffany will be mindful of the fact that women already knew Coach as a handbag maker, so Poppy was an immediate “get” for the consumer.  Poppy is to Coach as Elsa Peretti is to Tiffany: an extension of the core business.  Jeweler Tiffany will need to build some real promotion and personality if it wants to move a lot of product. [Paging Christmahanukwanzaakah, come in Christmahanukwanzaakah…]



Mad Men Won’t Keep You From The Rain
Wednesday September 01st 2010, 9:06 pm
Filed under: advertising,branding,luxury,retail,US economy,women,women online

by Stephanie Fierman

If a pop culture phenomenon is white-hot, and you saunter up to it and ask it out to dinner, will you become its best friend?

Check out my second blog, Marketing Mojo, for the answer.



In A Fog
Wednesday September 01st 2010, 8:30 am
Filed under: advertising,branding,licensed content,luxury,retail,US economy,women,women online,wretched excess

by Stephanie Fierman

There’s been a bit of a scramble among brands seeking to leverage AMC’s popular series, Mad Men.  BMW is one of the largest and most frequent sponsors, prompting an auto site to gush, “BMW’s underwriting for Mad Men is mad marvelous.”

Maybe so.  After all, the series is about an advertising agency and the supposed glamour of the post-War period, all glowy and wistful.  It’s an unusual opportunity to create a fresh and fun message… IF it makes sense for the brand.

BMW did two things right. First it aligned itself with the overall  je ne sais quoi of the show: the ambience, the characters, their lifestyles, their appearance, their tastes, the physical environment. That provides a very broad base upon which to construct an association.  BMW is already an upscale, luxury brand, so this association is more of a positive reinforcement than a flat-out creation. 

Second, this attachment is even further strengthened because BMW’s ads run during the episodes themselves.  As the show transitions almost seamlessly from content, to commercial, and back again, the company and its cars place themselves directly alongside the target of their (and your) dreams.  The viewer sees both in the same sitting; the brain experiences both in the same moment. The connection is made in real time. 

London Fog‘s new Mad Men-related ads, on the other hand, miss on both these counts.

Unlike BMW, London Fog’s owner, Iconix, chose to bet all its chips on one single character, Joan Holloway (aka Christina Hendricks).  This demands a plausible or at least believable connection between what the product and the individual represent, which is not present here. 

Today, London Fog is generally utilitarian, functional, male (androgynous?), classic (tired?) and generally unremarkable, while Hendrick’s Joan is nearly the polar opposite: voluptuous, sexy, powerful, womanly, stimulating. She’s brightly-colored cotton candy in a dress.  When you watch the show, her sexual  presence makes her nearly every man’s fantasy at one point or another.  She’s unattainable, like a rare luxury item. 

London Fog is the opposite.  By its own admission, the brand has far-flung distribution and high consumer awareness: it holds little mystery, no magic, no unattainability. Mad Men‘s Joan would not wear a London Fog, and no woman  (consciously or unconsciously) believes that she will be “more Joan”  by wearing the brand.  The effect is double-whammy, given that the clothes (which might look fine on “normal” people) appear boring, dull and awkward draped on Hendrick’s frame.  The two zeitgeists are just too far apart.

Iconix may have thought that Joan’s essence would rub off on the product.  And, prior to Hendricks, Iconix enlisted Eva Longoria and Giselle Bunchen for its ads, presumably with the same objective.  The problem is that consumers cannot make brand connections that aren’t there or – worse – pulling in opposite directions. 

Forcing an otherwise adequate brand into an environment that makes it appear inadequate is sad and unnecessary: an embarrassing kind of brand dissonance that can do the brand more harm than good. 

Lastly, the Joan ads do not have the benefit of being absorbed in the same moment as the story itself. The connection failure is particularly dramatic when experienced in the middle of a fashion magazine, surrounded by circa 2010 fashions, photos and messaging.

Managing a brand – particularly one trying to meld a perhaps very different past with the present – is a fine art. The brand steward must have an unblinking grasp on what the brand is and is not, what it might become, how fast such a change in direction might be made and how to begin.  If that direction is wrong, or the speed too fast, the desired messaging won’t find its target and you may needlessely displace the neutral-to-positive feelings most people have about the brand in favor of all the characteristics the brand does not possess.  It’s work grounded in an almost DNA-level of understanding of brands, consumer desire and human behavior.

Most brands have positive if not wonderful attributes to emphasize.  Show yours in its best light.  Avoid whatever might be hot right this second if it just doesn’t fit, and create an environment in which the product can truly shine.



Stephanie Fierman Suggests Goldman Sack This Idea

Marketers become accustomed to defending, documenting and demonstrating the value of marketing itself – particularly the beautiful art and science known as branding.  A lot of us are pretty good at it.  When branding comes up, I stand at the ready.

Ready, that is, until I’m not.

And so it was with the news that Goldman Sachs is considering a big, broad, very public effort to polish its brand. “Public” as in advertising, letters to the editor(s), responses to media reports… even an appearance by CEO Lloyd Blankfein on Oprah.

Can you imagine? Oprah. I picture it as a cross between Tom Cruise’s 2005 crazy-eyed appearance and her skewering of James Frey in 2006, and not in a good way.

Lloyd Blankfein

Look, I may condemn the investment banking scoundrels for their wrongdoing when I’m out having a drink somewhere, but – behind closed doors with the Goldman team – this would be my position:

Goldman executives may indeed be shocked – even hurt – by the way they’ve been treated by Congress or by the all-out vitriolic point of view on Main Street, but the fact of the matter is that these are not the audiences that really matter at Goldman… and this is the price to be paid for what they do for a living.

It’s a pretty small price, in my opinion.

Goldman isn’t nor was it ever in the business of being loved. It’s in business to be 100% rational, not emotional, and to make money for itself and its clients. That mission defines a fairly narrow set of individuals and companies that really need to know what Goldman is doing. For these people, a big initiative is (a) likely to be a grossly inefficient way of communicating, and (b) even more likely to be seen by those in the know as a silly distraction that pulls Goldman away from (make me money) what it’s supposed (make me money) to be doing (make me money).

Strike One and Two.

Then there’s John Q. Public, who may not understand a lot of Goldman’s business activities but knows the firm was at the epicenter of a series of events that were highly disruptive and that made a very small number of already rich people even richer. For most, these beliefs are almost purely emotional, and no company can promote itself out of negative sentiment. If you lay low – particularly when a bunch of abstract business concepts are involved – the public’s anger will dissipate, and soon another target will present itself.  Sad but true.  To communicate now would only inflame an audience that Goldman doesn’t need and create added stress for one the firm does need – it’s own employees.

Strike Three.

Branding, PR, advertising… none of these tools can be used to uproot deep-seated negative opinion while an issue is still hot. It’s tempting to buy full page ads in the Wall Street Journal that say you’ll make things right (paging British Petroleum) but you can’t win doing this and, frankly, it’s a bit immature and disrespectful. It’s like saying “Hey, I punched you in the eye, hard, and I can’t take it back or make it any better, but I still want you to like me.” In Goldman’s case, the firm plays hardball, it’s going to bruise some people and it’s going to make billions of dollars for its inner circle of stakeholders. Everyone knows that’s the deal, and – when the spotlight turns toward them – those involved need to be able to put up with not being “liked” in exchange for their success.

Goldman’s communications advisors would do well to make sure that its client is staying focused on what’s important to its core business and true constituencies.  I disagree with those who say that Goldman must vigorously present “its vision of the ‘right thing to do’ in the financial services industry going forward.”  To what end?  To “clarify” its point of view, or contribute to the national dialogue? Through a branding campaign? On Oprah? Please.

Take care of your own employees, talk with clients, prospects and key constituencies around the world as you normally would, and wait.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to simply live with a situation, keep going and accept that there are moments when the right kind of marketing may be no marketing at all.



Stephanie Fierman Can’t Replace The Personal Touch
Saturday January 16th 2010, 2:28 pm
Filed under: advertising,branding,customer service,Internet,loyalty marketing,US economy

brand-love-stephanie-fierman.jpgThere was a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Firms Hold Fast to Snail Mail Marketing.”  It seemed to be about small businesses who gave up their direct mail efforts in favor of email to either save money and/or because it seemed like the hip thing to do.

The particular companies profiled in this article told personal stories about how email didn’t generate the same positive results. In some cases, the owners actually heard from long-time customers asking what had happened to the letters/reminders/postcards they had received in the past.

This is because email is beside the point.  Establishing a connection with a prospect or customer is and always has been what’s most important.  Think first about your history and what type of communications have worked in the past. What kind of outreach prospects or clients appreciate. What makes them feel special. What generates orders, referrals and repeat business.  One of the owners profiled in the article discontinued his art-based postcard mailings, only to discover the cards permanently displayed in his clients’ offices.  His customers started calling him asking whether they’d been taken off the company’s mailing list.

What we have right there, friends, is some serious brand love.

Testing is fine.  It would be foolish not to test new technologies, which are usually cheaper and more easily wielded than the old ones.  And compromises must sometimes be made in order to preserve cash.  But – putting dollars aside – the beginning of the value chain is the relationship with the customer, and at the distant far end is the tactics you choose to reinforce and grow that relationship.  Too many executives (particularly those in small companies, who either can’t afford good marketing help or get less-than-great advice) are putting social media at the forefront of their thinking because they’re reading about whatever the heck it is everywhere they go. 

I tell these folks that they were right the first time when their gut was to do something special – something that showed they cared.  If you can replicate this more cheaply, by all means do it:  but don’t let any new whiz-bang communications vehicle get in the way.  



Stephanie Fierman Is Pondering Holiday Gifts
Sunday November 08th 2009, 7:24 pm
Filed under: advertising,branding,loyalty marketing,market research,US economy

I knew it.

I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.

reindeer-sweater-stephanie-fierman.gifThere was a bona fide reason that I used to react badly to – well – bad gifts.  Despite my mother’s it’s-the-thought-that-counts coaching, and the annual “You don’t have to actually wear it” rationale, I was powerless to resist the disappointment. 

The whole thing’s a set-up.

Since 1993, Wharton economist Joel Waldfogel has been studying the value created (or not created) by holiday spending, and how we may react badly to gifts because we see the opportunity cost of not buying ourselves something we actually wanted. In his new book, Scroogenomics, Waldfogel tells us that, although warm and fuzzy U.S. folk gave $66 billion worth of holiday gifts in 2007, the value of recipients’ satisfaction is much lower: so low, in fact, that it actually created an “annual deadweight loss of $12 billion.”

Waldfogel estimates such “lost value” from student surveys he’s conducted at Princeton over many years.  When a student is asked to (a) guess the value of a gift and (b) guess the same for items she purchased herself, she will almost stephanie-fierman-scroogenomics-cover.pnginevitably underestimate the price the gift giver paid and overestimate the value of products she buys herself by 18%.

Amazing.

I completely understand the psychology of overestimating the value of something I might buy for myself because doing so helps reinforce my purchase decision. What cracks me up is how low our expectations of others are – and how accurate.  The least “efficient” gifts, says Waldfogel tend to be from relatives who haven’t seen you in a long time (and so do not know your preferences).

So suck on that when the niece you haven’t seen for 11 years tells you she hates the color pink – while she’s holding the pink sweater you just gave her.  Your goth niece just can’t help it: her reaction to your lame gift is bigger than both of you.

The only smart things to do are give gift cards (less tacky than cash) or overcome your embarrassment about not knowing her and email your niece to ask what she’d really want.  She won’t assign as much value to the black nail polish, eyeshadow and lipstick as she would have had she bought them herself… but it’s a start.



Stephanie Fierman Believes In Trying
Saturday September 05th 2009, 10:43 pm
Filed under: retail,US economy,Wall Street Journal

The economic news these days is, uh… bad.  It turns out that the productivity increase in the 2nd quarter was due to companies letting more people go and freezing the salaries of those who remain.  And then there’s unemployment.  And retail sales.  And GM.  And the banks.  And the entire state of California.

Shampoo.  Rinse.  Repeat.

So I was somehow heartened by an issue of the Wall Street Journal this week that just happened to include stories about a lot of companies trying to grow and people looking to better times.  Here are just some of the stories I noticed in the WSJ on just one day:stephanie-fierman-hope.jpg

Disney buys Marvel
Baker Hughes agreed to pay $5.5 bil to purchase BJ Services
Walmart is creating an online mall and will sell merchandise from other retailers
Restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory are testing healthier menu selections and kids-eat-free nights to try to get families to eat out again
Payless Shoes is expanding into Russia
Companies are doing more pro bono work – and finding that it’s earning them paying gigs
Dell is going to sell Brocade networking gear under its own name
Samsung is launching an apps service for cell customers in Europe
Blue Nile is undergoing a major overhaul in an effort to attract women (most of its customers are men)
Some people are making fools of themselves with wacky job-hunting tactics that may not close the deal today, but have helped garner them some positive media coverage and made them stronger for it

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not exactly a blind optimist, and it’s not the first time I’ve noticed that newspapers are full of stories every day (wow!).  But there was something about that particular issue that just seemed bursting with hope and –  on that singular Tuesday –  I appreciated and was grateful for it.



Stephanie Fierman’s Choices Stay Close to Home

Yet another result of the flailing economy:  truly new brand launches are faltering while brand extensions are succeeding. 

In 2008, less than 10% of new products were “net new brands,” even though the pace of product introduction was about on par with the last five years. Take a look at the top food and non-food brand launches of last year:

stephanie-fierman-2008-non-food-brands.jpgstephanie-fierman-2008-new-food-brands.jpg

If you remove the pharma/DTC products (which are in a psychic/regulatory/financial class all their own), all the products on these lists are extensions or reformulations.

In the best of times, launching a truly new product is extremely difficult and expensive.  Manufacturing, distribution, marketing – starting from scratch is daunting.  In a recession, success is even more difficult to achieve.

Then there’s the consumer psyche to consider: what are the monetary and non-monetary risks of trying something truly new?  Who hasn’t been curious enough about a new launch – let’s say something perishable that cannot be returned – to try it out?  But when money is scarce, the news is full of stories of imprudent spending and people are making trade-offs among the smallest of purchases, the price of “wasting” money suddenly becomes very high. I will feel foolish if I buy this and don’t like it when there are existing substitutes that I know are good enough.

The other thing that’s noticeable about these lists and others is that the “closest in” extensions win: an existing brand holds a space in the consumer’s mind, a range of functionality and messaging in which that brand has credibility.  Hershey’s can launch new candies, Porsche can introduce a “wireless racing wheel” for gaming, Mr. Clean can (sort of) try out the car washing business.

But a $1,200 Disney Sleeping Beauty fountain pen or Kellogg’s hip-hop streetwear? Not so much.



Stephanie Fierman Likes Uniformity
Thursday August 13th 2009, 9:13 pm
Filed under: advertising,branding,retail,US economy,women

A recent Crain’s New York Business article discussed what many retailers are doing to try to squeeze as much as possible out of what is expected to be a lousy back-to-school season.

One step: uniforms.

Not uniforms uniforms, but rather solid color separates – blazers, pants, polo shirts, skirts, etc. – that parents can mix and match to create multiple outfits for kids age 5-11ish. At stores like J.C. Penney, Target and Children’s Place (even Macy’s…) each piece is priced around $10 or less.  As uniform sales in these stores have increased while sales of children’s apparel overall have been falling for the last two years, this is a step that is likely to help these stores hold onto customers who are trying to get through the recession.

But one thing: please think hard before “putting a small section in and [literally] calling it uniform” in otherwise non-uniform retail locations.  Few parents (or children, for that matter) will assign positive connotations to the word itself… and it’s not all that great in quickly communicating benefits, either.  “Budget smart”-like phrases may be a better way to go. 



Stephanie Fierman’s Peers Are Whining – And It’s Not Attractive
Sunday July 26th 2009, 11:01 pm
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,cmo,stephanie fierman,US economy,Wall Street Journal

Pity the downtrodden marketing services community.  That bad economy-thingy appears to have smacked it right in the face.  No surprise.

And since price pressure should be no surprise, either, I’ve been startled by the snarly response emanating from the ad industry.  I’ve already forgotten a few instances I noticed recently, but the WSJ late last week offered an ok example.  In an article titled “Thrift Darkens [Ad] Industry’s Hopes,” Maurice Levy of Publicis sniffed, “The reality is that clients want more for less.  It’s something that is unfortunately becoming quite common.”

Is that right?  Really? Clients want more of the same quality work that you’ve been giving them all along for a lower price?  For some, this may be the case.  Then again, many of the large agencies in my experience became too big, spoiled and overpaid through the years.  Too many clients have been pithed by the senior staff, and left with inexperienced AEs.  You were supposed to fork over 15% just – I dunno, because.  Because advertising is magic.  Or whatever. 

Times used to be great, no question.  I’ve enjoyed some wonderful agency relationships and learned a lot of my craft from my partners in those shops and others.  We all have.  How many AdAge headlines have screamed about client cutbacks and layoffs in the last year?  More with less? I’d say there’s plenty of pain to go around.

AdAge really lit this match for me whenb I first read an editor’s reaction to a set of business decisions recently made by P&G: business decisions that – for a reason that cannot be justified -touched off a cascade of immature, naive and nasty remarks from this person’s bully pulpit.

According to this editorial, P&G’s decision puts the “still-moist notion that it’s possible to do interesting things for huge, unglamorous marketers” out of its misery.” That’s just embarrassing.  And my personal favorite – that the changes give “the best talent yet another reason to leave the industry… buh-bye, innovators and creative geniuses” – is pathetic.  Wow: talk about turning on someone when times get difficult.  What does this solve?

The editorial concludes by toasting P&G for killing one of the “final drops of joy” (*gag*) left in the industry, and for making the business – and I quote – a “little bit shittier just because it can.”  I’m actually still appalled just typing these words weeks later.  This isn’t about freedom of the press: if the writer has her own blog, she should knock herself out.  But AdAge is a publication read by professionals and aspiring professionals on all sides of the business.  Such bitter statements are grossly unproductive and, frankly, more than a little silly.

I wonder if AdAge believes that this kind of vitriol will help the industry attract the “creative geniuses” whose absence it so mourns.  I doubt it will.

The fact is that agencies and vendors work at the pleasure of clients and – in AdAge‘s case – report on them.  I also believe it’s safe to say that both agency executives and marketing journalists fancy themselves articulate thought leaders… and they should be.  Clients would like them to be.  Throwing oneself on the ground and having an unattractive hissy fit helps no one and only makes a difficult time harder and needless (or at least more) contentious.

Grow up, people.



But It’s Hard For Stephanie Fierman To Wear That Mask On The Beach
Monday June 22nd 2009, 9:00 am
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,blogs,branding,Internet,US economy

Which entities would have a really tough time attracting positive attention right now?  AIG, yes. GM, no question.  Bernie Madoff, no doubt.  

Added to the list are two little words that have to got to shake any agency to its core: Mexican tourism.

Yes vacationers, remember Mexico? That was the place to which thousands of you were headed before the swine flu outbreak… and the resulting fears have weighed heavily on Mexico’s economy. 

The United Nations World Tourism Organization says the country boasts one of the largest tourism businesses in the world, welcoming more than 20 million tourists a year.  It’s the only country in Latin America on the list of top 25 most popular vacation destinations, and tourism is the third largest contributor to the economy.  70% of all visitors come from the United States.

But that was before the cooties came.

President Calderon plans to spend $92 million on new advertising and promotion to bring tourists back.  With t-shirts boasting “I went to Mexico and all I got was the swine flu” in circulation, he understandably feels he’s got to do something.

There’s no real point to this post.  I think I just wanted to express a certain kinship and sympathy for a brand that feels it must include a medical update, the phrase “keep the people safe” and a quote from the dean of the Harvard School of Public Health in its new television ad.  

Oh, well now I’m definitely in the mood for a Cancun vacation! Que es muy terrible.



Stephanie Fierman Can Pick ‘Em
Tuesday May 26th 2009, 7:02 am
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,branding,financial services,stephanie fierman,US economy

Each year, the Financial Communications Society (FCS) recognizes firms in various categories for excellence in financial services advertising, collateral and (now) digital.  You can read the press release announcing this year’s winners HERE.

There are two reasons I wanted to write a quick post on this event:

(1) FCS named two of my faves as Best In Show.  The first is American Express, which was named Best In Show – Corporate Image advertising for its Martin Scorcese-Tina Fey “Timeshare” (my label) ad.  The post I wrote about this ad is HERE.    The second is E*Trade which was selected Best In Show – Consumer Retail for its “Baby” campaign – and you know how much I love this campaign.  I first wrote after its premiere at the 2008 SuperBowl, then again this past January when the second round of ads came out (“I wanna punch the economy in the face“).  And E*Trade has kept it rolling with two more greats, Singing Baby and Golf

(2) It’s a walk down memory lane. 2009 is the 15th year FCS has given its Portfolio Awards.  1995 was the very first year – and my team won an award for our ChaseDirect launch campaign.  ChaseDirect was the U.S.’ first national direct bank (even before Bank One’s Wingspan, which many remember), and we won that night.  It was a business that we all felt passionately about and my team from Chase and Wells Rich Greene were there to celebrate. 

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners.



Stephanie Fierman Expects Discretion
Friday May 15th 2009, 11:22 pm
Filed under: ad agency,advertising,cmo,US economy

I may get in trouble for this opinion, but… so be it. 

This week’s AdAge features an editorial, “InBev abusing agencies with its payment terms,” written by the president of an advertising agency in the Midwest.  

InBev is the Belgian company that bought Anheuser-Busch.  The brewer is notoriously cheap and frowns on pricey marketing and advertising, both of which had been a highly visible of A-B’s strategy for decades.

The editorial points to numerous cost reductions and policy changes that InBev seems to have implemented after the purchase.  The author mentions a couple internal corporate changes, such as the replacement of offices with bullpens and the elimination of first-class travel and baseball tickets.  There’s a snarky retort after each mention including, “So what?” and “Hey, times are tough.” So much for this agency executive’s public expression of empathy for (or any effort to protect the privacy of) InBev/A-B employees.

He’s far clearer in his disdain for the company’s treatment of external partners.

“The company has gone one step too far” by announcing that it would now take up to 120 days to pay its bills – a “horrible precedent.”  After InBev’s CEO says (in an unrelated WSJ interview) that he’s going to run the company on a tight leash, our author quips “… that’s true of any company, but we all still need to pay our bills.”  Oh, snap!  He grinds on, quoting a Morningstar analyst as describing the InBev team as “ruthless” “machete-wielding investment bankers.”

Finally, the writer crows that the Belgian government may soon examine the new policy to determine whether it is an abuse of power.* I suppose he throws this in to point out that others (a whole government!) see what he sees.

And here’s where I may get in trouble.

I’ve been an executive for 20 years.  I value and am grateful for my relationships with the agencies that have made me look good and helped grow my brands.  There are many in the agency business whom I consider friends.  But there are some fundamental, DNA-level business principles and tenets that are not negotiable.  Discretion is on the top of the list.  

If the Belgian government instructs InBev to reverse the policy, great. If I worked at InBev and one of my agencies was hurt by this new policy, I would take up its cause with my superiors and encourage the agency to privately protest and/or resign. 

And if that agency went to the press to air private and confidential matters such as billing and payment policies, I’d dismiss them on the spot.

This is such an unholy, obnoxious breach I wouldn’t think twice.  An agency executive who takes a business matter to the media cannot be trusted with a private conversation, negotiation or anything else.  You do this and you’re done.  At least in my backyard.

What purpose did this agency president believe his editorial would serve? Is he an InBev agency or did he simply decide to speak out on behalf of his trade? ‘Doesn’t really matter.  Could anyone believe, particularly in this economy, that he could or should pressure a global company by throwing a temper tantrum in public? 

I’m tempted to tell him, “Hey, times are tough” (where have we heard that before?), but the policy may in fact be unreasonable. It would be unjust for a small agency to suffer or even go out of business because InBev wants to make money on the float.  Not my point; I plead no contest.  But an agency leader who takes private business and/or contractual matters out into the public forum should perhaps consider a different line of work because – in the increasingly fragile, trust-based business of advertising – I wouldn’t trust this guy to pull out my chair at dinner. 

* Update: the Belgian government has dropped its probe, determining that InBev’s new payment policy does not violate any antitrust regulations.



Stephanie Fierman Is A Little Coupon Crazy

There have been several articles recently pointing to the rise in both offline and online coupon use.  While consumers 65+ are more likely to use newspaper coupons and younger individuals prefer online coupons, there’s no real news here given that these stats will change over time as newspapers become less available and older consumers become more and more comfortable on the Web.

In the meantime, don’t leave home – or buy online – without it!

I’ve become accustomed to checking online for coupons and promotion codes prior to making either a store or Web purchase.  There is an art to this and, once you get the hang of it, you’ll become savvier about what sites are likely to bear fruit and which will not.

There are four general categories of sites I’d recommend you consider:

1.  Aggregators – these are sites whose sole purpose in life is to offer coupons and “promo codes” from many retailers, typically across multiple industries.  Some examples would include:

Coupons.com: the best-known source for printable online coupons
RetailMeNot
UltimateCoupons
DealCatcher
CouponCabin

CoolSavings
CouponCraze
CouponMountain
FatWallet

DealofDay
CouponNerds

2. Industry-specific couponing/deal sites:

Rental cars: RentalCarMomma
Grocery: CouponMom, GroceryCoupons, TheGroceryGame
Hotels:  Roomsaver, HotelCoupons
Computers, peripherals and accessories: TechBargains
Restaurants: Restaurant.com,

3. Clubs and affiliations that may offer codes and deals:

WorkingAdvantage, StudentAdvantage and VeteransAdvantage
Alumni clubs (check yours)
Bulk buying clubs such as BJ’s Wholesale Club and Costco
www.entertainment.com (Yes, the old Entertainment Books still exists…)
AARP (American Association of Retired Persons)
AAA (American Automobile Association)

4. Forums – some activities tend to make people want to vent (like having to take your shoes off at the airport…), and folks on these sites love to let others in on a deal:

Airline travel, rental cars and hotels: FlyerTalkWebFlyer, FlyerGuide, MileageManager
General shopping (usually bricks and mortar stores): ShoppingForum

If you’re set on a particular brand, it only takes a second to check out that company’s own site, too.  KFC, for example, has a pre-set button on its home page pointing visitors to printable coupons.  I’m actually surprised that more brands don’t take advantage of this simple way to build a solid customer database.  If a consumer is a fan, he will part with valuable demo and psychographic information in exchange for a steady stream of deals delivered by email.

And as a final tip: consider opening a brand new email account exclusively for your interactions with coupon and promotional sites.  You’ll be able to see all your coupon- and deal-related email in one place without clogging your own email inbox.

So start looking for coupons online and, pretty soon, you too will understand the nirvana of “stackable codes…”



Stephanie Fierman Bids $3 On The Jello
Monday April 06th 2009, 8:19 am
Filed under: advertising,blogs,customer service,retail,US economy,word of mouth

sghettislogo1.jpgWhile restaurant chains suffer, and the industry predicts a “purge,” one restaurant has decided to let its customers take more of a direct role in its future.

Sghetti’s Italian Bistro, a local restaurant in Pennsylvania, has established a “pay what you think it’s worth” policy.  The menu no longer shows specific prices, opting instead for a suggested price range by category: appetizers $3-$9, pasta $6-$12 and so on.  The offer is good for parties of 8 or less at dinner only, beginning at 4pm.

“[The recession] is sad, for senior citizens and young families,” says the spot’s owner, Eugene Razzano. “…we can do something to empower people.”  Razzano recognizes that some diners won’t be fair, but believes that the press coverage and increased traffic – particularly return traffic – will make this a successful proposition overall. 

I think this is brilliant.  Razzano has been very clear that he is assessing the program on a week-to-week basis.  High-margin beverages are not included, and parties are asked to tip the wait staff, as usual.  He’s getting full-blown word of mouth, while still protecting himself on the downside.

Part of the commentary on this blog lately has seen me preaching restraint to businesses advertising at such a sensitive time.  If you’re going to put a message out there, be 100% certain that it connects to how people are feeling and what they are experiencing.  Even if a negative reaction happens “outside your target audience,” it can have an outsized ability to impact business over the mid- to short-term.  My opinion is that companies including Pepsi and Hawker have taken risks with their brand images by promoting messages that are out of tune with the public zietgeist.

Sghetti’s is spot on.