Sunday, August 29, 2004

Straight Talk

I'm writing from Chapel Hill North Carolina.  Like many New Yorkers, I've escaped the city and the tumult of the Republican convention as did Bostonians with the Democratic conclave in July.  These conventions have become pure theater, sadly less reality than those awful TV shows that have become so popular of late.  Much of what we'll see in New York, and what we saw in Boston, is aimed right over the delegates heads to the larger mainstream, our election cycle "swingers".  The staged focus of the GOP convention is far more centrist (compassionate is making its quadrennial comeback) than either the delegates or, most significantly, the party's office holders.  The public talk in Boston was far to the right of the assembled, though not as out of sync with post Clinton Democratic office holders.  What we don't have on either side is straight talk.  Messages are delivered in code in this election season, which is probably the last thing we need during these troubled times.

Take for example the swift boat flap.  The focus of the initial attacks which, thanks of intensive repetitive media coverage got so much of our attention, were on John Kerry's war performance and whether or not his citations and purple hearts were earned.  But that was all a smoke screen because it was in the second commercial that the real complaint emerged – John Kerry the anti-war protester is what bothered these people and the Administration ideologues behind them.  What really unnerves the right is that John Kerry embodies a war gone wrong whose aftermath has hung over the military and America's use of power ever since.  And this is not a trivial matter because underlying the current aggressive foreign policy is the notion that at long last we are over Viet Nam and all that unmanly self doubt.  The reason it's important to discredit John Kerry the protester is that every day Iraq is looking more like a Viet Nam style quagmire.  That doesn't suggest that the two wars are the same.  For one thing, however horrendous, the body and casualty count pales in comparison.  For another, connecting the dots of Communist expansionism was much more credible (albeit equally wrong) than linking Saddam to terrorism.  That said, Kerry is a living reminder of our fallibility and of the patriotism of dissent.  He contends that we can't just use our power because we want to or have the capacity which is precisely what Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have been all about since Bush took office.  Swift boats are a code, not straight talk.

The greatest challenge for Democrats is not in marching against Bush which may feel good but might not result in victory, but in marching for John Kerry which probably will.  Straight talk is not that we don't like what's happening, but what we believe should and must happen to get things back on track.  Straight talk means being willing to say that perhaps in a shifting world our perceived best days are behind us if we mean by that our absolute dominance of the agenda and our ability to make everyone salute when we pass by.  In a world of technology and ever increasing accessibility, we may not be the only ones to invent, may not always be the most successful and capitalizing on what we discover.  Nor, speaking of straight talk, have we been that in the past.  Straight talk doesn't lend itself to sound bytes and simplistic slogans which, however commonly employed, are not how any of us, including our government, functions.  And as to Liberals, of whom I count myself as one, straight talk means saying what we believe, not what we think will play well.  On that, the compassionate bull not withstanding, the Conservatives have been much more successful.  Their ideological straight talk has played well, not because it is right, but because it's been proudly stated and weakly refuted.  Straight talk: we better get our act together.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Much Larger than Life

Few things have caused more partisan outrage and subsequent ridicule as the premature and inaccurate "mission accomplished" fly-in by the Aviator-in-Chief.  Perhaps less remembered, but no less erroneous in its implied promise, were the words "we got him," spoken by L. Paul Bremer last December.  Howard Dean was roundly criticized at the time for suggesting Saddam's capture would not have any measurable positive impact on our safety, a contention that has proved prescient as eight months later we continue to witness ongoing, even escalating, hostilities in Iraq combined with repeated terror alerts at home.  It is Bremer's "promise" that we should think about in contemplating the eventual capture or demise of Osama bin Laden.  While the latest reports suggest even the Pakistanis have no idea where he is, some cynics contend that he will surely materialize in the weeks before the November election — a classic October surprise.  While of practical political relevance, such thinking is ultimately beside the point.  Everyone, on the Right, Left or in between, would welcome eliminating this infamous character from the world scene, the sooner the better.  If, however, we think that ends the story, we are seriously deluding ourselves and missing the most basic lessons of human history.

Heroes, and bin Laden is most surely a hero to his followers, don't diminish but become larger-than-life when they are removed from the scene, most especially when they die.  This should be evident, to anyone who has an understanding of the history and nature of religion, which plays such a central role for contemporary terrorists, not to mention the current administration.  Whatever influence he may have had in life, Jesus became a religious super power only in death.  Without the crucifixion, Christianity may never have become the dominant religion we know today.  The same holds true for Islam even if the nature of the heroic figures are different. Mohammed made significant localized inroads as a spiritual and political leader, but Islam only spread across the world after he was gone. Death can be more powerful than life, far more powerful.

We don't really take control of our heroes until they are gone.  On the most elemental level, a dead hero can no longer take actions that may disappoint or make statements that might contradict our own thinking.  Death provides us with an opening and, more importantly, an opportunity.  We can now begin the myth building process, freely expanding the message and finishing the unfinished or unspoken thought to suit our own purposes and agenda, noble or not.  That is precisely what we can expect from the radicals who have followed bin Laden in life, and even more significantly by the not so radical but highly frustrated who see his movement as their only way out.

Dead heroes are like the global consumer brands that pervade our lives.  They certainly can't sustain without substance, but the real power lies in the idea of them, in their emotional content.  It is that larger-than-life aspect which takes hold of us.  People don't prefer Coke or Nike because the first is an intrinsically better beverage or the second a superior running shoe, but because each embodies a state of mind, something with which we can and want to identify. So, too, Osama bin Laden may once have been a person with temporal human attributes, a man who puts his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us.  But that bin Laden, due in no small measure to our predilection for personalizing the "war on terrorism," is already gone.  When truly removed from the scene, he is bound to grow in mythical stature, most likely geometrically — immeasurably larger-than-life.  So his movement, far from being neutralized or even wounded, will likely be stronger than ever.  It is this reality that we must face if we have any hope of changing the potentially lethal course on which we have been bound for more years than most of us care to admit or think about.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

It's Downhill for Brands

A little change of pace.

With all that's going on in the world these days, we tend to be distracted from things that impact more directly on our way of life.  A changing geopolitical world coupled with the information age, have given new meaning to nostalgic remembrances of the good old days and the comparatively simpler life that accompanied them.  One of our most cherished ideas that seems to have lost some of its luster is the power of big brands.  We're a long time from when Wall Street accorded high multiples to companies that owned these icons of commerce.  Indeed some of the once nifty dozen, brands like Coca-Cola, American Express and Marlboro no longer are the revered names they once were.  Coca-Cola has suffered from uneven management and changing lifestyles, American Express no longer has exclusive right to wallet cachet and Marlboro, along with other cigarette brands, has to hover in the shadows of embarrassment rather than in the spotlight of manly pride.

I won't suggest that brands or branding have become irrelevant, but it seems to me that a lot of consumers are simply moving on past their former fixation with reliable names.  Decades ago, brands faced what seemed like severe competition by retailer house and generic entries.  To be sure, some of their business was lost in that period, especially to the cost conscious and constrained.  But the truth is that the hey day of brands, the time when everyone was speaking and writing of their incredible value, came after the onslaught of value competition.  No, I think what troubles brands today is a combination of changed times and most especially of self-inflicted wounds.

Brands have been whipsawed by a series of social and health trends and by an increasingly well educated (in the practical sense) consumer.  Whether greater sensitivity to the consequences of high cholesterol, the growing awareness that obesity and even simple overweight is becoming a major health crisis or the more widely accepted risks of smoking, Americans have become readers of back panels and cautionary notices.  A pretty picture on the front simply won't cut it any more.  Moreover, many have discovered the true parity between most competitive products.  Perhaps people once bought into the idea that Bayer delivered something superior, but most know that aspirin is aspirin whatever brand name appears on the package.  Pepsi, because it was in second place, discovered long ago that cola (as most people's one and only) may have run its course, and has been rolling out the alternative beverages that consumers have grown to include in their daily life.  And specialty stores like the ever growing Whole Foods that opened a blockbuster destination flagship in New York earlier this year and Trader Joes that is expanding rapidly are offering an alternative to the traditional supermarket.  Brands, including their own, are present but no longer playing the starring role.  Finally the increase of channel options on TV, the threat of Tivo-like filter systems and the still unresolved challenge of the Internet as a medium has put somewhat of a lid, even if temporary, on the power of advertising.

But these are all externals.  Much of the problem comes from the marketers themselves.  What ails the branding giants can be ascribed to two intertwined phenomena, lack of true innovation and greed.  Together they have commoditized product offerings and diluted brand franchises.  When something is new only because it claims to be on the label, then at some point in time the Emperor's nakedness will reveal itself.  When a new kind of cleaning or of eating is just more of the same old, the promise becomes empty.  When a brand is deemed so powerful and profitable it is interminably leveraged and ultimately milked to death by line and franchise extensions, one begins to forget where it all began and why it mattered.  I can develop an attachment to a one and only, but not to a variety some of which don't ring my bell.  If Oreo is so many different things, what makes the original so special, not that a newborn will even know that one of them was its version of the real thing.

Perhaps even more damaging is the continuing and ever growing trend of me-too copycat marketing.  Today's fad is low carbs and it's a wonder we haven't been offered a low carb cleanser, air freshener or allergy medication.  There is a kind of shameless silliness to all of this that bespeaks a disturbing degree of branding bankruptcy.  Innovation and creativity seem to be headed for Chapter 11 and that's really sad.  Perhaps I am in the minority, but somehow an unending series of disappointments has made even me, a curious early adopter, lose interest.  Take for example the Gillette Mach3 razor which was introduced so effectively by BBDO close to a decade ago.  Mach3 was a demonstrable improvement in shaving; at least I found it so.  Next came Mach3-Turbo whose incremental benefits were so invisible that the only improvement I could discern was a higher price per blade, good for the company but certainly not for the consumer.  Finally, the most recent entry, Mach3-Power, a battery powered razor that supposedly reduces the number of passes and improves the shave.  Really?  Well I certainly see the benefits to Gillette of a twofer – replacement blades and Duracell batteries in one product, but my own experience with this new "system" was disappointing to say the least including that two of the even more expensive blades broke in half while I was shaving.  I probably won't even try Mach4 or whatever it is called when it inevitably hits the market.

I don't mean to either pick on Gillette (who incidentally never replied to my complaint email), nor to use personal anecdotal information as the proof of anything.  That would be unprofessional.  But I do think it's an example of a much larger problem spread across all categories and businesses.  If we don't start focusing on our own unique mousetraps and making them, not to mention their communications, distinctively different then say goodbye to brands.  Perhaps the end won't come in the next few years or even in my lifetime but, absent some change, I see it happening within this still young new century.