Posts tagged ‘branding’


Avon walling

21.01.2017

A week ago, Avon found an inventive way to get its brand noticed in peak-hour traffic.
   I could make this about how people don’t know how to drive these days, or about the media fascination with Asian drivers when the reality does not bear this out, but let’s make it all about Avon—since they are the ones who have actually inspired a full blog post today. To think, it could have just been on my Instagram and Tumblr and I would have let it go, since the following video is over a week old.

   To be fair, as well as posting on my own platforms, I thought it would only be fair to alert Avon about it on its Facebook. In this age of transparency, it’s not good to talk behind someone’s back. I would have used the website advertised on the side of this Mazda (avon.co.nz), but the below is all I get. (You can try it yourself here.) I told Avon about this, too. They need to know one of their people is a dangerous, inconsiderate, and selfish driver who is ignorant of basic New Zealand road rules, namely how a give-way sign works and how to change lanes. And if I were in their shoes, I’d want to know that the URL emblazoned in large letters on the side of my fleet of cars is wrong.

   It was ignored for a while, now my post is deleted.
   Immediately I had these five thoughts.
   1. Its brand isn’t that great. When you’re starting from a poor position, the best thing to do is try to work harder. As a network marketer, Avon can’t afford to have an office that doesn’t deal with complaints. I might even be a customer. In any case, I’m part of the audience—and these days, we can affect a brand as much as the official channels. For instance, this post.
   2. In the 2000s and 2010s, social media are seen as channels through which we can communicate with organizations. Going against this affects your brand. (There’s a great piece in the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing, vol. 3, no. 1 that I penned. Avon would do well to read this and integrate social media marketing into its operations.)
   3. If you’re an Avon rep and you know that the Australia–New Zealand operation ignores people, then what support do you think you can count on? My post will have been seen by many people, and a follow-up one today—informing them it’s poor form to delete comments—will be seen by more. It discourages more than customers—its distributors surely will think twice. (I’m also looking at you, Kaspersky. Another firm to avoid.)
   4. Advertising your website in large letters and have it not work is a major no-no—it contributes to the image I (and no doubt others) have on Avon as, well, a bit amateur.
   5. This is a US firm. If you’re an exporter, isn’t now a really good time to show that you care about your overseas operations? Nation brands impact on corporate ones. Now I’m beginning to wonder if Avon might not be that interested in overseas sales any more. Their new president, with his stated views on free trade, has said in his inauguration speech that they need to ‘buy American’ and ‘hire American.’ Let’s delete stuff from foreigners!
   The question I have now is: wouldn’t it have been easier to apologize for its representative’s inability to drive safely, and thank me for telling them their website is dead so they can get it fixed? The video contains the registration number, so Avon could have had a word to their rep.
   This is all Marketing 101, yet Avon seems to have failed to grasp the basics. I guess the folks who flunked marketing at university found jobs after all.

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Posted in branding, business, interests, marketing, New Zealand, USA, Wellington | No Comments »


Farewell to Thomas Gad: a friend, a colleague, and a uniter

19.12.2016

Tonight, I had the sad and solemn duty to announce publicly the passing of my friend Thomas Gad.
   I’m still waiting for someone to come out and tell me that I have been severely pranked.
   Thomas was the founder of what we now call Medinge Group. After working for 17 years at Grey Advertising as an international creative director, Thomas set up Brandflight, a leading branding consultancy HQed in Stockholm. He authored 4-D Branding, Managing Brand Me (with his wife, Annette Rosencreutz), and, most recently, Customer Experience Branding.
   In 2000, Thomas seized on an idea: why not gather a bunch of leading brand practitioners at Annette’s family’s villa at Medinge, three hours west of Stockholm, for a bit of R&R, where they could all discuss ideas around the profession?
   Nicholas Ind was one of the people at that first meeting. In a statement tonight, Nick wrote, ‘I first met Thomas when I was working in Stockholm in 2000—he invited me to join him at Medinge in the Swedish countryside to talk about branding. So began a professional and personal relationship that was truly fulfilling. Thomas, and his wife Annette, hosted the annual meetings we had at his house every summer after that with unrivalled generosity. My strongest recollection of those days is not the debates we had or flying with Thomas in his sea plane (even though those are also memorable), but Thomas and Annette sitting at the dinner table in the evenings singing songs, telling jokes and bringing everyone together. Thomas was exceptional in the way he made everyone feel welcome and valued in the group—he will be deeply missed.’
   I came on the scene in 2002, invited by Chris Macrae. The event had become international the year before. Thomas and Annette made me feel incredibly at home at Medinge, and we had an incredibly productive meeting. He had taught me to sing ‘Helan går’, for no Swedish gathering is complete without a drinking song.
   At the same meeting, I met Ian Ryder, who wrote, ‘As a founding member, and now Honorary Life Member, of Medinge Group I couldn’t possibly let such a sad announcement pass without observation. Thomas was a really bright, intellectually and socially, human being who I first met at the inaugural pre-Medinge group meeting in Amsterdam sixteen years ago. Little did we know then that our band of open-minded, globally experienced brand experts would develop into a superb think-tank based out of Thomas’s home in Medinge, Sweden.
   ‘For many years he and his lovely wife, Annette, hosted with a big heart, the annual gathering at which he played fabulous host to those of us who made it there. A larger-than-life, clever and successful professional, Thomas will be sorely missed by all those lucky enough to have known him.’
   By the end of the summer 2002 meeting we had some principles around branding, the idea for a book (which became Beyond Branding), and a desire to formalize ourselves into an organization. The meeting at Medinge would soon become the Medinge Group (the definite article was part of our original name), and we had come to represent brands with a conscience: the idea that brands could do good, and that business could be humane and humanistic. This came about in an environment of real change: Enron, which had been given awards for supposedly doing good, had been exposed as fraudulent; there was a generation of media-savvy young people who could see through the BS and were voting and buying based on causes they supported; and inequality was on the rise, something that the late Economist editor, Norman Macrae (Chris’s Dad) even then called humankind’s most pressing concern. If everything is a product of its time, then that was true of us; and the issues that we care about the most are still with us, and changes to the way we do business are needed more now than ever.
   This is Thomas’s legacy: Medinge Group is an incorporated company with far more members worldwide, holding two meetings per annum: the annual summer retreat in Sweden, and a public event every spring, with the next in Sevilla. The public events, and the Brands with a Conscience awards held in the 2000s, came about during Stanley Moss’s time as CEO. Stanley wrote this morning, ‘Thomas brought his vision and resources to the foundation of Medinge, and served as a critical voice in the international movement for humanistic brands.’ We continue today to spread that vision.
   We have now been robbed far too early of two of our talents: Colin Morley, in the 7-7 bombings in London in 2005; and, now, Thomas, taken by cancer at age 65. My thoughts go to Annette and to the entire family.

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Posted in branding, business, marketing, social responsibility, Sweden | 2 Comments »


Mitsubishi’s latest scandal: enough to shake it right out of the passenger-car market?

26.04.2016


Above: The Mitsubishi eK Wagon, one of the cars at the centre of the company’s latest scandal.

One thing about creating and running Autocade is that you gain an appreciation for corporate history. Recently, I blogged about Fiat, and the troubles the company is in; it wasn’t that long ago that Fiat was the designers’ darling, the company known for creating incredibly stylish vehicles for all its brands and showing how you could use Italian flair to generate sales.
   That was the 1990s; by the turn of the century, Fiat had lost some of its mojo, and by the time I got to Milano in the early 2000s, the taxi ranks had plenty of German and French cars. Once upon a time, they would have been nearly exclusively Italian. Today, a lot of Fiat’s range is either made by, or on platforms shared with, Ford, GM, Chrysler (which it now owns), Peugeot, Mitsubishi and Mazda. Sharing platforms isn’t a sin, but a necessity, but Fiat seems to have taken it to a new level, looking like a OEM brand whose logo is freely slapped on others’ products.
   Mitsubishi is the other car company to find itself in trouble in recent weeks. The company admitted that it had lied about the fuel economy figures for its kei cars, the micro-cars that it sells predominantly in Japan.
   It wasn’t as troublesome as Volkswagen’s defeat device which fooled the US EPA, running differently when it knew the engine was being tested. Mitsubishi kept things simple, and overinflated tyre pressures.
   It would have got away with it, too, if it weren’t for Nissan, a company to which Mitsubishi supplied, under an OEM deal, kei cars. The customer started to ask questions and tested the cars for itself.
   Mitsubishi had supplied 468,000 cars to Nissan, all of which are affected. It had only sold 157,000 under its own marque. Production of the cars, from the eK range, and the OEM equivalent for Nissan, the Dayz, is now suspended, while Mitsubishi’s shares plunged 15 per cent on the news last week.
   Sankei, the Japanese newspaper, believes that Mitsubishi used the wrong test method on the I-MIEV electric car, RVR (ASX), Outlander, and Pajero, which are exported.
   You have to wonder what the corporate culture must be like for these matters to recur so regularly. But then, collectively, people tend to forget very rapidly, and companies like Volkswagen and Mitsubishi must bank on these.
   VW isn’t the first to cheat the EPA—US car makers have attempted less sophisticated defeat devices in the latter half of the 20th century—though it has had a chequered past. Just over 10 years ago, there was a scandal involving VW colluding with a union leader to keep wage demands down, and a few low-level employees took the rap. Go back to the 1980s and the company found itself in a foreign exchange scandal. But these were known mainly among specialist circles, principally those following car industry news.
   Mitsubishi’s scandals, meanwhile, were more severe in terms of the headlines generated. Last decade, when the media called Mitsubishi Japan’s fourth-largest car maker—these days they call it the sixth—the company was implicated in a cover-up over the safety of its vehicles. Japanese authorities raided the company in 2004, and revealed that Mitsubishi Motors Corp. hid defects that affected 800,000 vehicles, and had done so since 1977. Nearly a million vehicles were recalled. Affected vehicles were sold domestically as well as in Europe and Asia. Top execs were arrested that time, including the company president, although it was hard under Japanese law to punish Mitsubishi severely. There was no disincentive to conducting business as usual. The company was ultimately bailed out by its parent, the giant Mitsubishi Group, when it found itself facing potential bankruptcy.
   People were killed as a result of Mitsubishi’s cover-ups, and at the time it was considered one of the biggest corporate scandals in Japan.
   Go back a bit further and Mitsubishi Materials Corp., a related company, had used slave labour in World War II, including US troops—something the company did not apologize for till 2015, even though the Japanese government itself had issued apologies in 2009 and 2010. While it was a first among Japanese corporations, and US POWs got what they had long awaited, descendants of Chinese slave labourers still have a lawsuit pending against a connected Mitsubishi subsidiary.
   The other major difference between Volkswagen and Mitsubishi is that the Japanese marque is relatively weak in terms of covering its market segments. It’s SUV- and truck-heavy, and its kei cars had sold well (till now), but it has little in the passenger car segments, which it had once fielded strongly. The Mirage (and the booted Attrage) and the Galant Fortis (exported as the Lancer to many markets) are what’s left: the latter is now nine years old, though still fairly competitive, and in desperate need of replacement. Its only other car is its Taiwan-only Colt Plus, still selling there as an entry-level model despite having been withdrawn from every other market. In the big-car segments, Mitsubishi is actually supplied by Nissan in Japan, but doesn’t make its own any more. ‘Sixth-largest’ is shorthand for third-smallest, at least among the big Japanese car companies.
   Mitsubishi looks set to quit the C-segment (Galant Fortis) since neither Renault nor Nissan, which it had approached, wanted a tie-up. And the company survives on tie-ups for economies of scale, and there’s now a big question mark over whether potential partners want to work with it. Automotive News’s Hans Greimel questions whether the Mitsubishi–Fiat truck deal will go ahead (though I had thought it was an inked fait accompli).
   But, most seriously, Mitsubishi hasn’t completely recovered from its earlier scandal.
   It is within living memory, and the timing and nature of the latest one, tying so closely to what rocked Volkswagen, ensured that it would get global press again, even if the bulk of the affected cars were only sold domestically. And when consumers see a pattern, they begin wondering if there’s a toxic corporate culture at play here.
   We’re too connected in 2016 not to know, and while Mitsubishi is likely to be bailed out again, it will face the prospect of shrinking car sales—and sooner or later one will have to question whether the company will stay in the passenger-car business. Isuzu exited in the 1990s, focusing on SUVs, pick-ups and heavy trucks, forced by an economic downturn. Since Mitsubishi’s own portfolio is looking similarly weighted, it wouldn’t surprise me if it chose to follow suit, its brand too tarnished, with too little brand equity, to continue.

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Posted in branding, business, cars, culture, marketing | 1 Comment »


No surprises as Facebook slips to third in Alexa, but tech press misses it

17.04.2016


Above: Facebook’s latest move: ensuring that notifications for messages go to its own app. If you choose not to install it, tough. (Actually, you can reach your messages if you had bookmarked your old message index, and through some digging you can still get there. However, your old habit of clicking on the number won’t work any more.)

I notice that Facebook has dropped to third in Alexa this week, but none of the tech press has covered it.
   I know the usual arguments: Alexa isn’t the best way of measuring audience stats; everyone (including us) has dropped because of the way Firefox has changed its status bar, thereby omitting a lot of users from its sample; Facebook itself will have recorded no real drop in user numbers (though we also know a lot of these so-called active users are bots and spammers, as we see heaps each day); and that Alexa doesn’t capture mobile data, where people are spending far more time these days.
   It does seem rather hypocritical, however, given that the same tech press applauded and wrote heaps of articles when Facebook overtook Google in Alexa. Some hailed it as the rise and rise of Facebook. There were tones of how unassailable it had become.
   However, its number-one position was remarkably fleeting and it quickly dropped back to second, where it has been for years, apart from that one blip.
   Facebook’s position has been usurped by Google’s YouTube. I make no predictions on whether this is fleeting or not, but it doesn’t look good for Facebook. I just don’t see any YouTube hate out there. If you dislike reading the comments from the world’s keyboard warriors sitting in their underwear at home, a few cookie settings will render them invisible. YouTube becomes a remarkably tolerable site.
   Earlier this month, a report found by my friend William Shepherd showed that personal sharing on Facebook had dipped by 21 per cent.
   I have said for years that ‘Facebook is the new Digg,’ a place where news is shared, not personal updates, though it appears it has taken a while for the company to realize this. Looking at some of the bugs on the site over the years, I’m not surprised Facebook missed it: for months it acted as though its entire user base was in California, with the website stuck at the end of each month till it got to the 1st in its home state. Now it is kicking users off over fake malware accusations when it’s more likely, and this is my guess based on how the site has behaved over the years, that its databases are dying. Liking, sharing and commenting fail from time to time.
   Given this, and its many other problems—including the breach of policies outlined by some of the groups it participates in, impacting on user privacy—no wonder it’s experiencing this drop.
   I see personal updates again that I saw a day before, because relatively few of my 2,300 friends write them any more. The trend has shifted, and a lot of users must have noticed what I did many years ago.
   At Medinge Group we have long advocated transparency in brands, and Facebook’s actions run counter to a lot of what we have proposed.
   We believe that sooner or later, people wise up—something we said about Enron at one of the first meetings I attended in 2002.
   In fact, the way Facebook behaves tends to be combative, and for a 21st-century firm, its attitudes toward its user base is very 20th-century, a “them and us” model. It’s not alone in this: I’ve levelled similar accusations against Google and I stand by them. Since my own battle with them over malware, and a more recent one over intellectual property (where I was talking to a Facebook employee who eventually gave up when things got into the “too hard” basket), I’ve found dozens of other users via Twitter who have been kicked off the service, yet are running clean, malware-free machines. The blog post I wrote on the subject has been the most-read of the pieces I have authored in 2016, and certainly the most commented, as others face the same issue.
   While both giants will claim that they could not possibly have the sort of one-to-one relationship with their user bases in the same way as a small business can, it’s clear to me that big issues aren’t being flagged and dealt with at Facebook. When I read the link Bill sent me, my first reaction was, ‘Why did it take so long for someone there to realize this?’
   Let’s not even get started on the way both companies treat paying their fair share of tax.
   It’s not about the number of people experiencing any given issue, it’s about the severity of the issue that a small number of people experience. By the time a larger vocal minority experiences it, the damage has gone a lot further.
   Facebook does listen to some of these cases: I remember when it limited bot reports to 40–50 a day, at a time when it was not uncommon to find hundreds a day on the site. I complained, and after a few months, Facebook did indeed remove this limit.
   But I regard that as an exception.
   Its forced downloads of so-called malware scans that even its supplier refuses to answer for (could they have nefarious purposes?), and now the latest last week—ensuring that all message notifications in a mobile browser link to its Messenger app, resulting in a 404 for anyone who does not have it installed—are rendering the website less and less useful. In my case, I just use it less. We’re not going to download privacy-invading apps on our phone—we’re busy enough. We want to manage our time and if that means we only get to Facebook messages when we are at our desks, then so be it. Some might abandon it altogether.
   Its other move is ceasing the forwarding from www.facebook.com to m.facebook.com on mobile devices, so if you had the former bookmarked, you’re not going to see anything any more. Some browsers (like Dolphin) came with the former bookmarked. Result: a few more legit users, who might not know the difference, gone.
   If there’s no trust, then regardless of the money you have, you’re not a top brand, nor one that people really wish to associate with.
   Facebook, of course, knows some of this, which is why it has bought so many other firms where there’s still personal sharing, such as Instagram and Whatsapp.
   It knows if there’s another site that comes along that gets public support, as it did when it first started, people will abandon Facebook en masse.
   Curiously, even this past week alone, it seems intent to hurry them along. There must be some sort of corporate goal to see if it can reach fourth, just like Flight of the Conchords.

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Posted in branding, culture, internet, USA | 1 Comment »


How will things play out at Fiat?

02.04.2016


Above: The current Fiat 500. A year shy of its 10th anniversary, is it still cool in 2016?

The Detroit News reports that Fiat has been having trouble Stateside, with dealers now permitted to sell the cars alongside Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram instead of at stand-alone showrooms.
   It’s been worrying seeing Fiat’s plans unfold since it decided to take control of Chrysler, a firm that was once the darling of the US car industry, with its industry-leading R&D times, to one that was starved of investment in the 2000s.
   Those initial plans, sold as a long-term strategy, turned out to be a short-term Band-Aid. With hindsight, maybe it wasn’t too much of a surprise, since Fiat was still grappling with understanding just what it was taking on.
   Fiat needed to do something given that things at home weren’t looking too good, with a model range that wasn’t very cohesive, and with its entries into the Chinese market having faltered a few times. To the casual observer, Fiat saved Chrysler, but there’s some truth in saying that having the company that controls the Jeep brand was a lifeline to Fiat itself.
   What we’ve seen since those days was the failure of the strategy of twinning Chrysler and Lancia. While this was a marriage of convenience, I could see this having some long-term gains with Lancia focusing on smaller cars and Chrysler on larger ones, but the result in 2016 is that Lancia has been reduced to an Italy-only marque, the equivalent of what Autobianchi was a few decades ago. Once the Ypsilon is deleted, then Lancia is consigned to the history books.
   The winner has been Alfa Romeo. It has only just returned to the junior executive segment with the new Giulia, after an absence of several years, and its 4C is a cracking sports car. Things are looking up, and rumours that Alfa and Dodge would be paired up in the same way Lancia and Chrysler were mercifully haven’t come true. The Giulia platform could be used for future models. Jeep has benefited from Fiat platforms, and Ram has gained some Fiat vans.
   But the parent brand, Fiat, has looked very uncertain for a while.
   For a start, there’s little uniformity globally. Fiat has the opportunity to offer the Viaggio and Ottimo in more places than China, slotting above the Ægea, for example. While having unique models for South America makes some sense, because of Fiat’s strength there, there’s an opportunity to globalize, with the Toro pick-up truck looking very appealing.
   Without having more of its self-developed products, the Fiat range in Europe doesn’t inspire too much confidence. While most manufacturers have one or two joint-venture models, Fiat’s range is almost exclusively made up of vehicles that have shared tech. The famous 500 and Panda are on a Fiat platform which has Chrysler input (before the takeover), and is shared with Ford for its B420 Ka. The Punto, 500X and 500L are on another platform shared with GM. The Doblò is also offered to GM. The Qubo is the product of a joint venture with Peugeot. The Freemont is a rebadged Dodge Journey from México, which Fiat gained after the takeover. The 124 Spider is based on the Mazda MX-5, and built in Japan by that firm. The Fullback pick-up is a Mitsubishi Triton twin and made in Thailand by that Japanese firm.
   Fiat, in other words, is holding down more relationships than Casanova.
   As a casual observer, there’s an opportunity for a massive streamlining of platforms, and offer more in-house models. That may well be happening, and let’s hope its current strategy is more long-term than its last.
   Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Fiat hasn’t had a great reputation of being able to carry out long-term sales’ strategies in many of its markets. Take New Zealand, for example, where Fiat was offering its (Grande) Punto and Bravo models, before it decided to pull everything and offer only the 500.
   The Punto has returned after a hiatus, this time as a budget model, along with the Tipo 139 Panda, but those who bought Puntos in the 2000s might think twice about returning to a company that abandoned them and offered no direct replacement for their car when it came to trading up.
   That lack of continuity could have some buyers worried, and Fiat needs to regain their trust in a big way.
   Being the Five Hundred Car Company, which Fiat certainly was in the US, cannot help, if buyers expect Fiat to offer more. We’ve seen it fail here, and Fiat’s had to back-track. Even in Hong Kong, where Fiat had also been reduced to flogging only the 500, it has had to add the Freemont.
   Fiat will argue that as it had been absent from North America for so long, it could re-enter the market-place with a single, fashionable model: after all, Mini and Smart have done.
   The trouble is that Fiat isn’t known as a niche brand: there was enough in the US media to indicate that this was an Italian giant, and the perception of such a large company didn’t gel with it offering a niche range anywhere. It lacked the cachet of a brand that was created to be fashionable and funky from the outset. You just can’t do it when that’s the name of the owner (think: can you sell “cool” cars with GM as the brand—that had been tried in New Zealand and failed dismally; or, going back a generation, Leyland? Volkswagen surely is the sole exception with its Beetle), and FCA, which the parent company is called, isn’t a consumer-facing brand. It’s just a company name with no brand equity.
   In the same vein, average punters might not know of BMW’s connection with Mini, or Daimler AG’s connection with Smart. They stand alone with plenty of brand equity, helped by identifiable products, and, in Mini’s case, even helped by its image outside North America.
   I also question whether the 500X and 500L are cute cars in the same vein as the original 500. Getting Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander character to advertise the 500X seemed good in theory—till it dawned on the public that the new Zoolander film was a bit naff, cashing in on last-decade nostalgia. I’m not a fan of retro design, either, and I would have hoped that Fiat would have renewed its 500 by now, since we’re on to newer versions of the Beetle, Mini, and Smart. It’s no surprise that Fiat sales are down 14·6 per cent so far this year.
   If Toyota could not sustain Scion with all its muscle, then Fiat retail really should be integrated into dealerships selling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram Stateside. And I’d argue that Scion couldn’t remain because the brand had lost its coolness among the college kids who bought the XB in the first place. Buyers in this consumerist game, and at the fashion end it is more a game than in any other, are notoriously fickle.
   I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Fiat’s a brand I’ve grown up with, and I’ve been visiting their dealerships since I was two years old. Back in the 1970s the showroom in Homantin, Kowloon had everything from 127s to 130s. Fiat was doing a brisk trade on 124s. I came close to buying various Fiat Group cars over the years, including a Tipo and a Lancia Delta, and more recently I had considered Alfa Romeo Mitos and Giuliettas. I briefly toyed with importing a Tipo 844 Lancia Delta from the UK badged as a Chrysler, but decided having a $75 1:43-scale one was enough.
   To see Lancia decimated and now on life support as Fiat concentrated on making Chrysler and Dodge work, to see the home brand filled with other people’s products in the interim, and to receive news that US buyers weren’t flocking to its showrooms in the same numbers any more, all make me concerned. Go to Italy and the taxi ranks no longer are dominated by Fiat Group cars: the cabbies have gone French and German. It’s all very well Maserati and Ferrari doing well but the former’s volumes won’t have a huge impact, while the latter has been separated and now has a different parent. The only continent where I think Fiat is making a decent bash of things is South America. I don’t want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture, not least because I have fondness for all the brands that now fall under the Fiat umbrella. But the weaknesses, at least to an outsider looking in, outnumber the strengths. My gut says Fiat will work through it all, but will it do it in a fast enough fashion, or is there more pain to come?

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Posted in branding, business, cars, China, globalization, marketing, USA | 1 Comment »


Google and Facebook should not head “top brands” lists when consumers do not trust them

10.02.2016

I’ve always been surprised when I see Google or Facebook appear on any “top brands” lists. It’s branding 101 that a strong brand must have loyalty, awareness, positive associations, perceived quality, as well as proprietary assets, based on the model from David Aaker, and implicit in this, I always thought, was trust. You can neither be loyal to something you don’t trust, nor can you have positive brand associations toward it, nor perceive an untrustworthy thing to possess quality. According to a survey from a consultancy, Prophet, which looked at over 400 brands across 27 industries, polling nearly 10,000 customers, we don’t trust either Google or Facebook. Neither makes it into the top 50; those that make it into the top 10 are Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, Netflix, Nike, Chick-fil-A, Amazon, Spotify, Lego, and Sephora. Google slots in at 55th, and Facebook at 98th.
   To me, the Prophet approach makes far more sense, as for years—long before Edward Snowden revealed the extent of us surveillance under PRISM—I had been blogging about privacy gaffes and other serious issues behind both companies.
   People may find Google and Facebook to have utility and enjoyment, yet we willingly volunteer plenty of private information to these sites. We do not trust what they do with this information. Adweek notes that in a separate survey, Facebook was the least trusted brand when it came to personal information, making it worse than the US federal government. There have been so many occasions where users have found certain privacy settings on Facebook altered without their own intervention; and I’ve constantly maintained that, with the bots and spammers I encounter daily on the social network, its claims of user numbers are difficult to accept. In fact, if you have Facebook’s advertising preferences set to reject tracking, the site will not stop doing so, compiling a massive and sometimes inaccurate picture of who you are. What it does with that, given that you have told the site that it should not use that information, is anyone’s guess. It makes you wonder why that data collection continues. At least Google (now) stops tracking advertising pref­erences when you ask it to.
   These surveys indicate that consumers are wising up, and it opens both Google and Face­book up to challenge.
   Google dethroned the biggest website and search engine in the world when it was released, so no one’s position is guaranteed. Duck Duck Go, a search engine far better at privacy, has chipped away at Google’s share; and I find so much Facebook fatigue out there that it could follow Myspace into irrelevance. When I hear those speak of these two companies’ positions as being unassailable, I take it with a grain of salt.
   We already have seen peak Facebook (and Twitter, for that matter), for when it came to Super Bowl stats this year, there was a massive 25 per cent drop in activity. Interestingly, despite the trending #RIPTwitter hashtag last week, I don’t agree with those who think Twitter is heading into oblivion, for the simple fact that the site is less invasive and seemingly more honest than Google and Facebook. Those same experts, after all, said that Google Plus would be the Facebook-killer, while I consistently disagreed from day one.
   The Medinge Group predicted correctly in the early 2000s when it was stated that consumers would desire greater integrity and transparency from all their brands, something reflected in our book, Beyond Branding. I don’t believe that we are so different when it comes to dealing with online brands.
   This is, then, a welcome challenge for all businesses, to ensure that they demonstrate transparency to their audiences. We have remained very constant in our treatment of private information: for the most part, unless you’ve agreed to it, we don’t store it at our company. There is some information that goes to our advertising networks through cookies. We admit we could have a clearer privacy policy. But for us, we don’t want to lose your trust, because in bad times, it’s the one thing we can hang on to. It’s not something Google or Facebook seem to be aware of as they tend to ignore users’ demands and queries.
   In the last 24 hours, author Holly Jahangiri found an illustration depicting child pornography on Facebook that had been reported by many of her friends—only for Facebook to deem it constantly acceptable, despite what it states in its own terms and conditions. It was only when she Tweeted about it that Facebook finally responded publicly; and only when she involved a US government agency did the page disappear. The pressure of accountability like that against dishonest companies tells me Twitter will be around for a while yet.

   The trend this year, I believe, is the ongoing rise of challengers to these two brands. When the tipping-point against them occurs, I do not yet know. But now, I sense that it’s closer than ever.

This blog post is an adaptation of the editorial in issue 35 of Lucire.

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How can we help those fooled into believing what their local brands are?

06.01.2016

How interesting to see a silly Tweet of mine make the Murdoch Press and lead an opinion column—I’m told it even hit the news.com.au home page.
   It’s a very old joke that I’ve told since 2002, when I walked along Bay Road in Kilbirnie and saw a locksmith sign in Futura. Back then, Dick Smith Electronics had its logotype set in ITC Avant Garde Gothic. I really thought it was a Dick Smith sign at a first, fleeting glance, seeing CKSMITH. The joke was born.
   Most in my social media streams got it except a couple of Australians who had likely come across it via Murdochs a day late, one calling me ignorant (not sure how you can get that from one Tweet), and another ‘ahole’ (is this a misspelling of aloha?). As the funniest guy in their media is John Clarke, who was born in New Zealand, maybe humour doesn’t reach a couple of households there if it has to be imported. And the number of times John’s taken the piss about us, to my thorough enjoyment, means that some of us can take a joke. Perhaps we just have a sense of humour. We have to: it was the only way we could deal with our PM appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman. It is, to quote the man, ‘a bit of banter. No drama.’
   The false indignation “on behalf of others” is always a comical one, because it’s usually founded on a misplaced and unjustified sense of superiority. During a political campaign, they’re the ones I find the most humorous and least authoritative. Thick skin came with that territory.
   Neither deserves a response beyond what I said on Twitter, but the second one (with a fresh new account to troll from, always a good sign of someone who won’t stand by their words) highlights a point that I have made on this blog before.
   “Ruby Pond” notes, ‘The guy is pure Oz and started when you were in nappies and tried! Stick to your foreign companies, they really help Oz.’ I’m not sure what I was tried about, not having been to court while I was in nappies, but maybe she’s depending on the fact that not everyone remembers back to their infancy.
   Well done. She got this from an American-owned newspaper website (remember, Rupert’s no longer an Australian, nor is the HQ in Australia and hasn’t been for a long, long time), and, for the record, I’m not as old as the business that Dick founded. There’s also a suggestion that I must be Australian, because, after all, everyone on the planet must be. No other countries exist. I didn’t want to get into trans-Tasman rivalry in such a situation, nor was it appropriate to give a list of Australian corporate misdeeds in New Zealand. The term off-topic springs to mind.
   I told her, ‘Stick to your foreign media, they really help Oz.’
   Hers is that simplistic thinking that gets people supporting foreign-owned businesses when they believe they are supporting local ones.
   Dick’s been one of my personal heroes since his solo helicopter flight and I’ve been a customer of the chain he founded since I was old enough to buy my own tech gear. Entrepreneurs like him are the ones I’ve always encouraged, through mentoring and through my policies. However, the sad story of the company, no longer owned by Dick, is one of corporate greed—which the founder himself has been critical of. We haven’t learned the lessons of so many economic crises: Gordon Gecko’s mantra of ‘greed is good’ continues to drive the corporate world.
   The reason so many multinationals buy local brands is to fool the public into thinking they’re supporting their own. We’re guilty of it ourselves, and I recall using the examples of Just Juice and most of our local newspapers on this blog. People closed accounts at the National Bank when it became ANZ here, because of a suspicion of, dislike of, or rivalry with Australia, perceiving National to be a local bank. The problem there: ANZ had owned the National Bank for years before the rebranding of its own subsidiary, and prior to that it was part of Lloyds TSB in the UK. A lot of Australians think Ford and Holden are domestic players (though, oddly, not Toyota, which probably builds as many, if not more, cars there), just as many Britons still think they are buying British when they shop at Ford and Vauxhall.
   The situation with news.com.au differs slightly in that that business was started in Australia by Rupert Murdoch’s Dad, and it has grown from there—but the fact remains that its HQ is overseas and that’s where it pays its tax. Help to Australians: not a lot. The Murdoch Press’s globalization agenda won’t be one that the “buy Australian” crowd would support for the most part.
   But this is how brands work, because they encourage us to make mental shortcuts for the products and services we consume. I’ve devoted a good deal of my professional life to it. Some should encourage scrutiny because of the power they have (Wally Olins noted, many years ago, how some brands need to adopt notions that were once reserved for states), and it was hoped that, post-No Logo, we would be more inquisitive about the backgrounds to the organizations we support.
   Even though it’s our money and time, the sad thing is that this level of inquiry remains the province of the few, those people who are willing to scrutinize their own behaviour and practise what they preach. Social media have helped spread news of corporate misbehaviours (Volkswagen will attest to that) and more people are aware; but to counter that we get more information than we ever used to, and unless something resonates, will we just forget it?
   Therefore, it can only be something where people who have done the proper investigation get to have a say. And like all human endeavours, it can be scammed, so safeguards have to be built in.
   One of the reasons the Medinge Group awarded its Brands with a Conscience accolades for close to a decade was to champion the organizations that were getting it right, inviting transparency and scrutiny, championing good corporate citizenship, and engaging in socially responsible programmes. Among them were companies devoted to doing things right by the communities they were present in, whether it was Dilmah Tea, Tata Steel or Hennes & Mauritz.
   By our championing them, selected by a think-tank of leading brand professionals, we would be able to highlight shining examples of branding, as well as give them the sort of boost they deserved. If positive companies could increase their custom, and if positive non-profits could increase their influence, then we can do some good in the world.
   As people rightly want shortcuts in their busy daily lives, then the work at Medinge, if seen as an endorsement, would help them make a decision about whether to deal with that organization or not.
   It’s nice to be in that bubble, which makes me ever-grateful to get reminders that we still have a lot of work to do. If you’re genuinely desirous of helping your own, then we need to help create more ways of reminding people which organizations do just that. The Brands with a Conscience programme was definitely a very good way of doing it. What shall we do, in the post-peak-Facebook world of the second part of this decade, to get word out? Is it through video, thanks to greater bandwidth, that allows us to experience and understand more? Is this the coming of age of some form of virtual reality? Or, as we did when we first started exploring bulletin boards and email, time again for us to reach out to people in communities very foreign and different to ours through video chats—something like Google Hangouts but actually with people? (Yes, I know, Google fans, I was taking the piss.) Is Skype the service on which this can be built?
   I would have said that technology is the great democratizer, and maybe more of us should be giving out awards to truly deserving organizations, voted on by more of the public. But we come across the issue of quality versus quantity again: the Reputation Institute surveyed 60,000 people in 15 countries and still wound up with Nestlé among the most reputable firms in the world. Nestlé may do very good things in some quarters, but it hasn’t been able to avoid a lawsuit by environmental and public interests groups in California over its water-bottling operation there, or accusations by activists who believe the company wants to privatize water at the expense of public health. Volkswagen was there in the 2014 survey. We decide on image, and that image is the very thing that gets us making bad choices.
   The next innovators are already on to it, and we don’t even know that we seek it. But, in order to self-actualize, maybe organizing us—individuals, not corporations—into global communities is the next stage. We have seen Kiva work so positively, so how about making it more interactive? Naturally we will tend to choose to help those in our own countries first—crowdfunding campaigns show us that—but allowing us to understand another human being’s situation could be the challenge in a time when governments pursue their austerity agenda. Somehow, we can restore, at least to some degree, the optimism we had when we in the first world accessed the World Wide Web for the first time.

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Volkswagen’s scandal won’t spread to other German car groups

24.09.2015


If you want a humorous take on what happened at Volkswagen this week, the above video sums it all up.

During my 2010 mayoral campaign, I noted that if New Zealand did not diversify its economy to have more of a focus on technology, there could be a problem. Relying on primary products (I didn’t say dairy specifically) wasn’t something a western economy should be doing and, of course, one signal that things would change in Wellington would be my idea for free, inner-city wifi. I wasn’t trying to be a smart-arse; I was just pointing out an obvious fact, one that has taken many years for others to be concerned about, with Fonterra payouts dipping. News travels slowly.
   Right now, this Reuter article (sorry, folks, having grown up in New Zealand where ‘NZPA–Reuter’ was in the newspapers every day, the plural form doesn’t come naturally to me) suggests that the Volkswagen débâcle could harm other German car makers. How great that harm is depends on how tied those brands are to the German nation brand. The danger is, according to the article, that with the German car industry employing 775,000 people, and car and car parts being the country’s most successful export, a dent in their reputation could have drastic effects for an economy. According to Michael Hüther of the IW economic institute, the car industry is at the core. Having other industries that are strong is important to any economy, and Germany has ensured that, despite one taking a knock, it has others that will keep it ticking over. Nearly 70 per cent of the German economy is in services. There will be worries in foreign exchange, but I doubt we’re going to see other German car makers tanking because of this.
   But Volkswagen, some argue, is very wedded to the German psyche. Its founding, which no one really talks about because you’d have to mention the war, ties it to the state, and its postwar resurrection was borne out of the British Army wanting to get the people of the former KdF-Stadt some gainful employment. It was the great German success, the company whose Käfer became a world-beater, overtaking the Ford Model T in terms of units made.
   The VW symbol is very German, borne from their graphic design ideas of the 1930s. The German name, the quirkiness of the Käfer, its relative reliability, and its unchanging appearance probably tied VW and Germany closer together in terms of branding. For years, you would associate Volkswagen with ‘Made in Germany’, just as you would with Mercedes-Benz and BMW, even if a sizeable proportion of their production is not German at all today. (Mercedes and BMW SUVs are often made in the US; Volkswagen makes its Touareg in Slovakia. Volkswagen is one of the biggest foreign players in China, and in Brazil it’s practically considered a domestic brand.)
   Think of the postwar period: Germans weren’t always smart about how to market their cars. BMW had a bunch of over-engineered cars that were completely unsuited to the market-place, such as the heavy, baroque 501; it wound up making the Isetta under licence toward the end of the decade because it was in such deep trouble. Volkswagen eschewed fashion in favour of a practical little car that, too, placed engineering ahead of marketing fads. From this, the idea of German precision engineering was enhanced from its prewar years, because engineering was, by and large, top priority. Mercedes-Benz, being far more successful at selling its luxury cars to the rich than BMW, cemented it and added cachet and snobbery.
   It was only the foreign-owned makers in Germany that went for fashion, such as Ford and Opel, selling convention to the masses wrapped in pretty clothes: the Ford Taunus TC had styling excesses demanded by Ford president Bunkie Knudsen at the time of its development, but it broke no new ground underneath.
   Nevertheless, any time Ford sources from Germany, whether it’s for the US market or here in New Zealand, the notion of “German precision” seeps through in the marketing; when the sourcing changed, as has happened with the Focus here, it’s very quietly dropped. The German car manufacturers carved themselves a nice, comfortable niche, thanks to an earlier era which, to some extent, no longer exists.
   Mercedes-Benz decided it was not about ‘Made in Germany’ some years ago, favouring ‘Made by Mercedes’, and turned itself into a marketing-led organization; quality suffered. Volkswagen, in its quest to become the biggest car maker in the world, and the master of everything from Škoda to Bugatti, did what GM did years before, by allowing each brand to maintain its character but sharing the stuff that customers didn’t see. It, too, became more marketing-led, and it’s not had a stellar performance in owner surveys for a while.
   You could say that there has been a gradual separation between the brands and what we hold about the German national image in our minds. The “Germanness”, which once accounted for the companies charging a premium, has been decreasing; Volkswagens, in many parts of the world, are affordable again, even in the US where the NMS Passat is built locally in Tennessee. South African- and Mexican-sourced Volkswagens in New Zealand are cheaper in constant dollars compared to their predecessors of a generation before. The German image is not gone altogether—the name, graphics and the æsthetic of the product see to that—but it does mean the effects of the scandal might not spread to other brands as much as some commentators think.
   The original study that showed Volkswagen was cheating on its emissions’ tests in the US, which is nearly two years old by now (it makes you wonder why it only surfaced in the media this week), also showed that BMW performed better than what it claimed. It’s not impossible for the other manufacturers to separate themselves from Volkswagen, because their individual brands have become strong. Thanks to the weaker relationship between Volkswagen and the German brand, this scandal will likely confine itself to the single car group. It’s not great news for the world’s biggest car maker, but its compatriots should see this as an opportunity more than a threat.

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Facebook’s still deleting drag accounts and keeping bots

21.06.2015

Some interesting bugs out there on Facebook that my friends are telling me about. One has been removed from all her groups, including one that I run (we never touched her account), another cannot comment any more (an increasingly common bug now), while Felicity Frockaccino, well known on the drag scene locally and in Sydney, saw her account deleted. Unlike LaQuisha St Redfern’s earlier this year, Felicity’s has been out for weeks, and it’s affected her livelihood since her bookings were in there. Facebook has done nothing so far, yet I’ve since uncovered another bot net which they have decided to leave (have a look at this hacked account and the bots that have been added; a lot of dormant accounts in Japan and Korea have suffered this fate, and Facebook has deleted most), despite its members being very obviously fake. Delete the humans, keep the bots.
   Felicity didn’t ask but I decided to write to these people again, to see if it would help. There was a missing word, unfortunately, but it doesn’t change the sentiment:

Guys, last year you apologized to drag kings and queens for deleting their accounts. But this year, you have been deleting their accounts. This is the second one that I know of, and I don’t know that many drag queens, which suggests to me that you [still] have it in for the drag community.

https://www.facebook.com/DoubleFFs/

Felicity Frockaccino is an international drag performer, and you’ve affected her livelihood as her bookings were all in that account. This is the second time you deleted her, despite your public apology and a private one that you sent her directly. What is going on, Facebook? You retain bots and bot nets that I report, but you go around deleting genuine human users who rely on you to make their living. Unlike LaQuisha Redfern’s account, which you restored within days, this has been weeks now.

   That’s right, she even received a personal apology after her account was deleted the first time. I had hoped that Facebook would have seen sense, since Felicity has plenty of fans. The first-world lesson is the same here as it is for Blogger: do not ever rely on Facebook for anything, and know that at any moment (either due to the intentional deletion on their end or the increasing number of database-write issues), your account can vanish.

Meanwhile, my 2012 academic piece, now titled ‘The impact of digital and social media on branding’, is in vol. 3, no. 1, the latest issue of the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing. This is available via Ingenta Connect (subscription only). JDSMM is relatively new, but all works are double-blind, peer-reviewed, and it’s from the same publisher as The Journal of Brand Management, to which I have contributed before. It was more cutting-edge in 2012 when I wrote it, and in 2013 when it was accepted for publication and JDSMM promoted its inclusion in vol. 1, no. 1, but I believe it continues to have a lot of merit for practitioners today. An unfortunate, unintentional administrative error saw to its omission, but when they were alerted to it, the publisher and editors went above and beyond to remedy things while I was in the UK and it’s out now.

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All the Geelys on Autocade

01.12.2014

The Geely King Kong Hatchback, one of the new entries on the Autocade website.

Not that I blogged it at the time, but Geely’s multi-brand strategy in 2009 felt doomed. Earlier this year, the company retreated, and brought everything from Englon, Gleagle and Emgrand back under its parent brand again.
   It wasn’t unlike Mazda’s attempt to do the same in the early 1990s, when it began selling cars under marques such as Efini, Autozam and Eunos, as well as its own brand. The bursting of Japan’s bubble economy didn’t help things, but the problems went deeper than that. Those who were used to buying a Mazda Capella from a certain outlet were surprised to find that it had become one of these new channels, and there was no Capella or equivalent to be seen. In fact, for those years, there was no Capella—a nameplate Japanese buyers had become accustomed to for decades—as Mazda decided to offer cars such as the Cronos, which went over the 1,700 mm width that landed it in a higher tax bracket.
   We never noticed much of these issues outside Japan, as these cars were simply sold as Mazda 626, and there were fewer signs of the company’s ambitious plans that landed it in such trouble then-shareholder Ford installed a Scot in charge. It was the first time a Caucasian wound up running a car maker there. Mazda felt embarrassed it wasn’t one of their own.
   Geely might not have had the Chinese economy collapse on it, and it may have been buoyed through the 2000s as it went from being a manufacturer of recycled Daihatsus to a major Chinese automotive force, but there was the obvious problem of increasing its marketing costs dramatically. Could it also develop lines for four marques all of a sudden? Remember, too, it would swallow Volvo around this time, giving it a fifth marque.
   The answer was no: Geely wound up shifting various models to different marques, badge-engineering others, and generally confusing the state of affairs for Chinese consumers. There’s a solid argument to be made for Geely at the time though: the automotive market was clearly segmenting, and there was a need to have budget and luxury brands. But it didn’t seem organic, but dramatically forced. I take my hat off to Geely for carrying it out, nevertheless, even if some of the models were lacking: the Emgrand EC7, for instance, had rear torsion beam suspension, and it was supposedly a premium product for the well-to-do upper-middle-class Chinese buyer.
   It all came crashing down earlier this year, when Geely realized that it lost economies of scale in marketing, and the most important player in all of this—the consumer—really couldn’t follow what was what. To top it off, these new brands had no goodwill, just as Mazda’s didn’t 20 years before. Unless you’re willing to push these brands like crazy, it’s a hard battle to win, especially in the most competitive market on earth. China, too, has had a downturn in car sales this year, and the heady days of thinking one can adopt multi-brand strategies without the numbers to support them are over.
   Why has it come up? Today, Autocade has successfully recorded the entire current line of Geelys, and there are quite a few historical models in there, too. It was incredibly confusing, too, tracking the new identities of a lot of the models—did the Englon SC5 get renamed? Which lines were dropped because there was a badge-engineered equivalent? And, as is particularly common among Chinese models we put on Autocade, how on earth shall we translate some of these model names? (The practice is to use the Chinese company’s own translations, where available, and not succumb to using the export names to index them.)
   While some pages had the new Geely names appended to the old Englon, Emgrand and Gleagle model pages, there were new entries for the Geely New Emgrand, the old King Kong line along with the Englon SC5-based King Kong hatchback, the two generations of Geely Vision, and the historical Geely Haoqing (an old car based around a 1980s Daihatsu Charade: to think, at the turn of the century, this described pretty much every car in the Geely range) as well as the new flagship SUV that now bears the name.
   The reason for being a bit obsessive over the Geelys, as well as some other models (we added nearly all the current Cadillacs and a few more Chang’ans), is that with the demise of Auto Katalog, I believe more will go online. If we can present a credible new-car site—although we have a long way to go before we get every current model line up—we may go some way to filling the void with Autocade.

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