Setting fire to money

Most local advertising fails.

The failures are twofold: the brand messaging is unstrategic, and the media planning, negotiating and buying is unsophisticated. Result? A bonfire of benjamins.

We can help. Call us.

Leave company and product naming up to us.

Not that you aren’t passionately concerned with your new name.

On the contrary. You’re the one most in the risk/reward hot seat. But naming is not your primary business, so it’s something you should outsource, just as you outsource brain surgery, elevator repair, and dog grooming. There are people out there with skills, experience and specialized tools. We immodestly include ourselves (for naming, that is, as we lack the core competency to groom dogs).

Spend your psychic energy, attention and expertise on making widgets, practicing law, predicting the Apocalypse, whatever is the highest best use of your time and talent. As we have been known to recite, “Do in-house what you do best, and turn to pros for all the rest.”

We have written before about Company Re-naming, which is fraught with other perils, and about the Three-Initial Company Name Mistake, which can be one dismal outcome of DIY naming. Recommended reading.

But why is naming so hard, perilous, and a bigger investment than most people expect? It has much to do with the crucial role of the Internet in your brand’s future survival, and the complexity of today’s name searches. The best new customers you will acquire next year will likely initially meet you digitally. Even if they are referred to you, they will use your web presence to verify and authenticate you. Decision makers – including your prospects – have adapted to new information sources, and you must evolve to keep up. The opportunity cost is very high for an uninviting website, uncertain navigation, intimidating long copy, no compelling visuals, or no social media presence. Web visitors are neither forgiving nor patient. Names, logos, taglines, pictures – all have to engage an audience in mere seconds, or your competitor makes the sale.

Now and into the future, your name, web presence, visibility and profits will be intertwined. For this reason, we insist that a new product or company name be available as a .com address. That’s a huge obstacle as billions of .com addresses are already taken. We also want the name to be easy to hear and spell. Here’s an acid test: can you say the name over the phone, without spelling it out, or repeating, and have people get it accurately on the first try? We have other criteria as well, that make naming even more challenging and complex. But then, so is elevator repair. Outsource.

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The success of the Rapture, with lessons for your brand

The Rapture? A success?

Despite the flood of jokes about the failure of the Rapture to appear on time, bear this in mind: the radio evangelist who managed and promoted this Brand netted more than $70,000,000 for his efforts. A sum, it must be added, he is not about to refund to his followers.

$70 million dollars in his bank account is pretty good evidence of non-failure.

There are at least three practical lessons in this for brand holders, perspectives about brand promise, specificity, and narrative.

A brand is a promise. (That’s a cliché, but it became a cliché because it’s true.) And the power of a brand depends on how differentiated and urgent that promise is to your target audience. Eternal life is an old reliable, which when done effectively can make followers cash in their Airstream and leave the trailer park. Is the promise of your product/service/candidate/cause even half that big and emotional and relevant? We wrote a blog entry the other day about the empty promise of superior customer service, which every prospect expects as a matter of course, and which all your competitors also claim. A non-starter.

Second lesson: Specificity. The Rapture was going to happen on May 21, 2011, precisely at 6pm. That’s about as specific as you can get, and it separated the few fervent believers from the many amused skeptics. The world-is-ending-um-someday crowd might be much larger, but they won’t contribute $70 million because it just won’t seem that urgent. Will your toothpaste make my teeth whiter, or 43% whiter? Will your business book tell me keys to sales success, or the nine keys to sales success?

Third lesson: the brand narrative must be engaging to be credible … or even to be noticed. Not only did the Rapture promise eternal happiness, it added the emotional benefit of floating Up There slowly, so you could envision thumbing your nose at those astonished non-believers Left Behind, the smug ones who slammed their doors when you handed out tracts. You’d leave your pants on the sidewalk to mock their sorry selves, the single most powerful and lasting visual symbol of the event.

Be vividly visual: It is not enough to say your paper towel cleans up spills; we want to see the nasty spill, the guilty toddler, the resourceful mom, the happy denouement, all in 4.5 seconds.

Giant Accounting Firm Joined Witness Protection Program

One day in 2011, my wife was watching golf’s Players Championship on tv, and asked me about the logo of a principal sponsor: “Who is pwc?”

I had a guess in mind, but I had to go to Wikipedia to verify it, which should tell you something. It seems one of the world’s largest accounting firms decided to become forgettable and anonymous, and underwent a “major rebranding effort” to accomplish this aim. Why they decided to go into hiding was not explained, but they discarded their prominent name in order to join the ranks of firms who commit the three-initial mistake.

My usual reaction to black lipstick, mullet haircuts, or barbed-wire neck tattoos is, “They choose to look like this deliberately?” But this of course is the exact opposite: a calculated effort not to be memorably distinctive, but to be invisible. Wear beige, avoid eye contact, drive a Mercury.

They added a decoration as their trademark. Of course. It’s an assemblage of color squares that could serve as a logo only for a major accounting firm. Or a nail salon. Or, oh, any organization in the known world.

But in their defense, streamlining the name down to “pwc” got them from six syllables to five.

How Customer-Centered hurts your brand

You’re proud of your customer service. What could be wrong with that?

Several things. For one, if you are truly “centered on your customers,” offer “great customer service,” or try to stay “close to the customer,” (to quote three clichés), you will miss great growth opportunities, and probably adopt a less-than-powerful brand strategy. To readers of business books, this probably sounds like heresy.

But there are at least three ways that your customer focus works against you:

• Satisfaction with incremental growth,
• Not understanding the real growth audience,
• Not crafting a growth brand promise.

Take care of your customers, grow 6%. You can experience steady, modest growth – a steady, modest goal. Quite often, however, meeting that mission turns salespeople into order takers. Nobody gets fired, customers are happy, and that growth means you’ll double in size in 12 years. Steady, modest congrats. But suppose you want to light some fires to double the size of your company a whole lot sooner?

Your leveraged growth audience is prospects, not customers, and that’s a real problem, because nobody knows prospects as well as they know customers. Nevertheless, to ignite serious, more-than-incremental growth, prospects are who we have to understand. We don’t know them or speak to them often. We don’t know what makes them different or where they hide or why they perversely persist in purchasing from our competitors. Please don’t misunderstand – we are not advising you to neglect customers. Take care of mother. Their repeat purchase behavior will still give you that +6% if operationally you serve them well. They’re far more interested in your product or service performance than in your brand message. But don’t neglect getting that brand message in front of the real growth audience: after all, they outnumber your customers by what? 100 to 1? 1000 to 1?

The third drawback? “We’re all about our customers” is a limp brand promise. However heartfelt it may be, it’s totally overused, hopelessly ordinary and not credible as a result. It’s understandable that every company believes it, and wants to believe it, and talks to customers who actually do believe it – but strong brands stand for something. One something. One meaningful, distinctive, differentiated, appreciated something. That’s why saying what everybody else in your category says is a non-starter.

So, what should that meaningful, distinctive, differentiated, appreciated brand promise be? Ah. We’re ready to talk brand strategy now. Holler.

Three strategies for tough times

Current economic conditions mean your category is in flux. You and your competitors face tough choices. You have your brand to protect, so you have three strategic choices: spend less, spend more, or pretend nothing’s changed.

Ignoring the fantasyland of choice #3, what’s the best strategy for you?

Choosing between cost-cutting and aggression is easy, once you ask yourself a simple question: which strategy do you hope your competitors will follow? Then do the opposite.

We recommend our White Papers on setting budgets and advertising effectiveness. As usual, we welcome your comments.


The Unique Selling Proposition (USP) concept is pleasingly simple to grasp. It’s a lot like horoscope reading, or Donald Trump, as it seems to promise semi-magical power to make friends and influence customers. Too bad it’s an illusion.


This flimflammery was coined by (Mad Men prototype) Rosser Reeves in the 1940s. It was used by his Ted Bates advertising agency to make boatloads of money plugging the USPs of various brands in the early days of television. He gave credit for the successes to USP, and just never you mind the mind-numbing repetition, cheap airtime, or ethically-dubious claims. His toothpaste, cigarette and candy advertisers raked in the dough.

And yes, it absolutely takes heavy repetition to make that old warhorse work. Case in point: no matter what market you live in, there is one car dealer with a gimmick (waving a fist full of money, corny jokes, singing, jumping on the hood of a used car, whatever). He (it’s always a he, right?) appears endlessly on station breaks in fringe time. He knows his brand is unique, because he’s unique. But I digress.

The USP faltered and failed during the 1960s with the advent of more engaging advertising, more insights into buyer behavior, not to mention higher media costs. Nevertheless, you can still find USP adherents in this century, many of whom overcome the annoyance factor with even more frequency. You may want to strangle the My Pillow guy, as so many of us do. Nevertheless, he persists.

There are, of course, more leveraged, likable and measurable marketing strategies. Ask us about them.

Need tagline examples (non-U.S.)

I’m giving a talk on taglines (aka straplines, slogans, buttons) at the International Association of Business Communicators meeting in San Diego in June. Since it is an international audience, I could use more examples, stories, case histories of taglines from brands around the world. We’re just fine with U,S. examples as you can read in our White Paper on the topic.

Do you have examples to share from non-U.S. marketing, from Europe or Asia or wherever you may be? Taglines famous or infamous, successful or un-, long-established or especially clever for products, services, political causes or candidates? I’d love to hear from you. Send examples, stories, links or pictures to

If you’re going to attend the IABC International Meeting, my talk will be Tuesday, June 14. Could you stop by and say hello? Just do it.

The perceptual map is obsolete: branding in 3-D

The Perceptual Map, perennial favorite of MBA classes everywhere, is obsolete. In fact, it never was a completely satisfactory way to sum up brand perceptions. Branding is a three-dimensional problem.

That insight led us to invent the Killian Branding Box™ to quantify and visualize a brand’s position vs. competitors in a 3-D space with three significant axes:

a Killian Branding Box™Brand strength (visibility ± reputation within the category), differentiation (as perceived by key market segments), and urgency (how emotionally those differentiators matter to those prospects). You and all your competitors each occupy a point in that cubic competitive space.  Objective research can help brand stakeholders see where they really stand versus competitors – so they can answer this key question: which axis needs the most attention?

Does this mapping apply to shampoos and Sarah Palin and your neighborhood taco vendor? Yes, you betcha, and si.

Life is badly edited

We’ve all had the misfortune to sit through a “director’s cut” of a film, where a self-indulgent egotist, in love with every frame, bores us to tears with the extra half-hour bloat that escaped the scissors. Yes, lots of us saw Avatar.

Real life is, however, worse. Our unfolding biographies have too many story threads, characters who come and go, motives mysterious and chapters that galumph on and on. No neat endings. Chekhov’s gun unfired. Pointless dialog. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

It’s a mark of maturity, we believe, to recognize this, to admit that life is messy, and to remain steady in the face of chaos. It’s also incumbent on us as storytellers to recognize the need to be the opposite: coherent, clear, crisp.