Gaga Goggles and Kardashian Kollections: Does Celebrity Supersede Design?

The age of celebrity branding is in full swing. From Polaroid hiring the meat adorned, egg hatched Lady Gaga as their “Creative Director” to the Kardashian Klan brought in to “design” a line of clothes, shoes, accessories and more for Sears, one important thing has been tossed aside in the name of celebrity. That thing is called PRODUCT.

Polaroid chairman Bobby Sager claims that he wants Polaroid to be the next Apple, so what does he do to achieve that? He hires Lady Gaga as a faux “creative director” for the brand. I have a tip for Bobby. Apple is Apple because of design, not because of celebrity firepower. Apple has never used celebrities nor has it ever used focus groups to determine where their product should go. Innovation comes from a deep creative process. If Polaroid wants to reinvent itself as an innovative leader, they should focus on product design and technological advancements, not gimmicks. Celebrities are fleeting. Great design is iconic.

Next on the agenda is the Kardashian sisters being paid to “design” a line for the tired Sears brand. I watched a segment the other morning on Good Morning America about the Kardashians “creating” their Kollection. The Kardashians have not created or designed anything. They have simply licensed their name. They flew out on a private jet to view the line for the first time in a mini store within Sears with the clothing already designed, produced, shipped and out for sale. Their claim to the design of their product line demeans the design process and the lengthy and complicated process of manufacturing a product.

These are just a couple of the myriad of celebrity brands. Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie, and yes, even the ultimate Jersey Girl Snooki, all have product lines in their namesakes. It’s not enough for celebrities to become celebrities anymore; they often seem to need more. Actors selling makeup, singers selling clothing, reality show losers selling shoes, greed and America’s insatiable appetite to get a piece of the wealthy and famous seems to have taken over its desire for anything of lasting and meaningful value. Great design, perhaps with the exception of Apple, has become a niche market.

There are two approaches to building a brand. You can create a great product, with fabulous design and an honest brand story that will build a lasting brand. You also can find a celebrity, license their name and attach it to anything for success that will be a flash in the pan. In my book, a great brand and innovative design supersede anything that any celebrity can bring to the table.

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The Tortoise vs. Hare Approach To Business

tortoiseandhareWe all know the online world moves fast. Ideas can be spread in an instant. Technology changes seem to happen in the blink of an eye, and many have come to expect all aspects of business to move and grow at that same rapid pace. Sometimes no matter how fast technology moves, other meaningful growth in business still does (and should) take its sweet time.

I had a recent client with a very small start up consumer product company. The brand has a website with online shopping, a Facebook page and a Twitter profile. Tiny sales and a tiny following is what they had. But that’s ok, because they were just starting. I was hired to do some outreach work to promote the brand online. I got to work and started getting some good response online to the product. Buzz was starting. People began to enthusiastically talk online about the product. Traffic to the company’s site was starting to increase. Their Facebook and Twitter interactions increased. And yes, their sales increased a little bit too. I was feeling pretty good about what I had started for my client.

But in a short period of one month, they decided to abandon the outreach simply because it didn’t result in a huge increase in immediate sales. Although sales did increase as a direct result of the online campaign, it wasn’t immediate enough and it wasn’t huge enough by their standards. I tried to explain to them that the campaign was an investment in brand building and brand awareness. I told them that brand building is a process that happens over time, which leads to measurable increases in sales further down the road. I told them that there will be incremental growth, but to expect instantaneous explosive growth is unrealistic. Slower growth is longer lasting and more meaningful. I told them that they were a new brand that no one had heard of yet. They needed to spend some time, get their name out there, get to know their customers and build some excitement and online talk, then they would begin to see some more significant sales in return.

They couldn’t wrap their minds around that. They saw their dollars go out and expected them to double back in instantly in sales. Brand awareness cannot often be measured directly in sales, especially in the initial stages of a start up. Brand building (which in SM terms is essentially the same as relationship building) takes time. You wouldn’t expect to go out on a first date and be married by the second. Brands need to court their customers a while before they’ll go steady or even consider marriage.

I am right there with the tortoise. I believe a slow and steady pace will lead to more meaningful and long-lasting growth. We all dream of instant success. Wouldn’t that make life easier? But it is rare for a brand to find overnight success and it’s even more rare for those that do to be more than a flash in the pan.

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Is New School Marketing Really That Different From Old School?

oldschoolhouseMy online friend John Cavanaugh’s recent post got me thinking about the hot rivalry between new school vs. old school marketing. We all know those feel good buzz words like transparency, conversation and engagement, but I question their truth in meaning in the online world. I am realizing that the new way of marketing is not as different from the old way as we are often led to believe. It all depends on your perspective and your approach.

Putting a business out there with a blog and on Facebook and Twitter is a good thing. It allows consumers to at least feel like the company is accessible, but does it really offer that transparency that everyone says is so essential? I think it’s more like translucence. No company is going to be completely transparent. Most companies and organizations highly monitor their Facebook posts, blog posts and Twitter feeds. They are most often manned by PR, marketing, communications or customer service people within the organization. In other words, trained professionals well-versed in the company’s mission, style, philosophy and message. These people are in fact crafting their posts to serve the best interest of the company. You know, just like advertising, only folksier.

I submit that social media usage by business is simply a newer form of advertising. Let’s face it, a Facebook page is designed to generate interest in and attention to a brand (just like advertising), with the added bonus of actually hearing and seeing what people are saying about you (just like focus groups). The point of a business gaining fans, followers and subscribers may seem like it’s about building a “community,” but when it gets right down to the core, it’s about getting a following of existing or potential customers to like your brand, with the end goal of selling whatever it is that you are selling to them (just like advertising). It’s a powerful way to get consumers to try your Kool-aid, like it, then buy it (just like handing out free samples in the grocery store). The more fans, followers and subscribers you get, the more people start talking about your brand or business around the web, which in turn builds brand awareness (just like advertising).

So I propose that we stop the bickering between the new school and the old school and realize that we’re not as different as we may think. I suggest we stop using the word “transparent,” adopt the more accurate word “translucent” instead, and just feel hopeful that businesses can no longer get away with being opaque.

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Crowd Sourcing’s Dark Side

11080I’m all for keeping a finger on the pulse of what consumers are saying and thinking, but there seems to be a new trend in over-reliance on crowd sourced results to direct business, especially when it comes to creative work. Crowds, especially of the consumer variety can be very useful for feedback on new products, but be wary of inviting crowds into the intimate creative places of your business. From graphics, logos and websites to tag lines, brand names, domain names and even the products themselves, many businesses are turning to crowd sourcing to get their creative work for free or practically free. As a creative entrepreneur, I find this trend a bit disturbing, not just because it degrades the value of true creative work, but because it can have a larger negative impact on businesses and their brands.

A business image is not something to leave in the hands of the masses. Brand building is a delicate thing that should be orchestrated by the owner of the brand, not by those who consume the brand. Kraft’s Vegimite/Snack 2.0 debacle is a great example of how crowd sourcing can completely backfire. This trend of crowd sourced creative work waters down what a brand truly can be. Brand building comes from creating multiple layers of elements like product, quality, message, image, graphics, website, communication, partnerships and reputation in the industry, marketplace and with consumers. Why so many businesses are leaving these crucial elements in the hands of the masses is perplexing. As someone who created and built a brand of children’s shoes from scratch, the idea of asking the general public for creative direction or creation was something I never would have even considered. The masses don’t know what is best for your business, you do. The masses are consumers, not innovators. In most cases, consumers can’t imagine what they haven’t already seen before.

Can’t afford a professional? Just ask anyone for a free opinion
So many social media sites have opened up the flood gates to this kind of thinking. Certain LinkedIn discussion groups have become a hotbed for free crowd sourcing of creative work. I’ve seen people asking for marketing plans, brand names, domain names, and logos all for free. There has been one discussion that has been going on for over a month now from someone asking for “suggestions” for a tag line for his music company. To date, there have been 272 responses coming free from the likes of a student in Malaysia, a “Change Communicator,” a “Senior Solutions Specialist,” but more surprising is that supposed Marketing Experts, Copywriters, and Brand Strategists also added their suggestions. For Free. I understand the whole concept of giving in the social media world, but expecting professional results from people willing to simply throw out random suggestions for something as important to a brand as a tag line is simply unrealistic. The results of this person’s request, even though there were 272 of them were pretty terrible. They were terrible because none of the respondents knew anything about this guy’s business, what his goals were, who he was, what his message was, who his market was or what image he was trying to project. These are all the things that a professional would take into consideration carefully and spend time contemplating before even suggesting a solution.

This isn’t work, it’s a contest

I got an email the other day specifically addressed to me inviting me to enter a contest to come up with a new domain name for someone’s business. I was told that I would get $10 for my submission, and then if it were chosen as the best, I would “win” $500. Out of curiosity, I clicked on the link to see what this was all about. There were very specific parameters for this project. It was a domain for a new dating website, but it wasn’t just a domain they were looking for, actually it was a brand name. It had to be nine letters or less, had to be a .com address, had to be available, had to be unique and not trademarked or used by any other business, and it had to capture the essence of the philosophy of their site. There was also a long list of words that could not be used. It was suggested that the estimated work time on this project would be ten minutes. That’s right, I said ten minutes. It was also stated that this was the second contest they were holding because the first one “did not generate the kind of results that they were looking for.” Hmm, you think they mean PROFESSIONAL results?

More is better

Would you rather savor one incredibly delicious meal created by a talented chef or would you rather stuff yourself with unlimited piles of junk food? Crowd sourcing is like a junk food feast. The premise (I think) behind crowd sourcing is that if you get a ton of responses, you will have a bigger pool to choose from, increasing your chances of getting the results you are looking for. More is better, right? If the goal is to find quality creative work, then the answer is no. Anyone willing to enter a “contest” is not going to be giving you professional work. They’ll spend the ten minutes to take a chance – kind of like buying a lottery ticket. But let me let you in on a little secret: Believe it or not, great graphics, design, writing, naming, branding, and marketing all take talent, experience, creativity, knowhow, and time. Instead of blowing your budget on a contest that generates piles of amateur entries, spend your money on talent. You know, someone who will spent some time THINKING and talking to you about your business and what you hope to achieve. That my friends, takes more than ten minutes.

I’ll pay you if I like you

There are numerous sites popping up that are going beyond the bidding wars of sites like elance or odesk for creative work, but they actually solicit suckers to do the work up front, upload it for all to see, and only pay the one that is chosen as the best either by the poster or by votes from the crowd. Would you walk into competing bakeries, eat their respective cakes, and only pay for the one that you think tastes best? Would you expect to have several landscapers come to your house, plant their gardens, build their stone walls and only pay the one who you think did the best job? This is called working on spec. I don’t understand how this approach to hiring creative work is acceptable. It’s a cop out really on the part of the hiring person. They apparently are not willing to take the risk or the heat of hiring the wrong person. Maybe it comes from a lack of confidence in knowing what is good creative or not, but if you do your homework, look at experience, previous work and get recommendations from others who the creatives have worked with, then educated choices can be made. Anyone who is willing to put their time and energy into creating something without knowing whether or not they will be paid is clearly either desperate or an amateur looking to build a portfolio.

I’m not a real ______, I just play one on the Internet

Ah, the self proclaimed guru problem again. I recently wrote about that subject here. But for true designers, writers, marketers or anyone else who offers creative consulting services to business, the guru problem has invaded their potential for livelihood like Kudzu in a Louisiana swamp. Again, it’s a matter of research. Know who you are working with and find out if a person has ever done what they profess themselves to be.

The bottom line is that you have a choice. It all depends on what your goals are. You can risk your budget and/or brand on a contest with amateurs who will only spend a few minutes on your project, or you can do your homework and hire a professional who will take a vested interest in your business’ success. Your success, image and happiness is their success, image and happiness. Don’t underestimate the power of talent.

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The American Idol Guide to Brand Building

idol-logoOk, I’m going to make a confession. I’m coming out of the closet and admitting that I watch American Idol.
There, I said it. But it’s not what you think.
Although I always pride myself as someone who generally operates outside of the mainstream, I find myself intrigued by this American Idol phenomenon. It’s not because I love the music or the contestants or that I get caught up in the voting frenzy. I don’t wear t-shirts with “I heart whoever” or make signs on poster board with glitter markers saying “Whoever rocks my world.” I actually can’t stand most of the music and contestants. But what does intrigue me is looking at American Idol as a study in mass market brand building. Although Fox tries to make its viewership think otherwise, this show really isn’t about listening to singers perform, enjoying the music or finding the best of the best. It’s about the guided and careful crafting of a mass market commodity. It’s about the structured building of a product and an incredible buzz machine. It’s about the selling of lots of stuff to the masses.

From the beginning of the season where hundreds of thousands of singing and screeching characters prance through, do their thing and either get booted out or “Go to Hollywood,” the brand building has already begun. The producers choose who to feature more heavily in clips, quietly influencing the soon to be voting public on who they feel has the most potential as a marketable product. The contenders are chosen for their poignant stories of a desire to overcome poverty, crime, disease, homelessness, blindness, loss of a loved one or shyness. They are chosen for their good voices or their quirky interpretations of standard songs. They are chosen because they are eye candy or they are the ugly duckling with a great voice, but with a hip haircut and a trip to the mall, they might actually look pretty good. The producers are looking for a brand story, a decent product and a good package.

I watch Simon Cowell as he observes the singers before him. He’s not just listening, but he’s looking. He’s checking out their demeanor, their style, their song choice, their hairdo, their clothes, their facial expression, their personal story and he’s measuring the potential marketability and pliability of this commodity that stands before him. You hear comments like “you are so commercial” or “you are this kind of ‘artist’” or “I love your look.” You see week after week, contestants trying so hard to be what the judges are telling them they should be. An artist can’t be crafted. It’s quite sad really. The art isn’t in the music; the art is in the building a money making machine, this American Idol brand – the show itself, the record deals, the tours, the gear, the ringtones, the commercials, the sponsorships. It’s like watching a Walmart product being molded and manufactured and promoted before your eyes. It is guided crowd sourcing.

American Idol is a reflection of what I see happening more and more in business and online. Crowd sourced opinions and masses being guided unknowingly by those who have marketed themselves as authority figures are becoming the norm. Real talent, skill, creativity, experience and innovation don’t seem to be noticed, valued or rewarded as much anymore. Mass appeal seems to be winning over originality, and fame and/or fortune seem to be the primary goals. Is that really what Americans idolize? If so, maybe I need to move somewhere else.

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