Aug 22

What’s in a Name?

Hold the presses! The artist once known as Sean Combs has delivered an earth shattering bolt of news! Combs, who has also been known variously as Puffy, Puff Daddy and P. Diddy, has announced that, henceforth, he is to be known as Diddy. "I felt like the ‘P’ was getting between me and my fans, and now we’re closer," he told Katie Couric.

The removal of a consonant may make no difference to Puff…er, I mean, Diddy…and his legions of non-fans, but his action recalls two other name changes and their results. One is AirTran, the low-fare carrier that, along with Southwest and JetBlue, is remaking the airline industry. You may not remember AirTran’s previous incarnation as ValuJet, and that’s the point. After a series of accidents, such as the May 1996 crash in the Florida Everglades that killed 110 and caused its temporary grounding, ValuJet reinvented itself in November 1997 as AirTran. The new airline then began a turnaround that stunned industry observers and passengers alike…helped, in large part, by management talent recruited from the ranks of defunct airlines such as Eastern.

Contrast that with Altria. You know what that is. Despite its efforts to diversify beyond tobacco, the company is still called Philip Morris. The 2002 name change fooled nobody. In fact, one could argue that Altria will always be known as a tobacco company whose CEO consistently denied any link between smoking and disease.

So what’s in a name? Less than what meets the eye. With apologies to the old Zenith TV ads, the quality has to go in or the name means nothing.

Aug 19

Sale Away This Summer…and Fall…and Winter…and Spring…and…

Remember Christmas? It’s December 25, the day that a majority of the world celebrates as the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s marked with family get togethers, reflections and prayer, feasts and, of paramount importance to many, gift-giving.

Relax. I’m not about to launch into a tirade about the commercialization of Christmas. Nor will I bemoan the fact that the word is being replaced with the generic "holiday season." Instead, I raise this as an illustration of how sectarian and secular holidays have converged to the point that the American calendar has become one long occasion for ongoing sales promotions.

I began to think about this when I heard a radio advertisement for a back-to-school sale around Independence Day…little more than a week after the end of the school year. Shortly after Labor Day, we’ll be assaulted with promotions for Halloween. The day after that, Nov. 1, marks the start of the aforementioned "holiday season." Remember when that was the day after Thanksgiving, the so-called "Black Friday"? No more.

Such brash, aggressive commercialization of traditional dates is absurd. When retailers push the envelope to ridiculously early dates, they risk damaging their reputations and alienating a customer base that is increasingly less loyal.

Aug 18

Zero Hour for the Airlines

In my last post, I mentioned how the airlines are going to hell in a handbasket.

The trend seems to be accelerating, helped in no small part by unions that cannot see the forest for the trees.  Earlier this month, thousands of British Airways passengers were horribly inconvenienced by sympathy strikes staged by BA workers at Heathrow Airport.  The scenes of passengers camped out at the airport, Europe’s busiest, weren’t helped by images of long lines of frustrated travelers futilely seeking answers from overwhelmed BA staffers.  The entire episode threatens to undo the years of hard work that CEO Rod Eddington and his team have done to turn around the once ailing carrier.  Already, the media have reported the angry threats of BA customers vowing never to fly the self-described "world’s favourite airline" again as a result.

Now comes the news that Northwest Airlines faces a walkout by its mechanics’ union this weekend. The union is worried that half of its members’ jobs would disappear if it agrees to the airline’s demand for concessions.  In a strange twist, Wall Street is frankly hoping for a strike, and Northwest’s stock rose on the news of the possibility.

So here we have one international carrier that has risen from the depths, only to have years of progress sabotaged by its workers in a matter of days.  Another, hoping to emerge from Chapter 11, may face the same fate.  When will unions learn to cut their adversarial nonsense and realize that, once they sully their companies’ reputations, they destroy themselves and their members in the process?

Aug 18

It’s Just Another Day

Paul McCartney’s song, "Another Day," came to mind this week as I skimmed the New York Times Business section.  Delta is selling off a regional airliner to avoid bankruptcy, a former high-ranking CBS employee returned to the company after just one month as president and CEO of Evermore Partners and, yes, four more Wall Street stockbrokers were just arraigned for financial chicanery. It’s just another day and, good day sunshine, no one really says or does anything about it.

The airlines are going to hell in a handbasket. Corporate America doesn’t think twice about a high-ranking executive who skips out on his new company four weeks after joining it. The Citigroups, Lehmans and Merrill Lynchs continue to transact business, unsullied by their employees’ skullduggery.

When did the Deltas, CBSs and Wall Street firms stop caring about their images and reputations?  I suspect it occurred more or less simultaneous to the time when we as a population suddenly started accepting unethical behavior in every facet of our lives.  Yeah, yeah, yeah — it’s just another day.

Aug 15

Navel Gazing at the Network Level

I was amused to read the various articles concerning ABC’s angst over who they’ll select to fill Peter Jennings’ shoes as nighttime network anchor.  Among the front-runners is Diane Sawyer who, insiders say, doesn’t want to do the evening gig because she’s too obsessed with overtaking arch nemesis Katie Couric in the morning talk show slot.

What amuses me is the thought of these executives weighing their various alternatives as their share of overall ratings continues to be dismembered by the likes of cable, the web and high-profile bloggers.  It’s akin to Nero’s fiddling while Rome burned.

Although there have been reports of the "Big Three" networks exploring alternative means of staying relevant, the fact remains that Sawyer, Couric, et al, are a slowly dying breed.  The less navel gazing about who fills the Jennings slot, the better.  It’s time to remove those Ostrich-like heads from the sand and figure out what current and next generation Amercians want in terms of their news and "infotainment."  Sad to say it, but Katie, Matt, Charlie, Diane, Brian and their ilk are the T Rex’s of broadcasting’s Jurassic Period.  And their reign as masters of the universe is fast coming to an end.

Aug 12

New Church Scandal Looks Like Another Instance of ‘Do as I Say, Not as I Do’

With yesterday’s resignation of Msgr. Eugene V. Clark as rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, it sure appears that we have yet another example of a public figure who says one thing and does another.

Clark has been accused of having an affair with his longtime personal secretary of 33 years. The woman’s husband, who has filed for divorce, has provided videotape images of Clark and his estranged wife entering a Hamptons hotel and then leaving five hours later in different clothes. Talk about a smoking gun!

What exacerbates the allegations in my mind is that Clark has previously used his powerful position to wax poetic on the "immorality in the American culture."

This incident is shockingly similar to the Harry Stonecipher/Boeing saga. Readers will recall that after becoming Boeing’s CEO, Stonecipher initiated strict personal behavior guidelines for employees as part of the corporation’s revamped code of ethics. Then, he went ahead and had an affair with an employee that ended up costing him his job.

It’s no wonder many feel that America has lost its moral compass when the Clarks and Stoneciphers of the world act in such blatant disingenuous ways. As a former altar boy, I can only pray things get better before they get any worse.

Aug 11

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Alan Finder’s NY Times article today about college branding came as no surprise to me, having  represented two top 15 business schools.  Colleges such as Beaver, Trenton State and Cal State Hayward have all changed their names in hopes of increasing enrollments, endowments and, via both, their positions in the all-important US News & World Report rankings. In fact, the US News and BusinessWeek rankings have absolutely turned college & university marketing upside down. The average person would be stunned to know how much time and emphasis is placed on rankings by college administrators.  Moving up in the polls is a red letter event, while the reverse is cause for sorrow.  While colleges are businesses, it’s sad to see how "rankings focused" they’ve become. I wonder if an increased focused on faculty and curriculum content (and strategically marketing each) might not be a smarter pursuit for the folks in higher education.

In the end, it’s about the educational experience.  Slapping a new name on the campus gates won’t mean anything unless the renaming comes with unique offerings that allow the institution to differentiate itself from the others.

Aug 08

Google Pulls a ‘Do as I Say, Not as I Do’

Saul Hansell’s New York Times column today about Google’s decision to refuse to speak with any CNET reporter for the next year is a real eye opener.  The company is upset with a CNET expose on how the Google search engine can be leveraged to glean personal information on an individual.  It was a smart piece of journalism.  What rankled Google however, was CNET’s decision to reveal personal information about the company’s CEO Eric Schmidt, including his number of stock options, where he lived and his political fundraising activities.  Google cried foul and announced the year-long moratorium.  Bad move.  Google is supposed to be all about instant information and open access.  So, when an enterprising reporter uses the Google model to do just that to file her story, it gets testy.  Google, and its in-house PR executive, David Krane, should know better.  Such knee-jerk reactions only make an organization look like a spoiled brat who throws a tantrum because he or she didn’t like the way the game was played.  Google should get over itself real quick and lift the ridiculous CNET moratorium.  The only one it’s hurting is itself.

Aug 08

Masterfoods’ Mega Mistake

Last Friday, Stuart Elliot’s advertising column focused on Masterfoods USA’s introduction of the Mega M&M.  To be sold in 12.6- and 19.6-ounce bags, these M&Ms are 55 percent bigger than their standard-size counterparts.

It is fair to question Masterfoods’ serving up a product that is clearly feeding the fattening of America.  The company’s spokesman spins the answer by saying that M&Ms have always been about sharing with others.  As for the size, another spokesman said that "adults have said they like a bigger bite-sized product with bigger bite-sized taste."  To sum it up, Masterfoods doesn’t see this as contributing to America’s obesity problem.

Well, as someone once told me, you can’t spin a spinner.  Companies that sell unhealthy foods should be honest with their consumers.  Masterfoods is not.  It is trying to hide the reality that its product is unhealthy.  The company is doing more than simply misleading the public; in my book, this misguided product stands as another example of corporate America’s irresponsibility and unaccountability for its actions.

Aug 04

The Road to Cooperstown Runs Along Main Street

So, let’s suspend reality for moment and imagine that you’re baseball legend and sure-fire Hall of Famer Rafael Palmeiro. All of a sudden, your life is crumbling in front of your eyes. Caught taking steroids, you’ve been given a 10-game suspension. Even worse, Congress is mumbling about possibly nailing you for perjury because they have you on videotape categorically denying the use of steroids. "Ever!" as you stated vehemently on tape.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.  So, is all lost?  Not necessarily.  If Rafy were one of our corporate clients, we’d advise him to quickly admit guilt and put a program in place to make amends. I would tell Rafy to voluntarily suspend himself for the season (the 10-game suspension is such a joke). Between now and October, I’d send Rafy on the to road to hamlets large and small across this great land of ours.  I’d have him meet with Little League coaches and their teams and counsel kids on the evils of steroid use.  Then, I’d take some of his millions and establish a Rafael Palmeiro Anti-Steroid Foundation whose purpose would be ongoing education and counseling.  After doing all that, I’d have Rafy take his case directly to the people before the start of next season and ask them for a second chance.  Americans love to give people a second chance.  But only if they are open and honest.  If Palmeiro wants to see himself enshrined in Cooperstown one day, he’ll first have to log many miles along Redemption Highway.