Mar 23

“The Grapes of Wrath” 2.0

A College of Charleston student asked me yesterday what books she should be reading. I GrapesOfWrath
immediately suggested anything by Malcolm Gladwell, Christopher Buckley, Colin Dexter, Bill Bryson and David McCullough.

Then, it occurred to me that more and more marketers are taking a look back at their predecessors in the Great Depression in order to glean how brands succeeded in that particularly heinous period. I know, for example, that Jazz at Lincoln Center is positioning jazz as THE ideal antidote to the fears and anxieties of today's 'new normal'. Interestingly, jazz, and its fraternal twin, swing music, became a mainstream medium as a direct result of The Great Depression. Americans turned to jazz, along with movies and radio programming, to take their minds off their collective misery.

So, it makes sense for marketers to examine what worked then and juxtapose it against the realities of today's social media, global interconnectedness and ravenous 24×7 news cycle. They might discover some very interesting, and highly relevant, solutions.

That said, as soon as I finished answering the student's question, I quickly added John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" to my recommended reading list. It has to be the quintessential Depression-era book. And what job seeker wouldn't totally impress in any interview by noting, “By the way, I'm reading “The Grapes of Wrath” because I want to learn what lessons from the 1930s might be applicable to your company's marketing efforts.” Talk about differentiating oneself from the crowd.

Feb 11

The King is Dead. Long Live the King!

I sure hope the integrated marketing agency model is changing. The traditional version never worked and, lord knows, with traditional advertising in a death spiral, the new integrated marketing model sure needs to feature other, more relevant and cost effective lead disciplines.

I worked for two large integrated marketing agencies in the 1990s. Both talked the talk. But, neither EVER walked the walk. Both assured employees and clients alike that advertising, public relations, direct mail and sales promotion were equal in their importance. But, as was the case in Animal Farm, some disciplines were always more equal than others.

Advertising executives in general ruled supreme in integrated marketing agencies. And, creative directors in particular wielded absolute dictatorial power. Woe betide the lowly PR executive who questioned an advertising executive's decision or, worse, thought of himself as being on the same plane as a creative director.

I reported to one integrated marketing agency CEO who was openly disdainful of PR. I was his hand-picked successor and was expected to think and act as he did. I remember every week or so, he'd come into my office on management row and say, "Let's visit the rats' nest." By that, he meant the PR department. I asked him why he labeled it that way (especially since he himself had begun in public relations). "PR can't be controlled. It's messy. Its people are messy and its offices are always a mess with press kits, trinkets and god knows what. PR is a rats' nest," he'd sniff.

I wonder what that now long-retired CEO must think of the demise of his beloved traditional advertising model and the emergence of that "messy" PR as a dominant integrated marketing discipline.

More to the point, I sure hope his integrated marketing agency successors are rapidly retrofitting their service offering because the king (advertising) is dead. Long live the king (PR).

Jan 06

A Gem of an Idea

Somebody sure earned his or her paycheck at Cartier this week. Today's announcement that the specially-designed Cartier ball dropped from Times Square needle on New Year's Eve will be used on top of the same building throughout 2009 is sheer genius. It's also a great example of guerilla marketing. 05-30-02-TimeSquare2001web

Not only did Cartier garner the world's attention with the New Year's Eve ball-drop gig but now, courtesy of some savvy marketing or PR type, the highly-visible ball will be used to observe Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day and other notable holidays. Smart. Very smart. And, what a great way to make whatever the original cost investment was go a whole lot further.

Now, if I were counseling Cartier, I'd keep the ball rolling. I'd conduct consumer surveys tied to each holiday and ask one fundamental question: "What's your favorite way to have a 'ball' on (fill-in holiday)?" Cartier announces the findings via USA Today, CNN and the other usual suspects and, all of a sudden, becomes synonymous with having a ball (albeit a pricey one) on every notable holiday. God, how I love marketing!

Anyway, here's a virtual champagne toast to whatever whiz came up with the Cartier year-round ball idea. It's a gem.

Nov 07

Train Yourself to Think Outside the Box

We all know who won the election, but what corporation leveraged the seismic event with a surprisingly street-smart guerrilla marketing effort?  Jackie Kolek reports from the wilds of Connecticut.

Following Barack Obama's historic win Tuesday night, counties across the nation were still counting the returns on Wednesday.  Yet many of us will now be looking to another set of returns: ones delivered by the stock market.  In a very savvy marketing move, a local Merrill Lynch representative was handing out a great research paper at the train station in Westport, CT on Wednesday.  The paper, "Elections and Sectors," provides an interesting overview of historic performance of the market following presidential elections.

According to the report, equity markets tend to do much better in the 12 months following a Democrat being elected.  Longer term performance favors Republicans.  Regardless of what party gets elected, market performance is significantly better when the President and Congress share the same party.  Since 1921, Republicans have held the office 47 years, compared to Democrats' 40 years.  The 12-month average return for the S&P 500 under the Democrats in office is 20.9%, while Republicans saw an average return of 5.3% (adjusted to exclude FDR's first year.  If you factor that in, the return is -6.4%).  The impact of an election on various sectors is mixed.  In the year following an inauguration, technology, industrials and utilities have been the top performing sectors when a Democrat takes offices.  Staples, telecom and discretionary sectors are the winners under Republicans.

The report was very interesting and a smart move by Wei Chen, a local Merrill salesman.  It also serves as a great example of leveraging breaking news and events to offer thought leadership.  At Peppercom, we look to do this on behalf of our clients through the ACT Program (Available to Comment Today).  We monitor breaking news and look for opportunities to offer our clients for expert commentary or a contrarian point of view on a specific issue.  It's a very successful way to get clients in front of the right media and showcase their expertise.

Tuesday night Americans sent a loud message about the need for positive change.  Let's hope the Markets agree.

Aug 21

It May Not Be The Sopranos, But Mad Men is Catching on Fast

I can’t speak for others, but the AMC series Mad Men is white hot in PR and marketing circles.

In fact, I find myself discussing the breakaway "ad agency in the 60s" series in virtually every client or new business meeting I attend.250pxmadmenlogo

Whether it’s Sterling Cooper’s ill-fated decision to fire a small, existing airline account to pitch a larger one (Mohawk Airlines was grounded in lieu of American Airlines) or the unconscionable amount of smoking, drinking and carousing that permeates the agency’s walls, someone almost always brings up a Mad Men mention. It’s gotten to the point where not being Mad Men conversant has become a career impediment. 

True. Don Draper is no Tony Soprano. And January Jones, who plays his long-suffering wife, is no Carm, but Mad Men has all the earmarks of a huge, mainstream hit. Jon Hamm, who plays Draper, has already won an Emmy and, as we at Peppercom have found out, now charges $100,000 for a single appearance. So, clearly the series is catching on.

I’m not sure why Mad Men has become the next Sopranos, but it has. Forget about Weeds, Entourage, Generation Kill or any other wannabe. Mad Men is the real deal.

Aug 15

When the Message Sent isn’t the Message Received

I was cruising down the Jersey Turnpike this morning when I spied a billboard for Rutgers University. It read, "Jersey roots. Global reach."

I did a quick double take. Global reach? Rutgers?

The Rutgers billboard is a classic example of inside-out branding. Rutgers may think it has global reach. It may have a significantly diverse student body. It may have any number of multinational faculty. And, for all I know, it may have a few "partner" campuses on other continents. But, common sense rejects Rutgers’ claim of being global. Heck, I don’t even think of Rutgers as being much more than a decent Jersey school. Rutgers

And, if the message recipient (moi) rejects the marketer’s claim as being bogus, the marketer has lost any chance of engaging in additional dialogue.

Rutgers needs to go back to the drawing board on this one. While I admire their goal, I’m left shaking my head at their logic. Jersey roots, yes. But, global reach? Nope. No way. Sorry. Rejected. 

While the school’s football program may have put them on the radar screen in, say, Bangor, I seriously doubt the same holds true for Berlin, Beijing or Budapest.

Jul 21

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer

I distinctly remember the moment at General Motors headquarters when those underhanded competitors from the East (read: Toyota) launched an aggressive marketing campaign on GM’s home court.

The first wave began with an avalanche of Toyota truck promotions and sponsorships in Texas. "They can’t do that," said one GM executive. "We were first to sell trucks in Texas. That’s our turf." Well, Toyota did just that and quickly supplanted GM as the top truck in the Lone Star State.

Then, adding insult to injury, Toyota announced it would be the number one car company in the state of Michigan. And, sure enough, the Japanese carmaker was soon outselling its arch-rival in the Wolverine State as well. Imagine the reverse. Imagine seeing more Chevys than Camrys in Tokyo. The mind boggles.

These are just two great, regional market examples of quality and service always trumping customer loyalty.

The Toyota/GM mismatch came to mind the other day as I boarded my NJ Transit train to the city. A group of nautically-attired, New York Waterway street gangs were handing out pamphlets that read, "This Summer, imagine having two extra hours a day." Hmmmm. "Sounds appealing," I thought. "What up with this?"Ferry

The pitch: the ferry saves commuters up to two hours a day when compared to the onerous, chronically late and overcrowded train.

I loved the fact that NY Waterways was marketing right on NJT’s home turf. It was Toyota and GM all over again, but this time, it was happening right in front of my eyes.

I’m a big fan of "enemy market marketing." It sends a statement and can also have a powerful impact on the morale on both parties. Toyota was on the upswing and aggressively gaining market share when it assaulted Texas and Michigan. GM was reeling back on its heels. The "in your own backyard" strategy by Toyota applied a powerful, psychological coup de graces to the GM mindset.

Will the NY Waterways ploy work? Maybe. If the ferries were closer to my house and the schedule more flexible, it would be a no-brainer. Until then, though, I’ll have to live with NJT and their well-earned moniker: "Just train bad."

Apr 21

Judging the success of a CEOs trip

Intent on shoring up a slow, but steady decline in one of his most important markets, a CEO recently paidPopebenedictjpg
it a whirlwind visit.

He met with prospective and existing customers as well as those who had chosen one of several competitive models. He also set aside time to hold a few job interviews and made it clear he was not only CEO, but director of human resources as well. The local media followed his every move in their best paparazzi imitation, prompting some to wonder what all the fuss was about.

The CEO followed textbook crisis communications by apologizing for past product flaws and suggested a new quality control process to lessen the likelihood of such issues in the future.

There was a lot of positive buzz swirling about as the CEO made his departure from the key market: his meetings had gone well, media coverage was universally positive and early indications hinted at possible market share improvements which, after all, was the trip’s purpose in the first place.

But, the Catholic Church’s two fundamental flaws, celibacy and pedophilia, remain in place, with the harsh restrictions of the first paving the way for the pernicious reality of the second.  Papal visits remind me of client retreats: everyone gets together for a short while, drinks the corporate Kool-Aid, get all charged up and then return to their jobs with absolutely nothing having changed.

It was nice to host the pope but, until he changes the basic dogma, this trip will be judged at best as a short-term marketing success. Your eminence, you need to work with the product engineers to fix the system. Then, and only then, can marketing really deliver on future visits to key markets.

Mar 25

Up Next on Fox Business: We Throw a Rock in a Glass House

Guest blog by Gene Colter.Fox_2

The marketing folks at Fox Business have violated one of the most important Commandments of
Advertising: Never talk about your competitor. Their sin, a print ad that pokes fun at CNBC shouter Jim Cramer’s bad call on Bear Stearns, can be seen here.

Some rules (if not commandments) are made to be broken. This is not one of them. Talking about your competitor – good or ill — at best muddles your message and at worst reminds the consumer who else is selling whatever it is you are making.

The Fox Business ad uses a trio of famously wrong prognostications as a lead-in to a quote from Cramer imploring folks not to pull their money from Bear, because Bear will be fine. (Bear wasn’t.) The ad’s bottom line? “Turbulent Times Call for a Credible Network.” That’s Fox Business.

This takes the worst-case scenario described two paragraphs ago and finds ways to make it worst-case-to-the-nth degree. Let’s document just a few, starting with the oh-so-obvious.

The day will come when Fox Business pundits make their own bad call. In fact, that day has already passed, with the upstart network’s anchors getting dinged in the earliest days for factual errors and mischaracterizations. News organizations, especially new ones, are allowed to make mistakes. But they shouldn’t gloat about it – in a paid ad – when their compatriots stumble.

And about that CNBC “mistake”: James Cramer’s catch-all bag of admonitions, predictions, protestations and discount Dadaism are his own, not CNBC’s. (Full disclosure: My wife previously was employed by Cramer-founded Web site The

Finally, hubris and Schadenfreude mixed together make for a particularly venomous cocktail coming from an established leader, much less a network that’s been on the air for all of 12 minutes.

Some readers will deem this commentary naïve, pointing out that I should expect as much from Fox. I don’t see the world that way: Fox is part of media leader News Corp. and worthy of analysis that doesn’t resort to simplistic stereotyping.

Mar 21

Later, Latte.

Guest blog written by Ted Birkhahn.

Full disclaimer: I am a recovering Starbucks addict.  Every day on my walk from Grand Central to ourStarbucks
office, I pass five Starbucks.  Until recently, I always stopped in one of them and plunked down several bucks on a mediocre latte.  Why?  I loved the routine and the brand experience, not the taste of the coffee. 

But, as the recession loomed and with daily reminders that it’s time to stop spending and start saving, I decided to put the skids on my Starbucks habit.  At first, I tried to change my route to the office so I wouldn’t have to walk past a Starbucks but that didn’t work; no matter what route I chose, I was bound to run into one.  So I decided to show some self-control and just go cold turkey.

Am I indicative of a trend that is sweeping across the nation contributing to the vanishing profits of the world’s biggest coffee chain? It’s hard to pinpoint why Starbucks has suffered.  Did they grow too fast?  Are their prices too high?  Is the taste of the coffee just not that good?  Did the brand – and the experience it provides – run its course?  I suspect it is a combination of all these factors.

However, one thing is certain: If the U.S. finds itself in a prolonged economic downturn, Starbucks is a dead-man walking.  Although it is making major changes to the way it makes, serves and sells its products, I believe the company is too big and cumbersome to dig itself out of the hole that it’s in. 

Only time will tell what happens to Starbucks.  In the meantime, I’m off to the kitchen to grab a free cup o’ joe.