Dec 22

How baseball can help lift the Cuban embargo

fidel-castroToday’s guest post is by Peppercommer Paul Merchan.

As with most historic announcements, the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba has fueled mostly a wait and see response. Most reports say that it’s unclear how this will impact the Cuban economy and the Cuban people.
But leaving politics aside, there is one factor that could potentially unify the nations and even end the embargo. And call me crazy when I say this, but it involves sport. Fidel Castro’s favorite sport, for that matter – béisbol.

Argentine-born revolutionary Che Guevara, who helped place Castro in power, was reported to have once said that Cuba would never truly be united with the rest of Latin America until it learned how to play soccer like everybody else. That’s because Cuba is teeming with baseball fever, and has been for almost a century. The sport is one of the few vestiges of American imperialism that the Castros permitted to remain on the island.

Here is my basic premise, and I think even a cynic would agree: what’s going to drive change in policy is capital. And organized sport brings in capital – lots of it. We may not see the typical American business lobby for the embargo to be lifted. However, baseball is not a typical business, as was clearly established by the Supreme Court in 1922. It has some more flexibility. And while MLB isn’t going to be meddling in U.S. foreign policy, the national pastime of both nations is going to foment a new ideology of shared opportunity.

Baseball’s reputation in Cuba is healthier even than it is in the U.S. It’s an obsession. It is their version of the “beautiful game,” like soccer is in Brazil. As such, it has the potential to heal.
Sport has always led the way to normalization. Baseball was one of the first organizations in the U.S. to integrate, allowing black athletes to play alongside whites. In the aftermath of conflicts such as World War II, it was soccer in Europe and baseball in the U.S. that helped society recover from the bloodshed. Revisionist history will question whether the motives of those making decisions back then were pure, or motivated by money. Perhaps it was both.

If MLB were to enter Cuba, and players were able to freely come to the U.S. to sign contracts with franchises here, the possibilities of talent and profit would be endless. Caution must be taken to develop an economic model that would improve upon the one in the Dominican Republic, where the nation benefits little from the extraction of its talent. But if it were to be designed in a mutually beneficial manner, rest assured that the success would prompt other businesses to follow suit. And when that happens, the relations between the U.S. and Cuba will be as warm as the Caribbean Sun.

Just imagine this scenario: Game 7 of the World Series featuring the Havana Rays hosting the Washington Nationals in the Estadio Latinoamericano with Cuban and American flags draped alongside each other. It’s hard to think of something more unifying than that.

Dec 19

Romantic cereal?

vulgar-gaga-marry-the-night-cereal-500x334I’ll sometimes set out a suit, tie, shirt and shoes the night before a big new business presentation. And, I’ll most certainly pack my luggage the night before any sort of trip. But, I’ve never, ever set out my cereal for breakfast the night before I tuck in for bed.

I raise this seemingly absurd point because the fine folks at Kellogg’s and their agency partners, Leo Burnett, believe they can encourage consumers to eat more of their cereal by doing just that: leaving the box out the night before.

They’ve also decided to take a completely different strategic approach by running TV commericals at night and to romaticize Raisin Bran, Special K and Mini Wheats. Imagine that. The Burnett people went so far as to say, “We wanted to grab people by the lapels to get them to recognize that cereal is a beautiful thing, and that when it mixes with milk, something magical happens.” Really? What, exactly?

Sorry, but cereal is cereal is cereal. I, for one, see it as a food staple that is, hopefully, both tasty and somewhat nutritious. But:

– You’ll never get me to set it out the night before
– You’ll never, ever get me to associate it with beauty.

Sunsets are beautiful. Scanning the horion in all directions from a 14,000-ft mountain is beautiful. A box of Mini Wheats sitting astride my kitchen counter as the clock strikes midnight isn’t beautiful.

I’m sure this campaign is based on extensive research, and the insights gleaned from it. And, I’d love to know how many people Kellogg’s thinks will actually take the time to set out their cereal their cereal box the night before because it will make them feel more empowered to conquer the next day.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that empowerment is the brand promise (“A magic formula of protein that helps turn little boys into soccer players and moms into supermoms.”). And, the TV spots conclude with a voice-over proclaiming, “Tomorrow is yours to claim, set yourself with Kellogg’s tonight.” And the tagline is, “See you at breakfast.” Does anyone believe cereal alone can accomplish all those things?

Methinks this is one campaign that is all wet. Or should I say soggy?

Dec 18

The New York Times’ Lump of Coal

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer, Matt Purdue.

coal from the new york times.Like JFK, Martin and John Lennon, we can now pinpoint the exact time of the death of a great American institution: journalism.

The tragic moment was Nov. 22, 2014 – fittingly 51 years to the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. On 11/22/14, the New York Times, the Old Gray Lady, the bastion of American reporting, ran its usual column from its public editor, Margaret Sullivan. Her job is, essentially, to answer “questions or comments from readers and the public, principally about news and other coverage in The Times,” according to the paper’s website.

Her November 22 column focused on the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Times’ coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The specific topic, however, is beside the point. The death knell for journalism was sounded by the Times’ Joseph Kahn, lead editor for international news, when he was asked about how the paper determines how much coverage to allot to the conflict. He explained:

“We are following our best gut experience about what people are paying attention to. We cover things that are most relevant to our readers and to the international conversation.”

Can you spot the fatal flaw? It’s in the first line: “We follow our best gut experience about what people are paying attention to.”

Gut experience? The New York Times, arguably the most powerful news outlet in the U.S., goes on gut instinct when deciding what’s relevant to its readers. Shame on the Times. With all the money and influence at its disposal, does the Times rely on repeatable, quantifiable audience research when it comes to creating content? Apparently not. They use their collective gut.

I guess they’re too busy tooting their own horn by reporting on their own journalist, James Risen, and his refusal to reveal a source to the federal government. Yep, that must be taking up so much of their time that they don’t have a few hours to actually do reader research.

The good news for PR pros is that while old-line journalists like the Times’ Kahn continually drop the ball, we can pick up the content ball and run with it. That means using any number of cheap, reliable research methods – from Survey Monkey to actually picking up the phone and calling people – to gauge the desires and motivations of our target audiences. Hell, if we just avoid using our gut to make decisions, we’ll already be one step ahead of the NY Times when it comes to content.

Dec 16

Meet MiniRep

MINIREP1pgEvery once in a while RepMan is going to bang out a short and sweet post on a current and/or pressing issue.  Herewith be the first:

Camille’s Last Stand

Camille Cosby’s slamming the media coverage against her hubby violated two fundamental image and reputation principles:

1.)        Do not do anything to create a new news cycle in the midst of a major crisis.

2.)        Never pick a fight with the media.

If she had issued her statement when the crisis initially broke it would have been folded in alongside the main news story and, perhaps, afforded little more than sidebar status. Instead, it’s now front page news.

And chiding the media to “dig more deeply” is akin to tossing rocks at a hornet’s nest. The Fourth Estate is ever vigilant, and always on the prowl to investigate, and uncover, the latest salacious story. To egg them on in the manner Mrs. Cosby has, matches Custer’s decision to attack a Sioux Indian village along the Little Big Horn River. In both cases, the fights were picked against the wrong enemy and at the wrong time.

Dec 15

Are the bold really the meek?

lemmings-off-a-cliffStuart Elliott’s recent New York Times column on advertising certainly wasn’t a ringing endorsement for the field.

In it, Elliott discusses Madison Avenue’s sudden love affair with the word bold. He says it’s showing up everywhere and from all sorts of different marketers. In the automotive category, for instance, Toyota is launching its new Camry as, “The BOLD new Camry.” And, a Zales TV commercial suggests consumers “Declare their love boldly.” Not to be outdone, True Religion Jeans urge buyers to “Be so bold.” Elliott also lists about 10 other bold examples in his column.

I’m not surprised multiple advertisers are latching onto the same word to drive their strategy. I’ve seen countless original campaigns or strategies copied by other brands, and often in the same category.

Take the airline industry for example. Southwest Airlines pioneered the use of comedy in their various communications. The others followed. Case in point, the video depicting a SW flight attendant rapping out safety instructions was a social media phenomenon. So, naturally, it begat countless other funny safety instruction videos from the likes of Air New Zealand and good old Delta.

In other instances, multiple non-competing marketers will borrow a strategic idea (a la the use of the word bold) and make it their own. So, Flo the friendly Progressive Insurance salesperson inspired Toyota’s Jan, the witty, fun-loving receptionist who, in turn, gave rise to the slightly creepy Lily from AT&T, whose clairvoyant powers absolutely befuddle a male consumer.

A few closing thoughts:

  • Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but, when applied to advertising, it indicates a lack of original thinking.
  • And, getting back to Elliott’s bold marketers, wouldn’t you rather have your target audiences associating you with the word bold and sharing their relevant experiences with your brand on social channels before you start using the word to describe your product? That approach tells me those brands and their advertisers are thinking more about sales and less about making an emotional connection with their audiences. But, hey, what do I know? No one’s ever called me bold.
Dec 04

Sorry, but the survey is experiencing an indefinite delay

4331117971_93b6dabfb7How many companies do you know would conduct a customer satisfaction survey right smack in the midst of a serious product or service SNAFU?


– Microsoft survey female executives in the immediate aftermath of CEO Satya Nadella’s oh-so-insensitive remarks about women in the workplace?

– My all-time favorite fast food chain, McDonald’s, have asked parents their thoughts on the Hello Kitty whistles that were shown to be possible choking risks to their children?

Takata, the Japanese automobile manufacturer whose air bags began deploying at will and injuring drivers, have asked customers, “So, how are those air bags treating you?

I ask these seemingly inane questions because I was recently handed a customer satisfaction survey by New Jersey Transit while I was stuck IN THE MIDST of a yet another unexpected and indefinite delay.

I kid you not. As we passengers sat stewing somewhere near the tourist attraction otherwise known as Rahway State Prison, an NJT employee dressed liked a Salvation Army refugee suddenly appeared. She strolled up and down the aisles distributing surveys while murmuring, “Fill them out and hand them in at Penn Station.” She simply oozed warmth and caring.

Needless to say, I was both appalled, and amused, at the mere prospect of NJT’s assessing customer satisfaction at the precise moment anger levels were soaring higher than the international space station.

My favorite question was a multiple-choice one, entitled:

“How likely are you to recommend this service to a friend or relative?”

After gagging, I responded by scribbling, “I wouldn’t recommend this service to my worst enemy.”

It seems to me the best time to field a customer satisfaction survey is either after you’ve solved a major problem or have instituted a program that consistently surprises and delights audiences. Brand haters will always exist, but a smartly timed survey should produce a more balanced response that will elicit real insights.

But, when you’re @newjerseytransit, and have little to no competition, you can pretty much field a survey after a trail derailment and still not worry about the results.

All of which has inspired me to suggest yet another tagline for my favorite rail system, “NJT: Pouring salt on the wound.”


Dec 02

Time Warner Cable…Enjoy Better…NOT!

Today’s guest post is by Peppercommer Deb Brown.

bad-customer-serviceTime Warner Cable (TWC) does not understand the definition of customer service. And the company’s tagline “Enjoy Better” is anything but! Over the past few years, when our cable has gone out, days would go by with hundreds of people in my complex calling – including me – to ask when it will be fixed. We never receive a good answer. The first time we went without cable for four or five days, I called the CEO’s office and talked to his executive secretary, who was terrific, and got the cable back on – miraculously – within hours. The second time it happened, I didn’t wait for more than two days, and had to call her. But why should I have to call the CEO’s office to get our cable back on?!

There have been other issues throughout the years, but the one that really did me in and which showed that TWC has actually gotten worse, not better, over the years, is what happened to me recently. I wanted to pay our bill by credit card but I had a question about it. When I got a live representative on the phone, I was told it would be $5 extra to talk to a live person. Are you kidding? I’m supposed to pay you to make a payment if I talk to a live person? How much is it to talk to a dead person?

The woman finally waived the fee since I was aggravated. But, this raises a bigger issue. How does a company like TWC not understand customer service? In 2014, how does any company not understand that it’s all about the customer. In a flash, we can all go to social media and negatively impact your reputation. Just like I’m doing with this blog.

So, why am I still with Time Warner? I definitely want to switch to FiOS, but my husband really likes NY1, the 24-hour local cable TV station, and it’s only on TWC. That is the absolute only reason we still have Time Warner Cable.

But, that time is quickly running out. FiOS – can you start a local 24-hour news channel? Please???