Finding Your Brand’s Essence


Madonna is about to open up her first health club in a planned chain called Hard Candy Fitness. The clubs plan to aggressively incorporate modern fitness techniques like yoga and capoeira, and the aim is to position them as sanctuaries for their members. 

This isn’t Madonna’s first brand extension attempt. She’s already launched a line of teen clothing called Material Girl to be sold exclusively at Macy’s.

Is this a good move for the Madonna brand, or a bad one?

Although I’m not normally a fan of brand extension, I believe this move has potential.  The reason this just might stick is because the essence of the Madonna brand isn’t music anymore, it’s lifestyle.  The Madonna brand stands for defying age, staying invigorated and healthy, gracefully maturing, and staying forever relevant.

In 2010, when you boil down the essence of brand “Madonna”, it isn’t music. Considering her brand’s assets, the health club and fashion experiments make sense.

What do you think?  Five years from now, will there be a Hard Candy Fitness in every major city or will they have long since closed up?

Madonna 111 Comments

We Covet What We Cannot Have


Michael Jackson earned more dead last year than Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, and Madonna.  Jackson’s estate earned $275 million, thanks mainly to his back catalog and the movie This Is It, detailing the concert rehearsals just before his death.

Prior to dying, Jackson was nearly bankrupt.  He left his family with $500 million in debts.  His reputation as a legendary musician was soiled by rampant rumors of indecent acts with children and persistent stories about his eccentric lifestyle.  His career, most would have judged, was over.

Yet today Michael Jackson out-earns many active living celebrities.  Why?

One reason is that his reputation cannot be further damaged by his actions.  Forbes writer Lacey Rose accurately pointed out that in death, a celebrity cannot be tainted by a tabloid story or rehab stint.

Another reason is that the purchase price of a brand naturally increases when a product is in short supply and demand is high.

When Ed Hardy products were only available at cool boutique stores, it was an in-demand brand.  Today, when you can buy Ed Hardy bedsheets at TJ Maxx, the brand’s value has changed dramatically.

When Krispy Kreme donuts were only available in certain states, and only at Krispy Kreme restaurants, the brand was powerful.  When those same donuts are for sale at the gas station, the value decreases.

If you could buy a Rolex watch at Target, would the brand carry the same weight?  When you see you are at a Rolex dealer, you know you are in the presence of quality.

There is a delicate balance between making your product available to all who want it, yet keeping it exclusive enough to have increased perceived value.

Jay-Z, Lady GaGa, Madonna, Michael Jackson 258 Comments

The Sex Pistols Misfire


They spent years stirring up controversy with songs like “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy In The UK”.  Many experts give them credit for igniting the punk rock movement in the UK in the late 70s, and inspiring the careers of bands like Green Day, Offspring, Nirvana, and Oasis.

Now you can rub the stench of the Sex Pistols on your body with new Sex Pistols perfume.

This smells a lot like the misguided launch of Harley-Davidson perfume a few years ago.  The Sex Pistols and Harley-Davidson are both brands that should smell bad, or at the very best unrefined.  How can they possibly represent a positive-smelling fragrance?

Coors made the same blunder with their bottled water launch in 1990.  Bottled water was becoming a booming business, and Coors thought they were famous for the sparkling Rocky Mountain water used in their brewing process.  They neglected to consider that they were more famous for beer.  People didn’t buy Coors water because, in their mind, Coors products get you drunk.  Water doesn’t do that.


The Sex Pistols perfume has zero chance of success beyond becoming a novelty purchase or a gag gift.

Extending a brand like the Sex Pistols into other products isn’t impossible or unheard of, but those products need to have some congruency to the brand itself in order to have relevance.

A Sex Pistols beer that tastes like total anarchy and makes you want to piss on society?  Bring it on.

Unless this perfume reeks with the stench of the rotting corpses of the ruling class, it won’t ring true with Sex Pistols fans.

Coors Light, Harley Davidson, Sex Pistols 118 Comments

Spreading Your Virus


They are a relatively unknown Canadian band with one hit in their home country under their belt.  Yet today, Hollerado’s video for “Americanarama” has almost a half-million views on YouTube in it’s first week on-line.  Reasonably impressive.  The video brings up memories of the creative stuff that the band OK Go has done, building a name for themselves and a strong career without taking the traditional paths of radio stations and music TV networks, where hits have traditionally been made.

Videos like this have inspired marketers who are desperate to tap into the power of social media and create their own viral videos to promote their brand.  Proctor and Gamble did so brilliantly with their Pantene brand ”You can shine” short-form video about overcoming adversity.

Why do some viral videos take off, and others bust?  Proctor and Gamble, OK Go, and Hollerado have done something very simple.  They’ve entertained us.   They don’t try to sell us anything.  They tell stories, make us laugh or cry, and inspire emotions.  The marketing message is not overt.  In the Pantene video, there is no product placement or logo placement.

If you want your video to go viral, forget about marketing.  Become a storyteller.  Become an entertainer. Connect with people on an emotional level, and let that connection be your sales pitch.

Star Wars fans might enjoy this “dark side” perspective on viral marketing.

Hollerado, OK Go, Pantene, Proctor and Gamble, Star Wars 164 Comments

Which Prince Will Show Up?


About a decade ago I had the chance to see Prince in a concert, playing three funky hours of hits in a small theater.

After the show, I sensed just as many people left disappointed as enthusiastic.  Despite playing great music, Prince decided not to play any of his hits that night. 

Early in the show he shouted to the audience “Do you want to hear Little Red Corvette?”

The audience roared with approval.

“Well, you’re in the wrong house, bitch.”

This week Prince announced a new tour.  Will he play three hours of his greatest hits or three hours of his personal tastes?

Will Prince enhance his brand by giving the majority of fans the hits they want to hear, or will he decide instead to appeal to the niche group that comes to hear him jam?

I’m not saying he needs to go in one direction over the other, but it wouldn’t hurt to let people know of his plans in advance, before they hand over $100 for a ticket to one of his shows.

The lesson your business can take from Prince is that you need to have a deep understanding of what your customer expects from your brand. 

If you meet or exceed the expectations of your customer, you win.  If you fail to meet them, you lose.

Prince 183 Comments

Business Lessons From John Lennon


He would have turned 70 this week, had not the loose screw in Mark David Chapman’s head stolen him from us on a cold December night in 1980.  We are fortunate that John Lennon left us a wealth of music to remember him by.  The life and music of John Lennon teaches three intriguing business lessons.

1. Forget fear.  Fear grips all of us, preventing us from acheiving greatness.  The fear of failure or ridicule turns creative people into paper-pushers and inventors into followers.  John Lennon wasn’t afraid.  Could a man afraid of ridicule recorded some of the eclectic and unusual sounds that John recorded during his sessions with Yoko Ono?  Could a man afraid of ridicule appear stark naked on the cover of Rolling Stone, more than once?  Many businesses are bound by fear, scared to take that next brave leap to a place they clearly know they should go.  Jump.  Yes, you might fail… but failure is just another step on the ladder to success.  If you don’t fail now and then, you aren’t taking enough risks.

2. Be real.  John Lennon was many things, honest first among them.  Songs like “Mother”, “Beautiful Boy”, “(Just Like) Starting Over”, “Imagine”, and “Cold Turkey” were all deeply personal confessions about the man and how he saw his world.  It takes a lot of courage (see #1 above) to be that honest, but it is that raw honesty that made John Lennon’s fans so deeply passionate about him.  Brands willing to display that kind of vulnerability can forge a much deeper bond with their customers.

3. You can recover from (nearly) anything.  John’s life had its ups and downs over the years.  He dabbled far too deep in drugs.  His mid-70′s “lost weekend” binge is the stuff of legends.  John left the most successful band of all time to embark on a solo career, fought with US immigration authorities, and suffered many negative reviews of his music.  Aside from his assassin’s deed, John always recovered from setbacks.  “Double Fantasy”, his final album, was proof of his ability to recover.   Great brands know that every moment is temporary.  Success is a temporary state, and so is failure.  You do whatever you can to hold on to success, but it eventually goes away.  You fight failure as best you can, but it comes.  And goes.  Great brands recover and rise again.  Old Spice, take a bow.

John Lennon is deeply missed.  In the 30 years since we lost him, it is impossible to imagine how much great music he could have created and how many more musicians he could have influenced.  This week, celebrate the life of John Lennon and know that his brave style, raw honesty, deep passion, and enduring spirit live on in the heart’s of great brands everywhere.

John Lennon 1,092 Comments

Using Conflicting Messages To Build Your Brand

When you watch this video, your perception of the homeless might change.

You might start to think that some homeless people are talented and creative people who just happen to have fallen upon hard times.

You will probably hear a song you’ve heard a thousand times in an entirely new way.  I admit that until watching this video, I never once thought about this song as a cry for help on behalf of the homeless.  Now it will always be about the homeless.

This is brilliant use of what communications wizard Roy Williams calls “particle conflict”.

The essence of particle conflict is this: when communicating your brand’s message, you can either use pieces of information that stack upon each other to make your point, or you can use pieces of information that conflict with each other to make your point.

“Particle stack” puts pieces of the puzzle together in a way that fits and drives home the message.

“Particle conflict” puts several pieces of the puzzle together and then throws you a piece that doesn’t fit at all. Your brain cannot help but become engaged and connected, and the message is thus communicated.

The idea of a man using two Kermit The Frog hand puppets to perform “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is fantastic.  He does a wonderful job of capturing the song’s emotions through his own movements and expressions and the movements and expressions that he gives the puppets.

The particle conflict is that this man is homeless.  He doesn’t have a job.  He has two kids and a family to support and no way to support them. 

How can a talented and creative man like this be homeless?  Aren’t homeless people always drunk?  Aren’t homeless people homeless because they lack the talent and creativity to get a job?

Carefully using “particle conflict” in your branding message is incredibly powerful.

How can I prove it?

This video already proved it.  This touching video is a message designed to raise money and attention to the homeless situation.  Millions of people have seen the video in mere days as it spread virally on the internet, and many of them have gone here to learn how to help the homeless for free.  That was the point of the video, according to the man who performs in it.  This wasn’t about him, he says.  It was about the men, women, and children on our streets without green puppets on their hands, who aren’t always easy to see.  You can read more about Sky Soliel, the performer, in this interview.  It turns out, he isn’t actually homeless. 

Yes, this was an advertising message. And it worked.  Brilliantly.

David Bowie, Kermit The Frog, Queen, Roy Williams 189 Comments

What You Don’t Say Says A Lot


It was week two of the NFL season, and I was at Invesco Field at Mile High to watch Denver take on Seattle.  It wasn’t even close, but like most fans I stayed until the very end.

I went to a movie the other night.  It sucked, but I stayed until the very end.  I didn’t see anyone else leave either, but everyone I spoke to still hated it.


The human mind hates the incomplete.  We strive to draw conclusions, figure things out, and wrap them up in a nice package that makes sense.

If the human mind seeks completion, it stands to reason that the incomplete challenges the mind and engages it.

Remember the powerful silence near the end of “Animal” by Def Leppard?  The entire song comes to an abrupt halt leaving nothing but silence for slightly longer than seems natural, before Joe Elliot screams “… and I want…” and the song carries on for 10 more seconds.
“Living On The Edge” by Aerosmith did the same thing, as did “The Look” by Roxette.

Of course we can’t forget ”Strawberry Fields Forever”, a Beatles classic that fades out and leaves only silence behind, and then gradually fades back in again.  As a radio DJ it was painful to watch the VU meters sink down to nothing for several seconds during that song!

Incomplete is a pretty powerful tool.  Visually, it is known as white space. FedEx used white space to create the famous arrow in their logo.  You’ve never noticed the arrow?  Have a look at the incomplete space between the “e” and the “x” in their logo below.  You’ll never see that logo again without noticing the arrow.

Toblerone chocolates is another logo that famously uses the white space.  They are made in Bern, Switzerland.  “Bern” means “bear” in English, so they’ve creatively worked a bear into the white space of their mountain logo.

So many brands are afraid of the incomplete!  Volkswagen bravely used white space and an incomplete look in their early print campaigns, and as a result they created award-winning and attention-getting creative that helped make the Beetle a massive success.

Fear not the incomplete. Use it to your advantage.

What you leave out speaks volumes.

DaVinci and Michaelangelo were not afraid of the incomplete.  Nor were Led Zeppelin or The Beatles.  And a cult-brand burger shack in the southwestern US has made a business out of it.  You can read more about the power of the incomplete in this piece from March 2010.

Or if you’d prefer to rock out 80′s style, you can sit back and wait for the famous silence 3:55 into this Def Leppard classic.

Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Denver Broncos, FedEx, Led Zeppelin, Roxette, The Beatles, Toberlone, Volkswagen 1,113 Comments

Getting High With Lady Gaga and Katy Perry


You’re lucky.

Your brain has a filter, and without it you head might just explode with over-information.

The most recent Yankelovich study estimates that you are exposed to close to 5,000 advertising messages every single day of your life.  Combine that with non-advertising information messages like highway signs and instructional signs, and you can only imagine how many “messages” you see every day.  Without something to block this visual noise, you would probably lose your mind.

The filter, simplified for non-medical types, works like this: when you see something, it is scanned by the filter before it goes into short-term memory.  If the filter recognizes what it sees and deems it unimportant, it is discarded. At that point you don’t even know you’ve seen it, because it hasn’t been assigned any memory space or comprehension. If the filter doesn’t understand what it sees or hasn’t seen anything quite like this before, it is deemed important and it is acknowledged by the brain and given a space in short-term memory where it is acknowledged and comprehended.  The filter is called Broca’s Area after the scientist who discovered it.

So if you’re marketing message is something we’ve all seen before and deemed to be unimportant, it goes in the discard pile.  That’s where we put:

“We’d rather sell it that count it.”

“It’s our midnight madness sale.”

“Savings throughout the store.”

… and a million other cliched bland advertising messages that we’ve all seen over and over in the past.

When we see something unusual, we pay attention.  That’s where we put:

I’m on a horse.”

I’m a Mac… and I’m PC.”

“Where’s the beef?”

Unfortunately, some vital pieces of information are delivered in the same boring way every time, and they lose their impact because we stop paying attention.  As a frequent flier, the pre-flight announcements are that type of white noise.  Some flights I can’t recall if they even did them.  I simply tune it out.  In my brain, it didn’t even happen.

How can an airline break through that barrier?   Present the information in a fresh way that I haven’t seen before.  Surprise Broca’s Area with a perspective it doesn’t recognize, and force the brain to pay attention.   That’s what Cebu Pacific Airlines did.  They are the Southwest or Westjet or Ryanair of the Philippines, so dancing flight attendants that put the in-flight safety message to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry songs isn’t out of context for their brand.

And everybody paid attention to the in-flight safety message.  That’s a monumental accomplishment.

Broca's Area, Cebu Pacific, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa 989 Comments