Don’t Let Your Brand Go Up In Smoke

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So much of how the world views your brand is based on what they expect from your brand.

Manage expectations.  That’s a big lesson for brands.


The 77 year-old Willie Nelson was arrested on the Thanksgiving long weekend for pot possession

Reaction?  Here are some comments from Twitter.

“Willie Nelson arrested for pot.  That’s like arresting a fish for being in water.”

“Finding pot on Willie Nelson is like finding the clap in a whorehouse.”

“The real news is that they ONLY found 6 ounces of pot in his tour bus.”

“You’d think at 77 year old he would have learned how to hide his pot better by now.”

“Willie arrested for pot possession. God, who made it, is still at large.”

Willie Nelson could get arrested for possession every day of the week and it wouldn’t damage his brand one bit.  In fact, it might actually enhance it.  The world expects Willie Nelson to smoke pot.

On the other hand, if Taylor Swift was arrested for pot possession the entertainment universe would explode with breaking news that would shock and horrify people across the globe.

As a brand, do you truly understand the expectations of your fans?

Rock star brands know those expectations.  They do research to figure it out definitively.  They watch their customers, talk to their customers, and never fail to live up to the expectations of their customers.

If you don’t know the expectations of your fans, and you simply guess at them, you could find yourself in extremely uncomfortable and unprofitable situations.

McDonald’s thought that their customers expected fast food, and pizza seemed like a natural fit.  Millions of dollars went up in smoke.

At one point Coors thought that their customers expected refreshment, so water seemed like a great idea.  Millions of more dollars went up in smoke.

Fortunately, Willie Nelson knowsthat his fans will only love him more after his latest pot bust. No guessing.

Taylor Swift, Willie Nelson 1,408 Comments

Slash or Axl?

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Is your brand Slash or Axl?

Since leaving Guns N’ Roses in the early 1990s, guitarist Slash has gone on to work with some of music’s best as a session musician.  You’ve heard him play with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Rihanna.  He formed the successful band Velvet Revolver.  He even reached the top of the Smooth Jazz charts with a beautiful Spanish guitar song called ”Obsession-Confession“.  These days he is prominently featured on the massively successful ”Guitar Hero 3“ video game, and he is on a world tour supporting his new solo album. Slash is a highly regarded brand in the music industry.

On the other hand, Axl Rose has spent the past 20 years attempting to destroy his personal brand and the brand equity of Guns N’ Roses.  He is notorious for late or cancelled concerts and tours.  The nearly-20 year wait and millions of dollars spent on the quickly-forgotten “Chinese Democracy” album is the music industry’s Ishtar. His continuous legal battles, addictions, and rants have earned him a toxic reputation.

Now Axl Rose has taken his public battle with Slash to a new level, launching a lawsuit against the makers of Guitar Hero 3 because they included his mortal enemy on the cover.  You see, Axl claims that part of his licensing agreement for the song ”Welcome To The Jungle” included a provision that no music or visuals of Slash be included in the video game.  Apparently in Axl’s mind, not only must be succeed but his enemy must simultaneously fail.

How much damage has been done?  According to Rose’s law suit, he deserves $20 million.

It seems every time Axl Rose opens his mouth, he further weakens his personal brand and does everything he can to eat into the brand equity of Guns N’ Roses.
What Axl fails to realize is that the brand Guns N’ Roses will always include Slash.  It might legally be his brand, but it really isn’t his at all.  “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, “Paradise City”, and “Welcome To The Jungle” will always be associated with Slash.  Axl’s most valuable brand assets are forever connected to Slash, and his hatred won’t change that.
Is your brand Slash or Axl?

Are you focused on enhancing your brand, or dragging down the reputation of your competitors?

When times get tough do you turn your attention to your customer and their needs, or do you worry about yourself and your personal selfish interests?

Axl Rose, Guns N' Roses, Slash 358 Comments

Your Brand Isn’t Your Product


If you run a neighborhood coffee shop, your brand isn’t “coffee”.  Your brand is the emotional reaction that your customer has when they interact with your coffee shop, either in person, in words, or visually.

Brands run deeper than just products.  Apple’s brand isn’t computers or phones, it is sleek and powerful user-friendly technology that makes you feel like a leader among your peers.  Harley-Davidson isn’t motorcycles, it is raw power and unfiltered attitude that makes you feel like a rebel for a few hours on the weekend.

John Lennon is a great example.  John Lennon’s legacy lives on because his brand isn’t music.  The John Lennon brand is artistic creativity that inspires peace, possibility, and a conscious awareness of how you can make the world better for you, those around you, and generations to come.

Take a tour around, a site created by Yoko Ono that keeps John’s vision for peace alive.  The official EMI Music site at does much the same.  If John Lennon’s brand was simply music, wouldn’t the bulk of his on-line presence be dedicated to music?

Strong brands are emotions and feelings, not products and services.  When you build your brand on that level, you are tremendously more likely to forge a lasting bond with your customer.


Apple, Harley Davidson, John Lennon 244 Comments

The Art of Remarkable

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What did your brand do recently that got people talking… something truly memorable… something remarkable?

How about something your brand did 41 years ago that people are still talking about?

Jim Morrison, drunk and incapable of remembering the event, apparently unzipped his pants and exposed himself on stage in Miami in 1969 during a famous Doors concert.  He was convicted of indecent exposure and public profanity and ordered to serve six months in jail and pay a $500 fine.  Morrison never served the time, and sadly died just two years later.

Today outgoing Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a long-time Doors fan, is considering a pardon for Jim Morrison.  That has people on both sides of the issue talking about The Doors and that notorious night once again, 41 years later.

Getting profane and naked on stage was perfectly in-line with the brand that Jim Morrison and The Doors created.  There was nothing extreme about the behavior, considering what The Doors stood for.

Your brand, on the other hand, might not be wise to directly emulate The Lizard King.  But you should be thinking about what can do that is truly remarkable.  What will get your customers talking?

KFC recently became remarkable by creating a 600 calorie sandwich called the “Double Down”.  The sandwich revived interest in the brand in the US and when it debuted in Canada last fall it quickly became their best-selling sandwich ever.

Hummer was remarkable for building a massive gas-guzzling monster bigger than anything else on the road.  Built on a military platform, the Hummer made everything else look insignificant.  From 1992 until 2010, the Hummer was a remarkable truck. You could say the same for the Smart Car, on the other end of the remarkable spectrum.

Oprah was remarkable a few years ago when she gave every audience member a new car.  Oprah has had no shortage of remarkable moments in her career, which in itself is remarkable. She was again remarkable when she quit her syndicated show and launched her own network.

How will you be remarkable this year?

Nobody notices the average. The ordinary. The expected. Nobody notices good enough. Those brands are invisible.

What will your brand do that your customers will be talking about in 2052, 41 years from now?

Being remarkable will definitely light your brand’s fire.

Hummer, Jim Morrison, KFC, Oprah, The Doors 140 Comments

Soul Man

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Every great brand has it.  It isn’t visible to the naked eye, and you can’t account for it in any spreadsheet or P&L statement.

And for that reason, if your brand is left in the wrong hands it is sure to be lost.  Haven’t we all seen that happen?  A great brand is taken over by a new CEO or purchased by a new company that just doesn’t “get it”.  For no apparent reason, the brand starts to slide and eventually fades away.

That’s what happens when a brand loses its soul.

As Dodge prepares to roll out their new line up of 2011 vehicles, “soul” is what they are striving for.  Ralph Gilles is the CEO of the Dodge brand.  He told the Wall Street Journal “I’m a big believer in cars having souls, and these do” as he showed off the latest Dodge products.

I’m not convinced Dodge is the best example of a brand that is full of soul.  On one level, they are the “power” brand with their famous Charger, tough Hemi engines, rig-styled Ram trucks, and Durango SUVs.  On the other, they are brand famous for perfecting the minivan, a vehicle that is impossible to position as powerful.  To that end, they will soon be revealing their “man van“, a minivan injected with testosterone.  Full points for striving for soul, though.  It’s a good mission.

Great music is all about soul, too.

In the recent documentary about the making of “Darkness On The Edge of Town”, Bruce Springsteen talks about the lengths they went through to create a drum sound with soul.  They spent, literally, days upon days in the studio trying to find the perfect sound for Max Weinberg’s snare drum.  Other musicians waited for the phone call to come in and lay down their tracks, but the call never came.  Bruce was busy finding soul in his drum sound. He eventually found it, and proceeded to record an album chock full of soul on every level.

Does your entire team understand and respect the soul of your brand?

Great brands recognize it, salute it each day when they come in to work, and steadfastly refuse to let it be compromised.

After all, human beings have soul.  We connect with other living, breathing creatures.  We don’t connect on the same level with inanimate objects lacking a soul.  If your brand is perceived as having soul, imagine the depth of emotional connection you can create with your customers.

That connection will take your brand to “The Promised Land”.

Bruce Springsteen, Dodge 121 Comments

Give A Little Bit: 30 Days of Dead

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 In the 5th decade since they started playing together, The Grateful Dead continue to demonstrate the power of free.

The Grateful Dead have always approached their brand with the point of view that the fans owned it, not the band.  They went against the grain and essentially gave their music away from the very beginning, believing that if they would build a fan base by allowing as many fans as possible to enjoy their music.

That trend continues today at during their “30 Days of Dead”.  Each day they are giving away high quality digital versions of classic dead recordings.  Fans who have built massive catalogs of Grateful Dead songs over the years are able to upgrade and expand their collection, and fans discovering the band for the first time are able to instantly build a 30 song library to get them started.  No charge.

What are you willing to give away in order to engage your customer?

It isn’t about giving away free perks or gifts-with-purchase.  Those are tactics to bring short-term budget conscious customers in the door today.  I’m talking about strategies that involve sharing, caring and providing reasons for your customers to love your brand over the long-term.

A golf club manufacturer who puts on free golf clinics gives away something valuable (lessons) in exchange for the chance to showcase their product to you.  That’s cool.  If I can improve my game, I’m grateful and probably more likely to buy their clubs next time.  Even better, if I use their demo club and their lesson and find myself hitting the ball a long distance, I might just buy a club on the spot!
In the mall last week I walked past a laser eye surgeon who had a team in lab coats providing free eye exams. They were giving away something of value in exchange for the chance to connect with you, their potential customer. Worst case, they tell you that your vision is great (for now) and remind you who to call in a few years when it isn’t so strong.  Best case, you’re signing up for a $500 per eye appointment on the spot.

A business book author who gives away extra tips, information, and ideas through his blog or e-mail database provides something valuable (advice and ideas) for the chance to engage you.  Thank you Seth Godin, among others.  Heck, this blog is an example. You haven’t paid a cent.  I am writing this because I appreciate the feedback and direction as it helps write the book, and I hold a faint hope that a small percentage of readers might actually buy one when it comes out, likely next summer.

Like The Grateful Dead does, and as Supertramp sang, you’ve got to “Give A Little Bit”.

Grateful Dead 161 Comments

A Time To Die…

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That lyric, lifted from the classic Byrds song “Turn Turn Turn”, applies nicely to brands and bands.

Sometimes, it is just time to cash in your chips and go home.

Law #21 in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding by Al and Laura Ries is “The Law of Mortality”.  No brand lives forever.  Sometimes euthanasia is the best option.  Sometimes a brand that has been dead for a while actually has a chance to rise again, once the negatives associated with it have disappeared and only positive nostalgia remains.

It happens all of the time in the music industry.  Bands break up.  Often they break up long before their brand equity dictates that they should.  Early break-ups leave us wanting more.  The Beatles and Led Zeppelin are examples of bands that left us wondering what could have been.

In some cases, bands don’t break up soon enough.  They end up touring the world, playing undersized venues to fading (and aging) crowds.  The band’s brand value slowly diminishes as they beat themselves into a faint shade of what they once were because of over-exposure and negative exposure.  Bands like The Guess Who and Creedence Clearwater Revisited are two examples.  The Guess Who continues to play without Burton Cummings and Randy Bachman, since they don’t own the name.  Bachman and Cummings tour together under their own names instead.  CCR continues to play despite John Fogerty’s absence, and only the original rhythm section intact.  Each night they play, the brand value of The Guess Who and CCR fades a little more.

Are you brave enough to kill your own brand?

If you are brave enough, are you aware enough of your brand’s equity to know when the time is right?

What brands do you wish still existed… brands that left us wanting more?  I have a Pan-Am t-shirt to remember that classic brand.

What brands over-stayed their welcome?  Saturn left us long after they lost the magic of their brand.

While you consider that, enjoy Springsteen and Roger McGuinn of The Byrds with this version of “Turn Turn Turn”.

Burton Cummings, Byrds, CCR, John Fogerty, Led Zeppelin, Randy Bachman, The Beatles, The Guess Who 94 Comments