As a longtime reader of The New Yorker, I knew my subscription was running out last fall when I started receiving renewal offers via email and snail mail. But the offers themselves were all over the map: from about $47 a year to $59.95, and then even a jaw-dropping $69.95—and one of the higher offers actually dared to call itself a “preferred subscriber rate.”
I was more than a little flummoxed (read: peeved), and when I called to ask for an explanation, the operator would only say that she could match any offer I had received or seen. I quickly pounced, and ponied up for another three years at the lowest rate a new subscriber could be offered (brand / reader loyalty won out over extreme annoyance).
But the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth. It was as if they were playing a game of chicken, hoping for subscribers who wouldn’t question, or who weren’t really paying attention.
Then along came my friends at Comcast / Xfinity. After my two-year agreement for a services bundle (cable, internet and phone) ended, the price shot up more than 35%. I knew it would go up somewhat, and inertia briefly set in. But after a month or so, my blood started to boil—and I dialed to initiate the first of about six long, frustrating phone calls.
Experience has taught me that when calling customer service, one should always take notes with names, dates, etc. Especially when what followed amounted to a series of false promises, misinformation, and long hold times!
Finally (acting on good advice) I threatened to cancel and asked to be transferred to the “account termination” department—whereupon, after rattling off details of all my previous calls that had gone nowhere, I was given a rate even less than what I had originally been paying… with one extra premium channel thrown in!
All of which leads me to the question: Is there any integrity in pricing today? Or is everyone out to scalp the suckers? More importantly, doesn’t this kind of shell game erode loyalty to a brand—no matter how dependent or loyal you are?
Have you had similar experiences? How did you feel the morning after?
Logolution: evolution, revolution, devolution.
There are often good reasons to update your logo:
you’ve changed and your mark no longer reflects who you are;
your market and your customers’ needs and expectations have changed, and you need to evolve with those changes;
sales are down, so you’re making some strategic changes to increase your connection and value to customers, and you need a spiffed up mark to both increase attention and signal those changes.
Both Starbucks and Gap embarked on logo refurbishment as part of larger plans to gain back some lost sales and luster… but there the similarity ends.
Gap, for reasons that perhaps made sense in a boardroom—but certainly not on the street—took their highly-recognizable logo (its consistent, huge implementation on shopping bags turned every customer into a walking billboard and an unpaid member of a global sales force), and canned it.
The new mark—generic corporate-speak that could just as easily have been attached to a drug or office park—we presume was meant to signal that big changes were afoot. But what kind of changes?
Yes, the team of strategists and designers tried to bring along the original mark’s considerable equity by incorporating a pale blue square in the redesign, but the new affect-free configuration generated a crowd-unpleasing firestorm from customers and, after another mis-step (withdrawing the mark and starting up a crowd-sourcing contest for a “better” mark), the original mark is back in place.
(Maybe the brouhaha made the folks at Tropicana feel better.)
Starbucks took a different route. Their new (or renovated, more accurately) mark, the fourth in the company’s history, brings forward and simplifies their signature siren—and loses the type that encircled her. The new mark clearly signals evolution (beyond coffee, beyond markets who can read our alphabet), not the zig or zag that the Gap mark seemingly was trying to herald.
And it says to loyal customers, “you know us so well you no longer need the words ‘Starbucks Coffee’ to understand our logo; you’re part of the club.”
Starbucks could make these moves precisely because their mark had become a symbol (like the Nike swoosh or Apple’s apple) and was no longer something that people “read.” Like a stop sign (understood around the world by color and shape and four characters that now mean “stop” even if a driver has no familiarity with the English word), the earlier Starbucks logo was already perceived as a single stimulus: one’s brain didn’t read the words, take in the siren, and assemble. It was all of a piece, which then allowed Starbucks make the mark simpler and bolder—without losing any meaning.
As I write this, Matt and Meredith on the Today show are going on about the new Starbucks mark: “What’s the lady doing with her hands?” Of course, they, and others, could have asked that about the earlier versions of the siren. They miss the point.
The Starbucks mark succeeds, as did the earlier ones, because it is invested with what the Starbucks brand means; because it’s a platform for the company’s messages; because it’s differentiated, recognizable, and memorable; and because it helps to build connections and relationships.
All those people carrying Starbucks cups “believe” in the company (in ways Dunkin’ Donuts cup-carriers probably don’t); they want to be part of the culture Starbucks has spawned—and, to some extent, define their own personal brands through their association with the Starbucks brand.
The new mark should strengthen those connections and allow the company to invest the mark with additional meaning as it expands its offerings and geographic scope. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know what the lady is up to, really.
Postscript: Just to be clear, logos can, should, and do change in ways as significant as those Gap attempted.
Of course, it’s better if the new mark is a good platform for meaning and story-telling, and a badge people want to own. But even so, if Gap had stood firm, people would have gotten over it—if the company continued to make products that people wanted.
And let’s not forget the huge change at Gap’s sister company, Banana Republic: some readers will remember when that organization was all about mufti, bits of military hardware, and sawdust on the floor. They certainly needed a new logo when they radically changed direction and swapped out the camouflage for gray merino wool.
While there, we decided to ask some of our fellow attendees for their thoughts on content and brandbuilding. Some highlights:
Congratulations to Ann and C.C.! Now go buy their book.
I had the pleasure last Thursday of attending Jeff Pulver’s BrandsConf at the 92nd Street Y in New York City: a virtually non-stop firehose of short-format sessions focused on brands, branding, and more specifically, “exploring humanization of brands” [emphasis mine].
While the conference was a little short on “how to,” topics ran the gamut from philosophical arguments about the importance of “human brands”, to the difficulties inherent in balancing personal and professional brands, to case studies about brands in social media (though in Sesame Street’s case, that was more about the “monsterization” of brands…), to examples of organizations that had effectively “humanized” their brand through the judicious, and clever, use of human-like characters or mascots.
As you might imagine, though, when you’ve got 50-something speakers in 40-something slots, it takes a little while to process all the information you’ve taken in… and then figure out what it actually means to the current state of branding.
And so: as much as BrandsConf — and even we here at Sametz Blackstone — have been talking about creating “human brands,” my biggest takeaway from BrandsConf is that “human branding” isn’t possible.
It’s simply not possible to make a non-human thing, human.
In fact, what you get when you aren’t honest with yourself about that reality are weird mash-ups of plainly corporate and almost-human behaviors (“Frankenbrands,” as my colleague Meg calls them) or, perhaps even worse, brands that appear human in most ways, but lack the soul, the quirks, and the randomness of actual humans — mostly because all the real humans that work for them have been forced into a narrowly defined mold of what a “human” is (in other words, “Brandroids” — also Meg’s term!).
More often than not, it seems, attempts to “humanize” a brand just lead to character-izing it instead.
The problem is, I think, that there are so many different ways to be human. Unless a company hires a veritable army of identical people (which is obviously not possible), or hires a bunch of different kinds of people, and then legislates their human behavior into a Borg-like cybernetic unit (the being otherwise known as Brandroid), it’s impossible for a company to act, react or respond the same way a human would in every situation.
Yes, companies are made up of people, and people are human, but that doesn’t make the behavior of companies human — nor, I daresay, should it.
Essentially, companies are ideas, at their core: ideas thought of by humans, maintained by humans, and supported and sustained by humans.
But, again, they’re not human. Why?
Because humans don’t scale. They can’t. The growth of your company, while undoubtedly positive, will put an unavoidable dent in your “humanness.” Which, in turn, means “human branding” can’t scale, either.
But — and here’s the real challenge — branding at a human scale does.
So the question changes: instead of wondering how to create a “human brand” (though we could stand for brands being a bit more “humane“…), we have to explore how we might create a human-scale brand.
What does that look like? What could it look like? What should it look like?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Image credit: Swami Stream
This Friday, December 3rd, Roger Sametz and Eric Norman will be presenting at the Association of Fundraising Professionals Massachusetts 2010 Conference on Philanthropy. We’re excited to be a part of the conference again, to reconnect with friends and collaborators, and to attend sessions presented by some of the most passionate and committed members of the Massachusetts nonprofit community.
Roger’s presentation is entitled “Brand Control to Major Tom: Increasing your brand’s gravitational pull”:
While the new age of extreme participation and interaction means you no longer have the control you once had of all your brand and communication levers, there is great potential for more engaged prospects, donors, and advocates––and for more learning to advance your development efforts and enterprise. This session will help you to think of your brand as a system; help you to get the most from each component of the system; and provide frameworks and tools to help you to get more out of the communications you can control––and provide the context to influence the ones you can’t.
Eric will be joining forces with longtime Sametz collaborator, Terri Rutter of Harvard Medical School, to present “Donor 3.0. Engaging prospects today and tomorrow”:
New expectations are emerging from disruptions in our economy, changes in our lifestyles, and the new ways we communicate with one another. Understanding how today’s donors are different from those of yesterday—how they live, how they communicate, and what they expect from their actions—will help organizations optimize their efforts to engage and attract these donors and build mutually rewarding relationships with them. In this session, we’ll review initiatives by the Harvard Medical School Office of Resource Development for introducing new models, methods, and tools that organizations must master to connect with prospects and remain good stewards of their donors.
If you’re planning to attend the conference, please come up and say hello — and we’d love to see you at Roger and Eric and Terri’s sessions. For more information on AFPMA 10, including details on registration, location and more, head to their website here.
A little while ago we introduced a set of workshops designed to help organizations get up to speed on some key strategic communication practices, such as brand strategy, social media, and visual brand expression. The idea was to help those who aren’t ready for a full-on engagement to get some useful tools and ideas to tackle particular challenges right away on their own.
Some time later, old friends of ours at MIT’s Publishing Services Bureau approached us with some questions about how we could help them evolve to better serve the needs of their campus community. PSB, as it’s known on campus, is a valuable resource to everyone at MIT who manages, commissions, or prepares communications—from the professional communicator who needs expert references to the novice support staff tasked with all sorts of projects. But like the rest of us, they saw the opportunity to evolve with the rapidly changing communications landscape…they just weren’t sure how. How can they make the most of the expertise they’ve built? What are the emerging communication strategies, particularly around digital media, that will help advance the missions of MIT and its many departments, labs, and centers? What should the MIT community expect from PSB?
Our impulse was to plan a consulting engagement in which we (at Sametz Blackstone) would carry out a familiar investigation and recommend an array of changes. But in conversation with PSB leaders, it became apparent that they would be better served—and be better positioned to serve the MIT community—if they could lead their own strategic transformation. That’s where our workshops came in.
But the workshops we’ve already prepared weren’t sufficient. Their tightly focused nature, ideal for organizations eager to take small, fast steps, didn’t add up to the transformational capabilities they want. So in collaboration with PSB, we developed a seven-part series designed enrich and extend their consulting capabilities. Our goal, in short, is to help their staff do what we do. As communications programs become more complex—crossing many media and channels, involving at once more specialists (like mobile app developers) and more novices (who can attract followings of thousands online without formal training)—the need for strategic thinking only grows. That’s the role we fulfill for our clients, and that’s what PSB is well positioned to do for their constituents. It’s exciting to be part of their transformation, and rewarding to think the practices and philosophy we’ve honed here over thirty years can help the through it.
At this writing, we’re a little more than halfway through our course. So far we’ve learned a lot too—about how to not just explain what we do, but to actually enable PSB to do it too. But far from thinking this will put us out of business, we see this as contributing to the rising tide. By “teaching them to fish” we ourselves are casting a wider net, too. We believe in helping every organization reach their goals with better communications; this innovative training program will have effects that ripple in many directions.
Here’s my entry, a true story from last Friday:
“Help! Stroller seat is broken!”
New one comes next day.
If you’re the parent of a young child (or have been), you know what a massive problem a broken stroller can be — and what a vast relief it is to have that problem solved overnight, with no questions asked.
For the past several months, I’ve been working with my colleagues here at Sametz Blackstone—as well as our counterparts on the client’s design and marketing team—to refine and extend a visual brand system for Haemonetics, a major player in the blood management arena.
Just yesterday the first samples of materials recast in the new visual system arrived at Blackstone Square.
Developing and documenting a visual system for a complex organization—from branding strategy, to communications hierarchy, to palette, to typography, to grid, to imagery, and beyond—is a challenging and lengthy process. Sometimes you get so close to the project that you forget how transformative it really is—and you just can’t wait to see the system in action. The longer the gestation; the greater the anticipation!
We were thrilled when the first products rolled (successfully) off of the assembly line (in this case an internationally deployed variable data Print On Demand fulfillment system).
I’m in love with the colors, the type, the bold use of red, and all of the other details we agonized over. More importantly, so is the client! We helped a growing client visually unify their offerings in a way that is appropriate for their area of practice and fits their corporate culture. Now they have a coherent and extensible visual system that meshes with their corporate mission and distinguishes Haemonetics from their competition.
The system works, it’s got legs and the internal marketing team is now hard at work training everybody in Haemonetics’ offices across the globe to thoroughly prepare for a successful launch.