“Surprise & Delight” vs. “Tried & True” Branding

All the emphasis on having consumer-facing brands “surprise and delight” their customers isn’t what many people are looking for at all.

surprise surpriseIn the interactive age, what we hear often is that companies and brands need to go beyond simply offering a high-quality product.

Many companies and brands have the notion that they should strive to engender a kind of “personal” relationship with customers – so that consumers will develop the same kinds of feelings for brands as they have with their close friends.

How true is this?

One marketing company decided to find out.  Toronto-based virtual agent technology firm IntelliResponse surveyed ~1,000 online consumers in the United States earlier this year.

When asked what sort of relationship they would prefer to have with the companies whose products and services they purchase, here’s how the percentages broke for these respondents:

  • Prefer a “friendship” where they get personalized service:  ~24% 
  • Prefer a “transactional” relationship where they receive efficient service and that’s all:  ~59% 
  • Prefer both equally:  ~17% 

Evidently, “boringly consistently good” beats “surprisingly delightful” far more often – assuming the company is minding its Ps and Qs when it comes to product quality.

Here’s what else consumers are seeking:  They want to be able to get the same information and answers from a company’s desktop or mobile website … online portal … or social media sites as they do from speaking with company representatives over the phone.

The IntelliResponse survey found that two-thirds of the respondents will go to a company’s website first when seeking out information regarding a product or service – so the answers better be there or the brand risks consumer disappointment.

The takeaway is this:  No matter how much breathless reporting there is about this “surprising” social media campaign or that “delightful” interactive contest … the majority of consumers continue to view companies and brands the way they have for 100 years:  Companies are merely the vehicle by which they can acquire the goods they need.

Puzzle piecesRather than spending undue energy trying to make the interactive world “fun” or “sticky” for customers, companies should focus on the basic work of delivering products, information and answers that are easy to find, easy to understand, and easy to act on.

And related to that — make sure support systems (and support people) are in place so that customers can get any problems or issues solved with a minimum of time or hassle.

Do those things well, and companies will naturally please the vast majority of their current and future customers.

Everything else is just window-dressing.

Genericide: The Biggest Threat to Trademarks

brandingWhen reading articles or promotional copy about certain brands, the extensive use of footnotes plus “®” designations dangling off of words like ornaments on a tree look clunky and can be a real distraction.

But there are important reasons for companies to police and protect their brand equity … because if you spend some time snooping around the English language, you’ll find any number of words that began life as trademarked terms but became “genericized” over time.

Trademark lawyers refer to this progression as “genericide.”  And there are a surprising number of high-profile examples they can cite.

Recently, business writer and editor Mary Beth Quirk compiled a list of once-trademarked brand terms that have become victims of genericide, and she published her findings in the Consumerist, an e-zine put out by Consumer Reports.

Among the trade names she highlights that have “gone generic” are these:

Aspirin — Originally registered by German firm Bayer, aspirin’s trademark was confiscated by the U.S. government in the wake of World War I. Considering the massive headache Germany would unleash on the world barely 20 years later, perhaps this aggressive move wasn’t the best course of action!

Dry Ice — Believe it or not, this was actually a trademarked term, dating from 1925.  To nearly everyone, it sounds so much better than “solid CO2.”  The clearly preferred “dry ice” descriptor everyone uses is probably why the company lost its trademark by 1932.

Escalator — Registered in 1900 by Otis Elevator, the company lost its trademark when the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office determined that Otis had used it as a descriptive term — even in its own patent applications.

Heroin — This was yet another Bayer trademark.  It seems strange that heroin started out life as an actual branded product … but there we are.  Presumably, these days Bayer is happy that its company is no longer associated with such a problematic substance.

Laundromat — This term started out as a General Electric trademark back in 1940, issued for the first wall-mounted washing machine.  GE failed to renew its registration after the 1950s.

Linoleum — Here’s an example of a brand name that had already entered the generic lexicon before the manufacturing firm even attempted to register it.  Coined in the mid-1860s, the company’s efforts to register the flooring name were to fail just a decade later.

Thermos — This trademark was established in the early 1900s as a more pleasing way to describe a “vacuum flask.”  After too much loosey-goosey use of the term, the USPTO pronounced it genericized in 1963.

Trampoline — It appears that this term, coined by inventors George Nissen and Larry Griswold in 1936, was never officially registered.  The real generic descriptor is “rebound tumbler,” but “trampoline” sounds so much more effective to me.  Everyone else seemed to think so, too, leading to its ineligibility for trademark status.

ZIP Code — An acronym for “Zone Improvement System,” the ZIP code began life in the mid-1970s as a service mark of the U.S. Postal Service, but the registration was never renewed.  I guess the USPTO chose not to notify its sister agency of the renewal — not their business to do so even among friends and colleagues, evidently.

The next bit of interesting information in Quirk’s article is her listing of brand names that remain trademarked to this day — even though some of them seem to epitomize the essence of generic terminology.

Quirk concurs in the view that these terms may be on life support as proprietary names, noting that they are “trademarks who need to watch their backs” because of how pervasive they are in everyday language usage.  Among the terms she cites are these:

  • Adrenalin® (owned by Park-Davis)
  • AstroTurf® (Monsanto)
  • Band-Aid® (Johnson & Johnson)
  • Bubble Wrap® (Sealed Air)
  • Crock-Pot® (Sunbeam)
  • Dumpster® (Dempster Brothers)
  • Fiberglas® (Owens Corning)
  • Frisbee® (Wham-O)
  • Hula Hoop® (Wham-O)
  • Jet Ski® (Kawasaki)
  • Kleenex® (Kimberly-Clark)
  • Lava Lamp® (Mathmos)
  • Mace® (Mace Security International)
  • Memory Stick® (Sony
  • Ping Pong® (Parker Brothers)
  • Plexiglas® (Rohm & Haas)
  • Popsicle® (Good Humor-Breyers)
  • Q-Tips® (Unilever)
  • Realtor® (National Association of Realtors)
  • Stetson® (John B. Stetson Company)
  • Styrofoam® (Dow Chemical)
  • Taser® (Taser Systems)
  • Teflon® (DuPont)

Thinking along these lines, do other trade names come to mind that could be in danger of losing their trademark status?  If you can think of any, please share your nominations with other readers here.

The most respected brands in 2014: Who’s up … who’s down.

Brand imageIn recent years, there’s been more press than ever about “brand respect.”  Building on this interest, brand strategy firm CoreBrand decided to use historical survey data to attempt to determine the sentiment behind the world’s best-known brands.

CoreBrand uses proprietary Corporate Branding Index data – 23 years’ worth – that it has been compiling through consumer surveys covering nearly 1,000 of most famous brands.

CoreBrand’s 2014 Brand Respect Study covers the 100 brands (limited to publicly traded companies) in the CBI that chart the highest levels of market familiarity among all of the brands tracked.

CoreBrand’s scoring mechanism is pretty straightforward:  Brands with the highest familiarity and favorability are defined as “most respected,” while brands that have high familiarity but low favorability levels are the “least respected.”

For the record, here are the most respected brands as determined from the 2014 CoreBrand research:

  • #1:  Coca-Cola – the most respected
  • #2:  PepsiCo
  • #3:  Hershey
  • #4:  Bayer
  • #5:  Johnson & Johnson
  • #6:  Harley-Davidson
  • #7:  IBM
  • #8:  Apple
  • #9:  Kellogg
  • #10:  General Electric

In comparing 2014’s results to the previous year, Coke and Pepsi remain at the top of the heap – although they traded places from one year to the next.  Moreover, both brands’ favorability scores declined slightly – perhaps due to the burgeoning “better for you” foods movement that seems to be souring some consumers on soft drinks and related beverages.

New on the “Top Ten” most-respected listing this year are IBM, Apple and GE.

At the other end of the scale, these ten brands came up as the ones that are the least respected – with Delta Airlines earning the Booby Prize as “the worst of the worst”:

  • #1:  Delta Airlines – the least respected
  • #2:  H&R Block
  • #3:  Big Lots
  • #4:  Denny’s
  • #5:  Best Buy
  • #6:  Rite Aid
  • #7:  J.C. Penney
  • #8:  Capital One Financial
  • #9:  Family Dollar Stores
  • #10:  Sprint Nextel

While it’s certainly no fun to be on the “least respected” list, two of the brands – Denny’s and Family Dollar — have actually seen their scores improve significantly this year compared to last.  So at least they’re headed in the right direction.

Two other brands – Philip Morris and Foot Locker – have gone off the list.  In the case of Foot Locker, it’s because its brand favorability ratings have improved significantly enough to lift them off the list.

For Philip Morris, the reason is far more mundane:  it’s simply because its familiarity level has deteriorated so much, the brand no longer even qualifies to be part of the annual CoreBrand Brand Respect evaluation.

And finally … we come to Delta Airlines.  It’s the air carrier everyone loves to hate — and it’s dead last in the brand respect rankings.

There’s some consolation for Delta, though:  The only two other U.S.-based air carriers that qualify for inclusion in the study based on their familiarity levels (United and American) also score on the low end, although they (just) miss being on the “least respected list.”

Evidently, the airlines in general could benefit from earning more brand respect.  Good luck with that.

Fast Fade: Unpaid brand posts on Facebook are getting rarer by the day.

Lower ReachIt was just a matter of time.

Once Facebook ramped up its advertising program in order to monetize its platform and mollify its investors, unpaid posts by companies and brands were sure to be the collateral damage.

Sure enough, the recent monthly stats show that the “organic reach” of unpaid content published on company and brand pages on Facebook has been cut in half from where it was just a short time ago.

To illustrate, look at these stark figures gathered in an analysis by Ogilvy of 100+ country-level brand pages measuring the average reach of unpaid posts:

  • October 2013: 12.2%
  • November 2013: 11.6%
  • December 2013: 8.8%
  • January 2014: 7.7%
  • February 2014: 6.2%

What these stats show is that within the span of less than six months, the average reach of unpaid brand posts dropped by nearly 50%

To go even further, an anonymous source familiar with Facebook’s long-term strategy is claiming that its new algorithm could ultimately reduce the reach of organic posts to 2% or less.

Actually, the reason for the squeeze is more than just Facebook’s desire to increase advertising revenue.

Here’s a dynamic that’s also significant:  A Pew Research study conducted in mid-2013 found that the typical adult American Facebook user has around 340 friends.

That average is up nearly 50% from approximately 230 friends in 2010.

Of course, more friends mean more status updates eligible for feeds … and Facebook’s not going to display them all to everyone — even if it wanted to.

Also, Facebook users “like” an average of 40 company, brand, group or celebrity pages each, according to a 2013 analysis done by Socialbakers, a social media analytics firm.  That translates into an average of ~1,440 updates every month.

Compare those figures to five years ago, when the average number of page “likes” was fewer than five … yielding fewer than 25 monthly updates on average.

Clearly, there’s no way Facebook is going to to be able to display all of these updates to followers.  So … the content is squeezed some more.

The final nail in the coffin is the rise in “promoted” posts – the ones that brands pay dollars to promote. It’s only natural that Facebook is going to give those posts priority treatment.

Thus, the hat-trick combination of more friends, more likes and more promoted posts is what’s causing “organic” brand posts to go the way of the dodo bird.

In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before a major social platform like Facebook would seek to monetize its program in a big way.

In some respects, it’s amazing that the free ride lasted as long as it actually did …

Social Branding: Reality-Check Time

social brandingWith all of the attention marketers have been paying to social media, it’s always helpful to look and re-look at information that gives us clues as to how customers are actually interfacing with brands in the social sphere.

Statistics published in a just-released report titled Digital Brand Interactions Survey, based on research conducted by web content management company Kentico Software, gives us a reality check on just how [non-]essential social media actually is in the greater branding picture.

The Kentico research queried approximately 300 American consumers age 18 or older via an online survey administered in February 2014.  Let’s start with the most basic finding:  the degree to which consumers “like” or “follow” brands on social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram:

  • No brands followed on social media:  ~40%
  • 1 to 10 brands followed:  ~39%
  • 11 to 20 brands followed:  ~7%
  • 21 to 30 brands followed:  ~6%

Considering how many different brands the typical consumer encounters in his or her daily life (dozens? … hundreds?), following ten or fewer brands on social media represents only a very small proportion of them.

Yet that’s exactly where four in five consumers are when it comes to social branding.

So … how do companies get into that rarefied group of brands that are, in fact, followed by consumers?  Here’s what the Kentico survey discovered:

  • Already interested in the brand and wanted to stay informed:  ~40%
  • Followed on social media to receive special offers:  ~39%
  • Followed because of a recommendation from a friend or family member:  ~12%
  • Didn’t really know the brand before, but wanted to learn more about it:  ~8%

These results suggest that the notion that social branding is an easy way to attract new customers may be flawed.  Instead, social branding is better-suited to deepening brand engagement with existing customers.

Money talks as well (discounts or other special offers) – and be sure to offer them often.

kentico logoIn another piece of evidence that points to social branding’s relatively weak ability to drive incremental sales … Kentico found that ~72% of its survey respondents “never” or “hardly ever” purchase a product after hearing about it on a social network.

An equal percentage of respondents have “never” or “hardly ever” had brand encounters online that altered their already-existing perception of those brands.

So it would seem that much of the “heat” generated by social branding may be adding up to very little “light.”

On the other hand, there is also some good news for brands in the social realm:  The incidence of people “unliking” or “unfollowing” brands is quite low:  Only about 5% of the survey respondents reported such actions.

When that does happen, it’s often because a brand has been publishing too many social posts – or the content of the posts themselves is uninteresting.

The biggest takeaway notion from the Kentico research is to remind us to maintain a degree of skepticism about the impact of social branding – and to understand that in most cases, social media activities are going to remain the “ornaments” on the marketing tree rather than be the “tree” itself.

In fact, that’s probably the case even more now — as consumers become bombarded with ever-more marketing messages from ever-more brands with every passing day.

The [dis]connect between content “quality” and online advertising.

Jack Marshall

Digiday’s Jack Marshall

I really appreciate the work of Jack Marshall, a reporter at marketing e-zine Digiday, who is helping to expose and explain the “brave new world” of online display advertising and how it has evolved into something that’s rife with problems.

ad exchangesConsider a recent column of Marshall’s titled “Is this the worst site on the Internet?”

In it, he notes that for “legitimate” online publishers that rely on advertising as their revenue model, that model is becoming a more daunting proposition with each passing day.

And a big reason is the emergence of other websites that are “gaming” the online system – not to mention the ad tech middlemen that are their willing accomplices.

Essentially, what’s happening is that ad dollars are being siphoned away from websites that provide professionally produced content and are going to sites that are explicitly constructed to serve up as many ad impressions as possible.

These sites contain little or no original content.

Marshall’s “Exhibit A” is Georgia Daily News, a website which purports to cover “news, traffic, sports, politics, entertainment, gossip and local events in Atlanta.”

As Marshall contends, “What it actually features is content ‘curated’ from elsewhere on the web, and some it has simply stolen from other major news sites” such as the Daily Mail.

Sizable chunks of the website’s content have nothing to do with Atlanta.

GADailyNews home pageConsidering the type of general news site it purports to be, GADailyNews.com doesn’t attract very much traffic at all.  And why would it? — since it contains precious little information of value or interest to anyone who is actually “seeking news about Atlanta.”

But it sure does generate a lot of ad impressions.  According to Marshall, each article page on the site features seven display ad units – all of which refresh every 20 seconds or so.

In the two-minute span of time it took him to read an article about Katy Perry and John Mayer (content copied from an Australian news site), Marshall was served more than 40 ad impressions.

Marshall continues:

“One page has served me nearly 500 ads in just 20 minutes – and I couldn’t stop refreshing them even if I wanted to.”

[And these ads aren’t for B-list advertisers, either.  They’re for brands like American Airlines, Hilton Hotels, Charles Schwaab and others.]

What’s happening here, of course, is that websites and ad tech middlemen have figured out that the algorithms of even the “quality” ad vendors like Google, AdRoll, and Bizo can be gamed pretty easily to serve ads on a low-quality site like Georgia Daily News, which is owned by a single-person entity called Integrated News Media Corporation.

It’s hardly the type of media vehicle that big-brand advertisers would normally wish to use for advertising.  But thanks to the vagaries and complexity of the ad exchange landscape, they are.

For every Georgia Daily News site, there are hundreds of others like it that cobble together seemingly valuable content with a passably convincing set of audience characteristics.

Put it together, and it adds up to problems on two levels.

First, advertisers are paying for impressions that are near-worthless.

Second, since there are finite ad dollars available, legitimate online publishers are losing out on those funds, which are far more important to their well-being than they are for sites that don’t engage in any true journalism at all.

As Jack Marshall concludes:

“Thanks to fraudulent traffic, dubious sites and middlemen with low quality standards, life is only getting harder for those publishers with expensive content teams to support.”

At Times Square, it’s “location-location-location” when it comes to advertising.

The building at 1 Times Square in New York City is nearly 100% vacant.

One Times Square Building (2010).

One Times Square Building (2010).

But if you’re the owner of the building, why should you even care?

That’s because the building takes in a reported near-$25 million per year in advertising revenues – thanks to the digital signage on the building being rented to top brands like Anheuser-Busch, Dunkin’ Donuts and Sony (among others).

Media, Sports & Entertainment Marketing Officer Blaise D’Sylva of Anheuser-Busch keeps it pithy:

“There’s a statement we make in being there – and we think the placement we’ve got is outstanding.”

Of course, there’s more to it than simply “making a statement.”  According to the Times Square Alliance, each year more than 100 million pedestrians pass through Times Square.

Moreover, foot traffic volume is running ~90% higher compared to 1996.

I’m quite sure these traffic volumes are central to any go/no-go advertising decisions being made by the big brands.

Where night is day:  Times Square advertising.

Where the night is as bright as day: Times Square advertising.

The Wall Street Journal reports that billboard signage in Times Square is actually the priciest outdoor advertising in the world.

Considering its location at the intersection of “high traffic” and “high trend,” marketers think it’s an investment worth making — and the rates they’re willing to pay proves the point.

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