State of the Brand :: by Jason Voiovich

A weekly discussion of how branding affects the world around you.

On break…

Posted on | April 25, 2011 | 4 Comments

Since January of 2006, every week, without fail, I’ve published the State of the Brand. The blog software I use says that translates to 295 consecutive posts over almost five and a half years. (Okay, I did have a guest writer once, but I still think it has been a pretty good run).

Some articles I am very proud of, and more than I’d like to admit now make me cringe. But above all that, I’ve been most proud of not missing a beat. I’ve very much appreciated the kind comments and encouragement along the way – they help me shake off the sometimes-deserved, sometimes-not ugly criticism that’s part of playing this game.

There’s no specific reason for a break now other than I need to focus on finishing up the coursework for my MA at the University of Minnesota. A little recharge on the creative blogging front won’t hurt either. I’m not exactly sure when I’ll resume, but it won’t be before June 15 when I present to my degree review committee.

In the meantime, now’s the time for suggestions and critique. For most articles, I don’t receive much feedback. That’s okay of course, but it doesn’t really tell me what’s appreciated or what you’d like me to write about. Over the years, I’ve primarily used this column as a way for me to make sense of my world. Along the way, maybe it’s helped you too. But I get the sense now that it may be time to rethink it.

So you tell me. Should I write less, more often? More, more often? More in-depth and less often? Should I let others tell the story for a while?

For the next six-seven weeks, I’ll (finally) shut up and listen.

Duets: Double the Benefit, Double the Risk

Posted on | April 18, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. Better than 25% of today’s American Top 40 feature collaborative efforts.
2. Clearly, the producers feel the strategic partnerships make sense in an era of single-track focus and fragmented audiences.
3. But the strategy is not without risks to the brand image of both artists in question.

Sadly, my boys are at the age where they are listening to popular music.

All my attempts to indoctrinate them to the Beetles, the Eagles, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Morning Edition, and – heaven forbid – Car Talk, have failed. In the care with them now I’m subjected to a repeated barrage of Top 40 “hits” from something called “Lady Gaga”, Enrique Iglesias (what happened to Julio?), and Ke$Ha (yeah, I don’t understand why it’s spelled that way either).

On a recent trip to the Y (not the YMCA anymore, sigh. . .), I couldn’t help but wonder why every song during the 15 minute drive featured more than one artist. Huh. To make sure I wasn’t witnessing some KDWB anomaly, I checked the American Top 40 website. A quick scan confirmed my suspicion: 11 of the top 40 songs were collaborations – better than 25% – making easily possible that a short car ride would find more than one.

I certainly remember the occasional collaboration in the 1980s and 1990s (Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk this way” comes to mind), but nothing approaching one in four. The curmudgeon in me would be inclined to believe the reason behind all of the “collaboration” is a distinct lack of talent. But coming from someone who grew up with glam rock, I’m clearly not in a position to make that judgment call.

On a serious note, I think the fragmentation of the music industry – and music audience – has more to do with the uptick in collaborative top 40 hits than any other factor. Up until the proliferation of Napster and iTunes, the “album” and huge audiences dominated the music industry. It simply was not profitable to address niche groups, and those artists received little if any exposure. In other words: Big albums, big artists, big tours, big hits, and big money.

Digital music changed all that. Not only did it make the creation and distribution of music cheaper, it also broke apart the album as the central unit of music promotion. If you could buy only the song you liked for $0.99, why on earth would you drop $16 for the other 11 songs? The net affect was a much more hit-driven industry on one hand, and narrower slices of audiences on the other. To summarize: more artists, smaller hits, more fragmented audiences.

So what’s an artist to do? Especially one who wants the “big money”?

Simple: Take a page out of the MBA playbook – Strategic partnerships.

From a producer’s perspective, examine the image needs and audience dynamics for a particular proposal. Let’s say the boy band Big Time Rush needs to burnish a bit more of a bad boy image. Solution: strategic partnership with Snoop Dog to add an urban edge. Let’s say Eminem’s audience could use more a female demographic to boost sales. Solution: Strategic partnership with Rihanna. In branding terms, we call this borrowing equity. Each artist in question benefits from the association with the other in some tangible way.

That’s not to say artistic collaboration, for its own sake, is dead. However, 25% (and growing) doesn’t seem congruent with the psyche of ego-driven pop artists. They are being managed into collaboration.

But that’s the upside. What’s the risk?

For starters, the concept of the individual tour is dead if a healthy percentage of your hits involve some other artist. Perhaps that’s why we see so many more “collaborative” tours. More artists, more value for the (overpriced) ticket. I can understand that.

Perhaps the larger issues involve the inherent risks with strategic partnerships themselves. As we learn in MBA land, the challenges in such relationships are profound: Cultural mismatches, audience mismatches, creative disagreements, and the potential denigration of the brand persona.

In other words, what do parents think about their 10 year old listening to Big Time Rush on Nickelodeon Television when they see Snoop Dog surround by his, uh, “women”? What do Rihanna listeners think about the images of spousal abuse in Eminem’s other lyrics given her own past?

Suffice to say, it’s complicated, and it seems to have little to do with making music.

Related Articles:
American Top 40

March Madness Viewing is a Team Sport

Posted on | April 11, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. Post NCAA tournament viewership data revealed (for the first time in stark measurable terms) what we instinctively knew already: A significant share of viewers take in the games outside the home.
2. This 20% figure may well hold true for other “events” – sports for sure, but also award shows, contests, and other “real” (not “reality”) dramas.
3. In those cases, we need to think differently about the situational behaviors of viewers in communal environments versus the home; they may not respond the same way to messaging.

I happened to be in San Diego during the beginning of the NCAA Basketball tournament. Specifically, I was there with someone very emotionally invested in the fate of the Ohio team.

And like every tradeshow, the hotel bar was packed with impromptu business meetings, booth workers burning off steam, and vacationers wondering what the heck we were all doing there. But more than any of those things on this trip, every television was tuned to a different Division I game – and there were a lot of onlookers.

I come to find out, we were not alone.

In fact, Adweek reported this week that the Arbitron data showed “out of home” viewing boosted the overall March Madness numbers 20%. What’s better, those increases hit the all-important 18-49 male demographic.

Out of home viewing includes hotels and bars (like the Hilton in San Diego) as well as all manner of restaurants, sports bars, and common areas. I won’t bore you with the details of how the data are collected, but suffice to say, it’s reasonably complicated, error prone, but getting better. Advertisers have always known intuitively that large sports events are communal draws, but finally have the data to back it up.

What does that mean in dollar terms: CBS took in $613.8 million during the tournament for a reach of 10.2 million viewers, making each viewer worth just over $60.00. Put another way, out of home viewing accounted for over $122 million of the take.

Those are solid numbers.

A few years ago, I wrote about Nielsen On Location media, which was the first major effort to pin down the market for viewership at hotels, restaurants, restrooms, and gas stations. At the time, this was a $1.3 billion market, with advertisers putting money into the media without really having decent measurables. Now we do, and the market for this media type is taking off. (Geolocation advertising enabled by the growth of smartphones certainly has helped).

What’s so important about the March Madness figures is that it finally quantifies a behavior the advertising community always knew was true: Human beings are social animals. We want to experience media with other people – specifically in this case, 20% of the time.

But I think we can be even more specific.

Here’s what advertisers would really like to know: What types of programming are likely to draw the most out of home viewing? And if we know that, where are they and how do we better target them with relevant products and services?

I’ll take a stab at this one. March Madness was able to grab a 20% share outside the home because it is, fundamentally, a shared experience. With the proliferation of instant media updates, if I can’t watch the game, I can certainly keep up with the score and the highlights. But that’s misses the experiential nature of the game – I don’t see the inherent drama, the missed shots, the flow of the game. Those are all things we don’t want to time-shift. Once you know the final score, some of the magic of the game is gone.

So we want to experience it when it’s happening. And ideally, many of us want to experience it in the company of others. Major sporting events are an obvious draw (the measurable success of pay per view boxing is another example of this concept), but I think we can expand it beyond just sports. Any programming event where knowing the outcome in advance completely ruins the drama falls into this category – awards shows, contests (American Idol), etc. Even the last episode of Seinfeld. Anything that becomes an “event”. Not a “psuedo-event” – i.e. the season finale of CSI Miami, or pseudo-unpredictable reality TV – but real, unscripted drama.

If the 20% share holds for these types of events, we need to rethink that sub-component of our audience. Let’s say the audience for a PPV boxing event is primarily male, college educated, 25-45. What might be different about the 1/5 of that audience viewing in a communal location? For one, if I were advertising a product or service they might want (but might be ashamed to admit to wanting – “male enhancement” anyone?), you can write off 20% of the audience who might not associate a certain level of embarrassment with your product. You could also envision the opposite scenario, where 20% of your audience might be even more attune to a new microbrew. In fact, they might be inclined to ask for it on the spot! Talk about measurability.

These numbers really boil down to a new layer to examine during the media buying process – situation-specific media consumption – in which a significant portion of your target audience might behave (or not behave!) like you expect.

It seems like the more data we get, the more complex a picture emerges. Good luck to us all.

Related Links:
Adweek: Exclusive: Bar, Hotel Viewing Lifts March Madness Numbers 20%
Your hotel television is watching . . . you

HealthPartners, Virtuwell, and Hypercompetition

Posted on | April 4, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. With a decent amount of marketing hoopla, HealthPartners launched Virtuwell, a web-enabled diagnosis and treatment tool for simple healthcare needs.
2. The effort could be seen as an example of hypercompetition, where a company out-innovates itself in order to prevent a competitor from doing it for them.
3. Regardless of the competitive strategy, HealthPartners has a long way to go to clarify its menu of healthcare options; the value propositions are not yet clear to all stakeholders.

Sunny Minnesota spring day. Two boys playing outside. The younger one comes in screaming in pain. The older one screaming, “I didn’t do anything.”

Ah, just another one of the joys of raising boys.

As it turns out, it really wasn’t my older one’s fault (surprise). Over the winter, our new retaining wall went through one too many freeze/thaw cycles. A chunk of six blocks gave way, hitting my younger son’s baby toe on the way down. (Yeah. Ouch.)

While my wife found the ice pack, I hit the HealthPartners website. Boy, had things changed in the few months since I’d last had reason to be there. In addition to hospitals, specialty clinics, and urgent care, I had a new choice: Virtuwell, an online diagnosis tool. What the heck? I didn’t know much about it, but the published wait times at the urgent care clinics are notoriously inaccurate.

Long story short, Virtuwell seems like the perfect option for things like sore throats, flu, lice, and the contagious, but generally harmless pink eye. No “paving bricks on foot” option. Darn.

As we spent the better part of the afternoon waiting at St. Paul’s urgent care clinic, I had more than enough time to really give this some thought.

What does Virtuwell mean for HealthPartners? Isn’t an online option sapping business away from their clinics and ER? How does this provide an alternative to Minute Clinic and Target Clinic? Is this an example of so-called hypercompetition? That’s a strategy scenario – usually reserved for technology companies – in which the dominant player in a market will innovate it’s own replacement products and services before a competitor does it for them.

In one sense, I think that’s exactly what’s happening. If you think about the traditional healthcare service model, it is being beset on all sides with formidable opponents. You’ve got insurers putting downward pressure on fees. You’ve got the Targets and CVSs of the world getting into the easy-care business (and consequently, some of HealthPartners most profitable business). You’ve got a new and uncertain healthcare regulatory environment. You’ve got public anger over what they see as system abuses. You’ve got employer anger over yet another year of double digit premium increases.

It all comes down to this: healthcare providers must find the best delivery model, at the lowest cost, that provides the best measurable outcomes. The one that can innovate the fastest wins.

In that sense, I can see where HealthPartners is coming from. If we think about it a different way, we can understand the healthcare delivery model based on the engagement need of the patient. A world in which everyone goes to hospital emergency room for the most minor ailment is a tremendously expensive way to deliver care, just ask HCMC. That said, hypercompetition could be in play here, but it’s more likely that we are simply seeing technology finally enable a complete delivery model.

The chart below summarizes the different options by engagement level.

HealthPartners healthcare options

By creating Virtuwell, HealthPartners is using technology to fill in the far end of the engagement chain: common conditions, easy diagnosis, typical prescriptions. All of which can be done via chat. (Media richness theory might say that a telephone conversation could add more context to the discussion, but that’s a nitpick. Video chat would fix that.)

We can see on the other end of the spectrum are the high-engagement options: specialty care and hospice. Next to them are the hospital systems (not as engaging; ideally, they don’t want you there any longer than you need to be). Then the clinics. Then the urgent care centers. Then a missing option: in-retail clinics. Then Virtuwell.

From a cost and delivery perspective, it is a pretty impressive model. But from a branding perspective, it is clear healthcare consumers really don’t understand yet how to choose (I am also not sure it helps that Virtuwell features a clearly different visual message). In marketing-speak, they don’t have a clear value proposition at each level.

For consumers with insurance, what incentive do they have to choose the cheapest option? They’ll choose the most convenient. For uninsured consumers, they’ll wait until they have an emergency, or they’ll choose the retail clinics with the easy-to-understand price menus. Or they won’t go at all. The common denominator is confusion. As consumers, we’ve complained about healthcare costs and services, but we are loath to engage with our options more fully.

Virtuwell is a good start from a delivery model perspective, and makes sense from a hypercompetition perspective, but in the short term adds another layer of confusion to a crowded set of options.

In order to get the return on investment it wants (needs), HealthPartners needs to do a better job helping all of us understand how to choose from its menu of care options. When do I choose a specialist? When do I go to the ER? When do I hop on nurse chat? It will be hard work, but unless that’s clear, I’m not sure it will be successful.

As a parting note, the younger boy turned out fine. Nothing broken. Whew.

Related links:
Virtuwell website

Firing Crispin won’t save the King

Posted on | March 28, 2011 | 1 Comment

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. After six consecutive losing quarters, Burger King’s new ownership group ousted long-time agency Crispin Porter.
2. Although the agency pulled off some impressive campaigns, one could argue they never settled on a theme and ran with it.
3. But it’s hard to say any amount of advertising would fix Burger King’s core demographic problem – a squeeze from McDonald’s on one side and high-end fast food on the other.

Agencies get this kind of news all the time.

Their corporate account “wants to go in a new direction”, “wants some fresh creative vision”, “feels its time for a change”, or any of the other hundred or so euphemisms that all mean the same thing: You’re fired.

Last week, we learned Miami agency Crispin Porter got the “it’s not you, it’s me” speech from fast food giant Burger King. (Officially, it was a “mutual agreement” to part ways. Mutual. Right.)

During a nearly eight year run, the BK/CP pair launched a series of groundbreaking, somewhat interesting, and occasionally downright bizarre ad concepts. Remember “Whopper Virgins”? That’s where remote Thai villagers, who had never had a burger, were given the choice between McDonald’s and Burger King. Unsurprisingly, they preferred flame-grilled burgers. But the real classic was “The King”, a human character in a strangely creepy king mask who served as a sort of jolly mascot for the chain, engaging in all sorts of quirky misadventures.

But regardless of what you might think of BK’s advertising over the past half-decade or so, the underlying goal was pretty simple: Unseat McDonald’s as the number one burger maker. And they didn’t even get close. In fact, BK has lost money in each of the last six quarters.

To be blunt, after 3G Capital bought the chain six months ago, and installed a new CEO, and a new CMO, Crispin getting the axe was about the biggest non-surprise I’ve heard all week.

We can look at this a few different ways. From an advertising perspective, Burger King is left with finding its “hook”. In other words, what’s the foundation of Burger King marketing efforts? Is it the food? Is it “flame grilled”? Is it the Whopper? Is it some variant on the King? Is it a direct assault on McDonald’s? Is it something else? To be fair to the new CEO who pulled this trigger on the shakeup, Crispin and BK never really answered that question. They never stuck to an idea and drove it home a la “Just Lovin’ It” (McDonald’s anthem to the good feelings you get when you come to in for a meal – they have it nailed).

You could also look at this from a target demographic perspective. Burger King’s target audience really isn’t McDonald’s target audience, even though they produce the same general menu. McDonald’s has a broad swatch of regular customers, but it’s core demographic is parents with small children. That’s why its advertising is so brilliant. By harkening back to the good feelings parents had coming with their parents to the restaurant, they want to share those feelings with their kids. Pair that with heavily advertised Happy Meal toys and (sadly, often) the only viable indoor playground in town, and you have a winning formula.

As much as it might lust after that demographic, Burger King doesn’t really connect with young parents. It’s target demographic is the oft-coveted 18-25 year old single male. As a group, he has plenty of discretionary income, few responsibilities, and little concern for his long-term health. Perfect for a 1500-calorie fat bomb at Burger King.

But this is a perfect transition into what I think is the core problem with Burger King: Poor differentiation within a quickly-evolving fast food marketplace. Put simply, there are more (and better) competitors today for the 18-25 year-old male’s fast food dollar than there were even five years ago.

Think about it for a second. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, if you wanted fast food, what were your choices? McDonald’s. Burger King. Wendy’s. Arby’s. KFC. Taco Bell. A few others. (Jack in the Box, Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr, Popeye’s, etc never cracked double digits in most markets.) In that market, you could reasonably attempt to carve a sizable chunk of the buying audience.

That all changed with Subway. Now surpassing even McDonald’s in global restaurants, Subway gave even the 18-25 male demographic a viable alternative that didn’t leave you hunched over in indigestive pain later that night.

Since then, we’ve seen several other competitors fill the “high end” fast food space. Think Chipotle. Think Smashburger. They put traditional fast food giants BK, Wendy’s and Arby’s in a quite the pickle. Try to go down-market and you run into the McDonald’s juggernaut. They’ve already lost that battle. But try to improve food quality, and you run into the clearly-better class of higher end fast food (who never had to shed their “$0.99 value menu” image).

As is clear from financial results at Burger King (and Wendy’s, and Arby’s), they had yet to figure out a clear answer.

Put simply, I am not sure this is a problem any amount of advertising can solve. Fundamentally, advertising must work with what’s already there. Contrary to popular believe, we are not magicians – we cannot create a stable image of a company that cannot fulfill that promise.

If we do, it’s likely to fall apart. Crispin tried. I don’t think they ever had a chance.

Related Links:
Burger King Splits With Crispin

I don’t enjoy the New York Times *that* much

Posted on | March 21, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. The NYT paywall is another sad (and I would say doomed) attempt at providing a new online revenue stream.
2. Like many before it, the NYT is stuck in its old subscription model where it controlled its own production and distribution. In the new media landscape, it’s the cable companies, Apple, Google, and Facebook that run the show.
3. To that end, the NYT and its newspaper kin would be better advised to join ‘em rather than try to beat ‘em. By banding together, they could provide simple access packages to several publications that people would probably gladly pay for.

The New York Times is on my Firefox bookmark toolbar.

It’s right up there with the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Strib (for the local stuff), and links to Gmail, Indexed (one of the most clever blogs ever), AdWeek, AbleNet (my company), and Basecamp (our cloud-based project management system).

I’m going to guess NYT holds a similarly enviable position on millions of browsers.

But I’m still not going to pay for it.

Before you give me a lecture on how “capitalism works”, that there’s no “free lunch”, and that online advertising models cannot pay the bills, let me clarify. I am not at all opposed to exchanging greenbacks for something I value, but I expect those who want my money to follow the old say axiom: To sell more, make it easier to buy.

And the NYT paywall – no matter the intricacies or the 20-article limited access – is not “easy”. Neither are any of the other paywall concepts individual newspapers have tried to install in their online incarnations. The bottom line is this: If each of the online publications I read regularly installed a paywall (like the WSJ’s), I would need to log in six different times simply to scan the news.

That’s just plain silly. What’s more, I think that’s one of the key reasons paywalls of any kind have had trouble sticking. Perhaps the WSJ can get away with it. The demographics are right. Perhaps even the NYT. But second-tier publications (including our own Strib) don’t stand a chance.

This is really all about buyer behavior and much less about newspaper economics. I understand the complexity of the issue (I’m completing my thesis work on exactly this topic – there are no easy answers), but this issue of paywalls isn’t so hard to understand. Its lynchpin is habitual behavior.

Let’s try looking at the issue a different way.

What if you bought cable television stations like you bought online newspaper subscriptions? That would mean instead of the 200-300 channels you get now, you’d need to pick and choose the handful you liked. Of course, many people would (without thinking about it much) say “yes!” – “heck yes!” – to only paying for what I’d like to watch. But to put it bluntly, a few subscribers would do it, but most would opt for the easier “package”. That’s just how we’re wired. Most of us don’t have the time, energy, or patience to sift through hundreds of options.

In economic terms, by banding together, providers can be assured of a certain level of continued revenue. Without it, larger providers (ESPN, Disney, Discovery, etc) could make it, the economics simply don’t work for the smaller channels. Yes, your cable or satellite bill is disproportionately skewed towards ESPN even if you don’t watch it, but without them, the Science Channel wouldn’t exist.

Bottom line, packages are easier to buy, and no one ever believes cable television should be “free”.

But I can hear you through the interwebness – what about the Netflix model? Can’t I simply stream only the shows I want to watch along with my DVD-by-mail arrangement? Really though, it’s the same idea. Although it’s more flexible, you are subsidizing certain programming you don’t watch while others do the same for you. Most subscribers are happy to pay it.

I’m not naive enough to think instituting a system like this wouldn’t be akin to herding cats, but the industry’s outright hostility to the idea baffles me.

Case in point: Apple’s new subscription service. Put simply, if you want access to your subscribers using an Apple app (and access to its millions of iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch users), you’ll need to give Apple its 30% cut. Seem a bit steep? Maybe, but Google is doing the same sort of thing with Android platform apps. You could have heard the grinding and gnashing of teeth from the media biz.

I think what they’re really mad about is that they no longer control the channel, but they’re still trying to act as though they do. Comcast now controls it. As does DirecTV. And Netflix. And now Apple, Google, and Facebook. Even the venerable NYT is simply another provider of content.

That’s the new media landscape. The quicker media figures that out, the better.

Related Links:
The New York Times paywall is, well, weird

The smoking rebel returns

Posted on | March 14, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. Smoking rates among teens have fallen dramatically since the late 1980s, but have hit a plateau at just under 1 in 5.
2. There are certainly many reasons for this, and we could be at a natural barrier, but less aggressive anti-smoking advertising is likely partly to blame.
3. Also to blame is a resurgence in pop culture smoking references – everything from pop music to the latest animated kid-flick “Rango.”

When I was a kid, people smoked on screen.

Yes, television advertising was off the air since Virginia Slims last spot on Carson’s “Tonight Show” in 1971, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s smoking remained a mainstay of popular movies.

In the 1990s, that started to change, especially with movies aimed at children.

Anti-smoking groups began targeting Hollywood in the same way tobacco conglomerates did decades before. If they could make smoking cool by featuring it on the big screen, perhaps they could make it disappear (especially for younger moviegoers) by eliminating it.

If you remember, this was the era of tobacco legislation, court cases, and record payouts by tobacco companies to states Attorneys General to recoup the direct and indirect costs to public health. Taken together with aggressive anti-smoking advertising, the rate of young smokers lighting up for the first time has dropped from 36.4% in 1997 to 19.5% in 2010 according to the CDC.

But a funny thing happened on the way to “zero”. The rate of current cigarette use among teens has leveled off.

If “everyone knows” the dangers of smoking – especially starting young – what gives?

A few things. As a parent of a teen (and with another entering that age bracket), it’s becoming clear that whatever I don’t approve of, they want to try. It’s a sign of rebellion, and a way to forge their own identity. Beyond that, much of the money that was supposed to be used for tobacco cessation advertising was gobbled up in state government budget crunch solutions a few years back – Minnesota included. As a student of the advertising craft, I know how well it can work. I also know what the lack of advertising means. And let’s not forget the classic American urge to not be told what to do, even if that thing is ridiculously stupid (the second leading cause of preventable death, behind only obesity, qualifies as ridiculously stupid in my book). We’ll defend our freedom to the death to run headlong into a tree if that’s what we choose.

But I think there’s something a little more than that. Smoking is definitely making a pop culture comeback, and it was on full display during a weekend showing of Johnny Depp’s new kid-thriller “Rango”. Animated characters smoked on screen. It blew me away. I haven’t seen that since the old-time classic Disney’s flicks (most recently “101 Dalmatians”).

Anti-smoking and parent groups are calling foul. They cite a 2007 mandate from the Motion Picture Association of American that any movie that featured too much smoking be slapped with an R rating. They say Rango should get it. And I agree.

Paramount’s execs say that the characters smoking are the “bad guys” and that their behavior is so poor that kids would associate smoking with undesirable traits. And besides, they’re animals, not people.


We already know that smoking fits the classic rebel archetype. It was always the “bad guys” who were smoking, and that’s what made it so appealing. For a certain percentage of all kids (and a bigger percentage of teens), the anti-hero is precisely who they identify with. Layer on a dose of a smoking Lady Gaga or Charlie Sheen and its a pretty potent persuasive cocktail. And all that without advertising and promotion of equal strength on the other side.

Listen, I’m not here to advocate that moviemakers can’t show someone (or some animal) lighting up in their film. That’s their choice. But if you’re showing it to kids – who are actively forming their impressions of the world around them – parents need to know before they go in. That’s our choice. An R rating helps make the decision.

Related Links:
WebMD: Decline in Teen Smoking Rate Levels Off

zpizza’s image is holding it back

Posted on | March 7, 2011 | 4 Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. Pizza chain “zpizza” really isn’t a pure pizza chain at all – it’s mix of eclectic ingredients and diverse menu options put it in a different category.
2. But the name and image keep it tethered to a “Shakey’s Pizza” image – cardboard, suburban generica.
3. If it can better align its image with its offering, I think more people will come to appreciate that zpizza has to offer an increasingly health-conscious public.

Do you remember that show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”?

Five well-coiffed gay men would jump out of their spanky fresh GMC Yukon at the door of some gomer who couldn’t dress himself, clean up after himself, or cook for himself if his life depended on it. (I always seemed to identify with the gomer…)

The premise of the show was pretty simple, and very similar to other “makeover” shows before and since: Underneath the sloppy exterior is something worth seeing. In other words, if you’re tempted to say “judge a book by its cover”, get a new cover!

The “Fab Five” might be off the air, but it seems my new friends at zpizza could use a little of the same tough love. So, in the spirit of makeover shows everywhere, I’ll put on my best fantabulous glasses and get to work.

First, a little background. My wife sent me into zpizza in Roseville last week because she heard of their gluten free pizza crust. And since we discovered my oldest son’s wheat allergy, a passable pizza has been high on our list of must-finds. I have to admit, I’ve driving by the zpizza hundreds of times. It’s in the same strip mall as my beloved local Byerly’s. In fact, I think it replaced some generic take-n-bake place a couple of years back.


From the beginning, the image just rubbed me the wrong way. “zpizza” just seemed like the name some entrepreneur with a misplaced sense of alphabetical primacy came up with (Hey, if everyone’s trying to be at the front of the alphabet, I’ll be at the back). Or they just thought the word “pizza” didn’t have enough “z’s”, and why not add a third. Dumb either way. When you add a logo of pizza slices forming a “Z” shape and the overused Futura geometric font, you get the overwhelming feeling this is just some run of the mill pizza joint that will feature a “for lease” sign within a few months.

That might be the image, but that’s not the reality.

Now I’m not a foodie, and I don’t like to gush over anything (my Nespresso machine being a lone exception), but the difference between the image of zpizza and the reality of zpizza is so markedly different, that I think it’s instructive.

To begin, the gluten-free pizza was good. Damn good. Not only was it tasty, the guy in the restaurant knew the answers to all of the gluten-free questions: Are the pans and utensils dedicated. Yes. What about cross contamination? No regular flour in the entire restaurant. What about the toppings? We’ll tell you what’s okay and what’s not. They knew their . . . pizza.

But it wasn’t just that they knew how to make a gluten-free pie. The menu was affordable, and incredible. Real Greek. Real Thai. Real Italian. And that was just the pizzas. The sandwich choices were just as appealing. And the salads: The Gorgonzola, pear, field greens, vinaigrette, candied walnuts is on my list for lunch. Do I want vegan cheese? If I do, they’ve got it. Everything except the quick-slices are made to order.

This reminds me of a place I should find in Uptown, or on Grand Avenue, not in the middle of suburban franchise-land.

And that’s really the point. Bringing the “good food” out to the suburbs – minus the pretentiousness – is a hugely appealing value proposition. But “zpizza” isn’t going to cut it.

As sad as it sounds, the brand image of this chain is its own worst enemy. “zpizza” just sounds chain-like and generic. If I was used to Cafe Latte on Grand or Chino Latino in Uptown, there’s no way I’d be walking into zpizza on my way past the mall. The visual treatment doesn’t help. What might seem “clean and geometric” is antithetical to the natural, unprocessed, organic, and vegan options you can find inside. In other words, unless you’re like me, and are actively seeking out options, you’d never find it.

But you should.

The chain has a great story. Since its beginnings in Laguna Beach, California, zpizza has been pioneering a different way to make pizzas and choose ingredients at a time when Domino’s and Pizza Hut were commoditizing it. They’ve grown slowly and established a bit of a loyal following, but I would argue they are significantly below their potential. With more of us taking more care over what we put into our bodies, I think zpizza’s time is here.

The company needs to take advantage. New name. New logo. New visual presence. Don’t change a darn thing on the menu.

I don’t mean to suggest that’s easy, or cheap, but I think it’s all they need to really get noticed.

Related links:
zpizza website

Google’s crumbling credibility

Posted on | February 28, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. Google search results are so gamed these days that it’s rare you would find anything of value from a brand or information source you didn’t already know existed.
2. The more comfortable people are finding their information directly from the source, and the more powerful those brands become, the less relevant Google search becomes.
3. This is a huge deal for the company: Most of Google’s value is intangible, meaning it is highly susceptible to crises of confidence.

Google search results mean next to nothing to me.

In fact, they’ve meant very little to me for several years now. As much as I hate to take a position antithetical to everything new and webbish, it’s the truth. Let me explain. I want you to ask yourself, when was the last time you searched for something (anything) on Google to which you already didn’t have a pretty good idea of what you wanted to find?

Let’s use a few examples to illustrate my point.

Scenario 1: You want to reconnect with a colleague from your first employer, but haven’t seen heads or tails of that person for over 10 years. You might search for his name, but you know you’re going to end up on LinkedIn.

Scenario 2: You’re interested in seeing the Friday night specials for Cafe Lucrat in Minneapolis, but you can’t remember the web address. You might search for “Cafe Lucrat” on Google, but you’re using the service like a virtual yellow pages. You want the Cafe’s site.

Scenario 3: A colleague in your graduate school class made a reference to the new Apple OSX Lion, and you want to read the buzz. Google may spit out hundreds of thousands of results, but if you’ve got geek cred, you’re headed over to slashdot.

In none of these cases are the so-called “top search results” likely to cause any change in behavior. Why? You know what you want; you’ve been influenced by those brands from other media. And most importantly, because you know the top results from Google are usually bullshit.

That’s not to say they are correct, or incorrect, they’re just plain bullshit. Search engine marketers of all stripes have gotten so good at gaming the system that you are much more likely to find “content farm” websites (full of meaningless ads, of course) than you are anything useful.

You know it’s true. Do yourself a favor and try an experiment. Search for your own name. After links to Facebook and LinkedIn (if you have those accounts), if you’ve ever been part of a press release, you’re likely to find literally dozens of results from websites that bear no semblance to useful information much less relevance to anything that matters to you. You’re probably as good at filtering out that junk as I am, and don’t even pay attention anymore.

But to Google, relevant and timely search results are the key reason it exists. Without them, it’s entire premise is called into question. Yes, I understand Google is much more than search. But that’s the undisputed core of its business, and the reason it’s one of the most powerful companies on the planet today.

It should come as little surprise that Google announced last week that it is re-engineering its search algorithm (the tech equivalent of its secret sauce) to root out just this kind of foolery. But this is like switching the hiding place of the dirty magazines – your teenage boy is “motivated” to find them. Search engine marketers have staked their entire business on cracking these codes – they will find a way. It’s only a matter of time. Even though it’s latest effort seems to be working (for now), I am afraid Google can’t stay ahead of the gamers for long.

Just how big of a deal is this?

Let’s do some fun comparative math. (Stay with me, it’s easy stuff.) Google’s market cap stands today at roughly $196 billion. That’s it’s share price multiplied by the number of shares outstanding. In other words, that’s what the marketplace has deemed the company is worth. But when we look at its actual worth, we need to look at a different number: Assets minus liabilities. If you do that, you get a number shy of $39 billion. That means 80% of Google’s value is measured purely on its perceived value, not its actual value.

If you run this trick on most companies, you’ll find something very similar. The market is all about perceived worth, and that’s why swings in valuation can happen so frequently.

But I would argue that a company like Google is more at risk from a crisis of confidence that most others. If we compare Google to, say, Apple or Microsoft, Google actually produces very little of tangible value. Apple and Microsoft – quite a bit.

If what Google does produce is suddenly perceived as less than valuable, I think the multi-colored giant is in big trouble.

In other words, unless they want to go the way of the last great collector of information (the yellow pages), they should get busy fixing that part of their business.

Related Links:
WSJ: Google Revamps to Fight Cheaters

Tarnished Tylenol

Posted on | February 21, 2011 | No Comments

Jason Voiovich

Key Points:
1. Johnson & Johnson’s adept handling of the 1982 cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules is regarded as the turning point in modern crisis management.
2. But recently, its recurring quality control problems at McNeil Laboratories have resulted in less dangerous problems, but potentially just as damaging to its reputation.
3. Johnson & Johnson seems to feel like this new “minor” problem deserves a less-than-major response. I don’t think the public sees it that way.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the Tylenol crisis management case.

During my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, Johnson & Johnson’s handling of cyanide-laced Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules was held up as the pinnacle of communication excellence.

It pays to take a step back and briefly remember the scene in 1982. Seven people in the Chicago area were dead after taking Tylenol capsules. The cause was unclear. People all over the country were terrified. (I happen to remember my parents promptly throwing anything Johnson & Johnson related straight in the garbage.)

Johnson & Johnson did what no one expected: They got out in front of it. The issued an immediate recall at a cost of over $100 million. They took responsibility. They designed the first “tamper evident” medicine bottle. Their CEO became the public face of the company.

The positive impact cannot be overstated: Crisis management saved the brand. In fact, it likely saved the company.

Let’s fast forward 18 years.

Today, we find Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol brand in the heat of a much more competitive painkiller market. The introduction of ibuprofen-based painkillers (Advil, et al) as well as a renewed focus on Aspirin to treat heart conditions has continued to erode market share for acetaminophen products generally, and the Tylenol brand specifically.

Into this scenario, enter another crisis for the venerable brand.

McNeil Laboratories, the manufacturing subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, has issued a barrage of recalls over the past six months. It’s Washington, PA plant was even forced to close for a time in April 2010 due to “unsanitary conditions”. At issue is a “moldy smell” coming from opened bottles of liquid Tylenol products – including those used primarily by children. (I remember not being able to find them on the shelves last summer.)

In stark contrast to the 1982 recall, no adverse effects have been reported, and the company says it’s okay to continue to use the products.

But think about that for a moment. “No adverse effects”. “You can keep using it.” Really? I’m going to allow a toddler to drink something that clearly smells like mold because you say it’s okay? Fat chance.

It seems like the Tylenol brand has lost its way. The chart below should help us see both cases side by side.

Tylenol Tale of Two Crises

The bottom line seems pretty clear: What is certainly much less of an actual problem (the moldy smell) is turning into a much bigger public confidence problem.

Johnson & Johnson is falling into a crisis management trap: It is the assumption that “big crises require big responses” and “small crises require small responses”. On its surface, that makes sense. It’s logical to conclude that seven deaths require a massive consumer recall and groundbreaking communications strategy, and that a moldy smell requires a quiet recall and reassurances.

The problem is people aren’t rational about medicine – especially medicine they’ll give their children.

For a pharmaceutical company that places a heavy emphasis on babies and young children, every crisis is a big deal. Every crisis deserves a prompt, aggressive response of public responsibility and tangible organizational change.

They did it once, and saved the brand. Fail to do it here, and they might just as well lose it.

Related Links:
CSMonitor: With Tylenol recall 2010, a corporate icon stumbles
NYTimes: Tylenol made a hero of Johnson & Johnson : The recall that started them all

keep looking »


Jason Voiovich
director_corporate marketing, Logic PD
Black Belt
Caffeine Addict

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