That was the year that was

Just an overview of posts and traffic on The Wellynn Group web site. Thanks to all those who visited. Give us a call if you’d like to interact in person. We are friendly and don’t bite.

More to come in 2014!

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Free Advice to Paula Deen

Dear Paula: instead of begging for forgiveness, instead of awkward mea culpa interviews, instead of trying to explain how your great grandfather’s ownership of slaves somehow has relevance in 2013, here’s some free advice on dealing with your problem: disappear.

Vanish. Just go away. Come back in about a year. Within a week or so, the unceasing torrent of news will quickly overwhelm anyone’s continuing interest in your racism, whether it is intentional or otherwise. In the meantime, tell your business partners that you will save them embarrassment by voluntarily suspending your endorsement deals. This makes you look gracious and less like a toxic landfill that nobody wants to get near. Take the year to think up some credible responses to your predicament–not just the teary cornpone appeals to Southern tradition you’ve relied upon thus far. Spend your time talking to people who really understand racism and can help you develop a sincere response.

In a year you can re-emerge in an environment that is far less charged than what you find yourself in now. You can talk about what you’ve learned. You can talk about your personal and business efforts to address the racist attitudes that persist in this country.

Of course, this only makes sense if you really want to change. Right now, it’s sort of hard to tell.

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The Face That Launched a Thousand Quips

George Zimmer may guarantee that you’ll like the way you look, but he won’t be doing it on behalf of the company he founded, Men’s Warehouse, anymore, even though his company’s stock is up 20 percent this year. The Twittersphere is upset.

The decision to use a company’s CEO—or any high profile celebrity or sports figure—as a brand spokesperson always carries some risk. On the one hand, a good celebrity or CEO spokesperson can infuse a soulless corporation with much need personality and emotional connection, such as Lee Iacocca for Chrysler. Or a CEO spokesperson can take the blandest of commodities and make them seem like a high-quality treat, like Orville Redenbacher for his popcorn. Mr. Zimmer’s “I guarantee it” catch phrase has seeped into popular culture, an achievement most brands would kill for.

On the other hand, business that place so much of their brand in the hands of an individual can suffer unexpected (if not exactly unpredictable) consequences. People die (think Steve Jobs). Celebrities and sports stars get in trouble with the law (think…well, that list is so long I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings by leaving them out). In Mr. Zimmer’s case, it appears his board just wants him to go away—something he was planning to do anyway—so they can get on with their future.  It’s not a terrible reason for firing a spokesperson, but it was handled gracelessly.

Mr. Zimmer’s abrupt departure means that one of the most well-known CEO company spokesman is leaving the stage, but with his mellifluous baritone and most-interesting-man-in-the-world good looks, I’d bet he can pick up another spokesperson gig pretty quickly. In fact, I’d guarantee it.

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Brand: Old Party

This article from Rolling Stone describes yet another “post mortem” on the Republican Party’s defeat in last year’s presidential election, this one focusing on how younger voters perceive the GOP. It’s not pretty: when asked to describe what they thought of when they heard the term “Republican Party,” many survey participants said “closed-minded,” “racist,” “rigid,” and “old-fashioned.”

According to media coverage, the GOP’s efforts to figure out what went wrong last November fall into several broad camps: those who think the party was not right-wing enough, those who think the party is too right-wing, and those who think it’s just a “branding” problem. That is, if the party could just figure out how to say the same things in a nicer way, its problems would be solved.

Political cartoon 003-1

A political cartoon from the past suggests the Republican Party has had branding problems before.

This last view misunderstands what a brand is, however. A brand is not just your messaging or the “spin” you put on issues. A brand is the totality of a consumer’s awareness, perceptions, and experience with your product or service. Consumers are very good at figuring out when a company’s messaging, for example, is inconsistent with their other perceptions and experiences. The party can talk all it wants about supporting women, but when it fights healthcare or equal pay for equal work and has leading members talking about “legitimate rape,” savvy voters notice the difference.

This is not intended to be a criticism of Republican political positions. The GOP is entitled to advocate any policies it wants. But the party is doing itself a disservice if it thinks that the only thing it needs to change to attract younger voters is to improve its messaging. That thought alone is insulting to voters.

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Brand as Relationship

David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, nails an important fact about brands: at their roots, successful brands are about the relationship the consumer has with the product or service. Brooks explores how successful brands rise out of cultures and economies that allow for greater freedom and creativity—which is why American and European brands are so dominant world wide, while virtually no one can identify a brand from China.

An excellent and succinct exploration of a fascinating and important issue that every business must understand to be successful.

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Can You Build a Brand by Tearing Down Customers?

Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer, has found itself once again in the middle of controversy. It seems A&F’s CEO doesn’t want any fat people in A&F stores or wearing A&F clothes. Fat people are “uncool,” and only the cool kids need apply as A&F customers (or employees, as this internal style guide suggests).

Leaving aside the fact that A&F probably generates these controversies on purpose—as Oscar Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”—you have to question the wisdom of building a brand by tearing down potential customers.

A-F 1920

An uncool A&F catalogue from 1920.

A&F wants to be seen as “cool,” and they target the young, beautiful, and upscale. They are entitled to go after this brand positioning, and they are certainly not the first retailer to do so. Plenty of companies—Tiffany, Bentley, Lear Jet—make good money from brands that promote exclusivity. Considering that A&F was founded in 1892 as a sporting goods store, and is now headquartered in Ohio (hardly the epicenter of coolness), it’s remarkable that the clothier has largely succeeded in associating itself with the young and the hot—at least inside the stores.

The problem is, once the product is out the door, A&F’s ability to control the brand disappears, and it’s insistence on its own youth and beauty doesn’t hold up. Just yesterday I observed a seemingly late 20-something wearing an A&F t-shirt. Maybe he was cool, but he definitely was not thin, nor was he a teenager. In addition, in the age of social media, A&F’s actions have prompted a number of responses that seek to work against A&F’s desired brand.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Look at Benetton: a clothing brand that seeks to be as hip and young as A&F, while promoting inclusiveness and a feeling of community. Alienating potential customers might work in the short term—it certainly generates buzz—but doesn’t make sense in the long term. A&F will not have many friends when the time comes, as it inevitably will, that it is deemed “uncool” by the young customers it seeks.

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Consider the Source

ImageWhat perhaps started out as a trendy idea for coffee snobs—making sure the beans in your grinder were raised and harvested by fairly paid coffee farmers—has suddenly become a corporate imperative across a growing number of industries.  More consumers are at least asking about, if not outright demanding, that retailers offer products that have been manufactured in humane conditions by workers paid fairly for their labors. This is a good thing.

The collapse of a clothing plant (though “sweatshop” is probably a more accurate term) in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,000 people has only accelerated a trend that has been fed by consumer demand, enhanced by social media. Within two weeks of the Bangladesh disaster, major retailers in both Europe and the US are at least discussing signing on to support new safety initiatives for factories in Bangladesh and other developing nations.

Up until this point, “fair trade” (fill in the blank) has been more expensive than other traditionally manufactured goods, and some surveys have indicated that some Americans are willing to pay more if they know that T-shirt wasn’t sewed by a 12-year-old earning $1.50 a day. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues in the long term. The pressure to keep prices low, especially for retailers like Wal-Mart, is intense and never goes away. On the other hand, the pressure from consumers can be equally intense—if it remains a top-of-mind issue in the long term. American consumers have a long and not so proud history of being easily distracted.

In the meantime, corporations need to consider adding to their communications messages about the conditions under which their products are made. In what may be a small blow in favor of improving humanity, Americans at least seem to be starting to care about working conditions in the rest of the world.

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