The Battle of the Brands

10 responses.

What the heck’s going on in the world of brands? If you haven’t been paying attention lately, lots of great companies are suffering significant headaches dealing with the body blows their brand images are taking almost every single week.

Look at Nike, the sportswear company that has built its dominant brand on the broad backs of superstar athletes and their sponsorships. From Michael Jordan to Florence Griffith-Joyner to Tiger Woods, Nike has both created their brand and the brands of their spokespeople athletes through enormous investments and laser-focused marketing.

But suddenly it seems like Nike’s most visible athletes are self-destructing both on the field and off.

Lance Armstrong spent years vociferously denying his regular use of the performance-enhancing substances that helped him dominate competitive cycling. Armstrong was so adamant in his protests that Nike even filmed a commercial showing Armstrong on his bicycle asking, “What am I on? I’m on my bike, six hours a day, busting my ass. What are you on?”

Of course, now we know that Armstrong was on a lot more than his butt. And Nike had to cut ties with their spokesman after they saw his growing unpopularity start to damage their own brand.

While Armstrong was enjoying the Tour de France, Tiger Woods was busy enjoying his Tour de Pants.** But after Elen Nordegren, Woods’ model wife, attacked Tiger’s car with one of his signature golf clubs, Nike again saw their brand start to take some of the lumps intended for their spokesman.

Even more recently, Oscar Pistorius – the Para-Olympian known as the Blade Runner – was arrested in South Africa for fatally shooting his model girlfriend. Unfortunately for Nike, not only was Pistorius one of their spokes-athletes but they had run an ad featuring the Blade Runner with the headline, “I am the bullet in the chamber.” Of course the ad was yanked from Pistorious’ website lickety-split but the damage had already been done. Once again, the sportswear giant has to decide how long to continue to publicly support their spokesperson even before they know if he has a leg to stand on.

I Am The Bullet In The Chamber

Let’s move from the field to the seas. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line company, suffered an engine fire that stalled their Triumph ship in the Gulf of Mexico. No one was injured and Carnival’s staff was lauded as going way above and beyond the norm to help the stranded travelers. But even though the company refunded their customers’ fees, promised a free replacement cruise, AND paid each cruiser $500, class-action lawsuits have already been filed and Carnival’s brand has become the punching bag of news shows and late-night comedians. Why such an aggressive response? After all, everyone knows ship happens.

So why is all this occurring now? Some people have suggested that the burgeoning 24/7 news cycle is so hungry for stories that they’ll publicize any corporate hiccup just to entice viewers based on the motto that if it bleeds, it leads. Others say that it’s the proliferation of smartphones and mobile technologies that have turned all of us into a new breed of citirazzi – citizen paparazzi who aggressively capture the corporate gaffs that would otherwise go unseen and unrecorded. And still other experts suggest that the corporate world is just a reflection of society in general, and that the scares and scandals affecting brands go hand-in-hand with the degradation of civility and ethical behavior we’re seeing in politics and society in general.

All of those factors contribute to the current situation but don’t thoroughly explain it. Instead, I think that it’s the recent proliferation and expansion of the brands themselves that has caused the problem. As I’ve written many times before, as products become more and more genericized, the brand itself has emerged as the way companies differentiate themselves. And as products and services spend more time in a digital environment where customers can see but can’t touch, the brand personality becomes the way consumers differentiate, decode, and decide what they’re going to buy.

So it stands to reason that the squeaky wheel would get the grease. After all, if good things make a brand stronger, then bad things will also do great harm.

But the major reason why big brands are taking it in the shorts runs even deeper. You see, when branded companies are most successful, their customers use the brands themselves to tell the world who they are. The cars we drive, the athletic shoes we wear, and the vacations we enjoy all become badges that consumers use to create their own personas. We used to say, “Your are what you eat.” Today we say, “You are what you consume.” The result of this is that we are so personally invested in the brands we use that we are hypersensitive to any chinks in our image armor. And so when we notice that the brands we’ve built our own self-images around have the same human frailties that we do, we feel betrayed.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, corporations and organizations are seen as humans and entitled to the same First Amendment rights as you and me. It seems that thanks to the recent ascension of the brand, brands are too. And just like in the political arena, brands have to take the bad with the good.

** This hysterical line was not mine. It was written by my good friend and very funny guy David Glickman.

  10 Responses

  1. on February 27, 2013

    Great post Bruce. I always thought it was funny how Accenture began using scenic landscapes in their advertising after they dropped Tiger. Guess a countryside is a pretty safe bet to build a brand around, but then again with all this climate change and natural disasters, maybe they should be rethinking that too. Kind of like Budweiser using frogs, lizards, etc. Hard to piss of any particular culture if you’re using talking animals. Thinking the sports brand icon vetting process in the future will be on par with that of politicians and priests. Oh wait, bad idea….

  2. Jens Honore
    on February 27, 2013

    Well written blog Bruce. One can ask why these mega brands are so eager to portray star athletes as über humans. Specially with Lance Armstrong. Everybody interested in the sport, know winning Tour de France 7(!) times in a row without doping is in total denial about the sport…and I don’t think NIKE didn’t know about the massive doping going on for years within the world of professional cycling.

  3. Barb P
    on February 27, 2013

    Actually, I think the problem is not just a matter of brand proliferation, nor the consumer temptation to identify with the brand (which advertising has been designed to stoke since its infancy). My take is that the phenomenon you’re highlighting is the result of our society’s off-the-charts obsession with celebrities (and that is, of course, partly a result of the 24-hour-news cycle) combined with lazy marketing: Why have to clearly identify your brand’s key attributes and market niche and develop a creative solution to conveying those ideas if you can just have a spokesperson attached to it? So, throw a lot of money and not much thinking at your problem, hitch your wagon to a star, and pay the price when it goes down in flames. The most creative and memorable advertising is, for my money, always to be seen in out-of-the-box conceptual approaches, not just pizzazzy presentations of celebrity spokespeople. Seems an obvious wake-up call to me, but we’ll see if the big corporations with lots of money to throw around and (not always, but often) a notorious discomfort with truly offbeat approaches will wake up and smell the coffee.

  4. on February 27, 2013

    Actually, I think you have used two different sets of circumstances to describe one problem. In the case of Woods, Pistorius and Armstrong, the spokesman damaged themselves and the brand by extension. In the case of Carnival, they damaged themselves. In all cases, the matters would have come to light even if the smart phone hadn’t been invented. So, I am not sure how the citirazzi may have contributed other than to raise the level of hype. But, to your central point… With the exception of Carnival, the brands you mention have made the error of tying the value of their brands to the frailty of human behavior. And, if history has taught us anything, it’s that human beings make mistakes. All of that said, I strongly agree with your central point about how deep we identify with brands. I am reminded of the time I told someone I am a life long Dodger fan. His immediate reply was to make a comment about the Giants fan that was beaten to death in the Dodgers’ parking lot. What has that got to do with the team, I thought. Nothing, I guess. It has to do with the brand.

  5. on February 27, 2013

    I think that the 24/7 news cycle does have something to do with it, Barbara, as do the digital devices WE all carry around 24/7.

  6. on February 27, 2013

    This is an excellent excellent post by the way and I am glad it is long, meaty and requires reading.

    On the one side, just take Nike. It is the ONE company where I would say using stars and personalities makes a huge amount of sense, as they are athletes who actually use the products.

    And I don’t think Nike has failed in any way, shape or form.

    We have failed.

    As consumers equating prowess on the field with ANYTHING else is just wrong and not logical. You can be an astounding athlete and be a royal prick (e.g., Dennis Rodman, or ARod) or you can be an astounding athlete and be a total gentleman (e.g., Emerson Fittipaldi and Pele, both of which I’ve met and both of which are absolutely great)

    So, on the one hand, many people infuse these athletes with these uber-human personalities which are unrealistic and, when something happens, bam! the entire building collapses and on the other we expect our athletes to be like a mix of monk, nun, whatever.

    Do you really expect someone like Tiger, a good looking guy in his prime, getting hundreds of millions a year, with the constant ego stroking not to a fling or two hundred? I know I would if I were him!

    But there is also the matter of using athletes to sell just about everything. Does Shaq really add anything credible to a Buick? Really? Does Tiger add anything to a Buick? Can you see any of them actually driving those cars?

    So many advertisers build their brands strongly tied to athletes in the misconception that it matters. Most research then shows that it doesn’t. It might get someone’s attention (look it’s Tiger!) or pity (oh my god! poor Shaq, he’s down to Buick?) but it typically doesn’t close a sale. However, in being so strongly tied to an image, when the guy behaves like any normal red blooded ultra rich, supersized egotist would, bam! another crisis.

    Finally, I happen to also agree with you 200% on the issue of the endless 24/7 news cycle which drives absolutely inane stories (does it really matter that The Governator in California had a kid with a maid?) to national scope on the basis of frequency alone.

  7. on February 27, 2013

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Marcelo.

  8. Debbie Benami-Rahm
    on March 2, 2013

    Bruce: I still follow your brilliance from 3500 miles away and am so appreciative that you share it with the world! You bring a grounded, real world perspective to world events that somehow, some way, sometimes are presented in an unrealistic light. Thank you for giving us your gift of marketing genius!

  9. on March 5, 2013

    The “brand” story here is the damage these idiots have done to their personal brands, not the damage done to their sponsors. The only reason I would ever care if Lance cheated would be if I were racing against him. His cheating (and Tiger’s as well) does not lead me to think less of Nike. Now if Rory throws his new Nike clubs in a water hazard this weekend or if new evidence of sweatshop manufacturing comes to light, then you would have a case for Nike’s brand being damaged. And your inclusion of Carnival in this discussion is an apples to elephants comparison.

    You see, Bruce, this disconnect between the spokesperson and the sponsor argues strongly against your conclusion. The self-expressed benefits of a brand are not so fluid. No one is throwing away their Nike apparel because of their disappointment with these guys. The benefit to Nike’s brand by these associations has been huge. And these flame outs have done nothing to alter the signal that a Nike wearer is an “athlete”.When in fact, the answer to Lance’s question is, “I’m on the couch, Lance”.

    I thought while watching you declare Livestrong toast, that maybe you were being a bit premature. People are more forgiving than you give them credit for, but it made for good television. So I wasn’t surprised to see an article in my inbox this morning about exactly how Livestrong is moving forward. It might interest you that Nike has not severed its ties with the newly renamed, Livestrong Foundation.

    But other than that, I loved this post.

  10. Jose Romano
    on March 6, 2013

    Bruce, great post……I agree with you that a lot of the anger towards brands is generated by self-identification with the brand and the subsequent disillusion with having associated yourself with that brand and by extension the people that represent it. I also think there is one area that should be considered when analyzing these visceral reactions to a brand’s public missteps…it’s the 1% vs 99%. Let’s not forget that these brands are run/managed by huge corporations with large personalities making millions of dollars (and billions in the case of Mickey Arison) when some people are having trouble paying the rent…..this reminds me of a saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game”…We are seeing people hate the player because they think the game is unfair….

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