Judging a Book by Its Cover – A Tricky Business

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Judging a Book by Its Cover – A Tricky Business

I just had a bit of a branding epiphany.

Recently two new books came out from notable authors:

  • Go Set A Watchman’ by Harper Lee (author of the all-time classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘, published in 1960)
  • Under Fire’ from Tom Clancy (who first published ‘The Hunt for Red October’ in 1984, and went on to sell over 100 million espionage and military thriller books).

Lee WatchmanClancy Under Fire

Both are regarded as brilliant writers, with one key difference: Ms. Lee is still alive, and Mr. Clancy is not.

Apparently able to write from beyond the grave, Mr. Clancy’s name prominently adorns new books in the market, which at closer inspection are actually written by others (Grant Blackwood this time, Mark Greaney previously).

(in a bit of confusing overkill, a sub-brand third name is on the cover: “A Jack Ryan Jr. Novel”)

My initial gut response: Betrayal! They’re selling me Clancy and delivering Blackwood! Marketing malfeasance of the highest order! Isn’t Clancy’s writing the reason people bought the books? Isn’t he the brand? If not, what is the brand when it comes to books?



Joe Queenan takes a swing at this very topic in a recent Wall Street Journal piece (mentioning a few other dead-but-still-publishing authors), and this quote starts to get to it: “…it is the vision of Tom Clancy and V.C. Andrews and Robert Ludlum that makes their work so remarkable and unique, not the plots, characters, prose or leitmotifs. The actual writing is secondary.”

Apparently these posthumous publications still sell quite well. People have something in mind when they hear the names Clancy, Ludlum, and even Franklin W. Dixon (Hardy Boys) and Ian Fleming (James Bond).

In the same way a brand’s essence is the expectation it creates for what will be delivered, these authors set an expectation that is the core of these books’ attraction. And apparently the essence of these authors’ brands was their imaginations – the unique areas in which they chose to set their storytelling, and the imaginative approaches to the storyline – – and not necessarily the specific unique quality of their prose.

Indeed, Ludlum trademarked plot lines and partially wrote books before he died, which have been ghost-written as new material afterward, presumably with his blessing from beyond.

Forbes covered this topic a few years ago and has some additional interesting examples.

basieDisneyClaiborne St Laurent  Perry Ellis BB

When you think about it, we readily accept the same phenomenon as it occurs for other brands in entertainment, where no one expects (or wants) to run into the name on the marquee:

  • Count Basie Orchestra for big band jazz
  • Disney for wholesome family entertainment
  • Liz Claiborne, Yves St. Laurent and Perry Ellis for fashion

So upon reflection, it seems OK in certain situations to evoke a person’s name that has over time consistently come to represent a type and quality of deliverable, and in effect has earned its right to be a brand.  That is what a brand is.  Even if it can leave you feeling a bit misled.

But this can only go so far.

  • I will not go to see Itzhak Perlman if played by someone else, watch a Usain Bolt-branded ghost-athlete, or read newly published Shakespeare by a ghostwriter.

Some things are not meant to be duplicated.

The Secret to Great Customer Service

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A pair of recent customer service experiences (one very good, one not so good) inspired this post.  (If you’re in a hurry, my POV is at the end.)  If you stick around, I’ve included some juicy case studies.

Happy Customer

These experiences made me wonder – what is the essence of good customer service? Do those famous over-the-top examples make good financial sense?

I’m no customer service professor, and this subject has been covered countless times, but I do have my opinion (and this is my blog /bully pulpit) – but customer satisfaction does not seem directly related to dollar value.

Customer Service has always been a point of distinction for those making The Customer Is Always Right truly a focus of their strategy

  • Nordstrom,  LL Bean and others have long been traditional standard-bearers for ‘no questions asked’ service
  • However, abuse has caused even highly-regarded companies to adjust their policies


Social Media has amplified the impact of customer service, both good and bad

  • Missteps are more visible and make companies vulnerable to public shaming or boycotts, or minimally distraction, regardless of a complaint’s merits

For a great set of examples of service gone bad, check out this article.   If you want to focus on one, I personally found the Amy’s Bakery example (#2) delicious to read.:


  • Good deeds are similarly great opportunities for spreading positive stories – circulated via social media, they often create value much greater than paid advertising.
  • Here are a few great examples.   Check out the Netflix live chat example (#3) on the Helpscout link – – very fun.




Two recent personal experiences shaped my opinions of companies.


  • My carry-on bag’s handle failed after hundreds of trips. The brand is High Sierra. I contacted them online and explained my issue, with photos (as they requested). My goal was to find a repair shop. I had mentioned that I ideally would like a fix by the weekend as I was traveling on Monday morning. It was Thursday.


  • On Saturday morning I received, by FedEx, a large box containing a replacement handle, with a few extra zipper pulls thrown in (which came in handy).   A few minutes and I had the handle replaced and was good to go. At zero cost. Fantastic!
  • The brand is High Sierra. High Sierra.  High Sierra. They are now owned by Samsonite. Kudos to Samsonite for allowing this business unit to take care of customers in a highly personal and attentive way.  High Sierra.
  • I have 2 other bags from High Sierra and you can bet that they get right of first refusal on the fourth.


  • A recent Avis rental came with no washer fluid, which I bought later for $3.84. In returning the car I requested that this amount be taken off my bill. In similar situations with other companies the response was usually immediately taking one of my rental days off the bill and getting me on my way.
  • In the case of Avis, it eventually required the attention of 4 Avis people.  The agent receiving cars didn’t have authority; the front desk clerk didn’t have authority; the manager had authority but couldn’t make a system input; finally the 4th employee was able to input the solution. Total time for a $4 issue? 20 minutes.
  • And the solution? A $10 voucher, which means they didn’t actually refund anything.
  • Worse, this delay caused me to miss an opportunity for an earlier flight.

So, what is the secret to customer service?

BE CUSTOMER CENTRIC. Simple as that.

  • Let the customer know they have been heard – this alone is more important than any dollar amount of a solution.
  • Treat the customer like a human. Stay off the scripts if possible.  You don’t have to pretend to be Captain Kirk (see Netflix example above) but a personal touch is incredibly effective.
    (By the way, insider tip:  as a customer, treating any customer service person or clerk or waiter or sales person etc like a human being almost always yields positive experiences).
  • Demonstrate that the customer is priority #1, company is priority #2.  Avis was clearly all about Avis.
  • Delays in response exacerbate frustration.  Speedy response shows that you are listening and can nip negative feelings in the bud.
  • Going above and beyond has significant upsides – you want to be on the ‘best customer service’ blog post, not the ‘disaster stories’.  And a few well-placed good deeds can get a ton of mileage (see links above).


I would have been satisfied with a recommendation for a good repair shop for my bag, and High Sierra (High Sierra. High Sierra.) went above and beyond, to my delight.  As a result, they have the opportunity for word-of-mouth recommendations from unexpected places, including people like me. (High Sierra!)

And Avis? They worked to win a little battle, and lost a round in the war.  They will get less consideration from me next time around.  Try Harder?  Good idea.

Diet Pepsi drops aspartame: Gilding the Lily?

PepsiCo just announced that it will be taking the artificial sweetener aspartame out of Diet Pepsi and replacing with another artificial sweetener, sucralose (known more commonly as Splenda®), combined with another sweetener named acesulfame-K (‘Ace-K’), which is a lower cost ’sweetener helper’.

apm-free D Pepsi

The stated reason is to respond to consumer objection to aspartame, as stated by a Pepsi Sr. VP: “Aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda.”

The more likely reason is that Diet Pepsi volume is down over 5% in the last year, part of a long-term slide, and nothing so far has worked to reverse the trend.

But this change is unlikely to make a material difference, for a few key reasons.

First, let me risk public embarrassment to try to establish my bona fides.  I marketed aspartame (Equal® Sweetener) for 6 years, and sucralose (Splenda) for another 5.  Did a lot of consumer research during those years.


Left: failing the dorky marketer test. Right: at a trade show, excitedly pitching sweeteners

Here’s why I don’t think this will make a difference:

1) Consumers generally don’t know what’s in their diet soda to begin with.  When asked open-endedly about ingredients in diet sodas, they have a vague notion that they contain artificial sweeteners, but the sweetener is not often mentioned by name.  When prompted, they will recognize aspartame.  But while consumers may theatrically claim that they avoid aspartame when they’re in a focus group, in reality very few actually check labels.

2) Consumers are generally full of it when it comes to stated preferences.  They will tell you all day long that they want less fat, less sugar, less salt, etc – – but in reality they will rarely change ingrained habits if there’s even the slightest risk of compromise (such as taste or cost).

3) Non-users or lapsed users have a handy reason for why they don’t use the product.  Aspartame has enough negative PR that it is an easy, politically correct and inarguable reason as to why surveyed consumers aren’t using the product.  But the true answer is a more complicated mix of dynamics including macro consumption trends, emergence of new alternatives, and changing demographics (‘modern’ diet sodas were first introduced, and gained loyal followings, in the early 1980s).

4) Changing out one artificial sweetener for another just reminds consumers that diet sodas generally contain artificial sweeteners.  Not a great plan to bring in new users. 

5) Changing ingredients to meet claimed consumer preferences is no guarantee of success.  3 years ago ConAgra changed its Hunt’s ketchup back to High Fructose Corn Sugar after a 2-year switch to sugar, ostensibly to answer consumer objections to HFCS.  Sales volumes showed that consumers didn’t really care.

Hunts No HFCS

6) Most importantly, consumers like their products the way they are.  ANY CHANGE in a loyal user’s product formulation will arouse suspicion.  A product as iconic as Diet Pepsi owes its unique taste to the specific combination of sweeteners in its formula.  It is impossible to improve the taste of Diet Pepsi, because its ideal is defined by its current taste.  So any change will alienate current users, who are currently drinking it even knowing in the back of their minds that it contains an artificial sweetener.

Ironically, this is the same category where New Coke infamously demonstrated what happens when you change the formulation of a well-loved product.  It will be interesting to see whether this ‘New Diet Pepsi’ fares any better.

Below is an introductory spot for New Coke in 1985.  In retrospect, a product and spokesperson that ultimately followed similar paths, albeit on different timing.

Change.org gets it right on rotating April Fools’ Day.

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I’m not a huge fan of Change.org – not that it doesn’t do a lot of great things, but because of its too-frequent tendency to allow weepy personal causes that are more like fund-raising than awareness-raising.

However, an arguably trivial recent Change.org petition to rotate April Fools’ Day throughout the month resonated with me.

The petition (viewable at www.change.org/aprilfoolsshift) simply recommends moving this ‘Holiday’ one day later every year, thus repeating the cycle every 30 years. That means if this change is adopted, we should actually be celebrating April Fools’ Day on April 2 this year, April 3 next year, and so on.


Why is this a good idea?

There are a few days in the calendar that are traditionally bad to have a birthday: February 29 (although they will inevitably argue they age at ¼ the speed of the rest of us); Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanzaa (because one way or the other you will be left wanting in the gift department); and of course, April 1.

The Change.org argument is that people with this unfortunate birth date are uniquely subject to gentle ridicule their entire lives, and that lifelong association with April Fools’ Day (and perhaps some resulting lack of confidence) could actually be cumulatively damaging to their careers. Reputational harm was not the original intent of this holiday. Rotating the holiday retains the fun part of the day (it’s still in April), without the collateral damage.

This is an excellent example of the power of newer social media to positively influence even age-old traditions.

Below is a list of notables whose birthdays happen to fall on April 1 (below, from http://www.famousbirthdays.com). I can personally identify at most 4 (Susan Boyle, Jimmy Cliff, Debbie Reynolds, Ronnie Lane) – 5 if Rudolph Isley is in fact one of the Isley Brothers. A rather motley crew, actually (Kid Ink? really?); it seems that this theory might have some credence. These people need a little time out of the April Fools’ spotlight so they can build or salvage their careers, or at least glide a bit more gracefully into the sunset.

Old April Fools'

So go to the petition page and sign it. With over 330,000 signatures, there are apparently quite a few people who are in agreement.

The people with April 1 birthdays can get on with their lives, and those with April 2 birthdays can pretend they never heard of it.

So hope you enjoyed your day, Adam Shulman, Clark Gregg, Supla (?) and Michel Troisgros — (Marvin Gaye and Sir Alec Guinness, be glad you missed it)

April 1 Birthdays

Susan Boyle

Kid Ink

Asa Butterfield

Ella Eyre

Elizabeth Gutiérrez

Hillary Scott

Park Ye-jin

Matt Lanter

David Oyelowo

Jimmy Cliff

Debbie Reynolds

Taran Killam

Annette O’Toole

Rudolph Isley

Ana Maria Braga

Sam Huntington

Chris J. Evans

Vincent Bolloré

Milan Kundera

Jon Gosselin

Cécile Duflot

Marcel Amont

Barry Sonnenfeld

John Butler

Ronnie Lane

April 2 Birthdays

Michael Fassbender

Christopher Meloni

Bethany Joy Lenz

Linda Hunt

Leon Russell

Roselyn Sánchez

Marie-Ange Nardi

Ibrahim Afellay

Clark Gregg

Lee DeWyze

David Ferrer

Jesse Plemons

Adam Shulman

Gregory Abbott

Nati Abascal


Marc Caro

Mariella Ahrens

Éric Besson

Marvin Gaye

Serge Gainsbourg

Alec Guinness

Michel Troisgros

Why I Won’t Buy a Lincoln from Matthew McConaughey

You’ve seen the ads where Mr. McConaughey very seriously mumbles gravitas-laden lines like “I’ve been driving Lincolns before anyone ever paid me to drive one”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4lklnkk8SU Yeah, he’s purty.  Yeah, he has demonstrated decent range, from the decidedly non-Shakespearean Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Texas Buyers Club and beyond.  3 dozen or so movies over the last 2 decades, with a combined box office gross of $1.7 billion or so.  Not too shabby.  Mr. McConaughey seems to have gotten into real money by his late 20s (see chart below).


Mr. McConaughey’s celebrity seems the sole driver behind these spots, as evidenced by the fact that it is high on style, but the dialogue is itself mostly random.  Not a single explicit or implied benefit in the bunch. So what is celebrity and why do advertisers use it? A quick review of what a celebrity can bring to the table:

  1. Breakthrough. Put a loose cannon or a recognizable pretty face on the tube, and people may look up from Heroes Charge and pay attention. Very helpful in a noisy world.
  2. Endorsement. If Celebrity So-and-so chooses Product X, it must be good, because they can afford the best. This works if it is logical that Celebrity So-and-so actually would use the product.
  3. Coolness by association. If a product is associated with a cool person, if things roll right some of that cool rubs off on the product itself.

EXHIBITS 1 AND 2 – These 2 charts demonstrate that over his career, Mr. McConaughey’s movies’ gross revenues rose faster than his movie ratings did (as demonstrated by comparing slope of the trend lines, which is one well-established quantification of celebrity – data taken from table below).  So he definitely has it. MM Rankings But I’m still not buying a Lincoln from Mr. McConaughey, celebrity though he may be. This particular campaign, to me, falls down mostly on #2 – endorsement.  I have done a statistical analysis of Mr. McConaughey’s career and can demonstrate that there is no time in his career where he would have chosen to drive a Lincoln because he “just liked it”.  In other words, I don’t believe him. EXHIBIT 3 – let’s just get this out of the way.  Before MM started making money, he was a kid barely into his 20s in rural south Texas, and this 1988 model is the sort of used Lincoln he may have had to consider.  Case closed.  There were plenty of Camaros, TransAms and F150s to go around. 1988 Lincoln EXHIBIT 4 – shows career movies, Rotten Tomatoes rankings (up or down vote of what % of critics liked it), as well as what he may have been thinking as his star (and paycheck) rose, he aged out of his twenties and eventually 30s, and what sort of vehicle he may have considered. McC Career Net – Mr. McConaughey is by most measures a true celebrity, and he has earned it through quality and quantity of performance (though not always at the same time).  But no one will be able to convince me that he willfully drove a Lincoln when he had all sorts of other options available — which is what his commercials are trying to get us to do with the Lincoln MKC.

Battle of the 2015 Super Bowl Ad Reviewers

It’s time to demonstrate (again) that when it comes to advertising, no one agrees on anything. Raise your hand if you’re shocked.

The Armchair MBA repeated last year’s stunt in comparing the ratings of 10 prominent 2015 Super Bowl ad reviewers, summarized in the handy chart below, along with my personal ratings. (Green/yellow/red coding, alphabetized within my ratings)


While no Doberhuahua this year, there was plenty of dreck and schmaltz to take its place, but a few very good spots as well. Unfortunately many spots were so-so – – either they rewarded our attention with a muddled message or weak branding, or they were copy-by-committee logical with no heart or pizzazz (Hello, GoDaddy. Hello, Weathertech).

Mostly universally admired: P&G Always “Like a Girl”, Avocados from Mexico, Dove Men+Care, Mophie, Budweiser/Puppy (I declined highest marks on the last two)

Most universally unloved: Nationwide’s “Boy” (runaway loser), Nissan, Lexus

Most schizophrenic (scored best on some lists, worst on others): McDonald’s “Pay with Lovin’”, SquareSpace/Jeff Bridges, Loctite “Positive Feelings”, Toyota Camry/Amy Purdy, Carnival Cruise Lines, Victoria’s Secret (had to watch this again to make sure I knew how I felt)

A few observations:
– Personally not a fan of high-concept feel-good spots like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola or Jeep, or for that matter, the very cute/manipulative Bud puppy ads. Fun for the agency, probably test well for likability, but hard to see how see how it drives action or enhances the core brand equity.
Love spots like Fiat 500 SUV – simple message (we made the base 500 bigger), using an analogy that’s easy to understand and relevant to the main point (if a bit naughty)
– Would love to be a fly on the wall during the approval process of the Nationwide’s “Boy” spot (spoiler alert: it’s about a charming boy who turns out to be dead. More chips & dip, please).
– For fun, check out some of the breathless, we-take-ourselves-kind-of-seriously reviews comments like “Powerful message but tough ad to watch”, “Disturbingly brilliant and impactful”, “emotionally powerful and good storytelling”, blah blah blah – you can see some here (as well as a CMO’s explanation about why his ad was NOT supposed to sell product.  Hmmm…).

To see the summary, click on the chart below. Click twice for maximum size/readability.


The reviewers:
Kellogg Graduate School of Management

Advertising Age

Wall Street Journal
Chicago Tribune

Entertainment Weekly



Yahoo Sports

New Yorker
New York Post (new this year!)

My evaluations are generally based on the Kellogg ADPLAN approach: Attention
– Distinction
– Positioning
– Linkage
– Amplification
– Net Equity – – along with some personal gut feel.

We know that the Super Bowl is a special stage, and different rules certainly apply.   In addition, there are social media linkages and previews that can dramatically amplify the impact of ads. So it is somewhat unfair to judge an execution in isolation.

On the other hand, we don’t claim to be fair. And as observed last year, sometimes an ad just sucks.

See you next year.

McDonald’s – Kinda Lovin’ La Vida Local

A new ad from McDonald’s focuses on an underleveraged asset – – local stores’ place in their communities – – reflecting a potentially effective component of its plan going forward. McD Signs McDonald’s faces huge headwinds in the form of stalled sales and softness* among younger consumers who seem to favor more contemporary fast feeders like Chipotle that deliver things McDonald’s isn’t good at: local sourcing, transparency, nutrition, etc. (in addition to more tasty food).

Ask any 2 people about what McD’s should do and you’re likely to get 3 or 4 opinions: reinvent the menu to appeal to younger consumers, make everything natural, offer more customization, trim the menu to the core items, invent a sub-brand, etc.

As part of its battle plan, new CMO Deborah Wahl recently announced a broad refresh of the ‘I’m Lovin’ It’ campaign, including among other things an ad that shows its familiar marquees reflecting events in their local communities.

Marquee subjects range from the catastrophic (weather tragedies) to the personal (new babies). This is delivered alongside Love-centric advertising and unapologetic paeans to things like the venerable Big Mac, and efforts to increase transparency and show authenticity of ingredients (you can hear Ms. Wahl’s explanation of the transformation here).

The marquee ad (‘Signs’) was fairly controversial, with many panning it as being manipulative and even disingenuous because of McDonald’s visible role in the ongoing minimum wage debate (‘Fight for Fifteen’) and its appearance as a huge mega-billion dollar company that doesn’t care.

While the ’Signs’ spot is not perfect and is not a little mawkish, and certainly will not turn McDonald’s around, I think it is reflective of good strategic thinking.

Why? Because rather than trying to reinvent itself to reach a fickle audience (at the risk of alienating loyal customers), McDonald’s is identifying what its core strengths are and building its strategy around them.

McDonald’s role for decades has been reliably providing familiar (if not exciting) food at a good value in a clean environment. However, for many people McD’s has also been a reliable gathering place to meet, talk, and in many cases conduct business. Stop by a store on a weekday morning and you’ll get the picture. Working at McD Guys-in-McD For these people, McDonald’s isn’t a soulless corporate behemoth that underpays, it’s a familiar nearby restaurant where you can always get $1 coffee, wi-fi, and time with your friends (or get stuff done) for a few hours. It’s local, it’s part of your routine and part of your life.

In this way, McDonald’s delivers a local connection that few of its competitors do. So they’re wisely making a point of it.

Sure, they also need to offer more transparency and things like Cuties for Happy Meals, AND continue to work on speed, service and cleanliness, AND some of the customers pictured above will not likely be patrons forever, AND they have a LONG way to go to reclaim relevance, but they cannot turn this oil tanker around overnight and positioning as local stores rather than a huge multinational seems to be a step in the right direction to stabilize things now.

On the other hand, I’m not so sure that forcibly selling a generic Love message is the answer. Last time that seemed to work was for Coca-Cola 40 years ago.  Actually, not sure it even worked – and in viewing it now, frankly, many of those fresh-faced singers look like aliens.


*pun partially intended


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