Don’t Be Something You’re Not

This week a woman named Federica Marchionni was eased out of her position as CEO of Lands’ End after only 19 months on the job.


Federica Marchionni

This illustrates (fairly predictably) what can happen when a brand tries to be something it’s not.

Ultimately, brand-building success is driven by meeting customers’ needs, not by trying to teach them to want something different. And loyal customers have this peculiar habit of resisting (resenting) signs that they’re being taken for granted.


Lands’ End 1983


Recent Lands’ End










In the case of Lands’ End, since its 1963 founding by Gary Comer as a sailing supplies business, it developed a heritage as a casual sportswear business that was eventually bought by Sears (and spun off in 2014).  Mr. Comer was fond of saying “Take care of the customers, take care of the employees and profits will take care of themselves.”

But Lands’ End had recently been stumbling, so Ms. Marchionni, with a background at high-style retailers Dolce & Gabbana and Ferrari, was brought in and offered an experienced, glamorous executive who could help reshape Lands’ End “into a meaningful, global lifestyle brand”.

That’s when the trouble started.


Marchionni and actress Kate Hudson

New lines were immediately introduced, meaning loafers were sold alongside stiletto heels. Ms. Marchionni dropped low-profitability catalog shoppers and hired prominent fashion photographers to shoot elegant catalogs at exotic locations. She insisted on working out of New York City rather than the corporate headquarters in Dodgeville, WI, and was often seen hobnobbing with celebrities.


New Lands’ End Canvas Line


Lands’ End shoes – traditional and new













All of this alienated not only customers but employees, who were used to casual access to top management in Dodgeville and who would be critical in execution of plans. And unfortunately sales lagged spending, creating a lot of red ink. Ultimately the board decided it was time for another change.


Successful reposition – Old Spice

While there are success stories about brands repositioning to catch a younger/new demographic (think Old Spice or Target), this is not the first time a brand has suffered from trying to fly too close to the sun.

JCPenney famously failed recently; going farther back, the breeding ground (figuratively) of nerds, Radio Shack, tried and aggressively failed to get more hip by calling itself ‘The Shack’. And even staid Dolly Madison snack cakes invented a character called the ‘Snackin’ Dude with a Snackin’ attitude’ to try to become somewhat more hip. Another whiff.


Radio Shack unsuccessful reposition

Back to Lands’ End, the acting CEO (COO James Gooch) spends all of his non-traveling time in Dodgeville and is odds-on favorite for the permanent role.

We’ll see how the company and customers respond to an expected return to tradition. On the other hand, Mr. Gooch was recently CEO of the S.S. Radio Shack. Hmm…

Conclusion #1- – ignore loyal customers at your own peril.

Conclusion #2 – – just because a brand isn’t hip, doesn’t mean it isn’t great

You LOVE Modified Foods – you just don’t know it

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Modified foods are everywhere and we all prefer them. I am, however, not talking about GMOs. No whining diatribes here (stage whisper: get over it).

No, in this case I’m talking about word modifiers. You know, descriptors: adjectives and their ilk. The way food is described has a big impact on its appeal.

Despite your insistence that it doesn’t affect you, it does.


We will approach this post with increasing levels of pretentiousness.

Let’s start with bacon (please!).
“Applewood Smoked Bacon” sounds delicious, and is possibly the most perfect meaningless descriptor since it conjures images of fruit and juiciness and wholesomeness but in reality is not detectable for most people*. Closely related is hickory smoked. Everyone smokes their bacon and hickory is the most commonly used wood. But you will buy either of these before you buy something called simply ‘smoked bacon’.
*According to Joseph Sebranek of Iowa State University, “most of us can’t tell much of a difference.


Everyone in the food business plays these games. Restaurants use throwaway terms like farm fresh, handcrafted, artisan and slow-cooked to lend some authenticity to otherwise generic fare. ‘Crispy’ has more appeal than ‘fried’ and ‘poached’ sounds better than ‘boiled’.

And these modifiers can help the bottom line. Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky and colleagues studied 6,500 U.S. restaurant menus covering 650,000 dishes, and found that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.

This article in the Daily Mail does a great job describing this phenomenon and explaining what’s going on – – essentially a fancier name is there simply to support a higher price.  To absolutely no one’s surprise.

And this handy chart can help those of you who are thinking of opening up a restaurant.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 9.22.50 PM

Marketers would be well-advised to use descriptors to add that extra bit of specialness to their offerings.  And not just food – just watch a few minutes of direct-response marketing to get a heavy dose of it.

Fancy modifiers, in addition to driving appeal, can also make a dish more socially acceptable. How else to explain that you’ll feel ok ordering ‘poutine’ on a first date but maybe not ‘gravy-drenched fries with cheese curds’?

Inward Focus is not Customer Focus

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The apocryphal story goes like this:  at the old Kraft, the Velveeta brand manager crowed during Brand Review (think: Inquisition without the charm) about his 95% market share of ‘pasteurized process cheese spread’.  The senior marketer, Yoda-like, then asked “but what is your share of all cheese used for cooking?”, to which the Brand Manager burped out “around 5%”. The senior manager suggested that maybe there is more to marketing than just comparing yourself to your own internally defined category.  And she was right.

Sometimes as marketers we forget that not everyone (read: no one) thinks about our product as much as we do.  This myopia unfortunately translates to missed opportunities.

Marketers need to consider each product interaction as an opportunity to intrigue and possibly inspire a new user.

What are hardwood pellets?
During a recent Costco expedition I went to grab the traditional, if unexciting, big blue bags of Kingsford for the summer.  My 40 lb snatch and heave into the cart was interrupted when I noticed an appealing orange bag with copy that excitedly extolled the virtues of what was apparently an alternative – – gourmet hardwood pellets!  They promised ‘superior quality you can taste every time’ and ‘food infused with flavor’!



Curious about a potentially new way to spend even more money in the vain hope of improving my grilling, I looked further at the package to see what these ‘pellets’ were.  I was up for it!

Unfortunately, there was no explanation of what pellets are, no visual of what they look like, nor any indication of how they might be used.  Nothing.  You apparently were either a Pellet Person or you were unimportant to the manufacturer, Traeger Wood Fired Grills.

A quick smartphone check revealed that there is indeed a unique type of grill that uses pellets instead of charcoal.  These devices are also made by Traeger, which features grills from about $400 to $1200, along with a huge array of accessories.  Cool looking stuff.


And it appears that pellet grills are a growing segment, presumably stealing share from traditional charcoal or gas grills.  Because they require less effort.  Of course!  God Bless America!


According to the aggressively coiffed Steven Raichlen, the host of cable’s Barbecue University and writer of the Barbecue! Bible blog, “the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA) reports that wood pellet grills are one of the hottest trends in the industry, offering consumers the primal flavor of wood smoke coupled with the turn-of-a-knob convenience of gas. Roughly 300,000 units were sold last year—less than 2 percent of total grill sales—but the popularity of pellet grills is surging.” (

Presumably those people in the pellet grill business would be interested in inspiring avid grillers, like…me.  But they whiffed on this chance.

There is a basic lesson here – – don’t waste a valuable potential messaging opportunity.


If you are in a position where potential future users may be exposed to your product or service, don’t breathe your own exhaust – – remember that there are people there who might be interested – – if you just give them a little information.

So even if you consider yourself the king of your particular pellet hill – – remember that there’s probably a bigger mountain to climb out there.

I Know, It’s Only Rock ’n Roll, but…

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We try to refrain from simply reposting articles but this is a great example of how basic business principles can apply pretty much anywhere.


The Rolling Stones – Masters of Their Universe

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a short article highlighting keys to the remarkable success and longevity of the World’s Greatest Rock ‘N Roll Band.

Ultimately, following these guidelines (with some caveats) are a pretty good prescription for success.

  1. Choose the right name.  We’ve commented before that a company shouldn’t try too hard on finding the perfect name.  If the product is excellent, the name will seem genius in retrospect  (witness Death Cab for Cutie and the Arctic Monkeys – – or the Beatles for that matter).  So, really, there are 4 tips here, not 5.
  2. Find a unique position in the market.  The Stones realized that they could be the bad boys relative to the Beatles’ wholesomeness.  Everyone loves a bad boy.
  3. Creatively beg, borrow or steal.  The Stones’s early hit “The Last Time” was gently lifted from the Staple Singers’s “This May Be The Last Time”  – only with a more catchy guitar riff and decidedly different lyrics.  They made that song their own, unlike Robin Thicke, who more blatantly ripped off Marvin Gaye.  Be inspired, but don’t plagiarize.
  4. Shed barriers to success before it’s too late.  The Stones’s arguably most talented member, Brian Jones, became unreliable and disruptive.  The group decided they needed to kick him out if they were to succeed.  They did, and a month later he was found in the bottom of his pool, another member of RnR’s infamous 27 Club.

5.  Continually reinvent.  Markets change, competition changes – – to survive long-term you must be able to anticipate and change.  Madonna and David Bowie are great examples of morphing to meet the need.  The Stones’s 1978 album Some Girls was a direct response to the threat of the burgeoning punk scene that included new artists the Sex Pistols, Ramones and the Clash.  Definitely different product than “The Last Time”.  As Keith Richards remembered, “It moved our ass, boy”.

Perhaps not something you’d hear from Peter Drucker, but still illuminating.

April 1 is when the ad guys (and gals) REALLY get creative

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Many of you know that at The Armchair MBA we have at times indulged in a bit of tomfoolery, and April 1 is no exception.

The best April 1 pranks are those that have the initial feel of legitimacy, but as the reader continues there is a point where it just goes too far.   Like the frog that ultimately boils, when well done it’s sometimes hard to pin down the exact point of departure from truth.

MelaniaCare (last post) was one that, while fabricated, we have started to believe ourselves – – and it might come true yet.

The attached was also discovered on April 1 so posting here.

FITBIT® introduces Step CreditsTM

But the real prize is this collection of April Fool’s Day pranks, compiled by Lisa Lacy of Momentology.  If you have a moment, these delightfully demonstrate the magic that results when creative and devious minds are working for themselves and are liberated to listen to their own inner gremlins, rather than trying to placate some client.

Bon appétit!

Trump Bolsters His Brand with MelaniaCare

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The recent announcement on Donald Trump’s website about the development of MelaniaCare may end up being just more fodder for late night comics, but it actually is a smart move and entirely consistent with the Trump brand.

“MelaniaCare”, like ObamaCare, is a nickname – in this case for the Appearance Optimization Act (AOA), inspired by Mr. Trump’s wife.

In short, MelaniaCare proposes that all legal American residents be given access to affordable services that assist in optimizing physical appearance, including serious birth-related issues, but also a broad range of cosmetic deficiencies.   Treatments would be funded by a mandatory allocation of 10% of services of relevant professionals (such as plastic surgeons) to citizens with insufficient means to afford treatment. Mr. Trump has promised to personally fund procedures that he deems high priority.


In Mr. Trump’s words, “As much as we glorify education in this country, what is never talked about is the enormous, huge impact that appearance has on one’s ability to be hired and advance in a career. Appearance enhancement has until now been available only to the most privileged. MelaniaCare would assure that these procedures are available to all, so everyone would have an advantage. And believe me, in my campaign travels I’ve discovered that there is a huge need for these services, often for some very nice people.”

Under a Trump Presidency, if MelaniaCare is signed into law, here is what it would mean:

  • All legal female US residents over age 20 and under 60 would, within one year of enactment, be required to have a free appearance assessment, consisting of one facial photograph and two full body photographs (front and back), that would be taken at any US Post Office or passport office. Funding for these photographs would be through an extension of the ACA (ObamaCare).
  • Photographs would be assessed via computer algorithm, indexed against age ranges (20-29, 30-39, etc) as well as regional norms (West Coast, South, Midwest, New York,  Texas, etc.) as determined by regional panels of age-appropriate men. Similar to a draft number, each participating citizen would be given an ‘appeal’ rating from 1 to 10, with those ranking 1 having highest priority for immediate and mandatory enhancement services. Those ranking 7 or above are not expected to require any further treatment.
  • Level of subsidization will be calculated through a formula balancing severity of need with ability to pay, and will be administered by the Internal Revenue Service.
  • Treatment will be required within one year of receipt of appeal rating, after which time appearance will be reassessed by the same panel. Patients deemed to not have sufficient improvement will be ‘fired’ (in program parlance) and will be given appropriate visas and moving expenses to relocate to other countries, or to a rural ‘containment’ area within the US, where they will support the US telemarketing infrastructure.


MelaniaCare coverage would include these treatments (among selected others):

  • Nose job, breast augmentation, tummy tuck, eye lift, and in some cases the full ‘mommy makeover’

Acceptable conditions for treatment include:

  • Crow’s feet, turkey neck, buffalo hump, FUPA, jell bell, RBF, muffin top, muffin bottom, computer face, puff daddy, wenis, love handles, parentheses, saddlebags, banana rolls, marionette lines, bunny line, elevens, smoker’s lines, and bat wings

To keep costs under control, there would be no refunds, do-overs or appeal process in the event of unintended treatment-related effects such as: 

  • Trout pout, dog ears, bat brow, ping pong face, wind tunnel face, frozen face, skew-whiff eyelid, turkey tummy, pillow face



Men’s appearance will be addressed after all women have been assessed, treated and relocated as appropriate.

MelaniaCare was tested for 15 months in Scottsdale AZ and Palm Beach FL, and while the level of untreated citizenry was extremely low, the mechanics of the program worked well. Per Mr. Trump: “Scottsdale and Palm Beach were enormously successful tests of the system, which gives us really unbelievable confidence when we extend it to areas of extreme need like the Midwest and Appalachia”.

Attractiveness as a determinant of success is a taboo topic, but undeniably is a real factor that is perpetuated by popular media. Mr. Trump, true to form, is unapologetically addressing this issue head-on, and claims that ultimately it will help the American people “in a really big way”.

“Pardon the expression, but a hot woman gets more attention and preferential treatment than an ordinary-looking woman. Think of the advantages the US will have if we export those who have been given a fair chance but just aren’t making it, and we improve the appearance of everyone who remains. We will tilt the playing field in our favor and will be able to negotiate some unbelievably awesome deals”.


Mr. Trump has already unveiled a new baseball cap promoting the program.

Wags are predictably calling this the Affordable Hotness Act (AHA), and using it as further proof that Mr. Trump represents a new low in American political life and culture.

On the other hand, Mr. Trump has done nothing but flaunt convention in this election cycle by appealing to a core base and making it work for him. An unscientific poll of Trump supporters showed strong support of MelaniaCare should it be signed into law.

MelaniaCare would certainly face challenges in the House and Senate, but regardless of the outcome, consider it another example of how to aggressively extend one’s brand.

The Donald and Hillary’s Long Tails

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It’s come to this – the surviving front-runners are two candidates who arguably don’t represent the very best that America has to offer, each with roughly equal numbers of fervid backers and haters.

Hillary has a ton of baggage and a calculatedly vanilla platform, but has successfully pushed back a true Hope and Change candidate who generated real excitement among a specific segment (whether Bernie’s plans are made of fiscal tissue is another story).

More remarkably, The Donald has so far outlasted a number of impressive candidates, including career politicians, outsiders, tough-talkers and business leaders. And he has done this while dragging the level of discourse to grade school level, and with no actual detailed plans.


Original drawings:  Daryl Cagle, Sean Delones

How have Hillary and The Donald managed these feats? The answer (once again) sheds light on the power of brands (and more depressingly on the nature of the voting public).

The answer is their tails. They have extremely long tails that have been growing for decades.  By tail I refer to the lasting impact of their brand that follows them around.  Their competitors simply do not have such tails.

Hillary has been on the scene since Bill was sworn in as President in January 1993.

  • That’s 23 years in the national spotlight, increasing with her stints as Senator and SOS (not to mention the occasional scandal).
  • The nature of her image is rather consistent as well – – ambitious, smart, determined, not especially a people person. Has anything changed?

The Donald has been on the scene even longer – – back to the 1970s.
According to Wikipedia, “Trump initially came to public attention in 1973 when he was accused by the Justice Department of violations of the Fair Housing Act in the operation of 39 buildings.”

  • In fact, as early as the 1980s he had already established his brand – – wealthy, brash, a winner.
  • ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ (1989) described a huge trove of cash as “Millions – billions…the Donald Trump Lotto”. (watch Danny Glover emote in this short video outtake).
    The Apprentice did nothing to disrupt this image and was seen by many millions.

That’s decades of brand-building for both, with huge exposure and very consistent brand messages.

None of their competitors even comes close.

  • Bernie Sanders has had a consistent socialist brand for decades – 4-term mayor of Burlington VT, a member of the House from 1990, and a Senator from 2005.   Impressive, but he did not gain national notoriety until this Presidential race.
  • Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were born in 1970 and 1971, respectively, so when The Donald was cutting his first deal they were literally in short pants, and when Hillary became First Lady they were just out of college.   Cruz established a brand as a Tea Party obstructionist, not always a positive image.   Rubio is just now establishing his brand.
  • John Kasich has a long and distinguished political career, but his brand is weaker in breadth and focused message than the front-runners.
  • As for Christie, Fiorina, Carson, Paul, Huckabee, etc – each has significant and admirable success but none has the awareness and consistent image of the leaders.

My point (and I do have one) is that brands count. Brands that have consistently conveyed an image over a long time can provide an amazing perceptual short-cut, so that people think they understand who this product, or candidate is.

When it comes time to choose a candidate, much of the electorate doesn’t have the attention span to investigate positions – – they pick the strongest available brands, which for many naturally leads directly to either The Donald or Hillary.

For many observers of this race, from a policy standpoint Donald Trump is dangerous – – ‘The Devil We Don’t Know’.   Who knows what a President Trump might do?
For much of the voting public, however, he’s ‘The Donald We’ve Always Known’. They don’t need to check his actual plans. They’ve known him for years. “He’s not just a winner – he’s our winner.”


Hillary – yes, she has those issues of trust, honesty and all that, but hey, she’s been part of the landscape for a long time, in important positions – and while there’s no strong record of success, she projects success and experience.  She can do it!

Hillary_we can do it

The simple lesson for brand marketers: keep your brand message strong and consistently support it.

The lesson for the rest of us: New Zealand is looking better and better as a place to live.