Monthly Archives: September 2013


You’ve probably known someone like this – – returning a new dress the day after the big event (“wardrobing“); using influence to get a fake handicap parking tag, etc.  Those who think the rules don’t apply to them; who make George Costanza seem almost normal.

Recently 2 equally intriguing and infuriating news stories raised a special challenge to marketers:
Should the customer always be right?   Isn’t that one of the Marketing Ten Commandments?

What if the customer is a big jerk?

REI Guarantee

Case 1) REI reduced its famous unlimited return policy to one year (still quite liberal).
– this was in response to increasing numbers of customers gaming the system, and in some cases bragging about it
– According to the Wall Street Journal, one customer “returned a backpack he bought in 2004, which he had hauled up the tallest mountain in Yosemite National Park and hundreds of miles. But it “was getting old and dirty, and I didn’t like it anymore,” he says.  He returned the backpack; REI gave him a brand-new one which he later returned when he realized there was a newer model.  His justification: Since he bought hundreds of REI products over the years, he says, the retailer still has made a healthy overall profit on his purchases.
– This is just one of many similar stories, here are some reactions to the new policy, along with some amusing pretzel logic.

Screen Shot 2013-09-27 at 3.56.24 PM

Case 2) Disney discontinued its policy that let physically handicapped guests and their parties avoid long waits in line.
– This was in response to abuse of the system – – according to some delicious reporting in the New York Post, some wealthy parents were paying physically disabled ‘tour guides’ up to $1000 to accompany their parties, thereby allowing their kids faster access to rides.  This remarkably selfish act of course mostly punishes the truly disabled kids; indirectly the PR hurts Disney as well.

Many companies have built loyal followings with liberal return policies.  Business Insider lists their top 10 here.

But why is there a seemingly growing numbers of abusers, and what should marketers do about it?

FIRST, THE WHY:  MY THEORY –> Abusing rules is a way of ‘Sticking it to the Man’:  for someone who feels insufficient influence on their world, any way to exert some control on a more powerful entity is satisfying.   This can apply to someone who feels economically disadvantaged; for the privileged it could simply mean an organization whose rules cramp their style.  Anything goes.
An excellent scholarly description of ‘The Man’ is in this brief clip:

School of Rock:  'The Man'

Definitive explanation of ‘The Man’

Except that now, due to politics and the state of the economy, the definition of ‘the Man’ is expanding; pretty much anything now qualifies as ‘The Man’.  This, naturally, leads to greater return policy abuse.

Evolution of (the) Man:  1960s – The Government;  1970s – Your Boss;  1980s – The USSR; 1990s – Big Business; 2000s – The Other Political Party;  2010s – Any Company OR the Other Party OR anything else

– the options are pretty clear:   A) attract and presumably keep customers by keeping and advertising a liberal policy, OR B) manage profitability and integrity by installing guardrails to limit abuse
The Case for A:   Supports the original brand promise (‘satisfaction guaranteed’); doesn’t give a reason to defect; lifetime value of loyal customers may be profit-positive
The Case for B:  Limits financial liability from abuse; signals to honest customers that they’re not subsidizing dishonest customers; arguably can still have a liberal policy.

Personally, I’m supportive of adjusting the rules to match the times.
In the case of REI, a one-year policy still supports the company’s core value of backing up its products.  Thus, those customers for whom REI’s products and prices are appealing should remain customers.  The minority of customers who abuse the system might claim to be loyal, but they’re loyal mostly to their dollars – they’ll shop online and either adjust to the policy or take their ‘business’ elsewhere.

In the case of Disney, it will almost certainly lead to a policy that may involve some additional steps for guests, but which will help to assure that Disney is doing what it can to continue to ensure a great experience – – which is absolutely core to the Disney brand promise.  In the end, it shouldn’t affect attendance.

What do you think?


How do you make a $370 Billion Oil Company seem Sympathetic?

Compare it to Lawyers!  Of course!  And that’s what BP seems to be doing to support their brand.


Is this a good move?  Vote Below.

You’ve probably seen BP’s full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal and other major papers.  They’ve been unfolding since June while an appeals process went on; the final version is below.

At issue is BP’s claim that it is being taken advantage of by lawyers and people who were never financially hurt by the massive 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Along the way the ads have emphasized the $14 billion in restoration costs and $12 billion in claims paid out since the 2010 Gulf oil spill, as well as pointing an oily finger at lawyers who, they claim, are defrauding BP by securing settlements for parties who didn’t sustain any damage.

A BP spokesperson put it this way: “Today we are working to ensure that our willingness to do the right thing is not taken advantage of and distorted to provide windfalls to undeserving businesses, including law firms…”

[This is not the first time an erstwhile villain garnered our sympathy by bravely battling an even more evil opponent.  In 1964 many of us had to admit that we were secretly rooting for Godzilla as he withstood the savage attacks of Mothra.  But I digress.]

Godzilla vs Mothra

So what is the point of a $370 billion company that committed a huge ecological mistake and is in an industry that the public generally views more negatively than positively, in placing these very public ads positioning it as a victim?  Certainly the BP brand has taken its share of shots in the last few years; maybe they are trying to provide a positive counterbalance?

The answer might be illuminated by considering who the target might be.
– the general public?  hardly – – seriously,  a fight between an oil company and lawyers?  Aren’t we hoping they both lose?
– Institutional investors?  possibly – – but if the intent is just to demonstrate that BP is supporting its brand, running ads is pretty low on the list of investors’ considerations.
– Retail investors – – probably doesn’t hurt — probably pleased to see a company fight to preserve profitability.  But there isn’t much meaningful outcome that would be expected from this group.
– Legislators?   A likely target, and this might just be part of BP’s ongoing and significant lobbying efforts.

Without weighing in personally, I’ll leave it to my readers.   It’s important to defend your brand, but how it’s done is really important.


A MINI appreciation of branding consistency

I recently saw an online ad for Mini USA, talking about how the brand is “not normal”.

Mini Ad

2013 Mini USA Ad

The big news here is that there is no news.

Mini is a brand with 10 years of absolutely consistent positioning and execution.  This leaves it free to have fun dramatizing its benefits, rather than having to explain or redefine itself.

mini bathroom 2

Introduced for the 2002 model year, the reimagined Mini Cooper was BMW’s very clever reinterpretation of Sir Alec Issigonis’s 1959 revolutionary original Mini (which sported 10 inch wheels!):  retaining the basic lines and dimensions, but adding handling, power and an extra dose of sass.

It originally came in just 2 models, but you could customize it to an almost infinite degree to express your identity, and then follow its progress online as it went from order to manufacture and then shipped.  I liked it so much I bought one (still have it 10 years later).

Sir Alec Issigonis and 1959 Mini

Sir Alec Issigonis and original 1959 Mini


2012 Mini Model lineup

Mini has always been about individuality and flouting typical automotive marketing convention.

No swoopy drives through fluttering autumn leaves here – – they’d rather slide a car through paint (see above).

And while the Mini concept is arguably approaching its limit (e.g. a Mini SUV, convertible, models approaching $40k), it has succeeded in maintaining its playful, nonconformist personality, with an impressive array of clever, tongue-in-cheek marketing, executed with a wink.

Mini yo-yo

The (real) Mini goes up and down

 (A collection of 20 AMAZING Mini ads can be found here – definitely worth checking out).

There’s a huge benefit in getting branding right, and then sticking with the program – – consumers know what you stand for, and every marketing dollar serves to strengthen the brand, in addition to delivering a message.