$61 Million Branding Disaster, Made in the USA

May 13th, 2010

(Note: this post is a follow-up to the last post on the branding of the Bund Bull).

The World Expo probably isn’t the first event you think of for international branding opportunities.  Compare the Olympics, World Cup and Davos, for example.  Still, that didn’t stop China from pulling out all stops with this year’s World Expo in Shanghai – the country spent more on the event than it did hosting the Beijing Olympics.

Why did the Chinese want to make such a big splash with the World Expo?  Simple – they realized this is a major branding platform, with journalists and influentials from all over the world in attendance.  More importantly, it offered a chance to dwarf previous Expos and show how China does international events.

Of course, we must remember that it’s not the “China Expo” but rather the “World Expo” – which means each country gets to participate by building a pavilion that represents cultural contribution.  Think of it as “international day” at your kid’s elementary school, on steroids.  Companies from each country usually sponsor the pavilion and the multi-media presentations.  There are some stunning entries this year with regard to design.  We think England wins for most, ah, angular.  The Dutch pavilion looks like something out of a Tim Burton film.

And then there’s the USA, which assembled a $61 million corrugated tin monstrosity meant to represent … America’s tool sheds?  More depressing than the woeful design outside are the overpriced and underwhelming productions taking place inside.  Contracted to BRC Imagination Arts, reports show $23 million spent on the inside presentation and on three five-minute movies that have questionable production quality and messaging.  The Hurt Locker was cheaper to make per minute and won the Oscar for Best Picture.  Sadly, this pavilion is meant to “showcase the best America has to offer.”

The lesson: even for a nation, branding is important.  While outsourcing your national brand to a conglomeration is fiscally prudent, it also inhibits the element of oversight and accountability for the final product.  Allowing unsupervised vendors to run the show and present what they perceive as “the USA” to the world can have disastrous results.

Similarly, companies and organizations must always make sure to work with marketing and PR teams when managing their own brands.  If you skimp on either the time or expense associated with amassing brand equity, you’ll end up with scraps … maybe of discarded tin that you too can use to build an unattractive pavilion.  Just sayin’…

Next Expo, the US should hire PR specialists with brand experience to oversee the project.  When you have the chance to present yourself on the global stage, there’s no room for error – shine, and the whole world shines with you!

China’s Own Brand of Red Bull – Less Sugar High, More Media-Savvy

May 10th, 2010

Enormous robotic babies and Tron-like cars don’t have much in common, but don’t tell that to the planners at the Shanghai World Expo.  Aside from the unique welcome-mat displays, however, even more interesting is what’s happening behind the scenes.

The Expo will cost China $60 billion USD, more than the cost of the Beijing Olympics.  The US presence, sadly, is a monument to unoriginality – particularly when compared with what Russia and the Netherlands have in place.  (The horrendous branding effort by the US at this vital global meeting will get a rant in a future blog post.)

But for the real symbolic and media action, American businesses should really be paying attention to another exhibit being unveiled at the Expo, which shows smart branding efforts in action.

The “Bund Bull” is about to announce to the world Shanghai’s preeminence in banking – as it hopes to achieve by 2020.  To be unveiled in the Bund district, a famous colonial-era part of the city, the bull is designed by Arturo DiModica – the same designer of “Charging Bull” of Wall Street fame.

There are some not-so-subtle differences between the statues.  The Bund Bull is redder, younger and stronger than Charging Bull.  And instead of its head facing down, as on Wall Street, this bull’s head will tilt upward.  The symbolism couldn’t be more striking, and the timing is everything.

All signs point to China’s continued rise as an economic superpower.  While America is in the midst of an economic recovery, the long-term forecasts show China with growing influence over our economic future.  Our Charging Bull has his head lowered and neck exposed.  In bullfighting this pose is known as “el momento de la verdad” – the perfect moment for the matador to finish the bull with a well-placed sword.

The Bund Bull shows no such vulnerability.

Should China’s economic gains ever radically outpace those of the US, expect to see the brand of Bund Bull charging alongside media coverage for years to come.

The Tea Party’s Fatal PR Blow?

May 5th, 2010

The Washington Post has a lead article today on the nascent Tea Party’s struggle with its “racist” image.  As the saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your facts – and for the Tea Party, the fact is that its political boundaries unfortunately are blurred with extremely racist and offensive elements.  Given that the wider PR narrative of Tea Party political and militant extremism is all but written in stone, separating bigotry from the movement’s desired image of fiscal discipline and individual/sovereign independence is a tall order.  As the Post article succinctly states, the loosely defined elements of the Tea Party have “no national communications strategy.”

In more practical terms, the movement has yet to score a major political victory.  Whether it’s railing against government bailouts, to standing against healthcare legislation, to alienating political candidates it once supported, the Tea Party still seeks that elusive big “win” to generate strong momentum on the political stage.

These setbacks haven’t stopped its members from identifying future opportunities to sway political and policy debates, but here’s the problem – the past political fights have essentially centered on financial reform and entitlements.  The legislation or laws in question were more focused on money than social issues – i.e., “we can’t afford bailouts… we can’t afford healthcare…” and so forth.

But the next big policy fights are ones rife with race and ethnicity.  Immigration reform is so racially charged that the state of Arizona has become a lightning rod of criticism and boycotts because of its perceived heavy-handed and racist laws.  Terrorism and racial-profiling are thrust back into the spotlight thanks to the failed Times Square bomb plot and no-fly list breakdown on Emirates Airlines.

If it can’t scrub its racist image, how can the Tea Party expect to be taken seriously if it attempts to join the debate on these two high-profile issues?  And if its members do talk, what risk does the movement run if the bigots within are the ones whose voices speak loudest?

In politics, shedding racist baggage is next to impossible.  Indeed, many states in the American south still continue to deal with the ugly and terrifying images of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.  Unless the Tea Party leaders conduct a transparent, thoughtful, sincere soul-searching process that insists on zero tolerance of racist elements, the movement is doomed to novelty status.  Purge now, or forever hold your peace.

P.S. One PR tactic that guarantees failure for the Tea Party is claiming that so-called “plants” (i.e., opposition operatives) purposely show up and exhibit cartoonish racist behavior to make Tea Partiers look bad.  Appealing to conspiracy theories is a terrible PR strategy and only helps to cement the lunatic, reactionary image of the movement.

How to Control the Rules of the Court of Public Opinion, Step 1

May 1st, 2010

In crisis management and crisis PR, *the* most precious commodity is time.  Events happen so rapidly that you don’t have to time to determine if you have the upper hand.  One day your business is coasting along, but the next day you’re causing a mega-environmental disaster, accused of bribing regulators, facing allegations of financial crimes, or trying to figure out if an opponent is more bark than bite.

Staring down the barrel of a lawsuit?  What’s your litigation PR strategy?  Better be more than hoping for limited liability.  Your business may be at the mercy of civil procedure rules and a trier of fact, but don’t forget that the rules of the court of public opinion are totally different.

To leverage those circumstances in your favor, your business must take steps before you face litigation.  Your public relations counsel should conduct a thorough risk assessment and identify all weak spots of potential negative publicity.  Still, effective risk assessment is more than scanning your business operations – the analysis must connect with messaging, otherwise you’re wasting your money on ineffective consultants.

That’s why your business must be armed with a holding statement that can be aimed at each potential publicity hit or reporter inquiry.  Nothing appears worse (or more guilty) than inaction or “no comment.”   Ask yourself, who are your stakeholders – customers, regulators, business partners, activists, employees, maybe others?  If they suspect being cheated somehow by your business, what will you say when the microphones are in your face?

Specific holding statements can address initial concerns and buy you time to regroup, take a deep breath and implement the extended PR strategy.  Don’t assume that your folksy charm, steel spine or other character trait will woo rabid press into submission.  Speaking on the fly only reinforces the image of being unprofessional, and worse, indifferent to the crisis.

Appreciate the importance of prior planning, finalize your holding statement and be patient – by doing so you’ve already made a strong opening statement in the court of public opinion.

The Funk Brothers Play the Right Tune for Your Company’s Public Relations

April 29th, 2010

You like music, right?  Sure you do!  Inspirational stories?  Check.  And you have a spare couple hours, yes?  (Don’t worry, PR pro – Twitter will still be there if you leave it alone for a while.  Promise.)  Then make sure to watch Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the excellent documentary film that chronicles the legendary history of the Funk Brothers.

As the house band for Motown Records artists, the Funk Brothers are the musical groove and vibe you hear alongside the vocals on such diverse classics as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” “Baby Love,” “What’s Going On,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” and “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” amongst others.  As the film notes, all together their songs produced more #1 hits than the Beatles, Elvis, Rolling Stones and Beach Boys combined.

Still, while the film coasts on emotional highs, it doesn’t mince words when it comes to the flimsy credit the Funk Brothers received for their master work product.  Almost entirely overlooked for their unparalleled contributions to popular music, the Funk Brothers lost much-deserved fame and glory while their singing counterparts grabbed the spotlight.  Their music is the soundtrack to our lives, but we don’t even know who they are!

And that’s where we find a key lesson in smart business public relations: The most effective publicity, hands down, recognizes and values all customers, stakeholders and parties that contribute to a company’s success.  The feedback you get from these groups no doubt has helped improve your business, so why not honor that effort?  Your PR outreach will never suffer from a few extra thank-you’s to those who make it happen.

Take inventory of everyone who’s helped your company grab market share, and empower them to talk, chatter, tweet, and brag about how great your widgets are.  Besides, if third-parties are encouraged to celebrate your business, you’ve eliminated a good chunk of work-load and can leverage your resources toward other key pursuits.

The most revolutionary ideas are rarely born in a vacuum, so give credit where it’s due.  The Funk Brothers will certainly thank you for it!

The Tale of the Notorious J-O-B and iPhonegate

April 21st, 2010

The story surrounding the leak of what may possibly be the next iPhone has all the elements of new media intrigue – a company notorious about keeping secrets; sexy, cutting-edge gadgets; payments for story contributions; rumors of conspiracy; possible crippling lawsuits – and that’s just what we know now.

Overall, the question that anchors the debate is whether this is good or bad public relations for Apple.  Some say that “iPhonegate” dials up loads of free positive publicity for the company, while others argue that the leaked 4G phone makes Apple look sloppy on product control.  (While there is speculation about Apple purposely “planting” the phone to be lost and found, that doesn’t seem plausible – this is a company that doesn’t participate in amateur hour PR, and this situation seems no exception.  Besides, the company will never admit that they lost a prototype anyway.)

Here’s a better way to look at the ordeal – maybe Apple is pissed that they lost total control of the public relations narrative.  Gawker effectively unraveled and undermined Apple’s tight grip on the PR pipeline by releasing the prototype photos.  And, as we know about the control-prone company, nothing could possibly irritate Apple more than not scripting the media storyline on their own terms.  We can argue about the ethics of Gawker’s actions all day, but what can’t be denied is that Apple has no effective way to lead the story anymore.

So about that lawsuit… how about the odds on Apple pulling the trigger?  They’re probably pretty good.  Remember that Apple sued thinksecret.com into nonexistence after that site published leaked Apple trade secrets.  Add to that the fact that the Gawker platform has been a relentless critic of Steve Jobs for quite some time.  Add again to that the incredibly disrespectful manner in which Gizmodo responded to Apple’s request for the leaked phone to be returned, taunting the company that its gadget “was burning a hole in our pockets.”  Add again to that the potential lost value to Apple, at least via legal calculations, can be made out to billions (as in B).  It’s safe to say that Gawker can’t cover that bet.

Crisis Corner: Resolving the Company PR Crisis Before It Begins

April 19th, 2010

In most public relations crises, the common denominator remains, maddeningly, the same – a change in tactics and statements, mid-game, that throw more gas on the fire.  Perhaps it’s easy to understand why; we only need to think of our own personal ordeals fraught with anxiety and panic.  In the face of uncertainty, it’s easy to lose grip on rational thought, and even easier to disregard consistent steps that offer a careful exit to safety.

That’s why Praecere’s philosophy on media crisis management and crisis communications places a premium on planning discipline.  After all, crisis aversion is a heck of a lot more fun exercise than crisis management.  From Fortune 100 companies to small businesses, every company – if they haven’t already – must take the following steps:

• Be honest with themselves and others;

• Identify each potential weakness in their product or service;

• Know how these weaknesses may affect relevant stakeholders

• Analyze the most effective way to communicate with these stakeholders;

• Have default and standby messages ready to communicate quickly and buy time;

…. and ….

• Remind themselves to be honest with themselves and others.

Of course, it’s impossible to anticipate every possible permutation of mistakes, miscalculations or flat-out wrongdoing that may occur.  Still, a small investment in crisis management now can avert much more painful outcomes down the road.

Spirit Airlines, Gut-Checked by the Big Kids, Must Shake Baggage Fee Sticker Shock

April 18th, 2010

Today, thankfully, five major airlines announced they will not introduce the same lame-brain carry-on baggage fees that Spirit Airlines, in its infinite wisdom, will be doing later this summer.  At a time when corporate malfeasance continues running rampant, no doubt the vast majority of travelers will be pleased that in one fleeting instance, they won’t be nickel-and-dimed by big business yet again.

That being said, Spirit Airlines is still insistent that its new extortion customer-appreciation policy is good business.  CEO Ben Baldanza clearly thinks that puppies can meow, and that “on balance [the new fee is] one that our customers will buy into.” Literally, Mr. Baldanza.

In a recent post, the Blog Aesthetic analyzed how Mr. Baldanza should have handled his company’s public relations roll-out for the new fee, arguing that that slap-across-the-face isn’t the best strategy in these situations.  But now the company faces a different issue.  No doubt Spirit Airlines was banking (again with the puns) on the idea that other airlines would play copy-cat, adopt similar fees and deflect attention from one company being the sole bogeyman.  With this key link in the chain is broken, it’s entirely possible Spirit Airlines may shelve the policy at some point.  When your company screws up in such epic ways and needs to do a hard 180, here are some key principles to keep in mind:

Self-deprecation = PR gold.  By simply saying “look, we screwed up on this one, and I hope we haven’t lost our customers confidence,” Mr. Baldanza can easily undo half the damage wrought by the fees.  People love it when nasty CEOs are willing to admit mistakes, and this situation is no exception.

If you take from your customers, then give back in equal – or better – measure.  Just saying you’re sorry is ok, but try to go (fly?) the extra mile.  Spirit Airlines could pick one day a week to waive all baggage fees.  Turn it into a promotion, like “Bag Free Monday.”  Even if it isn’t a high-traffic day, customers will appreciate being cut some slack.  Communicating true contrition requires action, not just words.

Déjà-vu all over again.  If your company comes to its senses and ditches a controversial policy, then don’t try to breathe life into it again.  No matter how you spin it, your customers will see through your corporate nonsense and be doubly angered.  This time you’ll lose them for good, so play on the straight and narrow.

The Blog Aesthetic just gave you thousands of dollars of free advice, Mr. Baldanza.  Maybe we’re just happy it’s spring, but either way, enjoy it while it lasts – so get to work!

Crisis Corner: How Oprah Can Combat Kitty Kelley’s Tell-All Book

April 14th, 2010

This past week, famous (infamous?) unauthorized celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley released her latest tell-all book, this one about talk show host Oprah WinfreyKelley’s pen has struck many famous targets in the past, such as Frank Sinatra, the Bush family and even royal dynasties.

Oprah is more than just a celebrity, she is a bona-fide billion dollar brand – therefore the stakes are much higher in protecting and managing that image.  Crisis management 101 dictates that attacks on one’s brand and reputation must never go unanswered, and the two Oprahs – the person and the brand – are no exception.

So what crisis public relations steps should Oprah take as Kelley continues her book publicity tour, dishing seedy details and other awkward revelations?

Stay above the frayOprah’s handlers already maintain a tight perimeter around their boss, and no doubt that circle will hold strong during the book’s initial release.  Still, Oprah’s fans will seek reassurance about their idol, and that guidance is best administered from Oprah herself.  At the same time, Oprah shouldn’t indulge the book’s themes or specifics, so getting on the record with a diplomatic and confident statement is a smart move.  Something to the effect of “I don’t traffic in rumors and speculation … Ms. Kelley peddles in gossip, so I think that speaks for itself.”

Have third-parties criticize aggressively.  Oprah’s brand has empowered a legion of other stars in her orbit.  These loyal and trusted advocates can criticize the book openly without dragging Oprah into it.  Imagine having Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz and Rachael Ray all drop responses here and there: “well, regardless of what’s in the gossip pages, this isn’t the Oprah that I know.”

Lean on past success.  This isn’t the first time Oprah has faced a sharp attack, such as several years ago when Texas beef producers sued her for defamation, claiming that Oprah’s criticism of beef consumption was a direct attack on their business.  Instead of relying simply on scorched-earth litigation tactics, Oprah took complete command of the controversy by actually moving her television production to Texas for several days.  In doing so, she won over the locals, made the plaintiffs seem foolish and greedy, and looped the media theme back in her favor as a talk show host who cares about her fans.  Oh, and by the way, she won the lawsuit.

Advantage: Oprah.

Crisis Corner: Spirit Airlines’ New Baggage Fee Angers Customers, the Government – Who’s Next?

April 12th, 2010

Much has been said about Spirit Airlines’ proposal to charge passengers $45 for any regular carry-on baggage.  Instead of rehashing the pros/cons of this new policy, let’s analyze the company’s move from the public relations standpoint:

Think before inciting controversy.  Airlines lost a staggering amount of money last year, yet it’s amazing how tone-deaf they are in announcing remedial measures to capture lost income.  Just think back to Ryanair’s proposals to charge passengers to use the airplane bathroom, or to force passengers to stand during flights.  If the new policy will likely incite controversy, then huddle with your publicist and think 10 steps ahead to anticipate how your customers will react.  Don’t get caught flat-footed by an easily repeatable/re-tweetable meme.  Standing on flights, really…

Media training is exercise to prevent foot-in-mouth syndrome.  Now that we know why these policies generate radioactive criticism, we must understand how to avoid saying really, really stupid things.  Media training will help the spokesperson nuance the message to minimize blowback.  Customers cringe when they hear about new inflated fees, so don’t patronize them as CEO Ben Baldanza did by saying something this idiotic: “The beauty of [the $45 fee] is [passengers] will do what they think is best for them and will now have the choice.” Um, “choice”?  What about choosing not to anger and alienate your customers?

Different PR disciplines are needed to deal with different PR problems.  What started as Spirit Airlines’ need for crisis management has now morphed into a public affairs issue, as DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer both criticized the new fee.  Indeed, LaHood clearly is contemplating some regulatory response, given that he thinks Spirit Airlines doesn’t “care about their customers.”

Most companies understand the importance of PR, but what Spirit Airlines shows us is the importance of hiring publicists who can wear multiple hats.  Don’t roll out your controversial policy until you’re sure you’ve got all your PR bases covered.