Alumni Column: Branded!

I was in the midst of my morning routine, cursorily reading the New York Times cover to cover, when I had an epiphany of the 1960s and its current incarnation as portrayed in the TV series, Mad Men. Now, you need to appreciate that I grew up in New York City during that age and remember trying various consumer products which had yet to come to market as an unpaid 12-year-old guinea pig while spending Saturday morning’s at one of my best friend’s apartments, whose father just happened to work for the advertising concern, Ogilvy & Mather. I don’t think that Neil’s father ever worried about me suing him or Ogilvy for sampling all types of food products and tearing into their various types of newfangled packaging. At the least he probably figured it would inhibit us, if he was lucky, from ten minutes of apartment deconstruction. At most he might get some valuable feedback before market on some of the products packaging and potential market position. All right, so we were 12, but we were a very precocious and opinionated 12. The 1960s and early 1970s were the golden age of advertising and a time when many of the products, services and business would become iconic brands: Heinz, Coke, Marlboro, Kellogg’s, Texaco and McDonalds to name a few.

As I shifted my mind back to the New York Times and my morning coffee I was struck by the headline, “In Recall, a Role Model Stumbles”, by Natasha Singer, published January 17, 2010. “The Harvard Business School teaches future executives the gold standard in brand crisis management. The model dictates that a company should communicate clearly with the public about a crisis, cooperate with government officials, swiftly begin its own investigation of a problem and, if necessary, quickly institute a product recall. The template is based on Johnson & Johnson’s conduct in 1982, when several people died after taking tainted Tylenol pills. The company’s reaction to the crisis is widely regarded as exemplary.” I needed to check my dates but I vividly remembered the Tylenol incident and could not believe that this was 2010 and as of last week McNeil Consumer Healthcare, a division of Johnson & Johnson, had just partially recalled not only Tylenol but several other popular over the counter products well after they were aware of the pending crisis. Was I reading the same headline almost 20 years later? Hadn’t Johnson & Johnson learned anything about managing crisis and brand equity?

Two weeks later: “TOKYO (Reuters), February 3, 2010 – Faced with an unprecedented recall of millions of vehicles and rivals swooping in on its customers, the public relations machine at Toyota Motor Corp – one of the most savvy brand-creators in Asia – is floundering. Toyota has consistently played down recurring complaints of unintended acceleration, breaking what PR experts said is the cardinal rule in crisis management: assume the worst. ‘People want to see a company take full responsibility, be empathic to the victims and their families and be in control by outlining the problem and how they intend to solve it.'”

Recurring: “Insuring Endorsements Against Athletes’ Scandals,” By Ken Belson and Richard Sandomir, January 31, 2010, The New York Times, “In the wake of the Tiger Woods scandal, insurers are being inundated with inquiries from corporations seeking to protect their investments, their brands and even their sales when their celebrity endorsers suffer public embarrassment… Indeed, the stock prices of the seven publicly held companies that have or had sponsorship deals with Woods lost $12 billion in market value in the month after Woods’s statement in December that he was taking a leave from golf, according to a study by Chris Knittel, a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis… According to Trueman, the underwriter at Kiln: ‘Tiger Woods has made people think about their reputations.These days, people don’t worry about the office burning down, but about their intellectual property being damaged.'”

I began to moderate in my mind those iconic brands of the 1960s, weighed against corporate communications and brand equity in today’s marketplace. I also thought about the media strategies I employ and the fabric of my communications. As I am often asked about my career path and career advice, I began wondering about the tenor of my intellectual property and how I leverage my brand as reflected by my webpage, Facebook, LinkedIn, My Space, Twitter, various blogs and email accounts.

I thought back to Ogilvy & Mather and the founder, David Ogilvy and the golden age of advertising. Ogilvy always stressed that “every advertisement must contribute to the complex symbol which is the Brand Image.” Brand Image meant the personality of the product – a combination of its name, packaging, price, its advertising style, the nature of the product, etc. An ad campaign, Ogilvy said, must always revolve around a sharply defined personality – a coherent image that you must stick to year after year. I began to worry about the endorser of my brand and his exigencies at any given time in his public persona. What could happen to my balance sheet, my market value? I knew I was in trouble. I had no brand insurance! Do you?