Smooth Fabric, Wrinkled Flesh

May 21, 2010

Two weeks ago, I spent a couple of hellish days flying to and from a friend’s wedding in Cape Cod. An entire day getting there, a day of wedding festivities and an entire day getting back. Somehow that seems out-of-balance, but that’s the way it was.

As in most situations, if you look for it, there’s an upside. The vast pageant of people being themselves in all their human weirdness is in full swing in airports and on planes. So, I got an eye-full. Not to mention any number of blog post ideas.

An example –

On one of the two flights required to get to Providence, RI from Nashville, I sat next to a nice woman – quite peasant, but not intrusive – who appeared to be in her mid-to-late 60s. Her look was – how shall we say this? – ornate. Lotsa orange hair, lotsa lip liner, lotsa manicure – you get the picture. And the clothes were on the youthful side – tight jeans, big earrings, bright colors.

You know the type. Trying – a little too hard maybe – to hang onto youth. With guys it often results in sad maneuvers like comb-overs and tight jeans under a beer belly. This gal was doing better than that. She had it together … or so I thought until I saw her thigh.

After I was seated and settled – as much as one can settle into an 18” wide seat with at least enough legroom for a 6-year-old child – I noticed that her jeans were of the distressed variety – the kind with strategically placed raggedy holes. And through one of those holes I was treated to a peek of her naked thigh. And that thigh was wrinkled!

Ewwwww! So wrong!

On one level, there’s the question of taste. I simply cannot see why anyone over 28 with a shred of sense or self-respect would walk around with holes in his or her clothes. Especially holes you have to pay extra for. But, then again, it’s her nickel. So, have at it, sister!

The second, and more ridiculous, issue is this: Why would anyone who has gone to all that trouble to look young give it away with a shot of her otherwise hidden wrinkles? That one glimpse of wrinkly leg skin blew her whole image. It actually caused me to look more closely at her face and reassess her probable age. Upward. Like past 70.

Marketing lessons? Several.

Know when to quit. One fashion detail too many – the raggedy hole – blew this gal’s look all to hell. This sort of thing can, and does, happen in marketing. Overwritten brochures and web sites. Awkward information revealed, unsolicited, at a press conference. Too much detail on a web post. Know when to stop talking.

Stay on message. This woman’s message to the world was, “I’m young (well, young-ish) and perky.” By giving us a peek behind the curtain, so to speak, with a view of her wrinkly thigh, she got off-message. Way off. You can’t outright lie about an uncomfortable truth (see below), but you don’t have to lead with it either. If the message is young and perky, keep it young and perky.

You can’t lie. In the final analysis, the truth will out. This lady was getting pretty old. If she’d stayed on-message, she could have pushed the young and perky thing a little farther, but eventually she’ll have to give it up and face the facts. The same is true in marketing. You can hang onto a brand for a while with clever marketing, but eventually, if things are not as you present them, people will figure it out. And they’ll punish you. If brand and reality don’t match up, fix it. Fast.


Lesson Learned at the Greasy Spoon

October 23, 2009

Things are not always what they seem. I was having lunch the other day at one of my favorite meat ‘n’ threes here in Nashvegas, and before I finished my lunch, I had to reexamine not only a vivid first impression ­– recalling in the process the old saw: You can’t judge a book by its cover – but a larger set of attitudes about who other people are and what they look like.

I was at The Hermitage Café. For you non-Nashvillians in audience, the Hemitage is sort of famous for slinging pretty decent hash at unusual, but very market saavy, hours of the day. They open at 10:00 pm and stay open until 1:30 the next afternoon – managing to catch most of the drunks heading home after a night of carrying on, many of the early risers on their way to an eight-hour shift repairing plumbing leaks or running construction cranes, and a fair number of people who, like me, crave a good, cheap lunch served up fast by a cast of characters straight out of a sitcom. Owner Pat and her  daughter Sherry and son Bobby, are in charge – more-or-less – but the place has a life force all its own.

So, the other day, I walk in and pick a stool at the counter, two seats away from a guy who looked like he had been fished out of the river and hung out to dry. Or maybe he spent last night under a bridge. Sixty-ish, long, gray, scraggly ponytail, fishin’ hat, jean shorts, rough looking sneakers, rode-hard-and-put-up-wet face, especially caved-in and wrinkled that day because he hadn’t brought his teeth along with him – not any of them.

Get the picture? Well, so did I until he began an animated discussion with Bobby, who was frying eggs and hamburgers on the griddle, about golf. Yes. Golf. They discussed several courses around town, clubs they used in various situations, and at one point when Bobby complained that at a certain course he always managed to drop his ball into the water on several specific holes, old no-teeth replied, “Well, maybe you’d better forget that Big Bertha and shoot short of the water. It’d add another stroke, but at least you wouldn’t lose all them balls.”

Eventually the guy had taken several calls on his cell phone. At one point after telling his caller they couldn’t play on Saturday he said, “But fear not! I have an 11:30 tee time Sunday morning.”

I think I’ve made my point. This semi-three-way conversation is something you’d expect to hear in a conference room at a bank, or a backyard cocktail party in the leafy suburbs. But, at the Hermitage Café, involving a guy who looks like he collects aluminum cans for a living … well, it was a … surprise.

If you aren’t getting the branding message here – that your brand promise and delivery had better match or your customer will get very confused – meet me at the Hermitge Café, and I’ll explain it in detail.

Edwards = Ewwwwwww!

September 21, 2009
Johnny Boy

Johnny Boy

Last week we posted one of my typically windy rants about politicians and their misbehavior and how that’s been especially damaging to the Republican brand lately because Republicans tend to get rather loud about high moral standards, especially those involving sexual behavior. I included a couple of Democrats in the mix because we all have feet of clay, and unlike some people I could mention, I really do try to be fair and balanced. But “on balance” as they say, I hit the Republicans pretty hard.

Well, that was last week. And what should greet me this Sunday morning on the front page of the NY TImes? A reminder of a Democrat I hadn’t mentioned – John Edwards. Seems he’s about to officially admit something we all knew anyway – that he has a love child with some dame named Rielle Hunter. (Rielle? What was her mother thinking?) Well it’s about time John! GOK why his cancer stricken wife hasn’t taken a Louisville Slugger to his head.

Adding to this circus is the business about the aggrieved Rielle entering the courthouse for a deposition and turning the kid’s face toward the camers as opposed to away. Can we say “golddigger”? Can we say “This whole thing is just godawful?”

Anyway, it’s not just Larry Craig, Charlie Crist and David Vitter who creep me out. John Edwards? Ewwwww! Thought you’d want to know.

Sexual Shenanigans and the Republican Brand

September 14, 2009

The Larry Craig toilet stall

Last weekend I saw Outrage, the documentary about closeted gay politicians who actively work against the interests of the gay community. And, as usual, a few marketing/branding thoughts have been rising to the surface.

I don’t care what party label you wear or who you vote for, if you’ve got a three-digit IQ, you can’t help but be amused and/or appalled – or maybe just amazed – by all the boys (and it is all boys) who have gotten caught with their pants down lately. We all know it’s been going on forever. Anybody out there remember Congressman Wilbur Mills and Fannie Fox the Argentine Firecracker? Tons of fun! But lately it seems to be happening more than ever.

And it seems like Republicans are much worse about it than Democrats. Of course, that’s absurd on the face of it. Power corrupts – not to mention functioning as an aphrodisiac – and folks on any side of any aisle are susceptible. Wilbur Mills was a Democrat, and … um … anybody remember an intern named Monica Lewensky? But this has to do with perception and, perception being reality in politics as it is in most things, Republicans are getting hammered.

Which is where Outrage comes in.

The documentary spends a fair amount of time on two Democrats – former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who, though gay himself, ignored the AIDS crisis that killed thousands of his constituents while he was in office, and former New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevy, who came out and resigned in a single press conference after the threatened exposure of an affair with a male staffer.

Two Democrats. Two scandals. And yet, Republicans come in for the biggest black eye. There’s Senator Larry Craig who was caught red-handed – so to speak – in an airport men’s room. He’s still denying any of it ever happened. There’s Governor Charlie Crist of Florida who opposes marriage equality and gay adoption, and denies being gay (he even got married recently) despite a number of men who say otherwise. There’s Mary Cheney, daughter of Dick, who is out and has had a child with her partner yet continues to support homophobic politicians. Then there’s Rep. Mark Foley. And Republican party officials Ken Mehlman and Dan Gurley. The list goes on.

The list goes on, too, on the straight side of the Republican fence. Who hasn’t been amazed by the nerve of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, or Senators John Ensign of Arizona and David Vitter of Louisiana, three of the many who were appalled by Bill Clinton’s lapses – and said so in public – while carrying on with women who were not their wives. We’ve had a Republican sex scandal in the Tennessee legislature in the last month and a new one popped up in California just last week. This one involves a legislator who likes to spank (yup, you heard me) a pretty female energy company lobbyist. Gotta love a good spanking scandal!

And of course there’s the absolutely stunning situation in South Carolina where we have Governor Sanford jetting off to Argentina to canoodle with his girlfriend at state expense and Lieutenant Governor Bauer who has recently been outed as gay. The two are fighting over who’s leveling all the “gay” accusations at Bauer while neither exactly denies the accusations are true. If Sanford is impeached – and it looks quite possible he will be – South Carolina will throw out a “family values” Republican who can’t resist women and replace him with another “family values” Republican who can’t resist men. Nice!

So what’s all this got to do with branding?

It’s pretty obvious the Republican party has based a big chunk of its brand message on what it calls “family values” – a vision of a Ward and June Cleaver America that never really existed beyond TV Land, but makes an appealing fantasy for many of the party’s core supporters. And, as so often happens with fantasy, there has been a rather messy public collision with reality lately. These guys are – get this! – exactly like everybody else! Imagine!

But trashing the family “values brand” isn’t the only thing at issue here. After all, some Democrats give lip service to the “family values” idea as well, and as we know Democrats can be rather less that perfect. This is more about how loudly and how often Republicans yell about “family values.” While it has always been obvious that success in politics creates sometimes irresistible sexual temptation, those who yell loudest about sexual purity are the ones who fall hardest when they don’t walk the walk. And, since the yelling about gays is even louder than the rest of the yelling, the closeted gays are the ones who fall to earth with the loudest crash.

The lesson? In branding and marketing yell loud and yell often – unless you don’t plan to  support the brand with action. Better to say nothing at all than be caught with your pants down around your ankles. No one looks his best this way, but Republicans seem to look worse than most.


Words. Mean. Nothing. Without. Punctuation.

August 27, 2009

I have a sort of weird habit of forgetting to pack a belt when I go out of town. In the course of two of my multiple belt-free travel escapades, I’ve had to stop to buy one at an outlet mall in North Carolina on the way to a wedding, and at another in South Georgia on the way to a funeral.

I was in Atlanta last weekend to attend a reunion of a gang from college days and to hang with my cousins Mae and Fly (neither of those is a birth certificate name, but that’s what we call them). Once again, I had managed to get 250 miles from home without a belt.

So, I was making plans to alter my route to the party and swing by Lenox Square to buy yet another belt when Fly, being the generous sort he is, brought several belts out of his closet as possible loaners. He and I are not the same size, so I had to try them out. During this process we noticed, stamped in gold on the inner face of one of the belts, these punctuation-free words: GENUINE ITALIAN LEATHER MADE IN CHINA.


Once past the “isn’t everything made in China these days” remarks, it became clear that we had another problem. A question actually: What was made in China? The leather, the belt or both?

I think I know the answer, but I’m not 100% certain. How could anyone be? I thank all those crabby English teachers I had in elementary and high school for enabling me to know enough to be uncertain, and therefore to blog-bitch about this idiotic belt inscription. Punctuation is essential for clear communication. And clear communication is essential. Things are confusing enough!


Gut and clingy don’t mix

August 5, 2009

Our staff meetings can get pretty hilarious. We can’t help ourselves. In fact hilarious staff meetings could be considered part of the Wallop brand.

We hit a high point on Monday as I was telling about my recent sighting of a pay-party circuit couple I know slightly. It’s become obvious in recent years that these two have had a lot of face work done. In fact, a friend who was with me at the time and who knows this couple better than I do, claims they have become addicted to it. Could be.

The first shock of this incident was the fact that the wife in this pair has had something so extreme done to her mouth that I didn’t recognize her. Maybe it’s just an overdose of collagen that will eventually collapse, but whatever it is, I had a minor argument with my friend about who she was. I assumed the husband was stepping out on his wife, though in an oddly public venue. Once we settled the issue of the wife’s identity, I began to think about the husband.

Despite his ever-younger face (God only knows what he’s had done, but he looks sort of like he’s just had an electrical shock) his body, like all bodies, including mine, has continued to age. No Adonis to begin with, he’s let the pounds accumulate around his middle and he hasn’t adjusted his wardrobe to accommodate the additional mass. Years ago he got stuck in the Miami Vice look – clingy t-shirts and pastel colors. So now we have slender arms, chest and legs attached to a puffy, porky middle, and everything – I mean everything – clings. Not a good look!

To which description our intern, Park, a smart young man with a recent degree in marketing, replied, “Ewwww! Gut and clingy don’t mix!” You sort of had to be there, but it was idiotically funny at the time, and it took a few minutes for all of us to regain our composure.

Well, can we torture this tale into a branding/marketing message? Just watch me.

This has to do with building, honoring and preserving a brand. First, let’s get the face work out of the way: Part of this pair’s reality is that they are going to be getting work done as long as there’s a cosmetic surgeon willing to do it. The couple brand seems to be “Botox Twins” and if that works for them, then by gum, it works for me.

I’m thinking more about the “gut and clingy” thing. Here’s a guy who got stuck in the past. Twenty-five years ago, the Miami Vice look was hot, hot, hot and this guy was probably in his 30s. OK, fine. Had he moved along with the times, his brand might be something like “current and well-dressed, looks great for a man his age.” Instead, his brand is “in denial and weirdly pastel.” Add the face work to the mix (Don’t get me started on his hair!) and you have a personal brand in the crapper.

A recent parallel in the commercial world is Kodak. The yellow box with red letters has gone from one of the most powerful brands in the world, a symbol of American  corporate might, to a weakling, a symbol of a company that waited too long to join the digital revolution. In other words – stuck in the past, and by the way, not all that attractive any more.

Gut and clingy don’t mix.

Weird Weather and … what else? … Branding

July 21, 2009

In my universe a good – meaning well developed – brand is a tight little package of projected meaning that sometimes invites a longer conversation, but always conveys the essentials. Brands enable our lives. They help us get in and out of the grocery store in a matter of minutes rather than days. Who wants to read the entire label every time you need a can of peas?

Our interaction with brands isn’t just limited to the canned goods aisle. Most of us go about our day to day reality, generally oblivious to the “brands” operating all around us, in all areas of our lives. They help us make almost all of our decisions – where to go for vacation, what to wear, whom to date, whom to hire.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because of Nashville’s recent spate of spectacularly pleasant weather. Highs in the 80s, plenty of sunshine and – this is a biggie! – low humidity.  The forecast calls for more of the same this week.

So what?


Here’s what: Nashville isn’t living up to its brand promise – and people are beginning to get wigged out.

Part of the Nashville “brand” involves absolutely miserable weather from late June straight through to Labor Day – and often beyond. Oppressive heat, grayish skies (even on “clear” days) and body-crushing, soul-sucking humidity. It’s a part of what Nashville “is.”

So now that we have gone weeks without a single instance of ugly weather, I’m getting a little concerned. And I’m not alone. Among the exclamations about the pretty weather, I’m beginning to hear comments like: “What’s wrong?” and “This is getting creepy.”

It reminds me of the news from Moscow a few years ago when it failed to snow before December. It was cold, but it didn’t snow. People were jumping out of windows – literally. They couldn’t handle it.

Is this the end of the world?

Well, probably not. And the August weather may well revert to its godawful norm. But for now, things are different from what we expect and even though it’s delightful, it’s a little unsettling.

It all goes back to the value of a brand and the danger of not meeting your brand promise. Most brands promise good things of course. Nashville’s does too. Like our relatively mild winters and our music culture. But severe deviation from the expected in a brand ¬– think of what would hit the fan if all Nashville’s musicians suddenly turned into hacks – causes cognitive distress. When that occurs, people will stop – or at least reconsider – buying. And these days, who can afford that?


Michael Jackson, Pro Football, Premature Death and – What Else? – Brands

July 8, 2009

It seems they’ve given Michael Jackson a funeral at long last. Unlike some, I was not glued to the TV, nor to the real-time updates in any number of news feeds. It’s irrelevant to my life, really, not to mention being really depressing. Depressing in all sorts of ways – but for me at least, not because of the music lost. I wasn’t that big a fan.

What I find depressing is the sordid details of his life – inappropriate behavior with children, lunatic spending habits, plastic surgery that turned a handsome face into a freakish mask, that hair – and the public’s willingness to discount all of this because of his pop stardom. And it makes me wonder where the line is. Where do the standards people use to judge the behavior of others come into play? When do people turn on a celebrity? When is the brand so tarnished that people won’t buy it any more?

A few parallels from our own little city and its pro football team …

Over the 4th of July weekend, Steve McNair, the former Titans quarterback, was shot to death – apparently by a 20-year-old woman with whom he was having an affair, for whom he was renting an apartment, and in whose car he was riding last week when she was arrested for drunk driving. According to early reports, his wife, the mother of his four children, hadn’t seen him in a couple of days.

Then there’s former Titans receiver, Pacman Jones, an angry little thug who got into bar fights all the time, used illegal substances, smarted off to cops and threw money around – literally – at strip clubs in Las Vegas and here in Nashvegas.

In spite of their misdemeanors, neither of these guys was accused of molesting children, and neither dangled his (or was it really his?) child out of a window for a pack of paparazzi to ogle.

As for the public’s reaction, well, it’s been mixed. With McNair, so far at least,  the public mood here has largely been one of shock and sadness. Nobody has said much about the tawdry circumstances surrounding the death. Well, it is shocking and sad. But it’s also pretty … tawdry.

As for Pacman, it got to the point where everyone more-or-less hated him in spite of his prowess on the field, and wanted him to go away. Which he eventually did.

Which gets me back to MJ, and the circus surrounding his death – and to the power of a brand. Steve McNair and Pacman Jones were both great football players. McNair branded himself as a “good guy” and that’s how people saw him in spite of other sides of his life that leaked out into public view, including a drunk driving arrest a few years back. People wanted to believe in that brand. I think they still do.

Pacman branded himself as a hellion, and he delivered on that brand promise – big-time. At first the public seemed fine with it, but at some point the tide turned and he was gone.

Would the tide ever have turned on Jacko? What if he had had just one more weird thing done to his face? What if another kid had come forward and claimed sexual abuse? What if his business empire collapsed completely (this may yet happen) and he was flat broke? Would Anderson Cooper and other allegedly serious journalists have burned up days and nights of air time on the story? Would swarms of fading B-list celebrities be elbowing each other aside to grab a bit of the spotlight? Would that world-class publicity whore Jesse Jackson be stepping into the limelight demanding “answers” regarding Michael’s medical treatment and the cause of death?

Hard to know, besides being entirely hypothetical at this point.

But, two things are certain:

One, you can ride a brand for a long, long time, provided the brand is solid to the point of being bullet-proof. Michael Jackson did a whole lot to abuse his brand, but to judge from his public’s near-meltdown, it barely got dented.

Two, the ride will always end at some point. No brand is immune from bad news forever. Sad to say it, but Michael Jackson may have checked out just in time.


As American as Apple Pie. As Nashville as Hot Chicken.

June 22, 2009

Nashville’s famous for many things, but my favorite is Hot Chicken. Number 2 on my list was the booth at Opryland where you could play a rooster in Tic Tac Toe (which also happens to be poultry-related). Anyway, we just created the official PSA for the 2009 Music City Hot Chicken Festival.

Wear some cool clothes, pack your sunscreen and head over to East Park this Fourth of July, 11am-3pm, for the hottest culinary festival of the year.

Everything’s hot – the chicken, the weather and the music. Only the Yazoo beer will be cold. If you’ve never tried hot chicken … what’s wrong with you?

Click here to check out the PSA.


It Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy

June 18, 2009

I was perusing the last-minute-purchase items while in line at Walgreens and was struck speechless by THIS:

Cheetos Lip Balm

Yes, apparently Cheetos flavored lip balm does exist.

And I would really like to have witnessed Frito-Lay’s “brand expansion” meeting when it was decided that lip balm would be their new venture. Hell, if it tastes good, why wouldn’t the kids want to smear it on their faces?

Maybe they thought that if the Cheetos aroma sat a mere inch away from your nose, you wouldn’t be able to resist running out and buying a fresh bag. Or maybe they thought it was cheaper and easier to make than Eau de Cheeto.

But whatever they were thinking, the truth of the matter is that the thought of a greasy, cheese-tasting salve makes me a little … ill.

So, the moral of the story is: there is such a thing as getting too far away from your original brand. Just because you rock at making snack foods, there’s absolutely no reason you should also try to rock at health and beauty aids.