Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, February’s Chief Market-Mischief Officer:
Brand ain't wuddit use ta be, or so the current lament goes. (The Brooklyn dialect is optional.) I've been doing a lot of reporting lately on social media and how the power of the mob (lowercase "m" -- not the Mafia) has usurped business' ability to define its products on its own terms.
I was fully prepared to spend the next several years under this assumption, until recently, when I noticed a fellow subway rider. He wasn't much to look at -- late middle age or early seniority, rumpled clothing, slack jaw -- but he was wearing a baseball cap with multiple logos, and one of them was for "Marlboro Adventure Team." A more unlikely combination I couldn't imagine.
Cigarettes, and the companies that make them possible, have been taking a horrendous media and policy beating for a long time -- and rightly so: Consider the industry's appalling business practices, from the 1950s-era slogan "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette" to the scandals of the 1990s. Yet somehow the Marlboro Man endures, even if saying his name is an exercise in linguistic futility. Forget cancer -- these things cause sprained tongues.
I got to thinking about the staying power of a brand attached to a product that reduces one's own staying power. Originally, brand referred to the mark burned into the flesh of an animal, slave, or criminal, and in some cases the current definition is just as indelible. Nobody needs an explanation when Marlboro's smoking cowboy is evoked -- those ads are part of our collective psyche.
Still, I mused on just what a "Marlboro Adventure Team" might be. (I have since found out what it is, but it's not nearly as funny as what I had in mind, so screw 'em.) My girlfriend suggested three blonde, chiseled-feature guys climbing some rocks, and pausing at the top to wheeze and light up some smokes. I preferred the ironic approach: a tough-looking, soot-caked firefighter, the glow of a raging blaze on his face as he aims his hose -- a cigarette dangling from his lips, right next to his oxygen mask. Or how about the classic Marlboro cowboy on horseback, a burning barn in the background and a look of embarrassment on his face?
The things we came up with on that train ride would make great examples of user-generated content -- just not as far as Altria's Philip Morris USA is concerned. But that's why social media is so powerful: In almost any industry, one clever piece of flame marketing can absolutely smoke any company's intended message. If you listen carefully, you can actually hear CMOs' teeth chattering.
How do you grow a fireproof brand? Experts say you have to go beyond merely offering a product that meets, or even exceeds, expectations: You have to provide a unique experience; be trustworthy; and endeavor to understand your customers and why they work with you. But I think there's a grandfather clause involved: Old and established names, or those that the customer is stuck with, are safer than newer ones. Smokers are creatures of habit in more ways than one, so a satirical ad isn't likely to drive them from Marlboro Country to Newport, let alone get them to quit. (Even my soot-caked firefighter didn't completely extinguish the Marlboro Man from my memory.)
Exxon, after all, survived one of the worst-ever ecological disasters, so something like "Raping Nature to Save You $0.02 per Gallon" wouldn't even be a speed bump.
Contact Senior Editor Marshall Lager at mlager@destinationCRM.com.