• October 1, 2009
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

The Message Has Two Faces

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For the rest of the October 2009 issue of CRM magazine please click here.


Memo from the desk of Marshall Lager, October’s Chief Costume Designer:

Branding is very much on people’s minds these days, as changes pepper us at an ever-increasing rate. Banks are backing away from the message of services, and are now trying to position themselves as a safe alternative to your all-too-understandable urge to stash cash in your mattress. Fuel and energy companies are eager to say, “We’re not going to destroy the environment — honest!” Car makers are offering to suspend your car payments if you lose your job, and — if you can’t get a new gig — they’ll even kindly take the car back.

(They’re calling that compassion — but I think it’s pretty much what we used to call repossession.)

Anyway, as if by providence, I was thinking these very thoughts when I got a tweet from @tedmurphy, claiming the only thing he hated more than wearing pants (!) is wearing a suit. I recommended a redefinition of the idea of “suit” that would better suit him. (Pun fully intended; suck it.) [Suit yourself. –Ed.]

That led me to wonder what the resulting ensemble might say about the person sporting it.

So I figured, hey, it’s October—what better time to talk about costumes? No, I don’t mean the garbage cartoon-and-movie tie-ins they make for kids to wear (not to mention the crap out there for adults). I mean businesses dressing themselves up through marketing but lacking the substance underneath to back up the brand.

Everybody wants to be seen in the most positive light. When circumstances change, so does the light, and many people (and companies) try to find themselves a better pose in which to bask in the new glow. Case in point: Snapple’s motto, “Made from the best stuff on Earth.” Until about a year ago, Snapple apparently considered high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) some of Earth’s best stuff — because it’s cheaper than cane sugar, increases appetite, and keeps corn lobbyists happy. Now, however, HFCS is out of favor, and cane sugar (like heroin in Pulp Fiction) is coming back in a big way.

To mark the reversal, Snapple changed the marketing message on its bottles to proclaim, “We found better stuff.” This new ad, though, underscores Snapple’s difficult position: Either the company has to pretend to be shocked — shocked! — that sugar existed all along or else admit it wasn’t actually putting the best stuff in its drinks ’til now. Would you rather apologize for being ignorant, stupid, or malicious?

Of course, it’s even better if the change in message requires no change to a company’s product or service. Banks, fuel companies, and car makers are all dancing this particular waltz. The formula is this: If the voiceover on a 30-second spot is gushing about “change,” “integrity,” or “vision,” the more attractive-but-unrelated images crammed into the ad, the more certain you can be that nothing has changed. I’d quote the line “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” from The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” but unfortunately ol’ Pete Townshend beat me to it—he’s spent the last few years licensing most of his lyrics to gussy up all kinds of products in classic-rock costume. No matter how hard they try, though, there’s no outfit that’ll make me watch CSI: Miami. Or CSI: New York. Or CSI: Poughkeepsie.

By the way, it’s not as if we’re immune here in our neck of the woods: social media, social CRM, CRM 2.0, xRM—all arguable examples of new branding trying to mask old concepts.

So look closely at the costume — it could be that a vendor is doing the same thing it’s always done, and either just slapped down a new label or glued on a new module.

Never trust the label. Instead, trust your evaluation of what you need and whether the application delivers.

After all, do you want something dressed up like the answer to your needs, or something that is the answer to them?

Marshall Lager is now dressing up as managing principal of Third Idea Consulting LLC. You can send candy and comments to marshall@3rd-idea.com, and sample his trick-or-tweet stream on Twitter under the handle @Lager.

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