Apple under fire: When designers get big egos

Oh dear. Branding great Apple majorly screwed up. If you’ve been under a rock, here’s the deal: they are under fire for releasing the brand new iPhone (which has sold really, really well) with reception issues. It seems to drop calls when the phone is touched by a person’s hand in a certain spot. The problem is they tried to blame the carrier at first; then they said it was a software glitch; and now it comes to light that the issue is that the antenna is on the outside of the phone (rather than encased as it is on other phones) so when people hold it in the wrong spot, it drops the calls.

I read that they were initially asking customers to shell out another $29 bucks for a rubber casing that seemed to fix the issue. What?!  You screw up and you make customers pay for the fix? Bad branding, bad!  The big bomb came this past week when Consumer Reports refused to recommend the iPhone as they had in the past. That seemed to be the straw that broke the brand back.

The WSJ today talked about some rumors they heard that engineers actually brought the issue to light, but that Steve Jobs wanted the design he wanted and went ahead with it anyway. And in Apple’s (seemingly more and more smug) approach to product rollouts and secrecy, they don’t give carriers the normal “testing” window that is standard in the industry because they were paranoid about keeping the design under wraps. How full of hubris is that?!

I admire Apple so much for their brand efforts and amazing designs and technology over the years. But as I mentioned in a previous post, these behaviors are tarnishing their brand because they are now acting like “the man” who can do whatever they want and doesn’t care about customer ease or usefulness.

If you watch the video here, I love the comment that the woman makes about people forgetting that the iPhone is less a phone and more of a computer. Phones are not necessarily Apple’s core competency and so they very well should have given carriers time to test the phone as they normally do and not worried so much about launch secrecy – it would be better for their brand if they put customer satisfaction ahead of their marketing blitz.

PS: Friday’s Press release notes can be found here. Highlights include not reimbursing customers for having to buy the case, and “When someone or some organization gets really successful, people want to tear it down” which I find particularly amusing since Apple did a lot of that “tearing down” when they were the little guy!

It sucks when you ruin your brand, doesn’t it?

As with all branding, personal branding – formerly known as “your reputation” – relies on clarity and consistency across what you say, how you look and what you do. We all work very hard to build up and safeguard our personal brands. Often, as we go through life, we don’t even know what our personal brand should be until we really get clear on who we are and what we are all about. You then find that your natural actions – your attention to detail, your creativity, your positive energy – created that personal brand long before you even thought about it.

Yesterday, my personal brand took a hit. And it wasn’t even intentional.

I won’t bore you with the details but suffice it to say I did something – in all innocence, I swear – that I wasn’t supposed to do. I broke the rules without meaning to. Now a person who I truly admire but who I have never met thinks I’m horrible. Of course they would: they don’t know me personally and my brand has not had a chance to prove itself over and over again. They have not seen me stop for a stop sign when no one else is around, or inform the restaurant hostess that the ladies room is out of TP, or give back the extra change I received in error from a distracted barista or use a corporate credit card with full responsibility. Their interaction with my personal brand was limited and so I didn’t have that “cred” built up. Now this person either thinks I’m stupid or a scammer. And they told me blatantly that “I was smarter than that” so I can only assume they think the latter.

As someone who detests breaking the rules (and detests it even more when others do) this was a hard pill to swallow, needless to say. I realized all the explanations in the world won’t change this person’s mind. I was upset all day yesterday and into today, much like the horrible feeling I had as a child of doing something wrong and knowing mom and dad were disappointed in me.

That’s the thing with brand: You’ve got to be vigilant. You need to remember that every new customer does not have history or know the story of how special you or your business really is. You have to prove it every time. And when things go wrong…and they will (hello BP, Tiger Woods, and now Maria Ross) I guess the most important aspect of your brand is how fast you recover, how sorry you are, and how you try to make amends.

Have you or your business ever suffered a brand hit? Please share the story and the lessons you learned in the Comments.

Why I’m starting to hate Apple

I’ve long admired Apple for its branding prowess, it’s ability to connect with customers, to innovate, to “think different.” But the recent fight they are having with Adobe over Flash on the iPhone and iPod has got me seeing their brand in a whole new light – and not a very flattering one.

Today’s WSJ had an article about Apple winning new ground in their very public war with Adobe about the decision Apple made to not accept Adobe’s Flash programming – the programming many websites already use for video and animation – on its devices.  Apple has shut out Adobe from its own devices to promote its own tools and its “under development” HTML 5. Steve Jobs has lashed out with technical reasons why Flash isn’t good for its own devices, and Adobe retaliated with full page ads trying to get Apple on its side and garner public support.

I admit to not even knowing these technical reasons. I’m more interested in the perception and brand impact. I’ve never seen such brand hypocrisy in blatant black and white in the same article. Out of one side of their mouth, Apple claims it believes in open standards “like HTML 5” (hmmm….interesting, their own product)  and says Flash is proprietary to Adobe. It may well be, but from a customer point of view (and developers are their customers too) Flash is what most folks out there are already using and what most websites and apps already use. Now, Apple is forcing customers back to the drawing board, or worse, forcing them to maintain separate apps and websites for different devices.  The whole point of “open standards” is that apps can be used on any device and if many companies have already invested in using Flash to date, why not just also allow Flash on the Apple devices as people move over to using HTML 5, if it truly is an open standard?

Out of the other side, the article states that Apple wants to protect its competitive advantage (which I totally get and respect) by preventing developers from creating apps for the iPhone or iPad that could be used on other devices. If memory serves, when Microsoft got slammed for bundling their Internet Explorer browser with their operating system, wasn’t this action labeled “monopoly activity” and an anti-competitive practice? One customer in the WSJ article, Venveo, a web-design firm, says it has to build apps and websites for Apple devices separately because it has little choice due to iPhone’s popularity. Sounds like a monopolistic chokehold to me.

When did Apple turn into “the man”? I guess it was inevitable. Smart, friendly and fighting the “big dogs” can only work as a brand as long as you’re the small dog. Then when you get to the other side, you start to act just like the companies you used to condemn because you can see the upside. And other companies are taking their cue: I read yesterday that the new UrbanSpoon dining reservation system that is rolling out into full launch can only work for restaurants on an IPad, not on the restaurant’s existing reservations system.

Again, I don’t claim to understand the technical reasons for these decisions- but I wasn’t born yesterday: I doubt it has nothing to do with market dominance and freezing out the competition just because you can. My main issue is that Apple is doing something that forces customers to react a certain way, gives them more work, more expense and less options – and tarnishes their well-established brand promise in the process.

Be careful how you sell

This may sound like an odd title, but HOW you do business really is just as important to your brand as WHAT you do, or your logo, communications, etc. Take a lesson from a business owner who I am sadly watching destroy their brand through pushy, in-your-face promotional tactics.

This person is an expert in their field. They have years of experience and have gotten real results for people. But somewhere along the line, this person got some bad advice from a coach, or colleague or guru and has started to destroy their hard-earned brand image. Someone must have told this person that in order to make more money they needed to sell, sell, sell. Which, of course, one does need to do in order to make money and we talked about being an effective salesperson in a previous post. But you can’t be a robot about it if you want a brand that still needs to stand for excellence, expertise, and influence. You need to practice good judgment and tact as well.

This person is now in 100% sales mode at every waking moment – to the point that they are selling at inappropriate times and speaking engagements.  And when I say inappropriate, I really mean it: we’re not talking about the good sense to promote yourself when you are networking or speaking. We’re talking highly inappropriate as in, you have not respected your audience enough to know when to pull back. The well-respected brand is now eroding into an infomercial. Which is okay, if that is the business you are after, but given this person’s value and years of experience, I’m not sure that is what they want their brand positioning to be.

This truly makes me sad as I watch this happen and I hear the rumors and see people distancing themselves from this brand. Remember, how you behave and how you do business is probably more important to your brand promise than any graphic or website ever could be. Brand is visual, verbal AND experiential. And this person could be hurting themselves in the long haul. Sure, maybe they are making tons of money and then, what the heck do I know? There is certainly a market and a place for such a brand and maybe that is indeed what this person wants to go after.  But personally, I’m not sure I’d want to forsake my reputation for some short-term gains in a way that might cause me to miss the boat on being the kind of business I really want to be.

The Brand of Valentines Day


Many things in our lives have brands, other than businesses: Think Paris, Super Bowl or Valentine’s Day. Yes, I’m late to the party as it was yesterday, but the traditional brand of this festivus of love permeates our culture – and many have even backlashed against it. So how can a holiday have a “brand” you ask???

If brand (as Red Slice always believes) is the image or mindshare that something occupies in a person’s mind, then of course Valentines Day ranks right up there. Just hear the words and what is your reaction? Hearts, red, love, diamonds, flowers, chocolate? And true to form that brand lives in the mind of the consumer (no matter what Hallmark may try to tell us), people who have different experiences with the big V have different brands perceptions. Some people find it tacky, campy or fake. Others take issue with one day out of 365 being approved for “showing your love.” Still others that may not be romantically involved with anyone find it torturous, cruel and lonely.

Valentine’s Day in our house is good, simple, sweet fun but has also come to symbolize “crowded high-end restaurants with horrible service.” We spent a few years trying to dine out on the actual day, February 14, only to finally learn that prix fixe menus and restaurants that try to jam as many people in as possible make you feel like a heifer at the State Fair. We are willing to spend good bucks to dine out in style, but the food is always sub-par. There is absolutely nothing romantic about that – and to boot, many reputedly good restaurants have tarnished their own brand with us because of their chaotic atmosphere and mediocre mass-produced set menus -  to the point that we won’t go back on a regular night. We know this isn’t fair, but hey, once a brand impression forms (and it’s a negative one) it truly is hard to shake it.  These eateries may make a killing on one night of the year – but at what long-term brand price?

What are your brand perceptions of Valentine’s Day? Do you think the “brand promise” of romance, hearts and flowers is an accurate experience, or does Cupid suffer from a brand identity crisis by not walking the talk?

PS: We had our Valentines Dinner on Friday, February 12 this year. And mmmmmm….it was good and well worth the money this time around.  Lark Seattle, which we tried for the first time that night, lived up to its brand and so we will be back.

2010 Advertising Trends: Tiger Fallout and Less Glitz

Great article in today’s WSJ about advertising trends for 2010. Writer Suzanne Vranica combs Madison Avenue to find out what we’ll be seeing in 2010. Here are her 10 trends and my Red Slice take on them.

1) Rising Stars: We thought we were done with Joe the Plumber but alas, everyone is a critic these days. So rather than just citing expert movie critics, fancy awards or the like, more companies will opt for showcasing good reviews and quotes in their ads from normal folk via Twitter and Facebook comments. I love the democracy of this era, and I’m a fan of Yelp, but I’m not sure that just anyone who has an opinion is really always relevant to me.

2) Divided Attention: Embedding more advertising in programming will be a continuing trend to counteract TiVo and DVR zapping. Some will get more creative with this, split-screening actual content with ads on the other side of the screen, or giving viewers more “behind the scenes” footage on a talk show or live event while an ad runs alongside it. We thought we were ADD now with the 24-hour news ticker. Yikes.

3) Mobile. For Real This Time: Companies will get more creative making mobile ads more useful to consumers via real-time ads while shopping or in a specific location. The article states this may be in the form of apps and widgets rather than pure-play advertising, which has not translated that successfully to mobile use. If someone made an app to help me find random stuff at Safeway that is not listed on the aisle signs, that would be cool.

4) Tiger Fallout: Watch for companies to sponsor more teams or events and less individual athletes and celebs, leaving them exposed to less risk from, ahem, “personal transgressions.”

5) Getting to Know You: Consumers may start to give more personal information and “opt-in” just to ensure they only see relevant ads. This may also come into play with cable companies who can target specific households and demographics for advertisers. Not sure this one will really fly, as people balance identity theft concerns with trying to simplify their lives – and their in-boxes.

6) Cheaper Pitchmen: Employees: While Best Buy has been using actual employees for their ads lately, I’m not sure this is the way to go. The thought is that employees understand the products best and can be the best evangelists, which is totally true, but not all employees are camera-ready or engaging enough to do what ads need them to do. I would say this may work if the right employees are chosen and not just the CEO’s son-in-law or the like. Not sure if Southwest us using actual employees for their Bags Fly Free ads (which I adore) but if they are, then they totally lucked out and have some great people they are using.

7) Lux 2.0: Luxury companies finally got their digital acts together, although late to the party. But given the budgets they have to work with, they could be on the cusp of innovative advertising and “leapfrogging the competition” as the article states. I would say this extends to luxury publishing/media brands as well (another industry late to the party).

8) Avatar Envy: I hate to say this to my fellow actors, but this is a new trend. Less real actors, more animation and virtual talent in ads seems to be the financial way to go. It’s cheaper and avatars don’t demand residuals or require Union contracts – or lock themselves in their trailers. Plus, it avoids issues as noted in #4 above.

9) Watch One, Get One Free: As the ad noise gets deafening, companies offering real value will rise above the din. Notice all the free Wi-Fi at airports lately, sponsored by so-and-so? Just like “cause marketing”, giving away freebies will attract attention and good will for the brand.

10) Less Glitz: Really? Promise? In our Recession-era, post-Economic bust hangover, making cheaper ads for the digital savvy marketplace will be the way to go. If it can’t be said in 140 characters, is it really worth it? (I totally kid – don’t get me started on short attention spans….)

When brands disappoint: Hooters

Hear me out.

Put aside your disgust about women parading around in orange short-shorts in a PG-rated version of a strip club named after a derogatory term for the female anatomy. If you can. I agree. Only a few people can really pull off orange well – I know one of them. So that’s exploitation right there.

I am actually a fan of Hooters. There, I said it. I like the tacky sports bar atmosphere. I like that the waitresses get to wear the most comfortable footwear in food service history (thick-soled sneakers and warm socks) while on their feet all day. I love the wings…truly. They are yummy. When I want to get in touch with my inner redneck, I can go there. And I love that Hooters understands that in order to thrive and attract men, the restaurant has to be a place that wives, girlfriends and sig others are okay with their man patronizing.

Have you ever been in a Hooters, as a woman? I kid you not, you are treated like royalty.

See, they get it. They know they have to get you on-side so you don’t freak out if your mate goes there. So they fawn over women. They offer impeccable service to you, they make sure your every need is met, they get you your food piping hot, they make interesting chit-chat (most of the time). In San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf location, they even have a rule that each waitress needs to check in on your table and sign her name on your placemat to prove someone has greeted you, taken care of you, etc. The waitresses are fun, and friendly, and not overtly sexy and make you believe this could be someone you’d hang out with if you wanted. Their goal is for you to have such a positive experience that you’ll either go with your mate or at least be okay with him going with the boys.

And the wings. The wings really are damn good. Since I don’t have access to the best wings in the world, BW3, here on the West Coast, I have to make do with what I have.

Would I hang out there every Friday? Heavens no. Once or twice a year is fine with me. But even a former fellow female colleague agreed with me – especially about how they treat women customers.  And we made a special trip, by ourselves, to the Vegas one when we were in town. We had a blast.

So Hooters knows what it is. They make no apologies for it, in a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” sort of way. It’s not like women are twirling from poles bolted to the floor and ceiling. They create an atmosphere of good, cheeky fun. And they get that in order for their brand to survive, they must get women on their side. That kind of self-awareness is rare.

Therefore, I was disappointed when we went to Hooters last weekend in Seattle. The wings were small, greasy and not very tasty. And the service, while great at the beginning, faded away until we finally had to flag someone down to get our check. They weren’t crowded so there was really no excuse. We left disappointed in what we thought the brand experience was going to be and the reality.

The lesson here is don’t make promises you can’t keep consistently. While every location has a different manager, it’s the company’s job to ensure the experience is the same no matter where you go. See McDonald’s. if you are going to invest so much into creating a strong brand experience, you have to work just as hard to maintain it again and again and again.

Tiger-gate: Accenture’s branding nightmare

Accenture just announced that, in light of the recent Tiger Woods scandals, they will be dropping the 6-year sponsorship with the golfer. This results in a massive branding and marketing headache for Accenture in more ways than one: they have to replace both internal materials and external marketing materials in 27 countries.  If you’ve been in any airport, you can appreciate the scope of this effort.

Many athletes do have “morality clauses” in their sports marketing contracts to protect a company’s brand if the athlete does anything controversial or not in line with the company’s brand. But there is a spectrum here to consider. Michael Phelps only lost some of his sponsorships but not others after being photographed smoking marijuana.  The rest of his associative traits (fierce competitor, young approachable celeb) still remain intact. In some cases, he may have even gotten new fans as a result.

But in this case, Accenture was aligning its brand with the very traits that Tiger has recently proven might not be 100% accurate. Reading some of Accenture’s ad headlines in light of the recent scandal is a bit ironic: “Go on. Be a Tiger”, “It’s not a setback. It’s a test.” and “How can you plan ahead when you can hardly see ahead?” The crux of the brand campaign was about integrity, excellence and making smart choices.  So in this case, they do indeed have cause to be concerned that Tiger’s recent actions, while poignantly human, are at odds with Accenture’s brand promise – and quite frankly, the entire Tiger brand in general.

From a pure brand perspective, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances around the scandal really turn out to be.  Accenture was banking on Woods’ “grace under pressure” mentality and high standards of excellence to align with their own brand messages. No matter what really happened, those are now not so true as they were a month ago – and Accenture really had no choice but to sever the relationship.