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2am and you’re hungry for some sweets? Up until now, you’ve been out of luck. That might change, however, with the cupcake-dispensing ATM. Sprinkles Cupcakes is planning them. Looks like the idea is coming to Washington DC soon


So what constitutes a brand, really?

In a recent Warc Blog entry , author Robert Passikoff (President of firm Brand Keys) gives a good definition: He defines it as “a name, term, symbol, or combination thereof that identifies goods and services so strongly imbued with values, and articulated and emotional meaning, as to be easily differentiated by the public from the competition.”

He then builds on this characterization to question trending industry “chatter” that regards consumers who, in tightening their belts, as having become brand disloyal by transferring purchases from once-favored brands to cheaper alternatives.

And he’s right in one thing, there’s a lot of business reporting lately about consumers’ changing buying habits. Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company reported as early as 2009 that consumers are purchasing lower-priced brands that they have in years past (in any given CPG category, an average of 18% of consumers bought lower-priced brands in the past two years). Similar findings have been issued by like organizations (i.e. Bloomberg) since then.

But what are these reports talking about when they say ‘brand’? Consumers, past and present, want value – either in terms of bang for their buck or an emotional reward. Passikoff doesn’t think that today’s consumers are being disloyal; they’re just scrutinizing a brand’s value proposition more closely now than they have in recent past. Brands can’t compete on recognition alone in today’s marketplace; they have to provide some substantial meaning to their customers. Brands with high awareness and little value, he says, aren’t truly brands. They are ‘category placeholders.’

Now that's brand loyalty

His argument is both classic and timely – A brand should always know its core values and meaning, and believe in their proposition well enough to convincingly articulate it to consumers. When things get lean, it means you just have to work harder: to make sure that a brand’s proposition is expressed in a compelling way, and that the brand promise is delivered.

What’s tough now is that consumer relationships with media are changing rapidly from passive receptivity to user-controlled experience. Some even anticipate a future where technology and its users will approach a merged experience. So I for one hope that Mr. Passikoff is right and that, as we grapple to understand how people relate to ads differently on TV versus online, in traditional ads versus those in social networking sites, etc., we can rely on some constants. People will always respond to real value.


recent USA Today article brings to light the growing trend of referring to food products as “artisan, ” with the number of “artisan” products in store shelves having doubled in the last four years. The word “artisan” implies that a product has been created with care by a craftsperson, yet these seem to be mass-marketed and -produced products. (Nevermind the fact that the  “artisan” refers to to craftsperson, while “artisanal” refers to the product itself.)

Now, when a company sub-brands its product as “artisan,” as is the case with Tostitos chips or Domino’s Pizza, what does that say about the rest of their products? Seems to me that the flip-side to going up-market with a sub-brand is that you’re admitting some sort of deficiency in the rest of your products. At the very least, it raises questions…

– Are “regular” Tostitos not as tasty as their “artisan” counterparts?  
– If my “artisinal” Domino’s pizza is hand-crafted, what about the rest of their pizzas? 

Like “organic” and “natural” before it, “artisan”seems to be the next ill-defined food buzzword.

So this morning, the new owners of the social bookmarking site Delicious launched their new, revamped version of the site. Gone are the Yahoo name and many features that long-time users are now complaining about on Twitter and other social networking sites. What they’ve offered is a new Beta site that is not without glitches. This, combined with a recent article in the Atlantic (The Cloud’s My-Mom-Cleaned-My-Room Problem) highlight the problems that many brands (especially online ones) face when they change a product or service.

It’s a clear reminder that users/customers/consumers whatever you want to call them, feel they have a stake in your brand.  Sometimes they feel their stake is as much as the actual owner’s. It’s yet to be seen if the new owners of Delicious can make enough changes to keep users attracted to their site, or if they’ll drive away existing users and do little to encourage growth. One thing is clear, they may have misjudged the passion and expectations that many of their customers have for their brand and service.

Check out this beautiful little video from Chipotle, illustrating their position in support of sustainable farming. With Willie Nelson covering Coldplay’s “Scientist,” this animated short by Johnny Kelly shows us one farmer’s rapid expansion, crisis of conscience, and return to simpler times. Though it’s already spreading like wildfire on the web, Chipotle plans on showing it in movie theaters this fall. Enjoy.

Last weekend I visited two retail stores that had one thing, and only one thing, in common. They both had the word “hardware” in their brand name. And that’s all they had in common. One store delivered on my experience, one did not.

I visited both Ace Hardware and Restoration Hardware. I visited the former because I needed something particular and my wife said “they may be small in size, but they’ll have it. Besides, their staff will help you, just like a hardware store should. It even smells like a hardware store.” And she was right. My whole experience felt right. Every moment, from walking up to the moment I was back in my car, was what I expected. Ace Harware has more than achieved appropriate brand fit. The brand has hung in there, true to its brand equity, not flinching to “of the moment” considerations. The Ace Hardware brand works. I predict they’ll do well.

On another afternoon that same weekend, I visited Restoration Hardware. I went there because I was at the mall, and just wandered into their store. Peripherally, I was also thinking of poking at some high end fixtures and maybe grab some nice towels to pamper myself at the pool this summer. I couldn’t find either. Instead, I felt like I entered a dusty old Victorian home in the north of England. Don’t get me wrong, I more than get the current hipster aesthetic of ‘genuine’ and ‘worn craft’ and the dark tomes that exemplify this such as the Ace Hotels, where I’ve been known to frequent and where execution does work. This was different. I had no idea what kind of store I was in. It’s kind of turned into a furniture store, but not really. The furniture and accompanying accessories were so over-sized they appeared more to be cast-offs from a teen vampire show set, or a poorly conceived art installation. Some things looked interesting, but I saw no functional application of anything in anyone’s homes I knew. Hardware?  In sum, I believe their  ‘retro-forward’ brand expression is way off the mark. But who am I…

I conduct a lot of “brand stretch” work nowadays (i.e., trying to take legacy brands into new product territory) but their interpretation was more like a knock-off of an ethnographic installation I might conduct with W5 to springboad creative thought. They just seemed to stop there. It was weird. And when I left, no one else was in the store, save for patient sales people trying to balance a set of old dusty croquet balls, or whatever they were.

It just goes to show that a brand can stretch its meaning, and subsequently its product offerings. However, creative license should not come at the price of confusing the consumer. For in the end, both the company and its likely consumers suffer. There’s something to be said for brand honesty.

Interesting little article from the WSJ about the throwback trend in consumer packaged goods. While the trend itself isn’t all that remarkable, I found the “Chip Flashback” sidebar amusing. Here’s a simple recipe for creating a throwback package:

  • Colors: The brown, orange and yellow palette is ‘very time stamped’ to the 1960s. Limitations in printing techniques also meant that only a few colors could be used.
  • Letter Blocks: Often used by TV shows and stations in the 1960s to highlight color-television technology, says Mr. Murphy.
  • Typeface: ‘Doritos’ is in a dramatic but playful serif font typical of the 1970s, says Mr. Wallace. (Serif fonts have feet at the edges. Sans-serif fonts do not.)
  • Flat Design: Before computers, shadow effects and colors that gradually blended into one another weren’t common.
Follow these rules and your brand can go retro, too.

Beautiful video about the barrage of commercial messages we contend with every day. In the words of the video’s creators…

Award-winning Typo-Animation that gives you a clear impression of the enormous amount of visual stimuli that plague us every day. Due to the immense scale of the visual bombardment, the commercial effectiveness has become utterly dubious.

What I love about this video is that it doesn’t demonize or condemn advertising and branding – it simply questions its effectiveness. All of this visual “chatter” ensures that the viewer is unable to engage in a “conversation” with any one brand.