Gain vs. Kentucky Fried Chicken: Smart Scents vs. Nonsense

The good: The Wall Street Journal (September 4; for subscribers only) reports that Gain has risen to #2 in the laundry detergent market by positioning its brand as "a heavily fragrant detergent." Wisely, Procter & Gamble didn't go after the mass market (for whom strong-smelling laundry detergent isn't necessarily appealing) but rather targeted "the scent-loving consumer segment." As the Journal reports, it was an out of the ordinary move for P&G to focus on a niche rather than the mass market, but they've succeeded. And P&G is knocking the socks off Unilever (literally); Unilever is selling its U.S. laundry business. Already, Colgate-Palmolive has abandoned that market due to P&G's strength. So score 1 for P&G!

The bad: Consumerist ( aptly reports the "badvertising" news from a Kentucky Fried Chicken press release ( stating that KFC, "in a marketing first," is placing the scent of KFC in "the halls and offices of corporate America." That's right, in a pilot program, "Along with carrying inter-office mail, overnight packages and bills, mail carts in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Dallas delivered the aroma of freshly prepared Kentucky Fried Chicken during pre-lunch mail drops." The scent was delivered by a $2.99 Deal - "a plated meal including KFC's world famous chicken, a side item and a biscuit - on the actual mail carts that pass the offices of hungry workers." So now you can get your office mail "greasy" or "extra greasy"--just kidding. (And in an age of email and IM, who even gets interoffice mail anymore? But that's another story.)

I don't even pretend to understand this part of the release: "To bring the sweet-smelling promotion to life, KFC collaborated with in Dallas; the Trade Association & Society Consultants of Washington, D.C.; and the Chicago offices of the Salvation Army." What, did they send around an actual plate of food spiked with chemicals? Yuk.

Yet chief marketing officer for KFC seems to think it's the most brilliant idea around: "There is truly no better brand ambassador worldwide than the signature aroma of freshly prepared Kentucky Fried Chicken," said James O'Reilly."

The key brand lesson is that odors should be confined to situations where people want them. In the case of Gain, there is an avid bunch of raving fans involved. And P&G admits: "We deliberately made it more intense, more polarizing -- they (the detergent's smells) weren't designed to appeal to everybody." (P&G North America laundry marketing director Kevin Burke). And even then, you can't smell the scent on the outside of the container (at least I don't think so), so the brand identity is literally well contained.

In the case of KFC, they are going into an environment that is NOT SUPPOSED TO SMELL LIKE ANYTHING, the office, and injecting a smell that some people like and some people don't. Stupid! The only scent that people may REMOTELY want to smell in an office is coffee (and maybe, just perhaps, fresh doughnuts?). Not a strong-smelling takeout food smell.

Another key brand lesson is not to abuse your scent identity. KFC's brand is indeed equatable with the smell of its chicken, but that doesn't mean that the smell of fried chicken should be everywhere.

The things that people think of...

Oprah's brand -- will it make a difference for Obama?

The Washington Post reports ( that Oprah Winfrey, who has endorsed Barack Obama for president, "is in discussions with his advisers about playing a broader role in the campaign -- possibly as a surrogate on the stump or an outspoken advocate -- or simply bringing her branding magic to benefit his White House bid." Oprah this weekend will host a presidential fundraiser for Obama.

The question is, will Oprah's brand create a halo effect for Obama? As the Post notes, she has a huge constituency: 8.4 million viewers daily of her TV show, 2.3 million unique viewers of her Web site each month, 2 million magazine readers each month, etc.

Initially the Post is skeptical, noting that "historically, there's little evidence that celebrity endorsements have done much to draw voters to political candidates." However, the political analysts interviewed for the article felt that Oprah's magic might be different. Then, the paper notes, there is the case of the 2000 George Bush interview, in which the candidate moved up twelve percentage points to tie with Al Gore after talking to Oprah.

The Post goes on to state that a professor of African-American studies at Duke University, Mark Anthony Neal, says the prospects for the partnership are "immense but uncertain."

I tend to disagree. I don't think Oprah's support will make much difference for Obama at all. Oprah's brand essence is apolitical. She is about self insight, growth, and finding opportunities to make one's life better. While it's true that she was masterful at getting America to read books, her brand just doesn't translate into the political realm. The "Oprah bounce" that George Bush received after her interview does not equate to long-term ratings changes for a candidate.

On the other hand, I am a huge Oprah fan and always wanted her to run for president herself. So, it's an odd situation: on the one hand she has political capital with me, but on the other hand her brand doesn't necessarily extend to other candidates.

Time will tell, I suppose.

Blockbuster is going to mop the floor with Netflix

It is war between Netflix and Blockbuster. As the September 4 New York Times reports (, in an attempt to stanch the flow of customers who are leaving the service, Netflix has implemented an all-telephone customer service system, with no email option, because of the belief that customers prefer human contact to impersonal computer-based interaction.

It's an iffy bet. According to the Times, Netflix has started losing market share to Blockbuster ever since the latter introduced its Total Access program, which lets people return online rentals to stores and get an in-store movie in exchange. Netflix added 480,000 new subscribers in the first quarter of 2007 vs. 780,000 for Blockbuster. By the second quarter, Netflix lost 55,000 customers while Blockbuster added 525,000.

How long do you think Netflix is going to retain its approximately 3 million customer lead over Blockbuster in the online DVD-ordering business?

Consumerist ( thinks the all-telephone customer service system is an "Ace up Netflix's sleeve," stating that this is "an exceptionally prescient move by Netflix." Certainly it's in line with Netflix's brand emphasis on customer loyalty.

However, what Consumerist is missing is that Blockbuster simply offers a better service than Netflix. Blockbuster is leveraging its bricks-and-mortar presence to offer something that Netflix simply cannot.

There are limits to branding—all the customer loyalty in the world can't save Netflix from being only a virtual reality compared to its rival.

It's a shame, because Netflix had a good idea. But this is a case where an upstart brand is being challenged by an industry behemoth that copied its innovation, and may well ultimately lose out.

See a comparison between Netflix and Blockbuster here:

Teen fashion brands - all the same?

Aeropostale, American Eagle, it just me or do they all sound and look the same?
(I know, there are more, but still -- teenage styles all seem very similar, at least in the U.S. The only exception I can think of is Hot Topic.)
Brands are supposed to provide choice to the consumer, but it seems like teenagers have a very limited set of choices to work from.
An observation.

A dying woman's obsession with eBay

"On September 17, 2003, in a chaotic intensive-care ward, just before being medically induced into a coma, my mother summoned all of her energy and whatever oxygen she could to make one request: 'Take care of my eBay.'''

So begins a story in the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 1-2, 2007) about a dying woman's request -- that her daughters safeguard her reputation on eBay by paying the bills for auctions "she might win while lying unconscious," so that she would not get "negative feedback from sellers that would tarnish her superstar status."

This somewhat bizarre story highlights a number of things about branding.
  • First, though it may be hard to believe, a dying woman's thoughts were consumed by her own brand--how others on the eBay community might perceive her. This is how ingrained branding is in some (many?) people's lives.
  • Second, top brands tend to connect people into communities. In particular, eBay has constructed a virtual community that is very real to its members. The article goes on to note how the dying woman made a connection through her auctions with another eBay member, and how the dying woman's daughter later looked him up to learn more about her mother's interest in auctions.
  • Third, top brands stand head and shoulders over their counterparts. It is hard to imagine this woman getting as worked up about her auctions on a no-name site: She is conscious of her own reputation in association with a superstar brand, eBay.

While some might view this as a cautionary tale about getting one's priorities in life completely mixed up, it can also be looked at as an example of the power of brand to organize our lives and create moral value systems. This particular woman did not want to die while leaving her auction bills unpaid -- she did not want to leave life having violated the norms of her chosen (brand) community. This makes me think that there are many ways branding can be used for good purposes in life -- not just conforming to the values set forth by the brand, but also uniting people around causes that they otherwise would not have found.

The bottom line: Brands are a serious moral force at work in the world today (for good and sometimes for bad, depending on what brand is being promoted). We shouldn't get carried away with branding, but we do need to recognize how much it affects people's psyches as well as their social and spiritual lives.

Advice for Starbucks - after the leaked memo

I recently read the leaked Howard Schultz memo (, in which the chairman of Starbucks states:

"Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand."

The memo goes on to talk about such things as the move toward automatic espresso machines, which, although they "solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency," also took away "much of the romance and theatre" involved in watching the barista create the coffee drink by hand. It also talks about the decision to move to flavor-locked packaging, which removed the smell of coffee from the stores -- "perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had."

Schultz admits that "Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee."

I have an idea for Starbucks to add to the Brand Autopsy manifesto ( kill the brand while it's still at its peak, and replace it with another one. Right now. Today, the Starbucks brand is extracting the absolute most it can from its brand equity. It is at the top of the hill. It has nowhere to go but down. The company should pull back and create another, new brand "from the makers of Starbucks" which redefines the coffee category and gets back to the essence of what Starbucks used to be all about. They could call it "Brouhaha" (Brew-haha, get it?) They would benefit from a glorious mountainous buzz effect. Everybody would flock to the new brand - a Starbucks for the new millennium.

Just a thought - for what it's worth.

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