Saturday, December 5, 2009

Awww, Tiger...

The news this week about Tiger Woods’ transgressions – and I think it’s safe to assume we are looking at something beyond the point of mere allegation – left me surprised and disappointed. And I should know better.

Athletes and celebrities have been a big part of my professional life for many years. I’ve signed dozens of them to endorsement deals for my brands…deals that include TV and radio commercials, print ads, packaging, appearances. With athletes, as the contract is inked, I hope for three things: one, that my guy stays healthy and on top of his or her game; two, that he motivates my customer to buy more of my stuff; and three, that he keeps his nose clean. Mostly so that my customer will buy more of my stuff.

Before an athlete enters the stratosphere of endorsement deals, he’s got the top-of-the-game part down pat. In most cases, he’s been training since he was single-digits-old, carefully steered and groomed by coaches, team managers, trainers, athletic directors. It’s all about performance…on the field, on the court, in the pool. The off-the-field rules are as clear – and as strictly enforced – as the on-the-field rules.

But here’s the rub. When his performance becomes so good that endorsement deals begin to appear, he enters a game for which he has absolutely no training, and the odds are decidedly stacked against him.

He’s now playing the celebrity game.

You’ve got a taste for some champagne? Snap your fingers.  Done. Table at a five-star restaurant, right now?  Done. A little something to take the edge off?  Done. That cute little brunette over there?  Done. You can have what you want, whenever you want it. For many young athletes, the world becomes a blur of insiders and outsiders trying to satisfy their every whim and curry their favor. And always, always, there are throngs of women who draw no lines in the quest to bask in the halo of celebrity.

Why are we surprised when our athlete-heroes can no longer distinguish between that which is acceptable and that which is not?

But back to that pesky contract, and the keeping clean of one’s nose. Those of us who see what could sometimes be called the filthy underbelly of celebrity are, thankfully, a precious few. The athlete’s public face is what’s real to millions of consumers and fans. What’s it worth? According to mediaedge:cia, a whopping 25% of consumers report their purchase was influenced – either positively or negatively – by a celebrity endorser. Among Millennials, 30% of 18-34-year-olds said they would try a product promoted by an admired celebrity. “Admired” is the operative word…and as a marketer, that’s what I’m buying when I trade my corporate cash for a celebrity endorsement.

I do have some appreciation for the argument that star athletes pay a hefty price for their celebrity, in terms of relinquishing privacy and being held to a role-model standard while they are still, at the end of the day, only human. That’s why the Tiger Woods debacle is such a disappointment – I can no longer point to him as a great example of how it can be done.

Worse still – at least worse for Tiger’s corporate partners – we’re not talking about simply shelving a commercial until the dust settles, as Subway did with their Michael Phelps spots after the notorious bong incident. Pulling a spot, or postponing a media tour, may be aggravating and expensive, but probably wouldn’t have permanent impact on the brand. The Tiger endorsement machine, on the other hand, is unrivalled in sports from a financial perspective, and arguably in a category of just two (Michael Jordan in his hey-day being the other). He has endorsement deals with Nike, Gillette, Accenture, AT&T and American Express, among others, that total $100 million annually, according to Forbes. But we’re not talking just commercials here…we’re talking whole product lines. Try to fathom the number of zeroes in the cost to Gatorade to pull the Tiger drink off the shelves. Imagine the gnashing of teeth at Nike’s offices as they contemplate the impact on The Tiger Woods Collection of apparel at thousands of retailers…and right at the beginning of the holiday shopping season, no less. "Nike supports Tiger and his family. Our relationship remains unchanged," said Nike Golf spokeswoman Beth Gast. "Tiger and his family have our support as they work through this private matter," said Gatorade.

I’d be saying the same thing. At least for now.

"A lot of the brands have built their entire positioning platforms around him," said Rick Burton, professor of sport management at Syracuse University, to the New York Daily News. What does that mean in dollars and cents? To Tiger, 87% of his one billion dollars in earnings – yes, that’s billion, with a b – have come from endorsement income. To the brands that bear his name, the value may be incalculable.

Might the whole thing blow over in time? History would suggest it will. Kobe Bryant today is one of the top athlete endorsers in professional sports, even after he was accused (though not convicted) of sexually assaulting a 19-year-old hotel worker, and admitting to cheating on his wife. Michael Phelps lost only his Kellogg deal after being photographed with a bong. Michael Vick, after serving jail time for federal dog fighting charges, was welcomed in Philadelphia.

But the pedestal on which Tiger stood was very high. And that could make the fall more damaging.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Crackberry redux

Long, long ago – around 2005 or 2006, I think – it came to pass that a significant number of my friends and colleagues had suddenly acquired Blackberry devices. Most kept them in a pocket, a purse or a briefcase, and would refer to them every now and then…between meetings, for example, or while waiting to board a plane at the airport. There were others who became instantly hooked, personifying the phenomenon that became known as “crackberry addict”. I recall joking with one colleague that he probably took it to the bathroom with him – the sheepish look told me that he actually did.

Now there are Blackberries, iPhones, Palms (again) and a whole host of PDAs or handheld computers, and the word “crackberry” has vanished from our lexicon. But brand proliferation is not the reason the word is no longer in fashion…it’s because we’re ALL doing it.

In my line of work, I often do presentations for large groups of people. I used to gauge the audience response by watching their faces. Today, I present to the tops of heads. Their eyes are on their Blackberries, held discretely on their laps.

We talk on the phone and text at the same time. We hurtle down the interstate, checking our email. We tell our dinner partners, “I just need to take this call real quick.” Car horns blast at us in the middle of the intersection…while we were typing, the light changed.

Boundaries have vanished. We text in church, from our vacations, from the boardroom and the classroom. We check our email on dates, at the beach, in the bathroom. A few weeks ago, I saw a man checking his Blackberry while riding a bicycle – at full speed.

We just can’t seem to stop.

Remember the way it used to be? In a previous work life, I managed crises at a large, multinational corporation. Over those years, I handled hostage situations, employee murders, product tampering that made national news…true emergencies. As those occurred, I got calls at home. If I was on a beach in the Caribbean, someone else got the call. It worked pretty well, as archaic as that sounds. But today, we can be instantly connected, and in many, many ways, that’s a wonderful thing. Especially in a true emergency.

Problem is, most of all the instant communication that occurs today is nothing at all like an emergency. It’s not even urgent. Hell, it’s not even important. “I’d like an answer right now” does not constitute emergency, urgency, or import. But we have talked ourselves into believing that accessibility – all day, all night, all year – is practically a sign of character. A year or so ago, a colleague was in the hospital, in the process of giving birth. She was actually responding to email from the labor room. While most of us were horrified at her inability to draw the line, I will tell you that there were those in our office who said, “Wow, now that’s real dedication.”

We live our lives in shades of gray…but THAT, my friends, is just wrong.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t long for the days when there were no cell phones and handheld computers. I love them. I do not miss searching for a pay phone, or worrying where my kids were, or racing back to the office to pull an important document off my computer. Good riddance to all of that.

But can’t we agree on the boundary thing?

My friend, Bill, is the CMO of another large, multinational corporation. He’s a very, very important guy, and he’s my Blackberry hero. He does not bring his Blackberry on vacation (or if he does, he’s just peeking and not responding). He uses that time to recharge his OWN batteries, which in the long run, is better for both him and the people with whom he works. When I have dinner with Bill, his Blackberry is nowhere in sight. If I send him a message while he’s in a meeting, I’ll be sure to hear back from him…when the meeting is over.

And you know what? That large, multinational corporation gets along just fine.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Senior prom, and loss of innocence

We pause this morning to reflect on the senior prom, a break from my usual thoughts on marketing…or perhaps it’s marketing come home to roost.

Saturday night, my beautiful daughter attended her senior prom, the culmination of many weeks of planning, organizing and spending. For readers with no children, or with children still young, this story may come as a jolting surprise. For those who have experienced this phenomenon, you will nod in shared understanding.

The Dress is where we begin, and for those of us who remember our own proms, it’s where we end in terms of any sort of common experience. The Dress is procured, along with “party shoes” to match. Ideally, these purchases would occur at a designer boutique in a city not-too-close to home, avoiding the unfathomable disaster of another prom-goer procuring the same one. Jewelry is next, rhinestones preferred. Undergarments…restraining here, padding and pushing there. For many – not my daughter, I am relieved to say – a desperate diet begins. As do the trips to the tanning salon to acquire a bronze glow that otherwise wouldn’t come naturally for another month.

On prom day, manicure and pedicure are first on the agenda. The shower is midday. Then it’s off to the mall for professional makeup application. The hair salon is last, as an elaborate up-do is sculpted and shellacked into place. (“It doesn’t even feel like hair anymore!” proclaimed one girlfriend in triumph.)

We meet the luxury party bus – others took stretch limousines – at the commuter parking lot beside the golf course, where couples gather and their parents are armed with cameras. I see that someone has evidently arranged for catering for the bus-loading event…cheese and crackers, fresh fruit, veggies and dip. We pose the couples on the green, snapping pictures of each daughter, each son, small groups, everyone all together.

I look through the lens and I can’t help but wonder, who are these people? How did this rite of passage morph into something more like a red-carpet premiere than a memorable high school dance? I see my daughter and her friends – ordinarily fresh-faced, sweatpantsed, pony-tailed and laughing – now kohled and sprayed and bejeweled, busting from their bustieres. It is surreal…and, as the kids like to quip, not in a good way.

The bus loads, the parents wave, and thousands of collective dollars start rolling down the street to the banquet hall. In a few hours, it’s over.

The next afternoon, she sits cross-legged on the couch, still-starched curls akimbo, glasses on, in shorts and a tee-shirt, makeup washed away. She laughs and tells her stories. She’s beautiful once more.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Religion, politics...and Twitter

Twitter, I have decided, joins religion and politics as subjects best avoided by well-mannered conversationalists. This past week, I found myself embroiled in no fewer than three separate debates on the subject, with friends who I count among the smartest marketers I know.

“I really don’t care what some teenager in Omaha had for breakfast,” said one.

“It’s a testament to narcissism,” said another.

“Passing fad, and a giant time suck,” said the third.

All three cited a widely-reported Neilson Online study ( which found that 60% of Twitter first-time users never return. Twitter Quitters, they’ve been dubbed. The staggering number of Twitter Quitters proves my colleagues’ points, right?

Right…and wrong.

At the risk of critiquing the emperor’s new clothes, the fact is, joining Twitter – and figuring out how to use it – can cause frustration of epic proportions. It’s not the least bit intuitive. If a new user is not armed with a helpful news article about how to use Twitter, they’re sunk. Twitter becomes something to conquer…after much time-consuming research and a whole lot of trial and error. Along the way, you will inevitably feel stupid.

What successful business attracts new customers by making them feel stupid?

The other thing one quickly learns is that Twitter itself is not particularly useful. The usefulness comes from related programs, such as Tweetdeck, WeFollow and Twellow. Twitter won’t do what these applications do, and there is no link to them on Twitter. You have to go find them yourself.

The Neilson Online statistics come as no surprise to me.

And yet…

If one actually does get past the painful process of joining Twitter -- figuring out how to use the related programs, building a respectable numbers of followers, and following smart and interesting people -- it’s an invaluable tool. Yes, there are teenagers in Omaha tweeting about what they had for breakfast. Yes, there are narcissists who produce literally hundreds of tweets per day – I hope they get professional help. I don’t follow these people.

I do follow various breaking news sources, and enjoy being kept up-to-date on events around the world. It saves me time. I follow leaders in my field and get interesting bits of information, all in 140 characters or less. I have found ways to research companies, products, and customer perspectives that can’t be duplicated by conventional search engines. I get links to articles and blogs that I would never have found on my own. I’ve made important business contacts and developed “virtual” friendships.

I am a fan of Twitter: The End Product, but certainly not Twitter: The Process. And although I’m not a Twitter evangelist, I do find it extremely useful.

But what is it about Twitter that evokes such vitriol from so many people, whether they are Twitter Quitters or simply social observers? Certainly there are those who are uncomfortable with the way social media – including the monstrously-successful Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn – lays bare many of the details of our professional and personal lives. Those folks may never get on the bandwagon, even as the bandwagon leaves without them. But Twitter commands a uniquely hateful response from millions of otherwise savvy internet users, and the reasons for that may be more complex. Is it fear of a technology that moves just too fast? Is it the realization that, as we get older, we may become this generation’s version of Grandpa trying to master the cell phone? Or could it be the frightening vision, in the extreme, that we may someday find ourselves chained to a computer, tweeting our thoughts, while no one is listening?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Business as usual

Yesterday, the Conference Board, an independent research group, reported that consumer confidence has reached its lowest point since the measurement began in 1967 -- 25 points on a 100-point scale. At the same time, retailers like Macy's and Nordstrom's reported 4th quarter profit drops of 40-60 percent.

Man the War Room! Fire up the promotions engine! Let's get aggressive! Right?

Evidently, wrong.

Last week, finding myself with a couple of hours to kill between out-of-town meetings, I did what any red-blooded American girl would do: I went to the local mall. Although I wasn't looking to acquire anything in particular, I'm not afraid to brandish the plastic when the right opportunity presents itself.

It didn't.

In all but the two "anchor" department stores, I was the only customer in each shop I visited. I did received the perfunctory, "Welcome to fill-in-the-blank" when I entered, but was promptly abandoned. Aware that these are tough times for retailers -- hey, I read the paper -- I scanned the racks for the sales...the special-purchase displays...the two-fer shelves. Know what I found? Row after row of shiny new merchandise at full, start-of-the-season price. Every item in the full array of sizes, untouched. Dangling tags unmarked, and unmarked-down. The only sale prices to be found were on the ubiquitous rack at the back of the store with last season's orphans in their final gasp.

Huh-lo?? Have all the marketers been laid off? Did the CFOs lock the War Room door so the retailers couldn't get out? Has supply versus demand been redefined, and I missed it?

Sheesh, people. Let me know how it goes with those first-quarter profits.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Getting small

As I get older (old-ER...not old), I've noticed that the typefaces around me seem to get smaller. One might logically conclude that my eyes are getting worse, but a trip to the optometrist revealed that it was only marginally so.

The problem is rooted in 20-something-year-old graphic artists designing packaging for baby boomers' eyes.

I have before me a can of what my beloved cousin Nancy calls "magic powder" -- it's an anti-aging dietary supplement aimed at boosting energy, giving skin a youthful glow, improving digestion, and generally peeling years off one's naturally-deteriorating body. Putting aside whether there is a credible proposition to this product (Nancy is enthused, so I'll be enthused with her), one might assume that its makers mean to appeal to an over-40 crowd, to be generous. Why, then, would the directions, disclaimers and other package information appear in 6-point type? Reverse-type, no less.

I see the same trend in restaurant menus. The more exclusive the restaurant -- with an older and more affluent customer -- the smaller the type. And the more likely that the small typeface will be some silly script designed to look like handwriting with excessive flourishes. Look around: at that table over there, the woman is gripping the menu and stretching her arms across the table, attempting to bring it into focus. Over there, the man is trying not to burn his fingers as he holds the votive candle up to the page, hoping a little more light will make the words legible.

Now I'll name names. I needed the ESN number (whatever that is) from my Blackberry; it's conveniently located on the original box and inside the battery case. So small -- in both places -- it was impossible to discern a "B" from an "8". I literally used a magnifying glass, being lucky enough to actually have one. Anyone who has registered a new iPod knows that the unit number is positively miniscule. It's so small, in fact, that it's difficult to even find it on the unit.

Walk into any pharmacy, and try to imagine what it would -- will -- be like to read the packaging on over-the-counter medicine with 80-year-old eyes. I wonder about the possible legal issues that could evolve: do manufacturers have an obligation to provide dosage or interaction information that is at least reasonably legible?

The problem is pervasive...anywhere the printed word appears, more often than not, it appears small. Packaged goods (good luck with ingredient or nutritional information), newspapers, printed advertising, even cookbooks. I have little appreciation for tiny instructions floating in a sea of white space while juggling a searing skillet.

As the headlines tell of war and financial collapse and issues of great importance, small typefaces seem hardly worth mentioning. But this, this is a problem we can solve. Yes we can.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Adventures in Luggage Land

Earlier this week, I forked over $15 to Delta Airlines for the privilege of checking a bag. Frequent travelers on Delta are evidently well aware of this new charge: there was clearly an even greater number of passengers going the carry-on route, and a higher percentage of carry-ons stuffed so full, it was impossible to cram them into the overhead bin.

What ensued:

After about two-thirds of the passengers had boarded, there was no longer any room in the overhead bins. Let the gate-checking begin. (Did those passengers pay the $15, I wonder?)

Although the overhead bins were closed, the tail-end of the passenger line felt compelled to open every bin all the way down the length of the plane, then turn around and try to jostle their way back upstream to gate-check the bag.

Some passengers, finding that their overstuffed bags could NOT be crammed into the overhead bins, began unpacking their luggage in the aisle, to remove items and shove stuff under the seat, while the line behind them came to a screeching halt.

It was chaos.

Is this the law of unintended consequences? Is it possible that Delta did not foresee that by charging to check a bag, they'd force passengers to try to carry it all on? Did they think they'd encourage passengers to travel with fewer clothes? If not, and if the gross weight of the baggage remains the same, whether it is checked or carried on, what's the economic advantage to Delta? And if it's simply a new revenue stream, why not "up" the ticket by $15 in the first place?

This one, I don't get. But I do know this: no good can ever come of creating a bigger hassle for your customers. Competitors, take note.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Big Chair

Euphemistically speaking, I am "between engagements." While there is little to recommend not working full-time, I have used the break to catch up in the brave new world of social and professional networking, something I was always going to get to as my busy schedule allowed.

And thus I become a blogger.

If I am to share thoughts and observations here, it would have to be called Kim's Big Chair. There is an actual Big Chair in my house. It serves as my life headquarters -- part office, part sanctuary, part think-tank. It has begun to fade and fray, but I can't fathom parting with it. It's the furniture version of a pair of old slippers.

I'll get to the thoughts-and-observations on another day. But for now, the Big Chair will enjoy its Internet debut.