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The voice of the brand strategy consultancy, CultureRanch LLC

The Brand Man Speaks is a dialogue about contemporary culture, the consuming world in which we live and a guide to successfully navigating it. The goal is to educate people and companies about branding, the most powerful yet misunderstood business tool, and its impact on our culture.

To learn more about branding and CultureRanch LLC visit our website. Click on the link above, or click this link to the CultureRanch Blog Contact Page. 

August 14, 2013

JC Penney continues to make stupid marketing decisions. Most recent TV ad for children's back to school clothing coming off as a pro bullying ad. Copy says that the right clothing can "make or break" your kids year at school. Meaning if they don't have the right branded clothing they are going to be on the outs with other kids. Who's running this company? It seems adrift more everyday.

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August 02, 2013

Apple retail stores feeling worn and tired. Where's the beef?

For some time now I have been wondering why Apple retail stores seemed stale, worn and tired. I couldn't quite put my finger on the problem but it was very apparent. I didn't feel the same about the brand while in the stores. They seemed to be missing that amazing energy and buzz factor. Sure, my two local stores are still quite busy but not the same.

Today, I read a story in the Wall St. Journal about this very subject and it was very enlightening and disheartening at the same time. It seems that replacement hire for Ron Johnson the previous head of stores who had gone off to manage JC Penney's re-branding effort (which failed and he was canned) John Browett had dramatically shifted how the stores were to be run.

Browett went for cost savings and sales push over customer service, one of the Apple stores key points of difference over the years versus other tech retailers. The report states he took customer service people (especially the tech gurus) and forced them to be sales associates more often than helpful brand building agents. He cut back everything in the store that was part of its great image including the logo'd T-shirts employees wear to the point many started looking thread bare. What was Apple's management thinking when they hired this guy? He has been fired but not replaced and although the store experience is improving it still remains adrift until it has a new leader.

Apple increasingly seems lost at sea in many ways and CEO Cook can't seem to get the boat on any course that inspires loyalists like myself to be more involved in the brand like I used to be.

Watching out for you everyday.


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July 31, 2013

Coach leather goods brand in trouble: Will a $350 baseball glove fix the problem?

Coach the American aspirational luxury leather goods brand is facing some serious financial trouble. Sales and consumer interest are down as the company loses out to other brands like Michael Kors and Kate Spade. Prior to the great recession, Coach was flying high with great sales and profits expanding its brand across the globe.

The brand whose roots are simple leather goods, handbags, belts, wallets and the like has expanded greatly over the past decade as desire and demand for near luxury goods increased globally. It is trying to evolve into a lifestyle brand.

However, with its recent financial setback and change in management, Coach is setting out to woo more men to buy the brand's products which have been primarily focused on women. They are launching two items that seem kind of odd to me as examples of reaching out to men...or at least to the kind of men the brand is most likely to attract. Coach is selling a nearly $350 baseball glove and a baseball bat with a leather handle for around $250. Beyond the "cute" idea for more PR value versus real sales, I do not see this news as significant or this emphasis making much sense as a way to attract "real" men to the brand.

Most guys who are into sports are very unlikely to buy such an item. A parent giving a kid learning to play baseball a Coach baseball glove or bat would be laughed off the field by his teammates and his "manliness" would likely be questioned.

There are better product offerings that would be of serious interest to men from an American leather goods company especially if they are of high quality and more reasonably priced than the super lux European brands. Further, competition from Michael Kors is stiff as that brand has been foraying into all product avenues for men very successfully and will be hard to compete with unless Coach comes up with some really exciting ideas. Baseball gloves is not one of them.

Watching out for you everyday.



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July 24, 2013

JCPenney outed by employees for questionable pricing tactics

JC Penney the middle market retailer that has been struggling to remain a viable business over the past 5 years may have encountered another stumbbling block to that survival.

I have reported several times that I found JC Penney's revised brand strategy under its recently fired president former Apple exec Ron Johnson was faulty. Taking away value promotions and coupons and going with an "everyday" low price failed miserably to bring in more business and actually frightened loyal customers away thinking prices were going up dramatically. He was fired and replaced with old management who pledged to bring back the price-value proposition JC Penney's was best known for. Or so they promised.

Several employees of the retailer have now outed JC Penney's for what they believe is deceptive pricing actions under the "new" old management regime. In an NBC News report out today, employees stated that JC Penney gave directives to store personnel to raise prices to artificially high levels to then mark them down up to 50% to make merchandise look like a bargain. In some cases the huge mark-ups with sale price signage netted out with prices higher than the original everyday price prior to the change.

Disgusted employees who felt consumers were being cheated have come forward to expose this potential unethical pricing policy. It should be understood that JC Penney is not the only store that has used this ploy to get shoppers to buy more, however, given their recent failures under the previous administration they are desperate to get their balance sheet back in order even if it means some questionable activities.

Now that JC Penney's has been outed it is just another clear reason this retailer's future is doomed and should consider closing up shop and selling off their real estate and move on. The retailer has lost its key brand identity meaning its raison d'etre is meaningless.

Watching out for you everyday.



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July 19, 2013

Food/Bev Brands Dropping Mascot Brand Icons in rebranding efforts: Colonel Sanders no more?

I was not surprised to read the other day that Colonel Sanders was not being used to promote KFC's new upscale fast casual concept KFC 11. The Colonel who has been around since the brand was launched in the 60s is being phased out because KFC is trying to become a non-regional brand: not solely associated with the south. That was also one of the reasons behind the change from Kentucky Fried Chicken to the acronym KFC in 1991.

The new KFC 11 restaurant is the brand's attempt to compete in the fastest growing segment of the eating out industry: fast casual. It will serve sandwiches, flatbreads and only boneless chicken. The name comes from the original 11 herbs and spices in their secret recipe. Fast casual leaders Panera Bread and Chipotle are extremely popular with 20 and 30 somethings as well as babyboomers. They are more comfortable healtier and more upscale with expenditures per transactions much higher than fast food joints. KFC wants in on this action.

As concerns brand mascots, KFC is not alone. Spuds Mackenzie (Anheuser-Busch)  and the Chihuahua (Taco Bell) were dropped due to strong pressures from organized groups. Mother's against Drunk Driving went after the Spuds character because it was too likable especially among children and made drinking look too good. The Chihuahua was too attractive to kids as well and fast food equals obesity to organizations fighting hard to stop it especially among children. Joe Camel sold a lot of smokes in the old days too. Long gone. Have you also noticed that Ronald McDonald isn't around as much anymore? Maybe the same reason the Chihuahua is gone. Children are drawn to fast food by character mascots.

Some mascots never worked for me or the public in general. For example, The Burger "King" seemed so detached from the brand's identity and was eliminated. (One review called the King "creepy" and I have to agree).

Wendy's is still using its pig-tailed red-haired Wendy character having updated her look to be more contemporary and upmarket not too long ago.

The overall decline in mascot use may also be attributed to the more serious nature of selling food. Despite recent studies that show the vast majority of consumers do not read the nutritional information on a restaurant menu, many companies are focusing attention on health-orientated marketing efforts and are less cute and kitschy.

Isn't Tony the Tiger still selling cereal? He may be one of dying breed.

Watching out for you everyday.

By the way join my YouTube Channel (Eli Portnoy) that features my The Brand Man Speaks video blog for more coverage of marketing news and opinions. Also follow me on twitter @elitalks


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June 27, 2013

Apple losing its MOJO? New Ad campaign just plain boring

Apple had been known for taking risks with its advertising and making the effort especially notable and memorable. From its wild off the charts Superbowl ad years ago to its stark and minimalist but effective comparative ads vs PCs. The company was not only successful for its products and image but also for its "attitude" that struck a cord with baby boomers and the generations below making it a very hot company with a hot stock.

The latest ad campaign is just plain boring. The soft tone creative that is meant to remind people about how Apple products impact our lives and espouses the company's philosophy about "living" is just awful. It unfortunately signals to me that Apple has lost its way is now another boring technology company and for the first time in decades maybe losing its most loyal following to more exciting and more competitive products and companies like Samsung.

Hear my cry Apple. WAKE UP from your comatose state. Or, you risk becoming the Sony of the 90s: irrelevant and ignored.

Watching out for you everyday.


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June 24, 2013

Paula Deen loses Smithfield Foods after Food Network drops her for racial slurs

Paula Deen is having a rough time currently and it may lead to a loss of dough, pun intended. The non-professional chef turned celebrity food star was dropped by Smithfield Foods whom she has worked with since '06 after her contract was dropped by the Food Network last week, (it will not be renewed).

The issue? Deen in sworn testimony in a lawsuit against her restauant admitted to using racial slurs. Despite an apology (and several YouTube videos to explain her position) the Food Network announced they would not renew her contract and was dropping her from their line-up. Smithfield which makes ham products that Deen endorses and uses in her recipes announced they were dropping her as well today.

One has to also remember that not to long ago Deen was a bit cagey about the fact that she had significant medical issues that may or may not have been related to her fat ladden recipes yet continued to promote these mostly unhealthy dishes. She finally admitted she had to not only cut back on the fatty foods but also she was having to use significant medication to control her condition. Although some of her fellow chefs supporter her at that time, there were quite a few who found her lack of honestly of concern.

This latest incident further eroded her credibility and integrity leading some of her business relationships to end their dealings with her. Other companies withwhom she has promotional deals have said they are
"reviewing" their current relationships with Deen leading one to assume she will lose some other financially important deals and income in the near term.

Sometimes when celebrities do "bad" things (cheat, lie, steal, you know the drill) they are able to do a mea culpa and with some time regain their status among the public. Deen has legions of fans many of whom are threatening to boycott the Food Network for dropping her shows. The issue is she now has a serious credibility problem given this is the second unfavorable thing she has had to go public with within past year. Celebrities are getting called out by their sponsors much more frequently these days given the nature of social media and swift negative feedback the public can express that can be very hurtful to companies.

Whole Foods modified their employee choice of language use policy two weeks ago as a result of a powerful social media effort used by Latino groups when two employees were suspended for using Spanish while on the job. (Whole Foods clarified it was not for this reason they were suspended but for the bad judgement and poor behavior they used once they were reprimanded.) The lobbying paid off fast and policy was changed within a matter of days.

Deen has promised to appear on the Today Show on Wednesday to clear things up after she also failed to show for her scheduled interview last week at the last minute.

Watching out for you everyday.




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June 20, 2013

Men's Warehouse brand icon George Zimmer fired

It what remains to be understood, the board of men's apparel retailer Men's Warehouse fired its ad pitch/company founder this week. George Zimmer whose bearded face and TV ad assertion that you "will like the way you look. I guarantee it", was terminated from the moderately priced men's clothing chain.

News reports are sketchy but it appears some kind of disagreement on the future path of the company seems to be behind the sudden termination. That might have included dropping Zimmer as the spokesperson to reach a younger audience who might conceivably find him "too old" to admire.

The problem with a case like this is the man in question isn't just an executive; he is the brand's iconic voice and image and an intergral part of the brand's marketing message. Short of an ethics issue, it doesn't seem to make sense to so abruptly terminate a key element of your brand message unless you have a superior back-up in the wings. It seems like a knee-jerk move that could be damaging to the brand at least in the short term. The stock price took a big tumble when this news was released.

This is a good example of the risk companies take when they use either a celebrity or a top executive to promote the brand and a problem occurs. The spokeperson is an extension of the brand (especially if used for an extended period as in this case) and the removal leaves the brand vulnerable and temporarily rudderless.

It is important for the brand to right itself quickly and not allow the negative PR accompanying this news to linger too long. Consumers know this man and have a relationship with him over years (he identified himself as the Chairman to stand behind his guarantee in every ad) and his departure could undermine the relationship consumers have with this retailer for some time to come.

Watching out for you everyday.



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June 19, 2013

Investigation show Macys, Kohls and JC Penney's "sales" offers may not be legitmate

NBC has released an investigation that shows that some top US retailers are essentially "cheating" Americans with less than honest sales offerings.

At issue are "sales" prices reflecting discounts off "full retail/regular pricing" and whether there is some unethical, misleading retailing going on. The investigation said the activity may not be illegal (retail fair trade pricing laws give the retailers some wiggle room) but it certainly smacks of scam like tactics.

Products were shown with what appeared to be notable discounts off full retail/regular prices. However, in a number of the cases those discounted prices had been the price for far longer than a legitimate sale period or the full retail price was never the price used to offer the product for sale in the first place. The overall intent appears to make something look like a sale that isn't one.

Consumers are impulse oriented when shopping especially if they see something that appears to be a bargain. Retailers know this as this is the kind of information they gather from various market research studies they conduct all year round. I used to conduct focus groups on retail subjects and know retailers are always looking to find ways to generate impulse purchases and capture as much of the consumers' dollar as possible once they are in-store.

What is surprising is that with all the resources consumers have today with mobile access to a world of pricing information prior to purchase, one would think they would behave smarter and be able to assess the real bargain sales from the pretend ones. I for one rarely buy something because it is one sale theses days without first checking on my smartphone for prices for the item online and at brick and mortar locations elsewhere first. In most cases today, I find in-store retail prices generally higher than online prices therefore driving my business to sites like Amazon and Zappos rather than buying at a retail store.

It is unclear if this report with generate more scrutiny from Attorney Generals offices nationwide to pursue action against retailers for "misleading" consumers with what I would call faulty pricing.

The bottom line is an old saying, "an educated consumer is the best customer".

Watching out for you everyday.



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June 07, 2013

Whole Foods under fire for "English-only" requirement by employees on the clock

Whole Foods, the high end specialty grocer, has come under fire for an incident that occurred in one of their New Mexico stores over the speaking of Spanish vs. English on store time. Two employees were fired for speaking Spanish among themselves while on the clock, or so says several non Whole Foods accounts of the situation.

The actual circumstances may be different than what social media and the press picked up on (Whole Foods says the employees were behaving disrespectfully and rudely while dealing with the management feedback on the matter), however, the outrage is prompting a national ban to not shop at the store by Latin groups.

This event prompts for me a much bigger issue about what language should be primarily used in any business environment that caters to multi-language speaking consumers. I believe fluent English should be required of all retail store personnel in any store that clearly does not cater only to customers who speak a language other than English.

In the case of Whole Foods, all staffers who deal with consumers in anyway should be able to converse in English and if the customer requests another language be used the staffer can if able use the other requested language while on the clock. I do object to the fact that for example, in my Publix supermarket in Miami that caters to English and Spanish speaking customers, many times I cannot find anyone who can speak English well enough to serve my needs. And, to counter-act Publix slogan "Where shopping is a pleasure", it is many times not a pleasure. This is still an English speaking country and sometimes I think certain elements of society forget that.

I reviewed Whole Foods policy as outlined by their managment in several news articles and find it sound. I believe social media and certain Latin groups took advantage of the situation and are not being totally fair about how they are reacting. I do not have a problem with staffers talking to themselves in whatever language they are comfortable with AS LONG AS they are immediately able to address English speaking consumers without any difficulty.

In the case of my local Publix, I have filed a complaint with corporate management but have yet to hear back from them.

What do you think? Let me know.

Watching out for you everyday.


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