Monday, July 30, 2007

Mt. Olive

Maybe because Mt. Olive brand pickles come from North Carolina, it can be excused from believing much of what has been written about brand loyalty.

For example, an article in the July 1 issue of The New York Times quotes Marian Salzman, CMO of JWT and author of Next Now: Trends for the Future:

“Because everything is on a faster cycle, there’s no ability to ever be satiated,” said Ms. Salzman, who adds that consumers show little evidence of brand loyalty, moving quickly on to a new fad or product.

On the other hand, there’s ample evidence of utter ignorance about consumer habits in flyover land – at least based on Salzman. I doubt she grew in the Carolinas.

“In a pickle… which do you prefer? The big fat dill pickles. But honestly, ANY pickles as long as they are Mt. Olive Pickles.” That’s Karen’s determination of on her MySpace blog. (Anecdotal? Of course it’s anecdotal – the opposite of “next-now forecasting.”)

So: Mt. Olive Pickle Company formally organized itself in early 1926 with a group of investors who had to find another way to support local farmers after the original plan to sell brined cucumbers to other pickle manufacturers failed. Today, according to its website, it is the best-selling brand of pickles in the Southeastern US and the second biggest selling brand of pickles, peppers and relishes in America.

Kind of hard to believe, I know. It’s likely you’ve never heard of this brand. I know about it because there is a jar or two on our dinner table every evening: we shop at HEB here and Mt. Olive is heavily stocked at HEB. It’s the…pickles here….as well as hot pickled okra, peppers, lime-flavored dill strips…more that 250 SKUs in all.

What about…you know, Vlasik? Glad you asked. In a rigorous scientific survey of the Thursday Night Martini Gang – 15 respondents – twice as many said they bought Vlasic pickles than any other brand. Claussen and Heinz received three “buys” each. One mentioned she purchases Dixie Rose.

It’s a complicated category – pickles, peppers and relishes – with refrigerated and shelf-stable versions abounding. But Vlasic (with its classic Groucho Marx stork) is owned by Aurora Foods*, Claussen by Kraft Foods, and Heinz by…uh…Heinz – the original pickle empire-builder.

Still, Mt. Olive Pickle Company is an independent: apparently, America’s largest independent pickle-maker and hence an independent brand as well. Its stats (depending on where you can find them) make this pretty impressive for a company that still based in its hometown after 80 years.

Also, the brand is intimately tied to its hometown, Mt. Olive, NC; with more than 5,000 people a little bit north and east of Fayetteville. And a mighty fine town it is, apparently, which has grown with the pickle company. But not too much. There’s a yearly North Carolina Pickle Festival; a New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop that’s quite popular; and a Pickle Palooza Picnic each spring. The cohesion between brand and town may appear to be old-fashioned, but it’s a far cry from conglomerates’ relationships with their stakeholders.

Mt. Olive Pickle Company has had its run-ins with labor organizers the last few years; these conflicts appear to be resolved. This post isn’t up to the four-score of years’ worth of company history that the brand deserves. But I sure to like the thought of a brand that gives back so obviously to its community – every time I open a jar.

Two final notes. No store-bought brand of pickle is worthy in Boston, apparently. According this article from The Boston Globe, Katie Johnston Chase ran a tasting contest: “Claussen was unenthusiastically voted the winner, and a few of the selections seemed downright revolting.” I’m not kidding: read the sour reviews for yourself.

Turn the other cheek (to stuff a pickle in it): “I eat these because they're good enough and for North Carolina state pride,” blogger Rob Matthews says here. Another anecdote…or a data point?

*Be certain to read some of the material Rob Schoenbeck assembled in the first comment to this post – just click on the word.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Technosurround Hell?

In “Dyepot,” a blog out of Portland, OR, the writer mentions the word technosurround, another neologism from Kim Stanley Robinson (see here). In the blogger’s notes, she explains Robinson’s view that “…This can be overwhelming: too much is like being high or in a shaman-state all the time.”

I ran across the word again myself while I was reading the book and Googled it up. “Dyepot” was the only place it turned up as a single word.

Like Robinson’s previous idea, it struck me there’s a marketing implication in the concept of technosurround – from several directions.

Like one of Robinson’s inspirations, the idea of a world-encompassing, omnipresent advertising presence comes from the novels of Phillip Dick, best expressed on the screen in movies such as “Bladerunner” (1982) and “Minority Report” (2002). Writer Michael Stroud wrote in Wired that in one of the movie’s scenes, fugitive John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is accosted by an interactive video advertisement on a wall: “John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right now.”

The film’s production designer, Alex McDowell, is quoted in Stroud’s article: “There’s a logical progression from the way the Internet works now to more enveloping, environmental advertising that’s networked.” McDowell is describing the growing use of increasingly personalized ads – currently blooming on our Internet.

We’re building the technosurround now. This past Thursday, the Houston chapter of the Business Marketing Association brought the current iteration of the Online Marketing Summit to town. It was well-attended and lively.

One thing was very clear: the Internet is its own industry, like the energy industry and the healthcare industry – and it has its own fairly focused agenda. It’s in the Internet industry’s interest to maximally increase everyone’s involvement with the Worldwide Web.

It means that “web marketers” have become this decade’s version of TV network marketers, and radio network marketers before that: give us all your money and we’ll make sure people pay more attention to your product or your service.

Unlike the technosurrounds previously established by other forms of mass media, the new version is personally interactive, like the cell phone you’re carrying around with you right now – and don’t you wish it was an iPhone?

Danger, Will Robinson: The “Minority Report” theme is that the technosurround eventually captures and tracks each and every one of us – to the detriment of freedom and liberty (two quite different concepts, actually).

The blessing is “social media” and the ability it gives us to rage against the machine, if we’re so inclined. Just like this blog, or even more provocative blogs and other forms of interactive communication. Just remember that if China can control the Web content that its population can access, so can America.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I welcome the integration of social media with Web marketing…it’s a powerful way to enact the Stakeholder Rule© on behalf of companies and institutions. On the other hand, I absolutely, positively do not want Amazon (for example) to be all that familiar with my reading habits or any of my other idiosyncracies. Technosurround be damned.

“Richard Laurence Baron, you could use a Guinness right now.”

Above, a futuristic Reebok ad from “Minority Report.” “Stakeholder Rule” © Richard Laurence Baron. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Show Turn

To keep building the brand, keep your brand look consistent: thus sayeth the rule. So when you want something different in the way of a tradeshow handout, you build on elements that already exist in a client’s brand look and architecture.

Wood Group Gas Turbine Services has just such a new brand look, recently instituted under the guidance of its managers.

Prism Design and I share the concept creation and execution honors. It began with a new theme line, KEEP ON TURNING, and has continued with a clean, crisp design, four colored versions of the planet Earth, and the use of “global” photographs which portray the worldwide extent of Gas Turbine Services’ business.

The new print look is consistent with the overall Wood Group branding strategy while reinforcing customer benefits in a marketscape that spans so broad a category as “rotating equipment.” That’s turbines for the less well informed. On the Prism side, design honors go to Susan Reeves, Terry Teutsch, Stacy Allen and Miss Anne Stovall. It is applied initially to a new brochure, datasheets
and advertising.

Our clients then challenged us to come up with something different in the way of a handout, a theoretically simplified version of the larger suite of materials. Along the way, Teutsch (Prism’s design director) came up with…well, a turn on the brand’s KEEP ON TURNING foundation: the idea we call “Paper Globe.”

Forgive my enthusiasm – it’s turned out very well indeed. The three-dimensionalized realization (whew!) of the brand concept is specially printed and die-cut so it fits into an engineer’s shirt pocket. It perfectly mirrors the Gas Turbine Services brand look, delivers critical information in an unforgettable fashion, and serves as a display piece as well.

The design and the execution are the results of a lot of tradeshow experience: an exhibition piece should transcend the informational and achieve the memorable. In addition to “continuing the campaign,” Wood Group Gas Turbine Services’ Paper Globe is more than a show turn – it’s a show stopper (if I say so myself).

Thanks to Wood Group Gas Turbine Services for
the opportunity to produce such outstanding work.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Nonlinear Tipping

You can call it the “Law of Unintended Consequences” if you like. I prefer to think of certain situations as nonlinear tipping points. This phrase comes from Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson – he’s referring in this particular novel to the idea that a major global climate shift can happen in as little as three years:

It was such a radical notion that it had forced climatologists to acknowledge that there must be nonlinear tipping points in the global climate, leading to general acceptance of what was really a new concept…abrupt climate change.

Now apply this concept to marketing. Two examples come immediately to mind.

Who would have expected (or anticipated) that Enron would collapse so suddenly – and take an entire multi-billion-dollar natural gas marketing industry with it? With hindsight, Enron-watchers could, in fact, reconstruct the snarky deals which would bring the company down…so this part reflects 20/20 hindsight. But to topple a complete industry? I think this makes it nonlinear.

Who would have expected that Wal-Mart’s hiring of advertising chief Julie Roehm from Chrysler in February 2006 would lead to such a massive, indeed radical change in the major retailer’s relationships with its stakeholders? In fact, Roehm says in this article, “I was hired by Wal-Mart as a change agent a little less than a year ago.” So the objective was clear (in her view) from the outset; it’s this progress of events that led Wal-Mart to a non-linear tipping point.

So (according to this argument), abrupt changes in the marketscape can happen quickly – as with the Aqua Teen Hunger Force “guerilla marketing” campaign’s unusual effects on Boston…ultimately silly in this case.

But I wonder if there are other nonlinear tipping events in progress right now: ones that we’ll recognize only in hindsight. Or when something blows up in a marketer’s face.

Photo © Destonian,

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

CoVi Technologies

So many videos have been posted on YouTube, you might not have seen the one captured by a garage surveillance camera. Click on the link - watch the clip. It’s funny, a slice of life that could happen anywhere, anytime – and get captured on a security-cam.

For a security team, though, it’s far from perfect. You can’t really make out the faces of the couple in the clutch or the license plates on the cars. The images are blurry and indistinct (for which I’m sure our young lovers are eternally grateful).

Enter CoVi Technologies and the world’s only high-definition video surveillance system – aside from those of the US National Security Agency. Most conventional systems installed today record and display video with less than perfect clarity. CoVi is the first company to offer the highest quality standard at every point of contact, from initial image capture to access, storage and management – anytime, anywhere. Picture-perfect – you can see the differences on the company’s website.

The challenge, for CoVi, has been to create a coherent selling message and brand architecture that are as clear and focused as its cutting-edge technology. Which is where the Austin-based designer Gayle Smith and I came in.

Honestly, the joy of working with a client on a new brochure is as much in the crafting of the message (verbally and graphically) as in the final result – the printed piece whose cover appears above. We collaborated directly with CoVi’s Director of Channel Marketing, Stacy Saxon, and company CEO Barry Walker.

Together, we combined the three distinctive features of CoVi’s exceptional tech into [1] a single, benefit-oriented message and [2] a new graphic look that makes the company look like the genuine category leader it is and will help drive its marketing.

That’s the purpose of the cover’s bold “Q3” that matches the CoVi red: the thinking that’s gone into the company’s technologies offers a single answer to the three questions that bedevil the firm’s target audiences: corporate and governmental managers, IT personnel and security teams. (Why? Because it’s not enough to capture high-definition video – it’s got to be available through a company’s IT network and usable by security personnel on a real-time basis, that’s why.) And these are just three of the CoVi stakeholder groups.

I’ll brazenly quote from Saxon’s response to us: The concepts were beyond my expectations. Even though I knew to expect great things I was pleasantly surprised at how ‘dead on’ the concepts turned out. I was concerned that CoVi’s message was fluid but you guys ‘got it’ and articulated it very accurately both word-wise and graphics-wise. I’m just extremely excited about this project and thrilled to be working with you both – you make a great team.

It’s refreshing to see us (CoVi) develop a professional piece like this – sharp, crisp copy and that edgy/progressive tone/style that we want. I also really appreciate you guys working with us on the quick-turn needs; thank you for accommodating that requirement.

Thanks again so much to you both - you're very easy and enjoyable to work with and your work is pretty terrific too!

And thanks to CoVi, which demonstrates one more time that great clients get great work. Maybe next time, we’ll be able to see precisely who’s kissing whom in Zone 3, Level 2 of that garage.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Shy Cow

The only cow in a small town in Poland stopped giving milk. The villagers did some research and found they could buy a cow from Moscow for 2,000 rubles or a cow from Minsk for 1,000 rubles. Being poor, they bought the cow from Minsk.

The cow was wonderful. It produced lots of milk all the time. The people were amazed and very happy. They decided to acquire a bull to mate with the cow and produce more cows just like it. Then they would never have to worry about their milk supply again.

They bought the bull and put it in the pasture with their beloved cow. However, whenever the bull came close to the cow, the cow would move away. No matter what approach the bull tried, the cow from move away from the bull and he could not succeed in his quest.

The people were very upset. They decided to ask the Rabbi, who was very wise, what they should do. The people told the Rabbi, “Whenever the bull approaches our cow, she moves away. If he approaches from the back, she moves forward. If he approaches from the front, she backs off. When he approaches from the side, she walks away to the other side.”

The Rabbi thought about this for a moment and then asked the villagers, “Did you buy this cow from Minsk?”

The people were dumbfounded. They had never mentioned where they’d gotten the cow. One older villager said, “You truly are a wise Rabbi! How did you know we got the cow from Minsk?”

The Rabbi answered, “My wife is from Minsk.”

With thanks to Leigh Lerner, the wisest Rabbi I know.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Alien Visitors

There’s nothing more enjoyable than watching “foreigners” enjoy Houston. So the visit here last week by Art and Bridget Hoffman (our niece and nephew-in-law) from the Frozen North was welcome. Their company was worthwhile in so many ways – Barbara and I would like to thank them for braving Southeast Texas in high summer; for being excellent guests; for causing me to drink more beer in seven days than I’ve had in seven months; and for the enthusiasm with which they tackled this part of the state.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a couple “learn” the city so quickly, the way they did: Houston is not an easy urban area to traverse and they handled our traffic and our streets effortlessly. They visited Austin. They visited Galveston. They visited strange eating places and even stranger bars. And they still had time for a great day in the pool with our grand-daughter Maddy (the one in the middle).

It’s also a bit strange to be out with a couple who got carded at virtually every bar and restaurant we went to. One waitress graciously offered to scrutinize my driver’s license, which made me feel – for an instant – somewhat more youthful than I normally behave.

The fact that their visit brought sunshine back to town was the biggest non-human treat of all…and we kept enjoying it after they returned to Minnesota. Bridget enjoyed the sun; Art discovered one of Texas’s natural wonders: Shiner Bock. A fine time was had by all. Thanks for the visit. Y’all come back soon, y’hear?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Screwing Stakeholders

When it comes to stakeholders, a company’s relationships can be either overt or covert. The Associated Press, for example, reported this on 20 June:

Tidewater Inc., the world's largest operator of vessels serving the offshore oil and gas industry, may move its corporate headquarters to Houston, company president Dean Taylor said Wednesday.

“We have a lot of sympathy for the city, but our shareholders don't pay us to have sympathy,” he said. “They pay us to have results for them. We ultimately need to do what's for them.”

This sterling example made the Houston Chronicle the following day via its “Around the Region” section…just a three-‘graph article that caught my attention because Taylor, who’s not only CEO but Chairman of the Board, seemed to go out of his way to tell the members of its long-time New Orleans home to drop dead. The Times-Picayune has been all over this story; Tidewater has been mending its Louisiana fences ever since.

On the covert side, Chronicle columnist Loren Steffy reported yesterday that Sprint Nextel is cutting off customers – canceling their service – if they use the company’s customer service help line too frequently. You ought to read Steffy’s column because he’s a far better journalist than I am and reports the story better. But one telling point is worth repeating here:

…The bigger problem is the message Sprint is sending to all customers — and to all customer service employees. As it moves down this slippery slope, Sprint could, for example, decide to drop customers who spend too many minutes roaming on plans where roaming charges are included in the price.

Tidewater’s done it publicly; Sprint Nextel hasn’t really spread the word about its peculiar anti-customer policy around – unless you’re one of the “riffraff” who got a service termination letter.

These love-me-or-leave-me approaches keep pointing out that we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us if we want to turn corporations into models of positive stakeholder interaction. The Stakeholder Rule© is still at the whim of CEOs and Chairmen of the Board everywhere.

The President of the New York Central Railroad, William H. Vanderbilt, was perfectly happy to say, “The public be damned.” That was 1888. He got away with it. Today, we don’t have to be so acquiescent...let’s fight back for our relationships.

“Stakeholder Rule” © Richard Laurence Baron. All rights reserved.

Friday, July 06, 2007

He’brew Beer

There’s nothing remarkable in the hot, surly morning sunlight. A beautiful middle-aged woman climbs down from a dusty family van, slides open the cargo door, reaches in and lifts out an ordinary cardboard box. About yay wide. About yay high. Heavy.

A tall older man rises out of a late-model taupe Deville, scrapes across the unpaved restaurant parking lot and takes the box from her, leaning over awkwardly to give her a kiss on the cheek. He returns to his car and presses the key fob – the trunk lid pops open. He places the box carefully in the Caddy’s trunk, just as a Suburban with a pair of Texas Highway Patrolmen and a couple of guards from the Huntsville prison unit pull up beside the car.

Puffs of dust rise from the Suburban’s tires as the driver brakes and the cops climb out – four heavy men who cross the lot, headed for an early lunch at The Junction restaurant. They don’t look at the Deville or its owner. “Mature” white guys in Cadillacs never raise a lawman’s eyebrows. The Caddy has Texas plates. The woman’s van comes from Georgia – you can see the peach on the license plate across the lot.

The troopers missed the perfect daytime switcheroo, the smuggler’s art performed without a net outside that Huntsville restaurant. Edith Fusillo had just passed me more than a dozen bowling-pin-sized bottles of He’Brew Beer. Yeah, that’s right, the real stuff, “Brewed by Jews” at the Schmaltz Brewing Company. Legal in Georgia. Not available in the sovereign state of Texas.

Even how I came to discover this great brand is like something out of Exodus (the Leon Uris novel, not the Old Testament chapter). I heard about it first from Adam Halpern at SoftSell Training; went immediately to the website which is a hoot.

In the end, like smuggling arms into postwar Palestine to equip the Palmach, I received the beer along with a marvelous example of word-of-mouth advertising.

Founder Jeremy Cowan has done a superior job of branding “the Chosen Beer.” Unlike a lot of mass-market consumer goods, the entire mishpocha gets credit on the great website, from the brewers to the art directors to the director of a very funny TV commercial. It would be excellent to see more CPG companies share out the credit for great work.

Second, the beers are not only Kosher, they’re fine examples of craft-brewing art. Edith and Bob Fusillo brought us He’Brew’s Messiah Bold (“The Beer You’ve Been Waiting For!), Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA (a rye-based, double India Pale Ale) and Genesis 10:10 (a superb dark ale with a touch of pomegranate juice that lends the most marvelous color to the brew).

These are strong beers – 10% alcohol – but the spirits never get in the way of three distinctively different tastes. Still, each variety is true to its type and it tastes just fine.

The company admits to all the schtick surrounding the brand…it’s built a superb back story for the whole brand as well as for each and every variety it’s brewed. If you genuinely believe that each brand should have a story to tell, Schmaltz has done its marketing job extremely well.

So think about this post as a combination taste-test and brand exploration…one that began by word-of-mouth and keeps on going through every beer we (jealously) open. Schmaltz is building stakeholder involvement one bottle at a time.

I have saved out a couple of bottles of Messiah Bold for Halpern – he tipped me off about this. But until Schmaltz finds a distributor in Texas (or better yet, in Houston), I’m going to hoard this stuff as best I can. It’s “the Chosen Beer” after all and I’m choosing to keep as much as I can for our Spring Branch household. There’s no telling when the Fusillos will be making another run to Texas.

These are the kind of ales that Cecil B DeMille would have made if he’d skipped the movie business – but it’s definitely his kind of branding. L’Chaim, y’all!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Imboden’s 4th

“O God I why can't I die!”

“My God, will no one have mercy and kill me!”

“Stop! Oh! For God's sake, stop just for one minute; take me out and leave me to die on the roadside.”

“I am dying! I am dying! My poor wife, my dear children, what will become of you?”

Confederate General John Daniel Imboden commanded a cavalry brigade that arrived at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of the 3rd of July, 1863 – too late to take part in the battle that had raged for three days.

On the following day, the 4th, Robert E Lee ordered General Imboden and his cavalry brigade to protect the train of Confederate wounded as it retreated toward the Potomac River, to escape into Virginia.

The column moved out at 4PM. It stretched for miles. Imboden recorded the cries of the severely wounded Confederates in his train as it made its way west, first, toward Chambersburg; then south to Williamsport on the Potomac.

While Imboden retreated, the Confederate garrison of Vicksburg, Mississippi, marched out of their entrenchments, stacked their arms and furled their flags. The victorious Union army marched in and took possession the city which had been under siege since 22nd May.

President Lincoln, when he was informed of Vicksburg’s surrender, exclaimed, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” In the east, Imboden successfully evacuated his train, “probably ten thousand animals and nearly all the wagons of General Lee’s army under our charge, and all the wounded, to the number of several thousand, that could be brought from Gettysburg,” to Virginia on the 9th of July.

Today, 144 years later, we remember heroes and courage, national independence and American freedoms. And sometimes, the awful price we’ve paid for those freedoms.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Happy Swiss!

Although it wasn’t the reason I got a phone call from Peter Thoma in Rorschach, Switzerland, the first thing out of his mouth was, “We won!”

I said, in my best Schweiz-Deutsch, “Huh?”

Peter (Chairman of Swiss advertising agency ET&H and a long-time colleague) patiently explained that the Swiss yacht had won the America’s Cup: “Alinghi won the 32nd America's Cup 5-2 against Team New Zealand on Tuesday, in a regatta widely hailed as the most exciting in recent history,” according to TVNZ.

For those less up-to-the-minute than Peter and the rest of Switzerland, Alinghi is the name of the really quite gorgeous boat, and the defending yacht club, established in the Year 0, is Société Nautique de Genève.

With its first victory in the Year 3, Alinghi brought the America’s Cup back to Europe for the first time in 152 years. It looks like the Cup’s going to stay there. In Switzerland – that well-known yachting nation.

Sports promoters take note: UBS and other Swiss sponsors are going to make a killing over this, PR-wise. Und so, Peter, Glückwünsche zu alles!