Saturday, September 29, 2007

Purina® Diet*

I have two dogs and I was buying a large bag of Purina at Wal-Mart and was in line to check out.

A woman behind me asked if I had a dog.

On impulse, I told her no: I was starting The Purina Diet again, though I probably shouldn’t because I’d ended up in the hospital last time, but that I’d lost 50 pounds before I awakened in an intensive care ward with tubes coming out of most of my orifices and IVs in both arms.

I told her that it was essentially a perfect diet. The way that it works is to load your pants pockets with Purina nuggets and simply eat one or two every time you feel hungry. The food is nutritionally complete so I was going to try it again. (I have to mention here that practically everyone in the line was by now enthralled with my story, particularly a guy who was behind her.)

Horrified, she asked if I’d ended up in the hospital in that condition because I had been poisoned.

I said, “No. I was sitting in the street licking my balls and a car hit me.”

I thought one guy was going to have a heart attack – he was laughing so hard as he staggered out the door.

Stupid lady...why else would I buy dog food?!?

*This is a true story, according to its contributor. He has asked to remain anonymous. See how urban legends get started?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

WEDGE Revamped

The new website for WEDGE Group has just gone live. It’s handsome and, if I do say so, elegant in form and simplicity. (I’m the co-creator and copywriter.)

Napoleon’s epigram about time is quoted often: “Ask me for anything but…” It’s sadly and particularly true of the investment business, especially in publicly held companies. For these unfortunates, the next quarter’s performance is far more important to the stock analysts on The Street than long-term returns.

Privately held WEDGE Group uses time to distinguish itself from other investment firms. It constitutes a unique selling proposition, a rarity in today’s financial world where millions of dollars are spent on hammering common-or-garden brand statements onto customers’ mental church doors.

To realize WEDGE Group’s USP, we combined outstanding input from the company’s management and transformed the brand presentation – while maintaining the brand itself.

“Time is the most valuable asset,” according to WEDGE. “Time enables its companies to gain noteworthy competitive advantages and achieve strong returns.”

Together, designer Kay Krenek and I created a high-concept website that relies on clean white space, dramatic visuals and stately copy that continually reveal brand attributes in layered detail, a scalpel instead of a hammer. It’s the kind of brand image quite a number of companies would like to have but don’t always achieve…because they’re rushing to sell something.

WEDGE Group’s “gift of time” is an unusual characteristic, a terrific contrast to the ordinary pace of commerce.

Krenek, whom I am fortunate to have as a design colleague, found the most marvelous clockwork photograph for the home page (as you can see). Her sensibility carries the website through a set of pages wherein we concentrate on imagery and brand-related text instead of overwhelming details and tricks. Bob Marberry is the web developer. The result is a purposeful re-presentation of the WEDGE Group.

Please: Review the new site and tell me what you think it does for the WEDGE brand.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

“Tinieblo” Explained

The Starbucks prize for uncovering the meaning of tinieblo goes to NYC’s Peter Yonka – my brother-in-law, no less. Congratulations!

Jose Jaramillo Mejia is a columnist for the Colombian newspaper La Patria. I get the impression he’s this paper’s version of William Safire, writing about the meaning of words and phrases.

His article covers the meaning of tinieblo in detail: “a furtive lover of a lady” according to my machine translation. Señor Jaramillo calls it a neologism – a new coinage – with roots in the Latin word for “darkness,” the dark, lack of light.

Paraphrasing his column, ordinary lovers and young men are different from this guy: El Tinieblo does not fall in love with anybody; nobody falls in love with him. It is a pastime, a resource for sexual gratification without roots or commitments.

Unless Mexican Spanish is wildly different than Colombian Spanish – which it may well be – we’re drinking a mezcal whose brand name implies a Don Juan, a Casanova….perhaps a little bit more. (No, I don’t feel any different, thanks.)

Señor Jaramillo nominates tinieblo for the Royal Academy’s official dictionary of the Spanish language with the meaning of the occasional lover. Uh-huh. Peter deserves today’s award for “best research.” Happy drinking.

Photo by Corazón Girl with thanks.

Monday, September 24, 2007

El Tinieblo

On the back of the bottle of El Tinieblo mezcal I bought in Abasolo, the label describes the “close relationship between man and maguey from time immemorial.” Stirring words for a guy who’s more comfortable with gin and craft-brewed beers.

South of the border (down Mexico way), we stopped at the El Tinieblo mezcal distillery and museum, on the side of the highway from Reynosa down to our hunting rancho. Son Doug (the one on the right, apparently standing in a pothole) and I gave pride of place in the photo above to the distillery’s signage – it’s a big sign. You can read more about the distillery itself here. Also, I offer a mystery. Read on and language experts will find a challenge built right into this post.

Any road, why not collect…evidence…of an interesting brand, since the popularity of tequilas and mezcals continues to grow? A half-empty bottle of just such evidence is sitting beside my computer right now…76 proof.

A Spanish-language explanation of El Tinieblo reveals that the rancho began producing mezcal in 1865, using the “juice of the maguey.” One of the best known forms of mezcal, if I understand this correctly, is tequila – in fact, agave-based liquors that aren’t tequilas are, well, mezcals. Or…tequilas have to be made with blue agave while mezcal can be made with any: blue, white or silver agave…depending on how you read Spanish. One website says, “Mezcal is made from the agave plant. The agave is also used to make tequila but in a different process.”

If this is confusing, Google up “tequila” and “mezcal.” Wade through the details for yourself.

This post is about the brand – which does not appear anywhere on one of the best tequila-related sites, We’ll just have to wing it.

El Tinieblo mezcals (joven, reposado, añejo) are made by Mezcales de Tamaulipas in Jiminez – a good thing since Jimenez is one of just 11 municipalities in the state that have been officially designated Envasado de Origen by the government. The registered proprietor is Alfredo Perez Salinas.

Part of its most recent incarnation as a brand and an attempt to recapture the spirit of mezcaleras (or mezcal-making artisans) is the marketing help the company has received from 706 Design. The firm’s new website is under construction; the existing one doesn’t work too well but the outfit seems to have several offices throughout Mexico, plus locations in Argentina and the US.

706 Design has done the promotional materials for El Tinieblo mezcal, as well as the brand’s website (which also doesn’t work too well, but has a lot of information if you can get to it). It is difficult to determine just what parts of the brand the design firm has worked on, since the mezcal label’s antlered deer head seems to be an older element. It’s related to the hunting rancho of the same name, in the same area of Tamps. The 706 Design firm has done this work, too.

The freshest elements of the brand look are the logotype, surrounded by Mexican flag-colored bars and a starburst of agave in the center. El Tinieblo has a homemade air, though, when you compare it to better-known mezcal brands like La Fogata and (especially) the sophisticated Divino.

That may be purposeful. If the State of Tamaulipas, for example, is trying to revive the handcrafted mezcal industry and using the effort to establish jobs and grow tourism, then slightly “crafty” brand design fits the bill. Shuffling through websites, you can find other, better executions of the folk-art persuasion among the mezcals of Oaxaca far to the south.

Support your “local” brands. To try hand-crafted mezcal, just drive 150 kilometers south of McAllen, TX – a couple of hours by car. Otherwise, you’ll end up in a big-city liquor store buying some fakey corporate brand off the shelf.

Oh – the language challenge. I’m offering a contest-winning Starbucks gift card to anyone who can tell me the origin and English meaning of the word “tinieblo” – and I don’t mean the Colombian version you can find with a little digging on Google. First, I can’t believe that anyone would consciously name a consumer product after what’s obviously Colombian slang usage. Second, wouldn’t you think the product name would have something to do with the area or the rancho?

If you’re a fan of fine mezcals and tequilas, you might want to start stocking up now. A recent article in The Monitor newspaper which covers the Rio Grande Valley here in Texas announced that there’ll be a shortage of agave – in about seven years.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Yipes! Stripes!

The things I discover when I take a road trip: a total rebranding job southwest of Houston that I’d not been aware of before. (And no, it’s not an excuse to put a pretty girl up on the blog…merely an example...really.)

As I headed southwest for Mexico, to hunt the wily whitewing, I ran across my first Stripes© store in Goliad, TX. It’s a C-store (convenience store) hiding under a Valero gas canopy, my first sight of a new trade dress campaign that’s a year old. Apparently, I don’t get out enough.

I asked the counter clerk who operated Stripes. She could only tell me that the chain sold Valero gasoline and she thought its headquarters was in Corpus Christi. It is.

Susser Holdings Corporation tapped Houston-based BrandExtract to: help define and launch the new brand. BrandExtract crafted a complete identity package, including new logos and exterior store signage. The new look and feel will be taken to market via outdoor boards, weekly radio spots, in-store point-of-purchase signage, Stripes cups and other packaging. (It’s very thoughtful of Susser to mention the agency on its website.)

Then I arrived (with six of our eventual 10-man hunting party) in McAllen and found Stripes everywhere – the eastern Valley area alone has 60+ stores in the phone book. According to Susser, it’s one of the Top 20 operators of C-stores nationwide…and Stripes is the “new face” of the old Circle-K brand.

It’s a very good job – despite the apparent dissonance between the Stripes and Valero trade dressings. It doesn’t seem to hurt the company’s business at retail. And there may be some not-really-hidden reason behind the brand change.

According to a company press release, Susser began re-branding its convenience stores from the Circle-K licensed brand to Stripes in the second quarter of 2006. At approximately the same time, Susser began re-branding its fueling islands to Valero from CITGO after signing a new 12-year supply agreement in July 2006 – in the third quarter.

All the retail stores that were supplied by CITGO were to be supplied by Valero. It looks like Susser was one of the breakaways from CITGO in the wake of the remarks by Venezuelan President Chavez that so upset CITGO marketing partners here in the US.

The same February 2007 press release quoted Ron Coben, Susser’s CMO: “The main goal of this campaign was to transfer the goodwill that we have earned over the last decade as Circle K into even stronger customer loyalty as Stripes.”

One valid reason to re-brand a company or operating unit (especially one long-established) is to signal a change in direction – in this case, leaving behind old or no-longer-appropriate marks (Circle-K and CITGO) for new offerings (Valero).

Whether you agree that Valero’s teal-and-yellow looks a bit odd against the Stripes red-and-white, Coben’s team and BrandExtract have come up with a very strong identity – and you can see executions in addition to “Bikini Girl” here.

On the one hand, Wall Street doesn’t seem to have given Susser much credit for this particular effort. But given that it’s a year after the new brand’s rollout and every Stripes store I saw was crowded, I’d have to say the campaign is very successful: Customers have picked up on the brand transference. What’s the disconnect among Susser stakeholders? I’ll write Ron Coben to find out.

And hats off to Jonathan Fisher and the BrandExtract team for a neat ongoing campaign.

PS: Circle-K is still a going concern. Susser was a major licensee.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Spackle® Gone?

Dear Mr. Norton: the morning paper (see above) reminded me that another great trademark has bitten the dust – yours. Like “escalator," it seems to have happened over a number of years…and no one (including yourself and the other members of your family) seems to have noticed.

A trademark used for a powder to be mixed with water or a ready-to-use plastic paste, SPACKLE was designed to fill cracks and holes in plaster before painting or papering. Today, the name usually appears in print in lowercase, either as a noun or as a verb. It’s actually a registered trademark of The Muralo Company of Bayonne, NJ. The original SPACKLE brand of products was introduced in 1926 and there’s plenty of information about it here.

The Muralo Company (Jim Norton, President) favors to independent paint and decorating products dealers – it doesn’t distribute through big-box/Home Center stores. Unlike Sherwin-Williams, another great brand, Muralo doesn’t own retail stores; it depends on “discriminating do-it-yourselfers and professional painting contractors.”

Other companies, including the aforementioned Sherwin-Williams and DAP, Inc., make “spackling paste.”

Despite a 100-year-plus history, the company hasn’t gone out of its way to protect its brand, though. The 1970 edition of The American College Dictionary doesn’t portray the word, whereas “Spackle” is clearly identified as a trademark in the ’99 edition of Encarta® World English Dictionary.

Why wouldn’t a small, family-owned company protect its valuable trademark? One answer may be distraction: The Muralo Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2003, to protect itself against asbestos claims – the same kinds of claims the brought down Johns-Manville. Although the company website’s latest press releases are almost a year old, there’s still a Contractor Incentive Program that’s good ‘til the end of this year: Muralo is still going.

I’m not sure distraction counts as an excuse. My daddy was using the word “spackle” as a verb back when I was a young ‘un…the practice is clearly an old one, despite the Encarta entry. And as you can see in “Zits,” it continues to this day.

Maybe someone from the company will let Signalwriter know why it has let its trademark slip into common usage. A trademark’s age doesn’t mean it has to lose its standing, as Coca-Cola proves.

“Zits” by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman. © 2007 King Features Syndicate, Inc. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Opportunity Ads

Did you find yourself in a conversation about HACs and BOBs at last night’s art gallery opening? Didn’t think so. How about “High TAN crudes?” Not those either, huh?

Up and down every value chain, there are corners, segments and niches where the language gets arcane and the buzzwords turn mysterious. But somebody is working in these areas and that’s how these new print ads for Baker Petrolite came to be created.

The basic subject is crude oil. In the oil-refining business, operators have to control the costs of the crudes they process: the hydrocarbons that are turned into gasoline (among many other things). Crude oil streams are big cost items; so when refiners can get them, the least expensive crude oils really help margins. These are “opportunity crudes.”

They could be bottom-of-the-barrel stuff (BOBs) or high-acid crudes (HACs). They can be refined but they cause their own set of problems, like unanticipated corrosion. The cost of the crude will be lower, but the cost of refining them could be much higher unless you control the effects on your plant.
That’s the problem with opportunity: you can get a really good deal on something, but you ought to be prepared to deal with the consequences.

I’ve had an opportunity myself: to help Baker Petrolite create fractional-page ads that let refiners know and understand what the issues are – and how to be prepared. Controlling the potential damage caused by high-TAN or high metals crudes is one of the Baker Petrolite specialties.

“Be Prepared” is the main message of the ad series, in which we demonstrate one approach to conveying messages: headlines and copy say one thing while the photos portray a different but complementary theme.

Visually, we borrowed interest. We portray teamwork and partnership in challenging situations – specifically, alpine sports like ice-climbing or competitive bobsledding. Working with its customers is another Baker Petrolite specialty and we convey this with photographs. Visually, we borrowed interest.

Our copy, however, is specific: each of the ads in the series reveals a solution to the challenges of processing a particular kind of opportunity crude. The benefits are bullet-pointed.

It’s the headlines that generate the targeting in this advertising approach. Aside from appearing in specific magazines, this series is designed to (and will) attract readers who know what refining high-TAN crude, for example, entails.

Recognizing the specialized knowledge that’s involved in this niche creates “targets of opportunity” for the advertiser. No head-scratching over HACs and BOBs…just good readership.

Creating the ads was a team effort as well. Thanks to the Baker Petrolite team here and abroad for the opportunity to produce interesting work for marketing to refineries.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Tunguska Blast

Okay, I can’t help this. I stopped by my local pack-and-mail store, owned by Amir Brohi like since forever. I needed to send a fax (that really smacks of the 20th Century, doesn’t it?). There were these bottles on the counter, large, oddly shaped bottles and tiny oddly shaped bottles. Such is my introduction to Tunguska Blast. This is an energy drink apparently distributed like Amway products.

It comes from a company called CyberWize and it introduced Tunguska Blast to the world with...a unique and powerful platform of claims defensible only because of the power attributed to the Tunguska Effect: the most unique boost to energy and stamina, support to the immune system, increase of mental clarity, and enhancement of physical performance ever provided by a nutritional supplement.

Holy monkey fritters! What a marketing scheme. Beautifully done. According to CyberWize, it “absolutely changes” people’s lives.

Now for a little history: at 7.18AM on Tuesday, June 30, 1908, a meteor struck eastern Russia. According to, say, Matt Datillo: Central Siberia was a remote, hard-to-reach wilderness in 1908, but even so, there were witnesses to the event. Near Lake Baikal, villagers saw a bluish light move across the sky…they described it as being brighter than the sun…10 minutes later, there was a bright flash and a sharp noise that sounded like artillery fire.

When the shock wave arrived, it knocked people off their feet and broke windows. It was so strong that people felt it’s force hundreds of miles away. In England, barographs, used to measure atmospheric pressure, showed fluctuations from the explosion. That night, and for weeks thereafter, night skies in the northern hemisphere contained a strange glow so bright it allowed people to read outside.

As far as CyberWize is concerned, this remarkable event has yielded this Tunguska Effect, amazing growth and energy fully certified by genuine Czarist Russian scientists. Which is all duplicated in this energy drink.

You have absolutely positively got to see the Tunguska Blast website ‘cause the brand story is…amazing. The testimonials are remarkable. Certainly you’ll believe them and in case you do, you can order a 4-pack of 32-ounce bottles right off the site for just $210!

Tunguska has always had a certain von Däniken appeal, like Chariots of the Gods, you know? Most of the serious literature, however, doesn’t mention CyberWize’s trademarked Tunguska Effect (although you can read, listen and see all about it on the website).

And the September 2007 number of Consumer Reports didn’t include this product in its “Upfront” review of an even dozen energy drinks – some with names that might actually be understood by the energy-drinking public: Amp, Full Throttle, Red Bull and so on.

Normally I would say that Tunguska Blast is pretty arcane, but the branding guys have really done their packaging and story-telling homework. This is brand marketing at its most fabulous and I use that word in its original denotation: like a fable.

The standard nutrition label is available online – buried in here somewhere may be the amount of caffeine or its equivalent. You’ll note when you read it that CyberWize cautions a consumer to drink just one ounce daily. That makes it about $1.64 an ounce…which is a heck of a lot more than even Starbucks charges for its “energy drink.”

Like I said, though, if you want to be trendy and cool, check out the brand story. It’s all in the brand story.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Naughty Lola

I want you to go right this minute to a blog post by Sunil Shibad, copywriting correspondent in Mumbai. He offers much more detail and plenty of samples from a new book of the same name – a compilation of the best lonely hearts ads from “The London Review of Books” – by David Rose.

The basis of the title: “They call me Naughty Lola. Run-of-the-mill beardy physicist (M, 46).”

Shibad really picks up on the weird and the witty and if that’s not enough, you can also a story on the NPR website. Read all about the ads and consider the people behind them.

What’s telling, from my POV, is that such messages from the heart (or from the mind) are often better and more freely expressed than ad messages. “Employed in publishing? Me too. Stay the hell away.” Messages – headlines – we create for clients are far more constrained than hopeful or forthright blurbs from people who will, as long as they wish it, remain anonymous. “Romance is dead. So is my mother. Man, 42, inherited wealth.” Each one is self-marketing and lead generation rolled into a single appeal.

Reading these personals reminds me that good copywriters ought to be learning from life – not from textbooks. What will attract readers, listeners or viewers? The human condition…and if they’re witty or wry, so much the better.

Thanks, Sunil, for a great intro to a terrific writer’s manual.