Saturday, May 31, 2008

Boom Brands

I just got back from the Permian Basin and the joint is jumpin’. Barbara and I traveled up to Denver on US 87 through Amarillo and back to Houston through eastern New Mexico to Fort Stockton, then I-10 homeward. I don’t think we drove from one horizon to another without seeing at least one workover under way, sometimes more. Probably isn’t a single truck-mounted rig or vac truck west of the Mississippi that’s available for new work.

At yesterday’s close, oil is $127 a barrel and gas is $11.70/MMBtu. Activity is up everywhere, from the Permian Basin of west Texas to the Barnett Shale of north central Texas and eastern New Mexico as well as in the dusty Panhandle and the Anadarko Basin of western Oklahoma. With so much money on the table, you’re looking at recompletions, infill drilling, installation of secondary recovery projects – and everything else that’ll squeeze more oil and gas out of existing reservoirs.

For energy-related brand-watchers, it’s a boom time. It’s no surprise to see the “bigs” like Schlumberger, Halliburton and Baker Hughes.

But, e.g., I ran into a long-time colleague at OTC: Donna Smith is now Director of Communications for Stallion® Oilfield Services. Having thereby raised my consciousness – and thanks to her efforts for the company – I must have spotted every orange-and-black Stallion logo-ed vehicle and field office from Centerville (outbound) to Ozona (inbound). Key® Energy Services is out there in strength. There are hundreds more contractors and subs out in the field right now and you can play a sort of drive-by brand bingo on the roads out west.

Reading the papers, you’ll recognize that everyone is unhappy with the cost of oil or – more critically – the price of a gallon of gas at the corner station. I’d ask you, as marketers, to think about our “situation” from several, quite different angles.

First, the economic impact of oil and gas prices is creating opportunities for companies (and their employees) nationwide. That’s an economic good…as well as a particularly fine time for strongly branded firms with long-established customer relationships.

Second, this in an excellent period in which you should be building on and communicating the positives of your energy business brand. Let your stakeholders know if you are, in fact, doing well – and why. You’ll be creating a foundation of good brand impressions for the down cycle if and when it comes.

Third – and this is a personal note – maybe once time soon some oil company executive will stand up and ask Dianne Feinstein, “Just what, Senator, is your problem with the concept of profit?”

That’s enough for one weekend. All the best for a great June!

Any omissions or errors are my own. Photo © Jim Parkin

Friday, May 30, 2008

Inconvenient Brand

I swear: Driving past the highway off-ramp in lower Colorado at about 75 mph, the green sign said “Loaf ’N Lug.” I even pointed Barbara’s eyes to the exit, saying there was a convenience store called “Loaf ’N Lug.” (It’s the curse of speed, I tell you.)

I thought to myself, well, there are some pretty funny C-store names out in the world…I can see a billboard or TV commercial suggesting that customers “loaf on in and lug some stuff out.” Sort of a country-cousin approach to branding.

Come to find out the name of the outfit is Loaf ’N Jug. It’s a division of Kroger, headquartered in Pueblo, CO, that operates about 175 of them – mainly in Colorado and Wyoming, with a few other stores in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma and New Mexico. (Kroger owns or operates half-dozen different C-store operations, from Tom Thumbs to Kwik Shops, in 16 states. It purchased the Loaf ’N Jug chain in 1986.)

Opinion of one: Kroger doesn’t seem to have done much with the brand except keep the stores up to date. Checking out the website, one among many different Kroger C-store operations, shows a bland face to stakeholders. Google “Loaf ’N Jug advertising” and you’ll read old news about the chain’s support of March of Dimes events – worthy promotions, but not a strong regional brand-builder.

It hasn’t nearly the attention-generating horsepower of, say, Susser Holdings’ Stripes® chain, which I wrote about here. As a convenience store brand, Loaf ’N Jug is not very convenient.

Since I haven’t talked to anyone at Loaf ’N Jug – and the Kroger acquisition is more than 20 years in the past – I can’t help but wonder where the chain got its brand name originally. Rather, I do know; but how odd to find such a classical reference in the highly rural Intermountain West.

If the brand comes from anywhere other than The Rubaiyat, by Omar Khayyam, I would be flabbergasted. I wonder just how many customers, loafing into these C-stores and lugging out some diet pop and Doritos®, recall the Persian poet and his well-known lines:

A book of poems, beneath a spreading bough.
A loaf of bread, a jug of wine,
And thou beside me, singing in the wilderness.

We always forget the last line: And wilderness is Paradise enow.

Somewhere back at the beginning of Loaf ’N Jug, I’d like to think that the chain’s founders imagined they were bringing some extras into Colorado to make the wilderness a bit more of a paradise…even if they decided to skip the poems.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Dalhart Superstar

I arrived in Dalhart, TX, one day last week to find most of it blowing east toward Oklahoma. Not perhaps the most brilliant introduction to a Northwest Texas town best known as the center of the 1930s’ Dust Bowl. That’s sure easy to understand, though; the west wind is driving the topsoil across the road as far as the eye could see.

Since I was driving north of US 87 from Amarillo, there wasn’t much choice about where Barbara and I were headed and there wasn’t any mistake when we arrived: Another middle-of-the-hinterlands town that was not looking like a jewel this past week.

(You may recall news of a wide band of “killer” tornadoes stretching from that part of Texas all the way up to Minnesota.)

It’s something of a boom town again, with the price of oil so high and plenty of activity in the ‘patch. You can poke around here to find out more about the various area attractions, such as the XIT Ranch Museum, Palo Duro Canyon or the Veterans Park on 7th Street – not as pretty last week as this post’s photo.

Really, I did not see Dalhart at its best.

What I did see, as I guided the Prius north along the windy street, was a tiny little building on the corner of the highway and Peach Avenue called Superstar Coffee Company: As far as I could tell, the only place between Amarillo and maybe Trinidad, CO, where I could get a decent cup of fresh coffee.

No Starbucks but a good attempt in the back of beyond, Lisa Silacci and her family moved to the Dalhart area last year on other business and she decided to open this coffee shop to catch the traffic passing up and down US 87 (called “Railroad Street”) in front of the grain elevators.

She and her family are from the great Northwest where there’s a coffee shop on every corner and she says Dalhart needed one of these – it looks like she’s going to educate every rancher and oilfield hand on decent coffee one cup at a time.

I don’t know the whole story (and I didn’t have the camera as usual so there’s no photograph of the tiny drive-through outbuilding that Lisa and her husband Gary are using for Superstar). So I’m going to ask Lisa to send me a photo for another blog post a bit later on. I’m here to tell you, though, that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in that corner of US 87 and Peach – and by golly, she’s a member of the Dalhart Chamber of Commerce to prove it.

WOM: Next time you’re passing through Dalhart, “The XIT City,” stop off at the Superstar Coffee Company for a fresh cup of joe. Lisa’s got all the modern conveniences, flavors, even a buy-10-get-1-free card which she will initial for you instead of stamping or punching (Superstar isn’t that advanced yet).

There’ll be no inside seating for a while but you can drive yourself right up to the window and talk with Lisa her own self. And say hello for me. Just tell her I’m the guy passing through in the Prius. Okay?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Big Texan

I told Philippe Holtzweiler about this. I mentioned it to at least two Belgians who looked at me as though I'd lost my mind. Half a dozen Scots were extremely skeptical, if not downright disbelieving: Nobody, nobody in the world, could eat a 72-ounce steak (that's 2.4 kilos, right?) in 60 minutes.

We're talking about The Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, friends, where the current record-holder is a young man weighing in at 195 pounds – he ate the entire piece of meat plus all the fixings in just 53 minutes. The restaurant and its challenge has been around for years and is well-known among aficionados of Americana.

(If you eat the entire steak and all the fixins' you get the entire meal free. We were told that someone tries the challenge approximately once a week – and one person out of seven is successful.)

I first ran across it, oh, a dozen or more years ago when Mary Jo Martin (now of Cynapsus), Alan Vera and I came up to Amarillo to work with a company called Corporate Systems...we ate at the place although even then I had zero inclination to try eating a single piece of beef as big as a dinner plate and almost three inches thick.

The restaurant is still booming – Barbara and I visited it this evening on our way into Amarillo, our stopover on this week's road trip to Denver. It's still serving great gobbets of beef, though they've added slots and an electronic shooting gallery opposite the bar (I don't remember these last time I was up this way.

And yes, the restaurant still offers the humongous steak and it's even more intimidating now that we're trying to cut down. Nevertheless, we had a couple of good pieces of beef (not even in the same county, size-wise, as the 72-ouncer). We resisted our waitress's blandishments about dessert – imagine trying to eat a piece of chocolate cake the same dimensions as a Hoyo de Monterey cigar box!

I wanted you to know, though, that if there's such a thing as “wretched excess” (or even died-and-gone-to-Heaven steak and lots of it) you can still drop into Amarillo. If it weren't a 600-plus-mile car trip, I'd have driven the gaggle of OTC visitors up here myself, just to see their eyes bug out.

You'll just have to come up yourselves. Oh yes, special for Cameron Wallace: The Big Texan has Stella Artois on draft for $ many glasses do you want with your steak?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mighty Wind

Using the major US political parties as examples (good or bad), the “energy industry” is a big tent. We no sooner put OTC.08 behind us than Houston throws the WINDPOWER 2008 conference and exhibition, 1-4 June.

WINDPOWER 2008 includes 300 speakers, 150 poster presentations and more than 50 sessions on leading wind energy topics. The exhibition will be an “impressive display from over 750 of the leading companies from all facets of the wind energy industry.” The list of exhibitors demonstrates what I mean.

There’s widespread disdain for ethanol and its subsidies (see some of that attitude here). But the general sense is that wind power is the fastest growing alternative energy segment available to us. The US Energy Department, in cooperation with “industry,” suggests that wind energy could generate 20% of US electricity by 2030 – a jump from about 1% today.

Even among traditional players in the hydrocarbon biz, there’s horsepower behind wind power. BP and GE are a couple of WINDPOWER 2008’s “Tera-Watt Sponsors,” though Sam Hopkins of Energy & Capital newsletter fame said recently Shell has pulled out of one offshore wind farm project. Still, I hope you won’t tell me you’ve missed the print campaigns from companies like Suzlon in The Economist, or GE’s imaginative wind turbine commercials. (And really, DON’T tell me you missed the GE “Vikings” TV spot.)

Even the last “briefing breakfast” of OTC that I attended, thanks to the UK Trade & Investment team, offered a good look at the potentiality of wind power as a supplemental resource – though speakers kept trying to sneak in hydro-dynamic power, it’s an offshore conference after all. Still, if you can engineer and maintain a monster FPSO offshore Nigeria, you can sure do the same for a wind farm offshore Connecticut or Denmark (like today’s post photo).

The event offers more opportunities for marketers. There are beaucoup large and small players who are in wind energy for good, solid business reasons as well as the chance to participate in greener initiatives. And if the Feds are right, we’re looking at 75,000 new and bigger wind turbines, a hell of an infrastructure jump. That’s a lot of “green collar” jobs added to our economy.

WINDPOWER 2008 won’t be as gimongous as OTC but I don’t want to miss it. Its projections mean not only more advertising – from retail (as described here, e.g.) to business-to-business.

It means more marketing: Giving customers solid “reasons to buy,” not just hot air.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Barbara’s Orbi

“Orbi combines the benefits of SafeCut technology with a unique, ergonomic design that makes it the most comfortable and easy-to-use can opener ever created.” This note is from LaPrima Shops, describing the GC11836 Can Opener created by Jump Design Inc. for Good Cook®.

“No more dangerous edges. This revolutionary opener cuts into the side of a can, leaving a smooth ridge and a top you can lift straight off with bare hands. The ergonomic handle is easy to turn.” So sayeth under the can, jar and bottle opener category.

Bed, Bath & Beyond: “If you are tired of the awkwardness and strain of twisting and turning traditional can openers, try the Orbi Safe Cut Can Opener, the easiest, safest and most comfortable opener around. Not only does it leave lid and can edges completely smooth, but it prevents cross-contamination by never letting the blade or lid come in contact with food or fall inside the can. Plus, the Soft Touch comfort grip and user-friendly design make it great for those with arthritis, reduced grip strength, limited dexterity, carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis.”

And our simple favorite from “Open a can without bleeding.”

There’s no advertising that I’m aware of. Jump Design, in Loft 10b on Van Brunt Street in Brooklyn, is self-described as a small industrial design firm that specializes in designing innovative consumer products: In our spectacular office location we design inspired products which are sold at Target and other major stores.

The only contact name I’ve found is Jürgen M Parlowski. If what I suspect is true, he and his team have found a terrific model: Create “needful things,” match them up to marketing organizations, and let those companies do the selling. Jump Design (I’m seeing parts of Parlowski’s name here) just keeps on doing neat work.

Good Cook promises “a metamorphosis in kitchenware” and it does advertise. (The name is a registered trademark of Bradshaw International, Inc., and not to be confused with The Good Cook, from The Book of the Month Club.) Good Cook was launched in ’87 – good job there – and, according to its website, has now captured 43% of the market in drug and grocery stores. That’s superb testimony to the company’s products as well as its distribution methods.

But Barbara discovered the Orbi in a mail-order catalog, purchased it immediately and now swears that it is the best can opener she’s ever used. Since Barbara has arthritis and has had difficulty with can openers for years, this is more than a gadget – it’s a blessing.

There’s a WOM component to this story, too. Shortly after Barbara started using it, Philippe Holtzweiler came over from the UK for the Offshore Technology Conference (see here). In addition to being a combat shopper, he’s a gadgeteer of the first magnitude. Barbara showed him the Orbi and opened a couple of cans with it. Holtzweiler jumped on the Internet, ordered it up and had it delivered overnight. He took his Orbi back to Bishop Stortford with him after OTC was over.

I’m not so much of a gadget fan myself…but Barbara’s the perfectly suited consumer for this perfectly designed utensil: A match made, originally, in Brooklyn.

Saturday, May 17, 2008


This seems a good day to break cover and resume posting to the blog – especially since Susan Kirkland has written a post that a number of consultants will likely read and ponder. The energy industry does not come off well, though it’s really not the subject of Susan’s post.

As I mentioned in my response to it, though, I have devoted the past 30 days or more to maintaining connections with colleagues, clients and prospects at OTC.08 – this year’s Offshore Technology Conference here in Houston.

It’s the world's largest offshore energy event. This year’s attendance reached 75,092, the highest in 26 years and 11% more than in 2007: With more than one-half million square feet of exhibition area, the show included 2,500 companies from more than 35 countries in an area the size of 13 football fields.

With oil at $128/barrel, it’s not surprising that there is plenty to see (from gigantic hardware to advanced software) and do (visit clients on the show floor, shake and howdy with people from a dozen or more countries).

In no particular order, thanks to my colleagues – Rob Schoenbeck of area51, Philippe Holtzweiler of Hope Communications – who attended breakfasts, luncheons, cocktail events and the exhibition itself; handfuls of clients who welcomed me into their booths and their activities; hundreds of Englishmen, Scots, Germans, French and Belgians who opened up their hands and their hearts to meet one more Houstonian. And the thousands of OTC volunteers who, every year, make a trade exhibition like this possible.

Do you believe that doing better business depends on how effectively you can communicate benefits, advantages and features of your brand one-on-one?

OTC.08 was a massive example of how well you did your job. My clients did great, though I say so myself.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Matchbook Advertising

We had been chatting about tiny posters – cinderellas – as advertising media (see below). Then (see below below) about Laura Smith, who’s channeling stamp artists from the era of Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin in the service of Mercedes and the Academy Awards.

Now I want you to recall the advertising power and art of the common paper matchbook – politically incorrect today to the nth degree. In fact, I’m doing you a service to remind you that matchbook advertising is “like having the impact of billboard advertising in the palm of your hand.”

I lifted this phrase direct from D D Bean & Sons Company website.

It’s and if you have any idea that you or your company can handle the oh-my-god pressure of matchbook marketing, you could start your journey with Peter Leach, the company’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing.

This site is not only a display of this matchbook company’s production and distribution capabilities. It will remind you of what was once a very powerful medium: Now dead and buried, along with cigarette smokers.

The challenge of using matchbooks – the real thing, not the ones with toothpicks or little notepads – is that so many people associate them with cigarette-smoking. How many humans think about the evils of cigarettes every time they see a matchbook? Most of them here in the US. Leach, who’s been in the “match business” for 35 years, says that over the past six to seven years, it’s changed dramatically, and for the worse. The advent of the Master Settlement Agreement killed Big Tobacco’s interest in book matches, so matchbook advertising is a dribble compared to a decade ago.

Leach makes an important distinction. In the good old days, the business was “space advertising.” This is classic matchbook advertising where the advertiser (like Prince Albert cigars) buys the space; the manufacturer (like D D Bean & Sons) distributes the matchbooks. The resulting book of matches, likely with a tobacco ad on it, was given to you free when you bought a pack of cigarettes.

Those good days are gone forever. Leach calls everything else “private label.” The matchbooks with customized art are sold to the advertiser (a hotel, a bar or a restaurant), who then distributes them to its customers.

The thousand-legal-cut demise of smoking isn’t the only indignity suffered by matchbook advertisers. Technologically, the disposable lighter really took over the “light business” over the past 15 years. Today, nine out of every 10 “lights” are provided by butane lighters.

That’s a shame, because even after the trials and tribulations of the tobacco industry here in America, matchbooks are still surprisingly available…just not in the places you think you might find them or in the old, space-advertising formats.

Is it possible to find a company with any degree of PC sensitivity to use matchbook advertising? I think you have to determine if your client has a pretty sturdy sense of humor to take on this format.

For private labelers, good designers can help. First, there are still match companies like Bean and The Match Group that provide templates for graphic artists and art directors. Then, you want to refine your brand message both verbally and visually. Perhaps you noted the last couple of posts about outstanding illustrators working in the small spaces defined by, say, the matchbook.

There are also technical designers like Pasquale Chieffalo (here) and David Airey (here) who continue to experiment with the matchbook format. These outside-the-box applications might offer marketers and advertisers additional ways to use a strongly familiar medium in new, even surprising ways.

If your own creativity catches fire, drop me a line and I’ll pass it on to Leach, who’s looking for a few good ideas. Remember to close cover before striking.

Thanks and a tip of the Signalwriter cap to Peter Leach. The private-label 30-strike “Republic” sample courtesy of The Match Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Cinderella Stories

When Laura Smith (see below) mentioned that her artistic influences did “poster art,” I misunderstood her – she pointed that out in a comment posted to the blog. In fact, an artist like A M Cassandre did a lot of these small pieces – the one to the left, dated 1928, measures 1.5 inches by 2.3 inches. If you look here, you’ll see a lot more.

I had to call a local stamp store to remind myself about what should have been a familiar term: Not poster stamps, but cinderellasstamp-like labels that include charity stamps like Easter Seals as well as advertising material of all kinds.

This is where Smith’s understanding of a “poster stamp” comes from. It’s a miniature version of a poster designed to advertise an event or product and, according to one definition, the main characteristic of the true poster stamp is integrity of design.

Color schemes and layouts had to be carefully chosen because poster in such small sizes had to catch the eye quickly. Sometimes these worked, sometimes they didn’t. But since a number of older designers worked in this format, they’re outstanding source materials for contemporary illustrators – just like postage stamp designers.

Ta for the weekend!