Friday, January 30, 2009

“Texas T-Bone”

The “T-Bone” needs our help. No other state can claim this name – and if the new high-speed rail proposal gains traction, we’d really have something to brag about. In fact, prospective consumers of alternative travel in Texas learned more about the train plan yesterday from a Houston Chronicle article by Peggy Fikac:

The idea of high-speed rail is being pushed again in a big way in Texas, and backers hope to have $12 billion to $18 billion high-speed trains running by 2020. This time, they say they have taken care to ensure the idea won’t fall flat the way a bullet-train push did some 15 years ago.

Here’s a mouthful: The Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Corporation. It’s the non-profit behind the new plan to achieve high-speed Texas rail in 10 years. “T-Bone” is the shape of the travel corridor between Dallas and San Antonio, with a Houston leg meeting the line in Temple. (That’s “256 miles shorter than running the bases on the straight line.”)

Although Houston’s Judge Robert Eckels is Chairman, some people are afraid this routing arrangement represents a highjack by “people” in Dallas. I’d like to hear more about that.

Texas could have started a new rail system in the mid-90s if Southwest Airlines hadn’t been so frightened by the competition. Now, with the new administration in Washington and an economic demand for better travel options makes rail at least conceivable again. Finally.

But the Texas-T-Bone could benefit from our savvy…the help of sharp graphic designers, art directors and copywriters to start with. Ladies and gentlemen, the THSRTX website needs substantial improvements in styling and navigation. The logo could be better, stronger and more evocative of the “romance of the rail.” Then a talented PR group ought to get involved.

Let’s take it all a step or two further. The T-Bone’s a consumer product (despite the politicians and governmental bodies, NGOs and corporations who are the start-up stakeholders in the venture). That means consumer rules apply: A sense of style is critical to promoting acceptance. I’m going to come back to this point again and again in future posts. High-speed rail is too good an opportunity to screw up this time around.

Got a T-Bone stake? If you do, let me know…get yourself on board before the thing leaves the station. Meanwhile, I’m going to drop a line to the executive director to determine the Corporation’s interest in taking on a professional creative team.

Many, many thanks to Stacy Allen, Prism Design, for revising the antique British Rail poster specially for this blog post. Just what did the people who ran the railroads a hundred years ago know about marketing that has since been forgotten?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Piña Rica

Talking about labels (see below if you missed the Del Monte® post), this one on the right came home attached to a pineapple. I eyeballed it because it’s so well-designed. The color scheme is vivid and says “fresh.” In fact, it led me to an equally excellent website.

Bievenidos a Piña Rica. Here’s a group of Mexican pineapple growers in Veracruz state, south of where I hunt white wing doves. According to the site, 100 haciendas grow 400 tons of pineapples a month, year ‘round. The company says it’s an equally strong supporter of job creation in that part of Mexico, which is badly needed.

Family-owned Ganaflor in Alajuela, Costa Rica sells under an older “Piña Rica” label. It has an equally strong social conscience but…less evolved…brand graphics. It’s clear from the two companies’ labels that there’s some kind of connection – I’m just not certain what that connection is.

Take a break. Read all about Piña Rica in Mexico and you’ll see how the company has adapted a comprehensive brand strategy, from packaging – five to eight pineapples per box, depending on the size of the fruit, 75 boxes per pallet FOB Veracruz – to labeling to importing. Then buy a pineapple: Fresh fruit is good for you.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Label Wonder

The last time I blogged about Del Monte (here), I wondered about the company’s departure from the salsa market. Today, I post to applaud the firm for a remarkably minor detail: How easy the product label comes off the container of Del Monte® Orchard Select® Apricot Halves...that is the label itself, jpeg-ed above.

Now according to a 2004 “Product Spotlight” on

The intention of packaged Orchard Select…is to provide premium quality fruit with year-round consistency and convenience for consumers, while extending Del Monte’s reach beyond the “center store.” The Orchard Select brand is…packed in glass and marketed in the chilled produce section. Orchard Select packaging and labels are designed to remind consumers of the days of home canning and the Del Monte heritage of top quality…

Which it did, especially the 24-ounce glass jar, which Barbara decided to recycle as a kitchen storage container. Why not? It’s neat. It comes with a secure top. And you can see through it.

Once Barbara served up the apricot halves in various tasty forms, she placed the empty Mason-type jar in the dishwasher. She had two objectives. One, get the jar clean. The other, help remove the attractive but now unnecessary Del Monte label.

Usually, consumer package labels cannot be removed without the Jaws of Life or a heated scalpel, whichever we don’t have available in the house. This time, Barbara removed jar from dishwasher, simply peeled the label off with gentle fingers, and presented the separated items as last night’s leading example of “making my life a lot easier.”

Digging into the depths of a consumer brand’s packaging (glass jars, label adhesives, that sort of thing) is mainly unproductive – this is a trade-secretive branch of the industry. So what we have is empirical demonstration of the cool, thoughtful and utterly unmessy Del Monte label removal scheme.

Some days, it’s the little things that matter. Thanks, Del Monte. And the apricots taste good, too.

“ORCHARD SELECT” is a trademark registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since October 31, 1995. For an extra-credit look inside the process of protecting a trademark, see the WIPO decision, “Del Monte Corporation v. David Crumpacker.” “DEL MONTE” is also a registered trademark. “JAWS OF LIFE” is a trademark of Hale Products Inc.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bumper Sticker

Far outside the Loop
I’m driving around and around
Friendswood in the dark.
No moon, no marks.

Every street and circle
Looks the same,
An endless residential Hell on earth.

A number on a house
Can just be made out: 667.
No, it’s just the neighbor of the Beast.

Copyright © 2003, Richard Laurence Baron.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Open Sky

There’s no lack of bidness advice, good and bad, these days. Still, a new White Paper offers 10 chatty but blessedly brief tips to help beat the economy. It’s yours free from Geraint Holliman, a former colleague of mine in Dialogue International and long-time MD of UK ad agency Open Sky.

The short pepper-upper is a fine antidote against our current days of doom and gloom. My favorite:

Stop listening to the news. Of course we must always be aware of the global economic conditions but the media thrive on headlines and, currently, bad news is good news for the media. Bad news begets bad news: it’s a vicious circle. However, none of your businesses have gone bad overnight have they? They didn’t become bad value or inappropriate value propositions just because a few banks got greedy did they? Have confidence in your brand and what it delivers. So, only turn the news on 10 minutes into bulletins so you can avoid all the doom and gloom and go straight to the ‘puppy rescued from well’ story – you’ll feel better for it.

Trish Cunningham, Manager of Business Development at Brookwoods Group here in Houston, spoke to the same issue this week on LinkedIn: This brings to mind a great quote: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” FDR - this still rings true today and quite frankly I believe people have had enough fear tactics to last a few lifetimes.

When things are closing in around you, it doesn’t hurt to have some…guidelines…to post by the computer. Try Open Sky’s White Paper on for size.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Hershey’s® Placement

Did you mark the appearance of a Hershey’s chocolate bar in this morning’s Hi and Lois® comic panels? When America’s largest – and most iconic – manufacturer of chocolate bars shows up in a comic strip, artist Chance Browne makes it charmingly ordinary. (The cartoon is 55 years old after all.)

It drew my attention to the Hershey’s® stock price. It’s playing today at about $33.45, having performed quite a bit better over the past 12 months than most oilfield service company stocks. The chocolate company’s much more stable. As a symbol of hope and normalcy, of Hiram Flagston and his job at Foofram Industries, maybe the Hershey’s bar is unintentionally…perfect.

© 2009, King Features Syndicate, Inc.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Bankers’ Joke

Three bankers and three engineers are traveling by train to Washington to testify before Congress (different committees). At the station, the three bankers each buy a ticket, then watch as the three engineers only buy one ticket.

“How are three people going to travel on only one ticket?” asks one of the bankers. “Watch and you’ll see,” answered an engineer.

They all board the train. The bankers take their respective seats but all three engineers cram into a restroom and close the door behind them. Shortly after the train leaves the station, the conductor comes around collecting tickets. He knocks on the restroom door and says, “Tickets, please!” The door opens just a crack and a single arm emerges with a ticket in hand. The conductor takes it and moves on.

The bankers see this and agree it is a clever idea. So after the hearings, the bankers decide to copy the engineers on the return trip and save some money. When they get to the station, they buy one ticket for the return trip. To their astonishment, the engineers don’t buy a ticket at all.

“How are you going to travel without a ticket?” says one puzzled banker. “Watch and you’ll see.” answered an engineer.

They board the train and all three bankers jam into a restroom. The three engineers? They cram into another one nearby. The train departs. Shortly afterward, one of the engineers leaves his restroom and walks over to the restroom where the bankers are hiding. He knocks on the door and says,
“Tickets, please!”

Or is this an engineers’ joke? Either way, it came across the Internet. Maybe it explains why I do more work for engineering firms than banks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Chairman Meow! Combines Quirky Attraction, Chinese Propaganda Artform.

Last September, I was struck by an image that I stumbled over by accident: Chairman Meow, “Great Leader.” Among other visualizations, it’s the invention of designer Kevin McCormick. Since I’m a fan of Soviet-era art and design it is quirkily attractive. Not to mention, the Chairman has an immense range of friends, from Whippets of Mass Destruction (dogs) to Lolruses (marine mammals)…all available on

This is McCormick’s site on and I thought it would give me a chance to explore a booming etail operation.

This is all down to the “T-shirt economy,” so called by Clive Thompson of Wired because creative people can turn their ideas into businesses by developing clothing and other decorated apparel. On Cafepress, according to reported figures, all this was worth more than $100 million in 2007, with an average 20% in profit.

I think McCormick’s designs deliver imagination and parody at the same time. He himself says, “I started combining propaganda art with heroic portraits of dogs. The designs also allowed me to make social and political commentary.”

His emails filled in some blanks for me, first about his visuals: The designs do resonate with buyers. People are really passionate about their pets, and they think that their breed is the best. My style isn’t original, but I think the concept is. It flips the idea of obedience in relation to pets, and I think seeing a Chihuahua as a dictator definitely is seen as surprising and amusing.
How is Cafepress working out? As far as marketing, a lot of that is trial and error. I have to sometimes be creative, as selling t-shirts through Cafepress is convenient and great, but not high profit margins. To make advertising worthwhile, I really have to make sure I’m reaching the right niches.
Is Cafepress a viable sales mechanism? One thing that I’ve done lately is a sticker campaign, where I distribute free Chairman Meow stickers from the site for people to put in public. People have responded well, and I've sent them all over the world. Not sure if that will translate to sales, but it’s fun knowing that the stickers are on almost every continent! (And new 2009 stickers are now available, BTW.)

I’ve highlighted other examples of this sort of design, like the art of Laura Smith, here. There’s just something about Chairman Meow that tickles me big-time – perhaps because it feels right. At the same time, McCormick is following, even expanding on, the etailer’s creed (according to Thompson): Let your content roam freely online, so it generates as large an audience as possible.
Content wants to be free. But remember that it is fans that drive sales so don’t lock your fans out. This is hard to do for business-to-business marketers unless you get real lucky.

Something else going on right now: Soviet-era art continues to have an impact on the street...none more recently that the Shepard Fairey-designed Obama Inauguration Poster. Designer McCormick says he admires street artist Fairey. But I’ll take McCormick’s lighthearted approach over heavy propaganda every time. Support world domination. Obey the kitty!

Thanks to Kevin McCormick and for the excellent material.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ripped Off

Last week, Hannah Wood wrote about Bucksstar for; in just days, the story has gone from blogland to National Public Radio:

China has confirmed itself as the “king of counterfeiters” with the building of a new shopping centre dedicated to fake brands. Some of the brand impostors at the mall in Nanjing, east of Shanghai, include a McDonalds look-a-like burger bar called McDnoald’s, a Starbucks-style coffee shop called Bucksstar Coffee, and a wannabe Pizza Hut called Pizza Huh. City bosses are under pressure to ban the soon-to-be opened mall after pictures of the fake stores were leaked, causing uproar amongst angry consumers who feared they'd be ripped off.

As popular as the story’s been, I haven’t seen anyone comment on the unfortunate first sentence. China doesn’t have to confirm its inability or unwillingness to clamp down on brand counterfeiters. Knocking off national and international brands has been going on for decades in China. Some days, brand thievery seems like the national business model.

It’s not always easy to find photographs: Google “Fake Brands in China” for yourself and you’ll see links…but not so many photographs of offending rip-offs like
Mak Dak.

If the Nanjing shopping center is doing this as a parody or homage, then the owners will be paying royalties to Starbucks, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s for the privilege.

Don’t hold your breath.

BTW, each of the US brand names in this post is protected by one or more trademarks. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Counseling Gazprom

While you were sleeping, the “gas wars” started again in Eastern Europe, just in time for the roughest part of winter. Russia had been threatening to cut off the flow of natural gas through Ukraine to Europe. As of this morning there are six countries going without. (Remember: Gazprom is the huge Russian monopoly; Transneft is its Ukrainian gas transportation counterpart and customer.)

It’s not the first time Russia and Gazprom have played the natgas shutoff card. What is new is that Gazprom has deployed public relations to provide a level of nuance that I haven’t seen before. Read deep and you’ll see the result of intentions made clear in January 2007 when announced that the Russian energy giant was going to get some PR counsel on its side for a change.

Gavin Anderson & Company is apparently one of Gazprom’s PR counselors. This morning, on the heels of the news about actions resulting from Gazprom’s suspension of specific gas deliveries, Kate Hill, Gavin Anderson’s London Managing Director, was quoted. “People are going to understand,” she said, “that Gazprom is a company with shareholders, and they cannot be expected to keep supplying a good without payment, or without a plan for future payment.”

The piece provides even more detail: In commercial terms, the question of who is in the right is not straightforward. The dispute involves questions such as how much Ukraine pays Russia for gas; how much Russia pays in transit fees for the gas that goes through Ukraine; how much Russia can charge in late payment fees; and to what extent the falling price of oil should affect the price.

When you read a headline like “Six countries lose Russian gas,” it’s easy to conclude that Russia is using its natural gas to bully Europe again. It’s even easier to note the horrified reactions from many European leaders who accuse Russian and Gazprom of breaking promises.

Study the press coverage carefully, though, and discover and it’s not a huge let’s-pile-on-Russia media onslaught. In fact, there’s a good bit of “he said/she said” going on. Read critically; it will be clear that many news reports are more balanced than at any time in the last several years.

That tells me the public relations firms are doing their job – you and I may not like it but it does demonstrate there are at least two sides to this story. That’s effective counsel at work.