The Passionate & Objective Jokerfan: You Are Awesome


My posting has been spotty during the run of this blog.  As far as I knew, this was a disappointment only to my friend Jeff at work, who makes the shrugging "Blather pose" (seen in my header) every time he walks by my desk.

Well, today I realized that I was wrong...

Many months (a year?) ago I wrote a post about a hilarious musician who has absolutely no Internet presence beyond listings of his albums on iTunes, Billboard, CDBaby, etc.  My entry expressed exasperation, trying to explore why this guy, The Passionate and Objective Jokerfan, would choose not to have a web/myspace page that reveals any information about himself.  As no intentional slight to the Jokerfan, I took down this post because I guess at the time I thought it wasn't related enough to "branding."

Today, while doing a google search for this blog, I found out that not only did the Jokerfan release a new album recently, (Unofficial Tributes to Officially Awesome Musical People) but that he specifically asks me on Track 15 why I took down the post about him!  I couldn't believe it.

Jokerfan, I am so embarrassed for what happened!  Your music is incredible - I am a huge fan.  Please contact me!

brandingisblather AT gmail DOT COM

Understanding "That's Why I Chose Yale"


If you haven't seen the video embedded above, then I strongly encourage that you do so.  "That's Why I Chose Yale" is a 16+ minute campy musical extravaganza created by recent alums and current undergraduates, funded by the admissions office - and posted to the Yale youtube channel in mid-January.  The premise behind the project, which I read on the dozens of blogs weighing in on this topic, is that the number of applications Yale receives each year had been trending downward - and so an enterprising recent grad working in the admissions office proposed that Yale reinvent the college tour video to generate some online buzz about the school.  The video has been viewed several hundred thousand times and has elicited a wide range of reactions from alumni, current students, prospective students and onlookers like me.  (Ripped of its context, I think the video is amazing, but as a brand text its existence becomes a little more complicated.)

One of the more common comments I've seen online portrays alumni who dislike the video as aloof and not comprehending that they're not the target audience.  The claim is that the students applying for a spot in the class of 2014 have been weaned on the mother's milk of High School Musical and other ironic fare - and that this campiness resonantes in a way that an older generation just wouldn't understand.  Yes, it's possible that watching hundreds/thousands of hours of Simpsons reruns and Colbert Reports, et. al. has had an indelible effect on the way young people process (joke about) the world.  But, you have to wonder if this is a compelling reason to veer so far away from the posture of exclusivity / austerity that the best U.S. universities affect.

A good friend of mine once joked that one's main goal when choosing a college should be to pick a school that won't elicit the response "Where's that?"  Obviously, choosing a college is about buying a brand name - to put on your resume and to proudly mention each time someone casually inquires about your past.  It's really astonishing how impactful the name of a good school is.  Just stand in the company of someone that went to any Ivy League school as he/she mentions this to someone who went somewhere that was (God forbid) not in the Top 50.  It's like that odd silence in the room that appears when people in low income brackets watch Mercedes commercials.



It's important to note that the Yale video asserts very few unique selling propositions.  Much like every other major, private U.S. university in existence, you will live in a dorm that has a gym, eat at a dining hall with organic/vegetarian options, join one of hundreds of clubs/activities and take lots of different classes.  Ok, maybe you'll take a class taught by a Nobel Prize winner or listen to Brian Williams speak.  Oh yes, and the common rooms have fancy leather chairs.  But, is that what determines the excellence of a school?

Well, no one really knows exactly.  At some point in the indeterminate past, U.S. News and World Reports became the authority on ranking colleges and uses a complex algorithm to quantify the quality of a school.  (Sometimes undergrads from my alma mater will call me soliciting for a donation and urge that I just give $1 a year, as % of alums donating is part of the equation.  Very odd.)  Somehow (perhaps to be discussed in a later post) this rankings system has codified the hierarchy of school importance.

Clearly the framework that U.S. News used when compiling these rankings for the first time was the accepted hierarchy that already existed.  (OK, Ivy League schools + MIT, etc are the best, what characteristics do they have?) Currently, Yale sits in the 3-spot.  And why does it remain within a 1 slot radius every single year?  Because it's already there.  It's self-perpetuating.  Hire esteemed academics, accept people with high SAT scores, keep the buildings looking Medieval and badass.  It seems like a remarkably simple process to maintain.

It's strange territory that Yale has entered into.  When your brand is all about austere exclusivity you don't tend to want it to appear accessible.  No one has ever accused these top schools of being funny or fun - and that's all part of the mystique.  (Sure there are some famous Ivy League comedians and Hollywood comedy writers, but that's hardly the essence of these schools.)  I wonder if Yale will further explore this possible new identity as ironic hipster Ivy.

In the end, will this video have much of an effect on the college's image - postive or negative?  Likely not.  But it absolutely is an interesting off-message message.

Designer Birthday Cakes of the Week

Part 3 in an ongoing series documenting the genre of designer accessories birthday cakes. 



Museum Portion Control: The Dollar Menu


The most important take-away from the recent accidental tear of Picasso's "The Actor" at The Met has to do with portion size and endurance.  How many of us have been in near-similar positions at many of the huge, prestigious, overwhelming art and history museums?  You can only view so much and walk through so many galleries before you get museum fatigue, lose your balance, and then boom: history is destroyed.  It could happen to any of us. 

Why don't museums offer small tasting menus?  Dollar menus?  Just because I want to see a Rodin doesn't mean that I also have a whole afternoon to kill.  It would not only be a great way for a museum to generate some buzz and increase the frequency of visits, but it would allow them to dust off warehoused gems that are just sitting around, waiting for an artist/period-specific retrospective.

Sure, some museums have benefactor mandated "suggested donations" that allow you to pay any amount - but the ticket sellers always seem to shoot a scathing look when the name-your-price option is chosen, without knowing the intentionality behind the amount paid.  Perhaps some of the $2 donaters are just museum Dollar Menunaires ahead of their time.  (Other museums offer corporate-sponsored free Friday night admissions, but the spaces can get so crowded at these times as to reduce the value of the experience.)

A museum could develop a separate website devoted specifically to the new and upcoming dollar menu offerings.  I imagine that it would be prudent to not only dedicate a separate room off the main entrance to such an effort, but it would be important for the dollar menu items to be excluded from view of those paying regular admission.  It would firmly establish this as a different experience.

Perhaps the works could cycle in and out every 2 or 3 weeks.  Who knows, maybe the Sarcophagus of Constantina could become the museum world's McRib, appearing on the menu once every few years and drawing throngs of fans?

Sketchy Characters: A Case Study

For the last two or three years it has been remarkably difficult to walk through Times Square in Manhattan without catching sight of a person wearing a series of slightly different, ragged Elmo costumes (and those of other Disney/Time Warner characters to a lesser extent).  As has been documented by various local news outlets, the wearer's MO is to insist upon being paid for appearing in pictures with confused tourists.
Sure, in a brand management sense it's obviously bad if someone is misrepresenting your property in any way.  What particularly strikes me about this situation is that it's happening in one of the most visible "branded" spaces in the world - a place many out-of-towners purposely visit to revel in the refracted glory of Charmin video screens and such.  Encountering this rogue Elmo here can't possibly be the kind of "impression" that a CMO would list in a PowerPoint deck.

What's worse is that beyond being pushy and sometimes committing petty violence against tourists, Times Square Elmo allegedly engages in some even stranger behavior.  According to a post on populationstatistic.com...

As for the creepiness factor, a woman once told me that, for several weeks, this furry freak regularly came by her street-level office window on 7th Avenue and lingered there for several minutes, seemingly staring directly at her.

In the video and photos below, you'll also see that Elmo unsurprisingly seems to have regular interactions with the police.


 
 
So, where exactly has Sesame Workshop "corporate" been?  I can't speak with any authority about the legality of dressing up as Elmo in a wildly public space and harrassing people for money.   However, I'd imagine that you could send an email to Bloomberg and he'd take care of this.  So, what exactly is going on here?

Raisin As Texture Vessel

When I first saw Amazin' Raisin brand peach flavored raisins on the shelf at my local Gristedes, I laughed.  Unnecessary frankenfood right?
Well...maybe.  But after reflecting for a moment it occurred to me that the folks at Amazin' Raisin might be trying to position this item as less of a raisin snack extension and more of an ostensibly healthier, albeit transmogrified, alternative to fruit snacks.  It's very Wylie Dufresne of them, treating the raisin as a texture vessel into which a new taste can be transmitted.  I'd imagine that a sizable share of packaged raisins are eaten by kids - so this seems like clever solution for parents that don't want their kids eating chewy LEGO blocks, while still giving them the range of flavors (also available in lemon, strawberry) they crave:
Unfortunately for the folks at Amazin' Raisin, my supermarket carries Amazin' Raisins in the peanut butter / bread / prunes / raisin aisle, as opposed to the fruit snacks section.  I will have to check at other supermarkets to see what kind of shelf space this product is getting.  I think adjacency to regular raisins is what magnifies the oddity of this snack and deflects its potentially positive tradeoff attribute.

Designer Birthday Cakes of the Week

Part 2 in an ongoing series documenting the genre of designer accessories birthday cakes.
Box detail shot.
 
Wait list is surprisingly short for this one.

Gilt Groupe: Fashion Editorial 2.0?

I've always been humored by fashion magazine editorials.  The flouncy dresses, the tragic decadence, the models standing on diving boards holding babies... the punny titles.  How could you not laugh at the squabbling between Wintour and Coddington in The September Issue - knowing how inconsequential the decisions would ultimately be anyway?  I love the idea of the form, but just think it's been driven toward a formulaic endgame over time.  Plus, a lot fashion bloggers are reinterpreting the genre and making it slightly more literal and fun.

But as silly as they may be (at least to me), fashion magazine editorials have historically been the best way to learn about trends and the brands that are defining them. (At least before the Scott Schuman online empire took shape.)

Gilt Groupe, the sudden industry force, offers a very 2.0 iteration (or maybe cousin) of the fashion editorial.  They send out an email blast seven days/week about the new offerings on the site.  These items are dressed up overstock, usually 3-6 months past their sell-by date.  But, they're incredibly well presented, curated even.


The prospect of getting a great deal causes me to click through the pages and become much more intimately acquainted with a brand's seasonal product than I ever could through a one-page magazine ad or the inclusion in a traditional magazine editorial.  The prospect of getting deals makes me visit Gilt far more often than I would go to the online Saks, Neimans, etc.

I get to see snapshots of how Ralph Lauren is trying to bring back the men's double breasted suit (we'll see about that) and the fun that Lanvin is having with sunwear materials and shapes.  Gilt Groupe is the new educator-cum-fancy TJ Maxx of the industry.  (The same could likely be said about Rue La La as well.)


I wonder if over time brands will become more aware of Gilt's power to demonstrate seasonal direction and begin to create small in-season runs created specifically for the site.  Perhaps Gilt will take this evolution further and develop its own in-house team that incorporates styles from each of the daily sales into an editorial shoot?

Legacy.com's Price Points

A friend of a friend recently passed away, so I did some Google searching to locate the obituary.  On the result I clicked on, the local newspaper article about his passing was embedded within a website called Legacy.com.  This site is an online business that provides an interesting solution for aggregating memories of the deceased and maintaining the online documentation of someone's life.

From my best guesswork, I think that the site has bots that locate each new obituary that's published on a vast swath of online newspapers throughout the U.S.  The identification of a new obit then likely triggers the creation of a memorial page containing the embedded article.  (It's also quite possible that Legacy.com has created partnerships with each of the newspapers and receives the obits as a feed.)

The Legacy.com memorial page encourages visitors to leave messages in the dedicated guest book for the deceased.  What's interesting is that approximately 5 weeks after the obit/guest book micro-site goes live, it is scheduled to be taken down permanently.  To prevent this from happening, Legacy.com offers two different payment plans to keep the site up for either one year or permanently.

I'm not going to moralize that the system and prices listed above are an egregious way of making money, because I'm not yet sure how I feel about that issue.  In some ways this site is a less robust, turnkey version of memorial pages that users can create for the deceased on Facebook.  And in the interest of keeping a memory alive online, the Legacy.com results for someone's name rank remarkably high in a Google search.

My main point of intrigue is: where exactly did the price points come from?  Was $99.99 too high?  Is the odd-number pricing (99 cent numeral) appropriate in this type of situation?  Wouldn't $80 make the whole proposition seem a touch classier?

It's so odd that one has to do a Chicken McNugget value meal type math equation and ponder the $9.98 that would be overpaid if three consecutive one year renewals were selected vs. the permanent option.

Obviously this company has overhead/server costs and that those who pay the above rates are to some extent subsidizing the existence/churn of all of the 5 week obits.  Though, it's unclear how expensive those 5 week obits could possibly be, even with thousands of obits in their database, as it doesn't entail too much data storage.

I would love to know how they arrived at these price points.

The Goober Grape of the Laundry Room?


The Purex "Complete" 3-in-1 laundry sheet came out last year to little fanfare and no advertising. Always intrigued by seemingly mundane product innovations, I purchased a package.

As promised, the product effectively combines detergent, fabric softener and anti-static protection into one sheet.  But, I must ask, will it eventually earn the crown of laundry room game changer, or is it more of a Goober Grape?


Its pricing is on par with the cost of purchasing each of the three components separately and it does certainly result in a lighter load when carrying groceries from car into house.  (Or in my case, grocery store to apartment.)

I'd like to see Purex develop a marketing effort to boost the awareness of this item.  Perhaps they could negotiate an agreement to include a 5-pack with every washer purchased at Sears or Best Buy?

Designer Birthday Cakes of the Week



As part of a new, ongoing series, once per week I will be posting photos of birthday cakes that have been baked and frosted to resemble designer sportswear and accessories. You must admit, the marsipan frosting on cake #2 has been sculpted quite artfully.

U.S. Hotel Industry: I'm Concerned About You

A Typical Hotwire.com Listing

I find it particularly hard to watch more than 15 minutes of television before being reminded that William Shatner is out there somewhere bullying hotel front desk clerks on my fiduciary behalf. As comforting as this is for my near-term travel plans, it makes me wonder how the future of the hotel industry will take shape.

Like a growing number of adults, I rarely ever book hotel rooms through the actual building at which I will be staying. Hotwire.com is my go-to site and it allows me to regularly stay at wonderful hotels that I would otherwise have no way of affording. Most recently hotwire.com allowed me to stay at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C. for $89 a night. Hotwire grades this location as a 4-star and I certainly agree with this assessment.

The online discount hotel bookings sector originated as a solution for clearing out the excess inventory of available rooms that remain unreserved as the date of use nears. Personally, I'm not anticipating my consumption patterns to change anytime soon. Through 5+ years of experience I have learned that a 3 or 4-star hotel in a major metropolitan area should cost no more than $129 a night. What began as a solution will ever increasingly become a problem.

Most 3 and 4-star hotels cannot possibly have a cost structure that is sustainable if most paying customers begin to expect such low rates. But as I age and younger consumers adopt the same booking patterns, how will hotels generally be able to keep up the experience that I am enjoying, based on the subsidized level of service that older, less web-savvy consumers are maintaining for me at their higher rates? What will happen if hotwire.com or a competitor develops a sizeable corporate division that books discounted rates for business travelers? Currently, leisure travel makes up a large percentage of these discounted bookings. But, this sector has ever more room to grow in corporate bookings.

Margins industry-wide are going to compress as these discounted rates increasingly become expected rates over time. I think what we're going to begin to see is the unfortunate commodified price effects of the American department store (special sale every day!) and airline industry take hold in the hotel sector. Price will be king and service/upkeep will slowly erode. I hope I am wrong.

Honestly: A Clarification

Dear Readers,

I must apologize for my own "lazy or cheap" (or both) research regarding why Honest Tea's packaging has looked differently lately.

Please note the comment made to my post by Seth Goldman, President & TeaEO of Honest Tea. He explains that they have adopted a new bottle design that is more eco-friendly. Though the first run of production had some structural difficulties, Mr. Goldman clarifies that they have fixed this issue and that new packaging clarifies this change.

This brand (that I have respected for quite some time despite my funny way of showing it) deserved some better reflection as to why this product aberration existed. Thank you for the clarification, Seth. I will share the new callout on your packaging in a subsequent post.

Honest Tea's Busted Packaging

One incidence is fine. Two is pushing it. But being lazy or cheap to the extent of allowing customers to have dozens of exposures to malformed packaging is not acceptable brand management. This is especially true when the brand is part-owned by the Coca-Cola company, the bottling/logistics pros.

Virtually every bodega here in New York that sells Honest Tea carries single-serving plastic bottles that have been vacuum sealed so tightly that the structure of the base becomes disfigured (see below) and the body takes the odd shape seen above. About 70% of the bottles look like this. Such product presentation has been consistent since mid-August 2009.


I'm more baffled than anything else. Does Honest Tea's bottling plant not have QC people? Though I'm quite certain it isn't their intention, I think it would be very interesting to run tests to find out how damaged/disfigured a product's packaging has to be before sales dip precipitously. (This wouldn't yield much actionable data for a brand, but it would surely interest me.)

Would a shelf of bottles with half-glued on labels be more or less damaging to sales than rows of bottles that have scratches and scuff marks all over them? Would people be much less likely to buy a bottle of Honest Tea if it inexplicably had a discolored cap? What product packaging error would surely turn you away from making a purchase?

Art of the Bandwidth Upgrade


Say what you will about how 2002 novacheck is, Burberry has been killing it with their online lately. Most of you are probably familiar with artofthetrench.com, the brand's fantastic/interactive/Scott Schuman-blessed Facebook collabo.

Much less buzzworthy, but equally fascinating in my mind is their groundbreaking use of video product previews on their men's & women's trench pages. Move your cursor over one of the items and a brief, medium-res video of the model twirling/shifting around activates in the photo box.

It's not only cool, but really helps remind you how sumptuous those coats are.

As satisfactory as the current model of displaying photos from multiple angles and allowing the user to zoom in may be, video previewing brings online shopping to a new level. And, if you aren't blown away by the resolution of these Burberry vids, the quality of how you experience this online integration is sure to only get better as other brands discover the existence/value of this tech.