Observations and arguments.

Archive for Business

What will it take to kill the Aflac Duck?

News today in AdvertisingAge that insurance giant Aflac was changing its marketing strategy to reduce its reliance on the “Aflac Duck”, because while most US consumers recognize the feathered character (85% in testing), almost no one knows it has anything to do with insurance.

Following a flurry of blog posts, Aflac released a press release within hours reassuring the public that the rumors of the duck’s demise were greatly exaggerated.

“Like all of America, we love the Aflac Duck,” said Jeff Herbert, Aflac’s Chief Marketing Officer. “It is as central to our marketing efforts today as it will continue to be going forward.”

Credit Aflac for paying attention to the internets, but for the love of God, please just kill the duck.

I credit (blame) Chiat/Day for the creation of modern mascot advertising, partly because they like to credit themselves for it. After taking the Energizer battery account from DDB Needham, Chiat/Day leveraged the pink bunny used in a previous commercial, and created a series of ads that are now considered classics of the last century. In the classic template, a fake commercial for a fake product is interrupted by the roll-through appearance of the battery-powered bunny, which is “Still going…”. Funny, yes. Memorable, yes. “Disruptive” and surprising in the way that Chiat likes its advertising to be.

But here’s the problem: people remember the commercial, and the mascot, but not the product. I realized this when I heard Katie Couric once refer to the “Everready Bunny” on the air. I’ve heard (and read) this mistake multiple times since, and it suggests to me a fundamental problem with the campaign.

Would there have been any better way to brand Energizer to help distinguish it from Everready? I don’t have the answer to that, and Energizer does at least put the bunny on its packaging (although on some packages it’s hidden by the batteries themselves).

Chiat/Day went on to create the Taco Bell chihuahua and the Pets.com sock puppet, both of which the agency (now TBWA\Chiat\Day or Media Arts Lab or some wank name) still claim as major success stories. The sock puppet was popular enough that even though Pets.com collapsed, the character was revived by a different company for a series of ads selling… what, exactly? Can anyone remember?

The much beloved chihuahua ultimately got the agency fired, because while the fast food chain was selling a lot of plush dog toys, its sales of food (you know: its actual product) continued to decline. Despite the popularity of the ads.

While I know that brand advertising is about building relationships with customers (rather than generating sales per se), the point, as I understand it, is the relationship you want to build is between the customers and the brand, not the customers and the award-winningly creative advertising creatives.

Tom Carroll, chief executive of TBWA/Chiat Day (sic), said he was disappointed by the dismissal and felt ditching the Chihuahua would be a mistake.

“People like the dog,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”

Tom. Your creative team was not hired to get people to like a dog. Is that a simple enough concept for you to understand?

To build its business, or better yet to create more meaningful relationships with its customers, Aflac should put its award-winning duck out of its misery and try something new.

Or, better yet!

Create a series of ads telling the story of the duck’s near-demise, and its long descent into the hardship, faceless bureacracy, near-permanent financial burden, and lasting emotional toll shared by millions of uninsured Americans. Show the real human (or avian, as it were) cost of being caught without a safety net. But funny, you know? Like those Foster Farms chickens.

People would love that.

No more waiting for a Prius?

When we finally put down our $500 deposit for a 2007 Toyota Prius, we were told we’d have to wait two to four months–especially as the color (silver pine mica, aka green) and options package (with bluetooth phone connectivity) were the most popular choices.

I received a call two days later telling me that we’d have the car within a two weeks.

Five days later I was driving it off the lot.

The official story I was given was that Toyota was ramping up production, and that the dealership was surprised with a shipment of eighty cars for the month, up from their typical shipment of thirty.

If this story is correct, then quoted wait times for the cars should begin to come down, and not just at Toyota Sunnyale.

I remain unconvinced, however, as our car was the only Prius I saw on the lot. For the narrative to sustain plausibility, there would have to be at least some small number of cars available for sale. Unless one were to believe that nearly all eighty of the cars were silver pine mica with the HK option set–otherwise, how would they have gotten so far down the “waiting list”?

The more likely scenario is that yes, Toyota has built up its production to better meet demand, but that the cars are held at an intermediate location and shipped to order promptly in response to customer deposits. Toyota would benefit by being able to artificially sustain demand, and give them some power over its dealers by tightly managing wait times. Dealers would benefit by maintaining their zero-day inventory on the cars and their sticker-price sales numbers–customers are not bargaining from strength when they have to “custom order” their vehicles. Sales representatives also get to play the good cop role when delivering the news to the customer that their vehicle has arrived well ahead of expectations. As dealers (and their better sales reps) are typically working not just to sell you today’s car but your return business, delivering good news can be a powerful emotional hook.

(In my earlier post regarding a bad experience at another dealership, our obnoxious rep attempted this as a last ditch maneuver as we were on our way out the door–promising to finagle a car “just for us” within two weeks. Curious how the end result matched this prediction.)

The trouble with this strategy, at least from our perspective, is that we were in a position to wait two to four months, so that we didn’t experience any real emotional relief at getting the car so quickly. Our advance planning allowed us to remain detached from the theatrics and drama, and as a result I’m much more critical of the manipulations involved.

I would encourage future Prius buyers to kick the tires of the quoted wait times. Share the fact that I got a car within a week, and that you’d be willing to walk off the lot and find a dealer who can match that.

See if you can get a car quickly, and for a fair amount under the quoted price.

There is a third possibility that I can envision, however, only because this dealership is located in Silicon Valley. It is conceivable that the dealership’s internet manager found my earlier blog post, which favorably compared our experience to that we had at a competitor. Hoping to milk some additional positive blogness, s/he may have influenced the speed at which we got our car. This seems unlikely to me, but if it’s true at all and you the dealership’s internet manager is reading this right now I hope you understand that it kinda backfired.

I’ll have positive things to write about my Prius in future posts. But getting the car so quickly has left a foul taste in this car buyer’s mouth.

Giving up consistency as an organizational objective

Marketing ethnographer and anthropologist Grant McCracken let fly a question this week that’s been gnawing at me for a while now:

What if we gave up consistency as an organizational objective? What if we stopped trying to integrate ventures and strategies? What if we just let the corporation rip as something essentially inconsistent and unintegrated?

I wonder this because as my organization has begun its latest initiative to improve our internal workflows (seriously enough to add headcount to help do it), there has been a directive from our management team to make workflows consistent across teams.

Which: from a management perspective is a perfectly reasonable request.
But which: from a workflow perspective can make little sense.

As a workflow or systems analyst, of course you are invested in satisfying the desires of management–the people you’re working for. But is your goal consistency? Or is it to improve the methodologies and ultimately the outcomes of the system/workflow?

Consistency should be a tactic, not an objective. Sometimes it helps the work itself improve, especially when there is a great deal of interaction between teams. In other cases it helps management track progress or profitability. Consistency in UI design can help the end user learn to make good guesses about where to look for a button or command. There is often a measurable value one can attach to the application of consistency.

But when consistency is itself the goal, you can wind up placing obstacles in the road to quality outcomes, by limiting the abilities of teams to make good (or great) decisions. All simply to help management not have to think quite so hard about the business.

The wrong question: How can we make things more consistent?
The right question: Where (and how) can consistency help us?

What if by giving up consistency we could create better products?

How not to sell a car.

Went shopping on Sunday for a new car, specifically looking at the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Toyota Prius. Both cars claim long wait times of 60+ days, so shopping early is recommended (we believe we can keep our VW running through the end of the year).

The Toyota dealership my wife and I visited first offered us one of the worst customer service experiences of my life. Some of this was a function of the sales rep’s inability to read people, but some of it was by design.

Red flag #1:
When we told our sales rep we were interested in learning about the Prius, he said “Prius? No! That’s a bad word!” The choice to denigrate the company’s bestselling car is a curious one.

Red flag #2:
As for wait times for ordering a Prius, our charming sales rep said “Four to nine months, unless you want silver, in which case: forget it.” This exaggeration (three months is standard at two dealerships I’ve spoken with since) is perhaps intended to weed out nonserious hybrid inquiries among those needing a car right away, and to redirect them towards a Corolla or Yaris.

Red flag #3:
Our sales rep carried with him a hand scribbled notepad of interested “Prius buyers”, which he occasionally flipped open furtively, to demonstrate that there were people wanting cars “ASAP” and “any color”. Presumably those buyers who had placed their $500 deposit with the dealership would expect to be registered on a typed list, in a database, rather than in a single sales rep’s pocket. Presumably they would also be uncomfortable having their names and phone numbers displayed to random potential buyers such as ourselves. Perhaps the point of showing us this list was to play up the frenzy angle, to hook in those buyers likely to be caught up by the drama and excitement of a possible call saying “I’ve got one on the lot. It’s white and has the high end options, but if you get down here today we can make it happen.”

Red flag #4:
No fleet model available to sit in, let alone test drive. From a certain perspective this is understandable, as the dealership clearly has sufficient numbers of buyers willing to place an order for a Prius without a test drive. If a customer balks once the car arrives on the lot (it is a strange car to sit in and drive, at first glance), there is a list of others (apparently, in our sales rep’s pocket) willing to buy the car right away. This is a dealership decision; I can’t blame the rep for this.

Red flag #5:
In lieu of a test drive, our sales rep walked us around the lot to look at the outside of three Priuses that were on site, but already purchased. One of the cars was in a back lot behind a fence marked “Employees Only”, a transparent device employed to make the sales rep appear to be showing the customer something secret or special–when in fact what he was showing us was the outside of yet another Prius. I see the outside of Priuses every day on my car commute.

Red flag #6:
Our sales rep hurled unsolicited and repeated insults at George W. Bush, claiming that the lack of available Prius inventory was somehow due to the president’s direct intervention at the behest of “the oil companies” (of which our sales rep informed us, Bush owned two). Perhaps our rep or his colleagues had found success in closing Prius sales by riling up anti-Bush emotions, but this line of rhetoric came off as merely nonsensical to us.

Red flag #7:
In a direct and mystifying contradiction to his earlier assertion (see Red Flag #2, above), our sales rep promised that if we were to put down the $500 deposit “today,” and if we didn’t care about color, he could get us a Prius “in a week”, he had fourteen of them coming in. I understand that by the time the cars arrive on the lot that those who reserved them may have already bought a car somewhere else, or no longer have the money, or for whatever reason no longer want the car, and the dealership must then call the next person on the waiting list. Yet presumably the call would go to the individuals at the top of the list, rather than at the bottom.

Perhaps he meant that if we gave *him* the $500, he’d be willing to help hook us up. But I mean, honestly.

The upshot is: while we’re likely to purchase a Prius, it won’t be at this dealership.

We later drove to another Toyota dealer in our area, which had a fleet model on the lot for test drives, and a sales rep who spent an hour with us showing us the car–its innovative hatchback and in-car storage, the electronic smart key, the touchscreen radio and environmental controls, the hidden power outlet and aux input, the rearview video camera, and of course the curious startup sequence and gear shift toggle. So despite the fact that the Prius is the number one selling car of the number one car manufacturer in the world, this sales rep at the new dealership was willing to take the time to try to sell us the car. This dealership has earned our business, and this sales rep the associated commission.

The dealership that didn’t care whether they got my business or not: Stevens Creek Toyota
The dealership that did: Toyota Sunnyvale

I’ve kept the names of the specific sales reps (good and bad) out of this. Does that seem appropriate? Because someone else could have had a good experience with a different rep at Stevens Creek, and a poor experience with someone else at Sunnyvale. Is this all about the sales rep or is the dealership accountable by itself?

Dear Mr. President

Back in 2002, Gabe Hudson helped edit a series of letters to the President over on McSweeneys, as an extension of his own book Dear Mr. President.

I submitted the following letter for consideration, but it didn’t make the cut.


Dear Mr. President:

I am not a perfectionist (though perhaps I used to be a bit of one), but I do like to bring my best effort to the task at hand. I think: why do something half-assed when there’s an opportunity to do better? This attitude brought me success in school, and early in my career, as I demonstrated intelligence, aptitude, and a willingness to go the extra mile.

Then one day I got new boss who, I was told, would be a “better manager” than my previous boss. All of a sudden it no longer mattered how I did the work, only whether it was done or not done. It appeared that he was incapable of assessing (or, at the very least, unwilling to assess) the quality of work being done by myself or my team. I received the same level of recognition whether the work was outstanding or weak or even embarrassingly inept. As long as he could consider the work “completed”, either on or ahead of schedule, I got a smile and a slap on the back. When I tried to raise questions about complex, interrelating issues, he would always turn my query around into an either-or question, which when I begrudgingly replied he would tell me that I had answered my own question, when really I had only answered *his* question, which wasn’t really applicable at all to the issues that I was raising, but he was done speaking to me anyhow.

Oh, how I hated that boss. I believed that he was an idiot, that he was eroding the company’s fortunes by putting out bad product, and that before long he would be fired. I concocted fantasies of getting a job and then hiring my old company, only to cancel the contract at the last moment saying, “See, I am firing your company because it puts out inferior work, and this witless, overpaid fool is to blame.”

Then one day I was standing in a Kinko’s and picked up a book that they were selling about management techniques, and learned that employees who care about the quality of their work are a business liability (rather than an asset). That they slow down schedules by asking too many questions, or by inserting extra steps to “assure quality.” That they take up too much of their managers’ time with their detailed memos and their emergency meetings and their insistence that you consult some other department that actually might know the answer to the question being asked.

I was crushed. Here I thought I’d been contributing all along to the company’s business goals, by working to make the product better. But in fact according to this book being sold in a Kinko’s I was part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In time I did quit that job, but there was no satisfaction in having quit, and after I left everyone (especially my boss) was relieved.

In my jobs since then, I have slowly been learning how not to care about the quality of my work, but it’s difficult.

During your campaign, Mr. President, I learned that as governor of Texas you would be presented with 20-page reports compiled by really smart people who cared about all of the issues, but that you wouldn’t read them, instead asking the author to summarize the report and to boil it down to an either-or proposition. These aides of yours, I read, then tried to deliver shorter reports, 12 pages, or 5 pages, or even 1, hoping that you might read a single page document outlining the complex web of variables associated with any major policy decision. But no, even then you didn’t read the memos. You were just like my old boss.

Some of those horrid talk show hosts and reactionary liberal-types began tossing out accusations that you were illiterate, but they didn’t understand like I do.

You’re not stupid, you’re just a successful manager! You’ve learned, perhaps better than anyone, how to hold the reins tightly on those earnest, overly intellectual wonks and do-gooders who threaten to bring government to a standstill with their questions and their analyses and their insistence on talking about details or “implications” or decisions you made a week ago. You see the bigger picture, or rather you see that the big picture is a distraction from the real work of sparing yourself and your closest advisors from having to sit through an hour-long meeting because how boring is that.

I fear, Mr. President, that you may not realize, that even though you keep the work environment “collegial”, with your winking and handshaking and all the funny nicknames, that these aides of yours, the ones who would rather be writing the 20-page report instead of asking you to answer “yes” or “no” to a single question, that secretly, deep down, they may hate you.

So fucking much.


Chris Ereneta
San Francisco, CA