Category: Marketing in the Boardroom

Neil French: The Man Who Wrote The Ads

Advertising (and other) lessons from the master copywriter.

To describe Neil French as rakish is utterly wrong. There has never been anything “ish” about this giant of a man.

(You could classify him as a rake, but that probably does injustice to all the other tools in the shed.)

I recently finished reading his memoirs, whose title Sorry for the Lobsters will resonate with everyone who can recall what traveling around Asia was like 30+ years ago. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to truly understand how powerful great advertising can be, and unfortunately how most of what the advertising industry produces is mere crap disguised in loudness, padded ideas and a pandering to the lower common denominator of a targeted (though not necessarily understood) audience.

This is a great book for those of us who have personally known Neil and admired the brilliance of his thinking and the profundity of his copywriting skills. As such it is a wonderful voyage down the numerous paths he has taken  from novice bullfighter in Spain to part-time gangster along the streets and back alleys of London, to a rock band promoter and eventually as a paradigm shift changing, Godlier than God Creative Director first in Asia and eventually globally.

A revealing and worthy narrative on his personal journey through what has certainly been a life truly lived, Sorry for the Lobsters is a fabulous read with just enough sidetracks in the tale to make the reader wonder what Neil will get up to next.

Far more important however, especially to those in the advertising industry who are unfortunate not to have been directly impacted by Neil’s devotion to creative thinking and execution excellence, is the book’s Appendix.

For in the Appendix are shared Neil’s frank and forthright gems on the pluses and minuses of advertising. These essays and short pieces, written in the latter stages of his career for various industry and in-house publications, include a plethora of golden nuggets, such as:

In any ad there is a minimum of four elements: headline, picture, copy, logo. If you can do an ad that really works using only one of these elements, you’ve got a winner. Two elements only, and it’ll be pretty good. If you can’t get below four, it’s possible that the basic idea isn’t strong enough, or that you haven’t expressed it well enough.

Reductio ad absurdum. Try it. It works.

* * * * *

To me, writing an ad is talking on paper.

It’s not really writing at all. It’s just a chat.

The art is all about knowing to whom you’re talking.

You lose them the moment you stop talking one-on-one, and start pontificating to “the audience.”

* * * * *

An ad that resembles what the competition is doing is likely to help the competition.

* * * * *

It’s your career. It’s your life. And I can assure you nobody’s last words were ever “I wish I’d made that logo a bit bigger.”


With katana sword precision, Neil gave a cutting and penetrating soliloquy on integrity, and the relative lack of it in the advertising business, in his acceptance speech when given a Clio Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. If anything, his words are more relevant today, almost a decade later, and equally consignable to the worlds of business, politics and government. But that’s another story for another day.

In the meantime, if you want to see great advertising from a master of copywriting and strategic thinking, go to the Neil French website. The examples there will simply amaze.

He was a master craftsman and a crafty wordsmith (and undoubtedly still is).

In Neil’s words, he “just wrote the ads.”

And many a brand manager and CEO (not to mention agency heads) whose bonuses he enlarged were glad he did.

Netflix Back Flips on Qwikster

Time to recover lost brand equity.

In another stunning move, Netflix announced today that it was abandoning its move to split websites for its DVD movie rentals and streaming businesses, and dropping the Qwikster name.

As we wrote less than a month ago, previous moves by the company’s management was effectively destroying its brand equity.

While the question of what the Netflix brand stands for still remains, this move today will undoubtedly put the Netflix brand back on firmer ground. Whether they regain the hundreds of thousands of lost customers is another question.

I guess every generation needs to have its “New Coke” moment. Hastings and his senior crew at Netflix have brought us ours, even surpassing the miscues made last year by the Gap logo saga.

What are your thoughts? Is the Netflix brand back on the road to salvation?

Netflix: Destroying Brand Equity

File this under the “what were they thinking?” category.

Netflix announced that it is splitting its DVD rental and streaming video businesses in an attempt to overcome the massive negative publicity and rapidly escalating customer attrition since it raised prices for both services in July.

Okay, that makes sense.

But here’s the killer.

In an attempt to “win back the trust of its customers,” the company is rebranding its DVD rental service to Qwikster.

Let’s see if I understand this correctly. Some 25 million customers signed up for Netflix as a convenient and preferred way to rent DVDs. And, until a couple of months ago, these customers seemed to trust Netflix.

So now, to win back the trust of the remaining customers (it has reportedly lost over 600,000 monthly subscribers since the July price hike), the CEO has decided to change the name of its DVD rental business and use the Netflix brand for its streaming services.

What could they possibly be thinking? Why not leverage the equity of the Netflix brand and call the streaming service Netflix On Demand, Netflix Streaming, Netflix Video, or even the Netflix Channel? Or anything else that created a brand extension and told customers “Netflix is a brand you can continue to trust.”

And if company management thinks the Netflix brand is not good enough to trust for those remaining 24 million customers who will now forcibly be shifted to Qwikster, what makes anyone think it is a brand that can be trusted for video streaming services?

Apparently even the Netflix DVD business will move to a new website. How confusing will that be to its customers?

I wonder how popular the search phrase “Netflix alternatives” is becoming?

In the past two months, the company has ineptly implemented a much maligned price hike to its existing customers (so much for customer loyalty), split its services into two, and dropped the Netflix branding from its most popular service.

So what does the Netflix brand stand for now? Who knows.

No wonder Netflix has lost roughly 50% of its market value since this series of blunders began in July.

If I were on the Board of Netflix I would be asking for the immediate resignation of CEO Reed Hastings on the grounds of destroying the brand equity of Netflix.

Trust Key Factor in Why Consumers Switch Providers

Trust is emerging as a critical influencer of consumer behavior.

Only one in four consumers reportedly trust the companies with which they do business, according to the latest Accenture Global Consumer Research study.

And, over the past year, loss of trust has increased as one of the key reasons behind consumers deciding to change providers in the consumer electronics, retail and tourism industries.

According to the authors of the report, “trust is emerging as a critical influencer of consumer behavior.” In eight of the 10 industries surveyed,  13% to 17% of the respondents mentioned trust as one of the reasons for switching service providers.

The five least trusted industries, in which at least 20% of consumers “do not trust at all,” were  (in order): gas & electric utilities, cable and satellite companies, landline phone companies, wireless phone companies, and life insurance providers.

Not a single industry is trusted “very well” by more than one-third of its customers, and none of the 10 industries surveyed had higher “trust very well” scores  than a year earlier.

The sixth annual Accenture Global Consumer Survey was conducted in 17 countries, with over 5,800 respondents being asked about their attitudes and behavior towards 10 key industries. For more details on these survey results, see the Keeping Good Customers Blog.

Other surveys reflect similar trends in the trust gap between consumers and business. We wrote a three-part series on these declines about a year ago in the Monday Morning Marketing Memo (send me a note if you would like me to send these three articles to you.)

The declining levels of trust across the globe in businesses and governments dictates that organizational leaders need to focus on regenerating trust with key stakeholders and constituencies. 

This is more than just a marketing problem; it needs to rapidly become a Boardroom concern before it becomes a Boardroom problem of epic proportion.

On the other hand, building trust with consumers and your customer base is definitely a strategic marketing opportunity, since so few consumers find their service providers trustworthy.

What are your thoughts on how businesses can re-build trust with consumers?

Steve Jobs: Marketing Genius

Why Apple’s Steve Jobs is a World-Class Marketing Genius

Like many consumers I have long been enamored with the product designs, enhanced functionalities and overall quality of the Apple products brought to us by Steve Jobs.

As a marketing professional, though, I have also been enthralled by the power, story lines and production values of the TV commercials produced by Apple under the eagle eye and branding brain of Jobs. And yet this is only part of the story behind the marketing genius of Jobs.

Apple is often seen as a company built through product design. But it is more, much more.

Led by the instinctive and intuitive insights of Jobs, Apple has had a foundational focus on the customer experience, long before “customer experience marketing” entered our industry jargon.

The customer experience was often the focus of Apple’s advertising campaigns. And it has certainly been the key element in how the Apple retail stores have been designed, from free availability of products test and trial to the clever concept of the Genius Bars. It is little wonder that Apple’s retail stores have a higher sales-per-square-foot level than any other retail chain in the USA, including high-end retailers like Tiffany’s, Gucci and Coach.

How was Apple able to produce a steady flow of brilliant advertising over the years? Two key factors:

a) Jobs was heavily involved in the creative process at all times

b) Jobs used only one agency (Chiat/Day, which eventually merged into TBWA)

Together they produced a litany of powerful, emotive, brand building advertising campaigns, including:

  • 1984
  • Mac vs. PC
  • Meet iPad
  • Silhouettes
  • Think Different
  • Meet Her
  • Stacks
  • Quotes

Which of these were your favorites? Any to add? I will be adding the ones I like best to my favorites at our Howard Marketing YouTube channel.

Designers call Steve Jobs an inspiration to their craft. Computer geeks claim Jobs as their own guru. And those of us in the marketing profession know that, above everything else, Jobs is a marketing genius.

We can only hope that Jobs will do for marketing in the Boardroom what he has done for marketing as CEO.

Losing Industry Leadership

Research from Deloitte Consulting shows that the rate at which large companies lose industry leadership has doubled in the past four decades.

This should make marketing a central concern of company Boards of Directors. As I wrote in this week’s Monday Morning Marketing Memo on Sustaining Competitive Advantage, in almost every case of decline the blame lays clearly at the feet of poor marketing execution and organizational cultures that are not customer centric and therefore not capable of sustaining market leadership.

Here’s what William Parrett, Chief Executive at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, wrote in the December 11, 2004 issue of The Economist:

“A recent survey by Deloitte and the Economist Intelligence Unit found that management and boards of directors focus far too much on financial results that represent lagging indicators of past performance. We believe they should pay far more attention to non-financial factors such as customer satisfaction, product and service quality, operational performance, and employee commitment – leading indicators of future performance that firms can use to navigate confidently toward a sustainable future. We also encourage corporate management to communicate with stakeholders about these indicators in quarterly and annual reports.”

The long-term winners in any industry are never the cost cutters and the retrenchers. The winners are always the marketing innovators and the ones who create, protect, and enhance the values customers receive and perceive from transacting business with them and from being associated with them.

The long-term winners are those who understand, if it touches the customer, it’s a marketing issue.™

In short, everything you do should be done to create value for customers. That is, of course, if you wish to stay atop your industry’s leader board.

What do you think?

BP’s Brand Hyprocrisy

The Beyond Petroleum positioning of BP may have been little more than hundreds of millions of dollars spent in greenwashing.

According to The Power Grid column in yesterday’s New York magazine, BP’s investment in hydrogen, wind, solar, and biofuels amounts to just 6 percent of its overall capital expenditures.

While this is certainly a significant amount in terms of dollars (or pounds) spent, it pales in comparison to what BP spends annually on oil exploration and production.

And this does not include, writes John Heilemann, “the tens of millions of dollars that BP has spent on lobbying against safety regulations, even as it’s compiled the most abysmal safety record of any major oil company.”

One key point in the article: safety violations by BP over the past five years totaled 760, as compared to only one for Exxon Mobil.

As we wrote yesterday, media monitoring firm General sentiment calculates that BP has lost $1 billion in brand value since the Gulf Oil spill.

It’s not the fact that BP had an accident that makes this brand suspect; it’s the manner in which they have tried to pass off blame and responsibility that bothers most.

Add to the above the 700,000 “friends” who have signed on to one of the three Boycott BP pages on Facebook, and you have a brand that is approaching free fall.

Sadly, the BP Board doesn’t seem to get this yet. By the time they do, it will be too late. (Another reason why Marketing needs to be brought into Corporate Boardrooms.)

The tombstone for the BP brand is being readied, and the graveyard of Enron, WorldCom, HIH Insurance, and myriad others awaits.

Telstra Backflips on Fee for Paying Bills

Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications provider, has withdrawn a controversial A$2.20 fee imposed in September for customer payments made over-the-counter or by mail for monthly phone bills.

“This decision has been taken because it is the right thing to do by our customers,” a Telstra spokesman said. Telstra CEO David Thodey announced the decision to cancel the deeply unpopular fee at the company’s annual general meeting last week.

In our Monday Morning Marketing Memo dated 7 September, we wrote “If Mr. Thodey and his colleagues at Telstra are truly serious about improving customer satisfaction across the company, they need to have a serious look at the fees and surcharges that are not only driving customers crazy, but are also driving customers like me away.”

It appears that the senior management of Telstra has listened to customers like me, who spoke out vociferously against the imposition of this new fee, particularly at a time when Telstra’s corporate reputation and customer service levels are both being hammered.

One leading journalist in Australia referred to “the friendless Telstra” in an article last month, while the headline in an article last week read “Telstra arrogance towards customers exposed as Thodey moves on admin fee.”

As Mr. Thodey told the Telstra annual meeting audience, “We tried to impose this charge without first listening to the people it would affect.” He also admitted that the payment fee has caused customers to defect. [Nothing surprising in that!]

Removing this fee is a major first step in renewing customer preference for the Telstra brand. Hopefully Telstra has learned a great lesson about the need to listen to customers and engage its customer base in a proactive, two-way dialogue.

The other critical lesson here is the need for Marketing to have a presence in the Corporate Boardroom. Telstra’s Board is stocked with lawyers, accountants, financial managers and technical experts. Someone with a marketing focus could have easily advised the Telstra Board that this payment fee was not going to be readily accepted by the company’s customer base.

GM Promises New Focus on Customers

CEO of the “new” General Motors, Fritz Henderson, said last week that “business as usual was over at General Motors” and that the carmaker “would focus on customers, cars and culture.”

No wonder GM, once the world’s largest carmaker, went broke! Apparently in the “old” GM a focus on customers was not a component of their usual business practices.

It amazes me how many companies, and Boards of Directors, fail to maintain a focus on customers. When too much attention is placed on internal processes, financial scorecards, and empire building, the poor old customer just gets lost in the shuffle.

General Motors is a classic example of why there needs to be a greater presence for marketing expertise in the corporate boardroom. Until this happens, we will continue to see many industrial stalwarths, such as GM, collapse, causing pain to thousands of employees, families, suppliers and even entire communities.

Let’s hope the “new” GM gets it right this time!

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