Hard to Safeguard the Brand

Jan 23, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Chuck Ross

Two recent examples point out how careful brand managers must be in safeguarding their brands-and how difficult that can be-lest they alienate their longtime customers.

We start with a portion of an episode of “This American Life,” the Peabody Award-winning public radio program produced by WBZ in Chicago and distributed by Public Radio International. It was written and narrated by “This American Life” producer Diane Cook.

Ms. Cook: When my boyfriend Jorge was a teenager and started using deodorant, he had to choose which kind to buy. He tried a bunch of different brands, but Old Spice reminded him too much of sailors, Right Guard made him feel like he needed to play basketball all the time and Arrid Extra Dry was way too intense for the moderate climate he lived in. So he settled on an innocuous, nondescript brand: Mitchum.

Jorge: It’s old like it’s been around forever, and the reason it’s been around forever is because people use it. And not enough people use it that there is a kind of person that uses [it]. And not too few people use it that you’re making a statement. It’s just deodorant. It doesn’t make me cool, it doesn’t make me feel uncool. It [just] makes me feel like I’m putting deodorant on.

Ms. Cook: Fast-forward 15 years. Jorge lives in New York. He rode the subway car one morning and with nothing to read he turns his attention to an ad on the train.

Jorge: I start reading it and it’s just like this ridiculous ad-it’s a ridiculous message about being able to kick in the windows of the train in an emergency. And it’s like, “You’re a tough guy if you can do this,” and I’m reading and I’m like “This is stupid, this is stupid, this is stupid,” until I get to the punch line or whatever [and find out that this ad] is about Mitchum. And what it actually says is that if you’re pretty sure you can kick in a window in the event of an emergency, then you’re a Mitchum man. And you look around and the entire train is plastered with ads, and they’re all ads for Mitchum … [T]hey’re all like, “If you’ve ever vaulted over anything in order to catch a train, you’re a Mitchum man. If you are a total prick, then you’re a Mitchum man.” It’s just completely and utterly embarrassing. I’m not that guy. I don’t think that. I think like, oh shoot, I missed the train, you know what I mean. I’m sure we’ll be moving soon. There must be a reasonable explanation for this.

Ms. Cook: So OK, [Jorge’s] deodorant has a lame ad campaign, so what? And it didn’t matter to Jorge until he found himself standing in the deodorant aisle at the supermarket a week later, staring at the Mitchum, unable to reach his arm out, pick it up and put it in his basket.

Jorge: I thought that if I [grabbed] the Mitchum, I was going to take it to the checkout line and I was going to put it there and the person in the grocery line was going to think that I was trying Mitchum for the first time because of the advertising, right?

There’s nothing about Mitchum that says it would be obvious to somebody that “Hey, he’s been using Mitchum for 10 to 15 years,” you know? If it was Old English shaving cream and I’m wearing a top hat and I’m 70 years old and they started a marketing campaign, they’d be, “Oh, that guy has been using that stuff forever.”

Ms. Cook: That [was] the beauty of the [Mitchum] brand: [T]here was nothing associated with it. So, like, as soon as they make this whole Mitchum man campaign all [of a] sudden you can’t help [thinking about] anybody you see buying Mitchum … “Hey, they must love those Mitchum man ads.”

[Jorge] left the store, deodorant-less. Which in and of itself is pretty embarrassing. He doesn’t want to be that guy who buys Mitchum because of the ads. But does he really want to be that guy who boycotts Mitchum because of the ads?

Dropping the Ball

Here’s the second example of how hard it is to safeguard a brand. A few years ago the bank Washington Mutual spent millions of dollars advertising, among other services, that if you used its ATM machines, and were a customer of another bank, it would not charge you a fee.

Many consumers, including this reporter, flocked to use Washington Mutual ATMs when one from their own bank was not in the area. And many consumers eventually switched to Washington Mutual as their bank.

But recently Washington Mutual quietly dropped its policy of not charging for use of its ATM by non-Washington Mutual ATM cardholders, infuriating many consumers who found out about the change only by using the Washington Mutual ATM.

During the five years Washington Mutual had surcharge-free ATMs its customer base grew 63 percent, “in part because of the ATM policy and also because of acquisitions,” a Washington Mutual spokesman told ATM & Debit News in November, when it made the policy shift.

“Moreover, Washington Mutual says surcharge-free ATM access was frustrating its own customers as nonbank customers flocked to Washington Mutual’s heavily advertised free machines, creating lengthy lines,” according to ATM & Debit News.

Huh? This policy had been in place for five years. The flocking started long ago. And, clearly, the “heavily advertised” policy worked, as Washington Mutual told ATM & Debit News.

As word spreads that Washington Mutual has broken with its heavily advertised brand image, there is no question the bank will take some hits from angry consumers. And that can be a tough strategy.