The good, the brand and the ugly of 2011

The good, the brand and the ugly of 2011Welcome to the fifth annual roundup of brand good, brand ugly and brands that should hang their heads in shame. It might just be my state of mind, but it seems to have been a tough year in brand land, with good brands quite thin on the ground.

Still, thankfully it’s not all gloom and despair. Drawn from the annals of my blogs and news media across the year, and in no particular order, here is this year’s list.

#1 NAB

It’s not often I look at an advertising campaign and ask, “Where were the lawyers in the room when they decided to do this?” The whole National Australia Bank campaign seemed to be a veiled attempt to distance themselves from charges of collusion with the other banks.

Using sky writers, performance artists and millions of dollars to splash their message across every available space, it certainly made an impact. And while yelling loudly in lots of places will always get the short-term attention of passersby, in this case it also resulted in a slew of high profile awards for the agency responsible. But this jury will wait and see whether NAB keeps their promises and the new customers who answered the siren calls stick around for the long haul.

Interestingly, if their website is anything to go by, even NAB themselves seem to have broken up with the campaign. And Commonwealth Bank, in a bit of recent one-upmanship, effectively did their own breaking up with the other banks by announcing they would no longer follow the RBA on interest rates.

Brand bad – or brand good, depending on whether shameless grandstanding marketing campaigns make you slightly queasy or rock your world.

# 2 Tiger Airways

For those who know my blog this one might be a surprise. What, no Qantas? But there are other airlines and one I haven’t talked about much is Tiger Airways – which had a somewhat inauspicious year. Struggling to capture the right mix of super low fares and expectations that has made Ryan Air in Europe a runaway success, Tiger this year earned the wrath of a CASA flexing its industry muscles, and was shut down for over a month for safety violations.

Whether Tiger can fully come back and regain the trust of the flying public remains to be seen – but hey, at least their shutdown wasn’t carried out in a hissy fit against their employees, so that’s a start! My advice is to fully embrace their inner “Ryan” and stop trying to out-Jetstar Jetstar. The model requires crystal clear expectations, rigorously delivered and there is still space in the Australian market for someone who can get that right.

Brand bad – but others have been much, much worse (hello Qantas) and the light at the end of the runway is the opportunity to reboot and relaunch.

#3 Borders

Borders went the way of the dodo and took Angus and Robertson stores with them as collateral damage in an outcome that had commentators decrying the end of bricks and mortar bookstores. The impact of the internet on book buying habits aside, the demise had as much to do with bad business decisions, big retail spaces and an over-protected Australian book publishing sector than Joe Public’s appetite for cheap books delivered by mail.

It is always sad to see a company fall, but in the natural order of things not everything can survive when new business models emerge – who remembers record stores? And in a rare bit of good news for bookstores, a recent media report from the US reported a resurgence of trade in independent bookstores as people seek out community and connection lost in the online experience.

Brand bad – with a silver lining in the form of a glimmer of hope for independent local bookstores.

#4 IT meltdown (again and again)

If outsourcing seemed like a good idea at the time for some of our biggest companies, this year must have had them rethinking their priorities. Massive IT failures delivered operating nightmares that damaged reputations and customer relationships alike.

Virgin, Qantas, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank (just to name a few) all found that IT gremlins are no fun for anyone, least of all for customers on the receiving end of said meltdowns.

Reservations and check-in systems that wouldn’t do either; deposits and payments that went awry if they went at all underpin the question – should the potential impact on brand be a consideration in these decisions? (I am sure you can guess my answer to that one!)

Brand bad – because even if you aren’t responsible, when your customers are impacted, the buck stops with you and you are responsible.

#5 Steve Jobs

The passing of Steve Jobs was perhaps perfectly summed up in the tweet that simply said “iSad”. And while for many the collective worldwide outpouring of sentiment all seemed just a bit much, it is hard to dismiss the impact on the everyday lives Jobs and his merry band of Apples have had on a good portion of the world’s population.

Brand sad. And for building one of the brands of all time, a heartfelt brand excellent!

#6 Melbourne

My home city ascended the world ranking to sit atop as the number one most livable city in the world. And while locals were left to wonder if the judges had ever been stuck in peak hour on the Westgate Bridge, tried to get to the airport or catch a train on time – it is great to see the city getting international recognition. From cool cafes galore and a coffee fanatascism that would make Italy proud, lazy walks along the Yarra, an evening vino from a vantage point overlooking the bay and more world class sporting events than a sane person can begin to take in, there is plenty to love and appreciate.

Brand good – because it is about time Australia was known for some southern treasures in addition to the Opera House, a big rock and that reef up north.

#7 Social media – what’s not to “Like”?

Okay, so it isn’t a brand per se, but counting some of the most visible companies on the planet among its ranks means it deserves a mention. For better or worse Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have changed the way people share what’s going on, find out what’s going on and get involved in what’s going on. On the “for better” side, social uprisings around the world are using them to coordinate and build support for causes that would otherwise go unnoticed and often be ruthlessly suppressed.

On the “for worse” side and closer to home, a number of companies learned the hard way that a good thing isn’t always so. When Bing Lee decided to try and hook a Facebook campaign for “Likes” to donations for the Queensland floods, the reaction was swift and harsh with cries of profiteering. Likewise, on the heels of deliberately stranding all their customers, Qantas found a Twitter campaign using the hashtag “qantasluxury” highjacked by people only too happy to vent their spleen.

Brand overall good – although I’m sure plenty won’t agree (Twitter can be the devil). I do think the tools are great but there are times the workmen using them could exercise a bit more caution.

#8 GASP customer (no) service

It has hardly been a banner year for customer service. From the above mentioned IT meltdowns to some companies’ seemingly pathological dislike of the very customers they depend on, I could write an entire post just listing the examples.

In one of my favourites, the GASP fashion company forgot their manners and that today, everything can (and usually does) go public. In belittling the complaints of a customer about how she was treated by one of their staff, they succeeded in splashing their name across the front pages of the national media and making themselves look like gigantic asses at the same time. Well done!

Brand bad – perhaps not coincidentally, the store in question closed down last week.

#9 Rebranding runs amok

The use of the word that I love to hate seemed to hit overdrive this year, so in the interests of space and time I’ve lumped together two examples. Virgin shed it’s Blue and claimed Australia as it’s own, and then got a bit upset when I suggested that rather than “re” anything, all they were doing was changing their name and polishing up a few services. No harm intended and their quick response and “brand” defense was something to be admired and which more should do.

Joining them in the “rebranding” spin cycle was Telstra. An updated logo, a faux seriousness about the colours in their ads and a new “tagline” led the way for what bears suspicious hallmarks of yet another marketing campaign masquerading as brand. I am assured the changes are more than skin deep with a long overdue revamp of their bills as part of the program. What remains to be seen is whether the changes will be enough to impact their long-running customer service woes and turn the tide of public opinion.

Brand good intentions – now if they would just call a spade a spade (or marketing as marketing in this case).

#10 News Limited

In a case of “brandicide” the likes of which hasn’t been seen for many, many years (well at least since CEO Tony Hayward complained he “wanted to go home” during the BP oil spill), revelations that journalists have been systematically hacking into the cell phones of, well, pretty much whoever they liked, boiled over when one of those hacked was revealed to be a young murder victim.

The inept and spectacularly out of touch reaction from the Murdochs saw the end of the century old News of the World and severely dented the previously impervious News Corporation empire. The axiom that your brand is a result, has never been more true, as News Corporation is now known for being the news rather than reporting on it.

Brand hang your head in shame – any company that willfully abuses their position of trust in that way deserves a lot more than a public grilling by Parliament.

Bonus round: #11 The 65%

There are many others who could have made the list. But I think better to make special mention and take my hat off to all the small- and medium-sized businesses out there who fight the “brand good” fight every day to keep your promises (even the little ones no one will notice). You are the unsung, the rarely mentioned, the 65+% of our GDP (when you remove the statistic-skewing resources sector from the mix). It is your companies and the brands that result from what you do every day that inspire me – and for that I thank you.

And many thanks for reading this year, I appreciate it and wish you joy and peace for the year ahead.

See you again in 2012.

Michel Hogan is an independent Brand adviser and advocate. Through her work with Brandology here in Australia and in the United States she helps organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make, with a strong sustainable brand as the result. She also publishes the Brand thought leadership blog – Brand Alignment. You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan.

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