Amazon has a famously weird relationship with investors: despite continually showing small or negative profits and never paying dividends, it remains a darling of Wall Street. Blogger Matt Yglesias has referred to Amazon as a “charitable institution being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers.” How does Amazon get away with this? It comes down to the leadership of CEO Jeff Bezos. He has built a brand around himself, much like Steve Jobs did at Apple, where investors trust him to have big ideas for the long term. Investors don’t trust Amazon - they trust Bezos. He has branded himself as a risk-taking innovator who is slowly dominating the e-commerce world in every way.

The NYPD made headlines last week for their disastrous attempt to create the hashtag #myNYPD, exactly the same thing that happened to McDonalds’ #McDStories.  In fact, the linked article here compares the NYPD backlash, which they argue was inevitable and completely foreseeable (I agree) to #McDStories and one I didn’t know about from poor, struggling RIM.  It made me wonder why we think these Twitter backlashes are so inevitable. Something that strikes me here is that the NYPD, McDonalds, and RIM aren’t exactly beloved brands.  Perhaps that’s why they were so tone-deaf as to create hashtags that are easy to mock.

In the article on the RIM #BeBold failure (http://mashable.com/2012/01/31/rim-backlash-twitter-brandjacking/David Berkowitz, vice president of emerging media at digital agency 360i was quoted as saying "If Delta does a campaign to win a free flight and uses #flydeltafree, it won’t be attacked in the same way as if it uses #whyilovedelta that invites sarcasm."  That’s certainly a major issue - the inherent mockability of a hashtag. 

But it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. The brands that fall prey to this are all brands that at least some people love to hate.  Would Apple get hijacked by #whyiloveapple or would they get thousands of tweets from people who really do love Apple? Well, for starters, they know better than to try it out. I wonder if there are examples of beloved brands doing this successfully, but we never hear about it because it’s not a funny story that goes viral. Or is it simply that only brands with poor brand management would think to employ this strategy in the first place?

Intel’s IIP program was genius for taking a B2B product and marketing it directly to consumers. To a consumer buying a PC, what were the factors of differentiation? Putting aside Apple for the time being, you’re looking at a machine that starts up with the same Windows interface, has the same form factor, has probably interchangeable accessories. What’s the differentiating factor? HP. Dell. Gateway. It was the OEM brand. But even though Intel was the clear market leader, most OEMs at the time were using both Intel and AMD chips, especially once the Athlon 64 exploded into the market. IIP put pressure on OEMs to use Intel, both by appealing to consumers and by the ad dollars that could go to OEMs.

Returning to Apple, I think the strategy was brilliant but it’s limited. When Apple became the behemoth computer brand maybe ten years ago, its consumers became completely loyal. When Intel started integrating its chipsets and graphics with the CPU, Apple jumped ship so they could put Nvidia graphics cards in their laptops with an AMD CPU. Were Apples’s consumers mad? Course not. They trust Apple more than Intel.

I also think Intel’s extension into branding specific chip generations has been hit or miss. I like the idea of building generations in and pushing consumers to upgrade. Not all Intel is the same. Pentium 4, I get that, it’s the Pentium after Pentium 3. But what is this Core i3, Core i5 business? That product brand came out on the Arrandale/Clarksfield code name, what, two or three years ago? There have been ticks and tocks since then, what am I buying?

Taco Bell trying to brand up from one of the most hated cheap chains to a fast casual chipotle-esque space. Can this work? They’ve cleverly changed the name and the branding doesn’t evoke the original at all but people in the know will still know. I remember a big kerfuffle when a rumor circled about McDonald’s owning Chipotle even though you couldn’t tell.

Extensive personal branding research!  Belly, the best wine bar in Boston (best of Boston 2013), is also owned by Blue Room (next door) and Central Bottle (across central square). They do a n interesting job of quietly promoting their different locations while keeping them noticeably separate. Each space occupies a different niche market - restaurant, wine bar, and upscale wine store. Central Bottle offers wine tastings for special events with food provided by the restaurant arms of the brand.

Extensive personal branding research! Belly, the best wine bar in Boston (best of Boston 2013), is also owned by Blue Room (next door) and Central Bottle (across central square). They do a n interesting job of quietly promoting their different locations while keeping them noticeably separate. Each space occupies a different niche market - restaurant, wine bar, and upscale wine store. Central Bottle offers wine tastings for special events with food provided by the restaurant arms of the brand.

Today, US Airways is under fire for, as usual, posting something offensive on twitter. The image in the link is censored, but you get the idea.  This is how we see our airlines.  Tone-deaf.

So many years after Singapore Airlines started the customer service effort, so many airlines are content to sit back and be seen as hated entities. The vitriol we spill on our airlines is nearly that of Comcast or cell phone companies because we feel as powerless at their hands as we do of these monopolists.

But SIA is not alone in its customer service model - Emirates and the Arab airlines are rapidly gaining marketshare and using their geographic positioning to make themselves the go-to for connections in the middle of the globe.  If you’ve been on the red line any time in the last few months, you’ve likely been on one of the full-on branded Emirates cars promising that even in economy you’ll be happy. How is Singapore going to compete with this new set of ultra-luxury carriers?

In general, we know that it’s much harder to brand up than to brand down. But I wonder if a few things about the wine industry make it different? 1 - people are not very brand conscious and 2- people don’t generally know anything about wine. I drink a fair amount of the mid-range Casillero del Diablo brand but had no idea it was part of an umbrella of brands. My price range is generally a $10 bottle but in the case that I’m in the market for a more expensive bottle I imagine the brand recognition would be helpful. Imagining myself overwhelmed facing hundreds of fine wines with no way of knowing what to reach for, I could see myself reacting favorably to something familiar and thinking “I trust this maker, I bet their premium is also good.”

Similarly, I’ve noticed trader joes making moves in this direction. I’ve grown out of my two buck chuck years but I remember it being good for the money and in the last few years I’ve noticed trader joes premium (relatively speaking) wines - a few dollars more, a fancier bottle, an image of a coast, a different brand name - but still clearly a trader joes wine. Since I trust trader joes to bottle good value, I’m willing to move up their value chain and test out their pricier options.

In an industry with such confusion and uncertainty, is the value of a safe brand worth more than in, for instance, the car industry?

The conversation about product diffusion reminds me of a classic product that didn’t meet its lofty goals: the good old Segway. That’s a product that just totally failed to find a relative advantage.  Relative to walking it’s a little faster, but it’s unwieldy, doesn’t fit on the sidewalk, there’s nowhere to park it, and it’s expensive. Relative to driving, it’s cheaper, but it’s slower and the world just isn’t built for it - no parking spots, no road space, etc.

Now they’re exclusively used by mall cops, Segway tours, and Gob Bluth. Which leads me to another point about observability - that’s only a good thing if your product is cool. 

It’s been 13 years since our case with four products was published, which gives us a bit of a hindsight glare. But I tried to fill out a list of the attributes of the four products based on only what I knew from the case, and came up with the following: 

What’s interesting to me is that I probably would have bet on the wrong product(s).  The only one of these four that I’ve ever heard of is the satellite radio. I think what really stands out here is how important the relative advantage category is. No matter how simple or trialable your product is, it just has to be better than your alternatives and, unfortunately, that’s the hardest to put your finger on ex ante. 

On the peanut butter - never underestimate the power of the ick factor. Just didn’t improve on the original enough.

On the bandaids - that one’s tougher for me, but what I found myself wondering as I was reading the description was how often I would really need to use these at home. If the injury is that serious, my doctor is in charge anyway. Maybe this innovation is flying in the medical community, but at home my old school bandaids are handling my blisters and papercuts just fine. 

On satellite radio - my sense is they played with the testability here. I recall a lot of free one-year subscription offers floating around. Not to mention, every car I rent has satellite radio in it. I could see how the technology might be addictive if you get your audience hooked. 

On the scented TV, I mean really. Sorry but this one’s just silly. It’s not a major improvement and it requires up-front investment.