Sometimes Saying 'No' Is Your Strongest Asset

Creative Wouldn't Have Been Enough to Save Isuzu

By Published on .

Another famous advertising icon is just about to fade from the American scene.

Isuzu recently announced that next January the automaker is going to withdraw from the U.S. market. Sales have been dismal. Last year, only 7,098 Isuzu were sold.
Al Ries doesn't want to argue over Isuzu's creative -- just that the name was terrible.
Al Ries doesn't want to argue over Isuzu's creative -- just that the name was terrible.

"Lying Joe" once was as famous as Britney, Lindsay or Paris. Advertising Age selected the Joe Isuzu program as the 83rd best advertising campaign of the 20th century, one notch ahead of "The ultimate driving machine." (In case you haven't noticed, BMW is still with us. As a matter of fact, BMW is the largest-selling European import.)

What went wrong with Isuzu? According to my favorite publication, "The cause of its death: failure to innovate, misjudgment of the market and woeful underspending on marketing."

Am I missing something?
Really? Am I missing something here? An automobile is like a bottle of beer. It's a badge you wear that tells people who you are and what you stand for.

"I drive a Mercedes-Benz" makes a statement to your friends and neighbors. "I drive an Isuzu" -- what does that say about your status in life?

First, and most important of all, Isuzu is a terrible name. Consumers can't spell it; consumers can't pronounce it. (The name is pronounced "e-suzu," not "i-suzu.")

Isuzu isn't the first import with a terrible name to drop out of the American market. Peugeot dropped out in 1991. Yugo in 1992. Daihatsu in 1993. Daewoo in 2002.

Isuzu, Peugeot, Yugo, Daihatsu, Daewoo. What do these names have in common? To an English-speaking person, these names are not euphonious. They just sound bad.

Would it surprise you to learn that Isuzu sold 650,734 vehicles last year? Isuzu Motors Ltd. is the 18th-largest automobile manufacturer in the world. They just didn't happen to sell many vehicles in the U.S., the largest automobile market in the world. They did happen to sell a lot of vehicles in countries where English is not the spoken language.

'The name is the hook'
Back in 1981, Jack Trout and I wrote a book with this quote: "The name is the hook that hangs the brand on the product ladder in the prospect's mind. In the positioning era, the single most important marketing decision you can make is what to name the product."

This quote has been picked up many times, by many authors. But not necessarily followed by the marketing community. Even worse, every time a brand with a terrible name bites the dust, the critics never seem to blame the name. They always blame the product.

The Isuzu case history is particularly interesting because Isuzu was widely perceived by the advertising community as a bad name. Before Joe Isuzu made advertising history, the brand was promoted by a series of advertisements that made fun of the name. Here are three typical headlines:
  • "How do you know if you have Isuzu?"
  • "What do Isuzus do?"
  • "How's your ol' Isuzu?"
The advertisements were signed: "Opel Isuzu. Sold by Buick."

With three names to choose from (Opel, Isuzu and Buick), why would you choose the one bad name in the bunch?

The high-water mark for Isuzu sales in the U.S. market was the year 1986, when the brand sold 127,630 vehicles. Coincidentally, that was also the year the Lying Joe Isuzu campaign was launched. After that, sales slowly drifted downward, until the dismal results of the last few years.

My point is not to argue with the creativity of Lying Joe. Whether it was the 83rd best advertising campaign of the 20th century or the 23rd best advertising campaign, it really didn't matter. The name was a terrible hook to try to hang on the product ladder in the prospect's mind.

A partner's important finction
Advertising and PR agencies want to be marketing partners with their clients. That's how it ought to be. But the most important function of a partner is the willingness to say "No."

An advertising partnership should operate in much the same way as a marriage partnership. When my wife says "No," that's pretty much something we won't do.

You can't build a brand with a weak name. It's like building a house on sand. Advertising agencies should say no when a client approaches them with a bad name. This is particularly true when dealing with clients whose first language is not English. (A bad brand name in America might be a dynamite brand name in Japan.)

It can be difficult, however. In my agency days, I can remember when our most important client said in no uncertain terms, "We do the positioning. You do the advertising."

But you can't do great advertising unless you get the foundation right. And the foundation of every brand is its name. That's the one word that has to stick in the prospect's mind if you are going to build a great brand.

Names are tricky. A bad-sounding name can be a great name if the product is right. "Orville Redenbacher" is a bad name for an automobile, but a great name for a popcorn.

Many, many brands currently on the market can never become successful brands because of name issues. In our consulting work, we have recommend name changes for almost half the companies and brands we have worked with.

Fix the problem, not the advertising
In my opinion, too many advertising agencies are concerned with fixing the advertising when their first concern should be fixing the problem. Some problems seem so obvious they're really hard to miss.

Take Miller Clear, a loony line extension once considered by Miller Brewing. Before its launch in 1992, the chief executive called me and asked me what I thought about a clear beer. Not exactly a difficult question to answer.

"Forget it," I said. "It will never sell." (I couldn't visualize Joe Sixpack sitting at a bar drinking a clear liquid in a beer glass.)

Miller went ahead with the launch anyway and it was a bust. My question is, Why didn't Miller's advertising agency tell the client that a clear beer would never sell?

Why didn't Coca-Cola's advertising agency tell the client that New Coke would never sell?

Why didn't Pepsi-Cola's advertising agency tell the client that Crystal Pepsi would never sell?

It's never easy to say no, but isn't that what a true partnership is all about?

I got into the advertising business because I read Frederic Wakeman's classic book "The Hucksters." In the book, the hero quits the advertising agency business when he found himself saying "Yes, sir" to the client before anybody else in the boardroom did.

The day that happens to me is the day I quit the consulting business.

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In addition to his monthly AdAge.com column, Al and his daughter and partner Laura Ries host a weekly video report at www.RiesReport.com.
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