GOING IN THE SAME DIRECTION ISN'T ALWAYS THE BEST POLICY

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The most potentially harmful three words in the English language are "stay the course."

I admit the phrase sounds like the prudent thing to do: Hang in there and you will eventually prevail.

But what if you stay the course all the way down the wrong road? What if you were in the stock market last week and your stocks took a gigantic nosedive when the Dow Jones average sold off more than 500 points and then failed to participate when the market rallied the next day?

Maybe you picked the wrong stocks. Maybe you should dump them and either get out of the market and find another way to make a buck or find some new stocks. Warren Buffet's advice to stay in the market in good times and bad times isn't much good if you can't pick stocks that go up in good times.

Levi Strauss & Co. almost stayed the course right out of business. It stuck to an outdated idea of what its core consumer audience of teenagers thought was cool and missed important trends.

"The company totally missed the significance of the inner city and the huge impact it has on trends. It tells me they're sleepy in their marketing," a retail consultant told Business Week.

Nissan's big problem isn't its quirky advertising -- I was starting to like Mr. K -- but it's stay-the-course mentality of sticking to the Nissan nameplate in the U.S.

When you think of what Nissan was formerly called -- Datsun -- you think of styling and performance.

The reason Nissan has been trying so much outlandish advertising in the last few years was to try to refuse its vehicles with a pizzazz they just don't have. But the Datsun excitement still lingers, and if Nissan started calling its cars and trucks by that name again its advertising could be much less gimmicky and more straightforward, evoking the great heritage of legendary Datsun 240Z sports car. But Nissan, I fear, will keep plugging along with its pedestrian corporate moniker, and its fortunes will continue to decline and a lot of advertising will be wasted.

And speaking of wasted advertising, let's talk about Miller beer. My favorite advertising journal reported last week that "despite hundreds of millions in ad support and aggressive price promotion, Lite's growth rate still lags its low-calorie rivals and Genuine Draft continues to languish."

Yet Miller brass continues to stay the course. "We knew when we launched we were going to be in it for the long haul," said Miller VP-Marketing Jack Rooney.

The problem is that Miller's smart-ass advertising is based on the premise that young people are put off by conventional advertising. But since Miller sales, even with the generous price promotions, rose a scant .3% last year, I'd argue that any slight headway among its target audience was being offset by massive alienation from other beer-drinking segments.

And there is a worrisome trend on the horizon. Today's teenagers, soon to come into Miller's sights, are very traditional and conservative. A poll of 13- to 17-year-olds conducted by The New York Times and CBS News in the spring found that teenagers "are as wholesome and as devoid of cynicism as the generation that wore saddle shoes. They trust their government, admire their parents and believe it is possible to start out poor and become rich."

This does not bode well for Miller. The current Miller advertising does nothing to soften teenagers up for Miller's entreaties when they reach drinking age. In fact it may be driving them to embrace, when the time comes, Budeweiser's nice wholesome frogs and lizards, bless their hearts.

It's encouraging in this day and age to see such conviction on the part of Miller than its strategy is sound, especially in the face of mounting evidence that calamity lurks at both ends of the consumer spectrum.

The moral of the story is that a little reality check now and again might not be such a bad idea.

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