'Brand chronicles,' baloney!

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McDonald's marketing maven, Larry Light, was the keynote at the AdWatch Outlook 2004 conference. His basic message was that his controversial "I'm lovin' it" campaign was a big success. This was no surprise. As a Ted Bates account man for many years, he learned his lessons about always merchandising the success of the advertising. It's how you keep your job.

But what was surprising was his attack on what he called "positionistas." Positioning, to him, was outdated and nothing but simplistic marketing. His new approach is something he called "brand chronicles." This is where he stepped over the line. His rantings could encourage other companies to follow his no-strategy, multiple-stories approach. So, as the founding father of positioning [a concept popularized in a series of articles in Advertising Age by this author and Al Ries]. I'd like to respond to Larry's comments. Being glib is not the same as being accurate.

Light: "The `I'm lovin' it' campaign has reinvented a brand that had lost its way."

Larry, that statement is only partially right. Yes, McDonald's had indeed lost its way in a sea of meaningless slogans. Things like "Did Someone Say McDonald's?" (no, they didn't) or "We Love to See You Smile" (I would if service was faster,) did little to help the brand.

But, in relating the success story, Larry, you ignored some significant factors such as the ongoing problems of struggling Burger King, which is always under new management. It has closed hundreds of stores, meaning many customers go to McDonald's by default. It's easier to find your way when your competitor is more lost than you are.

It seems to me that the most important force in the turnaround of McDonald's was actually the late Jim Cantalupo's back-to-basics drive. He got off the Wall Street growth bandwagon and drove home the need for quality, cleanliness and upgrading products and service. As he said, "We've taken our eyes off the fries."

McDonald's newfound success wasn't so much about "I'm lovin' it"-it was more about "I'm fixing it."

Light: "This is the end of brand positioning as we know it."

Larry, it's just the beginning. Positioning is a concept that is sweeping the world as companies recognize the need to differentiate themselves in the minds of their customers and prospects. A million copies of the three books on positioning have been translated into 20 languages. Powerful brands have been built on powerful differentiating strategies. Look at Dove as a cleansing cream, Cheerios lowering your cholesterol or Wal-Mart with its always-low prices. You might even look at Marlboro with those cowboys. (Interestingly, Marlboro stumbled with Menthol and Ultra Light cigarettes, because that's not what real cowboys smoke.)

Should BMW abandon its long-term positioning strategy of being "The Ultimate Driving Machine?" Should it go the way of Chevrolet, whose drive to be everything for everybody has resulted in its becoming nothing in the mind of many consumers? (What's a Chevrolet?)

Positioning is how you differentiate yourself. Staying focused on that position is how you survive in a brutally competitive world. Ever since Coca-Cola dropped its heritage-positioning strategy of "The Real Thing," things haven't gone well for Coke. Luckily, Pepsi leaving its youth-positioning strategy of "Choice Of The New Generation" kept things from getting worse.

Larry, has it ever occurred to you that McDonald's has been looking for slogans and not a positioning strategy? There's one right on the bottom of your sign that announces how many hamburgers you've served. McDonald's, with its international reach and billions of hamburgers served, is staring at what I would call a very powerful leadership-positioning strategy. And it's one that would indeed encompass what you describe as a multidimensional brand.

The obvious positioning strategy: "The world's favorite place to eat."

I suspect that Jim Cantalupo would have thought this a wonderful way to capture what he was trying to instill with McDonald's employees and customers.

Light: "Consumers didn't know what we stood for."

Larry, what are you talking about? Billions of dollars have positioned McDonald's as a family fast-food place that kids love to visit. It's obvious that you are well aware of this and are trying to escape from kiddy-land with your hip-hop advertising that's trying to be cool.

But if you don't believe in positioning, how are you going to get people to know what you stand for? What is it to be? Young kids or older kids? (They mix like oil and water.) It's hard to be cool for those older kids with all those playgrounds on the premises. And putting Ronald in some cool outfits won't do the trick. Also, trying to be everything for everybody could undermine your base position with families.

I'm sorry, Larry, "brand chronicles" are not the way of the future. It's only a way of turning a brand that stands for something into a brand that stands for nothing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jack Trout is president of Trout & Partners,a Greenwich, Conn., consultancy, and has worked with Procter & Gamble, AT&T and IBM, among others. His latest book is "Jack Trout on Strategy" (McGraw-Hill).

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