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Brands put the “r” into bands

January 31, 2013

imagesLeonardo da Vinci was dependent on the Duke of Milan, Cesare Borgia and the King of France; Wolfgang Mozart, the Archbishop of Salzburg – while the aristocratic Esterhazys supported Joseph Haydn. Throughout the ages, artists have had a necessary, if problematic, relationship with patrons. Or, as they are now known, sponsors.

These days, the rich and the powerful bestowers of largesse are brands; one thing that hasn’t changed is the contentious issue of artistic integrity. How far should talent go in prostituting itself in order to earn a crust? Some would say the New Seekers, who re-recorded Coca-Cola’s immortal “I’d like to teach the world to sing” commercial as a chart-busting single back in 1971, crossed the line in genuflecting to Mammon, however “altruistic” the message.

But whatever The New Seekers may, or may not, have done is a moon-cast shadow compared with today’s flexi-ethics. With record labels going down the tube, and online piracy rampant, how is the gig going to make money? The answer for many (should they be so lucky) is to insert an “r” into band. Brands have not been slow to exploit this opportunity. Nike, the arch ambush-brand, may not “own” the rapper Drake, but it certainly makes sure he’s well supplied with every imaginable item of swooshed kit. Likewise Martell has picked up on the “gnac” in hip-hop culture and uses music as a means of penetrating the African-American market, where (exceptionally) brandy is on an upward consumption curve.

My old chum Peter Krijgsman has, slightly cynically, gone one step further in “cutting out the middleman” and making an explicit appeal for product placement in his latest (and possibly only, he tells me) album, Digital Age Blues. Of particular interest is this little C&W number “Sponsor Me”, containing such catchy lyrics as:

“Don’t think of me as a humble song, but as an opportunitee, Yes sir. You’ll get a big bag of crochets for a very modest fee, you’ll grow like a pig from Idaho when you sponsor me.”

I don’t know how tongue-in-cheek this “offering” is from Peter, whom some may better remember as a comms director at BarCap and ING. But it can’t be denied it is slick.  The band is Krijgsman and Sid Stronach. Helen Knight and Claire Macauley are the backing singers. And here it is in full: Sponsor_Me.

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Cameron The Brand Slayer

January 25, 2013

BorgIf it weren’t for the fact David Cameron watches so little television, I would be forced to conclude he has been modelling his recent behaviour on Borg, the Viking Himbo now fronting Tesco’s advertising.

How else explain his assault on multinational brands in recent days – which has all the subtlety of Thor laying about him with his hammer after a particularly drunken binge?

Last week, it was Coca-Cola that got stomped all over, when Cameron told the House of Commons that he regarded it as his solemn paternal duty to prevent his children consuming “excessive” amounts of the sugary beverage.

This week he was at it again, telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that brands which avoided paying their fair share of corporation tax needed “to wake up and smell the coffee” – an unvarnished reference to Starbucks and those other egregious “tax dodgers” Amazon, eBay, Facebook, Google (and, er, Coca-Cola). And the tirade didn’t end there: so sick and tired is the British public of the multinationals’ fiscal chicanery that Cameron has decided to make clamping down on corporate tax-avoidance a central plank of our G8 Group presidency later this year.

Whoa, Dave. Is this your idea of a soft close? Britain shut for business before you oblige us to pull out of the EU?


Sodastream ad controversy bubbles on

December 5, 2012

Sodastream adWhatever are the people at Sodastream complaining about? Having their ad pulled from television by the donkeys at Clearcast, the TV advertising vetting service, is a gift. It’s the sort of thing Rupert Howell and his team at HHCL used to have wet dreams about – the possibility of the regulator stepping in and banning their latest offering for Tango. Think of the attendant publicity, a priceless multiple of the original advertising budget.

And all the more so in Sodastream’s case. Back then, in the Tango era, YouTube and the viral were waiting to be discovered. What’s more Sodastream seems to have a case based upon rectitude rather than meretricious provocation. Any reasonable man on the Clapham omnibus would have difficulty in understanding the legitimacy of Clearcast’s complaint. Judge for yourselves:

What I see in this ad is each squirt of Sodastream saving you (and the environment) the cost of thousands of eco-unfriendly glass bottles a year. The claim is a trifle exaggerated perhaps, unless that squirt is a metaphorical one signifying a year’s usage of the soda-water maker, but its basis is surely unexceptionable. To any, that is, but those sitting in judgement at Clearcast, which represents the 5 major UK commercial TV companies.

And which bit of the governing Code of Advertising Practice (CAP), do the regulators believe Sodastream has transgressed? Well not, interestingly, 3.12   “Advertisements must not mislead by exaggerating the capability or performance of a product or service.” No, they’ve gone for:  3.42  “Advertisements must not discredit or denigrate another product, advertiser or advertisement or a trade mark, trade name or other distinguishing mark.”

Come again? Let’s look at that ad, in slow motion. Where’s the “product, advertiser or advertisement or a trade mark, trade name or other distinguishing mark”  – unless that last be a glass bottle? I’m one with Fiona Hope – the former Coke executive ultimately in charge of Sodastream’s UK advertising – here: it’s very hard to see how Clearcast, and subsequently its appeal committee, a) arrived at the notion that the ad “denigrates” the bottled drinks industry; and b) in what way article 3.42 of CAP is relevant justification for that view. Oddest of all is the fact that nowhere else in the world has the Sodastream campaign, devised by Alex Bogusky’s new advertising vehicle Common, fallen foul of the regulatory authorities.

One possible explanation for Clearcast’s bizarre behaviour is that the advisory committee suspected Bogusky of mounting a veiled assault on Coca-Cola – no small TV advertiser. As is well known, Bogusky – the former “B” in CP+B – was once creative servitor of the Coke Zero account. Now the breakaway wunderkind – and healthy-living freak – seems intent on war to the knife against his former paymaster. Note, for instance, this recent video for the Center for Science in the Public Interest that pillories Coke in all but name.

Clearcast, as a matter of tactics, would surely have been better advised to let the Sodastream ad air and allow the “bottled drinks industry” (whatever that may be) to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority – the proper forum for this kind of debate. Instead, the stubborn intransigence of its appeals committee has left Clearcast staked out in an indefensible Alamo.

Roll on Hope’s legal challenge to Clearcast’s judgement. Whichever way it goes, Sodastream can be confident of acres of free publicity – which should help UK sales no end.


Big is beastly, especially if we’re talking big banks like Barclays

August 28, 2012

Which brands make us most angry? Yes, you guessed correctly. The big ones that rip us off, starve us of mortgage funds, pilfer our savings and behave with amoral disregard for everyone’s interest but their own. Anything, in short, that ends with the word “Bank”.

But come, let’s be a bit more specific. How about some brand differentiation – which is the worst, and which the runner-up? Well, coming in at number 2 – just behind the winning “All banks” category – is Barclays. And next, in 7th position, is Royal Bank of Scotland.

I know all of this thanks to some research, just out, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by creative agency Johnny Fearless (of which more below).

Why don’t Lloyds, Santander and HSBC make it into the top 10? Surely not on account of the odour of sanctity. We can only speculate, but could it be that Barclays and RBS have the two biggest Swinging Dicks attached to their brand heritage, namely Bob Diamond and Fred the Shred? I doubt that most people know who Antonio Horta-Osario is, and would struggle to recall his name in sufficient detail if they did. Which is probably just as well for Horta-Osario and Lloyds Bank.

More interesting, if perplexing in some ways, is the identity of the other 7 members of this exclusive Top 10 club. Tenth equal with Coca-Cola is Nestlé – still regarded as a corporate pariah on account of its anti-social baby-milk marketing practices in developing countries. I’m sure that doesn’t depress sales of Kit-Kats and Yorkie bars one bit, though.

And what’s Coke doing in there? Sorry boys and girls, for all your tender investment in clean athleticism, those grubby practices in Third World countries have not gone unnoticed.

Next up, “All utilities companies” at number 8, on account of their high prices and perceived profiteering. But two deserving special mentions here are British Gas – with its conspicuously bad customer service; and BT – with its ineffectual overseas call centres.

Virgin Media is in there at number 8 as well, although I have yet to discover whether this is because we’re all being beastly to Beardie or on account of some graver underlying cause – such as woefully inadequate service.

That leaves us with McDonald’s at number 4 – poor quality food and an inappropriate Olympics sponsorship, apparently.

…And, weighing in at number 3, the nation’s unfavourite retailer – Tesco. Memo to Tesco CEO Phil Clarke: it’s because you’re too big for your boots, despoil our high streets and blackmail your suppliers. No other retailer can do this so successfully, it seems.

  1. Which companies or brands make you feel angry? 
  2. What is it they do to make you feel angry?
Rank Company or brand
1 All banks’, ‘Banks’
2 Barclays
3 Tesco
4 McDonald’s
5 BT
6 British Gas
7 Royal Bank of Scotland’, ‘RBS’
8= Virgin Media
8= Utilities’, ‘Energy companies’
10= Nestlé
10= Coca-Cola

The research was commissioned by Johnny Fearless and carried out by YouGov. Total sample size was 2077 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between August 3-6th 2012. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Johnny Fearless is a Soho start-up agency founded by Paul Domenet and Neil Hughston, whose stock in trade is creating “social crackle” around brand messages. Or so it says in their publicity blurb.


Premier League scores spectacular own goal with new Barclays sponsorship deal

July 3, 2012

The Premier League just doesn’t get it, does it? The world is crashing around Barclays ears: its chief executive Bob Diamond has just been forced to step down by the Governor of the Bank of England; its chief operating officer Jerry del Missier has quit; its chairman Marcus Agius will be exiting in the coming months; and Bob’s top team of investment bankers face a mass clear-out (if, that is, they had anything to do with BarCap between 2005 and 2008, which is highly likely).

And what does the Premier League do? It inks another sponsorship deal with Barclays Bank, this time for a whopping £35m a year over 3 years (or so Brand Republic tells us).

Granted, when scandal strikes, the boot is usually on the other foot: it’s the sponsor that  assesses the collateral brand damage and, if necessary, does the firing. For instance: Coca-Cola repudiating its association with Wayne Rooney, after the latter consorted with a prostitute while his wife was pregnant; everyone junking Tiger Woods once his elaborate sexual gymnastics came to light; Vodafone shaking a big stick at McLaren Mercedes (but not much else) over cheating on the F1 track; and Emirates Airline threatening to drop its World Cup sponsorship because of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter’s limp-wristed approach to racism on the pitch.

But the scandal now engulfing Barclays is of such epic proportions that even the Premier League – not normally known for its ethical sensitivity – should carefully consider whether it is prudent to continue its association with such a blighted brand. Let’s face it, it doesn’t look too clever, does it? ‘We’re a wholesome family sport, happy to take money from anyone – cheats and spivs especially welcome’.

Of course, the Premier League commercial negotiators have been unlucky in their timing. Little were they to know that, as protracted negotiations were nearing their conclusion, international financial regulators would hit Barclays with a £290m fine for manipulating the interbank lending rate. Even so, a suspension in the negotiations would now be the intelligent way forward – while the Premier League looks for an alternative commercial partner; and Barclays does the decent thing by withdrawing its offer. Tip for Premier League negotiators: try sectors other than financial services. It will save pain later.


Doctors open second line of attack on fast-foods with call for punitive “fat taxes”

April 19, 2012

It may of course be a coincidence. But I suspect not, given the close timing. No sooner has Professor Terence Stephenson, speaking on behalf of 200,000 doctors, called for a ban on “junk food” brands sponsoring sports events than up pops another prominent medic, advocating blanket “fat taxes” on soft drinks and chocolates.

Will the next step, you might wonder sardonically, be for the medical profession to emulate Oliver Cromwell and call for the banning of mince pies?

The eminent health evangelist in question is Dr Mike Rayner, of Oxford University department of health. His argument follows a well-worn formula.

It starts with the unexceptionable premise. About one in four British adults is either overweight or obese. Something needs to be done about it because it’s costing the National Health Service £5bn, he tells us.

Then comes the health warning, coated in hysterical medi-rhetoric: “We are in the grip of an obesity epidemic.” (Remember the medical profession’s headless chicken performance over Bird Flu?)

And finally, the seemingly inescapable logic of a solution: “We use taxes to discourage drinking and smoking. It raises lots of money for the Treasury and prevents people from dying too early. There is now lots of evidence that manipulating food prices could promote healthy eating.”

What prescription could be more reasonable than that – for the already over-burdened British taxpayer?

As it happens, Dr Rayner – unlike Professor Stephenson – does not disclose his attitude towards advertising these noisome products. But we can infer it from past performance, and the fact that he appears to be offering flanking support to Stephenson’s earlier attack on Government policy.

The medical profession’s enthusiastic adoption of “fat taxes” seems to owe its immediate intellectual provenance to a British Journal of Nutrition study – one of whose co-authors is Professor Susan Jebb, an eminent nutrition specialist who has been the government’s main adviser on obesity since 2007. The study specifically called for a 10% fat tax on sugary drinks and full fat milk, which would, it suggested, cut consumption and prompt a switch to healthier alternatives.

Like most of these things, the idea of “fat taxes” originated in the United States. But it has gained more traction over here following adoption, in limited measure and differing degrees, by Hungary, Denmark and France. The stringent French model is, it would seem, the one favoured by (for instance) the Royal College of Physicians: “Studies have shown that following these measures, the number of overweight children in France has dropped from 18.1% in 2000 to 15.5% in 2007,” it said, late last year

The RCP, like Rayner and other obesity experts, is increasingly frustrated by the Government’s preferred strategy of  behavioural “nudge”, which it considers woefully ineffectual.

It must be confessed this self-same Government has done itself no favours by – first of all –  abolishing one of the principal instruments of nudge, the COI; and, secondly, by plunging itself into an entirely self-generated “heated pasty tax” crisis.

If hot pasties are to be more heavily taxed, then why should the principle not be extended to other fattening foods?

The problem with this argument, logical though it seems in its own right, is the old one of quis custodiet custodes ipsos? Who, exactly, gets to decide what is harmful to our health, and therefore punitively taxable? A few pints of Coca-Cola a year is a very different matter to a systematic diet of junk-food. The medical profession thinks it knows the answer. But it does not. In cack-handedly dealing with one form of social evil it threatens to inflict on us another: bureaucratic authoritarianism. Officious red-tape, that is, to you and me; and of course to the business community, which ultimately pays all our wages. Even those of most doctors –  via the public exchequer.


Admen watch out: health Bannism is back

April 16, 2012

It’s been a while since the medical profession got onto its high horse about banning the promotion of fast-food and soft-drinks brands.

But now, sensing the increasing vulnerability of the Coalition Government, it’s charging straight for the breach.

The militant assault comes from the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, an umbrella organisation which can count on the (at least passive) support of 200,000 doctors. It’s being directed by the academy’s vice-president Professor Terence Stephenson, something of a zealot in these matters.

Specifically, Stephenson wants:

  • A ban on brands like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsoring major sporting events such as the Olympics. Carling, sponsor of the Carling Cup, also comes in for some harsh words;
  • Prohibition on the use of celebrities or cartoon figures in promoting “unhealthy” food and drink to children;
  • A safe area around schools, free from fast-food outlets;
  • “Fat taxes”, as in Scandinavia, levied on such foods;
  • Much clearer labelling on the calories, salt, sugar and fat contained therein.

Same old, same old, you may say. And you would be right. This is the “Bannist Tendency” making a not-very veiled attack on the Government’s proclaimed policy of collaborating with industry via so-called “responsibility deals”, which emphasise self-regulatory restraint rather than expensive-to-police and often-ineffectual red-tape.

When I say “ineffectual”, I should qualify that. In the short term, the proposed bans might well have a debilitating effect on commerce without achieving concomitant success in combatting national obesity. Longer term the strategy is tried and tested, however. It amounts to demonising fast-food and soft drinks in the same way the medical profession has managed to demonise smoking. At this very moment health secretary Andrew Lansley, the arch-proponent of industry “responsibility deals”, is contemplating stripping the last vestiges of marketing support from the tobacco industry with a ban on branded packaging. That’s what, in a generation’s time perhaps, the medical profession would like to see happening to Big Food brands.

Reducing the amount of salt, fat and sugar in our diet is of course a commendable aim, and it is right that the medical profession – of all special interest groups – should embrace it. But is it also right to equate the variable impact of HSSFs on our health with the addictive and truly pernicious effects of smoking? There is a matter of degree here, which does not seem to be adequately reflected in the uncompromising messianic fervour of the medical profession. Or, rather, some of the zealots who seem to have hijacked it.

Stephenson himself is a case in point. He may be an eminent paediatrician, but he also harbours some eccentric views. Among them, that second hand smoke (from tobacco) is a significant contributor to cot-deaths. He is also someone who clearly lives in a bubble blissfully sequestered from the inconvenient realities of commercial life. Here he is on the subject of football sponsorship:

“For adults, beer is a source of calories. I like going to a football match and drinking beer, but it’s the high-profile sponsorship that means that every time we mention this trophy, we mention in the same words Carling Cup.” So, let’s ban it, eh? Personally, I’m all the way with Stephenson on renaming it the “English Football League”. Period. But I do wonder where all the extra money is going to come from if we prohibit the likes of Carling, Coca-Cola and (heavy heart, here) McDonald’s from investing in sports events.

Surely, a little more personal responsibility exercised over how many HSSFs we ingest at any one time, not to mention how much exercise we take, are more salutary – and certainly less puritanical – solutions to the national obesity problem?

And, if we’re going to consider banning any advertising at all, what about reviewing the wall of money Big Pharma spends on targeting the medical profession?

Now there’s an unhealthy relationship.


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