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I’m dreaming of a John Lewis Christmas

November 14, 2010

Christmas is terribly important. And I am not talking about the Season of Cheer and Goodwill to All Men. Oh no, this is something much more fundamental: the rush to get punters into the shops with their wallets open for a last hurrah spending fest.

Up to 25% of UK retailers’ annual business is generated in the narrow period from the Christmas run-up to the end of January. And this year could well be a bonanza. Retail expert Verdict reckons it’s going to be the best time to pluck the goose since 2007, if only because a massive hike in VAT will make all of us feel much poorer by the end of January. Verdict is not alone in this opinion.

So, why do retailers saturate television air-time with so much boring, formulaic, rent-a-celeb advertising that largely fails in its primary objective of distinguishing one brand from another? With so much at stake, you’d think they’d try a little harder than throw lots of money at a small idea with big production values.

Tesco received a lot of stick for its feeble Amanda Holden vehicle. Admittedly the Belcher/Belle Chère gag isn’t that funny, but it’s a smidgin more memorable than Peter and Danii not putting a foot wrong over at M&S; Hester and Delia mouthing off at Waitrose; or the lovely Coleen prancing about like a demented fairy in the Littlewoods Christmas mansion. If you’re looking for meaningful, branded, celebrity, there’s still nothing to beat Jamie at Sainsbury’s. But that’s not saying much these days. Who wants to watch him doling out another stuffed turkey – even if it is in Halton Gill, Yorkshire’s prettiest hamlet?

One or two retailers have taken the hint and steered away from celeb culture. Asda has focused on its suppliers with a well-shot cameo of Young Farmer and Farmer of the Year Adrian Ivory and his beautiful Asda-bound Charolais. Pity he’s so wooden speaking to camera. Morrisons has been trying to teach kids the nutritional value of brussels sprouts; meagre fare – good luck to them with that one. Boots has injected a little more personality into its long-serving ‘Here Come the Girls’ theme with some slice of life stuff from five comediennes. And there’s the twinkle of an idea in Argos’s ‘Crooner’ – extinguished the moment Bing picks up the microphone and attempts to ‘update’ a White Christmas. Dream on. No amount of “Argosing” can improve on a classic; and any way, Volkswagen did it so much better with Gene Kelly Singin’ in the Rain.

The big present at the bottom of the tree must surely go to John Lewis’ Crimble effort, which just manages to veer clear of the saccharine, while reminding its audience – now here’s a lovely touch – that Christmas is as much about giving as taking. There’s even an oh-so-tasteful nod to celeb culture in there: Critics Choice 2010 BRITT Award winner Ellie Goulding backs the ad with a singalong rendition of Elton John’s ‘Your Song’.

Shame on the rest of the field for allowing that johnny-come-lately to TV advertising, John Lewis, to upstage them.

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Hush my mouth – not ‘Chevy’ but ‘Chevrolet’. Repeat after me, ‘Chev-ro-let’

June 11, 2010

I was tickled to discover General Motors has issued a decree that, heretoafter, the brand formerly known as “Chevy” (as in “levée”) will be called “Chevrolet” and nothing else.

GM decree: No more Chevy at the levée

A po-faced memo, sent to all to all employees working at the megamarque’s Detroit HQ, says: “We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising, or speaking with family friends, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward.” Then, without a trace of irony, it goes on to observe: “When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding…”

Er, no. Consistency, certainly; but Coke is “Coke” and the “Apple” in “Apple Mac”  is silent.

The memo is signed by Alan Batey, vice president for Chevrolet sales and service, and Jim  Campbell, Chevrolet’s vice president for marketing, but I strongly suspect the influence of  GM’s wunderkind marketing supremo Joel Ewanick, freshly hired from Nissan. Ewanick, it will be recalled, spectacularly fired Publicis Worldwide from the $600m ad account the minute it had won it and installed his old chums from Hyundai days, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, in its place.

Branding by decree never works when what you are up against is the property of popular culture. And Chevy (whoops, a quarter into that Detroit cuss bucket by the water-cooler) – GM’s biggest brand, accounting for 70% of its sales – is very much public property. Need I go further than quote the New York Times here? …”What about rolling back the popular culture references to Chevy? Elton John, Bob Seger, Mötley Crüe and the Beastie Boys have all sung about Chevy, and hip hop artists rap about ‘Chevy Ridin’ High’ or ‘Ridin’ in my Chevy.”” Not merely Don McLean, then.

Just to underline the wrongheadedness of it all, I have a personal anecdote to relate on this very subject. Shortly after he was installed as president of InBev UK and Ireland, Richard Evans tried to address the plummeting brand equity and sales of his company’s flagship product, Stella Artois, by deleting from the record all references to its popular sobriquet “Wife Beater”.

Kowalski: Not Stella

It was, I suppose, a bit mischievous of Marketing Week to run a cover story illustrating the sad decline of this once proud brand with a still taken from A Streetcar Named Desire, featuring Stanley Kowalski (aka Marlon Brando), clad  in “Wife Beater” tee-shirt and wielding a (photo-comped) bottle of the offensively-misnamed brew in his hand. Evans, inevitably perhaps, had a sense of humour loss and threatened to sue over defamation of the brand. A casual search of Google revealed over 1 million references linking Stella Artois to “Wife Beater”, some going back to the Sixties. We heard no more from the other side’s lawyers.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that his run-in with Marketing Week had anything to do with Evans’ precipitate departure from InBev less than two years into the job. Merely that high-handedness and successful branding are not good bedfellows.

UPDATE: Furious back-tracking by senior GM executives, who now realise what a PR blunder they have made. The memo was “poorly worded”, they admit; “We love Chevy. In no way are we discouraging customers or fans from using the name”; But “Chevrolet” will have to stay, otherwise foreigners (?!) won’t understand the brand. Globalisation, just like Marathon and Snickers, eh? Not.  More on the controversy here.


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