Tag Archives: recession

Cool hunting in a recession

In my last post I left off as I sped on my way to Walmart with a short, but important shopping list. Well, sped isn’t the right word. I kind of puttered around a bit and eventually got around to it. The problem was the list. There wasn’t a sexy thing on it. Nothing to rev my engine. Just a few of life’s little essentials. Yawn.

Does a recession have to be boring? I’m craving a little pizzazz – I’m hunting for a sexy brand story to be my beacon of hope as these financial waves keep crashing.

So who has a little sex appeal and makes a strong brand promise? Who gives you what you expect every time? Who never fails to captivate, always commanding our attention? You could call him Mr. Aurum, but ask OldGoldBug and he’ll tell you… it’s gold! Shiny, shiny gold.

Oh you can argue about how it will perform at any given moment, you can argue about when to get in and when to get out, but we can never quite get gold out of our collective imagination. Gold happens. It is like a force of nature. But is it really the brand story that I’m looking for? I mean, who controls gold? We get on board, and ride the ride, but we don’t have the reins. We don’t have a hero. There’s sex appeal, but where’s the role model?

Gold may shine, but it is not a beacon.

So maybe we need more than sex appeal. Maybe the hunt is for a brand that sets expectations and consistently meets them.

What about Coke? Coca-Cola is like gold you can drink, right? In a world of choices it is one we love to choose. Small players will flounder, experimental flavors will come and go, but Coke will endure. It has all the comfort and nostalgia of gold – we can taste it in our minds before we even pour a glass. You can’t do a much better job of turning expectation into anticipation than that. It’s refreshing even in a recession. But where’s the new? Coke hasn’t been around as long as gold, but it is older than you and me.

So here I am in Walmart cool-hunting for a brand that might have a story to tell despite the economy. An”it” brand – a “brand that can” in the shaky days ahead. I know you’re thinking “cool” and Walmart… might as well look for a contact lens in a bubble wrap factory, but their might be a glimmer of hope. The rumors are flying about a certain brand phenomenon making its way into the world of “always low prices” – the iPhone.

Yes, I’m picking Apples over Blackberries this season. The iPhone promised fun and great design and usability and cool. And it delivered. RIM doesn’t know what it is promising anymore. It is slipping into the purgatory of “me-too” when it should be trumpeting its difference and focusing on context.

Now there are some who might argue that putting the iPhone in Walmart will dilute the perceived value of the brand, but at this point all the cool kids and early adopters are already on their second iPhone. The allure of the iPhone is now moving through the mainstream middle and starting to convert some late adopters. And they’ll find plenty of them at Walmart. But that’s only part of it. You see Apple gets the idea of context. Steve Jobs understands alignment. The iPhone exists in harmony with iTunes, the App Store, and a continuity of experience with Mac OS X. The iPods and iPhones are gateway drugs for a Mac experience.

Apple is a beacon and the iPhone is their bright light, and even in a recession we’ll be following that beam towards new and better designs, and consistently (and insanely) great brand experiences.

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Diapers are recession-proof

Diapers are recession-proof.  Even cat diapers.

Yes I’m a cat person.  It may not be macho, but there it is.  I could blame the girlfriend, but it would be a fib. I’m a bona fide cat person, and these days, I’m afraid to say, I am cat-with-diapers person.  It’s a drag.  Trixie, is quite old and that darn litter box never seems to be where she needs it to be.  The solution (and it works): cat diapers! It’s not dignified (and if she knew they were actually doggie diapers she’d be mortified), but putting feline vanity aside, the fact is the diapers work, they do exactly what I expect them to do, and that is the point.

Ambiguity is out.  Meeting expectations is in.  The recession is here and it is a good time to be a thing that people not only need, but also understand that they need. People understand diapers.  They get what a diaper is here to do, and it is really easy to tell if a diaper isn’t living up to expectations. Phew.

Yet a diaper is a category, not a brand.  The same is true for peanut butter, spaghetti, and baked beans.  There are diaper-producing companies, but which ones are loved?  I have to believe that it will take more than a merely catastrophic drop in the Dow to make us trade in our disposables for those old-fashioned cotton nappies.

Will the recession tip the scales for Huggies over Pampers? Is this a win for P & G (NYSE:PG) or Kimberly-Clark (NYSE:KMB)? Probably not. The staple companies will survive, but who will thrive?  Are there companies that command the prestige of brand loyalty and offer the clear expectations of a diaper?

I’d bet on the place where most of us buy our diapers (kitty, doggie or others): Walmart (NYSE:WMT).  It is not your typical brand story. WMT does not use their substantial brand equity in the usual way.  In fact they are almost an anti-brand: Walmart doesn’t use the power of their brand to protect a premium in the marketplace. The “always low prices” mantra inhibits that, but they don’t squander their brand leverage, they turn it on their vendors.  The recession means that the squeeze will be on, and as the tempers in the overcrowded Walmart parking lots rise so will the pressure that WMT can apply to already over-taxed suppliers.  Bet against those products that are running out of ways to lower costs, but depend on Walmart for distribution.

So before I hop in the car and drive off to good ol’ Walmart to buy some more Pup’sters™ Disposable Diapers, I thought I would leave you with this thought:

I want to find the brand story of the recession.

Let’s face facts, talking about Walmart is about as sexy as talking about diapers, even kitty, I mean doggie diapers.  I want to find the company that proves that a business can be authentic, smart and savvy and can chart a successful course even in these rough waters.  I think the winners will be ones who blend three factors: clarity of expectation, consistent follow-through on meeting expectations, and a steady stream of the new and the sexy.

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