Archive for the 'Branding' Category


Self-Branding by Buying

“My Brand” exhibitionLast week, I touched on the idea of individual, global microbrands. Thinking about what defines an individual microbrand, I’ve wondered how the things we buy contribute to our microbrands. For example, what does my use of a Sony Ericcson cell phone say about me? Personally, I don’t think it says much of anything. However, what if I was flashing a Giorgio Armani Samsung?

The things we choose to buy and use invariably become a part of individual identities. Just try separating a Crackberry user from his device. Fair warning: there may be blood involved. As we go along, we add these smaller pieces to our identities, believing they contribute to the bigger picture of who we believe ourselves to be.

Somehow the Macbook Air says something important about you that no other laptop can convey. Somehow that Vuitton handbag makes a previously boring outfit a smashing success. Somehow, we end up believing that by adopting another brand as our own, we’re creating our own microbrand.

There’s nothing inherently evil about buying things you like. However, I do believe you’re on a slippery slope if you believe something external defines your individual microbrand. For me, the idea of a personal microbrand revolves around the notion that it comes from that uniquely you center of being. It isn’t dependent on buying a particular laptop or wearing designer kicks.

John Dryden in The Hind and the Panther included the very relevant line, “All, as they say, that glitters is not gold.” (link) The same principle applies in this situation, too. Using other brands to create your own does nothing more than build a shell. Under pressure, the shell will crack, undermining your efforts to establish your microbrand. If it doesn’t come from inside, how are you different from anyone else?

If she has the money, any individual can buy a Macbook Air. Does it really make sense to base one’s identity on a value that anyone else can purchase? When you decide to figure out what your individual, global microbrand is, keep in mind that it shouldn’t be a mirror image of the guy standing next to you.


(Image courtesy of dadawan. Some rights reserved.)


Amazon’s Language Problem

Amazon Screenshot

I’ve debated for weeks whether to write this post (I apologize in advance. It’s long). I’m questioning my relationship with Amazon. How, you might ask, does my relationship with Amazon relate to this blog? Amazon’s language has crossed a point where I believe it warrants examination. Let’s start with a little background. I have an Amazon Prime membership, which gives me free two-day shipping and a discount on next day shipping.

From the beginning, I loved it. Then, something started happening. I started getting packages later than two days and via my postman. The shipping labels revealed that these packages were shipped via DHL. Curious, I did some checking and found that DHL didn’t deliver in my area, instead relying on USPS to complete delivery of their packages. The result? The earliest I’ll receive my package is three days, with the additional hassle of having to visit the post office myself if I’m not at home when the mail is delivered to sign for the package.

After this same chain of events happening multiple times, I decided to contact Amazon and see if I could remove DHL as a shipping option. Now, I am familiar with Amazon’s Shipping Policy, which doesn’t allow for specifying a particular shipper. However, I thought that it made sense that one could opt out of one shipper, leaving Amazon the option of all the other available companies. This idea seemed reasonable because of DHL’s inability to fulfill the expectation of an Amazon Prime Membership. I also saw I wasn’t the only one having issues with DHL via an Amazon customer discussion (link). It seemed worthwhile to contact Amazon.

First Message

Here was my first message to Amazon from last November (I wasn’t yet familiar with the official shipping policy):

I consistently have issues when anything is shipped via DHL. They do not offer delivery to my area, and any packages they receive they put in Priority Mail. UPS delivers regularly and without issues. Can I specify a shipper (UPS or FedEx) for my Prime Membership?

Here was the response from Amazon’s Customer Service:

Thank you for writing to us with your comments about DHL.

We are aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and we appreciate your feedback. I have passed your message along to our shipping department, as I know they will want to read about your experience.

Please note that, we use a variety of carriers which we have found provide the best service for our different shipping options. At this time, it is not possible to request a specific carrier for your order.

Our Standard Domestic shipping is done by the United States Postal Service, UPS, DHL, and FedEx. If you select Two-Day or One-Day Shipping, your package may be delivered by UPS, DHL, or FedEx. These shipments are delivered on weekdays only. Additionally, some exceptionally large or heavy items may be shipped by a specialty carrier such as Eagle Freight.

For more information about our shipping policies and prices, please visit our Help pages:

Thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments. We hope to see you again soon at

Hmm. Ok. My comments are passed on to the shipping department. I start to see a steady stream of UPS 2nd Day, so I figure the shipping department took the hint. Then Christmas happened.

Second Message

Based on the number of my orders shipped via DHL and the less than timely delivery, I contacted Amazon in January:

Again, my issue isn’t with selecting any one particular shipper for my order. My concern is that I’ve identified one shipper in particular, DHL, that is unable to meet the expectations set by your Amazon Prime program when delivering an order to me. Otherwise, I have no preference as to who delivers my orders whether it’s FedEx, UPS, or USPS. I’m simply asking that you address the issue of where that leaves me with my Amazon Prime membership if I’m not receiving my orders in the 2-day window highlighted as a benefit of paying for a Prime membership. Does a limitation exist within Amazon’s system that you can’t flag delivery area issues related to specific carriers? I can’t believe that I’m the only one with this particular issue.

Here was Amazon’s response. This second message is where my interest in Amazon’s language perked:

Thank you for writing to us with your comments about DHL.

I apologize for the inconvenience this issue might have caused, regarding late delivery of your orders when shipped t[h]rough DHL.

We are aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and we appreciate your feedback. I have passed your message along to our shipping department, as I know they will want to read about your experience.

Thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments. We hope to see you again soon at

Based on this email, I started wondering, does Amazon have a database of accepted phraseology for dealing with customer issues?

Third Message

Then, I decided to have an order shipped overnight at the end of January, and paid for the upgrade, again via Amazon Prime. My third message to Amazon explains what happened:

Again, I’ve still received no answer about Amazon’s response to ongoing service issues with DHL. I know there’s a user forum with well over 1,000 entries highlighting the issue. I also know that you’ve forwarded my previous emails to the shipping department. I’m afraid I still haven’t seen anything to indicate that Amazon is taking this issue seriously or how they plan to solve it.

Please, I would like to know why Amazon continues to ship my orders via DHL, knowing that DHL will NEVER meet the two-day Prime shipping benefit and that they rely upon a second vendor (USPS) to complete delivery. At the earliest, I won’t receive my package for three days when DHL 2-Day is used. When DHL Next Day was used for the order number I’ve included, the estimated arrival date was January 30, 2008. I didn’t receive the package until February 2, 2008. I know weather is a factor in deliveries, but please explain to me why you’re using a service that told me my package was out for delivery on January 31, and yet it didn’t appear until February 2 via USPS.

While the extra days required for a DHL delivery are frustrating enough, if I happen to not be available when the mail is delivered to sign for a DHL-shipped Amazon package, I have to travel to the post office to pick up my package. There’s no second delivery attempt made when you send my orders via DHL. I don’t care who else you send my shipments with as long as it’s NOT DHL.

And yes, I’m fully aware of your shipping policy that doesn’t allow for the selection of shipping vendors. Does Amazon care that the service practices of one of its shipping vendors reflects so poorly on it? Are there no solutions to this issue?

Amazon’s response:

Thank you for writing to us with your comments about DHL regularly not delivering within delivery estimates.

I read your complete message and we are aware that our choice of delivery services reflects on our business as a whole, and we appreciate your feedback. As you are already aware that we have passed your message along to our shipping department, who have responsibilities to look in to these issues and take actions accordingly.

Customer service is not in a position to make changes to web site features or functions. I hope you can understand customer service limitations in this regard.

Thank you again for taking the time to send us your comments.

Amazon’s Issue

If customer service isn’t actually answering customer questions, then what are they accomplishing? To be clear, I’m not angry with the individuals who had the task of responding to my emails. I’m not even sure that I’m angry at Amazon. Instead, I’m perplexed. Why have they trained their agents to NOT answer questions or solve problems?

The only acknowledgment I get about customer services limitations comes in the third message, and it’s on a topic I don’t believe I ever knowingly addressed, changing web site features. I get that scalability is an issue for any customer service department, but is Amazon’s so disconnected that its representatives can’t see they’ve told me basically the same thing every single time they’ve contacted me? Do these actions really meet Amazon’s definition of customer service?

Why isn’t Amazon talking to its customers? And why is the language that is used so obviously copy and paste? Perhaps Amazon’s size gives it a sense of invincibility. However, for a company that prides itself on a delivering a quality experience, my experience feels leaves something to be desired.

Consider the words of CEO and founder Jeff Bezos:

  • “We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.” (link)
  • “A brand for a company is like a reputation for a person. You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well.” (link)
  • “And the reason I’m so obsessed with these drivers of the customer experience is that I believe that the success we have had over the past 12 years has been driven exclusively by that customer experience. We are not great advertisers. So we start with customers, figure out what they want, and figure out how to get it to them.” (link)

This language seems completely opposite to the responses I’m getting via email. Why the disconnect?

Lesson Learned

I suspect Amazon will never stop using DHL for my orders, and I’m willing to bet that any message I send them will inform me they’ve sent my comments to the shipping department. In an earlier post I wrote about predictability vs. consistency. I wonder if Amazon is wise enough to recognize that their customer service is falling into the trap of predictability and not in a good way.

Amazon succeeded where other companies failed because they were different, but it’s becoming harder and harder to see the difference as they start to sound like everybody else.



Playing Tag

Most times, when I sign up for a new social service, I’m asked to “tag” myself. When I scroll through the possible tags, and even contemplate making up my own, I wonder what the world would be like if we physically wore our tags. For example, how many tags would clutter your forehead? Would you pick and choose locations, placing more value on certain body parts than others? Would you be comfortable wearing every tag you apply to yourself in the virtual world?

We’re familiar with tagging ourselves based on the brands we wear and use. Certain conclusions are sometimes drawn based on brand usage. I used to wear Nike running shoes until they quit making my particular style. This change forced a switch to a Mizuno shoe and I’d never gone back (keeping my fingers crossed Mizuno doesn’t phase out my shoe too). Without fail, all the serious runners (e.g., run no matter the weather) held their noses at my early use of a Nike running shoe.

Apparently, and this happens pretty much every time you start something new, certain brands are looked on with less respect than others. In my case, Nike running shoes were seen as less than the ideal, even though I found them to be a perfect fit for my long, narrow foot. My move to a Mizuno shoe increased my potential to be identified as a “serious” runner (even though I won’t run when it’s snowing).

The same things happens in technology. At every tech conference I’ve attended, you see a line separating Mac users and PC users. Automatic judgments happen based on the computer someone uses, both good and bad. This reality brings me back to my original question: what would appear on your forehead? You’re willing to wear brands that you identify with. Would you dare share your self-identified tags outside the virtual world of the Web?

I wonder sometimes if our use of tags isn’t in a way a move backwards, or at least sideways. For a long time, we’ve dealt with the obvious identifiers of race and gender, even nationality. Now we’re subscribing to even more specific tags of our own choosing, but tags nonetheless. How do we avoid the stereotypes? Is it even possible to avoid stereotypes?

The First Meeting

I think about this every time I meet a new client for the first time in person. As much as I cringe at the phone (seems so impersonal), it can be an equalizer. Your impression is based on the sound of my voice and how I represent myself in the conversation. Unless you have an utterly annoying whine, the phone can be your friend. For me, first in-person meetings are almost always a coin toss.

I don’t look my age (I’ll be grateful in 10 years), I’m relatively small (5’4″), and I’m female. Depending on my audience, I have to counter the initial impressions of my physical presence. Granted, they know I’m female before the meeting, but weird things still seem to happen with the occasional client based on my size and gender. Luckily, they’ve all worked out just fine.

For others, there is a first impression that I look too young to be doing what I’m doing. I can counter that through our conversation by relating my expertise and recommendations for their project. It’s usually never an issue after that. I relate these experiences because I wonder if the response would be different if I came in wearing “tags.” Would my clients have a better idea of who and what I am, a full rather than an abstract concept, if I plastered my tags on my person? Would it make a difference? Is there a way to do it figuratively?

Retiring Tags

I’ve also wondered what happens after a tag no longer applies to who you are. Can you transition away from it, or are you stuck? Will you forevermore be known as a fan of Barry Manilow? And do the more tags you choose and then discard box you in, making it difficult to grow and change?

This post is full of questions that I don’t have the answers to, questions that I think we’ll be with us for a very long time. History seems inclined to argue that we push back against tags, or labels if you prefer, that many of the big moments in history were about redefining a tag. Is the tagging system we’re participating in flexible enough to not require uprising in the future, or are we once again, in spite of good intentions, tagging ourselves into a corner?



McDonald’s Even Makes Carrots Taste Better

Growing up, I ate plenty of Happy Meals, seduced by the little piece of plastic made in Taiwan included with the meal. I didn’t give much thought to the food. But apparently I didn’t realize the strong pull of advertising directed my way. Researchers have found that pre-schoolers recognized and based food likes on their familiarity with the Golden Arches. In essence, researchers proved, yet again, that young kids are susceptible to branding messages.

The study, funded by Stanford University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, included three different foods available at McDonald’s, plus milk, juice, and carrots. Kids were given two sets of food. One set was presented in the recognizable McDonald’s wrapper. The second set was presented in unmarked packaging. The results (I think you know where this is going) showed that every time a child was presented with the food wrapped in the McDonald’s brand, it beat the plainly wrapped food. The research also found only two of the 63 children in the study had never eaten at McDonald’s and that a third went there once a week.

Let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin.

For several years now, the experts have loudly debated the impact of advertising on children. This study seems to confirm the fears of those advocating against child-focused advertising:

“You see a McDonald’s label and kids start salivating,” said Diane Levin, a childhood development specialist who campaigns against advertising to kids. (link)

And if you can imagine, advocates feel enough isn’t being done to protect children:

Dr. Victor Strasburger, author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children, said…”Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about—to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product.”

While I don’t advocate turning children into brand robots, I can’t help but wonder who is driving those children to McDonald’s. And even older children have to get money from somewhere if they’ve ventured to McDonald’s on their own. Every time I hear the arguments against advertising to children, I’m surprised they don’t mention cutting off advertising to unsuspecting parents. Given that the study was a question of branding’s power:

Pradeep Chintagunta, a University of Chicago marketing professor, said a fairer comparison might have gauged kids’ preferences for the McDonald’s label vs. another familiar brand, such as Mickey Mouse.

“I don’t think you can necessarily hold this against” McDonald’s, he said, since the goal of marketing is to build familiarity. (link)

No doubt, outside sources impact our individual decisions. But have we reached a point where we’re willing to limit speech with the intent of protecting children? How many programs have started with the intent of protecting children and slowly expanded into protecting adults from themselves? I propose that educating, both children and adults, can do as much if not more good, than simply protecting. At some point in their young lives, children will be exposed to advertising, regardless of any limitations placed on producers of “dangerous” things. Don’t children deserve to be equipped with the basic knowledge that explains branding’s power “to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product?”


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