Category Archives: brands

Advertising’s Little White Lie

While there’s little research on the lack of women in creative roles, there’s even less on diversity issues. The sad truth is, advertising employs less than five percent people of color and then, you’ll find them largely working in the multicultural agencies not the general market shops. I admit this is an educated guess, because the industry will not release diversity data. I’m working to change that. With a faculty fellowship from Marquette’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, I’ll be traveling to Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami, this spring, to conduct ethnographic research and interviews within multicultural ad agencies and general market agencies.

Why does any of this matter?

It matters to me as a human being who wants equity and the opportunity for all. We need all voices to be heard so that advertising messages don’t perpetuate racism and sexism. It also matters to me as a practitioner who understands that diversity is good for business. A diversity of voices leads to better creativity and stronger ROI.

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The lack of diversity in advertising is EXACTLY why Dove, today, made a major brand misstep. Showing Black women transformed into light Brown or White women is appalling. And why did it happen? I’ll bet my retirement account on the fact there were no people of color in the decision-making process nor were there any present as this went up the decision-making food chain. I also doubt there were not many women making decisions as it went up. Women and people of color are invisible in advertising management.

In short, the lack of diversity in advertising is not just bad for Black and Brown people and women, it’s bad for business. “Wake up advertising.”




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Gold in Milwaukee

Sometimes you just have to brag about your students.
Last Thursday at the Milwaukee 99 Awards Show Marquette took home two student awards – including Gold.
HeiserEmma Kolb, Anthony Virgilio and Alex Lahr won an honorable mention for Stronger Together a TV spot done for Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin, which was their senior campaigns class client. Emma is now a freelance photographer working in Los Angeles. Anthony is an Integration Coordinator at Laughlin Constable. Alex is a Junior Copywriter at Thirsty Boy.
Nick Heiser won gold for OCD, a non-traditional promotional campaign to raise awareness about mental health, part of a project for the Mental Health Association of Milwaukee. Nick is an Associate Art Director at BVK.
I could not be more proud of these young professionals, and the strength and success of Marquette’s Fine Arts Program, which I direct.
I hope they invite me when they win at Cannes!


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Czechs: The Code of Contradiction

I say black. You say white.                                                                                                                                               You say beer. I say wine.                                                                                                                                                        I say happy. You say sad.                                                                                                                                                You say dog. I say cat.

And always with a knowing wink and an ironic nod.


McCann croppedThis is the Czech Republic. A country and culture of contradictions, the meanings of which are often inaccessible to outsiders. For the past ten days I have immersed myself in the Czech Republic. I explored Prague (it is too beautiful to miss), Brno (it is too desolate to disregard) and Beroun (it is too quiet to forego), each with ethnographic treasurers abound. I visited three ad agencies: Leo Burnett, McCann and Ogilvy – Agency of the Year, and two global clients: Mondelez and Unilever.

The more I learn about Czech culture the more normal the awards wall at McCann appears.

It is my third visit and still the cultural contrasts, the irony of nearly all things surprise me. This land was invaded and occupied during World War II, and on and off in the centuries that preceded the war. World War II was followed by a brief glimpse of democracy from 1945-48. Then communism arrived. Not until the velvet revolution of 1989 did the Czechs breathe anatomy and freedom. Its history fuels a deep and abiding cultural distrust, with displays of apathy from silence to brusque irony. But the truth behind these markers is not what you think.

As Clotaire Rapaille, author of The Culture Code, has said, people do not tell you what they actually think. Czechs are no different. But they are more extreme in this regard. No self-respecting Czech will tell you his or her personal truth. In fact, no self-respecting Czech is even likely to admit to speaking English, unless they are working and it is required or they know you. And even then, there will always be a wink and a nod.

This is not just an us versus them behavior. It is a cultural norm that pervades interactions among themselves. I once termed it “cultural shyness.” It may be. But on my third visit I have come to think of it as an all too knowing nod to the absurdity of their history, to life as they know it.

It shows itself in their advertising with over the top ironic self-deprecating humor. Consider Bohemia chips sending a Czech guy to Austin Texas, behaving ridiculously while handing out bags of Czech potato chips unavailable in America. It bubbles up in a barrage of characters and creators in sectors we Americans would never dream of. How about a cheetah (think Tony the Tiger) for Gepard mortgage services? And it reveals itself in the repackaging of the Clavin capsule (Czech Viagra) in the upright position. These are Czech, spreading joy wherever they go.

BrnoSuffice to say that the contradictions that surround you as you travel this lush land are beloved. They amuse the Czechs. And so, there is no surprise when riding the bus across the country the attendant rattles on in Czech, while the screen in front of you provides the following English translation: “Dear Passengers, please pay attention to the announcements that is being broadcast. Thank you.” You smile and think, but of course.

Nor was I surprised when in Brno two beautiful baroque buildings frame a lovely modernist structure. Indeed its colors compliment its neighbors and the rectangular shapes on the facade rather musically play off the windows of the adjoining buildings. Yet, it is a massive contradiction to the nearby structures. It is so Czech. B Esclator

In the end it is the escalators in Prague’s metros that perfectly signify the Czech cultural code of contradiction. The stairs move at one speed, while the rail travels at an all together different speed. But, of course, it is subtle. Keep your feet on the step and your hand on the rail and – with a wink and a nod – you will arrive at your destination on your face or your derriere, surly not upright.

In the Czech Republic you must always chose. In the metro the Czech generally choose their feet.


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what advertising could be

if we take a chance

if we open our minds

if we change our perceptions.

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Branding 9.11

Brands that try to leverage 9.11 generally do more damage than good. CBS58’s Bill Walsh did a nice exploration of the convergence of culture, commerce and national identity and I added commentary.

ATT tweet Never ForgetDid AT&T really think using 9.11 and rays of light where the twin towers once stood in their “never forget” tweet was patriotic? Consumers can see though this charade. They know full well AT&T is trying to sell them a new phone. Worse, consumers are insulted and the brand is tarnished – and when it’s a big brand consumers will “never forget.”

LakersDid the LA Lakers honestly believe Kobe Bryant had anything to do with 9.11? And Kobe Bryant of all choices! What were they thinking? Whatever their thoughts, they were delusional. Kobe Bryant and 9.11 are a pairing I’d prefer to forget.





Go Alabama and remember Bear Bryant on Facebook on 9.11. What? OK maybe it is the day Bryant was born. But what his hat has to do with commemoration of 9.11 I do not know. I suspect there are other anniversaries that can be used to promote the Alabama brand. Ouch!



Some poor schlep at a California Marriott franchise decided to give free mini-muffins, “in remembrance of those we lost.” Oh my! But then, the corporate apology – if one can call it that – added salt the wound. “We sincerely apologize for the perceived insensitivity.” Perceived! Really, spare us the “apology.”

WI golf

The topper – 9 holes of golf for $9.11. Shame on Tumble Down Trails and shame on The Wisconsin State Journal for taking the ad.

9.11 might best be remember without brands. And for brands who just have to make a statement – go dark. Silence is golden, in this case.


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The Gender of Branding

Yesterday, in my class at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, I spoke about early Nike women’s advertising and its hallmark positioning as an antenarrative of resistance. 1990 seems so long ago. A lifetime.

In 1990 Nike virtually ignored women and women ignored Nike. Addis owned the women’s market. Enter Janet Champ, Charlotte Moore, and later Rachel Manganiello, from Wieden + Kennedy. Together they revolutionized the way brands speak to women. Along they way the made the Nike women’s brand what it is today. For as Manganiello said, “We were using Nike to get across our own views on the matter. Nike just got lucky.” Nike got revolutionized.

At about the same time Nike was becoming the target of labor activists. They took Nike to task for its barbaric offshore labor practices. To Nike’s credit the company listened and has since become the industry’s standard-bearer for fair labor practices in offshore footwear and apparel manufacturing. Lesson learned.

OneWithout a doubt one of the calling cards that led activists to Nike was its early women’s advertising. The messages embedded within the ads spoke with passion, calling women to stand strong. “You became significant to yourself,” read copy from spring 1991. Another ad in fall of 1991 encouraged women to become “the person YOU DECIDE to be.” Is it any wonder that labor activists were drawn to the voice of early Nike women’s advertising, which implied support for American women in contrast to the blind eye Nike turned toward the factory conditions for Asian women? You decide?

Here’s the irony. As Champ crafted copy, she and her partners found themselves fighting for a voice that spoke “truth back to people in a way they didn’t hear before.” And fight they did. “Disgusted” by what they saw in women’s magazines and “pissed off that men got big budgets,” Champ and her partners resisted sequestration in women’s magazines and fought against the impositions of the male parent brand. They made sense of women’s collective memories by questioning and by making sense of something bigger than Nike. Along the way they were accused of “siphoning off” money from men’s sports and “pinkifying” the Nike brand. They resisted. They persisted.

TwoThis advertising perfectly articulates the hallmarks of the antenarrative. In my article The Gender of Branding, I argue that the team’s, “counter-hegemonic resistance also suggests a unified point of struggle, pitting the parent brand against the subordinate women’s sub-brand.” Their work, building the Nike women’s brand, under which they were forced to prioritize femininity over athleticism, at all turns, was successful beyond Nike’s wildest dreams. Despite the fact they had to “tiptoe around women athletes being real jock,” always using “pretty” models and athletes that “never sweat,” the team build an iconic brand within a brand. They resisted patriarchal impositions at each and every turn. Analyzing the ads across time, I argue that “the influence of gender is clearly articulated in the stories shared by the creative team and demonstrated by the clash over depictions of women within the ads.” Further, the often hostile communications with Nike, “as well as the creative own life experiences, significantly shaped the branded messages within the ads and fomented passionate resistance to Nike’s patriarchal structure.” They persisted. They resisted.

ThreeIn late 1995 they unveiled If You Let Me Play, the first T.V. spot for the women’s brand. It exploded onto the world. Suddenly Nike was the savior of women’s sports. The spot, like the print ads, spoke of hope. A resistant voice that had long underpinned their work and which brought the labor activists to Nike’s door, ultimately led to their demise. In 1997 the women’s account was pulled from Wieden + Kennedy and the team went silent. But, not forgotten.

In the end, to quote Champ’s copy, “It’s never too late to have a life; and it’s never too late to change one.” That is exactly what they did. Just do it.


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Branded Codes

Finding the essential brand truth – the brand code – is like a treasure hunt. Circuitous routes, long roads, many dead-ends, endless clues, but ultimately a treasure worth its weight in gold.

Brand planning, particularly planning that utilizes ethnography, semiotics and projective techniques can provide a client with rich data leading to the brand code. From there it’s up to the creatives to create stories that link the brand code with consumers, many of whom may not yet know their passion for the brand. Amassing the legions of qualitative data (in my opinion the only way to find the sweet spot) is where the best planning begins. Distilling the data down becomes the challenge.

Understanding the cultural myths that surround your brand is essential. So too is understanding consumers’ earliest memory of your brand or product category. Clotaire Rapaille has a lot to say about finding out how brand experiences imprint young minds. More importantly he has a lot to say about how imprinting impacts how marketers speak to consumers today.

Yesterday I presented two models to my Italian and Austrian students. The first helps identify the brand essence on a bridge between consumers and the brand. Using their work from the ethnographic class exercise and pairing it with fieldwork in cafes the brand code for illy coffee, targeting Italian college students (not the expected target), might look like this.


From there we moved onto a great model that employs the concept of brands as friends. Among a list of nine possible friends students considered what Italian and Austrian or German brands might be soul mates or close friends. Considering that the idea of brands as friends is culturally bound to an American ethos, I found their choices spot on. Almost. Two Italian brands battle for the two tops spots. Perhaps my Italian students will jump on the blog and defend why their brand choice is truly the soul mate of Italy. Friend

Later a student shared McDonald’s as the forced Italian friend. How often does a brand lust for this position? Almost never. But to be the forced choice of fast food in Italy could not be better positioning. Rapaille would be delighted. There could be no better imprinting, as fast food roots itself in Italy. Ah, but the thought of fast food in Italy seems a sin. A pitiful sin McDonald’s happily commits.

I’m off to lecture on early Nike women’s advertising and The Gender of Branding. Ciao!


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