John Tantillo´s Brand Winner... And Loser: The U.S. Navy and the Train To Nowhere

Brand Winner…

   And Loser

John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of the Week:   

Winner: The United States Navy

Loser: Train To Nowhere

Folks, without further ado:

The Winner

I was tempted to pick Susan Boyle, the YouTube singing sensation. Her overnight success was driven by worldwide audience demand and the profound power of the Internet to connect —and demonstrates once again that marketers big and small have a tool in their hands that we still don’t really understand or control.

But in the end, I had to Go Navy! I’m speaking about the expert rescue of the hostage captain by the U.S. Bainbridge and three Navy Seal snipers. 

Susan Boyle may or may not become a famous singer with a long-lasting career. It may be that her success falls into the fifteen-minutes-of-fame category and in the end is seen as a fluke —after all, is she really a great singer, or is the adulation more the product of a confluence of events? 

In other words, is her success the result of the tireless building of a brand? I’d say probably not. It is probably more an instance of the moment making the brand, rather than the brand making the moment.

The Navy’s success this week is different. The rescue of the captain was the direct result of the Navy being prepared to make such a rescue possible. The Navy Seals exist to do difficult and elite work —to pull off the near impossible. The Navy brand made the moment.

That’s why it took three bullets at a distance of 100 yards in rough seas to free one man. 

The Navy is the winner because these kinds of moments underscore the strength of a brand, and they get remembered. They’re remembered by foreign governments who might wonder just how prepared our Navy is. They’re remembered by U.S. citizens who wonder if a career in the Navy is right for them.  The Navy can do a million canned advertisements, but there is no better recruitment tool than this one event. 

Moments like this have a marketing echo effect that goes on for a very long time. (Likewise, negative moments like the botched rescue of our hostages in Tehran three decades ago had monumental consequences for our perception of our country and our armed forces.) The Navy brand is solid from the bottom up and is designed to do its job —that is real marketing.

Go Navy!

The Loser

This week, President Obama proposed an ambitious “high-speed” rail system for our country. 

From a marketing perspective, this is nothing but “the train to nowhere” and earns our President’s administration Loser of the Week.

I would have expected better from one of the best poli-marketers of our age —the man, who, after all, reached new heights of pull-marketing strategy during his campaign.  (For further discussion on pull marketing in past blog posts, see here, here and here.) 

Who was calling for this “high-speed” rail? The voters who put him in the White House? 

I don’t think so. 

No, this idea seems to be the kind of thing minted by some ideological think bubble where no idea is too green and no cost too high when it comes to visions of slick inter-city Euro-style rail service destroying our nation’s love affair with personal independence and the car.

My main problem here is that this isn’t real marketing: it’s classic build-it-and-they-will-come thinking.  

Why address a twenty-first century problem with a nineteenth-century, high-overhead, big-infrastructure technology like railroad? Why not spend the same money on a telecommuting initiative. That would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if that’s what the Administration is really after?

Not only that, there is real doubt about whether it is even possible to build this system and even what exactly it is President Obama is proposing to build. Even The Oregonian, which endorses high-speed rail, doubts that this plan will fly, because what it is calling high-speed rail wouldn’t even qualify as such in other countries.

Thus another sin against real marketing: window-dressing your brand as something it is not. Window dressing almost always comes back to bite you, because your Target Market is not going to be in the dark forever. 

When Obama´s “high-speed” train is creeping past Baltimore because the federal plan didn’t have enough money or vision, voters will know they got stuck with a lemon and will blame the President. 

Apparently, the President’s plan is to bring our rail service up to the level that Asia and Europe upgraded out of years ago. Yes, nothing spells progress like going backward. (And don’t forget: the European model of high-speed rail works in large part because the distances between major cities are so much smaller than in our vast country.)

Moreover, the “high-speed” rail plan could do damage to President Obama’s brand because of the appearance of micro-managing. I’ve written about that danger here, but something about this plan makes me think that the President is about to put on a hard hat and play contractor on-site —threatening to take the “Yes, We Can” of the campaign to absurd Bob-the-Builder heights.

And one more strike against the poli-marketer: Chicago will apparently be the Midwestern hub for the rail plan. This may make a lot of sense, but I can’t help but think this could come back to haunt the President, especially when bidding and big contracts start making news back on his home turf.

But ultimately, I have to return to the idea that there is simply no need for this kind of rail service in the United States. Our first railroads were revolutionary and set loose a torrent of economic activity that propelled the United States to first-world status. 

But these new railroads? 

With Detroit struggling, is it really wise to bankroll a competing mode of transportation? Ditto, the airlines? 

Of course not. 

Eisenhower’s great National Highway Program was government investment that identified and unleashed the nation’s need to have high-quality vehicular commercial and personal transport from coast to coast. It created opportunities for commerce.
What will this new rail program do for the development of the next generation alternatively-powered cars and trucks? Disincentivize would be the word.

Whether or not the “high-speed” rail system ever actually gets off the ground, the message being transmitted by the Obama brand on this one is clear… and contradictory: We are pushing big government programs that don’t necessarily have any real connection to how things work in this country and that work against other things (like rescuing Detroit) that we are doing with huge government initiatives.

I criticized the lack of focus of the tea parties last week —well, those who oppose big government spending and think that the future of the country lies in as much free enterprise as possible, might just have one of their first footholds here. (See my post on the Tea Party here.)

And remember, it’s always easier when you keep marketing and branding in mind.


Window dressing you brand almost always comes back to bite you, because your Target Market is not going to be in the dark forever.


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