Monthly Archives: May 2011

Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week: Ronald McDonald and 3-D

Brand Winner… And Loser…


Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week

Winner:  Ronald McDonald

Loser:  3-D




You’d think with 550 health professionals recently signing a letter to get rid of Ronald McDonald, McDonald’s longtime clown/spokesperson, we’d have to shift the yellow and orange icon into the loser column.

As they say in my neighborhood: fuggedaboutit.

The letter ran two weeks ago as a full-page ad in six big newspapers, but the controversy has grown to a fever pitch in the days since.

The health professionals argue that McDonald’s must retire its clown and get rid of its Happy Meals because this kind of “marketing can no longer be ignored as a significant part” of the obesity health epidemic.

McDonald’s shot back with this: “We understand the importance of children’s health and nutrition, and are committed to being part of the dialogue and solution.”

With increasing government and societal pressure on food makers to stop marketing high fat, high sugar foods to kids, and with major letters like this, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the days of Ronald and the Happy Meals really are numbered.

But McDonald’s response at this critical moment could and should make all the difference. 

According to the Davie Brown Index, compiled by Omnicom Group’s Marketing Arm, 99% of U.S. consumers recognize Ronald.

It takes decades to build up this kind of recognizability and it would be sheer stupidity to squander it by retiring Ronald.  And have the healthy food signatories even thought about what this would do to the incredible influence of Ronald McDonald houses on cancer care?

The signatories on this letter and those who think like them are simply not thinking creatively.  But I guarantee that McDonald’s will, because McDonald’s is one of the greatest marketing forces in the world and being one of the greatest marketing forces in the world means being adaptable and meeting customer need.

A few years ago, and for each Christmas since, I made the Fat Santa argument. It goes like this.  Santa is a recognizable role model for kids, but he’s too fat.  Nothing wrong with a plump Santa, but a morbidly obese Santa –well, that’s another story.  My point is that childhood obesity and all its attendant health impacts are real and they must be faced.  With a few tweaks, Santa is well-positioned to help in this battle and being the benevolent, jolly old elf that he is, we all know that he will happily get on board.

Ronald McDonald is in a similar position.  Far from retiring him, McDonald’s can re-invigorate Ronald by enlisting him in the campaign against childhood obesity.  In fact, the entire company is set to become a huge force for good in a healthy eating campaign.  They’ve shown what they can do in terms of weaving in healthy choices into their standard menu and then promoting these options.

Ronald can endorse moderation, healthy choices, and balance.  Cereal companies have been dancing this dance for years, weighing the attraction of sugary, “fun” foods with the need to provide nutritional value.

Bottom line, Ronald McDonald should go nowhere but up from here.  This is Ronald’s moment and rather than go into damage control, McDonald’s needs to lead the crusade –but on its own terms, not those of reactionary health do-gooders.


Just a few years ago, 3-D was touted as the potential savior of the movie industry as it struggled with Internet downloads and declining box office.

But after more disappointing results, 3-D’s this week’s loser.

Turns out that the old saying you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear is still apt –even more so— in our fractured media age.

The trend to “add value” to new releases by offering them in 3-D has proven a bust. 

Fact is, if the content isn’t there, people aren’t going to pay a lot extra for a few effects.

Here are a two telling facts:

1.      Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides did only 47 percent of its business in 3-D (when 60% was expected).  Kung Fu Panda 2 did about the same percentage.  This trend has caused one noted analyst, Richard Greenfield of BTIG, to say, “The American consumer is rejecting 3-D.”

2.      While event films still manage to attract a sizeable 3-D crowd, “smaller” movies trying to exploit the format for more dollars are failing to do so.

The president of IMAX, Greg Foster, says it best: “Audiences are very smart.  When they smell something aspiring to be more than it is, they catch on very quickly.”

And that, folks, is the fundamental reality of marketing.   Consumers aren’t dumb or easily manipulated.  They’re pretty smart.  People expect value for money.  If value for money isn’t there, then sales will evaporate.

What’s worth noting is the performance of Hangover 2.  Not only is Hangover 2 the leading movie of this Memorial Day weekend, it is also the biggest comedy opening of all time.  And, most important, it is decidedly not in 3-D.

Bottom line, the entertainment brand always comes down to a handful of questions: Is the product actually entertaining?  Is the product sought after?  Does a certain technology make the product more entertaining and more sought after? 

If the answer to the last question is “no,” as seems to be the case with 3-D, then the technology is at best a distraction and at worst a liability.  My guess is that for many films, 3-D is the latter, but we’ll probably see it stick around as an option for the so-called “event” films, especially those where the effects enhance the action and the entertainment.

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



TODAY’S TANTILLO TAKEAWAY –  Brand icons can almost always be re-directed and re-shaped to meet changing needs.





Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week: Ashton Kutcher and The IMF

Brand Winner… And Loser…


Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week

Winner:  Ashton Kutcher

Loser:  The IMF




Ashton Kutcher is the winner of the week and not just because he has landed a plum role on CBS’s hit comedy Two and a Half Men. 

If anything, the decision to select Kutcher to replace Charlie Sheen on the show is the consequence of years of consistently winning brand strategies on the part of the entertainer.

Why pay Kutcher $750,000 an episode (his estimated salary)?   Simple.  He brings one of the most established entertainment brands to the table. 

Fact is, press reports don’t describe Kutcher as just an actor anymore.  No.  He’s known as a social media entrepreneur. 

Kutcher has more than 6.8 million followers on Twitter and has just partnered with Ubermedia to launch a unique Twitter client intended to appeal and support his fan base.   

Talk about a guy who understands that the role of an entertainer is to deliver what the fans want.  Charlie Sheen forgot this.  He mistakenly thought that his concerns and pre-occupations were his fans’.  His tour wasn’t about serving their needs, it was always about serving his own –that’s why it flopped.

But Kutcher is no Sheen.  He was one of the first and is certainly one of the savviest when it comes to using social media to support his traditional media roles in movies and on television.

CBS and the show’s producers know that when they get Kutcher, they’re also getting a one-man marketing machine. 

Sheen did this too, you say?  Sure, but he did it backwards.  It was the success in the traditional media that gave him the initial power to strike out on his own with Twitter –but when there isn’t content behind social media momentum you see what happens: things fizzle like they did for Sheen.

Kutcher’s development of a Twitter following was strategic marketing, it was done over time (albeit a very short period) and reflects genuine fan interest and support; Sheen, on the other hand, followed a promotional and fad-like trajectory.  His ranting drew attention and a quick spike in Twitter followers but these followers simply did not have the “quality” of Kutcher’s.

Kutcher’s smart enough to know that the two, traditional and social media, work best when they work together.  Hats off to a great brander!


The International Monetary Fund is our loser of the week for one very simple reason.  When they had the chance to get rid of a brand liability –Dominique Strauss-Kahn— they didn’t.

The IMF brand crisis didn’t begin last weekend, it began long before that when Strauss-Kahn was barely punished for an affair that in almost any other corporate or government context would have ended his career.

The fact that it didn’t said all you need to know about the IMF. 

Bottom line, the problem is cultural with the organization.  The Strauss-Kahn scandal needs to wake up the organization and all those who support the organization.

What’s needed now is a top to bottom review of the culture inside IMF and an active statement of reform made by the leadership.  Next, action that fixes the problem and the right kind of communication to let everyone know that the problem has been fixed. 

No organization and institution today should be making a mistake like this…  Folks, I’m not talking about public relations here or putting the right spin on a crisis, I’m speaking about the essence of marketing which is having the right structure, or in this case, corporate culture, in place from the start –or else sincerely fixing the problem.  No amount of story-crafting will change the underlying story-rot at the center of IMF’s permissive culture and the same holds true for any institution today –the brand message comes directly from the everyday truth of the brand.   And that truth is partly based on a history of decisions both small and large like the decision to look the other way at executive behavior at IMF.

Brands are destroyed one bad decision at a time, but they can also be rebuilt.

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




Brand success or failure is the result of individual decisions over a period of time.





Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week: Skype and The Ivy League

Brand Winner… And Loser…


Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week

Winner:  Skype

Loser:  The Ivy League




Finally, Microsoft has done something really right.  The company’s purchase of Skype for 8.5 billion dollars, its largest acquisition ever, is the kind of bold risk that many condemn at the time under the category “They Overpaid” but later come to see as the staggering, history-making opposite.

Make no mistake, Skype is no MySpace, the high flyer of the social network craze that never paid off as an investment.  Skype might not be making a profit but its brand is deeply established.  When we want to chat by “video” (basically whenever we want to talk via our computers) we use the new verb “Skype.”

Of course, just because a company name is part of the language doesn’t mean the brand is bullet proof (e.g., Johnson & Johnson still sell Band-Aids but so can anyone), but no brand is ever bullet proof.  Skype is much more than its name, Skype is its functionality and almost universal presence.   People are wowed by Facebook’s 500 million registered users (of which maybe half are active?).  Skype has over 600 million registered and at any given time, twenty-four hours a day, you can hop online and see that tens of millions of them are active. 

When we analyze Skype what matters the most is three inter-related things: 1) the wide-range of its users and 2) the ease and simplicity of using it and 3) the need it supplies.

Bottom line, its users don’t just comprise a certain demo- or psycho-graphic, they represent everyone from teens to grandmothers.  Why?  That’s where #2 and #3 come together.  Not everyone wants to be a social networker or sees the point in either a MySpace or Facebook page, but almost everyone has someone to communicate with somewhere in the world and if given the choice they want to be able to do this for as cheap as possible as long as it isn’t too complicated.  Skype delivers on both counts. 

Fact is, Skype is the telephone service of the Internet age, arguably the first Internet service that is really for the mass market in the way the telephone was.

Sure there are competitors, Google Voice and Apple’s FaceTime, but Skype has an enormous lead and Skype already has two established features that should be the envy of any Internet company: 1) they have a platform that could readily be used for advertising and promotion and 2) they already have a system in place to charge people (i.e., Skype Credit and Skype subscription services) that enable them to make money by charging people some of the lowest prices anywhere for dialing land and mobile phones.

Hats off to Microsoft.  My only advice to the company: keep Skype separate and remember what has made it a success in the first place.  Too much change to the service, especially pricing and how the Skype interface works, could be fatal.


In branding you really cannot have your cake and eat it too.

(A branding aside, Ferrari announced a family car this past week.  Wow.  What a mistake.  Sure, family driving is a nice, rich market, but family driving is not what Ferrari is all about.  Brand extensions that contradict your core characteristics dilute the brand.  This is known as the trading-down strategy and it’s inherently risky because your traditional target market can be quickly alienated.  End of story.)

The Ivy League is our loser of the week for precisely this reason. 

These select schools have built their reputations over literally hundreds of years by being just that: select.

They can rightly be accused of being elitist, but it is being elitist that supports their enduring appeal.

Recently, though, some of the schools in the Ivy League seem to have been practicing some below-the-belt marketing aimed at broadening their audience and making the schools –as if this were even necessary— look even more exclusive.  How?  By reaching out with promotional materials and invitations to apply to students who didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of getting accepted.  This plumps the numbers so that an even smaller percentage of people actually get accepted (this year, for example, a record 6.2 percent of applicants were accepted at Harvard).

Folks, this is really the worst kind of marketing.  Not only does it leave a terrible taste in the mouth of thousands who find themselves rightfully disillusioned at a very sensitive time of their lives, but it also sends a message that these highly esteemed institutions have stooped to cynical and predatory marketing gimmicks –the kind of stunts that give marketing a bad name.

Fact is, this isn’t marketing at all because it violates one of the cornerstone rules of marketing: don’t raise false expectations in your Target Market.  Don’t pretend to be able to deliver something that you cannot.  Promotions that do this are doomed to fail.  They might not seem to fail right away (e.g., Harvard and others get significant spikes in the number of applicants), but they corrode brand equity.  Like Ferrari you can’t be exclusive and simultaneously not-exclusive.

But the Ivy League isn’t just some luxury or status brand, it is an institutional brand that is meant to express high academic and, dare-I-say-it?, ethical and cultural values.  Tactics like this are even more damaging for institutional brands.

The good news for the Ivy League is this: if they abandon these cheap tactics soon, the damage shouldn’t be permanent.  After all, it takes generations to build up profound institutional brands like these and they won’t be diminished overnight.  The only question is: will these tactics stop?  When distinguished college admissions counselors are calling Harvard’s tactics “not honorable” and “misleading,” they better.

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




Marketing without an understanding of the brand behind the campaign is just a tactic at a fire sale. 





Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week: Marvel and Chrysler

Brand Winner… And Loser…


Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week

Winner:  Marvel

Loser:  Chrysler




Thor thundered away at the box office this past weekend earning almost $66 million domestically.  It’s done $240 million worldwide, beating the first releases of high performing movie franchises like X-Men and The Fantastic Four.

Marvel’s success with yet another movie adaptation of a character from its deep bench is a vivid illustration of what brand equity means.

I’ve written a lot about the mistaken notion that a brand is somehow just a name.  When Gourmet magazine was shut down but remained a name, the folks who did the closing up shop (getting rid of editorial and all that stood behind the name) incorrectly believed that they were somehow still retaining value in the name.

But for a brand’s name to have value, there must be value behind the name.  That value is built over time; that value is consistently maintained; that value is expanded when it can be expanded.

The Marvel model brilliantly shows us how.  First, Marvel has for decades created new characters in its comic universe then had those characters appear month after month in new scenarios.  The whole process of having to appeal so regularly to a changing audience is like operating in a brand furnace where concepts can be perfected.  That’s why a Marvel character like Thor or Ironman has such power –they have been audience tested for years.

More than a decade ago, Marvel didn’t quite seem to understand the power of its brand and its many individual character “brands”.  That was before the long run of movies reminded the company and the world of this equity.

All of us can learn from Marvel.  A brand starts with a concept that a Target Market finds appealing.  Then that concept is field tested.  The field testing helps to refine the brand and also confirms that the concept is strong.   Then, as is the case with Marvel, the brand is consistently sold to the Target Market and that brand that survives by way of striking a balance between adaptation and staying true to its core becomes incredibly strong –so strong that no one can come along and simply create the same kind of success out of thin air.

That’s why, despite all the creative folks out there trying to get the next big thing in superheroes, a company like Marvel keeps delivering.  It’s not that Thor or Ironman are simply tried and true that gives them brand equity; it’s how they became tried and true that matters.

Marvel is reaping the dividends from the brand building it has been doing since the early 1960s.  End of story. 


Chrysler could do with a lesson on brands from General Motors.

Whereas, General Motors has re-committed itself to the idea that people buy brands not companies and has put itself firmly back on the path to global dominance by building each of its great brands; Chrysler looks like it’s doing the opposite.

I’m talking about Chrysler’s focus on itself as a company and not on its individual automobile brands.

Recently the company announced its first profitable quarter since its government rescue.  Chrysler made a big deal about it, but it wasn’t much.  Only one percent of its first quarter sales.

Arguably, unlike GM, the Chrysler “brand” has always carried more weight when it came to the individual car brands.  When Lee Iaccoca oversaw Chrysler’s turnaround decades ago giving the company brand a breath of life was part of the strategy and it worked.

But too much emphasis on the company brand over the individual  car brands is a mistake.  Unfortunately, here is was Olivier Francois, the new head of the combined Fiat-Chrysler company recently said:

In Europe, we always considered Chrysler the best American brand. But it became a brand that was discontented and it had low brand loyalty. It’s as if you looked at your kid and said he was a low achiever and then started cutting costs – you don’t pay for the best clothes or the most expensive school and so on. If you have low expectations, then that’s what you get.

Chrysler always had a very good image in Europe. It was considered very innovative and, actually less American. It was seen as exotic. It had stylistic cars. But you needed to put money and investment in the materials, and quality, and in its people. What matters most to buyers is not whether it’s a Dodge or Jeep or Ram Truck. The perceived quality of the cars was unsatisfactory.

I put that last part in bold: What matters most to buyers in not whether it’s a Dodge or Jeep or Ram Truck.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

That’s exactly what matters to buyers.  Sure the Chrysler name will help to ensure that there’s quality behind things, but ultimately a happy Ram truck owner will be talking up his Ram truck to other potential buyers and will become a repeat buyer himself.  That is what brand loyalty is about.  The only thing that matters to the Ram Truck owner is that the Chrysler quality is obvious in his truck.  Unless he’s a financier, the Ram Truck owner really won’t care what his truck says about the quality of Chrysler, the company, or its other vehicles.

Bottom line, Chrysler needs to remember that it has great individual car brands and then it is has to bring back the quality in each one.

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






For a brand’s name to have value, there must be value behind the name.





Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week: GM and Couric

Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winner and Loser of The Week

Brand Winner… And Loser…



Winner:  General Motors

Loser:  Katie Couric




Almost two years ago, I went out on what looked like a pretty creaky limb to ask this question:  What Will They Say When GM Makes A Profit For Taxpayers?

For me the answer was clear: General Motors was going to come roaring back.  That position seemed like a long shot to many people.  After all, GM was on the ropes, having just declared bankruptcy.  The company was being kept afloat by taxpayer money and being criticized as bloated, incompetent and out-classed by a legion of competitors both foreign and domestic.

But it wasn’t a long shot if you looked at the company’s prospects through the marketing lens.  Here’s some of my argument at the time:

I really can’t believe it…Everywhere you look, General Motors is being put into an early grave.

How wrong can you be?

Consumers love their Caddies, Chevies and Chevy trucks. Yes, folks, they love these brands and it doesn’t matter how much doom and gloom comes over the airwaves and the Internet.

Forget about GM. People don’t buy a company; they buy a car.

And GM has some of the strongest car brands in the world and it’s these brands that will lead GM to profitability over the next five years. Just watch.

Less than two years have passed and:   April sales are up an incredible twenty six percent and the company is considering re-opening shuttered plants. 

Bottom line, GM is set to once again be the global car sales leader.  The brand-focused marketing was telling this story all along and as long as this focus continues, count on more great things.


Katie Couric has a big problem.  When she made the jump to Evening News, she had substantial brand equity and momentum.  After all, she was one of America’s media darlings and even the doubters –I was one— had to admit that the decision to do news seemed exciting.

But today with that choice having damaged her badly and slowed her momentum, she is in a very difficult position.

Others have straddled morning and evening successfully.

Diane Sawyer did well in both worlds –but Sawyer was different.  Sawyer started in news, cut her teeth and shaped her brand as a serious newswoman, and when she migrated to morning, she brought this gravitas with her and then displayed another, warmer, quality to her brand.

Tom Brokaw did the same.  White House correspondent and serious journalist first, then Today Show host for a spell.

Couric, though, went the other direction.   She emerged as a personality brand, not a news brand with a personality.

Not only that, but she spent years cementing this personality perception in her audience’s mind. 

The result of this was that when she made the switch to Evening News it was obvious from a marketing perspective that the experiment would fail. 

This is what I wrote at the time:

On the Today Show, Katie’s warmth, perkiness, friendliness and intelligence—(Her Brand) was consumed most positively by her loyal viewers, (mostly females) every morning as they started their day.

The secret to success in whatever you pursue is knowing your brand and keeping in mind your target market. Katie’s brand, popular among women (25-49) should have targeted an audience with a show similar to the Today’s Show Brand that was accepted in the marketplace. A talk show targeted to her demographic; the CBS Morning Show or Good Morning America would have been better choices….

This conclusion is truer than ever now. 

Will Couric become the next Oprah? 

Absolutely not. 

Oprah is Oprah and Couric is Couric.  Oprah has been consistent from the very start and arguably is the first social networker among mass media figures.  Year after year, Oprah built a network of individual fans and supporters.  Just the number of ordinary Americans who have made appearances as guests and audience members over the years must be in the many tens of thousands.  We’re talking about people who were directly invested in Oprah by her interacting with them or just being in their physical presence.  Talk about word of mouth!   This fact established a powerful bond between Oprah and so many individuals.  It was brand equity built laboriously and carefully over time.  Add to that the high octane fuel of a show on which Oprah appeared daily across the nation (named after her) and personally controlled and you have a power with which Couric cannot possibly compete no matter how likeable she is or what she does from here.

Bottom line, Couric would probably have to spend the next fifteen to twenty years following Oprah’s path and even then the outcome wouldn’t be clear.  Her foray into news has confused her brand and even on The Today Show she wasn’t the boss, even though she was an important player.

Fact is, Couric has a lot to offer but she will need to find a venue that will enable her to rebuild and expand her brand.  She might not like to hear this, but Couric probably has to go back to an established morning show to rebuild before going out on her own.

Next stop Good Morning America?

Stay tuned.

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






Your brand must always move in harmony with its core identity.