Marketing Doctor John Tantillo’s Winners and Losers of 2011




Amy Winehouse

There is no question that on a personal level, for her family and her friends, Ms. Winehouse’s death was utter tragedy. But just as all of us exist on a personal level, we also exist on a brand level. We are brands that are perceived a certain way by others. Ms. Winehouse was an entertainment and artistic brand.  Winehouse’s tragic story of self-destruction at a young age makes her a brand winner. Why?

Simply put, Ms. Winehouse’s brand is that of a soulful, troubled, outsider of profound musical talent. She is a music brand in the mold of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain. Greatly talented, sensitive artists in the romantic tradition –all of whom, like Ms. Winehouse, died at 27. In music history this phenomenon is known as the “27 Club.”

The Winehouse brand of artist goes way back at least to the romantic poets. Keats and Shelley died young. Sylvia Plath, the young, gifted suicide, is another example. Bottom line, there’s a long tradition of people connecting a certain type of artistic genius to short, tragic lives as if their short, tragic lives were proof of their genius.

Amy Winehouse will be no exception. Amy Winehouse will sell more music because of her early death and her personal brand will become more entrenched in people’s minds as occupying a special place among musical artists.

And in terms of selling music, isn’t that what Winehouse and other artists do in order to get their art to their fans? What’s wrong with selling?  Winehouse’s art will continue to live precisely because it sells.

General Motors

General Motors is a back-to-back winner (2010 and now again in 2011).  In fact, the company has continued to be a winner ever since the spring of 2008 and the Federal bailout –despite all predictions to the contrary.

I don’t want to blow my own horn here and frankly I can’t because my 2008 call that GM would recover has been based on one simple and universal rule: people buy brands not companies.

Investors buy companies, but people are in a relationship with brands and General Motors is a brand company.  You are a Chevy buyer, a Cadillac buyer, etc.

The $7.1 billion dollars that GM has posted in profit so far this year is the direct result of the company’s focus on its brands.  That’s right, $7.1 billion dollars and the company’s also wrested the global sales lead back from Toyota.  This after having lost $82 billion prior to 2008.  GM is back and better than ever.  End of story.

Steve Jobs 

We lost the man who more than anyone shaped the technological landscape in 2011.  Jobs was simply a superb man. A brand for the ages.  The word genius will be thrown around a lot about him, but that word genius misses the point.  Many people have genius, but few geniuses have the kind of flexibility, endurance and ability to admit wrong turns, face them and correct them. That trait, which Jobs had in spades, translated directly to Apple’s success and Pixar’s –the kind of success that required meeting not only consumers’ needs again and again but even anticipating their dreams. Jobs and Apple practiced almost a kind of symbiotic marketing –perceiving what consumers need almost before they knew and then delivering and then refining according to their consumers’ experience and input. Whether it was at Pixar or at Apple, Jobs managed to add a touch of the poet into the laser-sharp dynamism of a great marketer and innovator. That approach was a deep part of Jobs himself and the experiences that shaped him. As human beings we can learn a lot from the words that Jobs delivered as part of his commencement address to Stanford’s graduating class in 2005.  Here’s the complete text.

The Royal Family

What a difference twenty years can make. Not too long ago, it was simply assumed that the British monarchy was on its way out. Prince Charles and his treatment of Diana made his potential kingship unwanted. Besides, the world seemed to be moving on and the idea of a monarchy in a modern democracy was almost embarrassing. 

All that changed in 2011 with the royal wedding.  The wedding was one of those seminal moments when both doubters and fans alike realized they were witnessing the re-emergence of a powerful brand. This event will be remembered as the moment the idea of British monarchy shifted from being something that people passively accepted to something that people actively embraced. 

Strictly from a marketing perspective, the message couldn’t have been clearer. With the monarchy receiving a whopping 80 percent approval rating from the British people and a fundamentally enthusiastic response from the rest of the world, the House of Windsor isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

More than this, it is almost impossible to quantify the value of this several-hour long infomercial for Britain and the royal family. If thirty-seconds of the Super Bowl is worth upwards of three million dollars for advertisers and that game “only” attracts 100 million pairs of eyes –what’s the value of thirty seconds of something that grabs thirty times that audience? Excuse the math but that’s $180 million dollars a minute times 180 minutes equals almost thirty-two and a half billion dollars of unforgettable promotional material. 

But let’s face it; the royal wedding is about much more than money. It is about people recognizing that they have preserved something of real value in a world where so many things just get thrown away. 

McDain’s Restaurant

In July, Mike Vuick, the owner of  McDain’s Restaurant and Golf Center in Monroeville Pennsylvania, decided that his customers deserved a peaceful, child-free environment.  Children under six were no longer allowed.

Many people reacted to Vuick’s decision with outrage, but, fact is, he made the right decision for his restaurant’s brand. After all, he isn’t running a nursery and understands that his patrons are people who are coming there to be infant-free. Making this a policy strengthened the McDain’s brand.  Vuick isn’t anti-kid, he is pro-brand and pro-civility. As he said this about kids, “[they] might be the center of their parent’s universe, as it should be, [but] they’re not the center of everyone else’s universe.”

As the great Bill Cosby said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Honorable Brand Mentions:

Taylor Swift (general brand excellence)

McDonald’s (best mature brand maintenance)

Katie Couric (best brand revival)

JetBlue (best brand responsiveness)

Tiger Woods (best continuing brand comeback)

2011 LOSERS: 

Standard & Poor’s

As you probably know, 2011 was the year that Standard & Poor’s, the ratings agency, downgraded U.S. debt, stripping it of its Triple A status.  This had never happened before in our country’s history.  It was a huge blow during these already tough times.

As one government commentator observed, the S&P move was a “facts-be-damned” decision.  The other ratings agencies didn’t follow suit.

I would argue that this decision came directly out of S&P thinking about its own brand and deciding to use this moment in history to bolster its brand position after missing the 2008 financial debacle.  Unfortunately, for the U.S. and for S&P this is terrible brand management because rash moves –even moves that seem in keeping with your brand— do damage.

Let’s ask a basic question.  Why has U.S. debt never been downgraded before?  There’s a reason and it goes far beyond our current deficit and difficulties: we’ve always paid our debts.  I’m not an economist so I won’t go too far down the road of actually assessing U.S. debt, but after World War II our debt was more than 100% of annual GDP and we still kept our Triple A.

Basically, S&P has gone out on a limb and is trying to look bold, courageous and truthful.  But they will probably end up looking reckless and opportunistic and very bad at math.

Charlie Sheen

At first it looked like Charlie Sheen might just be “winning.”  The actor took his outspoken person into the Twitter-verse and across the country, publicly airing his dispute with CBS and almost everything else about himself.  But he forgot something critical: no man –no matter how good an entertainer— is an island.  Without a script Sheen fizzled on stage and his Internet video rants were simply embarrassing.  Like a sports star without a team to play on, Sheen having lost Two and a Half Men had no platform from which to have his brand shine.  2012 might be different for the actor, but only if Sheen remembers that the whole world is not in love with him and only if the right producing and network mix comes along to support him –before there is no momentum left and not much brand left to salvage.

The Soap Opera

2011 will likely be remembered as the year the Soap Opera finally died.  ABC took the venerable All My Children and One Life to Live off air.  Some people argue that soap operas will have a new life to live online, but I doubt that online life will ever rival the power soaps once had.

To understand why, let’s take a look at the history of soap operas. Soap operas were invented to reach a specific Target Market: stay-at-home moms during the depression.  The shows were designed as an innovative entertainment platform that could help Procter & Gamble sell soap and other products –that’s where the “soap” in soap opera came from. Initially soaps appeared on radio, but eventually they made the leap onto television.
And for a very long time, things went very, very well.  But times have changed. Viewer numbers have steadily fallen in the last twenty years. Not only is the Target Market for soap operas hard to pin down now, but many of the benefits that daytime soaps offered, like continuing storylines and relationship focus, have been picked up by prime time drama.
The problem is that even if the Target Market still exists, can you still reach them profitably?

Penn State

With legendary former football coach Joe Paterno’s grand jury admission on December 16 that he knew of Jerry Sandusky’s “inappropriate” behavior with a minor as far back as 2002, it is clear that the rot goes deep at Penn State.  Radical measures are needed to restore this once great institution. They must be taken now.  Bottom line? Penn State needs to change its name.

A name change is rooted in the science of the brain. We know this from tests like those done at the human neuro-imaging lab at Baylor University. In the lab’s Coke-Pepsi tests, subjects were given both drinks, but those who saw the Coke logo while drinking Coke declared a preference for Coke over Pepsi (three out of four) and their brains showed a complex set of reactions that went well beyond the actual taste of what they were drinking, especially stimulating the memory areas of the brain.  What this shows is that people’s reactions to a brand name are tied to complex responses related to the brand and themselves. As a result, at a certain point “Penn State” will have — if it hasn’t already—become toxic, meaning that people will automatically, and involuntarily, experience a negative reaction whenever they encounter it.  Whether the school will be a loser in 2012 depends on what they do now.  Will they be bold or bury their head?


In July, this otherwise successful mail and online video rental company alienated many customers by abruptly raising its prices.  Since that time Netflix has lost hundreds of thousands of customers and received a lot of bad press.  Then they announced a split of their DVD mail service and their streaming video service into two separate companies only to reverse that decision almost immediately.

After this, the company warned that the decline in subscribers is going to continue into next year.  The stock lost 15 percent in one session.

Bottom line, Netflix needs to regroup and focus on their brand. Raising prices might have meant accounting sense but the way they did it made zero brand sense.  Worst of all for the Netflix brand is the impression that they have forgotten their customers.  The next move?  Do nothing other than remember your customers and stop making any hare-brained moves.


(Dis)honorable Brand Mentions:

The Republicans (brand in most self-inflicted trouble)

Miley Cyrus (worst brand meltdown)

Bank of America (brand taking customers most for granted)

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










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