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Duck Tours

Duck Tours

Some times it is fun to learn what is going on at home when you’re on vacation. That was not the case last week, while in Boston with my family. We were grabbing lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant when my oldest son looked up at the TV and noticed a scene from Philadelphia’s Penn’s Landing waterfront area featured on CNN. The story was about the sinking of a Ride the Ducks tourist amphibious vehicle following a collision with a barge. Ironically, at that moment, my wife was on her cell calling the Boston version of this attraction to get information on departures later that day.
Needless to say, this story resonated with my family the rest of the week. We had all taken the Philadelphia tour the other year and enjoyed it a lot. Even though, we were familiar with all the on land sites, it was fun to see them from a new perspective and the 20 minutes or so in the Delaware River was a view of our city we’d never seen before. Throw in the plastic “quackers” and the fun Philly music favorites played on the Ducks’ speakers and you had a winning outing for all ages. We were more than interested in repeating the experience in Boston.
For awhile the story seemed to get better. Initially, it sounded as if all the passengers were rescued and that those who were had not been seriously injured. Then, news came that two passengers were unaccounted for. As time wore on, hope began to fade and eventually the bodies of 16-year-old girl and a 20-year-old man from a Hungarian church group touring the states were recovered. A sad riverside memorial service on Saturday indicates that the thoughts and prayers of many in the city go out to the families of Dora Schwendtner and Szabolcs Prem.
Reading the detailed accounts in the Philadelphia Inquirer answered most of our questions as to how this tragedy could have happened. This tidal section of the Delaware River is a major shipping channel, and although the tourist boats stay close to shore, unforeseen circumstances such as this can bring them into harm’s way when motor trouble occurs. Making matters worse, the barge was being powered from the other side by a tugboat attached near the rear. There was evidently no visual recognition that the stranded duck tour vehicle was even in the barge’s path.
One surprising revelation came from Chris Edmonston, Director of Boating Safety at the Boat US Foundation. He noted that a Pennsylvania rule that requires children 12 and younger to wear life jackets applies only to recreational vessels. Commercial vessels must have enough life vests for everyone on board, but passengers are not required to wear them. This tragedy could spur a change in that regulation. From passenger accounts, it sounded as if things went from minor problem to full-blown chaos very quickly. Plus, if we should have learned one thing from the current BP rig disaster it’s that we must never forget Murphy’s Law: “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.” A corollary to that might be that “No matter how many contingencies we plan for, there will always be another one that we didn’t plan for.”

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

That might be why the very next day after Philadelphia’s tragedy, the streets of Boston were still active with so many of their own Ducks tours. The ones I saw were all filled with eager tourists. Either they hadn’t heard the sad news

Duck Tours

Duck Tours

from the Delaware River or they didn’t believe in lightning striking twice.
From a PR and marketing perspective, I guess this all makes sense. The Ride the Ducks tour company seemed to be taking appropriate steps. The President flew up from Atlanta to Philadelphia and made himself accessible to address questions promptly. Not sure that Boston’s duck tours are run by the same company, but regardless, all their livelihoods depend on making tourism fun. You just hope they will incorporate everything they learn from the Philadelphia tragedy into standard operating procedures going forward to also make tourism safe. Improvements that might prevent future tragedies are the least that should be done in memory of Dora and Szabolcs.

Historical Footnote: Peter Binzen writing for The Inquirer has an interesting bittersweet personal account about usage of the Ducks in WWII in Italy.

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Image: Liz Nofsinger/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image: Liz Nofsinger/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I admit it. I am a capitalist. If any of you sixties holdouts want to add the pig noun, be my guest. Not sure why this unfortunate, all-purpose, dehumanizing slur got applied to police officers and businesspersons alike, but ironically it often came out of the mouths of radicals preaching peace, love, and understanding in their next breath.
As we mark July 4th, 2010, the US economy is stagnant and unemployment is rampant. There are predictions of a slip into another recession. The political urge to do “corrective” things in the coming months will be great. Unfortunately, we have had plenty of corrections and big programs and new edicts by central planners in DC over the past year and they have only made things worse.
Here’s a modest suggestion: get back to incentivizing American business with carrots instead of whacking it with large sticks (and possibly soon, new taxes and more regulations). In particular, get back to incentivizing small business, where most innovation and jobs growth occurs. Then, get the hell out of the way and let the free market work its magic. Supply. Demand. Profits. And sometimes losses.
Too Big to Fail is a popular phrase and justification for bailing out failing companies. It could be applied equally to government. However, a more apt expression might be Too Big to Function. Whenever bureaucracies result from corpulent corporations and ill-defined, ever-expanding government entities, you wind up with something that looks, acts, and smells like Jabba the Hutt.

Too Big to Function: Jabba the Hutt

Too Big to Function: Jabba the Hutt

Big doesn’t have to mean bad. Last time I checked, Apple was large and successful. But they are supplying products that are in demand. Value is a critical part of the equation for success in business.
The single best thing our government can do right now is to stop treating business like public enemy number one. Or like colonists to be taxed and taxed again. Freedom is a beautiful thing. When businesspeople are freed from excessive government compliance, when investment capital is freed up, and when markets are free, then a lot more companies are free to hire and put people back to work. It’s a pretty simple idea and not that revolutionary.

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We're all brand names.

We're all brand names.

I enjoyed a really nice long weekend on Long Island. I had a chance to reconnect with the Clarks (no relation to the candy bar), my mother’s branch of our family, attending a cousin’s younger daughter’s graduation party. It was a great chance for me and my family to reconnect with him, his family, and other family members who came out for the happy occasion.
It was also a wonderful reminder of a small but essential truth — we have so much invested in our names. Over the weekend, we bandied about a lot of family names — those of family members who weren’t present, of family friends from childhood and youthful memories. On the wall of my cousin’s living room was a framed newspaper ad from 1935 from Bronzo’s, his grandparents’ grocery store. I was amazed to see specials on brands like La Choy that are familiar today but I didn’t expect to see from that period of American history. We have always been a melting pot.
The point is that my cousin’s grandparents were proud to put their name on the outside of the store. So have a couple of zillion other businesses over the years. Small ones like druggists and restaurants and gas stations. And quite a few bigger ones like Ford.
We would all be much better off these days if we took that kind of pride again. As company owners, but also as employees. Unfortunately, too many of us work for big congolomerates with made-up corporate names or acronyms. We delude ourselves that we do not have much personally invested. From the mailroom to the board room, too many have a phone-it-in attitude about work. It’s just about collecting a paycheck. What has been lost is the pride in one’s work. How much different we would feel if it were our own name on the sign. If it were our customers on the other side of the counter.
We are all brand names. Our family names are gifts and reputations for each and every one of us to carry on. Make your parents (and yourself) proud.

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The term “captains of industry” rings pretty hollow these days. Not seeing much leadership from any industry sector, particularly oil. Beyond BP’s ineptitude and functioning as a piñata for the President and Congress, no other oil industry leaders are stepping up to address the mess in the Gulf and the mess created by decades of unbalanced US energy and environmental policies.
Lack of Leadership Honors, Chief Marketing Officer Division, this week go to two separate auto makers for incredibly bad decisions. Each is very different. Both are stupefying in their own right.

Chevrolet not Chevy!

Chevrolet not Chevy!

First is all the press garnered by General Motors for pushing purity of the Chevrolet brand to an absurd level. According to a memo by several GM vice presidents sent to Chevrolet employees, the importance of brand consistency means stopping use of the nickname “Chevy” for dealer ads, for official communications, for talking with your friends and family. They’ve even instituted “cuss jars” for those guilty of non-compliance, with funds going toward team building.
Such idiocy starts to explain why GM got itself into such an economic trench that it required a Federal bailout and partial takeover. As the Pop Crush web site rightly notes, the Chevy name is heavily embedded in pop culture, from a long list of rock songs, to the vernacular of several million pick-up truck owners. Chevrolet may be the brand’s proper name, but even the Federal government can’t issue a recall for its nickname now.
Branding consistency is important, but not when it creates brand bureaucrats. Isn’t the purpose of Chevrolet’s branding and marketing team to focus on convincing consumers to buy Chevy cars and Chevy trucks? When did allegiance to a corporate identity manual take precedence over ideas to attract more Chevy buyers?

Hyundai capitalizes on World Cup mania but by offending Christians.

Hyundai capitalizes on World Cup mania but by offending Christians.

As dumb as this venture sounds, it is not as stupid as what Hyundai recently approved in the name of commerce. It happened in Argentina and it began as a clever statement about World Cup soccer mania. Unfortunately, it ended very literally in an exercise that insulted the faith of millions of potential Hyundai customers.
Details about the controversial TV commercial appear on Greg Burke’s LiveShots blog, although the spot itself has evidently already been taken down. It is intended to depict fan worship of the “religion” of soccer by creating a “new” church that uses, but in doing so makes light of, the symbols, doctrine, and faith-based rituals of Catholicism and Christianity. Communion is replaced with pizza slices. A soccer ball is shown with a crown of thorns.
This is not a creative freedom/freedom of speech issue. No one prevented Hyundai from creating and airing these ads in front of a huge audience. However, were no grownups present at any point in the creative, production, and placement process? Managers who spoke up and noted that this spot might be deeply offensive to a large segment of the buying public and what did any of this have to do with the product merits of the latest Hyundai models?

Customer service as a religion.

Customer service as a religion.

I am sympathetic to the agency based on intentions and their overall concept, because a few years ago, we presented a print ad concept that was well received but never ran to help a local bank build its brand and push its central message to customers — Expect the Star Treatment. The difference is that we left it at the general metaphor that customer service is a religion to us. As soon as Hyundai started getting literal and trivializing the symbols and rituals that Christians consider holy, they were over the top.
Religion and politics used to be the twin topics that were off-limits at the water cooler. Friends, neighbors, and co-workers used to be quietly respectful of each other’s beliefs. That quaint concept is still worth remembering when your main goal is selling cars.

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I’m a sucker for a great teaser campaign. A print ad or a tv spot that sends you to a web site for the full story or at least another chapter. So, I was really interested this week driving up the New Jersey Turnpike to a trade show at the Javits Center to spot a billboard featuring the mystery message: Jersey Doesn’t Stink. The board was near Newark and chemical plant territory where there’s always a fragrant “polymer du jour,” which only intrigued me more.

Jersey Doesn't Stink

Jersey Doesn't Stink

A visit to Jersey Doesn’t Stink.com raised a few more questions than it answered. My first thought was that if someone is investing in billboards on the turnpike, they are on a mission. My first thought was a state agency. Tourism? Economic Development? A Trenton-based air freshener manufacturer? If you go to the fine print, an entity called Jersey Doesn’t Stink, LLC is behind the site. If you go on Google, you won’t find them. Hmmmmm. There is a page of sponsors, but there are only six, all of them small businesses or groups. The mystery deepens. Billboards cost a lot of money, so whose civic pride is bankrolling this effort?

The home page features the rallying cry: “We’re sick of the clichés. Are you sick of defending your home state against wisecracks?” There’s a humorous video clip, a petition, opportunities to share the site. Ultimately, the site is meant to be self-sustaining. There’s an online store selling shirts, hoodies, coffee mugs, etc. But since the counter indicates only 633 people have signed the petition, these folks may need a major broadcast buy to jumpstart e-commerce.

What constitutes armpit of the nation status? Joe Piscopo’s famous SNL routine. A renewal of MTV’s Jersey Shore, plus at least three other Jersey reality shows? The seamy side of the Sopranos? What counteracts the negative and the self-deprecation? Sinatra? Springsteen? Princeton? Victorian Cape May? Jersey tomatoes?

I have too many fond memories and frequent Garden State visits to ever dislike my Eastern neighbor. Which is why this effort unfortunately reminds me of the famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”

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Tom Carvel

Tom Carvel

As a creative in advertising, I find my teeth grinding whenever I see a commercial that is clearly a do-it-yourself production. You know the ones I mean. The spots typically feature a business owner who thinks he can save money by not hiring an agency and by being his own spokesman. Zero charisma. Lame delivery. Bad puns.

As a business owner, I have a slightly different take, especially in the present economic climate. The late great Tom Carvel represents what’s both right and wrong about this approach.

Back in the 70s and 80s, Tom made himself synonymous with his soft ice cream empire by doing home-made commercials with home-made announcing. His distinctive voice, as someone on a Comments page put it, “sounds like Tom Waits gargling hot asphalt.” There were times it was even hard to make out what Carvel was saying.

But it is hard to argue with results. Tom Carvel built a highly successful fast food franchise, as evidenced here and here. Not believing in ad agencies was not the same thing as not believing in advertising. Clearly, Carvel had faith in marketing and he funded it and threw himself into it full bore. He came up with novel names for ice-cream novelties, such as Cookie-Pus and Tom Turkey. He spent a lot of money on media in order to attract business to his stores.

Today, Carvel the company is going strong long after its founder’s passing. The offbeat ice cream cakes still bear the names of the characters that Tom Carvel created. I’m guessing that an agency is involved now. Fudgie the Whale appears to be a little too carefully art directed. Instead of looking like the creation of someone armed with a cake icer and not enough time serve up his creation, Fudgie now resembles the baby monster that bursts out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien. I miss Tom’s amateurish but consistently funded efforts to build his brand.

Fudgie the Whale

Fudgie the Whale

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Video can close the deal. On line. In store.

Video can close the deal. On line. In store.

Interesting article from VentureBeat on encouraging study results when video is used online to boost sales of non-tech products like Air Wick.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E4NOvPlpg70

Video is just a great way to engage prospects and now there are more places to do so than ever before. Sure, everyone who wants to go viral has a clip on YouTube. Plus, more and more web sites out there incorporate video promotion opportunities.

But the really amazing thing to me is how many other places that flat screens are showing up to sell people during downtime. You can find them at the local diner. At the grocery store (in produce, at deli, and at checkout). At the gas pump. In the back of NYC cabs. In local bars, and it sometimes follows, even over urinals.

The best uses I’ve seen include digital billboards that are the most engaging outdoor since Burma Shave. They feature rotating advertisers, the ability for advertisers to rotate their own messages, and even law enforcement APBs such as Amber Alerts.

Also, I was surprised, during a recent trip to Wal-mart to find more video displays on end caps. For many years, Wal-mart was a bare bones shopping environment. There weren’t many options for POP displays, let alone digital signage. Times have changed for the better.

Well done point-of-sale videos, whether they are TV commercials or a dedicated sales presentation about the product, are a great way to close the deal. You’re engaging buyers when they’re filling their shopping carts. Why aren’t all package goods companies and retailers investing in in-store video? Then, posting them online, on their web sites, on YouTube, and on as many other locations as possible for driving traffic?

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Vampire Weekend, sans comma, gives us pause.

It’s hard to argue with the uber-talented Vampire Weekend, especially since they keep creating such catchy music like their sophomore effort, Contra.

However, we most definitely have a bone to pick about a song that hangs up on a punctuation mark from their self-titled debut album. In marketing communications, the devil is always in the details. And an Oxford Comma is often all that separates clarity from anarchy.

The Oxford Comma, sometimes known as the Serial Comma or the Harvard Comma, is an optional punctuation mark used before the conjunction in a list of three or more. Those, like Vampire Weekend, who express casual disdain for it risk a pile-up whenever there’s a complicated construction.

Exhibit A — this sentence about the music industry:

When considering great groups and duos, you need to include Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.

Remove the optional Oxfords and you’ve got:

When considering great groups and duos, you need to include Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Simon and Garfunkel, Peter, Paul and Mary and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

So, while we are all for style, which Vampire Weekend delivers effortlessly, we highly recommend considering a reliable reference guide when producing written communications that you want your audience to read and understand.

The most readable of all reference guides.

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