Handcuffed By Brand Image

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This week, we explore how brands get trapped by their own image.

Every once in a while, expensive brand images circle around to bite the brand. Like Apple, which recently acted completely out of character when an iPhone prototype was found in a bar. Sometimes, a brand image can actually kill a brand. Like Pets.com, which created an image it couldn't deliver on. Or the diet suppressant called Ayds, which found itself trapped inside a 40-year old brand image when AIDS the disease began its devastation. Or the Hummer, which went out of business when its gas guzzling image ran smack into an era of soaring gas prices and climate concerns.

Then there's the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam - the worst hotel in the world, with the worst brand image - and they like it that way.

If you've ever been to Amsterdam, and stayed at the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel, chances are you would remember it.

It is called "The Worst Hotel in the World."

Brinker hotel entrance.jpgSource: Google Images

The rooms are prison bare. The linens are stained. The walls are full of graffiti. The halls are filled with cigarette butts. The reception area is filthy. The runny food is barely edible. And the staff is grumpy.

But here's the thing: The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel is okay with that.

It has been around since 1970.

In the early 90s, the hotel's manager, Rob Penris, met Erik Kessels, a junior art director at Ogilvy & Mather. Penris said he was tired of hearing complaints from guests about how bad the hotel was. He wanted to "manage expectations" in his advertising.

If they expected nothing, they couldn't complain when they got it.

So what do you do when your product has no benefits, no unique selling proposition, nothing more than the barest of essentials?

You do the unthinkable - you tell the truth.

So Kessels created an ad campaign that told customers that the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel was "everything you've never wanted - and more."

The campaign hid nothing.

Brinker eco friendly.jpgSource: Google Images

As Kessels says in his book, titled, "The Worst Hotel In The World" - they leveraged the luxury of complete honesty.

Brinker book cover.jpgSource: Google Images

Sometimes the campaign would highlight what you did get, by parodying the urgency of old-school advertising:

Brinker Now free key.jpgSource: Google Images

Brinker now free bed.jpgSource: Google Images

Brinker free wireless.jpgSource: Google Images

But all of this paled in comparison to the infamous "flag" campaign the hotel did.

It has been called, and I quote: "The turd that shook the world." In a guerrilla-style campaign, before guerrilla campaigns became trendy, the hotel created tiny little 4 inch flags that said, "NOW - even more of this at our main entrance."

Brinker dog turd single shot.jpgSource: Google Images

The hotel staff would wander the streets of Amsterdam, sticking those little flags into every pile of dog droppings they could find.

That stunt got news coverage from CNN, MTV, ABC and almost every major news network around the world.

As a matter of fact, the Brinker still gets calls about it.

It put the worst hotel in the world on the map.

When a New York Times report stated that the general public's immune systems were becoming weaker and weaker because of an obsession with cleanliness, the Brinker Hotel jumped on the opportunity, harvested a pile of dirt from their rooms and sent it to a lab for testing.

Sure enough, the results showed the hotel was swarming with all kinds of unpleasant microbes.

They even ran a low-budget humorous TV commercial that showed giant bed bugs infesting the hotel:

Source: YouTube

Here's the thing:

Bookings spiked. Before the campaign in 1993, the hotel had an occupancy rate of 45%. Within five years, it soared to 80%.

And get this: Guests pay a little more to stay at the Brinker than they could pay at other budget hotels in the area. They just want to see how bad it really is.

The Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam aspires to have the worst image. Not just in Europe, but in the world.

While few brands aspire to be the worst, in the world of marketing, an image is everything. It is what defines a product from the competition, and attracts customers.

Yet, every once in a while, something strange and unforeseen happens. Some brands become trapped by their own image. The very image it has so carefully nurtured circles back to attack the brand. And in some cases, kills it.

It's a rare and interesting phenomenon to be Handcuffed By Your Own Image.

Take Apple.

Just before the iPhone 4 was released, a prototype got into the hands of an online technology blog called Gizmodo. Apple is notorious about secrecy, so when Gizmodo started leaking all the new features of the phone, Apple went into combat mode.

As Gizmodo tells it, an Apple software engineer was celebrating his 27th birthday at a bar in California and managed to leave his iPhone 4 prototype on a barstool and went home.

At that point, someone named Brian J. Hogan found it, but didn't know who owned it. He called Apple several times to report the lost phone, but was never taken seriously.

So he contacted Gizmodo to see if they were interested in buying it. A scoop like this was big news for Gizmodo, so they offered Hogan $5K for the phone.

Editor Jason Chen then leaked all the details of the new iPhone on their website:

Source: YouTube

Once the story hit the web, it attracted all sorts of publicity. Knowing Steve Jobs, it wasn't a good day at Apple.

Gizmodo offered to give the phone back to Apple, as long as Apple claimed it publically. It was a shrewd move by Gizmodo, because that request forced Apple to admit it was their new phone - legitimizing Gizmodo's story.

With that, the phone was returned to Apple.

The exchange prompted a lot of media stories. One of the funniest was the David Letterman Show Top Ten List of "Excuses for the guy who lost Apple's top secret iPhone":

Source: YouTube

But a few days after the phone was returned, Gizmodo editor Jason Chen arrived home with his wife after dinner, and found the police had kicked in his front door and were going through his house with a search warrant.

Source: YouTube

It was assumed the search had been instigated by Apple.

As I've mentioned many times on this program, Apple's image is that of the "rebel." It stands for the underdog, positioning itself against the big overlords like Microsoft and IBM.

But when the police kicked in the door of the Gizmodo editor, it didn't make Apple look like a hero of the underdog at all. It was acting more like the giant corporations it has skewered in its advertising for over 20 years.

The question is: Can Apple retain its image of being the hero of the underdogs, the rebel in the face of the big corporations, the small company that could - when its now the biggest company in the world with more money in the bank than the U.S. Federal Reserves?

A brand image is a powerful thing. Like a knife, it's sharp on both sides.

It was originally designed and built by AM General Corporation, which was formerly AMC-Jeep's General Products Division.

hummer h3.jpgSource: Google Images

They were called High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles - HMMWVs - or Humvees. They were created to fulfill a $1.2 billion dollar contract with the United States Armed Forces in 1983. But it was the Gulf War that provided a "coming out party" for the Humvee.

The public first laid its eyes on the unstoppable vehicle via news reports that showed the Humvee in active action, storming across the desert. President George Bush Sr. and General Norman Schwarzkopf visited the troops in a Humvee.

Bush in hummer.jpgSource: Google Images

AM General had planned to sell a civilian model as far back as the 80s, but that plan got kick-started when Arnold Schwarzenegger saw a convoy of Humvees while filming a movie. He was so enamoured that he personally asked AM General to build him a customized street-legal version.

So, in 1992, when the first "Hummer" rolled off the line, the keys were given to Arnold Schwarzenegger in a ceremony:

Source: YouTube

The HI model could climb a 22-inch vertical wall, navigate a 60% grade, traverse a 40% grade slope with a full 3,500 pounds of payload, and operate in up to 30 inches of water.

It gave off three times the emissions of most other vehicles, and squeaked out 10 miles per gallon in the city. There was no doubt about it - the Hummer image was that of a big, mean, gas guzzling, SUV on steroids.

And that image would eventually do the brand in.

A record 70,000 vehicles were sold in 2006. But the climate became a flashpoint issue for the public that year, especially after Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, and the Hummer's decline began.

inconvenient-truth-2.jpgSource: Google Images

Even its biggest fan, Mr. Schwarzenegger, had to distance himself from Hummers. As Governor of California, he had signed a bill creating America's first cap on greenhouse gasses, part of a plan to reduce California's emissions 25% by 2020, and 80% by 2050. Then came the spike in gas and oil prices in 2008, followed by a crippling recession.

The Hummer became a symbol of everything that was wrong in the world. Demand had dropped to just 9,000 vehicles per year, prompting GM, who now owned Hummer, to put the brand up for sale, but no deal could be made. As a result, the very last one rolled off the line on May 24th, 2010.

The very things that had made it unique, made it a liability.

The Hummer had been done in by its own image.

PetsDotCom-logo.pngSource: Google Images

In 1996, a dot.com company was started to cater to the pet world.

It was called Pets.com

The idea was to sell pet supplies to people over the Internet. It had a near perfect domain name, it was an early entry into the online pet space, it was bankrolled by Amazon.com, it had an award-winning website, and eventually went public with a very successful IPO.

It had everything going for it.

Including a very funny, high profile image campaign that was loved by the public.

Pets.com created a sock puppet spokes...dog. The commercials were shamelessly funny, and in many of the scenes, you could actually see the puppeteer's arm, and if you looked closely, there was a wristwatch around the dog's neck:

Source: YouTube

The Pets.com sock puppet became one of the favourite mascots on TV, and it even appeared in a Super Bowl ad at a cost of $1.2 million:

Source: YouTube

In its first fiscal year, it made revenues of only $619,000, yet spent over $11 million on advertising. It was also spending millions on infrastructure and warehouses.

The main benefit of Pets.com was to offer discounted pet food and free shipping, but it appeared that it was providing an answer to a non-existent problem. People seemed happy picking up pet supplies while they shopped at grocery stores.

And for those who did choose to use Pets.com, the basic promise of cheap supplies and free shipping couldn't be met. There was no way to turn a profit. It was selling merchandise for one-third of the price it paid to obtain the products.

By the fall of 2000, dot-com bubble notwithstanding, Pets.com wound down and assets were sold off. It had gone from an $82.5 million dollar IPO to liquidation in only 286 days.

The image it created was for affordable, convenient pet supplies, but it couldn't deliver.

As an analyst said, there's nothing worse in marketing than having everyone know who you are and no one interested in what you sell.

ayds package.jpgSource: Google Images

It was created in 1937, by the Carlay Company of Chicago, and trademarked in 1946.

It was a diet candy called Ayds.

It was a brand name for a brand of appetite suppressants for dieters. It was a success, and sales grew every decade.

Ayds peaked in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Then in 1982, NBC broadcast its first report on a mysterious new disease that didn't have a name. Soon, it became known as GRID - or "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency."

But scientists questioned the accuracy of that name, as the disease did not reside exclusively in the gay community.

As a result, the disease was re-named AIDS - for "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome."

While the news would begin to report about the disease more frequently, it would be actor Rock Hudson who gave it an international profile:

Source: YouTube

When Hudson died in 1985, it signaled a turning point for the public's awareness of AIDS:

Source: YouTube

At the same time, the AYDS diet supplement had just enjoyed its biggest year ever. But three years later, sales had fallen by over 50%.

To suggest in advertising that a product called AYDS could help you lose weight was now completely inappropriate.

The makers of AYDS tried to save the brand by changing the name to DIET AYDS, but trying to distance AYDS diet pills from AIDS the disease proved impossible.

The product was trapped by its own image, trademark and weight-loss benefit.

By the end of the 80s, the product was finally discontinued after 40+ years of success.

Classic Ayds ad.jpgSource: Google Images

It is the cruelest of fates.

To spend millions creating a brand image, only to have that image bring down the company in the end.

There are no guarantees in the world, and even when it appears you are doing everything right, everything can go wrong.

Unless being wrong is right.

Just ask the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam...

...when you're under the influence.

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