Nike, Kaepernick and Brand Image

Had a spirited discussion this morning on Facebook that my friend Toby Barlow participated in. Decided to post one of my comments in its entirety here. As of 11:53 am EST, and less than 24 hours since Nike shared their ad, their stock is down over 2%, and boycotts, cutting out swooshes from clothes, etc. have been threatened. No doubt Nike knew they were going to incite this kind of reaction. My response to the ballyhoo below. 

Here’s why I think this Colin Kaepernick Nike ad is a game changer – to date, yes Nike’s been the bold brand – crashing the Olympics with Michael Johnson’s gold shoes, giving Charles Barkley a platform to proclaim “I am NOT a role model“, etc. but at no point before this spot was there ever a figure that controversially stood both for and against America concurrently (depending on your perspective of course).

The Nike ad is thoughtful, introspective. “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

It’s so appropriately Nike yet in the connotation it’s presented, will blast a hole in the relationship between Nike and the NFL for years to come, while debated across homes throughout America. This morning while grabbing my Tim Hortons, I overheard a woman, mid 60’s, talking about the ad with disgust followed with, “This is NOT what my husband died for serving our country.”

Ironically, it kind of was.

WE (e.g. you and I Toby) look at the Kaepernick ad as a shot in the arm to promoting civil rights. What sacrifice did Kaep make (his professional career) to ensure that police brutality ends amongst minorities?

But what about issues we may not agree with? What about gun control? Would it be that surprising to see Dana Loesch in a pair of Under Armour outdoor boots touting her 2nd amendment rights?

Or the Brave’s Daniel Murphy touting chicken biscuit sandwiches for Chick-fil-A under a strong caption disagreeing with LGBT lifestyles?

Nike opened the door for brands to pick sides on personal and political issues where for the most part, they’ve remained objective and silent. I’m not sure this is a good or bad thing. I’m still synthesizing.


I’m back!!!

I (now) shamelessly admit that my lack of blogging had to do with losing access to my account after a phone number change and subsequently locking myself out of my WordPress account.

Thankfully I was able to regain access after a few desperate cries of attention directed towards the WP support team. Expect to see a bit more frequency from me on the blog friends as we head into 2018!

The Curious Case of the Unicorn Frappucino and Its Branding Implications


There’s been a great disturbance in the Force.

We all know by now that on April 19th, Starbucks introduced their “limited edition” Unicorn Frappucino – a concoction of technicolor waves of blues, pinks, and purples so off-brand, you’d think it was brought to you by Ben & Jerry’s.

Screenshot 2017-04-23 14.55.55.png

The UniFrap has been despised by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, who referred to it as the ‘perfect nexus of awfulness’, to baristas themselves leading to reports of skipping work to online rants that have since gone as viral all in protest of making the tart tie-dyed thirst quencher.

But not so fast my pony potion peddlers! Peeling back the onion (or in this case, the sour mango), what exactly was Starbucks’ Modus Operandi? Many believe they wanted to roll a drink out that would break the social web. Search #unicornfrappuccino on Instagram and you’ll be met with more than 100,000 images – 142,032 to be exact. And those are just the photos that have been hashtagged. If attention was a KPI, they certainly exceeded their objectives.

Or maybe it was a combination of building brand awareness ahead of their earnings reports at the end of April sprinkled with “We will create it because we can” defiance. A shot across the bow at their fiercest competitors, Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s is a great reminder to Wall Street that there’s an entire category of frozen non-coffee concoctions to help expand their customer base and gain further market share. Competitively speaking, McDonald’s has been pivoting its marketing message, according to Julia Hawley of Investopedia, “New commercials and advertisements rolling out in the coming year will fall in line with Dunkin’ Donuts’ approach, pushing McDonald’s as a brand for the common American with emphasis placed on embracing people of every educational and cultural background.”

Demographic ubiquity in the form of a tye-died drink? I can see it. In any scenario, there is one thing I’m left perplexed with, and no I’m not done blogging about it.

What has Starbucks become?

I’ve gone on record countless times regarding my fandom for Scott Bedbury. As the former CMO of Starbucks, and the author of the marketing book “A New Brand World“, Bedbury left a profound impact on my outlook on branding as he detailed the arduous decisions inside Starbucks to open new paths of distribution during a joint venture with Pepsi to create the Frappucino for grocery retail.  The same scrutiny was outlined during a passage in the book related to whether or not Starbucks should serve coffee on United airlines flights.

I tweeted to Scott hoping to pull him into the discussion on the topic of the Unicorn Frappuccino, but to no avail. However a silver lining did manifest in the form of due diligence for this post. By re-reading portions of A New Brand World, and doing a lot of research, I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Starbucks’ brand mantra is “rewarding everyday moments”. This gives them the flexibility of defining themselves beyond coffee by focusing on enhancing the customer’s life. Howard Schultz once said, “Starbucks is the quintessential experience brand and the experience comes to life by our people. The only competitive advantage we have is the relationship we have with our people and the relationship they have built with our customers.”

Nowhere in that statement does he mention coffee, and when asked why not, he replied, “We’re not in the coffee business. It’s what we sell as a product but we’re in the people business—hiring hundreds of employees a week, serving sixty million customers a week, it’s all human connection,” Schultz responded.

So there you have it. The customer experience IS the product. Whether it’s coffee, rainbow colored fraps, or Wi-Fi, these are the mechanisms to enhance the experience. People, HIS people, are the catalysts who steward the experience for their customers. That’s the pink, blue and purpled sticky point that will continue to gnaw at me. His people, baristas from around the country, emotionally reacted to the crazy frap trend. The trends around Unicorn Frappucinos will not go away, even if the Unicorn frap does. There will be others. The question is, will Starbucks consider the very people who help deliver the positive customer experiences they crave the next time a trend like this comes around?

I hope so.

The Burger Wars Spill Over to Search


A few days ago the Internet was in an uproar over Burger King’s latest digital campaign, one that featured a BK employee lamenting on how he doesn’t have enough time in a 15 second ad to aptly describe the Whopper, so he results to hijacking Google connected device owners by announcing “Okay Google…what is a Whopper burger?”

Smooth Burger King. Real smooth.

If you did have Google Home installed and you had your speakers up, you would have been redirected to BK’s Wikipedia page, where Burger King edited the Wiki page with oodles of marketing speak in describing the Whopper.

But the Interweb can be an unforgiving place.

Because it can, the Whopper definition had been changed by vengeful Wiki users to insert “cyanide” as an ingredient in one version. Another user later changed the definition to say the Whopper is “the worst hamburger product” sold by the chain.

As of the time of this published, the BK spot has 25,831 likes and 31,559 dislikes.

A  Golden Campaign

In contrast, McDonald’s took a much less invasive approach to leveraging search as a central part of their most recent campaign. Touting their relationship with Coca-Cola, celebrity spokeswoman Mindy Kaling, in Golden Arch’s yellow dress on a red backdrop,   asks her audience to perform a Google search for “that place where Coca-Cola tastes so good”.

Less than 10 days removed from Pepsi pulling their Kardashian commercial, Coca-Cola has to be giddy with the timing of this latest ad. Related search terms to the McDonald’s Coca-Cola ad seem to confirm their excitement. Reviewing Google trends, it’s evident that Micky D’s and Coke are rising in interest:

Screenshot 2017-04-16 23.13.21

Two Approaches: Who’s Right?

In both scenarios, the two titans of the fast food industry could tout their successes through their search-related digital marketing campaigns. As a brand marketer, I happen to skew towards the McDonald’s ad for one simple reason: relevance.

Disruption, as displayed in the BK commercial, can trigger an uncontrollable response by the audience they’re marketing to which leads to questions related to just how relevant their ad was with their consumers. Journalist Ruairí Kavanagh sums it up succinctly:

The meaning of real disruption is seen when a brand proposes a solution that addresses a huge gap between people’s needs and what is currently available. The key for any brand is maintain relevance, so that your brand is not contributing to this misalignment.

If I could peek into the client input brief, I’m guessing the word “disrupt” was used in one form or another. The result of the campaign, however, was less about disrupt as it was to distract.

Conversely, McDonald’s smartly and pervasively integrated their brand into boosting SEO around one of their strongest corporate partners while still touting their $1.00/any size promotion.

I spoke to Ryan Jones, a friend, an authority on SEO and former colleague of mine related to the two campaigns for his thoughts. “Regarding McDonald’s, on one hand, telling somebody to Google something is more likely to get a response than telling them to go to a website,” he said. “It probably helps with both validation and recall too.”

Why I’m All-In on Social Music App Smule

Photo Jul 06, 12 09 25 AM

It’s amazing what a good song can do to connect people and bring their worlds closer together. Think about the legacy Coca-Cola created and where it would be today without their iconic “Hilltop” ad? Or the music that defined Apple marketing over the last decade and a half? Hell, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t hear a certain Seger song and think about my employer.

But beyond brand taglines, a good song can change everything from moods to cultures.

If you’re in a bar and a certain song comes on and the vibe is just different, it evokes the kinds of things that you want to feel, and if music can do that it’s a very special thing.
– Julian Casablancas

Over the last 3 months I’ve fallen in love with performing music again, and  Smule has helped enable it. Founded in 2008, they’ve used the nearly $90 million dollars raised through seven rounds of investment to create a number of music-related applications like Sing! Karaoke, Magic Piano, Guitar!, and AutoRap.

It’s estimated that they have over 200 million users and 35 million engaged content creators from around the world. Consistently ranked in the top 5 best apps in its genre, Smule has created a social network powerhouse all on its own. Built around the concept of singing duets with complete strangers, on any given day I may sing a song with someone in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Canada.

What I find the most fascinating though is how Smule has incorporated mainstream artists organically, with huge engagement numbers to back up their platform as a vehicle to launch new songs.  Want to sing Grace’s new single “You Don’t Own Me”? Or NE-YO’s “Let Me Love You”?  JessieJ’s song “Flashlight” has been listened to nearly 8 million times through the app, with thousands of duet performances. While the duets are asynchronous, there’s an authenticity in the Smule community’s reactions to singing with artists that suspends belief and makes you think for a fleeting moment that “OMG…Mary Sue is singing with Luke Bryan!!!”

What’s next? I don’t know. I’ve gone on record saying that I truly believe they have the opportunity to become the next YouTube. Partnerships with mainstream music-based television shows such as X-Factor and The Voice are natural extensions. Singing Selfies? Yes, they’re a thing. True brand integrations? Why couldn’t Hilltop be recreated through Smule?

The first seven years of Smule’s existence, they’ve been under the radar, despite extremely high user engagement. I think the next seven will prove just how powerful the intersection of mobile, music and social media can become.

In the meantime, if you’d like to connect on Smule, you can find me here.

I’ve always felt that the quality of the voice is where the real content of a song lies. Words only suggest an experience, but the voice is that experience.  – Jeff Buckley



Why McDonald’s Greatest Point of Inflection is Upon Them

We are tHappy Faimly Eating McDonald'soo busy to eat in my house.

Too busy to look up from our iPhones.

Too busy to stop posting to Facebook.

Too busy to not give into Instagram narcissism while harassing our cats.

It was the dawn of discovering just how terrible a parent I am by enabling digital consumption as a priority over food consumption that led me to writing this post.

I’m currently sitting on my couch in my living room watching football, surrounded by my daughters and the manic staccato of fingertips typing off their respective mobile devices, when a McDonald’s commercial flashed on the television.

I’m lovin’ it, but are my kids?

No, they barely payed attention, but I was when it hit me: McDonald’s is in trouble. Like real trouble. Like change or die trouble! And because I’m OCD, I began thinking more and more about the last time I personally walked into a McDonald’s (at least a year) verses Chipotle (twice a week…because, burrito bowl).

The deteriorating relevancy of the largest QSR in the world can be broken down into three areas:

  1. An inability to bring franchisees and management closer together on company goals.
  2. A failure to acknowledge the landscape change of competition with the growing rise of casual fast food chains such as Shake Shack, Chipotle, Sweetgreen and Culver’s.
  3. The perceptional challenge of preventing people from accessing healthier food options, becoming a catalyst in overcoming the socio-economic limitations and restrictions that prevent people from obtaining them.

Those three points are a mouthful (pun FTW!), and I could probably write a graduate dissertation on the topic but I’ll refrain from both for your sake and mine. In layman’s terms here’s the issue: McDonald’s is a franchise driven model that’s no longer on the same page as its franchisees. In a survey reported by CNN that polled 29 domestic McDonald’s franchisees, who own and operate over 200 restaurants, relations between McDonald’s franchisees and the company tumbled to 1.45 on a scale of 1 to 5. That falls between “poor” and “fair” and is down from 2.1 over the history of the survey.

One of their greatest complaints? A complex menu that currently hosts over 160 items. Shake Shack? Less than 50 (and that includes doggy treats!).

And speaking of, here’s the elephant in the room: Consumers are willing to put their dollars towards quality over price. Despite serving 70 million customers per day, McDonald’s continues to hover towards the basement of customer satisfaction surveys. So what are customers choosing when they want a fast meal? Chik-fil-A, Chipotle and Panera Brand round up the highest satisfaction amongst consumers according to ACSI.

When your entire reason for existence revolves around a dollar menu, you may want to start reevaluating your strategy.

Can it be fixed? Can McDonald’s turn it around?

Yes, I believe they can. But it’s going to take a Starbucks level reboot to make it come to fruition, and that’s some serious insanity to think Wall Street would be forgiving enough for them to take a similar page from their caffeinated competitor.

All of this has to be shocking to the golden arches. 35,000 restaurants, $27 billion in revenue, 1 million employees, 50 MILLION fans on Facebook serving 70 million customers per day and they find themselves in the unenviable position of fending off consumer watchgroups, Wall Street Analysts and even their own franchisees.

And yet there probably isn’t a brand on the planet that can single-handedly change the global socioeconomic environment like McDonald’s can. Imagine…

  • A McDonald’s that accelerates its commitment to removing antibiotics from its meat.
  • A McDonald’s that obligates itself to bringing healthy AND tasty food to its menu.
  • A McDonald’s that demands its franchisees partake in community outreach as a requirement to ownership.

They can change the world. How empowering is that?

We are too busy to eat in my house when my youngest put down her iPod, looked up at me and asked, “It’s Sunday, can we go to Culver’s? Like, as a family?”

That? See, I’m loving that.

Madonna, Snapchat and the Art of Discovery

This is probably more of a thought than a post but two things struck me over Madonna’s release of her latest video on Snapchat:

    1. Good for her. The stigma of Snapchat being an app of unsavory content and mischief is old and tiresome. They have a userbase that exceeds 100 million with 1 in 5 U.S. social media users using it and 71% of all users being under the age of 25.
    1. Pioneering the Discover feature on Snapchat means some growing pains but could ultimately pay off. The assumption is Madonna released the video to stay relevant with Snapchat’s demographic. I think the strategy was more complex than that.

According to  a Consumer Trends survey by the Recording Industry Association of America, the 45+ age group is actually the largest music buying demographic. Madonna using the medium means reaching a new audience of 20 somethings while bringing a new demographic to Snapchat with Gen X. If she extends her relationship with the social network, using features such as My Story, Madonna could give unprecedented real-time access into her life, her tour, and her music all the while keeping this new demographic of Snapchat users engaged as she reintroduces herself and her relevance to new fans.

So when you combine those two stats, you kind of get tweets like this:

The learning curve for Snapchat isn’t easy, however, the value proposition delivered in the case of a brand (In this instance Madonna) releasing exclusive content through Discovery is compelling. Discovery’s UX is very simple and straight forward, and the experience feels both real-time and exclusive. PSFK has a great overview of the feature that I recommend checking out.

Gary Vaynerrchuck made the comment on a LinkedIn post that Snapchat is a media company now. I don’t think they’ve ever pretended to be anything other than that however. They just evolved. People are media just as media is media. On a platform that can scale content from 1 to 1 to 1 to many, Snapchat is proving that evolution doesn’t need to take place over a millennium.

Echo: The Right Product, Five Years Too Early…I Mean Late…I Mean Early

Hello? Hello? Hello?
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?

It can’t be easy being Jeff Bezos. Yes I know it’s difficult to sympathize with the CEO of, directly or indirectly employing 100,000 people, and billions of dollars in revenues, while ranking as one of the world’s most popular online retail destinations. But in today’s consumer electronic driven society, the need to guarantee perfection through the launch of CE products can undermine an entire company’s product strategy. While Amazon’s Fire Line of tablets provided much more compelling competition to the iPad than the MS Surface, the Fire Phone was an abysmal failure. As hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into research and development, Amazon the hardware brand struggles to gain not only relevance, but recognition as a consistent, serious competitor to Apple and Google.

Take the recent introduction of Amazon Echo. Leveraging natural language processing in a similar fashion to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google Now, Echo takes the personal assistant out of the phone and into a cylindrical device for the home. Using voice recognition, there is no button to push, no hands to wave, just a simple acknowledgement of it with the waking word “Alexa”.

Alexa is Bluetooth enabled can answer a number of questions and commands:

  • News, Weather and Information
  • Music
  • Alarms, Timers and Lists
  • Questions & Answers via Wikipedia
  • Other updates via the cloud

Launched last week, Echo’s value proposition fell kind of…flat. In comparison to Apple’s organic, live events where design takes the forefront and a spectacle is created through the adoration of their fanatics (I’m one of them), Amazon non-nonchalantly used to surprise the world with a poorly received product video for a service/device nobody has asked for…yet.

On the surface, it seems Amazon rolls products out in what Dustin Curtis accurately describes as a (pun intended) echo chamber:

With, it can heavily and successfully promote and sell its products, giving it false indicators of success. It’s an echo chamber. They make a product, they market the product on, they sell the product to customers, they get a false sense of success, the customer puts the product in a drawer and never uses it, and then Amazon moves on to the next product.”

But in the case of the Echo, did Amazon really miss the boat?

Short answer is yes. Absolutely did. They invented a product nobody asked for that solved absolutely nothing one couldn’t through their smart device. The question becomes, when did they begin the product cycle and why did they make it?

I’m  no Amazon insider, but while a few ideas popped into my head, I kept coming back to the Internet of Things. It’s nice that Echo can dictate shopping lists, but wouldn’t it be nicer if Echo connected with your smart fridge to determine what ingredients you may be missing? And wouldn’t it be nicer if Echo synced your recipe you’re making with not only your lack of ingredients based on a scan of what’s in your refrigerator, but with Amazon Fresh for grocery delivery?

What about when listening to the latest and greatest album from your favorite musical artist? Echo recognizes frequency of play and uses the cloud to determine when that artist will be performing in your area. Using the cloud, it can fulfill tickets digitally to your smart device or laptop/pc.

I’ll go one fictional scenario further. What if Echo was incorporated into your vehicle like Ford SYNC, Chevy MyLink and Chrysler’s UConnect are today. Echo could geolocate your whereabouts, determine your proximity to your home and preheat your oven, turn on your lights, set your temperature and welcome with your favorite song.

Whether you sit on the fence of this being utopian or dystopian depending on your appetite for technology, the future could be brighter as long as Amazon is committed to an agile plan towards perfecting their product and understanding what consumers want out of the technology they build. While they can be mocked for selling products in a petri dish of customers who never wander farther than their patented 1-click service Amazon provides, Amazon could truly create the connected tissue of the web. As long as they stay committed and break out of the echo chamber.

Do Your Kids Want To Learn How To Code?

This is a notice for Metro Detroit.

In the past I’ve spoken at length on the topic of Social Purpose. This program we’ve undertaken follows suit.

Our SapientNitro Detroit office is launching a new community service initiative on Saturday, called RhinoCoders! Staff in the office will be offering FREE coding classes to kids in the community.

Learn more about RhinoCoders here:

WHAT: FREE coding courses that run in a ’series’ (3-4 classes each). Each series will consist of all the important and necessary language topics need to learn how to code (html, css, js etc.). Students will be provided a PC to work on in the class and be given a branded ‘Rhino Coders’ T-shirt when complete.
WHO: Youth 7-17. There is room for a max of 22 students per class.
WHEN: Starting the 27th, every Saturday morning from 9:30-11:30am. Swap cartoons for coding!
WHERE: SapientNitro Detroit office – 135 N Old Woodward Ave, Birmingham, MI