The brand is dead! Long live the brand!




Here’s a picture by Thomas Hawk
of the same promotion in San Francisco
(check out the comments.)

Last week, I was walking to the office down Park Avenue and a shiny tan car pulled up at a stoplight on 27th street with a red Starbucks cup on the roof. Now, given that I follow the trades, I know what’s going to happen next — an elderly gentleman in a cashmere coat waves at the driver and points at the cup on the roof (I’m too far away to hear the words), but the driver of the car flashes him a big facile smile and offers the man a coupon through the open driver’s-side window. The man seems to falter, a little deflated, but smiles politely and accepts the coupon. A homeless guy sees the coupon change hands and runs up to claim another one just as the Starbucks driver pulls away.

By this time, I’ve caught up to the gentleman on the corner. He looks nonplused, folds the coupon in half, and drops it into the trash, where it’s quickly retrieved by the homeless guy. Net result: one affluent target customer slightly annoyed, five dollars’ worth of Starbucks product given to a (probably) non-customer.

Now, not every viral campaign scores 100% of the time, but this one seemed particularly disconnected. The Starbucks driver (and, by extension, Starbucks’ agency and Starbucks themselves) will chalk this particular “brand touch” up as a win: the affluent man in the cashmere coat made contact, smiled, accepted a coupon. But what they don’t see is the annoyance left behind. This is not life-and-death angst, here — but slight embarassment is plenty enough to steer that customer to Seattle’s Best Coffee across the street for a while. “Har har har I fooled you” seems like it would work great to sell stuff to Jolyon Wagg, but I’m not really sure if tricking people tends to put people in a buying mood.

This is particularly true in New York City, where folks only break the Sacred Code of NYC Sidewalk Privacy for three things:

  1. “Hey, you dropped your [thing]!”
  2. “Hey, you left [thing] on top of your car!”
  3. “Hey, that guy is picking your pocket!”

Having a New Yorker stick their neck out and break the Zone of Silence — especially in a city where the pedestrian is the natural enemy of the car driver — having that person reach across enemy lines to help a fellow person, then be told that their help wasn’t needed, that they’ve been tricked… well, it doesn’t make a happy New Yorker. Come to think of it, though, I’m sure item number three is already being tested by a guerilla-marketing shop: “Picking my pocket, is he? Well, that’s what stereo retailers are doing to you every day, friend! Here, have a coupon for OH GOD OFFICER STOP SHOOTING HIM”

Starbucks seems to be teetering on its brand axis, lately, both in big ways and little. Kate and I have both devoted embarassing amounts of time to the annoyances of our local store, which seems to have been taken over by a slavering pack of mattress salespeople. I went in over the weekend and they were having a fer-chrissakes tent sale in the store, complete with a canopy tent, balloons, and prices SLASHED SLASHED SLASHED on espresso makers. Both Kate and I used Starbucks’ feedback page to complain about the upsell (see what I meant about “embarassing”?) but neither of us have heard back after three months. Which is a conspicuous silence.

It’s funny, I guess, those moments when you realize that a mighty brand empire has fallen. Take, for example, the winter of (I guess) 1999, when Prada came out with a luxury catalog with lots of ridiculous survival gear, including a bundle of firewood tied with a leather strap with a Prada logo on it; the bundle and strap was offered for fifteen hundred bucks. No, this isn’t what you think, this was the awesome part. The chutzpah of branding and selling a bundle of sticks for one-and-a-half long was fantastic; Evelyn Waugh was spinning in his grave, and Prada totally got away with it. Six months later, the Prada store opens in Soho, and they’re selling stainless steel checkers sets for a fifth of the cost. Forget ass-kicking Louis Quattorze excess, this shit was a half-step up from Brookstone, and you could see the Prada brand singeing and curling up right there in the store. Same with the Starbucks tent sale, and the continuing aggressive upsell at the counter: “would you like to try our NO I WOULD NOT”

To a great extent, the brands that compete so hard for our attention are dynastic, and it’s eerie to have a watershed moment when you realize that a ten-thousand-employee entity is sailing merrily in the wrong direction. (Or driving away in the wrong direction while the coupon gets folded up and dropped in the trash.)

Did this happen in feudal times, when the peasants one day look around, realize that the palace guards are all fat, and they’d better pack up the chickens and head across the river before the mongols show up?

The brand is dead! Long live the brand!

Excitement on Train 649, the Keystone to Harrisburg

Suddenly, the conductors’ walkie-talkies crackle:
“Emergency, emergency, emergency. Train 649 is in emergency at Overbrook.” (Train 649 is us.) Immediately, the train starts to lurch to a stop.
Which would be more disturbing if the voice over the walkie-talkie wasn’t delivering it in a tired, “oh boy, here we go again” voice, but still all the blase monthly commuters look up from their laptops and newspapers. Like any dutiful blogger, I hit my “Movable Type” shortcut on Firefox and begin typing.
By now, the train has ground to a halt. The conductor pushes his hat back on his head and remarks to all of us in general, “Well, we must have hit a squirrel again.”
The walkie-talkie crackles again:
“This is train 649. We have a trespasser in the property. They made the clear…”
The conductor and the flag (that’s the assistant conductor) look at each other. The flag says “I’ll get the flashlight.”
A passenger asks, “Does that mean we hit them?”
The conductor says “Well, we won’t know until we get out and have a look.”
They walk for the car doors. The walkie-talkie crackles again: “Train 649, we have protection.” Goodness knows what that means: DHS snipers standing behind the catenary?

I’ll let you know what happens.

Update: Well, the engineers are back, shaking their heads and laughing dolorously. Someone ran across the track, just missing the train. The flag looks gravely at another Amtrak employee (out of uniform) sitting across the aisle: “You look upset. Shaken, like. I recommend a nice bottle of wine tonight, to help calm your nerves.” Then, he gets out his leather travel case (Amtrak conductors have rolly suitcases, just like airline pilots do) and goes back to doing his paperwork on top of it.

This flag is the one that calls himself “The Angry American” — like “Mean Marv”, he has his own speech that he likes to make every day: “Ladies and gentlemen, please be considerate and keep your cellphone conversations to an absolute minimum of both volume and duration. The people sitting behind you do not want to become a part of your social life, and they won’t be impressed by your business acumen.”

Excitement on Train 649, the Keystone to Harrisburg

“What, THIS old thing?”

I sincerely don’t want to come across as an utter jerk in this posting where I talk about how nice our house looked for the YWCA Holiday House tour today. Let’s see how I do.

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So the nice thing about agreeing to be on a house tour is that it gives you a deadline to do all the things to the house that you haven’t done yet, and would probably forget all about otherwise (put those brass sash locks on the windows, wash the storm doors, and a dozen et ceteras) and you kind of have a good excuse to go overboard on the Christmas decorations without feeling like a total tool (drape the staircase bannister in garland? Hell yes! It’s for the house tour!) Plus, as mentioned before, you can go get your Christmas tree when they’re still unloading the trucks, which was deeply satisfying for my inner child, who knew all along that every hour of delay in going to get the tree was an hour irretrievably wasted.

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Plus, the attention is fun — cars started circling the block fifteen minutes before the hour, and at 10:00 sharp, passengers started climbing up the steps and the buses started arriving. Well, there was only one bus, but it still was fun.

The drawback of a house tour is that it’s awkward: “Hello! Good morning! Welcome!”, and then usually a kind of an awkward pause. I mean, it’s your house, so you can’t just start gushing about how great the house is, like a volunteer docent would (“Built in ninenteen-twenty-five, this lovely home has an original natural-gas furnace that probably won’t explode this season, and a rusty T-junction supplying all water that is simply a delight “) But they’re not really regular social visitors, so you don’t ask them about their kids or anything. Fortunately, it was a beautiful day, so there’s that to talk about. And everyone was really kind and had nice things to say, and everyone’s just out to have a good time, anyhow. Tickets to the house tour were twenty-five bucks, and there were ten houses, so I’m pretty confident that we delivered at least two dollars and fifty cents’ worth of holiday cheer. Maybe even three bucks, with Mindy’s lemon and magnolia garland over the dining room archway.

It’s tiring, though, what with all the nervous energy of greeting people all day. Kate stood in the kitchen with a ball of muppet yarn and knit AN ENTIRE SCARF, which accomplishment she can use as fodder if we ever get in a pissing match with horrible jerks: “what, this old thing? Y-e-e-e-esss, I knit this in one day as I was showing my house to busloads of visitors from Maryland, mmm-hmm. Have you seen our furnace?”

“What, THIS old thing?”