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The Whiteboard: Brand mash-up: GM hits a brand pothole, ‘the baby ate the brand,’ and more

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E-Trade: Baby no longer on board

Liza Landsman is the chief marketing officer at E-Trade, author of the well-known ads featuring an irascible baby boy with an adult voiceover managing his far-flung portfolio via E-Trade. She is talking in “Ad Age” about E-Trade's new campaign, which has caused the baby to “quit” and introduces a quirky new concept nicknamed “Type E.”

“Type E is a reflection of our customers,” she says, “who are comfortable enough to ask for help when they need it.”

But what happened to the baby?

She was magnanimous and brutally honest at the same time: “The baby is iconic; it's fantastic advertising,” she said. “At the moment it landed on the scene, it captured something that was important at the time — online investing is so easy a baby can do it. What has happened over time is the baby ate the brand.”

D'oh! I hate when that happens. Building a likable, sustainable character is hard to do in branding, especially when the actor playing that character is going to grow up to be a first-grader. But knowing when to pull the plug can be even tougher.

GEICO has sustained its talking gecko for more than a decade, but it also uses multiple campaign concepts to keep the spokeslizard from wearing out. Budweiser was smart to limit the service life of both the “Wazzup!” campaign and the “Bud” “Weis” “Er” frogs, although the Clydesdales have been the go-to formula for feel-good advertising for a generation.

GM stalls again

I want to see GM succeed, I really do. It has built some of America's most iconic car brands. It led global vehicle sales for 77 years in a row from 1931 to 2007. I'll bet you didn't know it owned Frigidaire and Hughes Aircraft for extended periods of time.

But it just keeps finding ways to shoot itself in the foot.

GM's latest entanglement involves faulty ignition switches that have likely led to at least 13 deaths and which appear to have been covered up for years to avoid legal and financial responsibility.

Note to GM: When Congress looks better to the public than you do, you must be doing something wrong.

Mary Barra, GM's new CEO, has testified before Congress regarding the carmaker's handling of the problem and has taken the first positive step by accepting blame. David Vinjamuri, author of “Accidental Branding,” in an interview with the radio program Marketplace, made a key point when he said GM has to understand that minimizing the financial impact is the wrong way to think about it. GM has to do whatever it takes to show consumers it will stand behind its brand and eliminate such errors in the future.

Past its prime and dying on the vine

Abercrombie & Fitch announced recently that it will be reducing prices to compete with lower-priced retailers. For premium brands, this is never a good sign, because that reduction is essentially conceding that your brand commands less of a premium. But A&F had it coming.

Last year, CEO Mike Jefferies was repeatedly attacked for a comment he made in a 2006 interview when he said, “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don't belong (in our clothes), and they can't belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” These remarks were made in the context of why A&F doesn't carry any sizes past “large” for most of its apparel.

Candid, indeed. And not very smart. Being an aspirational brand is one thing, but saying you only want the “cool kids” who are pretty and handsome to buy your clothes is laying it on too thick.

By doing so, Jefferies inadvertently positioned his customers as insensitive to others for buying his brand, which has led to the need for the aforementioned cost-cutting.

Abercrombie and Mr. Jefferies have learned two lessons from this. First, anything you say, no matter how long ago, lives forever on the Internet and could be used against you in the court of public opinion. Second, being an “exclusionary” brand cuts both ways when your customers choose to exclude you from their shopping lists.

David Taylor is president of Lancaster-based Taylor Brand Group, which specializes in brand development and marketing technology. Contact him via

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