Thursday, April 16, 2009


In response to a controversy in which two Domino's Pizza employees put some videos online in which they farted, sneezed, and burped on food they were preparing, Domino's released this video (no need to see the whole thing just go to about 1:20):

In this video, the Domino's guy solemnly intones, "it's not a surprise that this has caused a lot of damage to our brand. It sickens me..." Then if you go the NYTimes article you read the headline: Video Prank at Domino’s Taints Brand. Are we reaching a watershed moment where, just as "meme" has gone mainstream, talking about the "brand" so brazenly as opposed to "the company" has gone mainstream? Perhaps. Should these employees who caused serious harm to the Domino's brand, and therefore Domino's revenues, be prosecuted for Brandslaughter? Perhaps.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why Anyone Wearing Glasses Is Like A Ditzy Blond

A friend recently asked me, "Dan, I have perfect vision. But I still want to wear glasses for fashion reasons - I think they're a cool accessory to have in my wardrobe. Is it silly to wear glasses with non-prescription lenses?" In thinking about his question, a few quick associations came to mind- Superman putting on prescriptionless glasses to become mild-mannered Clark Kent, the child at the glasses store messing around as she waits for her mother to try on glasses with prescription lenses, and the ditzy blond who puts on prescription-less glasses to look smarter. That last image really struck me as capturing something fundamental about wearing glasses that we think about as children but then are told is not true as we grow older- glasses signal intelligence.

And so in thinking about my friend's question, I began to ponder what causes people with vision problems to wear glasses with prescription lenses. As someone with vision problems myself (20:450 vision), I know the various options available. There is LASIK, which represents a substantial up-front cost and is (probably unfairly) perceived as dangerous. Then there are contact lenses, which essentially allow a vision-impaired person to function like a person with perfect vision once the contacts are on- no separation between you and the world around you, observers have no idea that you have imperfect vision. The downsides are the cost and the annoyance factor of putting lenses in, taking them out and caring for them. But for most people in our relatively affluent, relatively groomed society, neither of these are particularly onerous costs. The final option is glasses. Glasses have the downside of restricting one's peripheral vision, irritating one's nose, and leaving one incapable of seeing if one decides to take the glasses off or they fall off for any reason. What is the upside of glasses? There is the lower cost- which may be important for some people, but again in our relatively prosperous society is likely to be negligible for most people. That doesn't sufficient seem to explain the prevalence of glasses in our society. So what is the hidden upside of glasses? It is their function as a fashion accessory.

In a broad sense, glasses function like a watch or earrings- a fashion accessory to personalize your brand by wearing any one of hundreds of styles (fashion as branding is the subject of the next post). But in a more specific sense, glasses are worn to project an intelligent personal brand, just as we thought when we were children. In thinking about who I see wearing glasses, I realized that (at least in liberal enclaves like New York or New Haven) two of the primary glasses-wearing populations are hipsters and academic types. What ties these two groups together is their shared respect for intelligence, whether it is of the ironic detachment style or the earnest study style. And when a hipster or an academic walks down the street, goes to a party, or does any number of activities in which he or she meets new people (many of whom will be hipsters or academics), wearing glasses is a quick way to signal to them that s/he is intelligent. In fact, the two types of people will wear different styles of glasses in order to brand themselves as not only intelligent but specifically a hipster or an academic. A hipster might wear vintage glasses like Wayfarers to signal a quirky, ironic intelligence:

Whereas an academic type might wear something like tortoise shell glasses to signal a serious, erudite intelligence:

Who else wears glasses to brand themselves as intelligent? Librarians, Seth Rogen, Tina Fey, the list goes on... But what all of these people have in common is their use of glasses - which are not necessary for vision-impared people to wear in this day and age - to brand themselves as intelligent. While we all might scoff at the ditzy blond, perhaps an actress in a film, putting on glasses to brand themselves as intelligent, our friends, our favorite indie rock musicians and our most revered professors are doing the exact same thing (the only difference being that they actually are intelligent!). So to my friend who wants to wear prescriptionless glasses, I say, "Go for it- break the monopoly the vision-impaired have on Intelligence Branding!"

Thursday, February 26, 2009

College as Branding and Social Networking

If you asked the woman on the street what happens at Yale or any of the nation's top colleges, she would tell you, "Oh, those smart kids study hard and learn important things so they can expand their minds and then get important jobs using those skills they learned." Indeed, this is what I thought the purpose of college was upon entering Yale in those heady days just prior to 9/11.

But having gone through college, it has occurred to me that the common perception of college misunderstands the situation completely. Simply put, college is a branding and social networking phenomenon. I will begin by looking at Yale and other very prestigious universities with national reach, but will then discuss State Universities as well, which have their own idiosyncrasies but are fundamentally the same.

Let me begin with a hypothetical- suppose you could receive a Yale degree but a community college education or receive a Community College degree but a Yale education: which would you choose? No matter how much you might think you care about academics and the beauty of learning, when push came to shove you would choose the Yale degree in a heartbeat. Why is this? Because a Yale degree is a powerful signal to employers (or grad schools) that you are smart and accomplished. Sure, there are morons at Yale and there are brilliant students at U of Iowa, but looking at the degree is a quick way for employers to sift through resumes. So a major reason you are going to a good college is to improve your personal brand by being associated with the prestigious college's brand, regardless of whether you actually spend your four years playing poker or drinking or whatever. Note that this improvement in your brand really has nothing to do with anything happening at the prestigious college beyond you getting some passable GPA. Now of course your brand will improve a bit more with better grades (particularly for grad school) but that is a marginal improvement compared to the massive improvement accomplished by going to a good college.

This sounds very cynical and selfish, but in fact the colleges basically take this personal brand improvement goal as a given. Thus actions that seem to be taken in the interests of improving student undergraduate education are actually taken to attract more and better students, thereby improving the colleges' brand. The two main improvements made by colleges are facilities improvements and faculty improvements. Colleges are constantly renovating their campuses, but at most colleges the most expensive facilities improvements are usually reserved for living facilities, student centers, and fitness centers, rather than for classrooms. This is because those are the facilities in which students spend most of their time and the ones that prospective students look at on the tour. Here colleges are focusing on a narrow aspect of their brand, the sort of "quality of life" thing that might attract students away from competing schools in the same prestige bracket, but not from schools in higher prestige brackets. More important are the faculty improvements. We are told that esteemed faculty are hired in order to give the college's undergraduates "the very best teachers in the country." But esteemed professors aren't hired because they're good teachers, they're hired because they have published respected research. And once at the prestigious college, they usually teach a few undergrad lectures and maybe even a seminar, but for the most part all of the one-on-one interaction with students and grading is conducted by graduate teaching assistants. Since they are chosen based on their research and not their teaching, they may not even be engaging lecturers, let alone good teachers/explainers. Moreover, many of the courses being taught are fairly basic college classes - do you need a Nobel winner to teach Econ 101? It is remarkable how similar many courses are across all colleges regardless of prestige. In fact, an ambitious auto-didact could learn much of the material covered in undergraduate courses. What is really happening here is that the brilliant professors are being paid to research at the college for the purpose of improving the college's prestige as a brand - the colleges bask in the glow of the brilliant professors. Better students in turn then apply to the school partly out of a misguided belief that they will really be interacting with esteemed professors (granted at Yale this happens more than at some other places but still) but mostly because the college has improved its brand from the extra prestige the professors have brought it.

Now let's examine what actually happens when a student is at college. It's supposed to be about learning, right? And yet there is massive grade inflation so that basically the minimum grade a reasonable student who turns in her work can receive is a B, taking away the incentive to work hard on one's studies. And what are the students taking classes in? Anything. It doesn't matter. With the exception of the applicable skills learned in Computer Science and Engineering (and a handful of other subjects) students are mostly learning some arcane shit that no one cares about outside of academia. Even Economics has little use in a real-world finance job. This shit may be interesting, but to someone who doesn't understand the American college system it must seem strange that students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to learn about whatever they want for four years and gain no appreciable skills for the job market. The unimportance of what is going on in these classes is reinforced by the fact that Yale and other colleges are giving away these classes for free on the internet now and always gladly let elderly people sit in on classes. "Here, have some free education, it doesn't matter to us." Because of course what you as a student are really buying is the degree and THE CONNECTIONS (see below), and the kid on the internet or the old lady at the Art History lecture is getting neither. Another piece of evidence proving the irrelevance of undergraduate classroom learning is the prevalence of study abroad programs - "Each of these four years at [insert prestigious college] is vitally important from an academic standpoint, but go ahead and take one of them and study at some second-rate university in a small Italian town! Eat, Pray, Love!"

So what is really going on with students while at college? Social Networking. What do we acutally think of when we think of college? Not the classes and exams, but rather the social aspects. Between the extracurricular activities, the intramural sports and the parties, there are countless opportunities to meet other ambitious students. Yale goes the extra mile by arranging a residential college system to facilitate tight social connections. At a prestigious college, without even trying, one builds a web of friends and acquaintances that spans the country and even the globe. And these ambitious fellow students will prove to be important to one's career in any field. Moreover, some of these students may already be well-connected through their families (rich and successful people send their children to prestigious colleges) or perhaps through a serious passion they excelled at in high school (the actor who takes time off to attend a prestigious university). Then there is the college alumni network- people from your prestigious college are already excelling at any profession you want to pursue, and they will help you get a job in that field. Though you, as a student of a prestigious college, are probably very smart and capable, it is interesting that you didn't study anything in college that makes you particularly well-suited for the job. Of course, Yale being Yale, there are even Secret Society alumni networks to get jobs, if the college-wide alumni network is too crowded and you really want a leg up.

And despite our meritocratic delusions here in America, the fact is that about 75% of all jobs are filled through some form of personal connection. It's not what you know, it's who you know. So you've covered three of your bases by making connections at a prestigious university and using its alumni network, and then you cover the last base (the final 25%) by having your resume float to the top because your personal brand has been burnished by its association with the prestigious college's brand.

When one thinks of "Old Yale" of the 1920s, one recalls an undergraduate education that served as a way for old-boy blue-blooded WASPs from around the Northeast to network with each other and drink for four years, not do any school work, and then be handed a plum job on Wall Street by a fellow alumnus, after which they would all become business partners and fellow titans of finance and sit at the Yale Club recalling tackle football games on Old Campus.

And yet what is the undergraduate experience at the "New Yale"? Bright and ambitious multicultural kids from around the country (this aspect is fairly meritocratic, which is a great step) network with each other and drink for four years, and then are handed either a plum job or a leg up on a job, and then become fellow members of the elite and recall making snowmen on Old Campus. Except that some students, harboring the illusion that their studies actually matter, work hard and stress about grades. And now there's a roster of brilliant professors who are paid to do research, a sort of appendage to this networking machine that helps draw in the best students. Incidentally, this is one of the great positive externalities of colleges and unversities- it arranges a way to convince people to fund professors who study things that have no economic value but are interesting and perhaps even important.

Interestingly, State Universities, where you can in fact get a very fine education for very little money (it is often lost on Yalies the number of brilliant students who go to State Universities for financial and location reasons), are sometimes more explicit about the social networking that is really at the heart of college rather than the academics, emphasizing the cameraderie of sports games and the party atmosphere. And in terms of the alumni social network, State Universities are off the charts- in most states vast swaths of the white collar work force went to the State University. And from a branding perspective, even if your prospective employers in different parts of Montana didn't go to U of Montana, if you went there you now have an imprimatur of quality that is good all across the state no matter what grades you got while there or what you actually did in school.

So what should the ambitious high school senior do given these facts? Go to Yale, don't work too hard. You'll make all the right connections and your resume will look great. Look at how it worked out for me- I've got my own Branding blog!

I wonder whether prestigious colleges are a force for good in society or not, given the clubby elite they foster no matter what types of students enter as freshmen. Personally, I would argue that this arrangement is pretty unjust but that social networks and credentialism are fundamental human forces that have been around since civilization and make some sense from an efficiency perspective given that either having a good credential (degree) or being vouched for by someone one trusts/actually knowing a person to be competent are much faster and more reliable ways to find employees than sifting through mountains of resumes that may contain a needle in a haystack. I think the key for groups who we think are losing in this game is to create their own social networks if they cannot gain entrance into the existing ones. This already happens I know among black sororities at southern colleges. The power of this kind of thing is enormous- a few people get jobs through whatever means, then they get younger people (alumni or younger Albanians or whatever) jobs at their companies and then the older people maybe move on to new companies and now you have ins at the original companies because the younger people are still there plus a bunch of new companies. In fact, once this succeeds a little, you start increasing the brand value of whatever the group is - black females, young Albanians, etc. - as employers see members of these groups succeeding at their jobs, and now you don't even have to be a member of the official social network to reap some of the benefits. You see, social networking and branding are not inherently evil- they can be used for good. Idealistic liberals with their job retraining programs are wasting laid off workers' time and taxpayers' money- unleash the power of social networks and branding!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Branding of Celebrities

I'm just going to dive in here- as you'll see this will be a blog about the branding of oneself, the branding of public figures, and the branding of products+companies, written by Branding Expert Dan.

Two items of note in the world of celebrities got me thinking about how little the general public thinks about the importance of the branding of public figures in our celebrity-driven media culture.

The first was a little while back when word spread that teen heartthrob Zac Efron flipped out at the sight of a pimple on his face before a party he was attending and borrowed makeup from his girlfriend Vanessa Hudgens in order to conceal it. As the linked post suggests, Efron was likely to see fans of his, that night and perhaps even have photographs taken of him that could end up on the internet or in a celebrity magazine. Now the reaction of the internet gossip mavens (like the one linked to above) was to poke fun at Efron's excessive concern about his appearance, calling him a "sissy" just as his girlfriend did and suggesting he was 'feminine' for having these concerns. The post also mentions Efron's concerns about his weight and lumps these in the silly, feminine worry category as well.

But these concerns do not seem so silly or 'feminine' when one looks at this situation from a branding perspective. Though he is surely a fine singer and a decent actor, the quality that makes Efron a celebrity and most importantly creates revenue opportunities for him is his physical attractiveness. Look at a picture of him- he is a very handsome, skinny guy:

This combination of handsomeness and skinniness is at the core of the Zac Efron Brand. A teenage girl sees this picture of Zac Efron and wants to see the Zac Efron movie and buy the Zac Efron CD. Interest in pictures of Zac Efron in celebrity magazines generates "heat" in the movie industry that allows him to grab more film roles. We, the public, do not care about Zac Efron as a person- he might be a total jerk who can't really sing and actually has bad skin but just wears a lot of makeup- none of this matters. What the public cares about is Zac Efron the Brand. And Zac Efron the Brand is handsome, skinny, and possesses a sunny disposition. That's what this photograph says to you, the consumer.

So now we understand that Zac Efron the Brand is what matters to the public, not Zac Efron the Person. Thus when Zac Efron the Person is concerned about his skin clarity and his weight, he is simply acting like any economically rational actor! (pun intended) Simply put, his skin and his body are integral to his Brand, meaning they are integral to his livelihood. The overwhelming majority of guys, put in the same economic situation, would put that makeup on and hit the gym to fit into those skinny jeans.

Another situation that arose more recently was the Michael Phelps bong photo seen below:

One's initial reaction to the blowback from this photo- I'm interested specifically in the loss of the Kellogg's endorsement - is to bemoan Corporate America's faux morality and hypocrisy. After all, kids in colleges across the country are smoking pot all the time, and Phelps is just a 23-year-old kid. "Give him a break!" they say- he is losing millions of dollars over a stupid bong hit.

But if one looks at this situation from a Branding perspective, things look a little different. Prior to this photo, the Michael Phelps Brand stood not only for athletic excellence in the Olympic swimming pool, but also for a "good old-fashioned clean-cut All-American fella" who had some decent moral values that kids looking to buy a breakfast cereal could look up to. That is what the Michael Phelps Brand stood or prior to this photo, and it is why Kellogg's and other companies paid him millions of dollars to put his face on cereal boxes and other products. The Michael Phelps Brand was worth money to Kellogg's through the positive associations consumers had with Michael Phelps the Person. It did not matter that (as I know from my friend who went to Michigan with him and from internet sources) Michael Phelps the Person was actually a huge douchebag who got drunk all the time, smoked pot, and slept with scores of coeds and even strippers. This aspect of Michael Phelps the Person was kept quiet (for the most part), leaving only the shiny parts in the public eye and creating this Superman-like alter ego I call Michael Phelps the Brand.

With this photo, a negative element of Michael Phelps the Person severely harmed Michael Phelps the Brand. Keep in mind that we are talking about business here. It does not matter that you and I think pot smoking is fine and perhaps even think more of Phelps because of this photo. What matters is that the average American parent (who may have even smoked a doobie in her day) thinks that Phelps is no longer a good role model for her kids and now has negative associatons with the Michael Phelps Brand rather than positive ones. "But that's so hypocritical and narrow minded!" you say. That kind of moral reasoning does not matter in the world of Branding. The salient fact is that the Michael Phelps Brand is worth less to Kellogg's now because of this bong photo- it's as simple as that. So Kellogg's was 100 percent correct in dropping Phelps and his tarnished Brand. To those who whine that Phelps lost millions of dollars over a bong hit, realize that huge portions of his pre-photo Brand (the non-swimming parts) were (as explained earlier) built on a mountain of bullshit and deception spread by marketers and PR professionals. In this world, "You live by the Brand, and you die by the Brand."