Gerry’s Insights: Roll Over, Beethoven

“Classical marketing.” It was one of the first phrases I heard in the early 1990s after getting de-industrialized out of a reporting career covering subjects like manufacturing, robotics and electronics and making a mid-career transition to a marketing trade magazine, with zero expertise aside from the thousands of TV commercials I’d doubtless ingested over the years. (Also a longstanding fascination with beer extending back in time and geography to McSorley’s Old Ale House!) Immediately into my new career hobnobbing with ad copywriters, branding consultants and media strategists I started hearing that phrase: classical marketing. The gist was that there are certain basic precepts that a marketer violates only at great peril to the brand he or she is sworn to protect.

It so happens that I began my new career just as two guys operating out of a scuzzy building in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn began to systematically violate those classic marketing rules with a new brand they’d created. (“Systematically” may be too strong, as I suspect they had no idea what those rules were in the first place.) They put their new iced tea in a pastel can, pooh-poohed by packaging experts as too recessive on crowded store shelves. They priced it aggressively, offering 50% more liquid at the same price as Snapple, foreclosing on any chance of ever becoming a premium brand, I was assured. The pair didn’t do much in the way of marketing, either, beyond driving inner-city bodega owners around in a rented limo in which they could use the car phone – a big novelty then – to call the family back home. (Trade marketing!) No ads? No agency? Tsk-tsk. In a few years, they’ll realize they don’t have a brand, my marketing expert friends predicted.

That brand, you may have guessed, was AriZona and, yes, it does stand out on the shelf, and yes, it is a brand, to the tune of over $1 billion in sales. (OK, it’s as low-priced as ever. Cheaper, counting inflation.) Of course, exceptions don’t necessarily prove that the rules they violate lack validity. Still, the striking success of AriZona made me wonder early on how ironclad those rules really could be. I visited the company’s Flatlands office one time and found it full of miniature airplanes and other constructs fans had made from the shards of used AriZona cans and mailed in to the brand they clearly loved. “No brand” indeed!

More recently, particularly as social media has exerted a greater and greater influence on marketing, and with it the potential to go viral at minimal expenditure with your message or meme, it seems that more and more of the rules of classical marketing have gone out the window. “Impossible to hate,” Vita Coco has deemed its Pressed Coconut Water extension. When a widely followed online hater said he’d rather drink piss, Vita Coco jumped at the opportunity by, shall we say, putting its marketing on a urinary track? The resulting burst of buzz and relevance seems to have more than outweighed any downside to associating the brand with a revolting image, per the rules. So far, the brand hasn’t suffered any obvious urinary track infection.

Or take LIFEAID Beverage. The Santa Cruz, Calif., company launched a series of functional entries with names like FitAid, FocusAid, PartyAid and GolferAid before ever getting around to releasing what it regards as its core, most mainstream brand, LifeAid, for which the company was named years before its launch. It’s still early, but the strategy seems to be working. So much for the rule about “always lead with your core brand.”

Another key principle: don’t overextend your core brand, because there’s too much downside if you erode its equity with failed offerings. In the past year or two I’ve been amazed at how rapidly that last redoubt of classical marketing has eroded.

By way of perspective, I recall the ice beer craze in the 1990s, when Anheuser-Busch launched a brand delicately called Ice Draft from Budweiser. Why go with that kind of “endorsement” branding strategy instead of just calling it Bud Ice? Too risky, A-B insiders told me. What if Ice Draft fails? Or the category proves to be a fad? It would tarnish the Bud brand!

As though beer drinkers didn’t regard it as a Bud brand! From the start, customers in a noisy bar simply yelled “Bud Ice.” Magnanimously, the company announced it was acceding to consumers’ preferences and renaming the product Bud Ice. Not long after, the category kind of sputtered into irrelevance (or semi-relevance as a more upscale malt liquor). The misfire didn’t seem to take Bud and Bud Light down the tubes.

Or fast-forward a few years to the millennium, when A-B created an elegant champagne-style bottle so its Budweiser brand could ring in the new era in style, at a $15 register ring. Nice pack, I remember saying to A-B’s marketing chief. What are you going to put inside it? Why, Budweiser, of course, he said, with astonishment in his voice. It’s the best beer ever, so why would we put anything else inside our special pack? Clearly, even for that once-in-a-thousand-years occasion, tinkering with the core Bud liquid was inconceivable.

Can we survey the landscape now? Budweiser 1933 Repeal Reserve. Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. Bud Light Platinum. Things have changed! And not just in St. Louis. Coca-Cola Life. Coca-Cola Energy. Diet Coke Blueberry Acai. Pepsi Wild Cherry Vanilla. Pepsi Salted Caramel.

So are there any limits any more? One could argue not really, given that all kinds of other rules are being shattered these days (presidential decorum, for instance). Certainly, for fallen celebrities, there’s always redemption, if contrition is shown on the talk show circuit. (Kind of like Coca-Cola did after the abject failure of New Coke.) Or maybe pendulums swing both ways, and at some point marketers will decide they really are eroding their brands with short-lived, promiscuous extensions and marketing campaigns. Another thought: Maybe the emergence of the cannabis sector will bring this branding issue to a head (pun intended). Should maryjane, at least, be a no-go zone for some brands, especially those with a broad demo? For a while, that was the thought at Jones Soda, whose brand stewards worried that, even for a once-renegade brand, they had to carefully consider any cannabis extension so as not to alienate the moms who purchase the soda for their kids. Now that Jones is joined at the hip to a cannabis company, that seems to be less of a concern. In any case, we can always return to the classics. In this fast-moving, turbulent time in consumer brands, though, I’m suspecting that won’t be happening for a while yet.