May 252013

brand-jacking-skitchingBrand-jacking is when an existing brand is co-opted and used to promote something else. That is exactly what opponents of genetically modified foods are doing with the Monsanto brand.They’ve grabbed the bumper of Monsanto and are skitching on  its reputation to bring attention and understanding  to their message.

Millions-Against-MonsantoAs a kid growing up in Chicago, we used to grab the fenders of passing cars for exhilarating fast slides on icy roads. “Skitching” is a portmanteau combining skate and hitch. Political causes that are brand-jacking grab onto the power of well-known brands to use their power to efficiently communicate their messages and the get attention in the media.

The nicely alliterative “March Against Monsanto” is just the latest example of this kind of skitching on a brand. Organizers of today’s marches claim over 2 million people participated in over 400 evens in 52 countries according to founder and organizer Tami Canal. “If I had gotten 3,000 people to join me, I would have considered that a success,” she said in media interviews. Brand-jacking off the Monsanto brand brought Canal’s cause enormous attention that would have been hard to obtain without the connection to this chemical boogeyman. Monsanto has long been associated with reviled chemicals like DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange–it was the perfect vehicle for skitching.

May 122013

Association_Non-Profit_Consultants_LogoCongratulations to my client, the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits on their new Web site. It’s always a pleasure to work with Chicagoans, especially those who appreciate good web site writing, visitor experience and good SEO. Visit the site here.

Oct 182012

Al Qaeda is making headlines again. We had covered the death of the Al Qaeda brand for Forbes over a year ago.


As the presidential candidates argue about what happened in Libya, Stratfor, an intelligence analysis group, has written a great article on the Al Qaeda brand architecture problem. As Al Qaeda fades as a brand, other elements of Islamic jihadist movement will muscle into top shelf position.

Al Qaeda isn’t the only Islamic extremist group with marketing problems. The Taliban must now combat media bias in coverage of their attack on a Pakistani school girl. The Taliban brand is being tarnished by media reports that have “crossed all limits” to paint the Taliban as the “worst people on earth.” Their plan to turn things around? They have selected 12 suicide bombers who will attempt to blow themselves up in the offices of various Pakistani and foreign media news offices. Talk about confusion about goals and utter befuddlement over methods.

Jun 292012

The latest AIG rebranding is actually re-rebanding: Returning to its old name, finally correcting a an ill-considered and ineffective name change.

AIG Rebranding 2009

“AIG is trying to outrun its old reputation by adopting a new brand. Will it work? Most people aren’t buying it. The entity, formerly known as AIG, is firmly attached to its reputation of irresponsible financial stewardship and credit default swap schemes that played a major role in the global financial collapse of 2008. The payout of millions in bonuses, particularly to executives responsible for the collapse along with lavish executive spa trips using the millions of US taxpayer bailout money haven’t helped. With record losses mounting and a reputation in shambles, a name change isn’t fooling anyone.”

Sep 202011

cdtvWe talked about naming challenges, how to name, pitfalls to avoid in this online radio interview on, the online broadcasting network providing stock market news, financial, business, nasdaq, nyse, earnings, and daily dividend reports. Merriam’s Guide to Naming is available from most major booksellers, including Amazon.

Aug 152011

Last year when Motorola split into two companies, both called Motorola, they created brand confusion. Now Google is acquiring Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. for its wireless patents. With the demise of the Motorola Mobility brand, what’s left of Motorola can begin to create a stronger, focused brand..but that is a big if.

Motorola Mobility BrandWhat if Google has acquired rights to the Motorola brand? What if they use it? Motorola Solutions, the remaining part of the original Motorola, faces continuing brand chaos if Google uses the Motorola brand, too and if Google takes it in another direction.

Companies can split and its parts can be sold, but the same cannot be said for brands.

UPDATE: Google says it does plan to use the Motorola brand as will the company called Motorola Solutions. The problem remains of the market asking asking “which Motorola?” when talking about the brand. Of greater risk is that both Motorolas will be at the mercy of the other. The actions of one company will impact the actions of the other. If one Motorola stumbles, it brings the other one down. Google would be wise to build its brand equity in a name that totally owns and controls rather than cede so much to Motorola Solutions (and vice versa).

Mar 312011

The Proxios brand promise was tested under fire last week.

At Merriam Associates, we have been honored to work with some truly great companies large and small. Occasionally, we get to work with a company which does something truly heroic.

proxios-brand-promiseWe renamed and repositioned Proxios, which manages companies’ information technology through cloud computing. It is a nifty company with great people and a service that is compelling. Just how nifty and compelling came to light last week when one of Proxios’ customers, The Bookkeeping Department, got the phone call that all business owners dread. Their building was on fire.

For a business that provides financial reporting, accounts receivable/payable, general accounting, and tax services, this type of emergency could cause severe problems for its clients and put them out of business – especially this close to April 15.

The fire destroyed The Bookkeeping Department’s offices so thoroughly they won’t be able to return for at least six months. But, since all of their IT was in “the cloud” with Proxios, clients didn’t even notice the catastrophe. Phones and emails were immediately re-routed. All bookkeeping and tax documents were miles away from the fire in Proxios’ secure offsite facility. The company kept operating without losing touch with customers and without losing a single byte of data–exactly the Proxios brand promise.

“Despite the severity of the fire, I never had a moment’s doubt about being able to access our data,” explained The Bookkeeping Department’s CEO Harry Garmon. “Since we were able to maintain contact with our clients, they couldn’t really perceive any difference in reaching either us or their data.”

Congratulations to Proxios for delivering on its brand promise of providing complete, uninterrupted access to world-class IT and communications services any time, anywhere, even during a catastrophic fire.

Jan 202011

How much of the Apple brand value is Steve Jobs? Is the brand at risk with Jobs’ new medical leave? When a major brand is closely tied to a single person (think of Yves St. Laurent, Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump), brand value can rise and fall on the fortunes and failures of that person.

Steve Jobs is an iconic figure in technology and culture. When he holds up a gadget at any event, everyone oohs and aahs. Yes, the Apple brand is about cool design, but it is also about the guy that invented computing as we know it in a garage in Cuppertino. Jobs’ spectacular successes and instructive failures have given him status and credibility that can’t be matched. Apple without Steve Jobs has the potential to remain a cool company, but it could just as easily fall to the low profitability, declining sales and sinking stock price of the John Sculley era.

apple-brand-value-steve-jobMarketWatch talks of the “Jobs Premium” in the share price of Apple stock. Apple shares fell 50% in 2008 when it was rumored Jobs’ pancreatic cancer had returned. They suffered a similar fall in January 2009 when he took a leave of absence for a liver transplant. On the immediate heels of his latest announcement of another medical leave, share value dropped 6.45% and has been shaky since.

What can Apple do? I certainly hope that Steve Jobs comes back from medical leave fit and healthy. Yet Apple, like any valuable brand, must face the fact that we all face the same unavoidable end some time. Here are three options:

  1. Institutionalize the legacy of the person. Coco Chanel has been dead for decades, but her personal brand has become iconic and her spirit still infuses Chanel. Calving Klein is attempting to make the same transformation in his own company, while he is still alive to enjoy it. Orville Redenbacher has become a character, much like Colonel Sanders.
  2. Find a successor. Frank Purdue found another tough man behind a tender chicken, in the person of his equally winsome son. Perry Ellis was succeeded by superstar Marc Jacobs.
  3. Diversify.  Build on a strong personal legacy by adding additional attributes. Martha Stewart is less and less about Martha and more and more about design. She no longer appears on the cover of every issue and additional designers, like Kevin Sharkey, are sharing some of the spotlight. Condé Nast Publications continued and even thrived after the death of founder and driving force Condé Montrose Nast by focusing on high-end, glossy publications that set the standard for their categories.

More on brands tied to people–Celebrity Endorsers

Jan 162011

Corporate restructuring can make perfect financial sense, yet create a perfect mess creating brand confusion in the marketplace.

marathon brand confusionTake Marathon Oil, which just announced it is spinning off its “downstream” refining and retail operations. Those low margin businesses drag down the finances of the whole company, so a spin off is a shrewd move. Still, calling one company Marathon Petroleum Corp. and the other one Marathon Oil Corp. creates endless confusion and genuine brand risk—people will always wonder which Marathon is which. (Motorola has done something similar).

From Brand Confusion to Brand Risk

Should Marathon decide to eventually sell the retail operation, brand confusion becomes a risk. What an acquiring company does under the Marathon retail brand will  impact the parent company brand. The risk also runs the other way. If Marathon has an oil well disaster like BP did in 2010, it impacts the retail brand. Consumers aren’t going to differentiate Marathon Oil and Marathon Petroleum when they boycott. Marathon is one brand, no matter that it is now two companies.

Retail Rebranding is Expensive

Should Marathon eventually sell its spun-off retail operations, the buyer may not want to change the brand name on each of the 6500 individual gas stations. Joe Bona, retail brand expert and president of the retail practice at design and strategic branding company CBX, notes: “The cost of rebranding sites, terminals, transportation vehicles etc. would be quite substantial and the risk of alienating core constituents would also be a concern. Of course then there would be the marketing cost and time to build any new brand. Without having access to research, I would have to believe Marathon has positive equity in the markets they operate, so anyone planning a new brand would have to weigh the risks of any such move.”

A number of years ago, I worked on the rebranding of a major oil company merger involving some eight different retail brands. When deciding which brands to keep and which brands to discontinue, we discovered that distributors liked having a portfolio of brands so that they could own all four corners of an intersection, each with a different brand name. This may be another reason why keeping the Marathon brand could make sense to a future buyer.

Rebrand the Parent Company

A cheaper solution would be for the parent company to rebrand its exploration and production business. While they lose some legacy, they can make up for it with a clear, differentiated brand—and a future with less risk or brand confusion.

Jan 142011

This blog has railed against the dishonesty behind doublespeak and the long-term damage such “cleverness” can do to the integrity of your brand (i.e. Toyota renaming a “recall” as a “special service campaign”). Using gobbledegook in your brand communications is less sinister, but it still inhibits clear, compelling communication and it definitely can bore your customers to death. has a great slide show of annoying corporate jargon. Does anyone think the phrase “out of the box” is the least bit clever? If the word “solution” appears in your communications, or worse, in your name, stamp it out. Don’t use the “utilize” when “use” works just fine. Talk like your customers talk. Don’t say “managed solutions” when your customer is looking for “someone to help me keep my software current.”

Communications that are clear and vivid are the most memorable–and memorability is the key quality of an effective brand.  A great brand always thinks “outside the box.” (sorry!)

© 2014 Lisa Merriam