Mar 122016

eric-easter-urban-news-serviceCongratulations to my client Urban News Service on their historical achievement: In less than six months, they have become one of the largest distributors of news content to African-American owned newspapers in the country. Here is the the interview with one of three founding principals (the others being Andre Johnson and Joe Ruffin). Eric Easter emphasizes the importance of seasoned journalists  telling black stories in print and embedding reporters in our  communities for the long haul. Hear the Eric Easter interview on AM 900 WURD.

It is such an honor (and seriously fun) working with this team to tell their story: The concept was to supply world-class content to African-American publishers. These publishers had plenty of opinion, but original reporting and hard news was hard to come by. Urban News Service provides stories that reflect the actual African-American experience, not the crime, drugs, sex that dominate in major media. The team was able to accomplish its goals in an astonishingly short period of time. Starting from zero in April, 2015, Urban News Service were serving more than 205 black-owned newspapers with a combined circulation of 5.5 million by September—more than Ebony, Essence or Black Enterprise. It wasn’t easy. Publishers that fought the establishment for 100+ years and came through the black power movement of the 1970s had a deep distrust of anything new. Earning their trust required creating a superlative product and the hiring of hired well-known, award-winning reporters from major media with a sharp eye for stories. In January, Urban News Service inked a deal with the NNPA Black Press of America to provide content on their wire service.

Feb 082016

Chipotle-brand-recover-integrityCan the Chipotle brand recover with recent company marketing moves? Chipotle Mexican Grill’s sinking sales and falling share prices follow a bacterial outbreak that sickened customers in at least 11 states.

When news of widespread food poisoning at the “food with integrity” restaurants first broke, the internet filled with rumors of a chain-wide shutdown. Those rumors become true February 8, as Chipotle closes for a national food safety meeting for all staff, prior to what company calls its “biggest marketing effort ever.”

Chipotle isn’t the first restaurant chain to grapple with food poisoning, but the others don’t tout local sourcing and sophisticated software to track ingredients from farm to table. That tracking software didn’t work so well. It was months before the company could pinpoint what ingredient was responsible for making people sick. That beef from Australia—so much for the local sourcing claim—was the culprit, is a further blow to the brand’s integrity claim.

Will Chipotle’s biggest marketing effort ever work to help the Chipotle brand recover?

What do customers think? We hit the streets to find out.

Dec 082015

Chipotle-brand-failure-backfireThe Chipotle brand failure brand gives new meaning to a brand backfire with 30 more people reported sick in Boston today. It turns out, the “food with integrity” branding idea looks better in the advertising than it does in reality.

“Aspirational branding” is a ticking time bomb

Building a brand about what you want to be rather than what you opens the door to catastrophic brand failure. Dressing a brand in pretty design and heart-lifting words is easy. Operational realities can often make it impossible to deliver on the aspirational promise. (see BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” claim)

Restaurants battle e. coli all the time and are a leading source of food-borne illnesses (some restaurant food poisoning stats for you). Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Subway* and others have survived outbreaks, yet Chipotle’s brand is taking a serious dive.

Chipotle  brand failure: Not delivering on integrity promise

The problem is Chipotle has built is brand on “food with integrity,” and now it can’t deliver. Sales are falling for the first time in company history and share prices are sinking fast. Here is a short list of “food with integrity” Chipotle brand failure examples:

  • Traceable Ingredients: Chipotle says it can trace every ingredient from farm to table in real time with software from FoodLogiQ. How can that claim be true, when a month and a half into the Chipotle e. coli outbreak, they still haven’t discovered the contamination source and customers are still getting sick?
  • Local Sourcing: This brand “stretch” that has proven to be a stretcher. Chipotle says: “The less distance food has to travel the better,” yet many of its ingredients are sent through centralized facilities in Chicago run by companies such as OSI or Miniat before shipping to restaurants. Chipotle’s “grass-fed beef” comes from Australia. That puts a lot of miles on your burrito bowl! The company recently removed the claim, “We serve more local produce than any restaurant company in the US” from its Web site.
  • PR Spin: Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold announced: “There are no confirmed cases of E. coli connected to Chipotle in Massachusetts.”  Yet it temporarily closed it’s the Boston restaurant where some thirty people fell ill this weekend. It closed 43 stores in nine other states, but in Boston, there were no confirmed cases of e. coli?
  • No GMO Food: Chipotle ballyhooed is ban on genetically modified ingredients in a move some called bold and others saw as a cynical appeal to customer fear. Either way, with  nearly 70 ingredients in a single burrito, eliminating GMO foods is nearly impossible. Chipotle’s meat comes from animals that eat genetically modified food and such ingredients “lurk in baking powder, cornstarch, and a variety of ingredients used as preservatives, coloring agents, and added vitamins, as well as in commodities like canola and soy oils, corn meal, and sugar,” according to the New York Times. Chipotle takes an anti-GMO stance in the name of health while lading out 1,600 calories of salt-laden food per meal.

When a brand makes integrity a central promise, it better be absolutely certain to delivery. If not, it can very dramatically backfire–like the Chipotle brand failure.
* I have done branding work with Subway in the past.

Sep 302015

Ralph-Lauren-BrandRalph Lauren, the last of the “big three” American sportswear designers, is stepping down. First Calvin Klein sold his company in 2002. Then Donna Karan stepped down from designing duties earlier this year. Now Ralph Lauren is turning the reigns to “fast fashion” executive Stefan Larsson. What will happen to the Ralph Lauren brand?

Mr. Larsson made his name turning around Gap’s bargain Old Navy brand and turning H&M into a budget brand phenomenon. What impact will this new leadership mindset have on the Ralph Lauren brand? Will the Ralph Lauren brand take a step down when Mr. Larsson steps up?

The Ralph Lauren brand, as we have noted in the past,  does an amazing job maintaining a luxury image selling $3000 dresses as it moves $10 socks at TJMaxx. The brand portfolio contains a mix of price points from the high end “Purple Label” to those socks in cellophane.

Before announcing his departure, Mr. Lauren had separated out its luxury business under the leadership of Valerie Hermann.

It will be interesting to see where the Ralph Lauren brand evolves next. Under two different executives, will the brand still be able to balance mass retail with luxury or will one side win?

Mar 312015

marketing-sherpa-increase-web-trafficHow to increase Web traffic is the subject of MarketingSherpa’s latest case study of Knockout Pest Control‘s local search and digital marketing work. Marketing Sherpa is a research company that tracks and shares “what works in all aspects of marketing.” They selected our client Knockout Pest Control to profile on how to build business–and better serve customers–through optimizing local search and coordinating digital marketing outreach.

It has been my privilege to work with Knockout Pest Control’s Arthur Katz to redo his digital marketing efforts in partnership with Liquid Marketing Group. Mr. Katz initiated the change as part of the company’s commitment to the best of customer service. Better, relevant content that is easy to access benefits Knockout customers. At the same time, the change benefited his business with a dramatic increase in number of visitors, engagement and action.

The Marketing Sherpa article provides detail on how to drive Web traffic, but here are a few tips:

1) Get rid of your old html site. You can’t do adequate SEO with an html site. You can’t keep every page fresh and changing and you can’t easily optimize all the elements that impact the Google search algorithm without content management. WordPress, Jumla and Drupal are the way to go. Look at any page on your site and check out the URL. If it ends in.html, you’re missing out.

2) On page SEO that is absolutely current is a must. Know your keywords and how to use them. Old fashioned key-word stuffing techniques will hurt you. Make sure you are up to date on all Google releases. If your SEO provider doesn’t know what you are talking about when you talk about when you mention Panda, Penguin, Pigeon or Hummingbird, your provider is no SEO expert. Google is constantly changing its algorithm and doing “major” updates with code names such as those above. A technique that used to work might now really hurt you.

3) Have rich, varied content that readers really want to read. Knockout Pest Control went from one page on bed bugs to over a dozen, taking on this topic in depth. Don’t upload a pdf and hope for the best. Put all that great content on a page that Google can find–and that readers can easily access without downloading a file. If your copy writer doesn’t understand how to write with keywords and how to format content for SEO, get a new writer.

4) Keep it fresh. Your site needs new content all the time, not an annual or ever-five-years update. Topical, focused, newsy content is a requirement to compete online today.

5) Link! Incoming and outgoing links are the gift that keeps on giving. They bring in relevant, motivated visitors and the Google algorithm sees them as votes of confidence, boosting your search engine results rank.

“Many thanks to Steve Scott of the Tampa SEO Training Academy –if you want to be an SEO expert in a week, call Steve.”

Merriam Associates specializes in combining the brand voice with a deep understanding of SEO for content that engages and motivates customers–and that can increase web traffic.

Feb 112015

Brian-williams-personal-brandBrian Williams personal brand as a trusted news anchor is damaged beyond recovery.

I’ve long been fascinated by “personal brands,” and the power of an individual to create and project a reputation that persuades. While such brands are powerful, they are also uniquely human. When the human fails, the brand can fail, too. In the case of Brian Williams, willful and large lies told over a long period make him utterly untrustworthy and unfit for the news anchor desk. The fact that his lies were gratuitous and self-serving adds insult to injury.

Not every human failing hurts the personal brand equally. Martha Stewart’s incarceration was barely a blip. Her brand was built on her design sensibility, not her financial acumen. An insider trading rap was a blip in the health of her brand. Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong had brands based on honesty. When their integrity fell apart, so did their brands.

Brian Williams can certainly redeem himself–but not his anchorman brand. He must take a long look at other rewarding opportunities that life offers. Redeeming himself and redeeming his personal brand are two different things. He won’t get a Michael Vick-style chance to redeem his brand. Vick was able to return to football, but that was because dog fighting (heinous though it is) did not impair his quarterback skills. A journalist cannot be caught lying, as trust is core to the brand.

“Brian’s problem isn’t just journalistic. It’s that he’s undermined his persona as a celebrity journalist. It isn’t just that he misrepresented facts on the ground or told lies about what he’s done; he’s undermined his image. He’s undermined his brand.”–Television news analyst Andrew Tyndall

Jan 222015

NFL-Gate-Scandal-NamesDeflategate–the shameful scandal involving under-inflated footballs that Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the entire Patriots organization unbelievably have no knowledge of and no responsibility for–is the latest in a long line of gate scandal names.

As noted in this post from the past, Watergate opened the floodgates for gate scandal names–Deflategate will surely not be the last.

Gate Scandal Names Instant Associations

Effective brand names are those that generate the right instant associations. People have to “get it” and understand the core of what you are trying to communicate in a femtosecond. The popularity of gate scandal names is that you instantly understand that what you are talking about is sordid and scandalous.

The NFL seems a fine breeding ground for scandals–who can forget the wardrobe malfunction that became Nipplegate?

Unlike the wardrobe malfunction, Deflategate has the potential to seriously damage the NFL brand. Nipplegate was about a celebrity during the half-time show. Deflategate’s unsportsmanlike cheating goes to the heart of the sport of football.

Go Seahawks!

Nov 192014


Watergate tops most top ten US scandal lists, which may explain the ubiquity of the ___-gate naming meme for scandals. Gruber-gate is only the latest in a long list of scandals with “gate” in the name.

Scandal Naming–The -Gate Construct

The -gate construct for scandal naming got its start shortly after Watergate and Nixon’s impeachment with BillyGate, where President Carter’s beer swilling brother accepted payment from Libya to become their foreign agent. Since then, -gate naming has been in full swing beyond politics into fields as diverse as science with ClimateGate (shout out to Buffalo with historic snowfall levels today), media with news reporting truth problems in RatherGate, sports with the shenanigans of a certain golf player in TigerGate, and entertainment with the wardrobe malfunction known as NippleGate.

The field of politics remains at the top of the flood of gate names, with Bill Clinton, being the top inspiration from TrooperGate to TravelGate to MonicaGate and more. The British are first through the gate, however, with the scandal involving a Member of Parliament insulting a policeman who stopped him from using the wrong gate at 10 Downing Street. While rating rather low on the disgrace meter, GateGate wins by having the best -gate scandal name.

Oct 152014

Adweek reports today that Converse has sued 31 companies in U.S. District Court for infringing on its Chuck Taylor All Star brand shape and appearance. Brands are not just about names and logos–they also encompass brand shapes; 3D branding.

trademark-brand-shape-converse-tiffany-coca-cola-chanel-beetleCoca-Cola was a pioneer in recognizing brand shape and appearance as a key asset to protect. The company’s contour bottle is one of the first three-dimensional shapes to be trademarked in 1915. In its 2014 fiscal year, Nike reported that Converse generated about $1.7 billion in sales–the iconic  brand shape is definitely an asset to fight to protect.

Successful brands frequently spawn copycats and counterfeiters. Brands like Chanel spend millions stamping out such parasites who try to leech a living off its iconic image. With $1.7 billion in sales in fiscal 2014, Converse has a lot at stake.

Sep 162014

Brand sponsorship requires a rush to judgement. Though Adrian Peterson has not been found guilty of a crime, brands can’t afford to serve as a backdrop to the drama of indictments and investigations. Radisson’s brand did literally serve as a backdrop to yesterday’s press conference by Vikings general manger Rick Spielman as he discussed child abuse allegations involving the team’s brightest star. This morning, Radisson announced it was pulling its brand sponsorship.


Brand reputation is too valuable to risk in the innocent until proven guilty dynamic of the court system. While I sincerely hope Mr. Peterson is cleared of charges and is indeed innocent, the brand damage is already done. Radisson did the only thing it could by ended its brand sponsorship.


More on celebrity brands:

NBC interview discussing Seattle Seahawk’s Richard Sherman

Lance Armstrong and the Livestrong brand

The phenomenon of “Tebowing”

Michael Vick’s comeback

Martha Stewart and Tiger Woods–lessons for celebrity brands

And even more on branding people here

© 2014 Lisa Merriam