Looking Forward – Ted Bellamy

THE PARADOX OF BRANDING (Part One)

When I was a boy, my grandfather loved to tell the Studebaker story. Long about 1937, the company introduced a new pickup truck, which, for the first time, had the name “Studebaker” emblazoned across the rear gate.

Along with his fellow Missouri farmers, my grandfather refused to buy one. As he put it, “Why would I want a truck with someone else’s name on it?” Fast-forward to 2010, and LeBron James.

We’ll get to LeBron in a moment.

Those Missouri farmers had a specific beef against Studebaker — they were accustomed to painting the name of their own farms on their tailgates, and the raised white letters made that difficult. But the larger question remains — why DO we buy stuff decorated with the names of other people? Of companies we don’t own? Why do we advertise for some other guy’s farm? And pay extra for the privilege?

Countless books and articles have been written, of course. But the simplest, most basic question is never asked. So I’ll ask it, using restaurants as a metaphor.

Two restaurants open up directly across from each other in Culver City. Owned by feuding twin brothers, they have the same square footage, same rental per square foot, same number of seats. They both serve traditional American breakfasts, maybe some huevos rancheros. The point is, the restaurants are substantially the same – let’s call them “Great American Breakfast” and “Breakfast in America.” They both plan to open on the 4th of July and hang banners to announce the fact.

“Great American Breakfast” stages a huge advertising blitz — newspapers, TV, radio, an airplane flying overhead spelling out the restaurant name in smoke. Celebrities stop by on opening day (for a fee) and talk about how tasty the grits are — especially with country gravy.

Come 4th of July morning, where would you be? Me, I’m eating in the OTHER place — “Breakfast in America.” All things being equal, I’m more likely to buy the things that I DON’T see advertised. Because someone is paying for those ads, and I’d rather it not be me. Perhaps it’s my Scottish blood.

This discussion becomes especially relevant in the brave new electronic world. For example, I have TiVo. I also use ad-blocking software on my Internet browser so I only see what I came to see. No banner ads, no Flash movies, no pop-up windows.

There are those who accuse me of being a freeloader, or even a pirate — because I consume ad-supported content without watching the ads. Perhaps. When I was a young man I devised a little contraption that enabled me to rotate the volume knob on the TV from across the room. A manual “mute button,” if you will. On Sunday, when I first open the newspaper, if it’s got color and it’s not the comics, it goes directly into the recycling bin.

Obviously, I’m not alone, either. In the advertising press there’s lots of hand wringing about “staying ahead of the curve” and “adding to the clutter.” First everyone jumped into MySpace, which is now terminally unhip. Facebook came next, but is now so overcrowded and fragmented that advertisers despair of reaching anyone. iPhones, Twitter, now FourSquare. Everyone’s forever jumping into the new “latest thing,” and quickly exhausting the patience of the users.

The fact is, most people dislike most marketing and advertising. Except, of course, when they don’t.

Which is where LeBron James comes in. And it looks like we’ll be talking about him next time.

Ted Bellamy is the nom de guerre of Scott Wyant, one of the most forward-looking people in Culver City. If you’d like to consult with him on IT matters, just click on his ad on the right side of the page- It will take you right through.

www.culvercitysymphony.org

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