John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter

www.kuraoka.com
(619) 465-6100
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June 26 2015
The ruling today by the US Supreme Court upholding the rights of all Americans to marry the person they love has turned into a marketing juggernaut for b(r)andwagoneers. Here are two collections of attempted memes so far, the first from BBC News and the second from Gizmodo:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

Brands for the most part have whole-heartedly embraced the ruling, and logos across the net have been churned out in rainbow-flag livery and blasted out on social media. That’s the easy part.

The hard part, though, is saying something of substance. However, that part is the heart of memorability for brands. No one’s going to remember one out of the thousands of rainbow-festooned brand icons, tweets, and posts, unless it connects to something deeper than an exuberant flash of celebration. Relevance – in life as in advertising – goes beyond borrowing someone else’s movement and imagery; a brand must bring something of itself to the discussion.

So, while there’s probably no harm in taking that quick easy shot while the momentum is there, it pays to let the copywriters work long enough to come up with something better than a boilerplate statement supporting diversity, or opportunity, or even love. Those messages are the ones that might just make a difference, because they’re not memes; they’re real.
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June 23 2015
Dated tomorrow because it is there already, comes this story from BBC News (or is it from StoryWorks?) about a German revenge prank that went viral before being uncovered as a publicity stunt on behalf of the German Bar Association:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The PR stunt used eBay as the bait (where the auctions were real, with proceeds donated to charity), YouTube as the hook (where a video of a man slicing up possessions with power tools racked up over six million views), and the news media to deliver the message (raising awareness of marriage and divorce law). Not a bad result on a shoestring budget!

It’s been a while since I’d read about someone using eBay as a lead generator, something I’ve played with to good effect on a much smaller scale. But I’ve only rarely met clients who buy off on such a media tactic, despite the wide reach, easy targeting, and low cost of entry. Now, perhaps, we’ll see a resurgence of using existing channels of digital connectivity to achieve something beyond the public purpose of the channel itself. That’s when media becomes hot, in the Marshall McLuhan sense of the word.
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June 22 2015
BBC, the global news provider, has come out of the closet with a consolidated and rebranded division dedicated to content marketing and partnerships. Here’s the story (which does not turn up on the BBC’s own website), from The Drum:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The new division, StoryWorks, will be set up as BBC Worldwide’s in-house creative agency, and will develop branded content, partnered content, and sponsored content. Think of the Top Gear format, for instance, repurposed for different market segments (home! fitness! food! lifestyle!), each show carrying a payload of more or less brand-crafted content, but without a TV commercial’s underlying truth that viewers know who's paying for it.

Content marketing has been going on for a lot longer than “the last few years,” as the article says. Indeed, many principles of propaganda content marketing are embedded in the very heart of advertising. Every generation reinvents it, along with the requisite buzzwords, but its roots go back centuries. Many argue, for instance, that Shakespeare’s history plays are content marketing on behalf of the House of Tudor. Then, as now, the lines between channel, creator, and sponsor are blurred to the point of invisibility.

As to BBC Worldwide’s new shiny object: although my mantra is to own the channel, instant relevance to an audience is nothing to sneeze at. I think the most-successful marketers will be those who manage to do both.
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June 19 2015
Retail grocers are coming back! No they aren’t! Two different looks at the American grocery market, one side from today’s Business Insider and the other from yesterday’s Bloomberg Business:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

Some grocers are seeing an uptick in the sales of premium branded items, including higher-end deli meats, coffees, and artisinal foods. Meanwhile, A&P, America’s oldest grocery chain, is teetering on the brink for the second time in five years.

I think a major part of the problem comes with age. With the rising costs of health care and pensions, along with ongoing costs related to labor and real estate contracts negotiated during boom times, older companies have massive liabilities that comparable younger companies simply don't have. Looking down the road 50, 80 years, I’m not convinced that Google, say, is any better positioned to weather the aging of its workforce and the increase of its retiree load any better than was General Motors or A&P.

But I also don’t think marketing can go entirely unimpeached in this affair. That people will pay for premium brands is borne out by the first article. Of course, premium grocery items are a scalable splurge: you can splash out this week and pull in the horns next week, without knocking the budget or the pantry completely off-kilter. However, branding is a key part of what makes those products both visible and desirable.

So, where was A&P’s brand in all of this? What did it stand for? That’s the other problem unique to old, iconic brands: they can get bogged down in their own history. Initially a product brand, A&P almost immediately became a retailer in the early days of mass consumerism. It grew into America’s first grocery chain, with a vertically integrated business model that was so successful it had to shut down part of its supply chain to prevent being broken up as a monopoly. It developed the first national radio program and used it to promote its stores and house branded products. It led the self-service revolution, transforming the way people shopped. It built some of the world’s first supermarkets, helping create the suburbs.

But, after over a century and a half in business the innovation seemed to ran out.

I don’t think that always has to be the case. 150-year-old companies can remain relevant – look at Cigna (1792), Jim Beam (1795), and Colgate (1806). Two thrived through constant innovation. One thrived through constant focus. But all three thrived through constant marketing.
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June 17 2015
Kinds sorta continuing the neuroscience thing earlier this week, here’s an article about how people interpret visual information, from Fast Company:
Advertising copywriter blog link

When my kids were babies, I was fascinated with how they could identify a strange dog as a dog, despite the new dog having a very different form and behavior from previously known dogs. There seemed to be a conceptual link that transcended physical form or representation – unprompted, they could unerringly identify a dog whether it appeared in a photo, video, drawing, or real life.

With my second kid I actually tried to find out how. I sat with him one morning and drew varyingly simple representations of dogs mixed in with similar drawings of other animals, to see if I could unlock what he understood as the essence of dogness. I never reached any conclusion, aside from the false one that I could draw animals.

My kids are now teens; yesterday the older one bought himself a digital camcorder for a summer project. After two failed attempts to get the camcorder to recognize the memory card he asked for help, and I quickly figured out the problem. The memory card was inserted upside-down.

And one reason it was upside-down, was that the instructions had pictures of two types of memory cards. To tell one type from the other, one had to read the text labels. So what appeared to be a simple, one-step visual instruction in fact required the integration of two kinds of information, visual and literal, as well as the deliberate discarding of half the instructions. Oddly enough, had the instruction for that step appeared more-complex, it’s highly probable that he’d have automatically integrated both types of information and gotten it right; it was the apparent simplicity that tripped him up.

But then, being a copywriter, I probably tend to be drawn to words first, or at least assign them a higher value than other people. So I spotted the little text labels immediately, in the same way that I erroneously spotted a duplication in the article’s visual instruction for coffee making. I think the difference between the Caffe Latte and the Cappuccino might have been clearer had they been laid out next to each other horizontally instead of vertically, making the different ratios more immediately apparent. Others, though, may see it differently.

Which prompts a question: how do you proofread for visual language?

This is important stuff to figure out. I think the best ads are visually driven, because seeing is a more-primal process than reading. Visuals simply offer a more-visceral way to connect. When the copy builds on the visual, communication on a profound scale can take place in a flash. And that, folks, is an ad.
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June 15 2015
This is your brain on Coke. The brand. Here’s a look at the neuroscience of branding, from TNS South Africa via Bizcommunity.com:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Branding is real and measurable. But it’s surprising just how deep brand preferences lie, and how transient they are thanks to the wonderfully dynamic nature of the human brain.

Actually, advertising lands pretty far down on the list of brand preference influences when compared to personal experience and popularity. Still, as a marketing tool it’s both scalable and measurable, so, in a practical sense, it makes sense to advertise.

But the research also lends scientifically derived credence to marketing approaches that leverage personal experience and popularity. Sampling, for instance, when delivered in a way that promotes the brand over the free-ness of the sample itself. And, those millions of direct-response ad headlines that start “Join the” and “Who else wants a” and so on. We’re social animals; where the crowd goes, we tend to go, with most individualists orbiting at distances not too far from the center of mass.

And now for something related but different. Marketplace reporting on the Coke vs Pepsi rivalry misses a bigger point: the use of social messaging by both sides to promote the false argument that the choice is a binary one. Of course, it is not. There are other choices, including branded products (such as other sodas, energy drinks, and bottled water), commodity products (such as tap water), and products with feet in both camps (such as milk). But news about Coke and Pepsi will continue to marginalize alternatives, further strengthening the underlying false premise.

That’s how popularity builds on itself. And, as I've said for decades, market share is branding.
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June 11 2015
Global confectioner Nestle lost its battle in EU courts to trademark the shape of the KitKat bar. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

Look and feel are important elements of product design. That’s how a company like Apple, to point to one of the world’s most-adept firms at protecting design elements, successfully transmits its brand through elements that should be easy to copy, but somehow aren’t.

It’s worth noting that rival Cadbury, which opposed Nestle’s trademark application, doesn’t market a similarly designed product. It just apparently wanted to be free to do so. And now it is. Just as Nestle is free to produce chocolate bars with Pantone 2865c purple wrappers.

But the chance of either event happening is remote. This is one of those cases where practical market realities provide protections fully equal to those won (or lost) in court.
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June 9 2015
The problem with focus groups and survey-based studies, is that they may not reflect real life. Here’s a story about how research led fast food companies astray, from Business Insider:
Advertising copywriter blog link

The problem lies in what I call aspirational studies: studies designed to extract an audience’s hopes and projections as opposed to looking at hard sales data over time. You know what I mean. Questions like “what characteristics do you look for in a banking institution?”

In this case, clearly stated preferences for things like customization and ethical sourcing of ingredients were utterly trounced by budgetary considerations. But no one is going to put that as an answer on a survey card.

The good thing about such studies, is that a well-structured one can deliver predictive results. The bad thing is that very few are well-structured. Most emerge from a marketing organization instead of a research organization, and either way the results are subject to intense bias in interpretation to validate steps already proposed or taken.

I think the best research is grounded in what people do, not what they say. Because, in the end, I'd rather generate sales than memes.
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June 2 2015
Tech firms are competing with ad agencies for creative talent, including copywriters (or, “content creators”) and designers. Here’s the story, from FinancialBuzz.com:
Advertising copywriter blog link

This trend is, no doubt, a good thing for the tech firms, or it wouldn’t be gathering momentum. But is it a good thing for the creatives?

I think the opportunity is the same as going in-house with any other client-side business: the environment tends to foster insularity, which often diminishes creativity. There’s nothing innately more-creative about technology than, say, insurance. Both industries require content. Both can deliver a steady paycheck. But neither alone offers the chaotic variety that is life in advertising.

Moreover, the more the business succeeds, the more circumscribed the work becomes. Contrast that with ad agencies and design firms, where increased success tends to attract a more diverse workload and a broader portfolio.

I think it comes down to whether you thrive on linear growth or lateral growth. As for me, I've always been a bit off-kilter. And that’s why I’m quite happy to remain a freelance advertising copywriter.
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June 1 2015
What’s the ROI on strong branding? A strong brand. Here’s an attempt to put numbers to the value of branding, from The Partners, Lambie-Nairn, and Millward Brown via Popsop:
Advertising copywriter blog link

What’s being measured, though, is “brand value,” not sales or market share or profits. So what’s being called a return on investment seems to me to be a measure of intangible values based on subjective analysis expressed in monetary units. In other words, what the study shows is spending money on your brand adds value to your brand. Sadly, I don’t think it proves anything about whether branding is of greater or lesser importance than advertising because it connects neither to the real goal, which is profitable sales.

The thing is, I believe in branding. It’s big and important and all too often done wrong by people who ought to know better. But ultimately, the point of marketing something is to sell that something. A strong brand makes that task a lot easier and more cost-efficient, but so far no one’s done a double blind test demonstrating the financial worth of a brand’s relative strength in helping its advertising achieve its goals.

So ROI on branding remains nebulous. And I had such high hopes.
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May 27 2015
Advertising is full of surprises, not all of them good. In the mail today, came two near-identical mailers from the same direct mail house.

One mailer is for Vons and the other is for Albertsons. But it hardly matters; in two quick strokes the brands were reduced to commodities.

Now, you’d think someone at the mailing house would have thought to stagger the drop dates by even a day. But thoughtful media planning, especially by media companies, could never really be counted on.

So what can we learn from this? That both stores have identically fresh-from-the-fields blueberries? That their in-store bakeries could be twins? That one has a more-persnickety legal department?

Valuable lessons all, I suppose. But I think the real lesson is to never trust canned creative.
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May 22 2015
The San Diego Union-Tribune, my hometown paper, has been sold to a media conglomerate that includes the Los Angeles Times, ending decades of local ownership. And the first noticeable effect? The masthead changed.

Here’s the story of the Union-Tribune's brand evolution, straight from the horse’s mouth:
Advertising copywriter blog link

So the “UT San Diego” branding is giving way to the paper’s roots as the “San Diego Union-Tribune.” The typography isn’t completely lifted from the former logo though. In what could mark a political shift, the period that used to quietly communicate the brand’s conservative finickiness has been just as quietly dropped.

The article contains another subtle but probably even more-significant shift in how the former owner is named, but noting it may be for locals only.

Next up: local layoffs, although those, of course, haven’t been announced. Yet.
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July 18 2014
Collaboration is the hot trend in advertising these days, or perhaps it just seems that way in the media. But here’s a good look at the power of creative collaboration, from Campaign India:
Advertising copywriter blog link

All advertising, good and bad, is collaborative from start to finish. It’s a collaboration between agency and client, between creative and research and media and account services, between art and copy and production. And it’s exciting to integrate new disciplines into the creative process because they give us new tools to work with and new ways of seeing things.

That said, though, there is one danger in collaboration, and that’s diluting the vision.

I’ve found that collaboration works best when everyone shares ideas, and worst when everyone shares the work. Beyond a certain point, for instance, collaboration doesn’t help in writing copy; it either throws up roadblocks and detours or adds too many voices.

Maintaining focus used to be the province of the creative director. But now, as cross-disciplinary teams get larger and more diverse, I think it’s best to delegate downward: keeping an eye on the ball is everyone’s job. That gets the most out of both the collaboration and the individuals within it.
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July 16 2014
A recent study shows that storytelling across sequential ads beats multiple direct call-to-action ads on Facebook. Here’s the story, with a link to the full report, from Marketing Land (Redding, CT):
Advertising copywriter blog link

This isn’t a new phenomenon, although it may seem so because it’s being applied to a newer medium by researchers who either don’t know or don’t remember old-school direct-response packages. But look at all the most-effective traditional direct-response ads. Were they one-shot messages with a call to action? Sequential calls to action? No; most were long-copy direct mail packages, often containing three or more elements including an interactive piece such as a scratch-off card, a choice of bonuses, or a questionnaire. In print advertising, again long copy ruled. Direct response print ads occupied a full page at least, if not a spread. And direct-response TV commercials took 60, 90, or 120 seconds or longer.

It takes time to build a case for action. You must call to mind the problem, pick the scabs, expose the problems of inaction. You must establish credibility. Only when all that has been done can you offer your solution with a fair chance of converting exposures to sales.

Updating the actual traditional direct response model to online media gives you something a lot more like a sales funnel than a so-called “performance ad.” In fact, the old-school model goes far beyond that, integrating many more pieces including layered ads, interactive experiences, email follow-ups, and multiple websites.

As for what the study calls traditional “performance ads,” they have more in common with billboards than direct response. Presumably, they rely on big data to deliver relevant messages. But big data is no substitute for persuasive ad copy.

I’ve said for years that banner ads are usually misused as direct-response vehicles, regardless of the channel on which they are deployed. And the main creative reason they fail is simple: they ask for the sale before they’ve done any selling.
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July 15 2014
The war in the Middle East is also being waged on social media. Here’s the story, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

That military forces are deploying current propaganda tools in sophisticated ways should come as no surprise. Likewise, that both sides are trying to reach both internal and external audiences. That tactics are swiftly countered, both directly and indirectly. And, that both sides actively target journalists for maximum spin (a powerful aspect of social media that is overlooked by many corporate players).

What struck me, though, was the relative lightness of messaging. In an advertising category in which audiences expect – and are, perhaps, somewhat inured to – dramatic, gritty realism, both sides use cartoons, humor, interactivity, and snark to attract, intrigue, and persuade.
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July 14 2014
Top brands lists seem to be the thing to put together on a slow news day. Here are two. The first, from Business Insider (India), looks at top US brands and the second, from The Drum (UK), examines top UK brands:
Advertising copywriter blog link
Advertising copywriter blog link

With lists like these, it’s important to look at the metrics, including who was surveyed and what they were asked. In the case of the “most-respected US brands” list, the survey group consisted of 10,000 executives at fairly large companies. They were asked to rate a list of 500 brands by familiarity and “favorability,” which was defined as management capabilities, investment potential, and “overall reputation,” whatever that means to executives. Not noted, is how many of those surveyed actually completed the survey.

At any rate, it’s no surprise that the top ten were mostly massive consumer brands: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Hershey, Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, Harley-Davidson, IBM, Apple, Kellogg’s, and General Electric.

The second list, about brand storytelling, is smaller but more interesting. To compile it, 2,000 actual shoppers were surveyed about what brands they thought were the most authentic (whatever that means any more) and believable, and which brands they were most-likely to talk about with other people. That list’s top five were Apple, Cadbury, McDonald’s, Ikea, and Walkers. Virgin Media and YouTube also made the top ten, supplanting longtime consumer brands Heinz and Kellogg’s.

No brand made both lists’ top five. The only brand to make both lists’ top ten was Apple, which, along with Google, is consistently mooted as one of the world’s “most-valuable” brands. Google, by the way, was notably absent from either top ten list.

These are fun, but it’s easy to get deceived into thinking they’re important. I think the only real way to rate a brand, is by category market share relative to its competitors. Except in cases of emerging and very young categories, for the most part all branded consumer goods are adequate. They all do the job pretty well, and functional differences between competing goods are incremental at best. Which is why differences in sales can be largely put down to the attraction of the brand.
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July 11 2014
It’s easy to be creative when you have a cool consumer product to advertise. It’s harder when you're advertising something ordinary. Or is it? Here’s a look at the basics of using creativity as a lever to elevate one “low-involvement” product above the rest, from Business World (India):
Advertising copywriter blog link

I go back to the admonition that there are no boring products, only boring ads. Terrific, clutter-busting work has been done for prosaic products like glues, tape, and paint, and also for everyday stuff like milk, insurance, and transit safety.

I question the concept of high-involvement vs low-involvement products. There’s nothing innately low-involvement about water heaters or switch gears, for instance. The moment you need them they become high-involvement products.

That said, whether a product is classified as high-involvement or low-involvement, I don’t think the key is differentiation. The key is always catching attention. If you can grab attention and differentiate your product simultaneously, that’s optimal. But unless you get a person’s attention, you have no chance to differentiate, substantiate, or elaborate. The opportunity is lost.

I also think it’s a common mistake to focus entirely on B2C advertising when it comes to selling “low-involvement” consumer goods. If I were marketing a new kind of electronic cabling, for instance, my initial move probably wouldn’t be consumer advertising. I’d market to the electronics trade and retailers first, backed by consumer-focused packaging and point-of-sale materials. I might not advertise to consumers until I got a whiff that competition was brewing, although ideally I’d launch the consumer campaign just before competition stirred, the better to stomp it down and kill it.

Even in B2B, though, the goal is to set your product apart. And the best, most cost-effective way to do that across all media channels, including social, is through better creative.
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July 10 2014
Just a quickie to point out this article from yesterday on naming brands, from BBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I’ve done naming for brands, products, and services, although nothing yet on the scale of Placek’s firm. But I wouldn’t call naming a “dark art.” Like any other creative project, it begins with a strategic brief. And then it goes into a free-association, quality-through-quantity thing before doing a quick sort and sift through existing trademarks. From there, it’s simple marketing: looking for something catchy, memorable, different, and relevantly evocative.

Just like concepting an ad headline.
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July 9 2014
Here’s an interesting article exploring obstacles to agile advertising, from iMedia Connection:
Advertising copywriter blog link

I totally agree that agility is a key differentiator in today’s instant-up-always-on media environment. A brand’s ability to respond to events in real time is a fantastic and powerful creative opportunity. (As an example, look at all the brand tweets for the 2014 World Cup, in which today’s Germany win over host nation Brazil was the single most-tweeted topic ever, easily surpassing the Super Bowl.)

But, blaming “process and risk aversion” may be blaming symptoms for the disease. I think the real reason brands don’t take advantage of advertising and marketing opportunities as nimbly as they should, is a lack of trust.

But even that could be a symptom. As marketing and advertising tasks get more and more fragmented, serviced by a growing army of siloed specialists, what often gets lost is the One Brand Voice. There’s no single agency tasked with managing the whole spectrum of marketing communications.

That not only makes it hard to build the kind of deep, broad relationship that is the very foundation of trust, but, worse, it can put the various arms at odds with each other. The result: a brilliant agile advertising idea executed in one channel may have difficulty getting the coordinated, overarching support that could drive it over the top. It may even be sabotaged by those with competing interests.

I have ideas about how one might approach the problem, but I don’t have answers. Different situations require different solutions. But I believe the ad industry will work its way toward increased agility.

In the meantime, though, the whole marketing environment favors strategically focused, tactically agile opportunists like me. It’s a great time to be in advertising!
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July 8 2014
I think the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) is one of the greatest things that the Internet has wrought. The ability to audit the offerings of some of the world’s top universities from anywhere with an internet connection is simply revolutionary. Here are a few top professional development courses, from Coursera via Business Insider (India):
Advertising copywriter blog link

These look interesting. I may sign up for one or two (or three or four).

One benefit to professional development is that it can also lead to personal growth. But I’m partial to the opposite approach: taking MOOCs about diversionary interests and, somewhat unexpectedly, discovering ways they relate to what I do for a living.

For instance, literature classes teach good copywriting, should the learner care to notice. History classes offer lessons in strategy for those wanting to conquer market share and expand their spheres of influence. Science classes show how to demonstrate or prove a point, and how to be methodical in one’s quest for discovery.

I’ve been participating in a few course offerings on Future Learn, which is a UK-based project of the Open University in collaboration with other colleges and universities. Sadly, I’ve completed but a few of the courses I started – I seem to be greedy about wanting to learn all kinds of things. But even the classes I had to let slide I thoroughly enjoyed until life got in the way of even a few-hours-per-week commitment.

Also, there’s a lot to learn from the way the MOOC works. It’s fascinating to get an worm’s-eye view of a guided online group collaborative experience. This is social media put to measurable, task-oriented work, and some approaches seem to resonate better than others. Experiencing the process from within is valuable by itself. After all, advertising is in many ways customer education. So it’s all good, useful stuff.
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July 7 2014
A mobile payment app is re-branding after it finds itself sharing a brand with religious militants. Here’s the story, from NBC News:
Advertising copywriter blog link

While I agree that the rise of an identically named militant group is unfortunate and unforeseeable, I also think this whole thing falls into the category of turning lemons into lemonade. Most people obviously had no idea there was a wallet app out there named Isis. Now, thanks to news stories like this one, they do, and it’s a hook that will culminate in the unveiling – with full press coverage – of a spiffy new brand.

Lemons, as I said, into lemonade.

As another example of this trend in action, look at GM. In the news daily with coverage of its expanding recalls, yet also setting sales records. Far from being negative commodities, automotive recalls have become valuable consumer touchpoints and surefire ways to attract current owners back into the dealerships.

In branding as in life, it pays to look on the bright side.

As a side note, I think it’s funny – and telling – that even in tweets about Isis the mobile payment app, the militant version of the brand, ISIS, dominates.
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John Kuraoka, freelance advertising copywriter
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