Branding, It’s Not Just for Cattle Anymore

Every decade needs a raison d’etre, or a reason to be. Or to be more exact, a reason to have been. The ‘50s were the Fonzie years, the ‘60s the Age of Aquarius, the ‘70s were the Years We Remember Fondly But Can’t Figure Out Why, and the ‘80s were among the most famous, the Me Decade. The ‘90s turned out to be the 15 Minutes of Fame years and now, even though it’s early, the ‘00s are showing signs of going down in history as the Branding Years. And that’s not a reference to the burgeoning sado-masochistic movement.

Branding, for those who slept through Business Buzz Words 101, is the idea that if you have a name -- and who doesn’t? -- it’s important to make sure everyone knows it. It’s not important that they know what you do, what you make, why they should care, or whether you’re about to join K-Mart and Enron in bankruptcy, just so long as they recognize the name. It’s the modern corollary to the old saying, "Any publicity is good publicity." Of course Arthur Anderson, Osama bin Laden, and Cardinal Bernard Law might argue the truth of that adage.

Branding is why Coca Cola, which has the most recognized product name in the world, can cash in by putting out Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Lemon Coke, and Vanilla Coke. And hope no one remembers New Coke. It’s why McDonald’s puts "Mc" in front of everything they sell, including McChicken, McRibs, and Supersized McFat Calories. And it works. According to Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation, the Golden Arches are more widely known throughout the world than the Christian cross. Except maybe by young Catholic boys who have recurring nightmares.

Now companies have decided that if you recognize a name you’ll buy anything to which it’s attached. That’s why you can fill your shopping cart with Smucker’s jelly beans, Pez-flavored popcorn, and soon, Starkist mouthwash in both chunk light and solid Albacore. They’ve discovered that recognizability trumps originality and quality, which also explains why there are so many sequels. Why try to convince people to see a movie or read a book they never heard of when you can attach a number to the end of a title they know and people will say, "Hey, I didn’t fall sleep during Friday the 13th Part IX, so why not go see Part X?" But come on, it’s ridiculous to let a series go that long. I mean, it’s very unsettling not to know whether to call it "Part X" or "Part 10." Please folks, stop at nine from now on, will you?

Books aren’t exempt either. Gone With the Wind begat Scarlet, Red Dragon begat The Silence of the Lambs which begat Hannibal, and poor J.K. Rowling will never be able to write a book without Harry Potter being in it, even if it means turning out Harry Drops Out of College -- The Sorcerer Gets Stoned.

Now companies are using their brand names for items far beyond the original product line because they believe a well known name defines a profit -- I mean, defines a lifestyle. Pepsi and Mountain Dew both have lines of clothing, one with a retro look, the other for Xtreme armchair surfer dude wannabes. Face it, nothing says individual fashion statement like having a soft drink logo on your butt.

They’d better be careful though. Familiarity breeds boredom. Years ago you could find the Lacoste alligator on every article of clothing imaginable but not anymore. Now it’s the Nike swoosh. And with celebrities popping up all over the place the same thing can happen to them. It’s not enough that we see them in movies and on TV shows where they belong, they’re also in commercials, print ads, all over Entertainment Tonight, in our dreams -- uh, maybe we shouldn’t go there, and as voices in our head. It’s true. Whereas radio and TV commercials used to be recorded by specialized voice talent -- except for the occasional celebrity endorsement -- now we get to hear Roz from Frasier, Martin Sheen, and Bruce Dern on every second commercial. Maybe it’s because they do a good job, but I suspect it’s actually because someone thinks that if you hear Roz you’ll subliminally want to tune in a rerun of Frasier. Then there’s the subliminal clue it gives about the product. I don’t know about you, but I’m sure that’s why every time I hear a Hyundai commercial I think, "My, what a kind-hearted yet sexually promiscuous car that must be!"

Movie stars have taken over cartoons too. Where specialized actors used to create fun, unique character voices, now we get to watch feature-length cartoons in which everyone sounds like an identifiable celebrity. If they were creating them now Donald Duck would sound like Eddie Murphy, Elmer Fudd would be Robin Williams, and Betty Rubble would be Whoopi Goldberg.

As if that’s not enough, now we can see celebrities when we’re shopping too, and we don’t have to go to Rodeo Drive to do it. In a case of life imitating art -- okay, imitating a TV show anyway -- two New York City companies have come out with celebrity mannequins. No, they’re not Elaine from Seinfeld, they’re of supermodels Christy Turlington and Erin O’Connor. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this. In the ‘60s they made mannequins that looked like Twiggy but had to stop because people kept asking why they were putting clothes on coat trees.

So don’t be surprised when you see a line of Xtreme Mad Dog clothing, hear my voice each time Clutch Cargo opens his mouth in the upcoming full-length feature, or come across a coupon for Mad Dog Beef Jerky (slogan: "It takes a real jerk to make jerky this good."). Hey, if it’s good enough for Coke and Eddie Murphy, it’s good enough for me.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It’s Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation. Email: md@maddogproductions.com

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