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2007: the year of the empty brand
why trust a word?
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

Welcome to the year of the brand.

Oh, wait. You know about branding already? You know that people have blindly bought anything with a given word on it for years and years, including words like Levi's, Hershey's, and Snackwell's? You understand that the purpose behind branding is to build a trusted relationship with a family of products on the customer side, and on the corporation side, to inspire customer loyalty and therefore rake in the profits?

Good. Then lemme lay down this new groove.

Branding has become so prevalent and ubiquitous it has passed the point of usefulness. Buying Starbucks coffee? Yes, you know what you're getting. But what about Starbucks music? Starbucks cookies? Starbucks coffee in the supermarket? Starbucks-branded Mocha Roca, for sale at your local CVS?


Beyond branding, there is cross-branding.

And now the fever pitch becomes more fevered. It's not just that you trust a channel to produce a replicated and reliable product (e.g., yes, the Starbucks latte). Now you are expected to apply the lessons of that brand to places where it no longer belongs. You are expected to look at a product that has two names on it, one of which is relevant and one of which is not, and trust that one of them has made something you may or may not like and applied a name, a brand, to it that you trust more, and therefore you will be more likely to buy the thing even though it is not made or sold by the trusted brand whose password appears on its label.

Tyler Florence entrees at Applebee's. South Beach foodstuffs by Kraft. Disney/Sherwin Williams paint at Home Depot.

The only difference between Disney paint and non-Disney paint is that the paint samples are in the distinctive three-circle shape of Mickey's head.

Seriously. That's it. It doesn't come with a princess tiara, or a ticket to Disneyworld, or Goofy temp tattoos. It is simply the Sherwin Williams paint you would buy anyway, but with the word Disney on it.

The word is empty.

But, in its own way, it's clearly a natural extension of the desire to brand, therefore inspiring that customer loyalty we spoke of earlier, and therefore raking in the aforementioned profits.

If you think about it, the entire phenomenon of movies adapted from TV shows is a (largely successful, more's the pity) clear attempt to cross-brand a media product.

It's familiar! So it must be good!

The reason I think 2007 is shaping up to be the year of the empty brand is simply that I've seen a massive rise in this kind of stuff in the past few months, and I can't imagine it's going to get less obtrusive. Advertising dollars still power the better part of most media channels, and companies are always looking for ways to make more money without necessarily offering more products. Is Disney paying Sherwin Williams to put their name on the paint, or is Sherwin Williams paying Disney? You can bet, ain't nobody doing it for the sake of the children.

Here's the other reason 2007 will be full of empty brands: because that's how 2006 ended.

With Rachael Ray.

Now, the Rachael Ray brand is meaningful in some places (Rachael Ray knives by Furi) and meaningless in others (EVOOExtraVirginOliveOil), but in the last month of 2006 it reached its useless, stupefying peak.

The Rachael Ray Christmas Album.

Strike that. It's even worse than I thought.

Rachael Ray's How Cool Is That Christmas.

Does she sing? No. Yet she has an album. Which is solely composed of other people's songs, which Rachael Ray supposedly compiled as her favorites. But c'mon. Some intern in the YUMMO empire must have been tasked with the actual duty, since the content is irrelevant. No one buys this type of thing for the content. Nope. It's the brand.

The empty brand. Look forward to it, all year long.


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


the sour taste of ginger
even if you buy it, don't buy it
by jael mchenry
topic: advertising
published: 2.5.01

subscriptions in superscript
what do magazines make us?
by jael mchenry
topic: advertising
published: 4.5.06


john chase
1.5.07 @ 12:25p

I find that I am loyal to a product. For many things, the generic and/or store-brand will do just fine. For others, it has to be brand X. And if brand X changes their formula, they're just as dispensable as the next.

Now if brand X (who makes butter) started making margarine, or even, cookies, I might try it. If I like it, I might become loyal to it, not because of the "X", but because it's a good product. However, if they started making tires, I would probably take a pass.

Just now glancing back at your article "lemme" caught my eye, and for some reason my (insert adjective) mind turned it into "lemming". And as long as lemmings can earn 6 figure salaries (combined or otherwise) Disney and Starbucks (and Rachel Ray) will keep slapping their names on things to increase the bottom line.

I mean, honestly, is it to provide a superior product? Unlikely.

jael mchenry
1.5.07 @ 2:02p

Product loyalty makes sense, and like you said, a brand that makes good butter and then uses the good butter to make good cookies is a reasonable application.

It doesn't take a six-figure salary to be a blind brand hog, though. It's getting exploited at every income level. The Rachael Ray Christmas CD is about $10.

mike julianelle
1.5.07 @ 2:12p

To me, brand loyalty might begin as an endorsement of a product, but I think it eventually becomes complacency, if not all-out laziness. Sometimes it's easier to go with the name you know than try something you're not sure about.

That said, your point about empty branding is a good one, and I don't think it's particularly effective with most consumers outside of merely being an advertising tool, saturating the market with as many brand impressions as possible.

I think of brands like radio stations. I don't just stay on a station because I've decided I like it's format, I switch as soon as a bad song comes on. So even if I was a big Rachel Ray fan - which I am not - I wouldn't have much of a problem skipping her Christmas CD while buying her cookbooks or whatever. But I might get annoyed at her opportunism. As a non-Rachel Ray fan, I certainly do.

russ carr
1.5.07 @ 4:14p

Which is why we also have Rachael Ray's talk show. And magazine.

Just like we needed Rosie's talk show. And magazine.

And Martha's talk show. And magazine.

And Oprah's talk show. And magazine.

And while I was headed for a different point, I've got to interrupt myself here for a realization. Rachael, Rosie, Martha and Oprah: All women whose primary audience is the desperate hausfrau, suckered into believing that by buying the product, they, too, can be the ├╝berwench.

I believe that men, as John and Mike have already testified, have considerably less interest in branding. We just want our gadgets to work well and last long, our clothes to fit reasonably well (and, preferably, to not require ironing), and our food to taste good and fill our bellies. True, some subsets of our sex will buy anything that has a Harley-Davidson or Bud logo on it, but we expect that their shared penchant for inbreeding will finish that problem off in another generation or two.

But stupid stuff like that doesn't bother me. Dumb people have the right to spend their money on any dumb thing, and corporations can get rich off 'em. Why else would all those NASCAR drivers have their names trademarked? They're nothing but a brand.

What bothers me is how branding has wrapped its sticky limbs around kids.

For instance: My son doesn't have a single pair of underwear that doesn't have some cartoon character on it. That's not for lack of searching. If you go into Target or Wal-Mart or wherever, and look through toddlerwear, every fricking package of undergarments has something on it. Brendan doesn't care, he just grabs whatever pair he reaches for and puts 'em on. He doesn't know SpongeBob or the PowerRangers, other than the fact that they're on his butt all day long.

The worst of all, though, is McDonald's, with its line of "McKids" wear. WHY? Do they not make enough serving billions and billions of shapeless sodium patties and frozen near-dairy emulsions? No, they're targeting kids, with far less shame than the tobacco companies. Eat the food, wear the clothes. Hell, if you're sick, you can even stay at a Ronald McDonald House, and then they've satisfied the three basic needs of life.

Max Barry and Neal Stephenson can't predict this stuff fast enough.

sandra thompson
1.5.07 @ 4:16p

I have only one brand loyalty and that's to the coffee I buy for myself. Everything else is up for grabs. Since I shop for groceries and household items at Publix, given the choice of a Publix house brand I'll buy that instead of the national brand of the same item. Part of the reason for this is money. The house brands cost less and, as far as I've been able to tell, are the same or better quality. How can you beat that? I won't buy shoes or clothing which advertise the manufacturer or designer. If I were to find a brand of something which is as outstandingly superior to the others as my brand of coffee is to other coffees, I'd probably become loyal to it, too. I like Mike's analogy of the radio station. One bad coffee bean and I'll be trying other brands! At least one bagfull of bad beans.....you know what I mean.

robert melos
1.5.07 @ 10:49p

Russ, while I have to bow to your brilliance for using the words "hausfrau" and "├╝berwench," I disagree that men are not as brand conscious, taking into consideration that you acknowledge Harley-Davidson and Bud. When buying tools I do give more consideration to Stanley and Black and Decker, expecting more from them than I would a Joe Nobody tool brand. I expect them to withstand my uses for them.

The same goes for food and cooking utensil brands. I love T-Fal cookware for most of my cooking, but can see the use to other brands for their design ease. The same goes for food. I tend to buy certain brands without even thinking about it. I'll buy Pam cooking spray over a store brand. Del Monte or Green Giant get my attention quicker, but I also notice when making a grocery list I automatically list some items by brand names, such as Thomas's or Skippy, instead of English muffins or peanut butter. Maybe that's just because of how I was raised.

Also, I've always wondered what made something extra virgin, aside from Sally Field in the Flying Nun?

ken mohnkern
1.5.07 @ 11:37p

True, some subsets of our sex will buy anything that has a Harley-Davidson or Bud logo on it...
Or, around here, the Steelers.

I'm finding the notion of "empty brands" to be really interesting. I'll be looking for those bizarre cross-brandings. Do the odd one-off cereals count? You know, the ones that aren't just Wheaties with a celeb's picture on the box, but that actually call themselves Pirates of the Caribbean Flakes or Superman Returns-O's or whatever.

alex b
1.8.07 @ 2:34a

Lord. The Rachael Ray Christmas Album. As it is, I run screaming in the other direction when deliberately happy Christmas products show up. I'm tearing my hair, too.

Speaking of empty brands, Jessica Simpson has a shoe line. (Not sure she wears her own, though...)

tracey kelley
1.8.07 @ 10:20a

For haters of RR and her EVOO, check out
Rachael Ray Sux

I like variety too much to be so extremely brand loyal. And I comprehend waaaay too much about the marketing machine to be swayed by Chicken in a Bisket featuring Rachael Ray on the cover of the box. In fact, I am more opt to -not- by a product overly endorsed by someone, or heavily branded. You won't see me wearing an Old Navy t-shirt ("what a fine deal we have for you - buy our product and then advertise for us."), and I wouldn't even buy gym shorts for $4.99 at Wal-Mart because Kathi Lee Gifford's sweatshop made them, and I refused to sport her label.

I'm all about the product. If I want butter products and feel Paula Deen is the best source for butter products, then at least I know what I'm getting into. But any bonehead that doesn't realize by now that celebrities are paid for their product endorsements/testimonials deserves to lose their money.

All that aside, while frumpy the other day, I stumbled upon 30-Minute Meals and RR put together a wonderful side dish of kale, red wine, and portobella mushrooms that I immediately made for lunch that day, as I just happened to have all those items on hand. It was scrumptious.

jael mchenry
2.15.07 @ 2:13p

Okay, here's a new one: Ben & Jerry's releases Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream.

Proceeds to charity, or somesuch.

russ carr
2.15.07 @ 5:39p

Ben & Jerry's could do Anna Nicole's "Bahama Mama," with proceeds going to Nassau Childrens Services...

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