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Musings about current developments in the world of branding and marketing.

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Musings about Lilly for Target (and other unfortunate missteps)

Posted on April 20, 2015 at 1:05 AM

Today was the day that Target unveiled its eagerly anticipated Lilly Pulitzer for Target line of clothing, home decor and beauty products. Now, a mere 3 hours after Target stores in my area (Minneapolis) opened their doors and immediately sold out of everything in a reported 15 minutes, the web is blowing up with photos of in-store pandemonium and commentary about yet another "#TargetFAIL." 

From a branding standpoint, there's lots to think about. As a 40-something mom with disposable income, I am within the bulls-eye of Target's key demographic. I have had a love affair with Target since I can remember, and over the years, their merchandising has continued to get better and more savvy. As a marketing geek, I am always intrigued to see their latest splashy campaign. As a former Target employee, I still have friends who work there so am privy to "the inside scoop."  And living in Minneapolis, where Target is of course headquartered, I think of them as "our" corporation, our sweetheart.

So, please understand that this criticism comes from the heart. Target has been in the news a lot in the past 5 years, and not for good reasons:

EPIC FAIL #1:  The Relaunch Fiasco of 2011. (Full disclosure: I was part of the team in 1998/1999 that helped to shape the very first site, so I have a sensitive spot in my heart for it.)  Knowing it wanted to get off of Amazon's platform, Target had worked for 2 years on their new site on a different platform. And along came the day of launch----just in time for the HUGE Back-To-School season and Labor Day in 2011. The new shiny site went up....and then pretty much continuously crashed for weeks. It was the butt of jokes for months, thanks to cringe-worthy mis-steps like terrible search logic, or displaying dozens of items that were out of stock and unorderable. Then there were pages that just simply failed to load at all. Or shopping cart logic that meant you could never complete your purchase (assuming you found anything that was actually still in stock online). 

Then there was EPIC FAIL #2, the data breach announced the week of Christmas in 2013----putting a chill on one of the biggest shopping weeks of the year. An an outsider/customer/marketing geek, I was dismayed to see the hamhanded PR response from Target's then-CEO. In trying to "media manage" the breach, he came off out-of-touch and tone-deaf. Offering shoppers a measly 10% discount after the biggest data hack to date, enticing them to "come back" seemed weak at best and clueless at worse. It cost him his job.  And, as it always does, the real truth painfully dribbled out, making it clear it was far worse than they'd inititally let on. Of course, Target was soon in good company with Michael's, Neiman Marcus and Home Depot also suffering huge data hacks into their systems and hurting customer confidence and their brands.

EPIC FAIL #3, the Target Canada Debacle. As a FAN of Target, I actually think it was a great idea to go to Canada. It was clear that our Northern neighbors came to the States to shop Target, so why not make it easier and go to them?  The problem, according to retail pundits, was that they didn't actually give them Target.  They gave them some weird, hard-to-recognize cousin of Target, along with empty shelves (inventory/purchasing snafus) that quickly turned even the most eager of shoppers off.  It's a shame they cut and ran, citing a $2 Billion loss and costing thousands of jobs. I believe it was just misdirected execution.  Had they gone more slowly with a few beta stores to learn the market, and expand judiciously from there, I am convinced it would have worked. Now it's a black eye for Target and another wound to lick.

Which brings me to today----EPIC FAIL #4, the Lilly Pulitzer for Target launch.  The Target PR machine has been promoting the Lilly Pulitzer collaboration for months, knowing full well that by the time it was finally here, their customers would be worked up into a lather.  And they were. But Target was not ready.  I understand the concept of scarcity, and limited edition, and creating demand frenzy.  But not to the point where you're seriously bumming out your customer base. Target should have learned its lesson with its Missoni launch of 2011. Target was praised for scoring the hot, upscale designer, and some praised its small one-time-only inventory as "genius" strategy. But what really happened was that Target was neither ready in its stores or its website. Inventory was snapped up in minutes, and then quickly resold for huge profits by some savvy shoppers who bought the Missoni product not for themselves but as a small-time get-rich scheme. In 2011, Target customers lambasted the company for a bad online experience which delivered up results for items that were out of stock and would never be replenished. Stores experienced feeding frenzies with some winners but many more losers.  And here we are again, in 2015, where Target promotes the Lilly line for months and succeeds in getting its loyal shoppers online at 3 AM and queuing up at 6 AM, hoping to score. Some were winners, but many more felt duped again, feeling disappointed and let down. I'm sure there was genius in the madness, but from where I sit, why not boost production to come closer to meeting demand, or raise prices (remember the supply and demand curves from school?), or both? I understand the value of "buzz" and Target is a master at PR and promotion. But here's my advice to Target, from a long-time friend. Focus more on the "guest experience" and less on "sizzle" and "buzz." Don't get us all excited, only to leave us disappointed again.

Target, we love you, but you're breaking our hearts. 

The Power of the Name

Posted on October 1, 2013 at 9:40 PM

On this, the momentous day that healthcare exchanges opened around the country (including MNsure, a project I had the privilege of working on a few months ago), I watched another brilliant man-on-the-street video by Jimmy Kimmel.  His hypothesis is that on the politically charged issue of healthcare reform, the name matters quite a lot.  

Taking a camera crew out onto the streets, people were asked if they preferred ObamaCare or the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The joke, of course, is that they are one in the same----ObamaCare is the nickname for the ACA.  Though they are the same exact thing, people were passionate and opinionated about which one they liked better.  Some said they liked the ACA, but disliked ObamaCare because it "forced" people to have insurance.  Others felt that ObamaCare "had too many holes," while the ACA was a good program for people who have been without insurance.

The lesson? Names are important.  They carry weight, and can make all the difference in how something is perceived. Years ago I watched a documentary on PBS about wordsmiths in the White House whose sole job is to craft language to change public perceptions.  Example #1:  What had previously been called the "Death Tax" became the "Estate Tax."  Sounds much nicer and less negative.  Example #2:  "Global Warming" slowly morphed into "Climate Change"---less sinister and threatening apparently.

Check out the clip to see just how confused we appear to be about the legislation being rolled out starting today.

It's really not about the logo

Posted on September 16, 2013 at 5:50 PM

Every once in a while, a company’s logo will be changed and will make the headlines. It happened back in 2010 when the Gap attempted to change their beloved blue block logo, only to meet with such ferocious backlash that they changed it right back to the original less than one week later.

The same thing has happened with beleaguered JC Penney, who had changed its logo four times in the past four years. Aside from creating consumer confusion, erratic branding sends a message of internal confusion and lack of marketing confidence.

Years ago, when I had just started working as VP of Marketing for a renowned nonprofit organization, I set up a department branding meeting. I immediately got pushback, and was told they’d “just endured a huge, painful branding project” and that no one had the stomach to do more. What they’d, in fact, just gone through was a hard, protracted LOGO project that had cost significant dollars but hadn’t actually addressed the overall brand, per se. So, while everything that carried their corporate logo now looked prettier and more updated----from trucks to company letterhead---there was still branding work that needed attention. I explained that the logo was just a piece of the brand, but that brand was so much bigger----encompassing the company’s promise to its customers, and its customers’ perception of the company.

Logo is not brand.

Last week, Yahoo announced a new logo and it got significant press. Aside from a slightly cleaner font and the addition of an exclamation point, I didn’t see it as being much different from before. At the exact same time the logo was unveiled, my user interface on Yahoo mail changed completely. As a longtime customer of Yahoo email (and highly dependent since it’s my main connection to the outside world, and clients), I was dismayed to find my easy, clean and intuitive email product replaced by a mess that is non-intuitive and nearly unusable. An online search of discussion boards for “new Yahoo email sucks,” resulted in comments such as “craptastic” and “suckalicious” and “clumsy, slow, difficult and diminished.” Though I was relieved it wasn’t just me, as a customer I felt let down. I couldn’t help feeling that rather than spending the time and money on making nearly imperceptible font changes and adding a bouncing exclamation point, and revving up the PR machine to squawk about it, I would have rather they’d been more careful to deliver their end of the deal with a reliable and easy-to-use product. A cute bouncing exclamation point on the logo isn’t nearly enough to make me forget my easy-to-use email system has been taken away.

The high-wire act of corporate apologies

Posted on October 31, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Today's news that Apple's iOS, Scott Forstall, has resigned has been paired with statements that his departure was the result of his refusal to apologize for the iPhone Maps debacle.  It's just the latest chapter in the saga that saw Tim Cook issue a formal apology on Apple's website in late September to address the furor surrounding the beleaguered app.  Cook's hope, presumably, was that a direct and contrite statement would curtail the online feeding frenzy about MAPS' embarrassing failures. 

Today's opinions in the blogosphere appear to be divided between two camps.  


  • Camp #1 is of the opinion that Forstall should be applauded for his courage ---even if it meant losing his job----to stand up and state that he was not the only father of this high-profile failure. Many point to Tim Cook's pressure to hit an unreasonable release date as being the reason MAPS went out before it was fully baked. Standing by principles and not being willing to being "thrown under the bus" silently is being seen as bravery.  

  • Camp #2 views Forstall's refusal to apologize for the project, of which he was in charge, as being just another example of Apple's extreme arrogance.  To apologize, and publicly acknowledge what everyone already knows to be true (i.e. that the app felt short of expectations) would appear to be a relatively simple act.  To show humility and contrition would have been construed as its own sort of mature bravery and corporate accountability that the public has come to expect.  To refuse seems unbefitting of a corporate leader.

To be sure, there are some great examples of corporate apologies.  The good ones can be the salve needed to heal wounds in the brand.  The bad ones, that are handled inelegantly or without sufficient humility, can backfire.  Who does the apology, the words they use (and don't use) and the tone all combine to either help or hurt the brand---and the effects can be far-reaching.

Take Toyota who, in 2009, was facing an enormously embarrassing recall of 3.8 million vehicles.  For a company synonymous with quality and reliability, damage control was critical.  Toyota's president's earnest, direct, and strong apology went a long way to assure customers this was simply a bump in the road, and that Toyota would do whatever it takes to earn back lost trust.  A WIN.

Then there was Netflix, who after being an online success story and darling for years, made a series of missteps around pricing and spin-offs.  Customers revolted and a million of them jumped ship before Netflix addressed its blunder.  Their apology seemed too little, too late; Netflix has not fully rebounded.  Had the apology been done sooner, and better, the results may not have been so severe.  A LOSS.

And then the famous case of Tony Hayward and the 2010 BP Oil Spill.  The seemingly never-ending catastrophe required complete perfection in messaging, tone and tenor----and Hayward tripped.  His on-camera demeanor was seen as arrogant, out of touch, and insensitive, which only fueled the fire (pun intended) of BP's PR nightmare.  A LOSS. 

Lesson:  If a mistake is made, and it's deemed appropriate to publicly apologize, the execution of the apology must be pitch-perfect. Anything less does nothing to help, and can even compound the damage to the brand. 


The not-so-new company

Posted on October 15, 2012 at 9:35 PM

I launched this business, Cultivation, only about two months ago.  That's when I registered the business name, built the site, printed the business cards, and started promoting the services I offer.  My favorite part, so far, has been my meetings with all sorts of people throughout the business community in the Twin Cities.  I'm always amazed and impressed that people will take time out of their busy day to sit down with me, listen, and share their thoughts and advice.  I love that most of all.

During one of these conversations recently, I was talking to a fellow entrepreneur who had started her own company a few years ago. I was telling her about an experience I had early on with someone I thought might be a prospective client. I'd gone to lengths to meet with him (on a holiday weekend), listen to his situation, then carefully prepare a tailored and fair proposal to address his business challenges.  Coming just a few weeks after my official business launch, his reaction had been disheartening.  He had basically said that he didn't feel my rates were justified because I was "such a new business."  I'd set my rate after much research, and had priced myself well within the going range for marketing consultants.  My rate is WAY lower than clients used to pay for my time when I worked for an agency here in town.  The woman to whom I'd been telling this story nodded knowingly and said, "he doesn't understand and appreciate the huge value of 25 years of experience." She went on to tell me a story about Picasso: 


The famous Pablo Picasso was at a party. A woman recognized him and approached the Master. She asked, “Will you create a sketch for me?” Picasso agreed, and, as he pulled out his sketchpad, asked her for a subject. “A bird in a tree will do,” she responded. So Picasso spent about a five minutes doing what Picasso does on the sketchpad. Finished, he ripped the sketch off the pad, handed it to the woman and said, “That will be $10,000.” The woman was floored. “Ten thousand dollars! Why, it only took you five minutes to draw that sketch!” To which, Picasso replied, “No, madam. That sketch took me a lifetime.”

I love this story. To compose a brilliant sketch like that one in five minutes took a lifetime of experience, hard work and creative experimentation. The value of Picasso’s five minutes is worth the value of an average artist working for years to accomplish the same thing, or to fail trying.

Of course I'm not really comparing myself to Picasso, but I do believe that my decades of experience at various companies dealing with hundreds of different marketing challenges  has made me extremely adept at coming up with great ideas quickly.  I've put in the time, studied the craft, and solved countless business problems over the years through a combination of brains, creativity and inspiration that only comes from EXPERIENCE.   

So, though my business was launched only about 2 months ago, it's actually been a lifetime in the making.  

Apple's wrong turn with Maps

Posted on September 28, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Today, Apple's CEO Tim Cook issued a long, beautifully written letter of apology to its legions of customers, acknowledging what the blogosphere has been lampooning for days----their badly executed Maps feature.  I found it interesting for a couple of reasons.

1)  Though I myself am not an Apple devotee*, I love and respect the brand.  Who doesn't?  They are the picture of smart innovation, precision, gorgeous-design-as-brand, brilliant retail, brilliant digital, the list goes on.  I'd love to work on a Mac, but being a cheapskate, can't justify the premium upcharge.  (My kids have no trouble with this, clearly.)  Most of the time, watching Apple in the marketplace is like watching ballet.  So when they stumble, it's really something.  Though their initial PR response was clumsy (basically, "hey, we knew Maps would be a big's not that'll get used to it...."), Cook's second try is right on.  It's as humble as Apple can be, fully acknowledging their misstep, and offering concrete solutions.  Their hope clearly is that they can quiet the masses. 

2)  Anyone who knows me knows I'm terribly directionally-challenged.  For years, I religiously printed out MapQuest directions and then prayed I didn't steer off course knowing if I did I'd be totally screwed.  So with my new Android (my iPhone wannabe) the Maps feature has meant I show up to appointments on-time and less frazzled than I used to.  So, to my teenaged boys to whom I've had to (repeatedly) justify why I bought Android and not the twice-as-expensive iPhone, all I can say is "This Maps feature works. Can iPhone say that?"

The screen shots of iPhone's Maps goofs are hilarious.  I'm still not clear as to why Apple decided to reinvent the wheel, start from square one, etc, when Google has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that they can do navigation.  Was it good ol' Apple arrogance that they believed they could one-up Android?  I've seen other brands jump off from something that was working to something home-grown that doesn't work as well (hello, and I always wonder....what was Plan B?

*The only Apple product I own is a 1G iPod relic which carries my 27 workout songs on it. There, now you know how truly square I am.

Here is Cook's apology in its entirety:

The blinding power of marketing

Posted on September 15, 2012 at 6:05 PM

Last week, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel showed the incredible power of both brand and marketing.  In a short man-on-the-street segment, he took what was purported to be the new iPhone 5 on the streets of New York City to ask passerby their thoughts about it versus the iPhone 4S.  The catch?  The iPhone 5 isn't yet available, and the phone they were given to critique was, in fact, the current iPhone 4S.  

The truth revealed in their (hilarious) commentary is that marketing works.  Unwittingly, these consumers were parroting back the very same key messages that Apple's marketers had crafted months before to distinguish the iPhone 5 from its predecessor.

"This is way better."

"It's a little thinner. The screen looks a little bigger."

"It's faster and lighter."

"It's a lot lighter than the last one (iPhone 4S)."

"It's definitely faster."

"It's lighter, higher quality."

"The colors are brighter."


It also goes to show you that brand loyalty is a strange and beautiful thing. Apple has built such a rock-solid reputation for constant innovation that consumers see it even when it's not there.  

Check out the segment for a laugh.

Marketing and the vote

Posted on September 9, 2012 at 10:40 AM

As someone who loves the art and science of branding, it's been fascinating to watch this year's run-up to the presidential election.  Not that this year is probably any different than other Presidential elections over the past few decades.  For someone like me, who believes in the power of the spoken word, imagery, advertising, messaging, etc., it brings up some tricky questions.


1.  What is the objective?  I know, this seems like a stupid question.  Each party's objective is to sway undecided voters to vote for their candidate.  But who are these 'undecided voters'?  Of all the people I know, I am pretty sure they knew who they were going to vote for long before the millions began flowing into campaign ads, debates, and the "machine" really got cranking.  Speaking personally, there is no amount of money, artful television commercials or debates that could ever get me to jump over to the other guy.  So, to change the question, is the objective achievable?

2. What about truth in advertising?  Media pundits spend hours dissecting the debates, sound bytes, and statements being made by the candidates.  Over the past few years, measurements like "Pants on Fire" and "Pinnochios" have started to be used to indicate how far from the facts each candidate strayed.  In the "normal" world of advertising and marketing, there's a concept of truth.  Sure, there's always "spin," but if an ad for soap said, "Use our brand of soap because this other brand of soap will cause your skin to fall off" it would be pulled immediately, assuming it were ever allowed to run in the first place. And yet the equivalent is happening today, and all that happens is they get "4 Pinnochios." It makes stretching the truth sound, well, cute.

 3.  Does style trump substance?  The campaign branding machines pump out beautifully produced photo montages and video clips over soaring musical scores.  The claims made by each side are debated (see Point #2 above), but that seems almost to be secondary.  What really matters, what really inspires voters, is the style---emotional value of the commercials.  Does it make you cry?  Does it fire you up?  What they're saying---the substance---seems to be getting blurred by all the artfulness.  It's lovely and inspiring.....but is it true?

A hard lesson in being a DIY website builder

Posted on September 6, 2012 at 8:35 PM

OK, I'll admit it.  I consider myself to be a pretty capable, self-sufficient, resourceful person.  Friends applaud when I do things like build a website (this one) in under two days flat, or paint a respectable impressionist oil painting for display over the fireplace mantel, or manage two often-grumpy teenage boys without being in a perpetual cranky mood. I have a good education and have over two decades of varied job experiences doing lots of different, interesting, complex jobs.  I can usually figure stuff out. 

About 2 weeks ago, I launched this Cultivation business (after consulting for years for various clients) and decided it would be cool to have a website to display my work.  For client projects, I work with uber-talented designers, but for my site I figured I could build it myself. (I'd built another site in the past, and for simple sites, it's fun and easy.)  

It was all fun and games until it came time to ensure my site could be "Googled."

Despite my best efforts (see below), I am absolutely stymied on how to register my website with search engines.  The 1-2-3 instructions are made to sound so simple.  Having worked with and around websites for 15 years, I'm generally not cowed by technical speak.  And yet, despite intense, crunching concentration on the instructions for more than an hour, it made absolutely no sense.  I kept thinking, "wait, maybe this isn't actually written in English."  Here's a transcript excerpt from the online chat session I had in my desperate attempt to get help. (My favorite parts are bolded):

lisaneary: OK, I think I did it correctly. That bingsiteauth.xml is in my file list.  

lisaneary: I just clicked on the verify link and here's what I got. This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown here. 077340594EF8D1008F2AE46B89E081FD.  Now what?

Angee: I would go back to Bing and ask them for more help uploading it should work.

lisaneary: What would be my DNS provider?

Angee: I'm not clear what you're asking where do you see that at?

lisaneary: it's a question that Bing asks me as part of the registration process.

Angee: Ok those are and

lisaneary: This is exactly what it says: Add CNAME (alias) record with name 5a872a226fc143f0fefe4c4afc683e03 and value your DNS provider will resolve host to THIS IS HORRIBLY CONFUSING!

After doing everything I could and ultimately admitting defeat, I scheduled a lunch today with the most knowledgeable web guru I know, and asked her if she was privvy to the super-secret procedure for getting my website registered so search engines like Bing and Google will find it. Her response? "Oh, it used to be so easy, but these days it's horribly complicated. They're constantly changing their algorithms to prevent people from gaming the spiders."  

So, my question is:  With all the fabulous do-it-yourself website builder and hosting sites out there (like the one I used to build this site), how do they expect the average (albeit determined and tenacious) person to actually have their site show up on any searches?  My logical conclusion: Until the registration process is as understandable as the tools to build the sites, the Internet isn't actually as democratic as it used to be, and little guys (like me) are doomed to live in online obscurity.