(Haunted) House of Brands

By Mark Skoultchi

October 28, 2010

In honor of our weirdest of holidays (not including Lief Erikson Day on October 9th), we’ve put together a (Haunted) House of Brands—brands that are “scary” good or bad in one way or another, that epitomize some brand or market trait. There are the obvious names (who could argue that Apple’s not the most innovative company on the planet, or that Google isn’t scary smart in the way they’re taking over the world?), and hopefully there are some that will surprise you a bit.

Also, I wanted to give a shout out to Monte Bartlett, Catchword’s newest team member, a fine brand thinker and a hell of a guy. Monte helped “build” our (Haunted) House of Brands and develop many of the rationale. Thanks Monte!

So tell us—what would your (Haunted) House of Brands look like?!

Under Armour
Scary Successful
There’s launching a thriving company, and then there’s the take-no-prisoners, shake-up-the-industry, finger-in-the-eye-to-Nike success of Under Armour.

Started by college football player Kevin Plank, who wanted an alternative to sweat-soaked jerseys, Under Armour came out of nowhere in 1996. From the obscurity of Baltimore, Plank built his business on shoe leather and cold calling. But by focusing on a singular product and feature—performance apparel that keeps athletes comfortable—Plank quickly built a loyal audience of key influencers. Despite having a marketing budget easily converted to bus fare, Plank bottled lightning with that approach: its focus on college and professional athletes has enabled Under Armour to explode from $17,000 in revenue in 1996 to $850 million by 2009, and from a one-man company to 2,200 employees with global offices. A chain of retail stores, and expansion into casual wear and shoes ensure that this company is still on a hockey-stick growth trajectory.

On this All Hallow’s Eve, we would hail Under Armour’s wildly determined rampage with a raise of our goblet and a vigorous devil horn salute, (if we were into that sort of thing). You sirs, rock.

Apple
Scary Innovative
Frankly, we really want to give this title to another company. Not because Apple doesn’t deserve it, but because we hate to state the obvious. Sure, there are plenty of detractors, folks who posit that Apple doesn’t actually invent anything, that they simply assemble other technologies in novel ways. To them we say, um, well, good point. But we’ve heard that argument for years.

Thing is, “innovative” doesn’t only mean “new,” it means “creative,” and Apple continually finds creative ways to expand on and/or perfect their own and lesser companies’ products. Of course tablet computing devices have been around for decades, but so have chat groups, and few people would accuse Mark Zuckerberg (or whoever actually conceived Facebook) of having created a me-too product. Even given its shortcomings (lack of flash support, virtually no multi-tasking capability, and an absence of certain expected ports) the iPad is nothing short of revolutionary. Not because it’s a new product, but because it represents a new product category and because Apple created a market for it. It’s not a tablet computing device. It’s an iPad. Same goes for every iThis and iThat product. Nothing revolutionary about a cell phone, right? But an iPhone! That’s different.

Is it really any wonder Apple ranked number one in Business Week’s 50 Most Innovative Companies report for 6 straight years—a report that’s been published for, well, lets see, um, 6 years. Weird, huh?

Sony
Scary Disappointing
As a company whose first product was a failed rice cooker…Sony seems determined to return to its roots. It’s hard to believe that at one time the company was a poster child for Japanese companies taking over American businesses. Forgetting the ancient history of the Betamax- VHS format war that Sony lost, there are more tales of failure than the New York Mets bullpen: losing $3 billion in the foray into the movie business, being obliterated by the iPod after selling 130 million Walkmans, the exploding laptop batteries, the insistence on the ill-fated Mini-Disc format, the emergence of other formerly crap television brands to become competitive with the Trinitron brand. It’s almost surreal to think of how completely dominant Sony once was; how prideful home entertainment junkies would have racks of only Sony gear. This company is the Steve Guttenberg of industry giants, looking at itself in the mirror every morning wondering “what the hell happened?”

Cargill
Scary Private
Cargill is big. Real big. In fact, in terms of revenue (116BB in 2009), Cargill is the largest privately held company in the country (and 2nd in the world). If it were a public company it would rank in the top 10 in the Fortune 500! But it’s not so much its size that’s scary (though it’s a wee bit frightening). It’s how incredibly private this behmoth is. Salinger and Pynchon were downright social by comparison.

Not only do its annual reports contain no financial tables (and people love pictures!), but some facilities are ghosts, without bearing even the Cargill name to identify them. Hard to imagine given the sheer breadth of this company’s business activities, which include everything from grain production and financial trading to biofuels, pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals. Cargill is, as one family trustee suggested, the Harvard Business School model for how to stay private.

We’re not gonna turn this into an indictment of Cargill. Sure, there are accusations of rampant food contamination, deforestation, and, oh, human rights violations (!), but c’mon, the company IS converting their own cow poop into biogas and offsetting tons of carbon emissions. And that’s certainly a good thing, even if the company’s motives are probably more a response to business opportunity than a healthy planet Earth.

We just know that they’re really big, and really private, and that will always be really scary.

Amazon
Scary Dominant
There is simply no online retailer that can compete with Amazon. Consider the sheer volume of books and other items they sell, the enormous success of their Kindle e-reader, their totally underrated (or at least totally under-utilized) mp3 download store (which is more affordable than iTunes, all-device friendly, and integrates with iTunes in a snap), and their generally stellar customer service (sure, they dropped from the number 1 spot in Business Week’s Customer Service Champs list in 2009 to the number 11 spot in 2010, but c’mon, does anyone else make it simpler to return a product?! And to put it in perspective, Apple fell from number 3 to number 20 in the same list). Add to that the most efficient purchase and delivery system available and you’ve got the most dominant online retailer in existence.

Airborne
Scary Lemming
Created by an elementary school teacher and a cartoonist, Airborne has been touted relentlessly as a cure-all for the common cold, flu and other maladies. Millions of people swallow the fizzy pills and swear on the salubrious effects.

If only the stuff worked.

Like those Victorian-era photographers of fairies and elves, Airborne’s success is based on sleight of hand and slippery truths. The company cited the “validation” of a research company later found to have only two employees and no clinic, doctors or scientists. Airborne also markets the product as a dietary supplement, which does not require FDA testing or approval. In fact, despite the suggestion within the ads to take Airborne at the first hint of a cold, the company’s actual claims are much more modest: a listed benefit is that the tablet “dissolves quickly.”

Meanwhile, the fun just begins with popping the tab: besides not curing any infections or disease, research shows that Airborne actually delivers a wallop of vitamin C in levels high enough to cause kidney stones.
This company has been the subject of more lawsuits than a slippery floor in a city hall. At last count Airborne (and its succession of holding companies) have paid out nearly $100 million in settlements. And yet the business lumbers along, giving solace to those who literally swallow its spin.

MetLife
Scary Disgrace
Snoopy would be turning over in his dog house right now if he knew how boneheaded his corporate master has been recently. He certainly wouldn’t be doing his happy dance, that’s for sure.

In case you haven’t been following the story, MetLife (and Prudential as well, they’re probably equally disgraceful) is the subject of a probe into whether the company has been defrauding the families of deceased military personnel and siphoning off millions of dollars of death benefits for themselves. Yikes! Sounds like a scheme Lucy might’ve dreamed up, not that lovable pooch.

At issue is whether the insurer, rather than pay out lump sums to military families upon the deaths of policyholders, instead kept the money in potentially risky accounts they controlled, known as retained-asset accounts, while paying out low yields to surviving families. In other words, they withheld payments to families and invested the available moolah on their own behalf. In fact, the insurers reportedly earned upward of 4.8% annually on these accounts, but paid families interest as low as 0.5%. I’m not sure any Peanuts character would go that far.

Granted, the investigation has really just begun, but we’re not holding out to pass judgement. This is the same industry that regularly profits off the misery of others, mummifies every claim in red tape , and considers surgery to remove a pitchfork from your eye not “medically necessary”. Heck, you’ve got another eye, right?

American Girl
Scary Well Executed
Anyone with a daughter between the ages of 3 and 13 can probably tell you how well thought out this brand is. It’s not so much the dolls themselves (which are quality products), but the rich back stories that bring each one of these adoptable money pits to life. It’s the depth of character (literally), the cultural diversity, and the cohesiveness of the whole brand idea that complete the ensemble and accounts for the incredible success of these toy tagalongs.

Brought to life in 1986 by Pleasant T. Rowland and German doll-maker, Götz, the Pleasant Company and product line was eventually sold to Mattel in 1997, who can be credited with changing the name to American Girl. Mattel can also be credited with finding countless ways of extending the brand, including fine doll furniture (wish I could afford such nice appointments), an award-winning magazine, clothing (for both animate and inanimate pre-teens), feature length movies, and of course stores in which girls can share spa experiences with their mini-me friends.

What else can we say? You go, Girl.

Google
Scary Smart
Ubiquity (u·biq·ui·ty: The state or capacity of being everywhere, esp. at the same time; omnipresence: the ubiquity of magical beliefs).

A few years ago the Google guys were walking Serra Mall at Stanford like any other earnest doctoral students. Now they hang out at the Davos Economic Forum and that quirky little side project of theirs has come to dominate much of the Internet. While Brin and Page have made a few boneheaded plays ($900 million deal with MySpace anyone?) Google has more than compensated with prescient moves. They’ve bought, borrowed and created their way into a greatest hits of innovation and market leadership that are the tools of Internet users in the known universe: over one billion search requests and twenty petabytes of user generated data every day. Adwords and AdSense. Android. Gmail. Sketchup. Cloud computing. Google Apps. YouTube.

Most importantly, Google has a front row seat in several particularly important issues: privacy, the shift in software from the desktop apps to the cloud, and the shift to increasingly mobile computing. Partly due to employee-friendly programs such as Innovation Time Off, Google is snagging the top brainiacs who used to beat a path to Redmond. And is well positioned to help further shape this Internet thing.

Virgin
Scary Shape Shifting
This confederation of over 400 companies in 30 countries has a net worth over 5 billion pounds. Virgin’s first business: a Christmas tree farm. Since then, there have been noisy, irreverent ventures into publishing, entertainment, technology, retailing, insurance, aviation, apparel, beverages, space travel, health and wellness, finance, railroads, telecommunications, music festivals, charitable giving and auto racing. Hell, they probably launched another company in the time it took to read this.

The founder, Richard Branson, is particularly interested in starting companies within industries that are considered mature and dominated by a few well-established giants. Born dyslexic and best described as a “struggling” student, Branson started his most well known business Virgin Records, out of the trunk of his car. Along the way he became owner of a couple of tropical islands, set records for hot air balloon travel and picked up a knighthood. Not bad!

One key trait of Virgin: it takes on new shapes faster than that Predator Ahnold battled in the jungle. But Virgin also exits a business fast (seen any Virgin Cola lately?) Rather than boo hooing like the farm boy in Old Yeller, Branson and team waste no time grieving over failure.

Working largely from a houseboat Branson has already moved into various charities, including The Elders, while discouraging talk of his run for Mayor of London. He is a blur in business.

Fox News
Scary Biased
“Fair & Balanced”. That’s the Fox News slogan. Not since the Scandinavian vacuum manufacturer Electrolux rolled out “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux” here in the States has there been a more completely misguided strapline. Fair and balanced?? “Fairly Imbalanced” is probably more fitting.

The accusations against Mr. Murdoch’s “news” channel include everything from cropping quotes and using image manipulation software to supportingright leaning views and misleading the public about, well, just about anything. But in particular, the accuracy of Republican event turnouts, the physical appearance of New York Times reporters, and the veracity of certain graphics related to controversial issues such as climate change.

This is no soapbox, and I’m no, well, person who stands on a soapbox. But last I checked, Murdoch’s New Corporation owned not just Fox News, but literally dozens of other media and broadcast channels, movie studies and even a sports grill bearing the Fox name (don’t order the fox, it’s a bit sinewy). It stands to reason that using one Fox asset to promote a decidedly conservative ideology could have an effect on the other Fox assets. It’s brand association by association. Maybe time to rename the Fox News channel. Many other monikers have been suggested, including Faux News, Fixed News, and GOP-TV. Of course they could just keep the name and slap a trunk on that sly dog.

Christopher Walken (in a David Lynch movie)
Just Plain Scary
From timepiece-toting Vietnam veteran to Headless Horseman to slinky video dancer, Christopher Walken is one odd duck. Casting for an unhinged, creepy guy you’re more likely to find on the late night G train? Then Christopher’s already on your speed dial. We’re secretly pining for the ultimate scare-tastic mashup, a remake of Eraserhead (or really, any collaboration with fellow prince of darkness David Lynch). But until then, we’ll simply agree with Walken and demand more cowbell.

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