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Business Week reported yesterday on Motel 6’s room (brand) redesign, which has become part of CEO, Oliver Poirot’s “Phoenix Project.”

Motel 6 hardly has a reputation for good design. At best, the 47 year old chain has been heralded for simple, no-frills efficiency. At its worst, it has been the punch line of jokes about dangerous roadside love-ins…Executives wanted to revamp the chain’s decade old look…so the company turned to Britain’s Priestman Goode, which had previously designed airplane cabins for Virgin Atlantic and cruise ship berths for Norwegian Cruise Lines. Their experience, executives felt, would surely come in handy when tackling the small spaces of the standard Motel 6 room. Designers were briefed to keep construction costs low and to create rooms that could appeal to the broad cross0section of society, from tourists to traveling executives…The results are starkly different from the previous incarnation. The carpet was ripped up, and wood-effect flooring lends a pared down, spacious look. Platform beds add modernity and character. Ambient lighting has replaced old-fashioned lamps, while accent walls painted with bright bold colors give the room a style just short of hip.

Motel 6 is specifically trying to attract more and more corporate customers and it looks like they are well on their way to do that. “Last year, the company pulled in $60 million from business customers, but it forecasts $100 million next year, despite the downturn.” And, Motel 6 execs claim customers are already thrilled by the new rooms.

What a brilliant move.

At a time when everyone, even those with jobs, are making sacrifices and biting the bullet in order to save a little extra coin, Motel 6 has decided to give us MORE.

Customers will be completely caught off gaurd. Those anticipating the usual economy-style room, will be blown away. Expectations will be exceeded. Smiles will be cracked. Everyone will be delighted by the upgrade and think, “Wow, what a great deal? What a great experience. I’ll definitely be back.”

Well played, Motel 6. I never would have expected an innovative branding move from you. But you have added enormous value to your product and have taken a huge step towards creating a totally revitalized, game-changing brand experience.

Interesting story in the WSJ this morning about Alec Duffy, the 33 year old theater director from Brooklyn.  Duffy found himself in an opportune position after he won the rights to singer/songwriter Sufjan Steven’s, newest single.  According to the WSJ:

Duffy won the rights to Mr. Stevens’s song in a 2007 contest called the “Great Sufjan Song Xmas Xchange.” Mr. Duffy submitted a song that he wrote — called “Every Day is Christmas” — that Mr. Stevens judged the best. In exchange, Mr. Duffy won the rights to Mr. Stevens’s “The Lonely Man of Winter”…In describing the prize, Mr. Stevens’s Web site said: “Sufjan’s new song becomes your song. You can hoard it for yourself, sell it to a major soft drink corporation, use it in your daughter’s first Christmas video, or share it for free on your Web site. No one except Sufjan and you will hear his song, unless you decide otherwise.”

The contest created by Sufjan is indeed deserving of major props.  It is, however, not a concept that should be seen as terribly mind-blowing, especially in today’s environment.  Artists, or I should say, the artists who intend on surviving in this climate will continue to be the trendsetters in the utilization of social-networking methods and tools that connect with and empower their fans–making them feel like an even larger part of the process.  It is the only way to break through the clutter and engage with the loyal and devoted fans you’ve already hooked in; the only way to maintain your brand’s/band’s reputation.  Releasing a decent recording simply won’t cut it anymore.

For me though, the coolest part of all this was Duffy’s response to his new position of musical-power.  Instead of selling the song for some sort of commercial use–which, I am sure, millions of people would have done if given the opportunity–he sent out an invite on his theater company’s website for fans to come to his home in Brooklyn to listen to the song (on headphones), together.  “The experiment lures strangers to Mr. Duffy’s living room about once a week, to [as he says,] “recapture an era when to get one’s hands on a particular album or song was a real experience.”

Duffy describes Sufjan as “the wizard behind the curtain,” and it’s very cool to me how, without being guided in any way by the artist, he has essentially gone out of his way to perpetuate this artistic perception.  He has taken full responsibility for maintaining the brand’s (Sufjan’s) reputation, almost making it a fulltime job.  It’s an amazing example of a brand’s message being embraced and consequently strengthened by the “consumer,” organically.  Authenticity at it’s best…

My favorite quote of Duffy’s is when he says about the gatherings, “This is the finest way we felt we could curate this song. It brings people together, rather than being lost among 14,000 iTunes.”

I will admit, I’m a bit late in recognizing these ads, but, considering I’ve done a good deal of Starbucks-bashing in the past, I figured it was worth highlighting some of the more positive steps they’ve taken to rebuild their reputation–reinforcing/embracing their positioning and distancing themselves from McDonald’s and the other, more “recession-proof” brand’s which have successfully belittled Starbuck’s overall image and reputation.

Starbucks was never simply about a cup of coffee, it was about “the best” cup of coffee–a taste and experience you couldn’t get anywhere else.  Nobody went there to only get a cheap cup of coffee that would satisfy their fix.  We went there because the whole experience felt focused and authentic, and that comforted you as you dished out a couple extra bucks for your latte.

When the recession hit, things got bad–it could not have been more blatant how nervous Starbucks was about their “luxurious” brand and how it would be viewed by a suddenly more frugal consumer.  McDonald’s harassment didn’t help, and very quickly the Starbucks brand, which was already having trouble staying on-point, felt completely off-balance…

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This new series of print ads, however, are a nice step in the right direction.  Instead of fighting with McDonalds on price, these ads explain the central difference between a Starbuck’s cup and the “discount” alternatives.  As a coffee lover myself–someone who likes to think he can tell the difference between a good cup of coffee and a shitty one–the copy, paired with the look and feel they’ve created, really hits home.  Nicely done…

Trent Reznor Gets It!

April 8, 2009

Today, WIRED released a really nice piece on Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor, who has probably been one of the most forward-thinking “brand managers” of the last year or so–and I don’t mean music-specific branding either.  The report was sparked by news of Reznor’s upcoming release of a NIN iPhone App.

The free Nine Inch Nails app, scheduled for release as soon as it gets final approval from Apple, is a mobile window on all things NIN: music, photos, videos, message boards, even — thanks to a GPS-enabled feature called Nearby — the fans themselves.

Nearby is “kind of like Twitter within the Nine Inch Nails network,” says Rob Sheridan, Reznor’s long-time collaborator. “You can post a message or a photo by location, and if you’re at a show you can see conversations between other people who are right there.”

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the power of branded iPhone apps and asked why more brands (STILL!) have not created their own. So, it’s always nice to hear these kinds of announcements–industry leaders, like Reznor, truly grasping the opportunity and capitalizing on the value these “brand-extending tools” can add to the overall experience you create for your customers (fans).

As WIRED notes,

[This] is the culmination, at least for now, of a process that began a year-and-a-half ago, when Nine Inch Nails succeeded in extracting itself from its contract with Universal Music Group’s Interscope label…Since then, Reznor has pioneered a new, fan-centered business model that radically breaks with the practices of the struggling music industry. His embrace of “freemium” pricing, torrent distribution, fan remixes and social media seem to be paying off financially even as they have helped him forge deeper connections with the Nine Inch Nails faithful.

I will admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of NIN’s music, but their apititude for brand building–especially in today’s so called “unknown” environment–gives them huge props in my book.

I was down in Florida for a few days recently and was reminded of how painfully obvious the absence of “sun-protection” is when down there. The sun is so intensely bright and relentless that without the proper precautions, your skin and eyes can get absolutely smoked. My brother, who is still in high school, came to that realization within the first hour.

As we made the short drive from the Ft. Myers airport toward the causeway and over to Sanibel Island, John was squinting so hard his eyes were watering and he had a headache from the strain. Having had the same experience before, I felt his pain and knew what needed to be done…we were on a mission to find John a pair of “keeper” sunglasses.

FYI: I think it’s important for me to make note of my philosophy on making purchases such as these: Go into every purchase with the idea that you are investing in something you will live with for the rest of your life (even if you know that’s not possible)…this means–within reason–you should buy something you like and think you will like for years and years to come, and you should buy something that has the quality (and style!) to last that long.

So, my cousin and I drove my brother out to the mall, which actually had two sunglass shops, virtually right next to one another. We made our way into Solstice first, which had a sort of Sunglass Hut-experience: a fairly small rectangular space with open racks of sunglasses, organized by brand, lining every inch of the walls and a friendly saleswoman making every effort to help get you in a new pair (pictured above). At first, this was nothing special–a very typical sunglass-store experience. That was until, after a good 15-20 minutes of experimentation at Solstice, we walked over to the second store, Tote’s Sunglass Shop–just to make sure we weren’t missing anything…

Unfortunately, Tote’s was such a mess we weren’t even able to make the judgment.  Not only was there far too much variety, in terms of product offerings (especially for a store with the word “sunglass” in the name), but every pair of sunglasses was locked inside a glass case!  To make it worse, even as the three of us began curiously peering into the cases, the salesman remained tethered to his post behind the register, making no effort to help or see if we wanted to “demo” some of the choices. Honestly, even if he had opened the case and let us fish around, the environment was so non-conducive to experimentation–with small, awkwardly placed mirrors pressed up against racks of clothes–that it probably wouldn’t have made a difference. The whole place was truly baffling.

Aren’t retailers actually more successful the longer they get customers to hang around, experiment and go through the mental process of picturing their lives with the product in question? Shouldn’t you do everything you can to facilitate that experience? Have Apple stores still not been around long enough for everyone to realize this? What seemed like a no-brainer for the creation of a successful retail experience was completely lost by a clear lack of focus and direction at Tote’s. The experience we had seconds before at Solstice only highlighted this failure.

Needless to say, we spent about 1 minute in the cluster-fuck of an “in-store experience” before returning to Solstice where we spent an additional 10 minutes experimenting before my brother settled on a pair he was happy with; a pair that would protect him from the mean Florida sun and, hopefully, a pair he would continue wear for many years to come.

I’ve always thought Simply Orange does an amazing job of consistently communicating their brand’s promise.  The message is simple: “Do not sweeten.  Do not freeze. Do not concentrate.  Just let oranges be oranges.  And let their taste speak for itself….Simply Orange, Simply Unfooled-Around With.”  Orange juice is not a complicated product, and Simply Orange is committed to making it as authentic as possible.

Many, many brands go the route of “guaranteeing satisfaction.”  Brand managers use promotional offers like this in an attempt to demonstrate that they are so confident in their product’s superiority that they will offer a full refund–or, for example, ‘buy you a free stick of your favorite deodorant”–if you don’t agree.  For the most part, it’s a great way of enticing non-users to give your brand a try, because, really, “what have they got to lose?”  The difference here is this promotional strategy is very rarely able to actually deliver on the brand promise and reinforce its positioning.

Simply Orange doesn’t believe they compete with Tropicana or Florida Natural or (fill in the blank).  They think the only competitive force is an actual orange.  If you want to buy something that truly compares to the taste you get from Simply Orange, you need to buy a bag of oranges and squeeze them yourself.  Enter the Simply Orange “Orange Back Guarantee“: “If, after tasting, you don’t agree that Simply Orange orange juice tastes as fresh as biting into a juicy orange, (they) will send you a $7.00 check good for a bag of oranges.”

What could be more authentic? What could be more simple and consistent with the brand’s promise?