by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
February 9, 2012
HOW TO BUILD A BRAND, AND KILL A BRAND
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- You don't have to be a Harvard Business School graduate to know that a brand is difficult to build and easy to destroy. The experiences of Chrysler and Susan M. Komen for The Cure Foundation are a good illustration of this principle.
Chrysler was about to die four years ago. It's "merger of equals" with Daimler-Benz was a failure, with the German carmaker pulling the plug on the deal. It was stuck with cars that few wanted and was out of ideas and money to make new ones.
For the second time in its history, Chrysler was bailed out by the federal government. The first time around, in 1980, it was Lee Iaccoca and the "K-Car" that turned the company around. The K-Cars were not the greatest motor vehicles ever made, but the platform was versatile enough to be used for Chrysler's biggest success, the minivan.
By the time of the second bailout in 2008, Chrysler's vehicles were pretty forgettable and few would have been surprised if the carmaker slipped beneath the waves for good. But thanks to the federal government brokering a merger with Fiat, the company survived and is now in the process of overhauling its lineup.
But after you've survived bankruptcy and a buyout by a foreign carmaker, how do you convince Americans that you have a car worth buying? Last year, Chrysler used Detroit native Eminem and the mythology of "The Motor City" to tell people to stop driving their foreign cars and drive something that was "Imported From Detroit."
The Eminem ad debuted during last year's Super Bowl and was wildly successful. For his year's Super Bowl, Chrysler decided to go itself one better and use Clint Eastwood as its spokesman, touting the virtues of America as a nation that can overcome anything.
"It's halftime. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It's halftime in America, too." Eastwood says. "People are out of work and they're hurting. And they're all wondering what they're gonna do to make a comeback. And we're all scared because this isn't a game."
Amid imagery of factories and workers in Detroit, Eastwood says, "It seems that we've lost our heart at times. The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one. Because that's what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can't find a way, then we'll make one."
"Detroit's showing us it can be done," he concludes. "This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do, the world is going to hear the roar of our engines."
Yes, Chrysler was trying to sell some cars to the biggest television audience of the year. But, like the Eminem ad last year, it was also trying to tap into the pride of an America that builds things, that works together, that can do anything it sets its mind too.
Naturally, conservatives went beserk over the ad, seeing it as a stealth campaign ad for President Obama's re-election.
"I was, frankly, offended by it," Karl Rove told Fox News Channel the day after the Super Bowl. "It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the President of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising and the best-wishes of the management which is benefited by getting a bunch of our money that they'll never pay back."
There are so many lies in that sentence, it's hard to know where to begin, but I'll start with this one: Chrysler has already paid back nearly all of loan money - a loan first advanced by Rove's former boss, President George W. Bush - to the federal government. Together with the money loaned to General Motors, an important part of the American industrial base was preserved over the objections of conservatives like Mitt Romney who said that GM and Chrysler should've been allowed to die.
And Eastwood's response? "l am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama," the actor told Fox News. "It was meant to be a message ... just about job growth and the spirit of America. I think all politicians will agree with it." He added that if "Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it."
But, as Charlie Pierce wrote on his politics blog for Esquire, the Chrysler ad and the series of GE ads about how American manufacturing was coming back might constitute "a clear indication of a weird inversion of what we expected to see out of this election."
"The President can't run on 'It's Morning In America.' He'd look foolish," wrote Pierce. "He can, however, credibly run on the notion that the sky is getting a little brighter in the east.
"By contrast, more than a few people have noted that the Republicans in general, and [Romney] in particular, seem interested in running on 'It's Apocalypse In America,' gloomily drooping around the country as the people to whom they're talking try desperately to feel optimistic again. For their own selfish reasons, American corporations are more inclined to advertise on the former theme than on the latter."
All the while, Chrysler is getting plenty of free buzz for its ad, making it $6 million well spent.
Now, compare that to the irreparable harm that Komen did to itself by deciding last week to cut off funding for Planned Parenthood.
Not only did Komen get a vicious beatdown through social media from supporters of the women's health services Planned Parenthood provides, it also revived the many exposÚs that have done about Komen over the past couple of years as a corporate-friendly, conservative organization that is more interested in funding itself than in doing anything for women.
The backlash was so harsh, that in a matter of a couple of days, any goodwill that Komen still had among women was virtually wiped out, while Planned Parenthood got lots of positive press and hundreds of thousands of dollars in new donations.
When you have cozy relationships with companies that gladly accept the "pink-washing" effect of Komen in exchange for downplaying the links between their products and rising rates of breast cancer, the last thing you want to do is commit a major public relations disaster that alienates your supporters.
As a private organization, Komen can spend the money it raises however it wants. But as the most visible organization in the fight against breast cancer, it shouldn't have been surprised that its supporters feel betrayed about what their donations were paying for.
It also shouldn't have been surprised that decisions driven by fanatical leadership on ideological grounds while disregarding the actual evidence will lead to epic failure. Apparently, there were some people inside Komen that warned that defunding Planned Parenthood would lead to lots of negative publicity. But the anti-abortion, religious fundamentalists heading up the organization decided ideology trumped facts.
If it sounds like how the U.S. invasion of Iraq was sold to Americans, maybe it was due to Komen using former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer as an advisor.
Needless to say, the pink ribbon that is Komen's symbol now has a few singes on it, while the organization that helps low-income women get needed life-saving breast cancer care got a huge boost. Perhaps the biggest moral of this story is it doesn't pay to inject politics into areas where it doesn't belong.
Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years and in 2007 won recognition from the Vermont Press Association as the best editorial wrter in the state. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.