–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Back in the ’70s, National Geographic ran a story on Boston firefighters.

The writer mentioned a barb that a fireman tossed his way. “Ya gonna do another silver jets piece, huh?” Adding sarcastically, “Ya know: silver jets of water piercing the dark sky as they bravely battle the inferno…”

I owe that firefighter a debt. Since I read his diss, Silver Jets has been a mental caution sign against veering too far into the preciously romantic. (Well, most of the time, anyway; all us writers occasionally succumb to the siren’s song.)

Which brings me to Moen’s Silver Jets moment: creative work driven by its presumable campaign premise, “It’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

The Moen website has lots of solid information. Most of it is presented well and unambiguously. That’s a good thing, since we generally want only three things from our faucets: style, function, and reliability. Everything else is on the margins.

And yet, even in commodity markets—and maybe especially there—the urge to creatively distinguish the company runs strong. Channeled and managed well, it can produce good outcomes.

But when the primary focus shifts, unnoticed, to the creative idea from the business objective, you can wind up in Pittsburgh when you intended to go to Minneapolis.*

Here’s how I think that happened at Moen:

  • They wanted a new campaign to distinguish the company.
  • Someone(s) got the idea to “celebrate water.”
  • That led eventually to the premise that “Water designs our life.”
  • That led to some excited creative exploration casting water as the unsung hero/benevolent star of human existence.
  • That led to casting Moen as the combination of Alexander Graham Bell and Frank Lloyd Wright when it comes to water.
  • That led eventually to the campaign theme: “Water designs our life. Who designs for Water?”

(Spoiler alert: Moen’s answer: “Moen designs for Water.” Actual answer: Every company that makes something related to water.)

And that’s where Moen’s creative juices really go Silver Jets. Some examples sprinkled throughout Moen’s website:

  • “With 1.5 trillion gallons of water running through our faucets each year, we feel a tremendous responsibility to make sure every one of your interactions with water is a meaningful one.”
  • “Moen products don’t just make you look smart; they leave you feeling inspired.”
  • “As a company we’ve given over to the power and beauty of water. Throughout our history, we’ve learned to respect and honor it. So that makes us a company that not only celebrates water, but that also happens to make faucets.”
  • “Throughout history, water has shaped the world we live in—where we gather, what we do on the weekends and what rooms we make room for. So it’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

Those are some major-league Silver Jets. They speak to lofty aesthetic. They paint glowing watercolor images. They demonstrate what happens when marketing and creative exploration become unmoored from reality and business objectives.

Last, for now, here’s a piece of SethGodin-bait: Predictably, Moen’s creative drift inevitably culminated in a gorgeous, high-budget, 60-second art film designed to…well, you tell me. You can see it here, or by clicking on the “watch the film” link on Moen’s site.

Where did it all go sideways? Around the fourth bullet of the process described above. Creative freewheeling is a necessary part of producing good work. But so is having at least one person keeping an eye on the compass and able to trim the sails.

* Heading north on the Mississippi River will bring you to Minneapolis unless you lose focus and get sidetracked onto the Ohio River, which will bring you to Pittsburgh.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

I try to focus my commentary on good creative work. Otherwise, I’d be posting multiple times a day because there’s so much mediocre or outright poor work.

But today, I can’t resist

Moen’s running full-page ads for its new Flo product. On a field of irregularly scattered, different-size circles filled with ones and zeroes—”digital” water, get it?—the headline reads We Hacked Water (So It Can’t Hack You).

Huh?

The body copy is equally puzzling:

“…While [water is] seen as a vital resource that powers life, it’s also a network in your home that can be programmed. Introducing Flo by Moen, a revolutionary device that takes smart home technology to water with the first-of-its-kind whole home water supply control system. Intuitive design gives you the power to control, conserve and secure your water to protect the things you love.”

Okayyyy… So nefarious characters may hack into my water pipes and open the floodgates of my faucets? Or add some unhealthy stuff to my water so it “hacks” me, like security consultants say could happen to municipal water-treatment plants?

Since that doesn’t make any sense at all, I knew I had to DuetsBlog about it, and so headed to the Moen website.

Turns out that Flo is a control valve that detects whether there’s a leak somewhere in your home’s water system. Via smartphone (of course) it notifies you if it detects one. Moen notes some pretty good reasons why this might be a good idea.

In fact, the website offers a lot of good nuggets that you could use to build a compelling argument. So why on earth would Moen and the creative team go with such an opaque and confusing storyline, especially when introducing a unique and useful new product line?

I suspect a couple of factors diverted them.

Elsewhere on its website, Moen’s trying to chart new marketing waters with a lofty corporate story about being a company that has “given over to the power and beauty of water…[and] that also happens to make faucets.” (Commenting further on this is a subject for another day.)

Since they apparently want to be seen as the spiritual lovechild of water and more than just a fixture manufacturer, leading with the practical value of Flo isn’t hip enough. Rather, Flo advertising needs to signal that Moen’s in step with the brave new “smart” world.

And that leads to seductive creative ideas that make sense only when you know how they got there. I’m certain that everyone involved thinks this ad nails it because they know what they intend to communicate. Meanwhile, many of us scratch our heads to try to figure out what they heck they’re talking about.

Contrast that with this on the website: “Runs daily tests to ensure your home plumbing network is running efficiently. Continuously checks for leaks and potential vulnerabilities in your pipes. Automatically shuts off water to your home in the event of catastrophic failure.”

Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes, the best campaign is one that just says it plain.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Mastercard has become the latest company to shift to a “no name” approach to branding.

Of course, they aren’t the first to do this (see Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Target, etc.). We are living in an image-driven world (e.g., Instagram) so this trend is not surprising.

A Mastercard spokesperson said: “As the consumer and commerce landscape continues to evolve, the Mastercard Symbol represents Mastercard better than one word ever could, and the flexible modern design will allow it to work seamlessly across the digital landscape.”

One thing that many people forget is the millions (billions?) of dollars invested in the Mastercard name itself. And yes, that Venn diagram logo design is on every single credit card that Mastercard offers. It is no surprise that “…over 80% of people recognized the brand without the name.”

Does this trend mean that professional logo designers are more in demand or professional name developers are doomed? Nope. Mastercard could not have started with a snappy logo and assumed that everyone would get it. They spent years investing in their brand name and now they can reap the benefits. But you can’t just skip to the “image only” logo design. You have to create the meaning first, and that requires a great brand name (and logo!).

Before we think predictions for 2019, let’s consider the vast ground we’ve covered in 2018:

Wow, I’m exhausted, and these highlights are only a small fraction of what we delivered in 2018.

You may recall, earlier this year, I predicted more informational and failure to function decisions.

As our friend John Welch reported, there were more than a few (here, here, here, here, and here).

Stay tuned, on March 13, in New York City, I’ll be diving deeply into the failure to function topic, among others, at Practicing Law Institute’s Advanced Trademark Law 2019: Current Issues.

In terms of my big trademark prediction for 2019, it will be revealed whether the scandalous bar to federal registration is invalidated, whether or not the Supreme Court agrees to hear Brunetti.

So, what is your big trademark prediction for 2019?

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

It was festival time in Italy when I passed this food truck at an Abruzzo village’s celebration. I understand a little Italian (and speak even less), so what initially caught my eye was the crowd and the fun-loving couple serving up the goodies.

I knew that “Amici delle” on the sign and t-shirts means “friends of,” but didn’t know what “Fregne” means. Turns out, it’s the name that Elena Iannone gave to her special take on a type of Abruzzo pastry that she and her husband sell from the truck.

Only later, when I was gazing at the photo, did I spot the clever warning on the sign in the bottom-right corner of the case:

“Gli amici delle ‘Fregne’ declinano ogni responsabilita da un eventuale dipendenza!” (Loosely: Friends of the “Fregne” take no responsibility for you becoming addicted!)

How’s that for a not too subtle boast about the quality of your tasty pastries?

Not content with that, though, the Amici take it further. The offerings have names like Exotic, Delicate, Greedy, Widow, Kinky, and a few others that hint at the meaning of Fregne, which none of my Italian dictionaries defines. Suffice to say that the jovial Elena has both a sense of humor and a marketing instinct.

Most of the time when we talk about marketing and advertising campaigns, the subject companies are well-known, at least regionally, and often nationally or internationally. But lots of little one-offs, like the Amici delle Fregne, produce creative, consistently on-brand approaches that are qualitatively right up there with the big leaguers.

And like the big leaguers, when your marketing is good, your product better live up to it. Based on what I saw that night, when the Amici were happily handing over a steady stream of Fregne, they more than deliver on that front.

Throughout our nearly decade-long journey and exploration called “DuetsBlog,” we have been blessed and we remain grateful to have met so many incredible new friends along the way.

Next Tuesday, we have the remarkable privilege of publishing here on DuetsBlog an interview with Seth Godin, a generous person, overflowing with thoughtful insights and valuable perspectives.

In the meantime, many thanks to Fred McGrath for his interest and generosity in sitting down with me to capture a conversation about DuetsBlog, editing our discussion in 3 videos, here’s the first:

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Every now and then, I find pearls floating in the tide of print advertising. These two, for example.

First is the Kiton ad, one of a series the company is running. I liked the whole look and feel of it right away, but didn’t know anything about the company.

I like it even better after doing a little research and learning that Kiton prides itself on its fabrics and the quality of the clothing it creates using them.

These ads work on multiple levels. First, they stand out both for their striking simplicity and for the visual puzzle: why the red dot covering the head? (At least, it’s red to my color-challenged eye.)

Beyond that, the more you look at one of the ads, the more attention to detail you see. There’s deep creative thought behind these.

More important, the first ad you see imprints visual clues that unmistakably identify every subsequent ad you see as a Kiton. In the sea of luxury-good advertising, you too often have to glance at the company name to see whose ad it is.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the big creative questions is, “How can we indelibly link the company or product name to the creative idea?” Kiton’s campaign achieves this, not least by linking the red-dot head with the red dot on the Kiton i.

Incidentally, the dot over the head probably has an additional benefit for Kiton. Rates and residuals for models vary depending on the image used. Because the Kiton models are unidentifiable, their rate is likely lower than if we could see their faces. Small change in the larger scheme of things, but a benefit for Kiton nevertheless.

The other pearl is this ad for the Omega Seamaster Diver 300M. In case it’s not clear, the tuxedoed Daniel Craig is up to his chin in water. It’s a great visual that pays off the promise that the watch “will take you from the bottom of the sea, to the center of attention, and the top of the world.” Form and function married with fashion illustrated by a brilliant concept.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Last year I wrote a “Change Your Name Already” blog post about Overstock.com on DuetsBlog which described the painful way that Overstock.com was trying to communicate that their name did not fit what they were doing as a business…”we are so much more!” My response was to politely suggest that they call me to help them find a new name that did fit their business model.

Recently MailChimp launched an ad campaign that approached the “our name does not fit our business model” issue from a different angle. In this effort, they celebrate the fact that they have outgrown their name and tell prospective customers that they would like to help them do the same thing.

Brilliant…simply brilliant. Both Overstock.com and MailChimp have outgrown their names, but Overstock.com communicates it in a way that makes the potential customer feel stupid (“you thought we only sold overstock items but you are stupid…we actually do more!”). MailChimp admits they do more than what their name implies and desire to have the same impact on the prospective customer’s business, thereby leaving prospective customers feeling hopeful. Big difference.

So the CEO of Overstock.com should still call me to initiate a name development project…but the CEO of MailChimp can just take a bow!

— Aaron Keller, co-author, The Physics of Brand, co-founder Capsule.us and Columnist at Twin Cities Business magazine.

There are so many hidden dangers in the process of naming any new offering — many of which can sneak up on you. We all like to believe we’ll see the danger before it meets us squarely in the forehead like a baseball bat, but the number of horror stories would indicate otherwise.

We’ve illustrated the Jimmy’s Johnnys in past blog posts, which certainly doesn’t create a good brand image for Jimmy John’s. But, really that’s a trademark issue, not a meaning issue. The meaning issues happen because there’s existing cultural meaning around a word that really isn’t good for your brand.

Rusty Taco dealt with it by moving to R Taco — not something this writer agreed with, but it happened. If you’re wondering what meaning existed with that name, try using your imagination before you search it on a work computer.

Fairview University, in their previous partnership had a minor issue when they turned the name into an acronym and stenciled it on hospital equipment. Do it yourself by writing those two letters in your whiteboard.

Or, the classic, Federal Express before they became FedEx, because in most countries “Federal” means government and slow, very, very slow. FedEx needs to be on time and certainly not slow — seeing the hidden meaning was essential.

Now, my own personal favorite today, the brand Sheetz, which is best consumed via this link, which tells me they know the brand name is amusing. Though, it does have a gastronomic implication that likely doesn’t create a smile in your mind after eating their foot long sub sandwich.

So, how do you avoid this?

Test the meaning with your audiences and there are simple rather inexpensive ways to get a clear picture of what your brand name means in culture. Even if you’ve got an existing brand name and culture has changed around it — like Tsunami Herbicide — a test might identify a need to change or refine your brand name.

Test your meaning before you test your job security. If you run into an amusing brand name story you think needs to be told, please pass it along to AaronKeller@capsule.us.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

A portmanteau is a linguistic blend of words in which parts of multiple words are combined into a new word. Common language examples include smog, which is a combination of the words smoke and fog, and motel which combines motor and hotel.

Some big companies used the portmanteau technique to develop their names. Microsoft is a portmanteau of microcomputer and software. Groupon combines group and coupon.

However, sometimes companies refuse to admit that their portmanteau name doesn’t work.

Consider this manufacturer of pool maintenance products.

Yes, I get that they slammed “pool” and “life” together to get their name, but no matter how many times you look at this name it is hard to not see “Poo Life” isn’t it? And who wants to live a “poo life” anyway?

Here is another one. Yes, I see what they did here by combining “smart” and “tours.” But step away from the page for a second and look at it…what the heck is a “smar Tour” (or did you mean “smarT ours)?

Portmanteau names can be very good when the combination makes sense, but you have to have some common sense (as in most things in life). Combining words together to make a brand name can work or can look very stupid. Don’t be stupid!