It was going to happen sooner or later and the Mattel recall finally did it for many. The end of the illusion brand is here. And it’s a really good thing too! I don’t mean the concept of branding is dead, I mean the idea of using brands as a smoke and mirrors tactic is over as some consumers are now becoming aware of what a brand really is to many companies. In essence, the brand they use is not a very good type of branding, and with that, perhaps we can move on to a better use of branding, one that actually ensures a strong connection with consumers and is what it claims it is.
Mattel’s brand relies on quality, traditions of American icons and safe toys that parents can trust. All of this is false. This is what we call a brand disconnect. Mattel outsourced its manufacturing to overseas manufactures, Mattel has agreements but a contract doesn’t actually mean anything if you don’t do anything to enforce it. So we have seen millions of toys recalled because the quality isn’t there. The brand fails this aspect of its promise.
An American icon? Back when Barbie was made in American, yes, now, no. Sure I loved my Hot Wheels as a kid, tough metal toys that could take a beating, these Hot Wheels today are cheap and a few good hits and your kid can be a toy car mechanic. A name and logo doesn’t make a product, Mattel did that and it failed. Barbie and Hot Wheels are not traditional American toys anymore, the people making a dollar a day don’t really care about the history of these toys, what they mean to people, they just know they get a pay check for making them and that’s that. For this, the brand promise fails.
Safe toys? There was a time you could trust Mattel for a safe product without question. Sure now and then they had a problem but we believed that was the exception, not the norm. Today, you have to wonder. Mattel has very little control over its suppliers and we know this, you don’t have millions of recalled toys if there is just a small problem now and then. Since Mattel has lost control of it’s safety standards, it fails this part of its brand promise as well.
This all adds up to a total brand disconnect. This is mainly due to the philosophy of branding employed. For most who don’t understand branding, it is not a concept like accounting where you have agreed upon standards, it’s very wide actually with many schools of thought and ways to use. The type of branding you see with Mattel is actually very common among the multinationals and they do it because for the most part, you the consumer fall for it. Don’t think this is limited to Mattel or toys, this is widespread and as people start looking closer at more products, you’ll see this is actually surprisingly widespread and for a good reason, it makes money.
Generally what is done is, a shell game is played, a brand is held up as being one thing, when in fact it is quite another. I was out shopping and saw a product that said “An American Company” yes it was based in the US but made overseas. Was that nice shiny red paint up to US standards of being lead free? Who knows, you can’t tell without testing it which means you have to buy it! But would most consumers even notice it isn’t made in America. With the “American Company” phrase all over the box and American flags, it really looks like it is American made, but it’s not. Enough people do get fooled by this and buy it, not really looking at the fine print.
A lot of this was done during the 90s and early part of this decade when companies like Wal Mart decided that low prices at any cost was the way to go. You as consumers ate this up! You loved the low prices and while I and others told you that those low prices came at a cost, you didn’t listen. So now we have a situation on our hands where low prices often me, not up to regulatory standards and our definition of safe. Are you sure that utensils set you bought is lead free? How about those pant, are they on the list of clothing that has 900 times the safe level of chemicals? They were certainly cheap, but what’s the price to you? You don’t know, neither does the store you bought it from, the brand company that markets it or even probably the manufacturer.
What are the companies doing about it? Most people feel that the consumer outrage will cause them to change. Not really. What’s going on is they want to change the regulations so what they are having made, gets in legally. Don’t expect Mattel to build plants in the US and start making toys here again. Don’t expect Wal Mart to realize that their demanding of production be sent overseas is the reason why 70% of Americans can’t make ends meet at the end of the month because that nice factory job got replaced with a lower paying service job. See the real savings wasn’t for you the consumer, it was for the corporation. When they ship overseas, they now don’t have all the overhead they had here and that means better margins and if you are CEO, you like better margins. That means bigger bonuses, so do you really expect these companies to give up the personal gain they are making off this branding bait and switch they are doing?
More people are realizing this is what is going on and are disgusted, they feel cheated and they should! They were lied to and it shows. But you lied to yourself as well. Back in 1999 when I was writing on this topic, people told me that low prices will only help the consumer, lead to better choices. Better choices? If you like lead, sure. How about toxic fish? Clothing with questionable chemicals? Cough syrup, toothpaste, pet food from China anyone? If you want quality you have to look beyond the price tag. And many consumers did not do that nor did they stop to wonder what the impact all this would have, the race to the bottom was too good. It’s like fast food, the value meal sounds like a good deal, but how many more hours on the treadmill is that going to cost you to super size it? Not so great when you thinking of it that way. And that’s what you need to do, start thinking of it in different ways and look at it in ways that get you seeing the whole value. When you do that and vote with your dollars, branding will be forced to change, as the illusion branding tactics just don’t work when you change the rules and demand accountability and have a “show me” attitude.
Experiential branding is what I would use if I were in a market with competitors who have already been busted for tainted goods. In fact any market with consumers who source overseas, doesn’t matter if you are in Canada, Panama, Germany, if you have competitors that source outside the area of your regulatory market, you are at risk. Because as we see with Mattel, it’s not just Mattel that is being looked at, now all toy manufacturers are being looked at. Experiential branding would save some, assuming they move fast. It is like open book management for branding. You combine parts of operational branding and create an experience, where consumers can really interact with the brand, touch it, probe it know how it was really made. Place the information about who made it. I did this once where we have pictures and the stories of the manufacturers. We showed people where the products came from, the actually people who made them and really made that connection all the way through the supply chain. So that people really knew exactly where and who made their product. People loved it, and they had faith in the product and the ROI per sale improved as a result. We gained a lot of trust from consumers where as our competitors had little to nothing to show and couldn’t do that.
If consumers demand real change and vote with their dollars, this can change. But if you continue to shop as you have been the last few decades and believe the brand without much question, don’t expect any change. Companies are lazy for the most part, make them work for your money. They say a citizen should never trust his or her government but always question the government and make the government prove its intention are good. The same is true with companies; you shouldn’t believe a brand until it has proven it is what it claims it is. When enough consumers do this, things will change.