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First Word: When marketing misses the mark


Over the course of the past few weeks, I've run across a couple of marketing-related stories that struck me as particularly interesting. One was kind of poignant in a way, the other more of a head scratcher.

The first item is about a once-beloved brand icon that seems to be on the verge of being lost forever. In an editorial in the Hartford Courant last month, the newspaper mourned that the red umbrella that's currently part of the Citigroup logo is likely to be lost to a rebranding effort the company plans to undertake.

The umbrella, of course, came Citigroup's way when predecessor company Citicorp acquired the Hartford-based Travelers Insurance Co. in 1998. In 2002, Citigroup spun off the insurer's property/casualty insurance business into Travelers Property Casualty Corp., but kept the umbrella.

With Travelers now part of St. Paul Travelers Cos. Inc.—and that company having adopted a red winged shield as its logo and launched a major marketing campaign along with it—that company says it's not interested in the apparently soon to be available umbrella.

But while the red umbrella might not have a place in either Citigroup's or St. Paul Travelers' future branding efforts, it does still resonate in Connecticut. Beneath the headline "Symbol of a Gentler Time," the Courant editorial recalled a 3,000-pound red neon umbrella that once adorned Hartford's Travelers Tower, which—together with the umbrella's place in Travelers ads in print and on television—branded Hartford "ground zero for the insurance industry."

It's amazing, but sometimes a logo or company brand can grow beyond the property of the company to which it belongs into a cherished symbol for which an entire community feels ownership. Here in Chicago, Federated Department Stores continues to deal with fallout from the company's decision last year to rename and rebrand the Marshall Field's department stores as Macy's.

As Field's green was replaced with Macy's red, the local news was full of reports of long-time Field's shoppers, many of whom remembered childhood trips downtown always including a stop at Field's, lining up to picket outside the former Field's flagship store on Chicago's State Street.

One might dismiss such demonstrations as simply people not liking change, and maybe there is an element of that. Still, I don't know whether the kind of brand loyalty demonstrated by shoppers picketing a department store's name change—or a red umbrella's status as an element of civic pride—factor into marketing plans, but it seems to me it's something that should be considered.

The other item that caught my interest, the head scratcher, was a Reuters story last month about an interesting promotion conducted by consumer products giant Unilever. According to the report, a direct-mail campaign promoting a brand of margarine saw the Anglo-Dutch company sending knives to 200,000 Dutch families.

Evidently three children wound up being injured by the metal blade of the knives, and 50 parents filed complaints. Ultimately, Unilever followed the initial mailing with a second letter urging recipients of the original promotional materials to dispose of the knife. The company said it hadn't received any requests for compensation from recipients of its pointed campaign.

Granted, sending knives in the mail did draw attention to Unilever's campaign. But it seems to me it's a good thing the folks responsible weren't marketing something like a Call of Duty video game—they might have sent out hand grenades.

It's probably an even better thing that Unilever wasn't sending out this marketing piece in the United States. Imagine the response a campaign like that might generate among some particularly enterprising plaintiff's lawyers!