The Tom Dougherty Blog


If Red Lobster wants change, it needs to think differently

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I love good seafood.

Whether it’s a King Paul recipe for seafood gumbo or blackened Mahi Mahi, that’s no matter to me. I’ll take it.

But I have to admit, I won’t eat at Red Lobster. I have my standards.

Red LobsterA chain that boasts: “30 Shrimp for $11.99” or that celebrates a crab fest seems more like a glorified buffet to me. No thank you. I’d rather avoid the Pepto.

That said, when I read that Red Lobster’s new owners were on a mission to change the brand’s image to that of an upscale dining experience, I took notice.

The plan is to take away some of the promotional discounts (just not the ones mentioned earlier) as well as to assemble food vertically on plates, as it would in a fancy establishment — such as a piece of fish resting on a bed of rice.

Unbelievably, that’s it. You can bank on this: these superficial changes won’t help matters any.

If Red Lobster really wants to make a change, it has to dig deeper.

Here’s what I’d do, if the restaurant is intent on going this route. I’d change the name. It has brand equity, and not the kind an upscale place wants. It says low-end dining — kind of like the seafood version of TGIF. Basically, the Red Lobster brand does not have permission to be high end. It’s like saying Walmart is now selling Brahmin handbags. You just won’t believe the bags are authentic.

Changing the menu might be another great idea, and dump the stupid promotions.

You see, real change takes commitment, careful planning and an acknowledgment of where you are and where you want to go. 

Seems to me, Red Lobster is just a ship without sail.

Dollar Tree and Family Dollar merge to little effect

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Now here’s a proposed merger that makes sense. Dollar Tree is buying Family Dollar for a proposed $8.5 billion, merging the two dollar stores into one.

It makes sense because there was no real difference between the two anyway, so why not join forces? The only reason you would prefer one over the other is because of location. No one could tell one over the other. In fact, in the minds of consumers, they were already the same store.

Dollar TreeNow, Dollar Tree says it’s going to keep the brands separate, which means the Family Dollar stores would remain as is. For now. In fact, Dollar Tree should combine them under one brand, then move on to purchase the market leader, Dollar General.

The three brands are just one big conglomerate in perception anyway. Just make it official.

This made me think of other instances where brands should just get it over with and join together because they aren’t developing differentiating brands anyway. Office Depot and Office Max. Ragu and Prego. Half the car industry. J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch. Walgreens and CVS.

I could go on. The point is that the lack of a powerful brand often results in these kinds of mergers because the only benefit of each brand is a category benefit they both share.

Of course, the most effective strategy is simply to be different and better than your competition. That is, to have a differentiating brand in the first place.

Does Dick’s Sporting Goods know who it is?

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I have purchased a few things at Dick’s Sporting Goods. For a generalist (it carries something for practically everything related to sports or outdoors), it has an interesting position in “Every season begins with Dick’s.”

Though it lacks an emotional punch, it promises about all you can promise if you want someone to consider you for everything sporting related.

Dick's Sporting GoodsSo why should we be surprised that Dick’s announced that it is firing the PGA pros in its stores? Wait, Dick’s had PGA pros working in their stores? Apparently, Dick’s was trying to create a country club-esque atmosphere in its golf departments.

I assume that Dick’s finally discovered that people who actually play and are serious about golf do not think of Dick’s top-of-mind for their go-to golf source. The local specialty shop, Golfsmith or Golf Galaxy sure, but Dick’s? I guess, if you are a Sunday duffer, you might consider Dick’s, but it looks like it came to the realization that it did not need golf pros to sell to golf equipment.

Simply put, Dick’s is not a pro shop even if its golf department says it is. It is a generalist and, as such, it will never command the margins that a specialty shop can command (and be able to pay for a pro on staff). Even with a golf pro, Dick’s lacked authenticity. The pro was nothing more than a hope to make people forget they were in a sporting goods store.

This is what we call brand drift and it happens when the brand strategy is not completely thought out and/or implemented properly. Brands must answer the fundamental questions of who they are and who do they want to be.

In Dick’s case, it was trying to be something it wasn’t. It is a generalist and, for the most part, does it quite well. Every season begins with Dick’s – basketball, camping, baseball, hunting, running, fishing and golf. It’s who they are and what they do.

Kindle Unlimited is an unlimited letdown

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As many of you may know by now, I love to read.

Don’t put it past me to stay up all weekend to throw down the latest historical fiction piece on the Civil War or tactical warfare theories.

That’s probably why my ears perked up when Amazon announced the new Kindle Unlimited program. If you aren’t aware of it, it’s basically Netflix for eBooks. For $9.99 a month, you get access to more than 600,000 digital titles, which conveniently download right to your Kindle app or device. What’s more, the first 30 days of Kindle Unlimited are free.

Kindle UnlimitedAs is my way, I immediately joined. Amazon hooked me with the word “free” and the number, 600,000. See, that’s about 100,000 more books than similar apps Oyster and Scribd have. Needless to say, I’m a sucker for deals. And this looked like a juicy one.

That, though, was the peak of my experience. On perusing the titles, there really wasn’t much that I wanted. Granted, 600,000 books is a heck of a lot, but what I forgot was how easy it is for anyone who has written a book to sell it digitally on Amazon.

To me, it looked like 99% of the offerings fell in that category. Sure, some of these are probably beautifully written, but most of us have an idea of what we want and don’t have time to wade through an abyss of mediocrity. I felt duped. This isn’t far removed from the aforementioned apps, but they actually offer a host of critically acclaimed titles, not just a few.

This seems backwards to me. Amazon is the unrivaled king of the eBook. It has the largest selection of titles for purchase. Why then would it offer the poorest collection for a monthly membership? Don’t do it if you can’t do it right. But then, Amazon always misses the point, doesn’t it?

Think about it, what has Amazon ever done that hasn’t left you feeling a little bit empty? The Kindle Fire, Prime Video, Amazon Music and now Kindle Unlimited (to name just a few) are inferior products to Apple, Netflix, Spotify and Scribd. Amazon is a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

Within a day, I was searching for a way to cancel Kindle Unlimited. While I come back to you Amazon, why must you push me away again so willingly?


DirecTV “no wires” ads – Effective or creepy?

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You’ve probably seen the ads because they have been running practically non-stop, it seems. And I think the new DirecTV “no wires” campaign is pretty effective.

If having no wires is important.

The ads have been called creepy and annoying, but they work because you can’t forget them (even if they are creepy and annoying) and they get the message across: DirecTV has a setup without wires.

From an execution standpoint, I believe the campaign works. It’s unusual, it gets the message across and you know who it is for. There are so many campaigns that fail on all three counts.

But is having no wires important? I don’t know the answer to that question for sure, but I doubt it.

DirecTVAnd that’s also where most advertising fails. In inside-out thinking, a brand will believe it must market its differentiator even if that differentiator is not important to target audiences.

You may be the restaurant with the best napkins in the business, but promoting it is useless if having the best napkins is not an important reason to eat there.

When that happens – marketing an unimportant feature – the commercial just becomes entertainment, which is why I suspect that commentators have focused on the creepiness of the DirecTV ads. The wife on wires who seductively dances for her husband. The father in law on wires who wants to fight said husband. The son on wires who thinks his father doesn’t like his wires until the son is trapped in a ceiling fan and delighted.

Advertising does need to be different to be noticed. The message must always be clear. But the message must always be important.

If not, then the campaign is a waste of money and time.

Despite some missteps, the Apple brand remains the world’s most powerful one

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Even though I’ve been critical of Apple recently, there’s no doubt that it remains the greatest brand in the world and its most viable company. There have been warning signs of it losing some of its power, but the Apple brand is still ahead of everyone else.

Today brought me three reasons why Apple still remains the tops, as Mel Torme would say.

Apple brandFirst, IBM, the old-time Apple rival, has entered into an agreement with Apple to offer business-focused iPhones and iPads that will have specialized IBM software. The idea is that IBM and Apple will offer the devices to individual companies that need customized apps and software, such as those in the banking and healthcare industries.

Why didn’t IBM go to Sony or Google or Samsung? Because the Apple brand, filtered down into the iPhones and iPads, would have a stronger hold on business clients who have already tossed away their BlackBerrys.

Secondly, there are reports that Samsung’s new Galaxy has been a bust. Sales are so disappointing that the previous version, the S4, actually had greater sales and the iPhones are taking market share.

How did this happen? For one thing, Samsung tried to buy market share by discounting its phones rather than doing the long, hard work of having a meaningful message.

It’s been selling versions that range from $100-$300. Meanwhile, Apple’s phones stayed the course in terms of pricing, never discounting because the company knows that we all believe we get what we pay for. There’s something to be said for the Tiffany brand, even if it is the market leader.

The third reason is a little more oblique, but I found it hilarious. Apparently, in the new movie Sex Tape, the tablets used by the characters are iPads – even though the movie is produced by Sony, maker of the Xperia tablet.

Even Sony, which laughed Steve Jobs out of the room many years ago over the idea of iTunes, knows who is No. 1.

Duke or The Duke. John Wayne’s heirs are suing.

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Duke University was founded in 1838. Fast forward to 2014 and John Wayne’s heirs are suing Duke for the right to use “Duke” as a name for a bourbon. Acutually, they are suing in order to avoid an eventual trademark infringement suit that would have likely been filed by Duke University.

Stupid waste of time and money by John Wayne’s heirs.

John_WayneYes, Mr. Wayne will forever be known as the epitome of the movie cowboy. He will be long remembered for being The Duke. But, unfortunately, there is only one Duke – the university.

Oh sure, the students (and likely some of the staff) would love nothing more to pour three fingers of “Duke” bourbon. The Cameron Crazies would relish the idea of a drinking some “Duke” before (or during the big game) and opposing fans would love to celebrate their wins by downing some “Duke” as well.

Duke University has no issues with John Wayne’s heirs using “The Duke” as the name. John Wayne was, in fact, “The Duke.”

I am sorry John Wayne. You once said, “Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.” Apparently your heirs did not hear you.

Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s reverse position, and will pay for it

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There is a truism when it comes to marketing and brand, which is that you can’t have it both ways. If you represent healthy, you can’t also be about “filling up” until you can barely walk out of the restaurant. And vice versa.

Otherwise, you are trying to be for everybody and that never works.

Are you listening Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s?

The fast food giant is rolling out a new campaign that highlights its healthy fare, with websites that are the reverse of their current names. Instead of, you have The campaign is called “The other side of Carl’s Jr.” or “The other side of Hardee’s.”

Hardees_siteThis is disappointing in many ways. This chain has been the best in fast food marketing over the last few years because it put a stake in the ground. Its “Eat It Like You Mean It” said it was for those who are hungry and like big portions. It gave the brands attitude, and was positioned against the rest of the category that was tiptoeing into healthier fare to attract more customers (while still reaping the profits from the fatter food).

The result has been increased market share, so why would it risk that meaningful brand position by joining the rest of the parade?

My guess is that it is getting greedy. Having taken market share with the only different brand position in the market, it wants more. It figures it needs to widen the net and offer healthier food as well.

Here’s the problem. It will make the “East It Like You Mean It” brand less believable. Any variation from a brand position makes that brand position less believable, and its value erodes. It begins to feel like marketing instead of being real.

Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s has opened the door for another fast food brand to take the over-indulgence position because audiences will find Carl’s Jr./Hardees is playing a simple marketing game that insults those who bought into it.

It is as egregious as Apple saying, well, our users don’t all “think different.” Some think the same.

The Brand of Tar Heel

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As a former Temple Owl, I can tell you that, in my clouded fan view, I have never been a fan of Carolina basketball. While I admired Dean Smith, it always galled me how privileged the UNC team appeared in those days. I remember, with great relish, when Temple traveled into tobacco road in 1988 and gave UNC the worst defeat it had ever suffered in the Dean Dome.488

So in full disclosure, my view on this is subjective. For me, UNC basketball has always looked like Penn State football. Privileged and arrogant.

But one does wonder about what lurks under the surface of the new accusations being forwarded by Rashad McCants of fake classes and ghost written papers.

The Tar Heel fans are all over McCants now. They claim he is just looking for publicity because he suffered the greatest failure of all—“he was an NBA washout” (the fan’s words not mine).

I wonder. I do wonder if UNC athletes are treated with the same rigor that the Chapel Hill students face. I wonder if the UNC fans even care that the student athlete hardly represents the academic standard for which the university is known.

I know they don’t care about that representation in the light of how NCAA teams revel in their supposed success with athletes that are nothing more than non-paid pawns in a university scam to get more funds from alumni. Being a student athlete is secondary to being an athlete.


The status quo of retailers

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One of the more interesting developments in the retail industry was when JC Penney ousted CEO Ron Johnson last year, after having success leading retail efforts at Target and Apple.

He made change happen at JC Penney, with a new logo and an approach aimed at making the retail giant a more upscale place where bargain shoppers were told to go elsewhere. JC Penney was for the selective shopper. (So to speak.)

It didn’t work. Or, at least, in my opinion, the approach wasn’t allowed enough time to succeed.

JCPenneySince then, Johnson has kept a low profile, but he emerged as a guest lecturer at Stanford recently and one quote really got me:

“I’m a creative person. Here’s a company that isn’t uber-creative. I believe in change. This company’s much more comfortable, like many people are, with the status quo.”

Johnson admitted he wasn’t the right fit for JC Penney, but he hits exactly on the nerve that’s fraying in the retail industry. The retailers are so afraid of change that they are slowly disappearing and becoming irrelevant.

We took a look at the retail category as a whole recently and you can find our results here. The main thrust was that retailers are stuck with old models that are being killed by the Amazons of the world, while hordes of consumers stay away from malls (which are also slowly dying) and the individual retailers themselves copy each other so much that little preference is created.

There’s a way for retailers to get out of this mess, but staying with the status quo isn’t it. I don’t like to use this blog as a sales pitch, but we have processes and strategies that can get retailers out of the doldrums.

It’s just a shame that someone as forward thinking as Ron Johnson is axed and replaced with the same old, same old.