Cree LED lightbulbs have lost brand power

Cree LED lightbulbs. An Example of surrendering initiative.

Cree LED Lightbulbs
Cree was a growth stock

For Stealing Share, Cree LED lightbulbs is in our backyard. I follow the company because it is great to see a local company innovate and win.

I remember a few short years ago, Cree was the darling of Wall Street. Charles Swoboda, Cree CEO and President, seemed to be interviewed and featured everywhere.

2012 was a heady time for Cree. In 2013, Cree LED lightbulbs were King of the Hill.

Innovating its way to the top of the class and the news promoting LED bulbs as an eco-friendly and promising technology turned the incandescent bulb market on its head.

Cree LED LighbulbsLED bulbs have low heat, low comparative wattage, long life and more energy efficiency than the florescent bulbs that heretofore dominated the eco section of the market.

Cost and quality of light were the only downsides to LED bulbs. Often as not, they had a white-blue brightness that lacked the warmth of the incandescent bulbs that take history all the way back to Edison.

LED lightbulbs have become mainstream

Cree LED Lightbulbs The holiday lighting market transitioned from incandescent mini bulbs to the eerie, almost alien looking, LED strings of holiday lights just a few Christmas seasons ago.

They caught on despite the cost because of a longer lifetime and the ability to connect so many strings together that Clark Griswold would have lit the entire city without an electrical drain.

The transition to LED Christmas lights is almost complete. It is hard to find the old style mini lights today. The price is still steep, but it is more manageable.

You would think this is all good news for Cree LED lightbulbs. First movers have an advantage and the market now embraces LED lighting.

Just look at the displays at the big box do-it-yourself stores. The LED bulbs are featured more than the rest.

Cree LED lightbulbs have a retailer problem

One huge problem stands in the way of Cree however. Its bulbs are NOT featured at retailers. They are lost among the crowded competitive LED offerings.

What happened?

Cree LED Lightbulbs stock chart
Cree has been in rapid decline since 2014

I quote Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank as if he was speaking to the engineers who pushed the envelope for Cree LED lightbulbs. “What’s to stop one of the big guys from waking up and crushing you like the cockroach you are?”

It is a fair question to ask in 2013. Today, with the current marketing, you can ask if it is too late?

The Cree advertising is top shelf. Well-produced spots featuring Lance Redick (you might remember Lance as the very deliberate Lieutenant Cedric Daniels from the HBO series The Wire). The problem is that the advertising campaign is fixing the wrong problem.

Watch the above advertisement and ask yourself what the advertising is intending to accomplish? The commercial obviously intends to laud the category transition Cree led. It informs the customer that the Cree LED lightbulbs were on the forefront of this movement.

They want us to know— borrowing from the copy, that the humble LED turns the lighting category on its head and that they (Cree) – told us so a while ago.

Nice clean TV spot. It might even work if being first in the category mattered a jot to the shopper today.

Cree LED lightbulbs need a new rebrand strategy

Stealing Share would not have created this strategy. It is an inside-out view of the market. Looking outside-in is the foundation of most of our business. Companies look at their own stories, decide what they feel is important about their own brands and then force fit that idea into the marketing and advertising.

Cree LED Lightbulbs
Where should Cree position the brand in this crowded space?

It is too late for Cree LED lightbulbs to regain preference? Is it too late for Cree to be doing this? The market is mature. Innovation in LED brightness, longevity or eco-friendly claims do not drive the market. PRICE drives it. Cree needs to rebrand (read a an example of a rebranding strategy for another troubled category here).

The current campaign only helps build the category. It sells the viability of LED lightbulbs. Anyone who has studied advertising communications knows that, in communications that builds the category, the advantage ALWAYS goes to the market leader. Sadly, for Cree, it is not the market leader. Not anymore.

The retail space is full of competitors to Cree LED lightbulbs

Look below at the offerings in LED bulbs from Home Depot and Lowes.  Cree LED lightbulbs is an afterthought. Giants in the industry like GE, Sylvania, and Phillips dominate the shelves. These behemoths not only control the shelf space, they also control the price point.

Cree LED Lightbulbs
Cree is lost in the big box stores

As a consumer decides to choose an LED bulb as a viable replacement item, does Cree believe the customer will have second thoughts about trusting any of the BIG BOY brands? Is there any chance that these name brands are seen as an inferior product? Do consumers care who brought the first viable LED bulb to the market?

Cree LED LightbulbsThe entire Cree LED lightbulbs advertising campaign has only one hope. You must feel so guilty about your preference that you want to switch to Cree.

The campaign asks you to reward the brand that first brought you the LED idea.

Even if the retailer has a smaller selection of Cree products and they might be a few pennies more expensive. Even though the original idea was expensive and the light was blueish.

Any brand named Edison would be an instant winner if that train of thought was correct. There is heritage for you. I’m not claiming to be the smartest guy in the room (research corrects that failing). I don’t know yet what the highest emotional intensity in the category is. I am not sure what incites a shopper to change and prefer the Cree LED lightbulbs.

But I know that the answer is knowable. The entire Stealing Share process aims to discover that trigger and position the brand to own that value. It is HOW you steal market share.

Real lessons here for us all

The lesson here is to not let your engineers dictate marketing and brand strategy. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid. Don’t take an inside-out view of the market (navel gazing) and never leave the strategic brand point of view to the advertising agency (no matter how talented).

Even if they are good at what they do (and I believe Baldwin& is very good) agencies create advertisements and they don’t create robust brand strategy.

Cree LED LighbulbsThis market is mature and yet is growing at a blazing pace

The sheer power of the competitive set and the gravitational pull of lower pricing outweighs first mover advantage.

An upstart and innovative company is not a place for this strategy. The Cree brand is now outmanned and outgunned.

Today, Cree LED lightbulbs need a message that overcomes those barriers.

Cree. Light a better way (is NOT the answer).

As a symbol of all that is wrong, the theme is clever in its double entendre and  FEELS like an advertising theme-line. As such, it lacks powerful meaning and authority.

Cleverness always seems contrived and cliché.

Powerful brand themes are often a bit awkward because they strike the prospect as important and direct. They are about the customer, not the product. They seem authentic, not clever.

Maybe one of the most powerful brand themes of all time is great advice for Cree. Think different.

Facebook Advertising. P&G Failure.

Facebook AdvertisingI just read an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about P&G (the largest advertiser on the globe) and its experience placing Facebook advertising in front of a highly targeted audience.

It seems that Proctor and Gamble had very limited success with the venture so far. It seems counterintuitive that it would not work as expected. Consider this:

P&G Facebook Advertising

The P&G brand Pampers is able to target new moms and pregnant women on Facebook. The very audience it NEEDS to excite to purchase. Feels like a no brainer. But P&G found the resulting sales less than exciting. As a result, while not giving up on Facebook, P&G is going to increase its TV advertising next year.

What is missing in Facebook advertising?

In other words, Proctor discovered that broad based rather than strictly targeted ads work better. What it is not grasping fully is WHY.

For most of the marketing world, P&G wrote the book on branding. In fact, it doesn’t really understand brand very well. What it invented and took to the level of a science is brand management. The entire marketing focus is on brand teams and the tight relationship between the brand managers and the product.

The reason the Facebook initiative is not working all that well is because the types of advertising that marketers create on Facebook turn out to be product ads and not brand advertising. The snippets are akin to billboards. They focus on efficacy and pricing, not on branding.

I say this because contrary to what P&G has made into its culture, branding is not about the product or HOW it works. Branding is about WHY it matters to the target audience.

Jif Facebook AdvertisingBranding works

The greatest brands in the world are, at their core, a reflection of the customer they need to influence. The greatest promise that Pampers can make is not how dry the baby is when you use Pampers (after all, every disposable diaper keeps the baby dry). It is about WHO the mom IS when she uses Pampers. How a Pampers mom is different and better than those that use a different brand.

Think of Jif peanut butter. Sure it promises that it tastes more like fresh peanuts but the brand promise that choosey mothers choose Jif is the driver of preference. That’s the sort of brand message I am speaking of.

To make Facebook advertising work for marketers, they need to have a MORE emotional message than they do in virtually every other medium. Facebook users have the attention span of a gnat and you must grab them in the gut to get them to invest in a message more intrusive than a billboard or coupon.pampers Facebook Advertising

If the medium is the message, then P&G must be better at selling the brand and not the product. It’s a brave new world of marketing and traditional advertising is becoming less effective. Advertisers struggle to become more effective and targeting sounds like the answer. It is.

But it requires a rethinking of what branding IS. The halls of P&G must stop harping on the agencies in the Proctor tent with the uniform call of “where is the demo” to an up-to-date demand of “where is the prospect’s emotional needs?”

Pop Culture lives on coolness

Pop Culture relies on fashion sensabilitites

Volkswagen as pop culturePop culture is a risky brand business. I heard a report this morning on Marketplace about Volkswagen. Basically, the report focused on the effects of the VW settlement on the automaker’s product development pipeline. The reporter stated that the multi-billion dollar settlement would make the Volkswagen new model pipeline a bit bumpy. He said that it might put a crimp on the innovation that VW hopes to achieve to keep their product line COOL.

Cool is a scary word for me in the branding business because the idea of cool is all about making a connection to an aesthetic sensibility that is connected to personal taste in an odd way. In some ways, maybe many ways, cool can be defined as a fad.

Cool is hard to bank on in pop culture

What was cool yesterday in pop culture may not be cool today. What was once considered cool can digress into downright kitsch. If you want proof, take a trek to Graceland and – aside from the greatness of Elvis’s talent itself and the voyeuristic thrill of peering into the private life of a celebrity – you’ll find that there is NOTHING in that mansion that we covet today.

Graceland is Pop cultureWe don’t want the blue shag rugs or the clumsy devices that passed for high tech in the day. What was once cool (and even, in the case of Graceland, where no expense was spared) is just a pile of dated junk. Pop culture cool just does not have legs. Cool by definition is mercurial.

Apple used to be cool. Much of that coolness came from the charisma and genius of Steve Jobs. Since his death, Apple is just innovative and has yet to hit the mark with the same coolness that Steve naturally oozed and made Apple products de rigueur.

Cool can be a goal for some brands. But hitting that sweet spot is a difficult task in pop culture. Predicting success is even more difficult.

Recognizing what is cool and developing product to that standard is near impossible. The parent brand can deliver permission for its coolness but adoption of that next cool thing is more about happenstance.

But it is not just a problem with Pop Culture

Movies as pop cultureThink about this for a moment: The major movie studios try to produce blockbuster movies. While they may not use the word cool to describe their intent, you certainly would not be stretching the definition of coolness by thinking about it in terms of a movie’s appeal.

What interests me here is how often the movie industry misses the mark. The studios invest millions of dollars in a script, director, cinematographer and proven stars and still turn out a BUST. You would think, with all of their resources, they would have more hits than misses. But predicting popularity is that near impossible.

Brands that make their reputation and mark by being considered cool are only as valuable as their latest iteration. The rest is left up to chance.

Honey Nut Cheerios Healthy Hearts

Honey Nut Cheerios hits a home run

Honey Nut CheeriosHoney Nut Cheerios is one of General Mill’s flagship brands. The cereal market is in a death spiral (read our in-depth market study on the cereal and breakfast category here) as tastes and consumer patterns change. Breakfast cereal used to be the staple food at breakfast tables across the globe but times have changed.

Honey Nut CheeriosThe venerable brands of my youth (Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, Kellogg’s Cornflakes, Post Raisin Bran, Wheaties and even Cheerios) are hard at work trying to expand the market.

Time was all of the advertising dollars was directed at kids. Even Wheaties (the breakfast of champions) was targeted at getting kids to prefer the cereal over other choices. Today, more and more brands are simply trying to expand the traditional audience by including adults in the advertising too. Most to little effect.

The reason for the failure is that brand permission does not come by simply featuring the target audience in the communication. You need to have the target audience say to themselves, “I want to be that.”

Enter Honey Nut Cheerios

The Cheerios parent brand has been talking heart healthy for many years now. There seems to be no dissenting voices in science that there are REAL benefits to oats (oat bran in particular) in the health and vitality of the human heart. But the message of heart healthy has done very little to expand the category and, while one of the more successful rebrands in the cereal market, Cheerios has continued to disappoint despite outperforming many others in the category.

But the Healthy Hearts Stay Young campaign may be a real game changer.

The commercial has the mandatory adult and child but the similarity ends here. The spots are an exuberant and charming combination of energy and brand without the usual feature of focusing only on the product. The spots are mesmerizing and are so well produced that you find yourself stopping on the commercial when channel surfing. The main spot is THAT good. The supporting spots are less powerful because it is the adult in the main commercial that is most appealing.

Stop the other branded slop.

General Mills Logo Honey Nut CheeriosThis campaign truly builds brand preference. I want to be THAT and I’m sure I am not alone. The precocious child is overshadowed by the talented adult and it is her movement and agility that holds sway in the spot. I simply can’t take my eyes off her and even see the little girl as a distraction. Despite the lack of traditional brand identification, I remembered this commercial as being all about Honey Nut Cheerios. It worked.

Scrap the silly honey bee, General Mills. He (or she) may be cute but the commercials are all about YOU and the natural ingredients. You took the bold step of making your prospects feel that they want to be part of the club and we don’t need any rational reasons why your honey came from bees. To my knowledge, all honey comes from bees.

A few words on Kellogg’s

AAPL Apple sales shrink

What is wrong with Apple (AAPL)?

AAPL-stock-chart
AAPL dropped 7%

It still turned a huge profit (one that most brands would tout as a great quarter) but most investors are worried that the Apple magic is gone as AAPL was down 7% in after-hour trading. iPhone sales did not grow for the first time ever and Apple’s sales declined for the first time since 2003.

Pundits talk about Apple’s lack of innovation in its product portfolio. Nothing has REALLY been new since the Apple Watch if you discount brand extensions of different sized iPhones and iPads.

Even music sales have moved beyond Apple’s iTunes store as more and more music consumers subscribe to streaming services and no longer buy music. What was at one time a disruptive technology, iTunes now seems like yesterday’s news.

But the REAL problem is an emotional issue. It is a brand problem.

Apple. The world’s most powerful brand (Ticker symbol AAPL) does not look so indomitable as it once did. It looks, well, vulnerable.

What is missing? Magic masqueraded as vision. Steve Jobs is missing.

I own AAPL and virtually every Apple product

 As an Apple guy since I bought my first Mac in 1984, I have never owned a PC. My first smartphone was an iPhone and my first tablet was an iPad. I have upgraded all of my purchases along the way and own an iPad Air, iPad Pro, iPhone 6, MacBook Air, Apple TV (new generation) and AirPort routers. Even our office server is a Mac.

AAPL and CEO Tim Cook
Tim Cook

AAPL Apple LogoIf you look at my stock portfolio, I own a nice chunk of AAPL. I bought most of my AAPL stock before the iPhone launch and have enjoyed both growth and more recently dividends from the company. But my personal identification has suffered. I don’t have the personal connection with the Apple brand I once knew. I even occasionally miss the Keynote announcements that were once marked in my weekly planner.

I used to think
of Apple in personal terms. I thought of Apple in terms of Steve, the mad genius behind the curtain. I waited with baited breath for the next insanely great product that all came in rapid succession since the introduction of the first iMacs.

AAPL and designer Ive
Jonathan Ive

I like Tim Cook. I think he is an amazingly competent CEO. I admire Jonathan Ive, who is more than just a gifted designer. I still love the products. But it is harder to have that deep of an emotional connection to the company.

Like most of you, I felt I had a relationship with Steve. I recognize that it was a complete fabrication of intimacy, but those of us who buy emotionally into brand loyalty rarely self examine the core reasons why we care so deeply. We care and that is enough in itself.

Apple could come out with a reinvention of the automobile. It could reinvent the television. It could reinvent the Steve Jobs and the iPhone grew AAPLkitchen for that matter and it would not replace the loss of connection I felt with the brand itself.

Apple will continue to be a powerful brand and will continue to innovate and make money. AAPL will rebound from its current drop and take its place in the world of Blue Chip stocks. But, make no mistake, the BRAND (as an emotional religion) is in decline.

I may appreciate BMW and IBM but I do not LOVE them. That died with Steve Jobs. I held onto the scraps of that affection for a long time. But I no longer think it blasphemy to buy a competitor’s product. Suddenly, I am looking at product benefits and attributes and the blind affection that arose from the elevation of the brand to mythical proportions is sadly gone.