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The Lessons Of West Jet

Posted on July 1, 2005 and read 6,771 times

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It’s not hard, folks. It’s not like being president of the United States, a job function which Mr. Bush described as being “hard, hard work.” It’s not like brain surgery, which takes training, courage and intuition. Hell, it’s not even hard like a day old donut.

It’s just not hard.

It’s common sense – you have an idea, you spend a million or so making an ad, your brand becomes an icon. You go home. You get a job offer as the CMO of the week at a brewery. You get fired and you live happily ever after. You make speeches; maybe become president of an advertising agency. Drive it into bankruptcy. Get another one. Life goes on. Right?

Wrong – well right and wrong. Right for you. Wrong for the brand, the clients and, not to be overly dramatic, civilization as we know it today.

Look at the fiasco Taxi and West Jet contrived to produce when they started along that sorry path. Shame, humiliation and cost! The brand became, briefly, a laughing stock, and, thanks to the wisdom of crowds (read the book) and sensible employees, consumers won the day. But it was close. Too close for comfort (practically all Canadian brands have been or are being vaporized, mostly by criminally callous and naive brand managers being sucked into the vortex of mean-spirited, myopic “reengineering”. If brandicide were a capital crime punishable by death – an idea that is not without its supporters – there would be a lot more job openings for bright, young, ambitious people).

However, this dud offers an opportunity for learning.

For the sake of clarity we have divided the syllabus into 7 lessons.

Lesson number 1: the consumer always wins.

Consumers either win by (a) winning (when your brand is expressed in intrusive, relevant ways and seamlessly connects to their lives, and they achieve brand awareness nirvana) or they win by (b) taking their balls and going home – (i.e. ignoring your communications and watching the brand slowly die on the vine — in the airline business the latter is, as history has shown over-and-over again, way more likely). Sometimes, they win by (c) whining, which is when, as they did to West Jet, they make it clear that the brand is heading for outcome (b).

Lesson number 2: the brand only wins when the consumer wins by winning (see lesson number 1)

Do we really need to point this out? It’s 2005 for Chrissake – it’s not as though this is news, even though you often get the impression this story hasn’t made its way as far south as Richmond Street. (Incidentally, it’s interesting to note that Richmond Street is not the most southerly tip of Canadian advertising – the Esplanade is)

Lesson number 3: agencies and brand managers never win or lose.

They shouldn’t even be in the game. Without the benefit of being a fly on the wall of the Westjet agency pitch, I can nevertheless conjure up an accurate picture: “Guys, we’ve decided to hire you (Taxi) because you’re smart, edgy and understand our business (as an aside, who doesn’t understand their business? It’s an airline, for heaven’s sake: ftfs = fill the f’ing seats). You’re right, we need to be more edgy (in other words, you’ve conned us into believing we need to be more like you – cool, urbane, Toronto; as opposed to traditional, country, Calgary). Let’s all have lunch in that raw fish place on John Street!” The soon-to-be-cool brand guys and gals think they’re playing in the big-time and the agency guys think they’ve won the game before they even start.

Cut to the creative presentation. By this time, the client team has been pummeled (bored?) into submission, the agency people have discovered the back of the sub-leased Boeing 737(“I thought that’s where they stowed the luggage”), the boards are in the bag (so in more ways than one) and the great reveal is at hand. With a flourish (minimal set-up and pre-babble, remember, they’re edgy) the creatives present the campaign (idea, actually, as opposed to the spots – edgy agencies avoid actually telling the client what the spot will end up actually looking like, as this would be “constricting”) The clients are justifiably confused (they think the agency says “A” not realizing, that “A” might have been what they said, but it was only meant as a “directional suggestion” – an enlightenment that comes at about the time of the rough cut) and more than a little disappointed, but the agency suit says (because she has to, not necessarily because she believes it or, for that matter, understands it):”this work is exactly what you need if you want to be cool and edgy. We know, because we’re cool and edgy (actually “on edge” at that moment because of having to fly on the client’s one-class fits all flight to Calgary – it takes days, not hours, to recover, and more Grey Goose than has been imported into Alberta in the past eighteen months). After all (and here’s the clincher, the agency-ace-in-the-hole, the nuclear option) you hired us to change your image! (actually they didn’t, they hired them to ftfs). So just do what we say. Trust us. Remember, we’re cool and edgy and you’re not…did I just say that in my out-loud voice?”

Lesson number 4: Cool edgy people from the Entertainment District in Toronto do not know shit about the rest of the country.

This lesson is often mistaken for the more common, but wrong, belief that all people from Toronto don’t give a shit about the rest of the country. (Another aside: cool edgy people from Montreal often have a better take on the rest of the country because they know the rest of the country is not like them, and they take the time to try to find out what it is like – one of the side benefits of parochial chauvinism.)

Lesson number 5: money is never the object.

At the end of the day, when the grown ups take charge, they’d rather throw money down the toilet than throw toilets at consumers.

Lesson number 6: it is absurd to think that a brand can be “repositioned” as anything if the following conditions are not met.

(i)the new position clearly reflects the vision of the people who make the products – that is, all the stake holders including management, ownership and employees (also, in many cases, suppliers and the community);

(ii)(ii) the product is changed to reflect the new position in meaningful ways, so the new position is actually experienced by the customers; and

(iii)(iii) the marketplace (consumers) relate to the new position.

This is not a new lesson, incidentally, but one that evidently needs repeating.

Lesson number 7: There is one, and only one, sure fire way to keep your job.

If you are determined to ignore lessons 1 through 6, test the ad before you shoot the film. This lesson applies even if you abide by lessons 1 through 6, but if you are such a cowboy (?) as to assume you know everything else, testing will save your butt at the end of the day.

Finally, a plea to everybody: there must be consequences. We cannot as an industry allow these perfectly predictable, perfectly avoidable screw ups to happen and just move on. Every time something as destructive as the Westjet fiasco happens, the credibility of the advertising world takes a massive hit, and the process of making effective advertising that changes the client’s business becomes more difficult for agencies that really do the do things and deserve to lead their clients into truly breakthrough territories.

One of Canada’s best known and respected strategic brand planners, Laurence Bernstein has developed breakthrough positioning and brand strategies for major Canadian companies, including TD Bank and Trust, CIBC, Fairmont Hotels, Shoppers Drug Mart, Sears, Whitehall Robbins, LMG, General Motors, Holt Renfrew, Rogers Communications, Procter & Gamble among many others.

Currently he is managing partner of The Bay Charles Consulting Company Inc, the successful Toronto based strategy management firm he established in 1998.






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