Friday, October 20, 2006

Toyota's Yaris Embodies the Curator Effect

The evolution of the Toyota brand is one of the best examples of the Curator Effect. Rather than stretching a master brand to the point of dilution, it demonstrates its grasp of its limitations. Instead of attempting to upscale the brand beyond credibility, it launched Lexus. Knowing that the Toyota brand doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have the street cred to appeal to urban youth, it launched Scion.

Now, its Yaris brand goes a step further with a media plan that includes a significant online effort. Its virtual test drive lets the visitor customize the car, download free stuff, and virtually drive through one of six hip neighborhoods in the country. Every aspect of the experience reinforces the brand’s indie positioning. You can click on stores in the neighborhoods to learn about retailers that share the values of the target audience, find the best taco stands, and browse independent book stores.

This literal curation of like-minded brands confidently shares the space with other aspirational brands to create an immersive environment. Toyota shares Yaris with visitors by giving them the power to affect the experience. It shares the brand with its ecosystem of brands that position Yaris by association. It also creates real buzz within these style-influencing neighborhoods. If you know the neighborhoods, it gives the brand local appeal. If you don’t know them, it creates an aspiration. Owning a Yaris delivers a piece of the lifestyle and that lifestyle is unambiguous.

The Curator Effect is far more powerful and lasting than any 30-second commercial.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Cheerios Goes Fruity

It’s easy to see the role we all take as curators on behalf of each other. Peer review sites play an obvious curatorial role. Retail stores such as Apple and Whole Foods curate physical retail spaces for their customers.

But can a single product brand be a curator?

The primary tenets for a successful curator are:
- know your audience intimately
- have a clear, consistent, relevant, and sustainable point-of-view
- challenge the audience beyond their comfort level (i.e., innovate)
- create experiences so rewarding that you build loyalty

Let’s take a look at a venerable brand that has fended off competitors for decades. It has also spawned six successful line extensions.

The brand is Cheerios, one of the only cereals whose appeal spans from infants to adults. Against the criteria above, I think Cheerios knows its audience, innovates by adding new flavors and has created tremendous brand loyalty.

But has the brand stuck to a clear point-of-view that consumers can trust?

Released just last month, Fruity Cheerios is the brand’s seventh extension. And of course, some have claimed the company’s gone too far. One blogger spelled it out rather clearly: Cheerios has become “sugar sellout.” But has it, really?

Fruity Cheerios still boasts that it has “25% less sugar than the leading fruity cereal.”

That’s a difference of 14g versus 9g of sugar (It’s worth noting that Fruit Loops has a line extension called Fruit Loops 1/3 Less Sugar, but it’s not the leading SKU). Here’s the important question: Does going after Fruit Loops undermine Cheerios’ credibility as a provider of healthy breakfasts?

What would likely surprise the critics is that Cheerios’ earlier line extensions actually have even MORE sugar than Fruity Cheerios:

Frosted Cheerios: 13g* (1995)
Apple Cinnamon Cheerios: 13g* (1988)
Berry Burst Cheerios: 11g* (2003)
Yogurt Burst Cheerios: 11g* (2005)
Fruity Cheerios: 9g* (2006)
Honey Nut Cheerios: 9g (1979)
Regular Cheerios: 1g

* delineates the more recent extensions
(dates obtained from Wikipedia)

Unlike those other extensions, Fruity Cheerios cereal actually looks like a famous sugary cereal. Consumers know that. And in marketing, perception is far more potent than reality, so the folks marketing Fruity Cheerios hit the health message extremely hard with a brand manager’s dream, a laundry list of attributes, all on the front panel:

whole grain, naturally flavored, real fruit juice, and 25% less sugar

That’s the rational stuff. On the emotional side, they also distance themselves from Toucan Sam and his pirate pals. The Fruity Cheerios package design leans more toward contemporary pop art than sugary kids cereal (notwithstanding the brand manager’s need to junk it up with things like the biggest “New” snipe in history… as a former brand manager, I say this with empathy).

Most striking is the advertising. I’ve seen the introductory spot about six times, all during primetime (not during Saturday morning cartoons). Kids do star in the spot, but the environment is so wondrous and innocent that adults will be swept up in its lack of commercial pretence. Kids jump onto giant cereal pieces floating in milk life live preservers. All to Donovan’s angelic tune “Happiness Runs.”

My feeling is that this is not THE sign that Cheerios has diluted its brand image by lowering its standards. It’s merely ONE of the signs. But, this one is far more evident because this one looks like Fruit Loops. You can’t fault the strategy, though. The Cheerios juggernaut is ever powerful and it has kept its original flagship Cheerios true to the promise. These line extensions give people (and parents) the warm fuzzies of “Cheerios” with the hedonic pleasure of sugar. The powerful equity of Cheerios masks the fact that the majority of the SKUs are sugar cereals.

It’s a great example of the Curator Effect in that people trust the flagship to the extent that consumers transfer that good feeling to anything endorsed by them. Think of Quaker. The flagship is natural, simple oats. Too much of the rest of the vast line is nothing short of junk food.

Still, powerful equity builds trust that halos over to anything that shares the same parentage. The Curator Effect is not always used for good. Don’t even get me started on Pepsi’s Smart Spot . I’ll leave that for a future post.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Brand Ecosystems

I've spoken of the brand ecosystem that Apple provides -- that they stock directly competitive products right next to their own. This tells consumers that Apple has their best interests in mind and is happiest when their customers are happy. This is where the power of the Curator Effect is best leveraged. When consumers trust a brand's authenticity, they look to it in ways that extend beyond its single product category. What other brands have the confidence to share the brandscape with competitors (beyond the obvious private label offerings of retailers)?

Progressive Auto Insurance


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Curated Consumption

Awhile back, posted this piece on what they call Curated Consumption. It speaks to the rapidly growing number of books, blogs, opinion sites, and magazines editing the vast array of product choices in the world. It touches upon the fact that consumers are open to brands they trust curating on their behalf.