For Google, Alphabet Might Spell Trouble

[Cache #210]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Really?  They forgot to Google it?

Not likely.  Still, many are dumbfounded this week at Google’s introduction of a new holding company name, Alphabet.  My first Google search of the story led to The New York Times, which had already pointed out that BMW had a brand with the same name.

BMW, you may have heard, is in the car business.  An ad for their Alphabet brand describes the offer as “leasing”, “fleet management” and ”mobility solutions.”  And as the Times reports, “Google is involved in the auto industry.  It offers a version of the Android operating system for use in cars and has done extensive research on self-driving vehicles.”

So will BMW launch a trademark infringement action against Google?  Will Google’s Alphabet, as the Times headline cleverly suggested, get some letters? (Check out, by the way, one of the most remark-able domain names of all time:

Maybe.  The key legal question is to what degree there is a “likelihood of confusion.”

There is Dove soap and Dove chocolates.  There is VIA coffee and VIA Rail. There is Triumph motorcycles and Triumph bras.  Adrian Kaplan, Coin’s legal contact and an intellectual property specialist at Piasetzki Nenniger Kvas, says this:  ”The fact is that no one can monopolize a word of the English language as a trademark.  Different legal entities can use the same trademark without there being a likelihood of confusion if the nature of the goods and services and the channels of trade through which they travel are sufficiently different.”

Adrian went on to point out that there are already five separate legal entities in Canada with an allowed or registered trademark for the word “alphabet.”

I think it will come down to this:  if Google wants to use Alphabet for its car business, they will face a trademark infringement action from BMW.  As Adrian advises, “Just because Google may be involved with cars in one area of their business does not make their use of Alphabet in another area of the business, having nothing to do with cars, an act of infringement.”

My advice?  Fasten your seatbelts.

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Five Ways to Look as Smart as (or Smarter Than) You Are

[Cache #209]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Recently I told a colleague that I didn’t think a particular person was especially bright or helpful.

My colleague, who I respect as very bright indeed, expressed surprise at my point of view.  He had spoken with this person on the phone a number of times, and found him to be “really helpful and quite funny.”

Why the difference of opinion?  Because I had never spoken to this person.  I had only exchanged email with him.  And his email style – blunt, grammatically incorrect, no salutation, no please and thank you – made him, in my opinion, look uncaring and stupid.

In fairness, our communications technology is making us all look stupider every day.  For the past two years, for example, I have had a Samsung Galaxy Note smartphone.  Now, because the sharp minds at Samsung decided to “upgrade” my operating system, I have a Samsung Galaxy Note stupidphone.  The new operating system works in slow motion, which has dumbed-down the predictive text feature.  Yesterday, for example, I sent a text apologizing to a friend for my Buffy:

Of course, I was walking at the time of that text, highlighting the obsession many of us have with responding in a kneejerk fashion to every missive – email, text, Facebook, Twitter, whatever – sent our way.

Then there is an additional challenge posed to all English-speaking individuals who are not American, or at least do not desire to spell like one:  the predictive text and autocorrect features on smart/stupidphones are defaulted to the American way.  So Canadians or Brits, for example, have to either type quickly and seem like they cannot spell or do not know which citizenship they possess, or, take the (interminable!) time to go back and fix the instances of color, favor, humor, etc. that pepper their messages.

Because, ultimately, it does come down to spending a bit more of the most precious resource we have:  time.  It takes a bit more time to employ these Five Ways to Look as Smart as (or Even Smarter Than) You Are:

Five Ways to Look as Smart as (or even Smarter Than) You Are

  1. Begin each email with a salutation.  This could be Hello, Hi, Dear, or simply the name of the person you are communicating with, followed by a comma or dash.
  2. Use periods at the end of your sentences. Missing periods give the impression that you do not especially care about the person you are communicating with.  They are the equivalent in speech of not bothering to finish your sentence.
  3. Spell words correctly.  Even more than missing periods, misspellings indicate that you do not care about your partner in communication.
  4. Adjust your level of formality to your audience. On the matter of spelling, for example, tip 3 doesn’t apply if you’re communicating with someone with whom you have a very close relationship, one in which it is no longer important to prove you respect each other.
  5. Most important of all, especially if you choose to ignore any or all of the above:  make your mother proud and say “please” and “thank you,” politeness and appreciation being almost dead in the online sphere.


Except for “please” and “thank you,” these tips apply to a lesser degree to text and Facebook messaging – and pretty much everything can be thrown out the window on Twitter.  The whole point of those messaging modes is that they’re open, spontaneous lines of communication.  Know that when you make a Facebook update, however (being a communication that is not purely private), you will be judged by your “friends” on your ability to spell and use proper punctuation.

Email, social media, smart/stupidphones and our frenetic lifestyles have changed the way we communicate.  What has not changed – what will never change – is our need to be appreciated, and therefore, our constant measuring of whether we are.

Posted in brand character, personal branding | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Winnipeg” and “Vacation” is Not an Oxymoron. Really.

[Cache #208]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

This week, I am enjoying a vacation in and around Winnipeg.

Many people, as they made clear to me in advance, consider this to be a contradiction in terms.

A brand is what people think of you – and this city, arguably, has the worst brand of any major city in Canada.



Is it the supposed mosquitoes?  This year is perhaps my 5th visit in the last 10 years to my aunt’s cottage on Lake Winnipeg (which my fellow smug Torontonians will most certainly not recognize as being bigger than Lake Ontario), and the bugs have been bad but once.  In fact they are nothing compared to the annual dark clouds of mosquitoes (preceded in the spring by black flies) that descended upon my family’s past lakefront home just minutes north of Ottawa in idyllic Chelsea, Quebec.

Is it the snow and cold?  Calgary, on September 8 last year – two weeks before the end of summer – got 8 cm of snow.  Winnipeg’s first significant snowfall was almost three months later, on November 29th.  But short summers and brutal winters are not a dominant part of the Calgary narrative, that city overall having a very positive brand in Canadian minds.  Although in fairness, with an average January low of -23C, it cannot be denied that Winnipeg is bloody cold.  But then again, we are Canadians, people.  Buck up.

So, why is Winnipeg’s brand so bad?  And what are your ideas – completely practical or totally outrageous – for how it can be made better?

Coin Branding president Andris Pone is co-author of the Globe and Mail #1-bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo and appears as a branding expert on CBC’s The National, CBC Radio One, the Globe and Mail, National Post and other media outlets.

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Lululemon Beer? It’s a Stretch.

[Cache #207]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

Of women who drink, 70% don’t drink beer.  Most Lululemon customers are women – women who take careful care of their health.  And women who take careful care of their health drink even less booze and hence less beer.

These would not seem to be a winning background of facts against which to launch a Lululemon craft beer, Curiosity, this summer in British Columbia.  And then there is the Lululemon Manifesto, which famously said that ”Coke, Pepsi and all other pops will be known as the cigarettes of the future.  Colas are not a substitute for water.  They are just another cheap drug made to look great by advertising.”

To be fair, this element of the Manifesto was removed in 2008, as part of a regular update to keep the message fresh, said CEO Bob Meers.  But for the company that proudly made that proclamation to then put its name on an alcohol product is a curious brand extension indeed.

But wait: company founder Chip Wilson famously blamed the size of women’s thighs for his yoga pants falling apart.  Could Curiosity be the vanguard of Chip’s diabolical plan to help women pack on the pounds, ruin their $100 stretch pants and run (slowly) to the store for a new (larger) pair???

Probably not, at least in part because Chip finally stepped down from the board this year.  It is rather more likely that Lululemon is simply trying to reach out to an audience they see as having very high growth and profit potential:  men.  And men do in fact drink beer.  These “Lulule-men” comprise a small, but growing, slice of Lululemon’s customers, and will soon be served by men’s only stores, starting in Manhattan.

For those who drink it, beer is one of life’s great pleasures.  Nonetheless, there is a serious inconsistency between Lululemon’s priceless health/wellness/empowerment positioning and a product that stands alone among alcohol offerings as being practically synonymous with getting fat.

Which will soon have Curiosity, to something considerably less than widespread disappointment, flat on the mat.

With thanks to subscriber Marnie Grona for this story idea.  Have an idea of your own?  Let me know.

Coin Branding president Andris Pone is co-author of the Globe and Mail #1-bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo and appears as a branding expert on CBC’s The National, CBC Radio One, the Globe and Mail, National Post and other media outlets.

Posted in brand names, consistency, mission/vision/values, positioning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Kanye West Proves Canadians Are the Most Americanized People On Earth

[Cache #206]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

This is why the United States, and much of the world, regards Canada as America’s 51st state – and much of Canada feels the same way.

Questions of whether Kanye West has any talent, or whether he is a complete jerk, are completely beside the point.  If you’re a Canadian and reading this, and John Lennon and George Harrison came back from the grave to join the Beatles in headlining the Pan Am closing ceremonies, would you support the idea?  Naturally your answer would be “no”, because to the host nation goes the right to showcase strictly homegrown talent, a right that no real country would regard as unimportant.

Kanye West Taylor Swift

Canada showcased its plethora of talent at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and you didn’t see the London 2012 organizers squeezing Elvis clips betwixt Paul McCartney, Muse, The Who, Pink Floyd, Queen, Mr. Bean, the London Philharmonic, Monty Python or any of the myriad other breathtaking acts that made mincemeat  – nay, Spam – of the claim that Beijing couldn’t be outdone.

But it’s apparently OK to bring in as headliner the American West, because we’re just America’s farm team.

Of course it could be that Canada is not at fault here, but just Toronto.  It could be that Toronto, the most desperate of all Canadian cities to be branded American, and blinded by its need to be compared to New York and Chicago, thought nothing of the cultural coup d’état of making Kanye the Games’ biggest star.

But there is also an utterly alternative way to look at this whole thing:  that Canada is a mature, self-confident country with no need to project its brand outward.  A country unconcerned that the millions watching on TV will either assume Kanye is a Canadian, or that Canada has no one even remotely as talented to carry the weight of top billing.

The truth is probably an unfortunate hybrid:  that Toronto and Canada don’t sufficiently care – not because they are confident, but because they are oblivious.

See the petition to replace Kanye, now at 37,000 “signatures”.

Past Cache editions about Canada’s brand:
Is Canada’s Brand a Joke? November 2013
Viva La Lululemon January 2014
Sochi: A Bargain at Twice the Price February 2014
The Hip Anomaly:  Does Canada Even Have a Brand for Netflix to Kill? October 2014
Tim Hortons: Brazilian as a Bikini Line December 2014

Coin Branding president Andris Pone is co-author of the Globe and Mail #1-bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo and appears as a branding expert on CBC’s The National, CBC Radio One, the Globe and Mail, National Post and other media outlets.

Posted in brand culture, confidence, internal branding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why Ellen’s ED Will Work

[Cache #205]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

What’s “ED”?

It could be Ed, as in a man’s name, or ee-dee, as in initials which may or may not stand for erectile dysfunction.  It turns out it’s the first of these possibilities, Ed, and the name of the new clothing and home decor brand of Ellen DeGeneres.

Is ED a decent name? How does it perform relative to the jobs that all great names must do?  First on the list is the job of being remark-able, or worthy of word-of-mouth.  For someone as well-known and beloved as Ellen DeGeneres, this job is almost impossible to screw up.  She could have called her brand Dirt and the media would fawn and the fans would tell the story far and wide.  Yet credit must be given to what makes this a remark-able name, being its use of Ellen’s initials (although EDG would be more intuitive) and the clincher, that Ellen’s spouse, Portia de Rossi, calls Ellen Ed as a nickname.

So ED comes by its name honestly, from a place of authenticity, setting it up to succeed in the second crucial job done by great names, which is to communicate the essence of the brand.  The brand in question here starts with Ellen’s personal brand, as expressed through her TV show and through her very high media profile.  The most relevant observation is that she has a highly distinctive personal style which is, in a word, not girly-girl.  So it should not be a surprise that in the apparel section of the ED website, there is not a single skirt or dress in her collection, but rather, pants and shorts.  Fittingly then, ED is distinctly not a feminine name.

The next big job is to integrate with a positioning statement or tagline.  ED does not appear to have one, which is a lost opportunity to say more about the brand in a remark-able and memorable way.  The name is nonetheless highly memorable – due to its success at the other jobs above, although there is still that issue of pronunciation.  Many will stumble, at least for awhile if not longer, over how to say the name – because it is presented in all caps as opposed to Ed.  They are likely to wonder if the name is ee-dee until they hear Ellen or someone else say the word (correctly), which Ellen pronounces as “Ed” in a video on the home page.

But again, this is Ellen we are talking about, and she has a media footprint that may be big enough to overcome this issue.  It’s a situation somewhat similar to the mispronunciation of Target as Tar-zhay:  it’s the wrong way to say the word, but does it ultimately hurt the brand?  No.

This name’s basis in authenticity sets it up to deliver strongly on the job of inspiring and attracting stakeholders.  Had Ellen decided to call the brand Ellen, certainly this would have attracted and inspired as well.  But ED takes this power to the next level, because it is a term of endearment that lets fans feel like they are in Ellen’s inner circle.

ED’s web address,, is a stellar example of how a brand name doesn’t need to be available as a .com.  Some clients get far too hung up on getting their exact .com for their website.  Because everyone’s first choice is to own and use their exact domain name, it would appear that is owned by someone else (I am guessing by one of the drug companies behind Viagra or its competitors).  So Ellen’s team came up with a web address that actually tells the brand story better than could alone. In fact the edbyellen construction is so effective, it must have been a difficult decision not to present this as the actual brand name (and it turns out it’s the Twitter handle).

Linguistics is always a hurdle, and in this case, the most obvious concern is the possible interpretation in English of ED as erectile dysfunction.  However, any snickering over this similarity will quickly go away, as did the narrow minds who saw a problem for iPad in relation to a feminine product.

Assuming Ellen’s lawyers did their jobs and ED is legally available, the final job done well by this name is that of legacy preparation.  This is a name that, from Day One, lays the groundwork for Ellen to, one day, exit the business.  ED reflects her, but it is not synonymous with her.

It helps partially overcome a problem perceived to dog Martha Stewart, who used her full first and last names to name her business, the cons of which have been the subject of much hand-wringing, even in the pages of Harvard Business Review.  But if ED lives into middle age and Ellen carefully manages a slow exit, at some point she will be sufficiently distant from the brand that it will not suffer should she step back – or more likely, in her one-of-a-kind way, dance.

Posted in best brand names, brand authenticity, brand character, brand equity, brand names, remark-able | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Toronto Pan Am Names

[Cache #204]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

On the question of whether to use initials in a name, the rule is clear: (almost) never. For example, when you have a Franken-name like this…

CIBC Pan Am / Parapan Am Athletics Stadium

…there is no hope of anyone ever remembering it, and maybe ever even saying it. (If you do happen to hear someone saying it, rest assured they either work for CIBC or CBC, the latter being the Games’ broadcaster, and perhaps contractually obligated to stumble repeatedly over the full name, one that rolls off the tongue like a couch down the prairie.) So you might as well abbreviate it, as officials have done thusly:


Which is an acronym that makes absolutely no sense. Until you realize – aha! – that the venue is at York University. Then, the thing that doesn’t make sense is the exclusion of “York” from the name of the venue. And here is just one indication that the naming conventions in use by the Pan Am people are unclear. In some cases, the location of the venue is included in the name and hence acronym, and in others it is not. For example, the abbreviation for Atos Markham Pan Am / Parapan Am Centre is MAR.

And then we have the acronym for the Oshawa Sports Centre, which, according to the two conventions in use above, should be something like OSH (although many locals would get a good laugh out of ‘SHWA). But instead it is OBX – because it uses a different convention that refers to one of the sports being held there, being boxing. A convention which, if followed for YOR and MAR, would transform those acronyms to YAT (athletics being held at York) and MTT (table tennis being held in Markham).

I would like to propose a new abbreviation scheme that is less obsessed about cramming a long name into just three letters, and more concerned with actually grabbing attention and conveying meaning. For example:

Current name: Chevrolet Beach Volleyball Centre
Current acronym: PBV
Proposed acronym: BUM

Current name: Oshawa Sports Centre (boxing)
Current acronym: OBX
Proposed acronym: ABI

Current name: Pan Am Bowling Centre
Current acronym: PLB
Proposed acronym: X

The possibilities are endless. Any ideas?

A list of venue acronyms is here.

Posted in best brand names, brand copywriting, brand names, key messaging, remark-able, worst brand names | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rush: World’s Biggest Cult Brand

[Cache #202]

On May 16th, while visiting my friends Jay and Lori in Austin, Texas, I went to the 19th Rush concert of my more than 30 years of fandom.  On June 17th and 19th, at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, will be my 20th and 21st shows.

And perhaps final, because after 41 years of touring, more than 5,000 shows and now in their early 60s, the Canadian band is signalling this to be their last major tour.

A lot of people hate Rush.  They say they hate Geddy Lee’s voice, or that the music is unnecessarily complicated, or without any swing, or that the guys in the band aren’t good looking enough, or cool enough.  I could tell you that in my prayers each night, I thank Nickelback for being hated far, far more, thereby drawing away from my heroes some of that negative attention.  But I would be lying, because the truth is that I do not care how many people hate Rush, or even how many people love Rush.  What I care about is that I love Rush, and that although I have not met them, that they have played, and continue to play, an important role in my life.

Almost everyone I know, on the other hand, knowing I am a huge fan, has a story about how they saw Geddy Lee at a movie theatre, or at a restaurant, or walking his dog in the Rosedale Ravine, or that they had drinks with Alex Lifeson in a bar on Yonge Street – all locations in essentially the same Toronto neighbourhood as mine.

If I ever did bump into one of my heroes – Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart – what would I say?  Maybe the greatest way to demonstrate my thanks and respect is to not approach them at all, to not say anything at all, for as the guys in I Love You, Man found out, there is nothing worse than to come face to face with your rock gods, have a complete meltdown, and leave them thinking you’re a moron.  So I will continue to think about it.

Note: some foul language.

While Rush’s first and second albums, in the mid 1970s, had done very well, their third record, Caress of Steel, had not.  Displaying the sense of humour that continues to be a defining feature, the band nicknamed that tour the Down the Tubes tour – one in which they found themselves no longer opening for Kiss in 15,000-seat hockey arenas, but for Ted Nugent in bars.  Their record label was intensely pressuring them to give up on the up-to-20-minute-long, multi-part songs featured on Caress of Steel – and pump out some four-minute, mainstream, radio-friendly hits.

Rush had other plans.  They went into the studio and decided that if their music careers were going to flame out, they would rather pour on the gasoline and go out in a blaze of glory.  So they made a bombastic, rock-opera-esque record with a song so long, it took up, at more than 20 minutes, the entire length of side one.  That seven-part song, eponymous with the album, was 2112 (“Twenty-One-Twelve”), a story about a man who discovers a guitar and hence music in a futuristic, totalitarian society whose high priests had suppressed it into oblivion.

It was also, of course, a story about sticking it to your boss.  About following your dreams, no matter what other people think.  And it was a massive hit with the fans, and it bought Rush their freedom – for since that album, they have had carte blanche to make whatever music they like, stick it on a record, and then send it to the record company, who then go out and market it, no questions asked.

There have been 20 studio albums in total, all of them selling gold or better, a mark that surpasses every band in history but for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.  Geddy Lee has described Rush as “the world’s biggest cult band,” for although they have sold more than 40 million records and sold out countless arenas, their appeal is still selective.  My own guess is that those 40 million records have been bought by in the area of 10 million fans, because unlike “pop” acts who quickly generate a massively wide following (and then lose it), Rush appeals to a relatively narrow, but extremely deep, fan base (which they then keep).

There is the music that fans love, which I can practically feel pressing certain centres in my brain.  But fans also love the story of three normal guys – three best friends who’ve stuck together through some excruciatingly difficult personal times.  Three guys whose worship of their own friendship appears in album artwork and symbolism that pays tribute to the number three (see the cover of their Moving Pictures album below).

Many years before the concept of branding even entered my head, Rush had a mission statement, which the drummer Peart has put like this:  ”We make music we like, and hope other people like it, too.”  They hope.  They do not predicate their songs on people having to like them.  To paraphrase Simon Sinek, they’re not trying to sell to everyone who can buy what they have – they’re only trying to sell to people who believe what they believe.

For doing what they love to do and cultivating perhaps the world’s most loyal customers, Rush may not be just the world’s biggest cult band, but its biggest cult brand – whether you, or anyone else, like it or not.

Posted in brand authenticity, brand differentiation, mission statements, mission/vision/values, positioning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

[Cache #201]

“The story – from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the human mind for the purpose of understanding.  There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
Ursula K. Le Guin

We love to, and even have to, tell stories.  And according to Crucial Conversations, the book that’s sold two million copies and counting, the most important stories are not the ones we tell to others, but the ones we tell ourselves.

A crucial conversation – defined by the authors as one in which the stakes are high, opinions vary and emotions run strong – can happen anytime and anywhere.  Like when you’re having a performance review with your employee or boss.  Or when you’re talking about intimacy issues with your spouse, or behavioural issues with your child.  Or when you’re confronting your roommate – the one genetically disposed to leave the toilet seat up, wear your clothes and steal your food from the fridge.

Whatever the situation, the fact is this:  most of us are not very good at having crucial conversations.  And if we were to master the skill, the quality of our personal and professional lives could be dramatically improved.

Here’s one way in which the authors describe the structure of a crucial conversation.  First, we see and hear what the other person has to say, and how they say it.  Then, in a span so short we may not even be aware of it, we tell ourselves a story about that information.  In turn, that story shapes the way we feel.  And finally, we respond, or otherwise act, on the basis of those feelings.

The key question is, what story are we telling ourselves in that micro-second?  In that heated moment, the range of potential narratives is as wide as humans are complex.  But for example, we might tell ourselves that we are being attacked, or that this person is a moron, or that we’re not good at dealing with this type of situation.

In that moment, we tell ourselves a micro-story.

The bigger question from a branding point of view is: what’s our macro-story?  What, in other words, is the foundational narrative of our lives?  Whatever that narrative is, it will deeply colour the story we self-tell in that crucial moment.

One way of crisply articulating our overall narrative – ultimately shaping the way we see ourselves – is to cement it in a personal brand foundation.  Early next week, I will be working with a group of 40 professionals to establish, for each of them, a three-element brand foundation:

Core purpose – why I do what I do
Position – how I am different
Character – my voice; how I act and look

From experience, I know I’ll be blown away by the emotional, inspirational ways in which these professionals express their self-image.  And that they – like you – see themselves as playing crucial roles in their jobs, personal lives and wider world.

Posted in brand character, brand foundation, brand stories, core purpose, mission/vision/values, personal branding, self-actualization | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment