Monday, March 26, 2007

Karcher's unwelcome political endorsement

Most marketers dream of creating a brand that becomes so iconic that it takes on a life of its own. In the wayback, I'm sure that Kimberly Clark,  had no idea when it introduced Kleenex in the 1920's that the product would become the eponym for facial tissue. Coke  - sorry, Pepsi - became synonymous with a cola soda. Years ago, when you ordered a "coke" in Friendly's (a New England ice cream and sandwich shop), they smilingly corrected you by saying "a Friendly cola".

Then there are brands like Harley-Davidson that become an identity not of the product genre, but of the consumer.

Having been (mostly) associated with high-tech in small companies, I've personally missed all this kind of consumer excitement during my career. The closest I came to a campaign that attempted anything to do with brand creation was when I worked at Genuity, and they spent oodles (my my standards, but certainly not by consumer product standards) on trying to make a name for the Black Rocket hosting services. That launch fizzled. I think the spend was $40M or so, and the only market reaction was achieved was "Huh?"

But household names, in general, are looked upon as positive.

So I read a brief article in The Economist (March 17th) on Karcher's brand hijacking situation with interest.

Here's the story:

Although they're used for jobs like cleaning Mt. Rushmore, Karcher is not exactly a household brand in America.

But it's a fairly well known European brand (vacuum cleaners, steam cleaners, pressure washers).

A few months prior to the 2005 rioting in Paris, Nicholas Sarkozy, France's Minister of the Interior - and the center-right candidate in the current French sweepstakes presidential (in what at present looks like a three-way tie) - uttered a promise to "clean up the housing project [where a child had been killed during a gang fight]  with a Karcher."

French ethnic minorities accused Sarkozy of likening them to dirt, and they were off to the races.

The result: the phrase has become part of the French political phrasebook. (Think, "Where's the beef?", "Read my lips," "...and you're no Jack Kennedy.")

None of this, of course, is to Karcher's liking.

So, they're making noises, and have written to the French presidential candidates warning them that they have no right to use the Karcher name, which is exclusively Karcher's.

But there doesn't seem to be much they can do about it.

It seems to me that Karcher has done a pretty good job of branding if their name has such recognition that everyone knows what "clean it up with a Karcher" means. Naturally, they're not thrilled with Sarkozy's having commandeered it for his purposes, but rather than spend one scintilla of energy trying to shut down the use of this phrase, they should just ride it out.  A few years form now, this catch-phrase will be remembered only in the French equivalent of Trivial Pursuit.  After a while, people won't even remember which politician it was even associated with. (Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.)

For now, it's just a name that Sarkozy is appropriating. He is not using their black and yellow color scheme. (As far as I can tell, his is tri-couleur.) Nor does he appear to be using any motto of theirs - at least not one currently being used, as far as my primitive translation skills can tell.

No one likes their good name being expropriated for a reason not to their liking - Philly Blunts is a relatively recent U.S. example.

But unless someone is causing real damage to your brand, is causing confusion in the market place, the best policy is probably just to suck it up. Even if someone is using your good name for a truly heinous purpose, there doesn't seem to be much you can do about it except get over it. This, too, will pass - and would never have happened unless you'd been such a darned good brand to begin with.

(I should live so long.)

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