Can You Hear Me Now?

I saw an ad that made me do a double-take the other day.

Since I work at bloomfield knoble, a premier strategic marketing and advertising agency, I’m generally not prone to paying much attention to ads or being surprised by them, but this one caught me off guard. The ad was Paul Marcarelli pitching Sprint.

The name may not mean much to you, but the face should – Marcarelli was the long-time spokesperson for Verizon and known for the catch phrase, “Can you hear me now?” I’ll be honest – the ad isn’t that great creatively, but it caught my attention because I was stunned that Verizon had let Marcarelli’s non-compete expire. I know Verizon has long since moved on from the “Can you hear me now?” slogan, but letting something go isn’t the same as letting some one take it.

It’s always a challenge identifying a face with a brand – be it celebrity or recurring spokesperson. The inherent upside is that the brand literally has a face, name and personality that immediately projects an image of a living, breathing, credible person, as opposed to a faceless corporate entity. The downside is that individuals are not as stable or as easily controllable as corporate entities. Even imaginary characters that represent the brand can create issues. Consider the image of Betty Crocker and how it has evolved over time. A portrait of Betty Crocker was first introduced in the 1930s. Since then, Betty’s image has been refined to reflect the changing image of women. Other companies use real people, a celebrity, to represent a brand. The inherent downside to using real people is that when the celebrity encounters personal problems or scandals, the brand may suffer too. The company cannot simply redraw the celebrity’s face – they must convince the public that the celebrity’s current problems do not reflect on the brand itself. Looking at you, Jared from Subway.

Thus, brands, in some cases, can be golden straightjackets. They are “golden” because they build product knowledge and profits, but they can also be “straightjackets” (limiting or restrictive) because to be valuable they must be narrowly defined. As an agency, it’s our job at bloomfield knoble to carefully evaluate the associations clients are trying to attach to their brand and consider both the upside and the potential downside with the brand elements. One of the fundamental principles of using a brand element is making sure that it is “protectable” in both a legal and competitive sense. Clearly, Verizon (or their agency) had a 5-year agreement in place, but once that expired Marcarelli was fair game.

The question to me isn’t the effectiveness of the ad, but more about the steps that agencies should take to protect any brand element they use. It’s fine to let “Can you hear me now?” expire, but don’t let Sprint take it. Just enough people will remember it and do the same thing I did – pay attention to the ad. I can’t imagine that Flo will be allowed to do an Allstate commercial anytime soon. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if a bunch of agencies are pulling out old talent contracts and hoping to avoid something like this.

In any event, the simple truth is that I stopped to watch the ad, and in an era when consumers are inundated with a ton of messages, any action that creates pause and engagement is a win, so well done Sprint.