UPS and Toxic Brand Marketing

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(Graphic: Which one best says United Parcel Service to you?)

Lately while paging through the March 2010 issue of Fast Company, I came upon the above-pictured ad for the UPS Store and immediately thought, “Huh?” I added the inset image of a classic UPS delivery truck myself. The ad on page 47 of the magazine, however, was all cardboard racing car and nothing else. The caption: “Mailbox services for people who don’t have time to slow down.”

Really? I don’t know about you, but when I think of UPS I don’t think of speed. The idea of their services usually conjures up expectations of week-long waits and mis-delivered items for many urban dwellers like me. Of course, that’s probably why UPS launched an ad campaign centering on speed. The problem is it looks like an ad for another company. If the UPS logo weren’t in the corner, I might think it was an ad for a sequel to Disney’s animated feature, Cars.

In fact, at first glance, I did. Because except for that logo, nothing in the ad uniquely communicates the UPS brand. Yes, the car and racetrack are made out of cardboard. I’m sure I’m supposed think, “Ooh, brown cardboard! UPS delivers cardboard boxes! UPS! Brown! This ad must have something to do with UPS!”

Except that the ad neglects to actually use UPS brown anywhere on the page. And for that nagging other issue of every other package delivery service on earth moving brown cardboard boxes, too. If the ad had used the universally recognized UPS symbol–the good, old, brown UPS delivery van–it might have made sense. Of course that just brings us back around to triggering remembrances of how slow dealing with UPS delivery can be.

If only there were a magic way to make the ad work by using that historic brand symbol while deflating its built-in assumption of pokiness and underscoring speed. Ho hum.

Oh wait! How about an ad set in cardboard-land but using a racing-striped, curvaceously streamlined UPS van instead of a generic racecar? That way at a glance the ad would a.) telegraph the company associated with the ad, while b.) associating the company’s most-important brand symbol with speed. Nah. Too complicated for potential UPS Store customers to figure out, right?

A high-profile advertising firm was probably paid big bucks by UPS to make a bone-headed branding decision like that. By shooting for high-concept over brand recognition (Arnell Group’s titanically bungled Tropicana repackaging, anyone?), this ad positively invites push-back from potential UPS Store customers who a.) know all too well how slow UPS service can be, and b.) expect cuddly cartoon cars to denote Disney movies, not package-delivery corporations.

In the advertising world along with everywhere else, K.I.S.S. is always great advice. Someone should probably tell the UPS Store’s ad shop.

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What do you think?