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The power of brand

Fiscal cliff. Acid rain. Alas, “food versus fuel” is in that category of scary metaphors, which is why it has been such a difficult battle for the ethanol industry.
By Susanne Retka Schill | November 19, 2012

The term “fiscal cliff” is a powerful brand. I recently heard a piece on public radio by Eve Troeh, "Block that scary metaphor: The fiscal what?,"  analyzing the effectiveness of the phrase. 

"It feels Armageddon-ish, if that's a word," says David Srere, CEO and co-president of the branding firm Siegel+Galem in the piece aired by www.marketplace.org. “It feels even more that way if you think about what goes along with a cliff, words like "falling" or "over the edge."

"The words communicate the gravity of the situation," Srere says, "and they're, I believe, intended to instill fear of an economic freefall."

The story goes on to talk about how economists would agree the situation really isn’t a cliff, but the term has caught on. They quote another brand designer, Brian Collins. "Those two words together, it's an instant story," he says. It has tension, and its...well it's a cliffhanger. Collins compares it to the term "acid rain." That image was so powerful, even politicians who hated it couldn't fight it. "The most potent story, the one that gets people's blood running through their veins, is the story that will win," he says.

Fiscal cliff. Acid rain. Alas, “food versus fuel” is in that category of scary metaphors, which is why it has been such a difficult battle for the ethanol industry. But you know, you don’t hear about acid rain much anymore. I wonder if there are some lessons to be learned from industry’s effective, and not-so-effective, attempts to counter that phrase. Certainly, there were some legitimate concerns raised by clean air advocates that was summed up in that powerful phrase, but no doubt industry had some equally legitimate counter arguments.

So, too, with ethanol. Ethanol’s critics have some legitimate criticisms, and they are keeping the ethanol industry on its toes to improve its sustainability. (Sustainability is another one of those powerful words with slippery definitions.) Many of the criticisms of ethanol, though, are based on decades-old information that is no longer true, or on over-simplified views of how American agriculture works, or on downright distortions – spinning a logical argument that falls apart on close scrutiny. (I’d put indirect land use change in that category.)  

I find it an interesting development to read that the very ad agency that developed a campaign around the food versus fuel phrase for the opponents of ethanol, Glover Park Group, is now working on ethanol’s side, directing the efforts of the Fuels America coalition. Hmmm. Maybe I should tackle a story, a la Troeh’s on marketplace.org, on the search for a brand to tell ethanol’s story.

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