“What the L”, Staples and Kmart? Brand Message vs Brand Experience Mismatch

By Patrick Nycz

ParentalAdvisoryA few years ago I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about parenting and swearing.  The columnist had heard his preteen son and a friend swearing behind the garage. His first instinct was to tell those kids that he never wanted them to swear again, but he stopped himself for two reasons.

First, as a writer, he knew that all words have a purpose. In the right time and place, a swear word can be an appropriate way to communicate emotion, intention, frustration or whatever the context dictates.

The second thing he knew was that most guys—young and old—are going to swear.

So instead of putting a band-aid on the moment and potentially hurting his credibility by telling them never to swear again, he said this, “I do not want to hear you swearing.”

“I do not want to hear you swear.”

The key being that the writer knew that kids are smart and they would decipher his comment into:

“We can still swear, just don’t let my dad hear us.”

The writer’s real intent was to help those boys develop a “radar.”


He wants the boys to know, respect, and be aware of their surroundings. He wanted them to start being mindful that if moms or grandmas, pastors or nuns, bosses or authority figures are in the area it might be a good idea to keep the swearing to a quiet minimum.

The reason for the radar? There will always be folks that take offense at swearing.  Why risk upsetting someone and possibly getting into trouble?

Which is why it can be risky for brands to go that route. But that is exactly what two huge national brands like Staples and Kmart have done recently in huge, mainstream, big-budget ways.

To be fair, neither brand is actually swearing. “I just shipped my pants” and “What the L” just sound like swearing in a very adolescent way. Like when I was 10 and got in trouble with my dad for saying “Frankly my dear, I don’t shive a get.” Technically I wasn’t swearing, but my arguments were lost on my dad who had his own unique way of helping me develop my radar.

First out of the gate last year, Kmart’s “I just shipped my pants” was fun and a little shocking. One would guess that Kmart was trying to tell the world they are cool and on par with competitors like Kohl’s and Macy’s and can ship things from their store or online. But in reality, we probably already expected that.

Made some moms mad as "L".

Made some moms mad as “L”.

Kmart just wanted a disruptive, viral video to get their name in the news in a creative and funny way. But I am not sure they were appealing to the right audience, namely their core demographics and customers who are middle-class moms.

Some conservative middle-class moms were not happy and made a lot of noise calling for the ad to be pulled. I guess Kmart thought is was worth it because this year they came out with the ballsy “Show Your Joe Boxer” Jingle Bells commercial which jumped past adolescent “sounds-like-swearing” right into adolescent, uh, “jingle-man-parts.”

Have you visited a Kmart lately? From these trendy and pseudo-hip ads one would assume the place was bought by Spencer’s Gifts or Hot Topic.

But that is not the case. Besides disregarding any “radar” so they don’t offend anyone, what we see here is a huge disconnect between brand message and the real brand experience…all for the sake of a cheap, attention-getting joke.

Is that Spanish?

Is that Spanish?

I really do not have much to say about the Staples’ “What The L” campaign. It does not seem based in reality. No one is going to walk up to a Staples sign that is missing the “L” and say “What the L”? They might say “Where the hell is the L”, but more likely they will say “Stap Es? What’s that?”

I stopped by a Staples Office Supply store the other day. I did not see a bunch of hip and trendy people working there. I saw very polite, helpful people who seemed to not only have excellent “radar” on appropriate behavior but also were very interested in helping me buy some white board markers.

Like Kmart, Staples’ ads show a huge disconnect between brand
message and the real brand experience…all for the sake of a cheap, attention-getting joke.

Although on the surface these ads do not seem part of a strategic marketing plan, I’m sure the marketing departments of Kmart or Staples considered the implications of going blue and decided it was worth the risk of upsetting—and maybe losing—customers in exchange for viral ads and extra press.

At idc, we value a solid, strategic approach to marketing. We still have fun if the brand’s tone calls for it, but keep our radar on high to make sure our client’s brand message is in line with the brand experience.


About the Author: Patrick Nycz is the President and owner of idc, an integrated strategic marketing firm. He is currently working his tail off to make sure idc client’s brand message is in flipping alignment with their flipping brand experience.. He spends his days, among other things, as a business owner, marketing strategist, account exec, cheerleader, salesman and excitable creative. Get connected to Patrick at LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter @PatrickNycz or email him at patrick@idc-marketing.com. Also “like” idc on Facebook!
This entry was published on January 13, 2014 at 8:30 am. It’s filed under advertising, audience, blog, brand, brand affinity, brand positioning, consumer goods, context, creativity, Demographic, disruptive marketing, marketing, Patrick Nycz, positioning, social media, strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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