What Ashton Kutcher's "Two and a Half Men" Product Placement Fail Can Teach Startups

Last Updated Sep 28, 2011 1:43 PM EDT

If you watched Ashton Kutcher's appearance on CBS' Two and Half Men Monday night, in which the actor engaged in some drive-by product placement for companies in which he has invested, you will have learned two things:
  1. Kutcher isn't as funny as Charlie Sheen.
  2. Proper branding for startups is really, really important.
At one point in the show, Kutcher's character -- heartbroken dot-com millionaire Walden Schmidt -- sits with his laptop on the familiar Malibu sofa and chats with his ex. The back of the laptop shows six stickers: All of them are companies in which Kutcher has an interest. According to Variety:
"Men" net CBS did not receive compensation for the plug, according to a CBS spokesman, who noted that one of the companies plugged on the stickers, Foursquare, was disclosed in an end credit that accompanied the episode (as stipulated by the FCC).
Kutcher has now been banned from plugging his own companies on the show again. (It's not the first time Kutcher has engaged in this kind of conflict of interest, which is why Gawker penned the headline "Ashton Kutcher Is a Massive Whore.")

But that's not important here. From a branding point of view, Kutcher's laptop showed the logos of six companies that got valuable seconds of prime-time network TV endorsement exposure entirely free of charge. Yet of the six, how many companies can you identify? Here's a closeup of the freeze-frame:


I recognized Foursquare while watching the show live. The others passed me by. On inspection of the screen-grab, Chegg is also readable. But the other three are meaningless visual clutter to me (and I'm paid to pay attention to these things!). Five of the six companies are Foursquare, Chegg, Hipmunk, Flipboard and GroupMe. But there are plainly six company logos on the laptop. Even the tech industry's own trade pubs haven't figured out what the sixth one is.

There is a movement within the branding world away from using names for brands toward relying on symbols. Nike's swoosh and Apple's apple are examples of this. The thinking is that in a multilingual world, and in the illiterate third world, using words as branding devices is less useful.

The Kutcher episode demonstrates that the opposite is true for unknown companies seeking publicity. The Hipmunk logo includes the company's name, but in such small lettering relative to the logo's size that even when Kutcher is trying to endorse the product on broadcast TV it's illegible. Only FourSquare and Chegg passed the test.

It's a double-disaster for the other four tech companies because they rely on people searching for them online -- you can't Google a symbol if you don't know its name.

Lesson for startup marketers: Use your company name as your logo, and make the logo big and easy to read. Only when you've reached ubiquity will you have permission to enter the world of symbolism.

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