Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What American Airlines Needs Now is Brand-ness

By now you've probably heard American Airlines has landed in bankruptcy. While it circled overhead longer than most of it's domestic brethren, it's finally landed on runway 11. Chapter 11 that is.

But AA's decent into bankruptcy really shouldn't come as a surprise. Just listen to it's CEO:


Sure, operating in a post-9-11 world, the recession and rising fuel prices didn't help. But last time I checked, Southwest Airlines, about to turn 38...as in 38 consecutive years of profitability...hasn't been functioning in an alternate universe. It reminds me of the team that makes excuses about the weather when it's opponent, playing in the exact same conditions, doesn't.

Did you notice that AA's CEO never uttered the word "customers" until prompted at the end? Everything he said was company and shareholder focused. Paradoxically, all you ever hear from Southwest is how unfair it is for us, customers, to pay bag and change fees. Hmm...

What AA's "leader" fails to truly recognize most of all is that he doesn't have a broke airline on his hands. He has a broken brand.

He said it will be "business as usual" for customers. That's a shame. Essentially, more nickel and dime-ing passengers rather than overtly focusing on creating a better experience for them.

But it doesn't sound like it will be "business as usual" for employees. More work for less pay and reductions in workforce, salary and benefits appear in the offing. I don't know about you, but if I were an employee, I'd be on the next plane out!

Do you know what routinely tops employee satisfaction studies in terms of what matters most to them? Having a clear understanding of the company's purpose and their role in it. Essentially, the brand. Not salary. Not vacation. Certainly not fear.

Like a plane with mechanical difficulties, the unraveling of most brands usually occurs under the skin - inside the organization at a cultural level - before it manifests itself at the surface. Undetected, it inevitably spells doom for the brand.

Like so many companies before them - Boston Market, Sharper Image, Circuit City - and now AA, the foundation of their failures was not understanding that you can't make decisions in boardrooms without impacting the brand.

Business decisions are about the company. Brand decisions are about the customers. Without customers, you don't have a company. Or at least one that people can trust.

Why is it that only Southwest Airlines gets it? (Despite never having filed for protection, I think JetBlue has fallen into the trap of making business not brand decisions once too often, i.e., stranded passengers on tarmacs for six-plus hours). Simple. SWA always makes brand decisions because it's business model is designed to support it's brand.

This exposes another flaw in most companies: They treat their business strategy and brand strategy as separate functions, rather than one. Brand should be your business - and entire company's - strategy. I call this "Brand-ness."

Brand-ness is creating a brand first and then figuring out how to monetize it, not creating a business and figuring out how to brand it.

It seems way too often anymore we hear: "Today, company X filed for bankruptcy?" But I can't ever recall hearing: "Today, brand X filed for bankruptcy."

These are my GUTS Feelings!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why You Can No Longer Afford to Specialize

In the late 1970s, comedian, Steve Martin coined the phrase, "Let's Get Small." Little did the iconic star of screen, stage and studio realize that he was also talking about brand.

If Martin were to release a follow-up to that Grammy-winning comedy album in 2011, I'd suggest he call it: "Let's Get Even Smaller."

You see, for years I've been counseling clients that the secret to making your business bigger is make it smaller. Or, simply put, specialize.

Like vinyl records, Palm Pilots and Shake Weights, everything eventually runs its course. Today, the key to hitting it big in business isn't specializing.

It's micro-specializing.

What is micro-specializing? First, a little context about our current place in time. In a wired - and wireless - world, boundaries are no longer defined geographically. Brands appear virtually at our fingertips and sometimes thousands in as little as 0.13 seconds.

Then there's physical saturation. Check out the 5-mile radius around my little slice of suburbia:
  • Over 160 chiropractors
  • 200-plus (non-fast food) restaurants
  • Some 50 places that will fix my computer
  • Nearly 50 interior designers
At one time triathlons, laptops, and social media were specializations. Today, they've evolved into categories, giving way to the Warrior Dash (micro-sports), iPads (micro-computers) and Twitter (micro-media).

How does a specialization morph into a category? It spawns a host of imitators, often with indistinguishable differences, and turns mainstream almost as fast as a Google search! Unless you get inside heads first, when a specialization turns into category, you could be in big trouble.

Specialization is also a term that's losing its, well, "specialness." I encounter brands almost daily spraying things like: "We specialize in neck pain, back pain, carpal tunnel, stress relief, headaches, overall wellness..." Watered down? Try drowning!

A micro-specialist is someone or some thing that specializes in an area of specialization (or category) and sounds like this: "Our sole focus..." or "our only purpose..."

Dave Stockton is a golf coach. But he's a micro-specialist, focused on the "other" game - the one played on the green. Ask U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy how that's working out.

Doctor in the Kitchen makes healthy snacks. Founded and guided by doctors, flax seed at its core and a "Good Food is Wise Medicine" brand mission, it's a micro-specialist.

Even within the highly-specialized Navy SEALs, there is an elite unit known as SEAL Team 6. They're the micro-specialists - and heroes - that took out Osama Bin Laden.

Steve Martin also once said that "comedy may be big business but it ain't pretty." That too could be a brand reference. Micro-specializing might not always be pretty, but it is the key to making your business big now and in the future.

These are my GUTS feelings.

Monday, May 9, 2011

What's the Most Dangerous Word in Brand?

What does Boulevard Brewing Company, a Kansas City-based micro brewery, now have in common with Coors and Swisher Motor Company, a client of mine in the late 1990s?

All three are examples of the most dangerous word in brand.

Coors did it with Rocky Mountain Spring Water. Swisher, a mower company, with barbeque grills. Where are those products today?

Now, Boulevard Brewing has introduced Pale Ale Mustard.

When you start adding products and services outside the scope of what your brand stands for in the minds of customers and prospects, history shows you will diminish what makes you special to them, and they'll no longer have a compelling reason to pick you over a competitor. You also open the door for a more focused rival to come in and steal your market share.

Who can you trust more for a GPS wrist unit, Garmin or Timex?

Not only does this cause confusion in the marketplace, it creates chaos inside the organization.

"Didn't I sign up to make specialty beers? Why am I now making mustard? Am I working for Boulevard Brewing Company or Frenches?

Once a brand unravels internally it inevitably spirals externally.

And why did the founders of Boulevard Brewing start the company? Was it their passion for micro beers or condiments?

The motivation behind Pale Ale Mustard is clear: Greed. The irony is that history also shows us that the key to successfully growing your brand and profits is just the opposite: Shrink it.

General Motors isn't emerging from banktrupcy and turning around because it's offering more car lines. It contracted brands and is further distinguishing them from one another. Conversely, expanding it's menu and changing it's name from Boston Chicken to Boston Market drove it straight into banktrupcy.

You see, brands are about specialization, and you can only achieve it through focus. A specialist can command more than a generalist. Whole Foods can charge a lot more for cereal than Piggly Wiggly, Victoria's Secret twice as much for a bra than Macy's and Starbucks $5 for my sugar free vanilla latte with soy milk this morning.

Back to the Boulevard...I find it hard to believe customers were knocking down its doors begging them to make beer AND condiments. I also find it hard to believe that people will line up for tours to see where they make the mustard.

So, what is the most dangerous word in brand? It's actually the word found at the end of brand, and the one in all caps in the last paragraph. It's AND!

Mini Cooper can't make small AND big cars. Victoria's Secret can't be lingerie AND business suits. Boulevard can't be beer AND condiments. At least not in the mind, where brands reside.

AND is the antonym and nemesis of focus. Therefore, there is no place for AND in your brand.

Maybe you're okay with Pale Ale Mustard. Some of you can justify it because you like its beer. Perhaps, you might also enjoy a tall, cold Grey Poupon Pilsner?

Boulevard, just focus on beer AND drop the mustard, and whatever other brand expansions you're cooking up, AND get back to what you do best and what people really want from you: Great Artisan Beer.

These are my GUTS Feeling.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Social Media as Research: Fire or Smoke?

An entrepreneur I respect immensely sent me the link below to an article entitled, "Will Social Media Replace Surveys as a Research Tool?"


I agree with some points made, including the idea that "conversation" is now the expectation and that quality insights matters most.

I also concur about being methodologically agnostic. One size does not fit all. But you also can't be agnostic in thinking every brand needs a social media strategy. It was real consumer insights that revealed to two of my clients that nearly nine in 10 customers and prospects had no desire to connect with them in any way on Facebook or Twitter. BTW, one of those clients is in the Internet solutions business. Kinda ironic don't you think?

This is not to say these clients are impervious to social media backlash. But in as much as assuming everyone wants to get tweets from your company or friend your business, allowing social media chatter or buzz to do much more than inform on a basic level is kinda like using a bucket to put out a building fire. It ain't enough.

Remember the Motrin moms incident in 2008? Motrin quietly launched an Internet campaign on a Friday about hip pain moms can get from carrying their infants. By that Sunday, a few offended bloggers lit the fuse, a thousand Twitter moms poured gas on it and before the weekend was up Johnson & Johnson pulled the campaign to douse the flames.

For argument's sake, let's say J&J was targeting 15 million women (I'm probably way under-stating by millions). All totaled, there were only 1,500 tweets, many of which came from the same tweeters. I'm not a mathematician but I believe that comes to 0.01% of tweets to my estimate of consumers targeted by Motrin. Would you make ANY decision based on just 0.01%?

Reacting is not a strategy. Informing yourself in a methodologically-appropriate manner, using a representative sample and uncovering the real attitudes behind the behavior is one.

Had J&J addressed the "crisis" with a little "crisis research" (companies can turn this quickly) instead of knee jerking, they might not have called in the fire department so quickly. At the very least, gathering real insights might have validated their decision.

Don't get me wrong, social media chatter can inform. But using it alone to make brand decisions is like running into a burning building. It's not very smart.

These are my GUTS feelings.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Hat Trick to Move Away from "Mainstream" May Just Net A Pro Soccer Team a Powerful Brand

While I am not a soccer fan, I am a HUGE fan of what Kansas City's Major League Soccer (MLS) team is doing off the field.

First, its $200 million, dedicated soccer stadium (above) opens in June. Throughout it's existence, the team played in Arrowhead Stadium, a football venue that seats nearly 80,000. When you draw about 10,000 a night, that's a lot of empty red seats showing up on SportsCenter. Then, it moved to Community America Ballpark, a much smaller stadium. Better than Arrowhead but it was designed for semi-pro baseball not soccer.

Every brand needs its own home. Sharing spaces - and images for sure - can conspire to dilute brands. It's because every brand needs to be in total control of its brand. Look what happened when Mercedes jumped in bed with Chrysler and AOL hooked up with Time Warner. They were costly affairs for all parties involved.

In Europe, soccer is king and they routinely fill 100,000-seat stadiums. Domestically, it has never enjoyed that level of popularity. New niche-specific digs aside, how else can a team in the Midwest in a sport like professional soccer compete in mainstream America?

Don't be mainstream.

This speaks to a second brilliant brand move: Changing the name from "Wizards" to "Sporting KC." The former always felt Harlem Globetrotters-esque to me. It's also not unique; there's the Washington Wizards of the NBA for one. Those things aside, "Wizards" was a traditional, middle-of-the-road American sports name in the vein of Tigers, Kings and The Magic.

Professional soccer will have a difficult time ever being as mainstream as football, basketball and baseball in America. Al Ries in The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding wrote that two brands separate from the pack and dominate a category. Like Coke and Pepsi, Google and Yahoo! and FedEx and UPS to name a few.

"Sporting KC" is a brand name that has a "club" feel to it much like Manchester United, Chelsea FC and Real Madrid, and Toronto FC, DC United and Columbus Crew in the MLS. It's new logo is actually an emblem, something you'd associate with a club. Okay, "Wizards" too sounded like it belonged in a club. A magic club.

Creating a brand that creates a "club" appeals to those that see themselves as part of something exclusive, special. Like people who drive Jeeps. We - yes, I'm in that club - believe only a select few belong behind the wheel of one. There's even a mantra: "It's a Jeep thing. You wouldn't understand." In reality, there's no secret handshake. A valid drivers license gets you in. But in the mind, where brands reside, it's the exclusive domain of a select, unique, passionate few.

The brand trifecta was achieved in something it didn't do: Not selling out when it came to selling naming rights. I was privy to a 2009 national study on the effectiveness of advertising. Sponsorship, which includes naming rights, was one of the most ineffective means of driving brand awareness. More importantly, consumers don't see the value in it. Calling it Lincoln Financial Field isn't going to motivate Philadelphia Eagles' fans to invest with the namesake.

So, how did it christen it's brand-spanking new, soccer-specific complex?

"Livestrong Sporting Park."

Not my first choice. I prefer "Sporting KC Park," born from my belief that you must be relentlessly consistent and laser-focused in reinforcing your unique value. That's because every moment is a moment of truth for your brand.

Sponsorships involving naming rights also are risky because you acquiesce control of your image. Does anyone remember Paige Arena? That was the original name of Mizzou Arena before a school scandal forced the billionaire Laurie family strip away their daughter's name. What happens if Lance Armstrong is ever found guilty of doping?

However, naming the venue after a charitable organization instead of corporate America is anything but conventional. As is doing so for free. In fact, Sporting KC will donate a portion of its revenue - up to $7.5 million over six years - to the cancer-fighting foundation. It's a stellar example of walking-the-walk, the true definition of branding, not labeling like Bank of America Stadium or the Home Depot Center.

Altruism aside, the timing of yesterday's naming rights announcement was the equivalent of a free kick into an empty net for Sporting KC. Our most popular sport, American football, is on the verge of lockout. Over money. A brilliant PR move.

Success will be measured, ultimately, at the gate, in merchandise sales and advertising revenue, and on the field. But attitude usually dictates behavior. By focusing on repositioning its brand in the mind, and doing so in a way to appeal to its niche rather than the masses, Sporting KC might just be on its way to rewriting the record books on how to build a sports brand.

The lesson for all brands? Those that separate themselves by image, aesthetics and space usually are the ones that stand out and stand apart.

These are my GUTS feelings.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The New Colors of Brand Success: Black & White

One of my favorite brands, Southwest Airlines, continues it's brilliant assault on the airline industry. First, it was no bag fees. Now, it's no ticket change fees. Fish in a barrel.

It's true, virtually every domestic carrier is serving it up on a silver tray table for Southwest. But I bet your competitors are as well. Perhaps, not so overtly. Perhaps, you don't yet recognize it. But they are. You just need to know what to look for and how to exploit it.

So, where is the first place you should look? Not at your competitors but inside them to see their true colors.

Too often, I encounter clients/prospects that either fail to do their competitive homework or do it wrong. You can't truly understand their brands just by looking at their websites and advertising. What they claim to be, and what they really are, is often different. Fox NewsChannel says "Fair and Balanced." But most people think "conservative" or "Republican." That's a big difference in an image, and important to know, to effectively take them on.

Once you truly understand the perceptions of your competitors' brands, then you can attack their position provided your brand provides real contrast. Or you can create the position from which to attack.

Take Bing. It's lumping all search engines into the "cluttered and confusing" category. How? By positioning itself as "decisive." How's that working for Bing? Born mid-2009, it's now the third most used engine and is quickly closing the gap on Yahoo! While the chasm between Google and everyone else is the size of the Grand Canyon, Bing is carving out territory.

By reinventing (and a new use for) the wheel, Dyson is making every other vacuum look like a typewriter compared to a laptop, much like what Swiffer has done to the mop. Dyson has nearly 25% share of its market, and Swiffer has been so successful it's now part of pop culture.

At the risk of glossing, many of my competitors - and there are a lot of them these days - claim branding as a service offering. It's on their business cards, websites and office doors. But they are really just delivering back-end tactics like design and campaigns. When I meet with a prospect, I use this to my advantage by demonstrating the contrast between what I do - real brand strategy built from within organizations out to customers - and what most competitors do - logos, slogans, ads, web, etc. I relish every opportunity to compete for business because they keep doing their thing which allows me to keep doing mine.

I'm also not soup-to-nuts. I'm a brand strategist. Period. Specialization is yet another opportunity to show contrast between me and them. The more services they add to their business cards, the more I look like a brand expert. Well, at least I hope so. If nothing else, I'm a rival rather than a competitor. That's what creates a powerful brand.

What makes your company, product or service distinctive must be what black is to white. Otherwise, it will be difficult to create contrast and separate yourself from competitors.

Finally, when it comes to fighting competitors on marketing and advertising battlefields, your attack should actually never be directly at them. What about Southwest you might ask? Isn't it smacking competitors right in the chops? Yes and no. In truth, it's using the entire industry to create further separation and strengthen it's position in the minds of customers and prospects.

Southwest's competition isn't on runways. It's in the terminal known as the "mind." As is yours.

These are my Guts Feelings.

BTW...check out my just launched Website at www.gutsbranding.com!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Don't Be An Oxymoron. Focus on the Little Picture.

Recently, I was told by a pair of company leaders that I was "too focused" in defining the brand. They proceeded to say that we needed to "broaden the focus." Isn't that kind of like saying, anarchy rules, barely dressed, friendly argument and one size fits all?

Yes, “broaden the focus” is an oxymoron.

It’s not the first time I’ve been told by executives and even colleagues that I’m too narrow in defining brands. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard things like, “there’s no way everything can live the brand.”

Oh, really?

Shame on Pixar for only focusing on family movies and sticking to it’s “less is more” approach. Did you know it takes five years from concept-to-completion to make a picture? That didn’t seem to bother Disney, which shelled out $7.4 billion for the company.

Pity the Whole Foods fools for focusing on organic and ringing up profitable quarters and shares at a two-year high even in a tough economy.

And I’m guessing the end is near for Southwest Airlines, whose barebones (but fun) focus the past 37 years has yielded 37 consecutive years of profitability and counting.

Then again, Pixar isn’t really focused on movies nor is Whole Foods on food and Southwest on flying. If they were, Pixar would make movies for adults, Whole Foods would stock as much non-organic as organic foods, and SWA would nickel and dime customers like every other airline. No, they are all focused on building brands. And as such, they are focused on the “little picture.”

You see, I was also told by one of the aforementioned leaders that they had to look at the “big picture.” I believe he was insinuating that I wasn’t. I wonder if he would have approved Hooters Airline, Coors Rocky Mountain Spring Water or Bic Underwear?

Okay, you could argue no one in their right mind would rubber-stamp those ideas. Except, that CEOs did. What about examples that don’t seem so obvious like a Mercedes for the price of a Camry? Even Forbes Magazine wasn’t buying it:

Finally, an inexpensive Mercedes is an oxymoron, since the three-pointed star is all about prestige. A Mercedes is something people have always felt they had to work for; to "achieve" a Mercedes for a mere $26,000 might undermine the value of the brand.”

Forbes’ concern was validated when the Mercedes brand itself suffered and the cheap Benz was ultimately sent to the scrap yard.

To really be focused on the big picture means to really focus on the small picture. But this is counterintuitive to conventional thinking. Broadening focus might just work in the short run, but inevitably, you undermine the core brand and over time your brand will lose its meaning and market share. Like Boston Chicken, which was looking big picture when it expanded its menu beyond chicken and even changed its name to Boston Market to be all-inclusive. Shortly thereafter it went bankrupt.

Statistically, nine in 10 expansions fail yet companies continue to think big picture. Did you know that Papa John’s started out selling pizza, subs, cheese steak sandwiches, fried vegetables, etc? When it found the courage to slice off everything but pizza and think small picture, it eventually became the third largest pizza franchiser in the world.

And how do people emotionally connect with the big picture? Take cities for example. Atlanta is touting itself as “A City Too Busy to Hate.” Huh? Broad, confusing and uninspiring. Then there’s, “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Its focus is small and crystal clear. Now wipe that smirk or smile off your face.

If category-dominating, often category-creating laser focused brands like Apple, Facebook and Fox Newschannel aren’t enough to convince you that focusing on the little picture – i.e., your brand - rather than expanding is the key to dominance, then you’re just clearly confused.

These are my Guts Feelings.