Monday, December 14, 2009

What You Can Learn from A Weekend Bartender About Building An Authentic Brand

My date and I wanted an after-dinner drink Saturday night. We ended up in an older, not-particularly-trendy but eclectic part of town. I had designs on a place but it was closed for a private party. We wandered down the street and stumbled upon a small restaurant, one of those places with painted tin ceilings, cracked plaster, limited seating, and a menu that changes daily. We bellied up to the small coffee/wine bar for our nightcaps.

Our bartender wasn't exactly warm. I wouldn't call him cold either. He was more matter-of-fact but well-spoken. Between sips of Grenache and her Italian red, we struck up a friendly conversation with him. It wasn't too busy so the banter went on though he continued to work behind the bar.

He mentioned that he only worked weekends, which led me to inquire about his "real job." This 30-something is in the house-flipping business. You can probably guess my next: "How are you doing in this economy?" I had come to the preconceived conclusion that he must be moonlighting to supplement income.

"Very well," he replied.

It wasn't the answer I expected. When things aren't going well, most people try to hide it (except on Facebook). But he seemed genuine. I began to dig, believing there might be a brandecdote to be had and shared with you.

His name slips me now (more on that in a minute) but it seems this entrepreneur has carved out quite a nice little niche. Flipping houses doesn't do justice to what he does.

He noted it takes him about six months to finish a home and he works on only one at a time. He's clearly not about the quick turn and volume. He also does most of the work himself, which you could see from his hands. Both answers lead me to believe he has good margins, a good indicator of a strong brand. Remember, specialists can charge more than generalists.

As the discussion progressed, I began to wonder if he realized he had been following many of the key laws that create and govern the most powerful brands. If not, he certainly has the instincts.

He's definitely laser-focused. He only rehabs houses in a few square-mile radius of a somewhat historic area. He admitted to having strayed to a few other neighborhoods in the past but realized it wasn't the same for him. He is back on his turf and committed to staying geographically limited. If only Coors and the show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, along with so many other brands, realized that mass availability doesn't always equal mass consumption.

I don't claim to be Bob Villa but I have some baseline knowledge about home improvement. It's clear, he does not cut corners. He also tries to salvage original materials - floors, walls, even windows if possible - to maintain the original charm. Yet, he transforms them into modern, efficient homes.

There's another unique aspect to his brand: It seems he already has the buyers secured. Any unique brand needs a unique business model, like Southwest Airlines and Google for example. In fact, brand and business model should be one, not separate. While I don't know the particulars of his, I surmise clients have most of the skin in the game, allowing him to operate somewhat free of the financial pressures that everyday house flippers face.

His target audience is also narrowly defined. I get the sense they are somewhat affluent and desire this bedroom community for all it's neighborhood charms. They are also willing to pay for maintaining the integrity and originality of the home but want and need modern conveniences. He's currently working on a home for a Kansas City Chiefs football coach.

In essence, he doesn't work for home buyers. He works with clients. Again, reading between the lines, I sensed they find him. If you have a powerful brand, you don't need to shout. People will hear the whispers of others and find you. Starbucks, Google and YouTube are testament to that idea, having all launched with no advertising. To this day, they do very little of it.

When you create a focused, unique brand, you don't have to work as hard at the marketing. It speaks for itself and others will do the talking for you. Conversely, when you create an average-to-above-average product or service, be prepared to bullhorn your way in front of people.

Even the biggest marketing and advertising budget is no guarantee you'll be successful. Just think about products that have launched with million dollar advertising blitzes and flamed out like WebTV, Kellogg's Breakfast Mates, and of course, New Coke.

Before leaving, I asked if he had a Web site. Nope. Business card. Nope. Which explains why I don't remember his name. More importantly, I know what he does because it so stands out and how to find him. I recognize that not everyone can operate this way. But he's doing just fine without a Web presence or business card. His calling card is his reputation, which is built by having a truly distinctive product or service and staying true to it.

As to why he bartends on Saturday nights? He says it's because the owner is a friend. He added it provides a little weekly break from his busy life, which includes a wife and two kids at home. Since he's only working one night a weekend, it really can't be for the money. Then it struck me. This low-key, savvy entrepreneur is doing it for another reason: It just so happens this restaurant/bar is around the corner from where he lives, which just so happens to be the same neighborhood in which his brand is alive and well.

He has built an authentic brand from the inside out. Smart guy.

These are My Guts Feelings.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Two Brands, Different Decisions

A former television news media client of mine just recently switched Internet Service Providers. It got a cheaper deal. Hey, who isn't looking to save a buck where they can in this economy.

That same week, there was major breaking news in this market. The body of a missing 9-year-old girl was found plus an arrest. My former client was all over it on its Web site. Immediacy and responsiveness are critical drivers of its brand mission. That laser focus and commitment to living its brand mission the past few years are the reason it is now the viewers' go-to source in the market for breaking news and weather.

Wanna guess what happened when the masses came looking for late-breaking developments on its Web site? A door slammed in their faces. A "do not" enter sign. A broken promise.

You see, when it paid more it got more bandwith. Now, it pays less and gets less bandwith. The Web site shutdown from too much traffic.

Wanna guess what information-hungry consumers probably did next? They went elsewhere. To competitors. And that leaves a mark.

You see, consumers don't care about your excuses. They want what they expect from you - what you've promised - each and every time they need it. Break that trust enough and they will ultimately break up with you.

Station ownership is private equity. Definitely bottom-line thinkers. Can't really blame them for trying to run lean. But they are shooting themselves in the foot. By nickel and dime-ing it, this news brand, after spending the past couple years earning back viewers' trust, has taken the first step toward breaking its contract with its customers. Isn't it customers that ultimately pay the bills and help you realize a return on your investment?

Now, some contrast. Last week, a new online-only news Web site, the Texas Tribune (, went live. A few days later, in its own back yard, the tragic Fort Hood shootings.

The Texas Tribune could have covered it and in person. But it didn't. Why in the world wouldn't it?

"It wasn't our story. Should we have been just one more news organization that rushed to Fort Hood? I don't think so, " said reporter Matt Stiles, who joined Texas Tribune from the Houston Chronicle.

"We're about public policy and politics," said Evan Smith, one of the founders of the new not-for-profit. "What I wasn't going to do was send someone racing up the Interstate to cover something, however important, that wasn't ours."

Let those two quotes sink in for a bit.

Here is a brand-spanking new brand that could benefit from sampling. But instead it made a brand decision, not a bottom-line one. Time will tell how successful their enterprise will be. But it's off to a good brand start.

First, it appears the Texas Tribune has done an excellent job of immersing its staff of 12 mostly seasoned, enterprise journalists in its brand. They seem to grasp who they are and who they aren't. The Texas Tribune is creating it from the inside out, the only way to build an authentic brand and insure a consistent experience each and every time, at every point of contact, for customers and prospects.

Second, reminiscent of Southwest Airlines, it has a unique business model (funded by investors, endowment and donations) that allows it to be a brand first and foremost.

The Texas Tribune early on gets that your brand should be your most valuable asset, the thing you protect at all costs. That's THE real bottom line.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Kurt Bartolich
Founder, Brand Internalist
Guts Branding

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why Integrated (Insert Marketing or Brand) Is Backwards Thinking - FOLLOWUP

I read a review about the integrated marketing conference (see my previous blog) in the KC Star this morning. One quote in particular by a conference organizer got my dander up: "Your brand is not what you say about yourself. It's about what others are saying about you." She was referring to the impact social media has today on brands.

I guess she'd better get busy alerting the folks at Google, Nike, Volvo, Ritz-Carlton, OnStar, Coca-Cola, EA Sports, BMW, YouTube, Victoria's Secret, FOX Newschannel, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Verizon, Maytag, Apple, etc., etc., that they should shut up now and stop force-feeding their respective messages about safety, driving experience, conservative values, freedom, dependability, etc., down our throats.

But let's not let facts get in the way. Like, virtually everyone of those brands I listed, that continue "pushing" out to consumers, dominates it's category.

I get that social media has changed the landscape of marketing. It can create groundswell, both good and bad, and you should have the cup against the social media wall to know what's being said about you. But I liken it to producing a commercial: When editing, you start with the offline or basic edit followed by the online or final post. You would never go to air with just an offline edit. So, why would you make decisions based on social chatter that has no controls in place for the sample, weighting and statistical accuracy?

If you are seeing or hearing things about your brand in social media venues, by all means, investigate. Just substantiate it. The woman in the article also noted that blogs are influential but lack credibility. I too have seen this in research. To draw a parallel, in a study conducted a couple of years ago by my former employer, Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., a question was posed to Millennials (also loyal viewers of) about The Daily Show, and if it influenced their political points of view. It was an overwhelming, "no." One respondent went so far as to say, "it's on Comedy Central after all." People are smarter and savvier than marketers give them credit. Aren't Facebook and Twitter really just condensed blogs?

Building a brand has always, and will always be, a joint venture, driven by the company first. That's because a brand is a promise. It's the company that initiates the handshake. Smart companies do their homework first by finding and exposing the gaps - and unmet or under served needs - in the market place, then reaching out. The consumer's role is to help dial in, and articulate back, important things like what it means to them, if it's satisfying their desires, if it's fulfilling the promise, if it's veering off course, competitive perceptions, etc.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Kurt Bartolich
Founder/Brand Internalist
Guts Branding

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why Integrated (Insert Marketing or Brand) Is Backwards Thinking

I recently received an email invitation to an "Integrated Marketing" conference in my hometown. From the description, it promised that attendees would experience the future of marketing.

Actually, my first exposure to the term, "Integrated (insert brand or marketing here)," was through a young woman fresh out of college who joined the same company I was working for a few years ago. She often spoke about integrated brand and her desire to become more involved with it, and to get our clients to practice it. I had never heard of the concept until that moment. I admit I didn't quite understand it.

Perhaps, I was naive. Had my head buried in the sand. Maybe, I was just too old school for those super-smart Millennials.

But I had a hard time believing any of those things to be completely true because many of my clients were in rapid ascent mode, chewing up large chunks of market share and spitting out competitors. More importantly, they were building strong foundations to sustain their trajectories.

Instinctively, it seemed to me, integrated (insert marketing or brand) was another of those new-fangled buzzwords or phrases that comes out of nowhere but everyone starts using like, vertical strategy, optimization, value justification, etc. Marketers...gotta love 'em. Great at pilfering, repurposing and repackaging.

My gut reaction to the phrase, integrated (insert marketing or brand), was "really?" That's because I've ALWAYS practiced - and counseled clients - that their brand is their strategy, and everything they do, every decision they make, every program they initiate or system they build, every person they hire, every campaign they create, every dime they spend, etc., should be birthed and governed by their brand mission. If you haven't been thinking this way all along, there is a good chance you are not the dominate brand in your category. If you aren't thinking this way, and you happen to be the leading brand in your category, you are probably on top for reasons out of your control. Regardless, you are vulnerable.

Let me further explain: By embracing the notion, integrated (insert brand or marketing), you are essentially buying into the idea that you must fit together all of your company's existing pieces to create one idea or image. The biggest flaw in this thinking is believing that you can simply fit those pieces together to form the same image. Chances are, your parts and pieces were created independently and tactically to address a particular and present concern or need. Over time, they stack up. Stacks of unrelated things add up to confusion in the mind.

Essentially, integrated (insert marketing or brand) is backwards thinking.

That's because brand is the all-encompassing thing. Brand is your strategy. It comes first. Therefore, everything you do should flow forth from your brand, not be cobbled together to fit it. Your brand should dictate all the pieces you create. If this isn't the case, it's going to take separation, not integration, from those things that don't fit the brand, and the formation of new things that do fit it, in order for all of your parts and pieces to naturally form that single (and hopefully, distinct) impression.

Brand should also be your business model. Few brands were ever born from a spreadsheet. Though, many have been killed by one. Southwest Airlines is a terrific example of this premise. It's business model has always been about efficiencies. It makes no bones about it. SWA also leverages it in ways to create a fun, easy, and hassle-free experience for customers, whereas other airlines, that are now clamoring to streamline, are making customers feel like victims of their inefficiencies...and appearing to be greedy. Southwest's latest assault, the campaign about bags flying free, is brilliant. It was born from its brand mission and provides stark contrast to what virtually every other carrier is doing. SWA continues to separate itself in relevant, meaningful ways.

Southwest is also a shining example of creating a culture that bleeds its brand at every single point of contact, so promise and payoff are always one. That's how you create an authentic brand. It might just be the best example of building a transparent (had to throw in a buzzword) brand from the guts of its organization out to the consumer.

By the time I write my next blog in a few weeks, I bet there will be dozens of new buzzwords in the mainstream attached to revolutionary promises. Heck, I've already come across a Web site that portends to create your personal brand through aggregation (fancy term for integration) of all your social and professional sites. Sounds like another example of "integration." You can believe the hype if you want. Or, you can stick with what really works and always will: Building a brand from inside your organization out to your customers.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Kurt Bartolich, Founder/Brand Internalist, Guts Branding

These are my Guts Feelings.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Starbucks Heading Further Away From Home VIA New Ready Brew

According to, the word "via" in preposition form is defined as "by a route that touches or passes through." VIA is also the brand name of the new instant coffee from Starbucks. I was introduced to it last week by a young Barista. She made sure I understood that it's good for when you're at sporting events or camping out.

Or, as I retorted, "any place other than here."

Correct me if I'm wrong but wasn't Starbucks built as a destination brand? Many referred to it as the "third place," with home and office being the other two. It seems Starbucks is moving closer to a new address: Your nearby Piggly Wiggly. Perhaps, it can persuade the grocery manager to put out a few bistro tables, pipe in some artsy music and install wireless Internet on Aisle 5.

If you feel compelled anymore to step inside a bricks and mortar version of Starbucks, take note of what's happening. It's redesigning, including installing new espresso machines, to make them more inviting and feel like your neighborhood, yet is launching products like VIA to send you away. In fact, the little trial sample of VIA I was handed has three boxes on the front that are X'd, with the first one denoting it's extra bold, the second to remind us (thank you) that it's coffee and the third to let us know we can take these little suckers "anywhere."


Guts Branding principle and reminder to Starbucks: Mass availability does not always equal mass consumption. In fact, making something less convenient, even in this era of instant access and on "our terms," still works if you have a powerful, desired brand. I once again cite CBS, the only network to grow in households and key selling demos in the 2008-2009 season. Unlike it's direct competitors, it made none of it's programming available via Hulu. You wanted CSI Miami, Two and Half Men or 48 Hours, you had to watch them on CBS's terms. What a novel concept.

Starbucks is again chasing "convenience," becoming more and more of a commodity and starting to blend (and not in the good coffee sense). That's physical and mental territory long-held by the likes of McDonald's and convenience stores. As much as I believe McDonald's could benefit from a good cup of focus, you don't see it packaging and selling its coffee in stores. At least not yet.

If you think about it, the Starbucks brand was originally built around the notion of "inconvenience." Loitering encouraged could have been their mantra. After all, that was a big piece of the original vision.

But then it was like the signs were switched overnight to no loitering when it added drivethroughs (at least you have to drive around the building rather than bypass it all together) to its grocery store line of prepackaged coffees, right there next to Folgers and Nescafe', which already dominates the instant coffee market. I'm sure VIA, which officially launches in two days, will have plenty of skews as well. One more reason to avoid your nearby Starbucks.

I'm really not anti-Starbucks. In fact, I wouldn't have a problem with VIA and other similar product offerings if Starbucks had started out as a store brand. Where I have a problem with it, or any other brand for that matter, is when after it tastes success, it travels in a direction opposite of what people want or expect from it. What if Subaru began making front-wheel drive vehicles or YouTube allowed people to post text-only stories?

My advice to Starbucks: Hit the brakes. Make a U-Turn. And find your way back home.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fire Your "Offensive Coordinators" and You Might As Well Punt Your Brand

Earlier this week, my beloved Kansas City Chiefs fired their offensive coordinator. Head coach, Todd Haley, is now assuming that responsibility.

How many companies during this recession have fired or downsized their offensive coordinators, a.k.a, marketing professionals, and handed those responsibilities off to someone else, perhaps, in another department all together? Too many to count.

Indeed, times are tough. No business is immune. While the move by the Chiefs doesn't seem to be economically-driven, the impact will be the same: When you eliminate specialists, particularly those directly charged with brand communication, you are risking the future of your most valuable asset.

If you recall, in the 90s the old playbook was pitched and NFL head coaches tried tackling general manager responsibilities. And I'm not talking a bunch of second stringers. Future Hall-of-Famers, Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan, took a crack at it.

How did that work out? Not so well. It was too much for one person to handle. Divorce ensued shortly thereafter and teams went back to separate positions.

Why did this approach fail?

I offer a pragmatic but brand-centric reason: While the roles of the GM and head coach parallel in dealing with player personnel, functionally, they are on completely different playing fields. In a nutshell, the GM handles the bottom-line and the head coach handles the sidelines.

And you simply can't do two different things simultaneously well.

Specialization is the foundation of any powerful brand. FOX Newschannel can only be conservative, Las Vegas can only be sin city and Victoria's Secret can only be sexy lingerie. What would happen if FOX News tried to be both conservative and liberal? Vegas tried to sell itself as a family destination? Victoria's Secret marketed business attire? First, those positions are already taken, so it would fail on that level. Subsequently, they would dilute their own specializations, leading to mind share and ultimately market share erosion.

Todd Haley has credentials as an offensive coordinator. He called plays in last year's Super Bowl. But he has a different focus now, that is much different than being an offensive coordinator. It should be on pulling together a team of specialists like the defensive coordinator, offensive line coach and the training staff toward the common goal.

A head coach usually creates and manages the team's brand personality like Bill Walsh and his West Coast Offense, Chuck Noll's Steel Curtain, and Dick Vermeil's Greatest Show on Turf. Ensuring that ever person from the field up to the owner's box is living the brand is a full-time job in and of itself. It's going to be difficult for Haley to stay strategically-focused when he's tactically drawing plays in the dirt.

When you try to focus on two things at once, you end up making compromises to one side or the other but usually both. It takes absolute, undivided attention on one thing to be a specialist, to be a brand.

So, when you punt your marketing professionals, and hand these critical to your bottom-line responsibilities off to say your sales manager or business manager, you are taking the first steps towards killing your brand. You are sending the signal inside your organization that brand is not your priority without even realizing it. Whomever assumes marketing responsibilities, will in turn lose focus in their area of specialization. More dominoes will fall inside your organization that will eventually have an impact outside it.

If brand isn't your main focus, and building it from inside your organization out to customers and prospects, it should be. Nearly $210 million of the The Dallas Cowboys overall value is attributed to brand management. While there are other things that factor into the overall value of an organization, Jerry Jones' new stadium will eventually grow old and depreciate. The NFL revenue-sharing model that is so lucrative for teams could change. Star players will come and go. But your brand is really the only thing you can control. As your most important asset, it needs to be nurtured and grown by specialists, not handed off as an afterthought to bean counters and tactical thinkers in a short-sighted effort to save money now.

While there is great optimism under the new regime at Arrowhead Stadium, and I'm personally excited about it and Haley, it's his first time as a head coach, he inherits a team coming off a 2-14 season, and his starting quarterback is already injured and the season hasn't even kicked off yet. He already had a lot of balls in the air. He just added another big one, and that makes it even more likely he'll commit some costly fumbles this season.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

What's In A Name? Everything!

Do you call it H1N1 or Swine Flu? Did you call it the Car Allowance Rebate System or Cash for Clunkers? Do you say Economic Stimulus Package or Government Bailout?

Unless you're a medical professional or a government employee, the latter most likely in all three instances.

For the same reason we use U.P.S., not United Parcel Service, FedEx not Federal Express, and I.B.M. not International Business Machine, our complex minds deal more efficiently and effectively with simple things. Or, as the old saying goes, K.I.S.S! (Keep It Simple Stupid).

But simple isn't enough. I recently worked with a client on developing a brand name. They got the simple premise, but weren't grasping the other two critical ingredients: Unique and memorable. This client was locked into a brand name that was generic like The Dog Groomer or H-E-B. These might be simple, but they aren't unique nor memorable. Names like Doggy Style (yes, it is a real name) and Whole Foods are, satisfying all three criteria.

Working with media clients over the years, particularly local market televisions stations, I encountered brand name issues often. Station call letters created the conundrum. With a few exceptions, most were forgettable. Only people on the inside knew what acronyms like KRGV, KSHB or WPPY stood for. Most viewers use channel numbers as their reference point. Yet, in markets where ratings are determined by how viewers fill out diaries, call letters is one way to receive credit for a program that was viewed. But if viewers don't remember who they are watching, what's the point? Call letters like KARE, WOOD and KAKE are the exceptions. Why? They form a word. Words are more memorable than acronyms.

You might be thinking at this point I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth. After all, I did mention U.P.S. and I.B.M. earlier. But they didn't start out as acronyms. They were birthed as words, much like the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) and shortened after being established over time. In these rare instances, they became more memorable as acronyms because in word form weren't unique, simple or memorable.

That opens up another can of worms: Names that on the surface really have nothing to do with the product itself like Nike, Amazon and Yahoo! Yet, I'd be surprised if anyone doesn't know what they represent. You can redefine the meaning of a word (think: "Spam" and "Blackberry") with the right strategy. Over time, the name and idea can become synonymous.

Don't let lack of URL availability influence your decision on a brand name. Do you think Google, Spike and Target would have changed their brand names if the respective URLs weren't available? My guess is they would have done whatever they could to secure the URLs even if they were already taken. Why? Keep in mind that Coca-Cola (mostly referred to as Coke, another example of simplification) is worth about $66 billion but it's physical assets are worth just around six billion. What accounts for the difference? Brand essence and brand name. Find the right brand name first and then find the ways and means to take complete ownership.

When you consider that what you do can ultimately be copied but not your brand name, then you must do everything you can to create one that is unique, simple and memorable, distills the essence of who you are and/or what you do, and won't be confused with anyone else in the mind.
These are my Guts feelings.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Make The Rounds for Hospital Brand

I spent this past Friday night with my mom in the Emergency Room. The good news is she's fine. Unfortunately, these visits have become a little too commonplace this year with her.

In the winter, she ended up in the same ER twice, and stayed each time for about 10 days. She was pretty sick and almost didn't make it. But she persevered.

So, when I received the call Friday from my mother's good friend that the ambulance was taking her to St. Joseph Medical Center again, based on recent experiences, I was comforted knowing she would once again be in good hands. From a treatment standpoint, she was. But that's where any similarities to her stays at St. Joe less than six months apart end.

From a medical standpoint, the crew in the ER and on her floor for the weekend was what I expected in terms of knowledge and expertise. But their collective bedside manner was much different this time, sans one notable exception.

Don't get me wrong. No one treated my mother poorly. But everyone seemed "less caring" and less responsive, particularly in the ER. Okay, it's a hospital not a Ritz-Carlton. I get it. But it's also not a Level I trauma center. The ER and floor she was on over the weekend were no more or less busy than her previous stays.

She was in the same place as before, yet it felt very different this time around.

For example, the ER staff seemed slower to respond when she needed to use the bathroom, this after telling her the medicine they just injected into her would make her go often for hours. While not exactly what I would call, "bad," the overall atmosphere had a "sterile" feeling and temperament of the ER staff was very matter-of-fact, lacking that sense of real "caring" that was omnipresent before. It also took them a few hours longer to get her up to her room than before.

With the exception of her main day shift nurse, it was more of the same on her floor. After I left the next morning, I tried calling mom three times that afternoon. I was never able to connect with her. Instead of getting a live operator right away, I went immediately into an automated system. I was on hold for up to 10 minutes on one occasion. Once I did actually get a live person, I gave her my mother's room number. She seemed put off that I didn't know if my mom was in the bed closest to the window or door. I told her it was a room with just a single bed and one phone. The woman was short with me and then connected me, though I can't be sure to the right room because my mom never picked up. I called back an hour later, and after going through the same automated drill, I asked to be connected to the nurses station on my mom's floor. The person that answered put me on hold. I was in limbo for 15 minutes. No one ever picked up. I finally gave up. The nurses station was probably no more than 50 feet from my mother's room.

Six months ago, I was singing the praises of St. Joseph Medical Center. I told friends how caring, quick and responsive everyone was and consistently so. I should know, I was there virtually every day and for hours on end. With all the different people she came in contact with, combined with the length of her two previous stays, there was ample opportunity for "impressions." I can't remember a single person or situation that didn't surprise me in a good way. It felt like everyone was singing off the same sheet of music, rowing in the same direction, cast by the same director. I also have competitor contrast, having been to other area hospitals with her over the past few years. St. Joe was a breath of fresh air.

After this weekend, I can't say the same thing. In my mind, it no longer stands out in an outstanding way. Instead, it felt "mediocre." It simply "blended" with other hospitals I was familiar with.

Let that sink in for a minute. It blends. When something doesn't stand out in extraordinary ways, how often are you likely to share your experiences? Well, I don't talk about the Hyatt, Dillards and But I won't shut up about Ritz-Carlton, Nordstrom and Zappos.

Not only am I now less likely to talk about St. Joseph Medical Center in a positively radiant way, I'm less likely to recommend it so vehemently. More importantly, it's losing status as my mom's default destination for hospital care. This is not extreme. It's how most people react when a brand doesn't live up to the expectation it created.

I'm sure management at St. Joe has their excuses. Perhaps, staff reductions and other cuts. As a customer, I could give a rats tail. Likewise, your customers don't care about your problems. We want to know, no expect, that every time we come into contact with something that matters to us, it's the exact same experience unless it's been made even better. Not different, but better. That would mean deepening it, the most important thing you can do for your brand. Not widen it, not reduce it, but deepen it. Much like Volvo continues to reinvent automotive safety.

Even more disconcerting is my familiarity with St. Joseph Medical Center from the inside. I was working for a small local agency 10 years ago. It was one of our accounts and I was a part of the strategy team. While it has a CEO, it's really run by nuns. The two in charge then wouldn't have allowed what I experienced. It makes me wonder who is in charge now. It makes me wonder if they have a brand mission. When you have a brand mission, you know exactly who's in charge.

To that end, I did see some familiar signage around the halls of St. Joseph Medical Center that spoke to its commitment to care. When I saw them a few months ago, I remember thinking, "Yes, and then some." Yesterday, as we exited, I thought, "What happened?" No longer a promise of value, those posters were now just taking up space on the wall.

St. Joseph Medical Center needs to figure out its identity and get back to outstanding. Because it's clear from my collection of experiences with it, those on the inside don't really know or understand the expectation, particularly how to live it every single minute of every day, regardless of shift, department, employee or volunteer, CEO or nun, etc. Everyone must be oriented, trained, tested, retrained, and constantly immersed in how to deliver upon the brand mission. Even external partners and vendors. If a brand mission doesn't exist, it needs to create one to crystallize it for everyone, and create internal programs that will bring the brand mission to life. This is how you build a powerful brand. From the inside-out.

Everyone must also be held accountable to the brand mission. If they aren't, rest assured, they will be by their customers and prospects. I'm using a blog to speak to the two different St. Joseph Medical Centers I have now experienced. Management may never read it. Rest assured, there are other vehicles available to people today that can create groundswell faster than you can say, "Uh, oh."

Bottom line: You can't afford to let your brand become a Jekyll and Hyde.

These are my Guts feelings.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Social Media Is Not The Savior. Brand Is.

I just finished scouring this morning. Not surprisingly, the top two most viewed stories pertained to social media.

I'm here to give you a different take on "new" media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Instead of more ideas on how to leverage them, I'm focusing on the lesson you can learn from them.

I believe many people, particularly marketers, view social media as a means to create, reinvent and build brands. Even the lead story on, Is Bob Lutz the Right Guy to Lead GM's Marketing, is about whether it should have looked to a more digital savvy marketer than a 46-year vet of the industry. Is it really change as GM promised, some are questioning in the article.

I have no way of knowing if Mr. Lutz is the right choice or not. But I believe a successful turnaround is predicated less on him and more about whether or not GM reengineers it's thinking. It needs to reinvent itself from the inside based on the three integrated Ps: Products, positioning and people. In a nutshell, think brand!

Everything in the Ad Age article spoke to creative design, advertising and communications as Mr. Lutz's role. There was no "real" talk about brand whatsoever. If brand isn't in his job description, it should be. In fact, it should be his focus. At companies where the focus is brand, it's every one's responsibility, from CEO to janitor.

One of the first things on Mr. Lutz's agenda is to meet with "key officials" to review proposed work and messaging of GM's remaining four brands. My first agenda item would be to get the CEO, brand, product, engineering and design teams in the same room and determine what tangible, meaningful, real distinction - between sibling brands and competitor brands - is being created, and how the culture is being changed at all levels, from CEO-to-dealers and everyone in between. That should be job one, to steal a line from a competitor from the past.

Reading between the lines of the Lutz story, and from other sources, everything still seems compartmentalized at GM, not woven together through brand, and approached from the outside-in. Isn't that business as usual?

My approach: Create authentic brands first and reengineer the culture to bring those brands to life (walk the walk). Then create the strategic messaging (talk the walk). Lastly, determine communications, creative and media channels (take it on a walk).

Don't take this as an attack on Mr. Lutz. This is the part he's been assigned. He might be a terrific addition to the cast. My issue is the play itself seems to be the same old script.

Coming back full circle, leveraging Facebook and Twitter is one thing. Learning from them is another. The thing you should really pay close attention to more than anything else is both are unique, simple, focused and memorable concepts. Those are the key ingredients of any powerful brand. Facebook is social networking. Twitter is status (as in updates). This is no different than Google is search, Victoria's Secret is sexy lingerie and Wal-Mart is low prices.

If you're not focused on "brand" first and making sure your culture bleeds your promise in everything you do, media - traditional, social, digital, etc. - isn't going to be the savior. Brand is. Always.

These are my Guts Feelings.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Trying to Be Everywhere Can Get You Nowhere. Fast.

In my never-ending quest to learn - and find source material for this blog - three articles this week caught my attention. I've got Guts (Branding) Feelings about each of them. For this blog, I'll focus on one in particular: Time Warner Links with Comcast for TV Everywhere Trial.

The focus of the article is about the cable giant moving a step closer to offering channels a la iTunes: The consumer selects and bundles the channels it wants rather than it being a cable cramdown. But that's not what I'm focusing on for this post. It was actually a section in the article about Hulu and the broadcast networks that most piqued my interest.

Unlike the other three big networks, CBS is opting not to make its programming available via Hulu, the Web site that allows you to watch your favorite shows for free. Today, shouldn't you make your products and services available to the masses and on their terms? Well, CBS' defiance (or, maybe they just haven't struck the right deal yet) didn't hurt it. In fact, it was the only network out of the big four to actually increase ratings last season. Keep in mind Nielsen now can measure out-of-home (and non-set top) viewing in top markets. So, any argument about ratings advantages or disadvantages doesn't hold water.

Was it because CBS, the top network in households the past few years, has better programming? In part. Who wants to watch bad programming no matter where it's offered? Wouldn't making it available "everywhere" be more convenient for consumers, just the way we all want things today? Yes. However, when it comes to strong brands in certain categories, the other side of supply and demand - something that's hard to get your hands on - is a powerful force! If you build it - a powerful, highly-desired brand - they will come. Even on your terms.

Remember when Coors beer was only available west of the Rockies? Everyone wanted it. People used to bootleg it. Smuggling Coors that was at the heart of the 1970s movie, Smokey and the Bandit. Today? Original Coors isn't even in the top 10 selling domestic beers.

Remember in 1999 when Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was on ABC? It was generating ridiculous 30 and 40 shares? Then, ABC began airing it four nights a week. The show was cancelled less than two years later. Attempts to revive it, including it's syndication run, have had moderate success at best.

Then, there was the Sopranos. You could only get original episodes by paying for HBO. It made die hard fans wait nearly two years between season five and its final season without a single new episode. In fact, HBO remained very tight-lipped during final season production, refusing to leak any plot line details. All totaled there were only 84 original episodes during its nearly nine-year run. That's not very many when you consider that Law & Order has over 300 originals. If you wanted Sopranos, you had to do it on HBO's terms. Apparently, it worked. Sopranos was the most commercially successful - and one of the most critically acclaimed - cable program of all time.

Why does Nordstrom Department Stores only conduct one sale a year? Because it has such a strong brand predicated on extraordinary experience and high quality offerings it doesn't have to. In fact, having more sales would actually work in favor of competitors by effectively narrowing the gap of distinction between them and Nordstrom. Avoiding sales protects the Nordstrom brand and helps keep competitors separate in the minds of consumers.

Bottom line: Mass availability does not always equate to mass consumption.

In my opinion, the biggest mistake that Starbucks ever made was installing drive through windows, followed closely by over-expansion. Starbuck's brand was never about convenience. Rather, it's all about inconvenience. But inside the confines of Starbucks corporate, bottom-line decisions were made to expand in ways that conspired against the brand. My practice is built around the notion you build the most authentic brands from inside your organization out to consumers. Decisions you make in boardrooms are every bit as critical to protecting your brand as the systems, programs, training and people you put in place.

Mass exposure also does not guarantee mass appeal. It seems everyone is trying to figure out how to leverage social media. In fact, companies are redefining job descriptions and creating positions based on it. I believe there is value in social media. But I also find that people rush to jump on the newest bandwagon way too often. When online video first emerged, every client I worked with a few years back just had to find a way to "own it" in their market. Yet, research our company conducted for these broadcast media clients indicated "information" was actually more important to users of broadcast media news sites than video. This explains why newspaper Web sites, video poor but content-rich, have generally out-performed broadcast media sites in the local market space.

Keep in mind it was us, the practitioners, that added the "media" to social. Facebook and Twitter weren't created with that in mind. So, there are a couple of important things to keep in mind when entering the social media landscape:

--Does my brand actually fit in this space? If you have to wedge it in, it's not going to work. In fact, it could do be very off-putting to consumers if you're not careful. Twitter might make sense for a brand that is predicated on getting information out quickly to people, like a news and information brand or Apple, which could probably get away with creating groundswell with the release of a new iPhone. But is there really a Twitter strategy that works for say Tide? Volvo?

--Know exactly who is utilizing social media and how. A 2009 national study by Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., indicated that Baby Boomers were more inclined to use social media sites for information and news. Conversely, the pre-teen and teen Millennials are using it more for watching and sharing videos, music and other Web-centric content. Because Boomers grew up in a passive advertising world, it's probably natural for them to expect to be marketed to on any platform. But the younger generation can smell a rat! So be careful.

--Listen. It's one of the key take aways from the Magid study. You don't need to be on Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc. But you do need to keep an ear to the wall and listen to what consumers are saying via those channels, and talk to them in an open, earnest way, when it's necessary or makes sense for your brand.

Most importantly, how distinctive and relevant is your brand? If it doesn't give people a reason to post, share or Tweet, they won't. Make sure your brand stays remarkable and does remarkable things, so people will keep talking about it.

Sometimes, trying to be everywhere gets you nowhere. Fast.

These are my Guts Feelings

Thursday, June 4, 2009

GM Needs a New Baby, Not A Re-Birth Announcement

I've received emails and comments from friends, some in the business, praising the television spot lauding the "new GM." Feedback has ranged from, "very American," "they're coming clean" and "powerful message." I too agree with those sentiments.

However, what so many are overlooking in this decades-in-the-making, historic mess, is a lesson for any brand: This should have never happened. GM shouldn't be having to manufacture a positive spin. It chose to be in this place by expanding and contracting in wrong ways. And when it comes to its rebirth as articulated in the commercial, why should we believe them now? More on that in minute.

First, Al Ries suggested years ago that GM needed to reduce its brands and models. GM chose not to listen. It continued expanding in the wrong ways like adding brands (Saturn, Hummer) and more models within each brand, ignoring Ries's "Law of Contraction." All the research I've been a part of for clients always supports "less is more." Brands that try being all things to all people get very little credit for anything and own very little market share. Brands that are laser focused on a distinctive idea, concept or approach, get major attitudinal props not only for their one thing, but for things they don't even do or focus on! It's called brand halo. Despite just focusing on safety, consumers believe Volvos are also durable, reliable, even though it doesn't tout these attributes. If you're good at one thing, you must be good at other things, goes the thinking. Conversely, if you try to be all things, you're good at nothing, goes the thinking.

Where GM contracted wrong was in making platforms and designs virtually ubiquitous. In the short run, sharing tactics reduced costs and saved money. But, as always, when you go from brand to bottom-line focus, it will catch up to you. Why aren't Honda, Volvo or Toyota filing for bankruptcy? While every automaker has been hurt by the recession, they are examples of how being brand focused helps weather tough patches much better than bottom-line driven companies.

If you have a powerful brand, you don't need to be bottom-line focused. Rather, bottom line sensible. In fact, your brand and business strategies should be one in the same. And the strongest brands are always better positioned to reclaim lost ground and grow faster when the economy does turn around. Can you say that about your brand?

Back to rebirth campaign. GM says it's changing. Oh, really? I'm seeing these spots everywhere, and at least three times in prime last night. A national buy of this magnitude can't be cheap for a company that is broke...and broken.

More importantly, and predictably, GM is taking an outside-in approach by running the birth announcement before the new baby is even born. For all we know, it could end up being as ugly as the old one. I'm not surprised because companies generally attack similar situations or new launches by talking-the-walk before walking-the-walk, anointing before it can back it up. This can create an expectation that so often falls short in the minds of consumers. Inside-out strategy would have GM reducing, retooling, redesigning and rebuilding internally and quietly before ever uttering a word externally. It could learn a lot from Staples, which successfully orchestrated its turnaround in the early 2000s via inside-out strategy.

If GM were to take this inside-out strategy to heart, but was worried about disappearing off consumers' radar screens, while re-engineering itself, it could engage a carefully-planned and timed information leaking strategy to give it "presence." The right chatter could also ensure that when the new GM is born, it's everything the birth announcement says it is and much more.

These are my Guts feelings.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The City That Needs A Brand, Not A Slogan

The headline in the May 27 edition of the Johnson County Sun says it all: "Overland Park Seeks Identity with City Slogan, New Logo." I couldn't wait to sink my teeth into this one!

Let me begin by saying I'm a fan of Overland Park. I live nearby. I shop and dine there. The schools are good. It has a quaint downtown with a farmers market. It has Botanical Gardens and the Deanna Rose Children's Farm. It's a well maintained, safe place to raise a family. These are all assets for sure. But they don't exactly light your hair on fire, nor scream: Above and Beyond. By Design. Well, that's Overland Park's new slogan, and it hopes, the answer to making it a "well-known commodity instead of a rather well-kept secret."

From my perspective, it's flawed thinking on many levels. Most important of them being the idea that "branding" creates brands. The act of "branding" implies applying or affixing something to something. Do not confuse labeling with building a brand.

To further demonstrate my point, here's a test: What cities instantly come to mind when you hear: What Happens Here, Stays Here, The City That Never Sleeps and The Aliens Aren't the Only Reason to Visit? I suspect you said, Vegas, NYC and Roswell, N.M. You'd be correct. Now, if I say, Always Turned On, Soul of the Southwest and City with Sol, what cities come to mind? Not quite as easy it it? It's Atlantic City, Taos, N.M. and San Diego, respectively.

You could argue that Vegas, NYC and Roswell are better known than the other three examples because they spend more money advertising and get their slogan out there more. True or not, I'd argue these cities are brands, which I define as a unique ideal, a concept or an approach. Note that I said "a," which is singular. They stand for one thing: Sin, entertainment/arts/culture and (space) aliens, respectively. Their reputations preceded their slogans, and were created organically and built over time, not penned.

Vegas, NYC and Roswell also pass my logo litmus test: Their slogans only fit them. While I'm not privy to the Overland Park research, I wonder if it asked in some way the critical question, "when you hear Above and Beyond. By Design. What city do you think of?" This is important because if someone already owns that image in the mind, you won't be able to take it away from them. Or, it simply might not be a good fit, as Hyundai automotive found out a few years ago. It found a slogan that really resonated with consumers. But when it took it a step further and asked the "fit" question, it found it actually would work against Hyundai, potentially creating even more confusion about the Korean giant and costing it millions of dollars in brand damage.

With the Power & Light District and Sprint Center for sports and concerts, Crossroads Art and River Market districts, new HQs for H&R Block and HOK Sports architects, new condos and downtown living options (some offering decades-long tax abatement), I'd say that neighbor Kansas City already has a leg up on the claim Above and Beyond. By Design. While it's busy building a reputation, what is Overland Park really doing other than bringing awareness to a collection of nice little assets? Overland Park does acknowledge in the article it faces many challenges like lacking a central gathering place and significant entertainment venues. It's essentially acknowledging, without realizing it, that it doesn't have a brand yet.

Overland Park needs to first define and create real distinction, and walk-the-walk before it talks the walk. While that's much harder than launching a slogan, it's the only way to create a truly authentic brand.

That's my Guts feelings.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Little Memo That Does Big Brand Things

I was reading an article in the NY Times the other morning at my favorite little coffee shop. It was about how companies are creating these new positions focused on intercepting chatter via Twitter, Facebook, etc., and leveraging social media opportunities. The new PR/publicity I guess. Anyway, the article focused on a young woman who does just that for Southwest Airlines. But what jumped out at me wasn't the social media implications. It was her quote about how employees have the "freedom" to try new things.

I didn't get the sense she was merely spitting back the company line. Rather, I surmise SW employees are truly empowered to live and innovate through the brand. All of my experiences with Southwest, limited as they may be, have always been the same, and mirror its external messaging. One thing I do know for sure is that you can only authentically innovate, and meet customer expectations with such consistency, when you build a brand from the inside-out.

The article also got me to thinking about an organization I worked with and
how it fosters brand focus, compliance and creativity internally. Once a month on average an email is sent around to all employees with an attachment called, @#&%Watch (I've disguised the name because the entire strategy is self-contained in it). But what @#&%Watch does -and what something similar can do for any organization - can be revolutionary.

Credit where credit is due: The news director created @#&%Watch almost two years ago. And he's stuck with it (he is also responsible for coming up with the actual brand mission, the most unique, memorable and strategic one I've seen yet for a media organization). As smart as he is, I'm not sure even he initially knew how this little, single page (on average), reoccurring memo would have such a big impact on focusing a culture and shaping audience expectations.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, @#&%Watch contains its share of atta-boys/girls, lauds team efforts, highlights when creative solutions are devised, points out missed opportunities, and provides constructive feedback and tangible ways to attack in the future. Most importantly, every pat on the back, praised team effort, creative inspiration, missed opportunity, and fix, is about one thing and only one thing: Delivering the brand mission! What you'll never find is anything that doesn't speak to, support, nurture, grow, or deepen the brand. I've yet to see a subjective claim of superiority or anything about marketing or advertising. It is always focused on delivering on the brand mission.

I offer eight reasons why a tool like @#&%Watch is such a powerful brand-building, culture-changing weapon:

1. It constantly signals that the brand is every one's responsibility.

2. It reinforces that the brand is what they do, not just a part of, or an "in addition to" thing, that they do. It's the focus, period.

3. It reinforces that the product is the brand.

4. Expectations are clearly set and defined. Essentially, you will be judged by, and held accountable to, the brand mission.

5. It fosters healthy, brand-based competition. Who doesn't like to be singled out, recognized and even rewarded in front of peers? And, if it's your name frequently popping up, it can do wonders for your career (or help you keep your job in this economy).

6. It singles out who really is working for the brand, and who is working against it (the latter part of that statement doesn't necessarily reflect intent). You'll know who to target for additional education, training and mentoring.

7. It's the equivalent of an ongoing creative brief, used by advertising agencies to communicate a strategy to the creative department, to ensure you're "talking the walk" while you're simultaneously "walking the walk."

8. Most importantly, it helps ensure that every time a customer or prospect comes in contact with the product, a stakeholder, brand mission communication, etc., its what they've come to expect and trust.

What has @#&%Watch done for this particular media brand? I can argue it's had a seismic impact. It's preference has boomed from 17% to 29% in less than two years and ratings are up virtually across the board. Still not convinced? There was no external media, no advertising campaigns, nothing more than some basic sampling tactics during the entire first year after the brand mission was birthed. Focus was on walking-the walk down the narrow path of the brand mission.

Now, I do have a few beefs with @#&%Watch. It should come out more frequently, at least twice a month, if not weekly. You can never champion your brand mission too much. It would be more effective if it had an organization-wide focus, not just a product-specific bent. It's best when your CEO drives it top-to-bottom and all department leaders contribute. Ultimately, I'd like to the see contributions from stakeholders as well. It will enhance buy-in and accountability.
In this age of viral, apps, and tweets, all externally-focused channels, a reoccurring brandate (brand mandate) for your entire organization about what you stand for, what you won't stand for, who is delivering it, and by virtue of exclusion, who isn't, how it is being delivered, and ways to better deliver on it, can do wonders for your culture, including improving employee satisfaction and loyalty (nothing unifies like a great strategy), unite internal and external expectations, reposition your competitors, and turn a market in your favor.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Tide Turning?

Yesterday, while on another Web site, I saw a link for Tide Dry Cleaners. Of course, I had to investigate further. Not because I'm a Tide guy or connoisseur of dry cleaners. But because of the red flag that went up immediately in my mind about the potential implications for one of P&G's most powerful brands.

I'm building my Guts Branding practice around the premise that you should build your brand from the inside out, distilling it in a brand mission (to learn more about brand mission development, please refer to post, How New Brand Launch Rewrote the Record Books). But Guts has a deeper meaning. It also speaks to conviction and courage. As in, you must have the conviction to live and abide by the part of your brand mission that defines what you are and will be, and the courage to stand by the part that defines what you shouldn't be.

I don't understand P&G's move to open Tide Dry Cleaners. But I bet I know where it was hatched: A P&G conference or board room. I could be wrong but I'm guessing consumers weren't banging down doors, begging P&G to open Tide Dry Cleaners. But you can talk yourself into anything really. I can hear the execs behind this move, "Tide isn't really a detergent, it's about a superior cleaning experience. So, it makes sense that people will associate that with a dry cleaning."
This reminds me of Unilever's thinking a few years ago with it's Dove brand. The company took it's "beauty" image as license to extended the brand name to other segments, including hair care. It had initial success but soon saw sales decline. As the Godfather of brand, Al Ries, so often points out, line extensions rarely work because of the back end damage done to the core brand. Essentially, he says that image ultimately gets watered down, will lose its drawing power, and open the door for a more focused, powerful brand to take over the category. History tells us, he's rarely wrong.

While Dove's image might truly be about beauty, I surmise it's tethered to bar soap. I wonder if Tide's superior cleaning image is chained to laundry detergent? The image, I'm speaking about is the one that exists inside consumers' heads. While some dry cleaners provide laundry service, dry cleaning and laundry are two completely different things. I routinely have my suits, dress shirts and sweaters dry cleaned. The image that immediately pops into my head is of a "dry" process, not a wet one. Hence, the phrase, "dry cleaning." I imagine I'm not alone in these perceptions.

Will Tide dry cleaners succeed or fail? Only time will tell. Measuring success or failure is less about what happens "now" and more about what happens to the long-term image of the core brand from which the extension was made. I admit to limited knowledge of the dry cleaning needs of most consumers, and what aspects of it might be going unsatisfied. If the average dry cleaning consumer is anything like me, then good, timely service and the expectation that all my clothes will come back to me clean and intact are givens. So, then for me, it really comes down to location and price. The last time I checked, Tide's price points are at or near the top end of the detergent category. Will people driving by a Tide Dry Cleaners automatically perceive it to be a more expensive operation before ever giving it a chance?
My Guts feeling about this move is the same as I have with any brand that wants to extend. Take a step back and really look at the big picture. What are the long-term implications to the core brand image? I believe you are better off trying to deepen the experience of a powerful brand than spread it around. Volvo has been brilliant at this by constantly reinventing vehicle and people-related-to-auto safety. A powerful brand should be an inch wide and a mile deep.
And what message are you sending on the inside? You are better off feeding the expectation inside your organization that you build brands around unmet needs in a marketplace, not in the company portfolio.
Even if opportunity exists for a different dry cleaning experience, P&G could have launched a new brand under a different name much like Honda did with Acura, Gatorade did with Propel, and Gap Inc., did with Banana Republic and Old Navy. Or, maybe it should have contemplated a different market all together and opened up laundromats. That would seem like a better opportunity for people to actually experience and connect with Tide, the detergent brand.

With the proliferation of brand extensions permeating shelf space, getting your organization to hang your logo on a myriad of other products appears to be a much easier proposition to green light than getting permission from consumers. However, asking for forgiveness later can be a very, very costly proposition.

Friday, May 8, 2009

How New Brand Launch Rewrote the Record Books

To say the launch of FOX 40 News at 9 PM in Jackson, MS, was a success might be an understatement. Perhaps, exploding onto the scene is more appropriate. National media rep firm Katz says it might be the most successful newscast launch ever based on the strong demo delivery just two months after its birth.

One could easy attribute the impressive debut to obvious things: Only local news brand in 9 p.m. time period, strong FOX network lead-ins, including ratings vacuum American Idol, dominant outside media share of voice in March, and a robust appetite for local news by mid-Mississippians. None of that hurts. But being on the inside and co-leading the initial strategic process and on-going brand implementation and training, I can poke holes into those theories:

  • On the surface, the research indicated pretty strong allegiances by existing late news (10 p.m.) viewers to their favorite brands, so why should anyone bother to watch news at 9 p.m. instead of entertainment fare?

  • The ratings generated by FOX 40 News at 9 p.m. during the March 2009 sweep were virtually as strong on non-American Idol nights.

  • An effective media buy can help create awareness but it doesn't guarantee anything will happen, including sampling. Today, even for strong, established brands, loyalty is conditional. In a diary market like Jackson, where news brand partisanship was already established, getting people to actually remember and write down that they watched our new brand rather than their favorites is so far beyond just sampling.

Happenstance nor serendipity was a conspirator in the successful launch. This was a premeditated, orchestrated, inside-out, strategic assault, to win the minds of Mid-Mississippians. And here is the process that we engaged, which can also work for you whether you're launching a new brand, breathing new life into a brand growing stale, or refocusing a brand that has become blurry:

1. Find the gaps, fill the gaps.

2. Launch a brand, not a product.

3. Create a brand mission and build it from inside the organization first.

4. Launch with a whisper.

Find The Gaps, Fill The Gaps

Every brand has weaknesses and every market opportunities. If you know where and how to look, you'll find them even in the strongest of brands. The keys are knowing which to exploit and how. The "gaps" have to be relevant, sustainable and something no other competitor owns in the minds of customers and prospects. It's important to remember that even though a product or service may claim something as its own, it doesn't mean your audience feels the same way. The research engaged by our strategic partner in Jackson, Frank N. Magid Associates, Inc., helped find the holes, plunge deep into them, expose competitive weaknesses, and find the opportunities to leverage.

Launch a Brand, Not a Product

This is a critical distinction: launching a 9 PM newscast is a tactic. Launching a brand is a strategy. People usually make brand choices rather than product choices. Without developing a brand strategy as the anchor, your products that represent your brand will drift off course. So, when FOX 40 News at 9 PM launched in late January, it was merely a plank, albeit an important one, in the overall brand strategy.

Another critical piece of the strategy was changing the mindset inside the organization from thinking like broadcasters to thinking like "news and information providers on the first available platform." Thus, was launched a half a year before the broadcast news debut. While the benefits of launching on the Web weren't obvious to a team of broadcast-hungry journalists, there were many including (and most importantly) how to be deliver the brand in a Web-specific way. A talented but mostly green team also benefited by forming critical relationships, building local sources and learning the market well before the broadcast news switch was ever flipped.

Create A Brand Mission and Build It From Inside The Organization First

I've been called a slogan-hater. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I do hate bad slogans, which I define as anything that isn't instantly recognizable as the uniqueness and essence of your brand. That's why I was/am a fan of "Everyday Low Prices," "The Ultimate Driving Machine" and "Just Do It." But all too often you end up with the likes of, "Travel Should Take You Places," "Life. Well Spent" and "More Driving Pleasure." How many different logos could rest comfortably above those tag lines? Too many. Two is too many. In case you're wondering, it's Hilton, Sears and BMW, respectively.

Conversely, when you think search, sexy lingerie or fried chicken, what instantly comes to mind? Of course, Google, Victoria's Secret and KFC, respectively. The point is a brand is about an idea, concept or approach. Would you rather have a slogan like "Feel the Difference" or own a powerful idea like, "safety?"

In Jackson, the research led us to a certain approach, which I won't reveal out of respect for those still affiliated with the brand. But rather than create a slogan, a more externally-focused communication tool, we articulated the approach in a brand mission, an internally governed road map to creating a unique, focused and sustainable brand. Why a brand mission? How does it differ from a company mission statement?

A brand mission is just as sounds, a mission and a path to creating a brand. It's usually distilled in a few sentences, focuses on unique value, relevance, and style and tone, and clarifies what you do, why you do it and how you do it for the entire organization to fulfill. A great brand mission should leave no doubt as to who you are and who you aren't! Two of my favorite brand missions are Google's, "Do No Evil" and Ritz-Carlton's, "We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen." Brilliant! A company mission statement is usually chock full of superiority claims rather than points of differentiation, aspirations rather than tangible ways to deliver, and platitudes rather than straight talk. They are generally full of something else!

Another way to distinguish between brand and company mission is the wall test. A great brand mission should only be able to hang on one wall, yours. Corporate missions can usually hang on any company's wall.

Following this line of thinking, The Station for FOX 40 News brand mission became the strategy and entire focus of the organization, and every one's responsibility. That's the only way to truly bring your brand to life. It also must be driven from the top down, you must bleed it from everything you do and base every decision you make on it. Right now, in this tough economy, too many decisions are being made in boardrooms rather than in brand rooms. Remember, brands are about and for the consumer. While these tactics might keep your brand afloat in the short term, where will it be when the economy recovers? Are you telling consumers that your brand is bailing on them at a time when they need things they can count on? I'd hate for my brand to be in that boat. But if you have a brand mission in place, and are anchoring all your decisions to it, there is a good chance it wouldn't need a life jacket. Why hasn't Honda offered an assurance or buy-back program? It doesn't need one! It is being true to its brand yet economically relevant by focusing on how it's higher quality and lower maintenance costs equate to lower ownership costs.

Ultimately, you must hold everyone inside your organization and everything you do accountable to your brand mission. Otherwise, it will never become true, never become authentic, never sustain you during downturns. It will just end up being like a corporate mission: not worth the paper it's printed on!

Every aspect of the strategy we devised focused on bringing the brand mission to life, even down to the name, Your Station for FOX 40 News. Rather than forgettable call letters or multiple names like FOX 40 for the station and FOX 40 News for news products, we went with just one for simplicity, to provide distinction in a sea of call sign-driven monikers, and signal to viewers and internal stakeholders alike what is our priority.

In the year leading up to launch, top station executives Leigh White and Mark Kunkel built in daily accountability's for ensuring organization-wide brand compliance They even provided severe weather training from the National Weather Service to certify every single employee as trained storm spotters.

In the meantime, Magid V.P. and consultant, Pete Seyfer, and I created and spearheaded on-going brand training, not just for the news and marketing, the "face" of the brand mission, but for every person, every department in the station. Every little detail like how to properly answer the phone, the role account executives were to play in the brand and not just dealing with clients and prospects, to what every second of FOX 40 News at 9 PM would look, sound and feel like, and everything in between, was orchestrated and aligned to deliver on the brand mission. It's the only way to ensure every interaction customers, prospects, clients, community partners, etc., have with your brand is consistent and delivers, no over-delivers, on the expectation you create.

Launch with a Whisper

How can you place a media buy and still call it a soft launch? It depends on how you define "soft launch." It's one thing to let people know about a new product. It's another thing to anoint it. Huh?

Let me explain it this way: The launch campaign promoted the arrival of the newscast and in a new time period, but it never directly reveals the actual brand strategy. No other expectation was created, other than one guerrilla tactic to create sampling: All the important weather and news in the first 10 minutes (guerrilla because it's an hour-long newscast). Anytime you launch a new product, even with all the advance strategic planning and brand training, orientation, systems, rehearsals, etc., the likelihood that your product will live up to a prematurely anointed expectation, is slim. That's troublesome because your brand only gets one chance to make a first impression. You risk creating brand baggage, which you have to offload before you can get back to building it. Most importantly, if you are truly living your brand mission every single moment, your audience should have no doubt, and immediately, as to what you are all about.

This approach makes sense for brands in virtually all product categories - not just media - because of how congested all have truly become, and how many me-too products and services are out there making me-too claims. If you're still skeptical, I suggest you explore the launches of Google, Starbucks, Hugo Boss, Haagen-Dazs, YouTube and Swatch, to name a few. They avoided traditional media. In fact, some never uttered a paid word.

Bottom Line

What it comes down to is that branding is really how you walk the walk. Advertising is how you talk the walk. Developing a brand mission to crystallize how you put one foot in front of the other, making it your entire organization's only focus, driving expectations and accountability from the CEO's chair down through the entire organization, and creating and implementing systems, mandatories, on-going training, feedback, evaluations and accountability's that you hold people to every single day, before you ever utter a word publicly, is the best approach to creating an authentic, lasting brand experience for customers and prospects, and a brand-driven culture that will provide immediate rewards and continue to lift and grow your brand well into the future.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It's What's on The Inside That Counts

For the past several months, a former and highly-respected colleague of mine - and still good friend - during my tenure at Frank N. Magid Associates Inc., has been on my case to start blogging. Apparently, he believes I have ideas about brand worthy of sharing. Today, I finally decided to take his advice and "put myself out there." I hope you'll be compelled to come back often and read, share and even post your own comments.

My topic of choice for my first brandecdote (you will find that I tend to mash words together to create new ones) will be a success story. That post is coming soon. I'll use this first post to provide a little insight into how my mind works when it comes to all things brand, and set expectations for future posting.

I'll begin by saying, I don't believe in research. Rather, I believe in the right research. Attitude precedes behavior. When you know the "why" you can effect the "what." A well-designed and implemented study helps you find and mine the perceptive "gaps," as well as who owns what images, positions and perceptions in the mind. I believe in administering research not only to customers and prospects, but also to employees. That helps you find the disconnects, critical for building your brand from within first. But unlike the majority of brand practitioners, instead of immediately taking those findings and attacking the customer angle, I first attack the company angle. More on how to specifically and successfully do this in future posts.

I also believe there is as much to learn in failure as in success. So, I too will share personal experiences of things that didn't work or went awry. You will find, however, there are common themes when brands crater. Not always, but usually they can be traced back to company leadership and failure to drive the brand mission through every square inch of the organization.

What I believe most about brand, and will substantiate with evidence from my own experiences and those from respected colleagues and peers, is a simple premise: The most powerful brands are built from within your organization first to ensure when customer and company converge, it's a real, seamless and extraordinary experience, every single time.

This inside stuff isn't always sexy. It rarely makes headlines in the trades. It's not how agencies land big accounts. But it is the heavy lifting required to ensure your brand remains focused, true and the continuum. It's the backstory and real reason behind the success of powerful brands like Ritz-Carlton, Google, Starbucks (okay, S'bucks from three years ago), Zappos, Clif Bar and Company, to name a few. When is the last time you saw an advertisement or campaign from any of them? What are their slogans? Exactly.

Okay, Zappos does have a slogan: Powered by Service. But it's more than an externally-focused tag line. It's intrinsic value lies in a culture engineered to fulfill a specific customer promise. If you've ever dealt with Zappos, your definition of what customer service should be will be changed forever.

Think of this brand building approach like an elite athlete's body: a strong core is the most important muscle group to develop. It's what helps swimmers rotate in the water to make them faster, it's how Tiger Woods creates such torque and distance off the tee, and it's what enables a long jumper to pull themselves through the air rather than push. Most people assume an athlete's power and speed are generated by arms, shoulders and legs, the visible stuff. What ultimately gives athlete and brand alike power, flexibility, consistency and longevity, is the core.

Like I said, it's what's on the inside that counts the most.