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4 Back to Basics (A working definition of Branding and Brand)

You say tomato, I say tahmahto.

He says branding, she says marketing. Is it brand harmonization or brand alignment? Is Brand a noun or a verb? What is the definition of branding?

definition of branding from bnbranding branding firm in bend oregon No doubt, the semantics of marketing and branding can be very confusing. Every advertising firm, consultant, author and marketing professor has a slightly different spin on the subject of branding.

So I’m going to aggregate the best definitions, and boil it all down to some branding basics you can actually use in your day-to-day business. I’m going to answer these fundamental questions:

  1. What exactly IS the definition of Brand?
  2. How is that different than branding?
  3. And why should the average business owner care about either one?

Let’s start with why…

Why should anyone who’s NOT in marketing, care about the definition of brand?

Because every business is a brand, of some sort. And everything you do in business is branding. Like it or not, it all matters…

The words you choose. The way you behave. The conversations you have. The card you hand out. The promises you make. The people you hire. The values you hold dear. The values you could care less about. The vendors you choose. The companies you’re affiliated with. The money you make, or don’t make. And, of course, the experience people have with the product or service you provide.

It’s the culmination of all those little things that makes “the brand.”

definition of branding and brand definition from bnbranding bend oregon branding firm

Brand – Chart with keywords and icons – Flat Design

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion about the definition of brand and misinformation that suggests the only people involved in branding are the graphic designers and the ad agency dudes.

An article on Entrepreneur.com says “ The foundation of your brand is your logo.”

Nonsense.

The logo is a reflection of your brand.

Another prominent website missed it completely when they defined branding as “The marketing practice of creating a name, symbol or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.”

Branding is not, exclusively, a marketing practice. It’s also a customer service practice. A management practice. An HR practice. An R&D practice. Even a manufacturing practice.

The first thing to do is distinguish between “brand” as a corporate mark or logo, and “brand” as an overriding business concept.

When business executives talk about “the Nike Brand” or “the Pepsi Brand” with a capital B, they’re not referring to the logo. They’re referring to something more wholistic. More conceptual. And far bigger than just design elements.

This, from Wikipedia: “A brand is a symbolic construct created within the minds of people and consists of all the information and expectations associated with a product or service.”

“Symbolic Construct” seems a bit academic to me. How about “gut feeling.” Or “mental concept.”

Or this simplified definition, from the book, BrandSimple:  “A brand is what your product or service stands for in people’s minds. Brands live in your head… Mental associations that get stirred up when you think of a particular car or camera or watch or pair of jeans.”

Scott Bedbury, of Nike and Starbucks fame, concurs: “Brands become living, psychological concepts we hold in our minds for years.”

definition of brand on the brand insight blogIn Brand Warfare, David F. D’Alessandro, CEO of John Hancock said, “A brand is whatever the consumer thinks of when he hears your company’s name. Branding is everything…”

And everything is branding…

Notable New York ad guy, Donny Deutsch, gave this definition of branding: “Great brands present an ethos, a religion, that people bond with. They go, ‘yes, I got that. I like the way you think. We’re on the same page. Let’s go!’ ”

Which leads to another worthwhile distinction:  The difference between the noun “brand,” and the verb “branding.”

“Some companies equate branding with marketing,” says Jasper Kunde, author of Corporate Religion.  “Design a sparkling new logo, run an exciting new campaign, and voila, you’re back on course. They are wrong. Branding is bigger. Much bigger.”

If a brand is a set of mental associations about a company, then BrandING is the process of helping people formulate those associations. If advertising is “getting your name out there,” Branding is attaching something to your name.

Your brand is a promise, both emotional and rational.

Branding is a never-ending effort to conduct business in a way that will result in a better “brand”. It goes way beyond advertising or marketing communications. Because what you SAY does not carry as much weight as what you DO.

Branding is really about doing the right thing.

In The Best Of Branding, James Gregory said: “A corporate brand is the product of millions of experiences, with vendors, employees, customers, media, etc.”

If you’re doing right by all those people, your “branding” efforts will pay off in spades. On the other hand, if your company has no heart — and stands for nothing more than making money — then your branding efforts will flounder in a sea of unkept promises and unbelievable marketing hype.

Starbucks stands for something.

definition of branding and brand from BNBrandingHoward Shultz said, “we built the Starbucks brand first with our people, because we believe the best way to meet and exceed the expectations of customers was to hire and train great people. Their passion and commitment made our retail partners the best ambassadors of the brand.”

The foundation of your brand is your values and your beliefs. And at Starbucks, the operational values revolved around two things… the people and the product.

The Saturn Brand was never about the cars. It was about the state-of-the-art manufacturing plant right here in the USA, the no-haggle sales process and the dealer business model. In other words, it was about the whole operation, which really was a fresh new approach in the automotive industry.

Unfortunately, the brand behind the brand was GM.

Management guru Tom Peters says, “Branding is ultimately about nothing more and nothing less than heart. It’s about passion… What you care about. It’s about what’s inside you, your team, your division, your company.

The trick is figuring that out. Defining your passion. Naming your values. Being true to yourself. And then aligning your operation accordingly. So everything you do comes from the heart.

That’s why every business owner and executive should care about branding.

 

Do you have a better definition of branding? Let’s hear it.

For more on the definition of brand and branding, check out THIS post.

Keen branding

perception vs reality in natural foods marketing by BNBranding

Secondary Reality (Alternative facts in natural foods marketing)

Here’s a comment you hear in corporate conference rooms everywhere:

“Those marketing guys aren’t dealing in reality.”

Damn right. If we dealt only in reality the operations guys wouldn’t have backlogs. The finance guys wouldn’t have profits to count. The Human Resources department wouldn’t need more resources.

perception vs reality in natural foods marketing by BNBrandingBecause perception IS reality. Especially when it comes to natural foods marketing.

A few years ago in a piece on brand credibility I said, “The best story tellers — novelists, screenwriters, movie makers, comedians, preachers — know how to get audiences to suspend disbelief and go along with plots that are a bit far-fetched.

By using vivid, believable details and dialog they draw us into their stories and “sell” ubrand insight blog post about brand credibilitys on characters that are bigger than life and settings that are out of this world. Think The Matrix, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien commented on the suspension of disbelief in an essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  Tolkien says that, “in order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world.”

There’s a secondary reality in every market segment. Consumers within that segment share a powerful belief system that is not based on facts at all. It’s what psychologists call Motivated Reasoning.

“Motivated reasoning is a pervasive tendency of human cognition,” says Peter Ditto, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies how motivation, emotion and intuition influence judgment. “People are capable of being thoughtful and rational, but our wishes, hopes, fears and motivations often tip the scales to make us more likely to accept something as true if it supports what we want to believe.”

We all have a natural tendency to cherry pick the facts. We tune in to the information that fits our existing beliefs, and blow-off everything else.

Our modern media landscape seems to be amplifying the retreat from facts. “These are wonderful times for motivated reasoners,” said Matthew Hornsey, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Queensland. “The internet provides an almost infinite number of sources of information from which to choose your preferred reality. There’s an echo chamber out there for everyone.”

tips for new logo design by BNBrandingGolfers, for instance, live in a constant state of delusion about how well they could ever play. It’s wishful thinking based on a skewed reality of hope… “If only I had that new $450 driver I’m sure I’d break 80.” They construct a set of assumptions such as “more distance equals lower scores” and “that big-name pro would never steer me wrong with lousy instruction.”

The fact is, those perceptions drive sales. Reality doesn’t even come into play. In fact, it’s quite perilous if you choose to present a story that contradicts that alternate reality with actual facts.

They just don’t want to hear it.

In the natural foods industry there’s a secondary reality that says if it’s in this category, then it must be good for me. That’s simply not true. The reality is that many so-called “natural” foods have no health benefit whatsoever.

Doesn’t matter. Perception is reality.

natural foods marketingThe tribe of people who who are drinking the natural, fortified kool-aid of the health food industry make certain assumptions and hold a particular set of beliefs that the rest of the world does not share.

So you don’t have to present scientific proof that it’s actually healthy. You just have to work with the existing perception, and present the alternative fact that your product is healthier than the traditional choice.

Vitamin Water is healthier than Coke or Pepsi. It’s less bad for you than the traditional option.

Seth Godin refers to these as “truth” stories. They’re true within the alternate reality of the market segment.

For example… Those natural potato chips that I crave everyday for lunch… probably not good for me. But I believe they’re healthier than the traditional, mainstream choice – Lays. So my own motivated reasoning tells me to buy the natural alternative.

I know it’s not like eating broccoli, but it’s incrementally healthier than what I used to eat, and that’s okay. That’s what fits into my own personal reality. That’s my truth.

So if you’re making “healthy” salty snack foods, remember… You can’t compete with broccoli on healthiness. But you can compete with Lays.

Here are some other examples of alternative facts from the health food industry:

Baked is better than fried. Doesn’t matter if those natural cheese puffs are loaded with fat, the mainstream consumer will buy them as long as they’re not fried. And health foods are moving more and more into the mainstream.

Healthy fats are okay.  Forget about the old adage that says “fats make you fat.” The pendulum is swinging the other direction right now, and many companies are using the term “healthy fats” in their product claims. The FDA’s not buying it, and it’s highly debatable in the scientific community, but that doesn’t matter. Consumers are buying it.  Just look at the sales of coconut oil.

natural foods marketing on the brand insight blog by BNBranding

XYZ secret ingredient is the best thing ever.  Health-minded consumers are quick to jump on whatever ingredient is trendy…. Acai, turmeric, ginger, apple cider vinegar, duck fat, coconut water, Aquamin, prebiotoics, probiotics, whatever.

Beware… Those trends are fickle. All it takes is one high-profile “scientific” study to discredit your main ingredient and doom your entire product line.

Here’s the real truth behind ingredients for the supplements industry: Companies that market those ingredients routinely accept anything more than 50% success rate in initial clinical trials. So in other words… even if the ingredient is only effective half the time, it’s still commercially viable.

Are you kidding me? Doesn’t matter. Consumers are swallowing it. Perception IS reality.

In natural foods marketing it’s not just about ingredients – even the best ingredients cannot drive sales by themselves. It’s not about what the product is, it’s what the product could be in the mind of the person who lives in the same, alternative reality. It’s entirely aspirational.

Advertising legend George Lois put it quite well; “Great advertising campaigns should portray what we feel in our hearts the product can grow to become. The imagery should be ahead of the product, not in a way that assails credulity, but in a sensitive way that inspires belief in the product’s benefits and instills a greater sense of purpose to those who produce and sell it.”

Credulity is rampant in natural foods marketing. In every category.

Michael Proctor, a colleague of mine who’s been in the health food industry for 30 years, says you have to dance around the side of things. “The messages are getting more mainstream. The benchmarks and buzzwords keep changing, so it’s like a crab, always moving sideways. But you have to know what the prevailing reality is, in order to skirt around it and find the reality that you resonate with.”

Know the reality. Tap into the prevmarketing supplements Brand Insight Blogailing perception.

Getting your messaging right is not an easy task. The good news is, most of your competitors are probably missing it, which means you have room to move in and effectively control the dialog.supplements marketing BNBranding

Is “25 billion probiotics” an effective claim to make? 50 billion? 100 billion? 200 billion? What’s the number?

Probably none marketing supplements and natural foods marketingof the above. Those companies are getting caught up in a numbers race and are missing the more relevant point.

Probably time to move like a crab and find another story to tell.

To learn more, give me a call or visit website.

For more on truth in marketing, check out THIS post.

Keen branding

 

 

 

 

3 How to make websites work on many levels.

It’s been very interesting to witness the progression of web development and website design over the last 25 years. A lot of trends come and go, technology improves, entirely new platforms have been developed and the graphic style continues to evolve.

These days it’s much easier to do it yourself, and that DIY trend seems to be producing a lot of cookie-cutter, template-driven websites that are wearily one dimensional.

The fact is, your site needs to be multi-dimensional. In this age of mobile computing it needs to function as an on-line calling card, a customer service tool, a lead generation tool, an educational tool and, for many companies, a storefront.

So let’s look at a few of the most critical levels of website performance…

The good, old-fashioned, phonebook level.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the phone book has faded faster than you can say “Blackberry.” Now that we all have a computer in our hands at all times, Google IyellowbookpittsburghS the phonebook.

So on the most basic level, your website needs to function as a phonebook listing. There’s nothing fancy about that. Phonebooks provided only the basics; who you are, what you do, when you’re open, where you’re located, and of course, the phone number.

The same can be said for your local listings on Google. Cover the basics, front and center, and make it very simple for people to access more information if they want it.

But that’s just the first 5 seconds of engagement. In many cases that same website design has to work much harder than that, for 50 seconds, or even five minutes.

Here’s an example:  Say you’re locked out of your car on a cold night and you’re searching for a locksmith. You’ll probably call the first company that pops up on Google that offers emergency service.

Comparison shopping doesn’t come into play.

website design on the brand insight blog

Six months later you need new locks on the doors of your office. There’s valuable stuff in there,  so you find yourself searching, once again, for a locksmith. But this time you have a completely different set of needs and expectations.

Same search terms. Same exact unique visitor. Different context. Different search criteria. Different emotion. Different behavior. So in that case, the locksmith’s website needs to work on another level. What served the purpose in an emergency doesn’t work for a more thoughtful purchase.

The first impression level.

The most basic rule of marketing is to make a good impression. Quickly! If you don’t, your prospects will never make it to conversion. Doesn’t matter if it’s a business card, a Powerpoint presentation, any other tactical marketing tool… the first step to success is making a good impression.

So how do you do that on a website?

Famous Chicago MadMan, Leo Burnett, once said, “Make is simple. Make it memorable. Make it inviting to look at. Make it fun to read.”  There you go. That old-school thinking still applies.

Unfortunately, that’s a tall order for web developers who are accustomed to writing code, not copy. And it’s impossible for business owners who are muddling through a do-it-yourself website… “Choose a color. Insert logo here. Put content there. Proceed to check out!”

The fact is, most small-business websites fail miserably on this basic, 30-second marketing level… They’re not memorable. They’re not fun to read. And they look just like a million other websites built on the exact same design template.

That’s why the bounce rate from home pages is so ridiculously high… They don’t make a good first impression. In fact, most make no impression at all.

The conceptual, branding level.

Pliny The Elder once said, “Human nature craves novelty.”

More recently, marketing guru Seth Godin said, “In a crowded marketplace, fitting in is failing. Not standing out is the same as being invisible.” The whole premise of his book, Purple Cow, is “if you’re not Distinct, you’ll be Extinct.”

Being distinct is what branding is all about.

Unfortunately, most business owners have no idea what “distinct” looks like in a website. And web programmers have a hard time disrupting the conventions of their tech-driven business, so you can’t rely on them for design innovation.

The conceptual level of your website revolves around your core brand concept — that one, engaging idea that goes beyond your product and price, and touches on a deeper meaning for your business.

bmw_uou

Brilliant, one-word ad that says it all for BMW.

For example, BMW’s core brand concept is stated very clearly: “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” It’s about engineering, handling and speed. It’s not a brand for soccer moms. The first glance at their website makes that clear.

When communicated consistently, a core brand concept will provide three things: Differentiation. Relevance. And credibility. Every great brand maintains those three things over time.

Often it’s not an overt statement, it’s a collection of symbolic cues and signals that come together to provide the ultimate take-away for the web user.

It’s the use of iconic, eye-catching images rather than stock photography.  It’s a headline that stops people in their tracks and questions your competitors. It’s navigation design that’s both intuitive to use, AND distinctly different. It’s clear, compelling messages each step of the way. And most importantly, it’s craftsmanship!

When your site is well crafted your conversion rates will dramatically increase. Guaranteed. So rather than just jumping into a quick, do-it-yourself site, stop and think about your brand. Do you even know what your brand stands for?  What your promise is? Can you communicate your idea in one sentence? Do you really know your market, your customers, your value proposition?

Those are the fundamentals. That’s the homework you need to do before you even start thinking about HTML programming. Because no amount of technological wizardry can compensate for the lack of a clear, 2349098787_2cd660c18csingle-minded brand idea.

The research or “how-to” level.

The deepest level of engagement is content that educates. People are hungry for information and quick to examine the details of even the smallest purchases, so give them the meat they need to make an informed decision. Don’t make them go to your competitor’s website for honest insight on the purchase decision they face.

On business-to-business websites this often takes the form of webinars, white papers, videos, articles, blogs and tutorials. On retail sites it’s third party reviews, product comparisons and user-generated content. This is where you site can get very deep and very relevant for serious prospects. Don’t overlook it.

The conversion level.

Lest we not forget the ultimate goal of most sites… to persuade, sell, motivate and move people to action. If your site’s working on all those previous levels, it’ll happen quite naturally.

If you want to improve the performance of your website, and transform your ordinary business into a powerful brand, give me a call. 541-815-0075. If you want more on Website design and development, try THIS post:

 

1

The secret, missing ingredient of content marketing.

It’s the age of information, and much of the marketing buzz these days revolves around content marketing. Especially for business-to-business marketers, it’s all the rage.

We have YouTube videos, webinars, blog posts, slide sharing Powerpoint Presentations, Facebook updates, LinkedIn articles, tweets, podcasts, websites, ebooks, and white papers coming out our ears.

In many cases, all that content just adds up to too much information. Or at least, too much of the wrong kind of information.

brand insight blog post on content marketing The model that’s emerging seems to rely on dry, analytical information. Curated data, not original stuff.

Data, data and more data. Most of it is totally devoid of emotion.

Occasionally, when someone gets really creative, they take the data and spruce it up with an “infographic.” So it looks a little cooler, but that doesn’t make the data any more interesting or relevant. It’s still just boring, factual stuff written for 20 bucks by someone in a faraway land who doesn’t know your business or your market or your brand.

What’s missing is a compelling narrative. A relevant story. An inkling of copy that will touch a nerve, make an emotional connection, and persuade people to do something.

As the old saying goes, facts tell, stories sell.

content marketing blog post from BNBranding in Bend Oregon

For better content marketing, be novel – tell a story!

Nothing teaches more effectively than a good story. Stories suck people in and involve the listener/reader/user on a gut level.

The use of character archetypes, metaphors, plot and drama can bring any subject to life. Even if you’re in a highly technical, scientific market niche, you can still use narratives effectively in your content marketing.

And that applies to all forms of content marketing, from cheesy little YouTube videos to elaborate webinars. You need to forget about information for a minute, and think about entertainment.  How you can involve the audience, so their eyes don’t just glaze over?

The trick is taking all that data, and pulling a story out of it that will resonate with the target audience.

There aren’t very many people who are good at that.

If you have a marketing staff of ten people, you might find one who can do it. If you’re a department of one, or a business owner/Chief Marketing Officer, forget about it. You don’t have time to research the articles and craft good stories.

So you better outsource it. Very carefully.

You need a good copywriter who can translate all your insider information, market research data, and “repurposed” sales material into something that actually engages people.

It doesn’t matter what type of content is is… could be a script for your next video production, or an investor pitch, or a trade show presentation. You need someone who can come up with a big idea and spin information into a memorable, relevant tale.

Nobody’s better at that than advertising people.

Many business people these days seem to think there’s no redeeming value in advertising. They think content is better, and that consumers will rail against anything that smacks of advertising. But people aren’t dumb… they know your “content” is just advertising in disguise.

branding blog from BNBranding in Bend Oregon about content marketingAdman George Lois said it well in his book, What’s The Big Idea: “I think people are absolutely brilliant about advertising. They have a microchip in their heads that places any ad in marketing context in lightning speed, enabling them to judge astutely what they see.”

So if they know it’s really advertising, you might as well make it great advertising.

Ad guys know how to tell stories that originate from one big idea. We can synthesize a whole bunch of client input into 30-seconds of entertainment. We can engage an audience quickly and effectively with repeatable sound bites and compelling, memorable images.

“Advertising can crystalize, in a few words, what the client’s business is all about,” Lois said. “If you create both visual and verbal imagery, one plus one equals three. Advertising is like poisonous gas… it should bring tears to your eyes and unhinge your nervous system.”

I bet your content marketing doesn’t do that.

Content marketing, like traditional advertising, needs both a strategic foundation and  exceptional creative execution. It should be one part science & technology, three parts art.

Advertising people are the only professionals who can bring those elements together. Journalists can report on what’s going on at your company, but they can’t deliver the missing ingredient in most content marketing efforts… art.

Advertising is an artistic mix of images and copy. It’s big, game-changing ideas based on savvy business insight. It’s craftsmanship in design, typography and copy. And it’s painstaking attention to detail.

If companies would apply those same standards to content marketing, we’d all be better off.

For more on George Lois, try this site.

For more lessons from the advertising greats, try this post. 

8 Crowdsourcing logo design (Getting literal for little.)

Crowdsourcing is a sore subject in the graphic design community. I could easily write 10,000 words and show 1,crowd sourcing logo designs waste of money000 examples of why crowdsourcing logo design is a bad idea. But I’m just going to focus on two practical reasons that you probably haven’t considered… These two ought to be deal breakers for many people who are trying to save a few bucks on their brand identity:

  1. 1. Managing the crowdsourcing process is a time-consuming pain in the butt. If your time is valuable, it could actually cost you more than just hiring a local designer.

    2. The finished product usually falls flat. Branding firms and graphic designers spend a lot of their time “re-branding” companies that originally crowdsourced the work.

First, let’s address the managerial issues of crowdsourcing.

I recently coordinated a crowd sourcing project for a client. (Against my most adamant advice.) The client believed that his money would be better spent “outsourcing” the design work and using me as the Creative Director/Project Manager.

Fair enough… I’ve played that part in my company for more than 25 years, so it should be easy, right? Wrong. Managing a herd of young, unproven designers from far-away lands is far harder than managing the designers who I know and trust. It was a valuable experiment, and a bit of an eye-opener for me.

My first task was to provide an insightful, tightly-written creative brief that would provide all the inspiration the designers would need. No problem, that’s right in my wheelhouse. Plus, I had already devised a brand platform for that particular client, so the brief was relatively easy for me. In this case, my creative brief even included specific graphic concepts that I wanted the designers to explore.

Too bad nobody read it.Advice on crowdsourcing logo design on the Brand Insight Blog

The first 50 design submissions were obvious throw-aways — A complete waste of time from designers who didn’t take even five minutes to read the creative brief. It was ridiculous. Using the handy “comment” tool on the crowdsourcing platform, I strongly suggested that they start over. “Don’t submit anything until you’ve thoroughly studied the creative brief,” I told them.

The next batch wasn’t any better. The designers were obviously submitting old designs that had been sitting around from past crowdsourcing “contests.” They just changed the name of the company, and voila!

Back to the comment tool: “We will entertain original designs only… no recycled designs please. “

I also loaded up more background material for the designers who actually choose to read. But as more designs rolled in it was painfully clear that many were just derivatives of earlier submissions. That’s one of the worst things about crowdsourcing… the designers see all of the submissions and what the client has “liked.” This system inevitably leads to copy-cat design.

“The client said he likes that font, so I’m going to use that font.”

crowdsourcing logo design “The client liked that purple color, so I’m going to do some purple versions.”

“The client commented favorably about that mark, so I’m going to do something like that.”

At one point a cat fight erupted between two of the designers, with one accusing the other of stealing her designs. Never mind. They were both terrible. I saw more crummy designs in that month than I had in the last 10 years. Back and forth and back and forth we went until we finally selected the “winning” designer.

That’s when the real work started.

After looking at more than 250 designs we finally had one that was, at least, a mediocre solution. Again, I went back to the “comments” tool and began the fine-tuning process. Unfortunately, the winning designer had no experience producing a simple bundle of materials like letterhead, business cards and an email signature, so there was a painful back-and-forth process on the simplest little production details. Stuff than any junior designer should have known.

For accomplished creative teams, every new design assignment is a learning process. The work is driven by insight and spurred on by a thorough understanding of the product or service.

We thrive on the challenge of that and there’s a disciplined process that we follow. We do the research, study the market, live with the products and pour our heart and soul into helping clients succeed. Because that’s how we succeed. We have to learn about the business before we can design anything.

Crowdsourcing logo design eliminates that process. It skips the insight phase and jumps right to execution with no business thinking involved. No listening. No collaboration. It also leaves the client in the unenviable position of  Project Manager and Creative Director…  A tough dual role to play if you’ve never been in the design business.

Professional managers know the danger in this. They don’t choose to manage projects when they have no experience or expertise in the activity they’re managing. So if you have no experience managing freelance designers, don’t choose crowdsourcing. Hire a design firm to manage the process for you.

Now for a discussion about subjective quality…

The finished product of my one crowdsourcing experience was mediocre, at best. Even though I served up ideas on a silver platter, and provided tons of insight on the market and the business model, the designs were weak. Most were just too darn literal.

Advice on crowd sourcing logo designs on the Brand Insight BlogIf you’re in the roofing business you’ll get a drawing of the roof of a house. If you’re in the ice cream business, it’ll be a cartoon ice cream cone. If it’s the veterinary industry, it’s always a dog and a cat together in one logo. Nothing is left to the imagination. And there seems to be an assumption that all prospects are idiots.

Well guess what. If you dumb down your logo design, and pound people over the head with visual clichés and literal redundancies, you will not make the connection you’re hoping for. Your brand will not become iconic.

Imagine if Nike had gone the literal route…  Instead of the Nike swoosh, we’d have a an illustration of a shoe. And Nike might only be a two million dollar company.

If the I.O.C. had chosen the literal, quick-n-dirty design there would be no Olympic rings.

There would be no Golden Arches.

If Starbucks had chosen crowdsourcing there would be no mermaid.

There would be no crocodile for Lacoste.

See, logos are supposed to be symbolic. They are symbols of something, or the graphic interpretation of the idea behind your brand. Not literal descriptions of your service or product.

So stop trying so darn hard to get a literal logo. Let a good graphic designer apply a little creative license, and you’ll have a much better chance of becoming an iconic brand.

When it comes to crowdsourcing logo design, it’s a classic case of “you get what you pay for.”

For more on designing a great brand identity, try THIS post.

 

9 brand core values

Successful brands are built on beliefs. Not products.

Most small business owners never think about the important underpinnings of their brand. They just want to deliver a good product. Build the business. Make some sales. And earn a good living. Branding and brand values just aren’t a high priority.

how to define your core brand values on the brand insight blogThat’s understandable given the daily workload that business owners endure.

But the most successful small businesses — and all the beloved, billion-dollar brands — are built on a solid foundation of shared values and beliefs. And those core brand values go way beyond product attributes or corporate mission statements.

So if you’re launching a new business, or if you’re trying to define the core brand values of an existing one, it pays to think like a beloved brand.

In “Corporate Religion” Jesper Kunde put it this way:  “What leads a company to success is its philosophy, values and beliefs, clearly articulated. Communicating the company’s attitudes and values becomes the decisive parameter for success.  And it demands that you find out who you are as a company.”

brand core values

Brands are built on authentic values and beliefs. Not BS.

Who you are. (Brand personality)

What you believe in. (Core Brand Values)

In “Good To Great,” Jim Collins says, ” Our research shows that a fundamental element of all great companies is a core ideology — core values and a sense of purpose beyond just making money — that inspires people throughout the organization and remains relatively fixed for long periods of time.”

Here’s an exercise that’ll help you find your passion and articulate the beliefs that become the spine of your brand…

Get some quiet, focused time away from the office. Then start a list of all the things you believe in. Personal and professional. If you’re trying to define your core brand values for the first time, you should also make a list of the things that really piss you off. Those hot button issues can be a great source of inspiration for core values and a fantastic differentiator for you business.

My partners and I recently did this as part of our website re-vamp. The fact is, prospective customers want to do business with those who share their own values and ideals. So if we want to leverage those beliefs, and attract like-minded clients, it’s important to include that content on our website. They are also a constant source of material for social media posts, advertising and PR efforts.

“The better your company communicates its attitudes and beliefs, the stronger you will be.” Kunde said. “When consumers are confronted with too many choices, their decisions become increasingly informed by shared beliefs.”

Our core brand values at BNBranding are helpful reminders for anyone who’s trying to build a lasting, respected brand:

We believe that creativity is the ultimate business weapon. Inspired, innovative thinking is behind every great brand, from Apple to Zappos. We also believe that it’s hard to be creative when you’re stuck, up to your neck, in day-to-day operations. Most business owners need a spark from the the outside.

We believe in the power of disruptive words. Proven fact: Well-crafted messages with unexpected words and images have more impact. Because the human brain automatically screens out the normal, mundane language of most business pitches. It’s in one ear, and out the other, without disturbing a single brain cell. Great messages, on the other hand, fire the synapses and trigger an emotional response.

We believe that when it comes to selling, emotion trumps logic every time. Research it yourself… the latest brain science proves that people make emotional purchases, then use reason to justify the decision. No great brand has ever been built on reason alone. Not one. In branding, it’s what they feel, not what they think.

We still believe in the marketing MIX. Technology is a great new weapon in our quiver of marketing tools, but it’s not the bow. You still need a mix of marketing tactics. Facebook,Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Snapchat provide exciting new ways to tell stories and make connections, but technology itself isn’t the story. And yes, TV, radio and even direct mail advertising still deserve a spot in the mix.

We believe in the glory of a good story.  Every great business has an engaging story to tell. So tell it! Find creative new ways to spin that tale, and keep telling it over and over again. Tell it in ads, tell it on your site, tell it presentations, tweets and Facebook posts. It does you no good to define your core brand values, and then NOT communicate them. Facts tell, stories sell.

core brand values on the Brand Insight Blog by John FurgursonWe believe that image matters. The image you portray − in words, graphics, music, pictures, events, affiliations − can differentiate your business and give you a leg up on the competition. But the style needs substance, as well.

We believe Design belongs in business school.  Tom Peters calls it “the soul of new enterprise.”  It’s Design that differentiates the world’s most valuable brand – Apple. It’s Design that made Tupperware a cultural phenomenon. Design evokes passion, emotion and attachment… all required elements of great brands.

We believe in the art of persuasion. Data is a big deal these days. But effective marketing communications still comes down to saying the right thing, and saying it well. A brilliantly crafted combination of words and images will always be more motivating than data.

So what about you?  What do you honestly, passionately believe in, and how can those personal beliefs be translated into core brand values?

You cannot be one thing in life, and another thing in business. It’s called brand authenticity, and if you’re faking it, potential customers will figure it out.

I once worked for a company that was less than upfront about their true values. They posted a mission and values statement on their site, but the words didn’t ring true to those of us on the inside. It was just corporate BS, which we discovered soon enough during a PR firestorm.

I can tell you emphatically… NOT divulging your true values to your team is a recipe for disaster. It’s literally impossible to lead effectively, motivate the troops and employ true brand ambassadors without being upfront about your true self.

The language that companies use for the “core values” often gives them away. Don’t ever say you’re “dedicated to” something or “committed to” whatever.  The most common cliche is “committed to quality.”  Or “dedicated to excellence.” You can’t build a brand around that. That aint even good english.

And one final thing… keep in mind that most of your competitors are not thinking about authenticity, core brand values, or anything resembling deep-seated truths. So when you do, you’ll have a significant competitive advantage over them. At least with the people who believe as you do.

If you’re interested in building a strong culture based on honest brand values, check out this post.

 

1 Bend, oregon advertising agency blog post about brand credibility.

How to build brand credibility, one little leap at a time.

The brands I work with are not like WalMart.  They don’t spend a half a billion dollars a year flooding the airwaves with advertising. They don’t have enough money to sway public opinion in their favor. And all of them face stiff competition from bigger businesses. So brand credibility is essential.

Last week I had to convince a retail client that he couldn’t change people’s minds regarding his biggest competitor; the big box store.

“You can’t compete on price,” I said. “It’s just not a credible message.”

“Yes we can… They’re not really cheaper, not in this business,” he said.

“Doesn’t matter,” I replied. “Everyone believes they’re cheaper because the big box stores can buy in bulk. They have special deals with manufacturers.”

“No they don’t. No different than what we get.”

“I know they don’t and you know they don’t, but the public believes they do. And you can’t fight that perception.  It’s like City Hall. Even if we advertised lower prices week-in and week-out for years, consumers won’t believe that you can match the big chains on price. If you want a credible brand, you have to hang your hat on something else.”

In that case, it was service that became the centerpiece of their marketing. That’s a credible brand message. The little guys can always compete on service, because the public perception is that big chains suck at it. (Every trip to Home Depot confirms that for me.)

But it’s not enough to just start running digital ads or TV spots that say you have great service. First you have to prove it, demonstrate it, and actually deliver it every day. That way, all the reviews and stuff that show up on social media will substantiate the claim.

Bend, oregon advertising agency blog post about brand credibility.Here’s the challenge: Consumers begin every brand relationship in a state of total DISbelief. They don’t have enough information about your business to like or dislike it, but they are not neutral about it, due to their inherent skepticism. It’s the built-in BS meter they all have.

They don’t believe anything you say.

So if they have no experience with your brand, and no point of reference, you have to do little things that will allow prospects to suspend their DISbelief.

It’s a far cry from getting them to believe your pitch or trust your brand, but it’s a start. You have to build credibility, step by step.

The best story tellers — novelists, screenwriters, movie makers, comedians, preachers — know how to get audiences to suspend disbelief and go along with plots that are a bit far-fetched.

By using vivid, believable details and dialog they draw us into their stories and “sell” ubrand insight blog post about brand credibilitys on characters that are bigger than life and settings that are out of this world. Think The Matrix, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.

J.R.R. Tolkien commented on the suspension of disbelief in an essay, “On Fairy Stories.”  Tolkien says that, “in order for the narrative to work, the reader must believe that what he reads is true within the secondary reality of the fictional world.”

In marketing, there’s a secondary reality in every market segment. If you want people to suspend their disbelief long enough to “hear” your business pitch, you need to tell stories and use details that fit the context of that secondary reality.

Like the retail reality that says little guys can’t compete with the big box stores on price. You have to work within that secondary reality, not against it.

In fictional works lively, realistic details that fit within that secondary reality make the story more believable. More engagine. The same holds true for marketing communications of all sorts. Dramatic details and believable situations help you sell your story and sway skeptics. Not dry, hard-selling facts, but character details that reveal the personality of your brand and demonstrate your understanding of the consumer and his or her problem.

Instead of shoving your product features down their throats, try for a more novel approach.

Start by listening. Suspend your own disbelief and really listen to what customer, prospects, and non-customers have to say about your brand and your business category.  Every little nugget of insight can be turned into a new detail that will help you build brand credibility, if you use them right.

Here’s a simple, practical example: Choosing the right photos for your website. Every image should help tell the story and support the secondary reality you’re working within. If you load up lousy, stock images that everyone in your industry uses, no one’s going to believe the story that goes with the photos. Your brand cred will be shot.

That retail client of ours needed images that would support his story of superior customer service. So we didn’t use stock photos of smiling, happy customers. We created a whole new guarantee program that the big box store could never duplicate. Then we branded that idea with attention-getting graphics for the website, the ads, and the store. Good service wasn’t just talk. It was guaranteed.

Headlines are equally important. You should keep your headlines consistent with the images and with the secondary reality of your target audience. (You can’t show one thing, and say something else.)

brand insight blog on brand credibility by John Furgurson at BNBrandingIf you keep all those little executional details in sync with your operation, and maintain good practices over time, disbelief will turn to reluctant acceptance, acceptance to approval and approval to purchase. For a few lucky brands, it’ll even progress to a lifelong love.

As movie goers, game players and book readers, humans love to suspend disbelief. It’s an easy, welcome reprieve from the reality of everyday life. We jump on every opportunity we get… that’s why great commercials become part of the pop culture.

The Mayhem guy for AllState or the Old Spice campaign requires a bit of a leap. But we’re happy to do it, and go along with that reality, 30-seconds at a time.

We don’t want to be sold, we want to be entertained. If you do things right we’re willing to suspend our disbelief long enough for you to establish a dialog with us. And then a relationship. And that’s what brand credibility is all about.

For help with your own brand message, call me at BNBranding.

For more on building an authentic brand, check out THIS post. 

9 How stock photos can affect your brand image – Beware of the visual cliché.

Every business needs photos… (Very few brand images are built on words and illustrations alone.)  Unfortunately, most people turn immediately to stock photo sites for images they need on the website, in sales materials, email campaigns, social media posts and powerpoint presentations.

The problem with cheap stock photography, in most cases, is this: It bores people to death. The eyes instantly glaze over because the brain’s saying ‘I’ve seen this a thousand times.’

Please, dear God, not another fake image of your “friendly, courteous staff.”

Bend advertising agency article on visual cliches

Use this and your brand’s authenticity goes right out the window.

How many times have you heard that cliché on a local radio ad… “our friendly, courteous staff is here to help with all your _______ needs, blah, blah, blah.” Chances are, you changed the channel before they could finish the sentence.

Crummy stock photos have the same effect as verbal clichés.

This image (right) is the classic, customer service visual cliché, and it’s just as bad for business as the blather you hear on local radio commercials.

Unfortunately, stock images like that have become ubiquitous in the corporate world.  ShutterStock alone has more than 100 million images to choose from, and most of them only cost a few bucks apiece. The internet has made it way too easy to drop-in mediocre images.

Advertising agency art directors work really hard to avoid the milk-toast visuals that are so prominent on low-cost stock photo sites. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of time to sift through the stock libraries just to find something that’s sorta close to what’s really needed. Very, very rarely do you find the perfect image for the job.

Sometimes it’s more cost effective to just commission a great photographer to do it right. And it’s always a better creative product.

Unfortunately, clients often balk at the photography line item in proposed budgets. They assume that the perfect photo’s just waiting to be downloaded for ten bucks. At the touch of a button.

Mike Houska, commercial photographer and owner of Dogleg Studios, says easy access to so many images is both a blessing and a curse… he’s selling more stock photos (rights-managed) but the assignment work is harder to come by.

“The royalty-free stock images are so cheap and easy to get, it’s pretty much eliminated all the low-end and middle budget work,” Houska said. “Back in the day, buyers had to comb through a bunch of giant stock catalogs, then call the stock company to do a search that may or may not turn up something. It was a hit and miss proposition at best, and the stock shots weren’t cheap. Now you can easily find a hundred images that roughly fit your criteria. They’re not great, but they’re close, and that seems to be close enough for a lot of people.”

don't settle for a mediocre brand image“Close-enough” may work out for the photographers selling their stock images online, but it doesn’t work well if you care about your brand image.

“When you’re selling stock images, it’s just a volume game,” Houska said. “They want their images to be uploaded a thousand times over, so they make them as generic as possible. In that case, a picture’s definitely not worth a thousand words.”

The question is, do you really want to hang your hat on a photo that’s already being used by hundreds of other companies, including your competitors? Or do you want a compelling image that will help differentiate you from everyone else?

“Close enough” means you’ll look just as boring as everyone else.

Let me pose this… does a “close enough” mentality fit with your corporate culture or your personal approach to business?

What would happen if the engineering department just said, “oh well, that’s close enough”? How’s that going to work out for you?

The fact is, your brand image should be just as important to you as the quality of your product.

golf industry advertising and photography by BNBranding and Dogleg StudiosI’ve been involved in many photoshoots for country clubs. (Now that’s a cliché just waiting to happen.) There are thousands of decent stock images we could use, but the problem with stock photography is there’s nothing compelling or unique about it… Nothing that will lead the viewer into the experience or tell the authentic story of a particular club. The vast majority of stock photos won’t offend, but they won’t impress either.

So we don’t use any of them. Mike Houska sets up every shot with the painstaking attention to detail that makes custom photography worth every penny. (Unpaid plug: If you need photography, you should definitely check out Dogleg Studios.)

 

I believe that successful brands are built on three things: credibility, relevance and differentiation. Stock photos can hurt you in all three areas…

If you’re trying to convey a message of quality, your credibility goes right out the window with a cheap stock shot. If the shot’s used by anyone else, differentiation is out of the question. And there’s nothing relevant about an image that’s designed to appeal to a mass market of consumers age 25 to 54.

tips for new logo design by BNBranding

tips for new logo design by BNBranding

So the next time you’re thinking that another stock photo will help your brand image, stop for a minute and ask yourself this: Will this image add anything to the story I’m trying to tell here? Does it support a specific idea, or is it just beige window dressing.

Or worse yet, is it just another visual cliché, like the good-looking customer service rep with the headset? If it is, dump it.

The bottom line is, stock photos are a fantastic resource, but marketers and designers need to do a better job selecting the images.

The problem with stock photography isn’t the photography, it’s the judgement of the person choosing the image. There are great shots to be found, so either spend a lot more time refining your search, or hire someone to get the right shot for the job to begin with. Your brand image will be better for it in the long run.

Another option is to develop your own, proprietary graphics that actually tie-in to the brand identity. For instance, at BNBranding we use a series of images like this to help drive home our points, without resorting to stock photos that are nothing more than borrowed interest.

I’d like to hear about the worst clichés you’ve ever seen in marketing. Visual or otherwise. Post a comment, or e-mail me personally: johnf@bnbranding.com.

If you want to learn more about brand image, try this post. 

If you want help polishing the brand image of your company, call me: 541-815-0075

Keen branding

3 naming your business

Naming your baby vs. naming your business

I’ve done a good number of naming projects over the years. I’ve conjured up business names, product names, non-profit names and even named some corporate marketing initiatives. Here’s one thing I’ve learned: Naming babies is much easier than naming your business.

naming your business First of all, with baby names there are only two people who have a say in the decision. It’s a simple democratic process where the wife always has veto power over anything the husband comes up with.

With company names, you have to get the consensus of many people. Sometimes there are even committees involved, which usually lead to winning names like Poolife for a swimming pool cleaning company.

When you’re naming a baby you can refer to all sorts of books and websites full of perfectly acceptable names with all their hidden meanings and Latin derivatives. With company names, you have to rule out every name that’s ever been used before and start entirely from scratch. You can’t even go through the family tree and choose some obscure middle name, like you can with a child.

There aren’t any trademark laws protecting children’s names. You’re free to call your son Sam, even if there are seven other Sams in your neighborhood.

Doesn’t work that way in the business world. There are hordes of lawyers who do nothing but trademark protection and application work. So if your product name even sounds like something that’s already out there, you’re in trouble. Case in point: There was a little coffee shop in the small town of Astoria, Oregon that got sued by Starbucks for trademark infringement. It was called Sambucks.

naming your business or your product - beware of the Nova And then there’s the whole translation issue. Face it, you probably don’t care what “Clark” means in Hungarian. But there are dozens of stories of product names like the Chevy Nova, which didn’t translate real well. (In Spanish, Nova means “does not go.”) If you’re doing business globally, your naming project just got astronomically harder.

And here’s an important distinction: your child’s livelihood doesn’t depend on people remembering his or her name. Sure, unfortunate names like Major Slaughter, Ima Nut or Moon Unit might cause a lifetime of grief, but they won’t make or break the poor kid’s career like a bad product name can.

Most people don’t need professional help to come up with a good baby name. Business names are a different story. The do-it-yourself approach usually results in one of three types of lame names:

• Overly clever, pun-filled names like The Hairport or The Family Hairloom. Har har.

• Totally boring, literal names like the now defunct Third Street Coffee House.

• Names that backfire completely when applied to internet URLs. Need a therapist? Try www.therapistfinder.com. Need some good art, go to www.speedofart.com. Looking for a nice pen? www.penisland.com.

another example of bad business namingA good name can be costly, but not nearly as costly as blunders like that. So save yourself a lot of time, money and frustration and just hire a branding firm to help from the very beginning. Not a design firm… they focus on the language of images, not words. And not an ad agency… For some reason, ad agencies love to use one-word names that are just too cool for school. Like “North” “Red F” “Citrus” “Fuel” If you want to confuse people, just follow that lead.

Here are a few other exnaming services from BNBranding amples of names, both good and bad:

• Federal Express decided to shorten its name, and became Fed Ex. A smart move, considering that’s what everyone called them anyway. Besides, repainting all their jets with the new shorter logo saved the company millions year in fuel costs alone.

• Dress Barn??? How many women will admit to shopping there, much less bringing herds friends in? Tough to be a brand ambassador for a place called the Dress Barn.

• Drug companies spend billions every year on names, yet they come up with some of the worst: “Nasalcom” for an inhaled antihistamine. Sounds like a rat poison that works when they sniff it. “Vagistat” for a yeast infection medicine. “Cutivate” for a skin condition medicine. “Aspercreme” for an ointment that doesn’t even have any aspirin in it. “Idebenone” for neurological disorders. The list is long.

Viagra, on the other hand, is a great drug name. It says virility and vitality and conjures romantic images of Niagra falls.

Here are a few of my own: PointsWest for a resort development on the west side of Bend on the edge of the Deschutes National Forest.  “Sit Down Dinners” for a family-style personal chef service. “Aspire” for a smoking cessation program. Widgi Creek for a golf club. (No one knows what Widgi refers to, but they sure remember it.)

Before you spend a dime for your sign or your website URL, spend some focused time naming your business. There are many considerations… How it sounds. How it looks in type. Is it legally protectable? What are connotations of the word? Does it translate? Is it confusing?

Your name is the foundation of your brand. So if your business IS your baby, get started right with a memorable name.  Call BNBranding for affordable help with your brand name and identity.

kombucha marketing kombucha wonder drink brand

How to compete in the booming Kombucha Market

Interview with Steven Lee of Kombucha Wonder Drink.

Steven Lee Kombucha wonder brand insight blogIn the tea business Stephen Lee is a household name. A pioneer. You could also say he’s the father of Oregon’s booming Kombucha market.

Lee first tried the popular elixir of fermented tea on a business trip to Russia, back when the U.S. and the USSR were coldly pitted against one another.

“When I first experienced Kombucha in Russia − I thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever experienced,” Lee said. “There was no question in my mind. I knew it was going to be a phenomenon.”

So Lee brought a SCOBY back with him and started brewing his own kombucha in his kitchen. But it would be many years, and several start-ups later, before he would jump into commercial kombucha production.

Over the years Lee built and sold five different tea companies. He literally wrote the book on Kombucha and today he is continuing to help lead Kombucha Wonder Drink, which he recently sold to Harris Freeman, America’s largest private label tea packer.

tips for new logo design by BNBranding

I sat down with Steve to talk brand building in the kombucha market, business creativity and his long list of successful entrepreneurial ventures.

It all started with Universal Tea Company in the early 1970s with $2500 and a basement full of herbs, spices, teas and dreams…

 

 

SL: When we started Universal Tea Company back in 1972 there was there wasn’t much competition… Lipton, Celestial, Bigelow and Twinnings. We were selling bulk to natural foods stores, but we really hit on peppermint… We were bringing peppermint in from Eastern Oregon — It’s the finest peppermint in the world — and selling it in bulk. We actually bought a wheat combine for $800, reversed the airflow, got a tractor-trailer license and began processing and hauling. We sold hundreds of tons of mint to Lipton and Celestial Seasonings.
tea and Kombucha market

JF: How did that transition into Stash Tea Company?

SL: We sold universal Tea Company to our bookkeeper for $45,000 in 1977. It had taken us five years to figure out what we wanted to do with Stash Tea, because everything we tried failed. We finally decided to sell tea bags to the food service industry and through mail order. It was a slow build over 21 years. We did everything as inexpensively as possible.

JF: From what I heard, you had some very innovative marketing programs.

SL: Yes. We had more than 100,000 people on our mailing list. We used gifts, discounts and eventually free shipping to create loyal customers. By the late 80’s mail order accounted for 10% of our revenues, but 35% of the company’s total profits. Eventually Fred Meyer (the grocery chain) called us, and asked if we’d be interested in selling our tea in their stores here in the Northwest. So they were our first retail account.

By 1990 Stash was the second largest purveyor of specialty teas, behind Bigelow. Lee and his partner, Steve Smith, sold Stash tea in 1993 to Yamamotoyama, the oldest tea company in the world.

JF: What did you do differently after that, when you were starting Tazo?

SL: Well, we started Stash tea with $2500. Tazo was capitalized with a half a million. Plus, we had 20 years of experience under our belts. We had a lot of courage and a lot of confidence. We just marched right out there with it. We knew where to go. Who to contact. How to be creative…

branding blog on tazo teaWe got a very talented team of people together. The guys at the design firm and a copywriter worked with my partner, Steve Smith, and they were just brilliant together. Such a creative force!

There are a lot of people who get involved in the brand building process early on who set precedents. The name, for instance… With Stash, from the day we came up with that name, we had to back-peddle. “No, we’re not about marijuana.”

With a name like TAZO, and the right creative team, anything could happen. The writer said, “it’s kinda like marco polo meets Merlin on the crossroads of existence.” That was the beginning of the whole storyline. They pulled that one outta their hats.

Steve Sandoz, the copywriter on the Tazo project, once told a reporter that Tazo was “the name of the whirling mating dance of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and a cheery salutation used by Druids and 5th-century residents of Easter Island.” Proof that sheer creativity can pay tremendous dividends when it comes to building a brand.

JF: It also helped that the specialty tea category was booming by the time you started. Didn’t Republic of Tea pave the way for Tazo?

SL: They certainly did. There were no longer just five or six tea companies out there. There was some real innovation happening and consumers were aware of better teas.

JF: Tazo launched with a product that cost almost twice as much as Stash. Was premium pricing a big part of your strategy, or was it just that the ingredients were more expensive?

SL: Our strategy was to launch with a product that was made of much higher quality ingredients, and that dictated the retail price. We made no more margin. 40 to 45% gross margin.

marketing kombucha tea marketingIn 1998, Steve Smith and Steve Lee noticed that Starbucks was piloting a brand of tea called Tiazzi, which they perceived as an infringement on the Tazo brand. A polite “cease and desist” letter led to a meeting in which Starbucks offered to buy the Portland company. The sale closed for a reported $9.1 million. Only five years from founding to acquisition. Tazo grew to be a billion dollar brand before being replaced by another Starbuck’s brand, Teavana.

JF: So at that point you had the exit that every entrepreneur dreams of. You could have done anything… What drove you to start all over again?

SL: That’s what I do. My forte is getting things started that inspire and motivate me, then surviving through tough times.

JF: (laughing…) That’s your entrepreneurial strategy??? Get it started and then hang on?

SL: Yeah. I’m attracted to esoteric, romantic categories that inspire me. Tea is very romantic. I was very inspired by that first taste of kombucha that I had in Russia.

SL: The first domestic commercial kombucha that I knew of was a brand called Oocha Brew, here in Portland, that started in 94. That was before GT Dave. I was ready to invest in their company. Unfortunately for Oocha Brew, they learned very fast that when you create a raw kombucha you have to be very careful… If it’s not handled properly all the way through the distribution channels to the store and all the way home into the fridge there’s a high risk of being too high in alcohol. In 1998 they sold a large quantity to QFC stores and the bottles all started exploding. The caps were coming off. That was enough to bankrupt them.

SL: GT Dave began in ’95, grew very slowly until he got some funding in 2003. At that point, Synergy quickly became #1 in the kombucha world with a raw product, and he never looked back.

We started developing Kombucha Wonder Drink in 1999 and launched in 2001. We had a lot of confidence then too, because all the retailers that I talked with said, “oh yeah, if you do kombucha we’re all over it.” So getting it in the stores was easy for us, but moving it off the shelves proved very difficult at first. What we discovered was, even natural foods consumers didn’t know what it was. We did a lot of sampling, and it was a real love/hate thing. Some people would just gag.

JF: An acquired taste…

SL: Yes. Even though our product was a little more palatable than some. Even now, less than 10% of American consumers are aware of what kombucha is. So it still has a long way to go among the so-called “early adopters.”

We determined from the very beginning that the way to go was shelf stable. Our premise is, most all the benefits of kombucha are in the acids. Those are not affected by pasteurization. But in two years time, in 2003, we were still struggling with consumers accepting the taste. It was a slow process.

kombucha marketing kombucha wonder drink brandJF: Was that a strategic error, not doing raw kombucha? Were you kickin’ yourself then?

SL: There was a five year period there of self doubt and struggle. We grew every year, but it was not like what was happening in the raw segment. The two other founders left… Didn’t want to do it anymore because it wasn’t growing like it had with Tazo or Stash.

We thought we saw the market, but it was tougher than we expected. Then in 2010 there was the mother of all recalls, when all unpasteurized kombucha brands got yanked off the shelves. Even Honest Tea had a raw kombucha that got recalled. CocaCola had a 1/3 interest in Honest Tea at the time, but they had no interest in doing anything with raw kombucha, so they just let it die. It never returned.

In order to get back on the shelves Synergy and all of them had to change the way they made their kombucha. They had to filter out most of the bacteria and prove that they wouldn’t exceed the .5% alcohol limit. We never had a problem with that, with our brand.

JF: So where’s it going now? Around here, every time your turn around it seems like there’s a new brand of kombucha popping up. You have Brew Dr., Eva’s, Hmmm, Lion Heart, and dozens of others just in Oregon. Pepsi bought Kevita. Coke’s investment arm has an interest in at least one kombucha company…

Kombucha market Kombucha Wonder DrinkSL: Yes, everybody’s going to have a kombucha. Good tasting, functional drinks are rising by leaps and bounds right now. There are different sodas with less sugar and different sweeteners. There’s Kefir. It’s changing rapidly.

SL: Our trade association, Kombucha Brewers International has 80 members. And that’s not all… there are well over 100 brands. It’s an easy product for people to launch. You can brew kombucha in your kitchen, go to a couple farmer’s markets, become enthusiastic, find and a couple local stores, and you’re in business.

JF: Sure, the kombucha market is booming, so it’s easy to launch. But it’s not, necessarily, easy to succeed in. Just because they can brew it doesn’t mean they can build a brand, like you did.

SL: That’s true. It’s too hard for too many people.

JF: Even now that’s it’s a $600 million market it’s a relatively small pie. I’m sure it’ll get to a billion dollars soon enough, and it’s going to continue to grow, but the question is, is it growing fast enough to support all the new competitors who are jumping into it?

SL: The answer is no. But time will tell. Everything’s going to happen in kombucha market. Everyone is going to experiment and there will be every form and flavor possible. But there’s always a falling out of brands. Phenomenon or not, only five out of 100 startups make it. The shakeout is happening simultaneously as more brands are launched.

But Steven Lee has launched his last company. His future now is in writing. He recently wrote a book about kombucha for Random House, and he plans to use those connections to do something else that inspires him. Something romantic.

“Once I’m done with Kombucha Wonder, I’m going to go write children’s books,” he said.

Keen branding

If you’re thinking about entering the Kombucha Market or if you have an existing natural foods company, BNBranding can provide all the insight and creative inspiration you need. Call me. 541-815-0075.  Or view our natural foods portfolio.