A lot of people ask me about brand design and the graphics that accompany these blog posts.
They see the same visual cues on my website, in social media posts, in ads, on video and even on good, old-fashioned post cards, emails and invoices.
They comment about the work on LinkedIn and, yes, they respond to it. A few people have even said, “Wow, that’s really cool. Can you do something like that for my company?”
Because the fact is, bold graphics such as these stop people in their tracks. As prospects are scrolling quickly through a Facebook feed, they breeze right over all the stuff that looks the same as everything else… Stock photos, charts and graphs, head shots.
They only pause when they see something that “Pops.”
On the other hand, we are wired to ignore the images, sounds and words that are familiar to us.
So familiar words, sounds and imagery do not belong in your advertising efforts.
Thanks to an increasingly fragmented marketing landscape, the need for consistently UNfamiliar visuals is on the rise. There are just so many different marketing tactics these days, it’s hard to get them all aligned into one, cohesive campaign. Most companies lose that “Pop” they could get by maintaining visual consistency across various platforms.
The same goes for sounds. The very best Radio, TV and video campaigns include unique sound cues that tie all the components of the campaign together. For instance, I wrote an award-winning radio campaign for a glass company, and the audio cue couldn’t have been more clear… the squeek of windex on a window.
It was an audible punctuation mark that proved very successful.
Visual punctuation marks, such as the images in our “Be” Campaign, can make small budgets look big. It’s one of the little things that small businesses can do to become iconic brands in their own, little spaces.
Tom Peters, in his book The Little Big Things, says “design mindfulness, even design excellence, should be part of every company’s core values. Because the look IS the message. Because design is everything.”
As Peters said, every message out there is branding. You can’t differentiate sales messages or social messages from brand messages. It’s all connected. You might as well make them look that way.
Consistent, unexpected brand design is the easiest way to improve the impact of your messages and leverage your marketing spend.
If you’re not thinking about branding and design aesthetics when posting something on LinkedIn or Instagram, you’re missing a huge opportunity. People will just scroll on by.
If you’re not thinking about design when crafting headlines for your website, you’re not seeing the big picture. People will just click right out.
If you’re not thinking about your brand image when choosing a location or decorating your office space, you’re missing the boat.
Design is just one element of your overall branding efforts. But it’s an important one. Too important to ignore.Because every time you hammer home those visual cues, you move one little step closer to your objective.
If your business needs a stronger visual presence across all marketing channels, give us a call.
Chocolate vodka? Dill pickle vodka? Bacon flavored vodka? Cinnamon Roll Vodka? Smoked Salmon Vodka. I kid you not. When it comes to marketing strategies for alcoholic beverages, fantastical flavors are all the rage.
Seems like there’s a new flavor-of-the-day every time I visit a liquor store. Ten years ago there were basically only four or five choices of vodka. Now there are 20 brands, and every brand has a dozen different whacky flavors.
Where’d the vodka flavored vodka go?
It’s great news for mixologists, but a bit overwhelming for the average consumer. And it poses huge challenges to marketers who are trying to succeed in this newly crowded space.
Doesn’t matter if it’s vodka, gin, whiskey or rum, the marketing strategies for alcoholic beverages are getting more and more involved.
So here’s some advice, based on one of the classic marketing case studies from this category: Absolut Vodka.
The first rule of advertising is this: Never take the same approach as your closest competitors.
If you want to differentiate your brand, you have to think “different.” Contrarian even. Everything that you say, everything that you show, and everything that you do should be different, to some extent than what everyone else in the industry is doing. Study all the market strategies of alcoholic beverages, and then choose a different path.
• Even if you’re selling the same thing, don’t make the same claim.
There are hundreds of different ways to sell the benefits of your product or service, so find one that’s different than your competitors. That often comes down to one thing: Listening. The better you are at listening to consumers, the easier it’ll be to differentiate your brand.
• Don’t let your ads or your website look or sound anything like competing ads.
Use a different layout, different type style, different size and different idea. The last thing you want to do is run an ad that can be mistaken, at a glance, for a competitor’s ad. If all the companies in your category take a humorous approach to advertising, do something more serious. Find a hook that’s based on a real need of your target audience, and speak to that. Zig when the competition is zagging.
• If you’re on the radio, don’t use the same voice talent or similar sounding music.
Find someone different to do the voice work, rather than a DJ who does a dozen new spots a week for other companies in your market. Same thing for tv spots. (This is an easy trap to fall into if you live and work in a small market… there’s not enough “talent” to go around.)
Unfortunately, every industry seems to have its own unwritten rules that contradict the rules of advertising.
These industry conventions aren’t based on any sort of market research or strategic insight. They’re not even common sense. Everyone just goes along because “that’s how it’s always been done.”
The problem is, if that’s how it has always been done, that’s also how everyone else is doing it. In fact, some of these industry conventions are so overused they’ve become cultural cliches.
• Don’t use the same images or advertising concepts that your competitors are using.
The rule in the pizza business says you have to use the “pull shot:” A slow-motion close-up of a slice of pizza being pulled off the pie, with cheese oozing off it.
In the automotive industry, conventional thinking says you have to show your car on a scenic, winding road. Or off the scenic winding road if it’s an SUV.
In the beer business, it’s a slow motion close up of a glass of beer being poured.
Those are the visual cliches… the images that everyone expects. They are the path of least resistance for marketing managers.
But if you go down that road, and follow your industry conventions, your advertising will never perform as well as you’d like. In fact, history has proven you have to break the rules in order to succeed.
Absolut Vodka won the market by winning the imagination of the consumer through brilliant print advertising.
In 1980 Absolut was a brand without a future. All the market research pointed to a complete failure. The bottle was weird looking. It was hard to pour. It was Scandinavian, not Russian. It was way too expensive. It was a me-too product in the premium vodka category.
But the owner of Carillon Imports didn’t care. He believed his product was just different enough… That all he needed was the right ad campaign.
So he threw out all the old conventions of his business and committed to a campaign that was completely different than anything else in his industry. And he didn’t just test the water, he came out with all his guns blazing.
TBWA launched a print campaign that called attention to the unique bottle design of Absolut. It was brilliantly simple, and unique among marketing strategies for alcoholic beverages of any kind.
Needless to say, it worked.
The “Absolut Perfection” campaign gave a tasteless, odorless drink a distinctively hip personality and transformed a commodity product into a cultural icon. In an era where alcohol consumption dropped, Absolut sales went from 10,000 cases a year to 4.5 million cases in 2000. And it’s still the leading brand of Vodka in the country.
The moral of the story is this: When you choose to follow convention, you choose invisibility.
“To gain attention, disrupt convention.”
That’s my own quote.
Instead of worrying about what everyone else has done, focus on what you could be doing. Take the self-imposed rule book and throw it away. Do something different. Anything!
Long before the days of dill pickle vodka, Absolute added a nice local touch to its ads in major markets such as LA, New York and Chicago. (ads at left)
They made the campaign timely and locally relevant by hitching onto well-known events, famous people and iconic places. It was a brilliant example of wise brand affiliations.
This disruption mindset doesn’t apply just to the marketing strategies of alcoholic beverages. It’s important for professional service companies or any other category where it’s tough to differentiate one company from the others.
Take real estate agents for example. Realtors are, in essence, me-too products. Flavorless vodka. In Bend, Oregon they’re a commodity. Even if a realtor has a specialty there are at least 500 other people who could do the same thing. For the same fee. That’s the bad news.
The good news is, even though there’s no difference in price and no discernable difference in service, you could still create a major difference in perception. If you’re willing to think different.
Like Absolut Vodka, a unique approach to your advertising is the one thing that can set you apart from every other competitor. Advertising is the most powerful weapon you have, simply because no one else is doing it. At least not very well.
But putting your picture in an ad won’t do it. That’s the conventional approach.
Remember rule number one and run advertising that says something. Find a message that demonstrates how well you understand your customers or the market. Run a campaign that conveys your individual identity without showing the clichéd, 20-year-old head shot.
Do what the owner of Absolute did. Find an approach that is uniquely yours, and stick with it no matter what everyone in your industry says. Over the long haul, the awareness you’ve generated will translate into sales. Next thing you know everyone else will be scrambling to copy what you’re doing.
Eventually your campaign just might become a new industry convention. Maybe not on par with bacon vodka or dill pickle vodka, but iconic nonetheless.
Branding is a popular topic in the business press these days. Unfortunately, coverage of companies like Tesla, Nike and Virgin, make it sound as if Branding is a discipline reserved only for Fortune 500 companies and globe-trotting billionaires.
Small-business branding is often overlooked.
Let me set the record straight on that: It’s entirely possible to build a successful brand without a million-dollar marketing budget or a cadre of high-paid consultants.
Many small-business owners do it intuitively. They build a successful business, step by step, year after year, and eventually a great brand develops.
It does not happen the other way around.
You can’t just come up with a nice name a great logo and expect the business to become a successful brand overnight. Without a good, solid business operation and a realistic brand strategy, you can’t have a great brand.
If you look closely you can find plenty of inspiring brands in everyday places. Like the breakfast table and the local Mexican restaurant. Because the fact is, branding is not exclusive to big business. If you deconstruct it, you’ll see that all successful brands share four important things:
Forget about Proctor & Gamble for a minute and consider the small businesses branding case studies in your town or neighborhood. Think about the little guys who have a ridiculously loyal following. What makes them successful? What have the owners done that turned their typical small business into an iconic local brand?
In Bend, Oregon there’s a popular little restaurant named, simply, “Taco Stand.” It’s not the best Mexican food in town, but it’s damn good and it costs next to nothing. It’s so cheap it’s almost embarrassing.
Taco Stand’s in a terrible location next to a laundry mat. It’s not open for dinner. They have no web presence or advertising budget. And yet, it’s a successful little brand, doing much better than many high-end restaurants downtown.
Taco Stand has all four ingredients of a tasty brand, with a bit of Tabasco thrown in for good measure.
For Taco Stand, flavor and low cost are the differentiators. They consistently deliver on a very simple value proposition: You’ll get a big, great-tasting burrito for very little dinero.
Credibility stems from the genuine quality of the food, the consistency, and the loyal, locals-only reputation. If there were an insider’s guide to Bend dining, Taco Stand would be top of the list.
Small-business branding – learn from the branding mistakes of the big boys.
Most people think differentiation and credibility is easier for big corporations. They can launch a new brand with a massive tv campaign, effectively differentiating their product on nothing but advertising creativity and pretty packaging. Social Media alone can lead to some degree of credibility. But it won’t necessarily last.
Take, for example, Smart Start cereal…
Great name. Great-tasting product. Launched with beautiful, minimalistic package design from Duffy & Partners and an old-school, Fortune-500 style marketing effort with lots of full page, full color ads in targeted magazines like Shape and Parenting.
My kids like Smart Start, but they’re not the target market. It’s an adult cereal, promoted on its nutritional virtues.
Too bad. As it turns out, Smart Start isn’t as nutritious as it’s cracked up to be. It’s loaded with sugar… 14 grams of high fructose corn syrup, to be exact. That’s more than Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs or Cap’n Crunch.
So much for brand credibility.
I’ll bet Smart Start doesn’t have the staying power of Cap’n Crunch — my childhood favorite. Because in this day and age, consumers are too smart for Smart Start. When the word gets out, the brand’s going to have a huge credibility issue on their hands.
The brand promise — that this cereal is a smart, healthy start to your day — is out the window.
Kellogg’s will probably fight back with the old line-extension trick. Rather than addressing the underlying weakness of the product, they’ll just keep launching new flavors of Smart Start and new spin-offs.
(They already have several variations, including “Strong Heart” that has 17 grams of sugar, and Strawberry Oat Bites. )
Also notice that the packaging has devolved over the years… what started as a distinguished, minimalistic design has become less and less unique with every variation.
So Smart Start’s credibility is sorely lacking for anyone who pays attention to a label. The brand’s consistency is debatable with all the line extensions. And the brand’s relevance is dwindling as more people find out about its nutritional shortcomings and turn to truly healthy alternatives from brands like Kashi.
For a big company like Kellogg’s, it may not matter.
Maybe Smart Start is doing well enough. Maybe Kellogg’s can chalk up a good profit despite the questionable product claims. It’s a big company with big resources. They can just move on and do it all again.
Smaller companies don’t have that luxury. You can’t afford to launch a new brand under false pretenses of any kind. Credibility too hard to come by, under the best of circumstances.
What do you suppose would happen to Taco Stand if they suddenly started marketing “healthy” burritos?
It’d be a recipe for a small-business branding disaster…
Relevance would be the first to go, since people who want a big, cheap burrito don’t really care about healthfulness. (Just because you can make a claim, doesn’t mean it’s going to be relevant to your core audience.) “Healthy” is not part of the Taco Stand value proposition.
Credibility would lost, because no one would believe that a Taco Stand burrito is really healthy.
And, of course consistency would be sacrificed. Consistency of flavor and consistency of their messaging.
After that, no amount of differentiation would help. It would end up like so many other restaurants that just come and go, leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
So what’s the lesson here for small-business branding?
Make sure your product claims are relevant, and not just good-for-nothing add-ons.
Don’t choose a name, like “Smart Start” that cannot be substantiated by the facts.
Be consistently authentic. If you serve a great, cheap lunch, don’t try to do dinners.
What are the common attributes of the world’s greatest brands? And more importantly, what can the average business owner, entrepreneur or marketing director learn from the greats?
I could have done a listicle on the subject: “5 things that great brands have in common.” But that would have been lame… the form of the content would have been contrary to the first, most common attribute that great brands share: Differentiation.
Great brands are highly differentiated from the competition.
Brands like Ikea, Whole Foods and Nike play by their own rules. They break the preconceived notion of function, service, style or culture and catch the competition off guard. That’s how they establish leadership positions.
Under Armour has risen past Adidas and grabbed second place behind Nike, and it wasn’t by making me-too products. They broke the preconceived notion of function in a t-shirt and have parlayed that into a sporting goods powerhouse.
Zappos differentiated itself in the E-commerce arena by focusing on service.
Tony Hsieh knew, from the very beginning, that it wasn’t just a matter of moving a lot of shoes. He wanted to be the Nordstrom of Ecommerce, and Hsieh built the entire operation around that one, core brand value.
Now it’s actually integrated into the Zappos brand identity. “Powered by Service.”
These days, start-ups commonly pitch themselves as the Zappos of of this, and the Zappos of that… “The Zappos of office supplies.” “The Zappos of skateboarding.” “The Zappos of specialty foods.”
They all want to differentiate themselves by emulating Zappos, and then get bought by Amazon for $928 million. Like Zappos did.
Apple has always played by its own rules. It’s not just differentiated, it’s purposely contrarian.
It was born that way, as the counter-culture antithesis to Windows and IBM.
According to a 2002 Wired Magazine article, “they did it by building a sense of belonging to an elite club by portraying the Mac as embodying the values of righteous outsiderism and rebellion against injustice.”
So as I write this article on a MacBook Pro what does that say about me?
It says that I’m consciously creative. That I value design. That I like simplicity. That I’m not a corporate lemming. That I “think different.”
Those feelings were imprinted in me the first time I sat down at at a little Mac. And now those feelings keep replaying every time I pick up my iPhone 7. (Not so much when I have to deal with iTunes.)
Great brands connect on an emotional, gut level.
A hot bowl of tomato soup on a cold winter day triggers feelings of comfort, love and security for millions of Americans. It’s M’m M’m Good! (That slogan is ranked as one of the 10 best of the 20th century, and it was successfully resurrected in 2002.)
The ingrained goodwill that we have for Campbell’s Soup is the only thing that’s sustaining the company amid MSG scares, shrinking category sales, and stiff competition from Progresso and other, healthier choices such as Amy’s and Pacific Foods.
Speaking of emotional attachment, let’s talk Target, the country’s second-largest retailer.
My daughter is an absolute brand fanatic. She lives for those Target shopping trips. The ads speak to her. The experience is superior to any other store. And she loves the products they carry. She jokingly admits to “having a problem.”
According to Harvard Business Review, Target’s business objective was to create an alternative to Wal-Mart’s price leadership. It’s done that through upscale discounting — a concept associating style, quality, and price competitiveness.
This “cheap-chic” strategy enabled Target to become a major brand and consumer-shopping destination, and was built around two interrelated branding activities:
Designer partnerships and clever, creative advertising.
Target spends 2.3 percent of its revenues on advertising. Target’s agencies regularly come up with fun, memorable ad campaigns that maintain the brand’s hip design aesthetic that has helped transformed its signature bull’s-eye logo into a lifestyle symbol. As my daughter put it, “Yeah, I follow them on Instagram because it’s aesthetically pleasing.”
Target’s brand promise is summed up very nicely in its tagline, “Expect More. Pay Less.” In other words, the value is a given, but there’s style too. Otherwise, millennials would dessert it faster than you can say “Where’d Sears go?”
Target has successfully associated its name with a younger, hipper, edgier image than its competitors. It’s not just Target, it’s “Tar-zhay.” And for my daughter, who grew up shopping there, it will always will have a special place in her heart.
If you’re a motorcycle enthusiast, you’ll be familiar with the cult-like culture of Harley Davidson.
If you’re a driving enthusiast, you’ll relate to BMW’s brand messaging… “The Ultimate Driving Machine.” And you’ll understand that no one bought a Dodge Viper because of its product features.
Emotion is everything when it comes to building an iconic brand.
Great brands deliver on their promise year after year.
Target stays relevant by keeping up with the latest fashion trends and aligning itself with the right designers. The right stars. The right brand affiliations. It’s a constant effort to always keep things fresh.
Many business owners seem to think of branding as a one-time event — do it and it’s done. But that’s not it at all. Branding requires constant diligence.
You won’t stay competitive long enough to become iconic if you’re not delivering on your brand promise. To remain emotionally connected to your tribe, you have work at it on a day-to-day basis. Because an iconic brand does not guarantee business success.
Was Saturn iconic? Certainly for a few years in automotive circles. What about Oldsmobile and Plymouth? Many icons of the auto industry have stalled, and ended up in the perverbial junkyard.
VW lost millions of fans when they duped the public on Diesel admissions. But the strength of the brand will carry it through. Eventually.
For about 10 years I was a loyal Audi owner. One holiday weekend I had to drive my Q7 two and half hours on a narrow, icy, highway that’s sketchy even on a clear, summer night. I felt security, safety, familiarity, excitement, satisfaction, indulgence.
The trip wasn’t exactly fun, but it reinforced all my beliefs about the brand: Best damn cars for snowy roads. Period.
Ultimately, however, the brand lost me. I gave up that extra sense of security on snowy roads in favor of financial security. I just couldn’t justify the expense of long-term Audi ownership. I literally felt sick every time I had to check into the service department at the dealership.
The Audi brand couldn’t deliver on its promise when my car was in shop.
Great brands have a clear sense of purpose.
Your brand’s purpose isn’t to make money. That’s the purpose of the business. The brand needs to stand for something deeper and more meaningful than that.
Nike sells shoes and apparel. But it’s purpose is to inspire action, performance and personal achievement. “Just Do It.”
Starbucks sells coffee and fast food. But it’s purpose is to fill a void in our busy lives. As Howard Shultz once said, “A burger joint fills the belly, but a good coffeehouse fills the soul.”
Coke-a-Cola sells sugar water, but the brand’s purpose is to spread American values around the world. It’s a little taste of freedom in a bottle.
A strong, purpose-driven culture won’t help if you don’t communicate clearly. So sharp storytelling skill is another thing that great brands have in common.
It’s a challenge, staying “on message.” That’s where many companies go wrong… their advertising says one thing, their social media campaigns say another thing, and their website communicates something else entirely.
Consistency and alignment is something all great brands have in common.
Patagonia is a brand with a very clear sense of purpose and a consistent, compelling story to match. They use an authentic, visual narrative. No staged shots of pretty boy models. No over-explanation.
It’s an approach that establishes that intangible, emotional connection that fuels success and inspires people… Participate in the outdoors and help save our wild, beautiful places.
A lot of marketing people seem to think that branding ads are a waste of money. As if “branding” and “results” simply don’t go together.
I think Subaru and many other iconic brands prove that wrong. And I’d also contend that every ad, every social media post, every email, every touch with a prospective buyer is, in fact, branding.
“Winter storm slams into Washington.”
“Travel advisory for the entire New England area.”
“Heavy snow accumulations across the Rockies.”
Subaru of America loves headlines like that. Every time a big storm brings traffic to a standstill, the front page of the newspaper reads like a branding ad for Subaru.
Which brings me to an ad that I spotted in Ski Magazine some years ago. It was pleasantly simple:
“Snowstorm Advisory. (More of a calling than a warning)” Subaru.
No photo of the car. Just a dramatic photo of a lonely road in a blizzard. It’s taken in the first-person perspective, as if I’m sitting in the front seat on my way to the mountain.
That ad doesn’t just speak to me. It sings.
Hats off to the creative team that did that ad. And a round of applause for the client at Subaru who actually stood up against the industry convention and agreed to leave the car out of the ad altogether. (yes, you CAN do a branding ad without showing the product.)
It takes guts to run a full page ad in a national magazine without showing the product. And I’m sure the dealers gripe about it, and say “it’s just a branding ad, it’s never going to sell anything.”
This is the type of product-as-hero image that every dealer wants in every ad.
But nevertheless, it works.
It speaks volumes about the brand, and it touches a highly relevant emotional chord with anyone who has ever driven through a blizzard to be first on the chairlift.
Besides, with a limited budget there’s a good, practical reason to leave out the product shot: The appeal is not limited to any one model of Subaru. It’s not an ad for the Outback, it’s an ad for the brand.
Just let them imagine whatever Subaru model they like. For a younger, California skier it could be a WRX. For a Birkenstock-wearing telemark skier in Vermont, it’s a Forrester.
By NOT showing the model, they actually sell every Subaru in the line up.
Damn right it’s a branding ad! You should be so lucky.
The Subaru branding ads reflects a genuine, empathetic understanding of the core audience.
Kevin Mayer, Subaru’s Director of Marketing, says his brand is as much about customers as it is about products.
Subaru caters to outdoorsy people of comfortable means who opt for function over fashion every time. It’s a well-targeted niche market of skiers, hikers and kayakers who need all-wheel-drive for navigating unpredictable roads. (Not surprisingly, most Subarus are sold in the Northwest and the Northeast, where there’s a lot of skiing, kayaking and hiking.)
But more importantly, “Subaru owners are experience seekers – they want to live bigger, more engaged lives,” Mayer, said. “To them, the car is the enabler of that bigger life. A conscious alternative to the mainstream.”
It’s obvious that the ski magazine ad came directly from that sort of crystal-clear consumer insight and brand strategy.
“We went back to the customer and started thinking again about their values and how our values are alike. We dialed in our strategies back to core,” Mayer said in a MediaPost.com article.
To me, the message is loud and clear… crummy, snowy roads can’t stop me from doing what I love.
In this ad, it’s benefits over features, all the way to the bank.
Karl Greenberg, editor of Mediapost said, “Subaru has the kind of brand equity and staunch loyalty you usually find in luxury marques, which means they can keep their message on product and brand, not on deals or features.”
Rather than running a headline that touts the features of a Subaru (ie the “symmetrical all-wheel-drive system) the ski magazine ad conveys the benefits of that system: Being in the mountains doing what I love.
While everyone else is stuck at home, Subaru owners are out enjoying life. Having fun. Missing nothing. It’s a message of empowerment wrapped in a warm, wintery blanket.
That’s what long term brand advertising is all about… connecting with specific groups of people in a relevant, emotional manner, time after time, after time. Until people start feeing like they’re part of the club.
Clearly the top executives at Subaru get it. They know their market. They’re clear on company values. And they’ve designed products that align perfectly with the brand, the message and the medium.
You couldn’t place that Subaru ad in The New Yorker or Parade Magazine, even during a snow storm. It would be out of context and off target.
When you see it in context of ski magazine, it doesn’t come across as hype. It’s as authentic as they come.
But no brand is perfect, and Subaru has also had its share of photoshopped flops. Like this ridiculous branding ad on the right…
Subaru buyers don’t want to forget about winter. They want to embrace it. Be out in it. Conquer it.
That’s a face plant of an ad. Completely off brand for Subaru.
Then there’s the granddaddy of automotive cliches: A Subaru on a curvy road is not only off brand, it’s also downright generic… it reads just like any other standard, run of the mill car ad. That one’s definitely not firing on all cylinders.
Subaru’s foray into the luxury, upscale SUV market was a flop. Subaru CEO Ikuo Mori admitted that the “up market migration” with the B9 Tribeca hasn’t worked.
Too big and too flashy for that family of cars. Jim Treece from Automotive news said, “There is nothing especially wrong with the B9 Tribeca, except that it has utterly nothing to do with Subaru’s brand.”
Subaru enjoys tremendously high brand loyalty. Rally enthusiasts swear by the WRX. Forrester owners love the practicality. And defacto brand ambassadors sell their neighbors on Subaru based on their own brand stories.
Which is the basis for Subaru’s excellent Branding Ad campaign titled “Dear Subaru.”
Fantastic teasers! I want to go to their site, just to get more about these true stories. Two words and an intriguing photo of a car that’s not posed, polished and fake. That’s all you need for a brilliant branding ad.
It’s been very interesting to witness the progression of website design and development 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 and continually evolving. Websites should never really be “done.” 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 IS the phonebook.
So on the most basic level, your website design 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.
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. It requires a little different website design.
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 there’s no differentiating features… 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.
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, single-minded brand idea.
The research or “how-to” level.
The deepest level of engagement in website design 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, videos, white papers, videos, articles, blogs and tutorials. On retail sites it’s third party reviews, product comparisons, user-generated content and the story behind the story of your products or organization. This is where you site can get very deep and very relevant for serious prospects.
Don’t overlook this deeper level of informative web design. Don’t assume that everyone’s just going to buy right from the product page that they first land on. Many will snoop around and learn more before they click on the “buy” button.
The conversion level.
Of course, the ultimate goal of most websites sites these days is to sell stuff. Which means the definition of a “conversion” isn’t just gathering an email address, it’s sidestepping the middleman and moving product.
So the site isn’t just a marketing tool, it’s an integral part of your entire operation. Therefore, it needs to be integrated with your inventory management system, your POS system and your accounting software. It needs to be a living, breathing operational feature of your selling strategy.
Not only do you have to persuade, motivate and move people to action, you also have to provide a user-friendly shopping experience so people don’t jump over to Amazon and buy your product from some crummy, third-party reseller. So you need website design that’s both “On Brand” and easy to use.
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:
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 core brand values just aren’t a high priority.
That’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.
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.”
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. My partners and I recently did this as part of our website re-vamp…
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.
The fact is, prospective customers want to do business with those who share their own brand 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. Your beliefs should also be 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 creative 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.
We 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 are your core brand values?
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.
Core Brand Values as a Competitive Advantage.
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.
This is a common refrain these days… Doesn’t matter if the client is selling complex, business-to-business services online or a simple impulse item in the corner market, they often have the same idea concerning web copy…
“This copy’s just too long. No one’s going to read that.”
“You can’t put that much copy on a website.”
“How we going to do that on social media?
They probably read some ill-advised online advice that said “Less is more. Keep it short. Don’t expand on anything. Kick ’em upside the head!”
And do it in 140 characters.
Call it the Twitter effect. Or maybe the Trumpification of corporate communications. Persuasion and word-smithing is being beaten down, tweet by tweet, and reduced to banal snippets designed to get clicks and “improve engagement.”
There are many problems with that approach to web copy, but I’ll just cover a couple…
If you’re going to limit your copy to just a few words, they better be damn good words.
This, I’ve found, seldom rings true. I rarely find website headlines or digital display ads online ad copy, social media posts or blog articles that are well-written. In fact, they’re more likely to be riddled with typos than ripe with juicy metaphors and well-crafted copy.
That’s probably because most web development firms rely completely on the client for “content.” And he’s way too busy to do that himself. He doesn’t even have time to manage the project through a freelancer, so it usually gets delegated to someone who’ untrained, or utterly inept.
The second problem is this: Sometimes you absolutely, positively need more than just a factual headline and a quick blurb for your web copy.
Business stories need time to develop. They need dialog and characters and problem/solution scenarios that strike a chord with prospects. You can’t just fill in a few blanks on a website template and expect good results.
Prospects need to know more than just who, what, when and where. But also, why.
They need to see, hear and FEEL the “what’s in it for me” piece that is amazingly absent these days.
I see it frequently in the natural foods industry… a company will have a delicious new product for sale on Thrive Market and Amazon and various niche websites, but they use the same, truncated, incomplete copy on every site. Not a single one gives an adequate explanation of “why buy.” It’s an obvious, unfortunate, cut and paste job.
There are hundreds of delicious, healthy products languishing on those eCommerce shelves because companies simply don’t articulate the deeply rooted product benefits in an interesting manner. As they say in the venture capital world, “they just don’t have their pitch dialed.”
Heck, they often can’t even convey how tasty their stuff really is.
My job is to dig up those pertinent story lines and deliver the message to a variety of diverse target audiences.
Sometimes it can be done in a few words, but often I have to go deep… I’ll find the real story buried in an old blog article or in a series of Facebook posts from the company’s launch. Or worse yet, I stumble across the meat of the message in some food blogger’s review.
How could that be? How could the owner possibly miss such an important marketing detail?
To be fair, those business owners are up to their ears in production challenges, ingredient procurement issues and sales channel headaches. Most don’t have time to craft their pitch because they’re busy solving problems that are more urgent and more understandable to a CEO mentality.
It’s human nature… dive into the tasks we’re good at, and procrastinate on the other stuff.
So here’s some advice for all you business owners out there: Don’t put off your messaging. It’s more important than you think. And don’t “outsource it” to someone who doesn’t understand your target audience or the language of your business.
Get some professional help from a well qualified writer, and when you do, don’t pester him about using too many words.
The fact is, engagement is guaranteed if you’re telling a good story in a creative way.
(And believe me, no one buys without first being engaged with your brand.)
But let me answer the original question… “How long should your ad copy be?”
That depends on the context. You need to carefully consider the medium, the audience, the subject matter and the objective of the communication.
Billboards like this one from BNBranding require very short copy.
There are times when you absolutely have to be short and to the point. Billboards, digital ads and Facebook, for instance.
In situations like that, when the character count is literally limited, every sentence needs to be creative and well crafted. Every word counts. No one’s going to flock to your landing page if you just slap up a product shot with a factual caption on Facebook. In that case, a photo alone does not speak a thousand words.
There are other times when long, explanatory copywriting is essential to making the sale and building your brand.
For instance, a sales letter to a known prospect for a complex, business-to-business service proposition. Or the “about” section of a website in categories where credibility is huge issue.
The length of your copy is often dictated by the audience you’re addressing.
Take trade advertising for instance… Natural food marketers need to reach the buyers at retail chains like Whole Foods, and the pitch for that group should be completely different than the copy directed to the end consumer. It’s a different value proposition, altogether. Yet most trade ads in that industry are nothing more than sell sheets, which is not a good use of media dollars.
Facts, data and product photos alone do not tell a compelling story.
Part of the art of effective copywriting is knowing when to go long, when go short, and when to shut up.
I know a company that had 700 words on the homepage of their website. It was a huge mistake… way too long for that particular location. And every powerpoint presentation you ever see has way too many words.
But there are far more companies that have the opposite problem; graphically-driven websites that don’t present a clear case for the product or service at hand.
So, if you’re trying to produce some effective ad copy, first consider the medium. Then the audience. Then the objective of the communication. And of course, the subject matter. Only then can you decide if less really is more.
I could go on and on, but for this particular post, this is the perfect length.
Kevin Plank, CEO of Under Armour, likes to tell the story of his origin as an entrepreneur. And it always revolves around focus…
“For the first five years we only had one product. Stretchy tee shirts,” Plank said. “Great entrepreneurs take one product and become great at one thing. I would say, the number one key to Under Armour marketing – to any company’s success – plain and simple, is focus.”
Under Armour’s marketing focus on stretchy tees for football players enabled Plank to create a whole new pie in the sporting goods industry. He wasn’t fighting with Nike for market share, he was competing on a playing field that no one was on.
It was a classic “blue ocean” strategy… instead of competing in the bloody waters of an existing market with well-established competitors, he sailed off on his own. And he kept his ship on course until the company was firmly established. Only then did they begin to expand their product offerings.
That’s good branding. That’s a Blue Ocean Strategy. That’s Under Armour marketing.
Often the lure of far-away treasure is just too tempting for the entrepreneur. The minute they get a taste of success, and have some good cash flow, they sail off into completely different oceans.
It’s a common phenomenon among early-stage start-ups, where it’s spun, for PR purposes, into a strategic “pivot.”
Every meeting with a potential investor or new strategic partner triggers a dramatic shift in the wind…
“Wow, that’s a great idea. We could do that.” “Oh, we never thought of that. Yes, definitely.” “Well, that would be a great pivot for us. We’ll definitely look into that.”
Those are usually the ones that burn through their first round of funding and then sail off into oblivion. Because there’s no clear purpose. No definitive direction. No substance upon which a brand could be built.
W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne wrote the book “Blue Ocean Strategy” back in 2005. They don’t mention Under Armour, but it fits their blueprint of success precisely… “Reconstruct market boundaries to create uncontested market space.” “Use value innovation to make a giant, disruptive leap forward in your industry.”
Plank was sailing into uncontested waters with one simple, focused idea. Plus he had a well-executed brand identity that was perfectly aligned with his blue ocean strategy.
The name, Under Armour, fits perfectly. It sounds strong because it was originally targeted toward strong, burly football players in tough tee shirts. Plus, it’s under shirts, not outter shirts. It even implied safety in an inherently unsafe sport.
Plank didn’t have to explain his value proposition to anyone… From the very beginning it was ridiculously clear what the company was all about. Potential customers grasped the idea immediately.
When it comes to branding, simplicity trumps complexity. The strongest brands are always built on simple, single-minded ideas.
Take Ikea, for instance. They have thousands of products, but they all revolve around one simple core brand concept: Furniture for the masses.
They figured out how to offer functional, contemporary furniture for a lot less money… by leaving the assembly in the hands of the customer.
The products themselves are cheap, cheesy and downright disposable. But that’s not the point. You can furnish an entire apartment for what you’d normally pay for a couch. Plus, Ikea created a shopping experience that makes you feel like you’re getting something more. And consumers eat it up.
Ikea has a cult-like brand following. People camp out for days at Ikea store openings. They drive hundreds of miles and devour 191 million copies of Ikea’s printed catalog. All because of two things: price and shopping experience.
Ikea didn’t try to compete with traditional furniture manufacturers who focused on craftsmanship and quality. Instead, they ascribed to t
he old saying, “If you want to live with the classes, sell to the masses.” Every Ikea design begins with one
thought in mind: How to make common household items less expensive.
Their single-minded focus on cost-conscious consumers is their “Blue Ocean” strategy and the cornerstone of their success. They design products and a retail shopping experience to fit that core brand concept.
So the next time you walk into one of those giant, blue stores for some Swedish meatballs and bed linens, think about that… Are you trying to slug it out with bigger competitors in the bloody waters of a red sea, or are you charting your own blue ocean strategy?
Go where the enemy isn’t. Take a page from the Under Armour marketing handbook and zig when everyone else zags. That’s how you’ll create a brand, and a business, that sticks.
I don’t know what it is about automotive advertising. No other category is so rich in promise, yet so void of inspiring insight and unique execution. But there is something any marketer can learn from the long history of mediocre automotive advertising. For instance, there’s a nice Alpha Romeo ad that’s running right now for the Giulia… Gorgeous video of a sexy red Italian sports car doing its thing in the curves with a pretty good voice-over that nobody’s going to listen to.
That’s easy. It’s harder producing a decent spot for a mundane automotive product, like a minivan.
Chrysler single-handedly created the minivan market when the Caravan and Voyager debuted in 1984. Sales skyrocketed and imitators quickly sprang up, but only after Chrysler had firmly established itself as the segment leader.
Chrysler’s minivans moved the segment from niche vehicle to the pinnacle of the mainstream. Minivans have become part of the pop culture. And the marketing people at Chrysler/Dodge have a pretty good handle on what their target audience is looking for.
The advertising routinely features simple slices of family life: we see a baby sleeping peacefully in a car seat. Kids playing cards in facing rear seats. Kids watching videos. Moms & Dads reconfiguring the seats and loading up the endless volume of kid’s stuff.
That’s what minivans are all about: Lugging kids, looking for lost binkies between the seats, and running errands. That’s the reality of it. It’s not glamorous, and it’s not the least bit appealing to anyone who doesn’t have kids. But it’s totally relevant for parents who are carting three kids around everyday.
The main benefit of all minivans is practicality. Plain and simple. And Caravan advertising conveys the idea very clearly. They’re not trying to be anything other than that.
Honda, on the other hand, once careened off the road with their spots for the Odyssey Minivan.
The Honda spot goes like this: There’s an attractive young couple driving along a winding, country road. In a mini van, for pete sake! The husband, who’s doing the driving, glances at his wife suggestively as she reaches up and grips the panic handle above her window. She gives him a quizzical, turned-on look. He gives the van a little more gas and grips the wheel tightly as he lugs into another corner with all the agility of a Winnebego.
She holds on even tighter and looks at him as if to say, “ohhhh yeah, bring it on big boy.” I almost expect them to pull over and jump into the back for a roadside quicky. Instead, she just holds on for the ride while the voice-over chimes in: “Just because it’s a minivan doesn’t mean you have to treat it like one.”
There’s even a more blatant execution of that idea from Britain, where a couple are about to do it in their Honda Odyssey until they get interrupted by an elderly parent. The voice-over on that spot says “It doesn’t seem like a family car.”
First of all, sex and minivans DO NOT go together. No one gets turned on by a minivan. A corvette might help you get laid, but not a dual-sliding, seven passenger, Chrysler or Honda product.
Curvy roads don’t go with minivans either. Put a minivan on a windy road and you here’s what you get: Puking children. Horrendous messes of vomit. Leave the windy roads to the Porsche commercials.
There’s no pleasure in getting from Point A to Point B in a mini van. Believe me, I’ve done it. There is some satisfaction in packing up both kids and the entire kitchen sink for a simple, cross-town play date. There’s satisfaction in changing a diaper on the side of the road without hanging your baby out on the tailgate. But not pleasure.
So Honda’s idea of promoting the minivan as something sexier than just a minivan, simply doesn’t wash. They could spend a billion dollars trying to convey that idea, and parents would still buy it for the cupholders. It’s like trying to kitten-up a milk truck.
So how did the message get so messed up, and what can we learn from Honda’s one-spot marketing blunder?
As a brand, be authentic. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Minivans are not 450 horsepower Italian chick magnets. (Unless maybe Alpha Romeo decides to get into that niche)
Realize that technical specs and insider information is often irrelevant to consumers. The automotive press consistently ranks The Honda Odyssey above its Chrysler competitors in performance and reliability. It’s a great vehicle. Best in class even. And the Honda executives are fully aware of this.
The problem is, in the minivan category nobody gives a hoot about “chassis refinement and driving feel.”
By letting insider information dictate their marketing, Honda ends up with a message that’s relevant to their own executives and to the automotive cognoscenti, but completely irrelevant to the target audience. It’s a classic case of getting in your own way. Of knowing too much.
Of course it probably wasn’t the Honda executives who came up with the idea of using sexual tension in their Odyssey spots. Maybe the ad agency creative team just couldn’t find inspiration in a boring old minivan. Maybe there wasn’t any consumer insight or personal experience to go on. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Or maybe they were just trying to steer clear of a technical, engineering message. Wise move, but they really blew it with the hot couple concept.
Somewhere, the process took a wrong turn and the end result is a waste of marketing dollars.
In the scheme of things, one spot isn’t going to kill Honda. But in the meantime, Dodge is sticking to an approach that simply demonstrates relevant features. Their advertising is not going to win any awards, but at least it’s somewhat authentic. It hits the hot buttons of a specific target audience and it wins the head-to-head battle with Honda. In automotive advertising anyway.