Category Archives for "BRANDING"

content marketing for small business

“High-Quality” Content – Finding or providing something genuinely worthwhile.

High quality content is a completely subjective — and massively broad — subject. For one person it means hilarious Tic Toc videos. For someone else, it means authoritative educational content that helps them finish their PhD.

For the purposes of this blog post, we’re going to focus on the kind of high-quality content that helps small business people succeed. But to do that, we have to look back, to the origins of this whole content marketing phenomenon.

When The Cluetrain Manifesto was first published on the web back in 1999 Christopher Locke wrote, “the internet has made it possible for genuine human voices to be heard again.”

What do you mean, “again”?

high quality content marketing for small business

Never in history has the average Joe been afforded unrestricted access to an audience any bigger than the crowd in a neighborhood pub. The internet is a giant electronic soapbox that delivers unimaginable world-wide reach.

Anyone can pontificate at will, on any subject, and potentially reach billions of people across the globe. There’s a 16-year-old-girl who has reached 100,000,000 followers on Tic Toc.

How cool is that?

The democratization of online publishing allows anyone, anywhere, the ability to post thoughts, opinions, dance moves, photos, articles and silly cat videos. It has inexorably changed politics,  journalism, medicine and business. It’s a game-changing tool for small-business marketing, even if you never produce one speck of “high-quality” content.

You could argue that it’s the greatest thing since the invention of the radio broadcast.

On the other hand, the Internet is also producing more noise, more fake news and more worthless blather than ever before. For the most part, it’s quantity over quality.

 

 

 

Here are a few mind-numbing stats about the growth of the internet and spread of high-quality content…

There are 7.7 billion people in the world. 3.8 billion of us are active on social media. There are more than 500 million blogs, and 77% of internet users read blogs.

As more and more people jump into it, high quality content becomes harder and harder to come by. It now takes a lot more effort — a lot more searching —  to separate the crap from the fact.

Used to be, you had to have genuine, proven expertise a in a given line of work in order to get “coverage.”  No one (except for the tabloids) published anything that would not considered high quality content, by today’s standards.

Plus, if you wanted to get published you had to get past the editors in control, and they were brutally picky.

The criteria was strict: First, you had to have some expertise. Second, you needed something unique to say… an angle all your own and a unique voice with which to say it. Therefore, publishing articles was not a particularly common element of most small-business marketing plans. And video was prohibitively expensive.

Content marketing is a different story.

There are no editors screening most of the content delivered on the internet. Any dimwit can start WordPress blog. Content farms are selling the same articles over and over and over again for $10 a pop. Regurgitation and blatant plagiarism is now being touted as “content  curation.”

Corporations are hiring print and TV journalists to produce marketing content disguised as authentic news. Bloggers are now “digital influencers” peddling their soapboxes to corporate marketing managers.

Probably not what the ClueTrain authors had in mind when it comes to high quality content.

I frequently get solicitations (ok, junk mail) offering “expertly written content” for this blog. For me, it’s a business proposition that just doesn’t compute.

Most of the articles offered are off-topic, as if my marketing-minded audience will suddenly be interested in  a piece about overnight skin rejuvenation. Often these unsolicited articles are obvious plugs for a product or a company. They’re rarely well written, thoroughly researched, or authored by anyone I follow/respect in the business.

high quality content Brand Insight Blog

Why on earth would I run an article like that? It’s not high quality content unless it’s relevant to my blog’s subject matter. To my audience’s pain points. And to MY brand.

How could that approach to content generation possibly be good for my business?

Sure, I could probably generate a little bump in short-term traffic, but it’s not going to produce loyal readers. In fact, it’s more likely to drive readers away.

Great brands are built on consistency and quality, not just clicks.

I also get a lot of questions from aspiring bloggers, so here’s a piece of advice…

Think about your brand first, and clicks second.

If you produce content of value — something you and your audience really care about— then the traffic will come eventually. As Gary V. famously says, you have to give, give, give, give and expect nothing in return. There is no shortcut to success, and a genuine human voice will always play better than some anonymous article you picked up and reposted, along with a hundred others bloggers.

Also, always remember how much saturation there is. On any given subject it’s too much information from too many questionable sources. If you don’t have a unique spin on the subject, it’ll just be in one ear, and out the other.

For instance, try wading through all the online resources about social media marketing…

“Will it help my small business marketing effort? Can I build a brand around it? What’s the best social media marketing strategy? Can I generate leads on Twitter? Where’s it all going? What’s it all mean for small business marketing?”

I don’t know. It’s still evolving.

But I know this: Just because you have a blog and a few thousand friends on Facebook doesn’t make you a social media marketing guru.

There are a lot of young wannabes in that field, but few real experts who understand how the business side of it. Guru status only comes from wisdom, proven results and the perspective you can only get from years of experience.

So if you’re a brand manager, marketing director or business owner trying to figure out the social media thing, beware.

Many of those purported experts or thought leaders are just good salespeople and tech-savvy online self-promoters riding the wave. When you’re scouring the internet for insight, pay close attention to the attributions and read the “about us” section to find out who’s really doing the talking.

In the Cluetrain Manifesto Locke preached a sermon of hope for the digital pulpit. He predicted that the internet would forever shift the nature of business communications, and he envisioned a world where the consumer would have a voice and corporations would have to listen.

Pretty good crystal ball, he had.

Many big brands are embracing the online “conversation” and are getting better at communicating on a one-to-one level. They may not be the earliest adopters, but they’re catching on and beginning to respond to consumer wishes.

If nothing else, they’re now painfully aware when people start spreading negative word-of-mouth.

But corporations don’t control the bulk of the internet conversation.

It’s the small-business marketing experts. It’s the average Joe on his soapbox with a big ego and a pay-per-click budget. It’s the stay-at-home baker who wants to brag about her latest batch of cookies. It’s the teenage entrepreneur cashing in on Youtube.  Those little businesses are popping up faster than you can say, “what happened to Myspace?”

And that’s great.

Unfortunately there also are many modern snake oil salesman peddling their wares with content marketing. Despite the advances of social media, (or maybe because of the advances) there’s more phony crap out there than ever before.

The self-help industry. The diet programs. The plastic surgeons. The get-rich-quick guys. And my personal favorite, the golf swing gurus. Every Tin Cup wannabe has an instructional DVD or downloadable E-book available on the web. And they’re all “guaranteed to shave strokes off your game.”

Golf Digest wouldn’t publish any of them on a bet. The quality is no better than the corporate spiel that Locke railed against in Cluetrain Manifesto. “The voice is like a third-rate actor in a 4th rate play reciting lines that no one believes in a manner no one respects.”

Yep.

Sometimes I long for the good old days when websites weren’t free and there was some barrier to entry on the internet. But not really.

We’ll all put up with some noise in exchange for the freedom of speech that the internet provides. And small-business marketing is better for it.

Now I’m just hoping for a natural weeding out process.

For more on small-business marketing and content marketing, try THIS post.. 

For affordable small business marketing help, call me at BNBranding.

3 1 Tough Mother, 2 marketing objectives: Image advertising AND results

BNBranding logoIt’s an old debate… can image advertising actually move the needle on bottom-line business objectives?  Ad agency execs say yes, of course. But marketing directors, C-level execs and direct response guys are often skeptical.

My humble opinion… absolutely.

When it’s done well, “image” advertising certainly can achieve both objectives… move product AND cement the brand identity in popular culture.

There are many great examples of image advertising that has done exactly that…  The Got Milk campaign.  Absolute Vodka. Ipod intro advertising, to name a few.

Here’s a brand advertising case study from my hometown, Portland, Oregon: Meet Gert Boyle, the iconic matriarch of Columbia Sportswear.

Gert inherited the family business in 1970 after her husband’s untimely heart attack. At the time, Columbia was generating $650,000 a year in sales, but was teetering on the brink of insolvency.

Although the company made a popular line of fishing and hunting apparel, profitability had been a problem for years.

To make matters worse, Neal Boyle had offered three family-owned homes and his life insurance policy as collateral for an SBA loan. The pressure was on.

After the first year as CEO, Gert seriously considered selling. But when the deal fell apart she dug her heels in, made some tough decisions, and with help from her son Tim, turned the business around.

By 1978 they reached $1 million in sales. By 1983, they were up to $12 million. (In 2018 the company had 2.8 billion in sales. )

 

The first image advertising for Columbia was a big miss.

With the tagline “We don’t just design it, we engineer it.” Columbia touted the technical aspects of their product.  Ooops. It was a message more suited for the biggest competitors, like Patagonia or North Face, than Columbia.

Columbia’s jackets weren’t the most technical on the market, nor the most fashionable. It wasn’t a brand you’d see on an expedition up Everest or in a popular skiing film, so the engineering angle missed the mark. It was image advertising that didn’t capture the heart of the brand.

 

 

 

 

Columbia products represented functional practicality, not high-end technical features.

BNBranding use long copy to be authenticTheir jackets sold for half the price of their competitors, and were perfectly suitable for 95% of the population who are outdoor  enthusiasts, but not extremists. The brand was more about braving the Oregon rain than assaulting the seven summits.

So in the fall of 1984, Bill Borders, Wes Perrin and the team at Borders, Perrin & Norrander came up with something completely different.

“All the competitors were doing campaigns with pretty outdoor photos and suitably attractive models,” said Wes Perrin. “Bill wanted to differentiate the brand, and establish more personality.”

At that time, there was a famous campaign running with Frank Purdue, for Purdue Chicken. “We thought we could could do something like that, because we had Gert Boyle,” Perrin said. “She declined at first, but she ended up being great to work with over the next 20 years or so.”

brand advertising columbia sportswearThey portrayed Gert as stubborn, finicky and overprotective. They showed the product and touted benefits, but always in context with a small, family-owned business and Mother Boyle’s strict quality control standards. Nothing gets by her.

As it turned out, Gert embodied everything the Columbia brand is about. She was the most obnoxious, bullheaded, effective pitchman ever, and people loved her.

In her book, Gert said  “The impact of the ads was almost instantaneous. Sales quickly increased, and I was surprised when strangers came up to me on the streets and asked if I was the “Tough Mother.”

“The tall, thin, blonde models in our competitor’s ads may be easier on the eyes, but they don’t care about you like good old Mother Boyle.”

“The image created in the ads took hold. Instead of seeing us as just another outerwear company, our customers thought of us as the company where the cranky, crotchety old broad made sure they were getting a good product at a fair price.”

Once Gert and Tim realized they had a big hit they turned up the heat, outspending their competitors by a wide margin.

They started running TV spots where Gert used her hapless son as a product-testing guinea pig. She sent him through a car wash, dumped him unconscious on the summit of a mountain. Froze him in the ice and drove over him with a Zamboni. All with the tagline: Tested Tough.

Fun stuff. And spot-on from a branding standpoint.

How to differentiate your company - BNBranding“Our ads set us apart from the corporate pack. People related to us because they believe there is a person at Columbia who really cares. And the best thing about our ads is that they are true. I really do care.” – Gert Boyle.

Authenticity. Differentiation. Credibility. And increased sales. What more could you want from image advertising?

When the campaign launched in 1984, sales were $18 million. By 1990 Columbia hit the $100 million dollar mark. Today they’re the number one outerwear company in the world, doing $2.5 billion a year.

Unfortunately, Gert was absent from the brand advertising for ten years. While the company continued its growth, the advertising lost the edge that Borders had established. Columbia’s website and on-line marketing efforts didn’t have the brand personality of the old Gert Boyle ads, and began to look more like the predictable, stock imagery of all the other brands.

So in 2015, Columbia’s advertising agency brought Gert back for the “Tested Tough” campaign, proving that her appeal stood the test of time.

For more on brand personality and image advertising, try this post. 

BNBranding's Brand Insight Blog

Personal branding from BNBranding

4 Ingredients of small-business branding – Learning from breakfast cereal and a 4-buck burrito

small-business branding from branding experts at BNBrandingBranding is a popular topic in the business press and in business schools these days. Unfortunately, coverage of big brands like Tesla, Nike and Virgin make it sound as if Branding is a discipline reserved only for Fortune 500 companies and globe-trotting billionaires. As if small-business branding isn’t even a thing.

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.

Small-business branding is very doable. In fact, many business owners do it intuitively. They build a successful business, step by step, year after year, and eventually a great brand emerges.

small business branding from bnbrandingIt does not happen the other way around.

You can’t just come up with a nice name and 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’ll never 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 small-business branding shares four important things with fortune 500 branding:

Relevance. Credibility. Differentiation. Consistency.

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?

small-business branding - big fat burrito from the brand insight blog BNBrandingIn Bend, Oregon there used to be a popular little restaurant named, simply, “Taco Stand.” It wasn’t the best Mexican food in town, but for many years it was the most popular, despite an embarrassing location and many other shortcomings.

Taco Stand was in a tiny building in a hard-to-find spot next to a run-down laundry mat.

It was never open for dinner. They had no web presence, advertising budget or social media following. And yet, for 20 years it was a successful little business, doing much better than many high-end restaurants downtown.

Taco Stand had all four ingredients of an iconic brand, with a bit of Tabasco thrown in for good measure.

The owners of Taco Stand consistently delivered on a very simple value proposition: Big flavor for a small price. All the locals knew you could get a big, great-tasting burrito for very little dinero.

They never wavered from that focus. Consistency led to a loyal following, which added to their credibility, which led to profitability. There’s good money in rice and beans.

Small-business branding and a big-business blunder.

Most people think differentiation and credibility is easy for big corporations. Companies like Kellogg’s can launch a new brand with a massive multi-media campaign, effectively differentiating their product on nothing but advertising creativity and pretty packaging.

But even the big boys make mistakes that leave a bad taste.

brand credibility in cereal branding Take, for example, Smart Start cereal…

The idea at Kellogg’s was to launch a cereal that could compete with all the rising stars of the natural foods industry. The consumer trend was overwhelming… people wanted healthier breakfast alternatives. They wanted whole grains, fiber and good taste without all the sugar.

So Smart Start was positioned as a “healthy” and “wholesome”adult cereal. The elegantly set promo copy described it as “Lightly sweetened, toasted multi-grain flakes and crunchy oat clusters.”

It was launched in 1998 with beautiful, minimalistic package design from Duffy & Partners and a Fortune-500 style marketing effort with lots of  full page, full color ads in targeted magazines like Shape and Parenting.

Great name. Great-tasting product. The greatest package design in the history of breakfast cereal. And a premise that was complete BS.

When my kids were young they liked Smart Start. And for some reason I felt okay about serving it to them, despite the fact that I knew it was a big, fat lie.

One glance at the ingredient list and you’ll see that Smart Start isn’t as nutritious as it’s cracked up to be.  It’s loaded with sugar… 18 grams of sugar plus high fructose corn syrup, honey,  molassass,  sugar, sugar and more sugar.  That’s more than Fruit Loops, Cocoa Puffs or Cap’n Crunch.

So much for credibility. So much for authenticity.

From day one, Smart Start was built around a brand promise that the product could never deliver upon. It was doomed from the start because the actual product was not aligned with the brand promise.

Over the lifespan of that product Kellogg’s tried a number of things to stem the bleeding. Rather than addressing the underlying weakness of the product, they tired the old line-extension trick… They did a “Strong Heart” variation that has 17 grams of sugar, a Strawberry Oat Bites variety and an antioxidant variety.)

Just keep launching new flavors and spin-offs of Smart Start , maybe they’ll forget about its UN-healthiness.

The packaging also devolved over the years… what started as a distinguished, minimalistic design slowly become less and less unique with every variation.

So Smart Start’s credibility was sorely lacking for anyone who pays attention to nutrition labels. 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.

Even a big company like Kellogg’s, that has deep pockets and a 33% overall market share in the cereal isle, can’t get away with that.

In October 2019 Kellogg’s settled a $20 million class action suit for false claims of being “healthy” “nutritions” and “wholesome.” The suit involved five flavors of Raisin Bran, 16 types of Frosted Mini-Wheats, Smart Start cereals and 24 types of Nutri-Grain bars.

I bet they won’t be putting the American Heart Association logo on their packages from now on.

 

So what’s the lesson here for small-business branding?

Smaller companies can’t afford to mess up like Kellogg’s. Credibility too hard to come by, under the best of circumstances. If you launch a new brand under false pretenses of any kind, you’re going to fail.

brand credibilityDon’t choose a name, like “Smart Start,” that cannot be substantiated by the facts.

Naming is hard, and when it’s not done right it’s a recipe for a small-business branding disaster. The name and the identity design and the packaging and the claims need to be aligned with the brand strategy and the product itself.

Make sure your product claims are not only truthful, but also relevant to the target audience. 

For instance, “Healthy” is not part of the Taco Stand value proposition. It would be a silly claim to make because people who want a big, cheap burrito don’t really care about healthfulness. It’s not relevant.

Credibility would also suffer because no one would believe that a Taco Stand burrito is really healthy.

Be consistently authentic.

If you serve a great, cheap lunch, don’t try to do fancy dinners. If you do sugary cereals, don’t try to compete in the health food world. The big food brands have learned that lesson… now they just buy-up successful natural food companies instead of trying to do their own brand.

For more on what all great brands have in common, try THIS post.

For help with your small-business branding and marketing management, schedule a test drive with BNBranding. We’ll run you through a simple brand assessment that can help jump-start your branding efforts. 541-815-0075.

3 Branding firm BNBranding

5 Things All Iconic Brands Have In Common.

BNBranding logoSimon Edwards, former Brand Manager at 3M, started a lively online discussion around this question: “What are the common attributes of iconic brands?

He opened it up on Brand 3.0 — a Linkedin Group that includes 4,363 branding consultants, practitioners, creative directors, gurus and wannabes. It was an intelligent, worthwhile discussion that hit all the hot buttons of the branding world.

But we were preaching to the choir.

So in an effort to reach a few business people who aren’t completely inside the bottle,  I’d like to cover the high points of the discussion and add a few examples…

•  “Iconic brands plays a valued role in a consumer’s life. They deliver a feeling that the consumer just can’t get from any other brand. That feeling may be security, safety, familiarity, excitement, satisfaction, indulgence or many others.” – Andy Wright

Here’s an example: At one time, I was a loyal Audi owner. Over a Thanksgiving weekend I had to drive the Q7 two and half hours on a narrow, icy, highway that’s sketchy even on a clear, summer night. I felt all those things… security, safety, familiarity, excitement, satisfaction, indulgence.

The trip wasn’t exactly fun, but it reinforced all my beliefs about the brand. I couldn’t have felt safer in any other vehicle, short of a semi truck.

“The 5 criteria of iconic brands are:  relevancy, competitiveness, authenticity, clarity of promise, consistency of communication. The hard work is the proactive management of the brand (including product development) to ensure the five criteria are delivered.” – Ed Burghard

Authenticity. Clarity of promise. Consistency.

 

I like Ed’s point here about proactive, ongoing brand management. Many people seem to think of branding as a one-time event. — do it and it’s done. But that’s not it at all.

You won’t stay competitive long enough to become iconic if you’re not constantly minding your brand.

Always Be Branding.

It’s a never-ending effort that should be intertwined into your day-to-day business.

“One element that has not been discussed is success. No brand can reach iconic status without being successful in achieving it’s purpose. Part is creating these wonderful brand connections – authentically, emotionally, as an experience. Part is communicating with clarity and consistency. Part is delivering on the promise. But a vital component is to have delivered results and exceeded expectations… yes?’    – Ed Holme

what great brands have in common PatagoniaPatagonia is an iconic brand with a very clear sense of purpose and a compelling story to tell.

It is clear and consistent. When that story is retold over time it establishes that intangible, emotional  connection that inspires people and fuels success.

What is the purpose of your business, beyond making a profit? Are you clear about that? Are you telling that part of your story in a compelling way?

• “I would like to add ‘Leadership’ to the list of attributes already mentioned. It’s not about market share, though; iconic brands play by their own rules. These brands tend to break the preconceived notion of function, service, style or culture, catching the competition off guard and finding unprecedented loyalty”… – Stephen Abbott

This was a contribution that really stood out. I believe leadership is a highly overlooked component of branding. If you don’t take a genuine leadership position in some aspect of  your business, your brand will eventually flounder. (Can you say GM?)

Iconic brands are not, necessarily, always the market leader.

BNBranding use long copy to be authenticLook at Apple. The iconic leader in the computing world only has 9.6% market share in computers. What’s more,  an iconic brand does not guarantee business success. Farrells Ice Cream parlors were iconic in this part of the country, and they went belly up.

Was Saturn iconic?  Certainly for a few years in automotive circles. What about Oldsmobile and Plymouth? Many icons of industry have fallen.

To build on the ideas related to story telling…  Iconic brands often align with an archetypal character and story which is instantly recognizable, psychologically stimulating and meaningful. Coke embodies the Innocent archetype as expressed through their advertising from polar bears to Santa Claus or the classic ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ campaign.” – Brenton Schmidt

Executives at Coke shattered that innocence when they changed the beloved formula to “New Coke.”  Probably the single biggest branding screw-up of the last 50 years. One woman, who hadn’t had a Coke in 25 years, called to complain that they were “messing with her childhood.”  Now that’s brand loyalty!

“Some underlying attributes (of iconic brands) tend to be focus, clarity and authenticity. However, all iconic brands tend to connect customers with an overreaching philosophy that fosters emotional connection between the customer and the brand.

Examples of brands and the emotions they foster:

– Nike = Performance. “I feel like I can run faster or jump higher when I wear my Nikes.”

– Target = Affordable Design. “At Wal-Mart, I get the best price. At Target, I get style and price.”

– Apple = CounterCulture. “I want style, simplicity and usability. My Mac says to the world that I’m different and unique. In short, I hate Windows and everything it represents.”

– Jason Milicki

I’m writing this blog on a MacBook Pro, and I’d add the word Contrarian. Proudly contrarian, even. (My kids helped make sushi for Thanksgiving, and my son dubbed it a “Contrarian Turkey Dinner.” I think I’m handing it down.)

Finally, here’s one parting thought on iconic brands, from yours truly:

You don’t have to be  a multinational company, or even the biggest player in your niche, to become a successful icon in your own right. Gerry Lopez is an icon in the world of surfing, yet unknown to the general public and to Wall Street.

If you want to build an iconic brand — even a small one — start with passion, purpose and focus. Then work your ass off.

Of course, BN Branding can help take some of the burden off  your shoulders. Call us. 541-815-0075. For more on the common attributes of iconic brands, try this post.

5 things all iconic brands have in common by BN Branding

 

definition of branding and brands BN Branding

6 good questions about branding agencies and their owners

brand credibility from branding experts

Questions always arise when people ask  me “What do you do?”

“I have a branding agency.”

“Oh, you mean like Coke, or like cattle branding?”

“Coke. Only smaller. We help the little guys become big-name brands. ”

Inevitably, that leads to even more questions. Branding is a broad, misunderstood term that often requires explanation. Our scope of work is far-reaching and always evolving, so I thought I’d help spell it out for you.

These are some of the questions I’ve heard over the years:

 

“Why the hell do we need a branding agency? We’re not a packaged goods company and we already have a logo.”

branding agencies do more than just package designMany business people think that branding agencies only design logos and packaging. So if they don’t have a product on a grocery store shelf they have no use for a branding firm.

That’s not the case.

Packaging certainly is a big part of our business. And we love building new packaged good brands from the ground floor, like we’ve done with Smidge vitamins and Eathos frozen foods.

But service businesses also need a lot of help. Maybe even more, because their offerings are intangible and often commoditized. For those companies, branding makes all the difference.

Like in the insurance business, for example. GEICO spent more than $2 billion on advertising in 2020. State Farm, Allstate and Progressive aren’t far behind. They’re all trying to bank some brand goodwill and top-of-mind awareness for the next time you decide to switch insurance carriers. It’s a low-involvement, no difference business, so their brand advertising becomes the only differentiator.

Every business in every category needs help with their branding, to some degree or another.

 

 

Branding agencies produce business magic BN Branding

“Do branding agencies have some sort of process that you follow, or is it just random magic that you’re pulling out of your hat?”

Sure, just about every branding agency has some sort of process graphic that outlines the basic steps we follow along the way. We need that visual aid in order to help set budgets and demonstrate that there is some method to our madness. CFOs always gravitate toward toward the process.

But quite honestly, those graphics are simply window dressing on what is inherently a chaotic, creative endeavor.

Volumes have been written about the secret to creativity. Academics try to deconstruct it, explain it, and wrap it up in context that business people can get their heads around. But at the end of the day it’s a highly intuitive, unapologetically unstructured process.

But it is a process, and it starts with good habits.

My team and I are in the habit of creation. We’re in the ideas business, so we come up with ideas every day, often starting in the early morning hours before we’re fully awake. We create, we iterate, and we throw away tons of crappy ideas. The more prolific we are, the easier the creative process gets and the more magic we create.

We also maintain balance in our lives so we don’t get burned out. Being outside having fun on the ski slopes, bike paths, hiking trails or golf courses, is also part of the creative process.

When it comes to naming businesses, we employ our own namestorming process that brings objectivity to a rather subjective exercise. It’s the hardest part of our overall branding effort, so every little bit of process helps.

 

“What’s the difference between branding agencies and design firms?”

Design firms approach everything as a visual exercise. Every problem has a visual solution. It’s very art oriented.

Branding firms approach things from a broader, business-oriented perspective. It’s more holistic. We do design, but we also work further upstream, on the foundational strategic work that informs the design. At my firm it’s strategy first, then copy and design.

Our job is to help you convey, communicate and build trust with your audience. Because trust is the root of all brand growth. To do that, you need words and well-written content as much as you need stunning visuals.

services of branding agencies like BN BrandingEvery business category has its own lingo. Food industry folks talk about SKU rationalization and store velocity. Golf industry insiders talk about coefficients of restitution and straight line frequency matching.

In the marketing business it’s CTRs, PPC, GRPs and UX iteration. It’s unfortunate because all the acronyms can be very confusing.

One of our jobs is to translate the industry insider mumbo jumbo into compelling story lines that anyone can decipher.

Ours is a business of creative reduction… we reduce down your messaging into its most impactful form and then serve it up in a variety of ways. It all involves design on some level, but it’s not limited to the visual arts.

The real magic is in the combination of all elements — words, visuals, sounds, textures — into a coherent, unforgettable brand experience.

 

“Do I really need a marketing consultant AND a branding firm? Seems like overkill to me.”

Marketing consultants are infamous for charging exhorbitant fees and leaving clients with impressive reports that never see the light of day. Just about every client I’ve ever worked with has been burned by a “consultant” of some kind.

In a perfect world management consultants would team up with branding firms on strategy and then stick around long enough to see their vision through to the logical conclusion. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.

I’ve been trying for 20 years to get a management consultant to collaborate with us on how their clients might implement the consulting plan they just paid so much money for.

Branding firms work all the way through, from early strategy development to execution. It is, without a doubt, the broadest, most all-encompassing mix of services in the entire world of marketing. The best of the breed have serious consulting chops, as well as creative skills.

In a business filled with specialists, we are the ultimate generalists. We bridge the gap between management consultants and marketing tacticians. Art and commerce. For smaller companies and start-up brands, that’s a good thing. We can work efficiently, leverage our client’s skills and resources and save our clients money while producing long-term results.

 

“We already have a digital marketing agency. Why would we need you?”

Digital Marketing Agencies know a lot about technology, marketing automation, social media platforms and pay-per -lick advertising. They operate deep in the rabbit hole of their respective specialties, like SEM, SEO or web programming. They can help you with some tactical planning and technical details, but they know nothing about persuasion, image and the power of a long-term brand strategy.

Producing clicks is not the same thing as producing trust.

At my firm we spent three years researching digital marketing firms. We talked to dozens and tested several before we settled on one. Now that company is an integral partner. Their technical know-how allows us to extend our branding services even further down stream, much to the delight of our clients who don’t have to try to understand and manage that digital world themselves.

It’s all part of one, big branding effort that’s led and inspired by us and executed by many.

We help our clients sort through the endless array of “marketing opportunities”  in order to prioritize their efforts and remain focused on long- term strategic objectives.

Because let’s face it… there’s always something else you could throw money at, some new techno marketing platform, but is it really a good move strategically? Is is on brand, or are you just chasing short-term results at the expense of the brand experience?

Branding agencies produce strategic campaigns that play well in any media outlet, from websites and print ads to outdoor, digital banners and social media posts.

For us, it’s not about the form or medium, it’s about the idea. When you have a great idea it’ll find its way into everything you do. From a branding standpoint, that continuity is critical. What you don’t want are social media ads saying one thing, and your website and sales presentations saying something else.

 

“What kind of background do most branding agency owners have? Where do you guys come from anyway?”

I’m an anomaly among branding agencies. I’m a writer, not a designer, and I’ve held a variety of positions which all led up to this. My origin story is unique, including stints in the video production business, advertising, marketing and even printing.

Most branding agency owners have had one job title:  Graphic designer. They rise up through the ranks at a design firm and then hang up a shingle of their own. They might be extremely good at design, but their scope of work is limited.

My broad experience and big-picture understanding of all things marketing is what makes BN Branding a better choice.  For us, it’s strategy first, THEN design.

Some owner/designers team up with copywriters or brand strategists to form their agencies. That’s a better solution for clients because it always takes a team to produce the best work. The real magic happens when an art director and a copy writer team up and collaborate closely with the client. We don’t have all the answers, but we know how to get you moving in the right direction.

Want to see some of the branding we’ve done? Visit our portfolio. And here’s the full list of services we can provide.

If you have more questions about branding firms, ad agencies or anything else related to marketing, click here. Or just be dialing. I’d be happy to take your call. Fire away!

 

 

Advertising in a crisis: Shit happens, but brands endure.

brand credibility from branding expertsEvery entrepreneur experiences setbacks… Markets crash. Key team members leave with your biggest accounts. There are supply-chain snaffus, natural disasters, and now, a novel virus that slams the door on a robust economy. It’s hard to know what to do when you’re advertising in a crisis, but this is when your branding efforts can really pay off.

All the work you’ve done over the years to stay visible and be a responsible, authentic brand will pay off in spades when times are tough.

Don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that a nicely designed logo is going to make you magically immune from the business fallout of the Corona virus. (Logo is NOT synonymous with Brand and everyone will be affected)

brand credibilityI’m just saying that iconic brands are going to be more insulated — and more likely to survive — than the companies that haven’t been paying attention to branding.

This is a time of unprecedented uncertainty, and when people are unsure, scared or threatened, they want to be comforted.

It’s human nature.

We cling to what’s familiar, and we want an escape from the UNknown. We narrow our choices dramatically and don’t entertain new options. We buy Campbell’s soup and make grilled cheese sandwiches. We re-watch lighthearted TV shows from by-gone days to make ourselves feel grounded. Better.

So being known — ie. maintaining top of mind awareness during good times — is crucial in this situation. The best brands know this, and maintain a presence all the time. In good times and bad. They don’t wait for disaster to strike, they’re communicating with people all along. That’s what breeds fondness and familiarity,

If you’ve been invisible in your market you need to be very careful about launching a knee-jerk reaction ad campaign right now. Especially if your ads start with “now, more than ever…”

Now, more than ever, you need a new Kia.
Now, more than ever, you need to refinance your house.
Now, more than ever, you need a financial planner.
Now, more than ever, you need a lot of Kirkland brand toilet paper.

We saw thousands of fill-in-the-blank ads like that during the crash of 2009, and the same thing’s beginning to pop up on social media, in email campaigns, and on the airwaves. Cliches like that are NOT going to help your brand. They just add to the clutter and fuel the fear. So if you are going to run advertising during a crisis, it better be a complete departure from that.

So this is a good time to step back and re-evaluate the tone, content and context of your brand messages.

Advertising during a crisis should not be business as usual. It makes for bad optics.

Take Kia for instance, the automotive king of “yell and sell” advertising. They’ve established clear leadership in top-of-mind awareness, but it would probably be wise for them to stop running their current advertising that screams “Credit, come and get it.” “Credit, come and get it.””Credit, come and get it.”

More debt is the LAST thing people need right now. Sometimes the best ad strategy is knowing when to shut up!

It’s almost as bad as running TV spots for a “fire sale” when there are forest fires burning all over the West. It sounds dreadfully callous, given the current state of affairs. (I wonder who decided that predatory lending practices should be a key brand attribute for Kia, but that’s another issue entirely.)

Any advertising that attempts to capitalize on the world’s misfortune will be seen for what it is: Cheap profiteering. If you’re not careful, the public will forever associate your brand with the outbreak of 2020 and will never buy into any messaging you attempt in the future.

But when it’s done well, advertising during these “slow” times can help you reach more people and solidify relationships. Media consumption is up, while most companies are pulling back, ducking the exposure.

So if your message is human, heartfelt and kind you have a real opportunity to differentiate yourself. (And ad rates are lower than normal!)

But you can’t pull a Kia-style hard sell. In fact, you shouldn’t sell at all. This is not the time to persuade, it’s the time to reassure without asking for anything in return. Just stay aligned with your brand brand values and communicate what’s important, right now.

This is new territory…  even the most hardened business veterans haven’t faced anything quite like this. It’s going to leave a mark on us all, if not a festering wound.

So I’m not going to serve up platitudes like “It’s going to be okay” or “This too shall pass.” I’m sure as hell not going to say you need more advertising during a crisis or “now more than ever you need a branding firm.”

But I will share one of my favorite sayings… it’s an old Japanese proverb:

“Action is the antidote for despair.”

Do something. But stay safe.

If you don’t know how to proceed and would like some advice, even for the short term, give me a call. We can do a quick assessment and help you devise a smart response to all the mayhem.

BN Branding's Brand Insight Blog

 

 

 

4

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

BNBranding logoYou say tomato, I say tahmahto. He says branding, she says marketing.

No doubt, the language of marketing and branding can be very confusing. It has been for more than 50 years…

An article in the Journal of Marketing, way back in 1969, cites a clear problem with the imprecise, vague and misleading language of marketing.

“There is a plethora of fuzzy terms, contradicting definitions, and definitions that are not explicit enough… People have many different meanings for the same word.”

And it’s way worse now that we have so much questionable content floating around on the internet.

Every advertising agency, consulting firm, author and marketing professor has a slightly different spin on the subject of branding.

There’s brand positioning, brand personality, brand narrative, brand advertising and brand experience.  What’s it all mean?

Is Brand a noun or a verb? What exactly is the definition of branding?

So I’m going to aggregate the best branding definitions and boil them all down to provide some branding basics you can actually use in your day-to-day business. Even if you’re not in marketing.

Branding defined. The definition of Branding on the Brand Insight Blog

I’m going to answer these fundamental questions:

  1. What exactly IS the definition of Branding?
  2. How is that different than Brand?
  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 branding?

• Because branding will happen with or without you. Do you really want to leave it to chance?

• Because your competitors will kill you if they get good at it, and you’re not.

• Because the world’s most successful businesses are built on fundamentally sound brand values.

• Because you can’t be in business without doing branding. Of some kind.

• Because even the smallest 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.”

 

 

 

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about the definition of branding and what goes into building a brand.

For instance, one article on Entrepreneur.com says “ The foundation of your brand is your logo.” Nonsense. The logo is a symbolic 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.”

David Ogilvy, the granddad of modern advertising defined “brand” as the “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”

With all due respect, that’s not right either. Ogilvy’s definition is completely product-focused.

It’s not just about your product, it’s also about the people, and their values, and the company culture, and so much more…

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. Because making a great product that people will talk about is the best form of branding.

definition of branding and brands BN BrandingThe first thing to do is distinguish between “brand” as a corporate mark or logo, and “brand” as an overriding business concept.

Stop thinking of “The Brand” as icing on the cake that makes your business more tasty. The Brand is the whole recipe. Every last ingredient.

When business executives talk about “the Nike Brand” with a capital B, they’re not referring to the logo or to the “Just Do It” tagline.  They’re referring to something more holistic. More conceptual. And far bigger than just design or advertising.

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 Alan Adamson’s great 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.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

A brand is the most valuable piece of real estate in the world; the corner of someone’s mind. You need two things in order to occupy that valuable space:

  1. An idea.
  2. Trust.

Adamson, from Landor & Associates continues: “You can’t do branding unless you have a meaningful brand idea. Brand is an idea. Branding is the transmission of the idea, the signals your send”…

Your brand name is a signal. Your logo is a signal. Your tagline is a signal. Every ad you run and every social media post is a signal.

Branding is the cumulative effect of all those signals. It’s how you  how you communicate that differentiated meaning, the signals people receive, and the perception in people’s minds.

It’s about associative memory, and those associations are different for every individual.

One of the best analogies for branding that I’ve found comes from Jim Stengel, former CMO of Proctor & Gamble. He likes to think of it as tree:

Brands are like trees. BN Branding analogy on the Brand Insight Blog

A little heart shaped tree with roots and a grungy texture applied and red heart

“Brands are living things. Like trees, they have roots that people do not see, they thrive in the right conditions and they die without care, feeding and the freedom to grow.”

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

In Brand Warfare, David F. D’Alessandro, former 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 meaningful 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.

BNBranding Brand Insight Blog post Howard 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 brand 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.

Stengel did an exhaustive study on the subject and found that the leaders of the world’s greatest companies excel in these five critical areas:

  1. Discovering or rediscovering the essential core of their brand.
  2. Building the business around that core purpose.
  3. Communicating core brand values internally and externally.
  4. Delivering a customer experience that’s aligned with the essence of the brand
  5. Evaluating business progress against the core purpose of the brand.

For personalized help on your brand, and branding, give us a call: 541-815-0075.

Bare breasts mean business at Starbucks.

bn branding's iconic logo

I’ve been a fan of Starbucks since they opened their first store in Portland, in 1987.  I don’t think there’s been a brand, since McDonalds, that has had a bigger effect on our society than Starbucks. It truly is, one of the most iconic brands in the world, and has grown to be one of the most valuable.

 

Interbrand ranks Starbucks as the 56th most valuable brand in the world. It’s market cap of 120 billion dollars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice anything different at your local Starbucks lately? I sure have. The familiar green and white logo on the cups is missing. It’s a travesty to brand-conscious graphic designers everywhere.

At first glance I thought maybe it was just a corporate cost-cutting measure — the result of tremendous Wall Street pressure to improve performance. But once I looked a little closer, I noticed something even more revealing:

Starbuck has bared her breasts! The mermaid that’s been the Starbucks icon from day one, has gone back to her topless, hippy roots.

There are a lot of other changes going on at Starbucks in Seattle — you might even call it a corporate shake-up — but none are as symbolic as the undressing of the logo.

 

A great article in Fast Company magazine reveals some of the latest nuances added to the siren logo.

 

 

 

 

 

I take it as a sure sign that CEO Howard Schultz is serious about stripping away some of the fat and refocusing on the core of the Starbucks brand .

That little nod to the humble heritage of his company says a lot. The green logo has just two words: “Starbucks Coffee.” The retro logo reads “Starbucks Fresh Roasted Coffee.” It’s a reminder to the world that Starbucks has always been obsessively focused on the quality of it’s product.

In his book, Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz says, “The number one factor in creating a great, enduring brand is having an appealing product. There’s no substitute.”

I know a few coffee snobs who claim that Starbucks isn’t as good as the local guy’s Ethiopian Tega & Tula. And they may be right. But I also know that Starbucks beats the hell out of the mom & pop drive-up operations that have appeared on every corner.

At Starbucks, the product is consistent. The coffee is just as good as ever, but the company has made some operational decisions that have had a subtle effect on our perception of that quality. Shultz seems determined to correct that, and if his track record over the years is any indication, he’ll pull it off.

 

 

Ever since I read his book back in ‘99 I’ve used Schultz and his organization as a great example of focused leadership, exceptional execution and textbook branding. He has always been the brand champion in that organization. He was one who introduced the idea of gourmet coffee to a nation of Folgers drinkers, and he has always fought to maintain quality standards even during their hyper-rapid growth.

Shultz is adamant about controlling the brand experience as much as possible, down to the last detail. That’s why the company never sold franchises. At first, Shultz didn’t even want to sell coffee in paper cups at all, lest it detract from the experience and affect the flavor.

So these new “transformational initiatives” of his are no big surprise.

First thing is to recapture that appealing coffee aroma in every store. Believe it or not, that smell of fresh roasted coffee is every bit as important to the brand as the look of the stores or the music they play. It works on a subtle, subconscious level, but the bottom line is, you won’t hang out and enjoy your double half-caf mocha if the place doesn’t smell good. So Starbucks is going back to manual espresso machines and killing the sale of breakfast sandwiches.

The Starbucks business model is based on the idea of the third place… that we all need a relaxing getaway that’s not home and not work. To me, it’s more of a romantic, Vienna coffeehouse experience than a quick, Italian espresso shot. So the roll-out of free wi-fi service is long overdue. Paying for an internet connection at Starbucks was just idiotic to me.

The third and final cornerstone of the Starbucks brand is its own people.

“We built the Starbucks brand first with our people, not with consumers — the opposite approach from that of the cereal companies,” Shultz said. “Our competitive advantage over the big coffee brands turned out to be our people.”

Starbucks doesn’t just talk about treating people well, the company really does. In the retail food service industry, where getting good help is always a challenge, Starbucks leads the way with its pay scale, benefits packages, training programs and retention rates.

“We believed the best way to meet and exceed the expectations of customers was to hire and train great people. That’s the secret of the power of the Starbucks brand: the personal attachment our partners feel and the connection they make with our customers.”

The company also listens to its front-line employees. The idea for Frappuccino came from the store level. The new website, mystarbucksidea.com, started out as an internal feedback tool for employees. Now anyone can go online and post their own ideas for Starbucks, vote for the best, and see what’s being implemented.

Which brings us back to that idea of reintroducing the old logo, circa 1971.

 

 

The change coincides with the introduction of a new house blend, called Pike Street Roast, for people who just want a good, robust cup-o-joe. In that context, and with everything else that’s happening at Starbucks, the branding throwback makes perfect sense.

 

 

 

The mark was originally inspired by a woodcut image of a Norwegian mermaid, fully exposed. Over the years, as Starbucks grew and became “more corporate,” the logo slowly morphed. Eventually the designers gave her long hair, which covered her breasts and made her more palatable to a broad commercial audience.

Now Shultz wants to go back in time. Back to when the company wasn’t really worried about offending anyone on Wall Street. Maybe this little flash of skin is just what the company needs.

Starbucks logo updates

Updated again in 2011

If you want to recapture the magic of your brand, or build a new one from the ground up, give me a call. 541-815-0075

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the logo evolved, it got too perfect. It lost some of the mystery of the older versions. Lippencott article in Fast Company

 

 

 

 

14

Brand authenticity (Keeping it real, honest, genuine and true)

I hate buzzwords. Every time a new marketing term shows up on the cover of a book I find myself having to translate the jargon into something meaningful for ordinary, busy business people.

brand authenticityLately, it’s “Brand Authenticity.” Seems “keeping it real” has become a household term. And a branding imperative.

In The New Marketing Manifesto John Grant says “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged.”

If that’s the case, we better have a damn good definition of what we’re talking about.

 

 

 

“Authentic” is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means “original.” But just being an original doesn’t mean your brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney.

Most definitions used in branding circles also include the words “genuine” and or “trustworthy.” In The Authentic Brand, brand authenticity is defined this way: “Worthy of belief and trust, and neither false nor unoriginal — in short, genuine and original.”

I think it’s also useful to look at the philosophical definition of the word… “being faithful to internal rather than external ideas.”

In Philosophy of Art “authenticity” describes the perception of art as faithful to the artist’s self, rather than conforming to external values such as historical tradition, or commercial worth.

The same holds true for brands.

The authentic ones are faithful to something other than just profits. They have a higher purpose, and they don’t compromise their core values in order to turn a quick buck.  They are the exception to the corporate rule.

The Brand Authenticity Index says, “At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach; being totally clear about who you are and what you do best.” When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with customers’ actual experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.”

brand authenticityI think the general public believes that marketing — by definition— is not authentic. We are born skeptics.

Guilty until proven innocent!

And if someone sniffs even a hint of corporate BS they’ll blog about it, post negative reviews and announce it to all their Facebook friends, Twitter followers and Instagram fans.

Ouch.

In a Fast Company article, Bill Breen said “Consumers believe, until they’re shown otherwise, that every brand is governed by an ulterior motive: to sell something. But if a brand can convincingly argue that its profit-making is only a by-product of a larger purpose, authenticity sets in.”

Nobody ever starts a company with the goal of becoming an authentic brand. Think back to when Amazon, Starbucks, Nike and Apple were just startups.  They were all authentic in the beginning. Each had a core group of genuinely passionate people dead-set on changing the world in some little way. And that esprit de core set the tone for the brand to be.

Patrick Ohlin, on the Chief Marketer Blog, says “Brand authenticity is itself an outcome—the result of continuous, clear, and consistent efforts to deliver truth in every touch point.”

It’s a by-product of doing things well. Treating people right. Staying focused. And not getting too greedy.

“Companies are under pressure to prove that what they stand for is something more than better, faster, newer, more,” said Lisa Tischler in Fast Company. “A company that can demonstrate it’s doing good — think Ben & Jerry’s, or Aveda — will find its brand image enhanced. But consumers must sense that the actions are sincere and not a PR stunt.”

Add the word “sincerity” to the definition. Sincerely try to do something that proves you’re not just another greedy, Goldman Sax.

In the age of corporate scandals and government bailouts, not all authentic brands are honest. If your brand values revolve around one thing — getting rich — it’s pretty tough build a genuinely trustworthy brand in the eyes of the world.

Amway is now known for brand authenticityAmway, for instance.

Amway has an army of “independent sales associates” out there luring people to meetings under pretense and spreading a message that says, essentially, “Who cares if you have no friends left. If you’re rich enough it won’t matter. We’ll be your friends.”

The front-line MLM culture seems to revolve around wealth at any cost. Then there’s the corporate office trying to put a positive spin on the brand by running fluffy, product-oriented, slice-of-life commercials.

It’s a disconnect of epic proportions. The antithesis of brand authenticity.

But I digress.

Let’s assume you have a brand with a pretty good reputation for authenticity. How can you manage to maintain that reputation even when you’re growing at an astronomical rate?

Be clear about what you stand for. Communicate!

Your brand values need to be spelled out, on paper. After all, your employees are your best brand champions and you can’t expect them to stay true to something they don’t even understand.

That’s one of the key services at my firm… we research and write the book on your brand. We craft the message and then help you communicate it internally, so all your managers, front-line employees and business partners are on the same page. Literally. It’s a tremendously helpful tool.trust and brand authenticity

Underpromise and overdeliver.

Now here’s a concept CEOs can get a handle on. If you consistently exceed expectations, consumers will believe that you’re sincere and will be more likely to trust your brand. It’s a fundamental tenet of brand authenticity. If you’re constantly disappointing people, it’s going to be tough.

Don’t try to be something you’re not.

Being authentic means staying focused and saying no once in a while. The more you diversify, extend your product line or tackle new target audiences, the better chance you have of alienating people.

It’s always tempting for successful small businesses to branch out. You take on projects that are beyond your core competencies, because you can. People trust you. Then if things go south you lose some credibility. And without credibility there can be little authenticity.

Align your marketing messages with your brand.

You sacrifice authenticity when your marketing messages are not true to the company, its mission, culture and purpose.  You can’t be saying one thing, and doing something else.

Alignment starts with understanding. Understanding starts with communication. So figure out your core brand values, and then hammer those continuously with your marketing team. Every time they trot out a new slogan or campaign you can hold up that brand strategy document and ask, is this in line with our brand?

Be consistent.

Another way you lose that sense of brand integrity or authenticity is when you change directions too frequently. I’ve seen this in start-ups that have new technology, but no clear path to market. The company just blows with the wind, changing directions with every new investor who’s dumb enough to

put up capital. There’s no brand there at all, much less an authentic one.

Lead by example. 

One of the best CEO clients I ever had was a master of management-by-walking-around. His authentic, soft-spoken demeanor worked wonders

with his people. He was out there everyday, rallying the troops and reinforcing the brand values of the company.

So if you’re in charge, stay connected with your teams and don’t ask them to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. When sales, or marketing or R&D starts working in a vacuum, you often end up with an authenticity drain.

Hire good PR people. 

Like it or not, the public’s sense of your brand authenticity often comes from what the press says. For instance, BMW’s claim of being “the ultimate driving machine” is constantly reinforced by the automotive press in head-to-head comparisons with Audi and Mercedes. According to those authoritative sources, it’s not a bullshit line.

Which really is the bottom line on brand authenticity. Don’t BS people.

For more about brand authenticity, try THIS post. 

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Mt. Bachelor brand experience

Brand experience – How one ski area is trying its best to manage expectations.

bn branding's iconic logoSki area operators live and die by the whims of Mother Nature. So the brand experience often comes down to how the staff handles the inevitable shit storms. It’s a tough job… managing and marketing an experience when the experience is out of your control.

brand experience at Mt. Bachelor - BN Branding

It’s not hard to attract skiers and boarders when the snow is plentiful, the sun is shining and all the lifts are spinning. On days like this, it’s going to be a damn good brand experience for pretty much everyone.

That’s when ski areas — and brands in general — need to bank a lot of goodwill.

Inevitably, they’re going to need it.

A few winters ago high winds coupled with a massive ice storm toppled trees and wrecked havoc at Mt. Bachelor’s lift system.

That same season, flooded roads cut access to Crystal Mountain. A lift tower at Whistler snapped. A landslide took out a lift at Snoqualmie Pass. And some poor guy at Vail found himself hanging upside down and naked from a chairlift.

2020 was  even worse than that.

So how do you manage the brand through all the drama and mayhem of a pandemic, or a drought year, or any series of unfortunate events? How do you handle those days, weeks and even seasons that don’t qualify as chamber of commerce material?

What do you do when you’re faced with a no-win situation, like all ski areas are facing during COVID pandemic?

You cash in on all the successful branding you’ve done over the years. You fall back on all the love you’ve been spreading and the positive brand experience your customers have had in the past.

Your brand is your safety net. The more brand loyalty you build up, the more leeway you’ll get when things go wrong.

 

 

The brand experience for any skier or boarder on any given day is nuanced and complex.

There are a lot of moving parts involved in a day of skiing, from the first check of the ski report in the morning to the apres ski scene after the last run is done. There are dozens of ways to screw it up.

Not so long ago ski areas routinely fibbed when they recorded the morning ski report. But now social media makes it impossible to get away with any little white lies. The lift ride is plenty of time for skiers to tweet the exact temp, wind speed, barometric pressure and a detailed grooming report.

“Is sucks, stay home.”  “It’s Epic. Get up here.” “Fogged in. Can’t see two feet.” “It’s blowing the dogs off the leashes.”

With minute-by-minute updates like that accompanied by real-time user-generated videos, sugar-coated conditions reports from the marketing department just don’t cut it.

(All the locals knew what “light” winds really mean. Not a good way to build brand loyalty. )

Authenticity is no longer a choice. Brands have to own it… whatever it is.

A few years ago, when that epic ice storm shut things down at Mt. Bachelor, CEO John McLeod and his team launched a new communications program designed to manage expectations and quell some of the bitching. (Skiers can be a surprisingly whiny group.)

Mt. Bachelor’s staff uploaded some videos that show what the lift crews really faced.

They owned the challenge of it and made the best of a bad situation.

It’s hard to complain about a lift not opening promptly on time when you’ve seen the manual labor required to do the job… and the realities of operating safely in a high alpine environment after a wind and ice “event.”

www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlYZUlHzby4

The videos showed time-lapse photography of an employee climbing up a 40-foot lift tower, tentatively chipping away at ice three feet thick. They showed logging crews and snow-cat drivers working together to clear 60-foot fir trees from the middle of a ski slope.

That’s powerful stuff that I haven’t seen on any other web site or in any other industry. They used reality TV as an effective branding tool. It was a pretty good reaction to very rare weather event.

Fast forward to the spring of 2020 when they were reacting to something even more unheard of… a shut down caused, not by weather or mechanical failure, but by the COVID 19 virus.

When Mt. Bachelor reopened for two weeks in May they did it for all the right reasons, and yet the brand took a hit. It was a classic perception vs reality thing

The reality was that McLeod and his team pulled off an operational miracle to get the place back up and running at all. It was one of only 4  ski areas in the nation that did that.

The perception something else entirely. Mt. Bachelor brand experience

Everyone was dying to get back up on the slopes after two months of lock-down. Pent-up demand was off the charts.  So when Mt. Bachelor released their limited supply of spring skiing reservations, the whole system broke.

A very tiny number of  lucky season pass holders got access to the mountain during those two weeks in May. And even for them, it sounded like the brand experience wasn’t so great.

McLeod later admitted that that the free software they used for that momentary spring fling wasn’t quite up to the task. (I suspect that someone in their I.T. department was in trouble for that decision.)

So yes, technology can, in fact, have an affect on your brand. For good or bad.

A lot of people were left with a bad taste in their mouths from that experience, and that simmering flavor of discontent seems to be carrying over into the 20/21 ski season.

There’s a lot of grumbling going on about the parking reservations that are now required. The design of that system was a matter of choosing the least-bad option among a slew of bad, COVID-related options. But so far, it seems to be working pretty well.

Some of Mt. Bachelor’s competitors chose differently.

As one Facebook friend posted, “at least we don’t have to drive up to the mountain and spend two hours in our cars in order to NOT get to ski, like you do at Timberline.”

Even though Mt. Bachelor has tried hard to manage people’s expectations for a COVID-style ski season, I think the brand it going to take another hit. Sometimes the customer’s expectations are just unrealistic.

What the Mt. Bachelor team needs to do, right now, is OWN the unknowable.

They simply don’t know how the parking system is going to work in the long run. They don’t know what’s going to happen with the COVID restrictions. They don’t know what affect the weather will have on their capacity or how well people will heed their call for cooperation and patience.

Almost nothing is certain. They are winging it, and there’s no other way to describe it.

Might as well own it. Might as well just admit that the ski season is going to be a mess.

honesty in political advertisingIn this era of Facebook falsehoods and the ridiculously amplified online grapevine, over communicating is better than under communicating.

Silence can chip away at your brand credibility.  Like ice on a lift tower, eventually it’ll all come crashing down on your head.

I get the impression that the Mt. Bachelor team is holding some information back, because they’re afraid it’ll be wrong.

The situation is just too dynamic, and things are changing too rapidly. They don’t want to have to back pedal and retract anything.

That’s understandable, but maybe they need to shift their perspective on that.

In a situation like this, “We Don’t Know! ” is an acceptable answer. It’s not back-pedling if you set the expectation, up front, that you’re probably going to be changing directions. Many times.

Here’s the message I’d go with…  “Look, we’re trained to deal with a lot of unpleasant circumstances here at Mt. Bachelor… We have contingency plans for everything you can imagine, but no one imagined this. There is no playbook for any of this, so we’re calling the audible, every day.”

“Bear with us while we provide the best experience we possibly can, under the circumstances. It might not be the brand experience you’ve come to expect from Mt. Bachelor, but we’re doing our absolute best.”

So here’s the take-away from a branding standpoint…

Transparency is what people want from brands. It’s what we love to see from any company we do business with.

‘Pivoting’ is just part of the program this year, in any industry. Deep down, even your biggest critics know that and they’ll cut you a little slack.

Every chance you have to fix a problem or right a wrong is an opportunity to build your brand.

And finally,  the Mt. Bachelor brand is strong enough to weather this storm too.

 

Yeah, but what about the naked guy dangling from a lift in Vail???:

www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/06/vail-chairlift-accident-l_n_155578.html

Here’s more on branding in the ski industry.

 

 

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