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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




new approach to website design

Brand design with a bang – Visual cues and consistency across platforms

BNBranding logoA lot of people ask me about our brand design and the graphics that accompany these blog posts.

They see the same visual cues on the BNBranding website, in social media posts, in our ads, on video and even on good, old-fashioned post cards, emails and invoices.

brand design that produces resultsThey comment about the work on LinkedIn and, yes, they respond to it. Some people have even said, “Wow, that’s really cool. Can you do something like that for my company?”

Of course.

Because the fact is, bold graphics such as these stop people in their tracks. It’s brand design that produces response.

It’s like direct response branding.

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, even stupid cat videos get ignored these days.

They only pause when they see something that “Pops.”

The incongruity of the image or message, relative to everything else they see, creates natural human curiosity. It’s just the way our brains work.

a new approach to website design BNBrandingOn 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.

Brand design advice Tom PetersTom 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.”

Some people seem to think that “branding messages” do not belong on social media or in digital advertising. And that you can’t design a “branding” website that also moves product.

That’s hogwash.

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.

truth in advertising BNBranding

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.

Or click here for an inexpensive yin/yang assessment of all your marketing efforts.

a new approach to website design BNBranding














Same with sounds.



Whittling success - branding

Brand Simplicity – Whittling success down to its core.

brand credibility from branding expertsIn business I think it’s human nature to add unnecessary complexity to all sorts of things.

Business owners, inventors, entrepreneurs and marketers add complexity because it feels like it adds value. It gives us more to talk about; More features to tout, more bullet points for the pitch deck, more stuff to keep us busy, more hype to hype.

The problem is, it’s also human nature to crave simplicity.  So in the seller’s head, more is more…  In the buyer’s mind, less is more. Way, way, way more. Continue reading

sales funnel flipped BN Branding

Flip the marketing funnel — make it a mountain.


the brand of a branding agencyLet’s talk about one of the most popular marketing metaphors of all time; The Marketing Funnel.

Sales funnels, marketing funnels and conversion funnels are ubiquitous in the business world. It’s an idea that dates back a hundred years, and it goes like this:

marketing funnel and branding

At the top of the marketing funnel you have all these prospects pouring in. Then you apply the tried and true AIDA marketing formula and the money comes streaming out the bottom.


It’s a process that’s been taught in marketing classes for 60 years…

First you build Awareness about your product or service category. That happens at the top of the funnel.

Then you have to generate Interest in your particular company or product.   That’s where brand advertising comes in… building interest in, and awareness of, your brand.

Next, moving into the middle of the funnel, the marketing team has to create Desire.  Make them really want whatever you’ve got!  To me, this is all about differentiation and it can be accomplished with all sorts of marketing tactics.

And finally, you push people into Action with some kind of urgent promotional offer. This is where Direct Marketing and Sales fits in.

Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action. It’s a good old theory, and some of the elements still apply, but the funnel analogy is irrelevant.

Who uses a funnel these days?

Last time I used a funnel was back in college. I drove an orange Chevy Vega that drank oil fast enough to tip a Sheik’s balance sheet. I had to keep a funnel handy at all times… Quick, fill ‘er up with three quarts of 10-30!

But that’s not really the problem. The problem is, marketing just doesn’t work that way in the real world. It’s not a top-down, gravity-fed money machine like many people would have you believe.

Flip that marketing funnel over, add some elevation and exposure, and you have a model that’s a bit more realistic.


sales funnel flipped BN Branding

Evening view of Ama Dablam on the way to Everest Base Camp – Nepal

Marketing is more like climbing a himalayan peak than pouring in a quart of oil.


Think of your next campaign as an attempt on Everest.

Before you even get to base camp there’s a lot of planning, strategizing and logistics that need to happen; Finding the right guide, hiring a team of sherpas and, most importantly, planning a route.

That’s like Brand Strategy work… It doesn’t guarantee success, but you can’t get reach great heights without it.

In this upside down analogy Base Camp is like the top of the funnel…

You have a whole bunch of hopeful, well-qualified, gung-ho people ready to start the buying journey with you. Awareness and Interest are clearly established. You’ve sorted out the Suspects from the real Prospects and they’re ready to spring into Action, but very few will go all the way.

The air gets mighty thin up there.

A lot of people will get frustrated and turn around before they even get to Camp 2.  They still have Interest, but their new Awareness of the environment and the reality of the situation puts a big damper on their Desire to buy.

The AIDA marketing funnel formula gets all mixed up. It’s not a linear, step by step thing. It’s fluid.

Sometimes Action isn’t a true indicator of interest. (Think about all the people who download white papers.)

In other cases, as Awareness increases Desire can wane.

I’ve experienced this as both a seller and a buyer of various B-to-B services.  The buying journey is different for everyone, and full of unpredictable detours.

Sometimes you can do everything right, and still inadvertently sabotage your own efforts.

You’re leading a prospect up the mountain, step-by-step, feeding her encouragement and helpful information. You’re getting all the buying signals you need — the micro yesses — but then she wanders into a crevasse of information she can’t get out of.

flip the marketing funnel BN BrandingShe discovers conflicting opinions, competing offers and alternative approaches she didn’t know about.  Confusion sets in. Her uncertainty makes her question the whole proposition and she ends up sitting on a beach in Tahiti instead.

That’s how I feel when people try selling me marketing automation software.

It’s like the mountain climbing expeditions that are plagued by false starts… groups get to Camp 3 and then have to turn around and return to base camp. Up to Camp 4 and back to Camp 2 to hunker down for a few days. Start and stop. Up and down. Think, re-think.

In marketing, as in business, the path to the top is never smooth, direct or predictable.

Here’s another problem I have with that old marketing funnel analogy; It stops when a transaction’s completed. There’s never any talk of service after the sale, community building and brand loyalty.

That’s like abandoning your customers at the top of the mountain. You can’t do that! You still have to get them down safely. (Many people have died on the way down after summiting Everest.)

Think of the trip up the mountain as prospect relationship management. The trip down is customer relationship management. You need both.

If you’re playing the long game, trying to build an iconic brand, you have to take good care of the customers who have been to the top with you. There’s where reviews come in, repeat business, word-of-mouth and brand loyalty.

flip the marketing funnel BN Branding

A lot of business owners approach marketing as an hour in the climbing gym, rather than a career of climbing mountains.

It’s good training, but they’re just testing the waters. They keep trying different routes, moving horizontally, never getting more than a few feet off the ground. Never risking much.

For many businesses, that’s just fine. That’s all they need. But they’ll never reach the pinnacle of success. They’re never know the satisfaction of bagging the big one.

Many of those people want to skip the first three steps of the old AIDA formula and jump right to the Action by putting all their money into Google’s pay per click ad platform.

Race to the bottom of the funnel… “To hell with brand building! I’m not interested in talking to anyone who’s not ready to buy,” they say.

If that were an effective, sustainable approach to marketing you’d never see any advertising on any platform other than Google for mattress retailers, home repair companies or pharmaceuticals.

But no. You see those companies on TV all the time.

They’ve had decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to test their marketing mix. They know that pay-per-click is just one little foothill in the mountain range of marketing.

Yes, they also do digital advertising, and many are still on the radio. They’re consistently “out there” maintaining top of mind awareness.  So when it’s time for a new mattress, or a new roof, or a new prescription, they’re not going with the first, generic search results.

They’re Googling brand names. Skipping over paid ads at the top of the page. Driving past four other stores, and choosing to climb the mountain with you. Specifically.

That’s branding.








BNBranding how to choose the right message for your ads

New word, old idea — The definition of content marketing

BNBranding logo“Content” is a sizzling buzzword in the marketing world these days. There are all sorts of specialists peddling different versions of content. “Content is King, Content is King,” they all scream.

Everyday I get multiple offers to provide content for this blog, and for my firm’s website, and for my clients’ websites. I hear from content marketing agencies, off-shore content factories, content producers, content designers, video content producers, social media content specialists and content journalists. Every one offers “expertise in my niche” and “professional” writers and producers.

Not one has ever actually panned out.

I’m not alone.  A recent survey from Forrester Research shows that 87% of all companies are struggling to find content that produces a discernible ROI. Companies are churning stuff out, but they’re not content with their content.

And here’s the ironic part… when you ask web development companies about their biggest daily frustration, without fail they all say “it’s really hard to get our clients to provide good content in a timely manner.”

The clients are waiting for the web guys to provide content, and the web guys are waiting for the clients.

Hmmmm. What’s wrong with that picture?



Part of the problem might be the term itself. It’s like the term “marketing”… no two people can agree on what it really includes. Some people think content refers only to copywriting for websites. Others say it’s infographics, or blogging, or video. Gotta have video!

They’re all right. It’s all “content.”

Content, the noun, is nothing new. 200 years ago marketing content appeared in the form of printed hand bills hung up in the local tavern or town square. Then there were newspapers, and magazines and the advent of paid advertising and editorial placed by publicists but written by journalists.

Radio brought sponsorships, jingles and professionally produced commercials. Many great brands were launched on that platform of “theater of the mind.”

In the late 1940’s TV became the original form of video content. At the same time, billboards started popping up, and in the 60’s, direct mail became a highly effective tool for marketers.

So content’s been around forever. It’s just the form and the delivery methods that have changed.

BNBranding long copy is more convincingThere are many more options now, and a totally new vernacular, but the crux of it is the same as always … It’s all designed to forge a connection with consumers. So when it’s time to buy, they are already convinced.

Seth Godin’s widely quoted as saying “Content marketing is all that’s left.” Well, I guess that’s true, in a sense, because content marketing is all there’s ever been.

Teaching prospective customers and giving them reasons to believe has always been the heart of marketing. But now it’s easy to go deeper than we could with Radio, TV, print or outdoor advertising.

The media mix is more fragmented than ever, so the exercise is twofold:

  1. Create content that resonates with your people. Make it relevant, regardless of the medium.
  2. Find the media outlets for that content that best fit your target audience and brand strategy.

If you want to be mindful and authentic about the content you use, you have to start with a deep dive into your business strategy. That’s probably why so many companies are unhappy with their content marketing efforts… there wasn’t any strategic thinking behind it. At all.

It’s usually just a purely tactical exercise.

Strategy work is the single most important component of your content marketing effort.

It’s the only way you’ll know what to say.

The fact is, every company has a lot of stuff they could say. But those messages may not be relevant to the audience, or they might not be differentiated from your competitor’s messages or they not be true to the operational realities of your business. There are a hundred things that could sabotage your content.

You’d be surprised how many companies are out producing content trying to “increase engagement” without even having their value proposition nailed down. So when you do that strategic work, you’ll immediately be ahead of the pack.

a new approach to website design BNBrandingOnce you’ve determined what to say, you also have to be creative in how you say it. That’s the execution piece.

When it comes to content, the right words matter. Concepts, themes and fundamental storylines matter. Images matter. Details matter. Guts matter. Restraint matters.

Many companies try to say too much, all the time. They pack their communications full of technical details that don’t enlighten or connect. They mistake facts and data for effective communications. They post ten times a day, just to say they did.  It’s a quantity over quality mentality.

You can’t just take a facebook post and turn it into a digital ad and expect it to perform well. Your content needs to be crafted to match both the target audience and the medium.

Make no mistake about it… no matter what kind of content you’re producing, precise word smithing and stunning visuals can mean the difference between failure and success.

In marketing what you show is just as important as what you say.

Part of the strategic work is determining what imagery should be attached to your brand. Here are some good questions to ponder:

Does your brand have its own, unique visual presence, or are you recycling the same stock images and selfies that every other company is using?

Would your social media person know if an Instagram post was completely “off brand?”

What’s the takeaway for people who don’t read a word of what you put out there? If you are seen but not heard.

If you have a food product, does your content look like something from Gourmet magazine or a tattered menu from a cheap Chinese place?

Once you’ve determined your brand visuals it’ll be much easier to define the type of images you want to pair with written content. There will be clear marching orders, and boundaries that will keep everything in alignment.

Long before”content marketing” was ever a thing, I was preaching about Relevance, Differentiation and Credibility.  Low and behold, the new model for content marketing fits perfectly with that tried and true model.

Try this post for more on content marketing.

a new approach to website design BNBranding






1 The new normal for Ecommerce — How to sell more stuff online.

the new normal for ecommerce by BN BrandingEcommerce is exploding. The COVID 19 pandemic has created a tidal wave of activity in that industry. One of our clients has seen a 550% increase in online sales. A year ago they were wondering how to sell more stuff online, and now they’re wondering how to handle the operational implications of this new normal in ecommerce.

Every e-commerce site from Amazon to Aunt Matilda’s Potato Mashers will get their fair share of the buying frenzy. But most e-commerce businesses could get a bigger piece of the pie, if only they’d do something — anything — to differentiate themselves from pack.



How to sell more stuff online: Don’t do things like all the other ecommerce guys.

The barrier to entry in ecommerce is very low. Every day there’s more and more competition in every category of ecommerce,  and most of the new players are doing things in very standard, predictable ways.

Everyone is using the same ecommerce web platforms.

Everyone is using the same payment methods and the same email marketing plug-ins to boost their online sales.

Everyone is using basically the same approach to Amazon sales.

So success is going to hinge on doing things differently. A lot of things.

For instance, you can’t just regurgitate the manufacturer’s product spiel. You need to customize your product pitch, improve your copy, and mix up the words a bit.

Besides a ridiculously low price, what do online shoppers want? Most are looking for information. They want insight on the product category and specifics that will help make their purchase decisions easier.

If they’re not quite ready to check out they need facts, reviews, articles or some kind of credible content that helps them narrow their search.

Amazingly few e-commerce brands do a good job when it comes to informative content and sharp, convincing copy.

That’s an easy way to sell more stuff online. Hire a writer to craft a better sales pitch for every product you sell.

Take online ski shops, for instance. When I was in the market for new ski boots I couldn’t even get enough information to research boots on line, much less purchase them.

After hours of work I know a lot more about boot fitting, but I don’t know which models are most likely to fit my feet. In fact, I’ve been to every online ski shop I could find, and only one – REI –  provides anything more than just the manufacturer’s stock product spiel.

If you want to sell more stuff online, you need to think more like REI or Nordstrom. Provide a level of customer service that your competitors can’t.
If you want to establish a successful on-line brand you have to do more than just copy your competitors. You can’t just cut and paste the same exact blurb, same photo and the same specs and expect more market share than anyone else.
You have to differentiate your store. Somehow.

You could offer unique products. (Most niched e-commerce sites offer the exact same products as their competitors. But even if you could find something they don’t have, it’s not a sustainable advantage unless you have an exclusive arrangement with the manufacturer.)

You could offer lower pricing. (Tough if you don’t have the volume of Amazon or Office Depot.)

Or you can have better content presented in your own, unique voice. That, you can do!

I have to admit, I’m not even entertaining the idea of buying ski boots on line. (For me, it’s hard enough buying sneakers online.) But if I were, I’d want a retailer that obviously understands the pain ski boots can inflict:

Toenails blackened and torn. Crippling leg cramps. Wasted $90 lift tickets. Ruined vacations. Endless trips back to the ski shop.

Those are the honest-to-goodness repercussions of getting it wrong. That’s the stuff of compelling sales copy. That’s how you sells more stuff online… Use emotions. Not bullets from the manufacturer’s spec sheet.

BNBranding how to choose the right message for your adsBut not a single online ski shop capitalizes on those emotional hooks. They’re all just lined up, offering the same brands at the same prices with the same pitch and the same reviews.

That’s not online retailing. That’s virtual warehousing.

Your ecommerce copy is like direct response copy… If you want to sell more stuff online, you gotta be colorful and convincing.

Early in my career I wrote direct response copy for Norm Thompson. Before J. Peterman ever became famous Norm Thompson had a unique voice that resonated with its mature, upscale audience. We wrote long, intelligent copy that told a story and filled in the blanks between technical specs and outstanding photography.

When the product called for a technical approach, we’d get technical… I remember writing a full page spread on the optics of Serengetti Driver sunglasses.

For other products we’d turn on the charm and use prose that harkened back to more romantic times.






These weren’t just adjectives thrown in to boost our word count. They were themes on which we built compelling, product-driven stories. The narratives explained why the product felt so luxurious. Where the innovation came from. How a feature worked. And most importantly, what it all meant to the Norm Thompson customer.

It was the voice of the brand, and guess what? It worked.

The conversion rates and sales-to-page ratios of the Norm Thompson catalog were among the highest in the industry. We routinely got 25 to 30% response rates when we sent sales letters to our house list.

positioning strategy BNBrandingIt’s tough to find anything remotely close in the on-line world. And unfortunately, Norm Thompson hasn’t maintained that unique voice in the e-commerce arena. (If you know of any brilliantly different online retailers, like Patagonia, please let me know. I’d love to add a positive case study.)

Ski boots don’t exactly fit into the category of top on-line sellers. They aren’t impulse items that you need on a weekly basis. They’re heavy to ship. And returns on ski boots must be astronomical.

But on-line retailers could cut down on those returns simply by explaining the single most important thing:


Most boots don’t even come close to fitting my feet, so no technical feature is as important as fit. And yet no website that I’ve found provides the simple problem-solving content that says: If you have a D width foot, try this make and model. If you have a high instep, try these. If you have a narrow foot, try these.

It’s not rocket science. It’s just simple salesmanship . The kind you’d get if you walk into any decent ski shop.

And I guess that’s what I’d like to see more of on line. Better salesmanship. At least for the product categories that require more than just a quick glance at the price. Like ski boots.

And one other thing… If you choose to sell like everyone else, at least make your site convenient to use, and functional from a usability standpoint.

I visited one online shop that didn’t even have a working search function. I typed in “Soloman Ski Boots” and got dozens of Soloman products, but not one ski boot. I’ll never go back.

Online shoppers often know exactly what they want. Might as well make it easy for them to find it.



5 The ultimate franchise retail branding experience – like a kid in a candy store

bn branding's iconic logoMy annual Christmas shopping excursion always eventually leads me to one place: Powell’s Sweet Shop. To me, it’s the ultimate example of successful retail branding. (And it’s not even called Powell’s any more)

lovable franchise brands Ben & Jerry’s has a lot of appeal  in the summertime, but Powell’s resonates with me on a completely different level.

To me, it’s a mood-altering drug.

It’s virtually impossible to leave Powell’s without feeling warmer, younger at heart, and at least a little giddy. It’s more fun per square foot than any store I’ve ever seen.

Franchise Industry consultants call Powell’s Sweets “an involving retail experience that taps into deep-seated emotional connections with long-forgotten childhood brands.”

They are banking on the power of nostalgia to sell everything from collectable lunch boxes and Pez dispensers to gelato and old-fashioned candy. They have all the brands you haven’t seen since childhood, and all the flavors that linger in the palette of your memory.



Powell’s is a store full of  stories. And vivid, authentic stories are the main ingredients of success for franchise retail branding.

As I browse through Powell’s, or even just peer in the window, the stories come flooding back… My little sister, hair in braids, eating Fun Dip in the back of the station wagon.

My older sister hording her tube of Flicks. The penny candy selection at Jack’s Country Store.  The red, black and purple licorice I loved so much at summer camp.

That stuff sticks with you.

successful retail branding from the Brand Insight Blog

Powell’s always has Willy Wonka playing on the TV in the back of the store.

But Powell’s triggers more than just memories. It also triggers the imagination.It ignites the senses and conjures a latent, childlike creativity in us that gets beaten down by the demands of modern society.

Not too many retail stores can honestly say that.

Maybe that’s why I go back every year. Maybe that’s why I want to linger so long.

It’s not just satisfying my sweet tooth, it’s filling a need for creative inspiration and optimism. I can feed off the energy of the kids and the delight of the parents. There’s laughter and smiles and buzz you just don’t find at the Starbucks next door.

Unfortunately, the Powell’s website doesn’t capture any of that laughter and buzz that I’m raving about. Their site is a boring, disconnected piece of corporate communications that wouldn’t move anyone to do anything. (I hope they’re working on a refresh!)

So what can you learn from a little candy store in downtown Bend, Oregon?

You want customers to tell stories about you. You want products and service that create lasting memories. You want positive word-of-mouth that’s more powerful than anything you can say yourself.

Here are a few, random reviews of Powell’s from

“Move over Disneyland – this is the happiest place on earth.  I feel like I step into Charlie and the Chocolate Factory every time I come here.”

“This candy store rocks. It has everything you want especially if you’re looking for some candy that will blast you right back to your childhood.”

“The best candy shop. Period.”

Retail branding in a candy store BN Branding“I want to hug the person who came up with the concept of this store…they are pure genius and manage to put a huge smile on my face the minute I walk through the door!”

Interestingly, the nostalgic theme of every Powell’s store seems to work equally well on children. Because the appeal of it is timeless.

The candy that we thought was so cool, still is. The element of surprise and the sense of discovery works just as well now as it did 30 years ago.

That’s why brick and mortar retail stores will never go away… they can deliver a sensory experience that can never be duplicated on the screen of your phone or computer.

It’s sensory branding… the cumulative effect of the smells, the sights, the colors, the selection, the sounds and the flavors that trigger that flood of fondness.

So if you’re trying to build an unforgettable retail branding experience, I’d suggest a visit to Powell’s Sweet Shoppe. Just soak it all in, eat some sweets, and see what happens.

For more on ecommerce, try this post.

marketing strategy BNBranding



Subway rebranding Brand Insight Blog

What to watch for when you’re rebranding


Let’s face it… Rebranding can be a costly pain in the ass. It’s probably the last thing that most CEOs would choose to tackle. (Too artsy. Too nebulous.)

If you have a start-up company it’s better to avoid rebranding by being extra thorough with your initial brand strategy and identity design. But sometimes it just has to be done.

When it’s done well rebranding pays off in the form of short-term media buzz, a pleasant, unexplainable uptick in customer satisfaction and long-term brand loyalty. But it can also be an epic fail that leads right back to where you started. (Ask Gap about that)

Most of the time “Rebranding” is nothing more than a re-fresh of the brand identity. subway rebranding Brand Insight BlogBut smart companies take it further. If you’re going to go down that road, better go big!

For instance, Subway’s”Eat fresh refresh” rebranding initiative includes the biggest change to their menu in the last 15 years.

They’re redesigning all their packaging, redecorating 24,000 locations, reprinting graphics, re-building apps, reprogramming the website, and executing a new advertising campaign featuring some A-list stars.

If you’re going to do a major rebrand like that, there better be solid strategic reasoning behind it.

For subway it was a steady decline in sales. Their market share among sandwich shops dropped from 41% in 2013 to 28% in 2020, according to Restaurant Business Magazine. The chain closed 1000 locations during the pandemic.

rebranding subway Brand Insight BlogThey needed to do something dramatic.

Subway CEO John Chidsey told CNN Business that they “want to make a loud enough bang to lure some of our customers back.”

That means you have to look at the big picture, not just at the logo refresh.

Chidsey is bullish on the changes they implemented… In the year since the launch of the new menu and the new brand identity, the company is reporting a volume increase of at least 7.5% in most of their locations — far better performance than the previous 5 years.


Here are some things to watch out for if you’re considering a rebranding initiative of any kind:


1. Misunderstanding the definition of branding and rebranding

Before you run out and hire a design firm to “redo the logo,”  spend some time refreshing your fundamental understanding of branding. It’s a lot deeper than just design.

I don’t think we should even call it “rebranding.” I hate that term. Like so much of the marketing industry jargon, the term itself misleads and adds confusion, not clarity.

The term implies that Rebranding is a project that can be launched and completed in a few short months. Like any old graphic design assignment.

But it’s more than that. At some point, without anyone really knowing it, the rebranding effort will morph back into an on-going branding effort.

The line gets blurred. So you better understand branding.

Think of it as another chapter in your long-term branding effort. It’s a chapter that represents significant change, but it’s just part of that long-term branding continuum. It’s a never-ending process, not a project.


2. Holding on too tightly to the past

Some clients get very emotionally attached to their logo, their colors, and even the font choice and the interior design of their stores. They want to hold on to — or re-live — that feeling they used to get from their brand identity.

Doesn’t matter if it was a horrible color to begin with. It’s what they’re used to. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator.

Here’s the progression of the Subway logo over the years: Notice how they have now reverted back to an orange color that’s closer to their original logo colors.  They claim it’s “getting back to their roots in the early 70’s.”

subway logo over the years Brand Insight Blog



Many small companies get married to a brand identity that has absolutely no recognition in the marketplace. They’ve put no marketing muscle behind it, so there’s really no risk of losing anything. And yet they get all bent out of shape when a change is suggested.

Especially when it’s a spouse who designed the logo in the first place.

Don’t abandon completely an identity that’s well recognized.

The color selection, the font, and the arrows all work together to make the new Subway ID clearly Subway’s. They’ve now added a mark that’s used separately from the logo type, and it too has a clear connection to the sandwich chain.

And don’t cling to an identity that’s invisible.

Anything’s better than invisibility.


3. Misguided motivation for the re-brand

Subway had good, strategic reasons to change their brand identity.

The company, which was started in Connecticut in 1965, basically invented the category of healthy fast food. Plus, they were the first to allow customers to dictate exactly what goes into a sandwich, and watch as it’s being made.

Subway rebranding Brand Insight BlogBut in the last 10 years there has been a surge of activity in the fast casual dining category where customization is standard proceedure.  Now there are dozens of chains that allow you to customize your own sandwich, pizza, salad, pita, taco or veggie burger. Rapidly growing brands like MOD Pizza, Firehouse Sandwiches,  Sweetgreen and Chipotle have slowly-but-surely eaten away at Subway’s domain of healthy fast food.

That’s a seismic shift in the marketplace that no amount of design is going to alleviate.


Boredom is the absolute worst reason to dive into a rebranding effort. Boredom and ego.

But you’d be surprised how common it actually is. One design firm veteran once told me, “If it weren’t for boredom and big egos, we’d be out of business.”

A new marketing director comes in and wants to leave her mark. So her team starts adding colors, changing the narrative, or making any number of misguided modifications. Next thing you know they’re doing a complete rebranding, “for consistency purposes.”

That’s the ego part.

As far as boredom goes, I’ve run into plenty of clients who want to change things up, just because they’re bored with their current brand identity or advertising.

They often justify it by saying “our consumers are getting saturated with our brand. We need to change things up.”

That’s utter nonsense! The only people who are saturated with the brand are the people inside the marketing department who are working with it, day in and day out. Hate to say it, but nobody else is paying that much attention!

It’s like looking at the same decor in your living room day after day. You might get sick of it — and feel a burning desire to paint some walls and rearrange the furniture — but none of your guests will feel that way. They don’t see it. It’s not relevant in their daily lives.

I’ve never seen, nor heard of, a case where a company is so over exposed they needed to give consumers a break and go dark for awhile. That would really be something.


4. A half-hearted commitment to the rebranding process

This is a biggie. There has to be full-fledged commitment from the CEO, the board of directors or business owner. It has to be a high level, top-down decision, not something that’s being pushed from the design department.

The big wigs have to be all in.

Not only that, the decision makers need to be fully committed to the vendor who’s going to execute the rebranding plan. No second-guessing! So they need to have a high degree of trust in that vendor before they ever embark on a project that important.

So test the waters. Always hire the firm for a few smaller projects before you dive into a rebranding effort with them.

From their perspective, the branding firm needs to have an intimate understanding of your business. Otherwise, they will not succeed. That’s not something you can accomplish in a couple of Zoom meetings and a collective brainstorming session. The Creative Director or the brand strategist has to be embedded with your company for awhile.

Plus, you need insight from outside the company. You can’t rely on one inside source for a fair assessment of what’s really needed. You need to do some strategic listening, and hear it from the customers.



5. Too much drawing. Not enough thinking.

I’ve seen clients obsess over ridiculous little details for months. Micro managing things like the thickness of a particular serif or the color shade of the tagline type will have no affect on outcome of the branding process, except for alienating everyone involved.

That’s usually a sure sign that they’ve not done their homework, and they’re insecure.

If it’s your company that’s being rebranded, stick to the big picture stuff that goes on before anyone picks up a pencil or touches a mouse.

That means strategy. And for that, you absolutely must be intimately involved.

Never delegate brand strategy completely to an outside agency. As CEO or owner it’s your job to dig deep into the nuances of strategy. Make it your own, personal quest to make sure the strategy, the messaging and the words are absolutely right before the design team starts

Otherwise, they’ll just be spinning their wheels on misguided ideas that cost a lot of money.

If you need help with a rebranding project, give us a call at BN Branding. Or browse around our site and then fill out a contact form. Or connect with me on LinkedIn. 












Brand DNA Brand Insight Blog on why startups fail

Why startups fail — getting to the bottom of it

brand personality from branding expertsA lot of companies fail. We know that for a fact. What we don’t know is why even well-funded startups fail. Even though 8 out of 10 new brands never make it, no one can really say for certain what went wrong.

There are plenty of contributing factors and routinely cited reasons…

If you Google it you’ll find stuff like “bad timing” weak business plan, lack of research, premature scaling, competition, wrong team, no market need, poor marketing, lack of capital/cash flow issues, etc. etc.

Standard answers from multiple choice exit surveys.

why startups fail - Brand Insight BlogOne article from Inc Magazine lists arrogance, short-sightedness, ego and hubris as the top reasons. (Must have been a very limited sample of high dollar silicon valley startups only;-)

I’m highly skeptical about all that. I believe that any after-the-fact surveys regarding business failures are going to be heavily skewed and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Or a giant shaker of salt.

People don’t like to discuss their broken dreams. It’s human nature. They don’t want to delve deeply into the whys, whats and wherefores of a lost business venture.

Most entrepreneurs blame themselves, so they don’t want to dwell on it. Others are quick to name scapegoats who were nowhere near the root of the real problem.




So here’s my theory on why startups really fail:

It’s based on 30 years of experience, tons of secondary research and a lot of circumstantial evidence. (I’m still searching for qualitative studies to back this up.)

If you dig deep enough to expose what’s really going on, you’ll find one common denominator in almost every startup failure:

Lack of clarity.

Startups fail because too many things are just too vague. I believe that’s the root cause.

Vague idea. Vaguely defined target market. Vague value proposition. Vague marketing messages. Vague imagery. Vague goals. Vague planning. Vague purpose. Vague branding.

If you read between the lines, that’s what lies beneath the surface of all the stated reasons why startups fail.


why startups fail Brand Insight Blog

It starts at the very beginning, with a muddled idea and a hazy brand strategy. Quite often the founders are even vague about the problem they’re trying to solve.

It’s the old, “solution without a problem syndrome.”

But framing the problem is half the battle. If you can’t define the problem in no uncertain terms for a very specific, niched target audience how can you possibly devise a marketable solution?

You can’t. You can devise a whole bunch of solutions that sorta, kinda fit the bill, but that’s not a recipe for success.

So many founders start off with a half-baked strategy and things get progressively worse.

Tech entrepreneurs are famous for diving into new ventures without really thinking things through. They have a bright, shiny new object to chase and and off they go. They have no clearly defined purpose, other than to become a billionaire or to answer the question, “what are you going to do next?”

Tom Eisenmann, author of “Why Startups Fail” says the rhetoric of the lean start-up movement — “launch early and often” and “fail fast”— actually encourages a “ready, fire, aim” behavior.

“By neglecting to research customer needs before commencing their engineering efforts, entrepreneurs end up wasting valuable time and capital on MVPs that are likely to miss their mark. These are false starts. The entrepreneurs are like sprinters who jump the gun: They’re too eager to get a product out there.”

I’ve been a witness to those false starts on many occasions.

I’m the guy who gets called when they’ve stalled and they have to devise a “pivot.” Or when they can’t seem to find the messaging to match their market. Or when they have to rebrand themselves.

When my company is hired to do a rebranding project all the vagueness becomes painfully clear. I get lots of blank stares and “yeah buts” in response to the most basic questions about their brands.

Brand DNA Brand Insight Blog on why startups fail

What’s your Brand DNA?

Obviously, many business owners never put their finger on the pulse of their brand to start with.

The DNA of who they really are, as a brand, is totally unclear. If they were clear about that from the get-go they probably wouldn’t need to pivot.

To be fair, it’s not just small business owners and start-up guys who are confused about what their brands really stand for.

Many giant corporations, like Proctor & Gamble, Quaker Oats and Coke-a-Cola have also been been clueless at times.

I love this quote regarding the biggest marketing screwup of all time:

This is former Pepsi CEO, Roger Enrico, talking about Coke’s ill-advised change to “New Coke” back in 1985: “I think, by the end of their nightmare, they figured out who they really are.”

Even back then Coke was probably the most recognized brand on the planet. They had been in business for 100 years, and they were still unclear about that!

Jim Stengel, former CMO at Proctor & Gamble, wrote: “My colleagues and I at P&G occasionally saw this in faltering teams: Internal and external communications didn’t ring true because the team’s leadership didn’t fully understand or commit to their brand’s ultimate purpose.”

Why startups fail - brand insight blog















When it comes to acquisitions, a lot of bad decisions are made because things are vague.

In 1994 Quaker Oats paid $1.7 billion for Snapple, the upstart natural beverage brand. The leadership at Quaker had been successful with Gatorade and figured they could do the same with Snapple.

Unfortunately, they were never clear about what the Snapple brand represented in the market or in American culture. They didn’t understand their audience. They didn’t “get” the local humor. They never knew what they had.

They immediately dropped the quirky, homespun advertising that made Snapple famous. Instead, they tried a misguided approach that was completely traditional and totally off brand.

They also tried to force a different distribution strategy and different, larger packaging. Sales took a nosedive.

Quaker Oats sold the brand a few years later for just $300 million. That’s a 1.4 billion dollar loss! The CEO of Quaker Oats, and the Chairman, lost their jobs.

So don’t feel bad if you’re a few years into a new business and you don’t have a clear vision of your brand. It’s never to late to get clarity.

(*If you want to see what cluelessness looks like, just watch Morgan Spurlocks’ documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. In that movie there’s a scene where he asks the POM Wonderful execs about their brand.)


If you don’t want your startup to fail, stop and think about the repercussions of being vague…

Think about what happens when the name of the company is generated, the brand identity is designed and the marketing strategy is set, all without a coherent brief;  Instant confusion. Consumers will turn immediately to a competitor that makes sense.

What happens when the marketing tactics are not aligned with the marketing strategy? And worse yet, when the leadership team doesn’t know the difference! You can churn through a lot of money.

What happens when the leaders are not clear about finances? Ask any CFO… Fuzzy numbers and poor cash flow management are common causes of startup demise.

What happens when they’re not clear about responsibilities of their team or their expectations of key players? Too much turnover. If founders were more clear they wouldn’t end up with team members who are not a good fit.

What would happen if investors were more clear about their expectations and their involvement? Wouldn’t their batting average improve?

See what I mean? Clarity, clarity, clarity, every step of the way. That’s what can turn the table and boost your odds of success a thousand times

When things are vague everything gets more complex. And more complexity is not what you need to succeed.

One thing you’ll see in a lot of failing startups is people spinning their wheels, going down rabbit holes and doing all sorts of unnecessary stuff. It’s like company-wide A.D.D. They’re all over the place.

The operation moves in the opposite direction of simplicity, which is one of the hallmarks of winning startups.

why startups fail - from the Brand Insight BlogDo one thing well.

This is not multiple choice! If you want your business to be an exception to the rule of 80% failure rates, you have to be clear about your singular focus.

Google wasn’t first-to-market in the search engine world, but they rocketed past Yahoo, AOL and all the others by presenting a clean, uncluttered search page. What to do was very clear to everyone. The simplicity of design made it unique.

That’s how the world learned to do online searches.

Simplicity is impossible without clarity of thought. And clarity comes from choosing. Strategically selecting what you’re NOT going to do. Audiences you’re not going to serve. Products you’re not going to develop.

Choosing means niching down, not scaling up into multiple lines of work.

In Good Strategy Bad Strategy Richard Rummel writes: “The truth is that many companies don’t really have a strategy. At the core, strategy is about focus, and most organizations don’t focus their resources. Instead, they pursue multiple goals at once, not concentrating enough resources to achieve a breakthrough in any one of them.”


Why all the vagueness?

There are many reasons why things remain unclear in any organization. With startups, it’s often a case of skill sets… None of the founders are naturally blessed with the ability to synthesize all the thinking into a coherent story.

So it’s much easier to gloss over certain details and plow ahead.

It’s hard work, articulating everything. For most founders, their idea, their plan, their vision makes perfect sense in their heads, but it’s hard to put it down on paper. They simply don’t have the words for their dreams and vision.

That’s where BN Branding comes in.

We help startups beat the odds by providing brand clarity across the board. Nothing vague about that.

You won’t be struggling with a vague strategy, a poorly defined value proposition, a hodgepodge of tactics, or a misleading brand identity.

Give me a call. I’d love to hear more about your venture.

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