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Fake thrills and false advertising — Another automotive marketing misfire.

BN Branding's iconic brand identityAutomotive advertising, as a category, is notoriously bad. The big brands seldom produce memorable spots, print ads or campaigns. And at the dealer level there’s nothing but obnoxious yell & sell retail ads. Many have been accused of false advertising.

Let’s look at a campaign for the Toyota Camry… This isn’t what I’d call blatantly false advertising. It’s more like delusional, wishful thinking.

You have to start with this fact: The Camry is not an exciting car.

In fact, some automotive writers contend that Toyota’s building nothing but vanilla-flavored toasters these days. Despite that, the Camry has been hugely successful and was the best-selling car in America for almost 20 years.

article on false advertising from BN Branding

Obviously, there’s a huge segment of the American car-buying population that does not care about horsepower, handling, sexiness or style.  They just want reliable, utilitarian, point-A to point-B transportation.

Plain old toasters on wheels.

My father drives one, and he fits the demographic perfectly… white, suburban 80-year old male who only drives a few miles a month. The last thing he’s looking for in a car is a thrill ride.

And yet here comes an ad campaign for the Camry, titled “Thrill Ride.”

What a great concept… a car as a high-speed turbulent thrill ride captured in a reality-TV format.

They built an elaborate, hot-wheels style track and then too people for a rid up and down the hills, around the high-G turns, and into consumer’s hearts.  I want to drive!

I was enamored with the TV commercial at first.

Then I realized it’s a Camry commercial.

 

 

 

This is a classic case of a great advertising idea executed for the wrong brand. Some might even call it false advertising.

Once again, we have an automotive brand trying to be something it’s not. If this campaign was for the Mazda Miata, then yeah. Maybe it would work.

The whole idea is misaligned with the Camry brand. “Thrill Ride” is not the least bit authentic, nor is it relevant to the people who might really be interested in a Camry. (They might have fond memories of ancient, wooden roller coasters, but they don’t want to ride on one.)

And what’s worse, the spot doesn’t even deliver on its ill-advised promise of being thrilling.

The so-called “thrill course”  features one little hill, a banked turn, and a tunnel.  There are relatively young, hip people riding shotgun as the Camry inches its way around the course. It’s a reality TV on Geritol.

I can understand why the Brand Managers at Toyota would want to appeal to a younger audience. And I can even go along with the premise of being a little bit more fun. But why do it in a way that’s utterly fake and out of context?

Why leap all the way to “thrilling?”  Consumers are too smart for that. As one YouTube viewer wrote, “So you’re basically saying that the only way your Camry will be exciting is to drive it on some mock roller coaster course.”

Brand Insight Blog article on false advertising

Why couldn’t they advertise the car’s popularity and reliability and resell value, but in a fun way?

“Among the boring sedans targeting people over 50, the Camry is the MOST FUN!” That, I could buy.

But there’s no way Toyota will every convince people that the Camry is thrilling. They could launch one into space and parachute it back to earth, RedBull style, and it’d still be a boring brand.

But in this case, boring is good. People eat it up!  Why are they trying to be something else? There are plenty of thrilling cars already on the market that don’t sell nearly as well as the Camry.

Bloomberg News reports that in 2014  the era of Camry dominance could run out. There’s a lot of competition in the midsize sedan segment from Kia, Honda, Huyndai and the Ford Fusion. Perhaps the Camry spot was a knee-jerk reaction to the Fusion, with Toyota execs saying, “we gotta be cooler and appeal to a younger target audience like they have.”

Good luck with that.

Assuming you built a thrill course worth its salt, the spot would work brilliantly for BMW’s Mini brand. The Mini is a car that runs on rails, delivers thrills and is genuinely fun in every way. The analogy works.

With the Camry it falls on deaf ears.

At the end of the commercial one of the actors says, “like maybe I’ll look at a Camry differently.”  That sounds like a line stolen right from the creative brief under the header “objective.” I seriously doubt this spot will do it.

False advertising vs. truth in advertising BNBrandingAnd more importantly, why would Toyota want people to look at the Camry  differently???  Seems to me, looking at it as the #1 selling car in the country with outstanding resell value and a super-high reliability rating would be plent

So here’s some advise for brand managers and business owners concerning false advertising or grandiose claims…

If you’re lucky enough to have the best-selling brand in your category, don’t pretend to be something else. Don’t lighten your offering in order to appeal to a seemingly broader audience. Stick to your core. Resist the temptation to leverage your brand it into some other line of work.

Stick with the core truth.

For example, if you’re Guinness Stout you don’t start advertising an American-style lager.

If you’re Harley Davidson you don’t start advertising a new line of lightweight motocross bikes.

If you have the best selling sedan in the country that happens to be a bit vanilla like the Camry, don’t try selling yourself as a spicy hot sporty sedan. You’re wasting your breath. And it’s basically false advertising.

For more on truth in advertising, try THIS post.

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Air Jordan Nike's brand narrative

From underdog to big dog: Take-aways from the Nike brand narrative.

brand credibility from branding experts

 

There’s nothing like a good origin story to remind everyone what your brand’s really all about.  Phil Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog, is an exceptional example.

The early history of Nike shows how the brand narrative got off track. Knight didn’t really understand marketing or the consumer. Like all good stories, it has plenty of interesting characters, plot twists and emotional ups and downs.

Phil Knight wasn’t always the stadium-building billionaire that he is today. For a long time he was just a struggling small-business bean counter, trying to scrape out a living and stay afloat.

That’s how his once-upon-a-time brand narrative begins.

In those early days Knight wasn’t thinking about “building a brand.” It was about paying the bills and getting the bankers off his back. It was a constant juggling act – making payroll, paying for their next shipment of shoes, and paying the bank. I suspect the struggles of his first ten years were slightly exaggerated for effect, but there’s no doubt he had cash flow struggles.

Nike brand narrative

So Knight was out there, schlepping shoes at every track meet and fun run on the west coast. He gave shoes to any athlete or coach who would take them. It was a grass-roots effort that paid off handsomely years later.

Knight did it because he was a runner who genuinely believed he could make life better for other runners.

That was the WHY behind the Nike brand narrative: Enable athletes to run faster, prevent injuries, and quite frankly, win.

Competitiveness is in Knight’s DNA.

Nike was a little company from the little state of Oregon, full of non-conformists who were trying to upset the big, traditional leader; Adidas.

Knight admits to having “an unhealthy contempt” for Adidas and couldn’t bare the thought of losing to them.

Yes, even giants like Nike are underdog brands at some point.

 

 

 

 

Even though I’ve only owned two pairs of Nikes in my life, I still feel some a connection to the brand. Probably because I grew up in Portland, Oregon in the 1970’s. Nike was everywhere!

Many of our beloved Portland Trailblazers wore Nikes.

When I ran track in high school I wore Adidas, but I wanted Nikes. (Alas, no brand of shoe was magical enough to lift my short-legged self to any great heights in that arena.)

Nike shoes were a status symbol and a fashion statement in high school. The Converse brand was fading, and all the cool, rich  kids wore Nikes. Later, when I was starting my career in advertising, Nike was THE brand that every ad agency in Portland wanted. Only the cool kids at Weiden & Kennedy got to work on that treasured account.

So I’ve admired, followed and studied Nike since its inception. And in hindsight, I see three things:

Relevance, credibility and differentiation. Those three elements are woven into every chapter of Nike’s brand narrative.  Those are the common elements of all great brands. That’s what elevated Nike from underdog to big dog status.

Credibility of the Nike brand narrative.

Phil Knight never had to worry about credibility in the track world. He had Bill Bowerman, the greatest track coach on earth, as his partner. Bowerman coached the 1972 Olympic track and field team. He invented the waffle sole.

They were really good shoes, and all the athletes knew it. So it was easy for Knight and his team to recruit athletes to wear them.

That’s where brand credibility starts; With a good product.  Nike leveraged that product cred in order to land iconic athletes, who in turn raised the brand’s credibility even further.

Expanding the relevance of the Nike brand narrative.

Nike brand narrative relevanceNike became a household name because of the iconic athletes who shared Phil Knight’s mindset; Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar in track. Ilie Nastase in tennis, followed by John MacEnroe. Talk about iconic non-conformists!

Just Phil Knight’s type.

With every new athlete came more credibility and broadening relevance.

However, the Nike brand narrative in those early days spoke only to the top performers. It wasn’t so relevant to the general public outside of Portland, Oregon.

In a 1992 interview for Harvard Business Review, Knight reflected on their early messaging missteps:

“When we started making shoes for basketball, tennis, and football, we did essentially the same thing we had done in running. It was effective—to a point. But we were missing something,” Knight said.

“We understood our “core consumers,” the athletes who were performing at the highest level of the sport. Everything was aimed at them. We said, if we get the people at the top, we’ll get the others. But that was an oversimplification. Sure, it’s important to get the top of the pyramid, but you’ve also got to speak to the people all the way down.”

Air Jordan Nike's brand narrative

Michael Jordon made Nike relevant not only on the basketball court, but on urban streets, as well. Air Jordan, Nike’s sub-brand,  is still  the best selling brand of athletic shoes of all time.

 

Where the Nike brand narrative just wouldn’t play.

When Nike went public in 1980 Phil Knight’s financial struggles were over. But the company made two gigantic blunders that would hamper growth for most of the decade.

First, Nike went completely off script and tried to enter the casual shoe market. It was a classic line extension blunder that was completely off brand and doomed to fail. Knight called it disastrous.

Nothing Nike could ever say would make it a relevant brand in casual shoes.

“Not only was the casual shoe effort a failure, but it was diluting our trademark and hurting us in running,” Knight said.

“From the start, everybody understood that Nike was a running shoe company, and the brand stood for excellence in track and field. It was a very clear message, and Nike was very successful. But casual shoes sent a different message. People got confused, and Nike began to lose its magic.”

“That whole experience forced us to define what the Nike brand really meant, and it taught us the importance of focus. Without focus, the whole brand is at risk. Just because you have the best athletes in the world and a stripe everybody recognizes doesn’t mean you can take that trademark to the ends of the earth.”

At the same time, the Nike team completely miscalculated the booming aerobics market. Reebok came from nowhere and kicked Nike’s butt. Nike was built on very specific product niches, with a siloed culture, and no one at Nike took that trend seriously.

Nike was irrelevant to millions of women at that time.

Three words that change the world.

It wasn’t until the first Just Do It commercials ran in 1988 that the Nike Brand began to emerge as something much bigger than just product features and demigods of professional sports.

When they finally got the words right, the relevance of the brand narrative exploded.  (And it didn’t hurt that they had Michael Jordan, on the team.)

Scott Bedbury, Nike’s Director of Corporate Advertising at that time says  “Just Do It” codified an ethos that had always existed within the Nike Brand.

“Those three words simultaneously helped us widen and unify the brand,” Bedbury said.

‘Just Do It’ possessed as much relevance for a 50-year-old mall walker as it did for a 20 year old triathlete. While each spot was intriguing as a stand-alone, the juxtaposition of the entire campaign transmitted a higher, more noble purpose.

Just Do It was not about sneakers. It was about values. It was not about products, it was about a brand ethos.”

 

The Nike Brand Narrative: Differentiation

Knight has never been one to shy away from risk and radical differentiation. Putting a waffle pattern on the soles of  track shoes was different. Air cushioning in a sneaker was different. His first 20 years in business was all based on product differentiation.

But by 1990, Knight’s focus was shifting.

“For years, we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the products. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is market the product. We’ve come around to saying that Nike is a marketing-oriented company, and the product is our most important marketing tool.”

So they began to differentiate Nike with their advertising, as well as with their products.

First there was Walt Stack, an 80-year-old toothless runner, in the original “just do it” commercial.

Michael Jordan in a Superbowl spot with Bugs Bunny.

Bo Jackson and Bo Diddly together in the “Bo Knows” commercial.

Later there was Tiger Woods, saying “Hello World, are you ready for me?”

Serena Williams, saying “Show them what crazy can do.”

And, of course, Colin Kaepernick saying “Believe in something. Even if it means giving up everything.”

“The trick is to get athletes who not only can win but can stir up emotion. We want someone the public is going to love or hate, not just the leading scorer.” Knight said.

Knight’s athlete strategy certainly has caused some backlash over the years. But while some people were burning shoes, the Nike brand was standing out, and winning the race in the long run.

 

 

7

How to build a brand… First, own an idea.

I think all entrepreneurs should study advertising. Entrepreneurs are full of ideas, and advertising is an industry of ideas… Ideas on how to build a brand. How to build credibility and authenticity for existing brands. How to engage an audience and convert leads into sales.

It’s those big ideas — paired with exceptional execution — that builds iconic brands over time, and vaults ad agencies into the national spotlight.

The same can be said for start-ups. Entrepreneurs who start with a big idea, and then stick to it, are the ones who end up building iconic brands. They own an idea, like Zappos did for shoes or Patagonia for adventure gear, or Tesla for electric luxury cars.

how to build a brand - Maytag example by BN BrandingHere’s a good example from the archives of advertising history:

Maytag owns the idea of worry-free appliances. For more than 30 years their advertising has brilliantly communicated the idea of dependability with the lonely Maytag repairman who never has anything to do.
Now he even has an apprentice. The Leo Burnett Agency introduced a strapping new version of Maytag repairman… a side-kick who can talk about technological advancements and appeal to younger women.
The Maytag repairman character is so iconic Chevy actually used him in a television spot touting the Impala’s reliability. Maytag owns the idea. Chevy’s just borrowing it.
Maytag’s core brand idea helps segment the market and differentiate them from the competition. Nobody else in that category will try to claim the idea of “reliability.” Won’t work because everyone knows that Maytag = dependability.

Google knows how to build a brand. They own the idea of online search. So much so, it’s become a verb. “Google it.” It’s the world at your fingertips.

Campbell’s owns the idea of “comfort food.” That brand is not about flavor, it’s about the rainy day when your kids are home for lunch and you sit down for a bowl of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Campbell’s warms, comforts, nourishes, takes you back in time and puts a smile on your face.

For only about one dollar.

Volvo owns the idea of safety. That’s their clearly perceived position in the automotive market.

own an idea BNBrandingEven though driving an automobile is inherently risky, people believe they are safe in a Volvo. And that belief feeds the folklore that sustains that idea and Volvo’s brand image.

Even though Volvo models have all the glamorous features of a luxury brand, they’ll never be seen as luxury cars. Just safe cars.

Funny story about Volvo shopping… Some years ago I seriously considered buying a Volvo SUV for my family. I did the research and went to the local lot for a test drive. But the salesman blew it. He was so adamant about the brand’s safety record, he tried to convince me that Volvo actually used Swedish convicts as live test dummies. True story, he claimed. That’s how Volvo developed such a safe car… by crashing them with convicts at the wheel.

Needless to say, Volvo’s reputation for safety and the car’s luxurious ride couldn’t trump the salesman’s idiocy. I bought an Audi.

Who owns the idea of “fast food?”

McDonald’s, of course. But when people began to realize that fast food wasn’t so good nutritionally, Subway had their own idea… “Healthy Fast Food.”  It was healthier than McDonalds, and Jerod proved it by losing like a thousand pounds while eating Subway Sandwiches.

That simple idea has propelled Subway to #1 in the fast food category. There are 44,800 subway Subway stores to 36,500 McDonald’s stores.

Jimmy Johns owns the idea of fast sandwich deliveryNow Jimmy John’s owns the idea of FAST sandwiches. Not fast food, or sandwiches like Subway, but sandwiches delivered quickly, wherever you may be.

That’s a good strategy of differentiation, especially because their sandwiches aren’t all that great. If they stick with the idea, and execute the idea religiously by actually delivering every sandwich faster than anyone expects, they’ll have a winning business formula.

It’s a core brand concept that’s easily demonstrable in advertising.

And that’s particularly important when it’s a category of parity.  The sandwiches at Quiznos, Tomo’s, Jimmy John’s and Subway are all pretty much the same, so the advertising idea becomes even more important.

Insurance in another such category. It’s a fairly even playing field in a low-involvement category. (Let’s face it, dealing with insurance is about as much fun as going to the dentist.)

Allstate owns the idea of mayhem. In their current advertising campaign the agency  put a face on mayhem, and gave him a smart-ass personality. Everybody knows somebody like that, you just hope your daughter doesn’t date the guy

State Farm has a long-running slogan, “like a good neighbor.”  Unfortunately, neither the advertising nor the customer service support that idea.

Geico saturates the airwaves with humorous advertising and outspends everyone in the insurance category. Thanks to an annual budget of $500 million a year the Geico Gecko and the cavemen have become fixtures in American pop culture. But the message is all over the place. There’s no core brand idea that anyone can grasp.

Guess who owns the idea of sparkling white teeth?  It’s not Colgate. Not Crest. Not a toothpaste, at all.  It’s Orbit chewing gum, a fairly new brand from the master marketers at Wrigleys.

The Orbit girl “cleaning up dirty mouths” campaign helped them capture the #1 spot in the chewing gum market.

(I think Orbit copied the Progressive Insurance advertising. Progressive is the sparkling white insurance brand, for whatever that’s worth.)

Coming up with a core brand concept is hard work. You really have to dig. And think. And explore.

Most of the good ideas have already been done, or can’t be owned authentically. That’s the trick… finding a conceptual framework that honestly fits with your product or service offering.  (BNBranding can help you with that.)

Many big brands don’t own an idea at all.

JCPenny, or JCP as they’d like us to say, doesn’t own an idea. They’re trying desperately to be younger, cooler and more hip than they used to be, but the name change and the slick new execution of their print advertising doesn’t make up for the lack of a relevant idea. They’re closing stores by the hundreds, and are destined to become yet another retail dinosaur.

Whether you’re selling insurance or chewing gum, building a brand begins with a simple idea.

Anybody can borrow some money, hang up a shingle and start their own business. But the companies that last — the ones that become iconic brands — almost always start with a clearly defined, highly demonstrable idea that goes beyond just the product or service.

Do you need ideas? Need help with your brand messaging? Get started right away. Click here. 

Want to learn more about how to build a brand? Try this post.

 

how to build a brand by BN Branding

1 positioning strategy BNBranding

How to build credibility for your brand, one chapter at a time.

BNBranding logoYour business is not like WalMart. You can’t spend a half a billion dollars a year flooding the airwaves with advertising in order to sway public opinion and build credibility for your brand.

You have to build credibility every day — by delivering a great product, providing exceptional service, and generally exceeding all expectations.  So brand credibility is not just a marketing issue, it’s also an operational issue.

You can’t just say the right thing, you also have to do the right thing. If you want to build credibility, your marketing message have to be aligned with a well-tuned operation.

Here’s an example from one of our golf industry clients: His little shop is not like the big box store right up the road.  But like all retailers, he always wanted to advertise low prices. Sales get people in the door, he says.

brand credibility BNBranding

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

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

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

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

“That may be true, but it doesn’t matter. The public believes that the big box store will be cheaper. And you can’t fight that perception.  It’s like City Hall.”

“Even if we advertised lower prices week-in and week-out for years, consumers won’t believe that you can match the big chains on price. If you want a credible brand, you have to hang your hat on something else.”

In that case, it was personalized service that became the centerpiece of their advertising. That’s not just a good story, it’s a credible brand message.

 

The little guys can always compete on service, because the public perception is that big chains suck at it.

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

It’s not just about good story telling. It’s also story proving. That’s how you build brand credibility.

Here’s the challenge: Consumers begin every brand relationship in a state of total DISbelief. They don’t have enough information about your business to like or dislike it, but they are not neutral about it, due to their inherent skepticism.

It’s the built-in BS meter they all have. They don’t believe anything you say.

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

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

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

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

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

In marketing, there’s a secondary reality in every market segment.

If you want people to suspend their disbelief long enough to “hear” your business pitch, you need to tell stories and use details that fit the context of that secondary reality.

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

In novels, vivid, realistic details that fit within that secondary reality (context) make the story more believable. More engaging.

The same holds true for marketing communications of all sorts. Dramatic details and believable situations help you sell your story and sway skeptics. Not dry, hard-selling facts, but character details that reveal the personality of your brand and demonstrate your understanding of the consumer and his or her problem.

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

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

Here’s one simple way to build brand credibility: Choose the right photos for your website.

Every image should help tell the story and support the secondary reality you’re working within. If you load up lousy stock images that look fake, no one’s going to believe the story that goes with the photos. Your brand cred will be shot.

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

Headlines are equally important.

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

If you keep all those little executional details in sync with your operation, and maintain good practices over time, disbelief will turn to reluctant acceptance, acceptance to approval and approval to purchase. For a few lucky brands, it’ll even progress to a lifelong love.

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

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

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

So when you’re working on content for your website, or a story for your latest PR effort, make sure that it rings true with your operation.

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

Read more on building an authentic brand 

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1 kombucha marketing kombucha wonder drink brand

How to compete in the booming Kombucha Market

Insight on the booming kombucha market — An interview with Steven Lee of Kombucha Wonder Drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

JF: How did that transition into Stash Tea Company?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JF: An acquired taste…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keen branding

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

2 how to differentiate your company - BNBranding

How to differentiate your company (Disruption as a branding discipline)

BNBranding logoThe word for the day is Disruption, with a capital D. That’s the easiest way to differentiate your company from the competition.

Be Disruptive!

Unfortunately, in our society there’s a stigma against all things deemed disruptive.How to differentiate your business - BNBranding

When I was in elementary school I learned to not be disruptive in class. Or else! Sit still in church and don’t disrupt the service. By the 6th grade it was “don’t cause a scene or call attention to yourself.”

Don’t be different. Be the same.

Write like everyone else. Dress like everyone else. Behave like everyone else and you’ll get along just fine. That’s the message we got, and it’s the message our kids are getting.

Loud and clear.

 

 

Maybe that’s why so many business owners and executives flee from the idea of disruption like a fox from a forest fire. It’s ingrained in our society. Most business owners are deathly afraid that some new competitor with “distruptive technology” is going to come along and threaten their turf.

And yet, if you’re trying to differentiate your business it’s disruption that separates the iconic brands from the ho-hum ones.  Disruptive advertising. Disruptive product ideas. Disruptive marketing messages. Disruptive cultures. And even disruptive social media posts.

Jean Marie Dru, Chairman of the advertising conglomerate TBWA, has written two outstanding books about Disruption, but it’s still a hard sell. To most executives disruption is bad. Convention is good. And the results of this mentality are everywhere.

Brand differentiation is hard to come by.

As management guru Tom Peters says, “we live in a sea of similarity.” Social convention and human nature lead us into a trap of conformity where all websites have the same basic layout. All sedans look the same. All airlines feel the same. All travel ads sound the same.

And it works to some degree, because there’s comfort in conformity. (Vanilla still outsells all other flavors of ice cream.)

But in the long run, conformity is the kiss of death for a brand.

Great brands do things that are disruptive. Rather than shying away from the word, the executives embrace the idea of disruption and they make it a part of their everyday operation. They are constantly looking for ways to differentiate their companies, and every new idea is considered productive change that stimulates progress.

But even when they succeed with disruptive products, disruptive technology and disruptive marketing campaigns, it’s tough to sustain.

When Chrysler first launched the Plymouth Voyager the Minivan was a groundbreaking idea that threw the auto industry into total disruption. It was a whole new category, and everyone scrambled to copy the market leader. Within five years, minivans were — you guessed it —  all the same.

There used to be a Television network that was radically disruptive. MTV launched hundreds of music careers and shaped an entire generation, and now where is it? Lost in a sea of mediocre sameness.

When they first burst onto the scene in the 80’s, the idea of a micro brewery was very disruptive. Now, in Oregon, there’s one in every neighborhood and they’re all pretty much the same. Good, but IPAs are everywhere.

Successfully disruptive ideas don’t last because its human nature to copy what works. This process of imitation homogenizes the disruptive idea to the point where it’s no longer different. No longer disruptive.

how to differentiate your company - BNBrandingSo if you want to sustain a competitive advantage and continue to differentiate your company from new upstarts, you have to keep coming up with disruptive ideas. Not just incremental improvement on what’s always worked, but honest-to-goodness newness all the time.

Avatar is a disruptive movie that spawned numerous knock-offs.

The name “Fuzzy Yellow Balls” is brilliantly disruptive in the on-line tennis market.

brand differentiation on the brand insight blogThe American Family Life Assurance Company was utterly forgettable until they changed their name to AFLAC and launched a campaign featuring a quacking duck.

In the insurance business, that’s disruptive!

According to an interview in the Harvard Business Review, AFLAC’s CEO Daniel Amos risked a million dollars on that silly duck campaign.

Amos could have gone with an idea that tested incrementally better than the average insurance commercial, but he didn’t. He took a chance and went with that obnoxious duck. He chose to differentiate his company. He chose disruption over convention, and everyone said he was nuts.

But it turned out to be a radically successful example of brand differentiation.

The first day the duck aired AFLAC had more visits to their website than they had in the entire previous year. Name recognition improved 67% the first year. And most importantly, sales jumped 29%. After three years, sales had doubled.

AFLAC’s success was based on disruption in advertising and naming. But for many companies, there’s also an opportunity to stand out with disruptive strategy. In fact, Dru contends that breakthrough tactics are not enough, and that the strategic stage also demands imagination.

Here’s another good example of how to differentiate your company…

When Apple introduced the iPod, the strategy wasn’t just about superior product design. It was about disrupting the conventions of the music business. It was about introducing the Apple brand to a whole new category of non-users and establishing Apple as the preferred platform for all your personal electronic needs.ipod branding on the brand insight blog

 

Of course Apple also has brilliant, disruptive advertising.

You can get away with mediocre tactics if your strategy is disruptive enough. And vice-versa…  If your advertising execution is disruptive, you can get by with a me-too strategy. But if you want to hit a real home run like Apple did with the ipod, start with a brilliantly disruptive strategy and build on it with a disruptive product and disruptive marketing execution.

It’s kind of ironic… In business, no one wants to cause a disruption, and yet they’re clamoring for good ideas. And good ideas ARE disruptive. They disrupt the way the synapses in the brain work. They break down our stereotypes and disrupt the business-as-usual mentality.

That’s precisely why we remember them.

How to differentiate your company - BNBrandingRichard Branson said, “Disruption is all about risk-taking, trusting your intuition, and rejecting the way things are supposed to be. Disruption goes way beyond advertising, it forces you to think about where you want your brand to go and how to get there.”

Steinbeck once said, “It is the nature of man, as he grows old, to protect himself against change, particularly change for the better.”

Ask yourself this: What are you protecting yourself from? What are the conventions of your industry?  Why are are you maintaining the stats quo? What are the habits that are holding you back? Are you copying what’s good, or doing what’s new?

What are you doing to be disruptive?  What are doing to differentiate your company on a dialy basis? Are you really willing to settle for vanilla or are you really committed to brand differentiation?

For more on disruption and how to differentiate your company, try THIS post.

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How to do great branding ads — Subaru scores with skier-focused print.

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A lot of marketing people seem to think that branding ads are a waste of money. As if “branding” and “results” simply don’t go together.

I think Subaru and many other iconic brands prove that wrong. And I’d also contend that every ad, every social media post, every email, every touch with a prospective buyer is, in fact, branding.

“Winter storm slams into Washington.”

“Travel advisory for the entire New England area.”

how to do a good branding ad

“Heavy snow accumulations across the Rockies.”

Subaru of America loves headlines like that. Every time a big storm brings traffic to a standstill, the front page of the newspaper reads like a branding ad for Subaru.

Which brings me to an ad that I spotted in Ski Magazine some years ago. It was pleasantly simple:

“Snowstorm Advisory. (More of a calling than a warning)”  Subaru.

No photo of the car. Just a dramatic photo of a lonely road in a blizzard. It’s taken in the first-person perspective, as if I’m sitting in the front seat on my way to the mountain.

That ad doesn’t just speak to me. It sings.

 

Hats off to the creative team that did that ad. And a round of applause for the client at Subaru who actually stood up against the industry convention and agreed to leave the car out of the ad altogether. (yes, you CAN do a branding ad without showing the product.)

It takes guts to run a full page ad in a national magazine without showing the product. And I’m sure the dealers gripe about it, and say “it’s just a branding ad, it’s never going to sell anything.”

how to do a great branding ad

This is the type of product-as-hero image that every dealer wants in every ad.

But nevertheless, it works.

It speaks volumes about the brand, and it touches a highly relevant emotional chord with anyone who has ever driven through a blizzard to be first on the chairlift.

Besides, with a limited budget there’s a good, practical reason to leave out the product shot: The appeal is not limited to any one model of Subaru. It’s not an ad for the Outback, it’s an ad for the brand.

Just let them imagine whatever Subaru model they like. For a younger, California skier it could be a WRX. For a Birkenstock-wearing telemark skier in Vermont, it’s a Forrester.

By NOT showing the model, they actually sell every Subaru in the line up.

Damn right it’s a branding ad! You should be so lucky.

The Subaru branding ads reflects a genuine, empathetic understanding of the core audience.

Kevin Mayer, Subaru’s Director of Marketing, says his brand is as much about customers as it is about products.

Subaru caters to outdoorsy people of comfortable means who opt for function over fashion every time. It’s a well-targeted niche market of skiers, hikers and kayakers who need all-wheel-drive for navigating unpredictable roads. (Not surprisingly, most Subarus are sold in the Northwest and the Northeast, where there’s a lot of skiing, kayaking and hiking.)

But more importantly, “Subaru owners are experience seekers – they want to live bigger, more engaged lives,” Mayer, said. “To them, the car is the enabler of that bigger life. A conscious alternative to the mainstream.”

a new approach to website design BNBrandingIt’s obvious that the ski magazine ad came directly from that sort of crystal-clear consumer insight and brand strategy.

“We went back to the customer and started thinking again about their values and how our values are alike. We dialed in our strategies back to core,” Mayer said in a MediaPost.com article.

To me, the message is loud and clear… crummy, snowy roads can’t stop me from doing what I love.

In this ad, it’s benefits over features, all the way to the bank.

Karl Greenberg, editor of Mediapost said, “Subaru has the kind of brand equity and staunch loyalty you usually find in luxury marques, which means they can keep their message on product and brand, not on deals or features.”

Rather than running a headline that touts the features of a Subaru (ie the “symmetrical all-wheel-drive system) the ski magazine ad conveys the benefits of that system: Being in the mountains doing what I love.

While everyone else is stuck at home, Subaru owners are out enjoying life. Having fun. Missing nothing. It’s a message of empowerment wrapped in a warm, wintery blanket.

That’s what long term brand advertising is all about… connecting with specific groups of people in a relevant, emotional manner, time after time, after time. Until people start feeing like they’re part of the club.

Clearly the top executives at Subaru get it. They know their market. They’re clear on company values. And they’ve designed products that align perfectly with the brand, the message and the medium.

how to do a great branding ad

You couldn’t place that Subaru ad in The New Yorker or Parade Magazine, even during a snow storm. It would be out of context and off target.

When you see it in context of ski magazine, it doesn’t come across as hype. It’s as authentic as they come.

But no brand is perfect, and Subaru has also had its share of photoshopped flops.  Like this ridiculous branding ad on the right…

Subaru buyers don’t want to forget about winter. They want to embrace it. Be out in it. Conquer it.

That’s a face plant of an ad. Completely off brand for Subaru.

Then there’s the granddaddy of automotive cliches:  A Subaru on a curvy road is not only off brand, it’s also downright generic… it reads just like any other standard, run of the mill car ad. That one’s definitely not firing on all cylinders.

how to do a great branding ad

Subaru’s foray into the luxury, upscale SUV market was a flop. Subaru CEO Ikuo Mori admitted that the “up market migration” with the B9 Tribeca hasn’t worked.

Too big and too flashy for that family of cars. Jim Treece from Automotive news said, “There is nothing especially wrong with the B9 Tribeca, except that it has utterly nothing to do with Subaru’s brand.”

Subaru enjoys tremendously high brand loyalty. Rally enthusiasts swear by the WRX. Forrester owners love the practicality.  And defacto brand ambassadors sell their neighbors on Subaru based on their own brand stories.

Which is the basis for Subaru’s excellent Branding Ad campaign titled “Dear Subaru.”

Fantastic teasers! I want to go to their site, just to get more about these true stories. Two words and an intriguing photo of a car that’s not posed, polished and fake. That’s all you need for a brilliant branding ad.

how to do a great brand ad

For more about automotive industry branding, try this post.

If you’re thinking of running some branding ads give me a call at BNBranding.

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3 Dragnet approach to bad advertising

How to do more effective advertising (Just the facts won’t do it)

 Bend, Oregon advertising agencyEvery client I work with wants to know how to do more effective advertising. They wonder if it’s the media buy, or the writing, or the graphics, or what. I usually tell them it’s the facts that are the problem. Then I tell them about Joe Friday.

When I was growing up I used to watch re-runs of an old cop show called Dragnet. The theme song alone left an indelible impression on me.

Narration from the main character begins every show: “This is the city; Los Angeles California. It’s 7:18 a.m. I’m sergeant Joe Friday. This is my partner, Gannon.”

Dragnet approach to more effective advertising - BN Branding

Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday in Dragnet

Joe Friday means business.

He works his case methodically, interrogating everyone, including innocent old ladies. He’s buttoned up so tight he can hardly part his lips to deliver his famous lectures.

His favorite line: “Give us the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.”

That might be an effective approach to police work, but it’s a waste of money when it comes to advertising.

In the Dragnet school of advertising, all you do is list the facts: Who, what, when, where, how much. It’s the preferred approach of deluded business owners who believe, “if you list it, they will come.”

Very few businesses are that good, or that different.

The fact is, most of the time there’s nothing compelling about the facts. If you want to do more effective advertising, you have to move into a world that Joe Friday’s not familiar with… a world of emotional storytelling.

Facts tell, stories sell.

 

 

 

People buy because of how they feel, not because of what they think. And stories have always made us feel things.

The fact is, one orthopedic practice is pretty much the same as the next. They’re all board certified specialists and skilled surgeons who can fix you up and get you back on your feet.

One golf shop’s pretty much the same as the next. They all sell the same big brands, it’s just a matter of scale and inventory levels.

One Toyota dealer’s pretty much the same as the next. They sell the same cars, at the same price, and offer service that’s competitively similar.

So the facts can’t be the centerpiece of your advertising. Facts seldom offer an emotional hook, or any reason whatsoever for the brain to pause and ponder your offer. In fact, the human brain is hard-wired to gloss right over facts and data, and move on to more meaningful messages.

Messages that make us FEEL something.

The storytelling approach to advertising is superior in every way.  Whenever there’s a commercial that you recall and talk about, I guarantee you there’s good storytelling involved.

Instead of the droll, Sergeant Friday talking AT people like they’re middle school kids, great spots create beguiling characters, use disarming sound effects, and offer a story line that sucks people in — hook, line and sinker.

how to do more effective advertisingGo to Youtube and check out any of the AXE deodorant commercials. (My favorite is titled “Susan Glenn” with Keifer Sutherland from 2012, but there are many great examples from Axe.)

The benefit of using deodorant is embedded into every storyline, quite brilliantly. Every guy on earth will relate to these spots.

Or check out my favorite spot from the last Olympics: The brilliantly on-brand hit titled “the Jogger” from Nike and Weiden & Kennedy Portland.

I know what you’re thinking…  “Sure, anybody with budgets like Nike can do great TV spots.”

Well guess what. That spot was ridiculously simple and inexpensive to produce. No special effects needed. No big-name endorsement deals. No facts about running shoes.  Just an incredible story of human achievement that absolutely nails the Nike brand.

Print ads, websites, even simple direct response post cards can employ exceptional storytelling techniques.The Got Milk campaign is a great example. Two words. One simple photo. And endless stories to tell.

Got Milk print ad

You don’t see any facts about milk. Not a drop. The entire campaign was built around the emotion of finding yourself milkless with a plate of cookies or a bowl of cereal, or whatever.

The emotional hook of NOT having the product was way more compelling than the facts about milk could ever be. The client at the California Milk Advisory board was smart enough to recognize that.

Business people who insist on the Joe Friday approach to advertising are probably scared and insecure. They know, deep down, that their value proposition isn’t anything to write home about. They know there’s parity in the market and a better competitor could come along any time and beat them out. The facts are not on their side.

So they think they have to say everything in every ad.  And they justify the excessive bullet points by saying they have to “maximize their spend.”

Unfortunately, Friday-style facts actually minimize the effectiveness of your ads. It’s like golf. The harder you try, the worse things get.

bend oregon advertising agency blog postLet me be clear. I’m not saying you should eliminate facts altogether. If, in fact, you have a product or service that’s truly different and superior to the closest competitor, be overt about it. Absolutely!

And you always need some facts, somewhere, to help people justify their gut decision to buy your product.

But if you want to do more effective advertising, don’t lead with facts, Dragnet style. Find an engaging, emotional way to communicate the bigger, overt benefit. Personalize it. Emotionalize it. It’ll work much better.

That’s a fact.

Need help translating your boring business facts into great stories that’ll move product? Call us. 541-815-0075

For additional facts on how to do more effective advertising, check out this post. 

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2 Keen brand strategy on the brand insight blog BNBranding

Keen Footwear is a great branding case study. If the shoe fits.

Keen brand strategy on the brand insight blog BNBrandingApparently, I have peasant feet.  At least that’s what the nice sales person at REI told me as I was buying a pair of Keens.  That comment inspired me to use that brand as a good branding case study.

Here’s how the story goes…

Back in medieval Europe, peasant’s feet were short and stubby, with toes that were all close to the same length.

Noblemen, on the other hand, had narrow, pointy feet, with toes that tapered off like an Egyptian profile.

Keen shoes seem to be tailor-made for peasants.

I’ve purchased two pairs of Keens for work, one pair of sandals, and two pairs of light hikers because they fit my feet perfectly. But I’ve never heard anything from Keen about fit. ( Or about catering to peasants, for that matter.)

Instead, the Keen brand strategy revolves around the theme of the “hybrid life.” Where did that come from, you might ask.

 

 

Like most great brands, Keen was launched with one simple idea. Their entire brand strategy focused on sandals with toe protection. It’s yet another branding case study that proves the power of singular focus.

Designer Michael Keen’s ah-ha moment derived from his experience as a competitive sailor.  At the time, serious sailors never wore sandals. Too many stubbed toes! So Keen came up with the Newport Sandal and dubbed it a hybrid — somewhere between a shoe and a sandal with visible reinforcement in the toes.

Stylish? Not really. But they sure are functional.

Sailors soon started moving away from Top Siders and embracing the protection provided by Keen’s distinctive toe design. There’s even a Keen model that looks like a deck shoe.

Keen shoes brand strategy on the Brand Insight BlogBut sailing is a preppy, upper crust activity, and Keen’s brand personality is definitely not preppy. That’s where this branding case study gets interesting.

You won’t see any sailing in Keen’s marketing materials, and I doubt they’ll be sponsoring an America’s Cup boat any time soon.

You’re more likely to see Keens on a dirt bag vagabond than an ivy league yachtsman.

Keen shoes are not high fashion, but they’re highly functional and amazingly comfortable. They appeal to river rafters, hikers, beachcombers, bicyclists, campers, fishermen and just about anyone who loves to play outdoors. Every model they make shows Keen’s original benefit… toe protection.

Needless to say, the brand plays well in the workboot category. But more than that, it’s also popular among urban hipsters in places like Portland, Seattle, Boston and Austin, Texas.

For branding purposes, the company latched onto Michael Keen’s term and expanded it into the “hybrid life.”

Unfortunately, most people don’t know what that means. It’s a conjured-up lifestyle thing that only makes sense to a tiny sliver of the peasant market. Like those of us lucky enough to live in Bend, Oregon.

Bend Oregon Advertising Agency Keen branding case studyWhen it comes to brand affiliations, Bend is the perfect town for Keen.

We get it. Recreation’s the name of the game here, and locals are very good at getting outside and having fun… Paddling  or fishing the Deschutes River, mountain biking, skiing, hiking, running the river trail.

The hybrid life is what we’re all doing here. Or at least aspiring to do.

But the folks at Keen like to say “hybrid life” is deeper than just what you do in your spare time. It’s “a call to create, play and care.”  That’s the heart of the Keen brand, and the company has demonstrated authenticity on all three fronts.

It’s one of those companies that’s genuinely trying to do good things. And that commitment is built into their brand strategy.

When it comes to caring, Keen walks the talk. When the tsunami hit Thailand and Indonesia in 2004, Keen donated its entire marketing budget for the year, almost $1 million, to tsunami recovery efforts.

Since then Keen has donated over $5 million to non-profits that share “a philosophy of caring, conscience and sustainability.”

On the sustainability scale, Keen CEO James Curleigh considers Keen an “accidental environmentalist”.

They launched a line of bags and wallets using scrap polyester and nylon. So now the company is heralded as “green” and eco-friendly. But to hear Curleigh tell it, the move had more to do with material costs and smart business decisions than environmentalism.

The Portland-based company encourages its employees to volunteer in the community, offering up to 36 hours of paid time each year to participate in volunteer activities. Appropriately, on Earth Day nearly 40 of the company’s employeeKeen shoes brand strategy on the Brand Insight Blogs helped with trail maintenance in Portland’s Forest Park.

And one of Keen’s recent advertising campaigns encouraged people to rekindle one of the favorite parts of their childhood and incorporate Recess into their adult lives.

Sounds good to me. Peasants deserve a break. We work hard.

The campaign is an improvement over Keen’s past advertising efforts where the hybrid life was sort of shoved down our throats. “Designed for your hybred life” was actually one of the headlines. (A classic case where the brand strategy statement made an unfortunate appearance as an ad headline.) The message has also lacked consistency over the years…

“Shoes with adrenalin.”

“Bear tested, Bear approved” with Bear Grylls from Man vs. Wild.

“Live Outwardly.”

Keen’s agency is obviously trying to make “Recess” more inclusive. They’re working to expand the definition of  “outdoor recreation” and include a broader range of audiences.

Maybe they’re trying a little too hard.

The ads feels a little forced. The photography has a stock look, and doesn’t sKeen advertisingeem authentic to me.  Compare it to the photography that Patagonia consistently produces… it’s no contest.

In the Keen ads there are no peasants, no grungy hipsters, no bearded mountain men. They’re all models — cleaned, pressed and ready to trek from one photo shoot to the next. I’ll bet most of them even have noble, pointy feet.

Which brings me back to Michael Keen’s original design.

Keen said he considered all kinds of feet before deciding on a last that fits 90 percent of the population. But there aren’t that many of us with peasant feet.

The fact is, the lucky people with noble, Egyptian feet can fit into just about any shoe, including Keens. But not vice-versa.

Try shoving a stubby, peasant foot into the typical golf shoe. It’s impossible. Just look how pointy they all are. It’s almost as-if the powers that be in the golf industry want to perpetuate that image of noble exclusivity.

Golf shoes just don’t fit peasant feet.

They won’t even make shoes for the working class, much less golf courses!

So here’s what I hope:  I hope Keen gets into the golf shoe business.

If they choose to make deck shoes and biking shoes, why not golf shoes? The toe construction of a Keen is absolutely perfect for the demands of the golf swing, and no other golf shoe accommodates the common foot.

And when they do move into that market, I hope I can do the ads. Because nobody knows peasant golf like I do.

For more on Brand Strategy, check out THIS post: 

Interested in buying some Keens? Check them out at GoodPairOfShoes.com

 

Lessons learned from 30 years in a professional services business

 

brand credibility from branding expertsProfessional services marketing is one of the toughest specialties in my line of work. First of all, marketing an intangible service is much harder than marketing a tangible product, like a tasty new food item. Second, it’s hard to know where to spend your money, and which tactics are appropriate for a professional services firm.

There are a million different things you could do, and a lot of professionals struggle to make sense of all the options. A quick Google search for “business-to-business marketing tips” produces an unprecedented amount of misinformation.

Like this little gem of nonsense:

“While consumers choose products based not only on price but also on popularity, status, and other emotional triggers, B-to-B buyers make decisions on price and profit potential alone.”

B-to-B marketing, they claim, is all about reason and logic.

These misinformed “experts” expect me to believe that emotion plays NO role in B-to-B marketing decisions. As if real people are magically transformed into corporate purchasing automatons the minute they set foot at the office.

honesty in political advertising

Give me a break.

Thirty years running a professional services business, and I can’t think of one single client we ever landed because of some rigorous analytical purchasing process. Not one.

People buy for subjective reasons, then they justify the purchase decision with a logical checklist of excuses. In B-to-B purchases, they just need a little longer list.

In the case of BN Branding, when we ask clients why they chose us, here’s what they say:

“Because I like those ads you did for Smidge.”

“Because I really relate to that article you wrote about the yin and yang of marketing.”

“I just got a good feeling from your website.”

All purely subjective, intangible excuses.

Other clients say it’s because we have a disciplined branding process. But even that’s not an objective reason. Our process produces a FEELING of confidence that allows them to act. But no one’s going to tell you what’s really going on, deep down. They might not even know why they really buy from you.

 

 

In B-to-B marketing it’s gut first. Then heart. And then the head.

The psychology of rationalization is well documented. The latest advances in neuroscience and behavioral economics prove, time and time again, that  it’s human nature. That’s how our brains are wired.

So that’s lesson #1 from all my years  in professional services marketing: Never underestimate the power of emotion in B-to-B purchases.

If your marketing efforts revolve around checklists of facts and features, you’re not going to see the results you’d like. Facts can’t be the centerpiece of your marketing. You have to dig deeper than that.

Facts seldom offer an emotional hook, or any reason whatsoever for the brain to pause and seriously consider your service offer. In fact, the human brain is hard-wired to gloss right over facts and data, and move on to more meaningful things.

Like stories and distinctly different graphics. Facts tell. Stories sell.

What stories are you telling? What proprietary branded graphics have you produced lately?

professional services marketing lessons from the Brand Insight Blog

Lesson #2: Love what you do.

Service businesses are easy to start, but hard to grow.

That’s because the business model for most professional service firms is sub-optimal.  Sales cycles are long and drawn out. Delivery is highly dependent on talent. And every client requires your skill and attention, to some degree.

Most are not scalable because they hinge on the talent of a few key partners.

The challenges are substantial, so you better love your work. In fact, you better be downright passionate about your particular specialty.

Branding, in one form or another, has been my passion since I was 15. I absolutely love producing eye catching ads, effective websites, or inspired content…  whatever it takes to help clients succeed.

I love the collaboration with clients and designers and programmers. I love the collision of art and commerce. I still get a charge out of the creative process, even if it’s just a little digital ad that we’re producing.

That enthusiasm is infectious.

On the other hand, “inspiring banker” is an oxymoron. And I’ve never met an accountant who seemed genuinely passionate about her work.

I’ve tried six different accounting firms over the years, and not one has shown any interest in my business whatsoever. Not one has ever called, in the middle of the year, to check on my progress and offer financial advice. (In fact, not one has ever sent any kind of proactive communication of any kind.)

Not one has positioned herself as anything more than an end-of-year number cruncher. Seems like a great opportunity — for someone. (If there are any really good accountants out there, give me a call!)

A glaring lack of passion is an easy way to UNsell the clients you’ve already sold. The fact is, passionate professionals like me want to do business with other passionate professionals. Or if not passionate, at least interested. Engaged. Semi-helpful!

Harry Beckwith wrote three great books on service industry marketing. In “Selling the Invisible” he says the first priority is the service itself. You gotta get the service right. I believe that starts with your attitude.

If your attitude sucks, the service will too. If you don’t love the professional service you provide, fix it or get out. Go do something else before your business crumbles beneath you.

Lesson #3: Be persistently adaptable.

At my parents’ 50th anniversary my dad shared his secret to a happy marriage: “Persistence,” he said.  “Simple as that.”

The same can be said for successful service businesses. You’d be amazed by how many fail simply because the key partners quit working at it. Sometimes they run out of steam because they don’t love what they do. Sometimes they devote all their energy to one big client, and forget about everything else. Sometimes other priorities prevail.

Over the last 30 years I walked away from my business twice… Once by choice (thanks to an offer I couldn’t refuse) and once because of the economy. For a few years after the crash of 2009 it became a side hustle while I did what I had to do to survive. But I never quit on it. Never lost the passion for it.

One thing’s for sure: Shit happens. Circumstances change. Markets shift. People come and go. And new technology changes the game. You have to be able to adapt.

When I rebuilt the business it took on a different form… Virtual workforce. New processes. Different talent pool. And even more flexibility.

At BN Branding we adapt to the needs of our clients. The services we deliver vary dramatically depending on what they need. Most clients have no idea so we have to figure it out for them, and lead the way. That’s how we’ve developed long term client relationships.

With commitment, patience, consistency, and adaptability. It’s about relationships, not transactions.

Professional services marketing Lesson #4: Keep learning.

In my line of work every new client, every product category and every new project requires study, learning and growth. Without it, we’d never survive.

Experience has taught us a lot, but every business is different. Every marketing situation is unique. We can’t assume anything.

There are a lot of new digital agencies that do nothing but cookie-cutter ads in one particular niche market, like dental practices or car dealerships. They literally run the exact same ads for all their clients. Just swap out the logo.

I’d shoot myself.

It’s variety that keeps things interesting. Wards off burnout. Keeps the creativity alive.

And it’s our thirst for learning that enables us to do great work for all sorts of businesses… One day it’s the nutritional benefits of organic alfalfa in rabbit food, and the next we’re dealing with software as a service in the fintech segment.

Variety is the spice of professional services life.

I often counsel clients to discard products and focus on a more narrow niche. But sometimes you have to sacrifice specialization for your own sanity.

If you’re an architect, do you really want to design nothing but elementary schools your whole life? If you’re a consultant, do you really want to devote your entire practice to cannabis dispensaries?

 

professional services marketing lessons from BN BrandingLesson #5: Little gestures matter.

There’s an old Jewish proverb that says, “don’t open a shop if you can’t learn to smile.”

At BN Branding we like to celebrate little victories with our clients…  Like when a website goes live. When a new brand that we’ve created hits the store shelves. When one of our ads starts popping up on our phones or on billboards up the road.

That’s just the way we roll, and come to find out, the marketing professors have a name for that: “Managing the evidence.”

In professional services marketing you have to keep proving that you’re delivering on your promises. You have to provide evidence of your performance, or at the very least, proof of life.

Radio silence is the kiss of death.

I’m always annoyed by service providers who disappear in the middle of a project. It doesn’t matter if they meet the ultimate deadline and deliver great work, if they don’t communicate at all during the process I won’t be doing business with that person, or that firm, again.

Process matters! And decent communications is part of any process.

I’m not asking for perfection. I’m just asking for the common courtesy of an email update or a quick text message that says “hey, we got pulled away on an urgent matter, and we’ll get back with you tomorrow.”  That’s all it takes, assuming you actually do get back to me tomorrow.

Success hinges on keeping promises like that. It’s a lot of little gestures over a long period of time. That’s how you nurture relationships and build credibility. That’s one of the fundamentals of professional services marketing.

Lesson #6: Life’s a lot easier when you build a brand.

Beckwith summed it up quite well: “In service marketing almost nothing beats a brand.”

A brand makes your sales efforts easier and more efficient. A brand reduces stress for your prospects and makes buying easier. A brand improves credibility and aids word of mouth.”

“A brand is money.”

We can help you make both.