Posts Tagged ‘branding’

Branding Disorder

July 2, 2008

Thanks to John Moore at Brand Autopsy, my next summer book will be Obsessive Branding Disorder, by Lucas Conley. I always love to read stuff that validates my personal philosophies! Here are a couple of quotes from the Fast Company essay that spawned the book:

A brand is a result, not a tactic. One cannot go about branding an organization or a product or a service; the organization, product, or service is what creates the brand. (italics mine). In a brilliant twist, the experts have bottled an end and sold it as a means. (emphasis mine).

Lucas sees a connection between the decline in advertising and the rise of branding as a business religion. He points to a 14% drop in Madison Avenue employment from 2000 to 2005. I think it’s more likely that both are symptoms — there is correlation but not necessarily a causal connection.

In my view, the rise of branding with its focus on “being understood” and “knowing who you are” comes from the increasingly narcissistic mood of the culture. And that in turn might be flowing from the trends which have conspired to make “one” — the self — into the ultimate economic unit.

Whatever the cause, we agree on the results: the advertising world focuses on “what we say” and “how we say it”. But the reality is that true branding, minus the hype, is really just “what the business does.” Conley cites Jiffy mix, Disney, and Apple as his examples of strong brands that are strong because of their product, not their advertising. And my personal favorite, In-N-Out Burger:

The $310 million In-N-Out Burger chain, another iconic brand that rarely advertises or speaks to the press, has been putting the rest of the fast-food industry to shame for years. McDonald’s spent an estimated $1.5 billion on branding efforts last year, producing little more than one day’s worth of sales more per store than In-N-Out. Have you ever met anyone who’s had an In-N-Out Burger who doesn’t believe it’s one of the best burgers they’ve ever had? Meanwhile, just who, exactly, is really “lovin’ it”?

For colleges, the message is clear: focus on the delivery of a transformational education experience in keeping with the traditions and values of the school. And in the marketing area, focus on authentic portrayals of how real students are actually experiencing that transformative time in their lives. In that way the authentic brand for that college will emerge. And the branding techniques that are so faddishly au courant, can be left to the McDonalds’ of the world to obsess on.

Postscript on another great summer read:

Today it seems normative for members of a family, company, team, or band to find the current of success more rewarding when they wade into the deep waters alone. Fame and fortune are easier to manage solo, without the vulnerability and accountability of team participation. Using music as a metaphor, it’s easy to think of examples from my generation: the Beatles; Peter Cetera; Michael Jackson; Paul Simon; Enya. Of course, the ones whose sound was defined by the team brand, rather than individual stars, are also noteworthy: the Beach Boys; the Rolling Stones.

A great book about the difficulties yet rewards of team-building is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

Back on Barack

June 5, 2008

No, I didn’t leave to join the Obama campaign. And no, I haven’t been recently released from the Hillary campaign either. I just got too busy to blog, too focused on client projects that were pressing and proprietary.

Hopefully, I’m back. But I couldn’t pass up this little college marketing gem: a Brussels college that wants to advertise that it’s a combination of academic oil and water:

Barackary Clintama

Here’s how Hogeschool-Universiteit illustrates that it’s a college and university all rolled into one! Any reactions to their advertising chops or their taste? Image courtesy of adpulp.com through one of my commentors, Big Yellow Forehead blog.

Obama/Hillary fusion

Obama’s Logo

February 20, 2008

Here’s a postscript to my comments on how effectively the Obama campaign is resonating with Millennials, as well as a wide cross-section of older voters. Look at the logo and think about how well it communicates his brand:

Barack Obama logo

First of all, it is an O. Without any words, the O connects to his name.

Secondly, it’s a blue sky and a star-white sunrise. That says hope and a commitment to a united nation. The center or core of Obama’s graphic icon claims that ground. In a very tangible way the logo supports the Obama emphasis on ignoring race as a divisive issue, while embracing race as an inclusive issue. It reflects his penchant for making whites feel honored and unthreatened by his candidacy, and for making blacks and other minorities feel empowered in a way that is hopeful, energetic, and community-spirited.

Third, the red and white stripes convey a graphic impression of the heartland, hills with furrows or fields of grain. Thus for Obama the foundation of his vision of America is a midwestern ethos, a farmers’ and workers’ ethic.

The red and white stripes are also an emblem, of course, that taps the visceral afinity that all Americans have for their flag. And so another note in this chord is a subliminal feeling of passion, sacrifice on the field of battle.

The third note of the foundational chord is a rainbow. In fact, many of the unauthorized uses of the logo turn the lower sector into a rainbow with alternating fields of color. This resonates with the broader reaches of the Obama brand’s constituency — all the various hues and shades that people identify with in a multicultural pastiche like today’s young and yearning America.

The end result is that the impact of this logo, I believe, will be warm feelings, optimistic outlooks, a sense of inclusion and hope and high aspirations. It’s a brilliant example of iconography, and I’m sure it will help to strike a response with a wide swath of the electorate.

The branding point is this: a logo’s best hope is to support a brand… and Obama’s brand is beautifully and elegantly supported by this very effective graphic tour-de-force.

ObaMac

February 20, 2008

Millennial sensibilities appear poised to determine who our next President will be. All of the research has been showing us that Millennials are diverse, are brand oriented, are media savvy, and most importantly, public spirited and community oriented. So it shouldn’t surprise us that they’ll begin to flex those muscles in ways that will impact the culture in far more significant ways than clothing styles and music genres.

Several articles in the press recently underscore the arrival of this Gen-Y phenomenon in our political decision-making process:

Is Clinton a PC and Obama a Mac?

Clinton as PC, Obama as Mac

The important thing to emphasize here is that indeed Obama is a Mac. His website reflects his brand – cool, intuitive, imaginative, well-designed, interactive, respectful, authentic.

Hillary’s website, by contrast, lacks the Apple-esque human engineering, the sensibilities that show careful listening and an ethos that is comfortable with handing the keys to the Millennials to let them take the culture for a spin.

I concur with Noam’s assessment, as well as the article by Doug Kendall which triggered this current media stampede.

Not from a political perspective, mind you, but from the jaded mindset of a branding guy and marketer-to-Millennials. The reporters have done their homework, and their assessment rings true. I predict it’ll play out that way in the political process … though I claim no expertise in that arena.

Another incisive commentary by Frank Rich adds observations about the impact of Millennial ways of thinking on the McCain candidacy. He says,

Whatever the potency of his political skills and message, Mr. Obama is also riding a demographic wave. The authors of the new book “Millennial Makeover,” Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais, point out that the so-called millennial generation (dating from 1982) is the largest in American history, boomers included, and that roughly 40 percent of it is African-American, Latino, Asian or racially mixed. One in five millennials has an immigrant parent. It’s this generation that is fueling the excitement and some of the record turnout of the Democratic primary campaign, and not just for Mr. Obama.

Even by the low standards of his party, Mr. McCain has underperformed at reaching millennials in the thriving culture where they live. His campaign’s effort to create a MySpace-like Web site flopped. His most-viewed appearances on YouTube are not viral videos extolling him or replaying his best speeches but are instead sendups of his most reckless foreign-policy improvisations…”

Barack compared the Boomers to the Moses generation, and the Millennials to the “Joshua” generation which followed it — doers instead of idealists. Of course, this could all be empty rhetoric, and I’m not personally interested in the politics. I’m interested in the branding. The point is that the Obama brand does seem to fit the style of both the candidate and his helpers, while the attempt to fly a “change” flag appears ineffectual from a branding standpoint when either Clinton or McCain make similar claims. You can rely on the Millennials ability to interpret visceral media signals, in deciding whether a candidate’s message and person align with their stated brand. And it appears like Obama will definitely win that battle.

Whether the Millennials will display historic perspective, or political wisdom, is another question entirely.

For colleges, the lesson is clear. Make sure your brand is clearly and authentically implemented in your website and your use of media.

Inspiration – III

February 11, 2008

Enjoying some personal recharge time in San Diego, I met a couple of committed walkers who taught me some great insights into authenticity as a personal and institutional lifestyle.

I was climbing Cowles Mountain, the highest spot in San Diego county. It’s a great spot to enjoy the sunrise — an hour up, 15 minutes down. While on the way, I stopped to rest and as Del (on the right) passed with his friend, we struck up a conversation. I asked him about walking as metaphor of life, and he hit me right between the eyes with, as Kenny Rogers put it, an ace that I could keep. Del’s formula?

“I have two feet. The first is rethinking/change. The second is confidence/assertiveness.” (I’m translating from more religious terminology – repentance and faith). Del went on (I’m paraphrasing): “When I start out, I have to listen and respond to my environment. I need to rethink, based on who I impact and where I don’t measure up. Then, I am free to confidently go forward, seize opportunities, be effective at what I can do and who I am. And then comes another step of listening, responding, rethinking.”

Del’s comments inspired me with a fresh insight into both personal and institutional authenticity. Being “me”, honestly projecting who I am, is not enough if I want to be perceived as authentic — if I want to be an organic and productive enterprise. I also have to respond to “you”. I must be committed to self-improvement, and work that out through a cycle of receiving and sending, give and take, listening and expressing.

The brand of an institution does not emerge from what it repeats about itself. As John Moore said in Brand Autopsy recently, it flows from being, not “branding”.

Being “me”, personally or institutionally, involves a recognition that if a “me” has value because of my story, my unique experiences and perspective, then every “you” has value, too. If one individual is golden, a diverse community brings infinite riches.

If there were only one university it would be a boring and provincial world of ideas. But Oxford has greater value because there is Cambridge. Harvard is interesting because it shares many qualities with the other Ivies, as well as because of the nuances which differentiate it.

Each “me” becomes actualized as an authentic brand because of its response to its environment. I can attempt to assert my independence from my peers, but when I do so it only cheapens my actual brand, the authentic “me” which is not what I think of myself, but what I actually am as an organic member of a community of interrelated, interdependent organisms. My ability to project a distinct perspective, a valuable set of values, tarnishes whenever I grow sluggish in my efforts to be accountable.

In fact, I would argue that if there is one foot more important than another in Del’s metaphor, it would be the rethinking foot. By rethinking and changing as rapidly as possible to changing conditions and needs, I earn the right to assert my identity as valuable, as useful, as worth consideration. I have a valid reason to hold forth my brand. And I have a decent chance, thus, of my brand being perceived as authentic.

Thanks, Del, for your helpful insight!

Archetypical Climbers

Humor as perpetual emotion

December 22, 2007

An open letter to Andy Beedle…

I’m an Andy Beedle fan. Love your sense of humor, admire your ability to assemble a creative staff and deliver a measurable marketing success to college clients.

I share your commitment to the college market, and share your perspectives on many issues related to marketing to Millennials, including the value of authenticity, self-deprecating humor, and the major wrong-headedness of the Appalachian State “HOT HOT HOT” video.

But I think you’ve gone a bit overboard in your latest email, Andy…

Every week, I get several calls from College and University enrollment folks wanting to talk about having us do a new and innovative project for their institution. I also get slightly fewer calls from other higher ed marketing firms that are intellectual property fishing trips disguised as “partnership explorations” where they ask questions about how we come up with our ideas for online campaigns and I say non-committal things like, “We work hard on a collaborative and generative process that is informed by the interests of the target demo.” I have no idea what that means, but it makes those calls mercifully brief.

[Andy then proceeds to advocate ways of achieving viral marketing clout through humor, humor, and more humor.]

First, Andy, I want to say that going viral via humor is a very dangerous branding strategy for a college. Yes, some of your efforts on your web site are laugh-out-load funny, including the Stickman animations for Kettering, and the George Mason mascot video. Brilliant. But Beedle, you’re a Boomer, and while Millennials crave immediacy, Gen Y literacy, individualism, and social interactivity (according to Forrester), they are not the irreverent rebels you and I are. They get along with their parents (80-90 percent), buy brands (90 percent), tolerate and even desire supervision and protection, build communities rather than protest injustices, respect branded institutions if they sense authenticity, and are in many ways much more conservative than we are from the inside out.

For that reason, while there’s no doubt they love to find goofy junk on YouTube to laugh at with their friends, they are not necessarily going to be dismissive of a credible, authentic presentation about a school. They seem to be much less hypocritical than we are about getting an education and a job. We cry “down with the establishment” while we build the most materialistic lifestyle in history; they are often turning away from lucrative positions in order to find meaning in volunteering or other lower-income pursuits.

Second, your attitude toward other marketing approaches feels like smugness. Ideas, freshness, have never been a challenge for me personally; speaking for myself along with you and your staff and many other marketers I know, there are plenty of folks who feel relentlessly creative and have no problem coming up with fresh, prescriptive ideas to suggest to clients. Those of us who choose to specialize in the college marketing arena do so, I would guess, out of a desire to focus on a demanding niche that requires a very refined and nuanced level of creative precision. As a class, college marketers from A-beedle to Ztories (my tiny company), and all the Lipman Hearnes and Stamats in between, have much more trouble getting their clients to take risks than they do finding fresh creative ideas to suggest to their clients. [Am I right on this, fellow marketers?!] So, Andy, my hunch is that lots of college marketing consultants have got to feel the same as I do, impressed with your creativity but not necessarily your artistry.

Third, and most important, humor can attract attention, but it can also cheapen the brand of anything that purports to be worth a $120,000 price tag. Does Michelin go for humor? Cuteness, friendliness, family values; but not funny. Do Lexus and Volvo attach humor to their brands? No, good quality is not funny. Safety is serious. A quality diploma is no laughing matter.

And so for getting unqualified, happy-go-lucky leads, your viral yuck-it-up stuff can fill an inbox. Maybe even bring in a bumper crop of applications. But if you want those Kettering applicants to matriculate, and stay for 4 years because it was a good fit, it seems to me there needs to be a serious and credible set of messages that address substantive issues with the kind of immediacy and Millennial literacy that other schools are able to do through more dignified marketing efforts.

When I scratch below the brilliant, viral Kettering search effort, I see media which fails to bolster its most basic claims vis-a-vis dynamic, engaged applied science. Nor does it authentically address the tough situations students who actually go there must face in an economically distressed community. Should colleges take a caveat emptor approach to their image, or should they attempt to be more transparent about their actual weaknesses as well as strengths?

And the chemical activity level of the humor I’m seeing here can produce unexpected results. It would be damaging to a school like Whitman to make fun of liberal arts as an aspiration. It would be destructive to a Hillsdale to get funny about its preoccupation with politics. These are critical dimensions, august ideals, which fill the very air at these institutions. For me, the essence of brand elucidation requires colleges to begin treating 17-year-olds as adults who are going to be making serious decisions based on reason and, yes, the western rational tradition rather than some funny but ultimately senseless zinger by the school’s mascot.

Has the bump in interest provided by Stickman been a benefit to Kettering? Short term, it seems positive, but how will it play long-term? Here’s my concern: the downside of associating Stickman to a college brand, is the junk which has now been attached to Stickman at the top of the search engines: Subservient Stickman.

No, I’m not advocating stuffy, predictable bureaucratese. Most college videos I’ve ever seen are unendurable. I’m advocating truthful and memorable storytelling. I have seen the benefits of credible, compelling, immediate, socially-interwoven rich media that builds brand equity.

“Authentic” and “sarcastic” are not synonyms. Making it authentic does not mean making it disrespectful, irreverent, or ironic. It means making the claims precisely and demonstrably true, without hubris or puffery. And communicating effectively with rich media requires an emphasis on appropriate emotion, not “facts”. It means story-telling with just the right mixture of humor, humanity, and gravitas.

Will these kinds of weighty communication efforts go viral? Not often. But they’re worth paying for because they have value.

Ultimately, aspiring to get the marketing equivalent of perpetual motion is not just fraught with risk; it could be downright foolish and create a perpetual emotion, a damaging double-entendre that sticks like glue and measurably hurts the most important thing a college has: its reputation.

PS — Andy, I hope to meet you some day and settle this little disagreement over humor methods with a friendly (and funny) contest… hot-dog eating? jousting? inflatable Sumo smackdowns? Or we could have a recite-off of our favorite aphoristic writers. I elect Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, Mark Twain and Piet Hein… 🙂

Authenticity on YouTube: Q and A

December 18, 2007

Here’s another Becky Roth video, this one from her personal vlog:

Authenticity

Here are my “answers”:

1. If it’s produced can it be authentic? Yes, if the assembled moments are authentically “found moments” or else “realistic moments” which communicate a truth about some aspect of the human condition.

2. Can it be authentic if green screen or other devices are used? Yes, if the visuals convey a truth with a sense of perspective and appropriate emotion.

3. Can it be authentic if it’s rehearsed? Yes … Hollywood does this all the time. Here, you start with authentic dialog, true to the character, to the situation, to human nature. Then you rehearse it until the actor can deliver it in character, in the moment, as though it was authenticly caught by a candid camera.

4. Can it be unrehearsed, unmediated, unedited, and still be inauthentic? YES! It can be a come-on, a false or extremely partial view into a person, a misrepresentation of their feelings, a statement of what they think you want to hear.

5. If it’s authentic, does it have intrinsic value? No, because it can also be authentically banal, boring, derivative, destructive, shocking, titillating, or horrifying…. and thus other than perhaps being a form of art, pretty much worthless in spite of its authenticity.

Thanks, Becky, for raising these questions. I welcome comments on these perspectives.

Starbucks startup

December 13, 2007

So did Starbucks set out to create a brand via advertising, marketing, persuasion?

Here’s what John Moore, their marketing guy during the startup years has to say:

His point: building the business created the brand. No doubt Starbucks had a clearly defined graphic strategy, did advertising, all of that. Any organization needs to do those things. But the perceptions in the minds of the consumers were formed, not from the persuasive speech, the Starbucks advertising … but from the actual experience of committed Starbucks people delivering excellent products in an environment that was carefully designed to be a “third place” in the customers’ lives.

That’s what I mean by brand authenticity.

Authenticity as Inspiration

December 13, 2007

Beliefnet named Liviu Librescu, the Virginia Tech prof who blocked the door with his own body, as the most inspiring person of the year. Video. (Clipping from The Chronicle)
In Brand Autopsy, a humorous/serious branding blog, John Moore comments on authenticity that

This belief that authenticity can be created is what gets companies in trouble. Authenticity comes from evolution, not from creation. No magic pill exists and no big bang will cause a company to become authentic. The honor of being authentic is earned only over time and through consistent, deliberate actions. Same goes for building a corporate culture. A company that respects its employees and treats its employees like family will be rewarded with being viewed by insiders and outsiders as an authentic company.

How do these topics relate? “Authenticity is not something  you can create. It evolves.” A student whose life was saved by Librescu is quoted in the tribute video as saying, (paraphrasing), “What Prof. Librescu did was just a final proof of what he was like as a person.” In other words, Professor Librescu did not inspire anyone with his words. Nor did he inspire anyone with an action that could be separated from a pattern, an ethos, a characer.

For Librescu, his ability to inspire us evolved from his life as a Holocaust survivor, as a person who knew how to carry pain but show love to friends and family, as a person who knew how to recognize evil, and to resist it with actions, not words. One instinctive, adroit action allowed him in the few seconds of crisis to impede the evil — to place his own life in the balance next to his students and give greater weight to those students. He inspired 81% of the respondents (compared to at most 4% for other worthy nominees) because his actions revealed him to be an authenticly good man, who might today be working on in quiet anonimity if it weren’t for the extraordinary circumstances that day at Virginia Tech. Were it not for a madman with a gun, only his students and fellow faculty would recognize his value, because the authenticity of his character would only be manifest by a kind smile for a lonely coed or an early appointment to tutor a struggling student. Too bad we all had to be inspired by his unexpected but authentic, in-character next step of blocking a gunman’s view of his class with his own body.

Thankfully, most colleges can focus their attention on the routine challenges of inspiring their students, instead of frantically trying to save their lives. But may we focus on inspirational actions rather than inspirational words.

The whole business of brands, perceptions, image and identity follow this principle: that the brand is in reality just the expression of what is. The brand of an institution flows from 10,000 choices by faculty, administration, trustees, alumni — across an institutional lifetime. And the sum of those choices is not so much a measure of absolute virtue as it is a definition of the personality of that college community. It’s what makes a Harvey Mudd different from an MIT … an Oberlin different from a Whitman. Each brand is authentic, if what it claims in words is the same as what it delivers in fact; and as with Librescu, the stresses of the current moment will merely reveal what is already there, in the character and the values and the heart.

When a man or an institution acts in a way that is authentically good … it’s an inspiration to us all.

Denison’s Toni King on how colleges can improve

December 9, 2007

Toni KingThis week I had the pleasure of interviewing a number of faculty and students from Denison University. Here’s a golden nugget from Toni King, professor of women’s studies and black studies…

I asked her how an institution gets better/improves and here’s what she said (paraphrasing from memory): “I believe an institution can make itself better if it has a strong sense of identity. It has to know who it is, and be able to articulate what it does well. If it can do that, it can identify how to do those things better. In this way it can avoid trying to be what it is not, and it can get better and better at what it is.”

Identity. Sense of self. In an institutional sense, that’s the core criterion for a brand. Thanks to Toni for words of branding wisdom every college can take to the bank.