Why ESPN is on a Losing Streak

As a lifelong sports fan, the debut of ESPN as a 24-hour cable TV network in 1980 felt like a tiny slice of heaven on earth. I consumed sports any way I could up to that point—newspaper, radio, TV, peer-to-peer—but if more sports content was available I was game. Cable TV fueled my obsession with sports and entertained me whenever I chose to take a break from consuming sports.

Fast-forward 37 years, and I am still a highly involved sports fan. ESPN is still at the forefront of sports programming. Its media empire has grown to multiple cable TV networks, radio network, websites, magazine, podcasts, and more. ESPN delivered on its tagline of “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” becoming synonymous with sports media. The value of ESPN as an audience magnet was not lost on ABC, which acquired ESPN 1984, and later Disney, which acquired ABC in 1995.

Today, Disney’s media networks account for the majority of the company’s revenue and profit, with ESPN leading the way. Yet, Disney and ESPN in particular are the subject of a doomsday narrative portraying a brand in decline. Last week, Disney announced its media networks revenue grew by three percent in the second quarter, but profit decreased by three percent. A widely publicized layoff of ESPN on-air talent disappointed many loyal members of the ESPN audience. How could ESPN go from worldwide leader to a brand in trouble?

A Perfect Storm

The root cause of ESPN’s woes is due to a collision of three forces. Any of these forces on their own could wreak havoc on a business. Taken together, ESPN must figure out how to position the brand for growth to overcome these significant forces. So, what exactly has put ESPN in the box it now finds itself?

  1. Increasing costs. One way ESPN has kept its brand promise of The Worldwide Leader in Sports is to obtain broadcast rights to major sports properties. The best sports network should have the best programming, right? ESPN has locked down rights with popular properties including the NFL, NBA, MLB, College Football Championship, and the SEC. These brands are not only popular, but they attract TV audiences in numbers that most programs simply cannot deliver today. Between the value in audience ratings and reach as well as blocking other networks from buying the rights, ESPN paid a premium for broadcast rights to these properties.
  2. Decreasing revenue. The cost of escalating media rights could be chalked up to being a cost of doing business. Unfortunately, at the same time media rights became more expensive, fewer people are subscribed to ESPN. The cord-cutting phenomenon is real. An estimated 700,000 customers will drop pay TV subscriptions in 2017. An estimated five million pay TV subscribers will cut the cord between 2015 and 2020. Moreover, a generation of consumers are growing up without even having to make a decision whether to cut the cord and drop cable TV service—many of them do not have pay TV to drop. Cable subscriber revenue is a key revenue source for ESPN. Fewer subscribers means fewer dollars coming in. ESPN must figure out other channels that will make the cash register ring.
  3. Changing consumption patterns. In contrast to the cost and revenue problems facing ESPN, the third factor is beyond its control. Consumers are accessing content differently, and the traditional pay TV model is vulnerable. Global daily consumption of TV will be 22 billion hours in 2018, down from 23 billion in 2010. In contrast, consumers will spend 17 billion hours a day on the internet, up from five billion in 2010.

The death of TV is overstated and very premature, but it is clear that as we become a mobile-first world we are altering are media consumption behaviors. Not only are we using new channels to consume media, but we are engaging in a shift in how we consume, too. One can follow a football game on Twitter while doing other activities instead of parking in front of a television for three hours. Just as live event marketers face challenges in getting fans off the couch and in their venues, sports media brands face similar challenges in gaining the attention of their multi-tasking audience.

It’s Blocking and Tackling

The woes faced by ESPN can be attributed to unfavorable shifts in internal and external forces that affect its business. What is not mentioned in my analysis: Questions about whether ESPN’s stance on political and social issues has driven away customers. It is a complicated issue and difficult to pinpoint subscriber losses on differences of opinion between ESPN and customers. That said, it is likely that some customers were turned off by ESPN’s advocacy to the point they ditched the brand. Any customer losses due to ESPN’s political leanings are eclipsed by fundamental shifts in media consumption. ESPN’s business model is based on a content distribution model that is becoming less dominant with each passing year.

We can look to history for guidance. Blockbuster and other video rental stores ruled in serving consumers’ home entertainment needs. The desire for entertainment did not go away; the method by which we acquired entertainment changed. We wanted entertainment to come to our devices, not waiting for us on a shelf at a video rental store. Netflix adapted, and Blockbuster did not. The rest is history, as they say. Will ESPN be the next Netflix or another Blockbuster?

Do Brands Live in a Parallel Universe?

parallel universe
Image Credit – Flickr/Chris Bentley

Hardly a week goes by that we do not see a brand succumb to foot-in-mouth disease. Size of company does not offer immunity from embarrassing one’s self. Two iconic brands have faced a PR crisis recently. First, Pepsico had to deal with fallout from a video that was widely criticized as being tone deaf and self-serving. Pepsi tried to co-opt the Black Lives Matter cause, attempting to inject its brand into the conversation. Its choice of Kendall Jenner to have a starring role in the “Live for Now” video added fuel to the perception that Pepsi was out of touch.

What saved Pepsi from even more scorn? United Airlines. A video showing a United passenger being roughed up while being dragged off a United plane drew the ire of the flying public. United’s weak response to the incident exacerbated ill will toward the United brand. Thankfully, brands should be able to learn from missteps like those made by Pepsico and United Airlines and avoid similar embarrassing situations. They should, but alas they do not.

Make It Three

The latest inductee into to the Marketing Hall of Shame is Adidas. The brand put itself in a bad spot with a marketing misstep in its Boston Marathon sponsorship activation. Adidas is a long-time partner of the Boston Athletic Association, with its sponsorship going back to 1992. Adidas reached out to runners of Monday’s Boston Marathon with an email the next morning. It was a good idea with a very bad subject line.

Adidas Boston Marathon email

The pain of the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon is still felt by many runners and Bostonians. A message from anyone that says “you survived” brings back the sting to many touched by the tragedy.

It does not take a marketing or PR expert to know the headline is troubling. I asked my 17-year-old son if he remembered what happened at the Boston Marathon a few years ago. He said “yes.” I showed him the Adidas email subject line. His eyes immediately widened as if saying “how could they?”

Brands as Apologists

Social media has become a sort of police force for bad brand behavior. Brands are called out for words or actions deemed to be in poor taste. It is a level of accountability that brands have not had to live up to in the past. Brands shift into apology mode quickly in an attempt to soothe bad blood and often, to justify what they said or did. Adidas apologized the day after sending the “you survived” email, posting the following message on social media.

The apology offered by Adidas is refreshing in that it did not point a finger or attempt to justify the offensive wording. At the same time, it is troubling that Adidas would admit “there was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line…” I assume the brand is managed by Adidas employees. Thinking about the meaning of brand messages should be among their job duties.

What is Going On Here?

Adidas stated the obvious by saying no thought was given to wording of the subject line. The question is why it happens. Blunders like those committed by Pepsico, United Airlines, and Adidas paint a picture of brands existing in a parallel universe. Their words and actions are incompatible with norms of the people they want to serve. Among the reasons for this disconnect are:

  • They think they know their customers, but they don’t. Missteps occur  because customers do not think or behave in ways a brand expects. United Airlines will throw a few more compensatory dollars at bumped passengers until they do what United wants—take another flight. It did not happen in the case of the roughed up passenger, and now United is paying much, much more in lost brand equity, customers, and market value.
  • They put brand welfare ahead of customer welfare. Brand marketers are hopelessly corrupted, but it is not their fault. They live and breathe the brand. It is easy to get sucked into that world. I understand why Pepsi marketers thought the Live for Now video was a good idea. They saw Pepsi as endorsing “power to the people” through grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter. The company was taken aback by the criticism. The problem was Pepsi focused more on creating favorable associations with its brand than showing concern for its audience when it comes to social issues.

The Silver Lining

It is easy to criticize brands for their marketing fails. But, we must remember that brands are managed by humans. Humans make mistakes. Even the most tightly run operation will fail customers or the public in some way. It is how they respond that will influence brand perceptions going forward.

Another positive as I see it is one I share with my students whenever we discuss the latest marketing blunder. The practice of marketing will never be perfected. Thus, there will always be opportunities for someone to succeed by doing their part to practice marketing more effectively.


Making Brand Taglines Great Again

Make America Great Again cap

Today, Americans will observe a distinguishing trait of our government: smooth transfer of power. Donald J. Trump will become just the 45th person to hold the position of President of the United States. Our country has been on a wild ride the past year-and-a-half. Candidates and viewpoints deeply divided us, a division quantified at the polls. In the end, Trump won out. Looking back, it was more about his brand than platform that put him in the oval office.

Politics is left to other forums and people to discuss. But, as Donald Trump becomes President Trump today it is worth taking a look at a key to his movement: a brand tagline.

“Make America Great Again”

For all of the talk of building walls, draining swamps, and securing jobs, four words energized Donald Trump’s campaign for President: Make America Great Again. These words resonated with millions of Americans who felt America had lost an edge. A brand is more than a tagline, of course. However, a tagline aids in brand recall and serves as a thumbnail to explain a brand’s meaning or value. In the case of Donald Trump, his brand makeup in terms of political experience lagged behind most of the other candidates, both Republican and Democrat. Trump’s campaign masked that deficiency by creating a brand promise that attracted voters to him.

How did “Make America Great Again” compare to brand taglines of Trump’s competition? An article from the Washington Post early in the 2016 campaign season critiqued several candidates’ slogans. Here are three:

Ted Cruz: “Reigniting the Promise of America”

Mike Huckabee: “From Hope to Higher Ground”

Marco Rubio: “A New American Century”.

Trump’s slogan differed from these messages in that it conjured images that voters could imagine. In contrast, many people might struggle with explaining a “New American Century.” A tagline must be more than a clever combination of words and phrases.

Why a Brand Tagline is Important

Donald Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign offers a case study in the importance of a brand tagline. “Make America Great Again” did not get him elected by itself, but the tagline played a role in Trump’s victory. How did it play a role? “Make America Great Again” met three criteria for a brand tagline:

  1. Aids in brand awareness. Donald Trump had high brand awareness in terms of his personal brand. His campaign tagline took awareness to the next level by building awareness for why he wanted to be President.
  2. Differentiates from competition. Branding practices in general serve to set apart a seller from competing offerings. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” message stood out in a sea of unremarkable slogans associated with his opponents’ campaigns.
  3. Relates to pain points of the target market. Ultimately, a brand exists in the minds and hearts of the marketplace. An underlying question we mull over any time we are presented with an offer is “what’s in it for me?” A brand promise encapsulated in a tagline must be about the benefit of the brand for the target market.

Branding is important because it is unrealistic to expect customers to know everything about you. You want them to latch on to salient characteristics and benefits you possess. A tagline has the power to do just that, even for complex buying decisions like which candidate to support for President of the United States.

Now What?

Another characteristic of branding is once strategy is set, a brand must follow through on promises made. Time will tell if the Trump administration can back up the promise to Make America Great Again. The ability to bring brand promises to life that sets apart great brands from the pack.

The inspiration for writing this post did not come from the events of today as much as what Trump said earlier this week. In an interview, Trump dropped hints of his 2020 campaign tagline: “Keep America Great.” Will Trump fulfill the promise of Make America Great Again to the point that Keep America Great would resonate with voters? Stay tuned.

A (Re)Brand is More Than a Name

GNC logo

When you hear the term ”rebranding,” chances are you associate it with a change in name, logo, colors, or tagline associated with a brand. If you make those associations, you are correct more times than not. Most rebranding initiatives are more about style than substance; they are minor tweaks to update or freshen the brand.

In other cases, rebranding is more radical. One situation in which a major brand overhaul is needed occurs when a brand needs a fresh start to distance itself from undesirable associations. The brand identity (i.e., name and tangible assets like a logo) may have value in the marketplace, but brand equity has been hurt by other associations attached to the brand. This description fits the place where vitamin and supplements retailer GNC found itself.  The chain of over 4,400 corporate stores experienced revenue and same store sales declines of more than 8% in Q3 2016 compared to the previous year. Interim CEO Robert Moran said GNC was operating on an “old, broken model.” GNC was a prime candidate for rebranding, but what to do?

If It’s Broke, Fix It

The opposite of the saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” applied to GNC. Its business model was broken, and business as usual would likely deliver the same results… which were not good! Among the marketing problems contributing to the broken business model were:

  • Different pricing for in-store and online channels
  • Noncompetitive prices for many products
  • A complicated loyalty program
  • A stale in-store shopping experience.

Any of the four issues identified potentially sour the customer experience. Put them all into play at the same time, and it can have the effect of driving customers away. The sales numbers offer evidence of lost customers. More than sales trends were at stake; declining brand relevance could have serious negative effects on GNC in the long run.


The fix for GNC’s woes is a rebranding campaign called One GNC. It began with testing changes to the marketing this fall in 500 stores. The commitment to One GNC culminated with the closing all corporate stores on December 28 to replace signage and point-of-sale systems as well as make changes to merchandise presentation. Stores reopened the next day to formally kick off a fresh start for the brand.

So, what all did GNC undertake in the One GNC rebranding campaign? Marketing changes included:

  • Aligning prices across brick-and-mortar and online channels
  • Lowering prices on hundreds of product items
  • Introducing a simpler, free loyalty program called MyGNC Rewards
  • Freshening appearance of stores with new signage
  • Equipping sales associates with tablets so they can have greater information access on sales floor.

Never Lose Sight of Brand Ownership

The One GNC rebranding campaign is commendable. It is an effort to address the needs and desires of the constituency that matters most: customers. Why do they matter most? They are top priority because they own the brand. No, that is not a typo, nor am I referring to public ownership of a company. Brands reside in the minds and hearts of customers and others to whom a brand matters.

Sure, GNC owns intellectual property and “stuff” like equipment and fixtures, but ultimately brands are perceptions held by those who interact with a brand. If customers believe prices are too high, then they are too high. If a widely held belief is that sales associates are not very knowledgeable, then they are not very knowledgeable. You get the point—brands are what people believe they are until beliefs change.

GNC is reshaping beliefs about its brand and the customer experience. It is the best hope for meaningful change to come out of the GNC One rebranding campaign.

The Dangers of Brands Swimming Downstream

A harsh reality about brands is that there is no brand in existence that is for everyone. Some people think your prices are too high. Others think your quality is unacceptable. Yet others believe your brand is aligned with interests incongruent with their own. You get the picture- even the most popular brands do not appeal to all buyers. Segmenting markets is the typical response to this dilemma, targeting different groups of buyers with distinct offerings. Instead of seeing segmentation as a strategy of last resort, recognize it as a default strategy- you are going to have to segment in order to pinpoint the customers you are best equipped to serve.

Two recent brand extension announcement by prominent retailers reflect a desire to broaden appeal to a wider customer base, specifically “trading down” to serve more price conscious buyers. The companies differed in the strategy employed to compete at lower price points, and the decisions may not only affect the success of their value-based ventures but impact long-term brand health, too.

Whole Foods Market’s Downward Move

Whole Foods Market has established itself as a force as an upscale supermarket, even earning the nickname “whole paycheck” for garnering price premiums paid by shoppers wanting better-for-you food products. However, Whole Foods Market’s brand positioning has a downside: It essentially paints the brand into a corner from which it cannot escape. You could say Whole Foods did too good of a job with brand positioning. It is so entrenched as a premium brand that there is no way to attract buyers more concerned with price.


The solution to Whole Foods Market’s positioning quandary was introduction of a new brand concept, 365 by Whole Foods Market. The stores will be smaller and although selling products at lower prices than Whole Foods Market stores they will be driven by the same values and commitment to brand execution that has set the parent brand apart. More importantly, branding of the new concept strikes a balance between attracting customers that may believe the Whole Foods Market brand is beyond their reach and leveraging equity of the Whole Foods Market brand by using it in an endorser role. The 365 brand name takes center stage as the platform to move down in the grocery category.

J.Crew Moves Downward, Too

Last week, clothing retailer J. Crew announced the launch of a new retail concept aimed at luring price conscious shoppers. The J. Crew Mercantile brand will widen the company’s reach by offering lower priced products in addition to an existing its J. Crew Factory stores. Retail analysts see the move as a form of diversification. J. Crew seems to be taking a page from Gap’s playbook as that company’s lower priced Old Navy brand has thrived even as Gap stores have been challenged to attract shoppers.

J. Crew Mercantile Logo

The move downward to compete in the lower priced segment of the clothing retail category is understandable, but the branding approach taken by J. Crew is risky. Will shoppers make distinctions between the name J. Crew Mercantile and existing brands J. Crew and J. Crew Factory? The name of the new concept may have the unintended effect of confusing consumers and creating unfavorable associations with the J. Crew brand. More distance is needed between the J. Crew brand and the Mercantile store concept.

Share or Split?

The underlying branding question faced by Whole Foods Market and J. Crew is whether their downstream brand extensions (as well as their core brands) would be better served by sharing associations with each other or splitting to create their own identities. Both companies have solid brand associations among upscale shoppers. Extensions that drag the core brand downstream run the risk of harming existing equity and confusing buyers about the value proposition of the core brand as well as the extension. The endorser brand approach taken by Whole Foods Market for its 365 concept is an acceptable middle ground. Associating the Whole Foods Market brand via an endorser role gives instant credibility to the upstart 365 brand, and it protects the core brand from dilution in ways that J. Crew is not protected with the J. Crew Mercantile branding strategy.

The 4-D Personal Brand

Brands may have originated out of a need to identify the owner or maker of an object or product, but the role of brands in marketing today has expanded. Instead being a single-dimension concept, brands now fulfill four key roles or value-added functions:

  • Brands communicate identity
  • Brands project an image
  • Brands make and fulfill promises
  • Brands engage with individuals and groups to form relationships

The default role of a brand has been to communicate identity (think brand name and logo). However, to build a distinctive personal brand the other three roles of your brand will need to be discovered and defined.

4D Brand

Brand = Identity

Brands are usually thought of in terms of the use of a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature to uniquely identify a seller’s product. In personal branding, your name is your brand. Be proud of it and use it to your advantage. Dale Carnegie powerfully and simply captured the significance of a name when he said that “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Also, brand elements such as the name, logo, and colors serve as mental shortcuts that associate a product with its owner. An unusual or distinctive name can be a plus for the identity dimension of your personal brand.

If you have a common name or feel that is not distinctive, you need not research what is required to legally change your name! For example, a LinkedIn search of the name Michael Johnson returns more than 26,000 results (Michael- if you are reading this do not worry- this is not a deal breaker to building your personal brand). Fortunately, not all 26,000 Michael Johnsons compete in the same industry or for the same audience. Tactics that could be used in a situation like this to develop an identity associated with your brand include differentiating by using your middle initial, use a nickname (if you have one that positively reflects your personality), or create a visual association like a logo that appears with your name in your messaging (e.g., on business cards, in your Twitter background, and on your blog).

Brand = Image

Another role a brand serves is that it is a representation of thoughts or mental associations people hold for an object or person, which is brand image. A definition of brand image that acknowledges the role of a brand for projecting an image is that a brand is a customer or user experience represented by images and ideas. The thoughts and perceptions that one has for a person or object, known as brand associations, influence the image developed. Formation of brand associations that comprise image does not require product usage or experience. You may not realize it but people who come into contact with you or are part of your target market have associations about you that shape their image of your brand.

This characteristic of a brand is a reason why branding requires you always be “on.” Actions and behaviors are observed by others and play a part in forming perceptions of your brand. We can unintentionally send negative brand messages if we are not consistent in how we project our brand in the various environments in which we interact with others (work, school, church, social groups, etc.). Brand image resides in the minds of others; the audience that you interact with determines image through the perceptions they hold of you. Those perceptions can be based on past experiences with you, existing knowledge about you, and knowledge obtained from other sources such as your social media profiles.

Brand = Promise

Brands represent a promise of action that will benefit a customer. People value brands because they stand for intent to deliver value. Promises made by brands can be explicit or implicit. Explicit promises are statements of action such as a guarantee. Performance standards are spelled out and it is up to the brand to meet those standards.

Understanding that a brand is a set of promises is essential to building your personal brand. Some brand promises are explicit such as you meeting (and even exceeding) commitments. Simple actions such as having a report ready by your boss’s 5:00 pm deadline or volunteering to help set up a room for a meeting can communicate your brand’s value. Brand promises take on great significance through developing brand associations that give meaning to a brand. Promises are highly correlated with brand identity (how we desire to be perceived). Thus, coming up with promises you want your make through your brand is important for positioning the unique value your brand possesses.

Brand = Relationship

Exchanges between buyers and sellers may be business relationships, but one’s decision to buy from a business is often guided by the same criteria applied to personal relationships. An individual may choose friends or associates based on whether he or she believes a person can be trusted. Also, the likability of that person can influence a decision to forge a friendship.  Similarly, consumers tend to enter into business relationships with companies and brands that they trust, like, or perceive to be similar to them.

Managing your personal brand as a connector is vital to establishing relationships with clients, colleagues, and community.  Perhaps the most important personal branding tactic for managing the relationships around your brand is networking. The term networking may not be clear when you are given advice to “build a network of contacts” or “network with others.” This uncertainty about networking can result in paralysis, not building your brand through networking because of the ambiguity of what you should be doing. Let’s clear the air- networking can be reduced to three words: “building good relationships.”  Whether it is done face-to-face or online, the aim of networking is to begin and build relationships with people who have shared interests for potential long-term mutual benefit.

Managing Your 4-D Brand

The four roles of a brand- identity, image, promises, and relationship- are complementary pieces of a personal brand. If any one of these cornerstones is weak, the strength of your personal brand will be limited. To manage your brand means to manage these four roles.

Begin now by taking inventory of where your brand is for each of these four roles. Then, consider how you want these roles to be defined as you go through the process of determining Meaning, Makeup, and Message for your brand. It is likely that you will commit to change the current state of one or more of these brand roles to get to a state consistent with goals that you have for your personal brand.

Two Key Words for Personal Branding Success

“If this business were to be split up, I would be glad to take the brands, trademarks and goodwill and you could have all the bricks and mortar – and I would fare better than you.”

– John Stuart, former chairman, Quaker Oats

What Are You Marketing?

If you have any uncertainty about what exactly is being marketed in the practice of marketing, the quote by John Stuart provides the answer. We market brands- they are representations of products, services, ideas- the value that we create to meet the needs of others. Various accounts of the history of branding put its origins anywhere from 400 to 4,000 years ago. Branding was born out of the necessity to put identifying marks on one’s livestock to indicate ownership. The marketing role of brands shares a similar purpose, with a widely accepted definition of a brand being the use of a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature to uniquely identify a seller’s product to distinguish it from other sellers.

Today, brands have evolved far beyond their original purpose of being identification marks. Brands build up value in the minds and hearts of people who come in contact with them through usage, advertising, or the influence of other people. This characteristic of how people respond to brands influences behaviors like brand loyalty and making brand recommendations to friends or posting positive reviews online.

Two Words to Ignite Personal Branding

Your brand is the most valuable asset you can develop to begin and advance your professional career. But, you must have a grasp on branding fundamentals  in order to begin the process of developing your personal brand. Two words in the previous sentence are crucial to understanding branding:

1. “Begin”- This word is important because you need to know  that while there is a beginning to personal branding, there is no definitive ending. In other words, your brand is always being impacted by what you believe, think, say, and do. Crafting your personal brand is an ongoing project- you will never completely mark it off your To Do list.

If the notion of branding being a never ending endeavor is hard to accept, think about product brands. They are always “on.” Similarly, there are no breaks or days off when it comes to marketing your personal brand. Do not interpret this characteristic to mean you will never get a day off if you adopt a personal brand mindset. What it means is that you must be constantly mindful that your brand is being observed, experienced, and evaluated in the marketplace by people who come in contact with you.

2. “Process”- Personal branding involves a series of steps that move you through        understanding and building your Meaning, Makeup, and Message. It is not one thing you do; personal branding requires completing many tasks needed to implement the three dimensions of your personal brand  (i.e., determine Meaning, understand hard and soft skills needed for Makeup, and articulating Message).

Embrace the Challenge

For some people, the two key words for personal branding success might be so daunting that ditching the idea of building a personal brand seems like an attractive option. You must commit to the process of branding, and the sooner you begin the better. Can you think of a single brand- product or person- that was built quickly and with little effort? I can’t either. If branding were simple and fast, everyone would commit to it… and the strategic benefit of a brand would not be nearly as significant.

Don’t dodge the challenge of building your brand; embrace it by taking responsibility for building your most valuable professional asset. Remember that tangible aspects of a business can be replaced, but brand reputation is earned through your efforts to nurture the three Ms of your personal brand (Meaning, Makeup, and Message).


Authenticity: A Brand’s GPS

How do you know when you have found the passion that drives your brand? You know that passion is fueling purpose when you are able to observe consistent behaviors and actions in your work as well as through interactions with others. For a personal brand, that consistency also plays out in terms of being the same person across different life contexts- home, school, work, social situations- you cannot nor need  not turn your brand on and off  depending on your environment. This state of consistency is authenticity, which has been described as a “moral inner voice” that develops from our experience. Authenticity is an admired characteristic in corporate brands and personal brands because when we encounter authentic brands we can be assured that what we see is what we get. An authentic brand does not hide its true character behind mission statements or slogans; actions follow beliefs.

What Does it Really Mean to be Authentic?

How do you develop that moral inner voice that aligns daily performance with principles? Some personal branding advocates mistakenly equate authenticity with “being ourselves.” That works as long as who you are is who you want to be! In contrast, marketing expert Seth Godin believes authenticity is based on doing what you promise, not “being who you are.” Marc Ecko, a pharmacy school dropout turned fashion entrepreneur, has built a billion dollar business through a focus on brand authenticity. Ecko has three criteria for assessing the authenticity of his personal brand:

  1. How truthful am I to myself and others
  2. The emotional impact that can be made on others through actions
  3. How flexible I am to change.

Authenticity is not just a buzz word- it is essential to maintain the brand integrity. Creativity expert and author Todd Henry says that you cannot sustain yourself long term on the approval of others.”You cannot keep up with fulfilling promises that are not in line with your personal values.”

My Favorite Authentic Brand (and Band)

Reflections on the significance of brand authenticity surfaced recently when I took a trip to Atlanta to watch my favorite band, Canadian rock trio Rush, play a show on their R40 Tour. The tour marks forty years of making music that continues to resonate with fans.

Rush’s brand authenticity is evident in three ways. First, the band’s music has evolved over forty years, experimenting with new sounds, but it was never done in the quest to sell more albums. Rush’s evolution was about pushing their creative boundaries. Second, Rush has a passionate fan base that appreciates the band’s music of the past and present (and hopefully future). Rush’s music has changed without being labeled as “sellouts” or caving in to whims to boost album sales. Third and most importantly, the members of Rush are committed to practicing their craft at an exceptionally high level. If R40 should happen to be Rush’s last major concert tour, they are hardly going quietly into the night. Their performance intensity and quality is as high as ever. My goal is to be at the top of my professional game after forty years, just like Geddy, Alex, and Neil.


Authenticity ≠ Popularity

Another indicator of the strength of brand authenticity is that it is not necessarily universally loved or embraced. When a brand remains true to its passion and purpose, it will almost surely run into opposition- “haters gonna hate”- if you will. Your decision to follow a path of authenticity will be rejected by some people.

Returning to the Rush example, the band is not a mainstream musical force. In fact, Rush has never won a Grammy award, and it was almost grudgingly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. Why? The brand’s passion as evidenced in their music does not resonate with some music critics. In the end, Rush received well deserved career achievement accolades, in large part due to a steadfast commitment to brand authenticity.

Image Credit: Cygnus-X1.net

Can McDonald’s be Saved?


What does a sports team do when performance fails to meet expectations? Often, the coach is replaced in an effort to energize the team and provide new direction. You cannot get rid of the entire team at once, and since the coach is the figurehead leader of the organization it is usually the most prudent course of action to stimulate change. This sports analogy plays out in business, too. A CEO or other leaders in the C-suite tend to take the fall for disappointing performance.

The latest example of a business leader paying the price for unmet expectations is Don Thompson, the CEO of McDonald’s. Thompson is a 25-year veteran of the company and only 51 years old, but he will be “retiring” March 1 after a two-year stint as CEO. McDonald’s has experienced a precipitous slide under Thompson that includes 14 consecutive months of declining store sales and five straight quarters of declining profits. Just as it is easier to for a sports team to fire the coach and not all of its players, the Board of Directors at McDonald’s can at least demonstrate it is making an effort to reverse the company’s fortunes by making a change in leadership. Unfortunately, the problems faced by McDonald’s go far beyond the person sitting in the CEO chair.

“It’s not You, It’s Me”

The problem faced by McDonald’s is not who is in the role of CEO, CMO, or any other individual. McDonald’s has been a mainstay in American culture because it resonated with families. However, many people that were McDonald’s fans as children and adolescents find when they become adults that the value proposition of McDonald’s does not fit their lifestyle. Whether it is young parents wanting to have their children adopt healthy lifestyle practices early on or young adults who have tired of the menu offerings of McDonald’s, many customers have grown apart from the brand. It is not as much about McDonald’s doing something to alienate these consumers as it is changes in life cycle stage and lifestyle have led to them drifting away from the brand.

A Matter of Relevance

Changing tastes certainly play a role in the woes McDonald’s is facing, but it is not the only problem faced. The brand has lost relevance among many consumers. Fast casual brands like Chipotle and Panera Bread give diners an alternative to quick-service burgers. And, the experience of eating at McDonald’s can be more like going to the DMV than enjoying a relaxing meal at a restaurant. To McDonald’s credit, it has invested heavily in updating its stores to be more like a Starbucks than a McDonald’s. Unfortunately, it has looked more like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The physical environment might be improved, but the menu is largely still the same fare that customers have drifted away from eating. McDonald’s still excels at offering price-based value, but it may have painted itself into a corner that it cannot escape. Is it destined to be perceived only as the value-priced restaurant brand?

Read the Signs

McDonald’s has been a fixture in America’s popular culture for decades, and its foray into foreign markets is a slice of Americana that can be found around the world. As it struggles to find its identity among today’s consumers, McDonald’s may have hit on a sweet spot that resonates with consumers in its “Signs” commercial. The spot shows signs from local McDonald’s displaying a variety of messages of support, sympathy, and encouragement inspired by events in their local communities or major events like 9/11 or the Boston Marathon bombing.

McDonald’s can tinker with its menu all it wants, but the long-term success of the brand will depend less on what new sandwiches are on the menu and more on the impact McDonald’s stores have in the neighborhoods where they operate. “Signs” is a powerful message that there are people behind the McDonald’s brand, people who care about what is going on in the lives of customers and the good of the community.