Marketing Lessons from ‘Reading Rainbow’

Unless you own a time machine, one of the best ways to reconnect with the past is through feelings of nostalgia. The people, events, and culture of days gone by can be relived to conjure positive emotions of “the good old days.” The power of nostalgia was evidenced last week in the overwhelming response to a Kickstarter campaign. The crowdfunding website is known for helping entrepreneurs fund new ideas, but a vision to resurrect a brand whose roots can be traced back 30 years: The PBS program Reading Rainbow. The children’s show featured actor LeVar Burton and enjoyed an amazing 23-year run. Now, Burton wants to bring back Reading Rainbow as a multi-platform venture that can be used in schools to turn on young people to reading.

The goal of the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign was to raise $1 million, an ambitious goal in a competitive space for entrepreneurial fundraising. In less than a week, the campaign has garnered more than $3.2 million in pledges from over 72,000 backers. A revised goal of $5 million has been set, and with 30 more days left in the Kickstarter campaign it seems to be a safe bet to say the goal will be reached. As I have watched the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter campaign unfold, two things have happened:

  • I cannot get the Reading Rainbow theme song out of my head- “Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high…” I hope that does not last 30 more days!
  • Useful marketing lessons have been taught and reviewed. I share three of the most poignant lessons from my observations.

Passion Trumps Product

One of the most striking aspects of the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter project is the passion that LeVar Burton exhibits about the importance of getting young people excited about reading. This venture is not about being a money making venture; it is about transforming lives. His passion has attracted pledges, no doubt. Some critics contend the methodology behind Reading Rainbow is not ideal for teaching reading. That point can be debated by other people in other spaces. The takeaway is even if the product has flaws or imperfections, the passion behind it entices people to accept a product that may be less than perfect.

People Act on Affinity

The overwhelming response to this particular Kickstarter campaign illustrates the benefits of building a brand that is trusted in the marketplace. An analogy used to describe brands is that they can become like a trusted friend- dependable, consistent, there for us. And like a good friend, people like to take action on feelings that they hold for brands- telling others about their experiences, participating in brand communities, and of course, being a loyal brand user. Reading Rainbow fans happily acted on their affinity for the program by pledging financial support to the next generation version.

Brands Matter

Reading Rainbow may not be the most effective platform for developing reading skills, but many people are convinced that it offers value. That belief is cemented in the minds of millions of parents and children exposed to the program during its 23-year run. Those beliefs did not end when the show ended; the equity accrued in the Reading Rainbow brand continues to pay dividends today. Marketers should never lose sight of the fact that their brand is a powerful asset, one that should be nurtured so that it can reap benefits like those currently being experienced by Reading Rainbow.


Time will tell if the re-launch of Reading Rainbow delivers on the vision that LeVar Burton has for the brand. I like the chances of success because of the passion behind the brand, the affinity held by brand stakeholders, and the strength of the brand as a marketable asset.

What the Arctic Monkeys Taught Me about Branding

About a month ago, I treated my two oldest sons (24 and 17) to concert tickets to see one of their favorite alternative rock bands, the Arctic Monkeys. As the concert date approached, I realized this experience was going to be interesting for me. We would be seeing the band in a venue with no seats, and I knew they would like to get as close as possible. Counting the time in line outside the venue, waiting for the show to begin, and the concert itself, I spent nearly five consecutive hours standing up that evening while trying to co-exist with throngs of young fans crowding around. Not only did I survive the show, but I had a great time even though I was not very familiar with the band’s music.

If You Like Your Coffee Hot…
As I listened to songs from the band’s new album, AM, the lyrics of one song grabbed my attention.It is the track “I Wanna Be Yours.” It is a ballad, somewhat of a change of pace from the high energy packed into most Arctic Monkeys songs. One line from the song stopped me in my tracks. I cannot help but see connections between seemingly unrelated things like a ballad and branding, but this line had powerful parallel meaning for me. The line is innocent enough, almost hokey- “If you like your coffee hot, let me be your coffee pot.” But as I thought about the meaning of that line, I did not envision a guy longing for the company of a girl (or vice versa). Instead, I was reminded of what it means to create a brand that adds value by being in service to others… keeping their coffee hot, if you will.

…Let Me be Your Coffee Pot
Personal branding has gained favor as a strategy for managing one’s professional identity and career trajectory. One of the myths of personal branding is that it entails constant communication or demonstration of your expertise, particularly through social media channels. In reality, a great brand (personal or corporate) is one that adds value to others through service, leadership, mentoring, or coaching. It is not so much what you know, but what you do for others that positively impacts whether a brand prospers or wallows in medocrity. In my role as a college professor, the coffee pot imagery means to me that I serve as a mentor and advocate for my students as they sift through possible paths that ultimately lead to their career choices. I need to help “keep their coffee hot” as they progress through their studies and prepare to embark on their professional careers.

Be a coffee pot for someone-open yourself to keeping the coffee hot as you do your part to equip others to succeed. Below is a video of the Arctic Monkey performing an acoustic version of “I Wanna Be Yours.” Enjoy.


Personal versus Perfect: How Brands Walk the Social Media Line

Social media has dramatically changed how businesses communicate with their target markets. A reliance on one-way communication through mass media channels is now complemented by a more flexible, interactive channel. In addition to the interactivity characteristic of social media, companies that take to social networking sites have the opportunity to “humanize” their brands. Employees that are the voice of a firm’s social media accounts can create personal interactions between buyers and seller. Twitter users who interact with a business to share a complaint, for example, may interact with Jeff or Janie rather than a nameless representative of the brand. Bringing a more personal touch to customer relationship management can lead to more satisfactory experiences and greater customer loyalty.

Is Perfection the Ideal?
We think of brands as being “always on.” Product or service failure is a negative reflection on the brand; we always have our guard up to protect brand reputation and should act quickly to resolve any situation that could put a brand in a negative light. But, is this quest for perfection attainable? More importantly, do customers even expect it? Research by Disruptive Communications of UK consumers into what people dislike about brand activity in social media suggests that brands must walk a line between giving off a personal feel and maintaining consistency that is a hallmark of branding. A survey of 1,003 UK consumers found the number one misstep brands can make on social media is using poor spelling or grammar in their posts (see infographic below). The other big no-no is making too many posts aimed at selling products. Other social media faux pas that turn off consumers are posting updates too often, trying too hard to be funny, and not posting updates often enough (further evidence that you cannot please all of the people all of the time).

Source: Disruptive Communications, 2013
Common Sense and Common Courtesy
Findings from the Disruptive Communications study are insightful as they validate what was widely assumed: Using common sense and common courtesy will go a long way toward using social media to nurture customer relationships. Common sense says to pay attention to detail when posting to social media accounts, making sure not only that information is grammatically correct but that offers and claims are accurate, too. Common courtesy should be exercised not to encroach on your community’s social space by bombarding them with sales messages. In fact, selling should be far down the list of social media objectives for most firms. 
Use the privilege of connecting with customers and others to listen, share, and discuss. I do not know many people who joined Facebook or LinkedIn in order to be hit up with marketing messages. Also, common courtesy suggests to not damage customer relationships by posting insensitive or controversial content on social media. Sounds like common sense would prevent that, but we can point to many examples of a failure to exercise common sense. Remember this clueless tweet from Kenneth Cole during the uprising in Egypt in 2011?
Social media should be embraced as a unique opportunity to build a community in ways that marketers of previous eras could only have imagined. But, with great power comes great responsibility; in the case of social media this means respecting your community’s space by being a participant with them rather than a seller with a digital megaphone.

Rebranding: Short-Term Pain for Long-Term Gain

It has been said that the only three certainties in life are birth, death, and taxes. Perhaps a fourth certainty should be on that list: Change. Whether you embrace it or detest it, change makes its way into our lives. Do you have Facebook friends who announce “I am out” after the latest tweaks? Yes, some people follow through and leave Facebook to convey their disdain for change while most others will continue on as their resistance withers. We may not like change but often accept it and adapt to it.

Rebranding as Change
Our relationship with change came to mind recently when St. Thomas Health, a nine-hospital system headquartered in Nashville, announced a rebranding initiative. St. Thomas Health has rebranded five facilities it acquired over a period of years under the parent brand St. Thomas. The change removes familiar brands from the local landscape such as Baptist Hospital (Nashville) and Middle Tennessee Medical Center (Murfreesboro). In their place is branding that prominently features the St. Thomas brand (St. Thomas Midtown Hospital and St. Thomas Rutherford Hospital, respectively). The rebrand will undoubtedly not be a cheap exercise. Think about all the places where old brands must be replaced- exterior and interior signage, websites, uniforms, business cards, brochures, and more. And, the rebranding announcement triggered a predictable reaction of sarcasm, disagreement, and disappointment. People who know the facilities by their current names see no reason for St. Thomas Health to change now.

Motivations for Rebranding
On the surface, one can understand why St. Thomas Health would be reluctant to rebrand. After all, the facilities acquired were known brands in their own right and could continue as is without a costly rebranding effort. But, there are two motivating factors for a brand owner to rebrand a portfolio to put brand assets under a single umbrella:

  1. Internal needs– As a company grows, particularly when growth involves acquiring other brands, it can be beneficial to create synergy in marketing efforts by having a core identity. St. Thomas Health acquired facilities that kept their old names for years. Perhaps the criticism of St. Thomas is not that it rebranded some of its hospitals but rather that it waited so long to do it. Now, St. Thomas will have a consistent identity across all of its hospital properties.
  2. External pressures– Rebranding may be needed to be more competitive. In the Nashville market, St. Thomas Health has a significant competitor in Vanderbilt Medical Center. The strength of the VMC brand (and the fact that all of its facilities reflect the corporate brand identity) likely influenced St. Thomas executives in its decision to develop a stronger corporate identity. 
Grin and Bear It
Change can sometimes be difficult to sell and challenging to implement. Branding can be likened to managing a physical space like a home or building. Sometimes, a property gets to the point where what is best for it is a period of time in which renovations are made. You may make a short-term mess by ripping out flooring or knocking down walls, but in the end the renovation creates a more valuable asset. Similarly, rebranding has the same objective. It can be messy while being carried out, but the payoff to the brand owner can be a stronger brand both in terms of greater marketing synergies as well as stronger association among consumers. Approach rebranding by being prepared for short-term pain in anticipation of the long-term gain that could result.

A Social Media Marketing English Lesson

I am a marketing professor, not an English professor (as one can determine from reading my posts). But, I feel compelled to weigh in on a practice that makes me cringe when I see it occur. Some marketers and individuals misunderstand their role in communities. Social media has empowered the voice of the people, transforming us from “targets” to participants. Unfortunately, some people are stuck in the old mass media model of broadcasting messages. In a world in which social networking sites have elevated second and third-person pronouns to star-of-the-show status, too many brands are still communicating in “I” and “me” terms. If you want to increase the likelihood that your “target market” will tune you out, just keep doing what your are doing.

Align Pronouns with Objectives
If you are not an English professor either, no worries. Let’s demystify how to avoid falling in the narcissistic trap of a first-person voice in social media. The voice that you use should be consistent with the objectives for using social media in the first place (you do have objectives, right?). For example, if you have an objective of growing a community around your brand, you do it by focusing on the community instead of you. Think about the person you talk to at a party (or maybe better described as listen to) that only talks about himself. He complains, he brags, he jokes, but he is in control of the conversation. And, you are pretty sure he does not really care about you at all or he may have actually tried to engage you in an actual conversation.

Don’t be that guy! The tone of your content should align with your community. Talk about the problems or challenges your community members face. Celebrate their joys and accomplishments. Ask questions to learn more about what is on their minds. Lift up employee success stories. It is not about you, it is about the community. One of my favorite quotes is from John Maxwell, who says “people don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care.” Too many social media marketing messages try to show us how much the sender knows rather than conveying care and concern for the community. Social networking is a participation sport. As a marketer you can play, but you are far from the only player in the game.

Don’t Ditch First Person 
You do not have to eliminate “I” and “me” from your vocabulary. The point to remember is that when participating in communities we step back from the center of attention to be part of the circle of community members. There are times that you want to assert yourself as a resource (i.e., how much you know); just be careful to avoid that practice being the primary use of social media. Some people might disagree, but social media can be used in pursuit of sales objectives. For example, Panda Express used Facebook to distribute coupons for a free serving of orange chicken, part of a promotion touting the chain’s extended summer hours.  

This pronoun dilemma is particularly challenging for individuals looking to build a personal brand. Of course, you need to persuade your audience of your knowledge, capabilities, and value. However, there is a need to stake a balance between asserting brand credibility and fitting in among the community that interacts with your brand.

Your Customers, Their Brand

Well, it has happened again. A marketing lesson taught about who owns brands. This time, the pupil was a corporate behemoth, Microsoft. The company first made a splash last week at the E3 show with its upcoming Xbox One gaming console. The splash was followed by waves that developed after Microsoft announced stringent rules on selling and sharing games and regular connection to the Internet to check for updates as well as any new games added to a user’s system. Xbox fans were not impressed, and the decision to become more controlling over gamers’ access to content could not have come at a worse time. Sony is preparing to bring the PlayStation 4 to market this fall and will compete with Xbox One for next generation console dominance. Microsoft is at a decided price disadvantage, with planned pricing for Xbox One at $499 compared to $399 for the PS4. The combination of consumer angst and price differential does not bode well for Microsoft. A poll conducted on to gauge preference for Xbox One versus PS4 was running 18 to 1 in favor of Sony at one point.

Same Song, Different Brand
As I prepared to write this post, I could not help but feel I had written it before… and I have- more than once. In fact, less than a month ago I wrote about how Nutella had to reverse course and give its blessing to a user-created World Nutella Day event. Why does this subject keep coming up? Because brand marketers lose sight of who the real owners of their brands are. Of course, the business legally owns the rights to the tangible brand assets- name, logo, maybe even a slogan or package design (think contour bottle of a Coca-Cola). But, that is where the seller’s control stops. Brands are images in our minds, experiences in our daily lives, and relationships that add value. Brand as image, experience, and relationship is constructed by customers and communities of people who form a connection with a brand. We ascribe meaning and significance that brands hold; those feelings are not dictated to us by marketers (though they often try). Microsoft’s stringent digital management rights policies seemed odd because they came off as rules imposed by the seller rather than a model that benefits users in some way.

A Recoverable Gaffe?
Sony was quick to pounce on Microsoft’s user-unfriendly plans for the Xbox One. However, Sony did not have to say a word as gamers torched Microsoft on social media. Below is an example of the treatment Microsoft’s planned policies received from the gaming community:

No wonder PS4 enjoyed an 18 to 1 preference in the Amazon poll mentioned earlier. Microsoft had little choice but to rethink its DRM policies for Xbox One and make them more compatible with the experience gamers are accustomed to enjoying. But, it seems that Microsoft could have saved itself from being skewered online if it had been more customer-centric in the first place. The Xbox brand sits in the enviable position of market leader in video game consoles. Even a $100 price premium might be feasible given its brand equity and consumer trust of the brand. However, that trust was eroded quickly when Microsoft forgot its customers made the Xbox brand valuable and attempted to enact policies that favored only one side of the buyer-seller relationship. There is still time for Microsoft to recover from its missteps; hopefully the company will keep the customer front and center in its marketing strategy as it brings Xbox One to market.


Avoiding Death and Taxes

It is said that in life two things are certain: Death and taxes. While that axiom plays out for people, businesses can shield themselves from both. Tax avoidance practices of American corporations was the focus of Congressional hearings last week. I’m a marketer, not an accountant, so we will set aside the taxes issue and focus on brand “death.” Brands can live in perpetuity, not inherently susceptible to aging or deterioration. However, brands can and do die. A list published by 24/7 Wall St. predicts the demise of 10 brands in the coming year. The list is provocative but likely will prove not be very accurate. The veracity of the list is not the issue; thinking about the contributing factors to a brand’s demise is worth the effort, however.

At Death’s Door?
The current list by 24/7 Wall St. contains some surprises and some brands whose vulnerability is not news:

  1. JCPenney
  2. Leap Wireless
  3. LivingSocial
  4. Martha Stewart Living magazine
  5. Mitsubishi Motors
  6. Nook
  7. Olympus
  8. Road & Track magazine
  9. Volvo
  10. WNBA 

There is a difference between a brand in difficulty and a brand in decline- JCPenney is experiencing difficulties as its “fair and square pricing” model failed to catch on and the company is reverting to a heavy promotion schedule to appeal to customers. In contrast, brands like Living Social and Nook are fighting for their lives as entrenched competitors make it difficult to maintain market share and successfully differentiate their brand. Of the 10 brands on this list, I see LivingSocial and Nook as the most vulnerable.

The Brand Deathwatch Checklist
The list of brands predicted to die in the next year is insightful because it forces us to ask what factors make a brand susceptible to becoming endangered. Here are three factors that stand out:

  1. Business model is outdated – Martha Stewart Living and Road & Track find themselves on the list largely because the traditional magazine publishing industry has been turned on its head. Digital distribution and the availability of free information coupled with costs to produce a print product are serious blows.
  2. Competition is formidable – Brands can become endangered when competition is fierce in terms of power or number. Nook and its parent Barnes & Noble are reeling under the weight of Amazon and Apple. The market leverage and profitability that these companies have enjoyed make it difficult for a firm with less resources to do battle. LivingSocial is threatened by the sheer number of competitors- major brands like Groupon all the way down to a sea of local market deal sites. 
  3. Lack of differentiation – This factor can make any brand vulnerable to competition and becoming irrelevant in customers’ minds. Without a clear point of difference that is valued by consumers, brands are living on borrowed time. At best, they become commodities.

Don’t Write Them Off Yet
The 24/7 Wall St. list is interesting and provocative, but it is not necessarily a harbinger of what is in store for these brands. The 2012 list of 10 dying brands correctly predicted the demise of three: MetroPCS, Current TV, and Suzuki. A fourth brand, Research in Motion, retired its name in favor of its product brand, Blackberry. The other six brands still are kicking. Brands have been known to come back from the brink of extinction, and some of the brands on the list could gain new energy. Their fate depends on how the three factors on the “brand deathwatch checklist” play out.

How to Achieve Brand Relevance

Have you ever caught yourself teaching or advocating what you believe is an important point only to realize you aren’t exactly sure yourself what it means? I’m not talking about speaking on points on which you are not knowledgeable, but a subject that you understand yet may not truly grasp how an idea or theory really works. It happened to me recently when I was reading an article by Tom Denari, CEO of Young & Laramore, an Indianapolis advertising agency. The title of the article was provocative- “Nobody Really Cares about Your Brand”– of course I had to read on. As I did, it dawned on me that an important point I try to convey to my students could be sharpened with perspective gained from reading Denari’s article.

Your Brand Should be Relevant-What Does that Mean?
One of the most important tenets of marketing strategy I emphasize to students is the need to achieve brand differentiation. A brand succeeds in intensely competitive markets by standing out, not merely by being different but by creating value for customers that makes the brand different in a relevant way. A strong case can be made for pursuing brand relevance. Without a distinctive position to differentiate a brand, it is destined to be mired in mediocrity as a “me too” brand. But, what does it really mean to achieve brand relevance? Who defines what is relevant? As the article of Tom Denari’s article suggests, customers are not nearly as interested in brands as the brand owners are. They are not too wrapped up in comparing features and benefits among competing brands; they simply want products and services that add value by making their lives easier, more productive, enjoyable, or whatever the desired benefit might be. This reality about customers has huge implications for defining your brand’s relevance.

How to Achieve Brand Relevance
Fortunately, Tom Denari does not leave us in despair after pointing out that people really do not care about brands. He offers a straightforward solution to achieving brand relevance: be culturally relevant. Denari cites Nike, Apple, and Starbucks as three brands that went beyond developing great products and attained cultural relevance. Nike (aligning with world class athletes), Apple (transforming the user experience of consuming music and mobile computing) and Starbucks (created consumption experiences around coffee) became culturally relevant by focusing on how they could not only serve customers’ needs but have meaning in their daily lives, too. Although these brands are exemplary for creating relevance, the scope of impact need not be groundbreaking. Denari cites the Old Spice advertising and social media campaign from a few years ago as creating cultural relevance for a brand typically thought of as “my grandfather’s after shave.”

Fortunately, you do not need to have the resources of Nike, Apple, or Starbucks to create a relevant brand. What is needed is a way in which you connect with customers that matters to them. The local car dealership that is a sponsor of high school sports teams can be culturally relevant in the community. The independent drug store differentiates itself from its deep-pocketed chain competitors by giving personalized service and creating a shopping environment that reminds customers of the “good old days.” And of course, brands can build relevance by aligning with social issues or causes that matter to their customers. John Maxwell says “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Businesses of all sizes can use social responsibility as an organization-wide mindset for showing how much they care.

The goal is to create relevance, but never lose sight of who defines relevance. Your brand matters only if it matters to your customers.

Brand Love: It’s not What You Think

Marketers talk a great deal about developing relationships between their brands and customers. The underlying assumption is that we can equate brand relationships that people have with interpersonal relationships. Are brand love and interpersonal love the same? Are the characteristics of a brand that attract customers to fall into love with a brand similar to the characteristics that attract people to each other?

These issues were examined in research performed by Rajeev Batra, Aaron Ahuvia, and Richard Bagozzi published earlier this year in Journal of Marketing. A series of three studies identified elements of brand love that ultimately yielded a three-factor model:

  1. Passion-driven behaviors (e.g., desire to use brand and past involvement with brand or company)
  2. Self-brand integration (e.g., brand matches current and desired self-identity; intrinsic benefits more important than extrinsic rewards)
  3. Positive emotional connection (e.g., emotional attachment and positive feelings or mood elicited by brand)

A contribution made by this research is that a distinction was made between brand love as an emotion felt by consumers and brand relationships exhibited by the behaviors of customers and clients. The latter is realized by tapping into the power of the former. Affinity held for a brand can be a catalyst for deepening one’s integration of a brand into his or her life. Thus, feelings of brand love (i.e., the emotion) cannot be equated with desired buyer behaviors like repeat purchasing and positive word-of-mouth. However, when brands leverage emotions to strengthen customers’ bonds with a brand it can be a catalyst to creating true love… brand love, that is.

Would Customers Wear Your Colors?

Happy College Colors Day! If you are unaware of this special day, the Friday before the first full weekend of the college football season is designated as College Colors Day. People are encouraged to don the colors of their favorite college sports team as football fans revel in the beginning of a new season. Why not – your favorite team is undefeated! An interesting side note – College Colors Day is orchestrated by Collegiate Licensing Company, the market leader in officially licensed products for colleges and universities. Creating a “holiday” around your business is savvy marketing!

The passion for college football and fans’ desire to show their affinity for their favorite team by wearing t-shirts and jerseys led me to wonder how a “Brand Colors Day” might play out. Would I be willing to go with an outfit featuring the red, black, and silver of Diet Coke? Could I find a Chipotle cap to wear that day? More importantly, what would it take for me to feel so strongly about a brand that I would lead me to identify with it by wearing its colors?

Although a Brand Colors Day may not become part of our popular culture, maybe businesses can benefit from thinking that there is such a day. Would customers wear your colors? Do they have a compelling reason to identify with you? Social media provides a virtual means of wearing colors by liking or following brands that matter to us. But, we have to bring people to the point that they are willing to wear our colors.

If your brand is not relevant or little more than a commodity, do not expect to be represented heavily on Brand Colors Day. Great value and memorable experiences forge brand relationships. We are inclined to tell others about brands that matter to us. It is up to marketers to make it happen – give a reason why people should be passionate about your brand.

Happy College Colors Day! Enjoy the pageantry of college football.