Is Your Message Authentic?

In my last blog post I shared a commercial for Ragu spaghetti sauce that featured a young boy walking in on his parents spending quality time in the bedroom. The spot is humorous, but one has to question how such a message advances the Ragu brand long term. Another commercial I saw recently had the opposite impact, in my estimation. A Wendy’s commercial touted the “Wendy’s Way,” a commitment to serving quality products. The messenger was Wendy Thomas, daughter of Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas and the restaurant’s namesake.

The strength of this commercial is its authenticity. The message is a straightforward, heartfelt effort to communicate the brand’s values. And, the message source evokes a favorable emotional response. Although Wendy Thomas does not have the same sense of ease in front of the camera as her late father, she is a capable brand ambassador that keeps alive the legacy created by Dave Thomas.

Brand messages should be authentic; they must communicate purpose and meaning to the audience. People do not buy products because they want them; they buy products because of what they do for them. Human nature leads us to ask the question “What’s in it for me?” when considering a product purchase. Your brand messages should provide answers to that question. Wendy’s answers the question by touting the quality customers receive.

What’s in it for your customers to buy from you? Do your brand messages answer that question? Authenticity, not audacity, builds brands. People should think about your brand because they admire it, not because they laughed at your 30-second commercial.

Saucy Ads Don’t Build Brands

What is advertising? It is communication with a target market with end goals of building a brand advancing a business. Any investment in advertising should be undertaken with this basic concept in mind. Or, if you a prefer a what-advertising-is-not definition, simply reference a recent commercial by Ragu. Unilever’s spaghetti sauce brand is running a campaign called “Long Day of Childhood.” One of the spots shows a boy coming into his house after school calling “mom, mom.” He finds her and realizes why she did not answer: Mom is “busy” in the bedroom. Although we do not see what the boy sees, his face says it all! See the commercial below.

The commercial is a YouTube hit with more than 1.4 million views. Ragu has three other commercials from the same campaign posted on its YouTube page, none of which have more than 100,000 views. Unfortunately for Ragu, views of a humorous commercial will not translate into more customers. Although Ragu is the market leader in spaghetti sauces, its market share has slipped. Brand awareness is not an issue, so what Ragu needs is to connect with consumers in ways that make Ragu more relevant in their lives. While some adults may be able to relate to the boy in the commercial, does the spot draw people closer to the Ragu brand? Probably not.

Thanks for the laugh, Ragu. I like a brand that does not take itself too seriously. Ultimately, brand marketers will be evaluated on whether their efforts resulted in higher sales and profits. I am not convinced this campaign will make that happen.

Ad Age – “Ragu Explains the Ad Where the Kid Walks in on His Parents”

Purpose Defines a Brand

As a father of three sons (ages 23, 16, and 12), I realized a long time ago that children have a knack for being able to teach adults… if we can stop long enough to pay attention to what is going on around us. When I allow myself to see the world through the eyes of my children or others that I am around, it inevitably results in a better understanding of what they see and face on a daily basis. I have to remember that I am not a know-it-all adult but rather a person who is committed to continuous learning and development, including obtaining wisdom from children.
The impact that children can have on adults does not include our professional lives – or does it? I have concluded that yes, children can shape our understanding of business. This view was reinforced after reading about how a 9-year-old boy had started a cause and given away a trip to Disneyworld to the family of a fallen soldier. Brendan Haas launched his Soldier for a Soldier Facebook page in February. The idea was to trade items with other people, increasing the value of items traded until he had acquired airfare, hotel, and gift certificates to give to a fallen soldier’s family a trip to Disneyworld. It began with Brendan trading one of his toy soldiers and culminated on Memorial Day with him giving away a trip to the family of a Massachusetts soldier killed in Afghanistan last year. An awesome story of selflessness, taught by a 9-year-old.
What is the takeaway for business, you might be wondering? For me, Brendan Haas and Soldier for a Soldier provide a lesson in branding. Brands are defined by a purpose, a reason for existence. That purpose permeates through every decision, product, advertisement, employee… you get the picture. Brendan Haas’ purpose led to creation of the Soldier for a Soldier cause. Too often, companies undertake cause marketing campaigns as if it is a “flavor of the month” tactic. The supported cause may be worthy, but the execution of the campaign does not demonstrate a direct relationship with the brand’s values.
Job well done, young Brendan Haas! Thank you for the lesson that brands should be directed by a purpose. I have a feeling Brendan is not through yet fulfilling his purpose through Solider for a Soldier or in some other way.

Do You Need a Brand?

An interesting question arose during our department’s annual strategic planning meeting yesterday. The department chair asked the faculty about the need to develop branding elements, namely a logo. It was obvious by the reaction of many faculty members that they had never thought about this question. To stir discussion, our chairperson asked the question “why would we need a brand?” It is a fair question that any organization should ask, and it is one that in typical cases should be answered with an unequivocal “yes.”

What would a brand do for an organization like the Department of Management and Marketing at Middle Tennessee State University? After all, we are associated with two brands already – the University brand and the College of Business brand. Brands serve three vital purposes:

  1. Bring mission and values to life – Brand names and logos are meaningless unless they relate to fundamental purposes for existence. We started the process by reviewing our department’s mission statement. In 12 years, I had never seen it, and after reading it I realized I had not missed anything! We will work on refining and shortening it. Once the mission is defined and the values we hold articulated, then (and only then) can we begin to think about branding our department.
  2.  Give direction to what we should be doing – One colleague answered the question of why we need a brand by saying that it would help us make decisions. What are our priorities? How can we better serve students? Are the needs of the business community being met? What courses are needed in our curriculum? These are questions that cannot be answered adequately until brand meaning is defined.
  3. Creates an identity – Oh yeah, brands are an outward expression of identity. Brand name and marks like a logo create awareness, aid in brand recall, and shape perceptions that form brand image. However, starting here is risky at best and can result in bad branding strategy. You cannot forge an identity until investing time in defining mission, values, and benefits provided to stakeholders.

I am excited about the possibilities of a branding initiative for our department, and not because we may end up with a nice logo. Rather, the clarity of purpose that could arise from the process will guide future strategic planning. Like many organizations, we sometimes are mired in day-to-day operational tasks and lose sight of long-range goals. Brands are like a compass that allow us to navigate the turbulent paths that an organization encounters. 

Tim Tebow on Branding

I am at the same time amused and confused by the polarization created by Tim Tebow. The Denver Broncos quarterback was a college football superstar at the University of Florida, but many experts felt his style of play was not suited to the pro game. Then, there is the issue of Tebow’s faith and the prominent role it has in his words and actions. It is too much for some people to bear who want sports to be devoid of any aspects of faith. His story continues to evolve as he has gone from third-string to the starting QB, leading the Broncos to seven wins in the last eight games. While many people are ecstatic about Tebow’s emergence as an NFL QB, it seems that many others cannot wait for him to fail.

This blog is not about sports; I will not be breaking down Tebow’s strengths and weaknesses on the field. However, I cannot help but see a teaching moment that relates to how businesses should view branding. Like him or hate him, Tim Tebow is grounded in values that define his purpose and meaning. To this point, he does not seem to have been affected by the trappings of the celebrity lifestyle lived by star pro athletes. His personal brand has remained consistent as his professional career has taken off.

Marketers can learn from Tim Tebow what branding is… and is not. Branding is a never ending pursuit- there really is no such thing as a “branding campaign” as that implies a beginning and end. Branding entails identifying and articulating meaning- the purpose, values, and core beliefs that drive day-to-day and long-term business decisions. A great brand remains true to purpose, values, and core beliefs even though economic conditions, technology trends, and customer tastes are evolving.

Marketing is important- research, design, advertising, and selling are vital to a firm’s success. But, branding transcends all of those activities. Without a great brand, marketing is little more than a functional area in an organization. The brand brings life and energy. Time will tell if Tim Tebow is a great “product” in terms of a successful NFL quarterback. But, it is clear that brand Tebow is on solid ground, which will serve him well far beyond his playing days.

Leave No Brand Story Untold

What makes a brand resonate with consumers? A cool logo? No. A catchy slogan or jingle? Nope. The best creative efforts of an ad agency can take a brand only so far. People connect with brands in the same way they connect with other people: they are attracted by their personal stories. We value brands that we perceive as having something in common with us- our values, interests, attitudes, and mindsets. The connector that attracts us to a brand is its story. What does the brand represent, offer, and do that I can relate to and matters to me? To know a brand’s story is to add a dimension to one’s relationship with that brand.
The importance of telling stories comes to light this week with the Broadway debut of Lombardi, a play that tells the story of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, both on-field accomplishments and off-the-field relationship with his wife, Marie. Despite being the namesake of the NFL’s Super Bowl trophy and generally regarded as an NFL coaching legend, many of today’s NFL fans know little about the man behind the Lombardi persona. To that end, the NFL should be praised for its marketing involvement with Lombardi as a way to preserve the Vince Lombardi story for fans today and in years to come.
If you own a business or are responsible for marketing a brand (which includes all of us since we are managers of our personal brand), is telling your brand’s story part of your branding platform? Maybe your brand story is told through fiercely loyal customers, or maybe it is shared by employees that are on the front lines of serving customers and carrying out the brand promise. Perhaps there is heritage to share, stories from the past like the Vince Lombardi story. The stories are there, why not share them? People are more likely to connect with your brand through the emotions wrapped in a story than they are the features built into a product. Leave no brand story untold.

Advertising Age – “NFL Backs Broadway Play About Legendary Coach”

I Love You

I know- that is a strange headline for a post on a marketing blog. Bear with me and I will explain.

I am composing these thoughts from the comfort of my home. About 30 miles up the road, life is anything but comfortable. The Nashville area has been devastated by flooding that followed more than 13 inches of rain over the weekend. The extent of the damage is jaw-dropping, and the loss and suffering experienced is difficult to imagine. The toll of economic loss and emotional distress are simply incalculable at this point.

Amid the unbelievable pictures and accounts of the flood’s impact, one comment stands out. A Facebook friend, Marcus, posted “I Love You Nashville.” As soon as I read that statement, I knew that Nashville will prevail in this ordeal. Deep rooted passion like that expressed by Marcus and undoubtedly shared by many other Nashvillians demonstrates that while there is pain and damage to overcome, their love for Nashville will inspire rebuilding that will make their city as great, if not greater, than before.

What’s the connection to marketing? Marcus’ comment led me to ask myself how many students would say the same thing about my organization, Middle Tennessee State University? Would your customers say the same thing about your company? About you? Would employees in your organization say “I love you” to their employer? Would residents of the community where you do business say it?

Customers can develop feelings of attachment, commitment, and yes, love for your brands and company. They purchase your products loyally, eagerly tell others about you, and stick with you during tough times. What are you doing to build loving relationships with your customers? Hopefully, you will never have to endure a catastrophic event like a flood to find out which of your customers love you. And, if they experience a similar devastating experience, it is your opportunity to tell your customers “I love you.” It has been encouraging to see several businesses in the Nashville area take this step already.

Brett Favre on Branding

I have a confession to make: I believe I am falling under the spell of Brett Favre. I have resisted the urge for years, but I have finally succumbed to his magical powers. As I watched the nearly 40-year-old quarterback carve up his former team, the Green Bay Packers, I thought about the qualities Favre exudes. Brett Favre’s mystique offers lessons that can be applied to branding, whether it is personal branding or managing a product brand. Here are four characteristics (would you expect any other number?) of Favre’s personal brand that any brand would benefit from possessing:

1. Distinctive – There are other quarterbacks, some of whom are very good, but there is only one QB with Favre’s style. He is not different for the sake of being different (like Cincinnati Bengals WR Chad Ocho Cinco), but he is genuinely different. Relevant difference is a key to winning in business and in life.

2. Consistent – Favre’s performance level has not changed dramatically over the years. His style of play is basically the same, and he shows up to play regardless of pain or injury. Brands must be consistent, too. When one encounters your brand, there should be no question about your identity and values.

3. Passionate – Favre cares deeply about what he does. Maybe that is one reason why he has had difficulty retiring from the game. He digs down and delivered some of his greatest performances when in the spotlight as he was against the Packers on Monday Night Football. Brands with passion resonate with consumers and the public. Authentic passion is noticeable; pretending to be passionate is not necessary!

4. Fun – Why is this guy smiling on the field when there are 11 people trying to hit him and hit him hard? He’s having fun at what he is doing. While carrying out 1-3, never lose sight of why you are doing what you are doing. What’s your purpose? What’s the mission you have set for the organization or yourself?

Thanks, Brett for the branding lesson. Now, if we could only get John Madden’s take on what we can learn about branding from Brett Favre!

GM: Reinvention or Repeat of Failure?

GM turns the page to a new chapter in its 100+ year history today. The bow of of “Reinvention” brings the promise of a new GM. The “Reinvention” commercial includes a prompt to visit a web site detailing the plans of the new GM (http://www.gmreinvention.com). Given what we have seen from the old GM over the last 10-15 years, our expectations should be rather low.

An interesting statement from the commercial is “There was a time when eight different brands made sense.” Oh really? When was that time? A significant problem GM had for years was too many brands. It has not been a problem only recently; the glut of brands led to resource wars within the company. The result was that all brands suffered. GM’s problems are hardly new. It should not have taken being forced into filing bankruptcy protection to bring about radical changes at GM.

A major reason GM was reluctant to declare bankruptcy was it was concerned the effect it would have on customer confidence in the company. Would people be willing to buy cars from a company that had filed for bankruptcy? Months of negative press about GM had the same effect. The company could have been well on its way to making a new GM if it had faced realities sooner. Now, many people are skeptical that GM can reinvent itself given that it squandered its rich heritage over the last two decades with inaction and infighting.

Link: Ad Age – “New Ad Introduces Consumers to ‘New GM'”

Saturn: The End of a Great Brand Experiment

I was disheartened to hear General Motors plans to phase out the Saturn brand as part of its fight for survival. Saturn, along with Saab and Hummer, will be phased out in 2009. These brands have been on the chopping block since GM’s financial troubles came to a head last year. In addition, the Pontiac brand will be phased out in 2010 as well as major reductions in employee headcount and dealerships.

Of all the announcements made by GM President and CEO Fritz Henderson today, elimination of Saturn is particularly sad from a marketing standpoint. Saturn was launched in the early 1990s with the promise of a new era within GM. Even the ad slogan supported the notion: “A different kind of car, a different kind of company.” Consumer response to Saturn was very strong in the early years. Then, consumer preferences shifted toward larger vehicles and SUVs. Saturn was ill positioned to meet that trend with its focus on economy cars.

Saturn also suffered from a lack of resource support within GM as well as bad managerial decision making. One role for Saturn was supposed to be to serve as an experimental brand. For example, the EV1 electric car that Saturn tested in the mid 1990s would have put GM ahead of competitors in the race to offer alternative fuel vehicles. The EV1 was tested in California, and the company eventually destroyed all of the vehicles once their leases expired rather than move forward with production.

I own two Saturns and have followed the brand closely for more than 10 years while researching it for a case study I prepared and subsequently updated for marketing textbooks. From a brand building standpoint, GM did many things right to get Saturn off the ground. GM’s Henderson made an interesting statement at the press conference announcing the changes saying “brands are good for offense.” The problem is GM is in defensive mode. The company is resizing itself to reflect the reality of a smaller U.S. auto market. Saturn will be missed… at least by this owner.