Branding: Three Experts, Three Approaches

by Shel Horowitz

What do you do when your client wants to be better known, but is stuck with an awkward and unmemorable name like Greater Lynn Mental Health and Retardation Association? It doesn’t even work as a set of initials (try saying “GLMHRA” three times, fast).

If you’re John Bidwell, of the Northampton branding firm Bidwell ID, you rename the agency “Bridgewell,” and design a spiffy logo to go with it that shows a stylized drawing of two people crossing a bridge.

But that final result only comes out of an exhaustive six-stage process: research, strategy, creation, tools, launch, maintenance.

Each of these has many subelements. For instance, within the category of brand creation, selecting a name is one of the steps. And selecting the right name involves seeking something short…easy to spell…easy to say…distinctive…memorable…long-lasting…and without any really brainless cultural baggage in the words, the shapes, the colors (like trying to market the Chevy Nova in Spanish-speaking countries where the name translates as “doesn’t go”).

Oh yes, and it should be available as an Internet URL.

And if you’re lucky and smart enough to crate an “icon brand,” it can be a powerful instrument of growth. Example: “Girl Scout cookies are so much more than cookies! People coming together, communal groups—they’re the essence of what Girl Scouts are about.”

Icons capture intangibles, such as lifestyle. Harley-Davidson, Coca-Cola, and the VW Beetle are all icon brands; locally, the Miss Florence Diner sign, the distinctive basketball-shaped architecture of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the logo-bearing trucks of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts are all examples of icons as well.

“If you have an icon opportunity it’s probably right in front of you and you’re not taking advantage of it.”

Remember too that the customer may experience the brand differently than you intend—but you can put systems into place to try to avoid that. “Don’t assume employees know how to talk about you. You need brand consistency…guidelines are your brand toolbox.” Logo and colors need to be consistent, certainly, but so does the message that employees give out.

Bidwell was one of three branding experts who addressed different aspects of creating a memorable brand at the Family Business Center’s June gathering at the Log Cabin. Next up was UMass Isenberg School of Management professor Marc Weinberger, who began by aligning himself with the brand skeptics: “I’m a little more jaded about branding. Branding is not what you see, the end product. I argue that branding is more than meets the eye.”

As he sees it, branding is about creating loyalty: generating repeat customers and positive word-of-mouth that leads to referral business.

And when branding is only about the identity components such as name and logo and slogan, it fails. “There have been terrible examples of trying to put brands together without doing the foundation work,” such as all those Superbowl ads from dotcoms, already defunct and forgotten. The dotcoms, he says, were focused on sticky ads, and not on the basics of creating a company, and a consumer experience, worthy of that stickiness.

Weinberger showed a graph of what he calls the “commodity slide”; the vertical axis measures a brand’s marketing power, and the horizontal shows the brand’s value. The curve starts on the top left, drops rapidly as it moves toward the right, and then flattens out as it heads toward the bargain bins.

In practical terms, this means brands should “avoid being on the right. Vodka at the right charges $8.99, but on the left end, $23.99, and in a blind test, you’d be hard pressed to pick” which was which.

The key to staying on the left is the customer’s experience. “Whole Foods’ brand is trust, quality, helpful staff; it makes that product very different than shopping at Stop & Shop. And Whole Foods has a market power. They can charge a higher price than Stop & Shop or Big Y selling the same products. They’ve branded their product to such an extent that we’re willing to patronize a store that’s going to charge us a lot more. Red Sox is a brand that has resonance: ‘Red Sox Nation.’ It’s been quite a success story.

“All of this is preliminary, before the sizzle [of identity components], to build a strong brand.

Another of his tools was a four-part matrix that can apply to any industry. Left-to-right measures style, from conservative to hip, while economic positioning moves up and down.

So, in the automobile industry, for example, Lincoln and Cadillac had been, for decades, in the upper left: high status but low hipness. “Now, Cadillac and Lincoln want to move to the right, they don’t want to be seen as a conservative, old person’s car. They’re in their third campaign, second agency, trying to rebrand themselves, more like BMW and Porsche. It’s very hard to do.

“The communication part [which includes the identity components] is a whole other piece. It has to be credible, spread widely,” using media such as websites, blogs, email, social networks, and Google.

Ad maverick and sports fan Darby O’Brien, owner of the South Hadley ad agency that bears his name, played cleanup, and he began by talking about one of the most visible brands in the spring of 2008: Barack Obama. Showing Obama’s face staring out from the cover of the April issue of Fast Company magazine, and quoting the article that said Obama had three things you want in a brand—new, different, attractive—O’Brien called Obama “the hottest brand in America right now.”

Like Bidwell, O’Brien faced the challenge of building an identity for an obscure organization with human services in the mix—in this case, a retirement community in Springfield called Reed’s Landing.

O’Brien used two elements that seem totally at odds. He started running television spots offering to pick up prospects in a restored 1958 Cadillac, complete with monster tailfins and a pathetic MPG score. But he also focused on a trend he identified among the residents: serious Green consciousness.

“We were surprised that residents at Reed’s Landing were very concerned about the environment: what are we using on the lawns, in the cleaners. The average age is 82, one woman is 102. We started a series of sessions for prospects over 70, and it had an appeal also to their Boomer kids.”

The agency developed an ad campaign on environmental issues called Green Sox: Walk the Walk—and initiated policy changes at the facility. “We teamed up with Health Care Without Harm, a national organization; they’ve [Reed’s Landing] now changed all the cleaners they’re using. We got into “The Ugly Truth About Cosmetics”: most sold in America are banned in Europe. At Christmas, with all the stuff about China and lead paint, we got into plastics, effects on kids. And the last ad was on healthy foods. They’ve been sellouts, generated a huge amount of press. We’ll be gong back with one on cell phones” and their health consequences.”