Build brands on love

If I’ve learned anything about brands in the past decade, it’s that great brands are loved. Organizations with great brands create amazing relationships through one-of-a-kind experiences delivered on a daily basis. Who doesn’t want to buy from a place where they feel welcomed, comfortable and loved.

But that love can’t be faked. It has to be genuine because it has to be consistent. The brand owner – the organization’s owners and all the employees – have to love what they do.

I realized it again this weekend when I stumbled upon Ichi Bike Shop in downtown Des Moines. It’s a cool little place where bicycles are brought back to life…sometimes as they were originally built, and other times in strange, exciting and creative ways. One side of the narrow store is lined with an assortment of old bikes, the other with bushel baskets of parts. In seconds, it becomes very apparent that the guys who own/work at this shop love bikes. I’m not a “bicycle guy” but I picked up on the vibe right away. If you love bikes, you’ll love Ichi Bikes. Here’s a video that demonstrates, in my opinion, how much they love what they do.  (

Walking out of the shop, I realized how important love is to a successful brand.

Later, however, I thought back to another experience that helps support my belief. An accountant bought a successful local drivers’ education business. I had worked with the previous owner and was now meeting with the new owner to explain the marketing plan we had developed but had not implemented. He told us he had “to put some butts in the seats” before he ever spent any money on marketing. I realized then and there, he didn’t love his business so he would never be able to deliver an experience that would be loved. I was right. The business disappeared – maybe it was sold and absorbed by a competitor – within a year.

Sure, sometimes love can blind you to the important decisions that need to be made. I’ve often said that many entrepreneurs are in love with their idea, and will waste a lot of time, energy and money trying to find others who love it as well. But given the choice to love what your doing or not, I think love has a much bigger upside than not loving it. Don’t you?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Who’s cookie cutter are you using?

Cookie cutters have earned a bad name outside of the kids-and-moms crowd. They symbolize sameness and a lack of creativity.

In brand management parlance, however, delivering a cookie cutter experience is a positive. It represents a promise made and a promise fulfilled, time after time. The best cookie cutter experiences can be found at your local Apple store, Starbucks or Target. Each have created a repeatable experience through purposeful choices, training and execution.

The problem comes when organizations use someone else’s cookie cutter.

In my past agency experience, and again now that I’m in the job market, I find that many organizations demand experience in their particular industry as a prerequisite to contracting an agency or hiring an employee. They believe there is secret knowledge that can be gained only by working in that industry for years and years. The decision makers at these organizations put very little value in the ability to ask the right questions; to discern different, inviting and relevant brand characteristics and to create and implement an integrated, strategic plan that really connects the organization to its biggest fans to create profitable, long-term relationships.

In other words, they are more interested in somebody else’s cookie cutter. They believe the best ideas for their brand come from a competitor’s brand. It’s easier to borrow something from another brand, to apply another’s brand standards or creative thinking…it’s just not a good idea. It’s not productive or authentic.

Paul English, co-founder of understands this truth. He recruits programmers who don’t have travel experience because he wants fresh ideas, not bad habits.

Blogger Joy Johnston asks “what new ideas are you eliminating by excluding someone who can bring a different perspective to the table?

Andy Komak even reminds us of the conflict of interest issues that “industry experience” can create, particularly in the agency side of the equation in his blog post about SEO expertise and industry experience.

Brand happens as your customers, vendors, employees experience your organization. The brand is formed in their minds based on the unique, purposeful and repeated exposure to what makes your company unique and relevant to their needs. That means the best ideas for one company are not going to be found in the competitor’s experience, but from your own brand. 

So go ahead, look for an agency or an employee who can create you own cookie cutter. Build a tasty, one-of-a-kind experience, and deliver it consistently over time. When you get it right, your customer will come to expect that experience, they will seek it out and they will pay more for that promise!

Flickr photo by CreativeTools.

Posted in Brand management, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Motorcycle marketing: throttle through the curve

While marketing a motorcycle brand is one of my dream assignments — the relationship between motorcyclists and their motorcycle is a powerful brand-building opportunity — this post is not about motorcycle marketing. It’s about marketing ideas that come to me within the clarity of riding my motorcycle across the Iowa countryside. I want to share these thoughts with my readers and get some feedback.

One of the most most common causes of motorcycle crashes is the rider’s inability to negotiate a curve. They enter the curve, feel they are going too fast, slow down, look at the yellow line or the railing or worse — the ditch. Momentum takes over and the rider and bike leave the pavement. The proper technique is to lean into the turn and throttle through the curve…putting power to the rear wheel, letting the motorcycle do the work.

Similar accidents happen in marketing, too. Many organizations enter the market and then quickly become distracted by brand extensions, ill-advised advertising schemes, misguided public relations efforts, ego-stroking sponsorships and others that draw needed resources away from the approved brand strategy.Nthey get scared when they see the investment that’s necessary to grow the brand.

Like the yellow line on the pavement, those charged with building the brand start focusing on the wrong kinds of efforts:

  •  They start advertising where they can’t afford to advertise because the CEO likes the publisher.
  • They sponsor events that allow them to be rub elbows with industry celebrities in destination locations but don’t make relevant connections with prospects and customers.  
  • They update the corporate logo because they’ve become bored with it after 50 years.
  • They change the tag line because the new marketing executive doesn’t understand the old one.

If they don’t get distracted, they do the next worst thing — they let off the throttle and pray that momentum will help them keep moving in the right direction. But, like on the motorcycle, getting off the gas actually takes the outcome out of the hands of the operator. At best, the sudden reduction in speed makes the rear wheel of the motorcycle skid and the rider loses control. Best case, the motorcycle keeps drifting off course.

Organizations get off the gas when they slash the marketing budget. They quit reaching out to customers and prospects. They quit representing their brand in paid advertising. They quit building relationships with key influencers and media. They quit participating in trade shows, conferences and seminars where they establish leadership qualities.They quit delivering valuable continent through social and traditional media. They quit.

Brand happens every minute of every day, and when organizations actively, purposefully and effectively participate in the exchange of value with their customers, they drive the brand forward. When they don’t, they drive their brand into the ditch.

Throttle out of the curve by going back to your marketing plan. If another opportunity comes up, measure it against the objectives set in the beginning. If you have contignecy fund set aside, and the effort supports the brand, then go for it. If you don’t have the funds but the idea supports the brand better than one in the plan, then swap it out. But don’t do it just because you can.

Just don’t ever look into the ditch.

Posted in Brand management | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Marketing apostate or grower

I understand some organizations don’t get marketing. It’s difficult to understand the emotional connections that build brand loyalty when you’re focused on incremental improvements in quality, reducing input costs and monitoring daily sales revenues.

The leaders that give lip service to marketing but little else, however, disappoint me the most. They say they support marketing, need to tell their fabulous story, then slash an already inadequate budget because instant results didn’t magically appear. Then they go two or three years trying to re-imagine themselves, reorganize trying to cut all the waste out of production, read a new leadership book or two, introduce a new theme or tagline and recommit to marketing, underfund it again, then yank the rug out from under the marketing team when the next quarter’s revenues don’t hit projections. It happens every three or four years, and before long the only brand the organization has earned is that of a marketing apostate.

It’s like planting a vineyard one year and then laying waste to it the next because it didn’t produce any grapes.

I’ve seen it happen from inside a organization. At first it just looks like a minor lack of focus, but the sustainability issue becomes permanent, another in a cycle of one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back activity. If you look around, you can probably find examples, too.

Brand happens with or without your participation. It lives in the minds of customers and takes long-term commitment and discipline to harvest the fruit of the marketing vine.

A lack of sustained discipline and commitment is also very expensive way to do business.

Discovering and embracing what makes your organization one of a kind – let alone creating uniqueness where none exists – often takes time-consuming, thorough and candid conversation with employees, distributors, customers … even vendors.

Creating a narrative that captures the emotional and rational elements of your brand can’t be done overnight.

And demonstrating the story over and over and over until employes embrace it and customers expect it can’t be done without meaningful and sustained investment.

When you stop and go, introducing a new story, a new look and feel, and new brand promise every two or three years, it costs more, not less. Each time you introduce a new brand story, you have to erase fragments of the old story that managed to grow roots, and nurture a whole new crop.

If you start over every couple of years, you’ll still be in the mush middle of bland brands, AND you will have spent a lot of money getting there.

Posted in What were they thinking | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Let ’em go. They’ll come back, to Iowa.

It’s been more than six years since I wrote this blog post about keeping young Iowans in Iowa. When I look back on it, it’s still an issue and I still feel the same way. So, I thought I’d republish it here to get your opinion.

One of the most meaningful books I’ve ever read is Now Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham (He’s the guy who wrote First, Break All The Rules). The easy-to-read book encourages individuals to enhance their strengths instead of focusing hours and hours on weaknesses and then finding you’ve made no progress.

I think the state of Iowa needs to read the book. I’m constantly reading newspaper accounts and hearing TV news stories about the Hawkeye State’s efforts to keep young people here instead of letting them go off to the big city – Chicago or Kansas City or Minneapolis, in most cases. We keep trying to build entertainment districts of bars and restaurants and bring in big-time sports teams and more bars in attempt to keep 20-somethings between the Mississippi and the Missouri.

I think we should give every high school grad a state road map and tell them to go seek adventure, sow their oats, party ’till the cows come home. And then come home. If we raise them right, they’ll come back to Iowa with some life experience, some work experience, a new expensive car that we can tax and a few kids that we can’t. They’ll come to appreciate what we offer: clean air, safe streets and good schools. And low insurance rates. You can’t say that about Chicago, Kansas City or Minneapolis.

I think our state’s strength is its family-friendly cities, towns and villages. You can walk the sidewalks at night. You can leave your keys in the car in the driveway. You know your neighbor’s name. Our governor is not afraid to wear a Winnie the Pooh costume.

Yes, we have problems. We have more than our fair share of meth labs (what rural state doesn’t have meth labs). People drive way too fast on the freeway (at least they can). And the family farmers don’t get along with the big farmers (but you don’t see drive by shootings to settle the issue).

But it’s also true that this is a great place to raise kids and we need to quit being ashamed of it. We need to plaster it on the welcome to Iowa signs. Iowa needs to play to its strengths. It’s a different, inviting, relevant and truthful brand.

Posted in Place branding | 1 Comment

Don’t buy local if local sucks

I’m not a fan of “buy local” campaigns when loser brands try to guilt you into buying their inferior products from people who could care less, just because you live in the same zip code.

I said the same thing about “Made in America” campaigns in a Toastmasters presentation more than 20 years.

Too many organizations rely on locale rather than provide good service or good products – or a good experience.

If you buy exclusively from a company just because it’s local or just because it’s made in the USA, all you’re doing is rewarding a real estate decision. You’re not confirming a good brand. In many cases, you’re actually encouraging lousy service, crappy products or behavior that’s not worth encouraging.

Several years ago, I walked in the door of a local car dealership to talk to the general manager about sponsoring the local soccer club. Local charitable contributions can be a very strategic move by a company with the courage to carefully and purposefully make the right connection for their brand. This guy didn’t want to hear any of it. He unleashed a 10-minute monologue about the locals who have never supported his dealership, who buy their cars from other dealerships in central Iowa and how he was going to show them all by moving the dealership to another nearby community.

The first thing that crossed my mind was “how long ago did he make the decision to move?” Secondly, I realized he had put all his eggs in the “buy local” basket. He thought that all he had to do was open his doors and the locals would come running. Something tells me put on his suit of disappointment every day before heading off to work.

Here’s an alternative: How about a “LOOK Local First” campaign?

Such an effort would replace guilt with a beneficial suggestion. Then, local companies that were built to serve their customers would have a chance to shine while the losers would be exposed for what they were. In a smaller business community, there might even be a bit of accountability put into place so the bad apples don’t spoil it for the rest of them.

Brand happens every time a customer experiences a business, and local companies have only a slight advantage because of proximity to their customer. That advantage can evaporate, however, when the company takes the customer – and the experience – for granted, and expects loyalty because they’re close by.

When “Buy Local” has a demonstrable benefit – such as the freshness you can get with local produce, for example – there’s a brand-building moment. Even better? Make a great brand experience that has nothing to do with your location. When you do that, people will seek you out, no matter where you are.

One of my favorite examples is Barratta‘s, an Italian restaurant that has created a loyal following despite its hard-to-find location deep within the south side Des Moines neighborhood.

Are you taking something for granted about your brand? Do you expect your customers to love you just because you’re nearby? Are you able to demonstrate value in your proximity or are you relying on guilt?

Posted in Brand management | Tagged | Leave a comment

Does faith fit in a brand promise?

I first published this post in early 2009, on an earlier version of, but I think it’s still a great question.

At the very end of Chapter 14 in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he made this brand statement:

“If the way you live isn’t consistent with what you believe, then it’s wrong.” (The Message)

That’s a powerful statement about aligning one’s actions with one’s statements. It’s brand management, and it’s a lesson we can all learn…as corporate communicators and as individuals cultivating a personal brand.

faith in marketing and branding

Now, did that mix of faith and marketing get your nervous? Make you uncomfortable? What about those brands that do it all the time?

  • Hebrew National is a brand that quickly comes to mind. The kosher meats manufacturer and marketer is probably the largest, most well-known kosher brand in the U.S., thanks in large part to its over-the-top commercials and clever tag line: “We answer to a higher authority.” The brand focuses on the observant Jew’s desire for a variety of meats and condiments.
  • Chick-fil-a doesn’t wear its faith on its sleeve, but the brand is more than willing to honor the Sabbath and close up its restaurants – even its mall locations – on Sundays so that customers and employees are free to go to worship, if they desire. Its fans seem willing to skip a chicken sandwich on Sundays as long as they can get one any other time of the week (note: the Chick-fil-a chicken sandwich is in a category of its own…mmmmmm!).
  • Interstate Batteries sells more than just car batteries. Its mission is “to glorify God as we supply our customers worldwide with top quality, value-priced batteries, related electrical power-source products, and distribution services.” It’s a clear example of living the command in Colossians 3:23  (“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” – NIV).

Those brands integrate their faith at different levels within their organizations, but what kind of pressure does that put on the employees managing those brands? Is it more difficult than being the fastest, the most convenient, offering amazing design or exceptional quality?

And does it require even stronger vigilance to ensure authenticity?

As a Christian, I understand that we have more than our fair share of hypocrites who’ve fallen short of the promise, but that’s all part of being a Christian. We’re human, and we make mistakes but part of being a Christian is to live to a higher standard, no matter what the world would have us do. As a marketer, I’ve seen  brands fall short of their brand promise. It’s what happens when organizations lack the discipline to do what the brand demands, when they get lazy and distracted, when they take short cuts.

Brand happens every day, but those who live to a higher brand standard understand the return on the investment. Branding is for the bold!

Wow, the comparison is kind of scary. No wonder some people believe branding is like religion!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Lessons from retail: go all in on the employee orientation

While I’m between full-time employers, I’m working a part-time job in big-box retail to pay the bills. I’m also learning some value brand lessons, including this one:

employee orientation needs to go beyond how to use the time clockFocus on the employee orientation – The best opportunity to maintain an amazing brand experience for customers is when a new employee joins your organization. At that critical moment, the organization can focus its resources on ensuring a great brand experience for everyone by offering a comprehensive and educational welcome to the new employee.

My first night in big-box retail, few people knew to expect me. And it took about 15 minutes to get me stationed at a computer for the next four and a half hours of back-to-back-to-back-to-back computer-based training modules. The modules were well done and integrated enough that I quickly learned some of the processes and standards that this brand integrated into its experience. But I learned little else. I didn’t learn the brand story or the emotional touch points that make the brand relevant to its target audience.

And I realized what a huge opportunity it was to teach this part-time, short-term employee how to create long-term brand loyalty all the time.

In more than 25 years of marketing communications, I – and many of my colleagues – have argued that a logo, business card, letterhead, brochure – and now, website or Facebook page – are the table stakes required to communicate your brand. I’m now adding an employee orientation or “on board” process to my recommended first steps.

It’s too simple of a concept to be ignored. It lays the ground work for the brand by explaining the technical procedures and emotional background for embracing an amazing brand. It creates confident and comfortable brand warrior. And it costs pennies.

It might look like this:

Technical processes and procedures:

  1. Here are your insurance, W-2, confidentiality and other forms.
  2. Here’s how to use the time clock.
  3. Here are your keys, and here’s how to turn off the alarm.
  4. Here are the emergency telephone numbers and procedures you should know.
  5. Here’s how to request/log vacation days.
  6. Etc.

Emotional background:

  1. Here’s our story, why we’re here.
  2. Here’s what that means in your job.
  3. Here’s what we expect of you.
  4. Here’s what you can expect from us.
  5. Here’s what our customers expect from you.
  6. This is what our brand looks like.

You can’t possibly explain every aspect of the job, but a good brand foundation allows employees to demonstrate the brand in a different, inviting, relevant and truthful manner every day, even if the technical aspects are not exactly right.

I’ve worked at places where policies, specific procedures and brand underpinnings emerged (evolved?) months, even years, after I joined the organization. I often joked “I must have missed that during the orientation!” It was funny at the time – and a more than a little frustrating – but until I saw it again in a different environment, I hadn’t recognized the missed opportunity it was.

brand management is like a bowling alleyBrands are like a bowling alley: each employee can go after the same set of pins from a different angle….as long as they’re on the right alley. With a proper employee orientation, you can get your employees bowling on the same lane in no time at all.

Volunteers need orientation, too
This is a critical opportunity to engage volunteers, too. Organizations don’t have the same economic hold on volunteers that they do on employees: there’s no price to pay if a volunteer leaves you tomorrow. A positive, comprehensive experience in the first days and weeks of working with a new organization, however, can pay huge dividends.

Brand happens, whether you prepare for it or not, so why not deliver the brand narrative early – during an orientation? You’ll increase the chance that the brand conversation in your audience’s mind is the right one if it starts correctly in the employee’s mind.

What do you think? Does your organization take advantage of the employee orientation? Or are you missing an opportunity?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Embrace your milestone moments

This is an updated version of a post from the past, on a different version of I think it still has a message worth repeating…

Brand ManagementThis coming May 20th will be the 15th anniversary of my heart attack. Yes, despite people telling me that I was too young at 35 to have a heart attack, I indeed did have a heart attack. The calming nurse at the Iowa Heart Center told me so.

And it says so on the calendar my wife keeps in the upstairs bathroom. It’s a milestone in my family. Like any milestone, it marked time. For me, it’s the date we starting forking over a lot of cash to the pharmaceutical companies, started eating better, started listening for the latest heart therapies that come down the pike. It’s the date we started taking seriously the amount of life insurance I had. And the date I thought about dying.

Organizations have milestones, too. Some go by without much notice, while others mark significant change. It’s those big ones that organizations need to pay attention to when understanding their brands.

  • Years ago, a small manufacturing company I worked with, discovered that it started out as a distributor, deciding only to manufacture a product when nobody on the market made one that met their high standards. That milestone helped shape the company’s unmatched commitment to quality that still set it apart from competitors who had moved onto products with more bells and whistles, and lower dependability. The company offered true craftsmanship and stood by their products with twice the industry standard warranty.
  • Another former client,a software developer, told his employees reason he quit working in a large, corporate IT department: he hated “programming to the big book,” and wanted, instead, to write software that solved real business problems. It was a milestone moment in his life and the life of his company.
  • Another manufacturing client recounted how he’d survived the departure of his two co-founding partners and a successful defense in a lawsuit, all over a period of about two years. When he saw it on paper, he became very thankful and was much better able to begin working on the real issues in his company rather than those already conquered.

Brand happens every day, but we need to mark the milestones that make us who we are. That’s why I address milestones early in a brand discovery process. Together with my client, we list dates and as much detail as possible, discussing what they mean and folding them into the brand story. Understanding milestones is a critical step to understand where you’re going.

So, what are the milestones in your organization? Have they marked change? Have they marked setbacks or achievements? Does everybody in your organization know about the big ones?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hey customers: clean up your act in aisle 3

I’ve been working part-time in big-box retail for a couple of months now, and the biggest surprise I’ve had is the amount of time – and payroll – spent on just cleaning up after customers. When someone chooses a red rug, for example, and a few aisles over, they see another red rug they’d rather buy, the just drop the first one. If they don’t like how a tie looks with a shirt, they just leave the tie next to the shirts. And if they schlep around a picture frame, then decide they don’t want it after all, they’ll just leave it in the shoe department.

More than 90 percent of the time I and other employees spend on the floor is spent returning items to their proper place. And that costs money, adding to the price of goods.

Besides changing my own habits and trying to change the habits of my wife, this also got me thinking about what it takes to be a customer. I’m not talking about a retail consumer, but a consumer of business-to-business goods and services. What kind of a customer have I been? What kind of a customer are you?

Brand happens every day, even when you treat a vendor wrong. It effects your brand because vendors are one of your most important audiences. They know people who know you, and aren’t afraid to share their experiences just like you, as a consumer, do with your friends.

Do you beat your vendors up on price, or do you show appreciation for their brand? Do you always get three bids? Or do you trust in the relationship you’ve built with your vendor, like you want to be trusted by your customer?

Do you hold back payment or do you do everything in your power to pay on time…even a little early when possible?

Do you focus on a mistake despite a long track-record of positive experiences?

Are you quick to switch vendors because of a lower price, a mistake or a little quicker turnaround?

These behaviors cost YOU money.

When I was a marketing services manager for a large corporation, I tried to honor relationships with vendors. Loyalty was a key currency in the transaction because it paid great returns. I didn’t ask for a bid: I asked for a price range so I could see if it fit my budget. And in return my company received insightful answers and on-strategy work every time…and we received more value for our dollar than if we worked with the lowest bid provider,

At a former agency job, the controller was obsessively on time with her payments to vendors. She kept paper back up for everything and once fought an errant report on our credit record until it was corrected. She knew – and taught me – that being a good customer paid dividends…we got top priority when it came to scheduling, lower prices and stellar service.

Sure, things go wrong from time to time. We’re human. That’s what happens. But we gave our vendors the benefit of the doubt because we understood their brand. It was emotional. It was based on a long track record. If the relationship soured for whatever reason, we parted ways, but we did it face-to-face, not with an email or a letter….or even worse, by not returning phone calls.

It’s what we expect of our customers, so shouldn’t we expect it of ourselves? What are you doing to be a good customer today?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment