In branding, as in life, say what you mean and mean what you say

OpenHouseChecklist-Entry1-646x604Have you heard the one about the brand manager who said she wanted to rebrand, but what she meant was, “I’m bored with our logo.”

Your brand cuts way deeper than your logo. Just as a fresh coat of paint on a house may improve its curb appeal, a logo refresh may be something that is needed periodically for your brand. But, wait a second. Just as there’s more to a home’s value than its exterior, there’s much more than meets the eye when it comes to your brand. It’s the whole house!

Brands are 3-dimensional. In addition to your logo, your brand includes visual cues like your digital presence, sign, trucks, uniforms and forms. Your messaging matters. (Copy is important! You’re reading this and it’s not even that important. Or is it?) The third and arguably most important factor is the consistency of your brand. Many a logo/slogan that you may not think of as great, used consistently over time to establish a unique positioning in the minds of consumers, still works, still sells.

There’s equity in a good brand. According to Forbes magazine’s annual review, “Brands get their value from how customers perceive them,” says David Reibstein, a professor of marketing and branding expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “What makes it valuable from a company perspective is that customers are willing to pay a higher price or are more likely to buy.”

How much are the top five brands worth?

  1. Apple’s brand is valued at $154 billion
  2. Google $82.5 billion
  3. Microsoft $75.2 billion
  4. Coca-Cola $58.5 billion
  5. Facebook $52.6 billion

(Forbes, May 11, 2016).

Your brand is a promise. Do your products, your services, your organization and your people all deliver on that promise? Harmony is where the magic happens. When your mission and your message are singing the same song, there is strategic harmony. That is gold. Apple is the New York Philharmonic of brand harmony. Volkswagen, with its falsetto promise of German engineering being drowned out by news cycles filled with emissions-control corner-cutting, not so much. Customers don’t just hear brand harmony, they sense it. When you say what you mean and mean what you say, it’s only natural for customers to appreciate that harmony and reward you with their business and referrals. Conversely, if you don’t walk the walk, people won’t buy your talk.

Be careful what you promise. Avoid these four tired brand clichés like the plague:

  1. Trust in us (Aren’t all brands essentially about trust?)
  2. Our people make the difference (Can you prove it?)
  3. We solve problems (Who doesn’t?)
  4. We care (This is subjective and trite anyway.)

Instead of hackneyed hype, try showing people why they should trust your brand. Answer the question they’re all asking: “Why should I care about your brand, and what can it do for me to make me feel better about me?” That’s right, the real secret to branding brilliance is self-esteem. If the brand makes you feel good about yourself, you’ll buy into it.

Go beyond brand features. Make the effort to go beyond mere reasons people should buy your product or service. Take the brand to an emotional level that connects with basic human emotions such as self-esteem/guilt, altruism/narcissism or fulfillment/fear. You’ll quickly see that the real brand drivers are the feelings behind the features.

In the marketing communications world, seemingly contradictory emotions often reflect two sides of the same coin and drive an awful lot of consumer behavior. Consumers, we all, are equal parts dark and light.

So watch what your brand says. And mean it.

By Steve Johnson, Managing Partner

Is Marketing to Millennials really that different from GenXers or Boomers? Yes, but…


If you need to stay on top of trends and technologies impacting marketing communications, as I do, this post is for you. Consider it a support group for anyone who toils in the vineyards of sales and marketing, advertising or public relations.

Hello, my name is Steve and I’m an avid newspaper reader. I also live in email (M-F anyway), read magazines, watch broadcast TV news and cable (especially during baseball season), and listen to radio stations (both FM and AM) in my car.

Now before you shovel dirt over me, know that I also use my iPhone to text all day long, check my Facebook feed a few times a day, surf at least a half-dozen websites daily, listen to music with Pandora, use other apps, watch YouTube videos and stream a movie now and then.

Demographically, I live in the sandwich generation, smack between GenX and Boomer. My parents are what you might call leading edge Boomers, while I’m on the trailing edge of that cohort. My kids are Millennials. Believe me, I get it that there’s a huge generational difference when it comes to media consumption and hence content delivery.

My kids do not touch printed newspapers. They look at a magazine only rarely. They eschew cable for Roku and a rabbit-ear antenna (talk about TBT, but I digress). They and their cord-cutting friends live 24/7 on and in their phones, not computers or tablets. One gets “hard news” from Facebook, the other from Reddit.

So yes, of course, reaching and motivating different generations requires different communication strategies and tactics. Millennials proactively decide what they want to know and set alerts for it to be fed to them. GenXers seek info all over social media. And Boomers still like their mass media served up with great production value and fanfare.

But we all do have something in common, I would submit. We all like things that work. Marketers and media that connect us to useful products and services—ones that truly meet a need or scratch an itch—will do well.

The media are changing. A lot. But the message still matters. Communicators take heed: make your message matter, too. Make it useful. Make it authentic. Make it pragmatic.

And your product or service? If it doesn’t matter, please try again and make one that matters. Make it relevant. Make it a good experience. Make it work. As advertised.

Digital or analog. Screen or printed page. Apple Watch or stone tablet. Whatever and wherever you communicate, create a passion for your brand. Make each impression and experience count. Align the promise of the brand with the performance of the product. Walk the talk. And you will do well.

As one marketer with a pretty good little brand started saying to consumers of all ages in 1988 and continues to say with success in 2016: Just do it.

By Steve Johnson, Managing Partner

A day in the life of an ad man


11403105_10153069706059370_6342993809489791172_nOn days I like my job, I do it better. When I do my job better, I like it more.

If I bring a good attitude to work, it usually makes for a better day. If I have a good day, it usually improves my attitude. Life’s funny that way, isn’t it?

Often I can’t control any of it. The job deals out the cards, and I play the hand I’m dealt. Sometimes it’s not a great hand, but sometimes an ace appears. Someone like Mr. K shows up.

Mr. K’s story

So on this given day, I was working with colleagues and a client on a TV spot. We were at their location, shooting video and recording audio of their staff interacting with some of their clients.

Into the room, in a wheelchair, rolls Mr. K., wearing shorts and a bright blue shirt (and matching blue socks with no shoes). He’s also wearing a grin as big as the room. And he’s singing, loudly: “You ought to be in pictures, you’re wonderful to see; you ought to be in pictures, oh what a hit you would be!”

In between release forms that need to be signed, shots that need the client’s approval, and generally doing whatever it is I do, I engage Mr. K. in conversation. He is a big man, with a Big Personality to boot. He’s in a wheelchair, in rehab, yet I feel his positivity. I want some of it. I feel good when I talk with him. He seems to feel good when he talks with me. He speaks to me about his kids and I chat about mine. He goes on cheerfully about his grandchildren and the second chances he’s been given is his life. I relate, looking forward to having grandchildren some day.

He finishes his small but positively beaming role in our commercial, entertaining the staff and the video crew all the while, then turns to me and says, “Thanks for the memories.” We trade another story each about our kids, then he recounts how he couldn’t be at one recent family gathering due to his health. He recalls for me exactly what his grandson told him. “It’s okay, Gramps, we’ll see you next time. But we missed you. You were the missing piece of the puzzle.” With that, he welled up and his eyes went wet with the happy tears of an old and wise man. He thanked every one of us on the floor and told us all to “have a glorious day.” I was moved. I had done my work that day. And Mr. K. had fixed any attitude problem I may have had.

The good stuff

Sometimes the really good stuff—the tug at the heartstrings stuff—happens to the people we put in our commercials. We reach them, they feel good about their brand, and they reach us when we least expect it. Mind you, this is all before the commercials ever reach their intended audience.

All I know is Mr. K. reached me that day. He was indeed the missing piece of the puzzle.

Hey, Mr. K., thanks for making my day. This one’s for you! “You ought to shine as brightly, as Jupiter and Mars; you ought to be in pictures, my star of stars.”


Happy Thanksgiving, and have a glorious day.

Written by:

 Steve Johnson, Managing Partner

Where do ideas come from? Knowing your brand, observing the world. (Post #3)


Another way to get started on seeing your strategy through the insights window is unearthing those real insights about your brand. If a brand is a community of users akin to a club, try thinking about the aspirations of that club’s members. Is the brand a Badge Brand? Think Mercedes or Coach. Their “members” want others to know what they bought. Ever notice how big the nameplate is on that Mercedes? Yes you have.

Some brands sell a Lifestyle. Think Harley-Davidson. Whether the Hog owner is an authentic rough and tumble type or a wannabe weekend warrior/dentist by day, they’re both cut from a cloth that wants to show people, “I’m a tough cookie—don’t mess with me—I’m a Harley.” The key with the lifestyle brand is to sell the emotional appeal to the tribe. They may be independent thinkers, but they want to belong to that group.

What about a Challenger Brand. In this corner is David, the smaller, weaker contender vs. the powerful Goliath. Lots of folks today can relate to that narrative. Lots of real people root for the underdog. Remember #2 car rental company Avis with their “We try harder” campaign. Avis, a Challenger Brand, was pretty darn successful at taking market share from the big Goliaths up top.

Perhaps the best way people in advertising “do” strategy is when they work hard at being good at being observers of the world. The best at it are identifiers of ideas. Cultivators of culture. Students of the art of persuasion. Want to be a painter? It’s smart to study Van Gogh. Want to be in advertising? It’d be wise to study the best in the business. That’s how the best get there and how they and stay inspired. It’s how they repurpose old ideas into new applications. It’s how they make good work. Work that inspires others. Moves the needle. Sells stuff. Even, sometimes, changes the world.

Written by:

Steve Johnson, Managing Partner

Where do ideas come from? Insights! (Post #2)

So, it’s time to develop a strategy. How to start?

There are several pump primers, said Robin Hafitz of Open Mind Strategy in a recent webinar for members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As). Riger participants learned about using insights, rather than pure information, to form strategies. Information leads to “Oh, ok, ho-hum” reactions, while insights trigger more visceral comments. “Oh, man, I never looked at it quite that way!”

Insights represent a true understanding of the target audience. Not just: “New moms are blogging” (that’s information). But rather, “New moms are blogging as they are trying to understand motherhood in this age and time because they can’t re-create or even relate to how their own mothers did it.” Now there’s an insight on which a strategy can be based.


Where do ideas come from? The singular truth. (Post #1)


Far be it from me to try to speak for fine artists or famous novelists and the genesis of their ideas. But in the commercial creativity business called marketing communications, ideas come from strategies.

A strategy is a single-minded direction. What is the one thing an army needs to know to act? Go that way. Yep, “thataway” is pretty much all they need to know. Now that’s a strategy. It’s direction that is simple, unadorned, and essential.

Those of us who do battle in the marketing communications arena need to remember that kind of simplicity when generating strategies and ideas. Strategy equals sacrifice. Find the one truth. The singular direction. Give up on the other 11 directions. Boil it down. Yes, that means even sacrificing those sacred-cow strategies #2 and #3. Don’t try to jam everything in!

Written by:

Steve Johnson, Managing Partner

The suggestion box goes digital: Whack a mole or share a smile

IMG_0530Nothing beats some pure, unfiltered feedback.

So I had to smile, share a smile, and go back and take a picture with my iPhone when I saw the 2015 version of a suggestion box in a financial institution’s lobby the other day. It cuts right to the chase: either they made you smile or they made you frown. The customer votes by whacking the button on their way out the door.

Businesses will do well to remember the customer is always boss. So whatever you can do to keep lines of communication open with your boss is a good thing.

Whether it’s the “Happy or Not” service buttons or a more comprehensive survey, market research (perhaps with the help of Riger?), in all forms, is very helpful. Use it to stay customer focused, understand customer needs and get service right.

Written by:

Steve Johnson, Managing Partner