NASHVILLE MARKETING BLOG: Insights on strategic branding, marketing management, general business and Nashville marketing topics. By Monica Powers, Vanderbilt MBA and marketing consultant in Nashville, TN.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Brand Is Language has moved

Please visit the new blog at or Thanks for visiting!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Personal Branding According to IBD

Investor's Business Daily just published a pertinent article on personal branding--available through Yahoo Finance. It's titled "The Art of Branding Yourself in Business."

Happy 2007!

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Time's Personal Brand of the Year Is....Yours

How do I feel as Time's new Person of the Year, you ask? I must say the nomination was totally unexpected--so many worthy candidates, it's humbling, really. I accept it with gratitude, and thank all the people along the way who made this possible. Hi, Mom. But with this great honor and note comes greater responsibility for my personal brand in 2007. Time chose us for our ability to make our individual voices heard just as loudly as any Hollywood celebrity's. The age of You and Me is certainly in full swing, and it's entirely up to us to make the moment count.

It follows that we must use our newfound powers for good and not for evil, so to speak. Let's resolve to have our personal brand stand for something, and stick to it in the new year. Let's use our brand to build and create, not destroy. To generate goodwill, not ill. To draw attention to things that matter, to help someone else fulfill her gifts and calling, to elevate, to transcend, to enrich, and not just to sell.

Let's build a noteworthy brand in 2007--one that lives up to this awe-inspiring distinction.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

An Old Favorite Reinvented

Admittedly, I was kind of a weird kid. I spent many an hour thumbing through my older brother's hardbound copy of Roget's Thesaurus, enthralled by the way a single word could launch a myriad thoughts, one bundle of letters at a time. All the concepts fathomable to the human mind were expressed in the pages of this book, strung together in a frighteningly finite and rudimentary order. When I went away to college, I sneaked that dogeared book into my duffel bag along with my few precious earthly possessions. I use it to this day.

I don't know that my brother ever missed his handy reference tome, but if he ever did, I would point him to the online version of the
Visual Thesaurus. While not as satisfying to page through as the old-fashioned kind, this is a fascinating tool for anyone who ideates for a living, whether in marketing or literary occupations. It's also a fruitful way to kill time. And, at $19.95 for an annual subscription, well worth the investment. Better yet, it's much harder for your little sister to swipe.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Rex Hammock: On Passion and Great Brand Communications

In case you haven't run across his musings in cyberspace, I'll introduce you to Rex Hammock. Rex is a prolific and eloquent blogger whose Nashville-based company, Hammock Publishing, is in the business of furthering brands through outstanding and distinctive communications.

That's how I would describe it, in any case. Hammock Publishing strengthens the bond between organizations and their customers (or members) using relevant and well-designed magazines and other print publications. To me, this has the makings of a marketing sweet spot--creating dialogue with a community of people who are already fans of your brand. So these were my questions for Rex Hammock:

"Your company helps other organizations tell their own "brand story" through good content. What are your guiding principles for keeping this content true to the brand it represents?

RH: First, I believe that customers and members (we do work for associations, also) want to learn how to be better owners, users and members. They want to talk to human beings who create the products they enjoy. They want to join communities of like-minded individuals. So, my guiding principles are built on principles we learn in all human relations: honesty, integrity, disclosure, passion, shared-interest; all should be reflected in how a marketer should "communicate" with their customers and members.

The types of customer media we create -- both in print and online -- are designed to help customers be better users of the products they purchase from our clients -- to get the most from the membership dues they pay to join our clients.

One of the universal "truths" we follow is that the readers and participants in the media we create like to hear the stories of other customers/members. A lot of the content of the work we do is about the readers, themselves.

In your business, how important are effective communications to a client's presence in the market?

RH: In the specific arena we work, most of the media we create for clients is designed for existing customers and members, rather than to acquire new members or customers. Some people may call this "loyalty" marketing or "retention" marketing, however, I think the recipients of many of our publications don't even consider the magazines "marketing." They look forward to the magazine and hang on to them. In some cases, they rate the magazine they receive from our client as one of the top benefits of being a customer or member. So in those cases, effective communications can be said to be their most important factor in their market.

You seem to have a marketing advantage in that you build on existing relationships for each of your clients--you start with a ready-made audience, so to speak. How does this change your approach, if at all?

RH: Good question that relates to the previous one. We start out with the knowledge that we are working with our clients in developing media for people who already have an affinity with our client: They have a fairly significant relationship, in some cases. Their hobby or their passion or their work is tied into their being a regular customer or member of the client. We're not, for the most part, creating media for the un-converted. In marketing, the challenge is often "breaking through the noise" and competing with others to get your message heard. When it comes to the type of customer media we develop, one of the beauties is how much the customers actually look forward to what we produce.

What role have blogging and social media played in the development of your own personal brand, and that of Hammock Publishing?

RH: Until I started blogging five years ago, I didn't really think of having a "personal brand." That may sound odd from someone who named a company after his last name 15 years ago. However, the whole "branding thing" with Hammock Publishing and me has been one of those stories like the cobbler's children who had no shoes. Blogging helped get me thinking about ways in which a company like ours can use emerging tools. Perhaps more significantly is the website, which we operate -- which, frankly, I operate with the assistance of an intern and tech guy. The vast majority of the site is a wiki -- a platform like Wikipedia that anyone can contribute to. Running it is a great laboratory for what works -- and doesn't -- in social media. We are working now on ways to apply those lessons for better marketing Hammock Publishing...and also, to better serve our clients.

Who would your dream client be?

RH: The obvious answer is that I already work for some dream clients: all of the ones we have -- but I assume you mean other than those.

I do enjoy working with associations. Despite the quirky governance dynamics you can run into, there is a shared passion and interest among members -- and thus the audience of the media we create for them. And I'm also going to avoid mentioning two dream-type projects we're pitching right now -- as I don't want to jinx them.

So, here's a dream client for a brand I have used 8-12 hours a day, have purchased hundreds of thousands of dollars of their products from 22 years, and know they are doing a lousy job in communicating with people like me: small business owners.

That's Apple Computer.

Despite their brilliance in consumer marketing, I'm continually amazed at their total disregard for even knowing I exist as a business customer of theirs. They would be a dream client because I know they have great products for business -- but they have no on-going and recurring programs to communicate with customers like me. The ROI on such an investment would be astounding."

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Honor Thy Creatives

I caught the Egyptian "Quest for Immortality" at the Frist Center during its last weekend in Nashville. Comparisons to other metropolitan museums aside, the exhibit reminded me of that ancient society's deep appreciation for artistic talent. In their lifelong effort to conquer death, ancient Egyptians relied on painters and sculptors to help them connect with the eternal, and on their scribes to validate their mortal existences, making their human stories more real, tangible, and lasting.

I can't help but wonder how and when our modern culture did away with this high regard for the power of writers and artists to transcend the natural--and to document our short stay on this Earth for the benefit of future generations.

We all owe the artistically talented in our lives a little more appreciation.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Joe Calloway on "Becoming a Category of One" and What Makes a Brand Extraordinary

This week, I spoke with author and branding consultant Joe Calloway on personal branding and what makes a corporate brand extraordinary. Joe has penned a remarkable book titled Becoming a Category of One, which I keep on my nightstand. His latest book is Indispensable: How To Become The Company Your Customers Can’t Live Without.

In Becoming a Category of One, you talk about companies that have done an extraordinary job of creating strong and distinctive brands. Have you seen a common thread, or something in their corporate DNA, that makes these brands and organizations outstanding?

JC: Yeah - a couple of things. One is that they all create an emotional connection with customers. From Southwest Airlines and their "love and fun" approach to Northwestern Mutual and their "quiet company" confidence and stability approach. Another key to brand strength is consistency of performance. One reason that Coke is one of the greatest brands in history is that when you open that can or bottle, you know exactly what you're going to get - every single time. The same goes for any company - you have to maintain a level of consistency in the delivery of the quality of your product or service. When you lose that consistency, you kill the brand.

As new media and consumer-generated media continue to attract attention, do you think the number of powerful brands will shrink or grow? Will brands become more or less important?

JC: I think that the principles that make any brand strong in the marketplace will tend to be the same - but that there will be a lot more successful and smaller brands. There will be incredibly successful companies on the internet, for instance, that will command fierce brand loyalty from their customers, but that won't be well known by the general public. You don't have to have the best pizza in the universe to be successful. You can have the best pizza on the block and thrive. I also think that successful brands will have to learn to evolve quickly into "what to become next." My own experience with my business is that I've reinvented and repositioned myself many times over the years as the market I live in has changed. That continuing evolution is what has kept my business healthy. Sometimes you guess wrong - you evolve into something that the market doesn't respond to. That's ok. You always at least gain information on what the market DOES want. You can correct mistakes. It's much harder to recover from being stagnant.

What brand do you admire the most right now, and why?

JC: Tractor Supply Company I think is one of the greatest brands in the world. They do virtually everything right. (And they're based right here in Nashville.) They have created an amazing market presence in a clearly defined niche (the "hobby farmer"). Their corporate values set a standard for any company. The buy-in and enthusiasm they get from employees is amazing. Their customers tend to be intensely loyal. Great company.

Is there hope for companies that have allowed their brands to become commodities, or that simply have nothing to say? Can a tired brand come back to life?

JC: If you're a commodity then, by definition, all you've got to compete on is lowest price. It's hard to come back once you slip, but there are brands that have managed to compete extremely well even though their competitors beat them on price with virtually the same products. I'm a big fan of Target stores. They're like Wal Mart except cool. That's their marketing hook - they are cool. Dunkin Donuts has somehow managed to create as much or more "cache'" as a brand as Starbucks. There's a company in the Northwest (I wrote about them in Becoming A Category of One) called Les Schwab Tires that beats the commodity trap through their fabulous connections with customers.

But back to your original question, once you're seen as a "tired" brand - it's really hard to come back.

As an author and speaker (where essentially you are selling yourself), what is your approach to personal branding, or building the "Joe Calloway" brand?

JC: I have one core belief that drives everything I do. I put 10% of my energy into marketing and 90% into improving my product. Relentless improvement. If I deliver the goods with my books and on stage in my speeches, the marketing takes care of itself. Take Starbucks for example. They do a TON of cool things - but at the core of their brand strength is that they sell one hell of a great cup of coffee. Everything else is secondary.

My advice to anyone who is in a service business like I'm in - or like you're in - is to constantly get better at what you do. That's the smartest way to establish a presence.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Stay Tuned for Marketing Profiles

We all like to hear ourselves talk. But even I get tired of my own thoughts sometimes. In an effort to spice things up for other people who may read this blog, I'll soon be trying something new.

Stay tuned for short pieces on interesting people who are doing cool stuff and redefining the marketing and branding landscape. I'm calling it "Marketing Profiles" until I can come up with a sexier title.

On an unrelated note, we have exactly three months until Xmas. Let the retailer onslaught begin.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Part Two - Adventures in Rebranding: Louisiana-Pacific

Two things I liked about John Neilson's presentation on the rebranding of LP:

1. His philosophy on the elements of a brand. With his evident background in consumer goods, Neilson comes across as a true retail marketer at heart. He describes a brand as the combo of four components (I paraphrase and embellish below):

  • Identity: The "thing" itself. The name and any marks and symbols that go with it. What you see.
  • Awareness: What consumers think when they hear your name--if anything at all. Brand recognition.
  • Trust: The result of relationships and public perceptions of the brand, built over time.
  • Heart: The emotional ties layered over the intellectual or rational understanding of the brand's benefits.

It seems an interesting exercise to use a traditional consumer packaged goods approach in the branding of an industrial B2B company. In the end, consumers are consumers, whether they are purchasing for their personal use or business. The difference is that public brand awareness, trust, emotional benefits--all the things that a consumer brand craves--do not necessarily "trickle up" to the decision maker in a B2B context. In this case, it is hard to gauge whether Joe Homeowner's warm fuzzy feelings toward LP will influence a homebuilder's choice of siding for his next building project.

2. His decision to create a brand architecture that makes sense. By architecture, I mean the way a "parent" brand (such as LP) and its sub-brands or product brands come together and relate to each other. The first big step was obviously to create a strong enough handle for the corporate brand--hence the catchier and more memorable "LP." Nielson then took all the company's disparate products and logos and reworked them to include LP in each of their names, to reflect a more consistent and coherent link with the corporation.

On the other hand, a few other things made me doubt the wisdom of their marketing strategy.

The company doesn't seem to have their story straight on how to justify the purchase of 10-year naming rights for Titans stadium. Neilson began by minimizing the importance of retail sales to the company, saying that the end consumer is just a "halo" or incidental target. In other words, they care mainly about the homebuilders, and if consumers buy LP products for their own use as a result of their familiarity with the brand, that's just icing on the cake. If consumers don't matter that much, it is not clear to me why a company would spend $30 million on a sports venue to get its name in front of, well, consumers. Granted, Neilson made it sound as if $3 million a year was just a drop in their marketing bucket, but the choice still seems a bit odd.

The rationale for buying these naming rights went something like this: we can get more eyeballs by having our name on the stadium than by spending the same amount on traditional media, such as radio, TV, or print. No other alternatives, including internet marketing, were considered. What I wonder is...are these the right eyeballs they're getting? Is there a high enough correlation between NFL fans and decision-makers in the homebuilding industry? Or is LP relying too much on the "trickle up" effect from consumers? It seems LP's marketing ROI model places equal value on all marketing impressions. They do not qualify some targets as better or more valuable than others, and this seems to be a troublesome blind spot.

I certainly respect the complexity of allocating marketing expenditures and making decisions at the multimillion dollar level. I realize posting my opinions on this blog (with the benefits of hindsight and personal distance) is too easy by comparison. It's quite a task to do what these folks do, and I don't want to trivialize it.

Therefore I want to end this post on a positive, by mentioning one other thing I enjoyed about Neilson's perspective on brands. This concept really stuck with me. In keeping with his own philosophy of brands, I asked Nielson what he thought the "heart" component of the LP brand should be at the end of this process. He candidly admitted they are still looking for that hook--a brand promise that would do for LP what the image of the Michelin baby (and the sense of warmth, caring, and protection it conveys) has done for Michelin in the tire industry. It seemed a very appropriate comparison and benchmark to aspire to, and I look forward to seeing LP become that kind of brand.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Adventures in Rebranding: Louisiana-Pacific

Until Lousiana-Pacific Corporation relocated their headquarters to Nashville in 2004, I had never heard of the company. Unless you work in construction, you may not have heard of them, either. Their raison d'etre is selling very industrial-sounding products to the building industry, so they probably care very little about becoming a household name, right?

Now picture this specialized business-to-business player dropping $30 million to "brand" itself by naming... a football stadium. The Tennessee Titans' Coliseum, no less. My first thought was: can't you find a more targeted way to reach builders with that kind of marketing budget? Aren't sports-related sponsorships better left to the big consumer goods companies?

Turns out this company does more than just sell to the industry, and they are determined to correct my perception--and that of the general consumer.

The sponsorship is part of a larger rebranding effort at Louisiana-Pacific (who now prefer to be called by a catchier name, LP). They are softening their sterile, industrial persona to appeal to you and me, the homebuying, home remodeling, Home-Depot-cruising choose-it-yourself public. Or at least they seem to be.

This will probably make a lot more sense to me after I hear it from the company's Marketing VP himself, at the Nashville AMA luncheon this week. More to come.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Use Good Design To Build Your Brand

Let's face it. We simply have better taste than we used to. What used to be a primarily European love for aesthetically pleasing (and not purely utilitarian) design has gradually migrated to our shores. Popular shopping venues like Target have elevated our collective taste threshold, and more of us are finding it hard to settle for items or experiences that are merely mediocre.

Good design doesn't necessarily cost more than mediocre or generic design to create--it just requires more thought--yet it adds a great deal of value. Some enlightened companies are using outstanding design to differentiate themselves, or to create a distinctive customer experience.

The next time you drop into your neighborhood Publix, look around and you'll see a prime example of generic product elevated to true brand status through superior and consistent package design. The sleek, clean, simple, tasteful Publix treatment (mostly white background with their distinctive logo in various bright colors) has been applied to proprietary items from non-dairy coffee creamer to pet food. There is hardly anything generic about this store brand anymore, thanks to thoughtful design.

Starbucks has raised the bar for in-store service experiences by standardizing a certain level of service and making us expect more. Whether or not you're a Starbucks fan, you better believe that experience is the result of careful design, planning and tweaking.

As this home goods company points out, good design should indeed be within reach. It's becoming more democratic. Design is not just for high-end or luxe brands anymore. And as a product or graphic designer, merchandiser, marketing director, or CEO, you can use design to your advantage. Regardless of price point, category or industry, design matters, and it will matter even more as products proliferate and we see more plentiful niches and fewer true "mass market" opportunities. Brands that offer thoughtfully designed products and experiences are memorable, worth talking about, worth coming back to, outstanding.

Keep an eye on design as a way to add value to your brand and help reinforce it. Think about design in the context of your logo and identity, yes, but also at every point of contact with your customer (you thought I would use the word "touchpoint," didn't you). Packaging, music, color, light, service interactions, use of space, traffic flow, elbow room, furnishings--even the way your employees dress--are all design elements that add or take away from your brand.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Meaningful Distractions: Hello Kitty Rocks Fender

So I've been too busy catching up on old episodes of The Sopranos to blog about marketing. In season two, a soul-searching Tony Soprano wonders out loud in his psychotherapist's office whether life is nothing more than a series of distractions until we die.

I can see how this endless series of distractions could be a philosopher's nightmare and a marketer's dream. After all, the way we relate to brands and consume branded products could be defined simply as the uniquely human quest to fill our lives with significance. As curators in our personal museum of life, we choose our distractions carefully. We surround ourselves with brands that add some value to the collection. I'd like to think that brands help make the inevitable busy-ness of life more meaningful and human.

Incidentally, summer is a great time to indulge your personal distractions. My latest is the Hello Kitty Fender Stratocaster, an interesting example of co-branding that brings together Sanrio-- a brand I have deep ties to since childhood--with Fender guitars, a powerful niche brand that I'm just getting to know. Although you may not naturally associate cutesy cartoon cat with serious electric guitar, Hello Kitty and Fender have certain things in common. Both are established brands with a cult-like following. Hello Kitty gets some serious respect from women in my generation who grew up with the brand in the late 70s and 80s, and now she is reinventing herself as a rock icon for a new generation of girls, while introducing them to a respectable guitar manufacturer.

I went with the black version of the Kitty Strat for a greater sense of authenticity (it also comes in pink but that was a bit much).

The world of Fender, now that's a different story. I'm just dipping my toes into this new lifestyle brand (it's definitely a lifestyle) as I learn to play my guitar. So far I've found it to be a welcoming planet.

All in all, when strong brands collide, it can be pretty powerful stuff. Thank goodness for meaningful distractions.

Monday, July 17, 2006

When to Hire a Good Marketer

Once upon a time, I was recommended for a marketing job with a prominent Nashville company. This firm is healthcare-related, as so many big companies in town are, but I'll withhold the name to protect the innocent.

To prepare for the first interview, I read up on the hiring manager's credentials, and they were impressive. He had been VP of Marketing for other big names before, and had a track record of implementing healthy changes and restructuring brands. I wanted to pick his brain. This had all the makings of a great interview, where both people learn a lot from each other in a short time, and the applicant gets a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a brilliant marketing machine...

...or so I thought.

A few minutes into the meeting, I began to ask questions about the position: What challenges does your marketing division face? What problems do you hope this new position will solve? What skills and competencies are you looking for in this marketing hire?

The VP gave me a puzzled look, stood up from the little table, and headed for the file cabinets under his desk. After a few seconds of shuffling through papers, he produced a document and held it up as if it held the secrets of the universe.

"This," he said proudly, "is what we created at my last company." He displayed what looked like...well, a company newsletter.

"It's a company newsletter," he announced. "This is the kind of thing you could do to help the company. It helps the employees get to know each other better. For instance, here is an article about Shetland ponies. Someone in HR wrote an article about how she had this hobby of raising Shetland ponies, and lo and behold, it turns out there were several other people in the company who were also into Shetland ponies! They would never have known this had it not been for the newsletter."

You must be kidding, I thought. He was so beside himself with enthusiasm it almost broke my heart. I was looking for the door. After an extended conversation about the marvels of desktop publishing and the morale-boosting benefits of internal communications, I politely explained that this job was probably not for me, or for anyone with a track record in marketing, for that matter. "But have you considered hiring a graphic designer, or someone with magazine publishing or editing experience? Is this something that your HR department could take on?"

Needless to say, this marketing superstar was not looking for a marketer. He needed someone with good communication skills and polished grammar and experience in Quark.

So when might it actually come in handy to hire someone with marketing expertise? Here are some random instances:
  • You need marketing strategy for the business or division you're about to launch.
  • You want someone who understands the big-picture business implications of a marketing program or initiative (including the financial implications).
  • You need to make fundamental decisions about how to brand or rebrand one of your products or services, or your company as a whole.
  • You want to determine how to get the best return on your marketing dollars.
  • You know you need more facts (market research) to support a business decision.
  • You are launching a new product or service.
  • Your branding is tired, losing steam, or outdated.
  • You need to gain or recoup market share, or create a stronger competitive position.
  • You want to know how to connect with your customers on a deeper level.
Keep in mind that "hiring" a marketer can take on different shapes. If your payroll can't support a full-time Director of Marketing, or your needs are temporary or seasonal, consider bringing in outside help on a project basis. Look for someone who is smart and understands hard numbers, not just fluffy "marketing speak." Hire the quick study--the person who will learn all about your industry and your position, and who can speak frankly about your weaknesses and strengths in the market.

Don't hire a marketer to do a graphic designer's or a communications specialist's job. Hire only the best marketers to produce real results for your business. And don't expect your marketer to write about Shetland ponies unless they are somehow relevant to your bottom line. ;)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Red Fish + Blue Fish = The Art of Partnerships

I intended to head this post with "Small Fish + Big Fish," but those adjectives suggest a "smaller" half of a partnership that stands to gain all, and a more established or powerful partner who gains little or nothing--a big fish who's just in it for the attention, or out of sheer benevolence. That's not what I believe about the nature of good partnerships. In the smartest business match-ups, both parties benefit in different but equally substantial ways from the other's skills, strengths, or market presence.

In the branding world, for example, Nike is arguably as big a fish as any, yet it has partnered with young upstart iPod to expand its own reach and infuse its brand with a renewed coolness. iPod is a big fish in its own space.

But I digress.

I want to talk about real world, small-potatoes partnerships. The kind you might brainstorm with an old friend who just started a business compatible with yours. The kind you may have with a vendor who is looking more and more like a potential client. I'm talking about the killer partnership you may strike up on any given day, over cocktails or coffee, if your eyes are open to opportunity.

Such a brilliant pairing requires a bit of daring and imagination. The partnership mindset may force you to let your competitive guard down. It may prompt you to look at smart people and smart companies as assets to your business, rather than sharks who could eat you for lunch. It will cause you to visualize red fish and blue fish producing a never-before-seen (and extremely purple) competitive advantage--a strategic whole exponentially bigger than the sum of its fishy parts.

Labelling potential partners as either big or small fish is dangerous--it implies that we can make a snap judgment about the value of a person or brand using indicators such as age (that applies to individuals or companies), revenues, size of payroll, or amount of media attention. Rather than qualifying your potential partners by their size or apparent power, get a handle on what they alone can do better than anyone. Visualize how their unique assets, combined with yours, could produce an entirely new and valuable ________ ( business model / creative output / capability / market opportunity / cost reduction / you fill in the blank.)

What brilliant partnerships have you dreamed up lately? Who is on your short list of most wanted blue fish? How much do you know about them? And what are you doing this week, month, and year to make yourself a more desirable business partner?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Blogger Love

A shout out and thank you to Mack Collier of Beyond Madison Avenue, The Viral Garden and The Marketing Profs Blog for mentioning Brand Is Language in his review of new blogs about marketing. Mack has positioned himself as a blogging, marketing and social media expert in record time by tracking blog popularity and relying on what he calls "the viral community" to communicate the value of brands (including his own personal brand) to other users.

Mack's blogging career is a great case study for brands as language. Go, Mack!

Friday, June 30, 2006

Marketing and Branding Alive and Well in Nashville

This week I had the pleasure of speaking with some bright marketing minds in town--creative people who understand marketing as a discipline beyond the confines of the traditional agency approach. Among them are Tim McMullen, founder of five-year-old redpepper, and Mike Delevante and Lindsay Jamieson of Delevante Creative. Mike comes from the late agency of RD & Q, which itself was a great pool of creative talent, and Lindsay honed his brand consulting skills with the likes of Red Spider and Headmint in London and New York. Both of these consulting shops are rewriting the rules of branding and marketing with their nontraditional approach.

Always refreshing to talk to folks who believe in marketing as a strategic tool that can actually deliver measurable results in the bigger context of a business. Some time ago I began to wonder whether Nashville was averse to strategic marketing. After seeing the great work of these and other local people, I'm happy to be proven wrong. Now I'm excited about the prospect of meeting other local marketers who are just this passionate about their field.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Superlative Marketing and The Language of Brands

There's nothing quite like watching World Cup soccer on Spanish television. Even if you don't grasp the language, you can tell when a great play is coming together by the rising pitch and volume in the commentators' voices. And when either team scores, well, let's just say words won't really matter--if the volume is turned up, you will know right away when to put down your beer (or run back to your set from the kitchen) and catch the replay.

Hispanic commentators will not only tell you when a team scores, they'll go as far as qualifying the goals: some are GOLES, other awesome shots are GOOOOOOOOOOL GOL GOLES, and the beautiful, memorable plays are GOLAZOS. If you're playing the World Cup, a GOLAZO, a superlative goal, is the kind you want to score.

Romantic languages are rich with superlatives. We are most familiar with Italian women who are not only bellas but bellisimas, or a performer who deserves not merely a standing ovation bravo, but a bravissimo. When you use a superlative form to describe a person or experience, the regular adjective is no longer enough to capture your passion--the depth of your connection with that person or experience.

Every brand has a language of its own, and I'll venture to say a brand is a language unto itself. The minds behind a brand (the marketers) create the building blocks for that language, but it is the market who takes the language, adopts it, and molds it into something of their very own. They assign descriptors and qualifiers to your brand--good, better, best, forgettable, memorable, outstanding. They use words and stories to tell others about the depth of their connection with your brand.

Think of the brands you most admire--companies that are memorable for their quality of products, services, or experience. You think of them first because they have successfully created indelible, superlative impressions in your mind.

Now think of ways to "earn" superlative language for your brand. Seek out your most passionate customers, and create vehicles for them to communicate their passion to others. Give them a way to extend that personal connection to others. You just might score yourself a golazo.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

How Loyal Are Your Customers?

Ever have the sneaking suspicion that your best customers are having a torrid affair with *gasp* another brand? Or perhaps not a long-term passionate relationship, but just a little fling?

Should you have the chance to press for an explanation, it would go something like this:

Great Expectations Customer: "But you weren't there when I needed you. I was looking for something you couldn't give me, something more."

Exasperated Customer: "You're too complicated--I'm tired of jumping through hoops for you."

Opportunistic Customer: "Brand X was just there, looking so good that I couldn't help myself... but it didn't mean anything, I promise."

Fickle Customer: "Well, I'm not really a "'til death do us part" kind of person."

Relevance-Hungry Customer: "I'm bored to death with you." (Isn't that the most painful one to hear?)

Do you know why your customers have strayed, or who they've been seeing when you're not around? The answers to these questions are more important to your business than you may realize--they could shed light on missed opportunities to build your brand and your profits.

Some thought leaders have posed the question of whether brand loyalty is dead. If loyalty exists, how much does it matter to you? How do you track the impact of high loyalty and retention--or its flip side, customer attrition--on your revenues and your bottom line? Does loyalty make your brand stronger, more valuable?

Better still, what practices do you follow to ensure you're making the most of that precious 20% of your customer or client base that offers 80% of your opportunity?

Keep your brand alive. Do what it takes to exceed expectations, offer a better value, a more satisfying experience, deeper market penetration, more convenience, or greater meaning and relevance in response to your market's needs and aspirations.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Quoted on Marketing Hot Buttons

We (meaning "I," but trying not to call attention to myself) were quoted in a thoughtful article about "hot buttons" in marketing. The particular question was how to demonstrate the value of strategic marketing to internal and external clients.

"Prove your value to the organization by showing you can deliver measurable results. A smart, successful organization uses marketing as part of its business strategy, not as an afterthought. This means getting out of the ad-agency mentality (seeing the marketing manager only as the person who manages ad campaigns or sends out print materials) and placing marketing at the core of the company's planning and operations."
MarketingProfs happens to be one of my favorite and most respected reads, so I was honored by the mention.

Link to the full article by Meryl K. Evans and Hank Stroll:

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Brands That Sneak Up On You: Plumgood Food

When PlumGood Food opened its grocery operation in downtown Nashville in late 2004, I read about it in the news. The plan seemed overly ambitious, but I had high hopes for them. It was almost like rooting for the underdog, what with all the failed grocery delivery businesses we've heard about in the years since the dot-com bust. I honestly wasn't sure how long Plumgood could survive.

What I was sure about was that I wouldn't be joining their customer ranks, ever. I like to shop for store brand items, often buying whatever happens to be on sale. I'm choosy with produce. I take my time wandering up and down the store aisles. I couldn't bear the thought of paying someone to shop for me and bring groceries to my doorstep--it seemed indulgent and unnecessary.

In the meantime, Plumgood rolled into town and quietly built a presence: neat purple trucks spotted about town, clever ads in the weeklies, the occasional billboard. They also had a website so beautifully designed and consistent that I showed it to the students in my Web Usability class.

I was highly aware of Plumgood in all its organic brand-coolness, but I was not giving in. Not for me.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my husband was diagnosed with a food allergy that prompted us to trash half the items in our pantry. While it's been fascinating to learn about the origins and composition of different foods, and discovering how many different kinds of flour one can mill at home (who knew?), eating has become downright complicated. We're on a special diet, whether we like it or not.

Suddenly the appeal of Plumgood grows by leaps and bounds. Not only do they carry a lot of items that are safe for us to eat, but their website makes it easy to check ingredient labels online. I place my first order, the process is delightfully smooth, and they come through with outstanding service. They even let me send a e-coupon to friends who haven't purchased before, so I can share my experience. Better than good. All the pieces fall into place, and I become their latest and greatest fan.

When did this happen? I'm convinced that this fandom of mine was built over many months of exposure to the message. When it finally came time for me to interact with the brand, the seeds had been sown. The company not only fed and met my expectations but easily exceeded them.

All this to say: you must think of your customer relationship as something that is born and cultivated well before you know her name, long before she steps up to shake your hand. Immerse your potential buyers in a clear, consistent brand message, and be prepared to surpass their expectations. You never know just when they'll coming knocking on your door.

Friday, June 02, 2006

A Naive Sense of Entitlement

I typically don't watch Donny Deutsch. With Donald Trump's show, there's enough rampant egotism on the airwaves to last me for a while. But this week I caught a glimpse of a new call-in segment on The Big Idea, and it spoke to me.

Viewers phone in their burning questions on career development and entrepreneurship, and the Donny doles out his best advice. I'm paraphrasing here:

"I'm a photographer," says one eager caller, "How can I differentiate myself and brand my services to movers and shakers like you?"

"Forget about branding," says Donny. "Are you the best at what you do? Focus on being the best, and your work will speak for itself." He's on to something--branding without substance is useless.

On what sets winners apart, Donny says, "I've met the most successful people, Fortune 50 CEOs, presidents of the United States...and the one thing they had in common was this naive sense of entitlement. They all said, Why not me? Why can't I do that? That's just like me--why do I have a talk show? I'm an ad guy!! But I said to myself: Why not me? I can be the best talk show host."

Your business and brand can benefit from this naive sense of entitlement. Choose to be the expert in your field. Naiveté keeps this confidence from turning into arrogance. Claim your space, determine what it is that you do better than anyone else, and ask youself "Why not me?" If you believe your own brand proposition, your target audience may have reason to believe it as well.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Perils of Testing Your Product in the Market

The XYZ Company is readying for the launch of a brand new product. A Big One. Their Marketing Director is filled with anticipation, and quite frankly, she's also flat out terrified. The concepts were reviewed countless times, all the key executives signed off on the project---and a few client focus groups were thrown in for good measure. But was that enough? What if the Big Product (replace with "Campaign" or "Promotion" as needed) is still a flop?

While the product design process may be tried and true in large corporations where innovation is the lifeblood of the business, in a smaller company the head marketer and head idea person may be at odds about how and how much to test a new product in the market before it launches.

Idea-driven people: product designers, creatives, innovators, entrepreneurs, or whatever name they go by--sometimes fear their work will be tainted by too many pragmatic opinions, or that their brainchild's brilliance will somehow be minimized by a critical eye. They may cringe at the thought of presenting their concept before it's finished, before it's just right. Their worst fear is having to test the product with a customer who "just doesn't get it." I can relate. I don't want my creativity squelched, either.

On the other hand, results-driven marketers are much more comfortable with testing, re-testing, measuring, collecting feedback, and generally asking lots of questions. Marketers are less devoted to the concept and more devoted to the metrics--the expected performance of the product in the market. After all, if the product bombs, no one will know or care just how great the concept was. As good metrics-oriented marketers, we are often tempted to practice marketing by consensus, and we run the risk of beating a good idea to death in the process.

The goal of pre-launch product testing is finding a happy compromise--marrying the right idea with the right market at the right time. By all means, test your product (or campaign, or concept) early on, as much as you can, with all possible target audiences, to reduce your risk of flopping. Test to gain insights into your market. Test so you can learn how to improve your product, how to market it more effectively. Don't test to override your ideas, but to generate new ones. Testing can ensure your ideas have a safer flight out into the world.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Hotel Announces Sensory Branding

BrandWeek reports today on Omni Hotels' newly announced "sensory branding" campaign. Omni is determined to make your upcoming stay more pleasant and memorable by placing soothing lavender, lemongrass and tea scents, as well as relaxing music, in your room.

Scents and sounds are no doubt an easy way to soften the often grueling experience of travel. And if a better customer experience is more likely to encourage a return visit, Omni will benefit indirectly from this effort.

Whether this would actually result in better branding for Omni, I'm not so sure. Sensory branding would require me to associate these specific sounds and scents with the Omni name, and I don't believe this is what the hotel chain is after. (Will they create a signature Omni Hotel room fragrance?) Perhaps Omni should call it a "customer experience elevation" campaign instead, and focus on the fundamental traits--such as overall quality of service--that make their hotel brand unique.

Speaking of U.S. Soccer...

There is a lovely new Nashville-based blog titled Reckless Abandon, on the subject of U.S. Soccer. I'm honestly impressed by anyone who goes at anything with reckless abandon, so good for them.

One of these bloggers is also the guitarist and lead vocalist for a pretty cool, as yet unsigned band called American Vinyl.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Target Your Marketing -- or don't market at all

(This came up in a conversation with a friend/small business owner who is looking to expand her client base. Kudos to her for going about it strategically.)

You're ready to bring some new clients on board. Fresh faces, new projects, more revenues, all good. But you've already networked your way around town. You've talked to all the usual suspects. Your inner circle of contacts is tapped out, and you need to go outside to find some brand new business leads.

You're faced with the bone-chilling option of the B2B COLD CALL.

"Cold" is most definitely a four-letter word. Contacting a potential client cold, whether through a phone call or a brochure mailing, can be tantamount to dumping your marketing money in the trash. Or worse, it can really annoy your prospects, particularly if you haven't done your homework.

So warm up your leads a little. Give yourself an edge by using targeted marketing, as follows:

Qualify your leads. Know who you're calling/mailing and why you want them as your clients. In this regard, business owners should take a cue from the direct mail industry, who are exceptional at selecting only the best and most desirable prospects for their marketing campaigns. Better to turn up a few great leads than dozens of questionable ones.

Personalize your offering. Educate yourself about the prospect's industry and their company's current position. What specific problem can you solve on their behalf? Include a personal letter with your marketing materials to show that you know. Make your brand relevant by speaking their language.

Find a mutual connection. The more you get out in the world, the more you realize how small it is. Smart people know other smart people within their industries. The Internet makes it practical to keep up with thought leaders and influencers in your field, as well as stay in touch with old friends. You can always break the ice with a new lead by identifying one person or idea that ties you together.

By doing your homework and warming up your leads, you can make your marketing much more efficient. Your payoff will be a higher marketing ROI.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Soccer's Record-Breaking Night in Nashville

Last night's USA v. Morocco soccer game at the Coliseum was groundbreaking on several levels. Not only did it set a record for the largest attendance ever at a soccer game in the state of Tennessee (with its crowd of over 26,000), but it was a real cultural showcase, a testament to the growing melting-pot character of Nashville's population.

It's also impressive to see how the sport of soccer in the U.S. has marketed itself so effectively in just a few years, to be able to attract this kind of following. U.S. soccer is almost starting to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of the spectators' level of interest.

On a side note, the Nashville skyline as seen from the pedestrian bridge at night is a beautiful thing. Makes me want to live on the east bank of the Cumberland.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Little Prince, Beauty, and Your Personal Brand

We saw a delightful stage rendition of The Little Prince by People's Branch Theatre at the Belcourt this weekend. The performance is moving, even cathartic. It connects the adult audience with a freer, more childlike version of themselves by shedding the busy-ness of the everyday.

One of the story's sweetest moments addresses the rift between significance and productivity that we too often find in the business world. Of the Lamplighter, the Prince says: "That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful."

We all want to find meaning, purpose, and beauty in our work and to do it without apologies. Reconnecting with your honest, childlike essence is staying true to your "personal brand," and in turn, produces your most beautiful work.

Illustration by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Friday, May 19, 2006

Jon Yarbrough of Video Gaming Technologies (VGT)

I enjoyed meeting Jon Yarbrough of Video Gaming Technologies (VGT) today. He spoke at the quarterly breakfast for Alumni Entrepreneurs of the Owen Graduate School of Management. Mr. Yarbrough's business topped last year's Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing private companies, with revenues nearing $100 million. He's in the thoroughly profitable business of making touchscreen gaming machines for casinos.

There's a definite humility to Yarbrough--a sense of restraint you'd find in entrepreneurs who have gone through their fair share of hardship. No overnight rags-to-riches story here.

What impressed me the most was Yarbrough's financial model and cash management savvy, which has enabled VGT to remain a debt-free, highly liquid operation. By using just-in-time manufacturing and creative financing with vendors, VGT is able to start profiting from its machines almost as soon as they are made. Rather than expanding its national presence, the company has focused on a few select markets, with the Oklahoma casino industry as a huge piece of their pie.

Just goes to show the importance of choosing the right product, the right business model, and the right market when you consider a new business. I look forward to seeing where VGT goes next--Yarbrough hints that the international market will have a lot to do with it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau Seeks New Marketing Provider

As reported in the Nashville Business Journal, the marketing contract for the Nashville Convention and Visitors' Bureau is up for reassignment. It's a $9 million job. A project of this scope and scale needs to deliver some serious results. Here are some marketing benchmarks set forth by the NCVB:

  • For tourists, the marketing plan must generate at least 550 leads, 275 service leads and 250,000 room nights sold per year.
  • For conventions, 900 leads, 400 bookings and 550,000 room nights sold.
  • The plan must increase annual tax collection by 3%.
  • Their website must draw a minimum of 500,000 unique visitors a year.
  • They must "generate $1 million in marketing and sponsorship revenue via cooperative programs, ad sales and other programs."

If I were heading up this project, I would want to guaran-darn-tee all of these marketing efforts are integrated. I hate the word "integrated" because it's so often used as a space-filler and usually means little, but I can't think of a better way to express this. The marketing tactics and the benchmark results need to be linked in a direct and measurable way.

It's not enough to throw money at marketing and hope that the effect is felt and noticed somewhere down the road. That's like dropping a pebble into a pond and expecting the ripples to carry your message across to the other side. If you insist on marketing this prehistoric way, how will you ever know if or when your expense pays off?

For instance, I would want to track the direct effect of offline marketing and sponsorships on online traffic, the conversion rate of online visitors (eg., not just how many eyeballs but how many visitors request information and subsequently book a trip to Nashville), and the direct impact of various campaigns on hotel bookings. I would partner with travel sites for pay-per-click advertising, yes, but also find a way to track activity all the way through to the end result.

A zillion different factors could affect the performance of the local hospitality industry, as well as the city's sales tax revenues. The NCVB needs to isolate and track the collective results of all the different elements of its marketing strategy from start to finish--that would be the only smart way to go.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Little Cheese Shop That Might

Few things are more intoxicating than the rabid optimism of a new entrepreneur. Maybe that explains why I'm blog-addicted to The Cheese Shop Diaries. This is an honest, unglamorized, account of a business idea evolving into reality before our eyes.

Michael Simpson is an amateur chef in Toronto who decides to take a stab at setting up (cheese) shop on his own. As he counts down to a June grand opening, he puts us through his crash course in new business formation--everything from the business plan and financial projections to his rationale for picking cheeses and equipment. It's fascinating.

I like this guy's candid, unpretentious approach. I appreciate his willingness to make mistakes and let the reader in on them. Best of luck to Michael.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Sullivan Higdon & Sink: How NOT to Rebrand

From the folks at the agency of Sullivan Higdon & Sink, originators of the popular American Copywriter blog and podcast, comes a useful, enjoyable, well-written and concise article on how not to relaunch a brand (click to go there). You know, because after a while brands get tired, too, and we feel the urge to kick them in the pants...

My husband, who happens to be a copywriter in Nashville, is very fond of the AC podcast.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Downtown Nashville Is A Brand

Nashville is a city desperately seeking an identity. We live and love it here--especially us transplants. We just have trouble explaining to out of town friends and family what exactly it is that makes this town memorable. (Insert some "hmming" and "huh-ing" here, between an obligatory visit to the Wildhorse Saloon and a binge at Pancake Pantry.) Since moving here on New Year's Day 1995, I noticed we outgrew the country music "handle," but haven't found a new and better handle to replace it with.

Neighborhoods and landmarks most definitely help give a city its handle. I'm talking icons, places and images that lend character, and not just tourist attractions. We don't have many of those, but if it happens anywhere first, it will be downtown Nashville.

The Nashville Gulch is trying to create a brand and stand for something. We have the named area of SoBro, and the Belmont area is trying to rename itself. Downtown residential lofts are the new hot thing. The proposed Signature Tower? Now, there's a landmark to remember. And the folks at Nashville Downtown Partnership are certainly hoping to stir up a strong following for TBD retail, entertainment, and housing products under the brand that is Downtown. The issue with that is: which comes first, the product or the brand? Can you truly brand a concept and experience before you have the substance and critical mass to deliver and make it real?

I can't wait.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

When I Grow Up

When I was younger I wanted to be a psychologist--a researcher, mostly. I wanted to get to the bottom of what makes people tick and behave the way they do. To figure out how the human brain works, how it learns and remembers and generates thoughts. I got distracted by making a living in the meantime, and never went for that PhD. Instead I took the corporate route and somehow got tangled up in marketing.

A marketer's job is similar to a psychologist's, or an anthropologist's, when you think about it... to interpret how a culture lives, interacts, communicates, produces, and changes over time. Now I understand that marketers have that same window into people's lives. We observe and try to connect the dots. We pay attention to the little things: words, visuals, gestures, details. We are obsessed with following the consumer around in her natural habitat to see how she interacts with our products or the competing brand. Will she love it or hate it? Will she come back? What if we change it around, tweak it, and test it again? What will she do then?

Such are the questions that keep us up at night. So I have it all figured out now: when I grow up, I want to do some marketing.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Hispanic Marketing Lost In Translation

This week I spoke with the marketing director for a local service organization that is reaching out to Nashville Latinos through PSAs and print ads. I admire this bunch for trying their best to understand a new demographic that they admittedly know little about. They have gone about it correctly, by retaining a Nashville Hispanic marketing expert to help them put their message in the right context. Someone who is not fully bilingual and bicultural would not realize that English is highly idiomatic, and there are subtle differences between great and poor translations.

I've seen other companies (including Nashville media) slap some Spanish words on their existing campaign, or worse yet, run their copy through some translation software, and call that "Hispanic Marketing." For the target consumer, that's a big turnoff. Although I respect VISA for their high market awareness and their ability to brand a name that is neither a lending institution nor a little piece of plastic (think about it), their latest foray into the Hispanic market doesn't quite cut it. The new "Life Takes VISA" tagline works beautifully in English, because "takes" is used to mean both "demands" and "accepts." The verb "tomar" is a literal translation of "take," but it doesn't carry the same range of meaning in Spanish. To put it briefly, the Spanish slogan La vida toma VISA could mean "life drinks VISA" or perhaps "life grabs VISA," but the cleverness of the original language is lost.

Campaigns need to be rethought entirely, from scratch, if they are to work effectively in a second language. They need to work in the cultural context as well. Kudos to Ford for hiring a professional to create their new Pasos Audaces ("Bold") TV spots.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Nashville Business Show Segment

Today I had the opportunity to do a segment on branding for Nashville Business This Week, a 30-minute cable TV show hosted by the Nashville Business Journal. It is exciting to see the local business community's changing perception of marketing and branding, and part of the segment spoke to that.

Other guests on the show (which airs on cable Channel 50 this weekend) were the architects of Gilbert/McLaughlin. Quite an interesting conversation there, as these gentlemen have also been reading up on branding from an architect's point of view. They shared this article from Slate Magazine with me, which discusses How Architects Brand Themselves. I love that topics like this come up in casual conversation!

By the way, the firm has designed some gorgeous structures, as evidenced on their website.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Blind Dating Your Customers

Marketing is like inviting someone out on a blind date -- you think of the right things to say, create certain expectations (some companies call this a "brand message"), and score the first face-to-face with a prospective customer. Here's your one chance to go big, state your case, close the deal. If you promise and fail to deliver--your profile says Tough Biker Guy and you're a skinny surfer dude--your chances for a second date, a repeat purchase, are pretty much shot.

Delivering on your promise is important. So is the consistency of your message. Don't give your customer apples when she's expecting to find oranges. And stay true to a singular statement about who you are, no matter where you are.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Have It BK's Way

Burger King's "Subservient Chicken" ad campaign made the rounds and put agency CP+B on the radar. It was a huge hit. Never mind whether it actually sold more chicken sandwiches or not, we all spent more time than we'd like to admit playing on that darned website (or was that just me?). I even heard David Bohan talk about the Chicken during a meeting of the American Marketing Association, Nashville chapter.

Now Burger King has beat its fast food competitors to the punch by naming and branding its coffee. BK Joe has a life of its own: a catchy name, a distinctive logo, and three "custom" strengths including Turbo. This conjures up images of industrial cleaning products or motor oil, which are both fine, since as far as I can tell the King wants to target young male consumers. And if it's hip enough for 18-24 year old guys, it's cool enough for the rest of us.

Seems like a no-brainer. Give people a reason to stop by each morning and buy an item. Better yet, make that a high margin beverage. Start something habit-forming that involves your brand. Piggyback on Starbucks' demand by matching it with good quality coffee of your own.

What I want to know is--why didn't McDonald's do something like this with their coffee? McD's premium roast is allegedly good enough for finicky palates, yet nobody thought to brand it aggressively as a standalone item. It's fame has been somewhat accidental. It will be interesting to see these fast food giants as they continue to redefine themselves through their product offering.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Chupa Chups: The Lesser of Two Evils

Smokers sometimes refer to weight gain as one of the downsides of quitting. We've heard it before. They're afraid their oral fixation will get the best of them and they'll snack uncontrollably if they have to get along without their cigarettes.

Spanish candy maker Chupa Chups is using a reverse approach to market their 40-plus lollipop varieties. In "10-Minute Alternative to Smoking," their website presents one of the most compelling smoking cessation campaigns I've seen anywhere. Engaging a Chupa-Chups lollipop is supposed to offer a sense of warmth, security, and relaxation. Like a pacifier for adults! they say. Even better, the sucking action is supposed to increase the flow of oxygen to your body and help your overall health. (More oxygen to the brain--why didn't I think of this before?) Another interesting factoid: lollipops were likely invented by cavemen. Betcha hadn't thought about that.

Whether this pitch sells you or not, the Chupa Chups story addresses the makings of a cult-status brand. In 1969, the founder sought out Salvador Dali to re-create the company logo and make it more appealing to a growing audience. Dali promptly sketched it out on a piece of newspaper over lunch, and even had some suggestions for package design. Clever promotional and merchandising tactics were also the norm in the 1960s and throughout the company's history.

Almost makes you wish you had more bad habits to break, no?

Saturday, April 29, 2006

In Search Of: Nashville Marketing Experts

For some time I've feared that Nashville suffers from a dearth of innovation in brand and marketing management. Granted, it's a creative town, with plenty of regionally recognized advertising agencies--but the city is not exactly filled with promise for those who are all about the role of marketing as a true business driver, a strategic component, not merely an afterthought or promotional vehicle. This line of thinking is just not built into the genetic makeup of local industry.

But I'd love to be proven wrong. So I'm embarking on a quest for Nashville's brightest marketing masterminds. Now, if I can just figure out where to look first.....

And perhaps an interesting project will come out of this.

Friday, April 21, 2006

When Did The Gap Become a Black Hole?

I don't know what happened. It feels like a deep personal loss, really. Seems like just a few months ago I dogeared my copy of Fortune with Mickey Drexler on the cover, marveling alongside so many other readers at the genius that built the Khaki Empire. That was actually 1998. "Gap Gets It," they proclaimed.

What changed? Was it the taste level of the jeans & t-shirt wearing population? Did retailers overeducate us, making us too sophisticated in our clothing preferences? Or did Gap shoot itself in the foot by saturating the market and letting "basic" become "ordinary"? When did we all stop being so vanilla?

All I know is GAP doesn't speak to me anymore the way it used to. The middle brand seems to have become Gap Inc.'s less-favored middle child, or perhaps red-headed stepchild. We used to flock to the stores for the combo of style and value, but whatever style the company had gravitated toward the Banana Republic end of things. And if you want Gap-looking stuff at a great value--well, heck, you can get it at Old Navy. Gap painted itself out of the picture.

Mickey Drexler has moved on (J Crew is giving him a chance to shine). I look forward to seeing what Gap does next to dig itself out of this gaping black hole of oblivion. Is it time to get back on-message, or is the era of Basics dead and gone?Should they fire their design team and reinvent the Gap aesthetic altogether? Or should they try to become the first great American fast-fashion company, a la Zara or H & M?

My vote is for the last. I think they could pull it off.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Scribbling in the Margins: Why Customers Do What They Do by Marshal Cohen

I have Marshal Cohen of The NPD Group to thank for inspiration on this blog's name. I just finished his insightful new title Why Customers Do What They Do. Enjoyed it so much I defaced it by scribbling on all its margins (my mom would be ashamed). Cohen is Chief Industry Analyst at this prestigious market research organization, he really knows his stuff, and he lets the reader in on the trends he sees coming down the pike for retailers and brand marketers.

One of the quotes from the freshly mangled pages on my copy:

"Branding is what makes the consumer associate herself with the product. Branding gives the product personality and image and, even more important, gives the consumer something to share with others."

Ok, duh, so that sounds pretty obvious. But I had to read it three times to let it sink in...I tend to think of Brand as the language a company uses to connect to its consumer, but Brand is much more than that. It is what the consumer uses to define herself, and to spark a dialogue (implicit or explicit) with other consumers about what she values. As a sort of universal language, Brand is spoken by many parties, and takes on a life and power of its own. It is the marketer's job not only to be the brand's spokesperson, but also its historian/anthropologist, to track and understand the brand in all its manifestations.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Performance Philanthropy for Dummies

Our waiter at the new Cheesecake Factory, who also happens to be a soon-to-be-newly-minted MBA in International Economic Development (or something along those lines), told us about his internship at a company called Geneva Global, out of Wayne, PA. Geneva is solely in the business of "performance philanthropy," a concept not addressed in business as often as it could be. It sounded so interesting, I even put down my strawberry-infused vodka martini for a minute.

The way the model was explained to us is: this firm does due diligence on investment projects that serve as vehicles for philanthropic grants around the world. For a fee, Geneva Global "discovers" and qualifies potential projects in microenterprise, health, education, and safety in disadvantaged countries. After the client chooses an investment, Geneva reports on the project's performance. As described on their site, the ROE (Return on Equity) is "not financial, but social." One great metric used by Geneva is the "cost per life changed," which to date comes to $12.20 on average. Something to think about when spending your caramel macchiato money.

So what does this have to do with branding, I ask myself. Because companies and individuals are brands as much as products are brands, and brand is a language, we define ourselves to the world by the way we invest our money (or our resources) and the causes we support, whether in a corporate or personal context.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Church of Target

I'm continually intrigued by all things Target (a.k.a. Tar-zhay). My latest oohs and aahs were over their Easter signage...they've created a campaign around these so-ugly-they're-cute (and slightly noir) little bunny characters and carried them over into plush items you can actually purchase. Genius! Anyway, it goes without saying that their merchandising and product design blows all other discount chains--and even some department stores--out of the water. They have a keen eye for items and collections that appeal to their core customer's aesthetic sensibility, and you can't beat the prices with a stick. What a concept.

Over the weekend I stepped in to check out their latest Mizrahi pieces. I wanted to see if they looked as nice in person as they did on the stylized photos from their website (they didn't, exactly, but still a good value). What disappointed me the most was to see rack after rack of Mossimo women's clothing on clearance....makes me think a product at Target must have been a real dog to move so slowly, even at the clearance price. So I took a closer look. Turns out the items were not offensively ugly -- they were on trend, meant for younger girls, probably late teens through early 20s...but why were they not selling, when similar styles are all the rage at stores like Urban Outfitters, H&M, even Old Navy?

I think it's a merchandising blind spot. Target's history is steeped in department store tradition (they did own Marshall Fields) and they have tried to create a more upscale shopping experience than other discounters -- but, sadly, their apparel is still merchandised a-la Wal-Mart or KMart. Yes, I think they have pictures of models on the walls. But not enough to inspire or instruct the average shopper on how to put pieces together. If they wish to do well on their trendier, trickier offering, they must kick their merchandising up a notch and have their style mavens educate the in-store customer a bit more, as they have through their website and TV commercials.