What The Grinch Can Teach About Brand Integrity

Every year about this time since 2000, the Jim Carrey/Ron Howard interpretation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas rears it’s ugly head. It’s dark, it’s loud and there are words and images in it that Dr. Seuss would never have used. I’ve heard it referred to as an interpretation geared for today’s kids, and unfortunately, it is probably true that some very young children will associate this 2000 Hollywood version of the story as THE version of the story. I am a brand purist and this movie is a prime example of how to ruin a perfect brand.

When Theodor Gisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was alive, he fought off movie companies knocking at his door to buy the rights to a variety of his classic books. He always said no, with the exception of when his respected friend Chuck Jones convinced him to let him take a stab at producing and animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But Gisel knew and respected Chuck Jones and worked closely with him on the production to assure the integrity of the Dr. Seuss brand, message and style remained intact, and Jones was committed to making sure it was done right. The end result is a testimony to their commitment to retaining the true essence of the story, the characters and the feel of the book. This original 1966 Boris Karloff/Chuck Jones version is perfect, timeless and tells the story completely in the words that were written by and in the illustrative style of Dr. Seuss. It indeed has become a timeless classic.

But after Gisel died, his widow started signing away the movie rights to her dead husband’s life work, and in turn, bringing in millions from the deals. With one swipe of her jewel encrusted pen, his widow dismissed the value and meaning of all that her husband had worked to protect for his entire working life. Money won over substance, ironically contradicting the very meaning that the story of the Grinch conveyed.

Some things shouldn’t be messed with. Some things can’t be improved, especially those that offer originality and innovation. Making something a commercial blockbuster will most likely mean those unique elements that made it special in the first place are scraped away and replaced with bells, whistles, fireballs, predictability, maybe some cleavage, and lots and lots of toys and licensed products that will be on the shelf for way too long.

I am perhaps idealistic when it comes to brands. I am always a believer in the longevity of building a pure brand, one that may take a bit longer to create, rather than the quick rise of commercialized garbage to make a fast buck. Just because something may make lots of money fast, it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do for the long term value of a brand.

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Great Expectations: Brand Building and ROI

coin returnBrand building and the return on the investment it takes to build a brand are, to a great degree, difficult things to measure. They can be a bit elusive and hard to define. The measurement involves participation in and understanding of a process that takes place over time, utilizing and considering numerous variables and methods to create a sense of familiarity, awareness and trust in a product or brand name. *Note the phrase “over time.”

There are some seemingly lucky dogs that hit on an overnight success, but those instances are rare, and most often only have the appearance of overnight success. The behind the scenes relentless messaging, marketing, PR, promotion and brand building work that takes place is usually not visible to the naked eye. And it really shouldn’t be.

Patience is key here. Focusing too heavily on tangible and quick ROI, dollar for dollar is futile. Investing in a promotional campaign that sends traffic to your site, starts people talking on the internet and elsewhere about your brand, increasing your Google ranking, getting your brand more attention from other media and other venues, though it may not seem like a strong dollar for dollar return, one has to consider what awareness is worth. When does the dollar return come from a promotional investment? Maybe not for months or even longer. What will greater brand awareness lead to? Customer trust and loyalty, new business, and more sales, but it most likely will not be right away. To expect to pay a dollar for promotional work and the next day get two dollars back is unrealistic, but that oftentimes is the expectation when a client asks about ROI.

Data is useful, no doubt about that, but data can be deceiving. If a promotional campaign does not immediately and directly produce sales, but does drive traffic and produce positive awareness, is that considered to be a poor return on investment? I would argue that ROI doesn’t necessarily have to translate directly to dollars out vs. dollars back in. The return may not come in ways that can easily be counted. The return can come in ways that are impossible to measure. It can come from a positive consumer feeling about and recognition of a brand, trust in a product, understanding of and connection to what the brand stands for and what a company is all about. All of that has to come before many consumers will be willing to spend one penny to buy. How do you measure and value the various elements of ROI?

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Branding Rule #1: Avoid Conjuring Up Images Of #2

portable toiletI came across a company name the other day and when I saw it, I truly had to do a double take. My point is not to embarrass anyone here, so I won’t reveal the actual name, but let’s suffice it to say that it conjured up images of baking diapers in an oven, quite literally. O – k-aay, I thought to myself. I’m picturing a lovely woman in a nice white chef’s hat and coat with oven mitts and a nasty tray of …oh, I can’t continue. With this image in my mind, I felt compelled to go to the site and see for myself what this product could possibly be.

As it turns out, this business offers is an array of newborn baby items like blankets, and stuffed animals, diapers (clean) and other items arranged and assembled to resemble a three-tiered cake. These so called “diaper cakes” are sold as gifts to give in honor of a new arrival in the family. That’s fine, and although I could see how they actually might be a nice idea for someone who has just had a baby, the name was so not nice. The name did however, do the trick in driving me to go to the site, but I doubt that it was for the reason that the owner had intended.

Your Name is the Cornerstone for all Marketing Efforts

Whether you are naming a product, a business or a blog, creating an effective brand name is the most important place to start in building a marketing strategy. Your name needs to say who you are, what you do, and capture the essence of your business in one simple word or two. It needs to evoke not only an understanding of what your business is, but it should create the feeling that you want to convey. Always be careful not to use something that might have a hidden or not-so-hidden meaning to a different segment of the population, otherwise it might draw in the wrong crowd for the wrong reasons.

Make Your Name Unique In The Searchable Marketplace

In the modern world of marketing, a brand name also needs to be unique enough so that it is searchable without thousands of other results coming up instead of your business. If your name is Susan and you sell cookies, logic might tell you your business name should be Susan’s Cookies, but in the web world, a name like that would be impossible to search.

Make Sure There’s A Primary Domain Available

Ideally you would want your domain to be: www.yourbrand.com. If that is not available, .net is the second choice. You should avoid names like yourbrandonline.com or yourbrandbabygifts.com. No one will remember that, even if the “root” word of your brand name is catchy. Keep it short and sweet.

Protect Your Name With A Trademark

Your brand name also should be able to be trademarked. It’s pretty quick and easy to do an initial trademark search online. If someone else has already trademarked it, then think of an alternative. If it’s in another industry completely, then you could still potentially trademark it, but the best names are ones that have little chance of being confused with another business or contested. Thinking outside of literal terms or making up a word can often lead to a clever and compelling name. Making connections to your brand story or making up words that play with the definition of what your business is can lead to finding memorable names that most often can easily be trademarked.

Naming For The Future

Think about not only what your business is now, but also the larger picture of what it could be in the future. Try not to be too specific to a particular product, when you might be expanding into other arenas that may pose a future branding problem. Kentucky Fried Chicken was faced with the dilemma that fried chicken is not as popular now as it was back in 1952 when the company was founded. People are now interested in more options, like grilled or roasted chicken and other menu items instead. This is why they needed to rebrand themselves as KFC, taking the focus off of “fried.” Sometimes rebranding can work, but most often it fails miserably, especially for established brands. Best to try to anticipate possible changes to your business model at the beginning, rather than facing a rebranding crisis later.

Don’t Fall For Trendiness

A name has to have some longevity and timelessness. Trendy names might seem like a good idea for today, but they won’t make any sense for tomorrow because they will be out of step and dated pretty quickly. It’s like a tattoo – it might look hip when you’re 20, but when your 70 year old body is sagging in unanticipated places, that skull and cross bones imprinted in your skin might not have the same appeal.

Know Who You Are

Coming up with a fresh and effective brand name is not an easy task. It takes creativity, understanding of the marketplace, some savvy use of language, an understanding of your brand as a whole, and even some intuition. It’s like naming a baby. Try to name your business to last a lifetime. (But if you are having trouble, you can always hire me to help ; )

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Butter Your Bread With Innovation

breadnbutterThere often comes a time during the life of a company when the need for a new product smacks them in the face.  Maybe their current product line has reached the natural end of its life cycle and it’s time for an infusion of something new. Or maybe they are seeking to expand into a new market. This is when a fork in the road appears, and what path is taken can determine whether a company succeeds or fails.

Some brands choose the path of building their product line by shopping around and purchasing products already on the market for inspiration or in many cases, to directly knock off. Some brands, for fear of scaring existing customers away or because of insecurity, rely too heavily on focus groups, consumer input and data to determine product direction. Although keeping a finger on the pulse of the competition and consumers is important, it shouldn’t necessarily be used to dictate the direction of a new product. But there are other, perhaps braver brands that choose to take the path of innovation. These are the brands that most often end up being the leaders and the trend setters.

Originality and innovation are what makes a brand shine. True innovators are creatives who are always looking, not necessarily just at what the competition is doing, or listening only to what their existing customers are saying, but they are looking and listening to what the world in general is doing and saying across many industries and platforms. They are the ones who often do things in spite of what the competition is doing, rather than because of what the competition is doing. And if the formula is right, that innovation is what can turn into a company’s bread and butter.

A lack of innovation most often happens when companies get too big and cumbersome or overly secure and complacent or are too new and insecure. A lack of innovation happens when companies depend too much on data and focus groups or what the competition is doing rather than on what a truly talented creative team can invent. It also comes when the desire for what may seem like guaranteed money supersedes the desire for great product. But ironically, if you have great a product, the money will come and that great new product could turn into the new bread and butter for the company. Innovation doesn’t come from looking at what’s flying off the shelves today, it comes from an ability to imagine what will fly off the shelves tomorrow. Innovation doesn’t generally come from consumers. Consumers know what they have seen, what they have used, what they have bought before. They generally don’t imagine what doesn’t exist yet. That is where designers, inventors and visionaries come in. Innovative product and strong brand identity come from creativity, inventiveness, perception and innate intuition and bravery about what direction to go in or what to create.

The most successful companies are the ones that are able to strike that magic balance between maintaining a core product that sustains them (which had its roots in innovation) and being willing to take the greater risk that comes along with breaking the mold. Valuing and putting faith in the importance and abilities of a talented creative team can be the ticket to a brand’s long term success.

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If I Give You A Free Hamburger, Will You Be My Friend?

I was watching TV last night and saw this commercial for T.G.I. Friday’s announcing their new hamburger giveaway campaign:

In the commercial, Woody, a presumed faux customer and big time fan of the restaurant chain, announces a new Facebook campaign for Friday’s that pitches the viewer to become a Woody fan on Facebook and receive a free burger. Maybe Woody is the real #1 fan of Friday’s, but I’m not buying it, and even if I did, it doesn’t matter.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole point of a brand participating in social media to build brand awareness through a real engagement between a real person from a company and their real consumers? To me, this campaign crosses a line between social media and advertising. Advertising is a wide-open venue where a company can create characters to act like a customer. Consumers understand that. Social media is supposed to be real. You can’t buy customer loyalty by having a fake customer giving away free hamburgers.

Creating a character to give away hamburgers and build a following on Facebook is fine I guess, but what’s the point? After the hamburgers are given away, will anyone remain friends with Woody? What is Friday’s trying to do here, create a slacker version of Ronald McDonald? Dress a clown in a pair of jeans and a beanie cap, and he’s still a clown.

Like all companies, Friday’s must have a couple of real life characters wandering the hallways at their corporate headquarters that would perhaps be more effective in leading a social media campaign. Consumers don’t want a hired character to chat with about hamburgers. They’ll take his free hamburgers, but they don’t care about him. It comes off as having something to hide, an avoidance of letting down the guard and opening the door for a real conversation, which sometimes might not be positive. Consumers want to feel like their voice can be heard and that what they say matters to the brands that they are loyal to. Involve your customers, ask for their opinions and suggestions and if giving something away helps as a thank you, then go ahead, give something away. But that can’t be the only benefit. It needs to be an ongoing engagement.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict that Woody will indeed get a huge following of “friends” simply to get their free burgers, but the friendship won’t last long. They’ll take the bait; they’ll eat it, and then abandon poor Woody after their bellies are full. If you offer a shallow campaign, then the response will be equally as shallow. Free stuff is great, but it’s not good enough to sustain a lasting relationship. I think Woody will be looking for a new job and new friends in no time.

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How To Draw People In Like A Dust Bunny To A Vacuum Cleaner

dustbunnySo, you have a great business, a great product, a great idea or a great blog, but no one is paying attention. Consumers, retailers, subscribers, investors, sponsors or whoever it is that you are trying to get to notice you, are ignoring you instead. How can you get them to be drawn in to you like a dust bunny to a vacuum cleaner? The first step is to tell them a good non-fiction story, your story.

For example, Terracyle is a company that I think has an incredibly great story and is very successful at telling it. The founder and CEO, Tom Szaky had a great idea, a fabulous and greener than green product line that also serves the greater good not only in it’s greenness, but by engaging, motivating, and benefiting the community in the success of his brand. Terracycle takes trash that would normally be non-recylable, gets people to collect it and sent it to the company, and then Terracycle turns it into really cool, practical and usable products and sends the collectors a check to be used to support a non-profit oganization of their choosing. Szaky tells his story, his product’s story and motivates a call to action. I stumbled upon Terracycle through Google, and I thought the story was so great, that I went out and bought his products for my son’s back to school needs. It also motivated my son and his best buddy to start a Terracylce “brigade” to benefit his school, and in turn, Terracycle’s business. It also impressed me so much that I am now writing about it on my own blog without being asked to or paid to. That, my friends, is the power of a great story.

Whatever your tale is, tell it like it really is. Tell people about your great idea, tell them where it came from, tell them who you are, what motivates you, and offer something to them to engage them so much that they will be compelled to act on your behalf without asking. Let people know that, like them, you are a human, not a corporate robot, and you will find that you will begin to have more fans. Humans like humans. Humans are savvy creatures that are not fooled by corporate speak or carefully crafted, altered or unnatural histories.

Everyone has a real story, but we have always been told to weave our stories in a certain way in order to present the company or the brand or ourselves in the best light possible, but not necessarily natural light.  I know I can tell an airbrushed story when I read one. Don’t be afraid of the thought of having some stranger tap you on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, but your humanness is showing.” Tell the real and natural story and you’ll find people will be coming in closer to listen. What’s your story?

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Bigger is Better vs. Better is Better

I recently read a post on Seth Godin’s Blog that got me thinking about growth in business. He was talking about the concept of expanding a business in order to grow your market. But I think one of the biggest mistakes in business is to assume that expanding your business in whatever way, whether it’s tapping into a new market, expanding your distribution into untapped territories, or adding more product to your line, is the key to growth. These are all obvious methods to approach business growth, but are they the best methods?

Building a strong brand through a great name, great product, clear message, great service, being consistent in presenting your brand, making what you do the best it can be, and fully reaching your potential market is the key to growth. Once these elements have reached their peak, then seeking to expand through other avenues makes sense. I think a brand needs to develop, establish, perfect and mature before growth through expansion should even be considered. Growth through improvement comes first.

My point here is to first max out your opportunities to improve and grow on what your existing brand and customer base is before trying to expand into uncharted territory. Examine what your business does, how it operates, how it promotes, how it presents itself, and improve on the quality of all of those things first. Rapid premature expansion of a brand will end up watering it down. Expansion into areas outside of what is expected from your customers can confuse your identity. A business needs to look at what it does best and perfect and expand within that defined space, so consumers don’t get confused about who the brand is or what it offers. Ignoring the definition and innate strength of a brand and what that image means to customers in an effort to expand and grow, is a recipe for disaster. In our society, it’s often difficult to take things slow and to build on quality first rather than quantity. Gluttony is pretty unappealing. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, BETTER is better.

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If You Build Your Brand, They Will Come.

memorial_10_bg_053004 I am a complete devotee to organic 100% natural SEO/SEM. No artificial words, just pure clean brand building. Your brand name and message is what you should concentrate on building before you worry too heavily about what keywords will drive traffic to your site. If you happen upon the right keywords, yes, it will undoubtedly send traffic to your site, but what kind of traffic? Will they actually care about your brand, product or service? Will they buy? If you focus on getting your brand name out there rather than key words that might relate to your brand, then people who really care about what you do or sell will come looking for YOU specifically, generating more meaningful hits to your website and building a reputation for your name. It’s called brand building.

Case in point here…I am the co-founder of a startup children’s shoe brand called Polliwalks that was founded in ’07. I was responsible for the Marketing and PR for the brand, and was able to build a following that generated hundreds of thousands of results from a Google or Yahoo search for the brand name. How was that done? Primarily by the process of building relationships with select blogging communities, building relationships and trust with consumers and building the brand name recognition within the brand’s consumer group.

Looking at the site analytics, only a handful of people searched for the company site by using keyword search terms. Most visitors found the site by searching for the brand name and/or the web address. Taking a closer look at the analytics, the searches that used keywords, other than the brand name, consistently had a very high bounce rate. They left because they didn’t find what they were looking for. The people that searched by the brand name consistently showed a very low bounce rate. They spent a significant amount of time looking around the site because THEY FOUND WHAT THEY WERE LOOKING FOR! They searched for the brand and they found the brand. I’m not saying that SEO should be ignored, but your brand name should be the main focus of your brand building strategy.

My point here is that it is more important to get your brand name out there, get people talking about your brand in a natural way, and in turn it will get other people specifically and actively looking for you, rather than people looking for something else, finding you instead, then leaving. This kind of essential brand building does take more time to create momentum, but it is by far more meaningful and enduring and will generate true brand awareness, brand loyalty and sales, rather than meaningless traffic to your site. Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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Brand Building: Innovate or Stay the Same?

450_heinz_largeIndependent thinkers and creatives always seem to be going against the current. Great new ideas can be hard to come by, but having the courage to implement those ideas or knowing when not to implement them is even harder. Creativity is the lifeblood of innovation and innovation is the lifeblood to longevity of a business.  I don’t mean to suggest that the only successful companies are on the cutting edge of innovation; sometimes innovation is accomplished in very subtle ways.

Heinz ketchup, for instance, has been the same since 1869, and just recently dared to change their label with the bold move of taking the pickle off and putting a tomato in its place.  They did take a questionable turn at a fork in the road when, back in 2000, they added green, purple and blue ketchup to their lineup. Although it was reported that it initially gave a boost to sales, as it turned out, consumers apparently decided that ketchup should be red. Heinz figured out that they had something good as it was: tasty, reliable, recognizable, and yes, red.  Aside from dropping the pickle and adding squeeze bottles, the branding and the product has virtually remained the same, undeniably Heinz Ketchup. In a strange and ironic way, Heinz is innovative in their lack of innovation.  They have decided to innovate by not changing.

Innovation can’t happen without a few brave souls who have natural intuition, vision, creativity and courage to do things that haven’t been proven first, nor can it happen without those traditionalists on the other end of the spectrum who are strong enough in their convictions to stand up to those who are screaming “change” when they know that it’s not a good thing for their brand.

Obviously, some industries require constant innovation to remain competitive and some don’t, but whether you are a machete wielding creative maverick, always cutting new paths through uncharted territory, or a tried and true purist with a deep knowledge and belief in maintaining a strong legacy through consistency, or someone who falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, just make sure that you always remain true to your your brand. Ego and inflexibility can be equally dangerous to progress. Innovate by creation or by staying the same, because both schools have their place. It’s just all in the knowing.

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