Friday, September 29, 2017

Brands & Crisis Management

Although all organizations intend to create the best possible customer experiences, occasionally something real or perceived happens that produces just the opposite effect: a crisis. Every brand will experience a crisis at one time or another. The hallmark of a strong brand is how well it handles those crises. The crisis could come as a result of something the company does (such as the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—more on this in a moment) or something that is foisted upon it (rumors that McDonald’s’ hamburgers are made of worms). But, when a crisis occurs, it is time to enact a well-rehearsed crisis management plan. So, think about a crisis management plan now (hopefully, long before any actual crisis), and begin with the following considerations:
  • Steadily and consistently build brand goodwill over time.
  • Identify and address potential problem areas ahead of any actual crises.
  • Have a well-thought-through crisis (or emergency response) plan, including scenarios, step-by-step instructions on how to best address each scenario, approved spokespeople, contact information, and key communication documents (e.g., fact sheets, backgrounders, press releases, bios).
  • Work with crisis management experts and your legal staff in developing those plans.
  • Conduct crisis management drills at least once a year.
  • Conduct a crisis vulnerability audit.
  • During the crisis itself, follow these general rules:
    • Follow your crisis plan.
    • Identify your spokespeople.
    • Respond quickly.
    • Be honest. Don’t deny or cover up things; ultimately, they will be exposed.
    • Accept responsibility as appropriate.
    • Share as much information as is possible and prudent.
    • Let people know what you are doing to manage the situation
    • Show concern for those affected.
    • Let people know what you are doing to help people who are negatively impacted.
    • Explain what you are doing to cooperate with the authorities.
    • Let people know if neighbors or others are in danger and what they can do about it.
    • Provide the media with telephone and Internet access and the other tools that they need to perform their jobs.
    • Provide frequent updates to keep the communication lines open.
    • Act with integrity, reinforcing the brand’s personality.

If not handled well, a crisis can undo years of brand equity building. According to Bob Roemer—who was then responsible for BP-Amoco’s public and government affairs worldwide emergency response capabilities—the key to effective crisis management is to offer maximum information with minimum delay. If you don’t have a well-rehearsed plan, you should work with your public affairs department and a PR agency to develop one.

Reprinted from Brand Aid chapter 14: Creating the total brand experience. © 2015 Brad VanAuken

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Brand Aid

Since it was first published in 2001, Brand Aid has sold more than 20,000 copies. Now in its second edition, it is available in digital and audio formats and has been translated into several languages. It is used by business schools around the globe to teach brand management and marketing. Here is what people are saying about the book:

‘My desk has been home to a bumper crop of worthwhile new books on brands and branding. A standout in the group is Brand Aid by Brad VanAuken, which offers an almost encyclopedic look at every step in the brand process (designing, building, leveraging, managing). The advice is straightforward, voluminous and informed by experience. VanAuken also includes lengthy checklists at the end of each chapter that help readers assess their own situations and also serve as a good platform for brainstorming. Highly recommended.’

Joseph Rydholm, editor, Quirk’s Marketing Research Review

‘Brad VanAuken knows his stuff - and he knows how to share it with the rest of us in a clear and concise manner that will leave you feeling: "Now I get it!" With a tremendous understanding of how to take complex marketing systems and put them into an easy to understand, universal language, VanAuken brings the reader up to speed quickly and comfortably with simple terms and concrete examples. This book will serve well as not only a quick reference, but also as a step by step tool to creating a branding identity that will stand the test of time.’

John Copeland, program manager, National Arts Marketing Project

‘This is a terrific, pithily-written book that stands head and shoulders above most other branding books currently on the market. Its fluid style and concise treatment of the major issues in creating winning brands makes most other such texts look pedestrian by comparison.’

Keith Dinnie, Book Review Editor, Journal of Brand Management

'I am a huge fan of Brand Aid #2 and have been using it in my keystone graduate class called IMC 463 Brand Communications Decisions. I feel your book is one of the most practical and valuable books ever written about brands. I love the checklists and remind the students that your book is my graduation gift to them because it is a resource they will find useful every day they are developing, managing or increasing the value of brands.'

John Greening, Associate Professor at Northwestern University in Evanston IL heading up the Brand Management specialization in the Graduate Medill Integrated Marketing Communications Program

'Since we first communicated, I have used your book in graduate level branding course for three cohorts. Simply, your book is a tremendous asset to me and my students. They rave how your content and writing style is so practical, direct and applicable. Furthermore, the cornerstone of the course is a group assignment where the students complete the Brand and Brand Management Audits for an organization of their choice. I couldn’t be more pleased and impressed with their effort and the quality of their work.'

Brian Vollmert, Assistent Professor of Marketing at North Park University

'The big idea: As a business leader, you know that every company, object, service, person or pet hoping to compete for public attention needs a brand. An enormous cottage industry has grown up around creating and improving brands, making it increasingly harder to cut through to useful, actionable information to help position your company’s products or services in the market. It should come as an enormous relief, then, that just about all the information you need has been compiled in a single book. The second edition of Brad VanAuken’s Brand Aid includes everything from a basic introduction to brand management to advice on leveraging and measuring your brand’s success.

Read it: Each chapter of the book includes an exhaustive list of tips, examples, case studies and more. The content of any given chapter is summarized in a handy, comprehensive checklist you can use to track your own branding efforts. The book’s cleanly organized chapters and checklists make it easy to dip in and out of if you don’t have time to read cover to cover. The writing is straightforward, easy to follow and almost entirely devoid of jargon. Extensive appendices offer many suggestions for further reading as well as useful resources for brand audits and online brand management.

Skip it: There’s really only one reason to skip this book: You already own the first edition, published in 2003. However, given the rapidly evolving nature of branding and consumer preferences, you still might consider an update.' book review

'There are literally dozens of flags marking pages in my copy of Brand Aid. Pick up a copy, and it will undoubtedly look the same in short order. Brand Aid functions equally well as a troubleshooter for underperforming, established brands, and as a toolkit for launching new brands destined for legendary status.'

'Powerful yet intangible, a brand is the personification of your organization. Learn to build, nurture, and grow a strong brand that inspires people, forges emotional bonds, and moves customers to insist on buying your brand.

This book guides you through the entire branding process, from using social media effectively to linking your brand to human needs.'

Advertising Educational Foundation

‘VanAuken has distilled his enormous practical knowledge about the theory and practice of brand management into this smart…volume. The book is packed with information and good ideas – so many, in fact, that it is virtually an encyclopedia of brand management does and don’ts’

Publishers Weekly

‘Of all the books I’ve read on marketing and branding, this one is the shining star! I’ll also go out on a limb and assert that it’s one of the best books I’ve seen published by AMACOM.’

Roger E. Herman, Midwest Book Review

‘This is an EXCELLENT practical book in a field awash with theory and useless generalizations.’

Anne Holland,

‘You will not want to be without this book in your library.’

Laura Schneider, About Marketing (

Brand Aid is available here.

Customer-Centric Brand Strategy

Too many companies still think of marketing as the thing to do to sell more products. The products are a given and marketing plans are created and executed to sell more of the products the company produces. In this way, marketing is a tactical afterthought. 

But what if the purpose of the company was to meet (and even anticipate) the needs of one or more specific customers? What if that company focused on a limited number of very specific customers with very specific needs? And what if that company used research to better understand (and again, even anticipate) those needs? And what if the company's focus was to meet more and more of that customer's needs through additional products and services?

What do I mean by focus? Bass Pro Shops focuses on people who fish. Orvis focuses on people who fly fish. Arena and Speedo focus on swimmers, and especially competitive swimmers. Lane Bryant and Avenue cater to plus-sized women. Paul Smith's College is for students who love the outdoors and especially the Adirondacks. Brigham Young University caters to LDS college students. caters to musicians. 

But what if their growth strategies were not focused on targeting new markets for the same products and services but rather, creating new products and services to better serve their specifically targeted core markets? To become invaluable to a specific set of people creates tremendous brand loyalty and even advocacy.  And, more importantly, it insures that the brand remains current and relevant leading to a much longer life. Specific products and services can become obsolete over time. Meeting important customer needs in an ever increasing and evolving set of ways does not. 

Instead of a product-centric strategy, consider a customer-centric strategy. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

What Do Brands Signal About You?

Regardless of product or service category, brands signal something about you. Consider the shirt that you wear. If you are wearing a Carhartt shirt, what does that say about you? Do you live in a large city or out in the country? Do you spend a lot of time outdoors? Do you pursue physical activity outside of a gym? How about Under Armour? Columbia? Patagonia? The North Face? Loudmouth? lululemon? Eton? Calvin Kline? Robert Graham? Vans? Versace?

Now think about cars. What does driving a Tesla say about you? How about a Mercedes-Benz? BMW? Toyota? Honda? Hyundai? Mini-Cooper? What are your motivations for buying the car that you drive? To get you from point A to point B and that's it? To haul a trailer or a boat? To enjoy the drive itself? To maximize gas milage? To reduce carbon emissions? To signal your social status? To show that you are cut from a more interesting mold than most people?

How about schools? What does going to a community college say about you? What does going to UC Berkeley say about you? Are you smart? Are you liberal? How about Liberty University? Brigham Young University? Reed College? MIT? University of Kansas? University of Florida? Rhode Island School of Design? US Military Academy at West Point? Naropa University? Hampshire College? Williams College? Stanford University? 

What are some of your favorite brands of wines? Carlo Rossi? Reunite? Trader Joe's Charles Shaw? Yellow Tail? Barefoot? Duckhorn? Stag's Leap? Caymus? Silver Oak? Hall's? Sloan? Maybach? Screaming Eagle? Chateau Lafite Rothschild? Chateau d'Yquem? Or do you drink beer instead? Or perhaps craft cocktails? Or maybe you don't drink alcohol at all.

For each of these brands, think about what you are signaling to others whether you want to or not? Are you signaling social-economic status, region of country, religious affiliation, personality type, social consciousness, urban versus suburban versus rural residence, IQ, political point of view, profession, hobbies, family size, age, gender, how well traveled you are, how well read you are, how fashion conscious you are, how self-actualized you are...and I could go on and on.

Now think about what YOUR brand is signaling and to whom.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Are Brands Even Real?

Let's take a step back and think about it. What are brands anyway? Aren't they this kind of fuzzy idea that no one can define perfectly? Does labeling something a brand make it a brand?

When I think about brands, it's about attaching labels and identities to things and imbuing them with human qualities. But isn't it really all about quality products and innovation and outstanding service and responsiveness and trustworthiness? Isn't it also about what your product or organization stands for and how you treat your customers? It can also be about creating a unique value proposition and consistent messaging. And it can be about making promises and creating real value and differentiation. 

So, in a way, "brand" is an umbrella or catch-all term for managing the branded item in a way that makes it stand out and achieve marketplace success. It is a set of tools, techniques and measurements that lead to uniqueness and superiority. It is a process and a methodology. It is a discipline. It is a gestalt. 

And, in a way, that is what makes brand management so difficult. It is so much more than marketing communication or even marketing. It is about creating and maintaining a successful identity and strategy for your organization and its products and services. 

So, whether brands are real or not, they serve a very useful purpose. And frankly, it is much better to be a strong brand than a commodity. To this I say, "Long live brands!"

Monday, September 11, 2017

Honing Your Marketing Skills

In addition to consulting with a wide variety of organizations regarding brand strategy, I also have served as an adjunct faculty member in the marketing departments at two different business schools, guest lectured at dozens of business schools, conducted "brand camps" at other business schools and helped MBA students at different business schools develop their personal value propositions. I have also judged MBA students' new business ideas and served as a mentor to MBA students. 

These are all ways not only to gain exposure as a marketing consultant, but more importantly, to hone one's brand management and marketing skills. I have found one activity to be even more valuable in keeping my creative marketing ideas flowing. I serve on the marketing committees of a variety of not-for-profit organizations, sometimes as a committee member and often as a committee chair. Today, I am involved on the marketing committees of six different not-for-profit organizations, but over time I have been involved in the marketing committees of dozens of not-for-profit organizations. Further, as a board member and volunteer for the Advertising Council of Rochester (now Causewave Community Partners), I have helped dozens of other not-for-profit organizations wrestle with their marketing issues. 

Skills become more ingrained when you teach them and being an adjunct marketing faculty member provides you access to the latest business school marketing case studies and concepts. Volunteering on marketing committees of organizations with limited marketing resources helps you become highly creative and efficient in developing successful marketing strategies and tactics. They also expose you to a variety of marketing approaches that larger organizations may not have tried. And the combination of consulting, teaching, conducting research, writing books and articles and volunteering on not-for-profit marketing committees, provides for an amazing amount of cross-fertilization of ideas. 

If you are a marketing professional, whether working for a company, a marketing agency, a brand consultancy or some other type of organization, teaching what you know, writing about what you know and especially helping not-for-profit organizations with what you know is a win-win activity for all involved, but especially for you. Consider doing one or more of these things.

Six Approaches to Brand Positioning

Brand positioning is perhaps the most important task in brand management. Ideally, it should drive everything else. Brand positioning is part art and part science. I like to inform the exercise by in-depth research including qualitative customer benefit exploration, brand equity measurement, brand benefit importance/delivery mapping and brand position testing. Having said that, intuition and creativity also are important skills that feed into this process every step of the way. 

There are six basic approaches to brand positioning:

  1. Own one or a unique combination of two benefits that are highly compelling to the end consumer and unique to the brand within the traditional product/service category. The benefits could be emotional, experiential or self-expressive. (I no longer advocate focusing on functional brand benefits.)
  2. As a variation on this, own an emotional, experiential or self expressive benefit and a functional benefit that serves as the proof point for the emotional, experiential or self-expressive benefit.
  3. Own a highly compelling value that is shared with the end consumer.
  4. Focus on both (1) a differentiating benefit within the tightly defined product/service category and (2) the primary category benefit. (See Promoting Category Benefits for more information on this approach.)
  5. Choose to compete in a broader category than the traditional product category, providing for potentially more sales but also more competition. This usually results in a significant repositioning of the brand focusing on non-traditional brand benefits, but can include focusing on the narrower category benefits associated with the traditional product category as a point of difference in the larger product category. 
  6. Create a "category of one" brand by creating a new highly compelling category for which your brand is the only choice. (See Creating "Category of One" Brands for more information on this approach.)
I wish you great success in optimizing the position of your brand.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Promoting Category Benefits

Usually the brand that has the most to gain by promoting category benefits is the market share leader. For instance, as market share leader, Hallmark had the most to gain by promoting the benefits of sending greeting cards. 

However, over time, I have come to realize that many brands would benefit from promoting category benefits. While those brands are competing most directly with close-in competitors, that is competitors in the most tightly defined product/service categories, they are also competing with what I call "everyone and everything else." 

Consider a fine art museum. It is certainly competing with other nearby fine art museums but it is also competing with every other use of its potential patron's time and money - other recreational or educational activities including other types of museums, botanical gardens, movies, baseball games, etc. That is why it would be wise not only to focus on differentiating benefits within the category but also the category benefits themselves as ultimately, the brand is competing against brands in other categories.

As another example, consider a yacht club brand. It is competing against other yacht clubs within the same geography. But it is also competing against other uses of recreational time - traveling to a nearby city, playing tennis, riding bicycles, playing golf, having a picnic, visiting a zoo, etc. A yacht club can grow by stealing share from other yacht clubs (that is, by getting a bigger slice of the pie) or it can grow by convincing more people that sailing and racing sailboats are very rewarding activities (by expanding the pie). 

At Hallmark, we produced two different types of advertising. One highlighted the benefits of maintaining relationships through card sending, while the other spoke to why someone should give a Hallmark card instead of another brand of card. 

Promoting category benefits is particularly important in categories that are static or shrinking. It will have a much greater impact on revenues than trying to steal share. 

If you haven't considered this already, consider whether promoting category benefits would be beneficial to your brand.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Brands & System Design

How many times has a brand's computerized system made you frustrated or angry? Have you ever had to enter your user name and password more than once to get what you wanted either online or via the telephone? Have you been offered a price discount as a valued customer only to not receive it because the link on the push email sent you to the website without recognizing you? Have you ever encountered an automated customer service system that does not provide a choice for the issue you are trying to resolve? Or how about the automated system that keeps sending you in an infinite loop, never to reach your destination? How about when you have to explain your problem over and over again to each new person because they do not have a system of shared notes? My favorite is holding for say 30 minutes only to discover that the automated system sent me to the wrong department, resulting in another 30 minute hold. Once, I had this happen with four different telephone number transfers. I was really upset by the time that I finally reached the person who could help me. 

I encountered one website that only allowed me to buy one ticket at a time. (I wanted to purchase multiple tickets for the event.) I had to reenter all of my information including name, contact and credit card information for each individual ticket purchase. How ridiculous is that?

Most recently, I booked flights on Delta Airlines for my wife and I using Expedia's online platform. (I have been an elite status member of both Delta and Expedia for years.) Unbeknownst to me, the only Delta tickets that Expedia listed were Basic Economy fares. I booked my flights and discovered at the airport that we had no seat assignments. We were assigned separate middle seats in the back of the plane at the boarding gate, were boarded in the last boarding group and there was no room for our luggage in the passenger compartment. I politely inquired about this at the boarding gate, reminding the gate agent of my elite status, only to be told that I had purchased basic economy tickets with no frills. The gate agent even subtly implied that I was a cheapskate and that I got what I paid for. The only problem is that I did not know that I had purchased Basic Economy tickets and I was not given an option to purchase a better ticket. My wife kept asking me (sarcastically), "So, this is what you get for your years of loyalty and elite status?" I am definitely annoyed at both Delta and Expedia. 

The point of this blog post is to indicate how important system and process design is in creating and maintaining brand loyalty. 

On the flip side, I am a very loyal American Express customer. Why is that? Because their customer service systems work very well and I have always been treated very well by their customer service representatives. Ditto with Ritz-Carlton systems and employees. 

When designing your brand experience, don't forget about the role systems and process design play in customer satisfaction and loyalty.