Can you Fake Authenticity in Branding?

A great read from Fast Company magazine:


In an increasingly shiny, fabricated world of spun messages and concocted experiences–where nearly everything we encounter is created for consumption–elevating a brand above the fray requires an uncommon mix of creativity and discipline. And nowhere do you see the challenge more starkly illustrated than in the quest for authenticity. “Authenticity is the benchmark against which all brands are now judged,” notes John Grant in The New Marketing Manifesto. Or as Seth Godin quips in Permission Marketing: “If you can fake authenticity, the rest will take care of itself.”

At #101, We Try Harder

Here is Millward Brown’s 2007 Top 100 Brands Ranking report (free .pdf download). Not surprisingly, Google has rocketed to the top.

My secret mole within the organization said that we were just bumped out by a whisker. Oh, well, there’s always next year!

Introducing: The New Marketing Blogger Portal!

You’re a blogger and a professional. Your voice is “out there” somewhere in the blogosphere – how are people going to find out about you?

We’re making a start, with the brand new Marketing Blogger Portal!

This portal is a collection of feeds from many of the top bloggers in the realms of branding, advertising, design, copywriting, and other forms of marketing.

This is a “version 1” – the site will be progressively improved and expanded. Your suggestions are welcome (see the About tab)!

Feel free to link to the site and promote it to others…

It’s a Pleasure

Throughout my short but enjoyable blogging “career,” I’ve made a number of comments and recommendations about good wine, coffee, beer, music, reading, etc.

Instead of having that “After Hours” stuff scattered all over various blogs, I’ve decided to collect my reviews and commentary on a dedicated blog, called It’s a Pleasure. This will also include (weekly) recipes that I try out, as I try to re-awaken some long-dormant kitchen creativity.


Collaborating on a Book

Along with a great group of other bloggers, I’ll be contributing a chapter to an upcoming e-book.

Back story here, with an explanation of how this project has developed in rapid-time!

Here are the names and blog links (mostly) for all contributors.

Gavin Heaton
Drew McLellan
Valeria Maltoni
Emily Reed
Katie Chatfield
Greg Verdino
Mack Collier
Lewis Green
Ann Handley
Mike Sansone
Paul McEnany
Roger von Oech
Anna Farmery
David Armano
Bob Glaza
Mark Goren
Matt Dickman
Scott Monty
Richard Huntington
Cam Beck
David Reich
Mindblob (Luc)
Sean Howard
Tim Jackson
Patrick Schaber
Roberta Rosenberg
Uwe Hook
Tony D. Clark
Todd Andrlik
Toby Bloomberg
Steve Woodruff
Steve Bannister
Steve Roesler
Stanley Johnson
Spike Jones
Nathan Snell
Simon Payn
Ryan Rasmussen
Ron Shevlin
Roger Anderson
Bob Hruzek
Rishi Desai
Phil Gerbyshak
Peter Corbett
Pete Deutschman
Nick Rice
Nick Wright
Mitch Joel
Michael Morton
Mark Earls
Mark Blair
Mario Vellandi
Lori Magno
Kristin Gorski
Krishna De
Kris Hoet
Kofl Annan
Kimberly Dawn Wells
Karl Long
Julie Fleischer
Jordan Behan
John La Grou
Joe Raasch
Jim Kukral
Jessica Hagy
Janet Green
Jamey Shiels
Dr. Graham Hill
Gia Facchini
Geert Desager
Gaurav Mishra
Gary Schoeniger
Gareth Kay
Faris Yakob
Emily Clasper
Ed Cotton
Dustin Jacobsen
Tom Clifford
David Pollinchock
David Koopmans
David Brazeal
David Berkowitz
Carolyn Manning
Craig Wilson
Cord Silverstein
Connie Reece
Colin McKay
Chris Newlan
Chris Corrigan
Cedric Giorgi
Brian Reich
Becky Carroll
Arun Rajagopal
Andy Nulman
Amy Jussel
AJ James
Kim Klaver
Sandy Renshaw
Susan Bird
Ryan Barrett
Troy Worman

This is a great idea and a wonderful display of just how easily the “fences have come down” through web-based collaboration (my article is entitled, “The Lowered Fence of Collaboration”). I’ve had fruitful interaction with a number of people on this list, though not having met any of them face-to-face (yet!). Can’t wait to see the final result!

Brand DNA – instant recognition

Seth Godin has an insightful post on how quickly certain things (such as the first notes of a song) can register on us, and bring up the “brand” represented.

Off the top of my head, I think this type of imparted Brand DNA comes from at least 3 things:

– Repetition

– Consistency

– Strong (hopefully, positive!) association

Recently, one of my sons, who is taking drum lessons, was given a CD to learn from, by a rock group from the 70’s. I vaguely recalled the name of the group but couldn’t “place” the song names in my head. However, moments after the CD started to spin, I had the whole song flooding back from memory. Repetition, don’t you know, from years ago.

I remember, over a decade ago now, when I used to fly more regularly into Chicago, that there was (and still is) a Starbucks located at the entrance to O’Hare’s Terminal E/F. Coming into that city, my nose would be attuned to this positive association, and it was always there. Plus, they had one at McCormick Center, where I’d be each year for a trade show in November – and I’d unfailingly walk however long it was in that gargantuan place to get my morning Starbucks. Those experiences helped embed the Starbucks DNA into my system.

Now, if I could just get a piece of Seth’s DNA and graft it into my makeup!

Customers Rot!

Becky Carroll has a very enjoyable blog entitled Customers Rock!, in which she holds forth the perspective that we really should treat our customers as incredibly valuable.

But some people/companies still seem to hold to a Customers Rot! attitude.

Recently, we’ve been seeking to get some plumbing work done. A sink replaced, a couple faucets, a few other smaller things (full disclosure: I’d classify myself as only “half-handy,” and better at outdoor work than indoor stuff!) So we made a call, first of all to a very nice plumber who quickly helped us with a belly-up water heater a couple months back. He’d come to us recommended by a friend. Surely he’d want to maintain a customer relationship!

No response. No return call, even after a couple of messages.

We tried with another referred name.

Same result.

Another. Finally, a call back – this fellow does these type of small jobs “on the side,” but apparently he is more willing to gain a customer doing evening work, than others for whom it is a day job.

Now, I understand if the other fellows were too busy – particularly since our work on this occasion was pretty small scale. But too busy to return a call, and simply explain that you don’t have the time right now – and maybe provide a recommendation? Too busy to value a customer – and what that customer may say (positive or negative) to others who ask their opinion? Too busy for common courtesy?

Another example of a Customers Rot! attitude – not neglect, but downright hostility – came to the surface this week when I was speaking with another consultant. She started a role with a software/services company, and mentioned that on the very first day, an employee put a customer on hold and started letting loose a stream of demeaning and negative comments about this client (probably one of their largest sources of revenue). Displaying, right in front of this person just starting out, why that particular company was not going to be worthy of a long-term engagement. She quickly moved on.

A company’s brand goes far deeper than a logo and a tagline. It is profoundly shaped by attitudes. The employees embody the brand, for better or for worse (here’s a positive example). One of the best “branding” moves a company can make is hiring people who truly seek to serve, and who do not stew in negativity! If you end up with “hostiles,” don’t be surprised when you get the business equivalent of red cards!

My Recent Posts on Small Business Branding blog

I have been asked to contribute articles to the SBB blog. I anticipate writing about one per week; here are the first few:

Bullet-point Branding – wherein I take on the (very common) tendency to present one’s company via a list of blah-blah, and suggest that it is far more effective to narrow company branding down to a point of differentiation.

10 Lessons Learned from Starting a Small Business – I guess that title is pretty self-explanatory. Though I did cheat and include eleven!

What’s the Point? – always, my main question of a client. If you’re creating or promoting a brand, you have to answer this question first and foremost.

Here are a couple of more “foundational” thought-posts from earlier months on the StickyFigure blog:

What is Branding? – my attempt to provide some definition to the term – at least from my perspective (other perspectives welcome in the comments!)

The One Thing Needed – the importance of conviction. Underscored afresh for me when talking to someone I met yesterday. While discussing my convictions about branding in light of a practical challenge she faced, she suddenly said something to this effect: “you make me feel confident that you can do this.”

“I’d like some Moskowitz, please!”

For years, I heard the ads on the NYC radio airwaves. “We don’t arrange loans, we make loans! We write the checks.” It was the M.L. Moskowitz company, pitching their services.

Suddenly, a few years back, I began to hear the same pitches but under a new name. Equity Now. Somebody at this company “gets it.”

If I’m in the market for a home equity loan, I’m not looking for a Moskowitz. I’m looking for a loan against my equity. Now. Many companies make the mistake of branding their organization with the name(s) of the founder(s). Big mistake. It’s not about you. It’s about me, the customer.

They took the company name, and, by re-branding, aimed it properly – at the felt need of the audience. With a more-than-implied promise – NOW.

Since I’m compulsive about these things, I listened carefully to make sure that I had, indeed, witnessed a smart branding move. Sure enough, at the end of the radio blurb – “Equity Now is an M.L. Moskowitz company.”

Have I ever called them? No. Am I likely to? Not that I can anticipate. But did they get my attention with that little branding twist? Sure enough. And now they have yours also.

Finding a Needle in a Logostack

As happens occasionally when I read the Wall Street Journal, there was a full page “boast” ad today (for NASDAQ, in this case) showcasing a whole bunch of company logos – 72 new companies that have joined the exchange this quarter.

I always browse through these logostacks to see if there are any that really stand out. Often, I’m a bit disappointed, as I was today. There was, however, one that I thought warranted looking at further – it seemed to have a nice look and feel. So I found their website, and…the disappointment deepened!

Oculus Innovative Sciences has a pretty nice looking logo, with a pleasant typeface. And looking at the company name and logo, you’d be quite sure that this company is involved in eyecare products. But, you’d be quite wrong. For some bizarre reason, the company offer products for woundcare. Even though the naming and visual branding cry out “Eyecare!”  Sigh.

There is an Oculus USA company, which is different, and which does, in fact, focus on eyecare. But its logo is so ugly that I won’t even bother providing a link to it.

Then there was the most blatantly awful logo in the stack. Everything about this branding attempt says, “Hey! We’re old news! We’re yesterday! Hitch up your Conestoga wagon and come on by for a visit!” Sheeesh.

My Most Popular Post – I Can’t Believe it!

Like most bloggers, I like to peek “under the hood” and see which posts generate the most traffic. And, since search engines drive so much surfing these days, it’s particularly enlightening to see which terms are used frequently that draw people to my site.

Some of the searches are truly bizarre. Why my site comes up in response to certain word combinations (some of which I won’t reproduce here!) is sometimes a mystery!

But what query brings the most visitors? Dr. Pepper’s 23 flavors.

I did a post on this marketing campaign some months back, which I consider a brilliant move by the Dr. Pepper folks. In that post, I mentioned how this “23 flavors” theme creates a sense of mystery – so just what are these wonderful flavors?

And, sure enough, tons of people are searching the Internet trying to find out! They come to my site because I did a post – not because I can reveal the “23” secret! – but I suspect folks are rummaging around the web trying to find the answer to this puzzle. It’s a great marketing concept.

I don’t think it would work so well for bottled water, however…

Brand New Jersey

I live in New Jersey, and have for 23 years.

So, when someone asks, “Where are you from?”, why is it that I generally answer, “I live in New Jersey”? Why, after 23 years, am I unable to say that I am “from” New Jersey?

Sad to say, I’ve never been sold on the brand that is New Jersey.

Not that the state doesn’t have a lot to offer. It does. We like our town and our surroundings, and there are many good destinations within a short drive of north Jersey. There’s a lot of professional opportunity here. Lots of good people. So….why?

The reason is well illustrated by the lack of integrity demonstrated by our government officials. And this is not a “political statement.” Totally apart from any party politics, it’s just a sad statement of fact.

Our newest governor, whose entree into office was significantly aided by loads of cash, just got himself seriously injured by flouting the laws he is supposed to uphold – speeding in a government vehicle, and traveling without a seat belt fastened. The prior governor stepped down in a well-documented scandal. Our latest senatorial election had all sorts of ethical questions surrounding it. And on it goes. There is so much scandal in New Jersey politics that it all seems like “business as usual.”

It’s one thing to pay taxes – some of the highest in the nation. It’s another when the return on investment is embarrassment.

Our “leaders” don’t seem to account for the fact that this level of seediness erodes all civic pride among citizens. And so, you see, I’m not from New Jersey.

Perhaps I’d like to be. Perhaps I’d like to proudly say that I’m a resident of this state. In fact, I would enjoy the privilege of pointing out elected officials to my sons, and saying, “Emulate that person.” Instead of causing us to always look to the future, wondering what other shores might be better for our later years, perhaps some political leaders in NJ could stand up, strive for a new business as usual, and make this state a place of pride.

So, sell me. I don’t need another cheap NJ tourist slogan. I’ve been watching for 23 years, and you who lead this state have blown the New Jersey brand so far. Because a brand is more than a slogan – it’s all about value. Is there anyone around who can make me want to be from New Jersey??

Brands You Can Take to the Bank!

Last week, I drove by some sign for Citizen’s Bank. It registered in my obsessive brand-consciousness that this was a particularly weak logo – what do a bunch of arrows pointing to one another have to do with anything? Then, going on their website, I noted that the tagline is, at least, consistent with the logo – weak and meaningless. The name of the bank isn’t bad, but someone please invest some money in a better identity campaign!

That got me thinking of another bank that recently went through a merger and re-branding. Just what is a Wachovia, anyway? And what is the logo trying to portray? Shouldn’t a name and logo have a certain self-evident meaning to it? If someone has to ask how to pronounce something, or query as to the meaning of a logo, then the game is over before it starts.

I happen to bank at Bank of America – only because the branch where we started banking long ago has gone through however many mergers, and BofA is the last acquirer of record! BofA’s logo is strong, although their prior campaign slogan (Higher Standards) had no particular emotional content. However, the new BofA campaign (Bank of Opportunity) directly speaks to people’s aspirations, and their new ads are quite effective.

Of all bank names, however, none sinks lower in my mind than Fifth Third Bank, with their highly intuitive web address, What were these people thinking? And how are they going to compete with First Third, Second Third, Third Third, and Fourth Third? What if First Second opened up down the street (tagline: 1/2 the Bank You Expected!)?

So, what are your most (and least) favorite bank brands, and why?

Coffee and Donut Shops: spicing up a boring drive

It was a long and rainy drive to Boston last week. The scenery, of course, was ever-changing – the back of an 18-wheeler, the rooster-tail from an SUV, orange detour cones – but despite all that, staying alert and engaged was a challenge. What to do to help make the trip less of a snooze?

How about coffee? Specifically, comparing the coffees of the various donut shops as I snaked my way northward.

First stop: Krispy Kreme. One of their few stores in the area northeast is off I-95 in Milford, CT. Pulling up, I was happy to see the “Hot Now” sign lit up (hot donuts were being made!) – but then, was quickly dismayed to discover that they no longer – as of a few days before – hand out free samples of those delectable rings of sweetness to customers! Hey, that was the main reason my family and I have stopped there all these times on trips to Connecticut! One great branding idea destroyed, probably by some cost-cutter in HQ. Nonetheless, I do like their coffee pretty well – esp. the bold roast. I’d give KK a ranking of 2nd place among my stops this day.

Then, of course, there is Dunkin’ Donuts. For those in the northeast, and especially New England, I should say the ubiquitous DD. Their coffee has always been consistently decent, and today was no exception. Some years ago, they did a limited trial of a DD Dark Roast, and I used to Go Out Of My Way (one of my ultimate measures of brand attachment!) to get that brew. Alas, for reasons that have never been clear to me, they shelved it. The DD cup, on this day, ranked third.

And in first place? Well, we had dinner with some friends who moved down from Canada recently, and they recommended Tim Horton’s. Now Tim Horton’s donut shops are big in Canada, but only recently have they begun invading the U.S., starting (I assume) in New England. Having stored that tidbit in memory, when I saw a Horton’s sign off the highway, I pulled in for my first TH coffee experience. And, I’d have to say that it nudged out the Krispy Kreme brew by a few grounds.

Of course, on my way home I saw the welcome sight of a Starbucks sign, and that cup easily topped the others. What can I say? – I like strong, dark coffee. But I still haven’t found the equal of my all-time favorite, Mill Mountain Blend. Why can’t these folks expand from central VA to north Jersey??

Three E-mail Marketing Services to look at

I have a weekly e-newsletter that goes out to my pharmaceutical clientele, and for that, I use Constant Contact. Why? Because I saw their logo at the bottom of other newsletters that I received over the years, and when it was time to start my business, they were a familiar name. And, I’ve had no disappointments – it’s been easy to use, without glitches.

I have also heard good things about ExactTarget, and I’m sure they’re worthy of consideration as well.

If I were starting from scratch, however, I’d certainly take a look at Emma. Why? I love the “attitude” on their website. And then there is this testimonial. And, they’re in Nashville, next to my old stomping grounds at Vanderbilt. Some people shy away from the human element in their web presentation, but these folks revel in it, and for certain types of services, I think that is quite appropriate.

Back to the Past

Every once in a while, my eye catches an advertisement on-line that forces me to click – not because I care one whit about the thing being advertised, but because the graphical design or message is so compelling.

Yes, I’m sick. I know.

This morning, it was a banner ad for I thought that the logo, the color combinations, and the typeface were so well put together, that I had to go to the site. And I was not disappointed. A great site design – very pleasing to the eye. Somebody with real talent did this interface.

I have a mild interest in genealogies – nothing inordinate – but if I ever want to dig deeper into the past, guess where I’ll go?

Got Duck?

Never heard of this school, and probably never would have…except for this pretty funny website featuring a talking duck. Somebody had a lot of fun with this….

Hat tip: Coudal Partners

The Power of Imagery

Recently, I asked a graphic designer friend to come up with a couple of graphics using the imagery of pie, for a volunteer organization in which I serve.

She did a great job – and the unexpected evidence was quickly apparent! My five year old was standing over my shoulder as I opened up the files (one of an entire pie, the other of a delectable slice), and then I heard him leave the room and scoot down the hall. Next thing I know, he is pleading with my wife, saying that he’s “in the mood for pie!”

Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind a slice myself!

(if you’re looking for free-lance graphic design work, by the way, I can certainly recommend my friend Rebecca)

Benefits of Blogging: Networking

I’ve been carrying on an e-conversation with Becky Carroll, the author of the excellent Customers Rock! blog, and Principal of the Petra Consulting Group. We first stumbled across each other due to a posting on wine, which touched on a mutual area of interest.

Since both of our blogs and businesses focus on marketing issues (wine being an enjoyable, but revenue-draining hobby!), we found a lot of other common interests. This demonstrated the power of the “new neighborhood,” in which we can create our own communities based on shared interests, without respect to geographical boundaries (Becky is on the opposite coast) – the backyard fences are very low in this hyper-connected age.

Then came a client phone call, in which a particular potential project suddenly started to sound like it could be a Petra/StickyFigure thing. We’ll see where it goes, but it gave the impetus to actually talk voice-to-voice with Becky and start collaborating in more than a “general interest” way.

I had a similar experience with my friend Jane Chin – back and forth electronically, then finally meeting, and hopefully this will lead to some expanded business opportunities.

I expect that a lot more business is going to happen this way for small companies/solo entrepreneurs/consultants. A web of expertise, each providing expertise and services as needed, all opening up new opportunities for one another in an atmosphere of informality and good will.

I’ve seen some recent posts about face-to-face meetings among bloggers who found each other and established relationships on-line, then finally organized get-togethers to further the networking and start connecting live faces to electronic identities. A great trend, which will only accelerate the benefits!

Brands That Lie

In the shower today – why is it that so many ideas pop up when watered in the morning? – I was reminded, looking at the various plastic containers of ablutions, what amazing levels of lying go on in the marketing of hair care products.

I grabbed the bottles in order to jot down exact quotes (the perjuring brands will remain nameless):

“Fortified with Vitamins C & E along with a fortifying blend of plant-derived extracts” (Hair, by the way, is dead. All this healthy sounding stuff is placebo)

“_____ is specially formulated with Citrus CR for frequent use” (Oooooh – Citrus CR!!! Must be a new breakthrough!)

“_____ is specially formulated with Hydra-Proteins and shine enhancers…” (see above)

“Cleansing for all hair types” (as if an “oily” formulation wouldn’t work for “dry” hair)

“Salon-healthy hair” (is hair more healthy in a salon?)

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. They all do this. And I think the reason is that…we want to be lied to. Yes, we want to believe that these magic bottles will somehow advance us into a new realm of desirability.

It comes from Switzerland? Well, then, Euro-exotic must be good! It has extracts from the rare zamboni root, known worldwide for promoting long life and world peace? Now it’s worth double! Famous salon-master Frederico Ripoffsky uses it because it has biodegradable kelp extracts from undersea Atlantis? Fifteen dollars a bottle is a small price to pay!

Now, I’m just a regular guy, so maybe I don’t “get” all the aspirational beauty talk. Nonetheless, I still think it’s all a lie. You really can’t borrow lasting significance from attachment to such ephemera. You end up a willing slave to that which has no substance.

My criteria for a hair care products is three-fold, quite functional, and very simple:

– it smells good

– it gets my hair clean

– it’s inexpensive

That’s it! But how many bottles do you see making those claims? Hah! Forget about it – the marketers of fashion, beauty products, and hair care all know that to tap into the vanity gene, we really want to be lied to. We want to believe that these amazing ingredients wasted on our scalp will somehow fulfill us. Too many dollars, not enough sense. And so it will continue.

Of course, all products, to some degree, tap into our aspirations to be better (or more significant, or at least to appear so!). Is a $5,000 watch any better at telling time, or is it really you taking the time to tell yourself and others that you’re better? Some things, however, seem to derive their entire market value from deception/self-deception.

What other brands (and entire categories) are built on such lies? Leave your comments!

Brand Memories – the bad kind

Yesterday, I brushed past a couple of brands that continue to grate on my nerves.

– Parked in the parking lot at the gym were two UPS trucks, one still old-style, the other with the new branding. Grrrr!

– Then, in the Wall Street Journal, an ad from TIAA-CREF, who should be nominated for the Fatal Four brand bracket.

– Actually…I may as well thrown in a canceled appointment at Sanofi-Aventis, for good measure!

Wake up Call

It’s one of those mornings. The cobwebs don’t want to clear. I’m an “early to rise” type (people shouldn’t be surprised to get e-mails from me before 6 am!), but today, I think I need something extra. A REAL cup of coffee…like this one!

Hat Tip: Pharmagossip

Coming Up with Names

Every once in a while, the conceit creeps in that you’ve seen all the branding/marketing sites out there. Nope. Here’s a very thoughtful site on corporate naming, called The Name Inspector. Written by a linguist with solid experience in naming, this relatively new site has some great content.

Hat tip: Guy Kawasaki