I am in Pasadena, CA this week and lectured at the Art Center School of Design yesterday to a Brand Strategies class that is taught by Sherry Hoffman of M)Arch, a firm that specializes in branded architecture.

Over lunch we were talking about our experiences with the creative process when developing visual identities and how different graphic designers' approaches can be. Some designers have an incredibly strong intuitive sense for what will work, their experience and this design sense launches them to a solution immediately. On the other hand there are designers who, even though their intuition is guiding them, work more collaboratively and allow their client to be integrated into the design thinking process.

In my work I engage in a creative process that leads to a brand strategy. After doing all my research and interviews I have a strong idea of what an organization's IDEAL strategy and positioning should be for its brand. I can present this and feel very confident of its success, if executed in the spirit of the strategic approach. Or, I can bring the client along with me on the journey. Sure we will hit crossroads along the way, have heated debates...and the end result will not be what my intuition and deep experience would have lead us...but there is a difference, a few big differences in the two approaches. I have lived 20 years as a client and experienced both the intuitive-design approach and the collaborative approach. This is how it felt to me as a client.Perhaps that collaborative process won't get the absolutely ideal result. What it will deliver is a collaborative team effort that everyone is bought into. Everyone is on board and that momentum will drive even greater success in the execution. After all a great design or a great strategy is nothing without the execution.

Since 2004 we have heard the consistent, repeated call to recognize not a "blue America" or a "red America" but to recognize a United States of America. Repeatedly. Consistently. This message has prevailed throughout the campaign and now coming up to the inauguration.

Woven into this message and spoken clearly from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday by Obama, an invitation to find ourselves in one another. It's the ultimate strategy. It's not a brand strategy, not a business strategy, it's a strategy for change, for growth, for renewal, a strategy we are all hoping works.

"...if we could just recognize ourselves in one another..." Indeed.

So what's the brand marketing takeaway?

If you don't know yourself the strategy fails. If you don't know who you are - as a person, as a company, as an organization then how can you find it in another? Knowing yourself is where you begin. It is where your connections begin. Know who you are, the rest will follow.

When you’re really stuck, when you feel like you don’t know what could possibly be different about your business, where do you turn? In an earlier posting I talked about how a brand can be developed from one word, the word emerges from the essence of the business. Another way to get there is to look at your strengths and use that strength or those strengths as the core idea for developing your brand.

A good clue to what your strengths may be is to look at what you feel competitors have learned from you and copied.

The key here is to realize that what everyone has copied is a clue to your true strength.

In recent work with a consumer-facing service business all competitors in this 400,000 population city borrowed from one another and eventually all became the same. One business, founded in the 1970s, started the business on the principles of exceptional customer service. Eventually everyone was talking about that. In the 1980s businesses opened up promising glamour, in the 1990s the promise was edginess, different for the sake of it. In the new millennium a business opened offering added value services and personalized care, bringing high-end sought-after product into the market. In the last eight years all the city’s businesses have now adopted this. So, what differentiates?

Here are the true strengths:

The 1970s business was founded by a man who was dripping with the charm and elegance of the old European world. His love of emotionally intimate relationships with his customers is his strength. Today, his business still misses the boat on this amazing and differentiated positioning for his brand.

The 1980s business perhaps was founded by someone with a keen sense of fashion and how to translate that glamour into their customer’s everyday lives. This business has abandoned that strength and is using the latest messaging to attract customers. It’s too bad, translating glamour into the everyday is magical and a differentiated positioning.

The 1990s business perhaps was founded by someone motivated and inspired by change.

The business founded in the new millennium? The added value services were inspired by a value system held deeply by the founder to share. Even the compensation system for his staff was designed on a system of sharing and not singularly-focused commissions like all his competitors. Today their brand is singularly differentiated. And, it’s a positioning that the competition will not be able to copy. Why? Because their brand positioning is based on a deeply held value system, it IS who they are, and you can’t just copy that.

There is a lot of discussion about brand authenticity. A lot of money being spent on trying to figure out the most authentic message. What I feel is happening in much of this discussion is losing sight of where authenticity begins. It begins with the core values of an organization, its culture and the principles it was founded on. When what you are saying on the outside doesn't match what you are on the inside, well, that's not authentic.

What is wrong with these pictures?







What are you feeling after seeing these pictures and words? Do you trust the message? The words used to communicate to the outside don’t match we clearly see is on the inside. Now let's see what happens when you have that inside/outside match established.



You trusted the words this time, right? It's because now you can feel that inside/outside match. When that match exists it makes sense.

This is what it feels like to a client, consumer or customer when what you are saying to the outside matches who are on the inside. That's authenticity.

Authentic is who you are on the inside.

Authentic is your values, your dreams and the principles upon which your company operates.

A brand should not be about the most hip, cool or sexy campaign because that's the latest trend in advertising. If you're company and your culture is meaningful, skilled and approachable, a hip, cool and sexy campaign will not build trust with anyone. A campaign that authentically reflects what you are on the inside will build trust and trust breeds success.

Revealing your authentic self is critical to brand success. It is that simple. The hard part is knowing who you are.

Let's begin with Rapaille who has developed "The Culture Code" for his clients - the code that must be honoured in order to realize the success they seek. Here's an excerpt from a March 2007 article in the Toronto Star:

Canada's culture codes are deeply rooted in our experience with winter, says Rapaille. "Canadians learned from the beginning to use what they call `winter energy' to act so as to conserve as much energy as possible." Because of this, he says, "Canadians do not seek leaders with vision, capable of making major breakthroughs." Instead, they elect prime ministers who serve as guardians.

"If the culture code for the American presidency is the biblical figure Moses, a leader who could make his people believe they could do the impossible, Canadians seek leaders who are capable of maintaining the culture. The culture code for Canada is 'To Keep.'

My most memorable experiences with "the competition" are in business working in Canada and in America. What I found profoundly different was each country's perception of the competition.

An American, when meeting the competition, or when reconnecting with a former colleague who is now working with the competition, invites the other to sit and share. Not competitive secrets but overall industry knowledge, perspectives and common challenges they may be facing. Or, perhaps, it's an opportunity to "scope out the competition" - either way, it's communicative.

A Canadian, when meeting the competition, or when reconnecting with a former colleague who is now working with the competition, well, that doesn't happen.  I have found, in my personal experience, Canadian don't mix with the competition.

Why? Maybe it has something to do with the Canadian "to keep" code and America's "can do the impossible" code.

So, where does that leave me? The American-born, Canadian-raised entrepreneur.

I'm left simply with this.

Even the perception of competition is counter-intuitive and counter-productive. Athletes see other teams not as competition but as challengers to their own skills and abilities.

Competition is: something you fight. You want to get rid of it, not have it in your world. Like a fire-breathing dragon.

Challengers make you better at what you do because they push you to greater heights.

My competition are my challengers, I welcome them, embrace them and I want to be with them. In my world there are no fire-breathing dragons, only strong, astute, intelligent warriors who I want to fight with, not against.

What world do you conceive and perceive? A world of competitors or one of challengers?

On the radio, one day, a few months ago, I heard a portion of a show where the host said "...in hockey, the worst teams get first draft pick to keep the league competitive."

The question that immediately popped to my mind was "Do you have to hit rock bottom to get to the top?"

If I live in a competitive world, and I happen to not be performing very well, then when do I get my first draft picks - and in my world what are they?

As an overall life strategy, do you want to hit bottom so you can pick from the top? In life, is the cream of the crop ever available to you from the bottom?

It feels like in life it would not be, but don't be so quick to judge, sometimes we find things in places we never expected.

Research Notes:
I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to hockey and these three sites helped me gain a bit of an understanding of draft picks - if you're as naive as I am you may want to click through.
How it works
The worst picks of all time
A commentary

I've come across brand strategy firms, many which will clearly state "we specialize in corporate branding, not product..." and so on. Their work is about building a corporate brand and not about building consumer product brands.

I thought that is what my firm, Studio Pinpoint was all about too, but I never totally bought into the feeling.
I was ready to explore this feeling and so I revisited The Persuaders today. A 2004 PBS special by Frontline. You can see the entire special and access full interviews and read the full transcripts on the website.

In hearing about all the elbowing in the advertising industry, all the effort to "cut through the clutter" and in seeing the launch of Song Airlines, featured as the development of a new brand - and knowing now it's demise only three years after launch, which happened at the same time as Southwest and JetBlue made it - I came to realize one thing.

Corporate brands matter especially when you are selling consumer product.

It seems the overall focus for brand managers is on the product brand. This is precisely where I believe there is a big missing piece. It's the link to the corporate brand - what does the corporation behind the product contribute to the product brand? Why isn't anyone looking at that?

Advertising agencies have been so focused on creating emotional connections, stories, places where consumers can find meaning, that they have missed out on the one thing that links the consumer to the product - and that's the values of the company behind the product.

Skim the surface as much as you want, create the theories and the rhetoric to get the consumer to buy. The industry has been doing this since the beginning of sponsored advertising on radio and television. What's been missing all along is the real connection point between the company behind the product (what it believes and is made of - its values and its principles) and the product brand.

Lovemarks, created by Kevin Roberts is "loyalty beyond reason where premium profits lie...infused with mystery, sensuality and intimacy and has an iconic place in your heart". He is redefining brand by going beyond it. These efforts are great, it keeps the thought leadership in brand strategy and development fresh and active.

What I have found is continually missing in brand strategy leadership is the focus on the source of the product - the corporate brand, the parent company brand or the manufacturer's brand.

Is Nike successful because it espouses the very principles and values it was founded on? Was Song unsuccessful because it was more focused on applying the latest "brand-thinking" or too focused on developing new "brand-thinking" rather than understanding the very values and principles its parent company would infuse in its culture - whether they liked it or not? The iPod is not just hip, sexy and cool because the advertisers came up with a great campaign. It is that because the very principles that launched Apple into the success stratosphere align so naturally with hip, sexy and cool.

When campaigns reflect the core values and principles of the company producing the product you get outrageously successful results.

Tell me, do you think this award-winning Saatchi & Saatchi campaign for JC Penny reflects the core principles and values of that brand? Award-winning or not, how successful has this campaign been for the client?

As for Studio Pinpoint? We do work on consumer product brands - and what we bring to the table is the link, the real connection point, to the corporate brand. A link that I believe is critical to the outrageous success of a campaign, award-winning or not.

Finding Creativity: Tanya Babcock
Finding Creativity is a guest posting series where I invite people to share with us how they find creativity in the world.

I am pleased to welcome Tanya Babcock to find creativity in the world. Tanya studied Creative Writing as an undergrad and technology in graduate school. She is a career marketing person with stints in manufacturing and now content management software solutions. In November 2008, she launched The Lakeview Review, an online and print literary journal, to feed her creative side. The first journal will be printed and distributed late January 2009.

When I write, I find my inspiration in the voices around me. They are usually strangers huddled in coffee shops, cafeterias, and banks. A hurried young mother complaining about her husband’s lack of understanding. An older man reminiscing about a family gathering over a piece of pie. I hear words floating in the air and whisk by grabbing a sentence like a pick pocketer and storing my bounty to survey later.

One such piece has haunted me for twelve years. It was a conversation I heard which titillated me with such delight I could not help but chuckle when I heard it. I was an undergrad studying creative writing at a liberal arts college when I happened upon an odd conversation. I had rushed in from another class with only two minutes to spare and sat down by two men looking fairly relaxed and indifferent to all the people around them. One leafed through a novel on his desk and said very coolly, “today, I spit on an Acura.” Immediately I thought, “What a wonderful and powerful first line for a story.” My reader would be drawn into such an opening line, “why, oh why do you wish to disparage this stranger’s car?” Is it a statement on impoverished youth angered by the privileged? Has the hero/heroine been wronged by someone who drove such a vehicle? Was it a game between two friends? What type of back story could I give this character? I didn’t listen to why this man in my class felt the need to spit on the car. I wanted the reason to be my own. Someday, I thought, I will invent the who, the why, and the how. I will breath into it one day all the words to give it depth, character, and meaning. And until then, I will walk along thinking: “Today, I spit on an Acura.”

I know there are many writers out there who have a nagging starting sentence, middle sentence, or character aching to be heard. I wanted to be able to give these writers another place to be able to work on their craft, collaborate with those in the field, and read works by many able to bring closure to that nagging sentence. I did this with The Lakeview Review. The Lakeview Review launched on November 3rd of this year and includes a collaborative blog, an online writing workshop, and a book club. At the end of January 2009, we will be publishing a journal (online and in print) with several first-time writers and the winners of our Winter 2009 Writing Competition. I’ve personally read some beautiful prose, and I predict choosing a winner on December, 31, 2008 will be a formidable task in deed.

It has been an ambitious endeavor (marketing nation-wide, scheduling a trade show in Chicago, advertising and introducing the journal to universities and writing associations across the country). I am elated by the response, and I hope this popularity will only increase as we continue to deliver quality writing, teaching and discussions.

Tanya, we wish you all the best in your creative and entrepreneurial endeavors and hope that we'll be able to feature your lucky winners at month's end!

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