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Fixing a brand mistake

In Purple Cow (, Seth Godin argues that the only way to be profitable these days is to sell a "remarkable" product or service. And along the way to trying to make one's product or service remarkable, one is likely to make mistakes and to get criticized for those mistakes. Yet "being safe is risky....It's people who have projects that are never criticized who ultimately fail." (p. 47)

What if you make a brand mistake? Let's say you:

1. Mis-named your company or product or chose a bad logo
2. Implemented the internal brand wrong and people don't follow it
3. Rolled out as permanent a "brand initiative" that should really have been a temporary marketing initiative
4. Misjudged who your real customer is
5. Failed to reach your target market with the brand

What do you do? Do you try to keep implementing the brand mistake--improve on it incrementally--or do you go back to the drawing board and start from scratch?

Take the Purple Cow litmus test. Is what you are doing remarkable and you just need to get the word out better? Or are you selling something mediocre or "just good enough" to start with? If you are truly doing something remarkable with your product or service then you should feel free to experiment with different ways of branding it--and that can mean going back to the drawing board several times. On the other hand, if the problem is with your product or service, then you need to go back and look at what you're selling. Don't even think about the brand, think about the essence of what you are promoting. Make THAT remarkable. The brand will follow naturally...any changes you make after that will just be tinkering.

Either way, you need to fix the mistake, even if it will be costly. It's just a question of how you approach it.

Are you implementing a mistaken brand?

Should customer service staff ever take a break from the brand?

In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), sociologist Erving Goffman talks about the importance to people of controlling the impression that others have of them. He writes: "When an individual appears before others he will have many motives for trying to control the impression they receive of the situation." He goes on to elaborate that he is "concerned with some of the common techniques that persons employ to sustain such impressions."

Basically, Goffman looks at human behavior as taking place on a figurative stage, where behavior evidenced in front of other people is "frontstage" and private behavior takes place "backstage." "Frontstage" is where people try to manage the impressions that others have of them; "backstage" is where they relax and don't try to make an impression. People use "masks" to control the impression they provide to their "audience."

Branding takes place in interaction with other people. This begs the question of whether people involved in delivering the brand should always be displaying branded behavior, or whether they can and should take a break when they are in private. For example, let's say a certain brand of fast food represents itself as "fun." Its customer service representatives will generally be expected to convey the concept of fun to the customers--and so the employee should act as though he or she were having fun on the job. The question is, when they step away from the counter, is it in the best interest of the brand to allow the customer service representative to drop the mask and act ordinary?

Well, yes and no. From a mental health point of view (and the organization should serve its employees mental health where possible), nobody can be expected to portray "fun" for a full 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. So it is normal for people to relax and go "off-brand" when they're not facing the customer.

On the other hand, from a brand point of view, there are other stakeholders in the organization besides customers -- how about other employees? If people do not act "fun" then the fast food business is not a "fun" place to work and that will inevitably be conveyed to the customers at some point.

I would say that the best course of action is to hire people who are inherently "fun" (or whatever the brand type is), so that when they go off-brand they are actually still in brand mode. This is also the best way for the brand to convey authenticity to the customer -- to make it clear that the brand is real, not just a show. Remember, hire for brand and the brand will inevitably be stronger as a result.

Overcome the 5 hidden reasons why internal branding fails

In Covert Processes at Work: Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change (see excerpt at, Robert Marshak describes the hidden dynamics that characterize organizational change at work--things that affect the organization, but which for the most part go unspoken. These include (the following list is quoted):

"1. Politics: Individual and group interests
2. Inspirations: Values-based and visionary aspirations
3. Emotions: Affective and reactive feelings
4. Mindsets: Guiding beliefs and assumptions
5. Psychodynamics: Anxiety-based and unconscious defenses" (p. 5)

Obviously, internal branding is an organizational change. It is therefore critical to pay attention to each of the above dynamics when implementing it. Unfortunately, however, most organizational change programs neglect them, instead drawing on reason, or "rational and analytic logics." Marshak notes that "most organizational change initiatives begin...with 'making the (logical) case for change.' If/when that doesn't work, some organizations try to do an even better job of convincing employees of the need to change. When that fails, "venting" sessions occur to address "irrational resistance." If that too doesn't work, the change effort is either "aborted, abbreviated, or forced." (p. 6)

What can be done instead to implement the internal brand so that it is accepted by the workforce? Translating Marshak, I would say that one has to appeal to all five hidden dynamics of change, in addition to making a logical case for why the internal brand is needed. Specifically:

1. Politics: Show people how the brand will empower them. For example, that they can now make decisions based on the brand that they couldn't otherwise be free to make before. (E.g. for a customer service situation, rather than calling one's supervisor in to resolve a situation, one can act based on the values that the brand promotes.)

2. Inspirations: Inspire people to want to be part of something greater than themselves by buying into the brand. (E.g., a brand promise might be to "make people happy" and the employee can make that happen in their work every day.

3. Emotions: Understand and respond appropriately to the typical emotional stages of reaction to organizational change: "denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance, and finally adaptive behavior" (p. 10) (as Marshak points out, similar to the stages of death and dying formulated by Elizabeth Kubler Ross in 1973). (E.g. don't be surprised if in the beginning people ignore the pronouncements about the internal brand, then express anger, etc. ...give them the opportunity to say what they have to say without marginalizing those who need to express anger or cutting the vending sessions short.)

4. Mindsets: Understand and appeal to the "assumptions, beliefs, and premises" (p. 11) that are prevalent in the workforce. Know the culture that you are dealing with. For example, in a hierarchical law enforcement culture, a brand that encourages transparency and two-way communication is going to be a tough sell. You must be able to overcome the ingrained mindsets in order to move the brand forward.

5. Psychodynamics: Realize that the change is going to provoke unconscious anxiety and unresolved feelings in people and that they will defend against that anxiety in various ways. As Marshak points out, they might "engage in 'fight or flight' behavior (by being argumentative or by avoiding the topic)". Or they might "engage in transference and begin to act as if the leader were a parent." Or the leader might act cold when warmth is called for (p. 14). The marketers of the internal brand must be able to identify and skillfully manage unconscious responses when they see them.

Internal branding is a serious organizational change endeavor. We must manage it accordingly if we want it to be successful. This might even mean bringing in an organizational development consultant if needed.

Why your brand should be - yes! - boring to you

Take this quiz:
1. Does your organization have a proliferation of names and acronyms that it tries to promote among external stakeholders?
2. Do various projects and programs within your organization each insist on having their own logo for external use?
3. Do you ever hear people say that they're sick of using the standard PowerPoint template and want to be more "creative"?
If you answered "yes" to more than 1 out of 3 of these questions then your organization is in "hyperbrand" mode. It is frantically creating new names and identities to distinguish innumerable projects and programs within the organization, likely confusing your customers and other outside stakeholders. Hyperbrand mode is a bad, bad thing.
A similar problem has to do with marketing departments and their need to come up with "fresh" new exciting campaigns for every this and that. As Seth Godin writes in Purple Cow (p. 75): "Marketing departments often feel a need to justify their existence. If last year's slogan feels old, they'll spend a million dollars to invent and propagate a new one." It is better sometimes to do nothing: "If you do nothing, at least you're not going to short-circuit your existing consumer networks by loading them up with a lot of indefensible junk."
Website consultant Gerry McGovern (, in a recent lecture, said something similar. He said that good websites are often boring websites to those who create them (not to the public) because they do what they're supposed to do--get the public to their tasks--without steering them in directions they don't need to go.
Remember that your brand should be boring to you because you need to state the same thing over and over again in order to get the public to hear you. If you get the urge to redesign, rebrand, remarket, or relaunch your products and services over and over again, or if you start feverishly promoting product and program names to the outside world, you will LOSE CUSTOMERS to confusion. They will turn to a simpler brand, one that is easier to follow and to understand.

McDonald's: A testament to the power of brand

To little kids, carrot sticks, milk, and apple juice physically taste better when they're presented in a McDonald's wrapper ( Those are the stunning findings of a recent study which found that the more TV sets children have in their home, the more likely they are to find McDonald's branded food to taste better than unmarked packages. (An interesting exception is hamburgers, where the preference was not "statistically clear cut.")

The media are all over this study, for multiple reasons:

1. It shows how powerful brands are (!)
2. It shows how vulnerable low-income kids are to TV advertising (it was a study of 63 low-income children ages 3 to 5)
3. It points up the problem of obesity in America and points a finger at fast-food companies for causing it

CNN quotes Dr. Victor Strasburger, an author of an American Academy of Pediatrics policy urging limits on marketing to children:
"Advertisers have tried to do exactly what this study is talking about -- to brand younger and younger children, to instill in them an almost obsessional desire for a particular brand-name product."
And? What about it? Kids get hungry and they want good food. Of course they learn to distinguish between what tastes good and what doesn't--they learn to trust certain brand names to provide them basic sustenance. It is up to their parents to steer them away from the junk, not up to companies to stop marketing to them.
I don't know why McDonald's is apologizing all over the place for marketing its food to kids (large and small)...("This is an important subject and McDonald's has been actively addressing it for quite some time," company spokesman Walt Riker told CNN. "We've always wanted to be part of the solution and we are providing solutions.")

The company should instead be taking credit. They are geniuses at making food appealing, and they're serving healthy food these days as well. If people choose to gorge (or to let their kids gorge), that is their problem.

Internal branding: target innovators and early adopters first

In Seth Godin's 2003 book Purple Cow (see free excerpt and bonus chapters) he argues, as many do (here is just one example), that mass marketing is dead. Rather, marketers should try to persuade that small group of people who are influencers of the masses, rather than the masses themselves.

(To illustrate, he shows a bell curve in which innovators and early adopters are on the left hand side, laggards [people who are late to adopt new things] are on the right side, and the early and late majority [the masses] are in the middle. Ideas spread from the left hand side to the right.)

You may be saying to yourself, I've heard this already -- what is the big news here?

The news is that we as marketers haven't applied this truth to one important area - internal marketing or branding. When you need to launch a big internal branding initiative, do you instinctively reach for the influencers or do you try to hit the masses of employees with the message? My guess is the latter - and they react the same way people do when they are exposed to mass advertising - they ignore it. Next time, try putting your message out only to a select few - the opinion leaders - and let them get the word out for you.

It goes without saying that your message should be meaningful and credible. If it's the same old b.s. then nobody is going to influence anybody to adopt it - just the opposite.

Also note that this approach is different from the traditional employer branding communication methodology as expressed in "Internal Branding (Employer Branding)" by R. Alan Crozier, writing in the IABC Handbok of Organizational Communication. Crozier suggests that the internal branding initiative needs "a champion from the top of the organization." While it is true that the initiative needs to be supported by the CEO or equivalent, the actual championing of the message needs to be done employee-to-employee.

What are some activities that you could undertake to implement internal branding this way?

1. Survey the workforce to find people who are known as opinion leaders/influencers. Ask directly: who in (name of company) would you consider an informal or formal leader with a lot of influence over what other people think?

2. Call opinion leaders on the telephone and speak with them in person to describe to them the new initiative and ask for their support in sharing it with others. Provide them with written materials that can help them to talk about it. (Stop with the banners on the was demonstrated in the movie Office Space these banners make people feel uncomfortable. There is also anecdotal evidence of this from the Land's End company, where a banner on the warehouse wall describing the mission was rejected by employees as intrusive...I don't have a written source on this one but heard it in a recent podcast on organizational development; I'll try to get the name of the podcast and post it here.)

3. Place internal branding/marketing materials selectively in places where they can be accessed easily by those looking for them. Online, on the intranet, is the best place to start.

4. Once the initiative has had some time to grow and mature, and people on the ground are interested in it, start talking about it more publicly. Seed employee blogs with discussions of the brand, insert it into online discussions, etc. Incorporate feedback from these discussions into the implementation of the brand.

5. Finally, when all the dust has settled and people are already fairly familiar with the internal brand, roll out the new guidelines for using it in a "mass market," traditional but creative corporate communications way.

6. Institute an award ceremony to recognize people who have incorporated the internal brand into their everyday activities.

Do product brands require a strong culture?

So far I have used the term brand rather loosely to refer to the company that sells a product or service--the corporate brand. But it seems worthwhile to take a moment and reflect on product brands, which emanate from the company but are not equivalent to it. Do product brands require a strong culture behind them? Or is it sufficient to market, advertise, publicize, and sell them on their own?

I would say that it depends on the extent to which people are involved in the selling context. For example, take Procter & Gamble's Tide detergent. Everybody knows that Tide is synonymous with "strong clean." So every person involved with Tide should at a minimum wear very clean clothes. They don't have to preach cleanness, but they have to be clean--must reflect the brand. They should probably also extol Tide inasmuch as they can. And there should probably be a Tide lab (I don't know if there is or isn't one) where all they do is search for the newest ways to keep clothes ultra-clean. Nevertheless, in general, product brands require much less in the way of corporate culture than corporate or service brands. Nobody has to "live" the Tide brand. In my view, Tide is tops because of the way it is made (you see, I'm a brand believer in the product) and the way it is advertised--a well designed mass media creation by P&G.

A hybrid kind of brand exists in retail...where product and service are inextricably linked. Think of Starbucks. In retail the salesperson is absolute king or queen of the brand...and he or she shares that throne with the merchandise. The two must blend together seamlessly. The salesperson must not only wear the right clothing but must "live" the experience that the brand promises. So for example, a Starbucks barista should know coffee well enough to be convincing about the kind of experience it is to drink a Starbucks drink. And you know what? Even if you never ask, you get the feeling that they do know the coffee in all its variations. This derives straight from the fact that Starbucks has a strong corporate culture and makes a point of treating its sales associates well.

Read this:
"Ask Starbucks executive about the company's recipes for success, and they will tell you unequivocally that it's the people, or 'partners,' as Starbucks calls its employees. They will tell you that Starbucks doesn't just sell coffee, it sells an experience. And that experience, they will say, is completely dependent upon the attitudes and abilities of the partners on the front lines who greet and serve more than 30 million customers globally every week." (
In contrast, Dunkin' Donuts (which has better coffee, incidentally) offers absolutely no brand experience whatsoever. All they promise is to get you moving quickly ("America runs on Dunkin"). From what I can tell, the store associates are not particularly well-treated nor do they convey a brand promise. As a result, Starbucks has higher brand equity than Dunkin' Donuts, hands down.

Now if you look at Target vs. Wal-Mart, there is an interesting problem at play. For Target undoubtedly has more of a brand positioning than Wal-Mart--selling "cheap chic" rather than the commoditized promise of "the lowest prices out there"--but Wal-mart has the stronger corporate culture. (The corporate culture is so well known that there are a multitude of term papers for sale on it; see

For example:
"The last rule on the Wal-Mart list is to take care of the customer. Unless the situation is completely unreasonable, a customer must never be allowed to leave a Wal-Mart store unsatisfied, Mauldin said. Taking care of customers is possible, because the company has an unwritten deal with its associates. 'Sam Walton believed that if he was good to people and fair with them and demanding of them, they would eventually decide that he was on their side,' she said. 'The focus of that deal is that cost-cutting can co-exist with a moral center, which operates on the principle that Wal-Mart can be the cheapest place to shop and the best place to work at the same time.'" ( (Also see

Contrast this with these weak comments about Target:

"Company culture is 'a hard thing to understand,' insists one insider. 'My brain shuts down when the human resources people start droning on about mission statements, corporate culture, and other similar fluff.' What she does understand, however, is that 'Target values employees who do their jobs well.' The company also 'appreciates new ideas and the people who introduce them.'" (,15623,129,00.html)

In the end, which is the stronger brand - Target or Wal-Mart? Or think of it this way: given a choice between the two stores, where would you shop? I'd say it's a tossup. I'd go to Wal-Mart, because I trust that I will get the lowest prices out there with satisfaction guaranteed. But I think others would just as easily go to Target, because their product brands are so strong. I still believe, though, that Target's seemingly absolute lack of a corporate culture, especially compared to Wal-Mart, might sting them in the end. In fact, if Wal-Mart stood for anything other than the essence of frugality, which is a commodity promise, it would probably supersede Target easily.

So, in the end, brands with a strong culture usually trump those without one--except when it comes to product brands, where the less visible the people are, the less important the culture is and the more important advertising and marketing are. And retail brands benefit from having a strong culture, but they may need to make less of an effort at this if their product brands are extremely high-equity.

Branding as an organizational change

Branding ideally is something that exists from the moment the company is born. It is not a change but is rather part of the living breathing fabric of the organization. That way it is not something that people have to separately "buy into," an approach which may or may not work.

But what happens if for some reason the company changes direction and has to rebrand? Then there is no choice. The company has to create and assimilate a new brand profile. At that point it is time to bring the change management specialists in. Do not think that you will simply announce it, launch it, "roll it out." It will not work. Someone with a deep understanding of the
existing culture has to model out what paths to change have been successful in the past and copy those. Remember that this is not one of those situations where majority rules. There must be absolute total allegiance to the brand from beginning to end.

By the way, expect to fire a portion of the workforce...those who just won't go along. No matter how good their work is, if they don't add value to the brand, they should be out. I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough.

5 ways to achieve brand consistency

In the beginning the company (brand) is launched with the best of intentions.

There is a leader, with a vision of what the company can achieve, and he or she implements that vision within the small group of people who helped to found the organization.

Then, more people join the organization. Suddenly the original vision, mission, values and culture are threatened. What if we go this way and not that way? somebody, or many someodies, asks. What if we seize this opportunity, and that one, and another?

Controversies arise about what to do. Corporate communication, both internal and external, suffers as the brand gets pulled in different directions. Suddenly it takes three or four people in as many different departments to clear statements before they are made. And everybody edits every document to death, until things end up saying nothing at all.

It's like what happens when you mix too many colors of paint together - you end up with a sad brown mess.

Sound like a bad brand dream? It can happen. To prevent this:

  • The company founder must make it priority #1 to not only articulate but enforce the organization's vision, mission, values and culture across the board. If the founder is not there then the staff must ask themselves, what would our founder have done? (They do this at Wal-Mart, a fact which not everybody likes) Or they must find a true brand genius with outstanding management skills to keep the brand consistently on track. (Watch The Gap struggling to do this - see - it is not at all clear that the leader they just hired is the brand guru they need.) The brand must be stated, communicated, and articulated every which way possible to keep the organization going in the right direction.
  • The company can hire for brand. At top brand Google, potential employees are vetted extensively to make sure that they will fit into the culture -- as well as highly intelligent. Same at Southwest Airlines. It is much harder to instill the brand once people have already been hired. They have to pre-fit the mold, if you will. (There is evidence that a strong company culture is positively correlated with stock price.)
  • The company can instill corrective mechanisms to keep the brand central to decision-making. One of these is an executive brand council, that stewards the organization through key decisions that will affect the brand. Another is to instill in a chief brand officer (could be the CEO) responsibility for keeping the brand's integrity. Another corrective mechanism is to open up internal communication through blogging, discussion boards, etc. and allow employees to state freely when they feel that the brand's boundaries have been overstepped.
  • The company can instill positive rewards (ranging from noncash time-off awards to cash bonuses) for employees who make suggestions that keep the brand healthy.
  • The company can make a public pledge to stay true to the brand and invite the public to write in at its website with feedback as to whether it is doing well or badly in that respect.

The brand can stay consistent. The key is to recognize the centrality of the brand to the health of the organization as a whole, and not to lose sight of it when new opportunities walk in the door.