Mommy, What Is Branding?

By Blaine Parker

BrandingWe have a core challenge here in American marketing. It’s a systemic dysfunction that permeates all levels of business, from the biggest multinationals to the smallest mom & pop outfits. The challenge is simply this: almost nobody understands branding.

It’s as if a bunch of blind marketing guys were groping different parts of an elephant, and railing vehemently against it—despite their lack of clarity on the subject. It recently happened to a friend of mine. She brought up the subject of branding to a hugely successful marketing guru, who went off half-cocked. The irony? He created some excellent branding for his own marketing events and doesn’t even realize that’s what he’s done.

Let’s start with what branding is not. Contrary to common beliefs, branding is not a logo, a font, a color or a tag line. Nor is branding a form of advertising. Yes, I know. Some of you are already ticked off. Bear with me.

Branding is not a form of advertising. Branding is a concerted effort, long before the advertising starts, of determining a business’s identity relative to the consumer—and what emotional impact the brand is supposed to have. Branding is the development of a business’s persona. In a nutshell: branding is nothing less than a search for the soul of your business. 

REASON FOR BEING, MEET YOUR CUSTOMER

Arguably, some of the strongest brands advertising in America today have a soul and wear it on the sleeve of their marketing. Apple Computer. Motel 6. Southwest Airlines. eHarmony. Chrysler. Men’s Wearhouse. Just to name a few. All of these companies have done a fine job of figuring out who they are (and sometimes reinventing themselves in the process, as in Chrysler’s case).

Yes, they all have deep pockets for marketing. Yes, they’ve all run brand advertising. And by some standards, that brand advertising is not akin to “selling stuff.”

But you know what?

When they decide to “sell stuff,” especially when they do direct response advertising, guess how much easier it is to make that direct response advertising work. Because the prospect already knows exactly who that brand is, what they represent, and how it makes them feel.

What? You don’t think making people feel something about your business matters?

Then you’ve forgotten Sales 101: people do not buy intellectually.

They buy emotionally.

Once they make the emotional commitment, they then justify the purchase intellectually.

Every business deserves a brand that is evocative, that matters to the prospect, that makes customers feel something significant. Whether the buying decision is a low-grade life choice (as in which hamburger to eat) or an utterly life-altering choice (as in which cancer doctor to use), an honest, evocative branding effort can make the difference between category dominance and an also-ran.

THE PROBLEM WITH “JUST SELLING STUFF”

One of the big challenges in local radio advertising is that few businesses ever come to a radio station with an established brand in hand and say, “Advertise me!”

They come in with little if any persona, they demand to be on the air tomorrow, and expect to be in high clover the next day.

And “just selling stuff,” while a fine ultimate goal, is harder (at least over the long term) when there’s no brand.

Convincing folks to buy when they don’t know who you are or what you stand for is an uphill battle.

Once upon a time, I worked for a national network. We had a station in the San Francisco Bay Area with a dentist on air. The dentist wasn’t doing well. So the account rep called one of our creative directors down in LA and said, “I need help.” The creative director and the account rep spoke for a bit about the dentist and what made her different. At one point, the account rep talked about her young daughter visiting this dentist. The child came out of the office and said something to the effect of, “Mommy, she’s such a good dentist. She has the hands of an angel!”

A brand was born: “The dentist with the angel’s touch.”

That brand was infused into her advertising, which became a juggernaut—totally unstoppable. For years, she steamrolled the dental competition. Dentist advertising on that station came and went, trying desperately to emulate the success of The Dentist With The Angel’s Touch. They couldn’t do it.

And the reason why?

They had no brand.

They were merely trying to sell stuff.

Selling stuff is much, much easier if you first create an evocative brand.

In a vast landscape crowded with me-too businesses that all look and sound alike, the one who looks different and makes people feel something is going to come out ahead.

Now, the “angel’s touch” dental brand wasn’t the result of a bunch of people sitting down in a room saying, “How do we brand this dentist?” But in effect, without necessarily knowing what they had done, one phone conversation resulted in a brand that the people in charge were smart enough to value and maintain. Why? It’s an honest and poetic expression of the experience that transcends mere selling.

DIRECT RESPONSE DOESN’T MEAN THERE’S NO BRANDING

“All advertising is direct response advertising.” Whether it’s truly a direct quote or not, it’s attributed to David Ogilvy. Let’s just assume it’s true.

Why should DR advertising preclude branding?

Just because we want someone to buy this product right now or call us for this service, why aren’t we allowed to have a brand identity?

Infuse a DR campaign with a solid and identifiable brand—the soul of the business—and things become much easier.

As fast & loose as it was, “The dentist with the angel’s touch” was a solid brand. And every single commercial that dentist ran talked about a specific dental service or product, made an offer, and had a call to action.

That is the definition of direct response advertising—which, in the eyes of many, is the purest form of “selling stuff.”

All those other dentists who tried to emulate her success were also trying to sell stuff.

And they fell on their faces.

Without a brand identity, without a soul, without making the prospect feel something distinct about their respective dental clinics, those dentists were whistling into the wind of the angel’s touch.

That said, DR is not necessarily the holy grail of advertising.

There is a place in our world, at the local level, for what might be considered brand advertising.

TRANSBRANDING? BRANDMISSION?

Back in my days as an underappreciated radio station grunt (as far as I can tell, that’s the only kind of radio employee there is), I was handed a production order to create a commercial for a transmission repair shop.

I sat down. I talked with the rep. I got a feel for what kind of a shop this was and what kind of a guy the owner seemed to be.

And I created a commercial that was arguably straight branding. No offer. No call to action. Just a funny, evocative and relevant message that leapt out of the radio, grabbed listeners by the throat, bludgeoned them about the face and head with salient humor, and made them want transmission repair from nobody else.

The message was so good, it scared the crap out of the account rep, who was afraid to play it for the client. (It made fun of him. Mercilessly.)

Fortunately, the client loved it. And when it ran, the client’s phone began ringing off the hook almost immediately.

And the commercial—which arguably didn’t sell anything by the DR “selling stuff” paradigm—won a Radio Mercury Award.

Why?

Because we’d created a de facto brand.

It was so solid, and the intrinsic promise of the brand message was so welcome, it didn’t need a hard offer or a call to action. It did exactly what was needed in order to seize attention and elicit a response without resorting to doggie commands.

It’s not always gonna work like that.

But it’s nice when it does.

More realistically, though, these things are going to work over time.

SEEING THE FOREST OF BRAND DESPITE THE TREES

At Slow Burn Marketing, we have an eye doctor client in rural New Hampshire. His business was called United Eye Care Specialists, which sounds big, impersonal and monolithic. As my wife (who runs the agency) likes to say, “I can already smell the hospital.”

We rebranded his business as Dr. Sam’s Eye Care.

Why?

Because, as it says in the postcard to patients announcing his name change, “You can’t shake Dr. United’s hand.”

His brand reflects who he is to his very core: a straightforward, no-nonsense country doctor whose first concern is getting you the care you need, affordably, and that you understand everything that’s going on with your eye health.

The brand’s tagline is, “Straight talk. Better vision.”

The brand’s core customer is Mom, because Mom makes the vast majority of the healthcare decisions for her entire family, often including her parents.

Dr. Sam’s primary advertising media are newspaper and radio. The print ads are essentially distilled versions of the radio. And each radio message is essentially Dr. Sam himself, accessible and approachable, talking about different eye challenges, supported by announcer wraparounds. There is virtually never an offer, as he won’t do them—unless he’s offering a free infant eye exam as part of the American Optometric Association’s InfantSEE program. Accordingly, there is usually no call to action, though the phone number appears in every commercial: 543-20-20. It’s one of the brand elements. 

The first three months of radio doubled his new patient base.

A few weeks ago, the good doctor reported that his business—which had been flat for three years—was up 35% in the 10 months we’d been handling his advertising.

That’s using an eminently affordable campaign (this is rural New Hampshire, after all), and running virtually nothing but “branding” messages.

Why does it work? It conveys the soul of Dr. Sam’s Eye Care in a way that makes people feel something.

And feeling something is essential.

We’ve all heard it before. Say it aloud with me: People make buying decisions emotionally. They justify them intellectually.

Which takes me back to Tom Bodett.

MOTEL 6 AS A GUIDING LIGHT FOR LOCAL ADVERTISERS

The Motel 6 brand is not Tom Bodett talking about leaving the light on for you. The Motel 6 brand is, “Hey, we might be a cheap, no-frills room, but we care about you.”

That is the soul of the Motel 6 brand, conveyed by over a quarter century of Tom Bodett’s folksy read and The Richards Group’s evocative tag line. By the cheap motel yardstick, Motel 6 is far and away the category’s strongest, most iconic brand. Travelodge? A sleepy bear in a night cap. So what. Super 8? A yellow sign with a big red number on it—and recently, some crazy and seemingly pointless TV commercials. So what. Econo Lodge? Sounds… I dunno. Put in a quarter. Turn out the light. Make me care.

The Motel 6 brand is conveyed to the consumer largely through brand advertising on radio—and in the case of Motel 6, some mighty fine brand advertising at that. (You don’t continue an ad campaign for over 25 years with the same creative model if it isn’t effective.)

The first time I heard a Motel 6 commercial over 25 years ago, I thought: Now THAT is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It got under my skin. I’m also not alone in that. It got under a lot of other people’s skin. That campaign reversed a glut of empty rooms at Motel 6 virtually overnight. And it has helped turn them into the single largest owned & operated motel chain in America.

One of my favorite anecdotes about this campaign is about the hiring of Tom Bodett. He was a carpenter in Alaska who occasionally did commentary on NPR. The Creative Director from The Richards Group in Dallas apparently called him up and said they wanted him to be the voice of Motel 6. Tom Bodett wanted to know, “Why me?” The Creative Director said something to the effect of, “Because you sound like a guy who would stay at Motel 6.”

That is staying on brand. That is knowing the soul of the business and where its heart lies.

And the brand advertising model for Motel 6 is suitable for and entirely scalable to local radio advertisers.

SIMPLE GENIUS

Motel 6 production is nothing fancy. Most commercials are a single voice and a music bed. The writing is nothing fancy. It’s merely clean, simple, intelligent and amusing. And, as advertising, it is unstoppable.

Why? Because of the branding.

Long before the first commercial aired, The Richards Group did the work of branding Motel 6 as a cheap, simple, clean, no-frills place to lay your head.

The USP is that they guarantee the lowest price room of any national motel chain.

And they wrote what is one of the single best taglines ever in American advertising: “We’ll leave the light on for you.”

Moreover, the Motel 6 model is entirely scalable to small advertisers on local radio. There is nothing to prevent a local radio advertiser from having something equally as simple and impactful—except, perhaps, laziness, fear or ego.

If a client comes in with no brand, it’s possible to figure out their brand specifically for their radio advertising. (It can also be reverse-engineered into their other advertising. Some of my past radio clients have done it.)

In some respects, our rural New Hampshire eye doctor has Motel 6-style advertising. His voice is that of a reserved, folksy New England doctor. We use the same simple, folksy music bed on every spot. And we always end with his tagline, which is entirely reflective of who he is and how he wants people to feel about visiting him: “Straight Talk. Better Vision.”

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME

Do it at work. Look back at the brands mentioned earlier. Apple Computer. Motel 6. Southwest Airlines. eHarmony. Chrysler. Men’s Wearhouse.

Yes, they are all enormous companies. But their brands are simple and smart and direct.

The branding behind these giants was done long before they started running brand advertising.

The solid branding is why their brand advertising works—and why, when they actually do venture into direct response advertising (i.e., “selling stuff”), it’s so much easier because they already have an identity, they have the hearts and minds of their prospects, and they are already well regarded.

That makes it a much shorter reach in trying to get the prospect to take action.

Branding is not a dirty word. Nor is branding a kind of advertising. Branding is a kind of soul searching for a business. Find its soul, capture its essence in words and/or images, and you’re on your way to having a much easier time of advertising.

You could also be on your way to creating a category giant.


Blaine Parker lives and works in the Mountaintop Marketing Fortress at 8,031 feet elevation on a strategically defensible canyon ridge outside Park City, UT. He does branding and advertising for small businesses with Slow Burn Marketing LLC, commanded by The Fabulous Honey Parker. In his spare time, he and Honey speak to teeming throngs of small business owners about the joys of branding. Learn more at www.slowburnbranding.com. Hate mail may be sent to bp@slowburnmarketing.com

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