Tag Archives: branding

The trouble with personal branding.

In the film “Miracle,” the story of the underdog USA hockey team that struck gold at the 1980 Olympics, there’s a running theme where coach Herb Brooks asks his players their name, their hometown and who they play for. For the latter answer, they say “University of Minnesota,” “Boston University” and so on, to Brooks’ stoic consternation.

After a lackluster performance in an exhibition, Brooks has had enough and has the team skating suicides for hours, to the point where they’re exhausted and heaving. Finally, eventual captain Mike Eruzione yells out his name and where he’s from.

“Who do you play for?” Brooks asks.

“I play for the United States of America!” Eruzione replies.

Brooks has finally heard the answer he wants, and tells his players they can finally call it a night.

Now this scene comes to mind every time I hear a college (mis)use the term “personal branding.”

If you mean “personal branding” as making sure a Google search first finds the good things you’ve done, your LinkedIn profile and positive impressions — instead of just photos of you at a frat party — then I agree. If you mean “personal branding” in terms of finding things you enjoy and can do better than just about anybody, and trying to figure out how to do that for a living, then I applaud.

Screen shot 2013-07-17 at 9.14.25 AMIf you mean “personal branding” as the equivalent of “make sure everything you do puts your own marketability and brand first,” then you’re doing students a disservice. And in the process, you’re contributing to the customer service shortcomings facing the higher education industry.

The fact of the matter is unless you go straight from college graduate to running your own startup (a very tiny percentage), ultimately you’re servicing someone else’s brand. Whether you’re a pro basketball player, reporter or cashier, putting your own need for branding ahead of your team or employer is not a successful formula. I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t infuse personality, but ultimately you’re a part of a bigger brand.

In a Harvard Business Review blog post titled “Your Brand is the Exhaust Fume of the Engine of Your Life,” Nilofer Merchant perfectly explains that “the brand follows your work,” not vice versa. Any brand is what you do, who you work with to make it happen and what you care about. Creating a “personal brand” is a byproduct — not a determinant — of doing things the right way.

The “personal branding” interpretation is especially a challenge at many institutions where every school, department and office wants to “express themselves” and in turn hire graphic design students they encourage to “express themselves.” They run off and design logos that don’t use the right colors or fonts … or even the name (or right name) of the institution. (And they often are quick to design logos and slow to design useful content.) The main identity of the college is lost in countless subbrands that distract and confuse, diluting and contradicting the idea of working across the institution to better serve students.

Often departments will contact us to say they’ve hired an art student to “redesign their page” (we have a CMS and an aim for a common look and experience across oswego.edu), and ask how they get started. Besides training, we tell them to start with content. An awkward silence tends to follow. Signing up an art student to “make a website pop” without a content strategy is like repainting a restaurant without giving any thought to what’s on the menu. I don’t go to a restaurant because of its design, I go because I want a good meal. (I also feel like the “any art student can build a professional website” is demeaning to the industry. I wouldn’t tell the art department to just hire an English major to teach their courses because he must be good with words. This isn’t a dig against art students but a statement: Web communication is about subject matter and knowing how to tell your story, not merely making pretty pictures.)

If you’re looking for the ultimate example of the personal brand damaging the institutional brand, look no further than Syracuse University’s Twitter account earlier this year. At the end of the final regular season home game, a mysterious tweet under the university account appeared to be coming up with one of the biggest sports scoops of the year:

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The link was to a blog by a local community college student full of speculation but empty of reliable sourcing. At that and just about every subsequent news conference, Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim repeatedly and with increasing exasperation denied he planned to retire, and he hasn’t. Why would the SU account — an official and popular representation of the institution — start a rumor so wrong and detrimental? Is it possible that someone trying to make a name for themselves in the business saw this as a great chance to put over their personal brand? Even if it was at the expense of the university trusting them enough to gain this valuable experience?

When I hire student bloggers, vloggers and videographers, I encourage them to show personality and honesty, because our students are our top brand ambassadors. But they ultimately understand this opportunity is also about supporting and enhancing the college brand. I would hope all of our employees at every level are about helping our students more than their own “personal brand” or creating a “personal brand” for a department or office that runs counter to what we’re trying to accomplish across campus. Helping students should be a core part of any college’s brand in the first place.

So ultimately: Who do you play for?

Next time: Blind Men and the Elephant, or how silos destroy customer service

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What higher ed can learn from an underdog wrestling promotion.

You may be rolling your eyes already. You’ve been subjected to hundreds of “what higher ed can learn from ________” posts by now, and here’s another asking what you can learn from a so-called “fake sport” usually playing out in front of a few hundred fans.

Turns out, we can learn quite a bit from anything … including organizations like 2CW wrestling, which touched down in Oswego last week.

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That’s pro wrestling veteran Spike Deadly about to hit an opponent with a chair … in the crowd, a few feet from us.

Look, if you work in higher education, there’s a greater than 99 percent chance you don’t work at Harvard or Yale. Odds are you feel underfunded, understaffed and underappreciated. So you can pout about it or you can do what the wrestlers of 2CW do, which is go out and give 100 percent and always think about their audience.

To use a very strange simile, WWE is the Harvard of sports entertainment … the most prominent and known brand in its field. They are flush with success by many metrics, yet follow the #wwe tag during any major pay-per-view or read posts in a group like Anti-Cena Army and you’ll find many disappointed and disillusioned fans fed up with shows that are more talk than action, lazy performances by some superstars and the organization’s reluctance to push newer talent while propping up the same, usual celebrity wrestlers.

2CW knows they won’t topple WWE, but they know their scrappy performers can put on a better show. And that everyone in their organization can share the goal of being fan-friendly.

I attended because my graduate assistant for video, Kevin “The Man” Graham, is in a long-standing 2CW tag team with a gent named Punisher Van Slyke. While the event seemed potentially interesting going in, the level of skill, punishment the wrestlers took and the overall passion far exceeded what I imagined. For what some would term a “fake sport,” the wrestlers take a lot of bumps — we saw people thrown into barricades, body-slammed onto very thin mats atop a gym floor and fly through the air in death-defying maneuvers. One wrestler suffered what looked like a legit knee injury, wrestling through it before getting ring assistance that appeared quite real and concerned.

Unlike often-uninspired WWE blowout bouts meant to pump up a star, every 2CW match was evenly contested, full of two-counts and constant swings back and forth. When fans talk about “telling a story in the ring,” these entertainers had it down. Fans are encouraged to take and post videos of live shows. 2CW often will host a former superstar like Spike Dudley (in Oswego), Matt Hardy, Hacksaw Jim Duggan or John Morrison as a headliner to get extra notice. But most of its stable are hard-working independent wrestlers or people with day jobs … or, in Kevin’s case, completing his master’s in HCI in Oswego.

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Wrestler Spike Dudley grabbed my friend Jason’s Coke can, smashed into an opponent’s head and signed it later. “The best $1.50 I ever spent,” Jason quipped.

And the crowd was really part of the show. During a falls-count anywhere bout, I found Dudley getting his face twisted by “Juggernaut” Jason Axe right in front of me in the middle of the crowd. Dudley later hit him with a chair a couple feet to my right, then borrowed my friend Jason’s can of Coke to smash it on Axe’s forehead (Dudley signed it later). Face wrestlers (good guys) regularly high-fived and shook hands with the crowd going to or from the ring, while heels (bad guys) routinely argued with or exchanged insults with delighted fans. After their match, wrestlers went to the merch table to chat with fans and autograph anything. I don’t think The Rock does that at WWE live events.

In whatever we do in higher ed or business, do we offer that level of fan-friendliness? If not, why not? Some of these wrestlers traverse the highways and byways of America, town to town, hoping for their big break somewhere else, and may never see Oswego again … so why shouldn’t we prioritize pleasing students, faculty, staff, clients or customers who we want to come back happy again and again? We should think about giving our all the way these grapplers did … but how many people watch the clock and avoid doing anything meaningful on the job from time to time because they don’t feel like it? Everyone we serve deserves our best, any day and every day.

As for Kevin, it was a very good night. He and Punisher wound up with an unexpected shot at the 2CW tag-team titles. After a long, hard-fought match, Kevin hit a top-rope maneuver and scored the three count as the duo recaptured the gold! Since they weren’t billed as wrestling for the title in pre-promo materials, perhaps it was a hometown favor, showing the local boy made good. Whatever the motivation, the crowd loved it and the title change made the night more memorable for everyone in attendance … including Kevin’s mother! When you talk about making memories and pleasing people, hard to imagine doing it much better.

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Kevin “The Man” Graham (known in some circles as my grad assistant) celebrates winning the 2CW tag team titles with a very special audience member … his mother. Just one more thing to make the night memorable.

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The branding of blizzards and the commodification of catastrophe.

In the media swirl around Winter Storm Nemo, many wondered why blizzards suddenly had names, like hurricanes have. Simple: It’s part of a new branding strategy by the Weather Channel. We have names like Nemo because it’s all about the Benjamins.

Weather Channel’s rationale behind the branding, er, naming of storms speaks volumes. Extracts follow:

Hurricanes and tropical storms have been given names since the 1940s. … Important dividends have resulted from attaching names to these storms:

  • Naming a storm raises awareness.
  • Attaching a name makes it much easier to follow a weather system’s progress.
  • A storm with a name takes on a personality all its own, which adds to awareness.
  • In today’s social media world, a name makes it much easier to reference in communication.
  • A named storm is easier to remember and refer to in the future. …

Finally, it might even be fun and entertaining and that in itself should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users. [Emphasis mine.] For all of these reasons, the time is right to introduce this concept for the winter season of 2012-13.

In this lesson on branding 101, the most important bit is that “should breed interest from our viewing public and our digital users” part. Translation: Branding storms will raise ratings and readership, which means higher revenues. Getting attention for your business is much easier when you have a well-defined and memorable brand, and storms are no exception. This comes, after all, from the media company that brought us the “See Friends at Risk in Severe Weather” feature. (And who finds a storm bearing down on them “fun and entertaining”?)

Video blogger Ze Frank nailed this years ago when he did an episode of The Show on branding: [F]or a brand to be successful, its emotional aftertaste has to be stronger than the more general brands that are associated with it. Your grandma, unless your grandma is Grandma Moses, isn’t as strong as the general brand “grandma.” But “grandma” is a stronger brand than the more general brand “old people.”

And “Nemo” is a stronger brand than “winter storm.” It’s easier to sell a weather disaster with a name, especially a cute one with a pop culture reference. Calling it Nemo launched a million “finding Nemo” and “just keep swimming” references and related memes. What about reasoned discourse over this storm? Ain’t nobody got time for that!

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Branding storms and creating added media attention also help spread one more thing: Panic. With Nemo, like Sandy this summer, the Twitterverse filled with tweets in the order of “[College hundreds of miles away from us] cancelled classes. Why won’t my school? Don’t they care about our safety?” When you’re hoping for the shared experience of the brand Nemo, little things like geography and meteorological factors are less relevant than the feeling of being left out. Lining up for the sequel to Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, it’s as if, to paraphrase Death Cab for Cutie, the world was flat like the old days and storms can travel just by folding a map. (Disclaimer: I never fault my college or any institution for closing in the name of safety. Ever.)

Perhaps one positive offshoot could be a return to hyperlocal coverage with the volume turned down on hype. When he gave a revised and reasoned forecast on Nemo late Thursday, 9WSYR meteorologist (and SUNY Oswego alum) Dave Longley had a rather remarkable statement on his Facebook page:

I NEVER write a forecast for ratings or what I think people want to hear. I write a forecast based on the information that is presented and how it might impact CNY. I put everything into each and every forecast and I live each forecast to the end. That is my commitment to you the viewer and me as a scientist.

This, then, is where the Dave Longleys and the scientists of the world diverge from the Weather Channel, which is selling branded infotainment. Seems like it’s only a matter of time until “I Found Nemo” T-shirts crop up in their online store.

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super bowl™ ads, with student perspectives.

One great thing about teaching an advertising/media copywriting class is every spring brings the gift of discussing Super Bowl™ ads with a sought-after demographic focus group … the 23 students in #brc328. Before class, I asked them all to tweet what they thought were effective ads, and why, then we watched and talked about many commercials.

Five trends/topics worth noting:

1. NFL = Nostalgia For Life? Advertisers frequently want to use nostalgia to reach a specific demographic, but the NFL managed to score a bullseye on a whole host of generations. The students recognized how the ad included everything from current shows like The Office and Modern Family to ’90s favorites like Seinfeld and Friends to “oldies” like Happy Days and The Brady Bunch. Of course, the NFL has the unique advantage of television contracts with all the major players and thus can more easily negotiate the rights to use the shows, which would otherwise represent the biggest challenge.

2. Bridgestone: Difference Between Concept and Execution. Two popular spots with the students for Bridgestone, “Carma” (with the beaver) and “Reply All,” were both very entertaining. But they noticed a difference. With “Reply All,” viewers more paid attention to the frenetic actor destroying various electronic devices and barely noticed the product. But they preferred “Carma” — which gets my vote for best ad this year because it tied directly to the product, in terms of handling and braking ability (and, as one student pointed out, “six months later” showed it lasts). Playing off a timeless Aesop’s fable, employing a cute beaver with human tendencies and providing a feel-good ending, it’s hard to envision creating a better ad.

3. VW Uses The Force. The class favorite, overall, involved the kid in the Darth Vader mask trying to use the Force repeatedly with the payoff of the VW starting remotely. While students didn’t see that as any great product benefit — they’ve grown up in the era of the remote car-starter — the simple storytelling, cute concept and timeless tie-in with Star Wars all clicked. Nota bene: The Star Wars appeal spans generations.

4. Doritos: Finger-Lickin’ Good? While they found it funny and memorable, students had mixed feelings on the ad where the office worker licks the Doritos-crumbed finger of a co-worker. Some thought it successfully communcated the idea that Doritos are irresistibly good. Others found the idea of someone sucking someone else’s finger appropriately creepy. Or both.

5. Chrysler + Detroit + Eminem = Discussion. Much like the Twitterverse, the class split on the Chrysler “Detroit” ad featuring Eminem. They generally thought it had beautiful production values. Consensus found it showcased the Motor City fabulously — I like its underdog tone and one student said it resembled an engaging tourism spot. While many folks of, ahem, a certain age lamented in the blogosphere Em “selling out,” many students already consider him yesterday’s news (one even used the term “old”). As for the connection to the product, one student said “Lose Yourself” made him think of 8 Mile, which brought to mind trailer parks … a world away from a luxury car. For what it’s worth, on production and general branding merit for its three products, I really liked it.

I’m always impressed with students’ variety of opinions, which are well-articulated, thoughtful and multi-layered. What was unanimous? All thought the Groupon/Tibet ad was a really bad idea, but you don’t need to take an advertising course to recognize poor taste when you see it.

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content + connectivity: analyzing the brand of @tsand.

For perhaps the first time in a college classroom, my #brc328 class Wednesday evening involved a lesson in branding using the most beloved higher-ed social media figure, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s Todd Sanders, aka @tsand. If you work in social media or would like to, you simply must follow @tsand on Twitter. He’s entertaining, authentic, engaging and sneaky brilliant.

I asked my class to tweet (with #brc328 hashtag) what they thought was a good brand, and why, the results running the gamut from Apple to Bose to Converse to (interestingly) author James Patterson. Then I introduced them to the brand of @tsand, via his successful video submission to participate in the Mercedes-Benz Tweet Race to the Super Bowl™.

I looked at @tsand in the context of the definition of a brand which, according to Luke Sullivan’s book Hey Whipple! Squeeze This!, is “the sum total of all the emotions, thoughts, images, history, possibilities and gossip that exist in the marketplace about a certain company.” As an innovative web communicator now involved in a high-profile social-media contest that could win his #MBTeamS a Mercedes-Benz and raise a lot of money for St. Jude’s Hospital, @tsand presents three traits I think successful brands share:

1. Established identity. Those who know @tsand would describe him with words like funny, creative, crazy, unpredictable and genius. His secret to success, as noted in the video, is to create great content that wins friends and influences people. That content, coupled with his larger-than-life personality, has established broad and supportive connections across the social-media community.

2. Positive association. In the video, he notes being followed back by selective accounts like the Today Show and Ellen DeGeneres, plus more than 100,000 hits to his Flickr account and 200,000 to his YouTube channel. He’s a nice guy to boot, never above responding to those who tweet him. But the biggest indication of his popularity? The loudest ovation at #heweb10 went to keynote speaker and Don’t Make Me Think author Steve Krug, but the second-loudest may have come when the absent @tsand made a surprise appearance in the video introducing Krug.

3. Ability to create action. Many of us aren’t big supporters of social-media contests, requested retweets or hashtag bombing. But we’re doing all that — apologies for all the #MBTeamS tweets that give he and co-driver @ijohnpederson “fuel” and points — for Todd, and for his ability to win this contest and support St. Jude’s. I can’t think of another person in the higher-ed Twitterverse who could rally so many people … and it’s all because of what I would term brand loyalty to @tsand.

Win or lose, the contest is proving quite the social-media promotional experience. And, unexpectedly, showing us how a person who creates great content and makes authentic connections can represent a powerful brand.

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branding is a battlefield: winning lessons from pat benatar.

Since in a high school English class, I once used Pat Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield” as an example of a metaphor, her music has been around a while (as have I). So when I was fortunate enough to pick up her Best Shots greatest hits disc *free* at a tweetup/swap meet/BBQ in Ithaca this weekend, I realized just what an amazing body of work Benatar produced — and what she can teach us about branding.

In addition to her many solid, catchy, memorable songs, Benatar the entertainer has a lasting image. An unmistakably tough yet tender persona that always seemed authentic. Sexy, but never slutty. A string of hits including “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Heartbreaker,” “Treat Me Right,” “Promises in the Dark,” “Fire and Ice,” “We Live for Love,” “We Belong” and many more. (Archeologists cite her song “Invincible” as the only proof the movie “The Legend of Billie Jean” ever existed.)

Pat Benatar in "Love Is A Battlefield"

Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield" video is considered groundbreaking in its insertion of dialogue into the narrative (image courtesy of Yahoo! Video).

But Benatar’s brand is substance with style. While so many acts from Samantha Fox to the Spice Girls sold sizzle but no steak, Benatar provided content. Quality content. Enduring content. “Love Is A Battlefield” pioneered inserting spoken dialogue into a video to help tell its story and provided a strong message of female empowerment. She scored a hit with “Hell Is For Children,” an unflinching look at the then-taboo subject of child abuse. Among her 10 gold/platinum/multiplatinum albums, some sold better than others, and she did make a (credible) foray into the blues, but she stayed true to herself and never did anything misguided or embarrassing (yes, Madonna, I’m looking at you).

If great branding is consistency, Benatar had it covered with good songs and her distinctive delivery and vocal style. With so many ’80s bands based on gimmick or image becoming one-hit wonders, Benatar focusing on music and messages provided her a long, influential time in the spotlight. Her popular albums, videos and nearly 20 top 40 singles led to Billboard declaring her the most successful female rock vocalist ever, so clearly her “brand” was successful. If not everyone is a Pat Benatar fan, I’ve never heard of anyone disliking her or not respecting her discography.

If you work in branding, think about Benatar in comparison to your brand. Is your marketing about gimmicks, or content and connections geared for the long haul? Are you authentic, or pretending to be something you’re not? Are you creating content that’s relevant for the next 30 days, or for the next 30 years? Is your message consistent enough to be recognizable, like hearing Benatar’s trademark vocals or the timeless opening riff of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”? If not, aren’t those nice targets? Branding, like love, is a battlefield — but I think Pat Benatar’s career provides us a bit of a field manual.

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non-branding branding: starbucks in wolves’ clothing?

I read with great interest this Seattle Times article about Starbucks going hyperlocal by rebranding some of its shops without any Starbucks branding. The throwback 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea test store will offer nary a Starbucks logo and even serve wine and beer as some traditional neighborhood coffeehouses do.

It will launch as the first of at least three remodeled Seattle-area stores that will bear the names of their neighborhoods rather than the 16,000-store chain to which they belong, the Times’ Melissa Anderson writes, and if successful will replicate in other markets. Starbucks’ SVP of global design, Tim Pfeiffer, notes each store intends to have a community personality, to look and feel more like an organic part of a neighborhood than a chain store.

But while going neighborhood and hyperlocal are things I applaud, what does it say about Starbucks’ belief in its own branding that it rolls these out each under its own customized name almost as stealth shops? Are they admitting people equate the name Starbucks with chain stores that spread like kudzu and often choke out native coffeehouses? In Seattle and Vancouver, for example, Starbucks are so abundant that it’s clear they are looking for overall market share rather than same-store sales, the usual indicator of an individual establishment’s success.

Reaction among actual neighborhood coffeeshops ranged from bemusement to anger — the latter because Starbucks representatives would essentially squat in their stores and observe goings-on. Starbucks reps spent the last 12 months in our store up on 15th [Avenue] with these obnoxious folders that said, ‘Observation,’ said Dan Ollis, who owns soon-to-be neighbor Victrola Coffee Roasters. So apparently the rebranding also involves culling the best ideas of the competition plus non-use of the Starbucks name with all the economy-of-scale advantages the company famously leverages?

Granted, existing businesses launch new units all the time, but usually because they see a niche or void in the market. I’m no fan of Wal-Mart, but when they rolled out Sam’s Clubs, it found a ready audience for shoppers’ clubs with bulk sales (and named it after founder Sam Walton). Sometimes it’s aspirational, like when FX Matt Brewery started its Saranac line of craft brews to appeal to those who wouldn’t deign swallow Utica Club. But Starbucks isn’t looking at serving a niche; it’s trying to overpower an existing one. It’s not trying to save the neighborhood coffeehouse as much as eliminate existing neighborhood coffeehouses.

If you work in higher education, imagine a scenario where Harvard sent representatives to observe your campus for a year, then built a college right next door and used its deep pockets and superior marketing budget to poach your best students. 15th Avenue and its brethren look like wolves in sheeps’ clothing meant to thin the herd, not add new customer experiences. The next time I’m in Seattle, I plan to make a beeline to Victrola Coffee Roasters to show my support. Assuming it survives that long.

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