Excerpts

Exerpts

Today’s competitive business landscape demands differentiation. Companies must stand apart to be noticed. When evaluating the options—one can look at those brands or corporations that have done this exceptionally well and pinpoint the factors that have contributed to their success. In The Authentic Brand we go inside the minds of some of today’s most prominent entrepreneurs to see how they achieved their success.

We begin by asking a simple question that many entrepreneurs ask: How can a company or brand stand apart when such a large number of competing companies and brands are vying for our attention?
One way of achieving this is to put a face on your company, and to give it an identity that separates it from the often faceless competition. As we have seen with the entrepreneurs featured in this book, sometimes that face is the entrepreneur’s own!

As Jeff Taylor, founder of the Monster Board job listing service and the first CEO of Monster.com, told us “You’ve got to put yourself out in front of your brand.”

Today, among those faceless companies are too many who forego authenticity for homogeneity. Just go online. Website after website touting a company’s products or services looks just like the next. Strip malls are a great example of the vanilla retail landscape that has lined our roads from coast to coast. And beyond that, what percentage of the products, services or businesses are truly authentic? Is it two, or maybe three, percent?
Which insurance company should you select? Isn’t that really based on price or your local insurance broker? What technology company should you hire? Isn’t that hit or miss? What real estate company will get your listing? Aren’t most really the same? What brokerage firm should you trust? Do any stand apart for their integrity, compassion, exceptional service or other attributes that immediately come to mind? What accounting firm stands out for these traits? We are sure that you get the idea that being truly authentic is uncommon.

In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Friedman gives a couple of wonderful examples of people who are outstanding examples of authenticity in the form of spokespersons for their product. These people are so authentically engaging that they make you go out of your way to buy their product.
The first is a lemonade vendor who works the lower deck at Camden Yards during Baltimore Orioles home games. He has, as Friedman describes it, “perfected a dance routine around how he shakes and prepares the lemonade. He does a little jig and then high-fives you before he hands you the drink.”

Friedman writes, “I love to watch him operate because all he is selling is water with sugar and a lemon in a plastic cup. It couldn’t be more of a commodity. It couldn’t be a more vanilla job. Yet I always notice that by the end of the game he is carrying around a wad of bills—and tips—that is thicker than any other vendor I see.”

Answering the question “Why?” Friedman explains that here is a man who has taken an ordinary job and he has creatively put his personal touch on the way he delivers his product. Consumers, who could buy soft drinks or water from other vendors, patronize the lemonade man because, as Friedman points out, he puts a smile on your face.
Another example cited by Friedman is an African American woman who works at the Caribou Coffee outlet near his K Street office in Washington, D.C. As he describes her, “she goes out of her way to be helpful and asks me about myself—not in a phony, over-trained way, like the staff at the Ritz-Carlton, but in a sincere way that I find charming.”

In both examples, Friedman might also have added the adjective authentic.

To solve the problem of facelessness, some companies have opted for using celebrity endorsers, such as professional athletes, to promote their products. Does this give you the idea that they are truly authentic?
In fact, studies—including those that led to creation of the National Credibility Index—have shown that celebrity product recommendations lack the level of credibility that is given to a product or company when the person responsible for the product puts his or her identity on the line to promote it. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) undertook the creation and development of the National Credibility Index to measure and track the extent to which the American public perceives its leaders and/or public figures to be believable sources of information and guidance on major issues. The study shows that business leaders, experts in a given field and educators rank most credible, while celebrities and professional athletes ranked towards the bottom of the list. At the top of the list are the people who are actually behind the company. What’s more authentic than that?

The entrepreneurs with whom we spoke when writing this book have built successful brands while putting their own names and faces on the line. By so closely identifying themselves with their products, these entrepreneurs add an emotional element and genuineness to their brand that is generally absent in the Brand Xs of the world. Through this personal connection, these companies have turned out true consumer and customer advocates.

A commitment to authenticity in dealing with customers is another common thread that connects the entrepreneurs we spoke with when developing this book. As demonstrated by strong mission statements that transcend their internal communications to reach their target audiences, most, if not all, of these business leaders have connected emotionally with their customers. This has occurred not only through effective marketing and public relations programs, but through a non-adversarial, respect-based approach.

By emotionalizing their brands and producing exceptional quality not commonly found in competitive products and services, these entrepreneurs have created loyal and enthusiastic consumer bases.

Today’s consumer, like today’s businessperson, is more perceptive, skeptical, street-smart and savvy than ever before. To thrive in this highly competitive business landscape requires being different. Authenticity requires addressing your audience on their own level and having their best interests at heart, whether they are internal, including employees, or external, such as potential and existing customers, or business partners.

Jim Koch, creator of the Samuel Adams brand, has a particularly succinct way of looking at the authenticity of his relationship with his customers. “When I recall starting Sam Adams, one of the reasons I did it was that I wanted to have beer that I liked to drink, and nobody else was making it,” he explains. “So it was really easy to identify with my consumers because I was the first one!”

How can you be more real about standing behind your product than that?...

…We have found that today’s successful entrepreneurs take the needs and wants of their customers seriously. They don’t speak down to them, but rather speak to them on their level. Connecting with the customers is the cornerstone of building brand loyalty and a brand following.

Of course, having the superior product or service leading the way is only the first step. You have to get it to your consumer. As we have already heard Gary Hirshberg joke, “We can ship our yogurt 3,000 miles, but it’s the last 18 inches that make all the difference—getting that spoon to the customer’s mouth!”

As with most entrepreneurs, Gary Hirshberg finds the Internet an important medium for communicating with Stonyfield’s customers. “We use our packaging to send people to our website,” he told us. “Here, we can have a deeper conversation about these issues that are important to us and to our consumers. We are trying to deliver on the promise that we are trying to help people as a solutions company. We deliver on that, in part through our website. Here we have the opportunity to really deliver on who we are. We don’t just go out and say we stand for this or that. We actually give people access to ways that they can find stuff. We have about 700,000 consumers who have actually subscribed to one of our four online newsletters with all the news that’s fit to print. We have over 300,000 unique visitors every month and they stay an average of over five minutes, which is virtually unheard of. We know that other companies would kill for this kind of ‘stickiness.’”

As we will see in this chapter, authenticity in customer relations comes down to four cardinal rules:

  • You must offer a genuine advantage to your customers or to consumers.
  • Your marketing messages must be real, customer?centric and add value to the product or service being offered.
  • Your sales and distribution team must relay these key differentiators.
  • You must stand behind your product and keep your brand promise.

Jim Koch, creator of the Samuel Adams brand, has a particularly succinct way of looking at the authenticity of his relationship with his customers. "When I recall starting Sam Adams, one of the reasons I did it was that I wanted to have beer that I liked to drink and nobody else was making it," he explains. "So it was really easy to identify with my consumers because I was the first one!"

In developing their authentic brands and creating sustainable awareness, brand loyalty and prominence in the minds of their customers, many of the entrepreneurial business leaders we interviewed closely linked themselves with their hometowns or states. One of the most important aspects of brand building for small and regional businesses who plan to build their identity nationally is to “own their region.”

Building a regional identity helps your brand’s story resonate within that region and beyond. In turn, this leads to creating the image that you are the brand in your area. This is the process that we refer to as “Geo-Branding.”
Without question, regional identity can be expanded to a national brand appeal. The local connection is powerful because the brands that originate and radiate from there are like a pebble dropped into calm waters. The rings can spread as awareness and new brand fans are created. This is achieved through such building blocks as word-of-mouth, improved distribution, smart, emotionally-stimulating packaging, sampling, and in blogs and communities on the Internet. Moreover, grassroots public relations, through its influential third-party endorsements, delivers high impact media exposure that can generate consumer demand, or pull-through.

“The key to growing a business is that you need to be meeting some segment of the consumer’s needs,” Ben Cohen explains. “If you’ve got a small business and a product or service that is not popular, you simply have to change your product or service to be more popular. If you have a small business and the product or service is quite popular, and you’re selling as much as you can make in a smaller geographic area, then your business is one that’s ready to grow larger. Just don’t grow any faster than you can develop good managers. You have to keep it authentic.”
Entrepreneurs who have practiced Geo-Branding have benefited from the intrinsic, positive associations of a geographic locale. By owning a territory, these innovators automatically created something real. Not only by connecting with real places, but the feelings and associations people have with those places—whether or not they’ve been there!

In 1978, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield started serving homemade ice cream out of a converted gas station in Burlington, Vermont. Within a very short time, by creating a homespun and amusing image, they had built the Ben and Jerry’s brand into the signature ice cream of Vermont. Soon, they “owned” the ice cream market in New England, and they later became a national phenomenon. It wasn’t just ice cream; it was a story about two guys who created stories behind every brand, from Chunky Monkey to Cherry Garcia.

Maine is one state that consistently spawns nationally beloved, smart brands. It is perceived as being a clean, genuine, down-to-earth place that is the ideal origin for natural products—especially water. Even if you have never been to Maine, you can imagine open spaces and natural goodness.

Take for instance, Burt’s Bees, which Roxanne Quimby established as a ubiquitous brand in this lightly-populated state before taking the brand national. Another example is Tom’s of Maine. The company was founded by Tom and Kate Chappell in 1970 with just $5,000. Their mission was to make toothpaste and other personal care products, made without artificial or animal ingredients and without using animal testing. Today, Tom’s products are sold at more than 40,000 retail outlets worldwide. Their fluoride toothpastes are the only natural alternatives to earn the American Dental Association’s Seal of Acceptance. Though Tom’s of Maine was acquired by Colgate-Palmolive for $100 million in 2006, the previous owners retained a 16 percent share in the company, which remained based in Kennebunk, Maine. Under the terms of the deal, the original, authentic Tom’s of Maine’s policies were retained.
Also from Maine, but with a strong regional following throughout the Northeast, is Poland Spring Brand Natural Spring Water. Now a subsidiary of Nestlé, the company was founded in 1845. Poland Spring’s water originates from multiple sources in the state including Garden Spring and Poland Spring in Poland, Clear Spring in Hollis, Evergreen Spring in Fryeburg, Spruce Spring in Pierce Pond Township, and White Cedar Spring in Dallas, Maine.
The products of Ben and Jerry’s, as well as those of Burt, Tom and Poland Spring are consumed—often ravenously—well outside the geographic boundaries of Maine and Vermont. Geo-Branding emotionalizes the brand and bonds people to it through helping them connect to the place and to a perceived way of life. Vermont, for instance, emotes a clean, pure, simple, natural, genuinely good feeling. While this is a generalization, you get the point.

Jim Koch’s Sam Adams brand resonated in the Boston area, and soon he “owned” the beer market in Beantown. This gave him the platform from which to launch his Samuel Adams product nationally. Another regional brewing company that had a passionate regional following before going national is Adolph Coors in Golden, Colorado. Before they established a nationwide distribution system, Coors had such a reputation that consumers often made buying trips to Colorado from states where the highly-prized beer was not available. The plot of the 1977 movie Smoky and the Bandit involved the “smuggling” of a shipment of Coors from Texas to Georgia. Thanks to its being a Colorado-centric brand, Coors was the third largest brewing company in the United States during the 1970s, even though it was only a regionally distributed product. Since the late 1980s, with national distribution, it has maintained a position as a top three brewer.

Today, another good example of a brewing company in the Mountain West that “owns” a market is Big Sky Brewing of Missoula, Montana. From its humble, albeit very authentic, beginnings in 1995, Big Sky has gone on to become the signature beer in Montana.

When it comes to “owning a territory” there are few better examples than the case of the man who, with our help, branded a Christmas tree in Oregon, a state where Christmas trees are a signature crop! Our firm came up with a strategy and created the world’s first real “designer” Christmas tree, Oregon’s Noble Vintage trees, grown by Joe Sharp’s Yule Tree Farms in Oregon’s renowned wine country, the Willamette Valley.

Sharp also recently introduced a live version of his Oregon’s Noble Vintage trees. These trees have a tight, self-contained root system that settles in the earth immediately upon planting. A unique soil “recipe” of pumice and compost, as well as fine and coarse bark, also makes these trees lighter than a normal tree, allowing easy transport and handling. In a recent interview with William McCall of the Associated Press, Sharp explained that he has never found a better Christmas tree than in Oregon.

“It sounds gimmicky—and it kind of is—but it’s working,” wrote Elise Soukup in Newsweek. “While the rest of the national evergreen industry is hurting, as people turn to artificial varieties, Oregon’s Noble Vintage sales have nearly doubled since they debuted last year, largely through word-of-mouth.… The trees, which are culled from the top 10 percent of the crop, are valued for their symmetrical shape, vibrant color, long-lasting needles and, of course, the ‘designer’ moniker (prominently displayed on each tree’s hang tag). They’re especially popular in homes on a holiday house tour because, much like a designer handbag, the Oregon’s Noble Vintage (which looks like a more perfect version of your off-brand tree) can be recognized by those in the know.” Sharp delivers his live trees directly to consumers from his Internet site www.christmastreeoregon.com anywhere in the U.S.

The numbers of those “in the know” have increased dramatically since the trees have garnered extensive media coverage, including a mention on NBC’s The Today Show and a story on the History Channel.

Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm began modestly in New Hampshire and went on to “own” that market for his yogurt brands before going national. Founded in 1983 as an organic farming school, Stonyfield Farm began with a few Jersey cows and a yogurt recipe. In the ensuing years, Hirshberg has built it into a $300 plus million-dollar company and the number three yogurt brand in the world.

Stonyfield executed a smart Geo-Branding campaign using its New Hampshire farming roots, infusing and communicating a special and authentic element to the brand.

Today, Stonyfield Farm products, which include all natural and certified organic yogurt, smoothies, cultured soy, frozen yogurt, ice cream and milk, are sold across the United States. Speaking from experience, Hirshberg has some cautionary words about the transition from a regional to a national brand: “Saying that your energy is best spent getting your product out in the test market doesn’t mean you have to go national when you launch a product,” Gary cautioned. “My counsel to entrepreneurs is to ‘own’ a region, ‘own’ a market, ‘own’ a segment, ‘own’ something. Create something you can defend. Don’t get hung up on the idea that you have to go national instantly.”

Stories can form a strong emotional connection between a consumer and a product or service. This method of connectivity creates messages that are remembered, and brand recall translates as brand loyalty. In our public relations practice, we advocate creating a “brand personality,” but through authentic stories about real people and companies.

When a talent agent named Wally Amos, formerly with the William Morris Agency, started a cookie company, promoting the cookie as he did the musical acts that he represented, he gave the new company a persona and created a captivating and true story around it. In our contemporary society, which is shaped by the entertainment industry, this insightful, authentic and progressive marketing strategy eventually sparked a trend among food companies—and later thousands of consumer product companies, from custom motorcycles to beauty products. Today, many successful brands utilize this strategy, which includes telling an interesting, memorable and authentic story.

Consumers react positively to stories of real people who stand behind their brands. Orville Redenbacher, the botanist and businessman who created the popcorn that bears his name, was one, and so too was Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC). Another excellent example of a businessperson who became his own spokesman and who developed an extraordinarily positive relationship with consumers was Dave Thomas. The founder and chief executive officer of Wendy’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers, he is known for having appeared personally in more than 600 commercials for his restaurant chain, more than any other person in television history. And who can forget Victor Kiam, the president of Remington Products, the maker of razors and small appliances? Kiam appeared in ads for Remington razors saying that “I liked it so much, I bought the company!”

Meanwhile, the use of well-known celebrities, such as sports figures, with no integral connection with the company or product often backfires, particularly when they endorse several products, which consumers recognize and resent. A classic case is that of Hertz using a record-setting football player who won the Heisman Trophy as a running back for the University of Southern California, and who later played with the Buffalo Bills. His name was O.J. Simpson. He was a paid endorser who had nothing whatsoever to do with Hertz as a company. Professional public speakers often use this manipulation technique as well, though often with fabricated, unauthentic stories.
Other examples of faux spokespersons who are in stark contrast to Harland Sanders or Wally Amos are people such as Betty Crocker, the fictional female spokesmodel created in 1921 by the Washburn Crosby Company (later General Mills) to answer mail that they received about baking with Gold Medal Flour, and Aunt Jemima, the fictional woman with a big smile who began promoting the products of the Davis Milling Company in the 1890s.
While many people still believe that Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima were actually real, other companies have chosen spokesmodels that are more easily identified as fictitious. These range from the Campbell Soup Kids and the Chicken of the Sea Mermaid, to the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean and Ronald McDonald.

There was also the lonely Maytag Repairman, who appeared in countless television commercials between 1967 and 1988. He was actually an actor named Jesse White who was hired by the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency in Chicago. And who can forget Mr. Whipple, the persnickety storekeeper who admonished ladies not to squeeze the Charmin’ toilet paper from 1965 to 1989? In a 1979 poll, Mr. Whipple was the third most recognized man in America, but that wasn’t even his own name or identity. In fact, Mr. Whipple was really actor Dick Wilson—who earned a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest commercial run in history—but who had nothing to do with the product or the company.

While these characters captured the attention of consumers at a time when television commercials were viewed as genuine representations of reality, today’s smart, ultra-busy consumer views television advertising with a healthy dose of skepticism—a compelling reason to create and develop more genuine spokespersons and brands.
Characters such as Dave Thomas and Wally Amos are much more compelling, because they have both charming personalities and stories that really are authentic. When Wally Amos founded his chocolate chip cookie brand and became “Famous” Amos, he actually baked the cookies.

Through the years, we have met with and counseled countless CEOs, company presidents, entrepreneurs, marketing directors and vice presidents, all of whom wanted to improve their businesses and gain a competitive advantage. Despite the fact that these bright, tenacious, success-driven professionals were meeting with us—public relations and marketing counselors (experts in creating heightened brand awareness)—many wanted to keep much of their success and businesses a secret!

For example, in the last several years, we have had meetings with a company that had an innovative method of retaining clients; another with a new manufacturing process that could transform the beauty industry; a software developer with a cutting-edge technology that could significantly impact the financial services industry; a fitness equipment maker with a clearly superior product line; and a food manufacturer with a new line of healthier snack foods.

However, in all of these meetings, each of these real companies had one thing in common: when discussing their business and marketing goals, they each told us that they wanted to—and I quote—“stay under the radar.” This was despite the fact they each had unambiguous, newsworthy differentiators that set them apart from their competitors!

Despite the fact that these folks met with our public relations agency, whose sole mission is to disseminate a client’s most compelling attributes, they were fearful that someone would steal their idea or try to knock them off. How can a brand or company be first or perceived as best in a category by taking this stance? Or even more importantly, how can a brand be the preferred brand of choice if nobody knows about it?
It boggles the mind.

We certainly understand the genuine need to safeguard proprietary technologies, business practices or inventions. As Jerry Baldwin, co-founder of Starbucks puts it, “You don’t want to get shot down. There are probably some businesses, especially in the tech field, where you want to get the product established and trademarked before the competition does. Coffee and tea are in the public domain. For us, execution is everything.”
However, if a product or service is ready to be sold and a distribution plan is in place, why not get it out there and own a category in the minds of your potential customers?

Jim Koch is an example of one of those who was reticent to show the flag in the beginning. He feels that when he began his Boston Beer Company in 1985, perceived competition from established national brands kept him under the radar initially. However, he did not remain there. By the mid-1990s, Samuel Adams was well above the radar, and one of the leading brands to have emerged from the craft brewing movement of the previous decade. The brand had become a household name. Today the name “Samuel Adams” may be better known around the country as a brand of beer than as the eighteenth century Boston political figure for which his brand is named.

Is There A Better Mousetrap?

The well-known and often repeated “mousetrap” analogy comes from the old adage that states “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” The meaning is that customers are attracted to a product or service that is an improvement over existing products or services in the same category—and that learning how to do it is one giant step on the road to success.

Attributed to a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in his journal in 1855, the quote may actually have been written in 1889 by Sarah S.B. Yule and Mary S. Keene, who were paraphrasing Emerson when they wrote “If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.”

In any case, the phrase has become a widely quoted, and almost universally accepted, axiom in the field of marketing. It tells us that the marketplace will be responsive to quality.

Emerson actually used the examples of “better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs” rather than mousetraps, but the mousetrap analogy is more illustrative. This is so because the current mousetrap design has been used for more than a century without significant change. This means that a “better mousetrap,” if it were to be built, would indeed be a revolutionary product. As Jeff Taylor points out, “The better mousetrap is really illusive because the basic mousetrap still works best. To say that you’ve built a better mousetrap is kind of an oxymoron.”
Taylor observed that “Today, a lot of the innovation is not about mousetrap building—it’s about what color to paint the mousetrap. It’s about how you get it in front of people to show how impressive the spring is, and about your ability to market and sell that mousetrap. If you look at Monster, our jobs business is still 50 percent of our business, and our resume business is 30 percent. These two products were in development as early as 1993, so for more than a decade, we’ve been pressing the accelerator on how to get these two products to more and more companies, and to more and more job seekers.”

Elaborating on the smaller examples of the spring and the color of the trap, Taylor said that for him, creating brand awareness was a fundamental “spring.”

“Developing your aided and unaided brand awareness is an art, not a science,” he says. “It was a long-term effort to get us to the place where nine out of ten adults working in the United States know what Monster is. There are some brands that go through their entire life cycle without anyone knowing what they really are.”
When we asked Gary Hirshberg how he had tried to build his better mousetrap, he replied by saying: “First I’ll explain what the mousetrap is that I’m trying to build, and I would use the present tense not the past. This is because I think we’re always at the starting line. This is a continuous improvement process, you’re never done. Conventional consumer products have the same basic algorithm that you are always trying to make the product as cheap as you possibly can.”

He went on to cite the example of Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola, and how they build their existing, and essentially unchanging, mousetraps: “They use sugar water, corn syrup solids and some coloring. There is nothing really cheaper than that. There is no nutritional value, no food, and no meaning. The point of this is that you can take the huge gross margins that are left over to purchase advertising, and to buy media. Of course, in examples involving advertising, you use the media to get an ‘awareness trial,’ and ultimately, you hope, loyalty.”

As Hirshberg suggests, there is a baseline level of product quality in every product category, and that competing with that baseline often involves building a better advertising campaign rather than building a better mousetrap.
“If you believe as I do, that a consumable item that goes into a yogurt container should be something edible—as radical as that notion may be—then you right away buy into the idea that you’re not going to cut costs,” he explains. “In my case, I’m trying to feed people not only healthy food and nutritious food, but I’m also trying to feed the farmers that sustain us. I’m trying to rebuild the food system and a supply chain. By definition, this means that my gross margins are at a disadvantage to my competitors, and this means that I can’t afford advertising. However, as you can see, our business has grown north of 23 percent for over a dozen straight years. Recently, we grew 45 percent in a category that has traditionally grown between five and eight percent. I’m now the number three yogurt brand nationally, and the number one organic yogurt brand globally.”