Bedbury, Scott

Author of A New Brand World: 8 Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century.

Scott Bedbury was senior vice president of marketing at Starbucks from 1995 to 1998. Prior to that he spent seven years as head of advertising for Nike, where he launched the "Just Do It" campaign and helped take Nike from a distant #3 to the global powerhouse it is today. A resident of Seattle, he is currently CEO of Brandstream, an independent brand consultancy, and a speaker for the Leigh Bureau. asks …

What is A New Brand World about?

SB: The book is about something of a shift in the way that consumers look at companies and the brands they provide. It also probes another shift, which is lagging the consumer shift, on the part of corporations to behave a little differently and look at consumers—and themselves—a little differently.

You’ve said that branding exists as a practice for you above and beyond all business strategies.

SB: Right.

A fairly strong statement. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? Is it the Holy Grail?

SB: A great brand is the Holy Grail in business. But I think it’s reachable. We’re nearing the end of several decades where businesses have been measured solely on financial metrics. I think that’s a fairly poor organizing mechanism for how a company should behave. Look at what chasing near-term profits has done to major corporations in just the last year or two. I think financial measures are nice yardsticks and measurements of performance in some areas, but not something to live by.

What I love about a brand as organizing principle is how, when it’s properly understood across an organization, it can inform and inspire everyone in terms of how they should do what they do, not just what the end goal is at the end of the year or some stock price, some EPS target, some market share number, or some competitor they want to kill. Great companies look beyond those metrics to what it is they want their brand to stand for and how it should be perceived and felt by the world that exists inside and outside their company. If a brand is meaningful to consumers and attracts great people to champion it, a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating strong numbers is done.

It’s almost as if there could be a subtitle: “Watch out. Your brand has real karma,” financial and otherwise.

SB: That’s where my second book is going, this notion of brand karma.

It’s a wonderful notion. What are you finding out about it in your current life?

SB: One of the recurring themes of the book is that it’s not enough to have a great product or service anymore. The world is full of products and services that work. You have to take stock of how your brand makes consumers feel. This is not just about your product or service, but about your brand—the sum total of all images that they hold in their head about your company, whether they are legitimate images or not. Great marketers know that consumer perception is reality, and you must work hard to change it.

“Brand image” is becoming a more complex concept these days. It used to be defined essentially in physical terms, i.e., faster, brighter, longer-lasting, better quality. We’re seeing image take on more intangibles that include environmental record, community service, financial reporting integrity or even the morals of the corporate leadership. Certain words in business lose their meaning or relevancy over time. For me, I now replace “image” with “karma” when I look at a brand. It takes it all a bit deeper.

What sort of aura does your company put off. Karma goes beyond companies like Enron, Worldcom, or Andersen. Think about the Catholic Church. Organizations are brands, too.

It raises a very interesting question about brand leadership. We understand your strong feeling about somebody needing to be a steward in a chief branding officer role. At the time—to use the Catholic Church as an example—every priest, every parishioner, every altar boy is involved in creating the karma of the brand. So how does that stewardship really happen?

SB: Well, I think there certainly is a role for leadership in there, and I think the CEO or whoever is leading the organization probably bears the most responsibility. It’s not enough, though, just to stand up and tell people what it is they should be doing, but to stand up and tell everyone what values they should be living. And that applies to almost any business I can think of. Somewhere along the way “honesty” sort of fell off the table for many brands, it seems. If that is a value, and some employees don’t subscribe to those values, they don’t belong in the company. I think there are a lot of companies out there that have some housecleaning to do, and the weakness shows.

But that’s the leadership role, to me. It’s not just going out and hiring good people and training them in their task. It’s grounding them in values so they, in turn, can hire the next employee and pass on those values. If you want to go back to the Church again or pick the Catholic faith or any faith, there are some inherent values in those institutions. Some would call it a moral code. It’s all pretty much the same thing. So the brand—which is all about values—is an enormously valuable organizing principle, which I think most companies are just now recognizing as the opportunity that it is. And by the way, “profitable” is not a brand value. That is a corporate value. Brand values are the powerful and positive things that you want your customers and employees to feel when they think about your brand. I don’t know of too many companies that want their customers to immediately think about how they are making the company profitable by spending money with them.

It seems to me that the Catholic Church problem is the fact that the Church is a business, and like many businesses they’ve been covering up all the wrongs and ills that the average person doesn’t know about.

SB: Well, it’s bad corporate behavior. Take the fact of religion away, and any corporation will do this—they hide things, they’ve got skeletons in closets everywhere. The Catholic Church issue represents what happens when a brand crawls under your skin and makes an emotional connection that’s revered, to use their own language. And the deeper you go, the closer you get to someone’s heart and soul, so to speak. If you do something to jar or alienate that position that you have taken with them, the downside is just as fierce and as potentially painful as all the warm images you might have had on the way up. It pains me to say this, but hate will always be on just the other side of love.

Nike is another good example of this. It is a brand that people have come very close to. And when consumers hear something bad—right or wrong, correct or incorrect—about the company, there’s an emotional response to that. And I think that’s why we’re seeing such a tremendous backlash on the Church, as well, because they have led us to believe a certain set of values that they hold that are sacred. And here we find out they’re human like the rest of us-which shouldn’t be a big discovery. But their behavior, in terms of hiding what happened, can’t be justified.

Are people looking for something that is almost beyond the normal, something magical, in corporate brands?

SB: Maybe not all of them. Some brands are higher “involvement” than others. Some brands provide greater emotional benefits than others. But there is a limit. I got an interesting email recently from someone who had read my book. He must have been a student of Jungian theory or something, but he was totally into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But this particular guy ran an organization that provided spiritual training for people, including CEOs. He said, “You know, in your book you say that no brand can deliver the top of Maslow’s pyramid, no brand can promise anyone self-actualization.” But he said, “But my company can do that.”

I just said, “I’m sorry. You may have a very noble process going on there. But what I meant by what I wrote in the book is that you get to the top only by your own means. You may be inspired by what brands can provide, but no company, no product, no service, no religion, can take you there. It’s not like buying a plane ticket. If anything, total peace and acceptance is more likely to happen when every eternal element—including brands and religious formalities—take a supporting, rather than defining, role in how you find happiness. You get to that special place on your own.”

Brands that suggest they can do this face a real credibility issue. Most brands have over-promised and under-delivered in the last 20 or 30 years. My counsel to most companies is aim a little lower and over-deliver, and try not to stake out something that literally is getting into a zone that even the most hallowed institutions like churches can’t deliver.

I’m also wondering how much employees of organizations—because I’m very interested in the brand inside piece—can truly actualize themselves in the process of working on truly great brands. I’ll give you an example that I’m curious about. It strikes me that of all of the advertising campaigns of the last 10 or 15 years, the “Just do it” campaign had an art, longevity, a power to it that was about some kind of collaboration. Obviously it was you, it was Wieden & Kennedy ad agency, it was the athletes, it was Nike. Something special happened there—

SB: A lot of brand alchemy happened. To speak again about overstatement or understatement, those three words were only spoken once in 200 commercials that we produced. Once spoken, it became a command, it became parental, it became too suggestive. The power of suggestion has always amazed me, when you suggest something in the right way. The most powerful suggestion can be just a wink from someone across the room. It was for me when I met my wife. I winked at her across a room the night we met at a friend’s house 23 years ago. Never underestimate the power of a wink or a nod. For whatever reason, most brands still prefer sledgehammers, usually badly aimed.

The power of suggestion in branding is a very powerful thing. The “Just do it” campaign took stock of how people felt. Everyone wanted to be in better shape, to take more control of their lives. We just gave them a little encouragement. For women the campaign was especially powerful. Through the same campaign we demonstrated that we respected what it was like to be a working woman with a lazy husband, a lazy boss, perhaps with kids in daycare and no time to work out. Nike’s “empathy” print campaign reached out to them, acknowledged them with a wink as if to say, “Hey, we know life’s tough. But we understand the challenge you’re up against, and we think that getting in shape might be part of the solution.” That’s a long-winded way to explain some of the creative strategy behind it, but that’s in essence how the campaign became one of the most powerful—and subtle—messages in corporate history.

You know, 14 years later it’s still going strong because I think it was never over-promising, it was never overstatement. It never went beyond what Nike could deliver on.

Take that notion of brand alchemy—and I don’t know how large the circle of human beings who produced those campaigns were—out into the larger corporate entity called Nike, and how much of that brand alchemy, people’s potential, their passion getting ignited, was released company-wide?

SB: Oh, it was amazing. You have to understand, when we did that campaign we had no idea it would go beyond August of 1988. It ran for three weeks; it had all of about $8 million of media behind it. But the response inside Nike was instantaneous. And remember, too, this was a company that a year earlier had laid off 25 percent of its work force. You could not give Nike stock away just six or nine months before that. So the survivors and walking wounded found real energy and inspiration in that line. Nike already had an internal line, “There is no finish line”—but it lacked empathy. It also said, “you can never stop” which could evoke depressing images depending on how you viewed it.

To Nike employees, the “Just Do It” message was pretty simple: What’s past is past. We know what we have to do. Let’s just go get it done. Let’s kick some ass. It was remarkable what happened. I remember debuting the campaign at a sales meeting in June 1988. A thousand Nike employees stood on their feet for almost 10 minutes clapping. That was a real turning point for not just the brand but the people who made it what it was, and more important, what it would become in the years ahead.

Are there some other examples of organizations with great brand alchemy inside?

SB: I think Apple comes close. I think it’s a different kind of brand. A similar leader in Steve Jobs, I think. You know, very self-confident, self-assured, very creative leader, a visionary. I think they’ve got some real brand mojo going on there. I think Nordstrom, at one point, had that. I think they still have a little bit of it. My wife used to work at their corporate office in Seattle in the ’80s. You could feel the brand when you walked into any Nordstrom store, and you could certainly feel it when you walked into the advertising department where she worked. It was like the Nordstrom brand was airborne like a great scent, wafting through the air, permeating everything it touched.

I think Starbucks still has it, which is an enormous accomplishment considering it has gone from 1,000 stores to nearly 7,000 stores in just five years. The intensity and richness of the brand was so profound in the three years that I was there, from ’95 to ’98, that it was like a magic potion. Howard Schultz and Orin Smith have taken that potion and spread it around the world. And maybe it’s a little thinner today in some places than it used to be, but it’s still there.

Do you have a favorite Starbucks store anywhere?

SB: Like a lot of people I have two answers to that question. When I’m home, I have one near my house that I would call my favorite, because it’s where my friends are. The community gathers there. But whenever I’m traveling and I’m away from my familiar surroundings and I search out a Starbucks, that becomes my favorite, if only for a day.

Speaking of drinks, we know you’re doing a lot of work with Coca-Cola and I’m sure you can’t talk about most of it, but, as you said, it’s the world’s most recognized brand. So many challenges. What are the ah-has for you?

SB: One of the ah-has is, as Americans, it’s funny how we view the world and alter it through these American spectacles, and we all think of Coca-Cola as an American brand. And certainly it has its roots here. But if you probe young people—teenagers and college students—they are so much more connected to the world than we were at their age, they’ll say, “Yeah, sure it started in America, but you’ve got to understand, Coke is the world’s brand. It’s everyone’s brand.” Which to me is perhaps one of the most powerful brand positions you could ever have, that the ownership is far and wide, and it doesn’t rely on someone to adopt the values of a different culture or country.

Admittedly, Coca-Cola is probably the most recognized American icon on the planet. But it is fiercely owned by others well outside these borders. I remember walking off a plane from Chicago to Seattle in 1995. In that particular two-city connection there’s a Starbucks right opposite the gate where you get on the plane and another one just outside the jetway on the Seattle end. There was an older couple from Chicago deplaning ahead of me that had been sitting near me on the flight. She stopped in front of the Starbucks in the north concourse, turned to her husband and said, “Look, honey, they have Starbucks here, too!”

And I thought, my God, they’re drinking Starbucks coffee in Chicago, and they thought it was theirs, you know? Even though most people know that Starbucks came from somewhere else, they adopt the one near them. So when you ask people, “Where is your Starbucks?” they don’t even blink about the use of the word “your.” They say, “Well, my Starbucks is”—because they have made it part of their neighborhood. And I think there is a similar opportunity for Coke. I can only think of a few other brands that have pulled this off—to become a globally owned brand. And in a time when the world needs a few more unifying concepts rather than dividing ones, it would be great to see brands create experiences that are relevant no matter where you are.

There was a wonderful piece in the book about the Big Dig that you did with Jerome Conlon and Starbucks. This wide-ranging research, at least from my experience with branding, seems kind of atypical.

SB: We didn’t do any traditional research in the way of pre-testing advertising or even product pre-testing at Nike. A lot of lab work but nothing in front of focus groups, at least in the seven years I was there. We did—in lieu of that—get very close to consumers. We didn’t jump in front of them in focus groups or other qualitative environments and say, “What do you think of this line?” or “What do you think of this commercial?” We would spend hours just getting to understand the world they live in, and then very slowly and methodically move it to a discussion about sports and fitness, then to a discussion about footwear and apparel, then to brands, and then ultimately to Nike.

Too often a lot of companies are saying, “Let’s test the new package design,” and just jump in front of consumers and say, “What do you think of this one, versus that one, versus that one?” when what they probably should be doing is having a very deep and insightful discussion about how they feel about the world they live in and where the brand fits or doesn’t fit.

I’m a big fan of doing fewer research projects but doing them extremely well, and taking the time to do them right. This level of project takes several months to design and field, and probably another month or two to fully digest.

And then I would think it would reap insights for a long time.

SB: A long time. The paradigm flips at Nike, the big ones that opened up the door for things like the women’s fitness market and the outdoor business, those happened on some of these insightful forays. We built whole new businesses on those.

What’s the greatest misconception about brand?

SB: That it’s a product, something tangible that you hold in your hand and put on your foot or drink. Those are manifestations of a brand, albeit temporary ones. Products come and go, you know? The brand is the thing that exists above and beyond all that. The physical manifestation of brand is a really big misconception.

Another misconception is that people think branding equals advertising or branding is marketing, and that it’s the marketing department’s job to do the branding. The fact is, branding is everyone’s job. Great brand development initiatives nearly always include marketing, but they may also have a profound impact on how the human resource or sales function at a company works.

The final question: I’m an executive. I want to have a more values-based approach to branding in my company. Where do I start?

SB: I think you do a brand audit. That is where you find out what the leadership thinks of the brand, as well as other levels of management, right down to entry-level employees. Brand audits should also include your core customers, your light customers, the ones that hate you, and then maybe the customers you want that don’t know you really exist. I did this for a large architectural firm a few years ago and found that the firm’s principals had one view of what the brand was and that the young architects who were beginning to really drive the image of the company had a different view. And we had to manage that gap.

And believe me, every company has those gaps, because companies are ultimately human, and we’re all different. Now it’s one thing to address those gaps with external communication to try and change opinion. But if you don’t change it internally first, I don’t recommend doing anything externally. Today, more than ever, brands have to walk the talk. If they don’t, there’s no point in pouring a lot of money into expensive mass marketing. Once the brand is defined and understood inside, developing the tools to change outside opinion is a whole lot easier and a lot more effective.

Thank you.

Email: sbedbury (at)
Book: A New Brand World: 8 Principles for Achieving Brand Leadership in the 21st Century

Bedbury’s New Company: