Steve Yastrow is the author of Brand Harmony, a book published by the Tom Peters Company Press, which offers a fresh, innovative approach to marketing and branding to help companies improve their results. He is president of Yastrow Marketing, a consulting firm which has served many companies, including McDonald's Corporation, Cold Stone Creamery, Jenny Craig International and The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, among others. Yastrow Marketing focuses on "marketing beyond the marketing department," creating revolutionary marketing systems that yield major profit breakthroughs.
Formerly vice-president of resort marketing for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Steve is also a regular contributor to the blog at tompeters.com.
tompeters.com asks ...
What is brand harmony?
SY: Brand harmony is the idea that what makes a customer fall in love with a product or a service isn't how many times the customer sees ads for that product or how clever or powerful those advertising messages are, but how well all experiences the customer has with that product blend to tell a compelling, motivating story.
And just by the fact that you've written this book, clearly you don't think that's happening enough. What state are we in now that we need brand harmony?
SY: The mindset that has influenced marketing for the last 50 years is something I call "brute-force branding"—the idea that the way to get customers interested in your product or service is to interrupt their lives as frequently as possible with one-way marketing messages. Brute-force branding assumes that if one company interrupts you 20 times during a month while you're reading magazines or watching TV, and another company only interrupts you seven times in that same time period, you're more likely to buy from the company that interrupted you 20 times. I think people are much more discerning than that. Brute force is, in most all cases, not an effective way to win your customers' love and loyalty.
Do you have any kind of proof?
SY: Yes, a number of things. First of all, look at the fact that the average American so-called white-collar worker gets more than 200 messages coming across their desk every day. Outside of work, they're exposed to as many as 5,000 advertising and promotional messages a day. There's a lot of noise out there. Are people waiting for one more company to interrupt them?
Secondly—and I cite some statistics in my book that show this—people today have become much more skeptical and much more self-reliant when making decisions. We used to rely on what we heard from big institutions like government and companies to help us understand the world. We don't do that anymore. More and more, we rely on our own opinions and those of our friends.
So the idea that you can persuade a customer to fall in love with your brand just through brute force is one that frankly doesn't work anymore, except for the most extreme cases.
SY: People often cite brands like Nike or Budweiser as being successful with brute force branding. Let's assume for a moment that it's true. Does that mean it works for the other 99.9999% of companies? How many companies have the deep pockets of a Nike or Budweiser? The exceptions actually prove the rule. In fact, most companies who have deep pockets can't make brute force work. Think of all of the TV commercials you've seen multiple times, but can't remember what the product was being advertised.
You're talking about marketing and you're talking about branding, but they're not equivalent, right? Or are they? Do you see branding and marketing as one and the same thing?
SY: They're very much related. Marketing is the process of orchestrating the experiences customers have with your company in a way that creates brand impressions in a customer's mind. If these experiences blend to tell a clear, compelling and unique story, creating brand harmony, the customer is more likely to form a brand impression that encourages her to want to be more involved with the product.
One of the big misconceptions about branding is that it's mostly about brand awareness, or "getting your name out in the marketplace." I think awareness is the most overrated branding characteristic. It is only the first step in the branding process, not an end in itself. By focusing too much on awareness, companies tend to spread themselves a mile wide and an inch deep, squandering their resources. I am much less concerned with how many people know my clients' names than I am with having the right people not only know their names but attach a deep meaning to their names. This is a meaningful distinction; awareness is a very expensive thing to buy, and it's an investment whose return is often not positive.
If you see brand harmony as a system, then one component of that system is something called "be the brand." Is that right?
And what do you mean when you say, "Be the brand"?
SY: Customers are paying attention to all experiences they have with companies, not just those experiences produced by the marketing department. Every employee—yes, every employee—in a company has an effect on customers' brand experiences. In order to create brand harmony, every employee in the company needs to understand their personal role in the telling of the brand story.
In effect you're saying everyone has to be a marketer. Can that be done?
SY: It's a very interesting question. First, recognize that this isn't discretionary. Customers are paying attention to all experiences they have with a company, so they will see the actions of employees as brand-influencing experiences, whether the employees want it to be that way or not. But, in my experience working with many companies on "be the brand" programs, I have found that virtually all employees are willing, eager, and able to be the brand. I have been blown away by the great ideas I've heard from hourly employees, once they are brought into the company's branding conversation. The problem is hardly ever the employees; it's usually management, who don't make it easy for their people to be the brand.
In the old world of brute-force branding, bigger companies had a natural advantage. Why? Because bigger companies could afford to interrupt consumers more frequently. However, with customers paying attention to all experiences they have with a company, the competitive advantage in branding now comes from the ability of all the people in a company to work together to create powerful experiences of brand harmony. That's simply easier with smaller companies.
This notion of brand harmony, in some respects, doesn't kick in until someone has actually purchased the product and then they start interacting with your company more. Wouldn't some people say, "Well, I still need to do all this brute-force advertising. I need to have all of these ads on TV so that people will even begin to consider buying my product."? Or are you saying no, that's not the case?
SY: Customers begin using brand harmony to evaluate a company and its products long before they actually purchase the product. Let's say you're charged with buying a new employee benefits program for your company. You start talking to five different insurance agencies, trying to find the right one. Through a series of phone calls, sales presentations, visits to the various websites, calls to their current clients for references and time spent with their brochures, you find yourself beginning to favor one of the agencies over the others. What has happened is that their messages have blended to create a more compelling story than the competitions'. You have used brand harmony to narrow the field of potential choices.
Sure, the agencies' advertising could have also influenced your decision. But the advertising would only have been effective if it had blended with the other experiences to add to the brand story. Advertising is only one way to learn about a product, and frequently not the most effective way.
You talk a lot about "story" and everybody having their component of the story that lines up with the rest. That makes me think you're not looking for a traditional marketer who is trying to reach as many people as possible or reach the right people, but your kind of marketer actually has to orchestrate the storytelling.
SY: I think that's a very important point. We see a lot of people getting into marketing because they like graphic design or advertising, but in reality the things that help marketing people succeed in a world of brand harmony are a little bit different.
What are some of those things?
SY: For one, it's a much different kind of leadership. The traditional marketing person leads a relatively small team and is able to command outside agency resources to do his or her bidding through the power of budget control. In a world of brand harmony, a successful marketing person will play the pivotal role in helping all people in the company, from the cubicle to the boardroom, to be the brand.
The great marketers of the future will be those who can help their companies discover their true brand essence, craft that brand essence into a compelling brand story, and lead the company's team in the telling of that story through all experiences the company creates for its customers.
It's just that there are so many different avenues that are out of the marketer's control. Beyond looking at your website or seeing an ad, someone might, for instance, write something about your company in a blog. Obviously, you can't control it all. It seems like a huge job.
SY: Yes, customers can consider anything they see or hear about your company, and you can't directly control all of those experiences. But you may have been able to control the experiences that caused the person to write something negative about you in the blog. Perfect brand harmony may be unattainable, but the organizations who do the best job of orchestrating the experiences their customers have with them will have the most powerful and productive marketing ...
We all have these stories where one negative experience in a store, for instance, has made us decide not to shop there anymore, even if it means going out of our way to get what we need at a different store.
SY: Right. And brand harmony says that when those negative experiences— faulty equipment, disinterested sales staff, etc.—blended with every other experience you had with that store, the resulting impression was one that motivated you to be less involved with that company.
If, on the other hand, they had done all these amazingly wonderful things for you over the years, you might have been able to overlook one negative interaction. A brand impression is like a cumulative running tally of all interaction the customer has had with the brand or the company behind the brand.
Let me use Dell as an example. When you tell someone you're thinking about getting a Dell computer, the first thing you seem to hear these days is, "Ooh, bad customer service." Although personally I've had the opposite experience, I'm still asking a lot of different people—my colleagues, coworkers, neighbors, people on the subway, whatever—what their experience has been. In the end, I heard so many negative stories about customer service that I started to believe my own experience was an anomaly.
SY: Right. So you're using brand harmony to form an overall impression of Dell. You're blending what you've heard from your friends with your personal experience, and the resulting blend is one that isn't motivating. And a really clever ad from Dell on TV isn't going to affect your decision.
Exactly. Advertising can't overrule what I heard from people I asked.
SY: That's one of the major points here—the way people practice marketing doesn't reflect the way customers actually perceive marketing.
You're absolutely right. The people making ads still think it's 1950 when, in fact, customers are a hell of a lot smarter now.
SY: Here's an example. Rance Crain, editor in chief of Advertising Age magazine, wrote an editorial last week that claimed that mass marketing wasn't dead. He said that the real problem with advertising is bad creative work. I almost fell out of my chair. I posted a response on the tompeters.com blog, writing that claiming that the problem with advertising is bad creative is like saying that the reason a stalker can't get dates is because of his unfashionable trench coat. If your primary means of creating relationships is to stalk people and pursue them relentlessly, the way brute force branding does, your taste in clothing is a marginal issue.
Let's talk a little about your book itself, specifically the brand harmony implementation steps. I don't usually find to-do lists in books very good, but I'm quite impressed with these, especially the fact that you get very detailed with things like how many hours per day a step is likely to take. You say something like, "if you're not actually willing to spend this kind of time, don't even bother." How did you come up with those steps?
SY: I've developed the processes and systems in this book by actually doing this over a number of years with my clients. It's all based on my experiences in finding out what companies need to do to create a more powerful sense of brand harmony in their customers' minds. So I'm giving people an accessible way to implement the ideas that have worked successfully for my clients.
And yes, I'm up front with people in telling them that creating a stronger sense of brand harmony isn't easy. But, I also remind them brand harmony isn't something you can do or not do, because your customers are already doing it. Your only choice is whether you will commit to creating a stronger sense of brand harmony.
Will most companies meet this challenge? Probably not. But that means greater opportunity for those who do. Tom had a great line at the Re-Imagine Summit last December—he said that if only 1% of people take the initiative to do something the opportunity is 100% greater. But we know that people don't always do what's good for them. Just this morning the Wall Street Journal had an article describing how more than 50% of people don't follow the advice of their doctors. 125,000 people die annually from cardiovascular disease because they didn't do what their doctor told them. So what makes us think that most people would meet the challenge to do great marketing for their companies?
I do about 25 seminars a year with groups of 10-15 company presidents at a time, and there's an exercise I do that I think you'll find interesting. I say to them, "Imagine there's a company that buys your product, and in that company you have a contact who just loves doing business with your company. She's very loyal to you. One day, the CEO and CFO are slashing budgets so they call her in and tell her to do significantly less business with your company. But this person who loves doing business with you stands her ground and says, 'There's no way I'm doing less business with them. We've got to do more business with them, not less. They're fabulous for us because ...'" And then I ask these company presidents, "How would you want your customer to finish that sentence? What would your customer say to persuade this CEO and CFO that she needs to do more business with you, not less?"
Fewer than 5% of the company presidents who do this exercise can tell me anything slightly compelling that they would want this customer to say. Fewer than 5% of these executives can articulate what it is that would make a customer really be in love with their company. I think that's significant.
Ouch. That's not just significant, that's terrifying.
SY: Isn't it? I wrote about this experience in a newsletter article titled "This Should Keep You Up At Night." My point was that executives worry about their new office space, etc., when what they should really be worrying about is how to make customers fall in love with them. When company presidents can't articulate what makes that happen, how can they expect the rest of their team to do so? It might be their own fault, it might be the fault of their marketing people, but, in any event, I consider it a pretty serious signal of deeper issues if the CEO can't answer this question.
My challenge to these CEOs is simple: Don't be upset with yourself if you can't answer this question today. But be really upset with yourself if you can't answer it six months from now.
When you go in and work with companies, how often is a CEO involved with your efforts?
SY: That's a great question. I recently worked with a company that has 2,000 retail outlets around the country. Their CEO is deeply involved and is a model of how a CEO should do it. She not only recognizes that she has to set the tone within the company, but she also understands how everybody needs to be the brand, etc. That's great. When the CEO is not involved, it can't work. In fact, one of my criteria in deciding to pursue a relationship with a company is whether or not the top people will be involved and recognize that branding is central to their own responsibilities.
At the back of your book you ask people to share their success stories with you. Do you get responses?
SY: Yes. Getting feedback from people who are using the principles of brand harmony to help their businesses is the most rewarding part of this process.
Great, Steve. You've certainly given us some interesting things to think about.