Branding, Consulting, Marketing, Tourism

Understand Before You Brand

Five Things Every Community Should Know Before Starting a Branding Process 

Winooski Flag Raising

Across the country local governments, economic development commissions and destination marketing organizations are branding, or rebranding, as they seek to strengthen their market position.   We’ve seen these process go incredibly well…………….and incredibly badly.

Here are five things every city manager, economic development officer or destination marketer should know before beginning a branding process.

  1. Communities are NOT products.

There’s a world of difference between the latest video game and your community, which means the skills and processes required to develop an authentic brand for a community, region or state are very different from branding a product or service.

Case in Point: When a community near us hired a design firm more experienced with products than communities, the project blew up, leading to this story in the local paper:

“The department’s “branding” project remains stalled.  Initiated with great enthusiasm, with a budget of more than $100,000, to develop guidelines for promoting the town to audiences outside its traditional boundaries, the project ground to a halt over dissatisfaction expressed by Council and others within the Town, with four designs for a new logo. “

2. Strategy drives design

Done right, branding is a fundamental pillar of communications strategy.  Graphic design has to be an expression of that strategy – not the strategy itself.   When was the last time you moved to a community or selected a vacation destination because of the logo?   Never?  Exactly.  Yet too many communities obsess over the logo, rather than the overall strategy.

Case in Point:  When the State of Rhode Island hired a brilliant graphic design artist, they ended up with design instead of strategy.   And it blew up in their face.

3. Process Matters

For a community brand, process matters and that process has to truly engage the broadest range of stakeholders.   Talking to the usual suspects means you’ll miss out on the fullest range of information and viewpoints.  As important, you’ll have failed to engage them as partners, making it more likely they’ll oppose whatever you come up with.  Every community has that well known “difficult” person(s).   And while its tempting to avoid them, it’s a mistake.

Case in Point: As third generation resident and head of the local historical society in her small New England city, Rita was at best hostile to the entire branding process, and only reluctantly agreed to be interviewed during our discovery phase.  Yet despite her rather chilly tone, she shared stories that turned out to provide the connective tissue for lots of other data.   Had we avoided talking to her, we would have missed out on real insights into the richness of the community.

4. Tasting the Bait

I used to work with a very smart and very cynical political consultant who would periodically remind clients that “the bait has to taste good to the fish, not to the fisherman.”   The reasons you love living in your community may NOT be the same reasons someone would visit.  The reasons that are most important to you may NOT be the most important to your target audience.   A smart branding strategy lives at the intersection of what’s true about your community and what’s most meaningful to the target audience.

Case in Point: When we began working with the Gardiner Montana Chamber of Commerce, they insisted that the most important marketing messages were their proximity to the Bozeman airport and their four season access to Yellowstone National Park.   Yet when we tested ten messages with the target audience, those two came in # 9 and # 10.   Testing the messages (bait) with the actual audience vastly improved the effectiveness of their marketing investment.

5. A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Finally, communities often look for an agency partner who already knows them by virtue of being located nearby.   But time and again, we’ve seen the importance of coming to these projects without preconceptions.  By having fresh eyes we find truths that others don’t see.   And frankly, the most fun part of the project is discovery – getting to the core of what a place and its people are all about, and then celebrating that.  The best compliment we hear again and again is “Wow – you really get us!”


Bottom line – branding your community is one of the most important investments you can make, and you don’t get a do over.   Understanding these five points before you start will set you on the path to success.

Branding, Conservation, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation, Tourism

Donor Engagement FAIL!

2017-Reforestation-Area-Forest-1024x655Imagine a group of potential donors driving several hours and paying for an immersive experience in your mission. Then imagine providing such a terrible experience that they leave confused about what you do and why you do it, regretting that they wasted their time.

Seems unlikely, but it describes a day I recently spent with a reforestation project in Costa Rica.  And it highlights three key lessons that should apply to every nonprofit.

#1 – Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver – If we’d just visited the website we would have come away convinced this nonprofit is doing excellent work with local farmers and landowners planting sustainable crops and trees to sequester carbon.   Based on the website, we likely would have taken them at their word, and simply made an online contribution to offset the carbon impacts of our trip.

But no…………..they offered really exciting immersive experiences.   We fell for it.  And they failed to deliver.

#2 – Hone Your Message – Can you imagine spending five hours and coming away understanding even less than when you started?   I can.   The problem started from the beginning, when it became clear there was no elevator speech summarizing what this organization did.

If you can’t summarize your mission in a few sentences, then how can you hope to engage a donor?

Beyond the elevator speech, any site visit should illustrate the problem you’re in business to fix, and illustrate that problem with urgency.   Then lead directly to your solution to the problem, using storytelling to make your solution come to life.

We all need narrative to structure information.    Don’t make us struggle to construct our own narrative from your random outpouring of information.

#3 – Train Your People – Not every staff member has the skills and personality to engage donors.  And that’s fine.   Select your staff carefully, and then be sure to train them well – enthusiasm and bubbly personality isn’t a substitute for skill.   The staff member needs to understand they represent the organization, not themselves.  So gratuitously offering personal opinions on the organization’s finances, the role of global agribusiness and the impact of astrology on farming detracts from the organization’s mission and message.  (It also made me want to jump out of the van and risk plummeting to my death in a ravine.)   Good speakers know to balance the amount of time talking and the amount of time listening.  Solicit feedback from your donors – and adjust your approach.  They’re telling you how to be successful – why ignore them?

And the final fail was no follow up – after arranging this experience well in advance, paying for it, and then spending several hours on site, we never heard another word from the organization.

Not.  One.  Word.

Use this worst case example to audit your own donor engagement experiences:

  • Do you accurately set expectations before the donor arrives?
  • Do you have clear compelling messages that are more than just a recitation of how hard your organization works?
  • Is whoever will be guiding the donor well chosen and well trained?
  • Do you know the follow up plan before the donor steps through the door?


Branding, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Rebranding – Usually the Wrong Strategy

ogilvy_logo_before_after_signature“Sometimes you have a PR problem, and sometimes, you just have a problem!”

I can’t count the number of time my mentor, Marcia Silverman, said that to clients.   And it always brought them up short.  After all, they were asking us to sprinkle some magic PR fairy dust on their very real problems in order to make them magically all go away.   Lots of firms would have taken the money and sprinkled vigorously.  Marcia always had us take the harder path, the one with integrity, and tell the client what they didn’t want to hear.

I’ve been reminded of that recently when major brands opted for the fairy dust of rebranding hoping it would cover up the stink of serious problems.

First, Wells Fargo, who’ve recently endured more than two years of devastating scandals, record setting fines from a series of Federal regulators, CEO and top executives fired and stripped of benefits, Congressional hearings………….it just goes on and on.   In April of 2017 they launched a campaign to restore consumer confidence, with the rather tentative slogan: “Building Better Every Day.”  Which translates to: “We don’t suck as much as we used to.”   A real rallying cry.

Then when that didn’t work (go figure!) they decided that what they REALLY needed was an entirely new brand…….. one that looked exactly like the old brand.  What?

Here’s the rebranding spot:

And the tag line is: “Wells Fargo.  Established 1852.  Reestablished 2018.”  Accompanied by promises to stop doing all the bad stuff they got caught doing.

Stay tuned for next year’s rebranding.

Closer to home is the rebranding of the giant Ogilvy & Mather, the company where I got my start and where I was lucky enough to work for Marcia Silverman.   They’re in a world of hurt – digital disruption of the advertising industry itself; an antiquated agency model; stalled growth; and tremendous instability at the parent company, WPP.   The Ad Week headline was unintentionally revealing:

“Ogilvy Rebrands Itself after 70 Years with New Visual Identity, Logo and Organizational Design

Agency also plans to promote more women to partner.”

Nothing fixes serious institutional problems like a new logo and corporate font.  Oh, and by the way, we’ll take some token steps towards a 20th century talent strategy.  Never mind 21st century, we’re content to take tentative steps away from an agency run by old white guys.

If anyone should know better its Ogilvy.   I can’t think of a clearer signal to the marketplace that they’ve lost their way.

Rebranding for the sake of rebranding is always a mistake because it’s using PR flim-flam instead of authentic communication to try to address previous failures.  And that’s true for corporations and non-profits.

Marketing consultants who do branding work should have the integrity to tell that to our clients and guide them to a better solution.  Or we should walk away.

Branding, Consulting, Marketing

When everyone else zigs, you zag.

amazonToday, as dozens of major cities are submitting their bids for Amazon’s second headquarters, Little Rock Arkansas took out full page “break up” ads in national newspapers, gentlyly letting Amazon down, in the time honored cliches of a break up letter.  (Let’s face it, we’ve all gotten this message at some point in our lives!)

Check out Little Rock’s Break Up Letter:

This is brilliant.   Stepping out of a race they probably couldn’t win, they’ve differentiated themselves from other locations by making their drawbacks into attributes.

When everyone in the pack is going one way, it takes courage and smarts to go the opposite.

Now how to apply this lesson to my own dating life………………….

Advocacy, Culture, Politics

Schadenfreude – pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune

Democrats and Progressives (distinct but overlapping groups) have been awash in schadenfreude since the Paul Ryan / Donald Trump Repeal and Replace legislation went down in glorious flames last Friday.

But don’t be fooled.  We didn’t win Friday.

No one who didn’t have health insurance got it last Friday.   No one’s premiums became more affordable last Friday.   No Medicaid recipient got easier access to the too few physicians who accept Medicaid.

Which begs the question: what does winning look like?   If it simply means beating Trump, Ryan and the Republican Congress, then it’s about power not progress.

But for those of us who call ourselves progressives, Friday was a big loss.  We failed to improve the healthcare system.   And we confirmed the worst suspicions of those voters who felt so locked out, so screwed by the system that they were willing to blow it up by electing a mentally unstable failed tycoon.  Their lives won’t be getting any better, which means they’ve been screwed again.

Those of us who call ourselves progressives need to fight FOR something.

RESIST isn’t an agenda.

Here’s a glimmer of hope, from my home state whose motto is Hope.

Rhode Island Town Hall Meetings

Let’s start talking about the public option.   Not single payer, but the public option right along side private insurance.

This from Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) — paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin, he said that a government-managed insurer would reveal what games private insurers had been playing. “The best way to show that a stick is crooked is to put a straight stick next to it. If you do that, the private sector can’t manipulate the market by withdrawing.”

We’ll need to fix what’s wrong with Medicare, like sweetheart deals that prevent the government from bargaining with pharmaceutical firms the way the private insurers do.  But Medicare works – providing good care to seniors and fair reimbursement to doctors and hospitals.

Let’s do something real to improve the lives of those people who think the system has given up on them.

Let’s make progress.   Let’s win.

Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Gaffe: When You Accidentally Tell the Truth

mission-health-logoJournalist Michael Kinsley famously described a gaffe as “when a politician tells the truth – some obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say.”

The same thing happens in the non-profit world.

Exhibit A is this video from Mission Health, a large healthcare system in Asheville, North Carolina, where the CEO attempts to make the case for philanthropy.

(scroll to the bottom to see the video)

This is what you hear from the CEO:

  • “Financial analysts consider us too small to survive in the long run.”
  • “Our margin is very thin.”
  • “Philanthropy has a 50 to 1 leveraging ratio compared to additional net revenue.”
  • “We lose money on more than 70% of the patients we serve.”
  • “It costs $4 million per day just to keep the doors open.”
  • “For us to raise $1 million in income, we would have to bill probably north of $100 million, and actually collect $50 million, just to net out that same $1 million.”

This is what you don’t hear: a single example of a patient helped by philanthropy.





The truth that he was inadvertently sharing is this: “Our business model is failing, and we don’t have a clue how to fix it.  The healthcare system is broken and we don’t have the courage to challenge it.  Could you send us a few dollars so that we can postpone our inevitable collapse?”  

My mentor in communications, Marcia Silverman, famously used to say to clients “Sometimes you have a PR problem, and sometimes, you just have a problem.”

Mission Health – you have a problem!

And while we’re at it, Exhibit B, also from Mission Health.   Another video staring the CEO.  And only the CEO.  (Someone enjoys seeing himself on video!)

The first ¾ of the video is a recitation of bricks and mortar projects, followed by his assertion that their new initiative is about “far more than just bricks and mortar.”


Again, we never see, much less meet a patient or caregiver.  We do see construction sites and architects renderings of new facilities, which apparently is the sum of their “vision for the future.”  Another gaffe.

To be clear – I’m not suggesting Mission Health needs to fix its communications.

Mission Health needs to fix itself.

Anyone have any other cringe-worthy videos they want to share, where the truth is accidentally exposed?

Please send them to me and I’ll post.

Branding, Marketing, Non Profit Innovation

Seize the Day


Last Thursday night, in one of the most electrifying moments of the Democratic National Convention, Khzir Khan, father of a Muslim U.S. soldier killed in combat, challenged Donald Trump by saying: “Have you even read the United States Constitution?” and then pulled his copy from his pocket, offering to send it to The Donald.

Less than 24 hours later, the ACLU launched a promotion giving away free pocket constitutions until election day in November – a very smart, low cost new member acquisition strategy.

Every non-profit should look at this move by the ACLU and ask themselves three questions:

  1. Do We Really Know Our Own Brand? The ACLU is so clear on their brand and what they stand for that they could see that moment during the convention and realize it was about them – their brand IS the constitution.   How many non-profits could do the same?   Sadly, not many.
  2. Are We Open to Good Ideas? I don’t know for certain, but I would bet that the idea to do the free pocket constitution promotion didn’t start at the top, but started somewhere in the middle of the organization, where most good ideas come from.   The ACLU’s culture apparently nurtures innovation, which also makes them rare.  Does yours?
  3. How Quickly Do We Make Decisions? Finally, to turn an idea around and be in the market in less than 24 hours requires very clear decision making authority dispersed throughout the organization.  Innovation often dies on the rocks of consensus.  But empowered decision makers can seize opportunities.   How quickly can your organization turn around a big idea?

On the back end, the ACLU had the infrastructure to take advantage of this.  Promote through social media, fulfill through an online store, and then seamlessly integrate acquired names into a communications program.  (I’ve already started receiving well-crafted emails.)

When your moment comes, and you’re suddenly thrust into the spotlight, will you be able to seize the opportunity?   If not, then get to work now.  Before it’s too late.