Tag: "brand strategy"

Three Steps to an Irresistible Brand

I know you may not think of Gandhi as irresistible, but bear with me. It’ll become clear shortly.

Irresistible… It may sound impossible, or at least too good to be true. And you’re not alone in thinking that, but the great brands do achieve the impossible. They get people to change behavior in much the same way that Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln put themselves on the line to create monumental societal change. If you want to create  real change there’s no more consistent way to get there.

And here are the basic steps you can follow to get there yourself:

Step One: Become Self Aware
Know your unwavering core motivation then unquestionably prove its truth.

Brand-building without understanding why your organization exists is pointless. Without self-awareness your time, money and energy spent on brand is just as likely to hurt as to help reach your goals. But you need to do more than just know what makes you different and communicate it. An irresistible brand proves that you’re different. To do that you must be able to communicate your difference in a way that lines up with your real-world performance – and sheds light on the fact that your organization ‘gets it’.

In Stokefire’s world of Gandhian brands, becoming self aware is the beginning of your Gandhian pyramid development. We’re looking to bring what you think, say and do (or in brand-speak, “what motivates you, what you communicate, and how you perform”) into harmony. Any brand that has a disconnect between those three elements is a brand that capable competition can destroy – even if the competition doesn’t have a strong brand.

Proving your brand true involves communicating your unique commitment or understanding of your industry or the change you represent in a way that cannot be easily undermined. A few examples of this that we can attest to include our work for an HR firm showing that it understands the core issue in human resources, a campaign for concrete that made people care about what roads are made of, and identity work for the US Department of Defense that enabled them to be perceived differently by our allies and enemies.

The result of those campaigns? The HR firm became one of the fastest growing firms in its industry and region; the concrete industry’s single-market test campaign earned over $57 million in new transportation project, and DARPA reclaimed its rightful place at the head of military technology.

Step Two: Gain Perspective
Understand how your motivation relates to the core motivation of your competitors and of your target audience.

Perspective doesn’t come easy to people passionate about their cause. You do what you do because you’re invested in it and believe in it, so putting that aside and seeing where you’re weak and where your competitors are strong isn’t comfortable and can makes you feel fragile. The key is to understand and address the weaknesses before a brand launches and harden your identity against competitive threats or alternative solutions your audience may consider.

The perspective you need is that of your target audience, competitors and a sense of the environment at large. While you can begin to define your core identity in a vacuum, in order to refine it you’ll have to see how what you think, say, and do relates to what your customers and competitors are saying and doing – and what that might indicate about their motivations.

A brand can become a powerful tool that helps people rediscover their own core motivations and can create a wedge between their past and future actions. Those actions can relate to which products are bought or whether we believe (for instance) that slavery or oppression is just. It can even become a part of how an individual, competitor or era defines itself. In our own era we’ve seen technology brands uncover truths about thinking differently and coffee stores that can enhance one’s perceived station in life.

But these brands and those movements behind the ending of oppression didn’t just have a spiffy logo and slogan. They had enormous requirements in terms of infrastructure to create a lasting identity with consistent performance. They needed execution.

Step Three: Deliver Consistently
Deliver messaging and infrastructure that uses your proven identity as a lever to change the behavior of your target audience and competitors.

Even with an apparently compelling brand identity, if the mechanism to keep all the parts of the brand (messaging, performance, intent) doesn’t run consistently then the brand falls apart. This is why BP’s brand is so reviled – because they chose to brand themselves as “beyond petroleum” when they were still 95% invested in oil, and for the discord evident in the company’s response to their environmental disaster and their supposed commitment to being green. Any perceived disconnect between intent, message, and performance is an opening for your competition.

Infrastructure can be comprised of anything from consistently materials in support of your cause, or the people, processes and relationships that enable you to get your message out through every channel quickly and effectively. For every situation the infrastructure is going to be different, though you may find it helpful to look at the top players in your industry to see what they’re doing to stay at the top. Your infrastructure must work at least as well as theirs – and in some cases your infrastructure might be called upon to tear theirs down.

An excellent example of this in practice is Newt Gingrich’s disbanding of both the congressional Republican Study Committee and its counterpart on the Democratic side as unnecessary after ensuring that non-profit entities had been established to provide the needed research for the Republicans. The Democratic Party’s lack of external infrastructure to develop and communicate the brand and platform has been seen by many inside and outside the Party as a major weakness, and has allowed Republicans to pick off candidates one by one rather than having to take on a unified movement.

And A Warning: It’s Not For Everyone
It’s for the greatest of challenges.

At the start of this post I mentioned three great leaders. While they all to a large extent had their goals realized, none of them lived to enjoy the world that this enabled the rest of us to experience. Creating a truly irresistible brand takes courage. You must take big risks to achieve the biggest rewards.

Apple didn’t become the most prosperous technology firm in history by following the path of others. It did it by staying true to its core, understanding the motivation (rather than opinions) of its audience and consistently delivering products and services that connect the two over time.

Brand irresistibility takes more than courage. It takes a worthy cause – and people who are willing to take risks to move the cause forward.  Looking at America today there are dozens of movements that could benefit from taking these steps, but few that are going to do it. The Occupy movement has such potential, but without a core identity (other than “we’re not going to take it anymore!”) and without an understanding of how they are perceived from the outside (as extremists and anarchists rather than those that have had their jobs and homes taken from them) there’s no chance for infrastructure and consistency to develop and move the cause forward.

If you have any ideas about what brands or causes are likely to be taking the three steps to irresistibility in 2012 let me know. I’d love to look into them or discuss them in a post.

All I Need To Know (About Branding) I Learned From Gandhi – Part 1

Posted by:
Tate Linden (who is, incidentally, not pictured below.)

Virtually everything I believe – inside and outside of branding- can be summed up in two quotes by Gandhi. Today I’ll focus on the first of the two:

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Whether applying this to a person or to a brand (the latter of which, in my view, is basically a reflection of an organization’s leadership) the statement holds true. This state of happiness and harmony is a critical ingredient in the establishment an maintenance of a lasting identity.

The Pursuit of Happiness

It sounds corny, but happiness – as Gandhi defined it –  is to me the foundation upon which a successful and resilient brand is built. Having your thinking, saying, and doing in harmony means that your genuine motivation is effectively communicated and that you deliver the results that you promise. As long as it’s genuine, this transparent alignment can do something traditional ‘manufactured’ identities can’t; it can weather virtually any scandal and recover from market weakness faster than competitors. A happy brand is difficult to tear apart because everything it says and does is attached solidly to its true purpose.  Putting pressure on it just reveals more stability and strength.

But every unhappy brand I’ve found – the ones that fall apart under stress – have a problem with either the relationship between thinking, saying, and doing, or within at least one of the three individual components.

Indicators of Unhappiness

An unhappy identity is one of the most common things in the world. I’d argue that just about every identity is unhappy at some level. Don’t think so? Consider these brand-oriented insults and what they mean in terms of alignment:

“Those guys are sellouts” or “they have no soul” means that thinking and doing are out of alignment.

“They’re all talk” or “they’re inconsistent” is an indicator that saying and doing are out of alignment.

“They’re just telling you what you want to hear” or “they’re slick” shows thinking and saying are out of alignment.

These three indicators speak to an identity’s inability to hold up under stress. Without pressure these problems aren’t really an issue. It’s only when there’s a powerful alternative solution or some sort of crisis that alignment issues become visible. And visible alignment issues seem to be universally bad.

What’s the Result of Misalignment?

Misalignment of brand is very similar to misalignment of a military’s armored defenses. Any cracks or irregularities can be exploited. In a competitive market, or in situations where one entity is trying to convince another to do something, any misalignment makes the ability to produce a desired change much harder.

Misalignment is the beginning of failure. It’s the weakness to which you’ll be able to track back almost every lost opportunity you’ve had in the past or will have in the future. It’s that feeling we get when we know something isn’t right but can’t quite put it into words. Maybe Gandhi’s concept of happiness gives us what we were missing before.

But this concept of alignment really only seems to come into play once an opportunity exists. A big part of success is getting noticed – and all of the problems stemming from misalignment seem to assume that a relationship of some sort already exists. Misalignment only matters once the spotlight is shining on you, but if you’re not center stage the flaws don’t matter.

Supposing we’ve solved all of our alignment issues, though. We want that spotlight and fixing flaws doesn’t mean people will pay attention. We need something else.

So Where Does the Attention Come From?

That’s the topic of my next post, but *spoiler alert* it’s got a lot to do with the strengths or weaknesses of each element of Gandhi’s trinity of thinking, saying and doing. From there? We’ll go down the rabbit hole of intent and perception. Because Mr. G has a lot to say on that topic, too.

Until then… what do you think? Is it worth exploring more deeply? Do you have any examples where this theory of alignment is either proven or unproven in the real world?

The Terrorists Formerly Known as al-Qaida (That Could’ve Been)

Posted By:
Tate Linden

Can changing the name of an organization without changing anything else actually work?

The news today says Osama bin Laden was recently considering a rebrand. And before anyone tries to tell a joke about it – The Daily Mash sort of predicted this all the way back in ’07,  so… you’re already behind the times.

The AP helped break the story:

The problem with the name al-Qaida, bin Laden wrote in a letter recovered from his compound in Pakistan, was that it lacked a religious element, something to convince Muslims worldwide that they are in a holy war with America.

Maybe something like Taifat al-Tawhed Wal-Jihad, meaning Monotheism and Jihad Group, would do the trick, he wrote. Or Jama’at I’Adat al-Khilafat al-Rashida, meaning Restoration of the Caliphate Group.

As bin Laden saw it, the problem was that the group’s full name, al-Qaida al-Jihad, for The Base of Holy War, had become short-handed as simply al-Qaida. Lopping off the word “jihad,” bin Laden wrote, allowed the West to “claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam.” Maybe it was time for al-Qaida to bring back its original name.

(via an article by MATT APUZZO, which can also be found on Google News)

But was the problem really about al-Qaida’s brand?

It’s easy to make that assumption. Think about all the organizations – governmental, business, or grass-roots – that have assumed it was true that all we have to do is call something by another name and SUCCESS WILL BE OURS.

Remember Blackwater? They rebranded to the easy-to-spell but hard-to-say “Xe” to escape their scandalous past. And then they continued to behave scandalously, tarnishing their new brand in exactly the same way they’d done the last.

Or “Diebold Election Systems” changing their name to “Premier Election Systems” after the CEO used his corporate influence to raise funds and directly support a presidential candidate that his machines were responsible for electing. Even with the rebrand the division was sold for a loss, rebranded a second time, and then sold again.

Or the shell game AIG went through via an interim AIU Holdings brand to today’s Chartis. Which until recently was led by the same people that had caused the scandal in the first place.

Reactionary rebranding – trying to cover up a tangible screw-up or known negative affiliation – by just calling yourself something else violates the essence of my (admittedly evolving) personal theory on identity.

It’s not what you say that matters. It’s also not what you do. It’s your reasons for saying and doing – and whether others believe in and relate to those reasons – that matter.

Great brands are only effective when the communicated intent is believable and meshes well with motivations of the people they need to impact.

The problem with an al-Qaida rebrand (had bin Laden not been killed) would’ve been that the only thing changed were words. The deeds and the intent behind them wouldn’t change. Changing the existing perception of the intent isn’t something that can be done by just slapping on a new slogan or name. If that worked all that folks like Bernie Madoff would’ve had to do is change their names and adopt nifty slogans so all would be forgiven.

Sadly for Bernie and al-Qaida it just doesn’t work that way.


More eyes see more, and one would hope differently

Posted by:
Lena Blackstock

Art by Charles Wilkin

Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy

In my previous blog post, I introduced the concept of Design Ethnography in the context of Brand Strategy here at Stokefire.

I am currently reading a book called “Design Anthropology – Object culture in the 21st Century” by Alison J. Clarke, who is professor and head of Design History and Theory, University of Applied Arts Vienna and research director of the Victor J. Papanek Foundation.  As I started reading, I saw so many connections between the stories described and my personal observations and experiences that I wanted to share. First of all, there are companies out there who have used anthropological-style observation tools to better understand a market or consumer group for many years now. Some of the companies that were early adopters of Design Ethnography methods include Xerox PARC, Intel and IDEO, with their “design-thinking approach.” IDEO is one that I am paying extra close attention to and without fail, every time I do research relating to Design Ethnography, the name IDEO just keeps on popping up on my screen (or in this case, on the page).

Jane Fulton Suri talks about Design and Innovation

Chapter One of said-book introduces Jane Fulton Suri with this quote: “From Designers we ask for a designed world that has meaning beyond the resolution of purely functional needs, one that also has poetry, communicates subtly something that makes sense, not just by fitting in with the culture and environment in which it lives, but by adding a new dimension to it.” …Wow, right?  I was so intrigued by this statement alone that only a couple seconds and one google search later, I discovered this: Jane Fulton Suri is non other than the Chief Creative Officer at IDEO. In this essay, she talks about the “(…) importance of ensuring that design teams make space for designers to explore, to see, and otherwise sense the world in their own way, without the limitations of adhering strictly to some formal process or plan of ‘research’.”

I picked up this first bit of information she had put down and realized how relevant it was to my surroundings and observations. One of the benefits of working in a small design and advertising firm, which itself is still undergoing transformation, is that there is generally a lot more leeway in the approach to the design process. Fulton Suri describes Design and Innovation as “creative endeavors that defy entirely rational and linear processes.” According to her,  “Human intelligence, skill, and leaps of imagination are required to grapple with multiple variables and uncertainties to make future sense. And, as designers, we care about this future sense in more than a pragmatic way; we care also about its poetry.”

She goes on to describe four stories of designers who “were inspired by their personal observation of the world and saw beauty, poetry, or meaning in something that others hadn’t seen. (…) In each case their insights emerged from activity and thinking that was not part of highly formalized research plan.” Design firms everywhere, as they house creative people, are full of different (often strange but mostly interesting) people who inevitably see the world in their own way.  Fulton Suri knows: “Teams of designers, rather than individuals, allow more eyes to see more, and one would hope, differently.”


An approach to observation which involves respecting and reflecting upon a personal and intuitive point of view is the way to go! I know that within our small creative team, we try to make sure there is space for exploration and if we get stuck on something, it inevitably leads to a trip to one of the nearby coffee joints. Anyone who is in the creative field I’m sure, has had those experiences of finding the answer through a completely random experience or observation. And even more importantly, I know that our captains here at Stokefire value these experiences as they know that sometimes the greatest tagline can be born out of a conversation completely unrelated to the issue or that an important insight into a project can develop on a walk or a ride on the metro.

Annette Diefenthaler and how chance observations can lead to great design

The example that intrigued me the most was the one that told the story of how an unplanned observation by Annette Diefenthaler helped distill a set of design principles, in this case for a new bank space and service concept. The examples tells the story of how Annette’s cultural observations and her intuition to use them, led to a radical new concept for the layout of the branch and a service model to better support staff and customer interactions.

In this project, the client, a global financial institution, had set out to redesign bank branches to support a desirable experience for their customers in Central and Eastern Europe. They knew the challenge was that in those parts of the world, many citizens either saw no value in using banks or had a history of unpleasant interactions with them. The obvious solution for the research team would have been to observe the interactions between the bank staff and customers, and while those types of research did reveal some important information about problems, which arose from staff behaviors and spatial cues causing unwelcoming feelings for customers, Fulton Suri points out that one specific chance observation made by Annette Diefenthaler was much more powerful and that the solution in this case did not come from following a rational and predictable plan.

This chance observation came when one night, after a late interview, Diefenthaler stopped at a low-end shopping center, partially out of curiosity, and partially out of a gut feeling that simple insights gained through simple observation could be helpful. The way this shopping center was set up stood out to her: the mall featured plain, simple and separate stalls, of which each sold one specific item (one sold only black pants while another sold only light-colored skirts etc). She admits that “at first sight you might dismiss that as depressing or boring. I realized that there was something very honest and straightforward in this way of selling goods. Customer experience? Not here. You want black shoes? You get black shoes. No fuss about it.” This realization that while many of the ‘new world’ shopping centers offer a shopping ‘experience,’ this ‘old world’ society still preferred things to be straightforward and they wanted an honest offering, not an experience.
Fulton Suri explains: “Annette’s spontaneous curiosity yielded a dramatic observation that helped clarify an important design theme for the project. This wasn’t random inspiration. Given the right catalyst, a designer’s mind will process rich observations, stories, and insights from the field and crystallize these into design direction. What’s important is to make sure we leave room in project plans, daily schedules, and in designers’ heads for this kind of intuitive curiosity to play it’s magic.”

Observation is essential to design: It’s what you see and make of it

Here at Stokefire, as any other small firm, we go through transition stages (in staff, project plans and daily schedules) but I think that we as the core team are aware of the power of chance observations and how our individual personalities and characteristics take in and process these observations. At Stokefire, this applies not only to creative but to every part of the company, whether it’s the way we approach branding strategy for a client or developing a new Performance Review System. Fulton Suri sums up that in all the examples she talks about, “each case involved a similar pattern: a focused curiosity coupled with exposure to relevant contexts; attention to elements that invite intrigue; visual documentation and revisiting these records later; percolation and talking about what was significant with team members and clients; storytelling and exploration of design choices and details.”

The lesson learned is that we need to take time to observe, we need to have the ability and instinct to process these observations (in our own individual ways) and then apply them to the design and innovation process.  I will leave you all with these closing words from Jane Fulton Suri: “Observation of the world is natural and essential to design. But ultimately, its less what you look at that matters, its what you see and what you and the project make of it. “


Fun fact: The artist of the image in this post, Charles Wilkin, also observes that in design culture personal expression somehow has lost its place in the creative process.  He speaks to some of the same points Fulton Suri does in this Interview by Carole Guevin, founding partner of FYE creative continnum.  He talks about “relying on instinct rather than expectations as a means to find solutions. (…) We trust our instincts when buying goods, meeting people and assessing our environment. Seems logical to me and applicable to design. (…) Automatic has never been about following trends or being in annuals, but about finding a new and innovative ways to solve common problems. Sometimes design is not just black and white but more of an experience, something I believe all designers strive for regardless of style or method.” Read the whole Interview here: http://caroleguevin.com/SFi/charles-wilkin.php.

When clients rock…

We’ve got some awesome clients.  Really, we do.  One of ’em just finished this very website (and I think I’ll eventually stop bringing that into every blog post I write.)  webmeadow was a client of ours in early 2007 – and we continue to do a bit of consulting work with them as needed.  It started out as naming work and expanded a bit into brand strategy and positioning.

Without giving away the whole of what we recommended, we did have many talks about how to get the personality of the leadership out in front of the brand.  The company is about more than ‘just’ solar-powered servers and shouldn’t just shout “GREEN” from the treetops.  People want to know about more than message.  They want a genuine connection with a real person.

Today I surfed by their website and found this little tidbit on their blog:

You may also remember felting from its starring role in the smash hit,
“Oh my god, I put my favorite sweater in the wash and now it fits my

Yes.  They said “felting.”  As in creating felt.  I’m thinkin’ that they’re not having any troubles showing that they’re real people.  (Do you know any fake people that would talk about felting?)

If you ask nicely they may include a couple “pope-hats” with your next website order.  Or maybe a spare duck.

Because that’s how they roll. 


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